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Going Postal

Chapter Text

She watched with a sense of peacefulness as the great cats ran along the bottom of a rocky canyon, their red fur a vibrant contrast to the barren landscape. As soon as the eldest of the three came to the end of the box canyon, he cleared the wall in a few quick bounds. Reaching the top, he called out to her and all life, in a voice full of the joy of the living and the sorrow of those who remember. Below the cats was a scene of peace: a city covered in life and full of green. Similar to, but very different from when this city had been been full of life and powered by ruinous green.

Pain shot through one of Gaia's old wounds, awakening her from her dream. She was tired, covered in scars and wounds that refused to heal. A dream is all it had been and all it would ever be. To be without pain, at peace. If only such a dream could be real.

Gaia looked for one of the few things that made her feel better, her GOLD WEAPON. There, out in the wastes, it sped along delivering packages, promises and hope in the form of little bottles filled with water. The Cetra child had done a truly wonderful thing healing as best she could, but some wounds cut so very deep.

'Delivering hope'.

Perhaps she could deliver hope to herself. But her GOLD WEAPON, though strong, was as damaged as she was. He would need help to pull off such a delivery if she did not want him to break in the process. It would take much of her already nearly-spent energy to delivering all the things that would enable the WEAPON to accomplish her dream, especially considering the size of some those items. It would be better, easier, to send it all in one small package. If she had had a physical face, Gaia would smile. She felt the best she had in quite a long time. Truly, hope was the greatest gift of all. If no one could give it to her, she would send it to herself.

Chapter Text

The ground falls out from below; Childhoods are relived; No stars;
                             The importance of extinct fruit goes unnoticed; Cloud is not a fan; Everyone has their own opinion

 

Shera balanced the wooden tea tray on her hip with one hand, and fumbled open the door handle with the other.  The china on the overloaded tray clinked ominously, but nothing fell off before she got both hands supporting it again.  She stepped out into a pleasantly warm Rocket Town day, kicking the door shut behind her.  The afternoon breeze played with her brown bangs as she walked though her back yard, out to the airship that was her husband's pride and joy.  Their friend, Barret, had found some old components of an airship while drilling for oil and called Cid over to take look at them.  Her husband had been fascinated with them.  He'd dug the parts up and hauled them back to Rocket Town for reconstruction.  It had taken some time, but the finished ship was truly a remarkable feat of engineering, combining the ancient ship parts with the latest modern technology.  It was the most advanced airship in the world.  That Cid had named it after her was heartwarming.  For a long time their relationship had been a deep pit, oozing guilt, depression and anger, but they had managed somehow to fill in the hole and build a nice little house on top.  Cid was still, in many ways, the hard-headed, bullish man who she had spent so long trying to make up with, but they had indeed made up.  No longer did he hold the failed rocket launch against her.  He was gentler towards her, and he was even trying not to swear so much.

"Those shitfaced, bat-eyed morons!"

Of course, that part wasn't going so well.  She kind of didn't even want it to.  Cid wasn't, well, Cid, unless the air was turning blue around him.  All the same, she could tell the difference between his general conversational vulgarity and his genuinely angry swearing.  Shera sighed and made her way onto the airship's bridge.  The polished wooden floor creaked as she walked to where Cid lay on his back under the helm with tools spread out around him.

"Cid.  Tea," Shera stated as she knelt next to him.  Pouring a cup of the sweet and fragrant drum mountain white cloud tea imported from Wutai, she waited for her husband to finish whatever he was doing.  He grunted in acknowledgement, and moments later scooted out from under the wheel to take the offered white and blue cup.

Cid took a sip of the nutty flavored tea, blew on it, took another sip before speaking.  "D'ya know what those blithering nitwits did?  They fucking screwed up the damn wiring for the damn off side engine.  What the hell were those retarded lame-asses even doing?"  Cid paused in his colorful tirade to blow on the tea again, then took a large gulp.  "I don't fucking get it.  They were supposed to just go and check the rutt'in monitors an' tell me what the fuck was wrong.  Not goddamn try to fix the fricken' problem themselves.  Some people are just blundering bird-brained dumbbells.  They aren't worth the-"

Cid was cut off by a brilliant flash of light through the large observation windows, white-hot as a thousand flare spells all going off at once.  Blinded momentarily, Cid swore loudly.  Shera echoed the sentiment internally, eyes clenched tight against the brightness.  Had they been attacked?  It had been a while since anything had happened, but Cid was a well-known member of AVALANCHE and the group's main provider of transportation, so being attacked first was not a very far fetched idea.  Groping to find the metal wall in the back of the large space, she pulled herself to her unsteady feet.  She needn't have bothered, for the next second the entire ship lurched sickeningly, as though the ground below it had vanished, and dumped her back to the floor.  She slid with the tools and tea cups across the waxed flooring as the nose of the ship dipped.  She scrabbled for something to hold on to.  Her knee rammed with bruising force into the helm, and she bent double to get her hands around the base of the wheel.  She clung on for dear life, yelling out to Cid in desperate confusion.  "Are we falling?!"

She got no coherent response, just a string of angry, panicked cursing.  There was a roaring, rushing noise, growing louder and louder.  The ship was in a free fall while pressure built almost to a breaking point.  Shera could feel herself being squished on all sides as the air in her lungs was squeezed out of her.  She gasped painfully.  Her eyes were throbbing, and it felt like a vice had been wrapped around her head.  Her joints creaked and every muscle in her body burned.  A hideous jolt of impact shook her bones, and she sobbed once and squeezed her eyes shut as the jolt rattled through her aching head.  The sense of free-falling stopped, and the noise of falling and sliding objects.  Gasping and shaking slightly from the receding pain, she persuaded her watering eyes to peel open, but it made little difference.  The warm light of afternoon no longer came in through the bridge's many windows, and the place was pitch dark.  Her ears were ringing, but through that she heard a noise like tires screeching, and the ship shook with one last reverberating thud.


 

Cid swore.  How in the hell had he managed to be knocked down the wooden stairs from the helm to the deck when his ship wasn't flipping turned on?!  That hadn't felt right to be an earthquake and they hadn't been attacked, or the Shera would have alarms going off.  And that damn falling sensation!  They'd been on flat ground for fuck's sake.

"What the fucking hell just happened?" he said aloud, pulling himself to his feet and aiming towards where the wall (hopefully, probably) was.  He took a few steps forward, hands out in front of him, only to trip over a body sprawled out on the floor.

"Ack! Who the hell just stepped on me?"

Cid knew that voice, even if it was squeakier than normal.  "Yuffie?!  What the fuck you doin' on my ship?!"  A horrible, likely thought struck him.  "This is your doin', ain't it, ya scrawny little brat!"

"No way!  If I'm on your ship, it's probably your fault!"

"Cid?  Where are we?  What happened?" Shera called out from higher up in the darkness.

"Yo, Cid, you here too?  What the hell's going on?" came a deep, rumbling voice.

"Is that... Barret?" a more urbane voice asked.

Cid couldn't deal with this on top of being unable to see.  "Don't ya'll get your panties in a twist.  Fucking hold still and just let me find that rutting switch."  The pilot shuffled along until he found the wall, fortunately not tripping over anything or anybody else on the way.  He knew his ship well, so from there it only took a moment to find the light switch.  The sudden light flooding the interior of the Shera made him blink a couple times.  Turning around, he was met by a rather unusual scene.  Tools, broken china and tea splashed or scattered everywhere; a much-younger-than-he-remembered Shera kneeling by the helm with her white knuckled hands wrapped tightly around the base of the wheel; a tiny black-haired girl with a greenish complexion sitting on the deck; Barret, or rather a lanky boy who looked like a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old Barret; and another dark-haired teen about the same age, holding Cait Sith and standing next to a large over-stuffed moogle.

Cid took a moment to survey the scene.  Everyone else did the same, their eyes huge in their pain-stressed, younger-than-they should be faces.

"What. The. Hell."

As though Cid's profane question had given them permission to break the silence, they all started to speak at once.

"Are ya'll fucking kidding me?!"

"Cid? What's..?"

"This some kinda weird dream or somethin'?!  Somebody been fooling 'round with a materia?!"

"Why am I, like, ten?!  Why are we all kids?!"

"Now, everyone, let's calm down and.."

"Calm down?!  We're brats!  And this ain't where I was a minute ago!"

"No, none of you were here.  How did you get here?  How did this happen?"

"SHAUDDUP!"  Silence.  Everyone turned towards Cid.  Or rather, the fifteen or sixteen year old boy who talked (and swore) like Cid.  "None of us know what the hell's goin' on, or how we fricken' got here, but first I think we should find out where the fuck here is.  Because if you numbskulls haven't noticed, it's supposed to be daylight!  And if it's night, where the hell are the damn stars and moon?"  Looking out through the observation deck, they were met with darkness, pitch darkness.

Before anyone of them could voice a theory, the bridge door whooshed open and a small voice rang out like a surprised bell.  "Daddy?"

"Marlene?"  Barret blinked.  There was Marlene, backlit by the light from the hallway, and she looked same as ever.  Standing next to her was Denzel, also same as ever.  Behind them though, was... Tifa? And... Red?  The black haired fighter was maybe... thirteen?  And Red...well, he had supposedly been a cub the entire time they'd known him, but now he looked like it.

"But how?"  Barret rushed over to Marlene, and scooped the little girl up into his arms.  "How did ya get here?"

"We were back home at Seventh Heaven," his girl reported calmly.  "Then there was this flash, and then we were falling.  And then we were here in one of the bunks.  Why do you all look like that?"

"I was in Cosmo Canyon," Nanaki growled, obviously annoyed with his sudden reduction to kitten-hood.

"How come Denzel and Marlene didn't get younger?" Yuffie whined.  "That isn't fair!"

"Perhaps it is because they are already children," Reeve offered.

"I don't want to hear some hypothetical musings. I want some fucking answers," Cid said, and crossed his arms.

"Well, I'm not out of questions yet," Yuffie interjected.  "If all of us are here, where are Cloud and Vincent?"

"I'm here."  Again everyone looked to the sound of the voice.  Stepping out onto the bridge from behind Tifa was a very short Cloud.  So short in fact, that the only ones smaller were Yuffie and Marlene.

"And how old are you supposed to be?" Barret commented in a saccharine voice, not letting the opportunity to tease the blond pass by.  Cloud glared up at him. His eyes hadn't lost any of their blue Mako glow.

"I was always short for my age."

"What I find interesting is that First Tsurugi shrunk with you," an eleventh voice slipped into the conversation.  A teenaged Vincent stepped calmly out of one of the scarce patches of shadow.  "The same goes for your arm, Barret, as well as the Shera.  While we currently seem to be children, apparently our equipment and enhancements shrank with us."  He raised his clawed hand, clicking the fingertips together to emphasize his point.

"Well, damn. Everybody's here.  But... FUCKING HELL!  You're right!  The Shera did shrink!"  Cid felt on the verge of a heart attack.  His ship might not have shrunk a whole lot, but indeed everything was sized so that a bunch of teens and pre-teens could reach it easily.  But before Cid could go on any sort of tirade, Reeve distracted him by requesting for the exterior lights, so they could find out where they were.

Cursing under his breath, Cid flipped the requested lights on, only to see rock outside the windows.  Rock in front, rock on the left, rock on the right, rock behind and above.  "We're in a rutting cave. A fucking, rutting cave."  Usually Barret yelled at Cid to watch his language when Marlene was present, but this time he was preoccupied with the same confusing facts all the others were.

"We're in an airship, in a cave, and we're all kids," Yuffie said flatly, which summed it up quite well.  "Am I the only one getting a headache?  'Cause none of this makes sense."  Vincent moved over to a control panel and hit the button that would open the ramp, his armored finger clicking faintly against the metal.  As soon as the ramp was down, the party spilled out into the spacious cave, intent on finding out where on the planet they were.

As it turned out, they were in the middle of a broad, shallow, underground lake.  It was easy to see, because in addition to the lights on the Shera, there were large glowing crystals growing from the dark, shimmery rock.  Stalagmites and stalactites grew from the floor and clung to the roof while shelf-stone grew in the water.  At one end of the cavern was a waterfall emptying out into a room below, and across from the waterfall was a passage leading up to another area.

Cid whistled, "Don't know where we are, but it sure is something."

After grabbing some lights from the Shera's supplies they started up the far passage in hopes of finding an exit.  They'd only gone a short way up the passage before the party heard a strange thumping and clacking noise ahead.

"Damn.  Probably some cankering monster.  Hang on, I got Venus Gospel back on the ship."  The blond pilot took off down the tunnel, calling over his shoulder to the rest of the party, most of whom were unarmed, "Be right back, and don't ya fuckin' dare take it on without me.  I need some good ol' fashion' monster hunting stress relief."

Back on board the airship, Cid headed for the armory.  This was where the group had dumped all their old weapons, armor, items and Materia.  He had complained about the Shera not being a storage shed, but after Kadaj's little 'reunion' it had been decided to keep all the spares and extras in one mobile place so the group could have easy access to them in emergencies.  But as Cid looked around, he noticed it wasn't just spares and extras any more.

"Odin on a pogo-stick."  Cid gazed around, slack-jawed with disbelief.  The room was full of all their best equipment.  A whole pile of mastered summons and rare Materia, their best armor and accessories, Tifa's Premium Heart, Yuffie's Conformer, Vincent's Death Penalty.  Damn vampire was probably already packing Cerberus.  But, fuck, it was all here.  Snatching up his spear and the other ultimate weapons of the group he quickly headed back to his companions.  As he handed out the gear, he was met with statements of disbelief.

"But how...?  This was in my dresser at Seventh Heaven!" Tifa exclaimed, taking her knuckle dusters.

"No fucking idea.  But it's all there in the armory.  Every last fuckin' thing."  Cid passed Conformer over to its wielder.

"They even shrunk with us," Yuffie cried, grabbing on to the giant five point shrunken.

Cid rolled his eyes.  The damn thing might have shrunk, but it was still almost half the size of the pint-sized ninja.

Continuing on, he passed Limited Moon to Shera so she could clip it into Nanaki's black mohawk.

"There. Will that work?" she asked the cat.  His mane had shrunk quite a bit and was now only short spiky fluff.

Nanaki gave a quick shake.  His gangly limbs and looser skin exaggerated the motion, and Cid had to repress a snicker.  Nanaki either didn't notice, or elected not to, and simply nodded, "It will do. Thank you."

Cid thrust Death Penalty out to Vincent.  "I know ya probably already got your ruttin' hand gun, but here's your damn rifle."

Vincent stowed the gun under his tattered red cloak, but other than that he made no acknowledgement to Cid.

"As for you, Reeve, I left Cait's HP Shout back on the Shera, seein' as that damn annoyance ain't out here."

Reeve looked a little miffed, probably more on behalf of Cait Sith being called an annoyance, than on going unarmed.  Reeve wasn't really the fighting type, after all.

Now that everyone who could fight was armed, they set off.  The passage led to a maze-like area full of narrow tunnels and paths with high vaulted ceilings.  Protruding from the rock here and there were more of the glowing crystals.  Cid's best guess was that they were crystallized mako.  In his book, if it glowed and was green, then it was lifestream-related, and better off not being touched, though that didn't stop Yuffie from clambering on them.  She yelped and fell off one as a sizable egg shaped monster floated out from behind it.

Cloud wasn't the type to let their opponent get in the first strike.  He drew First Turugi, bent his knees and leapt, cleaving the grangalan in two.

"Huh...must not have very strong monsters here," Yuffie said with a tilt to her head.  She stuck out her lips and pouted, a little disappointed that the thing hadn't been more of a challenge and that she hadn't been able to steal from it, little kleptomaniac that she was.

Of course, a party that wasn't leveled to fight planet-destroying monstrosities might have had more of a fight.  As it was, the large grangalans, gargoyle relatives, and the handful of malbroros that they encountered were more annoying than any sort of real challenge.


 

"No signal," Reeve muttered as he returned his PHS to his pocket.  Not that he had really expected any in a cave.  He looked around at his companions, who were busy poking around and exploring the different passageways.  He could see their lights flickering down the various winding tunnels, casting strange shadows on the walls.  Part of him had often wanted to go with the rest of AVALANCHE on adventures, instead of relying on Cait Sith.  But first as a Shinra board member, and later as the head of the WRO, it just hadn't been possible.  Now though, he was reminded of the old saying 'Be careful of what you wish for.'  Just what sort of adventure was this?

A furor by one passageway indicated the party had discovered which way the exit was, so he went to join them.  He matched strides with Denzel.  The boy nodded, but didn't comment.  It seemed that most of his attention was on Cloud.  Reeve wondered what it must feel like, to see the person you looked up to the most suddenly as a kid, quite possibly your own age.  He fished around for something to say to the youth.  Well, he thought, why not the topic at hand?

"It must be strange to see us as teens.  I myself am not quite used to it."  It was indeed an odd experience.  They looked enough like themselves to be recognizable, but different enough to be disorienting.  It seemed that he did a double-take every time he turned around.

"Yeah."

It looked as if Denzel was picking up Cloud's curt manner of speech.  Reeve sighed.  In a certain way, he felt like an older brother to Denzel, as the boy had been taken in by Reeve's own mother after his parents had died.  Now he was Cloud's and Tifa's adopted son, so no matter how you looked at it, the boy was as good as family.  In that moment, Reeve couldn't help but feel apprehensive.  He had turned down Denzel when the boy had applied to the WRO, because he felt strongly that children should never have to fight.  Depending on what lay ahead of them, that resolve might face some serious testing.

Passing through a narrow rocky crevice, the former saviors of the planet stepped out into the pale light of early morning.  An unfamiliar landscape of rolling green hills dotted with palm trees and windmills met their eyes.  The most unfamiliar sight of all was the strange, silvery trees that arched over the roads winding amongst the hills.

"Wha... I thought we'd been everywhere on the planet.  But I don't recognize this at all," Yuffie pronounced, looking dumbfounded.  Reeve sighed.  Judging by the chorus of groans and curses around him, he wasn't the only one disappointed by the lack of recognizable terrain.

Tifa walked to one of the strange trees, and pulled off a pale silvery-skinned apple, wet with dew.  She sniffed it gingerly.  "These are Banora Whites. Dumbapples.  I have an old bottle of Banora White wine back at the bar," she stated in amazement, turning the apple around in her hand.

"So, what's so important about apples?" Barret huffed.

"Because they don't exist any more. They're all gone," Tifa said, shaking her head.

"Well, looks like someone's been hoardin' 'em then."  Barret was obviously not very impressed by the orchard of supposedly extinct fruit.

Reeve noticed that Cloud was looking at his PHS, frowning slightly.  Reeve had worn that expression not too long ago, doing the same thing.  "What's wrong?" he asked the blond.

"No signal.  Still."  Sighing, Cloud put his PHS away.  "Come on. Standing here won't help us find out where we are."  With that, Cloud headed off into the orchard.  Reeve picked a dumbapple himself as they walked, but didn't eat it.  He took a deep breath, smelling a sweet crisp scent he hadn't encountered in almost a decade.  Tifa was right, it was odd finding such a expansive orchard.  Surely someone would have tried marketing the fruit in Edge by now.

It wasn't a very long walk through the winding hills, even with their newly shorter legs, before they stood on the rise of a small hillock overlooking a quaint little village.  The town was laid out in a circular pattern.  A few modest white plaster buildings, their brown support beams visible, surrounded a public fountain.  Windmills littered the scenery.  On a neighboring hill was a larger brick house with the largest dumbapple tree they'd seen so far growing in its yard.  Disbelief seized Reeve's throat.

"Well, any of ya' idiots know where we are?" asked Cid.

"I think my family once came here on holiday," Shera murmured.

"Really? Then what's it called?" Cid looked over at his wife expectantly.

Reeve finally managed to choke out, "Banora.  But... that's impossible!"

"Banora?  Isn't that the creator near Mideel?" Cloud looked at him skeptically.

"Yes.  Shinra firebombed it, years ago.  But this is exactly what it looked like."  None of this made any scene.  Unlike Nibelheim, Shinra hadn't bothered to reconstruct Banora.  In addition to the town being burnt to ash, some of the tunnels below the town had collapsed, leaving the crater.  In the middle of a war, it hadn't been worth the time or expense to rebuild.  Shinra had ignored it from then on, except for explaining the catastrophe as the work of terrorists.  Now in addition to the problem of why they had all appeared as children aboard the Shera, they had to determine why they had appeared in a cave next to a town that supposedly no longer existed.

Marlene spoke up then, her tone suggesting sweet annoyance that none of the grown-ups were thinking of the very simple solution.  "Why not just ask someone where we are?"  An awkward pause followed, as they looked at each other, and tried to come up with some less embarrassing way of locating themselves than having to ask a local.  In the end, many pairs of eyes settled on Cloud.


 

Cloud grit his teeth.  Leader of the rag-tag crew once, leader of the rag-tag crew always, it seemed.  He was at a loss for ideas beyond Marlene's, though, so he said "Fine.  Tifa, Reeve, come with me. The rest, wait here."

As they made their way down into the village, Cloud thought hard about what he would say.  What story would someone buy as to why there were three lost teens on their doorstep?  This looked like a small town, and Cloud knew well the insular nature of such towns.  Strangers always had to explain themselves.  When he reached the fountain, he paused and surveyed the buildings.  Most of them looked like houses.  There was an inn, however, and one store... a mercantile by the looks of it.  He decided on the store as the least likely to need a cover story prepared for, and headed to it, Tifa and Reeve behind him.  The shopkeeper, a portly man in his mid-forties, looked up as the door opened and a bell jangled.

"Morning.  What can I get you kids?" the man asked genially.

Eyeing the offerings on the shelves, Cloud replied, "A case of Banora White juice and your most recent newspaper."

"Sure thing, kiddo."

He tried not to bristle at the diminutive.  It had been a long time since he had been a kid.

"Alright, here you are," the man said, setting down a carton of juice cans with a thunk on the counter.  "That'll be twenty gil."

Cloud handed the gil over, thankful that their money had traveled with them.  "Do you know how far it is to Edge?" he asked calmly, taking the newspaper the man handed him.

"Edge, you say.  Don't think I've head of it.  What's it near?"

Cloud exchanged a quick look with Tifa and Reeve.  This guy hadn't heard of Edge?  "How about Kalm then?"

"Kalm, you say.  Well, that's quite a trip.  You'll need more than just that Banora White juice if you plan to head there," the owner said with a laugh.

Great, this guy wasn't much help.  Looking down at the paper he held in his hand, Cloud's blood ran cold.  Staring back at him from the front page was Sephiroth.  A young Sephiroth.

All sound temporarily faded.  The picture in the paper seemed to expand, blocking out all other sight.  Those callous green eyes had looked straight into the camera, so that now the man in the picture appeared to be staring straight at Cloud.  The store keeper said something, but Cloud couldn't hear him properly.  His arm ached where the Geostigma had taken its worst hold.  His chest ached where the Masamune had speared him.  He couldn't breathe.

Tifa grabbed his elbow, her strong grip bringing him back to reality just in time for the shopkeeper to repeat his question.  "I said, you a fan of SOLDIER, kiddo?"

"No."

"Really?  Dressed like that and carrying such a sword around, you kinda look the part."

"I am not a fan," he ground out. "Come on.  Let's go."  He strode out, clutching the newspaper.

Tifa grabbed the case of juice and hurried after Cloud.  Reeve nodded to the store owner as they departed; the poor man looked confused.

"What did he mean, a fan of SOLDIER?  Hey!  Cloud!  Are you alright?"  Tifa lengthened her strides to catch up to the seething swordsman, and peered concernedly at him.

The only answer she got was Cloud thrusting the newspaper at her.  She scanned it, mouth forming an o.

"But this is...1997?  How?"  Stopping, she looked around.  "Then is this...really Banora?"  Reeve caught up, and she passed the paper to him.  His jaw tightened, but he said nothing.  They hurried to catch up with Cloud, who hadn't stopped, just continued stalking angrily up the hill.

The three were quiet as they made their way back to the others.  If it was really 1997 and they were in the past, what could they do?  All Cloud knew was that he wasn't going to go through everything again.  Not ever again.  Nibelheim, Jenova, Shinra, Sephiroth, Meteor, but also... Zack, Aerith, even his mother.  They were still alive.  He wasn't going to stand by and watch them die.  Did he have a younger self here?  In 1997 he would have been... what...eleven...twelve?  Was that the age he was now?  No... he was older, but not by much.  He had forgotten just how short he was at that age.  Perhaps the first thing to do was to find out how being turned into children had affected their combat skills, and then... they could see what they could do about fixing things.  Judging by the monsters they had just fought in the caves, there wasn't a big difference in the party's capabilities from their usual standard.  It was mostly just their reach that had changed.  Still, it would be better to know for sure.

The rest of the party was sitting around just over the crest of the hill.  Seeing Cloud, they stood up and started clamoring for answers.  Cloud didn't stop moving, just motioned for the others to follow, and headed back into the cave.  Tifa and Reeve pushed through their confused companions silently, wrapped up in their own thoughts.

"Well?  Are any of you going to tell us what happened?" Yuffie inquired.

"Later.  Back at the ship," Cloud responded curtly.

Once they were all back on board, Cloud asked Tifa to pass the newspaper around.  It was interesting to watch the different reactions as the newspaper made its way through the group.  Cid's swearing could peel paint.  Shera looked petrified.  Barret looked as if he couldn't make up his mind whether to tear the paper to shreds or shoot it.  Marlene and Denzel were both shocked, Nanaki was puffed up and growling, Yuffie started going on about the war and Cloud was surprised the paper didn't catch fire, given how intensely Vincent stared at it.

When everyone had seen it, Cloud spoke up.  "Alright, now that you know where and when we are, we need to decide what to do."

"What to do?  We need to save Wutai!"  Yuffie was practically shrieking.  The combination of her high, childish voice and the stress wasn't doing her any favors in the "easy listening" department.

"The same thing as last time," bellowed Barret.  "Bring Shinra down an' stop it from draining the life blood of the planet.  And kill that bit..."  He cut himself off, glancing at Marlene.  "And get rid of Scarlet," he finished.

"I don't think getting rid of Shinra is the best idea," Reeve interjected.

"That's because you worked for them bloodsuckers," Barret growled.

"No," Reeve answered, his placid expression betraying no sign that the jab had hurt him.  Cloud glared at Barret, who at least had the grace to look a little chagrined.  "It's because at this moment in time, for better or worse, people rely on Shinra... and on mako.  We all know the difficulties of building a new power structure on the ashes of the old, and the current Shinra is not mostly-destroyed, as ours was.  The Company is at war; its defenses are high.  Furthermore, we are not in the same position ourselves."  His voice began to raise.  "We are a bunch of teenagers and children, in a cave in the past, with no clue why, and we have no idea on how to get back to our own time."  Reeve sighed, calming himself, and continued, "Everyone here has regrets.  I wonder how many hours we've wasted, collectively, thinking about what we could have done differently?"  He looked around, meeting everyone's eyes in turn.  "I merely suggest that, as we now have a chance to correct things, we work to change Shinra's direction, as opposed to destroying the company.  We could get rid of mako power and replace it with clean energy.  We might even be able to go as far as replacing the board of directors with more... ethical people."

Tifa blinked, and asked slowly, "Are you suggesting that... that we take over Shinra?"

"Not as such," Reeve answered, "but imagine if we could show Shinra that the cost of war and mako energy is far more costly than the clean, renewable energies used in Cosmo Canyon."

Nanaki shook his head, his tiny fluff of a mane swishing.  "I believe that numerous parties tried demonstrating that fact to Shinra, and all met with failure."

Reeve smiled.  "But in great part, Shinra's interest in mako was fueled by Hojo's stories about the Promised Land.  If we expose those as the lies they were, Shinra will be less invested in mako, and will also lose its principal reasons for invading Wutai."  He nodded at Yuffie.

"You've thought a lot about this," Nanaki commented, looking thoughtfully at Reeve.

"I've had years to wonder about the 'what-ifs' and 'might-have-beens', even while I was on the Board," Reeve said with a shrug.  "If I had known then the things that I know now about Shinra, I might have been a more effective force.  I am not above blackmail."

"You make a hell of a case, Reeve," Cid said, scratching his ear.  "But there's one or two loose threads, there.  Shinra ain't the only goddamn threat to the world's health."

"We'll also need to destroy Jenova and Sephiroth," Cloud stated, and beside him, Tifa nodded.

"Why?  Hojo and Jenova, certainly.  But why must Sephiroth die for something he has not done?"

Everyone turned and stared at Vincent as if he had sprouted a second head.

"Not done?  More like, not done yet.  He's a threat.  He will.  He's built to do it," Tifa said with conviction.  Cloud scowled wordlessly.

Vincent's eyes glowed eerily, even under the bright fluorescent lights of the bridge.  "For whatever reason, we have appeared in a time when most of our party's traumas have yet to occur."  He let that hang in the air for a moment, leaving it unsaid that 1997 was too late to fix his own sad history.  "We have been given a second chance, and it is not only for ourselves.  Everyone present has someone they wish to save.  Surely, Lucrecia's child deserves a chance as well."

Cid recovered more quickly than the rest from the shock of Vincent's suggestion (and also probably from the shock of Vincent saying so many words in a row).  "Sure... let's kill Hojo, Jenova, Scarlet, that lardass Palmer, let's throw that over-stuffed ahriman Heidegger in for good measure, but not that psychopathic, good for nothin' egoist?!  You shittin' me?  If ya don't remember, he's the the one that tried to destroy the world just so he could become a fucking god!"  Cid spat out his cigarette in disgust, and turned away to light up a new one.

Cloud agreed with Cid, though his voice remained paralyzed.  As far as he was concerned, all of Shinra's top brass, excluding Reeve, were excellent targets.  But to take them out and not Sephiroth?  Sephiroth was the biggest threat to the planet.  Vincent might as well have suggested not killing Hojo.

"Vincent has a point," Reeve commented.  "As I recall, Sephiroth was not the only 1st Class SOLDIER who went mad and became a danger to the Planet.  I remember two others.  I think, if possible, all three of the top SOLDIERS should be given a chance.  What happened to them was not their fault, but Shinra's.  They lashed out at the world, only after discovering the horrors Shinra had inflicted on them.  If they never found out, or if the information was presented in a less dehumanizing manner, I doubt they would pursue the same courses of action."  The voice Reeve was using made Cloud wonder if this was how he had sounded at board meetings.  It was smooth, calm, and sensible, a voice that made you feel like agreeing with it.  Too bad what he was suggesting was impossible.

"There were more of those monsters?  Shit, I thought Sephiroth was bad enough."  Barret's brow was crinkled from trying to recall the events from the end of the Wutai War.

"Yeah, a pair of commanders or somethin'.  Din't they go AWOL?"  Cid, too, was trying to sort through his memory.

"They weren't monsters.  Well, not originally.  I'm afraid I'm not clear on the details," Reeve apologized.  "I believe they had some sort of wasting illness, a result of the experiments performed on them."

"Sephiroth only went mad after coming in contact with the Jenova core.  Destroy her and he should be fine.  Perhaps that would work for these other two as well," Vincent mused.

Reeve shook his head.  "No, I don't think so.  I'm fairly certain their madness stemmed from the illness, rather than an outside source.  In the end, I think the disease killed them."

"No.  That wasn't what killed them."  Cloud kept his face averted from the group, facing toward the cave walls.  The dark windows made a mirror, reflecting his glowing gaze back at him.

"You know what did."  It wasn't so much of a question from the quiet marksman as a statement.

Cloud only nodded.  He didn't want to go down that path of Zack's memories.  The expectant silence from the others, however, meant he wasn't going to slip out of this without some sort of follow up.

"It wasn't an illness, exactly.  Not that it mattered.  There was no cure for what they had."

"A strange disease without a cure....  Was it similar to Geostigma?"  Tifa's question was quiet, but Cloud could hear the heaviness of the hidden meanings behind it.

"Do you think water from the well spring would help?"  Reeve sounded hopeful.

Nanaki looked up at him, "Cloud?  Do you have any of Aerith's spring water with you?"

Cloud didn't want to have to think about whether it might help or not.  He could tell Zack's memories apart from his own, now, but there were still gaps, and odd places where the memories overlapped, and they were nearly all blurred and disorienting, still tinged mako-green.  Furthermore, he was still reeling from Vincent's suggestion that they let Sephiroth live.  It was such an enormity, such a wrongness, that he was having a hard time even letting the thought form in his mind.

"Cloud?"  Nanaki tilted his head, waiting for an answer.

"No, I gave the last vial I had out on my last delivery," he said quietly.

"Hmm... That's not good.  If I remember correctly, the General was deeply affected by what happened to his friends.  Perhaps it was even one of the catalysts that led to his insanity."  Now it was Reeve's turn to be lost in thought.

"Maybe we could ask Aerith for help?"  Again, Marlene's comment was followed by an awkward pause.

"Well?  She made it rain and cured Denzel and Cloud.  Won't she help?" The look in Marlene's eyes was determined, but so innocent and unjaded, that to tell her that this Aerith was not the same Aerith and might not be able to help, seemed cruel.  But...

"She might not know how, sweetie.  She would still be a child," Tifa explained.

"So?  So are all of you."

Well, Cloud thought, she had them there.

Chapter Text

Things are easier said than done; Unmastered materia is just better; Lone gunmen make poor babysitters;
Parents wish to control their offspring; Cid doesn’t swear; A momentous choice

 

Tifa laced her fingers together and stretched her hands above her head, her spine popping. Shaking herself loose, she surveyed the surrounding area. She stood in the little green valley outside the cave, with a cool draft flowing past her from the cave mouth. Two high rocky ridges concealed the gentle valley, the sun just above the eastern ridge, and there were no obvious paths or signs of regular visitation, so she wasn't worried about anyone from the village appearing. After what had become a three-hour-long discussion on their course of action, it felt good to be out in the fresh air. She still wasn't very pleased with the plan, but it did make sense and if all went well, it would be the best for everyone. Unfortunately, that 'everyone' included Sephiroth. She grimaced, and dropped into a fighting stance. When it was just words, the plan was simple. Change Shinra, end the Wutai War, save the planet. The difficult part was carrying it out.

Tifa began to run through some of her forms, testing what her now-smaller muscles were capable of. They would have to change Shinra, save Corel, save Nibelheim (the real Nibelheim), save Cid's dream, and, apparently, save Banora too. They were not only going to take out Hojo, President Shinra, Heidegger, Scarlet and Palmer, all of whom even Reeve thought had long since passed the possibility of redemption, but try and find decent replacements for them as well.

She shifted her stance a little, to compensate for her shorter reach. Tricky as it was going to be to find moral and effective replacements for Shinra's top brass, ending the war with Wutai was going to be trickier still. First, they were going to have to design a way for clean energy to support all of Midgar, thus making mako a moot point. Convincing Shinra to make the switch wasn't going to be easy either, even with the top brass gone. Mako was all people were used to. Even after Meteor, it had taken some time to convince the populace to switch over. Many had wanted to just repair and restart the reactors. A successful switch of power sources would depend heavily on Reeve’s success at persuading his counterpart in this timeline, who was in charge of Midgar's Urban Development, to incorporate the change into the design of the not yet finished city.

Some of the others were beginning to drift out of the cave as well, stretching and settling into their own routines. Since they all seemed preoccupied with their thoughts, Tifa turned back to hers.

Alongside the problem of getting rid of mako energy, they had all the lies Hojo had fed the President about the Promised Land. If they could convince the Company that no such place existed, Shinra would no longer have a reason to be in Wutai. Ferreting out and exposing the lies in a way the Company would accept though, would probably make herding cactuars look easy. Even if they couldn't convince President Shinra about the promised land, at least the clean energy would make mako obsolete. And if mako was no longer needed, public opinion would turn against the unjustified war, and force Shinra into withdrawing. Or so Reeve thought. Tifa scoffed. Yeah, right. As though public opinion had ever been more than a plaything to Shinra. She thought the Company might continue fighting just so it wouldn't have to admit that it had been wrong. If they could get Shinra to abandon the war before the president’s planned untimely death, it would make things much easer on them. Otherwise their chosen successor would have to deal with the fallout. And then, she gritted her teeth, there was the third portion of the plan.

She found herself putting more power behind her kicks and punches.

The first of the steps she was more than willing to go along with: destroy Jenova. After that, though, her enthusiasm jumped off a cliff. While she had been saddened by the story they'd dragged out of Cloud regarding the two other SOLDIERs 1st Class, and agreed that what had happened to the men wasn't fair, it was still a huge risk. It turned out, surprisingly enough, that sparing Sephiroth would be the easiest part of saving the three SOLDIER 1sts from themselves, and the planet from them. She lashed out with a high roundhouse kick, and followed it with a forward jab and uppercut. Kill Hojo and Jenova, tell the General about his real mother, and in essence, remind him that he was a human, not a god. And if he didn't take it well, they had plenty of experience in killing him. Vincent hadn't been happy with that, and under any other circumstances, Tifa might have gone along with him, just from the novelty of seeing the saturnine shooter so worked up. This was Sephiroth though, and she and Cloud had insisted that the "lethal intervention" card remain an option.

The other two though…. She shifted into a new kata. Commanders Genesis Rhapsodos and Angeal Hewley. Those two were going to be difficult, because the only information they had on the pair was Reeve's hazy secondhand information and Cloud's hazier memories. For now, they were assuming the illness was something along the lines of Geostigma. Gaia, what a nightmare that had been. She had almost lost Cloud and Denzel to that tainted sickness. The thought of someone else going through that pain had, in the end, been the reason she agreed. The plan was to work on a solution for the SOLDIERs' disease from two fronts.

Coming to the end of her katas, Tifa started her cooldown. Reeve was to work on the medical science end of the problem. He was an engineer, not a medical doctor though, which meant that part of the plan was to go ransack old Shinra labs and gather what information they could. They were going to try to enlist Aerith's help, too. They'd discussed it a lot, everyone wracking their memories, and the consensus was that by 1997, Aerith was free from Shinra's lab, and her mother was already unfortunately dead. They couldn't afford to not at least ask the last living Cetra for assistance. The plan was for Nanaki to meet up with her, explain the situation, persuade her to help them, and then stay by her side, and help her if possible. But Nanaki refused to go to Midgar as long as Hojo was there. So the scientist had to die first. Once again, Tifa thought, easier said than done. Hojo was as paranoid as a schizophrenic rat on hallucinogens.

"Tifa?" asked a quiet but determined voice behind her. "Will you teach me a new kata?"

Closing her eyes, Tifa inwardly sighed. There was also the issue of Denzel and Marlene. She had been teaching them martial arts for exercise, mental training, and emergency self-defense. She didn't want them to have to fight in earnest, ever. She never wanted to see them fighting for their lives, or for revenge, the way she had fought for so long. She wanted them to stay here with the Shera, where it was safe. But she knew they wouldn't be happy with that.

"Don't think about leaving me behind," the boy said, as if reading her mind. "I want to help. Please let me help you! I know I'm not strong, but I won't get in the way. Please. Let me save my parents."

Tifa flinched at that last sentence. At least in part, she was fighting for that reason too. Turning around, she faced the boy, who right now was about her height. His expression was determined - jaw clenched, eyebrows drawn fiercely down - but she could see the worry and fear in his dark blue eyes.

"Denzel. Are you sure this is what you want to do? There are other ways you could help us. You don't need to fight."

"I won't be much help to Vincent hacking. And going with Reeve and Nanaki to Cosmo Canyon, well... I don't know anything about medical science or engineering. Please, let me go with you and Cloud." Denzel was too self-possessed to cry, but his desperation hit Tifa right in the heart. She looked sadly at this boy who was like a son to her, and he met her gaze dead on, posture stiff and straight.

Denzel was bright, and a fast learner when he wanted to be. He already knew all the basic katas, and Cloud had taught him a little about swords. He took direction well enough, but just like Marlene, he was also developing a rather broad stubborn streak. No surprise really, considering who they lived with. She and Cloud were the most stubborn out of their whole stubborn group of friends.

"I guess...." Tifa knew she'd made her decision the instant Denzel had mentioned his parents. Too many of the party had lost their families, and she knew she wasn't the only one hoping for a chance to change things. "Go fetch Marlene and meet me back out here."

Denzel smiled hugely, and left at a run to find his adopted sister. She hoped Barret wouldn't complain too strenuously about this. The party had yet to decide what to do with the kids, but she could at least prepare them a little for what lay ahead. She headed back to the Shera and its armory to grab some Restore materia. When she started gathering them up though, she was surprised by the number they possessed. The materia collection had almost doubled in size. Tifa smiled. Yuffie's hoard must have been added to the armory's store. She wondered if that had been from Yuffie's sometimes warped sense of generosity, or if, like their ultimate weapons showing up, it had been involuntary. On her way out, Tifa also grabbed some Ethers from the rack beside the door, just in case. Jogging back to the surface, she thought about teaching methods for the kids, and also how best to broach the subject with Cloud and Barret.

Denzel and Marlene were already waiting for her, barefoot in the short grass. Both looked eager to see what the martial artist would teach them.

"All right," Tifa said, standing with her arms folded in her best imitation of Zangan in teaching mode. "I am not going to be teaching you any katas."

After a moment of dismayed silence, both Marlene and Denzel started protesting, voices tumbling over each other.

Tifa spoke over them. "What I am going to teach you is this." She held up a green orb glimmering with its own inner light.

“Materia?!" Denzel exclaimed, obviously excited about the prospect of learning magic.

"You're really going to teach us?!" Marlene put in, radiating delight.

"Yes, I am." Tifa smiled at the two. "These are mastered Restore materia." In truth, she would have preferred to start them on lower-leveled materia, but the only ones they had that weren't already mastered were a few summons, a Flare, a Destruct, a handful of support materia that had to be linked to work, and a few negative status materia. None of them were any good for first time casting. The brawler handed an orb to both her students, and watched as they tentatively rolled them around in their hands.

"Alright, I want you to focus. Extend your awareness into the materia. Can you sense the different levels of the spells inside it?"

 


 

Denzel concentrated on the orb in his hand. It tingled against his fingers, cool, strange, and soothing, kind of like the water in the church. After a moment, he was able to feel something else, a sensation that was mental instead of physical, like a tug on his brain. Startled, he pressed his fingers against his forehead.

"You should be able to feel the pull of the different spells. The stronger spells have a stronger pull. For now, stay away from those. I want you to look for the smallest spell," Tifa was saying. But it was hard. The way Tifa described it as a pull was true. Some of the spells that tugged at him were demanding. Ignoring the stronger spells was difficult, but eventually he was able to locate the smallest one.

"I found it!" Marlene voiced her discovery first, but Denzel wasn't very far behind.

"Good. Now try coaxing it out, giving it just enough energy to activate. But don't force it, or you'll more than likely end up with one of the other spells," Tifa instructed.

It took a while, but once again Marlene was first, casting a level one Cure spell. Denzel concentrated, but the harder he focused the more the stronger spells got in his way.

"Relax, Denzel. Let it flow through you. If you get too tense, you block it."

He tried taking a few deep, slow breaths, centering himself, a trick both Tifa and Cloud had taught him. Trying again, he slowly extended his awareness into the materia. Locating the smallest spell was easier this time. Taking hold of the spell, he tried to coax it out, letting it feed off of his energy instead of forcing it to follow him out. Goosebumps rose on his skin as a gentle light surrounded him. Denzel could feel the healing warmth of the Restore pass through him. Looking over at Tifa, he couldn't help but feel proud and a little lightheaded at his success.

"Good job!" she said, brown eyes warm. "I'm so proud of you both. Casting magic isn't easy, especially when you're young. It's a skill you'll need to have though, if you're determined to go with us." They both nodded firmly at this. "Right then, we'll work on casting reliably for now, as well as cutting your time down. Later we'll work on blind casting."

It took some time before they were able to cast the right spell at a fairly reliable speed, about one spell every half minute to minute. Not exactly fast, but reliable, at least. Marlene accidentally cast a powerful Regen spell and remained standing afterward, which was pretty impressive. Tifa gave her an Ether immediately, then doled out more as they became tired. As for the blind casting, Tifa gave them each a basic iron bangle to practice with. Placing the materia in the open slot and casting a spell without touching or even looking at the orb was difficult. Denzel could still sense the materia, but trying to find the level one cure became almost impossible. Tifa reminded him again to relax, and suggested he try some meditative techniques that would enable him to spread his senses, but also focus them. He got it in the end, but his casting time was pitiful. If he wanted to get better, he was going to need a lot more practice.

Denzel centered himself, took a deep breath and cast again, and again, and again. By the time Tifa called the lesson to a halt two hours later, Denzel couldn't even remember how many spells he had cast. While he knew he was physically healthy, what with all the cure spells, he still felt tired and dizzy. Tifa explained that what they were feeling was a particular kind of exhaustion that came from extended use of magic. The best way to counter it was to eat or drink something with a high sugar count and rest.

He and Marlene ended up sitting under the arch of one of the many trees surrounding the area, drinking the Banora White juice Tifa had brought back from the town. The shadows were strange down here in this narrow valley, and Marlene amused herself making shadow puppets against the grass. His sister was always more carefree than he was. Now that the training was over, Denzel found himself full of doubt. Cloud and the others could cast mastered spells as if there was no tomorrow and not tire. Of course, he knew that was why they'd gotten so good - there really wouldn't have been a tomorrow if they'd failed. Still, he worried. He and Marlene wouldn't get better without lots of practice, and they didn't have much time to learn. Would they be ready to help when the time came? Keeping his voice low, he asked Marlene what she thought. "Do you think we'll be really able to help?"

"Of course," she answered, watching Yuffie and Vincent head back into the cave, following Tifa. "Maybe we won't really be much use fighting. But we don't want to be left behind again. We'll just have to do our best, and at least now we can heal anyone if they get hurt." She held her hand up to the sky and turned it back and forth, watching the light reflect off the materia in the bangle on her wrist. Tifa had let them keep the iron bangles and materia in case they wanted to practice again, though she'd also warned them, very sternly, not to overtax themselves.

Denzel looked at his own materia. He didn't want to be there only as support. What he really wanted was to stand alongside Cloud. He knew he would never be the man's equal, but if he could become strong enough that he wasn't a burden, and Cloud could rely on him... Then, well, that would be a dream come true.

He nodded decisively. He needed to get stronger, and sitting here wasn't going to make that happen. The juice had helped a lot, and he felt ready to get back to work. He stood, and dusted himself off. "I'm going to run through some katas. Want to join me?"

"Hmm? Sure." Marlene set down her second can of juice, and got into the first stance.

They settled down into a comfortable routine, unaware of the heated discussion aboard the Shera that would decide their fates.


 

"Hold on. You want to take them with us?" Unlike some of the others, Yuffie wasn’t opposed to the idea. She had, after all, been out defending her home from the dogs of Shinra when she was only seven. She just hadn't expected Tifa to be on the kids' side as well, that was all.

"They want to save their parents just as much as we want to save those we lost. They have a right to help,” Tifa argued on the kid's behalf.

"I say let them," Yuffie said, ignoring the hostile glances she was getting. "I mean, why not? Denzel's thirteen. I was a great ninja by that age. And Cloud, weren't you, like, gearing up to go shoot people for Shinra by then?"

Cloud's stare sharpened further. "I signed up when I was fourteen. I don't want them to have that sort of life."

"No way is my little girl goin' into battle." Barret's stern voice told her plenty. He wasn't going to be budged on this issue.

"They can not stay here. I am not going to be a babysitter."

Yuffie snorted. The image of Vincent running around after children was hilarious. However, she realized that thinking of Denzel and Marlene only as children was unfair. Physically, most of the party wasn't much older than them right now. And Yuffie would admit, even if only to herself, that she probably acted more immaturely than the calm and quiet Marlene or self-possessed Denzel. So reasons of age or maturity were insufficient arguments to keep the kids penned away from the action. The whole conversation, it seemed to her, was about adults justifying their desire to protect and control their offspring, and she'd had more than enough of that in her life, thank you very much.

"They could come with Nanaki and myself to Cosmo Canyon," Reeve offered. He also seemed keen on keeping them out of danger.

"And what? It's not like they're scientists. They'd be bored." At times it seemed like everyone forgot what it was like to be a kid, Yuffie thought. "They don't want to be left behind or locked up. They want to help! Isn't that obvious?" She scowled, exasperated with the whole group.

"If the issue is that they don't know how to fight, then I'm in the same boat, but you're still taking me," Shera said politely. Yuffie smiled at her. Seemed the split in opinions was the women against the men.

"They know basic martial arts, and Cloud has taught Denzel a little swordwork." Tifa nodded in Cloud's direction. He shifted sulkily. "I just worked with them for an hour on materia. Marlene's quite good. She managed to cast a Regen spell and stay standing, not an easy feat for a beginner. And Denzel's not bad. He has a lot of determination." Tifa sounded pleased with them.

"Ya taught them how to cast?" Barret said. He looked proud about Tifa saying that Marlene had done well, but also shocked that she had taught them at all.

"Why not?” the brawler snapped. “Even if they don't fight, they'll still be in danger. We are taking on the most powerful company in the world. Again. The best way for them to defend themselves is with materia." Tifa's tense posture reminded Yuffie of a mother adamantaimai, ready to crush anybody who further questioned her parenting methods.

Yuffie decided to get a new vote in the discussion. "Red, what do you think? I mean, you said you were still a cub before, so you should have an opinion on this." So far, it was Cloud, Barret, and Reeve saying nay, Shera, Tifa and herself saying yes, and Vincent was kind of abstaining.

"I don't think they should fight, but I also know that they should not have to be left behind. Being separated from the ones you care about, even for your own protection, is difficult to bear. If they can cast materia well enough to defend themselves, I don't see why they can't choose who to go with." Nanaki looked up from his spot on the floor, his one good eye peering at each one of them individually.

He might look like an adorable, fluffy cross between a kitten and a puppy at the moment, but he was the second oldest among them, even if he was still young for his species. Yuffie thought he made a really good point. Marlene and Denzel should have some input on what their future held.

"Red's got a point," Cid unknowingly agreed with her. "Them kids should choose for themselves. Just tell 'em about what it is you'll be doin' and the risk. If the kids still wanna go, let 'em. I know none of us'll let any bastard hurt 'em. The safest place would be with one of us. An' Shinra won't be able to try an' kidnap ‘em unless they send the whole damn army after 'em. Kids could learn some useful things too. Seems they already have, what with Tifa here teaching them materia." As Cid finished, he flicked his cigarette into a nearby ashtray.

Yuffie just stared at Cid. He had only sworn, like, twice during that whole thing. The only other time she could remember him talking like that was when they were in space, looking down on the planet, and he was talking about saving it. Guess he really did care about the kids.

"I still don't like it. Marlene's only ten. She don't need to get involved." Barret actually sounded like he was sulking. His lanky teenage posture didn’t help with his image either - what was an imposing glower on an adult looked like an overdramatic scowl on a teen.

"I agree with Barret," Reeve put in. Before he could continue, Yuffie interrupted.

“You should know the danger better than anybody, Reeve. The last time Marlene got left behind, you’re the one who took her hostage.” Her tone was light and teasing but the accusation was there. She felt a little bad about playing that particular card, but she really did want Marlene and Denzel to be able to choose for themselves.

"I didn't want to.... It wasn't to hurt her. And I did keep her safe. She could have been taken by the Turks." Reeve looked hurt.

A silence descended on the group as they all thought over the possible choices. The pain of being left behind, or the danger of having to go into combat. The liability of leaving them and the risk of taking them.

"Alright. We let them decide." Cloud didn't look too pleased with his decision, but Yuffie didn't care.

She jumped up and pumped her fist. "Yes! I'll go tell them."

With that, she ran out of the cave. It was still light out, but the sun was dipping behind one of the valley's ridges. The kids were right outside the cave mouth, going through cooldown stretches.

"Hey guys!" she called, bounding over to them. "Sooo, we were all just talking about you and what groups you might end up going with." She kept her face serious, rocking back on her heels.

Denzel visibly tensed. Marlene stepped forward, her mouth opening as though she was about to start arguing with Yuffie.

"Hey, don't worry. I convinced them to let you guys decide. Well, okay, it wasn't just me. Tifa, Shera, Nanaki and Cid helped a little. But the others aren't too pleased." Both of the kids looked pretty nervous. She grinned at them. "Well, just be true to yourself, make up your mind about where you want to go, and stick to it. Alright? Come on then, let's go." Spinning round, she trotted off again for the Shera. At the moment it was her favorite type of airship - grounded. Or rather, undergrounded.


 

Denzel wiped his sweaty palms on his pants for the fifth time, and entered the room. Marlene was right behind him, and he kind of wished he could hold her hand, just for the moral support. Everyone was looking at them, and their expressions were grim. Here were the two people he looked up to the most in the world, and their friends. The saviors of the planet. How could he, just a scrawny little kid, ever manage to help them? But he wanted to, so badly. For a long time, he'd thought of AVALANCHE as the enemy, as the terrorists responsible for the death of his parents. But they'd been framed by Shinra. Shinra was the real killer. They were responsible for the death of Marlene's parents, too, and for the death of all the parents of the orphans he had meet after Meteor. Even if Shinra had fought against Meteor at the end; indirectly, they were still the cause of that too. He took a deep breath, in and out. He tried to keep his nervousness out of his expression, to make his face match the determination in his heart.

"Denzel. Marlene. I understand that you want to help, but you have to understand what it is we're going to be doing." Cloud's voice was low, but his eyes bore into Denzel as if trying to convey all the information with a single look.

"These are your options, the groups you can go with." Tifa was calm and steady, looking deeply into their eyes. "First, you could stay here on board the Shera with Vincent. After we get the Shera hooked up to the network, he will be our eyes and ears looking into Shinra, as well as compiling a report to show the President about Hojo's lies. On board the airship is probably the safest place for you. Secondly, you could go with Reeve and Nanaki to Cosmo Canyon. They'll be working on a sustainable clean energy source, and as they get more information, a cure for the illness infecting those two SOLDIERs. At some point, when Hojo is dead or at least out of Midgar, Nanaki will be heading there to meet with Aerith.”

"If you want to go to Midgar earlier than that, your third option is to go with Barret, Cid and Shera, to take out Heidegger, Scarlett and Palmer. They will also try to find a replacement for each, and make it so that those people get promoted to the department heads. Your last option is to go with Cloud, Yuffie and myself. We will be going after Hojo and Jenova, and just like with Barret's group, we'll be trying to find a new head for the department. We'll be fighting our way through a lot of muck until we find a moral replacement, though. All the groups, but especially the last two, run a risk of being captured by Shinra, imprisoned, interrogated, experimented on, executed or being killed in battle. Do you understand?"

They both nodded. Denzel felt cold sweat inching down his neck, but he didn't back down. He had taken on a shadow creeper during Kadaj's Reunion. Didn't kill it, but disabled it. He had also tried to take on Bahamut SIN, though he knew it had been a pretty stupid move. Cloud and Tifa had taught him how to fight after that, and he knew they were proud of his progress. He wasn't unprepared. He could do this. He was going to make Cloud proud.

"I want to go with you, Cloud and Yuffie." Denzel set his jaw, crossed his arms, and looked at them. He was going to do this.


 

Cloud didn’t flinch at the boy’s answer, but it took an effort of will. He had known this was going to happen. He didn't want Denzel within a hundred miles of Hojo. Never mind that the guard around the paranoid scientist was second only to that of the President himself, and maybe not even that. Never mind that they wouldn't be going after Hojo until they were absolutely sure they could take him out in one swift, surgical strike. The mere thought of Denzel in the same room as Hojo made Cloud sick to his stomach. Denzel was smart, a little impulsive, and in no way ready to take on Shinra. But what could Cloud do? They had agreed to let the kids make their own decisions.

"Are you absolutely sure?" Reeve asked, clearly hoping the boy would waver.

"Yeah," Denzel answered stoutly.

Reeve sighed, and turned to Marlene. "And what about you? Who do you want to go with, Marlene?"

"I want to go with Daddy. I don't know how much help I'll be, but I promise not to get in the way. And if I keep working with materia," she held up the iron bangle that Tifa had given her, proudly displaying the materia she had been working with, "I'll be able to help cure at least." She looked at her father, imitating his scowl. Barret looked back, mouth tight, eyes suspiciously wet. Finally, he nodded.

So that was that then. They had chosen to go with the two most dangerous groups. Cloud wasn't surprised. Of course Denzel wanted to go with he and Tifa, and Marlene wanted Barret. They were their parental figures, the ones they looked up to. He just really wished they hadn't chosen them.

"Alright," he mustered after a moment. "If you're going with us, you'll need to be better prepared than you are now. But for now, rest. It's been a long day, and tomorrow will be longer." He needed to get out of there, to think, and what he said was true. Tomorrow they would all start working on moving their plans forward, going over their equipment, and now training Denzel, Marlene and Shera on how to fight, defend, and survive.

Chapter Text

The kids make progress; Heights are discussed; Divided resources; An early hunt;
Airships are not meant to be hit with motorcycles; Moseying

The next week and a half seemed to both fly by and crawl at the same time. They spent some of the time testing out their new smaller bodies. To everyone’s surprise, they were stronger than before. Reeve had suggested that their smaller size condensed their power, like fleas or ants compared to an adamantaimai. Adamantaimai were immense, but they couldn't even hop, let alone jump, were slow-moving, and their strength relative to an ant’s was pretty sad. The only thing that had truly changed for the party that they couldn’t find a way to compensate for was their shortened reach. Nanaki in particular had the hardest time, reduced from four hundred pounds pure predatory muscle to being a forty-four pound cub.

During that time they also worked to get the Shera's computers and their PHSs hooked up to the network, but thankfully the expansive cave system seemed to have been used by Shinra in the not-too-distant past, and the Company had left behind a variety of useful material. Once on the network, Vincent had set to work finding out where Jenova and Hojo were currently located. Hojo would most likely want to keep Jenova close, in Midgar rather than in Nibelheim, but with the war he might have decided it was too risky to move her from the mountain town.

In the meantime, Tifa had been coaching Marlene, Shera, and Denzel on materia, working on casting speed, reliability, stamina, and control, as well as familiarizing them with the different types. Marlene's stamina wasn't very good, but Tifa had told her that it was because she was only ten, and that it would improve as she got older. She did have good control, nearly always hitting her target. At this moment, that was a stack of old boxes with the Shinra logo serving as the bullseye. Concentrating, the girl could feel the cold energy of the ice materia slotted into Fairy Tale, the staff she'd been given. Focusing on her target, Marlene released the spell, a level two Ice. She was sure she could cast the higher spells too, but Tifa wasn't letting her, saying she didn't want Marlene tiring herself out too quickly.

"That's my girl!" Marlene looked over to see her dad grinning proudly at her, just his head showing as he peered over a panel off the walls of the Shera's hold. She smiled happily back, and returned to practice.

Barret was currently working on getting a large dent out of the panel, from where Cloud had crashed into it with Fenrir when he had first arrived. Cid had been furious when he found out. Cloud hadn't been too happy either. Marlene hadn't been able to hear the whole tirade, because her daddy had taken her and Denzel to explore the cave, probably so she wouldn't hear Cid swear. Her daddy tried very hard not to say bad words when she was around. That was one reason she loved him so much.

After casting another ice spell she stepped back to give Shera and Denzel a turn. Denzel had a fire materia slotted into Enhance Sword. It was one of Cloud's old swords, one of the few that didn't dwarf Denzel. The air heated up for a moment, then fire blossomed in front of Denzel. He was a little slower than her, but he could keep casting for longer, so Tifa was letting him cast level three spells.

"Good job!" She smiled at him, and he returned it.

Next up was Shera. She was better than both of them, but she had used materia before. For her, this practice was more like a refresher course than anything. She cast a stop spell, but since her target was a stationary pile of boxes, it didn't make much difference. Shera didn't really like casting offensive magic, so she was working mostly with status and support materia.

"Alright, let's stop for now," Tifa said, stepping up behind Marlene and squeezing her shoulder. She let go of Marlene and started walking toward the Shera's ramp, but stopped as Cloud came down it. "Cloud. Your turn," she called out, and the blond turned towards them. "They've been doing really well. I think tomorrow I'll take them out monster hunting. They need work with moving targets and real combat," she informed him.

"Right. I'll go with you," Cloud said, and Tifa smiled at him. "Work hard!" she ordered the kids, and went into the airship.

Cloud had been teaching them how to fight, as well as strategy on how to deal with different types of opponents: when to fight, when to retreat, how to use terrain to your advantage, and how to read your opponent. Marlene had to admit she wasn't very good at it, but Cloud told her that in the end, it came down to experience, so not to worry too much, and just focus on getting better.

Cloud would often have one or two of them run through some hand to hand katas that Tifa had taught them while he taught new weapons katas to or sparred with the other. He would also pair her and Denzel up to spar, and sometimes she and Denzel would team up against Cloud so they could learn how to work as a Unit. Shera only did the hand to hand katas, not the sparring, because her chosen weapon was one of Vincent's old guns, 'Outsider'. She did spend a lot of time on target practice though, and the bang of the gun going off echoing around the cave had made Marlene jump when they first started practicing. Now they didn't bother her and she was able to concentrate on her staff work.

By the time they where done she was thoroughly exhausted, her muscles were sore, and she really needed a shower. She headed into the airship, but before she could go to her room, she heard Reeve calling for her and Denzel. When she got to the observation deck where Reeve waited, she saw a huge pile of bulging grocery bags.

"Have you finished your training for the day?" Reeve asked, taking his long blue coat off and laying it over one of the computer consoles.

"Yeah! I'm getting lots better. I can almost cast ten spells in a row now before I need an ether." Though she was tired, she was very happy with how much she had improved.

From behind her, Denzel asked, "What are all the bags for?"

"Ah, yes. Cid and I just got back from Banora. We picked up some rations for the upcoming missions and I was wondering if you would help me sort them?" Saying this, Reeve went over to a corner of the room and picked up some light canvas packs.

Marlene started picking through the bags. There were juice boxes, protein bars, granola bars, fruit bars, breakfast bars and chocolate bars. She grinned delightedly at Denzel, who smiled broadly back, and began to stuff a chocolate bar into his pocket.

"This is to tide you over when you can't get any fresh food,” Reeve explained, sounding a little reproving. The kids giggled guiltily and Denzel returned the chocolate to the pile. "Right,” the boy answered. He knelt and started to count out the different bars, setting each type in its own pile. Marlene joined him and soon the piles were evenly shuffled and dispersed into the different packs. Once finished, she stood and smoothed out her white skirt, her blossoming calluses catching on the eyelets.

"Tifa said she would take us out monster hunting tomorrow." Marlene knew Reeve wasn't very happy about them fighting, but he and Cait Sith had still helped them train during the last week so that they could get used to different sorts of opponents. She thought that was really nice of him.

Reeve's smile was a little sad. "Is that so? I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Yeah, you go give them monsters hell." Cid came in, wiping his greasy hands on the denim jacket tied round his waist. "Come on, Reeve, give Barret n' me a hand. We're gonna put back that panel our punk-assed leader ran into, now the dent's out."

Reeve shook his head with a resigned sigh. To the kids he said, "Thank you for your help", before following Cid out.

Marlene commented, "I don't know about you, but I need a shower and a nap."

"A shower sounds good." Denzel agreed. " But I think I'll skip the nap. I want to go explore the caves some more."

She and Denzel had already explored a lot of the cave, with and without adult supervision, now that most the monsters had been taken care of, but there were still loads of unexplored tunnels. They'd found all sorts of weird stuff. They had found what looked like EMERALD WEAPON asleep in one part, plaques with etchings of the poem LOVELESS, and seven strange materia. Those materia were the key to a special door hiding the largest materia any of them had ever seen, trapped in the twisting branches of a white tree. It was bigger than she and Denzel combined! A red materia that big had to house a powerful summon, but it couldn't be removed from the tree. In order to keep it safe from Shinra, they had taken the seven materia that opened the door and stowed them on the Shera. Most recently, they had also found a Shinra-built collection of cement cells, like a prison. It gave her the creeps - the sounds of dripping water bounced oddly off the cement walls, and a mist clung along the ground. She and Denzel avoided that area now, though the adults occasionally went in to look for items or information.

She thought about whether or not to skip the nap and go exploring too, but she was really too tired. "Alright then. Tell me what you find!" She waved good-bye, and turned and headed for that shower she desperately wanted.


 

Barret grunted as he wrenched the last bolt into place. Damn, but he'd forgotten what it was like to be a teen. Younger meant he had more energy with fewer aches and pains, but it also meant he was shorter. Repairing the Shera had never been easy, damn big ship after all. But with no hoist, and nothing but the most basic equipment, his usual size would've come in handy. It was a lot easier bein' thirty-eight years old and 6’6”, then being fourteen and 5'9". Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he stepped back to look over his work. Not bad. You could hardly tell that a motorcycle the size of Fenrir had slammed into it from the inside. Then again, it hadn't been the full sized Fenrir.

As he picked up his discarded vest, Barret cursed whatever idiot had shrunk them. The time travel thing was weird enough, but why the hell did they have to be mini? It had been a long time since Barret had been shorter than anyone. He still towered over most of the party, except for Vincent. The man hadn't said anything about it, but Barret couldn't shake the feeling that the former Turk was in some way amused by looking down at him.

"Damn guy got lucky, tha's all", he complained to the air.

"Bitching about Vincent again?"

"Huh?!" Barret was startled by the voice from above, not-quite readying his gun arm, but relaxed as Yuffie dropped from the top of the airship, sending up a splash of water as she landed. "What bitchin'?" he muttered. "And whassup with that 'again', huh?"

Yuffie sighed exaggeratedly. "You know, your voice carries real well in here, and you sorta air your thoughts aloud a lot." She peered up. "He was the oldest out of all of us, even if he didn't look it. It makes sense that he'd still be the oldest. What I don't like -" she spun away from him, hands on hips, "is that I was eighteen and got shrunk to eleven-ish, and now here he is at seventeen-ish. I mean, where's the point in that!? That's a difference of a year! And if it's about size, then even at eighteen I was smaller than he is now! And our ages don't match up with the timeline - I should be six! What's with the total randomness?"

Barret winced. Yuffie's childish voice was way high, and it reverberated off the dome ceiling and grew louder instead of dyin' away properly.

"Ya don't need to yell my ear off, I get ya just fine." Barret crossed his arms and stared at the little Wutaian girl in front of him. "I'm bothered by it too, yunno. What is it ya want anyway?"

With a little hop, Yuffie spun herself round to face him.

"Oh, that's right. Vincent thinks he'll have the locations soon, so Cloud wants to divide up the equipment now, so we can leave as soon as we get the word." Message delivered, Yuffie started to run off, but only a few yards away she called back. "I'm going to tell the others. You head for the armory." Then she was gone.

‘Bout time, Spiky, Barret thought. I'm tired of sitting on my ass. It's time to do things.

When Barret got to the armory, Marlene, Cloud, Tifa, Denzel, and Vincent were already there.

"Daddy!" His little girl rushed over to him.

He picked her up and swung her around. She laughed delightedly, his favorite sound in the world. "Hey! And how's my little angel doin', huh?"

"I took a nap and I feel wide awake now", she said with a laugh as he set her back down.

For Barret it was like listenin' to music. Part of him was glad to be taking her with him. The other part just wanted to keep her safe and away from danger. He gripped her hand tightly, torn between the two emotions.

Nanaki came in, followed immediately by Shera. Less than a minute later, Yuffie came bounding in with Reeve and Cid in tow.

Cloud got right down to business. "All right, we'll divide the materia first. Everyone gets at least one summon."

The next hour was taken up with sorting and arguing about who got what materia and armor. Shera only wanted support and status materia, and that was all Barret wanted Marlene to have, but they were in the same group, which would leave them tactically disadvantaged. Tifa finally insisted on both Shera and Marlene taking a couple of elemental spells apiece. Reeve and Cait Sith took most of the Shinra manufactured materia, but Vincent and Yuffie ended up with some as well, leaving the rest with naturally-formed crystals. In the end they each had about ten materia, give or take.

As for accessories, all of them had a Ribbon, so at least they all had some protection from status spells. Cloud and Vincent hadn't taken any accessories other than the Ribbons. Denzel had a Protect Ring, which would let him start every battle with Barrier and Magic Barrier, as did Reeve. Marlene and Shera had Reflect Rings that would protect them from damn near everything. Tifa chose a Tetra Elemental, making her immune to all elemental spells. Yuffie, the little kleptomaniac, had also taken a Tetra Elemental, along with the Sneak Gloves, which paired with her Steal, Sneak Attack and Preemptive Strike materia would make her even more sticky fingered than normal. Nanaki was wearing a Circlet that would help with casting around his neck like a collar. Cait was given an Amulet for good luck. (Everyone knew the robot cat needed it.) Cid had a Protect Vest, and Barret himself had taken the Power Wrist to make up for his lost muscle mass.

Armor was pretty simple. Both he and Vincent had Mythril Arm Bands. Yuffie and Shera had Minerva Bands to nullify fire, ice, holy and gravity spells. Nanaki and Marlene were wearing Dragon Armlets that halved basic elemental spells. Denzel had the Escort Guard, nullifying lightning, water, poison, and earth spells. Cid had the Edincoat that he'd won off his former boss Palmer, one-time head of Shinra's Space Division. ("And," Barret thought sourly, "now occupying that position again".) Cait Sith had been given the Chocobracelet, again for luck, and Reeve had taken a simple Gold Watch with eight materia slots. Tifa took the Warrior Bangle. Cloud took Ziedrich, not that he needed it, since he was already their heaviest hitter. The bracelet upped strength and magic by twenty percent, as well halving fire, ice, lightning, earth, poison, gravity, water, wind, holy, and all physical damage. Barret rolled his eyes. It was too bad Ziedrich was one of a kind, or they would all have one.

After everyone had their individual equipment they started to sort out the Potions, Ethers, Elixirs, Remedies, Phoenix Downs, Vaccines, as well as Speed and Hero drinks, into the canvas packs. The groups who were going into more dangerous areas got more items. They also made up grab bags of all sorts of useful items like smoke bombs, grenades, S-mines, stardust, T/S bombs, graviballs, dream powder, ghost hands, swift bolts and fire veils. Again, the groups who were headed into more dangerous fights got more of a selection.

Looking round at the bare shelves, Barret said, "Don't know bout y'all, but I think we must look like a walking armory, 'cause there ain't much left in here."

True to what he said, the once stockpiled room now only housed a few weak weapons, the scant remains of their armor collection, some miscellaneous odds n' ends that no one could find a use for, and almost no materia to speak of.

"It seems we are all packed. Vincent, any ideas for when we shall depart?" Reeve asked, as he finished securing a pack onto the back of Cait's Moogle.

Vincent, already halfway out the door, replied, "I believe I will have Hojo's location late tomorrow. Yuffie may have told you that Jenova, or at least a highly classified item belonging to the science department, is being housed in the reactor on Mt. Nibel." Not wasting time, he left to continuing hunting for the reclusive scientist's electronic trail.


 

Dew clung to the leaves of the Banora White trees and soaked the hems of Cloud's pants. The sun was just a bare suggestion of pink and purple above the hills. The monsters in the tunnels were too strong for beginners, and the party had already disposed of many of them, so Cloud and Tifa had woken their students up early to hunt monsters in the hills surrounding Banora, intending to finish the hunt before the local farmers came out into the orchards. Marlene and Denzel were bleary-eyed, and Shera was yawning. Despite that, all three looked eager, and had gotten up without any complaints.

Cloud stopped for a better look at some small moisture-free patches in the grass. It looked like the paw prints of a small pack of hounds of some sort, nothing too powerful. Even more importantly, they were recent. He considered working with Denzel, Marlene and Shera on tracking but decided that time was of the essence. Still, he should take the time to let them know what they were up against.

"Here, take a look at these. Hound tracks. There's probably five, maybe seven. I want you to be ready, so start warming up your materia. Tifa, take rear guard." Tifa nodded and dropped back. They would want an experienced fighter in the back if they were ambushed from the rear. The other three did as they were told, looking alert and hopeful for whatever came their way.

As the group of kids made their way through the trees it didn't take long for Cloud's enhanced hearing to pick up the panting of breath ahead on the right.

"Ready?" he asked the three new fighters.

Denzel was the first to speak up. "Yeah, let's do this." The brown haired boy's eyes shone with determination and excitement.

Marlene nodded and gripped her staff tightly, a look of concentration on her face. Shera only gave a brief hesitant nod before removing the safety on Outsider.

Cloud couldn't help smile a little at their responses. "Here we go."

The group crept through the brush, and quickly came within sight of the six hounds. Cloud identified them as guard hounds - easy enough for well-equipped beginners.

Shera was the first to act, casting a Barrier around herself and firing three shots in quick succession. Two of the shots hit the closest guard hound, but the last shot went wide, missing its target. Good for her first time, and her casting time was praiseworthy, even if Cloud thought the Barrier was probably overkill. Better safe than sorry, he guessed.

Denzel was only a heartbeat behind the engineer. He tossed out a level two thunder spell, hitting the hound on the far left, effectively stunning it. The boy was able to rush in, his sword glowing red-hot from the fire-elemental materia equipped to it, and open a large gash on the hound's right shoulder.

In the meantime, Marlene had hit the next closest with a time spell, halting it right as it started to lunge for her and Shera. Shera disposed of it with a well placed bullet right in the eye. Two down, four to go. The hound Denzel had wounded was back on its feet and was cautiously circling the boy when another lunged at Denzel from behind. Tifa, watching closely, managed to grab it by the whip-like tentacle that protruded from between its shoulder blades and throw it against a nearby tree. Not hard enough to kill, but enough to slow it down and give Denzel some breathing room. Denzel turned, alarmed by the yelp so close to his back.

Cloud yelled a quick warning as the one Denzel had turned his back on leapt forward. Denzel reacted quickly, whipping around with his sword held out, and the hound impaled itself upon the blade. The youth seemed a little panicked, eyes wide, and taking short, fast breaths as he withdrew the sword. "Keep calm, Denzel", Cloud said, and Tifa added a shout of direction. "Denzel, Marlene, to your left!"

Another hound was charging at the boy. It leapt, only to be hit by Marlene's ice spell, giving the boy enough time to readjust his grip on his sword, ramming it into the monsters ribcage, nicking the heart. Another set of shots rang out to kill the fifth hound. The hound that Tifa had wounded limped forward, snarling. Marlene and Denzel nailed it with a one-two combo of ice and fire spells. It collapsed, the green sparkle of the lifestream shimmering around it and the corpses of its pack mates.

"Not bad, you guys. Good job,” Tifa congratulated the group as they stood panting, half elated, half terrified.

Cloud agreed, but silently. He was proud of them, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

"Marlene, you did well covering Denzel's back," he said, and Marlene smiled happily. Denzel gave her a high five. "Shera, your aim has improved, but something both of you should work on is to not root yourselves to one spot. If a hound had gotten past your defenses you probably would have fallen over instead of moving." Shera nodded seriously, and Marlene's eyes grew huge as she nodded too. "Remember to not lock up, no matter how nervous you are.”

"Denzel," Cloud continued, and the boy winced in anticipation of the criticism. "You need to remember your surroundings and keep an eye on where your enemies and allies are. Don't get too focused on one enemy." Denzel nodded, swallowing, and looked at the ground. Cloud hoped he took the lesson to heart. That second hound could have severely injured him, if not worse, if Tifa hadn't intervened.

"You'll get better with experience," Tifa said encouragingly. "That was your first real battle, after all, so you should be proud of yourselves. Right now, we better get back to the Shera, before any locals show up and wonder what a kid-sized monster-killing party is doing in their town."

As they walked, Tifa in front, Cloud in back, the SOLDIER cast an eye over their students. Shera was listening indulgently to Marlene as the young girl waved her staff around, chattering excitedly. Denzel's trailed behind them, his eyes on the ground, and shoulders slumped. He thought for a moment about what best to say, and what advice had worked for him when he was a newbie SOLDIER cadet.

"Denzel." The boy looked over as Cloud came up beside him. Right now, they were almost eye level with one another, Denzel just slightly taller. "It's alright to need help. Nobody starts out like -" Like Sephiroth, he almost said, hearing the echo of the Shinra lieutenant who'd been his first commanding officer. "Like a one man army. When I was a cadet, they had us do holomissions for half a year before letting us into the field. I’d have died twenty times on my first few field missions if other people hadn't helped me out. I've worked with you a little bit over the last few years, but it's only been serious training for the past week and a half. You're already doing better than I did."

Cloud fell silent after that, hoping that Denzel would feel better about how he had done. It was true the boy needed a lot more work, but they didn't have the time. He would need to learn on the go, and it was Cloud's job to help him and keep him safe during that process.

"Thank you, Cloud... for everything." Denzel's words were quiet but the smile on his face was genuine and his whole demeanor had changed from someone who believed themselves a failure to someone looking ahead towards improving.

Later that evening, as the party sat around the passenger bay eating the dry rations that counted as their dinner, they went over the map. Barret and Cid planned to get on a ferry at Mideel. After arriving on the eastern continent, they would head for Fort Condor and pick up a jeep or buggy and drive the rest of the way to Midgar. Reeve and Nanaki planed to catch a boat from a small fishing village on a peninsula at the tip of the island, head to the western continent, then, once on dry land, head for Cosmo Canyon. Cloud's group also intended to go to the western part of that peninsula and catch some of the good chocobos that could be found there. Tifa, Yuffie, and Denzel would ride the birds, and Cloud would take Fenrir. They'd get passage on a cargo ship that ran the route between Mideel, Junon, and Costa del Sol. From Costa del Sol, they would head for Nibelheim and take out Jenova. When they were finished with that, they would leave the mountains and head for wherever Hojo was holed up.

Vincent came in just then. Reading expressions on his pale, still face was a tricky science, but Cloud thought that he looked pretty self-satisfied. "Hojo has just returned to Midgar, after spending the last two weeks touring Shinra sponsored third-party labs. My tip says he intends to spend at least a month at Head Quarters, and the amount of supplies that the Science Department just purchased also seems to indicate a stay of about that duration."

Everyone looked to Cloud, barely repressed grins on many of their faces. "We leave before dawn," Cloud said, standing and folding the map away. Barret and Cid whooped and hollered, and Yuffie turned an exuberant cartwheel. The others were more restrained, but there was a palpable aura of excitement. Cloud raised his voice to be heard over the din. "Check over your gear, then get some rest."

He left the bay, heading for the loading dock to check on Fenrir. He knew how everyone felt. Despite their bizarre circumstances, they had a real chance here to prevent a lot of destruction and heartache, and while everyone had kept their impatience in check surprisingly well, they were all eager to stop sitting around and finally take some action.

He flicked on the lights in the loading bay, examining the wall he'd dented as he walked to his bike. You couldn't tell anymore that it had suffered from a mass of nearly a thousand pounds crashing into it at 60 mph. Hopefully Cid would quit crawling up his butt about it now. Cloud, ticked off by Cid's constant nagging, had finally told the pilot that his ship was lucky. Cloud had been slowing down as he neared his destination when he was transported; his normal cruising speed was well over 100 mph out in the wastes. Cloud was thankful for that timing. Even a bike as durable as Fenrir would have suffered damage from a crash at 130 mph, and the Shera would probably have a hole in its side. As it was, the airship had come away with a dent in the armored siding, and some of Fenrir's paint had chipped.

Even if it annoyed him, Cloud could understand Cid's protectiveness. If someone had run into Fenrir and left a big dent in it, even if it had been due to events beyond their control, Cloud would have been upset. He looked fondly at his bike. He'd gotten the frame work of the bike from a man out near Kalm and then added to it in fits and starts as pieces became available, and had occasionally had a better idea and started over. He gave it a quick once-over - he'd killed several hours this afternoon giving it a more thorough inspection.

Next he headed for his bunk and disassembled First Tsurugi. He'd oiled and sharpened the six blades that combined to form the large buster style sword this morning before the hunt. He hadn't even drawn any of the blades today, but he checked anyway. Partly, he wanted to set a good example, ever mindful of the way Denzel looked up to him, but mostly it was because the very last thing he wanted was a nasty surprise in combat. You couldn't control very many variables in battle, so anything you could prepare for, you had better do so. Lastly, he looked over everything that went into his pack. It was all in order, so with nothing left to check, he got ready for bed. Sleep wasn't easy. He wasn't very tired, and his mind buzzed with everything that needed to be done to save everyone and everything he cared about. Finally, he drifted off.

Cloud awoke with a start, covered in a cold sweat. He took shaky breaths, forcing his muscles to relax. Ever since finding himself in the past, his nightmares had become more vivid and regular. The worst years of his life now lay ahead of him, after all. Not all of his dreams were drawn from his memories, though. A new and horrible subject had appeared - they failed to affect anything, and had to watch it all happen again, unable to change fate. In the most disturbing dreams, their interference only served to make things worse.

Swinging his legs off the bunk, Cloud made for the bathrooms. After washing his face, he peered at his reflection. The fluorescent lighting did him no favors, but even discounting that, there were bags under his glowing blue eyes. No surprises there. Even without the nightmares, he was a light sleeper. Add getting up early several days in a row, and you had a recipe for tiredness. As he headed back to his bunk he ran into Shera, who was just heading back into the room she shared with Cid, the only two person bedroom on the airship. She nodded sleepily at him, and gestured down the hall with the hand that wasn't clutching two coffee mugs.

"Good morning, Cloud. There's coffee and hot water for tea in the galley, if you want any."

Cloud just nodded, not up for talking this early, and slipped past, back to his room. Once dressed, he gathered up his gear and quietly made his way to the galley, where he found Vincent brooding over a cup of coffee. Considering the man's morbidity, Cloud had expected him to drink his coffee black, and it never stopped being startling that Vincent filled half the mug with cream or milk before adding coffee. Cloud poured a cup of tea - caffeine didn't do much for him, and tea tasted better- and grabbed a dumbapple danish, before sitting down a few seats away from the table's other occupant.

They sat in silence for several minutes, but it wasn't a peaceful silence. Cloud could see the storm cloud over Vincent's head, and sighed. "What's the bad news?"

Vincent looked up from his minute examinations of the table. As far as Cloud could discern, the man seemed surprised that Cloud had noticed any discontent. Vincent considered his words before speaking. "I know that what I will be doing is vital, though I am not pleased at taking such a passive role. I would rather be the one to kill Hojo." Vincent held up his clawed hand to stop Cloud from speaking. "I know that it is not possible, barring some unexpected and unlikely occurrence that would bring him within my reach.

"You harbor as much hate as I for that man. I ask that, if possible, you be the one to kill him, and not one of the others." Vincent's eyes glowed an eerie red, and his clawed hand was tense on the table, sharp talons piercing tiny holes in the laminated wood. Cloud understood what Vincent was asking of him, and recognizing in him. In truth, if Cloud was the one who had to stay behind, he would have asked the same of Vincent, for the same reasons. They both knew what it was like to be an experiment, reduced to nothing more than a mere specimen, their humanity completely denied, at the nonexistent mercy of the mad scientist's hands. No one who hadn't experienced that could understand the catharthis causing Hojo's death would bring. He nodded solemnly, holding Vincent's gaze. "I swear."

Since this seemed to be the moment for serious conversations, Cloud brought up something that had been bothering him a lot, and that he hadn’t been sure how to broach. "Vincent, when we reach Nibelheim, what should we do with y-" Cloud faltered, brows crinkled in thought, not quite sure how to continue.

Vincent raised an eyebrow. "I assume you are speaking of my younger self." Cloud just nodded. It left an odd feeling thinking about it. Should they wake up Vincent? Having a second ex-Turk around would be helpful, but trying to convince him to help... It had been hard enough the first time, and it wasn't likely that he would believe time travel. Not to mention, how would their Vincent feel about having his doppelgänger awoken, or working alongside him? The silence stretched 'til Cloud was about ready to voice his opinion of the pros and cons on the subject when Vincent replied, "Do what you must."

Before Cloud could respond, a commotion over by the door caught their attention as Reeve's Moogle ambled into the room with Cait Sith riding on its shoulders, followed by Reeve himself. Upon seeing the two fighters the robot cat called out a cheery good morning to them, unbothered by how loud its voice was in the early morning stillness.

"Good morning," Reeve said more quietly, selecting a cup of tea and a breakfast bar, then settling down across from them. Privately, Cloud thought it was unnatural for someone to look that polished and relaxed this early in the day. "When do you plan to leave?" the dark eyed teen asked. Behind him Cait Sith examined the boxes of tea, lifting them to its robotic nose and mugging furiously at the different smells of each variety.

Cloud ignored the cat's antics, and answered Reeve. "Soon."

"I see. Well, Nanaki and I have no reason to rush, as our ship won't be leaving until the late afternoon, but I would like to be at the port in plenty of time. We'll depart at the same time as everyone else."

Next to show was Nanaki, who asked Cait to pour him some tea in a bowl. Tifa came in with Denzel, followed shortly by Cid and Shera. Barret brought a nodding Marlene, who almost fell asleep in her cereal. Cloud had to go wake up Yuffie, who was cranky when woken as a teen, and ten times worse as a child. They poured black tea by the gallon into the little ninja as they headed out through the tunnels, and by the time she was properly awake, they were at the cave mouth, just in time to see the sun peep over the horizon.

"Well that's it. We're goin' to Midgar." Barret watched the sunrise for a moment before turning to face the group of unlikely friends. "You take care now, ya' hear. I don't wanna have Vincent call me saying I got to come save any of your skinny white asses, aight?"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "See you again once we've destroyed Jenova."

"Best of luck to ye, lads and lasses!" Cait Sith called out as the groups parted ways.

Chapter Text

A pleasant surprise; Chocobos don't carry motorcycles; Frugal Tifa;
Conversations aboard ship; Obvious weapons and urgent news;
A trap at the docks; Don't mess with mother chocobos

 

"Best of luck to ye, lads and lasses!" Cait Sith called. Tifa waved back at the little cat before following Cloud, Yuffie, and Denze out of the valley. They planned to head for an area that wild chocobos had frequented in their own time, and hope that the great quality of the birds there hadn't changed in the intervening decades. Even if the birds would only be yellows, it would save them a little bit of walking. Yellows weren't hardy enough to cross mountains or rivers, but the only way to obtain a better mount was from a domestic breeding program, and they had no idea as to where or even whether there was one on the island during this time period.

With a deep sense of homesickness, Tifa thought of the gold chocobos they had spent so much time and money rearing. Gold chocobos could do anything - even endure crossing over oceans. Not to mention, they were fast. Cloud had repeatedly set track records at Costa Del Sol and the Gold Saucer, racing those birds. Tifa wished, with a petulance that she knew was childish, since everything else but the kitchen sink had been sent back in time with them, that the golds had come along too.

The sun was nearing its zenith by the time they started to see chocobo tracks in the lush grass around them. Tifa reached in to her pocket and activated her Chocobo Lure materia while Cloud instructed Denzel on how to catch a wild chocobo and handed out some reagan greens. Denzel and Yuffie had Lures too, which would not only help attract the birds but to keep them calm. Wild chocobos were usually fussy and nervous mounts, but with the greens and Lures they shouldn't be too bad.

Tifa sat beside Cloud and plucked idly at the grass. Denzel jogged nervously from foot to foot, rolling the Lure between his palms. Yuffie yawned, and started carving her initials into a nearby tree. A bee nearly flew into Tifa's hair, but otherwise everything was very peaceful. A slow quarter hour passed before Cloud stood up, looking intently westward. Tifa stood too, and soon was able to make out a large yellow smudge on the horizon, moving quickly towards them.

Yuffie, now perched in the highest branches of the tree, yelped and leapt down. "What the hell?! I think we attracted every chocobo in a 50-mile radius!"

"I don't think so," answered Cloud, his brows knit, looking confused. "See how the light's flashing off their feathers? Those aren't yellows - they're golds."

Tifa turned towards him for a moment, perplexed, before turning back and looking harder at the birds, cupping her fingers around her eyes and squinting to try and make out some detail. They were moving incredibly fast, and the light did seem to sparkle around them.

"How could there be a flock of this many wild golds?" Cloud muttered beside her. Tifa wondered too. There were two large towns on this island, and a few small villages. Maybe they'd stumbled onto a domestic stable's ranch lands after all.

The flock's frontrunners reached them, slowing from their full-tilt gallop to an excited walk. Several of them flapped their wings and extended their long legs in a complicated stepping pattern, warking loudly. Tifa recognized it as the chocobo "dance", meaning the birds were not just excited, they were also happy. To her shock, she realized she recognized not just the dance, but the chocobos performing it. An older male with the feathers around his beak turning white, the sweet-natured hen with curling tail-feathers, even the young male with the twisted hip, who came limping up at the rear of the flock - she had known them all since they were chicks.

Cloud put a voice to her wonder. "These... these are our birds from the Chocobo Farm." A little smile crept across his face, even though the birds were pushing and shoving around him, trying to get close enough to pull on his blond hair. He reached out to pet them, asking them quietly "How'd you guys get here?" Most of the birds were trying to get to him, their favorite person, but two detached themselves from the group, and came towards Tifa and Yuffie instead. A small, zippy male trotted sharply up to Yuffie, butting her none-too-gently and warking insistently. Tifa's own favorite mount, Nerthius, a leggy, middle-aged female with a smooth gait, approached more quietly, her head bent in a way that clearly invited a scratch.

Tifa laughed in delight, acquiescing, even as she puzzled. How had they gotten here? Did it have something to do with her wish earlier? If the chocobos were going to have shown up anyway, why would they have appeared here and not back in the cave with everything else? Even by the generous standards of her strange and unusual life, this time travel thing was proving to be very weird.

"Help!" cried Denzel. Tifa turned towards the boy quickly, and couldn't help laughing aloud again. One of the young chocobos, Sigfodr, still in training, was reaching for the reagan greens Denzel was holding above his head, as high as he could stretch. It was just barely out of range of the bird's open beak, and both boy and chocobo were standing waveringly on tiptoe.

Tifa went over to assist, gently but firmly pushing the bird away. "Do you remember how to hand-feed him, Denzel? If you don't, I can show you again." It had been some time since they'd been able to take the kids out to the chocobo farm to visit the flock.

Denzel clenched his hand around the greens, scowling fiercely. "I remember how."

Tifa smiled. Of course. Denzel didn't like people underestimating him. Even if he was a city kid, born and bred, he was unquestionably adaptable. He could handle a half-grown chocobo easily.

"Alright then. He's all yours." Tifa quit holding the young chocobo at bay. Denzel held his hand out flat, with the greens in his palm. The bird swallowed the offering with lightning speed, then regarded Denzel's empty palm quizzically, before fixing the boy with a dark eye and an inquisitive "Wark?". He reached out cautiously and patted its downy neck, smiling more broadly as it responded to the attention.

Satisfied that the two would get along now, Tifa looked over the rest of the flock. That was somewhat harder than it used to be, since she was now to short to see over the chocobos' backs. She was able to count fifteen sets of legs though. That was all plus one of the gold chocobos Cloud owned, including the two that were too young to ride and the two that were still in training. The fifteenth bird was a silver chick Cloud had bred from a black and a white. Apparently its parents hadn't come back with the golds.

"So anyone want to hedge a guess as to why most of Cloud's chocobos are here and didn't shrink like the rest of us and all our things?" Yuffie asked.

"Well, everything we could need for this... whatever this is... seems to have come with us. And I guess it wasn't necessary for them to be smaller. We can still ride them," Tifa shrugged. She really had no idea, but Yuffie had asked for a guess. It was just one more mystery to add to the growing pile.

Even though having the flock solved one of their transportation problems, it generated a whole new one. What to do with them all? It would be inconvenient to take the chicks, and the birds wouldn't like having to stay back in the cave. Tifa tried to remember what she'd seen in Banora. She doubted there was anyone there who could look after so many animals. Golds had amiable personalities, but they were large birds, and took a lot of care. It was only because of Choco Billy and his family's dedication that Cloud was able to maintain such a big flock, and they were paid well for the upkeep.

"Well, I'm glad we have them," Yuffie said, echoing Tifa's thoughts, "but what do we do with all of them?".

"I'm not sure. I didn't see any stables in Banora." Cloud sounded concerned, but Tifa couldn't see his expression through the feathery crowd around him. "We could find a barn in Costa Del Sol and hire someone to look after them, but it would cost a lot of gil."

Tifa couldn't think of a better idea. The only other place that could take so many was the Chocobo Farm, but that was nearly on the other side of the planet from their destination - and it would still take a lot of gil.

"We could take them to the Gold Saucer, then go to Nibelhim, then pick them up on our way back, then drop them off at the farm before going to Midgar." Denzel suggested. "I know the farm is still out of our way, but at least they'd be close if we needed them."

"That plan won't work", Tifa gently reminded Denzel. "The Gold Saucer doesn't exist here." It never would exist, if everything went as planned and Corel was saved. Then again, Tifa thought, Dio is the epitome of the entrepreneur. I wouldn't put it past him to find somewhere else to build his dream palace - and with Shinra hopefully reformed, it won't be over the ruins of someone's home.

Cloud’s suggestion of leaving the chocobos in Costa del Sol seemed to be their best option. The race track there was in its glory days, so there should be enough space. The party would go to Nibelheim, kill Jenova and ransack the Manor, then pick the birds back up and head for Midgar, dropping the chocobos off at the Farm on the way. By that point, they should have killed enough monsters to have plenty of gil.

"Oh! Guys! We forgot something!" Yuffie exclaimed, almost jumping with glee. "We don't have to take a boat anymore! The chocobos can run us over the water."

"The chicks can't reach that speed yet,” Cloud stated flatly.

"We could carry them," Yuffie begged. Tifa wasn't surprised that Yuffie was trying to get out of the boat trip, considering how bad her motion sickness was. Cloud wasn't going for it though.

"I'm not leaving Fenrir, and the chocobos can't carry it. End of discussion."

Denzel, Tifa, and a pouting Yuffie each mounted one of the golden birds, and Cloud stayed on his bike. Keeping the Lures active so the flock would follow, they set off to Mideel, where a cargo ship was scheduled to be leaving for Junon and Costa Del Sol.

With the golds, the group made better time passing through the grasslands and rolling hills around Banora than they had anticipated, reaching the jungle that surrounded Mideel around two in the afternoon. Their ship would be leaving in five hours, to arrive at 10 a.m. three days later in the port at Junon. Since they had plenty of time before the ship left, Tifa was able to take the time to appreciate the lush scenery. She hadn’t had much time for sight-seeing the last time she’d been here, what with stressing over a comatose, mako-poisoned Cloud, fighting ULTIMATE WEAPON, and falling into the life stream.

The forest was dense, filled with wide-canopied trees, brushy undergrowth, and flowering vines. Aerith would have loved all the greenery. In this time, Tifa thought, Aerith will live to see it. The superabundance of flora was undoubtedly due to the closeness of the life stream. This whole island was unusually close to it, as they'd seen in Banora's caves, but Mideel took the cake, with the lifestream flowing barely ten feet below the soil. When the town came into view, Tifa straightened eagerly. It didn't matter if golds were faster and smoother than any other type of chocobo; they still had been riding bareback for over three hours and she was beginning to feel sore.

Denzel had been alert the whole time, asking questions and drinking in the answers. While she, Cloud, and Barret had taken the kids to Kalm, Costa Del Sol and Rocket Town, this was Denzel's first time on an island and in a place with such thick foliage. She was sure that he was also thinking of the adventures and mishaps they'd told him of that had taken place in Mideel.

As the group made their way through the side streets of Mideel, they attracted quite a crowd of onlookers, most of whom had probably never seen a gold chocobo before. The growl from Fenrir died to a gentle purr as Cloud pulled to a stop in front of a large, graying, and most of all, old cargo ship. In fact, almost all of the ships at the dock, except for a few small pleasure craft and rowboats, were well advanced in years. Most likely, Shinra had commandeered the newer ones for its idiotic war.

"That's a large flock you kids got there. You plan on boarding all of them?" Tifa refocused on the sailors who were making their way down the ship's gangplank, all in plain t-shirts, jeans and gloves. Why is it, she wondered as she dismounted, that airship hands and sailors all look the same? These guys would have blended in perfectly with Cid's crew on the Shera or Highwind.

"Yes, fifteen chocobos, one motorcycle and four passengers to Costa Del Sol," Cloud answered them briskly.

"That's gonna run you 250 for the passenger tickets and bike, add an additional 450 for the birds.... You're looking at seven hundred gil." The spokesman grinned avariciously, while one of the men behind him radioed to someone still on board the ship to prepare the lower-deck pens.

Cloud just shrugged and handed the gil over while Tifa inwardly winced, doing the budget in her head. 700 for the boat trip; renting a few stables in Costa Del Sol for even a couple days would be about 50,000 gil; getting semipermanent stables at the farm would be about 150,000 gil, though if they could keep the chicks with the hens they could shave off probably 30,000 or 40,000. That was all assuming that inflation was the same as it had been while Shinra's bubble had been at its most expansive. Since this was wartime, it was possible that prices would be even higher.

Maybe they could have someone race their birds at a track. They wouldn't even need a very good jockey out there, because with golds it wouldn't matter. As the owners of the mount, they'd get a hefty cut of the prizes. Or, she thought guiltily, they could take a page from Yuffie's book and place bets on their own birds through the PHS gambling system. No one would know it was them betting, and they could make twice as much gil. If each one of them did that, the group could make about 20,000 gil a race. A high-stakes cup could even get them maybe 80,000. Win a few of those, and expenses would no longer matter. Still, she was uneasy about it, not to mention how winnings that big would draw attention. Best to keep the birds there for as short a time possible, only entering them in the races with big purses, and then get them moved to the chocobo farm before anyone caught on or tried to steal some of the birds.

The fuss and kerfuffle of the chocobos being led up the loading ramp drew Tifa out of her musings. She gave her bird a little push, urging her forward, and followed the flock onto the old ship. There were two shaded holding pens on deck, one half-filled with some yellow chocobos. The sailors put the mothers with chicks in the other open-air pen, and urged the rest down a ramp to two more pens below deck. Once they'd seen the birds settled in happily, and Cloud had made sure that Fenrir was properly secured, the party made their way to their cabins. Instead of one room for the boys and one room for the girls, as the rooms were assigned to them, the group decided Tifa would room with Denzel and Cloud would room with Yuffie. Though Cloud's motion sickness was not as severe as Yuffie's, he still got a little ill at sea, so the idea was that the two could stay together in miserable companionship. How much of the trip Yuffie would actually spend in her room and not hanging over a railing was questionable.

Tifa took Denzel up to deck to watch the departure, and very shortly after the deep throbbing of the engines began rolling through the ship, a green-faced Yuffie came to join them. Piteously, she asked, "Remind me again, why are we taking a boat and not riding the chocobos?"

Tifa putting her hands on her hips and sighed, "Because the chicks and Fenrir can't go over water."

Yuffie just groaned. This was going to be a long trip, Tifa thought. Denzel was watching the water starting to churn behind the ship, and Yuffie was now thoroughly occupied with trying not to throw up, so Tifa took her chance and went to see the other unhappy traveler. Stopping outside his room, she paused, took a deep breath, and knocked.

"Cloud? Are you in?"

"Yeah, come in."

Opening the door, she found her childhood friend laying face down on his bunk. She couldn't help but smile. The bunks weren't that big, but even with the blond stretched out full length, there was plenty of room for her to sit next to him.

"Seasick already?"

"No."

"Don't tell me you're tired."

"No."

"Are you planning on brooding the whole trip?"

"No."

"Then what are you thinking about?"

"Vincent. He would still be locked in the coffin. I talked with our Vincent when we were on the Shera about it, but he didn't give me much of a reply. I'm not sure if we should wake him up."

“Mm. I know what you mean. I thought about asking him too, but I never got around to it." She shook her head. "It's odd thinking about younger versions of ourselves, but I suppose we can just avoid them when we get to Nibelhim. But I do think we should wake Vincent up. There's more to life than hiding in a coffin. And having a second ex-Turk around would be helpful."

Cloud pushed himself up onto his elbow. “Right, but trying to get him to help isn't going to be easy. It’s not likely he's going to believe time travel."

"We could try luring him out with the double promise of killing Hojo and providing information about Lucrecia," she offered.

"What about Sephiroth? Our Vincent knows what Sephiroth is capable of, and he still wants to give him a chance. This younger one would undoubtably get in our way if we have to kill Lucrecia's son. He won't understand, he'll just..." Cloud trailed to a stop, not sure of what words to use.

“So we introduce the two. If anyone can make Vincent understand, it's himself." Tifa shrugged, consigning brooding, cryptic Turks to their own care. Cloud made a face, as though not entirely satisfied with that solution. He didn't say anything else, though, and after a minute Tifa lay down beside him, their shoulders and hips touching.

He was, basically, mostly, her boyfriend. They lived together, planned their activities around each other's, and were raising a pair of kids together. But Tifa couldn't truthfully say that she felt like they were a couple. True, Cloud had been better recently, helping out at the bar and spending more time with them. He'd vanished from her life so many times, though, that she couldn't shake the feeling that he would leave again and this time never reappear. The persistent doubt was frustrating, to her and to him. Their friends had noticed, and would try to help by bothering, teasing, and outright nagging them about it. It didn’t help. It was only times like this, moments where they could just be quiet together, that made her think that maybe she was worrying over nothing.

Unaware of her thoughts, Cloud asked "I wonder what happened to the rest of the flock?"

"Hmm? You mean your other chocobos?"

"Yeah."

Cloud had five other birds, two wonderful yellows, a blue and a black that he refused to sell, and a white he'd recently bought. Why they hadn't traveled with the others was beyond her, but since she was mostly operating on guesswork anyway, she made an attempt.

"Golds are hardier. They would be able to handle the stress better than the others." If the birds had experienced the same type of sickening pressure and turbulence she and her friends had when they were transported through time, the non-golds probably would have had a hard time.

"Maybe, but the chicks aren't that sturdy yet, and it doesn't explain Sleipnir." Cloud rolled over on to his side to look at her.

"Well, she's a silver. You told me yourself, you don't know what she'll be capable of when she grows up. Maybe she's more like the golds."

Cloud shrugged a little, and made a noncommittal noise.

Sighing, Tifa rolled off the bed. "I don't have any answers, Cloud. All we can do is commit to our course. We're finally on our way." Standing, she looked down at her contemplative friend.

"If you need anything, just call me and I'll get it. Take care." With that the raven haired girl slipped out, making her way to her own room. Sleep sounded good. As she got ready for bed, she checked her PHS. It was still fully charged, and there were no calls, no messages. Hoping the others were all okay, she slipped beneath the covers and drifted off into dreams.


 

The Shera was silent and dark except for a faint light coming from one of the many computers on board. It had been a few days since the party had split up on their different tasks, with Vincent staying behind to keep a watchful eye on Shinra's activities. Initially, the reserved gunmen had not been pleased with his assignment, but now he was feeling quite thankful that he had stayed. Staring at the screen, he dialed Cloud's number. Nibelheim would have to wait.


 

Cloud didn't mind traveling. He enjoyed it actually. What he didn't like was the rocking motion of the ship. Since getting the mako in his body, motion sickness hadn't been a problem. Unfortunately, multi-day trips with no respite could bring it back. The ship docked for two days in Junon before the next leg of its trip across the sea to Costa Del Sol. He would rather have gone straight to Costa, but now he was glad for the chance to get off the ship and onto steady ground.

Once they’d disembarked from the ship, the four of them wandered around the wide streets of Junon, the sea breeze carrying the oily, rotten smell of the pollution that plagued Shinra's second stronghold. The pollution wasn't as bad as their own time yet, and if all went well, never would be. Even so, the Electric Company’s presence was everywhere. The harbor was full of Shinra ships, and the streets teemed with its troops. Massive cranes towered over the city, hoisting pieces of the Sister Ray into place. After a few times of barely dodging a Shinra patrol, they realized that perhaps it wasn't a good idea to wonder around the war-time city with their weapons so obvious. They had only just avoided being stopped and questioned several times now.

Cloud growled when he saw yet another squad of troopers proceeding along the street. All he had wanted to do was get off the ship and stretch, not play hide n' seek with Shinra. Was a bit of peace on solid ground too much to ask for?

"This is ridiculous,” Yuffie complained as they made their way down another side alley. "Is there anywhere in this city to just relax?"

"We could go down to old Junon,” Tifa suggested.

Cloud frowned. “Too risky."

Tifa paused and looked at him. "Too risky?" she asked, clearly puzzled.

"We could go, but the guards at the gates probably wouldn’t let us back in,” he explained.

"I guess that’s right. Where can we go…?” Tifa mused. She was cut off by the ringing of Cloud’s PHS. Digging the device out of his pocket, Cloud looked at the screen. The number was Vincent’s. Had something happened? He flipped the phone open and answered. “Yes?”

"Cloud. The Turks will be bombing Kalm in under six hours."

His mind stopped working for a moment. Turks bombing Kalm? Why? Had this happened before, in their timeline?

“Someone is leaking Company intel from there. Their identity is unknown, so Shinra intends to destroy all possible suspects."

Cloud could feel blood rushing to his face. All those lives for one leak? How could Shinra justify that? Then again, they had dropped the sector seven plate just to take out AVALANCHE. All those lives above and below plate, lost for what? To kill a group of six. Never let it be said that Shinra didn't embrace overkill. Emphasis on the kill part.

What could they do now to help Kalm? Could he get there in time to make a difference, or would he only be jeopardizing the mission at hand? He made rapid calculations in his head. At Fenrir’s top speed it took six hours to get to Kalm from Junon. He might just make it.

"I'll try to stop them,” he informed Vincent and snapped the PHS shut. "You guys go on to Costa. I'll meet you there. Yuffie, Denzel, listen to Tifa." With that, he took off at full speed back to the ship to get Fenrir.

"Hey! What's going on?" Yuffie hollered after him. “Call Vincent,” he yelled back before whipping around the corner and out of their line of sight.

Cloud ran. The faster he got to the ship and to Fenrir, the sooner he could get to Kalm. Storefronts and startled pedestrians passed in a blur as he dodged and jumped over anything in his way. He made it to the ship in record time, even by SOLDER standards. Running up the ramp to the storage bay, he undid the rigging on his bike, threw off the ratty tarp and hopped on. The engine started with a satisfying purr. Moments later, the dock workers who had been moving the cargo for offloading in Junon were diving out of the way of a large black motorcycle. Fenrir might have been shrunk down to a manageable size for its rider, but it was still not a small bike.

As he sped down the streets of Junon, Cloud was partly aware of two Shinra Troopers, also on motorcycles, trying to stop him. He ignored them and crashed through the city checkpoint’s gates. Once he had the open road in front of him, he gunned Fenrir and left the troopers in a cloud of khaki dust.


 

Tifa stared at the corner Cloud had disappeared around. What was going on? Worry started a sick churn in her stomach, and she dialed Vincent hurriedly. She only had to wait for one ring before the gunman answered.

“Yes?”

"What did you tell Cloud?"

"I told him the Turks intend to bomb Kalm."

"What?! But why?" Bomb Kalm? That didn't make sense.

"As I told him, there is someone leaking Company intel from there. Their identity is unknown, so Shinra intends to destroy all possible suspects."

"Did this happen before?" They hadn't been in the past for very long and had only done mundane things. They couldn't have triggered this, right?

“It did.”

"I see. Thank you." She put her PHS away and turned to the remaining two. She said lightly, “Looks like we’re on our own for a bit."

"But wait, what's going on? Why'd Cloud leave in such a rush?" a confused Yuffie asked, while Denzel stood next to her looking lost.

Tifa shook her head. Better not to hold this conversation in the middle of a Junon street. She noticed an elderly lady walking by with a large canvas bag and got an idea. "Let’s see if we can hide your weapons. That way we won't have to worry so much about the patrols." Well, assuming Cloud didn't make too much of a commotion when retrieving Fenrir. If he had and they were recognized as his traveling companions…. That would make life just that much more difficult, and she’d deal with it when the time came.

After some looking around, Conformer sat nestled in an over-sized cloth shopping bag and Denzel's Enhance sword was wrapped up in a large black trash bag. Both were easy to get out, if need be, but no longer attracted attention. With the weapons taken care of they were finally able to walk down the long straight streets without being stopped for questioning. Denzel and Tifa window-shopped, while Yuffie darted into and out the stores, full of restless energy. Tifa eyed the younger girl suspiciously. She would not put it past Yuffie to be shoplifting. After the fifth time, Yuffie caught her eye and grinned impishly, raising her empty hands. “I swear I’m not doing anything. I know we don’t wanna attract attention.” They passed a bar, relatively busy for early afternoon, and Tifa was surprised by the sudden heat of tears behind her eyes. She blinked them away, wishing she could do the same for the abrupt, deep pang of homesickness for Seventh Heaven.

Denzel stepped up beside her and gave a her hand a quick squeeze before dropping it again. Tifa looked at him, surprised by the gesture. He blushed and refused to meet her eyes, stepping away, looking out to sea. Yuffie, unaware, sighed obnoxiously. “Just when I was finally old enough to go into bars, this happens. I am never going to get a legal drink.”

It was late afternoon when they went back to the ship. Tifa grimaced as they approached, seeing the cluster of Shinra security personnel aboard and on the dock. Apparently Cloud had made a commotion leaving. She gritted her teeth, seeing one of the deck hands spot them and point them out. “Hey, you!" the trooper beside him called. “Come here.”

Surreptitiously, she flexed her hands. “Yes?" she asked, as sweetly as she could manage, stopping in front of them.

The trooper looked them over and turned to the deck hand. "You sure this is them? They’re just a bunch of kids.”

"So was the boy that nearly ran us over,” the man replied with a growl.

Tifa inwardly winced. Glancing over she noticed that Denzel and Yuffie were both about to speak up, so she cut in before they could. "Sorry about him, he can be a bit impulsive sometimes.” She smiled radiantly, remembering how little trouble she’d ever gotten into as a girl. It wasn’t that she’d avoided trouble. It was just that she’d always seemed responsible for her age, and she was pretty, and the mayor’s daughter. The last advantage didn’t matter here, but she figured she could still count on the first two. “If you don't mind, we’re going to head back to our bunks." She stepped quickly past them, counting internally. One… two… three… four…

“I apologize, little miss, but we need to ask you some questions,” the trooper said, his boots thunking heavily on the dock as he took a few steps towards them.

Tifa whispered, her voice barely more than breath, counting on Yuffie’s sharp ears to catch it. “Get the chocobos.” She turned to face the Shinra trooper. She shrugged and gestured to Yuffie and Denzel. “Those two are pretty tired, so they’re heading to their bunks.” Yuffie caught on right away, yawning hugely and dragging a confused Denzel off by one arm. “I’ll answer your questions." Crossing her arms, she looked up at the unfortunate man. He had no idea who he was dealing with.


 

Yuffie crept along the ship’s corridor, listening carefully for sounds that would suggest that someone was approaching. She glanced back at Denzel and asked, "You have dream powder in your pack, right?" They had stopped by their rooms to collect their belongings, knocking out the two guards that had been stationed there, before going to get the birds. Once the boy nodded, she smiled. Denzel's first real mission, and it was a stealth one. Score!

"Get it out, alright? There’ll probably be a guard on the chocobos, and since they’re being kept in two different places, we don't want an alarm to go off until we’re good and ready for it." Hopefully it wouldn't be raised until they were riding off into the sunset. A thought occurred to her, and she stopped and faced the boy, pulling at the laces of her shoes. “Pro tip: breathe quietly. And take off your shoes, and put ‘em in your pack. This ship’s full of metal, and if you’re nervous and noisy, the noise’ll bounce all over the place.” She stowed her own shoes, waited for him to finish shoving his sneakers away, then went on, listening to Denzel’s suddenly off-kilter breath behind her. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything about that. But the kid had to learn, and it was good advice.

Since they would be leaving by way of the main deck, they went first to the lower levels where most of the birds were kept. Carefully maneuvering between the shipping crates, the pair came into view of the pens. True to her predictions, there were two troopers standing guard. Inwardly, Yuffie scoffed. Shinra was so predictable. Not to mention, they were really underestimating her. This was going to be too easy.

Holding her hand out for the dream powder, she climbed a nearby crate, planting her stockinged feet on the hinges when possible and hauling herself up with arm strength when not. Once on top, she took aim.

"Hey, three eyes! Over here!" she yelled at the troopers. They turned at the noise but never saw her. Instead, they ended up with facefuls of shimmering, rainbow colored dust and dropped ungracefully to the floor. "Ha! Night, losers!" Yuffie cackled, jumping off the crate on the far side. She was working the pen’s gate latch when Denzel came up behind her.

"Alright,” he said, licking his lips and wiping his palms on his shorts. She noticed how he avoided looking at the unconscious men. It puzzled her a little. Denzel’d already seen plenty of terrible stuff; why would knocking somebody out painlessly bother him? She got the latch open and took a second to study his face. It was just nerves, she decided. He met her gaze steadily and asked, “Next we get the chicks and their moms, right?"

"Right. They'll also have guards, so here’s the plan. You hop up on Freyr, since he's the leader of the flock and all.” She pointed to the older male whose feathers were starting to turn a little white. "The rest should follow him. Take them over to the ramp that leads to the main deck and keep them there until I give you the signal. Got it?"

Denzel tilted his head, squinching up his eyebrows. "What's the signal, and what am I suppose to do after I get it?"

"Huh? Oh, well, you'll know the signal when you hear it. As for what to do, just run to the off ramp, pick up Tifa, and we're out of here."

“Okay.” Denzel nodded, making his way over to Freyr. He grabbed a fistful of feathers and tried to mount, but the bird was just too tall for him to do it without stirrups or a mounting block. Freyr turned his head and watched the kid peaceably. The ninja, trying to stifle giggles, decided to step in.

"Don't ride bareback often, do you?"

Denzel, blushing through his freckles, crossed his arms and frowned. "No."

Yuffie pressed her lips together to keep the laughter inside. The kid was so independent. With a quick motion of her hand, she told the bird to lay down. Cloud might have an odd taste in naming them, but he was a skilled handler and trainer. His birds could do a lot more than just run. A good thing too, because she could recall off the top of her head at least seven times the birds’ different commands had come in handy. Like that one time she’d borrowed one to go treasure hunting and had run into a whole pride of coerls. One of the big cats had managed to completely freeze her lower legs, and if the chocobo hadn’t known how to lie down on command so she could crawl onto its back and get out of there, she probably would’ve been eaten. Of course she had gone back later with an Ifrit summon and gotten revenge on the felines as well as picking up the materia she had originally gone to get.

Once Denzel was on the bird’s back, it stood up, the brunette clutching its neck feathers. He still looked a little uncomfortable, but oh well. Yuffie led the group to the ramp. Nodding once for Denzel to wait at the bottom, she made her way above deck. She scanned the scene. It looked like the deck hands were mostly clustered up toward the front of the ship, where the troopers on the dock were presumably still dealing with Tifa. She spotted two more troopers by the deck pens. One was feeding some greens to the hens, and the other was leaning on the rail of the pen talking to someone out of sight, presumably someone sitting in the pen playing with the chicks. She understood the impulse - chocobo chicks were just too cute. Dammit. Why couldn't these guys just stand guard like they were supposed to? Yuffie always hated seeing her enemies act like nice, decent people. Some people thought of her as heartless, because she always put her own interests first. That wasn’t true. She’d just learned, at an early age, that you couldn’t let empathy get in the way of bigger goals. That didn’t mean that it was easy to do so. She padded forward, noiseless, a tiny slip of shadow, until she could make out the conversation.

“Where’d you learn so much about chocobos, anyway?”

"My first job was working at the Chocobo Farm back near Kalm. I've always loved these birds."

"I've ridden them a couple times,” the leaning trooper offered. “When I was a kid my family went on vacation once to Costa Del Sol and we got to ride a bunch of blues along the beach."

“What's the deal with all the different colors?” the trooper with the greens asked the one in the pen. He put his arms up on the rail, momentarily pausing his feeding. One of the hens in front of him, Skaui, Yuffie thought, warked and clicked her beak unhappily. He ignored her, until she curved her neck and snapped at his hand. He jerked it back, startled, and hurriedly pulled out another batch of greens. Skaui was always a brat, and never more than when she had a chick.

"Well, blues are powerful swimmers and can cross rivers; greens are sure-footed, with good endurance, making them great for the mountains. Blacks are a mix of the two, so they can do both, and from what I've heard reds can cast some spells, though I've never seen one do it."

"What about these? Are they shiny yellows, or what? That one’s got some black feathers mixed in, does that mean anything?”

Yuffie bristled. Shiny yellows? Was that guy dense? Before she could stop herself, she popped out of hiding, full of offended pride. "Yellows? Do they look like yellows to you? These are GOLDS!" she shouted. "And for your information, they’re the best birds in the world.” That wasn't an empty boast either. These birds had proven themselves time and time again.

The two troopers outside the pen whirled to face her, while the third struggled to his feet, the startled chicks tumbling from his lap. They let out panicked little cries as they bounced onto the deck. Goodnatured Frigg was quick to try and calm the alarmed babies, kweh-ing softly to them and lowering her wings to shelter them. Skaui had a different reaction. She puffed herself up, put her head down and charged, slamming the unlucky trooper into the pen wall. She whirled, aiming a quick strike at the trooper who’d been leaning on the rail. Her beak clanged against his helmet, denting it and knocking him to the floor. In the meantime the last trooper had managed to unsling and aim his standard issue rifle, but too late. With a swift back-flipping kick Yuffie knocked it askew, right into Skaui’s range. The gold and black hen immediately clamped onto it with her beak. They played tug-of-war for a few moments until Skaui wrenched it away with a vicious yank, pulling him off-balance. Before the hapless trooper could regain his footing, Yuffie swung Conformer upward, hitting the back of the man’s neck, just under his helmet, with the flat side of the shuriken. He wobbled and fell on his face. The small girl held the throwing star briefly in front of his face, checking his breath, to confirm that he was out cold but not dead.

One of the the things the group had decided was to try and keep the death rate to a minimum. Firstly, because they didn't want to kill someone who would be important later, and secondly, they were trying to save lives, not kill everything in their path. The killing part was for a select few department fat heads anyway. Some of the less seasoned members (Reeve, Shera, the kids nodding in agreement) had also raised the objection that most Shinra forces were just regular people, and didn’t deserve to die. There had been significant glances at Cloud, the former trooper. The rest hadn’t bothered to disillusion them. Sure, they weren’t evil. They were still combatants, and they’d signed up knowing their life would be on the line. It wasn’t worth arguing about when the other reasons were enough to decide the issue.

The trooper who’d been sent into the wall was back on his feet, wheezing. His rifle had been knocked out of his grip, and was now under the feet of the milling chocobos, so he vaulted the pen and came at Yuffie with his baton, only to Freeze mid-charge, ice crackling across his skin. Yuffie grinned. Leviathan in the sea, she loved materia. With a Contain materia slotted into Conformer and her quick casting skills, there wasn't much she had to worry about. The last trooper was lying groaning on the floor, probably concussed from the force of Skaui’s little love tap. Rather than making that headache any worse for him, she tossed a little dream powder in his face. She began going through the three trooper's pockets, winking saucily at the Frozen trooper as she slipped her hand into his trouser pockets. His expression changed subtly as she did (subtle changes were really all someone under a Stop spell could manage), going from angry to nonplussed to grossed-out. Yuffie belatedly remembered that she was no longer a devastatingly hot eighteen-year-old, and yanked her hand abruptly out of his pocket, clutching a handful of gil. Somehow, she couldn’t quite bring herself to meet his eyes again, and instead counted the gil. Combined with what she’d grabbed from the other guards she had seven potions, 749 gil, one cough drop, two grenades and some gysahl greens.

The black-haired girl drew her Conformer and, whirling, threw it so it landed in front of the open deck ramp, one of the five points embedded in the deck planking. That took care of signaling Denzel. She turned toward the pen and eyed Skaui warily. The hen was still fluffed up and hissing as she paced back and forth along the railing, her long neck stretching toward the downed troopers. The ninja stretched out her hand and offered the greens to the agitated hen. Skaui snatched them up, swallowing them all in one go, before hissing one more time, in the manner of an action star tossing off a last one-liner. Yuffie rolled her eyes. What a brat. “Thanks for the help, but settle down. We really need to get going."

She made sure the hen saw her hand was empty before reaching to pat her black-flecked neck. Skaui nibbled at her shoulder, hard enough to hurt a little, but not enough to damage, and her feathers settled back into place. Satisfied the hen wasn't going to attack her, she opened the gate and scooped up the two gold chicks. She walked slowly to where Denzel and the birds were pouring out of the hold, keeping a close eye on Skaui behind her. It wouldn’t be good if the hen decided that Yuffie was running off with her baby. The hen paced close behind, but showed no further signs of aggression. (Towards Yuffie, at least. Her large, heavy-clawed foot knocked into a trooper’s gut as she stepped over him, and Yuffie was certain that wasn’t an accident.) Frigg walked along placidly, completely unruffled by all the drama.

Yuffie stopped in front of Freyr, and the old patriarch stopped too. She gently handed the chicks up to Denzel, trading them for Conformer, which she slung across her back. "Here, take these two. When we meet up with Tifa, you can pass her one. I'm gonna take Sleipnir with me." She stooped and picked up the little silver chick. "Oh yeah, Denzel, one more thing. Watch out for the hen with the black feathers: she's a total brat."

Warning delivered, she vaulted up onto Frigg's back, urging the hen towards the ramp that would lead them off the ship. Time to pull a disappearing act.

Chapter Text

Another boat trip; Plots against ladies and pigs;
Even Cid was not born knowing how to fly; The appearance of the infamous pizza;
Please sign your soul away on the dotted line; Fresher air

 

"Best of luck to ye, lads and lasses!" Cait Sith's cheery voice called out behind them as Barret led his group towards Mideel. It was a hike, but at least he and Cid were used to long treks, and when Marlene got tired, he could carry her. Shera bore up pretty well too, lagging sometimes but never whining. It was a little past four p.m. when they reached the town. They were planning on taking the last ferry of the day, leaving at six that evening. Since they had time to kill, they wandered around the shopping district. Barret and Cid were more interested in the practical shops selling weapons, armor and items, while Shera and Marlene went into all the shops that catered to tourists visiting the hot springs. Barret found a damn cool ammo canister in the shape of a skull, which Cid told him he didn't need. Cid refused to buy Shera a box of "Souvenir Hot Spring Health Drinks!!", and she shot down Cid when he wanted to buy a new lance.

"It's weaker than the one you've got, Cid!"

"It ain't about the fuckin' stats, it's about owning it! Aside from flying, spears are my goddamn life's goddamn passion!"

"...."

"I mean, aside from you and flyin'."

"...You still aren't gonna get that lance, mister."

About a quarter after five, Barret heard a commotion coming from the docks, so he and Cid went to check it out. By the time they got there though, the crowd was already dispersing.

"Hey. What was all the damn fuss about?" Cid asked a passing dockhand.

"Huh? Oh, just some group that brought a whole flock of chocobos through. Loaded them up on that cargo ship heading for Junon and Costa Del Sol. Looked like they was moving a whole stable! Fine looking birds, probably headed for the races. If that's the case, they'll have their work cut out for 'em. Competition is stiff this season! There's a couple of black chocobos, clutched by the grand champion from 4 years back, and that bloodline's always been -" The man looked ready to keep going for hours. Cid cut him off with a curt "Thanks, just wanted to know about the gorram noise."

Headed back to Marlene and Shera, Barret wondered for a moment if it had been Cloud's group, but dismissed the idea. That might have been the ship they was planning on, but they were only bringing three birds.

Despite the many temptations in the shops, they only ended up buying two inexpensive items. A bag of coconut candy for Marlene, and a newspaper. The paper was a Shinra propaganda rag, for the most part. It trumpeted how Shinra was triumphing over the barbarians of Wutai, and featured profile articles about the top SOLDIERs. Sephiroth's article was on the front page, under the bold heading 'A HERO FOR THE AGES'.

"Hero, my ass. That ratfucking bast-" Before Cid could say any more, Barret cuffed the blonde on his head with his regular arm. "Hey! Oww... What the hell was that for, ya nitwit?" Cid rubbed the back of his head, glaring irritably.

"I told you before, watch your language 'round Marlene," Barret growled.

"Well, just remind me next time. Don't go cracking my skull!" Cid glared daggers at the taller teen.

"I barely smacked ya. Now quit your complaining and hurry up." Barret turning his back on Cid, took Marlene's hand in his own, and the two made their way up onto the ferry, looking to all the world like the most mismatched pair of siblings in history. Fair little Marlene, munching candy happily, wore a sleeveless white dress with a pink floral print, and her long brown hair was braided and bound by a pink ribbon. Barret stood next to her, dark skinned and towering, a veritable wall of muscle wearing heavy work boots, dark pants, and an open black vest over a grey tank top. His left arm was engraved with a stylized flaming skull tattoo, while his lower right arm was made of gleaming silver metal.

Cid and Shera, coming up the ferry behind them, looked a lot more like a typical tourist couple. Cid's blue tee, dark green pants, and rusty jacket were not an unusual look for a teenage boy, and Shera's yellow turtleneck and and blue jeans were perfectly normal. The odder parts of their usual outfits, Cid's goggles and leather flight gloves and Shera's labcoat, were packed away for now.

As the ferry pulled out of port, Marlene ran to the rail to watch. Cid jerked his head at Shera, who nodded and went to join the little girl. Barret started to head over as well, but Cid grabbed his arm to halt him. "I got somethin' to talk to ya about."

Barret tilted his head. "What's up?"

"Not here, ya dimwit, somewhere private."

Barret grudgingly followed the shorter teen to a secluded corner of the boat.

"Alright, what's all this lurkin' in shadows about?" Barret pressed.

"I know you want to take out Scar-" Cid paused and rephrased, "the lady first, but I got an idea 'bout the pig. Problem is the damn replacement's goin' to Wutai soon, and won't be coming back."

"Shit, Cid. Stop trying to be cryptic - ain't no one going be spyin' on us here. This ain’t a Shinra ship, and we're just a bunch of kids, remember?" Barret had run an underground terrorist group and knew well how loose lips could sink ships, but damn, Cid was being paranoid.

"Fine, ass. I was saying I know who should replace Palmer. She'll be going on a mission soon that Shinra fucked up the intel on, and she'll be shot down. So instead of goin' after Scarlet, first we get rid of Lardass and make sure Darill gets promoted to department head."

Barret shook his head. “No. Scarlet first. Damn broad's been killin' too many people for too long."

"And what ever shitbag replaces the hag will keep on killin', comes with the job. Remember, we're suppose to find fuckin' moral people to replace 'em, and unless already you got one lined up, we'll just have to kill the next bastard too."

Damn. Cid had a point. After they took out Scarlet, she would be replaced and security would be even tighter than it was now. Barret slammed his bionic hand against the wall, so frustrated that he didn't even register the dent he left. Who the hell could they trust to be head of the Weapons Department? Jessie, maybe. The girl had an aptitude for that stuff, and a good head on her shoulders. But right now, she'd still be a kid with no know how. Same went for Wedge and Biggs. He felt like shooting his gun arm off, but that for sure would attract unwanted attention, and yellin' was out for the same reason. He settled for cursing a blue streak under his breath.

Cid leaned up against the wall, grinning. "What was it you said earlier? Oh yeah, watch your language." He affected a mincing, nannyish accent.

Barret snorted loudly. "Ain't no kids around right now.”

"'Cept us." Cid cupped his hands around his cigarette and lit up, ignoring the ‘No Smoking’ sign posted on the wall near his head.

"Ya know what I mean," Barret huffed. "Alright. So you got a plan or something, to get this gal in charge?"

"The beginnings of one." Cid took a long pull, blowing out a choking cloud of foul smelling smoke. "But you ain't gonna like it."

Barret looked at him skeptically.

"First step, we join Shinra."

Barret exploded. "Hell no!! You crazy? I ain't gonna be caught dead working for those planet killin' fuckers!”

"Shit, man, keep your voice down." Cid made urgent shushing motions. "It won't be a permanent thing. We sign up with the Air and Space department, you as a mechanic since you know your way around heavy machinery, Shera as an engineer, that being her job an' all, and I'll sign up as a pilot. We get in, raise support for the notion with the department staff, and put Darill in the spotlight and keep her from goin' on that mission. Then when we get rid of that useless hedgehog pie Palmer, Darill will be recommended, and if it looks like some other useless fuck is gonna get the spot, we'll just arrange an incident."

"What's so special 'bout this lady, that you want her in?"

"She's the best fucking pilot Shinra has right now, she's got courage and good sense, an' more than that, she's got a heart. And it was ruttin' Shinra's fault that she died. Shitbrains sent her into a area they said was clear to do a supply drop, but it turned out the meatheads gave her the wrong rutting coordinates. The whole fuckin' airship and her whole fuckin' crew, shot down."

Barret was surprised at Cid praising someone so heavily, saying she was the best pilot the company had. "Were you in love with her, or somethin'?"

Cid gave him an unimpressed look. "That's your fuckin' takeaway?" The pilot shook his head and laughed ruefully. “If she’d’ve offered, I’d have gone for it, but no. No, she was the one who taught me to fly anything bigger'n a crop duster."

Somehow, Barret had never thought about who'd taught Cid to fly. It seemed like the man had probably been born knowing. As he thought about the timeline, though, he spotted a big flaw in the plan.

"Seems like you got a problem there, Cid. In case you forgot, you work for Shinra as a pilot right now."

"Fuck.... Yeah, I'd be what? Twenty eight, twenty nine? Shit, ya know, this is the year the Highwind was built. I designed that ship, named it, was its first captain… Bet ya I'll be as arrogant as they come. No way would I let some snot-nosed kid get away with looking like me and using my name. Humph, can’t do too much ‘bout the looks. Guess I'll be needin' a new name, though.” Cid scratched the back of his head.

"A new name, huh? How about Cid Foul or Cid Cusswind, Cid Smoker, Cid Tea, Cid -"

"Goddamn it! Will you shaddup, I'm tryin' to think."

Barret smilled, rolling his shoulders. "Just tryin' to help."

"Well, you ain't.... How 'bout Haze, Cid Haze?"

"It's your name, not mine."

"What happened to tryin' to help?"

"You told me not to." Barret's smile got even bigger as Cid 'Haze' stubbed out his cigarette and headed back to the girls, swearing under his breath.

They reached the port at around nine that night, with a hazy half moon drifting among the scattered clouds. The diminishing rumble of the motors roused Barret from his doze, and he looked down at his little girl, curled up sleepily next to him. Guilt boiled in his gut as he thought over all the times he’d left her behind. Every time he’d done it, he’d justified it as being for her sake - fighting Shinra, saving the planet, developing the oil fields, all of it so she could have a better world - but none of it had been as important to him as his little treasure. Despite their situation, he was glad to have her along with him, even if he’d never wanted it under these circumstances.

Cid and Shera were standing by a window, silhouetted against the lights of small port town behind them. Shera turned and came toward them, saying “Barret?” softly. When she saw he was awake already, she changed course slightly and bent to shake his daughter’s shoulder. "Marlene, sweetheart, it’s time to wake up."

"Hmm?" Marlene sat up slowly, rubbing her brown eyes. "Are we there yet?"

"Yeah, we are,” Barret answered. It was only a small leg of their trip over with, but he decided they’d come far enough that day. They got off the ferry and made their way over to an inn, checked in, and headed for their rooms. In the morning, they’d make their way to Fort Condor and see about getting some sort of transport to Midgar.

 


 

Shera, Cid, and Marlene sat around a small wooden table in a corner of the inn’s common room, eating luchile nut muffins and waiting for Barret to come back with a ride to Fort Condor. Shera watched the morning shadows moving across the floor, and mused over their strategy. Cid had told her about his plan last night, while they were lying in bed together, and she’d found a flaw that she was surprised Barret had missed. What to do with Marlene? Shinra’s main airfield wasn’t in Midgar, but miles away, in the Waste. They couldn’t leave her in the city, alone. The last times she’d been left behind, a chunk of city had been dropped on her head, or someone had tried kidnapping her. No, they’d have to have her with them at the airfield.

The trouble was, security at the airfield was bound to be intense. Even when Shera had first been sent to Rocket Town, Shinra’s paranoia had seemed almost overwhelming, and surely it was worse during wartime. They had identifying documents, helpfully fabricated by Vincent. But Cid’s last name debacle had effectively thrown a wrench into the works. Shera had spent most of the early morning, while the others packed, trying to change Cid’s and Marlene’s last names on the paperwork and IDs. The finished result wasn’t perfect, but after folding the documents several times, putting them in a sealed plastic bag with a few pinpricks in it, and running the bag through water, the papers were still viable and the evidence of the tampering was almost completely erased.

The last of the current problems was how to convince Shinra to allow Marlene on base. They had changed the little girl’s last name to match Shera’s and the two would pretend to be sisters. Their parents had died, so with no other family, it was up to Shera to look after her little sibling. Marlene knew how to behave around hangars and garages, and Shera was confident that if she played her cards right, she could get the girl in with her.

"Alright, y’all,” Barret said, stomping up to the table, “I got a truck that'll take us to Condor, so grab your bags and follow me." He took a luchile nut muffin off Cid's plate, stooped to gather his and Marlene's packs from the floor, then headed back out through the inn’s doors.

"Hey!" Cid said, sounding aggrieved. He got up, grabbed his bag and yelled after the larger teen, "Dumbass, ya just stole my last muffin."

Shera shared a mirthful glance with Marlene. She tried to restrain her laughter, and might have succeeded but for Cid’s complete lack of self-awareness as he grabbed Shera's last muffin, complete with complaining about having to worry about thieves even when Yuffie wasn't around. Cid, not seeing the irony between his comment and his actions, grumped out to the waiting truck.

Shera took hold of her own bag and said, as boldly as she could manage, “Guess it’s time." The truck waiting outside was an old rattle-bang, already half full with supplies. Its grey-haired driver tipped his cap to Shera and Marlene. Barret was already standing in the truckbed. Cid tossed his bag into the bed, nearly hitting the other teen. "Shera, yours next." He took it and threw it with considerable force at Barret, who grinned and caught it one-handed.

"Right, you first." Barret reached down for Shera’s hand and hauled her into the truck. After she found her footing , she settled down among some canvas bags. Cid passed Marlene up to Barret, with much more care than the bags earlier, and she found a spot across from Shera. Barret sat down with his back against the cab with his legs stretched out, so that when Cid jumped up the only spot left was atop some wooden boxes, just barely short enough that Cid wouldn't have to worry about falling out.

The ride to Fort Condor was uneventful, other than the sometimes colorful conversation. Despite Marlene’s excitement, the girl was lulled to sleep by the rumble of the engine and snoozed most of the trip. When they arrived, Cid and Shera went and negotiated (well, mostly argued) with a used car dealer, and by late afternoon they were on their way to Midgar in an elderly jeep. It was a three and a half day drive to the city. Every evening, they camped out under the stars. Shera was a bit nervous at first, worried of waking up to find monsters ransacking the tents, but all went well. On the fourth day, they began to see a green-grey smudge on the grassy horizon, growing more oppressive as they drew closer. A dark blot in the center grew into paralyzingly familiar shapes - the high walls, the skeletal scaffolding, the plumes of green-tinged smoke from the reactors of Midgar as-it-had-been. And looming over all, Shinra Company Headquarters, like some strange alien beast in its industrial nest. Seeing the metropolis still standing was what really brought home to Shera the gravity of their situation. Here was the beginning and ending of everything, the heart of the monolithic company they were out to change.

"Well, there she is. City of hopes and dreams… and big fat lies.” Cid spat into the dirt.

"It’s just one big tick sucking out the lifeblood of the planet,” Barret added, glowering.

"Yer gonna have to watch yerself sayin’ that stuff. Shinra's gonna be as antsy as a paranoid goblin with a mutated zolem as its neighbor right now. Besides, all that shit’s Red’s problem. Finding someone with a lick of morals is ours.” Cid scratched his neck. "Well, enough starin' like a bunch of idiot lollygaggers, let’s get down there and shake things up."

They dropped off their jeep in a chain linked car lot, before heading to a train station that would take them up to the plate. Marlene held tight to her father’s hand, her face a strange mixture of emotions. She’d grown up in the slums, after all. This was something of a homecoming for her.

Shinra’s recruitment/employment building was easy to find. Well, of course it was, it was part of the industrial complex surrounding the base of the Company’s towering Headquarters. They spoke to the secretary at the front desk, who directed them down a grey hall to a grey door with a grey and white plaque saying ‘Air & Space Recruitment’. Behind the grey door was a grey hall filled with grey chairs. At the far end of the room was a grey young man sitting behind a grey desk. The young man was filling out paperwork, and when he heard them enter, he looked up with a smile that wasn’t grey at all. Shera could see why, despite his clerky drabness, he’d been placed at a recruiting desk - that smile lit up the room.

"Welcome! You’re interested in the Air & Space program?” They nodded confirmation, and his smile grew. “Are you interested in our three-year schooling program, or are you looking for immediate employment?" (Shinra had a 'higher education' program that promised three years schooling and then six years guaranteed employment. What the brochures didn’t mention was that the ‘guaranteed employment’ was probably going to be as a trooper in Shinra’s militia. After graduation, you were allowed to list your preferences of what Shinra branch you’d like to join, but space was limited. Only those with excellent grades would be accepted into their chosen line of work. Everyone else went to the army. Shera had come up through that system, and she was so glad her good study habits had kept her from an ignominious fate as a grunt.)

"Just the job, thanks,” Cid grunted.

“Okay, then do any of you have experience flying?"

“Yeah, a little,” Cid said in a lazy drawl. Shera could hardly keep herself from laughing. She could see he was having the same problem. The attendant gave them an odd look, but his smile didn’t waver. “How about you two?” he asked, gesturing towards her and Barret.

Shera shook her head. "I'm interested in becoming an engineer." At this point in history, she would have been an assistant in a Junon-based Shinra offshoot, streamlining and improving missile designs. Flight, let alone space travel, hadn’t even entered her mind yet.

Barret shook his head too. "Nah, I leave that shit to fly-boy here. I just repair what he breaks."

"Fuck, that dent wasn't my fault and ya damn well know it.” Cid muttered something uncomplimentary about motorcycles and reckless driving under his breath before going silent.

The attendant coughed and asked, “So, you’re interested in becoming a mechanic, then?"

"Yeah, that would work."

"Well then, if I could have you fill out these forms. Then once you’ve taken a test to check your knowledge of your chosen occupation, we’ll assess your results, and once you pass, you can start immediately. If you don’t, our education program would happily take you.” He handed them each a stack of forms, then pointed towards the tables along the left side of the hall. "Take a seat anywhere, and bring those back when you’re done."

They sat down at a folding table, pulling up grey, stiff-backed chairs. Shinra recruiting posters with eye-catching fonts shouted down at them from the walls. Marlene wandered around, looking at them, and Shera watched her for a moment. “Have you got what it takes? Join the Shinra!” “THIS is Where It Happens! Shinra City Planning” “Design the Future With Shinra!” Shera scooted her chair around to avoid the cat-eyed glare of a SOLDIER flyer featuring Sephiroth.

The paperwork was pretty standard stuff, but nearly half of the information she put down was false. Once again, Vincent's skills came in handy. After their change of plans they’d contacted the ex-turk, and now they all had fake pasts that were not only convincing (and, according to Vincent, would satisfy even a Turk investigation once he was through), but easy enough to remember. Falling out of character was one of their biggest worries.

Cid 'Haze' was a fifteen-year-old flying prodigy, from a small self-sufficient farm north of Brarrow, the handful of houses that would one day form the core of Rocket Town. At home, he used to do all sorts of tricks with the old crop dusters. It ran the farm’s fuel costs up, so his dad kicked him out, saying if he wanted to fly so damn much he should find a job where he got paid for it.

Barret 'Walls' was fifteen, (more like fourteen, Shera thought) and came from a small settlement across the bay from Brarrow, where he worked with his dad as a mechanic. He'd met Cid when he flew across the bay once, and they became unlikely friends, so when Cid decided to come to Shinra, Barret followed to make more money than was possible out in the boonies.

Shera, fifteen (alright, she was also probably fourteen) and Marlene, ten, were from the same town as Barret. Shera was an orphan, the smartest kid in the village, Cid’s girlfriend, and being pressured by the neighborhood to take over the teacher’s job when he retired next year. Her dreams were bigger than a dusty one-room schoolhouse, so she’d come along as well, bringing her kid sister with her.

They turned the forms back in, and the clerk gave them directions to the testing area, while a printer spat out three slips of paper. The clerk handed them over; they were covered in not-quite-random lines of numerals and letters, printed with greyish ink on greyish paper. They made their way down the long grey hallways, and stopped at a recessed door with a grey and white plaque saying ‘Examination Room’. A middle-aged man sat at a desk beside it. Shockingly to Shera’s now-grey-accustomed eyes, the desk was a plain, varnished brown. "Dockets for your tests, please." The man’s voice was a drone of poorly concealed boredom.

The man glanced at the papers they handed over, then opened a drawer and pulled out a different packet of papers for the three of them. As he handed them over, he stated that no electronics were allowed in the room while they were testing, and if they could please leave them out here in one of the little tubs, he would make sure no harm came to said devices. Shera fidgeted a little as she set hers in the plastic bin. The phone, sleek and silver, was decidedly unlike the current PHS models, but the bored clerk’s eyes didn’t even flicker. In a monotone, he said that Cid would be taking a flight simulator test after the written exam, and Marlene was instructed to wait on one of the benches in the hall. At least, Shera thought relievedly, Marlene would be able to keep an eye on their PHSes, in case a more inquisitive Shinra employee happened by. The girl hopped up on the bench, dangling her feet, and waved cheerfully to them as they entered the room where their plan would either get off the ground… or fail to launch.


 

“Shit, I ain't had to take a test since I can't fuckin’ remember when,” Barret groused.

Cid threw a pillow at him. “Watch yer language,” he reminded with a grin.

“Don’t you go telling me what to do, whitey. And stop acting like a darn kid, throwing pillows.” He threw the pillow back at Cid, completely negating what he’d just said, and scowled as the blond caught it. Marlene giggled, hugging her own dingy pillow to her chest.

They’d finished their test several hours ago, and were waiting out the processing of their scores (and the checking of their backgrounds) at a seedy hotel below the plate. In three days, Shinra would contact them with news. If their cover stories didn’t hold, they might know even sooner, when Shinra enforcers came to arrest them as spies. In the meantime, they had three days to fill. Visiting Aerith was out - she was under Turk supervision. So was looking for rumors about AVALANCHE. None of them knew when the terrorist cell had come into existence, and they couldn’t risk the sorts of wrong attention such a search might bring down on them.

They ended up going to the train graveyard. It would be a relatively secluded place for Marlene to work some more with her materia. Barret swore up and down that it wouldn’t come to that, but his daughter was as stubborn as he was, and twice as persuasive. She was determined to continue her spell casting lessons.

Cid hadn’t gone below the plate much while he worked for Shinra, only a few *ahem* short visits, but the environment around him was both familiar and strange. Unbuilt, and undecayed. The plate above was only half finished, and rays of sunshine lanced down, bouncing off metal struts. The air was cleaner than it had been. There were still houses left from the villages that had been here before Shinra took over - old brick houses with mullioned windows and wooden gates. Some even still had dying vines crawling up the sides, or straggly brown gardens.

Most of the structures, though, were new, and built of cast-off supplies from the construction above. Shinra’s propaganda had gone overboard on promoting Midgar, and more people had flocked to the place than Shinra was capable of employing or housing in its city of the future. All the same, Cid thought, frowning around his cigarette, people looked pretty happy still, making their livings where and how they could. The sound of industrious carpentry echoed around them, bouncing off the roof of the world. The markets, which would eventually merge into the infamous Wall Market, were full of shouting buyers and sellers. Ragged, barefoot kids ran by. Marlene watched them closely. So did Cid - they didn’t need any of those brats nicking a PHS or wallet from them.

One change they should’ve figured on, but didn’t, was the pitiful state of the train graveyard. Well, if ten train cars and two engines lined up in three neat rows counted as a graveyard. Cid took the cigarette from his mouth. “I thought ya said this place was big?” Barret was staring dumbstruck at the puny showing.

“I suppose the rails must still be somewhat new.” Shera mused, putting a finger to her lips. Her nails were chipped. “Construction on the plate only started late in 1979, and for the first five years most people lived in the old town. They didn’t put the rail in until the mid-1980’s. It’s been a decade since then, so it will still be a few years before they start retiring cars. If you look, you can see that these all have damage, probably from construction accidents.” She stopped, hand dropping, as she noticed the others staring at her. “What?” she asked, flustered.

“Ya read that all in a book or somthin’?” Cid asked.

Shera gave him a tentative look. “Um, in a pamphlet. While we were waiting for you to finish the flight sim.”

“Damn,” he grinned, moving to stand alongside her, “At least with you around we won’t be too far behind on current events.” His wife flushed and smiled. Cid hated giving compliments. That was as close as he could get, but Shera understood how he meant it.

Barret ruined the moment, pointing out, “Doncha mean past events?”

Cid stepped away again, waving an irritated hand in the air. “Past, current, who the hell cares. It’s all the damn same to us.” Time travel was confusing enough without Barret poking at it.

“Ain’t that the truth. So what we gonna do now? Can’t practice here. We could go to an old warehouse, maybe.”

“If the graveyard ain’t old, the warehouses won’t be old. Nah, we’re here, might as well stay here. Not like we’ll be workin’ on any fancy spells or shhhtuff.” Cid caught himself just in time, and slurred the last word, glancing anxiously at Marlene, who grinned up at him knowingly. Shera patted his arm.

“What should I work on?” Marlene asked.

Cid scratched his chin. “Probably that summon or enemy skill you got.”

Barret frowned. “I thought ya said nothin’ fancy.”

“Choco-mog ain’t fancy,” Cid replied. It was the simplest of the summons, and easy enough even for a beginner to use.

Her father was unconvinced. “Maybe, but most of those enemy skills…”

The pilot shrugged his shoulders irritably. “It’s got Frog Song, Big Guard and Dragon Force. Those ain’t tough. Besides, all she needs to do is be able to figure out which spell’s which. And how not to accidentally cast something too strong for her. Some of those damn spells would drain her Mp.”

Barret’s hand twitched, as though he’d cut off some automatic gesture of protection. Stress was painted all over his face.

Shera smiled sympathetically at him, then turned to her husband. “For Big Guard or Dragon Force she can target herself, or one of us, but for Frog Song and Choco-mog she’ll need need a monster to practice on.”

“She could cast it on Barret. Choco-mog don’t hurt that much.”

“Yeah? And then she could turn you into a frog, yah blonde haired ass,” Barret muttered.

“Or you two could go find a monster, while Marlene and I work on Big Guard and Dragon Force,” Shera suggested.

“Hmph, fine. Come on, let’s go see what nasties we can round up,” Cid grumped and started to stomp off towards the train cars.

“Do you have anything to catch them with?” Shera called after him.

A quick look through this pockets later he yelled back. “Nope.”

Shera sighed, and handed her Time materia over to Barret. “Take care.”

“I will,” he muttered, then knelt and pulled his daughter into a hug. “You listen to Shera, now, and don’t push yourself too hard. Aight?” She hugged back fiercely.

“I’ll be fine, Daddy. See you soon.”

“Yeah, be back in a minute.”


 

Marlene watched as her dad and Cid walked away, arguing with each other. She wished her dad would stay. It would help her feel less nervous about casting a summon and working with the enemy skills.

“Marlene, while we’re in Midgar, it would probably be best if you don’t call Barret ‘Daddy’. Especially if we make it into Shinra. Call him ‘Barret’ instead. Can you do that?”

Marlene looked up to meet Shera’s gaze. To not call her daddy ‘Daddy’ would feel weird and difficult, but if it was what she needed to do, she would try. Chewing on her lip, she gave a firm nod. She didn’t want to be left behind, and she didn’t want the others to get in trouble because of her.

“All right, let’s get started. Equip the Enemy Skill materia into Fairy Tale, then see if you can tell the spells inside apart.” Shera took a step back, giving her space to concentrate.

Marlene held the delicate staff up in front of her. Focusing on the materia, she looked for the right one. She still wasn’t too fast at this part, but one of the materia clearly stood out to her mind’s eye as being much more powerful than the others. She began sorting through the different spells inside it. The first one she found felt heavy, but it was not a physical weight. Slowly a name seemed to appear in her mind. ‘Magic Hammer’. Not one of the spells she was looking for. Moving on. Next was a large spell, dark. Hot but not fiery. It pulled her in towards it, like it was trying to swallow her! She jerked and nearly dropped her staff. She took a few deep, shuddering breaths.

“Marlene! Are you all right?” Shera was by her side in a second, a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m… I’m okay, just startled. I found Shadow Flare, but I’m okay now.” Taking another deep breath, she eased her mind back into the materia.

‘Big Guard, Big Guard, where aaare you?’ she thought as she passed by a few more spells. There! An impression of safety and speed. This was it. She concentrated on the spell. She could feel the magic washing over her. The shimmer of a barrier appeared before her, and the whole world outside it seemed to slow down.

“Shera! I did it, I got it!” She exclaimed, bouncing up and down.

“Whoa, slow down. I can’t understand you when you talk that fast. It sure seems like you found Big Guard, though,” Shera laughed.

Marlene grinned and nodded. Shera sounded funny talking so slowly. She readjusted her grip on Fairy Tale and started to look for Dragon Force. Soon she found the spell - it was like a coiled wall of scales - and cast it. Now she was ready to try and fight something. If only Daddy—Barret, she corrected herself sternly, and Cid would get back soon. If they took too long, her newly-cast status spells would wear off.

The guys were back in only a few minutes. She could hear them arguing long before they were in sight. Cid dragged a guard hound behind him. Barret had a tarp thrown over one shoulder, with something bundled up inside of it. She shouted a greeting as they came up, so, so slowly! The Haste spell from Big Guard was really fun, but it was a test to her patience. Barret dumped three hedehog pies out of the tarp about ten feet from her. They tumbled out in slow motion, and Marlene jigged in place as Cid cast another Slow spell over his hound. To distract herself, she started to warm up Choco-mog.

The summon materia felt really different from the other types she’d used so far. The power was deeper, more intense, but somehow lighter? If that made any sense. It was like the materia was happy, excited, ready to do something. Barret and Cid backed away from their trophies and as soon as they were clear she released the suppressed energy of the summon. Power rushed by her and she could feel the soft feathers of a Chocobo. Suddenly she found herself being swung up into the air and onto the back of the summoned yellow Chocobo. A white moogle with a bandana tied round its head looked over its shoulder at her and winked before raising its stubby little paw into the air and shouting “KUPO!!”. With that battle cry, the chocobo dashed forward, trampling its big feet all over the hound and pies. As fast as the summon had appeared, it was gone, and Marlene landed gently back on the ground, swaying a little.

“Damn,” Cid laughed, “Ain’t never seen a summon do that before.”

“Marlene, you all right?” Her daddy didn’t find the whole thing nearly as funny as the pilot.

Marlene smiled open-mouthed, exhilarated, before replying. “I’m fine. That was fun!”

Chapter Text

What I want to be when I grow up; What I am not;
Jungles are no place for beginners;
No room; One man’s monster is another man’s food

 

"Best of luck tae ye, lads and lasses!" Cait Sith called out. Both moogle and cat waved double-armed good-byes, paws windmilling. Their friends were nearly out of sight when the automaton turned towards its companions. “Weel then, off we go!” The moogle started off, Reeve and Nanaki following after it.

It was a short walk through a dumbapple orchard to a dirt trail that wound over the hills, connecting Banora to a tiny collection of huts that passed for a port village. Cait Sith tromped along in good spirits, and Nanaki seemed to have the youthful energy of a young puppy. His small nose turned to follow the passage of white and yellow butterflies, and he sniffed enthusiastically along the grassy verges of the path. Reeve shivered as he followed, and rubbed his arms. The chilly dew had not evaporated off the grass yet, and it soaked his socks and pant legs.

They could hear the village before they saw it. There was the breaking of waves and crying of gulls, people shouting, barking dogs, the deep throbbing of a ship’s engine. Reeve held up a hand to shield his eyes as they came around a hill. The town was small and smudged with chimney smoke, but the sun glittered in brilliant lances off the sea beyond. He lowered his hand slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust. He counted the ships in the harbor - fewer than he had expected, even for such a small village. There was a potbellied barge pulling out, the sort that never sailed too far from shore; a trim white yacht, probably the property of some wealthy Banoran landowner; and a beatdown cargo ship, whose rusting exterior almost disguised the sleekness of its lines. Old, but possibly still speedy. He said as much to Nanaki, who cast a curious look upwards at him. “You know a surprising amount about such craft, Reeve.”

Reeve shrugged. “As a child, I read a surfeit of romantic novels about wooden ships and iron men, and had a passing ambition to become a sea captain. I lost interest when I realized how few old sailing ships there were left, and switched my sights to becoming a dashing highwayman, and then an intrepid explorer of forgotten cities.”

Nanaki laughed shortly, a little huffing chuckle of breath. “Plausible careers, all.”

Reeve smiled. “My mother’s library was filled with decrepit books of derring-do, and it wasn’t until I was, well, almost this age,” he gestured to his teenaged face, “that I realized I had better find an occupation better suited for the current century.”

“Weel, ye learned right quick, laddie. Started programming mah A.I. prototype less than two years later,” Cait chimed in.

“Did you program him to compliment you? How vain.” Nanaki laughed again, to show that the comment was not meant in a mean-spirited fashion.

“Certainly not,” said Reeve, flushing with embarrassment. He looked at the cat’s grinning face and wondered, as he always did, whether there was something in Cait’s A.I. that he had not programmed into it, some hidden spark… They were down in the village by then, attracting the attention of grubby children and aproned women. A flock of geese behind a picket fence hissed menacingly as Nanaki passed by, and a trio of alley cats fled with puffed tails. The town was only a thin line of wooden houses, with three larger wooden warehouses at the water’s edge. Reeve stood at the rickety docks and surveyed the craft. He realized why there were fewer ships than he’d expected - despite the pungent fish smell that made Nanaki wrinkle his small muzzle, there were no fishing boats moored. Most likely, the town’s fishermen had gone out before dawn, and had not yet returned. Years as a Shinra board member had made Reeve cautious, and he was relieved to realize that there was no sinister explanation for the lack of watercraft.

"Good morning,” Reeve called out to the sailors loading the aging cargo ship. He tried to keep his nose from wrinkling as he approached. The sweet scent of dumbapples rising from the wooden crates they swung aboard failed to mask the nauseating miasma of mixed sweat, rust, and brine. “I spoke with your captain yesterday about going with you to your first stop, the port near Gongaga." One of the men, muscles in his arms as thick as the coiled ship’s ropes, heaved a last crate onto a dolly and came over to them, staring hard at Nanaki and Cait Sith.

"Yeah, the Cap’n mentioned we'd have a passenger. He didn't say anything about a pet dog and a, uh, whatever that thing is." He waved a large hand at Cait Sith.

"I am neither a dog, nor anyone’s pet,” Nanaki growled in resigned irritation. His voice was that of someone having to explain something for the thousandth time.

The sailor leapt back. “Sweet Shiva, it talks?!”

Nanaki’s flaming tail flicked in a small sign of annoyance. “Yes, the power of speech is within my capability.”

"An' I can talk tae, ye ken! Name's Cait Sith, and Ah’m a fortune telling machine. Would you like me tae tell your future?” The stuffed cat spoke quite cheerfully, but the man seemed not a jot reassured.

"I've seen a lot of strange things at sea, but I think you three’re the strangest by far. I'll just go tell the Cap'n you’re here." He left, moving slightly faster than was entirely polite.

"Thank you,” Reeve said calmly to his retreating back, then turned to his traveling companions with a sigh. "I suppose that, once again, we will have to resign ourselves to the odd looks of superstitious locals.”

In post-Meteorfall Gaia, Nanaki was well known as a member of AVALANCHE. After all the other upheavals that had rocked the world, most people accepted a large, well-spoken, fire-hazardous beast with very little trouble. Cait Sith was a known part of the anti-Shinra group, too, but was more often associated with the WRO and its work, and was especially popular with children. And as president of the WRO, Reeve had become accustomed to more positive attention than the sailor or the staring housewives were showing. He was embarrassed to realize how much it bothered him.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to stand in the street for too much longer. A middle-aged woman with thinning hair came down the ramp toward them. She gave them a dubious once over before addressing them. “Yer the ones I talked to ‘bout passage to Salam?”

Reeve smiled with as much charm as he could muster. “Yes. That would be the three of us.”

The woman nodded, then looked straight at Nanaki and asked, "And I have yer word ya won't attack any of my crew?"

"Of course not. I'm not a monster, I don’t bite,” the cub responded with a snort.

The woman’s stone face barely twitched. “Right, then I ain't got a problem with ya coming on board my ship. I’m Cap’n Marcon. We'll be leaving in an' hour or less, so best to get on board. You can find my first mate to settle up.” With that, she went back to the ship.

"Delightful lady,” Nanaki growled softly.

Reeve chuckled a little. “She's only making sure her crew is safe. Still, I have to say she’s probably being overcautious. You hardly look your usual threatening self.”

Cait Sith laughed at that, but Nanaki didn’t. His tiny hackles fluffed out with irritation, and he proceeded moodily up the ramp.

Since they unsettled the sailors, the trio spent most of the trip in their tiny cabin, rather than on deck. The metal walls rattled with the noise of the engines. Nanaki unwound eventually, and the time passed pleasantly as he told them stories about his childhood in Cosmo Canyon. This wasn’t merely for entertainment; Reeve and Cait had to know the personalities of the people there and how to work with them if the plan was to succeed. Reeve ventured out twice to fetch food from the galley. The second time, he felt the ship’s turbines slowing as he returned to the cabin, his hands full with trays and utensils. “We must be nearing shore,” he murmured, and roused his comrades. They ate their fish stew quickly, then went on deck. It was nearly dawn again; the approaching coastline was a dark smudge against a deep purple sky, but the eastern horizon behind them was paling to lilac pink. Gulls were calling overhead.

Nanaki put his paws up on the lowest rail and poked his head through, breathing in deeply. “If neither of you object, I believe we should start off as soon as we make landfall. Gongaga is a few hours’ walk inland, and it will be more pleasant to hike in the morning than at noon.”

Reeve sighed and leaned against the rail. He wasn’t looking forward to hiking through the rainforest, but there was little choice. Salam was little more than a waypoint for the coastal shipping trade; its population was in the low double digits. The likelihood of finding vehicular transport from there to Gongaga was remote.

The larger village was a good fifteen miles inland from the coast and after the first three miles Reeve understood why all the other party members wore sturdy shoes or hiking boots. His feet felt like ground meat inside his leather dress shoes. There were even odds on whether that or the increasing heat would do him in first. The overhead canopy of palms, ferns and broad leafed trees only let in about twenty percent of the rising sunlight, but in the sub-tropical climate the interlocking canopy also created a nasty greenhouse effect. Even with his coat off, sleeves rolled up, and the top three buttons of his shirt undone he was sweating profusely. He was also, he thought dourly as he swatted away another bloodsucking insect, prepared to advocate for the addition of mosquitos to the monster manual.

Neither of his companions seemed to be having the same trouble. Cait Sith blazed the trail, his robotic bulk unperturbed by strangling vines and rash-inducing leaves. Reeve slid gingerly through the gaps the moogle forced open, and Nanaki padded easily along behind. The great cat was quiet, except to occasionally call out a course correction to Cait. The robot called back cheery thanks every time, then returned to mimicking the insect, bird, and primate noises around them, comically exaggerating the calls.

The leaf litter beneath their feet began to squelch. A broad stream appeared in the undergrowth, its waters stained a deep brown with tannis. With a sigh, Reeve sat down on a log and unlaced his shoes. Nanaki moved up alongside him and shook his head forbiddingly, his one eye glinting as he stared upstream. “What…?” Reeve began, before realizing why going barefoot across the stream would be a bad idea. “Oh, I see. Leeches.”

Nanaki shook his head again, his eye fixed. “That is so, but there’s another issue.” Reeve followed his gaze. About fifteen feet upstream, he spied the tusked head of a gagighandi watching them. The amphibious ambush predator was laid out in the shallows of the far bank, a pair of froggy touch-mes sitting on its back adding to its disguise as a mossy log. Ruefully he wondered if he would have enough time to lace his shoes back up before the large amphibian attacked.

Silent ripples spreading away from the monster as it started a slow glide in their direction told him he wouldn’t. The creature posed no real threat to Nanaki or Cait Sith, each level ninety-nine, but Reeve himself had never been in a fight before. He’d always acted through Cait or a replica android, which now left him at a distinct disadvantage. He was a man of the office, an engineer, architect, programmer and city manager. He had even become something of a politician. Never had he been a warrior. He should have realized the problem back in the Banora caves, he thought, tucking the stringy ends of his laces into his shoes before standing. He could have taken lessons alongside Shera and the young ones. It was too late now.

Cait Sith sprang first, somersaulting off Mog’s shoulders right onto the gagighandi’s green snout. The impact ducked the monster’s head underwater, and the cat smoothly plucked something from behind the creature’s finned ear before leaping back to shore. Cait climbed back up to his usual perch, and Nanaki took over the fight, unleashing a blinding torrent of lightning from the sky at the disoriented monster. One of the touch-mes tried to jump clear, but the bolt arced after it, frying it mid-leap.

As quickly as the skirmish had started, it was over, the charred corpses sinking below the water, already dissolving. Reeve’s hand rose to cover his nose; the air was foul with the repugnant odors of ozone, burnt flesh, and hot mud. He knew that, even with the mastered materia he was carrying, he could not have ended the fight anything like as quickly. Truly, the difference between himself and his companions was staggering. If they should end up in a serious battle, he would be a serious liability, not to mention how much difficulty he would have if he were ever to become separated from them.

With a sigh, he mentioned his trepidation to his companions. Cait nodded along attentively, and Nanaki peered upward at the sun scattering through the lush canopy. “It’s not yet noon,” the great cat said. “We should rest during the hottest hours, but we can scare up a few monsters before and after for you to practice against.”

Wearing a status-nullifying ribbon Reeve didn’t have to worry about touch-mes and their frog song, but with gagighandis, kimara bugs,and of course grand horns, he would have his hands full with all the deadly predators he could want. Scenting the air, Nanaki informed them of some kimara bugs not too far away. Reeve finished retying his shoes and followed him off the path. Within four minutes, they came across three of the giant, triple-headed insects. They were tossing the furry corpse of a small monkey between themselves, their mantis-like legs lashing out to catch it. They were well occupied with their grisly game, unaware of the party creeping up on them, and Reeve checked the barriers provided by his protect ring before activating his materia.

Only when a level two fire spell ripped through the trees, scorching one of its targets, did the kimara bugs realizes they were under attack. The primate’s remains were tossed away, and they advanced, waving their sickle-like forelimbs in a threat display. One’s wings were smoldering, and it clicked and hissed in agitation. It was, frankly, rather intimidating. Reeve steadied himself with the knowledge that he’d seen this behavior before, recorded by Cait Sith. And if he made an error here, there was little danger - Cait and Nanaki were backing him up. Elemental after elemental spell exploded against the insects’ carapaces, fire, ice and lightning, as Reeve practiced switching between the materia slotted into his watch. All were low level, and the damage done was incremental. His protect ring and barrier materia were the only things that prevented the kimara bugs from eviscerating him as he ground down their health.

After a lamentable amount of time had passed, the husks of the giant bugs’ exoskeletons began to fade. “I suggest we head on towards the village and only battle those monsters we come across, rather than hunting them, or we may be here all night.” There was amusement in Nanaki’s tone, and Reeve could not take much offense at it, for the cat was beyond right. They would never reach Gongaga at the rate he was capable of fighting. There was one thing he could do… He put away the elemental materia he’d been using, and replaced them with a trio of Hell materia. He reflected that no matter how corrupt Shinra had been, there was no denying they’d known how to make powerful weapons. He would go through ethers twice as fast now, but they were simple enough to replenish. No longer being a liability was more important.

The next fights, after a rest at noon, against a grand horn and then another gagihandi went so much faster that Nanaki went back to hunting the predators down. The Hell Elemental series of fusion materia that Reeve was using now were exceedingly rare in the wild and difficult to synthesize. Since Meteorfall, most had been lost. Fortunately, the elite ninjas of Wutai’s Crescent Unit had stolen a small crate full of the valuable crystals from the company after the war, and some had been added with Yuffie’s supplies to the party’s inventory. The drawback to using such powerful spells was the drain they put on the caster. While Reeve found the caramel taste of ethers appealing, the texture was equivalent to swallowing thick slime. His throat clenched as he uncorked another vial, and he had to swallow several times to get the viscous liquid down.

As he sipped a little water to wash the ether down, Reeve spied a small twitching fiddlehead fern, rustling as though a rodent was gnawing at its roots. Having the same type of curiosity as cats were known for, he stepped over to investigate. The fern, on the other hand, was not curious about him, and cast Poison as soon as his shadow fell across it. Then, once Poison had no effect, followed up with Bio2.

“Reeve! Are you well?!” Nanaki yipped, running to his side.

“Still standing, but light-headed,” he wheezed, sinuses bubbling and veins tingling. “Without ribbon, I doubt I would be standing at all.”

Nanaki warily eyed the twitching fiddlehead. “I do believe I have seen that type of monster before, but I cannot place it,” the cat murmured, head tilted as he tried to remember.

“Hit it with fire, should burn reit up!” was Cait Sith’s cheery offer.

With a nod, Reeve powered up Hell Firaga, letting the poisoned fire leap and roar from his hand. Watching the deadly fireball engulf the delicate fronds, he couldn’t help but wonder if casting Hell Firaga was overdoing it. Even if the little thing had cast Bio2, it was very small. As the status infused flames flickered out, he saw the little thing was wilted and well scorched.

“I believe that’s taken care off it. I wonder what it was?” he mused to the others as he again approached the plant for inspection.

It twitched, and he stopped in cautious alarm. It rocked backwards and forwards, shaking the ash off, before it began to unfurl. Reeve watched, fascinated, as the small plant shot up to stand nearly as tall as a man. Large leaves rolled out from a knobbed stem. A bud quickly formed and bloomed into a yellow flower cup bigger than Reeve’s head. Two twining pink stamens writhed out of the blossom, waving in the air.

“Amazing,” he whispered as the change came to an end.

Nanaki was not as awestruck. His hackles raised, and he issued instructions in a low growl. “Get back Reeve, I remember this now. A flower prong. Cloud fought one in the Battle Square. It was quite the spectacle; in the end he needed Omni-slash to win.”

“Aye! That’s reit! Better let us take care of it!” Cait Sith called through his megaphone.

Nanaki and the A.I. had both suffered harm throughout the day’s fighting, from splash damage or multi-target attacks, but neither had retaliated for it, simply healing themselves and adding the occasional comment or tip to Reeve as he fought. Now, because of those previous encounters, both had limit breaks ready.

Stepping back, but watching with wary interest, Reeve could pick up the muffled sound of slots spinning and falling to place inside the stuffed body of Cait’s oversized moogle mount. The cat struck a comical pose and announced with enthusiasm, “Three stars! Mog Dance!”

As soon as the last syllable had blasted through the megaphone, a moogle appeared, the tails of its headband streaming behind it . The small creature did a quick dance and cheer, prismatic sparkles of healing magic floating from it to the party members. Reeve ruefully watched his skin absorb the unnecessary curative magic. The moogle rubbed the back of its head sheepishly and vanished, just as the flower prong reached out for it. The pink stamens wiggled comically in the air where the moogle had floated.

Nanaki’s mouth turned down. “Could you not have programmed him to be less random?”

Reeve hunched his shoulders defensively. “He was designed as a random fortune telling machine. Random is a critical part of what makes him who he is.” More than that, Reeve had designed him to seem like a toy - too unpredictable to manufacture and sell, too odd to be thought of as threatening. Even the Turks had dismissed the value of Reeve’s invention. It had proven useful for Reeve, when he needed to maneuver around the other board members. If Cait Sith took an action that benefited Reeve and the Urban Planning department, or discomfited one of the other directors, well, that was just Cait’s random and glitchy programming acting up.

Of course, that came at a price. There were plenty of times when Cait had undermined Reeve’s department to maintain the cover. And now, in a tough fight, a turn and a limit break had just been wasted.

The carnivorous plant turned its attention back to them. The stem lashed forward like a catapult, and seeds shot out from the bud, ripping right through Reeve’s shirt. The seeds buried themselves stinging into his skin, Reeve stumbled back, collapsing to his knees. Palmer had owned a pet cactuar once, and Reeve had had the misfortune of being stung by it - not the infamous 1000 Needles attack, just an accidental brush - and this pain was similar, but much, much intense.

Reeve gritted his teeth and forced his attention back to the fight, just in time to see Nanaki leap forward, howling. The tiny cub landed, his paws plunging deep into the rich humus. Hundreds of tiny lights blurred and flickered around him. A ball of incandescent energy coalesced, splitting itself into smaller orbs that formed a neutron shape above his fur-tufted head. In seconds, the red beam of Cosmo Memory was rushing at full power towards the flower prong, which quivered and curled in on itself. Reeve braced himself, raising an arm against the wind and heat that rushed outwards in waves. Ancient trees cracked and groaned from the stress. Trunks splintered. Giant webs of roots ripped from the ground. Vines and branches alike snapped and tore as the whole canopy fell apart. The noise level was not unlike what one would expect from having Bahamut crash through the tree tops to land in front of them.

The light lessened, and the heat faded. The last of the broken branches crashed to the ground, and finally the only noise was the gentle, pattering fall of twigs and leaves. All that remained in a 7 foot radius of the flower prong’s location was a crater of upturned earth, half covered by a toppled giant.

Nanaki padded forward cautiously. “I have previously only used Cosmo Memory in open areas. I did not expect it to do so much damage,” the cub lamented, nosing at a fallen bromeliad, its water and tadpoles spilled onto a large lobed leaf.

“It’s my fault for being inquisitive, I suppose.” Reeve knelt by his friend and carefully picked up the bromeliad, placing it securely in a joint between two branches of the fallen tree. He delicately poured the water and the flopping tadpoles back into the deep cavities between the plant’s leaves, one tadpole per tiny pool. “There.”

Gazing up through the new hole in the canopy, he couldn’t help but sigh. The sky above was dimmer than he’d supposed. “We should continue on with haste. It won’t be long before what light manages to filter through starts to fade.”

Even though they picked up the pace and stopped hunting, it was well after dusk when the trio finally arrived in the jungle village of Gongaga. The few exterior lights beaming from the round mud-mortared houses cast just enough light for them to not be stumbling around in the dark. Reeve, physically and magically exhausted, did not spend as much time as he normally would appreciating the local architecture. Subdued, he followed behind the oddly hypnotic sway of flame at the tip of Nanaki’s tail to the small rural inn. Cait Sith opened the wooden door with a flourish and a bow to the others. Merry bells rang against the door frame as they entered, but the small lobby beyond was dimly-lit and empty.

After a minute, the proprietor entered from a small side door. The man had a worried expression that only deepened when he saw his customers. Reeve stepped forward, prepared to reassure him, but the man spoke before Reeve had even opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, young man, but we’re full.”

Taken aback by his brusque tone, Reeve asked, “I beg your pardon?”

“Not too many people pass by here, so we only have one room and all the beds are full,” the man explained. “I can’t put you up.”

“Where do you suggest we go instead?” Nanaki asked politely.

The inn keeper startled, then bent down to peer closely at the cub. “Well, I’ll be. I’ve heard of your kind, from out in the canyons, but I’ve never heard of one leavin’ there.”

Nanaki for his part patiently put up with the gawking man. “If we cannot stay here, then is there somewhere else you could recommend to us?” he inquired instead, betraying no visible impatience at having to repeat himself.

The man gave Nanaki another once over before offering, “You could try checking in with the Fairs. Their boy just left for Midgar a few weeks ago, so they still have an extra bed. Assumin’ you two don’t mind the floor.” He gestured at Cait Sith and Nanaki.

They thanked the innkeeper for the tip, and set out, following the directions he’d given them. The village was small, and it was a short walk to the doorway of a small round house with walls of dry mud-bricks. A small light above the door gleamed darkly on the blue slate roof tiles. Reeve knocked politely, then stepped back to wait with his comrades. “I hope they don’t go to bed early,” he fretted. The nearly-equatorial sunset had been at seven, and almost two hours had passed since then.

Nanaki’s ears pricked up. “There’s no cause for worry, I can hear someone approaching.” In a moment the door was opened by a woman in her late thirties, her black hair done up in a messy bun, her expression open and curious as she greeted them.

“Hello. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Good evening, ma’m. My friends,” Reeve gestured to Nanaki and Cait Sith to identify them as individuals, “and I were told by the innkeeper that while he had no rooms available, you might?”

She tilted her head and considered them. “I suppose we do have the room… For one night?”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’m.”

“Alright,” she smiled, “come on in.” She gestured them inside.

The three of them stayed clustered near the door as space was at a premium. There was only one room. Sitting at a round table in the center was a middle-aged man, hair just starting to go gray. Besides the table and the three chairs pulled up to it, the only furniture was a dresser, a micro-mini kitchenette, a bed and a cot, both covered with brightly colored woven blankets.

“Have you had anything to eat?” the woman asked, already moving into the cramped kitchen area.

“We have no wish to impose.” Reeve held up his hands in refusal. “We have traveling rations with us; they will suffice.”

The woman laughed. “As if I’d let a guest eat canned goods and dry biscuits in my house! Much less a growing boy and a cub!” She smiled warmly. “Traveling rations! What nonsense. Sit down and have some real food.”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Nanaki replied politely, and Reeve echoed the sentiment. Cait Sith said laughingly, “You needn’t worry about feeding me! Ah’m a fortune telling machine. Want me tae tell your fortunes?”

“A machine, huh?” The man eyed the cat curiously. “I know better than to ask my own, but my son Zack just left last month for Midgar. Can you tell one for someone who’s not here? I’d like to know how he’s doing.” The woman, on her way out the door for something, stopped and came back curiously.

“Nae problem!” Cait chirped, then jigged in a little in one spot, pulling faces of extreme seriousness and concentration. While the divination spell ran its course, Reeve belatedly realized that he didn’t know his hosts’ names. “Pardon, sir, madam, but we’ve neglected to introduce ourselves. I’m Reeve, this is Nanaki, and that oddity is Cait Sith.”

“Oddity, is it?” asked the man, smiling. “Well, I’m glad that you three stopped in, if only for the entertainment value. We’re the Fairs.”

Reeve’s smile fixed for a moment before he made himself relax. He’d never met the SOLDIER in person, but he knew Zack Fair’s name. Urban Development had had a difficult time getting their missions completed; they weren’t glamorous, just monster extermination in the construction zone. Fair had given them an immense amount of assistance, and not only their department. Reeve had begun hearing him mentioned more and more frequently in internal memos and at board meetings. And then, at the same time that Sephiroth had vanished, Zack Fair’s name just dropped out of all conversation. Reeve heard nothing else about him until Cloud’s past came to light. He’d been brought up again, but only glancingly, as the party made their plans for altering the timeline.

As he watched Cait dance, worry began to cloud his mind. Change was catalyzed by the smallest things. He’d been determinedly ignoring his concerns over their effects of their actions on the time stream, because the large changes they intended to effect were so necessary. He was resolved to deal with the fallout of those choices, provided they even proved possible to accomplish. But what changes, unforeseen, unplanned for, would be caused by their minor actions? The worry they’d caused the sailors, the monsters they’d killed, this visit to the Fairs; these events could have no consequences at all… or disproportionately large ones. That was the danger of time travel. Step on an ant, kill your grandfather.

Cait Sith’s triumphant shout brought an end to Reeve’s contemplation. In a dramatic voice, the cat intoned, “He will achieve his dream, but the price will be steep. A flame is in his future.”

Mrs. Fair clapped her hands together excitedly. “A flame? Do you mean the flame of romance?! Oooohh, I knew he’d find a nice girl! I wonder what she’ll be like!”

Her husband set a light hand on her shoulder. “Don’t get carried away, dear. I have to say, I don’t like the sound of “a steep price”.”

Ms. Fair laughed. “I’m not too worried about that boy. Trouble just rolls off of him! I just hope he’ll write and tell us how he’s settling in.”

“If his writing habits are anything like yours, it’ll be years before we hear,” Mr. Fair chuckled.

His wife affected offense. “I’m not that bad. I wrote a letter to my Mom last year!”

“After three years of not writing. Whether he writes or not, I hope he doesn’t get into too much trouble in the city.”

As the Fairs eagerly speculated about the fortune Cait Sith had announced, Reeve shared a glance with Nanaki. The cub shrugged slightly. The A.I.’s fortunes were like the rest of it’s programming - supposedly random. Reeve was aware that bias, selective memory, and vague wording affected how people interpreted Cait’s prophecies, but he’d found there to be a strange thread of truth to them. The fortune for Zack could mean that the boy would come to the same unfortunate fate that befell him the first time. Or it might be totally innocuous, he reminded himself. He was committed to their course, it did him no good to be mentally borrowing trouble.

Mrs. Fair excused herself, saying she would go whip something up in the summer kitchen. As she stepped out, Mr. Fair turned to Reeve with an eager grin on his face. He clapped him on the shoulder, pushing him down into a wooden chair, then sat himself backwards on another with his arms crossed over the back. “You boys came through the jungle on foot, right? How was it? I mean,” he gestured to Nanaki, “you look like you’d do just fine out there, but you two… Well, you look like a city kid,” pointing to Reeve, “and then you and that thing,” waving a hand at Caith Sith and Mog, “don’t seem cut out for bushwhacking.”

Cait jumped in promptly. “Ye’d be surprised at how well we get around. Mog’s the best trailblazer there is! He can push past nearly anything.”

“I suppose it could, with arms like that. Where you boys from, anyway, and where are you tryin’ to get to?”

Reeve smiled. “You were right, Mr. Fair. I am from Midgar. I’m Mog’s and Cait Sith’s designer. Nanaki is from Cosmo Canyon, and that’s where we’re headed.”

“Really? That’s a long trip. I’m surprised to see a great cat all the way out here. How’d that happen?”

The man was a nonstop fount of questions, Reeve thought ruefully. Nanaki gave his own reply. “It was a few weeks ago. Someone found me sleeping and thought I would make a good pet. Before I even had a chance, they had thrown me in a crate and shipped me to Midgar. I tried informing them of their mistake, but they weren’t interested in being told that they were kidnappers. Despite their ill treatment, I managed to escape. I ran into Reeve, who agreed to help me get home.”

Their host slammed his fist onto the table making Reeve jump. The man took a deep breath before releasing it. “Some people! They ain’t got any respect for other folks! Gah,” he muttered. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“There is nothing for you to feel sorry about,” said Red politely.

“Still, if there is any thing we can do for you, we’ll try to help.”

“Your kindness is enough.” Eager to get away from further discussion of the false backstory, Nanaki changed the subject. “You inquired about our time in the jungle. Would you still like to hear about it?”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Ah, yes, how was that?”

Telling their story passed the time quickly. They were finishing relating their encounter with the flower prong when Mrs. Fair came in carrying a large spicy-smelling pot. “I don’t suppose you harvested any of that flower prong?” she asked. Reeve shook his head, caught by surprise at the question. She sighed. “That’s a pity, they’re getting hard to find these days. When I was a kid you could go out and collect nine or ten at once, no problem.”

Clearing the disbelief out of his throat, he asked, “And what exactly did you do with them?”

“Ate them, of course.” She looked him with some surprise. “Well, you boys aren’t local. I guess it’s a bit much, expecting you to know anything about Gongagan cooking. Eat up, it’s delicious, even if I am biased.” She put the pot down on the table with a hearty thunk. “Honey, why am I not surprised that while I’m out there slaving away, you were in here chatting and not getting the table ready when you know food is on its way?”

“Heh, oops. I’ll get right on it.” Mr. Fair pulled two bowls out of a cupboard, while Mrs Fair took napkins and spoons from a drawer. “In my defense,” the man offered, “I’m still used to table-setting being Zack’s job.”

“Mmhm, well it’s your job now.” She set the napkins down suddenly and looked at Red. “Nanaki, would you like to eat at the table? It’s fine if you do.”

“Thank you for the invitation,” Nanaki said solemnly, “but I am fine here.”

“You sure?”

“Yes ma’m. I would not wish to put you out of a chair when you have done so much for us this evening.”

“Well aren’t you a gentleman? Or gentlebeast? Which do you prefer?”

“Either is acceptable.”

“Well you’re a polite soul, that’s for sure.” Mr. Fair put a stack of ceramic glasses down, then passed the bowls individually to his wife to be filled before setting them out, one on the table and one on the floor.

“Now would you prefer water, sweet tea, or horchata?” Mrs. Fair asked, picking up a clinking pitcher.

“Sweet tea, thank you.” In truth, Reeve didn’t really care what the drink was as long as it was cold. After taking a good look at the steaming crimson rice in front of him, he suspected he would need it.

Nanaki inquired, “What is horchata? For that matter, what is this dish?”

Mr. Fair poured a cup of something creamy from another pitcher, and offered it to Nanaki for a sniff. “This is horchata. It’s like drinking liquid cinnamon, only better. There’s vanilla in there and some other spices. Made from rice and jicaro seeds, I believe. It’s good stuff. As for what you’re eating, it’s jambalaya with… what did you put in there tonight, love?”

Mrs. Fair knocked her spoon on the pot, thinking. “Well, aside from an assortment of spices and herbs, it’s got chicken, gagighandi, sausage made from that boar you got the other day,” she nodded towards her husband, “lots of onion, scallions, bell peppers, celery, tomatoes and,” she gave them a mischievous grin, “flower prong.”

Chapter Text

Time running out; Reno has a bad day; Finding the target can’t be this easy;
Gratuitous Quoting: The Genesis Rhapsodos Lifestyle;
A rundown of chocobos and terrorists; Underestimated on account of age and size

 

     Veld screeched the company van to a stop in front of his family's quaint cottage style house. He jumped out, not bothering to close the door behind him, and ran down the walk to the front door. Securely locked and barred, of course. While ordinarily, that would have been good, right now he did not have the time for it. He aimed for door's weak spot, which he'd put there himself in case of a time-sensitive emergency like the one he found himself in now, and kicked with all his considerable might. After two kicks, the door swung open, revealing his wife rising out of the chair she had been reading in, hand on the pistol she kept under her cardigan.

    "Oh, Veld, it's just you,” she sighed in relief. She took a less than a second to analyze her husband, and noting the signs of stress, she asked, "What's wrong?"

    "No time. Where's Felicia?"

    "She's out playing with Rosa and Mia." She waved a hand.

    Veld grabbed it, his knuckles turning white. "Where do they normally play?"

    "They're at Mia's house. Veld, what's going on?"

    He didn't answer the question. "Get the emergency bag, and get in the van. I’ll be right back."

    As he ran down the block, he could already hear the three helicopters approaching. He swore again. He was cutting this too close. If his family died because of him....

    Arriving at Mia's, he could hear childish laughter behind the house. He circled around back just in time to see the back door shutting as the girls went inside. He heard the click of a lock. He swore under his breath. Today was not a good day for delays.

    A leak of crucial Company intel had been traced to Kalm. Under extraordinary pressure from the president, he had ordered the Turks to bomb the town. Ordinarily, he would have had another hour to get his family out, but the president wanted no chance of word of the bombing leaking and warning the target. So here Veld was, grabbing onto seconds. Veld made for the front door, rung the door bell and was thankful for his training as a Turk. Despite his inward panic, he knew he seemed perfectly calm. When the door finally opened Mia's mother stood there, eyeing him warily. He wasn't home much, after all. It was no shock that his neighbors didn't remember his face. "Mrs. Hall, I'm here to pick up Felicia."

   "Ah, Veld, right? It's been awhile. Please come on in," she said as recognition dawned.

    "I'm sorry, but I truly can't stay. If you wouldn't mind getting my daughter..."

    "Well, I guess you're busy. Felicia!" The woman called over her shoulder. "Your father is here."

    Thankfully, he didn't have to wait long for his daughter to appear, waving good-bye to her friends and Mrs. Hall. Veld turned to his pre-teen daughter. "I had some time off work, so I thought the family could go for a drive. Race you to the car?" he asked. The more normal the situation seemed to her, the better. As the two took off down the street Veld could hear the choppers almost overhead. Please, just a little more time, he thought, but in his heart he knew that even if they managed to reach the van, they wouldn't be able to make it out of town. It was too late.

    Suddenly the sky darkened and the sick droning of the helicopter rotors was drowned out by an angry roar, like the sky had been ripped open. He saw Felicia had stopped and was staring up in shock. Veld looked up too, just in time to see a Bahamut summon slam into the side of one the helicopters, sending the machine careening in a nauseating spin to the ground. He almost ran after it, to check on his people. He shook himself, grabbed his daughter's hand and continued to run to the van. His wife was behind the wheel and as soon as they were in she hit the gas.

   "If you wouldn't mind, I would like an explanation now," she stated with a huff.

    "Later. For now, just get us away from here as quickly as possible.” While he was relieved that he and his family were safe, he was also professionally annoyed that the mission had been interrupted. Had the mission intel leaked after all? The only ones in the loop were himself, the three Turk pilots, and the president himself. The possibility of a leak through those avenues was negligible. Then who, and how? Drawing out his PHS, he sent a text to the Turk in the downed chopper, asking for a status report.

    [alive need assistance]

    Sighing, Veld pocketed the PHS. "Drop me off by the crashed helicopter, then make your way to the Midgar apartment."

    "I'm not one of your Turks, Veld. I want, I deserve, answers."

    "So do I." She gave him a withering side-eye. He smiled reassuringly. "When I can tell you, I will. You know that."

    "I guess that's what I get for marrying a spy," she muttered under her breath. Veld restrained a sigh. She was going to hold this over his head for a long time, he could already tell.

    "Dad? Are Rosa and Mia gonna be okay?" Felicia was twisted around in her seat, trying to peer through the van's small, dark rear windows.

    Another question he couldn't answer. "I don't know. Once you get to Midgar, you can try calling them."

    Coming up to the crash, Veld motioned for his wife to stop and let him out. Leaning over, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll call this evening, if I can." With that, he slipped out, leaving his blood family behind to go help a member of his work family.

   


 

    This was Reno's first solo mission, and he was pumped. Well, it was sorta a solo mission. There were two other Turks on the team, but at least he was getting to pilot the chopper without a backseat driver. Bombing Kalm was going to be too easy: just fly over and drop the payload. Heck, they'd be back to Midgar in time for lunch. At first he'd been kinda (but only kinda, he reassured himself) put off by the idea of bombing a whole town just for one little leak but hey, the order was straight from the director. If a guy who had family living there was okay with bombing the place, who was he to raise a stink?

   The intercom crackled, and a serious, no-nonsense voice came through. "Positions. Alright, fire on my mark." Yeah, yeah. Guns was too straight laced for Reno's taste. "Five, four, three, screeeech..."

   Reno jerked the head set off, ears ringing with feedback. The chopper in front of him was knocked to the side by... Bahamut. Shit. Someone had summoned Bahamut.

   "You've got to be kidding me!" Yelling and cursing, he pulled the joy-stick to the side, just missing one of the summon’s massive red/black wings. Swinging around, he watched in horror as the beast again rammed Guns's chopper, sending it to the ground.

    "Bastard! I'll teach you to mess with the Turks!" Pulling the trigger, he fired a pair of missiles at the lord of dragons. Heh. Take that, you overgrown lizard. His grin faded as soon a the smoke started to clear. It was still there, charging up an energy blast. A blast aimed right at him.

    Letting out a shaky "Hello!”, he jerked the joy-stick to the side again. But he underestimated the size of the blast. It caught the chopper's tail and sent the machine freewheeling. As Reno tried to get some control over the craft, he cursed his luck. Of course this would happen on his first solo flight. Even if he survived this crash, would they ever let him fly again?

    The chopper crumpled, catching fire on impact with the ground, but Reno was ready for this. He sprang the door just before the impact, and flung himself out of the wreckage. He hit the ground rolling to extinguish the few flames on his suit. Standing up, he surveyed the damage. The helicopter was done for, his clothes were singed and smoking, but all in all, he was alright. He began to grin like a maniac. He couldn't believe his luck at being unhurt! A roar and the rattle of gunfire broke him out of his exuberance. Bahamut was still flying above him, and so was Rod. The last Turk pilot was doing a pretty good job at staying out of Bahamut's range. He managed to drop one bomb on the town before the summon caught up with him again, and it seemed pissed. The blast that it sent towards the last airborne Turk was so large that it just barely missed the tops of Kalm's taller buildings and trees.

    Blue flame engulfed the last chopper, sending it hurtling through the sky like a comet before crashing on the other side of Kalm. Seeing its last target defeated, the dragon king disappeared from the sky. After just standing there for a moment blinking, Reno finally kicked his mind into gear.

    "Damn it!" He started to run over to Rod's chopper to see if the other Turk was alright. What had happened to the easy "fly there, fly back" mission? It was sicking how fast it had gone downhill. They were Turks! How could it be over so quickly? Another question pressed to the forefront of his mind. Who, and more importantly where, was the summoner? They couldn't be too far, right? He scanned everyone he passed. Most of them were busy with a fire brigade where the one bomb had gone off. Some looked as if they were in shock. A pair of woman stood off to the side, already gossiping. A few men, a couple of women, and a kid seemed to be trying to lift up some fallen rubble where a house had collapsed. Presumably, someone was trapped underneath. He wouldn't have paid the group a second glance if it weren't for shocked gasps and a man's deep voice asking, "Kid, you sure you aren't SOLDER?" Turning back around, Reno's jaw dropped. The kid, a short blond thing, was bracing up a beam with his back - a beam that a burly six-foot-plus guy would have had trouble with.

    "Not SOLDIER," the kid snapped. "Hurry up, I can't hold this forever."

    "A-al-right." The adults quit staring at the blond and quickly went back to the task at hand, pulling two bodies out from under the collapsed building.

    Deciding this was too strange to ignore, Reno left Rod to his fate and sidled up to the kid, a preteen, judging by his height.

    "That looks pretty heavy, yo. Want a hand?"

    The boy jerked his head up, startled by his voice. Not SOLDIER, huh? Reno called bullshit. There was no way to mistake those eyes. If the kid wasn't Shinra manufacture, where was he from? And more to the point, was he the summoner?

    "I can handle it."

    "You sure about that?"

    "I'm fine, Reno." The response was snappish and irritated, and as soon as the name left the kid's lips his eyes sparked with panic for a millisecond, before his face locked down into complete blankness. Reno blinked in surprise, then grinned. Gotcha. He wasn't sure what he'd got, but if this kid knew his name and not vice-versa.... Well, that just wasn't a good combination for the not-a-SOLDIER. Apparently the kid knew it too, because as soon as he saw the other people clear, he dropped the beam and punched Reno right in the gut.

    The force of the blow was enough to knock all the wind out out of the redhead. Reno fell to his knees, gasping and fighting to stay conscious. Above him, the kid murmured "Sorry," and then was gone, just like that. This really wasn't his day, Reno moaned to himself silently. Getting up slowly on shaky legs, he saw the shocked looks he was getting from the locals. Giving them a crooked, wheezy smile, he turned and unsteadily headed for Rod's chopper, all the while thinking about the strange kid.

    Judging by the strength and speed he'd seen from him, the blond probably had enough MP for summoning. Bahamut wasn't a beginner's summon, and that kid was no beginner. Another thing that made the kid a likely suspect was the fact that the summon had only gone after the choppers, not the pilots. The blond could have killed Reno with that one punch, but he'd chosen not to. Hell, he'd even apologized. The avoidance of lethal force by both summon and stranger was a notable link. But Reno knew his own luck. It was too easy, coming right across the target just like that.

    Reno reached the edge of town before he could reach a conclusion. Scanning the horizon, he spotted Rod coming towards him, blackened with soot and with his right arm cradled to his chest.

    "Hey, Rod, you're alive!" the red head called out, waving hugely at the other Turk then wincing and hunching back over as his abs protested. Yeah, that was definitely going to bruise.

    The other Turk nodded in greeting. Coming up beside Reno, he asked "Have you heard from Guns or the director? My PHS is in that fireball." He jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating the burning remains of the helicopter.

    Right! Reno liked the little device a lot, but with it being so new and all, he kept forgetting he owned one now. He pulled it out and hit the speed dial for Guns. He answered Rod's question with an easy grin. "Nah, decided to check on you first. Plus, bonus points: when I was crossing through town, I think I spotted our summoner."

    "And you didn't apprehend them?" Rod asked incredulously. Disgust for the newbie washed over his face. Reno would have have defended himself if the line hadn't been answered right then.

    "Reno, damage report." Unexpectedly, the director answered. His stern voice sounded strangely crackly. Reno wondered whether Gun's PHS had taken some damage from the crash.

    "Yeah, nice to hear from you too, yo. I'm a little singed, Rod's burnt worse and broke, sprained? no, broke, his right arm, and both choppers are dead. How are you and Guns?"

    "Guns is in need of medical assistance; another helicopter is bringing a medical team in. Listen up, this is the report for the public: we were flying over when we were attacked by a summon called forth by terrorists. While engaging in battle, one bomb missed its target and hit the town below. Do either of you have something to add to this line or to the true report?"

    "Yeah, said terrorist was probably a blond kid with reeeallly spiky hair. Off the record, the kid also had mako eyes and speed and strength that equaled at least a second class. Oh, and when I say kid, I mean it. Think twelve, maybe thirteen."

    Beside him, Rod's look of disgust deepened. "A thirteen year old can't cast Bahamut."

    "Yeah, and they can't hold up half a house on their own, or be fast enough to make it look like they just disappeared either,” he shot back.

    "Rod, rendezvous with Guns and I on the southwest side of town. Reno, dig around more. See what you can find out about this kid from the townspeople."

    "Hey, yo, can't I at least get a cure or potion or something before I have to walk all over the place?"

    "I thought you said you were fine."

    "Well, I talked with the kid for a moment, and he hit me pretty hard, so that he could get away and all. Weird thing is, he apologized before he left. And, even weirder, he knew my name." Reno shrugged. The kid was strange.

    "Hmm. Did he say anything else?"

    "Somebody asked whether he was SOLDIER, and he said no. He seemed kinda irritated about it, but maybe that was just 'cause he was holding up a beam bigger'n he was."

    "How much damage did he do to you when he hit you?"

    Ahh, so the director did care. "Hurts like a bitch, but I got the feeling he was holding back."

    "I see. We'll talk more once we get back to HQ. And no, Reno, we do not have time to get you a cure or potion for a mere bruise."

    Damn. Hey, couldn't blame a guy for trying.

  


 

    "Ripples form on the water's surface, the wandering soul knows no rest." Genesis snapped the book shut, and sighed deeply. Why was it that Sephiroth got to be the "Hero of Wutai", while Genesis was stuck running errands with the Turks? Command of the troops in Wutai rotated between the top three SOLDIER 1st Classes, and right now, it was the General's turn to cover himself in glory. While Genesis was privately happy enough for a break from the war, the unpleasant downside to being home was that he got stuck with idiotic, time-killing nonsense. All the good military minds were busy with Wutai. The imbeciles in charge of domestic missions had no idea of how to properly deploy their resources.

    Looking over the latest mission briefing again, he scoffed. He, with a Turk and two troopers, would be going to Junon after a possible terrorist suspect had allegedly been seen there. The mere idea of a SOLDIER 1st going after a single target was laughable, particularly if that target was reportedly a scrawny child. The justification for sending a 1st was that the target had mako enhancements and a Bahamut summon, which Genesis thought highly unlikely. Although the report was from a Turk, it was still the report of a rookie, who had likely been dazzled by some pyrotechnics and whose novice eye couldn't tell apart genuine mako enhancement from colored contacts. This seemed like something that a 3rd or 2nd Class already stationed in Junon could safely handle. The whole ordeal would probably end up as a wild chocobo chase, which would be fitting considering their target supposedly had the hairstyle of one.

    The beeping from his PHS alerted the twenty-year-old to a new message. 'Change of plans' was the subject. Smiling, Genesis quickly scrolled to the rest of the message. The idiots in charge must have seen their folly for what it was and given him a mission that was more worthy of the crimson commander's time. Quickly, however, his smile morphed into a grimace. No, the mission was still about the chocobo-headed terrorist. Apparently the brat had three traveling companions. They were transporting a flock of rare gold chocobos and had been spotted in Costa Del Sol. What the change of plans amounted to was a switch from one seaside town destination to another, and the addition of three new targets. Genesis found himself praying to the Goddess that at least one of these three would prove more of a challenge than some diminutive blond.

    Shoving the dog-eared copy of Loveless into his kit, he made his way to the helipad, encountering his longtime friend Angeal in the hall, morning coffee in hand. He filled the other 1st in on his fool's errand. "I fully intend to be back by the weekend. The Theater Grand has a new Loveless performance premiering," he politely ignored Angeal's discreet eye-roll, "and as it features one of the more tragic endings, which most of the modern interpretations shy from, it's well worth your time to see."

    Angeal gave him a look that Genesis was well-used to. It read, "I'm not terribly interested, but for the sake of our friendship, I'll at least consider it." Aloud, the dark-haired man answered, "Maybe, if I have the time. Remember, the first serious test for the new cadets is at the end of this week. My desk will be flooded with paper work, especially if you're off playing hooky. You might consider helping me out once in a while.”

    Genesis flipped a stray hair out of his face. "Perhaps I'll feel so generous when I get back, but for now I must go. Even if the morrow is barren of promises, nothing shall forestall my return."

    Genesis watched as the numbers rose on the elevator display until he was level with the helipad. The doors slid open with a polite ding, inaudible to any but a SOLDIER under the sudden drone of a helicopter's rotors. With his signature red leather coat flapping in the wind, the commander stalked across the flat concrete to the helicopter that would be taking him to the resort town. As he approached, he caught sight of a dark blue suit in the pilot's seat. Behind him, he heard the solid beat of military issue boots coming up the stairwell. Seemed that the grunts had arrived. He turned to inspect the two men under his command. They stared back with the solid impassivity of veteran soldiers. They were equipped with standard issue rifles and, surprisingly, swords as well. Those few units who carried both weapons were skilled and versatile. The Turks were taking no chances on this chocobo hunt. When he finally settled into his seat, he was finally forced to give up his condescending notion of a simple mission, for it was the leader of the Turks in the pilot's seat.

    Veld's face was grim and stony as he went over the controls. With the rotors already running, the noise level was too loud to ask any questions, so Genesis was forced to go without answers for now. This being the case, he simply pulled out his copy of Loveless and began to read through its familiar lines. He would get his answers once they landed, he consoled himself.

    After a four hour flight across the ocean, they landed at the small Shinra base in the resort city of Costa Del Sol. While waiting on the tarmac for Veld to secure the helicopter, Genesis watched the gulls drifting on the wind. "We seek it thus, and take to the sky, no matter where the winds may blow."

    “I guess they weren't kidding when they said they'd be sending the "poetic" commander, yo." Genesis arched an annoyed eye brow at the unfamiliar Turk approaching them, clothes as rumpled as if the man had slept in them.

    "Genesis, this is Reno, one of our newest members. He has been gathering intel on our targets." Here, Veld turned his full attention to the young Turk. "What’ve you found so far?”

    The Turk, Reno, shook his head and sighed. "Not much. The suspects are a group of four individuals: a blond boy, about 145 centimeters tall, carrying a buster style sword and riding one mean looking motorcycle; a brown haired male teen, around 160 centimeters, armed with a broadsword; a black haired teenage girl, standing about 154 centimeters, with no visible weapon; and a pre-teen girl of Wutaian descent, conflicting reports on height, but undoubtedly short, weapon an over-sized shuriken. They boarded a cargo ship in Mideel a week ago with a flock of fifteen chocobos, all golds ‘cept for one chick, reports vary on color, but probably blue or white. No reports before this of a similar flock. With the Wutaian girl, the group might be something to do with Wutai or they could be a group of orphans, parents killed in the war, and now they’re looking for answers and or revenge. 'Nother option is that they're connected to 'The Death God on the Battle Field' and his group. That being part of the mission the blonde interfered with, and all. But with no names, it’s hard to find out for sure."

    "Reno, you have four other Turks with you and you still don't have their names?" Veld asked, obviously displeased with the crucial lack of information.

    "Hey, ’s not my fault the kids don't use their names, yo. They always pay up front with gil, and never officially bought tickets. All we’ve got is ‘Strife’. The one time they did have to drop a name, that was it. Whether it’s a group name, code name, alias or what - we don't know."

    Veld gave a short nod. “So they’re being careful. What else?”

    "Kay, so the ship headed from Mideel for Junon, stopped in port at 1000 hours to load and unload there on Monday, before it docked here in Costa yesterday morning at 0800 hours. The targets paid for passage to Costa del Sol, but there was an incident in Junon. Somebody may’ve tipped ‘em off in regards to our mission. The blond left in a rush, making a bit of a scene. Some troopers tried to apprehend him, but watching the security footage from the city gate - Look, the way he went through it, it was pretty damn obvious that they didn't have a prayer of catching him. I did tell you the bike was mean looking, yo. Anyway, next time the blond shows up is about five n’ a half hours later in Kalm."

    Genesis snorted while behind him the troopers murmured between themselves. "Impossible. Only a helicopter could get there that fast. I would imagine you have the wrong blond, Turk."

    "Doubt it. How many blonds out there have chocobo-ass hair and a behemoth of a motorcycle?"

    Before Genesis could rebuke the novice Turk, Veld cut in. "Get on with the report, Reno."

    "Yeah, right. So as the Commander points out, that’s not a easy feat. The reaction times needed to drive a bike at that speed indicate mako enhancements. And the bike itself must be unusual - a gas- or mako-powered vehicle would’ve needed to stop at least twice for fuel, but the speed with which he showed up makes that unlikely, if not straight-up impossible. Anyway, kid showed up in Kalm, interfered with a Turk mission only five people knew about, and used a Bahamut summon to take out three helicopters. I came across the kid in town, and he had mako eyes, as well as displaying strength and speed to rival a 2nd or 1st class SOLDER. I spoke to him, and he knew my name. When he realized he’d slipped, he clammed up, hit me, and moved out.”

    Genesis frowned even more deeply. He was not persuaded that the child was the equal of a 1st Class SOLDIER, but he was prepared to entertain the notion of mako enhancements, and that the brat had access to Turk-level intelligence seemed incontrovertible. He could understand now why the Turks were on such high alert, but he still didn't know why they couldn't have had one of the other 1sts handle it. Chasing after a bunch of kids was not what Genesis had trained for.

    Reno continued. He told them how he questioned residents of Kalm and found that no one knew anything about the blond, and many hadn't even seen him. “Backtracking a little to the three left in Junon, a guard was set up on board the ship and ‘round the chocobos, so that they could question the blond’s companions ‘bout the stunt he pulled when leaving. The guards collared the three at 2100, but the other boy and the Wutaian girl walked right past, claiming to be heading for their rooms. The guards, knowin’ that there were other troopers stationed at the bunks, didn't put up much fuss and attempted to question the older girl. …And got absolutely nowhere, like I said earlier - not even their names."

    "Meanwhile, the situation on the rest of the ship is FUBAR. The guards on the rooms get taken out by the tiny girl; so do all the guards with the birds. The suspects gather their things and the chocobos and make their way off ship. The older girl, seeing ‘em, takes out the three guards detaining her. Apparently, she's a damn good martial artist, yo. The whole group sets out across the water with their birds, arriving here the next day at 0200 hours. Currently, they've got the birds at the race track, under the heading of Strife Stables. They hired some jockeys, and two of their birds were entered in a race this morning, where they made quite a bit of gil and set a track record. The blond showed up two days ago. So far I haven't figured out how he got here. Probably bribed someone not to mention they ferried him over. Anyway, he arrived, gave the jockeys quite a lecture about how to treat the birds, then the entire group left late that evening, Blondie on his bike and the others by chocobo. They only took three of the birds with them, and we've got a watch on the remaining ones. Haven't approached them yet; don't want to tip the kids off that we're watching them. If you don't catch ‘em, we can get ‘em when they come back to check on the birds."

    “As though I won't be able to catch four children. I intend to be back in Midgar by this weekend, and I won't stand for any delay." Genesis scowled at the troopers meaningfully. They may be from amongst the more elite army grunts, but they were still just that: grunts, best suited to carrying the supplies.

    "Do you have any intel on where they may have gone?" Veld questioned.

    “Sorry, old man. We lost ‘em in the Corel area. General direction is west, towards the Nibel mountain range."

    "Right. Send me the coordinates of where you lost them, then head back to Midgar."

    "Back to Midgar! But why? I've got it covered here, yo."

    "Reno. They know you. I don't want you anywhere near here." The older Turk started to tap a message into his PHS. Clearly, the discussion was over.

    Genesis smirked. "Run along home, Turk, we've got it covered."

    Reno flashed him a dark look but left without saying anything else. Veld snapped his PHS shut and motioned them back to the helicopter. "We'll head for their last known location and pick up their trail from there."

    Genesis seethed at Veld’s preemptory tone, but obeyed. He hated taking orders from someone else, and did not much like having to share command either. This whole thing was starting to stretch his patience thin. Adding to the insult, apparently a girl described as ‘tiny’ had taken out multiple troopers. It only confirmed Genesis’ low opinion of the Army, but as an operative of the same Company, it was a huge embarrassment. With performances like that, it was no wonder the war was taking so long.

    Next time they disembarked, they were north of Corel, in the middle of nowhere. Dust puffed up from flat, hard-baked earth and settled on his high black boots and the hem of his red coat. Mountains shimmered in the distance, not a tree or any kind of shade for miles. What little vegetation there was, was scattered tuffs of dry pale grass or desiccated shrubs. He eyed the needle birds tracing high circles in the clear afternoon sky, their blue-and-dun feathers glinting in the golden light, and decided that they were no threat. The group spread out, canvassing the area. After a few minutes searching, he found the faint tracks of three chocobos and a motorcycle in the sand leading from the dunes eastward. He gave a shout to alert the others. Following the tracks west, he came to an abrupt end - the tracks and all signs of their suspects’ passage disappeared. Behind him he could hear the murmurs of the troopers.

    "Land-worm got them, I bet. Things are all over the place out here."

    “If they’ve got a Bahamut summon, I don’t think they’re going down to a land worm. I say they got picked up by someone. See the distortions in the sand? That’s from a wind getting kicked up by a chopper or something.”

    “Well, at least one of you isn't stupid,” Genesis drawled, “but you’re jumping to conclusions. While indeed the tracks were washed away by the wind, note the pattern of the disturbance. If they had been picked up by, as you suggested, by a helicopter, the dust would have been blown away from the craft in a circular fashion. Instead, it’s been tossed around in all directions. A spell caused this - Whirlwind, or more likely, Tornado. The marks left by such magic are quite distinctive, really.” The next comment Genesis directed towards Veld. "Evidently, your Turk was not as stealthy as he thought. They realized they were being followed and obliterated their tracks. Still, until now they had been traveling in a fairly straight line - obviously heading for the mountains. I would imagine that if we stop in at the villages there, we should be able to pick up their trail again in one of them.” His pronouncement made, he turned and made his way back to the helicopter, red coat flapping behind him. He didn’t care whether Veld agreed with him, but it was a moot point, because the chief Turk did.

    True to his prediction, at a small village at the base of the Nibel Mountains, they received confirmation from a bleary-eyed innkeeper that the group had passed through in the afternoon. As it was getting late, or more accurately, early, they decided to rest in the village for a few hours. Veld was not eager to fly into the Nibel Mountains at night, and if it came to a fight on the morrow, they would be well-rested. Neither would they want to overshoot their targets in the dark. Genesis was pleased with how things were going. They would find the children tomorrow and he’d be back in Midgar in time for the performance.

    They rose just before dawn, the pale light of the summer sun barely illumining the outline of the helicopter as they boarded. They flew above the road into the mountains, and it was only two hours before they spotted a flash of feathers below. After a quick conference, it was agreed that Genesis would confront and capture them for questioning while Veld landed in a small clearing visible from their position, since the road was too narrow to provide a safe landing spot. Once down, he and the Troopers would rejoin Genesis as backup. (The redhead smirked at the notion of needing such a thing, but since time was pressing, he didn’t argue the point.) Veld brought the chopper low and the Commander jumped. He landed on his feet amidst the four suspects, rising gracefully from his feline crouch. Instead of being met with awe or fear as he had anticipated, he was met with annoyance.

    "Aww, they just had to send someone after us." The smallest of the group slumped her shoulders in disappointment.

    "You owe me a hundred gil. I told you that Whirlwind trick wouldn't work,” was the reply from the tallest boy. He was the only one with an appropriate expression, staring at Genesis with apprehension, but his casual chatting was decidedly not what Genesis wanted.

    "It worked against Reno! Besides, how do we know this guy didn't just get lucky finding us?” The little Wutaian girl pointed at him accusingly.

    Genesis could feel the blood beginning to pound in his temples. ”It was a cute parlor trick that could only fool an idiot. Now," he drew his Rapier and pointed it at the blond. "You will surrender and come quietly with me back to Shinra like a good little child."

    Irritation flashed like lightning across the blond’s face before his expression settled into a neutral mask. “No.”

    The two little brats who’d spoken earlier laughed. He had a sudden headache, brought on by sheer anger. He did not see how a threat against them from an enemy so obviously a much higher level than any of them could ever hope to be was funny. His temper snapped. Before any of them could react, he sent a full level Fire spell at the two he marked down as imbeciles. Only one or two of them needed to be taken alive; these two could burn. The massive fireball splashed onto them… only to sputter into harmless embers around the boy and simply disappear and fade into the girl in wisps of flickering orange light. Genesis stared. They were immune to fire! The boy must have some sort of magic barrier, and the girl had absorbed it! The level of their equipment was a nasty surprise.

    At least they’d stopped laughing. The boy looked alarmed. The girl, on the other hand, shrieked, “Hey! You’re going to regret that!”

    The girl reached over her shoulder and threw the giant shuriken that had been resting on her back at him. It was faster than he expected it to be, but he managed to block it with relative ease, sending it rebounding back in her direction. Immediately he had to dodge a status spell. From the wash of quiet air next to him, he guessed it was Silence. Obviously, there was something she wasn't immune to and she was worried he would cast it. As he stood from his roll, he found the girl right next to him, inside his guard. He lashed out with his blade but she danced away with a cat's grin on her face... and his mastered Firaga materia! He let out a curse. How had she-?! The brat! He obviously hadn't taken the situation seriously enough…. He growled. Time to make up for that.

Chapter Text

The Yuffie Threshold of Annoyance; Threats and unanswered questions; A haunted house;
When pumpkins attack!; Extremely poor taste in pets; Changes to history

 

Cloud rested his chin in his palm, propped his elbow on Fenrir's handlebars, and sighed as he watched a gleeful Yuffie lead the red-headed SOLDIER 1st on a merry chase, weaving in and out of the pine forest. Cloud hadn’t recognized him when he first landed, but his arrogant behavior had helped Cloud remember. Genesis. He’d been irritated by the man’s attitude, but watching the shenanigans before him, he felt some sympathy for the man; Yuffie had a gift for irritating people and then dodging the consequences. Even with enhanced speed and reflexes, catching the ninja had never been easy, and that coupled with her taunting cat-calling and materia thievery usually had the effect of causing her victim to fall into a blind rage, making it even easier for her to avoid the increasingly wild strikes. Between that, AVALANCHE’s newly improved stats, and Yuffie’s years of experience stealing from enhanced individuals, the young commander stood no chance at all.

An angry shout and a whooshing crash jerked Cloud’s attention back to the fight. The intruder had cut down a large fir in his desperate struggle to get at the pint-sized trouble maker. After watching a few more trees crash to the forest floor, Cloud began to wonder whether he should knock the poor man out, before he ended up hurting himself. Before he could make his mind up, a faint whistle of air sent him on high alert.

Whip-quick, he pulled out the base blade of Tsurugi and deftly swatted the dart out of the air. He really hated darts and all the unpleasant possibilities they presented. Scowling, he focused his attention on the unfamiliar, middle-aged, brown-haired Turk whose gun was trained on him. Two troopers flanked the man, rifles at the ready. He cursed himself mentally. He had forgotten about the helicopter and the possibility of reinforcements. He shouldn't have let Yuffie play for so long; things now had the potential to get out of hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tifa dropping into a fighting stance, Denzel imitating her.

The Turk didn't look too bothered by missing. He started right in with the questioning. “Quick reflexes… SOLDIER reflexes. Who gave you your enhancements?"

Right. Like he was going to tell a Turk that he’d got them courtesy of Hojo. Cloud kept his expression blank.

"You summoned Bahamut in Kalm,” the man said calmly. It wasn't a question. Cloud merely shrugged, neither confirming or denying. "Are you aware that you interfered with a mission that involved the terrorist 'The Death God on the Battle Field'?" The man let the question hang, clearly waiting for Cloud to enlighten him.

Cloud was puzzled. Who was “Death God on the Battle Field”? The only person he could think of who’d come close to deserving such a title was Sephiroth. And Shinra's poster boy obviously wasn't who the Turk was referring to. All Cloud wanted was to get to Nibelheim and be done with this. With a glare, he retorted, “You were going to bomb a town full of innocent people."

"You and your friends do not strike me as merely concerned citizens." Cloud’s lip quirked. Of course they wouldn’t; they were too weird a group for that. Eyeing the forest behind the troopers, he considered the best way to get out of this situation. The Turk wasn't done with his questions. “Who do you work for?"

"No one."

"Really?" The man’s tone was skeptical. After another attempt to wait out Cloud’s blank silence, he tried a different tactic. "What is your agenda?”

Cloud tilted his head in thought, never breaking eye contact with the Turk. What was safe to give away? Was there anything he could tell this Turk that would help them? Not really, not right now anyway. Not until they were ready, so he stayed quiet. The silence stretched on again, punctuated by the uneasy warbles of the chocobos, and crashes, shouts, and taunts from the chase in the woods. The Turk’s poker face was excellent, and the trooper’s helmets obscured most of their expressions, but their body language still subtly signaled exasperation. Whether it was because of his refusal to answer, the SOLDIER 1st’s behavior, or both, he didn't know and didn't care. "It would be in your best interest to answer my questions." The man’s cold eyes flicked to Tifa and Denzel and back. He kept his pistol aimed at Cloud, but the troopers swung their rifles towards the martial artist and the boy.

Cloud’s muscles tensed so quickly they almost spasmed. "Don't get in our way,” he growled. Denzel cast a nervous glance at Cloud, who nodded reassuringly. Despite his fury at the threat, he wasn’t seriously worried for the kid. Tifa would look after him, and Cloud could step in if things looked bad. This fight could even be good for him; there weren’t many enemies and he needed the practice.

He heard Tifa shift her weight, and he took it as the cue it was. They exploded into motion at the same moment. In one fluid movement Cloud dismounted Fenrir and charged the Turk, moving slow enough for the man to see him coming. The Turk darted back, away from his bodyguards. The two troopers began to turn, aiming at Cloud, but, only a heartbeat behind him, Tifa rushed into the space the Turk had occupied seconds before. She kicked the rifle out of the first trooper’s hands, then spun and caught the other man’s wrist with one hand while her other grabbed hold of his uniform, pulling him down to her level. Twisting, she flipped the larger man over her, throwing him to the ground. The force of the impact loosened the man’s hold on his gun. She snatched the weapon from him and pitched it dozens of yards away, into the ruined forest.

Cloud tried to grab the handgun from the Turk and repeat the trick, but since he was still consciously operating at half-speed, the man saw the motion coming and yanked the gun up, high out of the child-sized Cloud’s reach. Cloud switched tactics on the fly, lifting Tsurugi’s base blade, still in his right hand, and swatting the Turk’s hand with the flat. Instead of dropping the gun, as he’d expected, the man’s fingers clutched convulsively tighter, but it at least made him flinch his hand downward, back into the swordsman’s reach. He wrapped his fingers around the Turk’s wrist, twisting it until the man winced.

All this took only a few seconds. Behind them, the fight with the troopers continued. The first man had recovered quickly. Rather than waste time scrabbling in the pine needles retrieving his gun, he drew his sword and rushed Tifa from behind. Cloud turned to intervene, but was proudly surprised to hear Denzel shout a warning to the brawler and strike at the trooper, Enhance swinging in a choppy arc. The trooper turned and blocked the blow, and Denzel just barely managed to dodge the man’s counterstrike. The air rang with their blows, the boy visibly struggling, but not giving any ground. His footwork was solid, and stance properly centered. Tifa knocked out her man, and was ready to step in and help their son, if need be.

Cloud returned his focus to the Turk in front of him. They both knew this wouldn't be much of a fight. The Turk had lost the element of surprise a long time ago, and now he knew that he was outmatched by Cloud. The only hope for Shinra to regain the upper hand was to get Genesis back under control, but with Yuffie providing the perfect distraction, that was unlikely. "Don't get in our way,” Cloud repeated, shaking the man’s wrist for emphasis. Unable to resist the temptation to start sowing the seeds of doubt, he added, “And don't trust Hojo."

The Turk quirked an eyebrow at that, but before he could ask anything Yuffie dropped from a precariously leaning tree next to them. Cloud released the man’s wrist hurriedly as she eeled between them in a rush to vault over the elongated front of Fenrir. Obstacles safely between her and the panting, red-faced SOLDIER fuming after her, she peeled down an eyelid and stuck out her tongue. “Nnyaah, can’t get me!”

"Genesis." The Turk’s voice was perfectly casual.

The 1st stopped, glaring death at the smallest member of their group. He took a moment to get his breathing under control, likely more from frustration than from the fatigue Yuffie was showing signs of. Once collected, the SOLDIER took in the situation. The trooper Tifa had flattened was still down for the count, and the other looked as though he’d caught on to the fact that he was being used as a teaching implement and was now refusing to participate. Judging by his look of disgust, the amusement of the sight was clearly lost on Genesis.

Cloud was ready to be done with this all this. "I think it’s time you left." Cloud's voice was low and quiet but it held an edge.

Genesis's eyes sparked with indignation, but before he could say anything, the Turk cut him off.

“The next time you feel civic duty calling you, think before you act. Death God on the Battle Field is a highly dangerous terrorist. His men have taken hundreds of lives and, thanks to you, he got away. Instead of interfering with Shinra’s operations, I suggest that you turn your efforts towards him. I hope we meet again under better circumstances."

The man walked away, probably heading back to wherever they’d left the helicopter. The still-standing trooper cautiously collected his fallen comrade, warily not turning his back on them the entire time. That left only the seething SOLDIER 1st Class. He held out an imperious hand. “My materia. Now."

“Hmm.” Yuffie put a finger to her cheek as she considered. “Say please."

Genesis's eye twitched.

Cloud inwardly groaned. He went back to Fenrir and started the bike’s ignition. He looked around, trying to find a path that wasn't blocked by a downed tree, because, knowing Yuffie, they would have to leave in a hurry.

The commander was reciting something under his breath, obviously trying to keep his cool. ”My friend, the fates are cruel / There are no dreams, no honor remains.”

Yuffie’s hearing, though not quite at SOLDIER level, was still extremely keen. "That’s not what I asked for,” she sing-songed. “Come on, it’s easy. It’s pronounced pl-ēz."

Surprisingly, Genesis actually obeyed. True, it was uttered in less of a 'Please give give me back my materia' tone, and more of a 'Please let me kill you, then burn you, then kill you again' tone, but it was a please. Tifa and Denzel had mounted and, sensibly, were already picking their way through the jumble of logs. Cloud began to roll forward, weaving the bike carefully around obstacles.

“Let’s see… Nope! Tough luck, your materia's mine!" The little kleptomaniac vaulted onto Nijoror's back. She urged the bulky male forward into a sprint, sticking out her tongue in one last taunt.

Irritation and exasperation flared in Cloud’s mind, but there was no time to take it out on Yuffie. Genesis was yelling, so upset that he couldn’t even form coherent words. Cloud gunned Fenrir’s engine and made it over the last few trees with a combination of stunt riding and brute force, Yuffie laughing ahead of him.

Once they were well away, he pulled out his PHS to check the time. They’d lost an hour and a half because of Shinra’s antics… and Yuffie’s. At least it was summer; they would still make it to Nibelheim well before dark fell. He began to listen to the conversation ahead of him. No surprises, Yuffie was gloating.

“Ha ha! You should’ve seen his face when that flock of needle kisses flew up right in front of him! It was a perfect chance, so I took it and swiped another materia."

"What all did you get?" Denzel had always liked hearing the stories Yuffie told when she stopped by 7th Heaven, and being able to be part of them now obviously had him in high spirits.

The ninja puffed out her chest proudly. "A mastered Firaga; that’s what he cast at us. Oh, and a cool Firaga Blade, also mastered; an Assault Twister Plus, mastered; and an MP Up Plus. Of course, they’re all Shinra-made but, oh well. Then again, it’s kinda sad he only had the four. I was hoping for more. I mean, really? What kinda SOLDIER 1st is he, only carrying four materia?” Her puff turned into a huff.

Cloud just rolled his eyes. The man probably hadn't thought of four kids as a threat and now he, and Shinra, knew better. He remembered the Turk’s parting words. “Better circumstances”, huh? Either the Turk had been trying to recruit them (fat chance), or he’d been trying to threaten them. If that was the case, who and what would the Turks send after them next? Sephiroth? No matter who they sent, it would interfere with the group’s timetable. And who the hell was Death God on the Battle Field? No one had mentioned any such thing back in Banora, when they’d been hashing out objectives. If the terrorist really was such a threat, shouldn’t someone in the group have known about it? Maybe the Turk had been lying, trying to send them on a wild chocobo chase. It was a sad commentary on the Company’s standard operating procedure that Cloud couldn’t dismiss the notion that this ‘Death God’ was entirely made up, a convenient lie to feed the media to cover Shinra’s own actions. He made a note to ask Vincent what he knew about it later. Right now Yuffie was so amped up, she’d probably steal his PHS out of his hand, just to prove she could. He'd call after she settled down.

Denzel twisted in his saddle to look at Cloud. “That was one of the SOLDIERs we’re trying to save, right?"

Cloud nodded, too absorbed in his thoughts to give a better answer. It had been Genesis, alright. The man wasn't showing any signs of degradation yet, and if Reeve's memory was correct, wouldn’t for a few more years. He couldn’t help worrying that some change they made to the timeline might end up triggering it sooner. They were going to Nibelheim after all, near Jenova. If Genesis showed up while they were at the Reactor, would she be able to influence him? The flames of a burning town flickered in his mind’s eye. Would Shinra follow them into Nibelheim? Would they try for an ambush outside of town? Would they bring in back-up, their current forces having proved insufficient? Too many questions, with no easy answers. He didn't like it. Thankfully, Tifa seemed to sense his anxious mood.

She reined Nerthius up, to be beside Cloud. “You alright? Don’t worry, we can handle it.”

Cloud had to look a long way up to meet her eyes. With her tall and straight on chocobo-back, and him crouched on his motorcycle, the height difference was a matter of several feet. He nodded. "Yeah, thanks."

He was lucky to have his friends with him, to watch his back in fights and to depend on while on the road. Tifa had been right when she had called him out, during the crisis of Kadaj’s Reunion, on his dislike of being alone. He was a private person, and he didn’t like sharing his wounds, but he did like knowing he had people who he could turn to and trust. If he had come back without them, what would he have done, alone in the past?


 

It was close to four o'clock in the afternoon when they reached the outskirts of the sleepy little town. Denzel wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it. Curiosity: it was another place he’d never been, and it was Cloud and Tifa’s childhood home. Unease: because Cloud never talked about it and Tifa only rarely. He knew enough of the story to be aware that a lot of seriously bad stuff had happened here. Conflicted: they were supposed to avoid attention from the locals, going so far as to leave Fenrir hidden outside town, but Denzel really wished he could meet kid Cloud and Tifa. Sure, now he knew what they’d looked like at his age, but it wasn't the same. He wanted to know what they’d been like, before they saved the planet, before they became so… parent-y. On top of all that he was sore from riding for days, and hungry for cooked food. They’d mostly been eating in the saddle, and he was starting to hate the sight of any food that came in bars. At least he wasn't cold, even if the breeze blowing down the mountainside carried a chill.

The group made a wide, silent loop around the town. Even the golds, picking their way over the rocks, stayed quiet. Once they were past the village Denzel thought the others might relax a bit, but they didn't. To the side and a little behind him, Yuffie started to fidget. Ahead of him, Tifa was ramrod straight and perfectly still on Nerthius's back. Cloud, who’d taken point on foot when they neared the town, was also straight as a board. They were all tense. Denzel’s mouth was dry; he swallowed. These people, who hadn’t even batted a eye when that SOLDIER showed up, were nervous about where they were headed.

When the Shinra mansion finally loomed into view, and the building really did loom, he felt a reluctance to approach the place. Not only was the place creepy, like a set from a horror movie, but it was the beginning of the nightmare. This was where Vincent had slept out his penance, where Cloud got his enhancements, where Sephiroth went insane. Suddenly, a part of him wanted nothing more than to stay outside, even if that meant sleeping unsheltered. By the time they finally reached the wrought iron gates, his palms had become sweaty, the leather reins sticking to them.

He dismounted while Yuffie picked the locks, then led an uneasy Freyr into the cobbled courtyard. When the gates clanged shut behind him, he jumped and fumbled for his sword. He turned round, only to find Tifa smiling at him, her hand still on the gate latch. Her smile looked a little strained. ”I know this place is creepy, but don't be oversensitive, or you could end up hurting yourself or someone else. I was only shutting the gate so the chocobos can wander around the yard."

"Ah... right." He couldn't help the blush he felt on his cheeks. Right. No need to be jumpy. He took a deep breath and turned back to Freyr, unbuckling the girth and martingale, then pulling the saddle off. Following Cloud’s and Yuffie’s example he set it to one side, in a pile with the rest of the tack that they had bought in Costa Del Sol. Tifa was walking around the courtyard, dropping piles of greens for the chocobo’s dinners. Denzel followed Freyr over to a pile, smoothing down his rumpled feathers. The boy looked up when Tifa called his name. The others were all standing on the front stairs, and he trotted over to join them. Without speaking, Cloud opened what Denzel was privately labeling The Doors To Hell. They walked through a short hallway into a big, high-ceilinged room with a curved staircase and three tall, grimy windows at the far wall. The light that filtered through was dim and greyish. As the others made their way over to the staircase, Denzel took a moment to peer around the large entrance hall. Aside from the spiders spinning cobwebs, there were no signs of life… or so he thought. Something floated out from a barely-open door on the left side of the hallway. Was it a monster? It didn't look dangerous; it looked like a child’s craft - a pink bow on a jack o’lantern head, fluttery white ribbons suspended beneath it, moving like jellyfish tentacles, propelling it through the air.

"Um... Cloud!?" His question turned into a shout of alarm as the pumpkin spotted him and started floating towards him with a purpose.

He didn’t even see Cloud move - one second he was at the top of the stairs, the next he was five feet away, sword out, the pumpkin already falling to the floor, cut in half. Guess that answered his question whether it was dangerous or not. "What was that?” he asked.

"A dorky face.”

“Really? That’s its name?”

“It’s about ten levels higher in strength than you,” Cloud said sternly, casting an assessing glance at him.

"Um. What?” He shifted his weight a little. Why was Cloud looking at him like that?

"Yuffie, you have a Silence, right?" Cloud called over his shoulder to the girl, still standing on the staircase.

“Yeah, why?"

“Oh!” Tifa exclaimed softly. “Good idea, Cloud.” She nodded at the ninja, saying, “It’s for training, Yuffie. This way, Denzel’ll have a handicap.” Cloud nodded in confirmation, then turned back to Denzel. When the swordsman locked his eyes back on him, Denzel straightened immediately. Even when Cloud was shorter than him, the man still felt taller.

“Think you can clean out this floor for us?"

Denzel gaped for a second. Cloud wanted him to 'clean out' this floor? Against something ten levels stronger than him?! He collected himself. He had promised that he wouldn't get in the way, and he wasn't about to let Cloud down. "Sure. I can do that." Nervousness and excitement cracked his voice. Get a grip! he chided himself. He’d faced down a shadow stalker, and had tried attacking Bahamut-SIN, and he hadn’t been nervous either time. Then again, he'd been pretty mad that time with the summon, and adrenaline had carried him through against the stalker. Plus, this time was in front of Cloud. What if he messed up and made a fool of himself?

“Hey, let’s start with that room,” Yuffie called from her perch, pointing at the room the small monster had floated out of.

"Denzel.” Tifa stepped down the stairs toward him. "Yuffie will cast Silence, so you won't have to worry about their magic, but watch out for their cutter attack. You have Haste, right? Now would be the time to use it. And call us if there’s any other types of monster in there.”

"Okay." He smiled, partly grateful for the advice, and partly to reassure her. Yuffie jumped down the stairs, and walked with him to the barely-open door. He drew his sword, cast Haste, and nodded at his friend. She threw open the door, revealing two pumpkin-heads bobbing over the dusty carpet. Yuffie leapt inside and cast Silence over the little monsters, so fast that they had no time to react. The floating creatures responded belatedly to the magic, drifting away from the caster, which brought them into Denzel's range. He quickly stepped forward, swiping at the closest. The blow connected, but the impact caused the monster to bob away like a balloon. He should have expected that, since they moved like independent balloons, but it caught him off guard and he overbalanced. The second dorky face rushed at him. What he had thought were ribbons were razor-edged tentacles, and the creature cut an inches-long gash into his upper arm, making him drop his sword as he grabbed at the cut.

"Watch out!"
"Grab your sword!"

The two separate shouts made him lunge for his sword. He hit the ground rolling, grabbing the blade as he went, before coming to rest in a kneeling guard. It was a move Cloud had taught him for just this sort of situation. The monster’s follow-up attack missed, and it overshot, ending up on the far side of the room. Denzel charged at his original target, aiming at the slight wound he had made with his first strike. The pain in his arm from his own wound made the strike not as powerful as he would have liked it to be. He also missed the spot he'd been aiming for, instead making a new nick below the previous. Again, that damn second one came spinning in, but he was able to block it. The thing was stronger than it looked, causing a vibration to run down the blade as it ricocheted off.

It was like hitting the piñatas that his parents used to buy for his birthdays. You just kept hitting them until they fell apart, but you had to be careful in case they swung back at you. With that memory in his mind, the fight became less frightening and he got better at hitting them without losing his balance. This whole time, he’d been training against things that resisted his strike, not things that moved with it. His piñata comparison really worked, too, cause as each one faded into the lifestream, it left some gil behind. Finally, the fight was over. Denzel was feeling kind of tired. Those things had a lot of health for their small size!

As he went over to collect the fallen gil, a wave of warm healing energy washed over him, and the cut on his arm closed. He peered over his shoulder to see who had cast the spell. Tifa smiled and nodded at him. He beamed back at her in silent thanks. He grabbed the money and walked back over to the others, trying to assess Cloud’s expression. He seemed pleased. “You did well. There's still one more room on this floor. Once you’re done with it, we’ll head upstairs.”

Denzel felt like swelling with pride at the compliment. On the other hand, another room? Groan. Fine, whatever. He could do it.

There were three dorky faces in the new room. Denzel used the same strategy as before, but with the added wrinkle of having to keep track of a third opponent, he spent so much time dodging and blocking that he landed very few hits and was only really succeeding in wearing himself out. In the end, Yuffie cast Freeze as well as Silence to give him some breathing room.

Once the room was clear, they took a breather before making their way up the stairs. The top floor was just as dusty as the bottom, with even more cobwebs. Denzel couldn't help wondering, looking at the dingy grey mats collected in the corners, if the spiders here were poisonous. Somehow, he felt that if they weren’t, it would be kind of disappointing. As they made their way through the bedrooms, studies, and a conservatory filled with dead plants, Denzel found that the dorky faces became less and less of a challenge. Sure, they were a higher level than him, but their actions were predictable and now that he was used to them, slow. He was sure he’d gained two, maybe three, levels while fighting them.

“Next we go get Vincent, right?" he asked, downing a potion, reveling in the way his zapped energy was boosted.

"Maybe.” Cloud shrugged. “It depends on the safe."

Denzel’s eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. “Safe?” What did a safe have to do with waking up Vincent?

“Look, it’s the one over here." Yuffie waved at him from the open doorway of a room they’d already cleared. He peered inside. Sure enough, there was a great big safe along one wall, gunmetal grey with a tarnished gold dial. He’d been so busy with the monsters, he hadn’t even noticed it. Yuffie was already fiddling with the dial. Denzel took two steps inside before a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Glancing over, Cloud’s mako-bright eyes met his.

"You should wait in the hall. If lost number is in there, this room’ll be cramped in the fight." Cloud pushed him gently out the door.

"Huh?" said Denzel, articulately. Lost number? Was that a monster? He stood where Cloud had left him in the open doorway, completely baffled, watching as the others gathered around the safe, ready for a fight. If there was a monster in there, it would have to be pretty small, about Yuffie’s height. So why had Cloud said that it might get cramped? Yuffie whooped as the last number of the lock combination clicked into place, then jumped away and pulled Conformer off her back, swaying her weight from foot to foot.

At first, nothing happened. Then the door creaked slowly open a few inches, releasing a foul brownish vapor that made his eyes water and his stomach churn. Yuffie gagged and immediately put her free hand over her nose, Tifa coughed and turned a nauseated green, and Cloud, with his mako-enhanced sense of smell, turned to the side and threw up. A green tentacle curled around the edge of the door, swinging it fully open. Denzel had never seen a real malboro before, but he knew what they looked like, and this looked like it could be the god of malboros. The thing was huge! Its eyestalks brushed the ceiling, its toothy maw could’ve swallowed Fenrir whole. How had it fit in the safe when it barely even fit in the room?!

Tifa recovered first, casting an Ice spell at the thing’s eyes. She leapt to the side to avoid a flailing tentacle, which was severed by a blow from Cloud. The malboro let out a angry, hiccuping roar that was accompanied with another wave of bad breath. This time, it was Denzel’s turn to gag. Covering his mouth, he spun and made desperately for the bathroom he’d seen earlier. His hands slapped onto the sink counter, sending up little puffs of dust, and he spent what felt like an eternity retching as his stomach tried to climb out of his body by way of his throat. He washed out his mouth with rusty water, then jerked back as the entire building shook, the floor moving beneath his feet. There was a tremendous noise of cracking wood. He waited frozen for a moment, afraid the floor was going to collapse, but when nothing else happened he carefully made his way back to where the fight had been.

Tifa was crouched in the hall in front of the doorway, using a torn piece of carpet to wipe foul-smelling liquid from her leather gloves. Hearing his footsteps, she looked up. "Feeling better?" she inquired, maternal concern evident in her voice.

"Yeah." He looked down at the floor, feeling his cheeks flare with embarrassment. He'd run away from a fight. It wasn’t one he’d been fighting in, but that only made him feel more useless. He’d thrown up.

Tifa stood, peeling off her gloves, and gently took his clenched hand between her own. “The first time I fought a malboro, I nearly passed out. I had to let Barret take the front line while I recovered,” she confided. “If we didn't all have Ribbons, this fight would have been a lot harder."

“It was hard enough!” Yuffie’s voice sounded odd, as though she was farther away than just inside the next room. “Sense said it had over fifty thousand hp left, and that was after we already chopped off a bunch of tentacles!”

Denzel leaned into the room, coughing at the dust clouds that filled the room. There was barely any floor left - he could look down through the giant, splintered hole to the room below, where the malboro’s body was slowly fading. Cloud stood to one side of it, cleaning his swords. Yuffie held a cloth over her nose and mouth while she rummaged around the dissolving corpse.

"Ewww. This thing was someone's pet." She held up a pink collar, nearly three times her height in length. "Carrot,” she read off the heart shaped tag.

"Who would keep a malboro as a pet?" Tifa made a disgusted face.

"Someone with no sense of smell,” Denzel muttered. That prompted a small laugh and a nod of agreement from Tifa. They watched as Cloud made his way to the fallen safe. It had fallen on its face, and as he picked it up and turned it over, something small and shining red fell out. A materia. He picked it up, rolled it between his palms, then tossed it to Yuffie. Catching it, she yipped in delight and surprise. Cloud turned back to the safe, half crawling into it as he ran his fingers into the dark back corners.

Yuffie held the materia up to a window, frowning. “Hey!” she yelled to the swordsman. “This materia's a dud!"

"I don’t think so,” Cloud answered, his voice echoing oddly from inside the safe. “It feels like those key materia we picked up back in Banora."

“Guess I'll have to figure out what it goes to. Well, if it leads to any other materia, it’s mine and I'm not sharing."

“Fine,” Cloud said. He stood up, looking displeased. “The key’s not here.”

Suddenly, embarrassingly, Denzel’s stomach grumbled loudly. Apparently, now that it had been emptied, it wanted to be filled.

Before he could say anything to cover his embarrassment, Yuffie announced, “I agree with Denzel. I'm starving, and besides it’s, what, ten o’clock? I say dinner and bed, Vincent can sleep another night. Besides, he's gonna be all depressed and mopey right now. I don’t wanna spend all night dealing with his ‘I must atone for my sins by sleeping forever." She did a pretty bad imitation of the gunman and bounced out of the room.

"She has a point,” Tifa said. “It’s late, and we'd be waking him up only for us to go to sleep.” In the room below, Cloud looked away unhappily. Tifa stepped forward, crouching at the edge of the hole. “We’ve got to sleep, Cloud. Sleeping here doesn't appeal to me either, but what option do we have?" Her voice was soft, and Denzel got the uneasy feeling he sometimes had around his adopted parents, that he was intruding on a private conversation.

Cloud shifted uneasily before sighing and shrugging. "Whatever." He followed Yuffie out the door into the entrance hall.

Tifa stood and clapped Denzel on the shoulder with what looked to the boy like false cheer. ”Well, let’s go get dinner."

Once again, dinner was in bar form. Denzel made a face at it, but none of them felt like chancing the cans in the kitchen. Who knew how old they were? Let alone whether they were safe to eat. After all, Professor Hojo had lived in this house for a while.

When it came time for bed, they decided to sleep in the bedroom across from the room where the safe had been. There were two beds in there, one for the girls and one for the boys. Given the number of monsters that had taken up residence in the abandoned building, they also decided to set up a watch like they did when traveling the wilds. They’d taken out all the enemies they could see, but who knew what else might be lurking? Cloud would go first, followed by Tifa, then Denzel, then Yuffie. Denzel was glad he didn't have first or second watch. He was tired from the days-long ride, the battle with that trooper, then all those fights with the dorky faces. He took off his shoes, lay down on the bare mattress, stripped of its musty top sheets, and was out like a light.

Chapter Text

Good morning jungle; a questionable vehicle; Home; when I meet myself; time to go

 

Nanaki woke slowly, listening to the dawn chorus of the Gongagan rainforest. It started with the occasional bird call, melodic or raucous, then grew noisier with the buzz and drone of insects, the whoops and shrieks of monkey troops, and the occasional bellowing from a distant grand horn. He lay curled on the pillow of the Fair’s spare cot, Reeve’s dark head resting on the corner of pillow, and ruminated over the differences between this jungle and the one in their own time. He knew for a fact two of the birds he heard now would be extinct in ten years, and the roar and rumble of the mutant heavy tank was absent. It seemed that Shinra’s monsters were not yet well spread at this time.

The morning cacophony in all its vociferous glory soon begin to rouse the other occupants of the house. Sensing Reeve waking next to him, Nanaki began to rise, but before he could gather his paws firmly under himself, the soft surface of the feather pillow was yanked out from under him. A quick twist, and he landed crouched on the floor, blinking. It seemed Reeve had no intention of getting up just yet, as he now had the pillow clutched over his head in an attempt to keep the noise at bay.

Nanaki felt slightly bemused by Reeve’s behavior. Reeve had always seemed to function on very little sleep, staying up late and rising before dawn. Was this laziness the result of his strenuous efforts yesterday? Or perhaps it was simply an effect of his physical age. Human adolescents had a well known habit of sleeping late.

“Seems like someone’s not ready to get up yet.” Mr. Fair echoed his thoughts swinging his legs over the edge of the nearby full-size bed. Bending down, he ruffled the fluff on top of Nanaki’s head. “Mornin’.’”

Nanaki glared and shifted away. “I do not like to be pet.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry.” The man looked chagrined. “I didn’t mean - I was just ruffling your hair. I used to do it all the time to my son. Sorry, wasn’t thinking.” It was of some consolation that the gesture was an ingrained habit for the man, but the unthinking patronization of the gesture still rankled Nanaki.

Mrs. Fair sat up from the other side of the bed, and pushed her husband out of the way, so she could get up. “It’s barely light out, and you’re already into trouble,” she commented.

“Seems like it,” Mr. Fair said ruefully. “Wake up, Reeve. I’ll take the two of you, and we’ll go find some breakfast.”

They followed their host down a dirt path, the soil steaming in the warming morning air, as he explained about the town’s communal chicken coop. It provided food and shelter for the local semi-feral jungle fowl, and if they were lucky they would find some eggs there. If not, they would have to scour the bushes until they found a nest. Nanaki liked the idea of the coop, but was less enthralled with the notion of traipsing around in the thick jungle, hunting for eggs. Thankfully, they found a clutch of six eggs in a nest box at the coop, then picked some ripe cherimoya as they made their way back at the Fair’s small house. They were greeted by Mrs. Fair as she stepped out into the streams of morning sunlight. “Back already? Well, honey, if you’ll cook breakfast, I’ll be back soon.”

“Where are you going?” Reeve inquired.

“For a quick run to the waterfall and back. Zack and I had a morning ritual, running to the waterfall and then home, and I haven’t lost the habit since he left. Either of you up for a race?”

Reeve shook his head quickly. Nanaki was strongly tempted, but there was too much to be done. “Sadly, I must decline. We still need to procure transportation to Cosmo Canyon. It is a long walk without it.”


 

Buying a vehicle in the small jungle town proved to be nearly an impossible task. In the end the vehicle they borrowed was the Gongagan jeep, so named because no one actually owned the derelict car. No one was willing to take financial responsibility for it, since that would entail repairing it. It had been brought to the village nine years ago by the Shinra Company, but a monster attack had left the frame warped. When the company pulled out of the village, they’d left the battered jeep behind. Vehicles being rare and expensive, the town had quickly adopted it, but after all these years of muddy roads, humid air, and exceedingly amateur maintenance, it was a wreck. It had become the town’s emergency vehicle, used by whoever desperately needed a ride and had no other option. The rear bumper was missing, while the front was tied on with rope. The glass in the fold down windshield was shattered. The passenger door was stuck shut, there were no longer any mirrors, and one headlight and both tail lights were broken. The fabric top of the car had rotted away, and the rear seats had been removed. The engine and its attached hoses, belts, and fans, which had no hood to cover them, were held together with twine, rubber bands, three different kinds of tape, and a wad of elderly chewing gum. Needless to say, Nanaki was not looking forward to riding in it.

Cait Sith and his Moogle clambered into the back, Nanaki sat in the moldering passenger seat, and Reeve, with some trepidation, took the driver’s seat. Miraculously, the engine started on the first try. They bid goodbye to the Fairs, and set off in the rattling, wheezing jeep. Within a few hours, they’d traded the greenery and soggy roads of the dense jungle for expanses of grassland with yellow and orange wildflowers blooming in the middle of the rutted road. By mid-afternoon, the grass had thinned to sparse brown patches, dessiccated by the intense summer sun and lack of rain. Nanaki began to smell the familiar scents of chaparral and sage. Resting his chin on the door, he watched the skeletons of old manzanita and mahogany trees, the spires of agave and yucca, and the last stubborn blooms of mallow, verbena and poppy passing by. In a few more hours, they would reach the red dust roads and high clay and sandstone walls of Cosmo Canyon. His home.

Being who he was, one of the only two great cats left in the world, though younger than he should be, he anticipated little difficulty getting his Grandfather and the rest of the canyon to believe and help them. The challenge would be seeing if they could reach their many deadlines, when those dates were so unclear. They needed to be ready to act in concert with the other party member’s schemes, but in some cases that would only be achieved after the others had provided them with the necessary data. That could be in a week, or in three months. There was no way of knowing. Until the others made contact with them, he, Reeve and Cait Sith would have to make do with what they had.

Under a curtain of starlight, they turned down the desert wash that led to the base of the mesa topped by Cosmo Village. The midnight hulk of the stony outcrop loomed steadily larger before them, the ember-glow constellation of the village on top sliding out of view as they drove up to the base. The vehicle pulled to a shuddering stop, and he eagerly jumped out, joints sore from the jarring ride. The soft night breeze brought to him the scents and noises of small nocturnal animals, the soft shifting of sleeping birds, the rustle and tap of dry vegetation… He sat, breathing deeply, ignoring the pinging and popping of the cooling engine, the happy chatter of Cait Sith, and Reeve’s groaning as he stamped and swung his arms, trying to shake out the fatigue of long travel.

Reeve come over to him at last. “Nanaki? Are you prepared to go? Have you given any thought to what you will say?”

Nanaki stared at the shadowy wooden staircase that led up to top of the mesa. “Some. I am mostly content to field the questions posed to me.”

As they ascended to the top of the stairs, Nanaki was unsurprised to find that even at this late hour a guard had been posted at the dry wooden gates. The man had more than likely been watching their headlight blink in and out of the dark canyon landscape for the last hour or more.

“Halt! Who are… you?” What had begun as an authoritative command ended as a bewildered question when the man caught full sight of Nanaki.

“Tis’ I, Nanaki,” he announced. “Shrunken as I traveled backwards through the flow of time. My companions and I need urgently to speak with Grandfather.”

It was a grim reminder of how few of his kind were left that the man so easily believed his claim. He displayed no suspicion, no doubts, only surprise at the claim of time travel. They were ushered in quickly and in minutes it seemed the whole village was awake as news of their arrival spread. Sitting beside the large ceremonial bonfire of the Cosmo Candle, Nanaki began to feel apprehensive. Of all his friends, he would be the first to meet his younger counterpart, and what would happen then? Nanaki was uncertain. Despite the general disdain he felt towards most the media produced by humanity - useless, dull, trite, or its medium actually harmful to the planet - he’d developed a certain taste for works of nonfiction that explained the working of the world, and rather more guiltily, an enjoyment for serious works of speculative fiction. Reeve had similar tastes, and the two of them had frequently lent books to each other. Sometimes, in time travel stories, it was dangerous to the time stream for two versions of a person to occupy the same point in spacetime.

His nerves began to get the better of him. His tail flicked back and forth in agitation. Would their meeting disrupt the time distortion that had placed he and the other party members here in the first place? What if, somehow, the two of them merged into one being? What if one or the other of them ceased to exist? He stood, almost ready to leave, but the crowd around the Candle had grown so thick that even he would have difficulty eeling his way out. He saw a stir in the far side of the crowd as people made way for a short figure.

He could sense the crowd parting and one last desperate thought flit through his mind, giving him some comfort. Experiences and memories made you who you were. His young counterpart had yet to live through even half of what he had. They were similar, but certainly not the same being, not any more.

“Ho ho ho ho, isn’t this a surprise! Time travelers!” Bugenhagen floated out from amongst the crowd. “It is good to see you, Nanaki, though you are rather smaller than I thought you would be.”

He couldn’t help but huff at that, feeling the nervousness draining away at the sight of the village leader’s familiar round face. The man’s circular spectacles reflected the firelight, as they had done many nights in the past, when Nanaki had sat beside the Candle as a part of the community. “Yes, grandfather,” he answered, “though how I came to such a state, or even to be in this time, I could not tell you.”

“Then the traveling back was not your doing?”

“No. It caught my friends and I off guard.” He could make out his younger self - how strange to regard himself as the older one, when his past self was a gangly teenager and he currently seemed stuck as a fluffy cub - standing close behind Bugenhagen. There, also, sat Deneh, she and Nanaki’s younger self were both looking at him with wide eyes. It was difficult to resist trailing off and staring back at them.

“Ho ho ho ho! Well, that is good news. I had worried that some grievous event had happened.”

“Oh, but Grandfather, many such events did happen. Now that we are here, we plan to stop them.”

The old man gave him a considering look. “And you think it wise to mess with time and alter the planet’s path?”

Nanaki felt stung. His ears flattened with displeasure. “We did not mess with time; it messed with us. And the disasters I speak of nearly took all life from the planet. Would you ask us to sit back and watch it all happen again?”

That sent a ripple of murmurs through the crowd around them. The normally jovial old man was silent, his face creased with deep thought. In what seemed like an eternity before the elder spoke again, Nanaki began to doubt if coming here had been the correct choice. If the Canyon did not help them, their plan would fall apart, but worse still would be the betrayal of his home against him.

He needn’t have worried. The skin around Bugenhagen’s eyes crinkled like old paper as a smile swept onto his face. “It seems you have grown up, Nanaki, though your size has decreased.”

Nanaki swished his tail, feeling irritated again at how small he was. “Grandfather, please.”

The old man chuckled again. “Whatever help Cosmo Canyon has to offer, we will give you. This is your home.”

Those simple words lifted a weight from him. He hadn’t realized quite how heavy it had grown. “Thank you,” he said, deeply grateful.

Bugenhagen tugged at his grey beard, smiling. “No matter when or where you go, the canyon will always be your home.” He regarded Nanaki silently for a moment, then his smile diminished and he continued seriously. “Now am I correct in guessing that Shinra and its Mako extraction is something you plan to confront?”

Nanaki nodded, the beads braided into his mane rattling. “Yes. We plan to replace it with cleaner energy - like wind and solar.”

Suddenly, a new voice entered the conversation. “It won’t work.” A small cluster of people, three men and four women, all wearing sturdy boots and khakis, jostled their way to the front of the crowd. The two youngest seemed to be in their mid-twenties, while the man who’d spoken was the oldest among them. He was short, darker-skinned than Barret, with greying hair and a rounded beard, and a matter-of-fact air. “My colleagues and I are here studying the effects Shinra’s mako extraction has on the planet. We’ve tried talking to Shinra about the damaging effects our findings reveal, but they refuse to hear us out. You’re not going to be able to get them to listen to you, and they’ll crush you if you try to compete against them.”

“I believe we may have a way around that,” Nanaki offered, and nodded to Reeve, who so far had been silent. Taking the cue, the teen stepped forward. “My name is Reeve Tuesti,” he said, gesturing to himself. “Currently my past self is a member of the Shinra Board, in charge of Urban Development - including the mako reactors.” A murmur swept through the assembly, growing louder as Reeve continued, his posture drooping slightly, “To my shame, I was one of their principal designers.” Now the murmurs were snarls and Nanaki physically intervened, moving to stand between his friend and his people. The researchers were glowering at Reeve, and even Bugenhagen’s expression grew disapproving.

Reeve held up his hands disarmingly, his voice soothing and measured as he explained, “I am genuinely sorry for the part I played. I never intended to hurt anyone, and I plan to fix my mistakes now. I will contact my younger-self and persuade him to shut down the reactors.” He hurriedly explained their plans for clean new energy sources, appealing to the researchers for assistance as he spoke.

Nanaki relaxed as the village did. Suspicion remained on many faces, but they seemed willing to hear Reeve out. Soon the majority of the village’s population was seated around the bonfire, listening to Reeve expound about wind and solar farms, hydropower, geothermal energy and bio-fuels. The man was certainly in his element, Cait Sith at his side recording everything.

The great cat observed his younger self trying to pay attention to Reeve’s speech, but obviously unable to keep his attention on the impassioned technical explanations with a time-shifted version of himself sitting only a few paces away. Nanaki stood, nodding his head at the cub to follow. Deneh stood to follow, then hesitated, and Nanaki nodded to her as well. She accompanied them over to the mesa’s edge. Alone in the starlight, away from the murmuring group surrounding the Cosmo Candle, he was able to study the cub he once was - before Shinra, the labs. Hojo.

Sympathy and disgust battered at each other inside his breast as he looked at his younger self, who sat up - puffed up really - trying to look impressive. What a child he had been - was, sheltered and naive about anything that lay outside the canyon’s walls. He had grown up surrounded by love and respect, although he had done little to earn it. And still he had craved more! He had wanted, so desperately, to grow up, to be perceived as a pillar of strength, a great warrior his mother would have been proud of. A strong leader unlike his cowardly father. A foolish wish that only a child could make, absorbed in the stories he’d told himself, unable to accept worldviews that clashed with his own.

Despite the springy, youthful energy of his cub body, Nanaki felt very old, very conscious of the scars that marred him. The tattoo. The missing eye. He had wanted to grow up, but he had naively wished for it in the form of a transformation, a sudden overnight change. His growth, however, had been a painful thing, a gradual process of losing trust in others and then regaining it, of breaking through the lies he had told himself, of enduring horrors and ending horrors and coping with the aftermath.

You didn’t grow up overnight but by the hardships you faced. Some were so small you forget them the next day; others left scars. He wanted to impart this knowledge to his younger self, but how? Their plan was to avert the catastrophes, both personal and world-threatening - he wanted the child before him to learn the same lessons of maturity he had; he did not want him to learn them in the same bitter ways. At the least, he wanted him to know that the cornerstone of his fervently believed self-history was false. Their father was no coward.

In the time he had spent studying his young counterpart, the cubs had been studying him. Deneh was the one to break the silence.

“How did you lose your eye?”

It wasn’t surprising that was the first question to be asked. His scars, reminders of everything he had been through, looked out of place on his shrunken body. Next to his younger self they were particularly startling.

“I was taken from here by Shinra and by one man in particular.” The memories of his time in the labs still had the power to send tremors through him, and he mastered them sternly. One thing he was determined to make sure never happened was the capture and subsequent torture of the two children in front of him. “But I promise that I and my friends will do all that we can to make sure you two are never taken.” He knew his friends would do anything necessary to help him, and if the worst did happen, they would not hesitate to infiltrate Shinra to rescue them.

The cubs’ curiosity had been replaced with shock and fright as he had been speaking. Ears flat, tails slightly tucked. He had spoken in generalities, but it was clear that they were picturing horrible things. To distract them from their imaginings, he brought up the lesson he most wanted to impart. He looked the cub that shared his youth firmly in the eyes. “There is something you must learn of our father. He was no coward.”

The cubs hackles began to rise, but before he could protest, Nanaki growled, “Do not interrupt, but listen! Our father Seto was a hero. He does not deserve your hate or your scorn, but your respect for the sacrifice he made for this canyon. Our home. When the Gi tribe attacked, they tried to sneak in by way of a hidden cave that comes straight up through the mesa. Our father defended this cave and pushed them back. Even as his body was turned to stone by their cursed spears, he still defended the canyon.”

“But our mother-” began the cub, but Nanaki cut him off again. “Our mother knew, and ordered the cave sealed. She grieved for his death, not for his disappearance.”

The cub was silent, a contemplative scowl on his face. Nanaki raised up on his hind legs and gently head-butted his counterpart. “When there is time, I will take you to him. You will see the truth in what I say.”


 

It had been two productive weeks since they had arrived in the canyon. The researchers had allowed the new arrivals to share the hut they used as a workspace, and lent them plenty of supplies. The simple wooden furniture creaked under the weight of brainstormed doodles, sketches, schematics, blueprints, and agendas. For Cait Sith, being around so much analog technology was sort of an exciting adventure! The researchers had two ancient, bulky personal computers with simple cathode monitors, but the bulk of the work was being carried out by hand, in pen and pencil on reams of recycled paper. Cait Sith was amazed by how inventive and creative the researchers were, working with such limited resources. Reeve obviously felt the same, but still confided in him that while redesigning Midgar and its energy sources was a long held dream, he sorely missed all of the equipment he’d once had back in Urban Development, and even the salvaged and refurbished equipment they’d used for the WRO. The few computers that Morgan and his team had available for them to use were considerably out of date to the time travelers. Reeve had spent the first days simply writing code, trying to upgrade the software to the point that it was usable for the 3D modeling and number crunching that he needed.

Cait Sith helped where he could, fine tuning designs, or taking over the time-consuming task of copying designs and transposing them to other parts of the city. And it wasn’t just Midgar they worked on redesigning, but Junon and all the reactors around the planet. Not in full detail, though! Remembering what was and wasn’t complete at this point in history was impossible. So was remembering the exact layout of all the infrastructure that had made up the City: the sewer-lines, mako pipes, electric cables, etc. They did the best they could, leaving plenty of flexibility in the new design so that the old infrastructure could be accommodated.

The researchers had assisted too. On top Reeve’s extensive knowledge and training as a civil engineer, the study team had contributed from their areas of expertise - Morgan as an environmental surveyor and engineer, Ingrid and Logan as botanists, and Mable and Sonia as geologists. The remaining two scientists, the zoologist Marcos and the specialist Joni (who studied clinology, gerontology, and neonatology; all studies of the aging process from birth until death), contributed less, but still made some excellent suggestions about urban habitats, accessibility, and senior care.

Now the plans were as completed as they were gonna get, so it was Cait Sith’s job to travel to Sector Zero, try to contact Aerith, and start putting their hard work to use.

Chapter Text

The first day; Chaos and paper airplanes; The Grand Tour; Challenge not accepted;
Chocobos and children; What a landing

 

Three days after being hired, Cid, Shera, Barret, and Marlene reported at the security checkpoint of Shinra’s main air base for the moment of reckoning.  There hadn’t been so much as a peep from the Turks, so unless those besuited bloodsuckers were planning to ambush them at the checkpoint, Cid figured the group was in the clear.  The sharp-eyed guard at the gate scrutinized their temporary employee IDs with slow, careful attention, then handed the papers back with a gruff “Welcome to Shinra’s forgotten armpit,” and waved them on, not even batting an eye at Marlene’s presence.
 
The air base was out in the Waste, several miles from Midgar itself.  Cid felt a smile creeping onto his face as they drove past the barbed wire fencing and in amongst the clapboard office buildings, sheet metal hangars, and concrete bunkers.  Despite the distance from Midgar, and the city’s relative youth, there wasn’t much vegetation still hanging around and the buildings all had a healthy coating of pale dust.
 
“See that building over there?”  He pointed to one of the largest structures.  “That’s where they built most of the crap that went into the Highwind.  Right behind it is where it was all put together.  Next three hangars are for planes, and those next two are for the fucking corkscrews.”  Barret reached around from the back passenger seat and smacked him upside the ear.
 
“Watch yer language ‘round Marlene, man!  I keep tellin’ ya!”
 
“Alright, dammit!  I got it!  It’s where they keep the choppers, happy now?”
 
Shera interrupted, her hands waving in a shushing motion.  “Is it a good idea for you to be telling us this?  Won’t they be suspicious if we know where everything is?”
 
“Nah,” Cid answered, rubbing his stinging ear.  “The place was never well organized.  Heck, a Malboro tryin’ the two-step would be better organized than anything I ever saw here.  Anybody who notices we know our way around’ll just assume that somebody else already gave us directions.”
 
A paved concrete square surrounded by low wooden buildings on three sides was the hub of the aeronautics division’s headquarters.  They parked the rattling jeep in front of the middle of the three buildings and piled out.  On either side of the metal door, which had “SHINRA: Air & Space Division HDQTS” stenciled on it, were two potted lemon trees.  In all the time Cid had worked here, they’d only ever put out one fruit between them.  Nobody had ever eaten it - it had wrinkled up benignly on a special shelf of its own in the office, and was brought along in state to the first flight of any craft.
 
He grinned fondly at the trees as he passed, and heaved open the door.  The others followed him in, then stopped and stared.  The open office beyond was in mild chaos.  Sheaves of paper towered at the edge of metal desks, folders were stacked on top of overflowing file cabinets, and notes were passed across the room via paper airplane.  (Shera squeaked and ducked as one nearly took her ponytail off.)
 
People carrying papers and PHSes rushed in and out of the back door, which was never shut for more than four seconds.  Pull-down maps decorated most of the walls, and wherever there wasn’t a map, there was a strata of tacked-up notices.  The AC units rumbled and whirred, and so did fans on desktops and inside computers.  That was only background noise though, to the jumble of voices - people shouting to each other or into phones.
 
“Can somebody get me two choppers on standby five miles northeast of Fort Condor?  Special request from the Turks!”
 
“We don’t have anything over by Mideel until 0300, they’ll just have to camp out overnight.  They’re SOLDIERs - a couple mosquito bites aren’t gonna kill them.”
 
“The mission leaves in two days, and I’ve still only got two warheads!  I need a full payload! …  I don’t care about your problems!  What, you want me to just load up the bay with rocks instead?!”
 
Next to him, Barret leaned over and whispered.  “It always this bad?”
 
He gave a sardonic smile, enjoying the bustle.  “Yeah, fucking disaster zone.  But I didn’t give a crap, just wanted to fly.”
 
“Hey, you!”  A young man with a blond mohawk came power-walking out of the disorder in front of them.  “Yes, you guys just standing there.  What do you want?”  His voice was brusque.
 
“We just got hired,” Cid said peaceably, and flashed his temporary ID at the guy.
 
The young man snatched it from his hand, and peered closely.  He had tattoos of blue flames along his arms.  “Huh, guess that means more paperwork.  Hang on a sec and let me see if your permanent IDs are around here somewhere.”  The man fought his way away from them, disappearing behind a skyscraper of file folders.  About seven minutes later, he reemerged.
 
“These are you, yeah?  Barret Walls - mechanic, Cid Haze - pilot, and Shera Larkin - engineer,” he confirmed before handing the badges over.  “I’m Brother - sometime Gelnika pilot, most times ground crew member.”
 
Cid had pulled out a cigarette while waiting.  He hadn’t lit it, and now he chewed on the butt while he thought.  Brother.  Hadn’t he been part of Qator’s crew?  A deck officer, or something?  Must not have been promoted yet.  But, damn.  That had reminded Cid of Qator himself, a fancy-dressed nose-grinder with a stick up his ass.  He could be a problem.
 
The credentials distributed, Brother leaned over to be Marlene’s height.  "And who are you?” he asked.
 
“I’m Marlene, Shera’s sister,” the girl lied calmly.
 
“It’s fine that she’s here, right?” Shera asked, wringing her hands, worry in her voice.  No need for acting.  “Only the man at the gate didn’t seem to mind, and, well, our parents passed away last year, with no relatives for her to live with, and with us staying in housing out here, I couldn’t just leave her in the city and -”
 
Brother held up his hands in surrender, trying to stop the torrent of words.  “Slow down, slow down.”  He grinned at them. “It is fine, we have a daycare.”
 
Barret glared accusingly over Brother’s mohawk, and Cid shrugged.  He’d never had a kid; how was he supposed to have known about the daycare?
 
Brother was still explaining.  “Lots of parents bring their kids.  You’ll have plenty of friends!”  He looked up seriously at Shera, Barret, and Cid.  “There is not much in the way of proper learning though, so school work is on you.”
 
Cid frowned.  Great.  Start a rebellion, save the planet, teach math.  If the department could afford some babysitters, why couldn’t they afford a teacher?  Surely some egg-head in Midgar would want the job, even if it paid shit.  Folks were desperate, weren’t they?  Or maybe not yet.  He thought about the bustling optimism in the slums.  Nitwits were still too damn hopeful for a decent paycheck in the city of dreams to bother coming out here.
 
“Shinra doesn’t pay much attention to us as long as we get the job done,” Brother finished.
 
“About that-”  An office runner of some sort interrupted, PHS in hand, papers tucked under an arm.  “You guys don’t happen to have any contacts inside or outside Shinra that might be useful, do you?”
 
They looked at each other.  Unless you counted an ex-Turk, a renegade super soldier, a past Shinra board member, the Wutaian princess, and the rest of the crew who had brought down the globe-spanning corporation, plus a shit load of weaponry and all their collective knowhow, none of which they could mention, then no.  They had nothing to share.
 
Shera shook her head.  “Sorry.”
 
“Too bad.”  The runner clicked their tongue in disappointment.  “We’ve got fewer rules out here, but part of that’s because we get no attention, no money, no love.  We have to fend for ourselves.  Glad to have you, regardless.”  The runner gave a small wave before heading off.
 
“What was that about?” Barret grumbled.
 
Brother headed for the door and waved for them to follow.  “I’ll explain as I show you around.”  The glaring light of the sun assaulted Cid’s eyes as he stepped out.  It had gotten much brighter during the brief time they’d been inside.  It might get hot out in Rocket Town, but now that the morning cool had burnt off, nothing but the Corel Desert could beat the Wastes in the downright miserable hell contest.
 
“Like you heard, Shinra does not give us assistance.  Our boss Palmer is a good-for-nothing, spends all his time in Midgar.  Out of all the departments we have the smallest budget, once you factor out the fuel costs.  We’re on call twenty-four/seven. Don’t ever expect thanks for air-lifting someone’s butt out of danger - and the Turks are the worst.  Got choppers stationed all over the planet on stand-by for them.”  Brother, Cid remembered after watching the young man speak, was a very active talker, always waving his arms around.
 
“Anyway, Cid, right?”  Cid nodded.  “I talk about how badly off we are, but you’ll be happy out here, we’ve got the best flyers.  If you like helicopters, they’re over there.”  He pointed to the same buildings Cid had earlier.  His back was to them, so he missed Cid’s scowl.  “Next to it is where we have the planes.  Tilt rotors, Gelnikas, some Atomos, and a small fleet of Valfarre fighters.”  Cid could look around and see all these craft on the tarmac too - a Gelnika practicing touch-and-gos, a Valfarre being refitted, equipment being loaded onto an Atomos.  
 
Brother waved his arm to the east.  “Airships land over there.  And if you look further off, past the tarmac you can see a pile of rust, that was once the Viltgance.  It crashed a couple years back.  Now we use it for scrap.”
 
Cid use to explore the wreck when he’d first arrived - it had been recent, then.  Met his first girlfriend Marsha combing through it.  Her dad had been a crew member.  With her help, he’d incorporated some of the Viltgance’s design into the Highwind.  Longer nose than the standard airship, an observation deck, overhead rotors.  Both ships had been bigger than their predecessors.  Plenty of folks had thought him a nitwit for basing his design off the one airship that had crashed at the time. It had had so much potential, though, he couldn’t just let its memory and design rust over.  The Highwind had been a marvel of engineering; nothing had ever come close to beating it until he’d built the Shera.
 
“The whole fleet isn’t stationed out here,” their tour guide carried on, “the other bases are out in Junon.  That’s a navy base as well, and they always have the best food.”
 
Cid remembered that too.  He’d always been eager to make flights to Junon, where there was real food instead of cardboard.  Hell, sometimes he’d change his flight path to hit more stops, which used up more fuel, which would necessitate a stop off at the port city...  And while he was there, why not grab a bite to eat?  Two ahriman, one stone.
 
Brother was still going on about the other airbases.  “Rocket Town: that’s where the space lab is.  It mainly exists so Palmer can have a fancier title.”  He turned to Shera.  “If you’re interested in research, you should try getting transferred there.  The Science and Weapon departments have the best facilities for engineers and researchers, but we’re glad to have you, and we need you more.  Ines Belfarre heads up all that stuff out here.  See those sheds way over there?”  He pointed to a collection of buildings across the tarmac, some way from the wreck.  “That’s where you’ll be working.”
 
“And we have a real small base in Midgar proper, HQ, mostly for the Turks and executives.  They call here if they need anything for troops or SOLDIER.”  
 
He walked them past Housing, a series of stacked apartments with cracked stucco walls: “Rooms are tiny, walls are thin, you’ll hear engines going all night.  Not to mention everything your neighbors do. I recommend investing in earplugs,” and then the mess hall: “The food sucks, that’s why there is a counter full of condiments, hot sauce, dressings, sugar, everything.  If you’ve got anything like that with you, you share it with all us other poor saps.  Same if you end up buying anything.  Oh, and you get a day off every two weeks to leave base, but you can’t expect your days off to line up with your friends.”
 
“Barret, over there is the mechanics’ garage.  Most of your work will be done in the hangars but fiddly stuff is in there.  Tools are kept there too.  In charge is Besrudio Bunansa - don’t confuse him with his son Mustadio Bunansa.  He’s a little older than you, and works there too.”  He turned to them, looking serious.  “Now if you or Shera are any good at your jobs, Weapons or Science might try to poach you.  You just tell them to go screw themselves, alright?  You’re ours now.”
 
Barret scowled.  “I’m here for a reason.  Ain’t gonna go working for them,” he groused.  Shera nodded firmly.
 
“Glad to hear it,” Brother said.  A shout hailed him, and he turned towards it.  Another young man ran up.  He wore a red bandana tied around his head, and it fluttered brightly in the breeze.  Tattoos had always been popular on the airbase, Cid recalled.  This fellow had blue stripes all down his arms.
 
“What’s up, Marcus?” Brother asked.
 
“Urban Development has put up some new scaffolding in sector eight, and it doesn’t have any guide lights on it yet. I’m trying to warn all the pilots.  If you get called into Midgar, you need to go around that sector until those guide lights are up tomorrow.”
 
“Right, I’ll pass it on.”
 
“Thanks,” Marcus gave a nod before running off.
 
Their guide turned back to them.  “That’s another thing.  Communication around here sucks - if somebody is out of a plane without their PHS, they’re incommunicado.  We have radios and intercoms, but it is too noisy, with the engines.  You hear something, pass it on.”
 
“Seems like a shitty way of getting things done.”  Barret’s opinion on the place obviously hadn’t gone up over the tour.
 
“It was not so bad before the war.”  The young man shrugged.  “Our infrastructure’s never had a chance to catch up with all the new demands.  Add in that the boss does not care about us, and we end up with a mess.”



 
Barret could see now that Cid’s plan wasn’t just some fool's errand.  This place was in major need of some reorganization, and nobody seemed to like the boss.  They ought to have it easy stirring up trouble.  He’d never been part of a strike himself, and had no experience organizing such a thing.  There had always been plenty of grumblin’ in the Corel mines, most of it ‘bout Shinra and falling wages, but it had never come to anything.  The rare times it had looked like boiling over, Barret’s dad had been a peace keeper, talking people down, knocking heads if nothing else got through.
 
After his old man passed, he’d tried to follow in the man’s footsteps, being a leader in Corel.  He’d talked the others into swallowing all sorts of ill-treatment, because surely the rewards for their labors would be coming soon - and that there’d be trouble if they didn’t keep in line.  Then it all went to hell, and causin’ trouble for Shinra became his mission.  Sure, he might have prettied it up talking about the planet, but any excuse was good enough for him.  After Meteor, he’d stopped runnin’.  Started to put his town back together. Put the whole world back together, one block at a time.  And now here they were, back to causin’ trouble.
 
“Well, what y’all think?” Cid asked, all quiet like.  Brother had walked off a few feet to take a PHS call.
 
“Needs an overhaul,” was Barret’s soft response.
 
“We’ll be split up - but we can cover more ground that way.”  Shera put a thoughtful hand to her chin.  “We should start with the lower ranked workers before moving up the chain. Though I’ve worked with Dr. Belfarre before in Rocket Town.  She shouldn’t be too much of a problem. She still talked about Darill quite often.”  She looked at Barret.  “You might want to get close to Mustadio first.  He’ll be just a bit older than you, and if you can plant doubt in him, he’ll talk to his father.  Besrudio listens to him.  And Cid-”
 
The pilot nodded grimly.  “Qator.  Yeah, I’ll handle him.”
 
Barret frowned.  Cid and Shera were in their element here - they remembered all this stuff.  He was the odd man out.  “Qator?” he prompted.
 
“Caption of the experimental airship Gabriel, and the highest ranked combat member in the department.  Loyal as a guard hound to Shinra.”
 
“While you guys worry about that,” Marlene said, “I’ll work on the kids.” She grinned impishly, an expression he knew meant trouble.
 
“No way,” he said flatly.  “You ain’t getting involved.”  He wasn't about to let her get into hot water.
 
She frowned.  “I’m here to help.  I’m not going to sit around like a lump in daycare.  Besides,” the grin came back, “you really shouldn’t underestimate the power of kids to persuade grown-ups.  I can get you and Cloud to dress up and join me for tea parties.”
 
Shera and Cid snickered.  Barret rolled his eyes.  “Laugh it up, you two.  Just wait ’til you have a kid.  You’ll go to a hundred tea parties to keep ‘em happy.”
 
Marlene looked smug. “We’ll be your secret weapon, see?”
 
“Nuh-uh,” he said.  “You’re gonna sit tight, aight?  Let us handle things.”  She didn’t answer, but he knew not to take that for a yes.  

He’d have argued with her some more, but Brother finished his call and came back.  “You guys are from podunk towns, right?”  He didn’t give them a chance to answer, waving his arms in dismissal. “So you’ve never seen an airship land, right?”  He carried on before they could respond.  Barret scowled, trying not to be irritated by the patronizing tone in the man’s voice.  “Well, we’re done with the tour, but if I stretch it out a little, you will be on the tarmac to see the Falcon coming in, in about a half hour or so.  An airship landing is always impressive to watch.”
 
Yeah, he’d seen them land before, nearly had one land on his bar.  Cid had the Shera hover there for a near week after Kadaj’s Reunion.  It had brought in a lot of business for Tifa, people coming to gawk at the oversized flying machine.
 
Cid answered Brother with what seemed like honest enthusiasm.  “Can’t wait to watch.”
 
Brother filled the remaining time by taking them around to meet their coworkers.  Shera’s new boss, Dr. Belfarre, was deep in the guts of some weird-ass device, and only waved at them.  A group of off-duty pilots headed back to housing - Elly and Raffy, blond twins who flew Velfarre fighters and did some of their own maintenance, and two of the five Mog brothers; Tillo and the flight instructor Iosh.  Barret was introduced to the Bunansas, who greeted him with energy then turned back to arguing over a long roll of blueprints.
 
They ran across Cid, the past one, on his way off base.  They oughta get used to it, Barret guessed, meeting people they knew as younger versions of themselves, but it was still fucking weird.  Brother introduced him, going on about how Cid was the youngest airship captain in history and that he’d even designed his current ship.  They all spent a moment sizing him up, making the guy a little mad at them.  That was partly Brother’s fault, he figured.  If the flying prodigy thought they were doubting his abilities, that was his own problem.  ‘Course, their Cid didn’t help.  Had to go poking buttons.
 
“You're that good, huh?  I’ll have to race you sometime, airship or Bronco.”
 
The twenty-something Cid scowled, and stepped forward angrily.  “Don’t get cocky, kid, bet you ain’t ever even been in an airship.”
 
Shera set a gentle hand on their Cid’s arm, but he grinned and stepped right up to his past self, evidently having the time of his life. He dropped his cigarette on the ground and crushed it under his heel. He looked up, staring directly into his past self’s eyes.  “I could still fly circles around you.”
 
The other Cid stared for a moment in disbelief, then snarled, “Who the fuck do you think you are, you green-assed little amoeba?  You wanna end up cleaning the shit-stains outta toilets?”
 
Brother leapt between the two men, his arms flailing like windmills.  “He meant nothing by it, sir!  Excuse us, I’ll just take a moment to talk with him, you do not need to worry about it!”  He grabbed the teenaged Cid by the arm and towed him away, scolding under his breath.  Barret, Marlene, and Shera followed.  
 
“What were you doing?” Brother half-whispered, half-shrieked.  “He could put you on permanent janitor duty!  You don’t talk back to the people who can promote you!  You can’t act like that here!  Don’t do it again!”
 
Barret looked back at the other Cid.  The man was walking out on the tarmac to a waiting chopper.  Barret wondered where he was going.  Hopefully somewhere he’d be busy for long enough to cool down, though him forgiving their Cid was probably too much to ask.
 
Not long after, Brother introduced them to a pilot named Sazh and his son Dajh playing with a pet chocobo chick outside a hanger. There was a large round fan blowing nearby, keeping the area cool. The chick would run forward, flutter into the fan’s draft, and be blown back and caught by the little boy. Each time, it warbled happily, hopped to the ground and repeated the process.  
 
Marlene was instantly taken with the yellow fuzzball. She ran forward to watch, asking its name.
 
The little boy beamed. “Her name’s Chocolina! Daddy got her for me when we went to Costa del Sol,” he said, happy to show off his new pet.

“She’s a yellow, about a week old, right?” Marlene asked.

“You got it. Picked her up the day she hatched.” Sazh smiled and put down the propeller reduction gear he’d been cleaning. “You know a lot about chocobos, huh?”

“Yup! And she’s from the peninsula. You can tell because she’s so small.”

“That so? Guy we got her from told me she wouldn’t get too big, like the racers.”

“We went to the track and there were some reeeeally big ones.” Dajh stretched his arm up as far as he could, trying to show how big the birds were.

“How do you know she’s a week old?” Brother peered down at the chickabo.

“By the egg tooth on the top of her beak,” she responded.

Brother rubbed his head. “That so. Where’d you learn so much about Chocobos?”

“Oh… umm,” Marlene glanced up at Barret. She couldn’t explain about Cloud’s racing exploits, so she looked to him for some help, and he wasn’t gonna leave his little girl hanging.

“Guy in our village raised a couple of racers.” He nodded slightly at Marlene, then expanded the motion to encompass the group.

Dajh’s eyes grew big. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Marlene chirped, back in charge of the story. “I used to help out, when I could go.” She loved the birds, but she didn’t get to go out to the farm very often. Cloud usually visited on his way in or out of Edge during delivery runs, Tifa was busy running the bar, and Barret had his work on the oil fields that all-too-often kept him away from home, let alone visiting the Chocobo Farm. Plus, there was the rank chocobo smell, which Barret had never got used to and was why he didn’t make a point of hanging out with the birds.

Sazh grinned. “Well, if that’s the case, if we have any questions we’ll come ask the local expert. Okay with you, little lady?” He seemed like a decent dad, better than what Barret had been expecting from a Shinra employee. Kinda drove home the fact that most of the people here were just ordinary folk trying to get by.

Marlene laughed. “Alright,” she replied.

Then Cid had to go running his mouth, ruining his girl’s moment. “And if you can’t figure it out, come to me.”

Barret snorted. “Like you know anything about takin’ care of them.”

“Hey, I raced those birds too,” Cid shot back.

“Never helped look after ‘em or pay for ‘em.”

“Not my fault Cl- the spiky haired idiot kept them so far away. Easier to met him at the track.”

Barret scoffed. Far away, his ass. Cid owned two airships and a plane, a jaunt to the next continent was a milk run for the man. And Cid’s racing was purely for the prize money, to spend building his own shit, not out of any love for the birds or the sport.

“Guys, enough,” Shera chided them.

  After an awkward moment, Barret and Cid still eyeballing each other, Sazh shook his head. “Kids,” he sighed dismissively. “Still, you raced, huh?”

“A bit,” Cid acknowledged, putting an unlit cigarette into his mouth, rolling it back and forth.

Sazh eyed him, but when Cid offered the pack, he shook his head. “Nah, not for me. Nasty habit for a kid,” he said significantly. “Mess up your lungs.” Cid just shrugged. Sazh pursed his lips and continued, “Thing is, the seller had me buy some reagan greens, saying they’re some of the best stuff for her, but they’re expensive and hard to get out here. What would you recommend?”

Cid started to answer, then looked down and smiled. Marlene was pouting a little. He gave her a nudge. “Well, expert, what would you feed her?”

She smiled, then launched into her advice. “Reagan greens are too rich for her at this age. He just wanted to rip you off.”

“That so?” She definitely had his attention now.

“Yes. As a yellow chickabo, she only needs krakka or either type of gysahl green, the leafy one or the radish. You can also give her tantal or pahsana apples as a treat. But not too often until she’s older,” she warned.

“Krakka or gysahl.” Sazh took a small pad of paper out of his large coat pockets, jotting some words down before putting it back. “Got it.”

Dajh grabbed hold of his dad’s hand, chickabo cheeping at his feet. “Daddy, is Chocolina gonna get sick cause we fed her the wrong food?”

Sazh looked at Marlene. She looked at Dajh. “Not if you switch her over,” she reassured him. When the boy turned away to tell the chickabo the good news, Marline tugged on Barret’s shirt. He crouched down to where she could whisper in his ear. “Reagan greens will make her have diarrhea and smell worse than normal.”

Barret laughed and passed the information on to Sazh, who shook his head in dismay. “Great, would’ve liked to known that a week ago.”

“I’m surprised they let you keep her on base,” Shera commented, chuckling at the chickabo jumping up into the fan’s wind.

“Most out here don’t care, as long as she doesn’t get in the way. Might be a bit more difficult when she’s older, but Dajh’s just crazy about chocobos and having a pet is a great responsibility for a kid. We’ll figure something out for her when she’s full grown.”  

In general, Barret agreed with Sazh - he’d had dogs all his life growing up. But he hadn’t had a pet since Corel’s destruction. For a long time he’d just been too angry, and since then, too busy. He was away all the time, getting the oilfields up and producing, Cloud was away nearly as much, and Tifa ran herself ragged looking after the bar and the kids.  He was hit, as always, with a strong case of gratitude for everything she did.  Maybe when all this was over, they’d build a new Seventh Heaven here.  If things went okay on Reeve’s end, getting new energy sources, Barret would be able to help out at the bar. Third time’s the charm. And Marlene and Denzel were getting more responsible all the time, they’d probably be okay looking after a pet on their own… Reeve always had an excess of rescued cats he was trying to find homes for…
 
The chickabo right then decided to flutter her way onto Dajh’s afro, making everyone laugh. Marlene clapped her hands together in delight.  He felt himself misting up a little, watching her.  Growing up with AVALANCHE, she’d been raised surrounded by adults.  Funny how working for Shinra, temporary as it was, would mean she’d have other kids to play with.  He hoped leaving wouldn’t be too hard on her.  
 
Barret still had some concerns about this whole daycare deal.  This was Shinra they were talking about.  At least it seemed the fuckers didn’t try teaching them anything.  No way in hell was he gonna’ let those life-stealing vampires teach his little girl.  He looked up at Sazh, feeling a mild irritation all over again at the loss of his height. “How’s the daycare they got here?”
 
“Huh? The daycare?” Sazh scratched his chin. “It ain’t bad, just some spouses who are willing to live out here and older kids not much younger than you who look after the tykes. Built themselves a place behind the barracks with some scrap. They call it ‘The Fort’.”

A fort, huh. Sounded kinda fun. Still, he’d feel better knowing about any learning going on. By the sounds of it, he and the other two were going to be busy working and starting a revolt. They wouldn’t have any energy left to teach, and if the daycare just let the kids play it wouldn’t do any good for their futures. He didn’t want Shinra teaching, but none wasn’t any good either. Was Brother right, no one out here taught? “Got any lessons?” he questioned.

“Just real simple stuff,” Sazh replied. “Alphabet, counting, how to write their name, add 2+2. That kinda thing. Any more complicated is on you. They just don’t have the time.” He sighed.

Big group? “How many kids out here?”

“About twelve or so. Oldest thirteen, youngest under a year. Most folk with kids have them in proper homes off base. Just us who have no one else to look after them out here.” Sazh’s voice dipped and Barret recognized the tone. It was in his own voice sometimes when he was thinking about Myrna. He wondered what had happened to Dajh’s mom.

Instead he said, “I can see why most don’t want to live out here if they got other options.”

“Hah, ain’t that right. All this dryness is dry, and the heat is worse.”

Dajh suddenly stood up and pointed a chubby finger into the sky.  “Ship comin’!” he chirped.
 



 
Heads turned to look.  Shera squinted and shielded her eyes.  Far off in the wavering air was a black dot.  She had to watch it for a minute to assure herself that it was indeed growing larger as it came closer.  Little Dajh had good eyes.
 
Brother’s radio crackled, but an engine activated in the hangar and she couldn’t hear any of the transmission.  Cid started to walk out onto the tarmac, and Shera followed him.  Marlene had been stuck to her side all day, but the girl stayed behind, talking to Dajh.  Shera was glad; she wanted a private conversation with her husband.  Barret would look after his girl.
 
Cid was grinning as he tracked the progress of the ship through the heavens, apparently uncaring of the overhead sun that made sweat trickle down his face and darken his hair.  Shera had to shift from foot to foot as she stood beside him, the heat rising up through her shoes.  “Cid,” she said quietly.  “What was with you earlier, picking a fight like that?”
 
His grin dropped.  He looked down at her, then away.  His mouth worked, and he fiddled with his cigarette before he answered.  “Well,” he answered slowly, “I’m an asshole.  Always have been, prob’ly always will be.  Just, some times in my life, I was more of an asshole than others.”
 
He was quiet again.  She took his hand.  His mouth quirked.  “I ‘pologize.  I shouldn’t’ve got carried away.”  
 
She squeezed his fingers.  “Just don’t do it again,” she murmured.  “It’s all of us you’re risking.”  He squeezed back, then pulled away, squinting up at the approaching airship.
 
“Something’s wrong,” he said tautly.  “It ain’t comin’ in right.”   Shera looked up.  The dot was big enough to be seen as a ship now, and something was indeed wrong.  Though still distant, the craft was distinctly listing to port.  Something might be wrong with the rudder, she thought, or perhaps the rotors, watching the aft drop distressingly before the pilot recovered.  The airship was struggling to stay aloft.
 
Then, blaring out over the massive noise of engines and propellers, she heard the sirens of the red alert. The ship was under attack.  Someone or something was on board. Other people were running out onto the tarmac to watch.  A man shouting into a radio brushed past Shera.  She followed him for a few steps, tugging Cid with her, determined to hear.
 
“What the hell is going on up there!?”
 
It took a moment before the radio crackled back to life. A woman’s voice came through.  “Coming in fast with a monster on our tail.  It’s damaged the rear engines and rudder.  Tell the ground crew to stand by with spatulas, they may have to scrape up our remains.”  Despite the morbid joke, her voice was calm, almost amused.  Shera wondered at the woman’s confidence.
 
“She’s coming in too hard!” someone in the crowd half-shouted.  Nervous, Shera turned to Cid, then did a double take at his excited grin.
 
“Cid,” she hissed. He shouldn’t look so pleased in the face of possible disaster.  
 
“Don’t get your panties in a twist,” he smiled, “she’ll make it.  I heard this story.  Can’t believe I get to see it play out first hand.”
 
Even with Cid’s reassurance she fretted over the airship’s rapid approach.  “What’s going to happen?”
 
“You’ll see, just watch,” was his unhelpful answer.
 
Wind blasted down at them, many ducking and shielding themselves from the force.  Marlene popped up beside her and grabbed her hand, and Barret stepped in front of them as a physical barrier. Squinting behind her glasses, Shera watched as the Falcon came in at a nearly vertical drop, landing gear out.  The rotors stalled and for a few sickening seconds the ship was in free-fall.  Her grip on Marlene tightened, then spasmed as the rotors came screaming back on in a hard-reverse, attempting to pull the Falcon from its plummet.  It would be too late, she thought despairingly, seeing how low the aft of the ship dragged.  Yet somehow, with only a few inches to spare, the nose dipped precipitously, equalizing itself with the sagging rear, and the airship set down with a thump.
 
A hand landing on her shoulder made her sharply exhale the breath she’d been holding.  “See, told you it was something to watch,”  Cid rubbed a soothing circle on her shoulder before adding, “and it ain’t over.”
 
She gave a jerk, staring at him in dismay.  What else was going to happen?  He just gave a cocky grin, nodding back to the Falcon.  A tall blonde woman in a long red coat, trimmed with light-refracting gilt, was descending a hurriedly thrown out ladder.  She ignored the onlookers and went in ground-eating strides to the ship’s tail.  The crowd followed her, Cid pulling Shera along with him, Shera hanging determinedly onto Marlene, Barret keeping pace beside them.  The grating shriek of a monster rang out.  Looking up she could see the clawed wings of an abnormally large ahriman, just visible over the spine of the craft.  Its mutated body was partly obscured by thick noxious smoke emanating from the damaged engine.  As the crowd moved behind the ship, the creature grew clearer.  The size of the monster, its discoloration and malformed claws, the extra saliva dripping from its gaping mouth, unusual ridged scales and overly aggressive behavior were all clear signs of mutations caused by mako.

On the broiling asphalt, the pilot, Darill, it must be, unholstered an ornate long-barreled pistol with a set of linked blue and green materia from her hip.  “You messed with the wrong ship,” she growled, and fired several shots in quick succession.  The Ahriman shrieked as the magic-infused bullets impacted its body before exploding into large ice crystals.  In agony, the monster flung itself off the ship, diving at the onlooking crowd, its single blood-red eye opening wide, the black sclera around it like a universe unto itself-
 
“Shit!” Cid grabbed hold of her, dragging her to the ground, but she could still see that hideous eye.  Barret grabbed Marlene away from Shera, burying the girl’s face in his chest.  “Get your head down,” Cid yelled at her, grabbing her by the neck and physically forcing her gaze to the ground.  “Don’t look at its eye!”
 
Around them, people were screaming and fleeing or following their example and dropping to the ground.  It wouldn’t be long, she knew, before someone would die.  Why wasn’t Cid doing anything?  Even with their weapons hidden away they still had their materia.  It was then she noticed the sky around the horizon was no longer a washed out blue, but dark with a giant full moon.  The earth and air alike trembled with power, the relentless beat of something fast approaching.  Raising her head, she saw the sword of Odin catch fire as Sleipner seemed to soar over the prostrate people, many with their faces turned up in wonder at the armor clad summon.  The ahriman’s last shriek was cut short as Zantetsuken cleaved its rotund body in half.
 
Flames consumed the summon and it was gone, the pressure of its power fading, the sky returning to blue. Beside her Cid stood and offered her a hand.  “That,” he glanced at Barret, who was helping up Marlene, “was rutting fantastic.”  Their friend gave Cid a glare, mouthing the words ‘watch it’.  Soon the fear and shock faded and people began to talk animatedly amongst each other.  Many went over to Darill to thank and congratulate her.  Others wanted to see the summon stone slotted into a wristband, which she showed off with a dignified pride.  However, she didn’t put up with the attention for long.
 
“All right, you slackers, back to work.  Someone get a repair crew on that,” she waved her hand towards the damaged Falcon, “as soon as possible. I’m going into town for a hard drink.”

Chapter Text

Disappointment caused by non-fermented peaches; A grumpy not-actually-a-vampire;
The shadowy follower; Dishonesty and the game of tag; Death on the mountainside;



    Denzel was warm and comfortable, cocooned inside the blankets.  How nice it was to be back at Seventh Heaven, in his own bed, instead of on a narrow airship bunk or curled in a sleeping bag on the ground.  He nuzzled his head against the mattress, breathing deep - and jerked awake at the musty scent.  He sat up and looked around.  How could he have forgotten?  This was Shinra Manor.

    Nobody else was in the room.  Denzel got dressed in a hurry.  They’d started without him!  He wanted to be there when they woke Vincent up.  And... he wouldn’t admit it aloud, but it was kind of creepy to be alone here.  He trotted down the hallway, relieved to hear voices from the far end of the hall.  Entering, he found the others hard at work on gutting the mansion for any useful information.  They were surrounded by piles of books, and dust clouds puffed through the air.  Cloud sat on the ground, a stack of papers in his hand, and the girls were sneezing as they pulled books from shelves.  Yuffie and Tifa looked up as he walked in, but Cloud seemed absorbed in the papers he was looking through.  

    "Good morning, sleepy head,” Tifa greeted.  "There's hot tea down in the kitchen, if you want any."

    “Some canned peaches, too,” Yuffie chipped in.

    "You actually opened one of the cans?" Denzel asked.  "I thought we decided not to trust those."

    "Well…” Yuffie spread her grimy hands in a small shrug.  “I’m sick and tired of those stupid energy bars, and those freak scientists didn't want to poison themselves, so why would the canned food be bad?  I mean, sure, this place has been abandoned an' all, but it’s not like they left that long ago.  And even if it was starting to go bad - Look, rotten grapes turn into wine, so if the peaches went bad they'd just be some type of booze too, right?  And no, before you ask, they didn't turn into alcohol; they’re still fresh.  I did find some wine, but Cloud and Tifa said I couldn't have any so early.  You and Marlene have been a bad influence on them.  They’re taking this whole ‘parenting’ thing a little too seriously.”  She wrapped up the torrent of words with a pout.  Tifa rolled her eyes.

    "Um... right,” Denzel said.  “I’m… just gonna go get some breakfast.  See ya."  He made his escape downstairs.  He was still too sleepy to deal with a hyper Yuffie.  In truth, the peaches were pretty good, and it was nice to eat something different.  By the time he went back to the others, they’d made a lot of progress.  The stacks of papers and books had grown substantially taller.

    "We're almost finished up here,” Tifa informed him.  "As soon as we’re done, we'll wake up Vincent and start on the lower levels."

    "Right.  Anything I can help with?" he asked, looking around the cluttered room.

    "That’s our last one over there.”  She pointed to a tall wooden bookcase in the corner.  “Look through the books, and if they seem like they’re medical or scientific, put them in a stack and one of us will get to them.  If they aren’t, just leave them.  Okay?"

    "Okay."  He picked his way over carefully, trying not to wreck any of the careful piles.  Cloud was sitting cross-legged on the floor nearby, leafing through a thick manila folder.

    "Mornin,” he said, coming to a halt beside him.  Cloud looked up and right through him.  His serious expression didn’t change, and his blue eyes were unfocused.  "Cloud?" Denzel questioned.

    "Hmm?”  Cloud blinked.  “Oh.  Yeah, good morning, Denzel.  Sorry, I’m just... distracted."  His eyes wandered back to the papers he'd been scanning.

    Weird.  Well, this whole place was weird and depressing. The dark browns, reds and grays were so different from Ms. Ruvei’s pastel colored library and reading room. He use to spend hours in there reading the crumbly old books, hiding from the real world.  He looked up at the towering shelves in front of him.  Right, he could remember those times later.  These books weren't going to sort themselves.  Stretching on his toes, he started on the top shelf and worked his way down.  Science journal, local fauna, local fauna, medical, local flora, local legends (he set that one aside for himself), local flora of Rocket Town.  When Cloud spoke next he was already on the third shelf.  

    "Did you sleep well?"

    "Huh?  Yeah, just fine."

    "How was your watch?"

    "Fine, though I jumped at one or two shadows,” he admitted.  He ducked his head, a little embarrassed.

    "Hmm."  And that was all.  Again, he was struck with how off Cloud was.  He really hoped that they could finish up quickly so they could leave this place.  The large, empty manor was oppressive.  Even with the windows open, curtains stirring in a slight breeze, the air felt close.  Tifa had passed out tissues and eye drops, but still everybody was sneezing constantly, from all the dust they couldn’t help kicking up.  Denzel was relieved when they finished the room.  Some of the medical and scientific books they took and set out in the hall; the rest they left behind strewn in semi-organized chaos all over the floor.  He slipped the book about Nibelheim legends into his pack to look at later.

    Tifa stood outside in the hall, dusting her hands, a distracted frown on her face.  Cloud stood beside her, still withdrawn and thoughtful.  Yuffie seemed to be the only one feeling like her normal self.  “Well, let’s go wake up Mister Cranky-pants,” she proclaimed, entering a room they’d sorted through before Denzel got up.

    The others followed her, but Denzel stood outside for a moment, confused.  If they were headed to the basement, why weren't they going downstairs?  He hadn't seen an extra staircase down there, but he’d been preoccupied with the monsters.  He heard a grinding noise from inside the room, and went in.  There was a round stone wall in the corner that he’d thought must be part of a tower, and that wall was sliding around to reveal a dark staircase.  He couldn't help but hold his breath.  That was cool... in a creepy sort of way.  They headed down the spiral stairs, stepping cautiously in case one of the wooden slats was rotten.  The flashlights flickered eerily on the walls, twisting their shadows into disturbing shapes.  The place smelled, too, like what Denzel thought a tomb might smell like.  Cold stone and mold, mixed with something dead, and underneath a sour earthy smell.  There was maybe some rotten egg too.  Was that… mako?

    There was a strange, high-pitched chittering that grew louder as they got closer to the bottom of the stairs.  Cloud, in the lead, whispered, “Black bats.”  Even that slight noise was enough to disturb the restless monsters, and they came swooping, biting and clawing at the intruders.  The swordsman detached the two smallest blades from his sword, wielding them as daggers in the cramped tunnel.  Yuffie, too, was affected by the close quarters, unable to throw Conformer without risk to the others.  Instead she swung the five pointed shuriken in lethal arcs.  Tifa didn’t have to change her fighting style at all, taking out any of the black bats that came within her reach.  The experienced fighters made quick work of the annoying beasts, and Denzel was able to kill least two, maybe three, of the monsters on his own.  His feet slipped on the grainy floor as he dispatched the last one.  The sour earth smell made sense now; it was guano.  

The remains of the colony flew off somewhere; and Denzel could take stock of his surroundings.  They were in a long grey stone corridor lit by fluorescent lights strung along the walls.  The group walked along it, Denzel with a hand over his nose to try and muffle the smell, alert for more monsters.  They stopped in front of a beaten wooden door.  Denzel stood back as Tifa dropped into a low stance.  She punched the door, which collapsed in a somewhat anti-climatic manner.  Considering Tifa’s strength, he’d been kinda hoping for it to splinter into shards, but there was only the metallic snap of its old hinges breaking.  The door swayed for a moment, before falling over with a reverberating thump and dust cloud.

    The small room beyond was full of old coffins and yellowing bones.  Denzel stepped nervously past a skull that didn’t look quite human.  Tifa, Cloud, and Yuffie all gathered around the coffin in the middle of the room.  He joined them and watched as Cloud crushed the rusting lock, the metal crumpling like plastic in his fist.  After a glance at the others, the swordsman shoved open the lid.  Inside lay Vincent, exactly like a vampire from a cheesy horror film.  The man looked the same as when Denzel had first met him, during Bahamut SIN’s attack on Edge.  He didn’t move a muscle, not a flicker of an eyelash or a twitch of a finger, until Cloud spoke his name.  He opened bleary red eyes, scanned each one of the group, then shut them again.

    "You woke me up."

    Denzel wanted to laugh at that and couldn't hold back a small snort.  What a grump.  Those red eyes immediately flashed back open at him, causing him to choke on the noise.  "Umm, hey, Vincent,” he greeted, though it came out more of a question.

    "Vincent, we thought you might like to help us kill Hojo,” Cloud cut in, saving Denzel from the awkward moment.

    "Kill Hojo?  You?" Vincent seemed confused and disbelieving.  Denzel had sort of gotten used to it, but for other people, it was probably pretty strange to hear apparent children talk about murdering people.

    "Yes.”

    "Why?  What grudge could a child have?"

    "Plenty,”  Cloud growled.

    Vincent was silent, then shook his head.  "Leave.  You are nothing but children, and have no place in this nightmare."  Vincent made to grab for the coffin lid, but before he could reach the edge, Cloud ripped it off its hinges, holding it one-handed in the air.

    "We're going to end this nightmare.”  The mako in Cloud's eyes flared, leaving orange spots in Denzel’s vision.

    "Vincent, you care about Lucrecia and her son, right?” Tifa implored.  “That’s one of the reasons you stay here, to atone for your sins?  You still have the chance to make them up to her by helping him.  I’m- I’m not sure we can."  Denzel remembered the argument back on the Sheara when they first got here, and admired Tifa’s acting skills.  That 'not sure we can' was probably more of a ‘not sure if we even want to’.

    "Lucrecia's son?"  As time went on, the more focused Vincent's eyes became.  "You know Sephiroth?"

    “Yeah, we know a lot about him, so can you please just get up already?”  Yuffie was starting to fidget again.

    Finally the red-cloaked man stood up.  "How?  Who are you?"

    Yuffie leaned over and whispered to Denzel, "Wow, he actually got up. I didn't expect that to happen."  Denzel nodded in agreement.

    "We'll explain while we search this place,” Cloud informed him.  Vincent gave him a flat stare, and he sighed and elaborated.  "Two of Sephiroth’s friends are dying from the experiments Shinra did on them.  We’re trying to find a way to save them.  This... place,” here he made a gesture to signify the mansion, “seemed like a good place to start gathering information.”  A pause.  "We also plan to destroy Jenova."

    Vincent mulled the information over.  He backflipped out of the coffin, making them back up hurriedly to give him more room to land.  “Fine."

    The rest of the day and the morning of the next consisted of going through books, papers, barely legible notes, and trying to explain things to Vincent.  In the end, the only way they were able to convince the ex-Turk that they’d arrived via time travel was by calling up their own Vincent and letting the two talk for hours.  By the time they were finished gathering anything that might be useful, Denzel had gotten seven paper cuts, gone through twenty-seven packs of tissues because of allergies to dust, and, happily, gained a few more levels.  Apparently dorky faces bred fast, because as soon as he would clear the place they would show up again.  Same thing went for the bats in the basement.  He decided that the Banora Underground, where all the creepy cells were, had nothing on the spookiness of this place, and he was glad when it was time to leave.

    They packed everything important into bags to strap onto the chocobos or store in Fenrir later.  Other papers, related to Shinra’s experiments but not relevant to their quest, they piled in the basement.  When that was finished, Tifa summoned Ifrit, and the demon arrived with a blast of fire and a roar.  It bent almost double in the stone passageway, its horns scraping the ceiling.  Denzel blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to get some moisture back in them - breathing the air radiating in hot shimmers away from the summon was like sticking his face into an open oven.  Tifa sent it to run wild in the lower levels, smashing and burning everything as it went.  They stood at the top of the stairs, hearing the roar of flames and the crash of toppling equipment.  Only when the summon finally decided that its enemy (in this case the basement) was thoroughly destroyed did it return to Tifa.  They trooped out into the courtyard, leaving Shinra Manor a lot worse off than when they arrived.  Denzel’s only regret was that they couldn't burn the whole place down, but that would’ve attracted too much attention.

    "Next up, Jenova!" Yuffie declared as she struck a dramatic pose, one hand held aloft, pointing towards the peak of the mountain.

    It was decided to leave the chocobos in the manor courtyard until they were done at the reactor.  Cloud and Tifa led the way up the mountainside, with Denzel and Yuffie in the middle.   Vincent acted as the rear guard in case of an ambush by the local wildlife, which Denzel had found out from one of the books were mostly high-leveled and mean-tempered.  At first, the winding trail was wide and showed signs of human maintenance, but the further they got from the village the narrower and wilder it got.  The scenery got stranger, too.  The ground got harder and shinier, and slick spikes of rock protruded like thorns beside the path.  The plants, hardy alpine species, got smaller and tougher, and grew less frequently the higher they climbed.  After half an hour of hiking, Vincent suddenly stopped, looking at a rock spike a little further back along the trail.

    When Denzel noticed the man behind him had stopped, he asked "What is it?  A wolf?"

    The former Turk didn't say anything, only glanced at Cloud, now looking back as well, and raised an eyebrow.

    Cloud made a strange face and shook his head.  "Ignore him.  If he's still following in a hour or so, I’ll deal with him."

    They resumed walking, Denzel frequently twisting to look behind them in an agony of curiosity.  If the follower was a monster, or Shinra, Cloud wouldn’t let it stalk them.  Since they weren’t fighting it, it had to be a local.  It might even be the younger Cloud or Tifa!  He tried to catch a glimpse of spiky blond or flowing black hair, but though he occasionally saw some falling pebbles, he couldn’t ever make out an actual person back there.  He looked up the trail to his adopted parents, Cloud grim-faced and Tifa somber.  Based on the limited stories Tifa had told he and Marlene about her childhood in Nibelheim, Cloud was the one more likely to be wandering around outside town.

    The prescribed hour was torture for him.  He was so distracted that he tripped over rocks, and once wandered off the path and nearly slipped down a 15 foot drop.  Yuffie’s quick reactions saved him.  It wasn’t enough to get him focused again; his curiosity was too intense.  What if their follower gave up and stopped following them?  He spent the hour praying that the shadow’s stubbornness and/or curiosity would hold out.  They reached a disastrously rickety wood and rope bridge, and Cloud called for a halt.  He turned and called down the trail, “"Fine, since you followed us this far, you might as well come out."

    Holding his breath, Denzel watched as a small blonde boy cautiously stepped out from behind a boulder.  Their follower really had been Cloud!  That hair was unmistakable.  It was even spikier than the current, thirteen-years-old-or-so Cloud’s.  He was smaller, too, shorter and scrawnier.  His eyes were still glacial blue, but lacked the eerie mako glow.

    Beside him, Yuffie squeaked in stifled amusement.  "Ha!  What a runt.  He's so small and cute."

    Just a few paces away, the older Cloud, only two or three inches taller, glared at her.  Thankfully, the younger Cloud stopped too far away to hear her whisper.

    "Umm, hello.  My name’s Cloud.  Who are you?" the boy asked, half-curious, half-suspicious.

    Denzel could feel himself starting to smile.  Cloud and Vincent were serious, no surprise, but Tifa was smiling with what could only be called tenderness, and Yuffie was flat-out grinning with delight.  "Well, hello yourself.  I'm The Great Ninja Yuffie,” the little girl proudly stated, “and these are my friends.  What brings you up here?"

    "Umm, I saw you going up the mountain trail, an’ I wondered who you were."  His gaze slid sideways to Cloud and Tifa, full of fascinated curiosity.

    "No one, really.  It’s dangerous up here; you should head back."  Cloud made a blatant attempt to get his younger self to leave.

    “If it’s so dangerous, why are you up here?” Mini Cloud shot back.

    "We have things to do."  A pause, then, “And you'll get in the way."

    The kid frowned.  “Bet I won't.  I come up here all the time.  Besides, you’re gonna have to go back down to get your chocobos at the mansion.  If you leave me, I’ll just wait here, an’ go down with you then."

    "You were at the mansion?" Tifa interrupted, worried.

    "Uh huh,” he said, nodding.  “But no one believed me when I said there were some chocobos there, an’ Ma wasn't happy that I went near the place.  Why were you there?"

    Cloud frowned.  “We had work to do.”

    "You work for Shinra?”  The kid looked skeptical.

    "Hey guys, this Q&A’s adorable, but we’ve got stuff to do today,” Yuffie interjected.

    "Right.  You, go home."  Cloud turned and began to walk away.

    "No."  The boy folded his arms and frowned.

    Cloud turned around, slowly, menacingly.  “Leave."

    Mini-Cloud wasn’t cowed.  “Make me."  Denzel could practically hear his foster father’s teeth grinding.

    "Cloud."  Tifa used that tone, the one that Marlena and Denzel had learned to respect, and that she used before arguments with Cloud.  Denzel didn't know which Cloud she was talking to, but the one that was used to listening to her gave in.

    "Fine,” he said abruptly.  “Stick with Yuffie and Denzel,” he gestured to them, before stalking off.  Surprising Denzel, he didn't take the bridge in front of them, but a small side trail on the left that led up a steep incline.   Denzel started after him, walking slowly so the new addition to their group could catch up to him.

    "Um, hey, I'm Denzel.  Nice to meet you,” he greeted the new addition as the boy came to walk behind him, the path being too narrow for two people to walk together.  He had a million burning questions, but he didn’t want to let something slip accidentally, so he bit his tongue.

    "Ah, nice to meet you too.  Sooo… where are we goin’?” the kid asked.

    "Up to the reactor, of course, silly.  It’s the only thing up here, after all,” Yuffie commented from her spot behind both of them.

    "The reactor?"  Mini-Cloud twisted his head back and forth, trying to look at both of them.  He really must come up here a lot; Denzel had to watch his footing and occasionally grab onto the mountainside to keep his balance, but the boy scrambled along as carelessly as a mountain goat.  "Why would you go there?"

    "Oh you know, the usual.  Things to do, people to meet,” she answered breezily.

    "You meeting someone up there?"  Denzel wouldn’t have had room to ask any questions of his own anyway, at the rate Mini-Cloud was firing them off.

    “Kinda.  Anyway, you met our chocobos?”  He would say that Yuffie was terrible at changing subjects, except that strange segues were pretty normal for her.

    "Huh?  Oh.. well sort of.  They weren't near the gate so I couldn't say hello.  I only found out about them when I saw some tracks I didn't recognize round the outskirts of the village, so I followed ‘em."

    "Really?  You already know how to track?”  Denzel asked.  He'd only just started learning how.

    "Yeah."

    "I guess you wander around a lot then, don’cha'."  Yuffie sounded approving.  "Is that how you found us?"

    "No, actually I was was kinda, well…”  The boy blushed a little.  "I brought some greens from home an’ I was gonna try an' feed the chocobos, an’ I saw you leavin’.”

    Hearing Cloud speak with an accent was kind of weird, Denzel decided.  He must have dropped it when he moved to Midgar.

    "So where are you from?  I've never seen you before."  Again the boy’s eyes flicked up to Cloud and Tifa.

    "I'm from Edg-, um, Midgar."  Nice one, Denzel, he mentally scolded himself.  Edge didn’t exist in this timeline.

    "And I'm from Wutai!"  Yuffie cried, setting her hands on her hips and throwing her head up proudly.  The loud declaration of her nationality echoed off the mountain slopes around them, bouncing back and forth across the stone.  She stood there beaming while everyone froze, stunned by the sudden noise.  Even Vincent tensed.  The echoes died away, and Denzel began to breathe again, until a dragon's roar came echoing back in response.

    “Good work, Yuffie,” he muttered.  He’d read about Nibel dragons in the wildlife book, and he fervently hoped that they wouldn’t bump into one.

    "Hey!" the girl spluttered.  “I didn’t know it was such an echo chamber out here!”

    "Quiet,” Cloud snapped back at her from the point position.  

    "Let’s just keep moving,” Tifa added, casting a chastising look Yuffie’s way before walking on.

    Denzel and the younger Cloud walked on in silence.  Denzel was beginning to feel out of breath, and his legs were burning, so he was glad for the respite from talking.  Yuffie was quiet too, but Denzel didn’t think that would last long.  To his surprise, it was Mini-Cloud, not the ninja, who broke the silence.  Nothing could keep this kid’s curiosity down.  “Um, so, you’re Wutaian?  Aren’t we… at war with you?”

    “Huh?”  She gave the kid a push up a steep bit.  “Well… sorta, but not really.  We’re at war with Shinra, not Nibelheim.  There’s a difference,” she asserted.

    The boy still seemed uneasy.  “Right… but… um, isn’t the reactor Shinra’s?” he pressed.

    “Yeah, and?”  Yuffie scrambled over a nasty rocky patch.

    “Well… you’re not supposed to go there, are you?”

    Before Yuffie could say anything more, Cloud countered the question with a stern, “You’re not supposed to be this far up the mountain.”

    Mini-Cloud opened his mouth, then closed it, not sure what to say.  Muttering to the two he was walking with, he asked  “Is he always such a jerk?"

    Denzel leapt automatically to his idol’s defense.  “He’s not a jerk!”  Then he thought about it for a second, and truth compelled him to admit Cloud was being a bit of a jerk to his younger self.  “Not usually, anyway.  He’s just stressed.”

    “It’s been a couple rough days for him,” Yuffie added.

    “Oh.”

    They stopped for a break at the entrance of a small cave.  Denzel sat down with a grateful sigh.  He peered at the pebbles next to him - they reminded him of ones he’d seen in the cave in Banora, dark and greenish.

    "Denzel,” Cloud called over to him.

    Looking up from where he'd been examining the rocks, he saw Cloud stood a little ways inside the cave.  With a groan, he stood up and walked over.  "What's up?"

    "I wanted to show you something."

    Cloud led the way into the cave.  Mini-Cloud and Yuffie looked after them, but didn’t follow.  The place really did remind Denzel of the Banora caves; same strange rock formations, same greenish glitter to the stone.  After about five minutes, they reached a place where the cave opened into a slot canyon.  Despite the sunlight filtering in, the green quality to the air didn’t change.  Cloud pointed ahead, to something Denzel’d never seen before.  A dead tree stood beside a small round spring, and green tendrils and dots of light rose from a little rock island in the center of the water.  The island seemed to be imitating the shape of the tree, standing up in a curving trunk, with arching branches of stone cupping a little pool of glowing green liquid and bright crystals.  “What is this place?" he asked in awe.

    "It’s a mako fountain,” Cloud explained.  “It’s a good place to find natural materia, but don't get too near it.”

    Denzel walked carefully around the glowing pool, careful not to touch it in any way. A glimmer of purple among the tree roots caught his attention, about a foot away from the spring.  “Found one!” he cried, stooping to pick up the little round stone.  He closed his eyes, rolling it between his palms, tried to figure out what type of magic it held.  After a few minutes, he gave up and handed it to Cloud.

    "Its not the same as before,” Cloud muttered as he turned it round.

    "But you do know what it is, right?"

    "It’s a Long Range materia."  Denzel had no idea what that did.  Cloud, seeing his blank stare, elaborated,  "Long Range extends the reach of your attacks, even if you’re not using a ranged weapon.  It’ll catch your opponent off guard, since you can hit them even when they’re beyond your apparent reach.  Keep it, it'll come in handy."

    Denzel took the offered materia back with care and popped it into an open slot on his sword.  Long Range, huh?  That was so cool.  They headed out, meeting Tifa halfway along the tunnel.  “Oh!” she exclaimed, seeing Cloud’s eyes glowing through the verdant dark.  “There you guys are.  We’ve got to head out if we’re going to get back down the mountain before the sun sets.”

    “Yeah,” Cloud answered.  “Let’s get the others and go.”

    They picked up the rest of the party - Yuffie bouncing to her feet, young Cloud a little slower getting up, Vincent melting smoothly out of the shadows - before heading down a different branch of the tunnels.  The silence of the previous passage was broken here by a hollow, whistling breeze, and as they moved farther on, by the humming of distant pipes.  They exited the cave into a bowl of stone, the Nibel mountains standing up around like clawed hands.  The reactor stood towering in front of them, the afternoon sun shining oddly dim on its metal catwalks and crazy arrangement of pipes.  They were standing in its shadow, which was colder than it had any right to be.  Denzel moved hurriedly into the sun, deciding then and there that if a building in Nibelheim had been used by Shinra, it was bound to be creepy.  Even the air here felt repressed and sick.

    "You three wait here,” Tifa ordered, stern voiced.  Strangely, though she kept her head turned away from the tower, her gaze stayed riveted to it, glaring at it out of the corners of her eyes.  Vincent was as expressionless as usual, and Cloud’s face was so still, he looked carved out of stone.   “The three of us,” she motioned to Vincent and Cloud, “will take care of the reactor.  You don't need to go in there."

    The ninja was dismayed and disgusted.  “But why!?" she whined.  “That’s why I came up here!  To see the creepy bitch burn!”

    "Yuffie!"  Denzel elbowed her in the side, glancing over at the wide-eyed boy next to him.  He was pretty sure one of the reasons Cloud didn't want his younger self along was that he didn't want him to get involved.  Yelling out things like that would only help get the young Cloud into trouble.

    "Yuffie.”  Tifa looked directly at them finally.  Her hands were fists at her sides.  “Just stay here.  If there's trouble out here, we’ll need an experienced fighter here to take care of it."

    The smaller girl looked away, making a face, then glared back up at the brawler.  “I hiked all the way up here!  We could just leave ‘em on the doorstep!”

    "Your whining is getting us nowhere.  Stay.  We will return shortly."  Vincent's deep baritone silenced all debate.  The gunman, at least a good foot and a half taller than the rest of them, walked past them towards the foreboding structure.
    
    "Nnnnh!” Yuffie stuck her tongue out at the retreating red caped back.

    "Yuffie, I am sorry, but we really do need someone to keep an eye on things."  Tifa tried again to convince the ninja.

    "Humph.  Fine.  But you’re gonna owe me."

    "Thanks,” Tifa replied, a bemused smile flashing onto her face, and just as quickly off again.

    Denzel watched as Tifa and Cloud joined the gunman on the steps, heading into the reactor.  Now all they could do was wait.  He found a reasonably smooth rock to sit on, and stretched out his sore legs.  Walking around Edge - he could do that all day.  Hiking up a mountain with steep paths, uneven ground and thin air, not so much.

    The younger Cloud hovered nervously next to him, moving from foot to foot.  He crouched down, whispering.  “What’d she mean, creepy, um... bitch,” he stumbled and tripped over the slur, “an’ why burn her?"

    Denzel inwardly cursed Yuffie using words he'd heard from Barret.  Damn it, he had no idea how to answer this!  “Um, well, you see….”

    "What Denzel's trying to say is there's a dead body in there,” Yuffie answered conspiratorially, dropping down beside them.  “It’s infected with a really nasty virus, and some insane bastard has been using it to infect other people, so we’re gonna burn the body to save people’s lives and annoy the bastard."

    "There's a, a dead body in there."  The boy paled.

    "And some people who were infected with the virus and turned into monsters,” Yuffie added.  Denzel didn’t know how she thought that was reassuring.  “We’ll get rid of those too."

    "Monsters!  They're going to fight monsters?!” he blurted, eyes wide.

    Yuffie shrugged flippantly.  “Not much of a fight.  They’re pretty sick.”

    "Oh.”  He was quiet for minute.  The air hung heavy and dead, with no noise of birdsong or breeze.  The shifting of their feet against the grainy soil was the only sound, loud, almost intrusive.  It was almost a relief when Mini-Cloud thought of another question.  “Why are you staying at the mansion?"

    “To annoy the creepy bastard."

    "Really?"

    "And to do some house cleaning,” Yuffie beamed.

    "House… cleaning?"  Cloud looked really confused now.

    "Yep!"

    Taking pity on the kid, Denzel cut in, stopping Yuffie’s chain of confusing answers.  “So, Cloud, what's it like growing up in Nibelheim?”  It felt a little like going behind Cloud’s back, asking his younger self about his childhood, when his older self would clearly rather never talk about it again, but Denzel couldn’t restrain his curiosity any longer.

    "Huh?"  The boy blinked at him as he tried to refocus his attention onto the new question.

    "I grew up in the city, and don't know much about country life,” Denzel explained.

    “Ok, well, Nibelheim is small and cold.”  The blond shifted awkwardly, not quite sure how to answer the question.  His eyes flickered to Denzel’s face, checking to see whether that was the right sort of answer.  “There's not much to do ‘cept explore, but you can't go far from town ‘cuz of all the monsters.  I'm surprised we didn't see any on the way up here."

    "What about hanging out with your friends?  That’s what I used to do,” Denzel pressed.  His neighborhood in Midgar had been full of kids his age to play with.  Then after the plate fell, he’d had friends who made life as an orphaned scavenger bearable, even fun sometimes.

    "I don't really like playing with the other kids.  They’re stupid,” Mini-Cloud mumbled, picking up a stone and throwing it at the reactor before muttering, "An’ mean."

    He turned away, kicking at the gravel.  Denzel chewed the inside of his mouth and stared at his scuffed shoes.  He kind of regretted asking, now.

    “That sucks,” Yuffie pronounced.  “Want to play with us instead?”

    Both boys turned to stare at Yuffie.

    "What?  We could play tag or something,” she volunteered.

    “Tag?” Denzel choked.  “No way.  No, just… no."

    "Why not?" Cloud asked, puzzled.

    "Because we'd never catch her!" he exclaimed.  Forget it being beneath his dignity; it was really sweet of her to offer, to cheer up little Cloud.  But trust her to pick such a self-serving game.

    "You've still got Haste right?”  She pointed at the Escort Guard on his wrist.  “Just cast it on you and Cloud.  I'll even go easy on the two of you."  She grinned and all hope Denzel had of letting his feet and legs rest vanished.

    When the others came out of the reactor almost two hours later, they found a pile of sweaty, laughing kids.

    "Don't ever play tag with her,” Mini-Cloud panted.

    "Hey!  At least I don't cheat like some other dirty cheater I know."

    "You used some of your materia too, don't deny it,” Denzel defended.

    During their game he'd tried out his new Long Range materia and found that he could tag Yuffie when she was still about a foot or two away from him.  He didn’t feel guilty; he was sure she’d used her Sneak Attack materia on them.  When he looked at the three who had come out of the reactor, he suddenly didn't mind as much about having been left behind.  There might even have been a quirk to Vincent’s mouth that hinted at amusement.  Whatever had happened in there, it had taken a toll on them - they were pale and sweaty - but at least he felt like he had accomplished something, hearing Tifa's quiet laugh and Cloud's even quieter chuckle.

    "See, it wasn't that bad being stuck outside was it?" Tifa asked.

    "Nah, it was cool.  Spike's like a mountain goat,” Yuffie proclaimed, causing the youngest to redden.
    
    "Spike?" the little boy’s hands immediately flew to his hair, squishing the proud spikes.

    "Well, yeah!  It’s easier that way.”  She turned to the others.  “So, ready to go?"

    With an exasperated sigh and a fond shake of his head, Cloud responded.  "Yeah, let’s go."

    The hike back down the mountain was a lot more relaxed as the whole group bantered back and forth.  Even Vincent made the occasional comment.  For the most part, they kept to safe topics like fun stories from their travels that Denzel and Spike (Mini-Cloud's apparent new nickname) drank in.  It was probably because of the cheerful mood that neither Cloud or Vincent caught the sound of beating wings until the dragon was too close to avoid.

    It barreled down from above.  “Shit!"  Yuffie shrieked, leaping in a twisting arc to get clear of its striking claws, tossing out Conformer in a dizzying sunset-colored sweep. Cloud quickly darted in front of Spike, blocking the young boy from a torrent of flame with a hastily cast Barrier.  The swordsman separated First Tsurugi into two blades and leapt at the dragon’s underbelly.  Tifa raced past Denzel, heading the wrong way - or so Denzel thought.  Shots rang out as Vincent entered the fight, and dragon blood sprayed through the air from the bullets and blades.  Then Tifa swept past her foster son again.  She’d gone back up the trail to give herself a running start; when her feet hit the edge of the sloping mountain path, she catapulted into the air, drawing back a fist.  With terrific aim and a wet bone-snapping crack, she punched out a wing joint.  The wing folded like wet paper, bringing the dragon crashing to the ground.   

    Gripping his own sword, Denzel threw himself into the battle before the dust cloud settled.  The dragon roared in pain as the group of fighters descended on it.  It lashed out with its tail, trying to sweep its opponents away.  Denzel had enough time to see Vincent backflip over it, and Yuffie jump in and pull Spike out of the way, but not enough time to get clear himself.  It caught him right in the stomach and sent him flying.  He heard more than felt the crack as his body impacted with the stone of the mountain path.  Falling to the ground, he heard people shouting, but they sounded so far away….  It reminded him of those times he’d passed out because of the Geostigma….  That was his last thought before he slipped away.

Chapter Text

    Was he floating…?  No, more like drifting.  Drifting in the darkness… Where was he?  What were those voices…?  They sounded familiar.

    "Denzel?  Denzel, wake up."

    That was… Cloud’s voice.  He sounded worried.  Struggling to follow Cloud's voice, he somehow managed to drag himself out of the dark.  He slowly peeled his eyes open.  The whole world was too bright fuzzy shapes and colors.  There was a blur of gold above a pair of vivid blue dots…  Cloud!

    "C...Cloud?" he slurred.

    "Shh…  I'm here."  Somebody touched Denzel’s shoulder.  With some effort, he tried to push himself up.

    "Whoa, Denzel!  There’s no rush, take it easy."  Yuffie's voice shrilled in his ears.  He shook his head and blinked several times, attempting to clear his vision.  Cloud was kneeling at his right, Yuffie looking over his shoulder.  Tifa crouched to Denzel’s left.  A smaller Cloud was standing nervously a few paces back…  Wait, a smaller Cloud?  He blinked a few times at the boy, willing his thoughts to coalesce.  That’s right.  Spike, Cloud's younger self.  Standing the furthest away was Vincent, the quiet gunman’s back turned to the group and a revolver still in his hand.  Keeping watch.  There was no sign of any monsters, though.

    “What happened, where's the dragon?" he rasped.  His throat felt like sandpaper.

    "It’s gone.  Drink this."  A canteen was held up to his lips.  Denzel grabbed it, but whenever he tried gulping it down, Cloud pulled it away again, forcing him to take smaller sips.  As the cool liquid soothed his ragged throat, he could take stock of the rest of his aches and pains.  He was surprised to find there weren’t any, really.  He was just kind of numb.  After taking such a big hit from a Nibel Dragon, shouldn't he feel a lot worse?  As Cloud put the canteen away, he asked again about what had happened.  His foster father didn't answer, just looked away uncomfortably.

    "Denzel,” Tifa said softly, taking his hand.  "When you hit the cliff… you died."

    Denzel’s jaw dropped.  He'd died!?  He looked down at himself - he looked no worse than he had half an hour ago.  Better, actually.  His clothes were still filthy, but he’d had scrapes on his hands from slipping on the slick rock, and those had vanished.

    "I didn't think…” Cloud started, then broke off.  Guilt stained his voice.   “I’m sorry.  I should have told you to stay back.  I….”  He trailed off.

    Tifa squeezed Denzel’s hand.  “We used a phoenix down to bring you back,” she explained.

    "Yeah, and the first time you get brought back is always the roughest.  So, how you feeling?" Yuffie inquired.

    How was he feeling?!  He'd just learned that he'd died!  How was he supposed to feel?!

    "Now that he is awake, I recommend that we move on.”  Vincent’s smooth voice pulled him from his incredulity.

    "Right.  It’s getting dark, and more monsters will be out soon.  Denzel, can you stand?" Tifa asked.

    "I... I think so."

    With Cloud and Tifa's help he got up on shaky legs.  After a few steps, he was able to walk without assistance.  Once it was clear that he’d be fine walking on his own, Vincent led them down the trail.  Tifa and Cloud stayed next to him, with Spike next and Yuffie bringing up the rear.  In silence, they soon reached the old bridge.  Half-way back, he told himself.  He felt shakier than he wanted to admit.

    It wasn't much longer after that when Yuffie piped up.  "Urhgg, this silence is killing me!  Doesn't anyone have something to talk about?”

    There was further silence as everyone rolled their eyes at the preteen ninja.  The quiet was broken by a small, curious voice.  “Um, your name’s also Cloud?”  The smaller Cloud was staring fixedly at the the bigger one, who tensed.  Denzel wondered who’d slipped up -  Oh right, he'd called Cloud by his name when he'd woken up.

    “…Yeah."  Cloud’s shoulders hunched.  A scowl spread across Spike’s face and he stopped dead.

    "Why didn't you say so earlier?!  An’ you still haven't told me your names, either.”  He pointed accusingly at Tifa and Vincent.

    "Well, it would get confusing if we called him by his name with you here,” Yuffie dismissed.

    "Is that why you've been callin’ me Spike?"  The boy glared at the little ninja.

    Unaffected by the look, Yuffie said cheerfully, “Yep!"

    "An’?  What about their names?”  Again, the young boy pointed at the two in question.

    "Tiff and Vinny,” she beamed.  Denzel swore that 'Vinny' was trying to kill the girl with his glare alone, a glare ten times more powerful than the one she’d just received for breaking the silence.  It had the same amount of effect, too.  None.

    "My name is Vincent,” the gunman said solemnly.

    "An’ you’re Tiff?”  Spike crossed his arms as he glowered stubbornly at Tifa.

    Sighing, she gave in. "Tifa."

    The little boy took a step back, startled.  “T-Tifa?" he stammered.

    "Come on.  We’re losing the light,” Cloud broke in before any more questions could be asked.

    They hiked about six minutes more before Spike spoke up again.  "Do you want to come over for dinner?”  Beside Denzel, Cloud almost missed a step, and Tifa stopped short, turning to look behind her.

    "Dinner?" she inquired.  Her mouth hung open a little, and her head tilted in astonishment.

    "Yeah.  Ma said I should invite my friends over for dinner some time, but I don't really have any.  So would you come over?" he asked.

    Dinner at Cloud's childhood home?  Denzel wanted to shout “Yes!”, but he knew the decision would be up to Cloud and Tifa.  It would mean meeting Mrs. Strife.  How would they handle that?  Wouldn't she also get curious about Cloud and Tifa?  Was that why Spike invited them, so they wouldn't be able to get out of the questions he was obviously holding back?  If they did go, Denzel thought, it would be like meeting his grandmother… who wouldn’t know she was his adoptive grandmother because her son was still just a kid and this was confusing.  

    "Sorry, but we should probably head out once we pick up our chocobos,” Tifa declined, shaking her head.  Nobody wanted to spend another night in the manor.

    “You’re cruel!” Yuffie cried unexpectedly.  “Turning down a little boy’s heartfelt invitation to a home-made meal cooked by his mom!”  She slung an arm around the little boy’s shoulder for emphasis.

    "Yuffie,” Cloud warned.

    "Humph, fine.”  She pulled her arm back and folded them across her chest.  “Guess we'll just have to come back later, ‘cuz I sooo want to taste Cloud's mom's cooking."  They were nearly back to the village - Denzel could tell because the trees were getting taller - when they were interrupted yet again.

    A young woman came round a bend and, spotting them, shouted, “Cloud!"

     "Ma?!  What’re you doing here?” Spike stopped and dug his feet into the dirt path, clearly bracing himself for a scolding.

    "What am I doing up here!?  What are you doing up here, young man, that’s what I'd like to know.  You know you’re not allowed up on the mountain.”  She marched right through the group and grabbed her son’s shoulder.  In the cooling twilight air, her face was pale and scared.  Despite her fierce tone, Denzel thought she seemed relieved.  “It’s not safe!  I heard a dragon not too long ago!”

    Spike scuffled his feet.  “Sorry, Ma, I just... um... made some new friends today."  He peered up, clearly fishing for forgiveness.

    "Really."  The woman eyed the group skeptically.  Turning on the only (apparent) adult with them, she inquired, “What reason did you have to take a bunch of kids hikin’ up Mount Nibel, Mr…?”

    "Valentine.  As for why, that is a private matter,” Vincent replied.

    The woman, whose relationship to her son was clear in her spiky blond bangs and bright blue eyes, retorted, “Not if you involved my son, it isn't."

    "Ma, it’s okay, I'm fine.  See?”  Spike spun around on one foot to give her the full view.

    “Really?  Nothing happened?”  Mrs. Strife eyed her son.

    "Yeah.  Yuffie, Denzel an’ me all played tag together."  He gestured to the two he’d mentioned.

    "That was nice of them.  But who are these two…” Her voice grew fainter as she got a good look at Tifa and Cloud, who both shifted uneasily.  Tifa tugged nervously at her hair before standing up straight and squaring her shoulders.  Cloud didn’t seem to be able to look his mother in the face at all.

    "Oh, well, this is, ah, Tifa an’, um... Cloud,” Spike introduced.

    "But how…?”  She shook her head.  “Sorry, you look just like my Cloud, and Tifa, you resemble the mayor’s daughter."

    Yuffie stepped forward, nodding.  “Weird, huh?  Y’know, on the hike I was thinking about that, and remembered I once heard something about doppëlgangers.  That somewhere out there, there’s someone who looks almost exactly like you.  Guess that’s what these guys are.  Freaky, but okay, whatever."  Denzel was starting to be amazed at the ninja’s ability to head off questions and lead people in the wrong direction.

    Mrs. Strife still seemed hesitant.  “But… they have the same names."

    "Guess you and their parents had similar taste when it came to picking names.”  She shrugged, as though dismissing the subject as unworthy of further consideration.  “Anyway, Spike said we could stay for dinner, and let me tell you, I'm really sick and tired of protein bars."

    After that, they began the last part of the descent, and Mrs. Strife got to hear all about the problems of food in bar shape.  To Yuffie’s gratification, the woman took her entirely seriously and insisted that they all come back home with her for a properly cooked hot meal.  (She also lectured Vincent on the sort of food that growing children needed, which he took stoically.)  As they neared the Shinra mansion, Spike ran ahead, beckoning to her.  “Look, Ma, chocobos!  I told you!”  He pulled a handful of wilted greens out of a pocket and waved them through the wrought iron gate.  With a curious wark?, one of the birds came cautiously closer, head cocked.  It pulled out a leaf, swallowed it quickly, then plucked the whole bunch.

    Mrs. Strife was apparently leery of going too near the manor - she came close enough to see the birds, but didn’t approach the gate.  “You’ve been stayin’ here?” she asked, nose crinkling.  “Mr. Valentine, I thought my opinion of your child-care skills couldn’t get lower.”  Denzel glanced up at the gunman, whose poker face was still firmly in place.  Tifa and Cloud shuffled awkwardly.  With Vincent seemingly determined to remain quiet, his foster parents unusually abashed, and Yuffie occupied telling Spike the chocobos’ names, Denzel found it was up to him to take charge.

    “We had an errand here,” he said firmly.  “We’ve finished now, so we’ll leave after dinner.”

    “Leave?!” she looked startled.  “You’re not goin’ down the mountain at night, no sir!  You’ll stay with us tonight.”

    Cloud grimaced, and looked as though he was about to refuse.  Denzel, heart in mouth, seized the initiative.  “That’d be great.  Thank you!”  He couldn’t look at Cloud’ or Tifa’s faces.  He knew they’d be unhappy, but he was exhausted.  He’d hiked miles up and down a mountain.  He’d actually, literally, died.  And another night chocobo-back, or in the creepy, dusty manor, especially now that its basement had been burned out - how could they tell whether Ifrit had left the place structurally sound? - sounded ghastly.

    While approaching the steps of the manor to gather their stuff, Denzel felt a light grip on his elbow.  He glanced over and was met by a stern look from Tifa.  “Let the others get the packs, we need to talk.”  Denzel let her lead him over to the side of the courtyard, to stand beneath a withered pine.  The brief excitement over the invitation to Cloud’s childhood home faded, to be replaced with unease and guilt.

    “Tifa,” he stuttered, unable to look for more than a second at her pale, drawn face, “I’m sorry, I just….  I’m tired and-”

    “Denzel.”  Tifa cut his apology off.  “I know you’re tired, we all are.  But Cloud and I had already said no.  We may look younger than you right now, but we are still adults, and in charge.  This is going to be very awkward for Cloud and I.  And in the future, with what we’re doing, if you go against what was already said, it could have very bad consequences.  I need you to understand that.”

    He did understand.  He writhed inwardly with apologetic embarrassment, but also a spark of resentment.  This wasn’t a dangerous situation, and it was a good chance for Cloud to see his mom again.  He knew that however much he loved Cloud and Tifa, if he got an opportunity to see his parents alive again, he would leap at it.  Even if they didn’t know who he was.  He didn’t say that aloud though, just muttered, “I understand”.

    Tifa kept looking at him, eyes searching his face.  Denzel forced himself to meet her gaze and hold it.  A line between her eyebrows eased and she nodded, letting loose of his elbow and going back over to the others, busy fastening the packs to the chocobo’s saddles.  The knots they made weren’t very tight, since they would be taking everything back off the birds in a few minutes.  When Cloud wheeled Fenrir through the wrought iron gates, Mrs. Strife’s eyebrows shot up.  She seemed impressed by the vehicle, but once it was made clear that Cloud, not Vincent, rode it, she wasn’t convinced that a boy Cloud’s age could actually handle it.  Cloud had to give a quick demonstration of skill, and answer a brief quiz on road laws before she let up on her concern.  In contrast, Spike was practically drooling.

    “You get to ride it all the time?” he asked with boyish enthusiasm.

    Seeming uncomfortable with the attention, Cloud muttered “…Yeah.”

    “Did your parents buy it for you?”

    Denzel couldn’t help wincing at that.  Cloud didn’t seem to react much better, if the way his expression closed off was any indication.

    “Um, hey, Spike,” Denzel called, distracting him.  The little boy turned to look at him, and Cloud hastily moved on ahead.

    Hurriedly trying to think of something to say, Denzel blurted the first question that came to mind.  “Uhh… well, you already know how to track, so have you ever fought any of the monsters ‘round here?”

    “Not really, nothing like you guys earlier.  I’ve chased off a few lone wolves, when I’ve been on lookout for the local flocks,” the younger boy shrugged.

    Chasing off a even a lone Nibel wolf didn’t seem like something to shrug off to Denzel.  He wanted to ask how he’d done it, but he felt too self-conscious.  Even years younger than him, and probably with less training, Cloud was tougher than he was.  Instead he asked, “Flocks?  I thought Nibelheim didn’t have any chocobos.”

    Spike shook his head.  “Nope, goats.  They say that along with the tusked boars they’re the only type of animal you can raise up here.”

    “Don’t monsters go after them all the time?”

    “Sometimes, but the adults shoot any monster that gets too close to the pastures.  And the goats are pretty mean, they have four horns.  And you don’t mess with the boars.”

    Denzel had earlier formed his opinion that anything Shinra in Nibelheim equaled creepy, and now he had a new equation to add.  If it was local to Nibelheim, it was badass.  Talking with Spike made the walk into town quick.  Soon they were putting their chocobos in the Strife’s fenced back yard.  Mrs. Strife hurriedly staked some tarps over her vegetable garden, placing bushel baskets over the taller plants.  Yuffie’s mount, Nijoror, tugged hungrily at a tarp, but it was staked down well.  Entering the small house with peeling paint, Denzel looked around with eager eyes.  The wooden flooring was scuffed, and none of the furniture looked new, but even in its worn state the whole place felt homey and welcoming.  Yuffie was also peering around curiously.  Tifa seemed somewhat resigned to her fate, and Cloud, behind her, was wary.  Who knew how Vincent felt.

    "Please make yourselves at home.  Bedrooms are upstairs. Girls, you can have the guest room.  Boys, you don't mind sharin’ with Cloud, do you?"  After Mrs. Strife got confirmation that it wouldn't be a problem, she turned to Vincent.  Her tone became notably cooler.  “And, you, Mr. Valentine, you can have the couch.  I'll go get the table set.  Cloud, can you show them to their rooms?”

    "Yes, Ma."

    "Good.  Dinner will be ready in a moment."

    As he turned to them, Spike's face was the picture of pure joy. "Come on this way!"  They trooped upstairs, to a small narrow hallway with four doors, two to the left, two to the right.  Pointing, Spike explained,  “That one’s Ma's an’ this one is mine, yours is that one."  He pointed to one of the rooms on the left.  "The last room’s where Ma keeps her loom.”
    
    After setting their packs in the bedrooms, they all went back downstairs into the small dinning room where Mrs. Strife had finished setting the table and was currently setting out dinner.  The meal consisted of veal schnitzel with peppers and mushrooms, white bean soup, potato dumplings, and sausages and onions that had been boiled in vinegar, all accompanied by some homemade rye bread.  Denzel’s mouth watered at the sight.

    "I wasn't expecting any guests, so I had to bring out some leftovers.  I hope you kids don't mind,” she apologized, putting a stone crock of butter down by the bread .

    Mind?  Not at all, Denzel thought.  He liked Nibel food.  On occasion back home, when she could get the ingredients, Tifa would make dishes from her childhood.  He and Marlene always loved those nights.  Now, they all found a spot at the table, with Spike sitting between him and Yuffie.  Tifa was in-between Cloud and Vincent and Mrs. Strife sat at the head of the table.  At first, they ate mostly in silence, just enjoying the food.  Even Yuffie was too preoccupied to spend much time on tall-tale telling.

    Denzel was just using a slice of bread to mop up the last of his soup when their hostess turned to Vincent.  Her pale brows were drawn sharply down, and her tone was frosty as she inquired, "Mr. Valentine, what would possess you to take a group of kids up Mt. Nibel?  Even if you’re not from around here, you have to have realized how dangerous the mountain can be?"

    "It’s not Vincent’s fault,” Tifa cut in.  Apparently, she’d mastered her nerves.  “We asked him to come with us, and if he hadn't come, we would have simply gone up on our own."

    Mr’s. Strife’s brow creased further. “What up there could be so important,” she stressed, “that you would risk your lives?  I've told Cloud dozens of times, the mountain isn’t a playground."

    Spike was quick to jump in and defend them.  “Ma, they were saving lives. There was something bad up there and they got rid of it."

    Mrs. Strife hardly blinked.  “They should,” she gave them a stern glare, “have left it to the professionals, like SOLDIER, to deal with.”

    “But it was Shinra’s, a virus they’d been using to hurt people with,” the boy pled.  (Cloud and Tifa both shifted in their seats to glare at Yuffie, who didn’t look abashed at all.  She simply crossed her arms and ignored them.)  Mrs. Strife, however, looked floored.

    “You got my ten-year-old son involved in a conspiracy plot?!”  Her gaze whipped from one guest to the next, her shock and fury obvious.

    Denzel reflected that, over the years, Cloud had been involved in a lot of conspiracy plots, from stealing submarines to blowing up reactors.  Spike, on the other hand, had just been an innocent bystander.  He tried to relay this fact to their hostess.  All Spike had done was hike up a mountain and play a game of tag.  This new information mollified her slightly.

    “Alright, that explains why you went up, but not how you knew about the virus.”  There was an awkward silence while the group thought about the best way to answer that, but mercifully, she relented.  “No, you know what, don’t tell me.  I don’t want to be involved with this any more than I am.  That goes for Cloud, too.”  The boy started to protest but she talked right over him.  “I’m grateful to you for keeping my son safe on the mountain and for playin’ with him, an’ you’re still welcome to spend the night, but if you could leave early in the morning I’d appreciate it.  I don’t mean to be rude, but I mean to keep my family safe.”

    Spike tried protesting again, but was cut off once more, this time by Cloud.

    “No, you’re right.  When Shinra finds out what we’ve done, they’ll come after us.  It’s not safe for you to be associated with us.”  

    It was bad enough, Denzel realized, that they looked alike. Shinra had already seen Cloud.  If they found Spike they would definitely notice the resemblance.  And if that happened, what would Shinra do to Spike and Mrs. Strife?

    “Is that why?”  Spike’s voice made Denzel refocus his attention.  “Is that why you didn’t want me to go with you?  Not because you’re mean, or didn’t like me, but because you wanted to keep me safe?”  The boy was staring, wide-eyed, at Cloud.

    The older blonde looked uncomfortable.  “Yeah.”

    Spike’s blue eyes widened further.  “You’re like a hero.”  Cloud flinched at the title, but Spike didn’t seem to notice.  “Protecting people, destroying that virus, and saving Denzel from the dragon.”

    Denzel flinched too, now.  He could still recall the pain from the dragon’s tail hurling him into the rocky cliffside.

    “You encountered a dragon?!” Mrs. Strife asked, alarmed.

    Spike turned to her, eyes shining.  Tifa made an abortive shushing movement, then bit her lip and folded her hands back under the table as the kid spoke.  “Yeah!  It was so cool, Ma, you should’ve seen it!  It came out of nowhere, then, bam, Cloud had his sword out, charging it.  He was so fast.  Then Yuffie jumped in and there were gunshots.”  He gestured at Vincent.  “Then Tifa jumped off the cliff and broke its wing, and it came down like wham!  Then Denzel got hit, an’ I don’t really know what happened after that, ‘cuz it was over so fast, then everyone was checking on Denzel to make sure he was ok an’ all.”

    He was glad that Spike had left the part where he’d died, but there was still a bitter taste in his mouth, ruining the taste of the good food.  After a few more tasteless mouthfuls, Denzel excused himself.  He stepped outside, and shivered at the cool mountain air.  Was death like that, cold…?  He couldn’t remember.  A soft “kweh” caught his attention. Peering through the dim night - the nearly full moon hadn’t risen yet - he could just barely make out the feathery mass where the chocobos had settled.  Making his way across the yard, trying not to trip over the tarps, he sat down next to Freyr.  He absent-mindedly stroked the bird’s soft feathers, frowning and lost in thought.  

    He had died today.  His parents had died, Mrs. Ruvie had died... but no one had been there to save them.  Cloud had been there for him every time.  When he passed out in front of the church, sick with geostigma, with no inner reserves left and nothing external to live for.  When he’d been lured away by Kadaj, when the shadow creepers were closing in, and this afternoon with the dragon, Cloud was always there.  Even with things as small as school work.  Sometimes, in the evenings, Cloud would sit down with him and go over the route he would take in the morning for his delivery service, or have him help work out receipts.  He told him about the strengths and weaknesses of monsters, he taught him how to fight.  Cloud was his hero, the world's hero.  And he was just some little kid that needed the help, because he was too weak to do those things on his own. He was so stupid to let himself die in one hit, so pathetic.  He needed to get stronger if he was ever going to help Cloud.

    He was so caught up in his self-loathing that he missed when Yuffie came out and sat next to him.  He only realized that she was there when the little girl started to speak.  "You know, that fight only lasted seven hits,” she remarked, her head tilted up to the stars.

    "Really?"  That didn't make him feel better.

    "Yeah, Cloud got a couple in, and Vincent and me.  And Tifa did her thing.  It ended when Cloud cut off its head.  Honestly, he did more damage than that.  Severed its head, shoulder and wing.  Whatever was in his way of getting to you.  Seeing you hit like that really scared him."

    Denzel winced, his hand clenching in Freyr’s feathers.  He never wanted to make Cloud scared or worried about him again.  Right at the start, he’d promised to not get in the way, and it only took one fight to prove he couldn’t keep that promise.  "I should have been better. I need to get better, so Cloud won't have to worry about me."

    "Uh, newsflash, Denzel.  Cloud always worries.  About everybody.  That’s why he likes to make everything his burden and his alone.  Don’t stress over him.  And if you’re feeling bad about being hit once and dying, well duh, that’s all it would take for something twenty-five levels higher than you.  I get that it’s hard to stand back, but next time, check if you can handle it before rushing in.  Back when we were all your level, we had to run from more than one fight.  Your life’s more important than your pride.”  As the ninja finished, she placed a hand on his shoulder.  "Come on, everybody’s going to bed.  Let’s leave the fretting to our spiky-haired friend."

    Denzel smiled and stood.  He knew it was good advice, and as he followed Yuffie inside, he vowed to not only become a stronger fighter but a smarter one.  He'd paid attention to all those lessons Cloud had taught him back in Banora about tactics, strategy and survival, but then he'd let his fear of seeming weak control his actions.  From now on, he would remember those lessons and put them to good use.  He wouldn't be a burden.

Chapter Text

Ding-Dong-Ditch; The first wonder of Nibelheim; A hearty breakfast;
Goodbyes and Gratitude; A small problem; Who are you?
Intimidation tactics

 

    The morning air was cold in the mountains’ shadow, the sun not yet cresting the high peaks or drowning the last stars in its light.  Even the few hardy birds that dwelt on Mt. Nibel had yet to wake and sing as Tifa crept out of the Strifes’ house.  Her father might have been overprotective and bull-headed, but she’d loved him and the memory of finding him dead at the foot of the Nibel reactor with a bloody Masamune embedded in the ground beside him still made her heart ache.  She’d pulled the long blade loose and gone after the man responsible, but she’d never stood a chance.  A teenager half-blinded by grief and rage, wielding a seven-foot katana she hadn’t the slightest training for?  Looking back at it, she was incredibly lucky, both that she’d lived through her foolish attack and that Master Zangan had taken her away from the reactor before the arrival of Shinra personnel.

    Now she hoped for a glimpse of her father before she left.  It went against their original plan, to get into and out of Nibelheim as quietly and quickly as possible, but that idea had been scuppered when young Cloud stepped out from behind his boulder.  Their presence was known now, and watching Cloud last night, interacting awkwardly with his mother, Tifa had longed for her own reunion with her parent.  She’d spent all night drowsing restlessly, unable to fall fully asleep, haunted by the twin images of Denzel’s crumpled body on the mountain path and her father’s corpse outside the reactor.  Loss came so swiftly, so unexpectedly.  She was cautious enough to realize that actually speaking to her father was a terrible risk, but who could begrudge her the chance to just see him, healthy and alive?

    She took several last deep breaths to calm herself, then walked up the steps to her childhood home.  Tifa lifted her fist to the wooden door and knocked.  It was very early - maybe no one would answer.  She and her father had never been early risers.  Should she knock again?  As she was hesitating, she heard light footsteps heading for the door.  Tifa bolted.  This knock-and-run strategy was a childish prank, but she didn’t have time to come up with anything better.  She held her breath, peering through a knothole in the fence that separated the Strife’s property from the Lockhart’s.  The door swung open, and at first she saw nothing.  Cursing her angle, she debated whether she could risk moving.  Then a small, dark-haired figure in a blue cotton nightgown peered around the door, looking for whoever had knocked.

    Tifa’s breath caught.  Unlike when she’d seen Cloud’s younger self, she had a hard time recognizing much of herself in the girl on the porch.  This little girl, with her confused pout growing deeper as she saw no one, didn’t look back at Tifa from mirrors.  Her mother had died of sickness, but she hadn’t seen her town aflame or her father’s bloody body.  She hadn’t had to make a living in the slums.  She hadn’t seen a city plate dropped, thousands of people crushed or trapped, in an attempt to kill her.  She was naive, her status and her father’s relative wealth shielding her from even the mundane horrors of life in poor and insular Nibelheim.  All the same… Tifa knew her.

    The girl’s head turned back toward the door.  Tifa pressed closer to the fence, the rough wood harsh against her skin.  A tall man with sharp eyes and a crisp mustache stepped onto the porch, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  Tears stung at Tifa’s eyes, but she couldn’t bear to blink and lose even a single, precious second.  He was wearing his favorite robe, a quilted red thing with patches on the elbows.  He just kept mending it over and over, saying that it was too comfortable to ever get rid of.  A part of her wanted to run forward, wrap her arms around him and that ridiculous robe, and never let go.  Yet the larger part of her, the survivor, reminded her that, no matter how much this man looked like her father, he wasn’t.  This man had his own daughter, whom he was steering back inside.  

    The door clicked shut, and Tifa stood up from her crouch, sighing.  Bittersweet though it had been, it was good to see him again.  Perhaps the image of him standing on the early-morning porch could replace her last memory of him, cradled bleeding in her arms.  The birds had begun their first songs of the day as she headed back inside the Strife residence.  The scent of bacon guided her to the kitchen, where Mrs. Strife was making a farmer’s breakfast of potatoes, bacon, ham, eggs, onions and tomatoes.  The unpeeled potatoes were already boiling in the pot, a testimony to how long she’d been outside.  Vincent and Cloud seemed to be helping as well, gathering items to set the table.

    “Morning,” she greeted, her voice still a little rough with suppressed emotion.  “Are the others up yet?”

    Looking up from the silverware, Cloud answered, “Denzel and Cloud are still getting ready.”

    “Not morning people?” she teased.    

    Cloud shook his head as he walked past her to the small dining room.  “Cloud was up before Denzel, but decided to wait for him.”

    It was odd hearing Cloud talk about his younger self, and judging by the way he shifted as he spoke, it was awkward for him as well.

    “What about Yuffie?” she asked as Cloud laid down the silverware while Vincent set out the plates, an oddly domestic scene.  “I’m sure she’s not ready to go yet.”

    Cloud’s mouth twitched.  “I thought of that, so I told her about the first wonder of Nibelheim.  She’s out retrieving it now.”

    Tifa started to set out the glasses, pulling them from a wooden cabinet.  “The wonders, huh?  It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what they are.  What’s the first one?  It must have been good to get her up.”

    “How the water from the tower always came out red.”  

    She paused for a moment, lost in memory.  “You know, it’s odd now, but I simply accepted that as a fact of life when we were kids.”  She set a glass down with a soft thunk.  “Why would Yuffie be interested in that though?”

    “Because a Phoenix summon is what’s dyeing the water,” Cloud stated.

    “A materia in the water tower?”  Tifa blinked at him.  How could a powerful summon like that have ended up in such a strange place?  “Did someone hide it there?”  Cloud only shrugged.  She tilted her head, as another thought bothered her.  “Did coming back here help you remember that?” she asked in a soft voice.

    There was a long uncomfortable pause before Cloud answered, his voice equally quiet.  “It’s one of Zack’s memories.  Being in this house, I’ve been getting a few of my own, but…”

    Without saying anything else, he slipped out of the room.  Vincent, who’d been a silent red shadow as they talked, also went back to the kitchen.  Left alone, she silently berated herself.  Talking with Cloud could be difficult at times, never knowing when you might touch on something painful.  Of course he never got angry when it happened, he just - ran away.  Evasion wasn’t all he was good at; wallowing in guilt was another of his specialities.  For all Cloud’s physical strength, he was surprisingly fragile emotionally.  For Tifa, who faced her griefs head-on, his constant retreats were frustrating in the extreme, but she was never sure how far it was safe to push him.  Rather than pursue the subject, she sighed, and headed out to go find Yuffie before trouble did.




    Trouble, Yuffie had decided long ago, made a habit of following her.  She could admit that she brought about half of it on herself, but the other half was completely not her fault.  How was she to know the people in Nibleheim got up freakishly early?  Or that they owned really big dogs?  Seriously, the dogs were about the same size as the local wolves, with attitudes to match.  

    She crouched behind someone’s chimney, with a hundred pound mutt barking and scratching below her, and contemplated her options.  Cloud had woken her at an unholy hour, letting her know about a summon materia ripe for the taking.  She’d been in such a hurry to grab it, she’d left without any useful equipment.  Heck, she was still in her pajamas!  The dog snarled up at her - its teeth were huge - and she wished she’d brought along some dream powder.  Its owner would be coming out to check on it soon, and she knew Cloud and Tifa wanted to keep a low profile.  

    What to do, she mused.  She’d intended to work her way along the roofs until she reached the one nearest the water tower, but with the dogs barking and stirring each other up, she didn’t have time.  She looked at the long stretch between herself and the tower.  She might make it… or she might end up as dog food.  Yuffie shook her head, banishing the thought.  No way, she was too awesome for that to happen.  

    Collecting herself, she judged the gap, prepared herself, and leapt.  Inches below her, she could hear the dog’s teeth snapping shut.  She landed precariously on the plank platform surrounding the water tank and windmilled her arms, smirking once she caught her balance.  From a crouching start, she bounded up the tank’s side, then, teetering on the wooden rim, she peered into the reddish water.  Sure enough, there was a glinting red summon materia submerged inside, just as Cloud said.  She took a deep breath before plunging into the icy water.  The mountain might be in the middle of summer, but nights were still cold at such high elevations.  The water up here never got warm.  Wrapping her hand around the crystal, she kicked off the bottom of the tank.  She broke the surface with a whooshing gasp and clambered back up, digging her fingernails into the rough wood.

    Once again on the dry planks, she was faced with making it back to the Strife’s house, sopping wet, and with that dumb dog and now its owner still in the way.  Leaping back onto the roof of the house she’d originally launched from was out; the angle wrong and too obvious.  Disgruntled, with her back pressed against the tank’s side, Yuffie considered how best to make a run for it.

    After peering over the edge to check where the dog’s owner was, she shimmied around to the other side of the tank.  Seeing that side all clear of onlookers, she gently let herself down before hightailing it to the closest fence to hide behind.  No one seemed to have spotted her.  Perfect.   She took a moment to admire the red materia clutched in her shivering hands.  She fed a smidgen of energy into the orb, producing just enough heat to warm her hands back up.  Thank Leviathan that Phoenix was a fire affiliated summon; Shiva would have frozen the tank solid.

    Sneaking behind the houses, she thought over the significance of a town that would have been burnt to the ground in a few years, then rebuilt, holding a phoenix summon. Was it a sign?  Yuffie didn’t consider herself particularly superstitious, though many people back home in Wutai were, but she thought there was a lot more to materia than just their practical use.  If the group hadn’t taken other actions to change things, like burning Jenova, would simply removing this summon have prevented Nibelheim from being destroyed?  Or at least kept it from being burnt and reborn?

    She was surprised to see Tifa coming towards her around a corner.  At first, Yuffie thought the older girl was coming to scold her.  She instantly decided to pin it on Cloud.  After all, he was the one to mention the summon, completely setting her up.  Before she could launch her defense, Tifa handed her a towel, clean but scratchy and worn.  She didn’t care, it was dry and could make her dry.  That was all that mattered to her in that moment.

    “Thanks,” she accepted through chattering teeth.

    “Of course. You’re lucky were not here later in the year.”  Tifa gave a shake of her head before turning back to the Strife’s home  “Come on, breakfast will be done soon. We’ll need to eat fast if we want to be gone before anyone else wakes up.”

    By the time they came in through the back door, everyone else had already started in on the hearty looking breakfast.  At this point Yuffie’s stomach started to chew at her spine.  Dashing up the steep narrow stairs to their borrowed room, she threw on some dry clothes.  Then, channeling the smallest, most controlled Tornado she could, she tumble dried her soaked clothes.  Despite her care, the window in the room still rattled ominously, while every thing loose and light weight was tossed around.  With that done, she stuffed her belongings into her pack, dropped it by the door, then jumped down the stairs, making Cloud, on his way up, duck to avoid being kicked in the head.

    “Yuffie,” he said solemnly.

    She turned to look up at him, expecting to be scolded as he and Tifa had taken to doing after becoming parents.  Instead all he did was repeat Tifa’s earlier admonition.  “Eat fast, we’re leaving soon.”

    Sweet, she’d gotten out of being lectured twice today.  Running into the dinning room where the others were still seated, she threw herself into the chair next to Spike, startling him.  In the middle of the table on a folded towel sat a large cast-iron skillet.  Removing the heavy lid revealed steaming golden brown potatoes and eggs, dotted with the reds of crisp bacon, savory ham and fresh tomatoes.  The aroma of pepper, onion and bacon was coiling in the air.  

    Yuffie frowned slightly.  What was it with the West and big breakfasts?  Sure, it smelled and looked good, but it would weigh her down.  This was the sort of meal you had after you were done for the day, when you had time to curl up and digest.  Still, not one to do things on an empty stomach, she took a modest serving.

    “Um… Yuffie?” Spike wavered.

    “Humm?” Yuffie cocked her head to look at him, mouth full of egg.

    “Thanks for yesterday.  For playin’ with me, and bein’ so nice.”

    Yuffie beamed at the kid.  “Of course!  I’m a nice person, no matter what some people say.  I’m more than nice, I’m awesome!”

    Across from her, Tifa rolled her eyes.

    Yuffie grinned and shoved a potato into her mouth.  She thought it was really cool, seeing this young soft side to Cloud before he became a grump.  She wondered how this younger version might grow up.  They had already changed his future.  Following that line, what would her younger self be like, if they really could put a stop to the war?  A world where her father wasn’t always in a war counsel, hearing about the deaths of their warriors, the steady loss of lives and land.  Where she wouldn’t grow up surrounded by so many guards to sneak away from.  She may end up being less skilled as a result, but the exchange, her skills against many lives of her warriors and her people, would be worth it.  Her people wouldn’t be broken, forced to abandon their pride and their honor to survive.  To become a cheap tourist attraction for Western society.

    The scraping of chairs caused her to look up from her plate.  Vincent and Tifa were both standing, collecting their plates.  Mrs. Strife also stood, swiftly taking the plates from them.  Tifa thanked her, then turned towards Yuffie and Denzel.

    “I’m going to go get our packs, you two hurry and finish.  We should have left by now.”  She glanced at the window, where morning light was gently filtering in.
    
    Yuffie waved her on.  She’d eat faster if the food wasn’t so dense.  It felt like she was eating a sponge or brick.  A tasty sponge or brick, sure, but this was not a fast meal.   Denzel and Spike seemed to be inhaling theirs, but Yuffie didn’t think she was going to able to finish.  When Tifa and Cloud came back down she gave up, pushing her plate forward.

    “Time to go?”

    Cloud gave a nod, and they all followed him down the hall to the back door.  He put his hand on the knob, but turned back before opening it, eyes scanning the house before settling on their hostess.  Yuffie flinched and looked away from his eyes.  Cloud, like Vincent, closed himself off and hid his emotions.  But unlike their friend, he’d never been able to keep his feelings from showing through his eyes.  Love, hope, sorrow, nostalgia, regret.  A lump formed in Yuffie’s throat.  She was lucky that even when her country had been taken from her, she still had her home, her father.  Even if they hadn’t always gotten along.  She had never lost him.

    When Cloud spoke, his voice was raw and broken.  “Thank you, for everything.”

    Mrs. Strife looked stunned and confused at the show of emotions.  Yuffie knew that the woman couldn’t understand the true gravity of the moment, never would, but that didn’t stop her from reaching out to Cloud.  Maybe to hug him, certainly to try and comfort, but he turned away and went out the door quickly.  Denzel ducked out next, followed by Tifa.  The martial artist at least stopped by the confused woman, giving her a reassuring smile.  “We’ll look after him.”  Then she too was gone.

    Cloud’s mom wasn’t the only one looking unsure.  Spike shifted awkwardly, uncertain about the suddenly somber mood.  Without thinking about it, Yuffie pulled the boy into a hug.  It took him a moment to realize what was going on before he returned the gesture, clinging tightly.

    “Hang tough, kid.”  She gave him a cocky grin as she pulled back.  “You’re going to grow up awesome.”

    Letting go, she went out into the cool morning air.  It was lighter now, and dew had collected on the tarps they’d laid down over the garden last night.  Behind her, she could hear Mrs. Strife admonishing Vincent to look after them properly.  Yuffie didn’t catch all of what she said, because she noticed something was missing from the garden: three nearly ten feet tall bright gold birds.  She saw the others all clustered at the corner of the house, peering around towards the front.  She called out,  “Hey, what gives? Where are the birds?”

    Denzel shushed her, then waved her over with a sheepish expression on his face. “We kinda have a problem.”

    Curious, she squeezed in to have a look.  Just inside the front garden gate, surrounded by the birds, was a dark-haired little girl.  White blouse, blue denim shorts, and so unmistakably Tifa.




    Cloud was not ready for this.  He still felt too raw - seeing his mother alive and well, being a stranger in the home he grew up in, fending off the curiosity and youth of his younger self.  Last night had been a minefield of questions.  Denzel had answered most, and he was pathetically grateful, but that also piled on more guilt.  What sort of parent ran away and made their son fight their battles?  He really wasn’t a role-model.  He’d failed and let Denzel die.  Just like he had failed Zack and Aerith.  It wasn’t much consolation that the phoenix down had worked, he had still let it happen.  

    And there had been the reactor, and the memories of the last time he’d been in that place.  He had avoided it all this time for a reason.  Fear, betrayal, desperation, rage, the first bite of Masamune.  When entering this time, he’d been keenly aware of Jenova.  As soon as he set foot inside, he’d felt her.  Static, an itch, a pull under his skin, in the back of his mind.  Felt the consuming flames as he watched her burn, screaming inside his head.  He had tried to reach out to her.  Vincent and Tifa had held him back.  And before all that, the manor.  Drowning in green memories, some his, some not.

    He wanted out, gone from this place.  He was half tempted to use a chocobo lure to bring the birds away from the younger Tifa, but decided against it.  She would just follow after them.  As the Mayor’s daughter, she wouldn’t get in trouble being in someone else’s yard.  And as he’d seen with his own self yesterday, a kid’s curiosity wouldn’t be deterred simply by the birds walking away.  Why was she even up this early?  The Lockharts weren’t known for rising with the sun.  He didn’t get long to contemplate his bad luck before he heard his younger self coming up behind them.  Undoubtedly he was wondering why they hadn’t left yet.

    The younger one peeked curiously around them, then squeaked in surprise.  “T-Tifa?”

    There went any hope of leaving unnoticed.  Though he didn’t blame the boy.  It had been a dream of his, to be friends enough with Tifa that she’d come over to his house.

    Hearing her name, the young girl looked up and beamed at them, full of delight.  “Cloud! When did you get chocobos?”

    His younger self shuffled forward.  “They’re not mine,” he explained.

    It was very odd watching the two kids interact.  Suddenly, he felt old.  Tifa, next to him, laced her fingers with his and rested her head on his shoulder.  Her voice was gentle, full of warmth.  “You were a cute kid.”

    “So were you,” he replied instinctively.

    She smiled at him, dimples appearing in her cheeks.  “I’ll remember that.  But right now…” she nodded toward their counterparts.  His was trying to wave them over.  In frustration Cloud raked his hand through his hair.  Best to get this over with.  

    He studied the contrasts between themselves and their counterparts as he approached.  Just a few years difference between them, but he and Tifa were taller, with more defined muscles.  His younger self was a skinny, scrappy thing with bony elbows and scraped knees; the younger Tifa was softer than his Tifa, slightly pudgy with baby fat and an easy life.  Their faces were gentle and open, curious.  No trace of wariness, no old scars mental or physical.  In their small lives, though their concerns and troubles must seem quite large, there was no omen that presaged the nightmares he and Tifa had lived through.

    These kids were going to grow up differently, with different lives.  Cloud almost stumbled as the thought struck him.  He’d thought of it, just a little, back aboard the Shera, during the planning.  But it was different, now, to think of it while looking at these young, unjaded faces.  Where would they go?  The Shinra?  It might not survive, and SOLDIER was even less likely to.  He couldn’t see his younger self staying here in Nibelheim.  What would he do?  Run deliveries, be a mechanic, race chocobos?  Or something completely different?  And what of Tifa?  What future stretched before her?

    Standing next to them now, he felt his frustration at the delay subside, bemusement and a strange sense of awe overriding it.

    His double smiled proudly at them.  “Cloud, this is Tifa!  Tifa’s double-, um, doublejer!”  the kid stumbled over the odd word.

    Cloud frowned slightly.  Doublejer?  He looked at the others confused.  Was it bad that he couldn’t understand his younger self?

    “I think you mean Doppelgänger,” Yuffie supplied.

    Tifa’s counterpart was obviously lost in this conversation.  “I’m a what?”

    His younger self clarified.  “You two,” he said while pointing between the two girls, “look alike and have the same name.”  The kid was beaming at this point.  Cloud reflected that this was probably a highlight in his life thus far.  Adventures, and a chance to impress the only kid in the village he really liked.

    The young girl seemed to consider her older self, playing nervously with her hair, twisting the tips of the dark fringe.  “We do?” she asked.

    “Yeah!  So do the two of us!”  His counter part grabbed hold of his hand and Cloud tensed, but nothing happened.  He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but he’d paid extra attention to avoid getting close to his younger self the day before, just in case.  Being part of Project S made him leery, and yesterday in the reactor had only reinforced his paranoia about his transferred alien cells.  Could the J-cells or S-cells rub off on his younger self, infect him somehow?  What about memory transferal?  As gently as he could, he detached himself from the other’s grip, not wanting to prolong contact.  Just in case.

    “Cloud, I’m sorry, but we have got to go.”  At the boy’s crestfallen expression, he continued, “We’ll meet again, I promise.”  He would like to keep an eye on his family from this time just to make sure they were okay, and that his actions didn’t screw things up for them.

    “Claudia!”  A masculine shout came from the front of the Lockhart’s yard.  Cloud had to peer around Nijoror to see Mayor Lockhart standing on his porch, clearly displeased to find three large chocobos in his neighbor’s yard.  Cloud groaned.  This was not how today was supposed to go.  Moments later, his mom came out onto her own porch, looking very unimpressed with the world.

    “Good morning, Brian, you’re up early.  Is there a problem?”

    Lockhart ignored the slight jab, staring at the birds with bristling brows.  “Claudia, how the hell did you manage to buy three chocobos without my knowledge?”  His gaze shifted, and softened just a degree.  “And Tifa, get out of that yard.  I’ve told you not to go over there.”

    The girl pouted.  “But, Daddy!” she protested, placing a hand on Freyr’s scaled leg, clearly not wanting to leave.

    Mrs. Strife folded her arm across her chest and drew herself up to her full petite height.  “What I do and what I buy is my business, Brian, not yours.  Though to answer you, the birds, they aren’t mine and they are leaving.”  She turned her head and sent a low key glare at him.  He nodded.  It was past time to go.  But the Strife luck was notorious for being bad.

    Mayor Lockhart was crossing his yard, the better to glare over the fence.  “And who are these people?”  He glared suspiciously at Vincent before casting a glance at the others and freezing, face slackening in shock.  Tifa had stepped back, putting Nerthius between herself, her younger self, and her father, both Clouds were still standing together.  The mayor recovered himself, beetle-browed and blustery.  “Claudia, since when did you have a second brat?”

    Cloud clenched his fists.  Next to him, his younger self did the same.  Neither spoke.  Cloud didn’t trust himself to not say something he would regret later, either by upsetting his mom, Tifa, or messing the plan up more that it already was.  To his surprise the one who spoke up was the younger Tifa.

    “Cloud’s not a brat, he’s nice.”  She stepped in front of the two of them, shielding them from her dad.  Cloud was speechless.  He couldn’t recall any childhood instance of Tifa standing up for him like this.  “And their gah, gang doubles.  I have one too.” She stumbled a little over the strange word, but spoke proudly, grabbing hold of Tifa’s arm and pulling her out from behind the hen to show her dad.  

    Lockhart started, and almost reached over the fence, like he was trying to grab his daughter away from this strange revelation.  “Gang double?” he questioned, eyes fixed on the two girls.  His daughter stared back at him defiantly, but the older Tifa flickered her nervous gaze around the yard before ending staring fixedly at a bushel basket-covered plant.  The basket was slightly askew, clearly having been pulled around by curious chocobos overnight.

    Yuffie huffed loudly, pushing herself to the front of the group.  “Doppelgänger. It’s pronounced dop-pel-gäng-er. Come on, people, I didn’t learn this language so I could teach it to its supposedly native speakers!”  

    Cloud’s mouth twitched.  At least some things were still predictable.  Yuffie’s outburst at least helped him relax.  He unclenched his fists and flexed the stiff fingers.  “Mayor Lockhart, we’re leaving, not causing trouble.”  He was just tall enough to see over the fence.  Curtains were twitching in neighboring windows, the town’s other residents watching the latest drama unfold at the Strife household.

    “Not until I know what is going on.  Who are you kids?”  Lockhart demanded, moving to block the front gate as if he thought they were going to ride the birds bareback right through the middle of town.

    This time Tifa answered, brows drawn together at her father’s action.  Her voice was firm, if quieter than usual.  “We’re just passing through.  Mrs.Strife was kind enough to let us stay the night.”

    “And they have a lot of traveling to do,”  his mom added meaningfully.

    A worn voice interrupted her.  “Claudia, what have you gotten yourself into now?  Stealing business from the inn?”  The elderly couple who lived on the Lockhart’s other side came walking up, probably to see what the Mayor had been yelling about.   “We get so few visitors, you should be ashamed of stealing guests from -”  They faltered as they arrived at the gate, staring at Cloud standing beside his counterpart.  “Well, of course, unless it’s family,” they amended, eyes riveted to Cloud.  His skin crawled as they inspected him.  It was too similar to Hojo’s labs in the past, like he wasn’t human but a curiosity, a specimen.

    “What’s this, a group of orphans?”  Now that one set of neighbors had joined the conversation, the rest were coming out of the woodwork.  “Is that one yours?  Left him behind in Junon?”

    He glanced at his mom.  She’d been to Junon?  She’d never mentioned that before.  In fairness, she had never talked much about her life before he’d been born.  She frowned and set a hand on the young Cloud’s shoulder, her reply an icy “No”.  It was irrational, but it hurt him to hear that.  Of course, she wouldn’t know.  From her perspective, she had a kid and it wasn’t him.  This woman wasn’t his mother, and that would have to be okay.  He was a grown man, even if he didn’t currently look it.  He’d come to grips with his own mother’s death years ago.  He just felt bad that she had to go through this because of him being here.

    Thankfully, someone in the swelling crowd brought up a new question.  “By the mountain, where did you get gold chocobos?”  One man pushed his way to the front to inspect the birds.  His comment brought on a fresh round of muttering.  Cloud couldn’t fathom why though.  Why would the residents of Nibelheim care about gold chocobos?  How would they even know about them?  The man continued, “Wasn’t it a gold that won the Breeders Cup?”

    “The longshot, yeah.  I bet good gil on a blue in that race.  Lost it all.”

    He listened to the old men rib each other.  Was that what all this was about?  The races they’d entered their birds in, in Costa del Sol.  He hadn’t thought racing a popular sport in Nibelheim, but if thought hard, he could vaguely remember people sitting at the inn clustered around the tv, cheering at times.  He hadn’t cared back then.  It hadn’t been nearly as exciting as news reports about SOLDIER, and the other kids, if they saw him watching, would tease him, commenting about his “long-lost family” or “why don’t you go back to your flock?”.

    “Claudia, I thought you said you had no relation to that stable.  If you took my husband’s gil,you should return it.” One woman demanded.

    His mother’s frown, somehow, deepened, but Yuffie was quick to butt in.  “The betting doesn’t work like that.  Owners don’t get what the crowd bets, they get the purse.”

    Not unless they bet on their own birds, Cloud thought.  They had made a lot of gil on the Breeders Cup.  He hadn’t checked how they’d done on the later races, content to find out once they had a better PHS signal.  That, and after one of their jockeys got into an accident and a new one had been assigned to them by the track, he’d been leery of making contact while near Nibelheim.  Call him paranoid, but weird accidents followed by quick unknown replacements made him suspicious.  Best to get out of the area, away from possible trouble, then confirm who the new jockey was.

    “Besides, she’s not the owner,” Yuffie continued before Cloud could stop her.

    “Oh, and how would you know that?”

    “These birds here are ours,”  Cloud quickly interjected, before Yuffie could claim ownership of the racing birds.  He added,  “This is clearly a small town - if the Strifes owned Chocobos, you would have known before now.”  Nothing but what really mattered stayed secret in this town.  Much like Shinra in that respect.  

    “And you are?” the unfortunate gambler asked.  The crowd’s attention, which had only ever been partially deserted by the chocobo question, snapped back to Cloud.

    Shit.  He’d already given his name to the Strifes; he couldn’t lie in front of them.  He thought frantically.  “Wallace.  Cloud Wallace.”  

    From the corner of his eye, he saw Yuffie give him a sly grin.  She was definitely going to tell Barret about this later.

    “And the rest of you?” someone else pressed.

    “Yuffie, Vincent, Denzel and Tifa,” Yuffie flippantly introduced the others.  “And you are?”  

    But the man didn’t answer.  Instead he blurted, “Tifa! That can’t be right.”

    The villagers stood muttering to each other, their eyes growing unfriendly, darting between the two Clouds and the two Tifas.  “It can’t be a coincidence.”  “A trick?”  “These are strange times.”  “Spies come to steal and replace our kids.”  The theories grew more and more outlandish.  Finally someone asked Tifa, “And your last name?”

    Tifa quickly glanced at him, before giving a small, polite smile.  “Wallace.”

    Both of their counterparts gaped at them, while Mayor Lockhart choked “You’re related?”  Cloud wondered what horrified thoughts were running through the man’s mind.  

    “No.” She shook her head.  “It’s a common last name where we’re from.”

    “And that is?” the man glared.

    “Midgar,” Denzel jumped in ,“and we really should be getting back there, so… bye.”  He cast Cloud a glance seeking approval.  Cloud nodded back.  Activating his chocobo lure, he led the birds back behind the house to where the packs were, without looking back towards the crowd.  He wasn’t comfortable about leaving his mom to deal with the fallout, but they’d already stayed far too long, and the questioning could only get worse.  Saddling Freyr for Denzel, he could still hear the buzz of the villagers talking out front.  He also heard the smaller footsteps of kids approaching them, crunching in the rocky soil.

    “Hey chocobo-butt, see your family came to visit,” the first of the bullies called out.  The three behind him snickered.  The lead was a tall boy, around Denzel’s height and about twelve if Cloud figured correctly.  He and his friends had made what he could remember of his childhood miserable.  They usually hadn’t actually followed him into the fenced yard, though - perhaps because the adults were all distracted out front, they were feeling bolder than usual.

    “What do you want, Aric?” his counterpart challenged.  He was a foot shorter than the older boy, but his chin was up, his fists knotted, his chest puffed out.  He looked ridiculous, like a bantam rooster picking a fight with a hawk.  Tifa had told him, when trying to help him remember his past, that he had been a scrappy kid.  Never backing down, and getting beaten to a pulp because of it.  Watching now, he could tell the bullies didn’t consider him a threat, just a form of entertainment.  Before things could escalate any further he called out, “Hey Cloud, come here for a moment.”

    The younger boy’s body jerked towards him, curiosity propelling him, but aggression and defensive kept his eyes locked  on the bullies for a few seconds longer before he finally looked at Cloud.  “Umm… what is it?”  Cloud twitched a hand, beckoning, and the younger boy walked over with a cautious look at the local boys.

    “Hah, the freaks look identical,” Aric jeered.  But before anyone else could add another comment, Cloud casually unslung First Tsurugi from its harness.  

    That got everyone’s attention.  Even Vincent, who so far today had been more an observer than an active participant, was now on guard.  Ignoring them, he focused his attention on his younger self.  The boy was eyeing the massive sword with interest.  “I want to show you something.”   He walked over to Fenrir, opening the side compartments with a click.  Behind him, he heard the boy gasp - and behind that, a quickly bit-off curse from one of the bullies.
    
    “Watch,”  he instructed as he began to disassemble the sword.  First the twin short swords, hilts snapping into place before he slid them into their spots inside Fenrir.  Next, the twin long swords with deep cutouts along the blades to catch and hold his opponents weapon, followed by the hollow blade with its extended arm guard.  Glancing over to the bullies, he was satisfied with their fascinated yet wary expressions.  They wouldn’t be giving them any more problems but for good measure he pressed the release on the base blade, opening it into battle mode, before resting it on his shoulder.

    In a low voice so the others wouldn’t hear, he spoke to his younger self.  “Versatility is often better than strength.  Having multiple options and knowing what they are and how to use them will serve you better than rushing in on pure aggression.”  He nodded towards the bullies.  “You’re faster than them, right?”  The boy nodded yes.  “Then run.”

    His counterpart looked shocked, then angry.  “But -”  

    He cut him off.  “Learn the terrain, get them split up so you can fight them one on one.  Aim for their knees and ankles, their arms and wrists.  Don’t aim to hurt them, aim to make them so tired they can’t keep after you.  If the others show up, don’t stay for an unfair fight, run.”  He would have liked to add more, but he heard the distant sound of rotor blades bouncing off the mountain peaks.  He shot a quick glance toward Vincent.  It seemed the gunman had also picked up on the sound.

    “I believe it is time we go,” the man said.

    “Yeah.”  Cloud turned to the others.  “Mount up.”  He closed the side compartments on Fenrir, returned the base blade to its resting form, and slung it into the harness on his back.  Straddling his motorcycle, he looked again at the young boy who shared his past.  “We’ll meet again.  And - I’m sorry for any trouble us being here might cause.”  Without waiting for the other to reply, he revved the bike and was gone through the back gate, the rest of his party following after.  The last thing he heard wasn’t his younger self calling goodbye, but the town’s photographer running after them.

    “Wait!  I never got a photo!”

Chapter Text

Stages of grief;  Never trust a snake;  Reactor breakdown;
Small town issues;  Status effect: no effect;  Fire and ice;  Accidental slip;
Status effect: bad effect;  A long walk;  Questions and collapse



    Midgar was a city of industrial grey, cloudy skies, riveted steel walls, and granite stone.  In contrast, Junon was a city of bright copper, with terra-cotta roofs, warm orange light reflecting off the ocean, and towering hundreds of feet above, the deadly and beautiful bronze gleam of the Mako Cannon.  When Genesis looked down though, the streets below were thronged with the infectious gray of Shinra as SOLDIERs and troopers moved about.  Their metal helmets, swords and guns were emblems of destructive, powerful industry.  If those people learned of his humiliating defeat…  “Pride is lost.  Wings stripped away, the end is nigh,” he sighed.  

    Across from him Angeal, newly arrived from Midgar, rolled his eyes.  “Was it really that bad?” he asked, his voice clearly suggesting that Genesis was being melodramatic.

    That bad?  Genesis almost choked.  Never before had he been so humiliated.  Not even when fighting against Sephiroth, who he had never beaten even with Angeal’s help.  He planned to rectify that, but to be defeated by a mere child…  No, he couldn’t even entertain the thought.  She must have used some sort of Sneak Attack or First Strike materia.  It wasn’t her skill that had gotten the better of him, but her equipment.  He was a SOLDIER 1st Class!

    Answering his friend, he seethed, “Legend shall speak of sacrifice at world’s end.  That little brat cheated with her equipment and stole my materia.  I shall not rest ‘til I’ve hunted her down.”  He would not rest until he had wiped that smug grin off her face.  “She will learn to fear the true power of SOLDIER.”  He ran his hand along the rapier’s hilt, fingering the empty materia slots. “You brought the materia I requested?”  

    “Of course.”  Angeal held out a small red velvet pouch which Genesis snatched, the soft fabric catching on his sword calluses.  “Do you think Osmoga and Drainga are really necessary?  They’re only kids.”  

    He pulled out one of the aforementioned materia, holding it up and inspecting the green crystal under the light.  “That was no ‘kid’, but a hellion.”  When he closed his eyes he could still see her, jeering, just out of reach.  Neither rapier nor spell able to find its mark.  She had been tiring though, his stamina superior.  If only Veld hadn’t interfered.  That fight could have been won, he would not believe otherwise.

    Angeal was looking at him with patient tolerance.  Genesis twitched a lip irritably, but forbore from snarling at him.  It wasn’t Angeal who deserved his wrath.  His friend shifted on the couch, his posture and expression growing more serious, more military.  “I know you’re angry that she stole your materia.  How do you plan to make sure she doesn’t do it again?”

    “Stop.  Then Hell Firaga until she’s dead.”

    Angeal frowned sharply.  “Genesis!  Our orders are capture, not kill.”

    Genesis scoffed, but amended his statement.  “Fine, I shan't go past what a phoenix down can fix.”  Angeal was too soft sometimes, the girl was their enemy.  

    The other man leaned back and crossed his arms, his frown uneased.  “Besides the young thief, what’s the rest of the group like?  Veld hasn’t debriefed me yet.”

    “Veld is off digging for information, seeing as our original intel was severely lacking.”  His thoughts flashed back to the rumpled young Turk who’d provided it, vindicating his belief that anyone who took so little care in their personal attire would be a disappointment in their job.  Honestly, he had no idea why the Turks had selected him.  At least now more senior Turks would be handling the case.

    “For now,” he continued, “what we know is that there are four children, one clearly mako-enhanced, with high level equipment, a source for top-secret information from within the company, and they are mildly adverse to Shinra.”

    He got a quirked eyebrow in response.  “Mildly adverse?”

    “They have never caused serious injury.”  He would have felt better if they had.  How could he have let himself lose a fight without gaining even a scratch?  Sephiroth would never consider him a rival like this.  Next time he faced that minute menace, things would be different.

    “Genesis?” Angeal prompted.  He must have drifted into introspection.

     “It’s clear they could.  Cause harm,” he quickly amended, before voicing the question that had been bothering him.  “But why don’t they?”

    He and Veld had spoken about it on the way back, as best they could over the helicopter’s roar.  The enhanced boy could have easily cut Veld’s arm off, but hadn’t.  The group even took the encounter as an opportunity to teach their less experienced companion.  They were actively choosing to let their opponents live.  Why?  What was their goal?  Questions he hadn’t cared about to start with, but now he was,  under his anger and contempt, grudgingly curious.

    “Maybe they’re uncomfortable with it.  They are children.”  Angeal’s posture was still stiff, but his voice was uncertain.

    Perhaps so, but the explanation didn’t sit right with him.  They had the air of experienced combatants.  Three of them at least had killed before, he was certain of it.  Were they like Angeal?  His friend was adverse to bloodletting and would do so only if there was no other choice.  It couldn’t be in mockery, showing off their skill.  He quickly amended that thought.  That might well answer for the devilish thief, but the others seemed more restrained.  What else?  What was he missing?  Then again, did it really matter anymore?  With Angeal, the two 2nd Class SOLDIERs he’d brought with him, and a new strategy of striking preemptively with status effects, the children would soon be brought to heel.  Their goals and reasons would be Turk business, and Genesis could move on, his superiority proven.

    While it pained him to admit that he needed the backup Angeal brought, the sooner this ordeal was over, the sooner he could repair the damage to his reputation.  “My soul, corrupted by vengeance;  Hath endured torment, to find the end of the journey;  In my own salvation; And your eternal slumber.”  The words flowed over him, calming him.  Yes, in the end he would be victorious.




    “Veld, while I’m pleased with the information you have given me, a truly interesting specimen, I am not in the habit of losing my projects.  Try looking elsewhere.  Oh, and one more thing - when you do manage to catch the child, bring it to me.  Hollander would only make a mess of it.”

    “Thank you for your interest, professor, but first and foremost, the Turks will process the individual.”

    “Of course.  Assuming Hollander’s brats can catch it.”  The phone disconnected with a sharp click.

    Veld sighed, rubbing his temple.  He could feel the vein there pulsing.  In the past, when Hojo lost a project, the Turks retrieved it, or at least kept an eye on it.  They’d done the same for Hollander’s work.  If the boy was Hojo’s, then what might have kept the head of the Science Department from putting Veld’s people on the case?

    In the back of his mind, his subconscious was turning the evidence over.  It kept throwing out the memory of the boy specifically mentioning Hojo as untrustworthy.  Few individuals knew what the man was capable of.  The man’s name was kept out of the news, and he did not publish academically.  The public record, what most people, even most Shinra employees, knew, was that Dr. Hojo was the head of Shinra’s Science Department, and represented that division on the executive board.  His involvement with SOLDIER and the enhancement process was classified, known to a few hundred people.  His actual part in the process was known less than that.  Perhaps twenty-three people knew precisely.  More sources for that leak, at least, than the bombing of Kalm.

    He’d gone over it multiple times, in the privacy of his own head, with his second-in-command, and with President Shinra himself.  How had the boy known of the Kalm mission?  The most likely scenario, no matter how displeasing, was that Reno had slipped up.  He didn’t believe the young man was compromised, but the lack of information he’d provided for the current mission, his name on the lips of the target, and his inexperience in the field, all of it suggested that he was the leak, even if the snafu had been accidental.  A mistake in their line of work could be catastrophic for the company.  He didn’t want to scratch Reno.  They had put too much work into him, and he had the makings of an effective Turk.  Perhaps a stint back in training was in order.

    Rod had so far not found anything connecting the targets to the terrorist known as the Death God.  In fact, it seemed that the terrorist’s cell had been just as surprised about the summoning in Kalm as Shinra had been.  They were now trying to locate the summoner and recruit them, something the Turks would need to prevent.  The last thing Veld and his headache needed was the two groups combining.  If he could get them to take each other out…  He mulled it over briefly but decided that, no, he’d rather they stay as far apart as possible.  The only other lead at the moment was the birds at the track.

    Cissnei, in prime position to observe in Costa del Sol, had nothing fresh to report though.  The group had only contacted the stable twice, once to register, and once to check in on the birds.  According to Cissnei’s inquiries, they gave nothing away about themselves or their goals.  And since they had entered the Nibel mountain range, just after Cissnei’s assignment, no further contact had been made.  Signal was spotty in the mountains, but Veld was not prepared to accept that as the answer.  It could be that the botched attempt at catching them had spooked them, but their calmness during the interaction made the idea seem less credible.  This group would not startle or change their course easily.  

    What was of significance in those mountains?  There were only a few small towns, their economies dependent on logging, mining, and wool production.  The reactor was the only likely terrorist target.  The targets had shown themselves as skilled combatants with an aversion to loss of life.  Their feelings on Shinra seemed rather neutral.  They had defended themselves when attacked, and had interfered with an operation that would have resulted in drastic civilian casualties, but had not taken other action.  Perhaps they really were headed for Wutai as suggested earlier.  To do what?  If they were war orphans, he could understand their desire to stop the conflict, to show up and fix things.  Frankly, though, that type of logic seemed too naive for this group.  The war in Wutai had been caused by the actions of individuals, but it was the grinding of economic pressure that kept it going - no small group had the power to stop it.

    Again, the memory of the blond boy spitting out Hojo’s name - the boy with obvious mako enhancements.  Veld’s nerves screamed with the impossibility of coincidence, and like opening the door to a room where a corpse was decomposing, it struck him.  The lab in Nibelheim.  

    A cold shudder started at the base of his spine, but he suppressed it with ease.  His hands lay flat and relaxed on the arms of his uncomfortable chair.  It had been a long time since he’d last thought of the Shinra Manor.  His partner had died there, and when Hojo abandoned the crumbling heap, it had been a relief to Veld, who’d since put it out of his mind.  A group with classified information from unknown sources might know of the lab’s existence.  It would also clearly incriminate Hojo.  Veld had long suspected the scientist of withholding critical information.  If he had created a new enhanced being in secret and lost it, well, already snarled office politics would get much worse.  Hojo may have the president’s ear but, depending on what this new individual was capable of, the doctor might find himself slipping from his high position.


    Damn.  Veld blinked slowly, clearing his head.  The boy’s words were affecting him.  Don’t trust Hojo, well, he never had.   He was, however, considering the doctor more closely than he would have if the boy hadn’t mentioned him.  Perhaps someone was trying to discredit Hojo by pinning this latest trouble on him.  It was slightly depressing that he could think of a number of employees in the science department who might try such a stunt without even straining his mind.  While conspiracies didn’t lurk behind every door, Veld had dug up enough buried secrets to know that no one in Shinra was truly loyal.  The company was well on its way to a complete global monopoly, and it was the nature of powerful entities to draw the power-hungry to themselves.  On a fundamental level, humans were self-serving, self-interested creatures.  Veld had found even those who claimed their goals were for the sake of others, or, preposterously, for “the world’s sake”, were usually deluding themselves, dressing their selfishness in more appealing clothing.

    What selfish goal were the targets pursuing?  Even if they weren’t after the lab or the reactor, it would not be a bad idea to check in on Nibelheim.  If they weren’t there, it would be a good place to try picking up their trail.  Veld’s group would need to head to the mountains quickly, they had already lost a day by returning to Junon, and it would take over a full day to get back, even when taking a plane to Brarrow, then a helicopter into the mountain range.  Unpredictable weather could have erased the target’s trail and if they’d left the road… no, that was unlikely.  Not with a motorcycle, not in those mountains.  And the bike was too unique to be abandoned.

    Veld stood.  The new personnel should have arrived, Angeal and two other SOLDIERS.  Some might say it was overkill, bringing two SOLDIER 1sts and two 2nds to deal with four children, but he couldn’t forget that the targets had a Neo-Bahamut, and when confronted by Genesis, had not felt the need to summon it.  They had been confident in their abilities and equipment.  According to Genesis, they had magic nullifying equipment, but they had also cast Silence, meaning there were still some spells they were vulnerable to.  This time, they would go in with an array of status materia.  The group’s overconfidence is what they would target.




    Veld didn’t wait for the dust and gravel kicked up by the rotors to settle down before he exited the helicopter.  In the blue pre-dawn light, the dark silhouette of the Nibelheim reactor loomed ahead of him. Veld looked up at it, scanning for signs of disturbance.  One of the SOLDIER 2nds, Soren Myers, from Fort Condor and comfortable with reactors, began advancing towards it, boots crunching over the gravel, and Veld called him back at once.  Allowing the SOLDIERs into the Nibel reactor was not an option.  This place had one of the highest clearance levels, and for good reason.  It had been the dumping ground of the Science Department for years.

    “Rhapsodos, Hewley, take a 2nd class and a trooper each to check the perimeter for any signs of the targets.”  

    “Oh?  And where will you be going?”  Genesis’s voice dripped with displeasure.  No doubt he was feeling averse to taking orders from a Turk, even the head of the division.  Veld had neither the time nor inclination to coddle the young SOLDIER’s ego.

    “To check the reactor,” was his clipped response.  He went quickly up the broad steps, hearing Angeal organizing the two search groups behind him.  He examined the heavy metal door.  Weathered, as he would expect out here in the middle of nowhere, but there was no sign of an attempt at forced entry.  The SOLDIERs moved off, one party to the north, the other to the west.  Angeal’s group passed out of sight behind the reactor, but Genesis was leading his party straight to the rocky wall of the mountain bowl the power plant sat in.  Veld put his body between Genesis’ group and the keypad, and cupped his free hand over the numbers as he punched silent keys, preventing even someone with a SOLDIER’s senses from discerning the code.  

    He paused to listen after entering.  The only noise in the entrance cloister of a properly functioning reactor should be a smooth, low hum, but here there was a muffled gurgle and hiss.  Air in the pipes, meaning somewhere there was a leak.  They would need to send a maintenance team out here.  Troublesome, not only because of the clearance necessary, but because the Nibel reactor was the oldest plant, with a different operating system than the newer models in Midgar.  It would be their job to find the leak.  Veld wouldn’t worry about it now.

    Before he reached the pod chamber, he could smell rancid mako.  Was the leak in there?  But it wasn’t normal mako - the stench verified that.  Should he go in?  Back up the hall a little, almost hidden amongst the pipes crawling up the walls, was a metal door stenciled with a black anti-contamination symbol.  Opening it, he found what he was looking for.  All reactors were equipped with biohazard gear, and the Nibel reactor, though outdated, was no exception.  Slipping into the stuffy hazmat suit was as unpleasant as always, but Veld wasn’t going to take unnecessary risks.  If mako were a safe substance to work with, Shinra would never have been able to build or maintain its monopoly.  Cautiously, he opened the door to the contaminated room.

    Mako covered the floor.  In some places the liquid had evaporated, leaving behind green stains.  All the pods were open, the experiments that had once been inside them missing or - he found smudges of ash inside the pods - burnt away.  Again, troublingly, there was no sign that the pods’ hatches had opened by force.  If this was indeed the work of the targets, their threat level was much higher than he’d imagined.  Not only did they have highly-classified information, they had top clearance security codes.

    He hurried back to the main room, connecting his PHS to the closed network and checking the security logs.  The damage was recent, but however many months he went back, the records displayed normal operation, with no suspicious activity.  Damn.  He should have fought harder for updating and tightening the security of the company’s hidden locations at the earlier board meetings.  That the group had a hacker with them was sobering.  They had education, high-level equipment, and from their earnings at the track, a large income.  Perhaps the hacker was the older boy?  It would explain why he wasn’t experienced in fighting.

    He disconnected from the system.  Best to get a full idea of the damage they’d wrought.  Back in the pod room, he wondered how they’d known of the experiments stored here.  He still had no idea of the targets’ goals.  It couldn’t be that they were simply well-informed do-gooders.  Was the destruction of the experiments collateral damage, or - his paranoia kicked in again - was this related to Hojo?  The man had certainly spent a lot of time here.  

    Veld cautiously stepped around a pool of mako at the bottom of the stairs before ascending.  He examined the door leading to the next area - again, no damage done.  He peered closely at the code panel - the fine layer of dust across a few keys had been disturbed.  He memorized the numbers to unscramble later and cross check with possible codes they could have used.  Straightening, he typed in his own code and wiped the pad clean when he was through.

    What met his eyes in the next room was industrial devastation.  Large containers of experimental mako had been split open, the substance inside evaporated.  All around him cut wires were sparking, and in front of him, a catwalk that had once connected to an elevated platform now swung precariously, the metal creaking faintly where it connected by one joint to the balcony Veld stood on.  What may have once been a mako tank in the center of the room was smashed glass and melted metal.  Now cooled, the slag hung in rivulets down the platform’s sides.  Whatever the science department had been storing here was completely destroyed.  

    There was no doubt in Veld’s mind that this was their target, the reason they had come nearly halfway around the world from Mideel.  What had the Science Department been housing here?  Investigating that would have to wait.  His objective was to apprehend the young targets, and there was, however slight, the small possibility that he was jumping to conclusions.  There was no concrete evidence the damage here had been caused by the same group he was pursuing, though he hoped it was.  The Turks didn’t need any new groups causing trouble.  As soon as he could, he’d put together a team to investigate the reactor thoroughly.  Hopefully, the Science Department would be more cooperative now that they had been attacked.

    By the time Veld had clambered back out of the hazard gear and returned to the exterior of the reactor, the two other groups had regathered.  The sun was barely starting to crest the jagged peaks, putting shadows in retreat.  Veld stopped before he reached them, listening from a distance.

    The youngest SOLDIER - Cory Allen, easily distinguished in the poor light by how his dark skin almost faded into the shadows - was crouched down, head bowed and fingers nearly trailing in the dirt.  “Perhaps they were attacked.”  

    One of the troopers shook his head, his mouth twisting doubtfully.  “Looks more like a bunch of kids running around to me.  Like what you see after taking your kid to the playground.”

    The other trooper nudged him.  “Riker, old man, I think you’re the only one here who has a kid.”

    “I’m not that old, Tiny.”  Riker Thomson was set to retire from active duty soon and take up an instructing position.  He was a decade older than the SOLDIERs but younger than Veld by almost the same amount.  His desire to land a safe job in Midgar was likely due to his good luck in having come unscathed through two tours in Wutai - third time might not be the charm.  All but one of the men here were veterans of Wutai, Veld himself having ‘visited’ several times in the slow trundle up to the war.

    The other trooper, a Junon transplant named Kyle Price, elbowed Riker even harder.  “And I’m not that short!  You lot are just giants.”

    The SOLDIERs 2nds laughed at the troopers’ antics, and Angeal was grinning.  Genesis only glared at them.  “I’m more interested in the adult footprints,” he said chillingly.

    Angeal’s grin subsided, and he gave a thoughtful hum.  “Are we sure this is the same group?  There are six sets of prints here, not four.”

   “And only one adult?  I doubt it.”

   “They must have picked up another two members,”  Myers commented.

   Allen straightened up, shaking his helmeted head.  “No sign of the chocobos.”

   Veld began walking forward again.  “They may have left them in Nibelheim.”  The troopers snapped their heads up at the sound of his voice, stiffening to attention, while the SOLDIERs merely nodded in greeting and acknowledgment.

  “Any trouble in the reactor?”  Angeal asked.

  Veld frowned minutely.  “Indeed, it seems to have been their target.”

  “Oh?”  Genesis leveled a scrutinizing gaze at him.  “And why attack such an obscure place?”

  The problem with Genesis was that he was clever and, though he feigned disinterest, he had an incisive curiosity.  He’d gotten better at masking it over his years at Shinra, but still he needled.  “Some sensitive equipment and data was stored here,” was all Veld was willing to give him.

  “Was?”

  “Was.”




   Angeal had been to remote towns before, and found that the residents often adapted to suit the local environment’s nature.  His hometown of Banora, with its moderate climate, inspired a moderate people - polite, kind without being overly friendly.  Sunshiny Costa del Sol produced a relaxed, outgoing population.  The Corel Desert, where you had to work hard to survive, had a tough, salt-of-the-earth people.  In the cold, harsh atmosphere of the Nibel Mountains, Angeal expected the locals to be unfriendly and standoffish, that the only signs of life they were likely to see in town were bitter faces going quickly about their business and twitching curtains as people peered out at the strangers. Instead, it seemed the whole town was out on the street.  

   There were about thirty people standing in small clusters, talking and casting wary to openly hostile glances at them.  There was a larger crowd - forty, maybe fifty people - further up the street gathered in front of a modest wood-shingled house.  Angeal wondered what had gotten the village so riled up.  

   A dark-haired middle-aged man dressed in a red morning robe separated from the rest and approached them.  He reminded of Angeal of Genesis’s father, with the same air of authority.  Probably the mayor of this small town.  The man stopped abruptly a few feet away from them, his soft shoes planted broadly apart on the rocky ground.

   “And what does Shinra want here?”  It was spoken as a challenge.

   The SOLDIERs and Troopers came to a halt, while Veld took an extra step forward.

   “We came to check on the reactor,” the Turk explained, before gesturing to the stirred up townsfolk.  “It seems something happened here this morning, Mister….?”

   “Mayor Lockhart, and it’s nothing that concerns Shinra.”  

   “I see.”  Veld shrugged and turned away, addressing Angeal and company. “Local business, it appears.”  Behind him, the crease between the mayor’s brows eased minutely.  Veld gave him a second to think he’d escaped, then turned back, eyes sharp.  “There is one other thing.  Has a group of strange children come through town recently?”

   At this question, the noise amongst the muttering townsfolk intensified.  With so many overlapping voices, Angeal couldn’t pick out more than a few words, but he heard ‘kids’ and ‘Strife’ repeating.  Many of the onlookers, who’d turned to watch the standoff between their mayor and the company personnel, glanced at the small house where the main crowd was. The mayor’s jaw tightened.  “Why would Shinra want to know about that?”

   “Their parents want them home,” Veld lied smoothly.

   The mayor’s expression did not improve.  “Since when does Shinra do search and rescue?”  Angeal fought back a grin at the mental image.  Mission requests to locate lost children, seniors, and pets.  Angeal himself wouldn’t mind such work, but the image of Sephiroth or Genesis being called to rescue cats from trees was amusing.  In such an event, Genesis would likely make good on his threats to quit SOLDIER and join the theater instead.

   Veld had another lie prepared.  “Their parents are wealthy Shinra affiliates.”

   Mayor Lockhart sized Veld up for a moment.  “Any of them own a chocobo stable?”

   “The Strife Stable, yes.”  Again the word ‘Strife’ repeated through the crowd.

   The man’s face turned red as he scrunched it into a furious scowl before turning back towards the group he’d come from.  “CLAUDIA!” he bellowed.

   The group of people around the house parted instantly, revealing a young blonde woman in a long aproned dress.  She sighed and shook her head, then, holding it high, she strode over to them, a young boy tagging close behind her.  Angeal did a double take at the boy.  He’d heard the supposed leader of the group was a blond with hair resembling a chocobo’s crest, but this boy couldn’t possibly be him.  He was too young, small, and scrawny.  He shot a glance at Genesis, whose eyes were fixed with laser-like intensity on the boy.  His friend hadn’t been beaten by such a child, right?

   The young woman ignored the Shinra employees entirely.  “What?” she asked the mayor, stopping in front of him.  Their stances were mirror images - firmly planted, with crossed arms and scowls.

   Lockhart gestured sharply at Veld’s group.  “They’re looking for those children,” he snapped.

   Her eyebrows, already drawn sharply together, practically fused.  “They left, you know that.”  

   The people on the street, both the crowd and the small clusters, were drawing nearer, forming an interested circle around this new drama.  Angeal’s shoulders grew tight as the escape routes closed and he heard the sudden shifting weight of the troopers and 2nds behind him.  He relaxed his shoulders and waved a subtle hand at them - stand down.  The odds of a Wutaian ninja popping up in this remote mountain town were next to nil.

   The Turk leader took a step towards the woman.  “Excuse me, Mrs…?”  he trailed off again, implying that he wanted a name.

   Reluctantly, the woman answered.  “Strife.”

   Angeal forgot the crowd, attention riveted on the woman and the boy with her.  Veld’s poker face didn’t slip at all.

   “Mrs. Strife.  I’m from the Investigation Sector of Shinra’s General Affairs Department.  Did you know those children?”

   “No,” was the swift, cold response.

   Mayor Lockhart hrumphed.  “You let them stay the night.”  His tone was accusatory.

   She glared sideways at him.  “Because they had nowhere else to stay.”

   “They could have stayed at the inn.”

   “They could have.”  Her tone utterly dry, as if you could tell her the sky had turned green or purple and she wouldn’t have cared.

   It was a bit awkward, watching a conversation between two people who so clearly disliked each other.  That, and the child kept returning the odd looks of the Shinra staff with his own, rather more nervous stare.

   Veld interjected into the odd argument.  “Mrs. Strife, is this your only child?”  

   A fresh wave of muttering broke from the onlookers.  The look on her face grew fierce.  “Yes, he is!”  Her loud answer seemed directed more toward the crowd than to Veld.

   The mayor swiveled, his posture now aligning him with Mrs. Strife instead of opposing her, and glared at Veld.  “I thought you said they were the kids of some Shinra bigwigs.”  

   Angeal winced.  It seemed that Veld was losing control of the situation, but the Turk kept his cool, answering in the same even voice.  “One was adopted.”

   The pair of villagers seemed troubled by this, giving each other disturbed looks.  “They said they weren’t related,” the woman muttered, half to herself.

   “Who said?” Veld pressed.

   The man and woman exchanged another look, some silent communication passing between them.  It was the first time in the conversation the two seemed to agree on something.

   “They aren’t here.  If you’re looking for them, they just left,” the man replied brusquely.

   The woman’s glare at him intensified to the point you could almost feel the ice crystals in the air.  Apparently they hadn’t been on the same page after all.

   Veld’s posture remained one of professional interest, but Angeal could hear the sudden urgency in his voice.  “How long ago?” he demanded.

   “A few minutes before you showed up,” was the gruff answer.

   Veld immediately spun on his heel.  As he made his way between the SOLDIERs and troopers, he said quietly, “We can’t lose them again.”

   The mass of villagers parted before them, and they made quick time back to the helicopter.  Veld pulled aside the elder of the two troopers.  “Thomson will stay here to keep an eye on things,” he informed them.

   Once in the air, it wasn’t long before they spotted their targets on the curving mountain road.  Although they stuck to the edges of the road where the trees provided an overhang, the morning sun sparkled brilliantly off the chocobo’s feathers and the well-polished motorcycle, gleaming back up through the pine needles.  Seeing them for the first time, Angeal was able to understand why Genesis had underestimated them when he first encountered them.  If you ignored the oversized weapons, they really did look like just a group of kids.  The oldest couldn’t be more than fourteen.  Going on the information they had gotten on the last skirmish, the eldest was also the least experienced, which made little sense.  Angeal kept looking, and a moment later another chocobo came out from under the tree line.  Riding it was a new addition to the group, an adult in a vivid red cape.  

    Well, it didn’t matter if they were a combatant or not, the new individual didn’t change the strategy.

    With a grimace, Angeal thought it really was too bad status materia weren’t multi-target.  The goal of this mission was to capture the group alive for further questioning.  Angeal wasn’t very fast when casting, so he’d been given a lower-priority Mystify materia.  Allen was quick on the draw, one of the reasons he’d been picked for this mission.  With he and Genesis slinging out Sleeps and Stops in quick succession, the fight should be over almost as swiftly as it began.  Angeal and Myers were here more on the off chance that the kids were immune to both of the others’ spells.  Their only other real concern was that under no circumstance was Genesis to engage with the young Wutaian girl.

    As a unit the four SOLDIERs jumped, Price laying down cover fire from the open door of the helicopter.  Angeal cast as soon as his boots hit the powdery soil, aiming the prepared Confuse spell at the boy on the motorcycle.  He could hear and see the other SOLDIERs firing off their spells, but the results were no better than Genesis’s first confrontation with them.  The spells faded harmlessly away, blocked by shimmering magic barriers around the young group, who were swiftly dismounting and assuming battle stances.  The unknown adult, at least, was affected.  He fell from his chocobo in a swoosh of crimson fabric, but they were unable to take advantage.  The older girl threw a remedy at the man, the magic-infused liquid seeping into his clothes and skin.  He came to with a jerk, red eyes flicking open, and still prone on the road, abruptly pulled forth a heavy pistol and fired several shots into the open bay of the hovering helicopter.

    The aircraft swerved higher at the same time the Wutaian girl gleefully launched herself at Genesis.  Angeal, gripping his broadsword, rushed in to intervene but was blocked by steel.  He grunted, digging his feet in, trying not to be pushed back by the force of his opponent’s long sword.  He’d been told the blond boy’s weapon was a buster style sword, but the blade he currently wielded was long, tapering, and double-edged.  Angeal was startled by the eyes that met his over the crossed swords.  Those eyes, intensely blue-green and obviously enhanced, looked much too old for the face they were in.  The staring match ended as the younger swordsman pushed up against his blade and brute-forced it away.  Slipping under his guard, the blond kicked him hard in the gut.

    He slid several feet, almost off the road into the pines, flailing one arm out for balance, before he skidded to a stop and braced for an incoming strike that never came.  The blonde stayed where he had intercepted him, sword at the ready.  He hadn’t even seen the boy move.  One moment he stood in front of his bike, the next he’d blocked and thrown him back with an easy strength.  The kid, barely half his age and maybe a third his size, didn’t seem interested in attacking.  Standing in a defensive position, he calmly waited for Angeal to make the next move.

    In contrast to his two best friends, Angeal preferred to incapacitate his human opponents, rather than kill.  It was less efficient but more honorable, and in this case, even had the benefit of being the officially preferred option.  But spells didn’t work, and the situation had escalated well past fisticuffs.  The only option was to overpower the boy through swordplay.

    Angeal shifted his grip, then charged, bringing his broadsword forward in a low arc.  Exchanging a quick series of blows, he concluded that the boy was as far from a novice as you could get, answering each of his strikes in a controlled manner.

    He had a gut feeling that the blond was holding back.  The speed and strength he’d shown blocking Angeal before were absent.  He matched Angeal strike for strike, face intent, but with no sign of strain.  Angeal put progressively more strength and speed into his attacks until he was fighting as fiercely as he did when sparring with Sephiroth, but it didn’t matter.  The blond met his attacks in a steady rhythm until Angeal could hear the metal of his standard-issue sword singing with the strain.  The edges of the blade were all but gone.

    Feinting to the left, he came in on the right with a fist, trying to knock the kid out before his sword broke.  The boy slid aside like water, and Angeal changed his slight overbalanced stumble into a sweep with his dulled sword at the blond’s knees.  The kid leapt over it, and Angeal deliberately stuck his boot between the boy’s feet on landing.  He tripped a little but recovered so quickly that Angeal may as well not have bothered with the trick.  Blinking sweat from his eyes, Angeal sacrificed power for speed, quick swipes and jabs that didn’t place too much strain on his sword.  If only he could find an opening…!  This fight was not what he’d expected, and his usually-equitable temper stretched to the point of snapping.  He was a SOLDIER, and he took pride in that.  When faced with an opponent like this, he could understand why Genesis was so irate.  It was humbling to have such difficulty, and his longtime friend was not a humble person.

    He sensed it before it happened, and apparently so did the boy.  Both pulled back the moment the crack appeared in the sword.  Watching his opponent carefully, Angeal reached for the Buster Sword slung on his back, keeping the cracked broadsword up in a feeble defense.

    “Don’t.”  To emphasize his point, the boy’s blade opened up, forming a wider two-pronged sword, a clear threat and a statement that he had been deliberately holding back.  He was breathing a little quickly, which was not precisely comforting for the sweaty, panting Angeal.

    The air felt thick in Angeal’s lungs as he replied, “My orders are to bring you back to Shinra for questioning.  So unless you feel like coming with me quietly, this will have to continue.”

    The boy seemed to think that over for a moment before saying, “You let us go last time.”

    “Yes, but not this time.”  Not that he was looking forward to engaging the boy again, but orders were orders, and this kid was definitely dangerous.

    The kid huffed, then nodded over his shoulder to the scene behind him.  “Look around you, you’ve already lost.”

    You should never take your eyes off of your opponent.  That was one of the first things Angeal had learned about combat, but he felt the risk of the boy attacking him was slim.  A quick glance around showed that the terrorists were in full control of the fight.  The 2nd Classes who had been fighting the martial artist were both breathing heavily.  The skin on their exposed arms and jaws was swelling with bruises or smeared with blood.  Myers was holding his sword with one hand while the other dangled from a shoulder that was either broken or dislocated.  

    At some point Price and Veld had entered the fight, though with little effect.  The inexperienced brunet was keeping Price at bay with a Fire materia.  The trooper’s uniform was smoldering where he hadn’t dodged quickly enough, and a long gash on one arm was bleeding.  He’d gotten in at least one good hit though; the brunet had blood on his forehead.  Beyond them, Veld was in a standoff with the caped gunman.  Their guns were both aimed at the other’s chest, but they appeared to be conversing seriously.  Angeal couldn’t hear their voices - the local soundscape was dominated by the whooshing of flames, the crack of falling trees, and the deafening booms of explosions.  Angeal couldn’t see them, but Genesis was clearly still being toyed with by the Wutaian girl.

    Before he was able to do anything, say anything to salvage the dismal situation, fireballs started to rain down haphazardly around them.  Angeal threw himself clear of an exceptionally large one and watched as Genesis swept back onto the road.  Flames tore through the forest around him, devouring everything in their path.  Tall pines became ladders for the magic-induced fire to climb, and glowing embers and ash fell like snow.  And there in the midst of it stood Genesis, laughing as the little girl he’d been chasing darted to her female companion and hid behind her, dark eyes peering out from behind the other girl’s waist.  

    The older girl, though, stood her ground, the fire reflecting in her eyes, showing no sign of fear or hesitation.  Glowing light and glyphs surrounded her, brightening as the icy blue form of Shiva descended before them.  Angeal shouted over the noise to his men.  Price was already blocking, but Myers and Allen both needed the prompt to turn their swords defensively.  The summon’s attention, however, was on the inferno around them.  Gathering a brilliant ball of glittering energy above her head, Shiva released a powerful Ice spell upon the flames, freezing them as they danced in the trees, creating one of the most beautiful and haunting sights Angeal had ever seen.  Flames frozen into crystalline sculptures, a sudden heavy silence after the deafening firestorm.

    “You big jerk!”  The tiny girl’s shrill voice broke the moment’s spell. Turning away from the dissolving summon, Angeal watched with a frown as she yelled at Genesis.  “Why are we even trying to save you if you’re such a big, fat-headed bastard!  The way you’re dying sucks, but that’s no excuse for burning down an entire freaking forest!  If you’rmph-”

    The martial artist’s hand over the girl’s mouth ended the odd rant at the same time the blond boy cut in with, “That’s enough.”  Locking eyes with Angeal, the boy added, “We’re leaving, now.”

    The older boy had retreated to stand next to the others while Shiva had still been present, and now the blonde boy said something softly to him and took a materia from his sword.

    Angeal stood closest, and so the smell of the attack hit him first.  With that smell, he knew what to expect.  Despite the immediate danger, he found himself more worried over what this meant about their opponents’ abilities: two demonstrated summons and an Enemy Skill materia.  Genesis’s griping about their equipment was at least a little justified.  The dark brown vapor hit him, and he winced his burning eyes shut, trying not to gag.  He and Genesis had equipment to protect against most of Bad Breath’s effects, but his subordinates were likely going to be inflicted with the full array.

    His head spun a little, and he wobbled where he stood, opening his eyes as something altered his center of gravity.  His gaze landed on a frost-encrusted pine cone roughly level with his thigh, and he grimaced.  Small had hit home.  He was fortunate enough to be standing on a slight rise, and could still survey the surrounding terrain.  Price, Myers, and Allen looked in bad shape - definitely affected by Small, Sleep, and Poison, maybe by Confuse and Silence.  He couldn’t see Genesis or Veld.  The chocobos approached again, having fled from the fire, but before remounting, the terrorists did something highly unusual - they walked amongst the shrunken Shinra personnel, dripping antidote onto each of the poison victims.  Angeal glared frustratedly upwards at the smallest girl, who smirked back as she hopped onto her chocobo and rapidly disappeared over his diminished horizon.

    A few feet from Angeal, a large frog whose ruddy coloration had effectively camouflaged it against the pine bark leapt from a log and landed beside him.  It gave him a sideways look from mako-blue eyes and an upset-sounding croak.

    Angeal bowed his head solemnly.  “I’m sorry for doubting you, Genesis.  I now fully understand your frustration,” he apologized, before setting off at a run to the nearest member of his squad.  Behind him, Genesis croaked again.

    Arriving first at Myers’s side, he inspected the damage.  Sleep and Small for sure.  He’d have to wake him up before he could find out the extent of the status spells.  With all of them hit and unable to access their equipment, it would be difficult to get rid of all the ailments.  He shook Myers awake.  The man blinked, but his drifting gaze didn’t seem to register what was going on.  The 2nd Class stood and tried to talk, but produced no sound.  Confuse and Silence.  There wasn’t much Angeal could do for Silence, but a quick slap to the face brought Myers’s mind back.

    “Help me wake the others,” he ordered.  “We’ll head for Nibelheim, Thomson should be able to get this stuff off.”  

    Myers nodded to show he understood, his bad arm hanging limply at his side, before heading over to wake up Allen.  

    From behind him came another hollow croak.  Angeal took a deep breath and let it out through gritted teeth. “Yes, Genesis, we’ll get you fixed up as well.”  This time the croak sounded reluctant.  “If that was a ‘go somewhere? Looking like this?’, you’re just going to have to suck it up.  I’m not splitting our group out here.”

    He started to walk off toward Price but a loud “CroaOOOooak” made him stop and turn.  Another frog sat beside the first.  This one had large yellow eyes and dark warty skin.  Since it didn’t seem to be suffering any other ailments, he guessed it was Veld, who’d undoubtedly also had protection against most other, more common status spells.  

    “Are there any remedies stored in the helicopter?” Angeal asked.  The frog blinked and very deliberately shook its head before launching itself over him and further up the path towards the village.  Sighing at another bit of bad luck, he went to wake Price.

    He tore half of his right pant leg off and bandaged the cut down the trooper’s arm.  While Small stayed in effect, he couldn’t access his potions or materia, and the rough first aid was all he could do for the man.  Myers’ shoulder was indeed only dislocated, and Allen helped him pop it back into place.  Angeal was the only one capable of speech, and he told them the plan to head back to Riker in Nibelheim. Genesis stopped him, making some weird gestures with his large webbed feet.  Probably they were supposed to be field signals, but as it was, Angeal couldn’t make heads or tails of them.  

    He shook his head.  “Sorry, my friend, but I can’t understand you.  It’ll just have to wait.”

    The SOLDIER-turned-frog stared at him.  Unwilling to get in a staring match with a frog and worried about Price, Angeal waved it off.  The hike ahead of them, what would have been a leisurely stroll for full-size SOLDIERs, was going to take hours, and led across an environment that was infamous for its aggressive wildlife.  They were too small to be of interest to Valrons, Dragons, or Zuus, and Bombs weren’t carnivorous, only territorial.  They weren’t going to enter any caves, either, which left only… ten monster species to worry about.

    The next five hours were torture on his nerves.  A shadow falling over the road, a twig snapping in the forest - for a squad of four eleven-inch tall men and two mid-sized amphibians, these were no laughing matters, and numerous times they had to bolt for cover or hunker down under the large fern leaves they were carrying as camouflage.  He was also growing increasingly worried for Price, who smelled of blood and was beginning to stumble as he walked.  

    They had to pause as a touchy bomb floated across the road.  He knew the flame-wreathed monster wouldn’t attack them if they stayed put, but if they got too close… well, it was called touchy for a reason.  

    Just as the bomb floated off into the trees, Angeal heard something scuffling on the road behind them.  He turned, though not far, Price’s arm being slung over his shoulders, and swore softly at what he saw.  While they’d been waiting for the bomb to move on, a bahba velamyu had come up behind them.   The hairless monster was swift, despite its precarious balance on two squat legs, but it was only just now catching their trail.  A long tongue flickered out from its round, needle-lined mouth, licking the ground where they had just walked.

    Genesis made an odd hiccuping noise, catching Angeal’s attention.  With a wave of one webbed foot, he motioned for him to move ahead, before giving a leisurely croak and hopping toward the bahba velamyu.

    “Genesis!”  he shouted, but his friend ignored him.  In horror he watched him leap at the monster, landing on its back before jumping off and heading into the pines.  The bahba velamyu quickly gave chase, legs pounding at the ground, purple antenna whipping back with the speed of its pursuit.  Had his friend finally gone mad?  Had the defeat broken his pride?  Was he giving up and sacrificing himself for them?

     He could hear more than see the chase, moving ahead of them in a wide arc… towards where the bomb had gone.  Sure enough, not long after, a large explosion shook the pines.  Angeal hurried forward as fast as he could while still being mindful of Price’s injuries.  When they were almost parallel to where the explosion had been he spotted Genesis sitting on the road shoulder ahead of them.

    He let out a heavy sigh, relief washing over him.  “Genesis, please don’t ever scare me like that again.”

    In response, Genesis blinked his bulbous blue eyes before hopping down the road.

    The mountain days grew cold quickly, even in summer and fog had started to creep down the valley when they finally made it back into town and located Thompson.  Angeal didn’t begrudge him his stifled laughter.  At this point, the embarrassment and offense of the situation had worn away, leaving behind a morbid amusement.  And because their luck was just running poorly today, Thompson didn’t have a remedy or esuna on him, so he had to buy some from the local shop.  The trooper was a little surprised when Veld compensated him personally.  Seemed his time as a frog had humbled the Turk.  

    Once cured of all ailments, they regrouped at the Shinra-owned manor at the edge of town, none of them wanting to face down the locals just yet.  In the dusty lobby with the aging doors shut, Genesis immediately began to declaim.  “My friend, the fates are cruel.  There are no dreams, no honor remains.”

    He placed his hand on Genesis’s shoulder.  “There is still honor, my friend.  We are still alive, and so we may reclaim it.”

    Genesis gave him a pained look and stepped away, clutching one hand to his chest.  “She stole my materia again.”

    Angeal winced.

    Riker, having waited patiently until they were inside, finally asked, “Sirs?  May I ask what the hell happened to you?”

    Angeal looked at Veld, but the Turk seemed distracted, staring at the chipped plaster walls with muscles jumping in his clenched jaw.  Myers hung his head and sighed, while Allen took off his helmet to run a hand through his curly bleached hair.  Price squinted his eyes shut unhappily, and Genesis was muttering to himself and gesturing at thin air.  Angeal sighed and clapped his hands, bringing everyone’s attention to him.  “Alright, debrief.  Our goal today was the capture of the terrorist group who attacked Shinra personnel in Kalm and Junon, escaped a previous capture attempt, and possibly destroyed Shinra resources in the Nibel reactor.  Clearly, we failed.  What mistakes did we make today, and how can we learn from them to succeed next time? ”

    Price spoke up first.  “I was incautious.”  He nodded to the 2nds.  “With Corey and Soren handling the martial artist, I thought taking out the inexperienced kid would be a piece of cake, but he must have equipped a new materia, maybe a Long Range.  I couldn’t get close to him.  I could see the openings in his defense, but when I tried to capitalize, I’d get cut up, even when his sword was nowhere near me.  He had a Fire materia too.  Not a fast caster, but because he could keep me at a distance, he had enough time to get the spells off.”

    Allen gave Price a sympathetic fist bump to the shoulder.  “S’ok man, this group.…”  He looked over to the 1st Class.  “We were told not to underestimate them and we didn’t, we took that fight seriously.”

    “Didn’t matter though,” Myers added gloomily.  “That girl’s no pushover.  She’s a lot stronger than she looks, she had no problem throwing me around.  And -” he stopped for a moment, thinking.  “She dislocated my shoulder, but I could feel the force of that blow.  She could have messed me up really bad, broken the joint and the collarbone, but she deliberately angled the hit so the joint popped out.”

    Angeal frowned.  “Out of cruelty?” he asked, though he didn’t think that was the answer.  Myers shook his head, dark hair swaying.  

    “No, I don’t think so.  It hurt, but it was way less damage than it could have been.”

     That matched with Angeal’s observations.  “The three of you weren’t awake for it,” he said, “but before they left, they cured the Poison from the Bad Breath spell, and left us with the nonfatal effects.”

    “Do you have any idea what the smallest one was going on about at the end there?” Allen asked.

    “None.”

    Genesis finally spoke up, his elbow resting in his palm as he put a hand to his chin.  “The way we are dying?  Or was she speaking solely to me?”  The last part was mumbled.  

    The same concern had been bothering Angeal as well.  It had seemed like she’d been talking directly to Genesis.  His friend seemed perfectly healthy, especially now that he no longer had webbed feet.  “It doesn’t seem to have been an attempt at sowing doubt or fear.  Her allies cut her off from saying more - it’s information they didn’t want us knowing, I’d guess.”  He turned to the Turk, who still seemed distracted.  “Veld, is there any chance she was telling the truth?”

    However distant he appeared, his response was snappy.  “We don’t have enough information to say, but a stop in at medical might be prudent, if only to ease our minds.”
    
    Angeal nodded and brought up another issue causing him lingering concern.  “The red-cloaked gunman.  He was an unexpected addition to their group, and you seemed to be speaking with him.”

    The Turk director looked troubled, his eyes drifting back over the rotting manor interior.  “Vincent Valentine,” he answered softly.

    “You know him?”  That could give them a solid place to look for answers.

    “He was a Turk who died here in Nibelheim.”  Or… it could lead to a pit of land worms.

    Genesis scoffed.  “He didn’t look very dead.”

    Veld sighed.  “No, he doesn’t.”  He turned away from them.  “He supposedly died twenty years ago, while stationed in this very building.  The cause was never clearly reported.”  He turned back to them, assessing.  “Commander, finish the debrief and then rest.  There’s a laboratory here I’d like to check on.”  He turned and ascended the broad staircase.  Angeal frowned, very slightly.  A debrief worked best when all participants in the action spoke up.  If they were in Wutai, he’d have called the Turk back, division leader or not.  Out of the war zone though, Veld outranked him, and Angeal was uncomfortable with Board politics - he wouldn’t risk upsetting the man.  He walked through the rest of the confrontation, discussing how the blond had the strongest enhancement he’d ever seen and trying to chastise Genesis for his arsonist ways while not upsetting him enough to make him explode and leave in a huff.

    Finished, they each found a place to settle in.  On the stairs, along the wall, or in Genesis’s case, curled in a dusty quilted chair.  “Well, they were here.”  From his seat on the lowest stair steps, Myers pointed to some child-sized footprints in the dust.

    Angeal lazily counted the tracks as they wandered back and forth across the room.  It looked like they might have stayed here for a few days.  After a moment’s observation, he noted something different from the tracks at the reactor.  “There are only five sets of prints here.”

    The others looked around as well.  “You’re right!  And we only fought five.”  Once again, Allen crouched next to the prints, trailing his fingers along them.  “It’s the second-smallest set with the worn soles that’re missing.”

    Genesis hummed.  “That brat in town this morning - he had scuffed shoes.”

    “Something to look into,” said a deep voice from above.  Veld looked over the railing at them.  Dust fell in a gentle shower from where his hand rested on the wood.

    Genesis rolled his head back in the chair.  “Back so soon, director?”

    Angeal had decided long ago that Genesis had an unhealthy fascination for annoying the Turks.

    The man barely glanced at the 1st Class.  “It appears they are targeting the Science Department’s research.  The stairs to the lab have been burned.  I’ll need one of you to ascertain the full damage.”

    “Alright.”  Angeal pushed himself up off the floor.  He was tired from the long day but felt as though he hadn’t accomplished anything.  At least this small task was something worthwhile to do.  He followed Veld upstairs, into a bedroom with a stone doorway in the corner.  He could already smell the fresh ash and charcoal.  “Down there?”

    “Yes.  You don’t have to do much, just observe the amount of damage and if any place seems to have been of a particular focus for them.”

    “Alright.”

    “And, Angeal…”  The Turk’s voice caught at him.  “Whatever you see down there is classified at the very highest level.  Tell no one but me what you find.”

    Angeal nodded.  This was not the first time he’d been involved with a mission from the Turks that he couldn’t talk about afterward.  He peered down into the darkness, barely able to make out places to land.  With a jump, he caromed off walls until he reached the bottom.  The air was thick with ash, irritating his eyes and throat.  Parts of the walls and ceiling had collapsed ahead of him.  Even with his enhanced eyesight, it was dark, and he ran his hand along the wall as he carefully picked his way forward.  After a few steps, he could feel large grooves in the stone, as though some giant creature had been trying to rip the place apart.  He paused.  There was also….  He took his gloves off.  He wasn’t mistaken, the walls were warm and in some places the stone had melted.  Seventeen feet in, the passage was completely blocked where the walls on both sides had collapsed.  He debated clearing the way and pressing on.  He set a bare hand against the tumbled stone - it felt warmer than the side walls.  Quite likely, there were fires still burning in the areas beyond it.

    Deciding against going further, he jumped his way back up the former stairwell and surprised Veld with his swift return.  Angeal jerked a soot-smeared thumb back down the shaft.

    “They have an Ifrit.”