Function: Avoid crisis - noa748 (2023)

Chapter 1: Here we go again

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It was raining. As then...

Years ago, when it all started...

My body was numb from the cold. I lay for a while on the slippery grass, listening to the drops hit the ground, my clothes, my face. I didn't want to wake up. I was still trapped in a dream.

Is she okay, teacher? That scratch on the forehead...

I could hear the comforting voice in the back of my mind. The sound brought back memories of laughter and tears, pain and happiness and great trials. Friendship, acceptance, nights around a warm fire...

I think he's waking up!

Finally my eyes opened and I exhaled slowly as the comfort of my warm memories left me. I was alone. Of course I was alone...they have been a world away since I left. The rain reminded me of that day two years ago when my life changed forever.

That day is long gone...

...but that still didn't explain why I was lying in the rain.

Shivering, I finally forced myself to stop thinking and sat up. I was shivering and soaking wet... and in the middle of a forest. Again.

The sky was overcast, but it wasn't raining much. If I squinted, I could see the faint disk of the sun behind the clouds. From your position in the sky, I'm guessing it's late afternoon.

Not that knowing the time really helped. I frowned, reaching into my bag for my phone. The battery, fortunately, was not dead. when i pressed the front button the screen lit up. Apparently it was Saturday May 17th, 16:35. This felt right.

What didn't feel right was the fact that I had no service. I had woken up alone in the woods with no service and no memory of the last few hours, and things were adding up in a way I didn't like.

My bag. That was a clue. My bag wasn't with me, just the large waterproof pack I bought from Eastern Mountain Sports after I discovered my Sylvarant bag was almost full. If I had my bag, that meant I was going to practice.

Kerberos was wrapped in a survival blanket and woven into some of the bag's straps and buckles, as hidden as possible. If I loaded Kerberos, that told me pretty much everything I needed to know.

I closed my eyes thinking. That was right. I was heading to one of my secluded places to relax a bit - going through the motions with Kerberos was what kept me sane at times. It had only been a few years since I left, but I still had a hard time letting go. That was probably why I found my life so lacking.

However, this time it was just a quick one. Not one of my crazy weekend trips to New Hampshire where I would camp in the mountains and train for hours on end, losing myself in sheer effort. This time, I was just going to vent.

Yes, that was correct. Something at work this morning pissed me off, I remembered it now. And so I went into the usual downward spiral of the pointlessness of it all, and what would I be doing five or ten years from now, and would it be really fulfilling or would I just be playing a part and pretending to be something I wasn't..

I almost groaned out loud, resisting the urge to fall onto the grass and stay there.

Blah. This rain was starting to completely drench me. I was wearing a black tank top and dark gray pants — similar to the base layer in my old Symphonia suit, but with new materials. These were meant to cling to my shape and absorb moisture so they would dry quickly...but first I had to dry somewhere. Now I was losing body heat very quickly. I wasn't exactly dying yet, but if I was far from civilization, that could be a recipe for disaster.

I shifted, pushing myself up. My knees were a little wobbly, but after a while some of my strength returned. I unwrapped the Kerberos, reached into my bag, and pulled out my old coat and gloves, replacing them with the now soaked survival blanket.

The extra clothes were dry and helped a lot. I shed my gloves, stretched and strapped the sword to my back.

There. All appropriate.

I no longer pretend to be urbane Brittany. This was the real me, for better or for worse - scarred mentally and physically, older than my years, with knowledge and skills that didn't help me on Earth.

On earth...

No, I wouldn't followwhattrain of thought. Of course I was still on Earth. If I started to hope for a second that I was back in their world, it would be overwhelming to find out otherwise.

So why did I pack all my gear anyway? If anyone saw me, I would look like a lunatic and probably get arrested for carrying such a large gun in public.

I shook my head. Regardless... there was no service here so I was away from civilization. When I found civilization, that's when I worried about it.

The rain was getting worse. I picked a direction and started walking, hoping for the best.

This was not Earth. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

I was trying so hard to convince myself that it was, and I was ignoring all the little hints. Well, my first real tip wasn't exactly subtle. I was attacked by a Malboro.

Of all the monsters I could have encountered first, it had to be a fucking oneDiseaseMy bad luck never failed.

The fight lasted somewhere between an hour and an eternity. All I knew was that the forest had gone dark when the beast fell, and I was exhausted and covered in monster blood. I had started the battle with five panacea vials and ended with half of one left. The effects of the poison and various other ailments left me weak in the knees and dizzy. I was very lucky I had some medicine with me or I would have died instantly.

When Malboro fell, his body seemed to wither. a last belch of poisonous gas came out of his mouth, and I had to run back and hold my breath until I passed out.

Malboros were not something found on Earth, I was sure of that.

I was somewhere in Final Fantasy. It didn't matter which one, not now. What mattered most was the fact thatthis was not Earth.Not only that, it was neither Sylvarant nor Tethe'alla. It was a place I definitely didn't want to be. Somewhere unknown, with new dangers and no visible return. While I grew to hate the monotony of my life on Earth, it wasn't what I wanted.

Either way, I might be in serious trouble right now. Was this the habitat of the Malboro? If I found another, I would take it out.

"What the hell… Dean! Come here!"

A new voice made me jump. I turned, seeing a dark-skinned man walk into the trampled clearing. He was dressed in similar clothing to mine, with sturdy gloves and boots. A sword was strapped to his hip.

Answering the man's call, a new figure entered the clearing, a younger redhead.

"Boss? What..." The redhead stopped to look at the scene behind me.

"Here's the bastard we've been watching," muttered 'Boss' with a frown. His hard gaze fell on me once more. "What I wonder is how a weakling like you managed to kill him."


Dean raised his eyebrows. "You look awful,'am."

"Hello?" The old man waved his hand in front of my face. "You don't look paralyzed to me, girl."

Slowly, I shook my head, struggling to remember how to say it. "…No. I'm fine. Just…tired."

"I bet," Dean replied appreciatively.

Boss frowned. "We've been watching that Malboro for miles. Do you know how much trouble it causes? A lost Malboro can create hell if left to its own devices. Too many dead travelers. You could be one of them."

I was well aware of this but chose not to express my agreement.

When I didn't speak, he continued. "…but it looks like you beat us anyway. Who the hell are you?"

"...Brittany," I replied quietly. "I'm... a mercenary."

"Mercenary!" the man laughed. "Well, that's priceless. Are you getting him to hang around and look helpless?"

I frowned, trying to get over my sad story. Just... be like Kratos. No one had questioned Kratos much, had they? Don't reveal too much information and look confident.

"I wasn't hunting," I finally said. "It's a long story, but coming across it was an unfortunate coincidence. I wasn't really prepared."

"Well, there's a big bonus in your head if you haven't heard," Dean offered.

“We are mercenaries from the Mideel region,” Boss answered. "Someone in Banora was going to call in the Shinra cavalry, and if Shinra starts spying, we'll be out of a job for weeks. Not to mention their strategy for solving hard problems is to blow them up," he added dryly.

An image of a devastated Banora flashed through my mind and I shuddered at the truth of his words. Shinra... Well, that settled the question of where I was anyway.

"You take the reward," I finally said, making them both snort.

“...Do you know how much money you're wasting? Boss asked incredulously.

I shrugged. "Give me ten percent. That would be enough for food and lodging for a few days, right?"

"More than enough," Dean muttered.

"Good," I said. "All I ask is that you take me to Banora in one piece. I'm kind of tired."

The two stared at me for a few minutes, seeming to size me up. Then Bosch let out a sigh.

"Okay then. First, help me get some proof of death. Then we can get out of here."

Overall, I felt like I handled the shock pretty well.

Three days ago, I woke up alone in the forest in the rain, just as I had begun my journey to Sylvarant. But it wasn't the same now. I knew something like this was unlikely but very possible, and I was dealing with it much faster than before. I had racing experience. I had survival skills.

I could do it.


Dean and Boss (apparently his real name was Grant) left a few hours after arriving in Banora, stating that they had business in Midiel. I just felt like they weren't big fans of the place, probably because two of the Shinra poster boys grew up here.

Speaking of which, Banora was still standing, so that said a lot about the kind of schedule I was on. With little money in my pocket, I had decided to gather more information.

And now, three days later, I had gotten almost everything I wanted from the townspeople. Genesis and Angeal were all grown up, first class SOLDIERS. Shinra was in the middle of the war with Wutai. This meant I was just before or at the beginning of Crisis Core - Sephiroth was still healthy, Cloud was a shy teenager, and Zack was still alive.

Zac was alive...

That last one tugged at my heartstrings. It was still hard to imagine. I knew that Lloyd and the others were real people, and I found that they had so much depth to their personalities that the game didn't even come close to doing them justice. How was Zack and Cloud? Sephiroth? And Aerith? She was still alive...

Jacques. It really got into my head. It doesn't matter anymore, but he was always my hero, as corny as that sounds. Of every story ever told, be it a novel, a movie, or a video game... Zach has surpassed them all. and it washere.Somewhere in this world...

And I could stop -


No no no no no. I had to break out of that line of thinking. Because how many times did I try to avoid things on my previous trip, only to make it worse? At best, it would backfire and kill me.

Besides, it was none of my business. I had just arrived in this world and wanted to leave with the same urgency, because if I stayed I would have to be involved.


Even so...

I could save you. Maybe... maybe this time I had the power. If I paid attention -

I shook my head. No… I just had to focus on getting home. End of history.

The days passed. I sorted out and bought new supplies, including a pair of braces with built-in hardware slots and a return hardware that I had no idea how to use. So I went west to Mideel after hearing there was a small port nearby.

The monsters around here weren't too tough (except for that damned Malboro, at least), but it was still unsettling to see different types he wasn't used to. It had been a long time since I played FFVII, so I couldn't exactly prepare for their attacks. All I knew was that I would have to run if I saw a Tonberry.

Nevertheless, I behaved very well. I picked up a few monster fangs and teeth along the way, having learned which ones can be valuable while in Banora.

I combined the rest of the money from Malboro's generosity with the money I earned from selling the raw materials and managed to cobble together enough for a ferry ticket to Junon.

I had a hard time remembering the geography of this place, but the world map I got in Banora showed that Junon was on the same continent as Midgar and Kalm. I wasn't really sure I wanted to go that way, but that was the only route the boats were taking. Anywhere else was too far.

If I could go anywhere, I'd go to Cosmo Canyon – that's where they studied the planet and the stars, right? This was the only place I could think of for answers. Bugenhagen might shed some light on my situation.

But going to Cosmo Canyon would first involve taking a ship from Junon to the Costa Del Sol and then going from there to the southern tip of the continent, which also involved crossing the mountains. This could take weeks, even months... and I still didn't know enough about this world to make such a journey. What if there was some kind of block I didn't know about?

I didn't know what to do and had to stop in Junon anyway, so I made the weekly trip there.

And here I was. This was the second week of my Final Fantasy adventure, and I was still in the early stages of how I was going to get home. Tickets to the Costa Del Sol were way over my current budget so that option was out.

I thought about Kalm, but then realized that the only route I knew to the other side of the mountains was through the Mines of Mythril - and what was on the other side of them? This swamp with cursed Midgar Zolom. Unless I could somehow find a Chocobo to get past him, I'd be lunch if I tried to go that way.

So for now I was stuck with Junon.

...I wasn't a big fan of Junon.

True, the big city itself was quite attractive. The streets were very clean, the buildings looked beautiful and the storefronts, restaurants and houses were interesting to look at. It was very reminiscent of the cities I had seen at home.

But I couldn't quite ignore the looming figure of Sister Ray, the passing of military jets in the sky, or the fact that it was all built over a struggling fishing village.

Not to mention the constant presence of Shinra's infantry troops was somewhat intimidating. The company logo was everywhere. I was honestly thinking of heading down to the village below, just to get away from it all. At least I would be around some people who shared my hatred of the company.

"Hey you!"


I turned around, only to see a troop of infantry coming straight for me. He wore a red scarf around his neck, which I was sure meant he was a captain. Super.

He frowned at me. "This is a safe city. Only Shinra personnel are allowed to carry weapons."

"Oh, I see," I replied hesitantly, trying not to betray my nervousness. "I have just left my ship - I will find accommodation and leave at once."

"You do," he replied, his face growing. "...What business are you here, traveler? Your ID, please." When he reached out, I felt my heart sink into my throat.

Damn it. He wanted papers. I had no ID.


"No ID? Suspicious..." Now he was completely frowning. "I'm going to have to ask you to surrender your weapon and come with me."

Shit!The last thing I needed was an interrogation from Shinra!

Okay, okay, keep calm, act sensible, Brittany and...


Abandoning any intelligent train of thought, I turned my back and typed, eliciting a loud scream from the soldier.

There was the sound of chased footsteps - followed by several others - as I ran into an alley. Fortunately, Junon had many cross-alleys, and it was these that I took advantage of in my attempt to escape. I just had to lose it for a while - maybe then I could jump off the high city and into the ocean. If I could get down, I might be able to find shelter in the village.

The place was a maze. I stopped at one point to sheathe my sword so as not to attract more attention. then I took off my coat and gloves, putting them in my bag so that no one could use them to identify me. I popped into some shops, taking advantage of their multiple entrances to get around the city without being outside.

After what seemed like an eternity, I had the feeling that I had lost them. I looked over my shoulder as I ran down a particularly long alley, checking for any pursuers. The place looked clean.

Until I hit something, causing me to scream in pain and immediately fall onto my ass.


A male growl jolted me awake and I stretched, eyes flying open. Apparently what I hit was someone else, and he was also on his ass, grimacing in pain and holding his shoulder.

Carefully combed red hair, long red coat, sword at the waist of his...

...Apparently what I hit was Genesis Rhapsodos.


...How the hell could this day get any worse?!

"Fool...!" Genesis knelt down, sending me a piercing look. However, it only lasted a few seconds, because the next moment he let out a cry of pain and doubled over. He was still holding her shoulder, breathing heavily.

My heart was pounding. Did it hurt...? The degradation... I must have hit his wound, his weak point. This looked really bad. He was shaking all over.

"Damn… not now…" I heard him growl, but his efforts to compose himself were futile.

The smartest thing to do right now would be to get up and get out of here while the SOLDIER was down. The last thing I needed was to get involved with someone who would end up abandoning Shinra and wreaking havoc everywhere.

There. Now that I had recognized the logical decision, it was time to do the opposite. I just sat there and stared at him like a deer in headlights.

Genesis. The face, not the character. A failed Shinra experiment, doomed to undergo degradation - unable to effectively generate new cells, he sustained even the smallest of injuries until his body finally deteriorated to the point of death. He was doomed to this fate from birth.

...Now that I had time to think about it, it was hard not to feel bad for him. Not that he wanted my pity.

He wasn't going anywhere. Honestly, she looked like she was going to pass out and I had to do something or get out of here. If one of those pedestrians from before arrived at this scene, I would be taken in for more than just questioning.

Damn… couldn't I do something? It was bad enough that I ignored Zach's condition - I couldn't at least help someone changesomething?Maybe that push was enough to turn things around. It would be better than walking away and knowing I did nothing even though I had the chance.

But I didn't know anything about downgrading. There was no known cure in this world... Genesis would go crazy looking for it. If only Raine was here...she could have done something. If he could save the humans from the Exbelua transformation, he could find a way to save Genesis-

To be kept.

...Sorry. I've never been very good at saying goodbye.

It's okay, teacher. I... I'm not exactly the best. Heh, I keep telling myself I'm not going to cry, but it always turns into some kind of crying. I think I made Kratos uncomfortable.

Haha...I'm sure. Well, I won't drag it much further then. There's something I'd like you to have...

Huh? Is this...?!

Yes. It seems to have lost its power... I believe we may have invoked it many times. As long as it served its purpose, I'd like you to keep it. Think of it as a symbol of the time you spent together.

Master... thank you. I will love it.

I reached into my bag, took out the unicorn horn and looked at it in surprise. Ever since I got it from Raine two years ago, it's been opaque beige and soft to the touch, looking like nothing more than a shell at first glance. But now it suddenly regained its pearly sheen, just like the day Colette and Sheena took it from Lake Umacy.

After all, did he have any strength left?

I knew absolutely nothing about healing and all I've gotten so far are pretty pathetic healing spells, but I'd try.

Genesis was still bent over. I took the unicorn's horn, shiny and hot to the touch, and gently pressed it against his injured shoulder. He tensed, froze, and growled something that sounded like a threat. I took a deep breath and focused my energy on the healing material and the horn.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do, what it was like to actually heal someone. Instead, I thought I wanted to do it, and I really wanted to,Reallystand.

Help him. HELP HIM, dammit!

A few moments passed. I could hear my heart beating rapidly.

There was a flash of light and intense heat, and I suddenly felt weak. Something fell slightly under my hand, the one holding Genesis' shoulder. I pulled it back, only to find that the unicorn's horn had snapped in half. I looked at him in disbelief.

Well, there it is. Brittany finds a way to make them even more bloody...again. How the hell did I really understandto breakThis?

"Shit," I muttered under my breath, holding the pieces of horn until the tips dug into my palm. I gritted my teeth, staring at the floor. Perhaps I should have followed my initial, restrained instinct.


Huh? Was he still able to speak? I was sure she would have passed out by now.

Reluctantly, I looked up… only to see that Genesis was no longer involved. He was looking down at his hands, his eyes open. Then he reached over his injured shoulder and began to scratch at it, removing his coat and then layers of his armor until his bare flesh was exposed.

... This is. Just bare, clean, healthy flesh. Not even a scar.

For a moment I too had to look at him in surprise. When I found that I wasn't actually hallucinating, I finally allowed myself to relax and let out the breath I'd been holding with a sigh of relief. Did I really succeed? The healing magic must have drained the last of the horn's power.

"The step... finished... so it worked after all."

This made Genesis look up, his eyes meeting mine. There was a moment of silence where we both looked at each other, and I realized I hadn't covered my slip up very well.


I just shrugged, stood up and held the unicorn horn as an explanation, even though I didn't know if there were unicorns here. "A gift from an old friend. I didn't know if it would actually do anything, to be honest." I tried my best to look casual. Truth was, I was almost shaking from the effects of another adrenaline rush, and being in this man's presence wasn't exactly calming me down.

The SOLDIER seemed to think about it for a moment, playing with his armor and straightening his clothes to their former glory. He looked like he was still in shock. I briefly wondered how long she had been living with the condition before this.

Then I realized I was wasting time. If I delayed, Genesis would want to know more, and I had already decided I wasn't going to bother anymore. After all, he had picked up on that humiliating comment and was going to plant the seed for further questioning anyway.

Time to resort to Kratos' old strategy. What would he do in this situation? Make a cool, cryptic comment and then disappear from Genesis' life forever. Let things take their course - it was no longer my problem.

I cleared my throat. "...Well, my work is done here," I said happily, as if I had planned this whole incident from the beginning. "Watch out, Genesis."

So I started walking away, mentally patting myself on the back. There! It wasn't that hard, was it?

"Who are you? Tell me your name."

Against my better judgement, I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Genesis had gotten to his feet, now looking as calm, composed and healthy as ever.

"Brittany," I told him, not bothering to give my first name.

"Well, Brittany, I'm obliged," he said, lowering his torso into a graceful bow.

I was so surprised by the gesture that I temporarily forgot my intentions to leave. on the one hand, the gesture was very similar to Genesis, while on the other hand, I wasn't used to seeing him do something friendly. He spent most of Crisis Core reciting poetry and stabbing things.

"If there's anything I can do to make it up to you..."

"There it is!"

My head lifted and I looked back, seeing shadows at the end of the alley. "Damn it."

Genesis' face was confused. I turned towards him, hearing the sound of my pursuers already approaching.

"Ah, you don't know where I went!" I said panicked and ran.

I walked back into the maze of the city and the sound of footsteps behind me finally died away. And that was the end of my encounter with Genesis Rhapsodos, SOLDIER First Class.

Chapter 2: Escort mission

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I can't believe I'm doing this... I can't believe I'm doing this... Am I really doing this? Yes, I'm an idiot.

That was my general train of thought as I walked through the Mythril mine two days later. With Shinra's infantry behind me on Upper Junon, it wasn't long before I realized I had to leave. The low village turned out not to be an option. It was harder to get down there than to jump into the ocean, I had discovered.

I had wandered around the city, avoiding the guards and trying to locate a good jumping off point, but all the spots I found were too far from the ocean. I would be swept away by the tide. Not only that, the water around here was polluted. I remembered this after glancing at Junon's dark back from above. All routes to the village below were guarded and it was starting to look like I was at the end of my rope.

Well, of course, I had a stroke of luck… not exactly a stroke of luck, considering my current situation.

After a day of running around town, I managed to find an unfamiliar bar that wasn't a hub for Shinra troops. I sat down for a drink and asked the owner about cheap places to stay nearby and he offered me the free room he had on the second floor of the building.

Having secured a place to sleep, I lingered at the bar for a few more drinks, sitting alone but keeping my ears open. Places like this have been great for gathering information. alcohol has always loosened people's lips. I can even find out if the infantry issued some sort of arrest warrant or if they gave up and forgot about me.

...Since I had left right in front of Genesis-fuckin-Rhapsodos, I was kind of dubious.

Anyway, I was sitting quietly going about my business when an unfamiliar voice interrupted my train of thought.

"…Excuse me Miss."

I looked up, raising my eyebrows slightly at the newcomer. He wore a clean white shirt with a black tie and his dark hair was slicked back. A little too neat for the occasion - after a long day at work? - but nothing extremely unusual.

"Yes?" I asked neutrally.

“Sorry to bother you, but I couldn't help but notice your sword...”

My back went straight before he could even finish his sentence. I immediately tried to cover my alarm but it felt like it was too late. His expression told me I was right. But he just shook his head.

"Don't worry about it, I have no intention of turning you in. I'm looking for bodyguards - mercenaries, really."

I frowned hesitantly. "...So you found one. What's the deal?"

Relief flooded her features. "Good, good. I've hired two more, but one to leave. My name is Trent Cavanaugh. I'm a businessman from Midgar. I came here under Shinra's wing with my wife to meet some associates. I'm scheduled to return tomorrow." His face took on a worried expression. "However, something seems to have happened. My Shinra acquaintances won't tell me anything, but the airship I was supposed to board is unavailable. I'm afraid it was used in the Wutai attempt."

"I was told I could come back next week," he continued, "but unfortunately I have a meeting to attend on Friday. Rather than wait for a ferry, I decided to make the journey on foot."

"To Midgar?" I raised my eyebrows.

He shook his head. "Shinra has offered to send a vehicle to meet me halfway across the grasslands. I just need a team to accompany me to the Mythril mine."

— And the swamps? I immediately asked, noting how conveniently he leftwhatbreak up

The businessman just smiled. "Don't worry. I have Chocobos for the trip."

"So let me get this straight," I said slowly. "You just need a bodyguard for you and your wife, and I need to escort you to the grazing area, across the swamp, where the Shinra escort is or whatever. And there are two other mercenaries in our group. Yes?"

Trent nodded. "That's right. From that point on, we can go our separate ways or you can come with me to town if you want."


"Of course, I'll pay you handsomely," he said quietly as I thought about it. "The first 5,000 gil will be an advance to do whatever you want. You can keep the other 25,000 when the job is done."

I almost choked on my beer. Thirty thousand gil?! This was double the Malboro bonus! All this for a single escort mission?

"I'm a little desperate, as you can see," Trent admitted. "Not many people like going near the swamps, Chocobo or not. So I guess it's a matter of whether you think you can handle it or not."

In my mind, it was already a done deal. I forced myself to stop and try to think about it, but in the face of this reward, it was hard not to take the chance. Inecessarysomeone get me out of Junon. This was the perfect opportunity! And I could use the money. Maybe I could get someone to forge an ID for me if I paid enough, and then I too would have money to go where I needed to go.

For obvious reasons, I agreed to the job. And now here I was, walking down a rocky path in the mine with Trent, his wife, and two other mercenaries.

Although it was an abandoned mine, it wasn't completely dark. A few lights lining the walls still seemed to work, albeit dimly. I had to wonder how they could still work.

I was leading our small group. the other two mercenaries brought up the rear. Speaking of so called mercenaries...remember Dean and Boss aka Grant? Well, they traveled to Junon themselves in search of work, and this adventure was one big happy reunion.

...Well, like that. Anyway, Grant was the reason Trent approached me in the first place. Normally, I wouldn't attack anyone as a fighter, but apparently killing a Marlboro helped my mercenary image.

Anyway, I was glad to know the other people I was traveling with. Regardless, this time I preferred to lead, if only because I was the only one with the Exsphere - though they obviously knew nothing about it. I just wasn't sure how strong these two were.

"What is this place anyway?" Dean entered.

When the redhead got some strange looks for the question, Grant jumped to his defense. "This is the first time the boy has surpassed Junon."

"This is the Mythril mine, upon which much of Kalm's economy is based," said Trent's wife.

The businessman nodded. "Until recently, anyway. Increased monster activity around the mines has prevented the miners from returning here. Midgar Zolom's population has not been kept in check - now, it's too dangerous to cross the swamps on foot, and unfortunately the mining equipment cannot be transported using Chocobos."

I turned to look at the bird I was driving. We had to move slowly to accommodate the creatures as the birds were not used to traversing this type of terrain. We each had a Chocobo on a leash to use when we got to the swamp. I had named my Cloud private, just because I could.

"Can't Shinra do something about it?" Dean asked with a frown. It was clear that he still wasn't a big fan of the company—nor was Grant, for that matter—but like me, they were also willing to do a mission like this if they could make a lot of money doing it.

Trent sighed. "The reason the population went out of control is because Shinra stopped controlling it."

“The war with Wutai,” Grant said.

"That's right. The military is very thin right now. I doubt they have the resources to send troops on a monster hunt."

"I guess that makes sense," I mumbled, though it wasn't...not to me. Shinra was so obsessed with money and power that he forgot to protect the investments he already had. Leaving Kalm's people to suffer just to send troops overseas to fight the senseless war they had started in the first place... ugh.

Another reason to hate Shinra I guess. I would add to the list.

After a few hours of walking, we finally seem to reach the other side of the mines. A light at the end of the tunnel revealed a wide grassy plain. We step out onto the grass, letting our eyes adjust to the sudden light.

"So far so good," Trent said happily. We find only a few monsters in the mines and kill them quickly. Things were going well so far - these monsters had no problem.

Now comes the hard part.

The grass only extended so far. I could see, further ahead, where it was getting wetter and wetter until it was all submerged in water. Beyond that, there were patches of land and shallow water as far as I could see. The marsh must have stretched for at least a couple of kilometers in all directions. The crossover wouldn't be a quick three second dash like in the game.

We all mounted our Chocobos - I had made sure to teach myself how to assemble and disassemble them before we set out on this trip - and headed back to the swamp. The clouds above had begun to darken, making the whole scene quite ominous.

"I've done this before," Trent said. "Should take a little less than an hour to get through. Guys, just stay in formation and don't stop for any reason. With that, if anything.he doesto bite..."

"We'll take care of it," Grant growled. "You just keep going."

"Very well," he said with satisfaction. "Is everyone ready?"

"As soon as I'm ready I will," I replied and Dean nodded as well.

And so, off we went.

It was an intense forty minutes. The marshes were open, which under normal circumstances would comfort me. besides, there weren't many places for the monsters to hide. But then I thought of the water and wondered when I would see it rippling with motion. There was one somewhere here...

Chocobos were the best at crossing this swamp not only because they could avoid attacks better, but because their agility helped them hide their presence. They did not splash in the water as much as humans, thus reducing the risk of being discovered. They also seemed better able to sense danger, for whenever we were about to be attacked in the mines, the birds began to express their discomfort much earlier.

I knew it had been almost an hour and I was pretty sure I could see the end of the swamp from here now. Unfortunately, it had started raining about fifteen minutes into our journey through the swamp, and now the rain was falling so hard that it was hard to tell whether the end was really in sight or not. Worse, the depth of the swamp water had increased, swamping us.

... Come to think of it, the heavy rain probably stretched the swamp, increasing its reach—


Cum. This was Cloud, and his head had just turned to the right, looking at something. Then he started running a little faster.

"Hey guys-" It was hard to hear the rain but everyone seemed to have noticed the large dark shadow following us right under the water.

"Rector!"Grant shouted. "Move left!Left!"

I realized with horror that the monster was right behind the redhead, but it was too late. The snake's head rose above the water and I caught a glimpse of deep red eyes. Then he ran forward with his mouth wide open. Dean screamed and launched himself off his cock, landing in the shallows with a splash.

The Chocobo screamed, immediately caught in the snake's jaws. The zolom shook its head and swallowed the bird whole in a rush of blood and yellow feathers. I feel sick.

We had stopped because of Dean. Grant crawled under his own cock, pulling the teenager away from the snake. I knew what strategy we were going to do, so even though I wanted to make out, I got off my own dick and motioned for Trent and his wife to continue. They looked at us with concern, but did not hesitate to run forward.

"Shit," Grant growled, turning white as the Midgar Zolom rose out of the water, revealing its full height.

it was a cobrahuge.We were dwarfs - he must have been at least ten meters, standing like that. I couldn't imagine what its full length was as the rest of the tail was still hidden under the water.

As we had disassembled our birds, they logically decided not to stick. It wasn't long before our only means of escape ended and we were left to face Zolom or die.

... That's what I was afraid of. Worst case scenario. Murphy's Law be damned - I'm starting to think I should rename it Britain's Law.

Grant sent a powerful ice spell towards the snake and it just seemed to shrug. I got Kerberos and prepared for the worst. The rain continued to punish us.

"What are we doing boss?" Dean screamed, panicked.

"That's bad," Grant said, getting defensive. "Only SOLDIER can kill these things. We're out of our league."

As if to show he agreed, the zolom stretched and then shot forward, charging at the larger mercenary. He moved out of the way just in time and the snake took a mouthful of cloudy water. Knowing there was nothing more I could do, I took the opportunity to run forward and attempt an attack.

Cerberus looked away from the scales, not even scratching them. They were too stiff to break easily and there didn't seem to be any visible gaps or soft spots between them. Damn it...

The snake submerged again, moving underwater with alarming speed considering its size. He circled me and I fell on top of him to avoid being caught in his coil. The Zolom retaliated by spinning its tail, catching Grant off guard and sending him flying. He landed in the water twenty feet away with a huge splash.

"Boss!" Dean yelled running to help him.

Red eyes focused on the teenager and I understood the monster's intentions now that the boy's back was turned. I screamed as loud as I could, finding the tip of the snake's tail and bringing my sword down with all my might.

Apparently I found a soft spot because a small piece of the tail was cut off - not enough to really hurt the snake, but enough to really piss it off.

The Midgar Zolom turned towards me, opening its mouth and hissing, revealing a pair of very long, deadly fangs.

"Hey, you're there! Get away real quick!"

A new voice caught my attention. The snake turned to investigate the newcomer as well, buying me some time to do what it said.

I caught a glimpse of a purple outfit and then a green glow dominated my vision. The snake let out another hiss, writhing in pain. Was that... Bio? I turned my head, trying to find the launcher.

"Are you ok?"

He had come to my side. I looked up raising my eyebrows. That helmet and that outfit... no way. This was a SOLDIER - second class, to be exact. Why was an elite fighter here? Well, at least it was lucky for me. Maybe the situation wasn't as bleak as I first thought.

"I'm fine," I replied when I realized he had asked me a question.

He nodded, flashing a quick smile. "SOLDIER Second Class Counsel, at your service. Mr. Cavanaugh sent me."

I sighed with relief. Counsel! Someone I could trust!

"I see," I replied. "I'm Brittany Furness, a mercenary. How exactly do you plan to kill this thing?"

Counsell turned his head to the snake which quickly recovered. "I'm not sure. I've never fought a Zolom before, I've only read about them." He frowned. "I hear they have a rather nasty attack called Beta that they use when they turn, so we'll have to kill her quickly when she's weakened."

"Right," I said, more confident now that I had a strong fighter at my side. I turned to Dean, who was pulling his friend out of the water. "Diane! Take Grant and get out of here!"

"Mr. Cavanaugh is waiting at the edge of the swamp in a Shinra vehicle," Counsell said. "Go there. We have a doctor on board, he'll take care of you."

The redhead nodded, helping a half-conscious Grant to his feet and began to run towards the edge of the swamp. The snake saw the two fleeing men and backed up slightly, preparing to attack.

Counsell saw this and rushed forward, leaping into the air. He timed his jump perfectly, finding Zolom in the split second he was in the middle of the attack. He swung his sword, striking the snake's neck with the flat of the blade. The brute force was enough to knock the beast off its course, causing it to fall back into the water. The SOLDIER landed with a splash, but was struck by the writhing snake's tail.

I frowned, struggling to think. The blades were not enough to pierce the snake's scales, so close combat was not a good idea. Kunsel's Bio spell seemed to have taken effect. Maybe if he had some higher level material he could do some decent damage? Then I would have to become the meat shield once again. If nothing else, I could distract my strongest ally.

"Kunzel!" I called. He rose from the water and waved in my direction to show that he was listening. I looked to make sure the snake hadn't recovered, then looked behind it. "Do you have any strong things in you?"

"Poison and Fire are the strongest I have," he told me. "But I have low level Lightning and some support materials as well. Why?"

"Send Embers!" I yelled running towards the snake as it raised its head. "I'll distract him, just let me know when you're going to attack!"

I heard Kunsel make a noise of protest, but then he yelled "Watch out!"

When the Zolom reached its full height again, part of me wondered how I could be so stupid. Every time I faced this thing early in the game, my team was completely annihilated. One bite was enough to kill, I remembered. I couldn't be hit.

The snake hissed and stretched, and I dived to the right and rolled just as it shot forward. Water splashed everywhere - by that time we were all drenched. The rain was relentless. I brushed the hair stuck to my forehead and ran forward once more. The Zolom flicked its tail under the water and I jumped in, narrowly avoiding it.

"Prohibited!" That was Counsell.

I jumped back just as a large fireball collided with the monster. He let out a loud grunt, shaking his head from left to right in pain. Enraged, he spotted the SOLDIER and charged, avoiding his opponent.

Magic was definitely the way to go, though Kunsel seemed annoyed. It occurred to me that his high-level Fire Materia wasn't working as well as he'd hoped in this storm. The snake quickly recovered, its attention now focused on my ally.

Damn… if there was some way to get into his eyes, I could at least blind him and make it a lot easier.

As the Zolom attacked again, flattening its body and plunging it under the water, I had an idea. Jumping on its tail, I began to run at full speed along the snake's body, my heart pounding in my chest. It started to rise and I had to fight to keep my balance.

I grabbed her head as soon as she went up in the air. My fear of heights increased and I staggered around, trying to look him in the eye without focusing on how low to the ground I was.

There! I spotted an eye and adjusted my grip on the Kerberos before pushing it down. The monster let out a terrible shriek as the blade pierced its right eye, blood and liquid flowing down its scales. I tried to brace myself and plant my feet, but nothing prepared me for what was about to happen. He turned his head and with a loud jerk sent me flying high into the air.

My stomach knotted at the sudden feeling of weightlessness and the world spinning around me. I was too shocked to scream, but I remembered enough to hold my sword in a death grip, keeping it away from me. Then I was under water.

I struggled for a minute before I found my balance and pushed back. The water was waist deep where I was standing - not good for fast movement. I had to reach the shallows-

"Britain!Look!“It was Counsell. My head raced.

Midgar Zolom was right in front of me, rearing me and looking at me with his one good eye. It opened its mouth wide, fangs in full view. I felt the blood drain from my face when I saw that I was already tense and knew that the split second I had left would not be enough to dodge. If I moved in any direction they would bite me in the middle instead of swallowing me whole.

I held Kerberos with trembling hands. "Guardian."

The beast flew and I jumped. There was a green flash from my tech and then the world went black.

When my feet hit the ground again, I was on an unstable, wet surface. I dug the tip of my blade into the soft tissue beneath me to give myself something solid to hold on to, and as a result I was pushed.

I was inside the snake's mouth. It was pitch black in here and stiflingly hot.

Just don't get swallowed. Don't let yourself be swallowed up...

I couldn't breathe. There was very little air in here and Zolom's jaws were closed. What could I do? If Counsell attacked, I might get hurt too, and as far as he knew, I was dead.

The claustrophobia has begun. I had to stay almost crouched to avoid the crash. Need to go. How could I leave? How could-

I thought of the flesh beneath me, how easily the sword entered it. The insides of the beast were not protected by scales.

Deciding, I clamped my feet into the teeth on either side of the snake's jaw, with my back against the roof of its mouth. I then drew the Kerberos and changed my grip so that the tip of the blade was pointing up.

So I squeezed my eyes shut, mustered the last of my strength, and lifted as hard as I could.

At first there was a feeling of resistance, but then the Kerberos pierced and slid easily into the handle. Suddenly, a loud scream reached my ears and I realized it was coming from Zolom. then I was pulled right and left and had to hang on for dear life. Finally there was one last crushing impact, and I lost my grip and fell deep into the monster's mouth.

The world was still, the wind was hitting me. I started to pass out from lack of oxygen and knew I wouldn't have the strength to escape.

A few seconds passed, incredibly long. Then I felt the sensation of something moving and a flash of light fell on my face. I looked, seeing the crack widen and cold air enter. I swallowed hard, flooding my lungs with much needed air.

There was a grunt and I saw a boot press against Zolom's lower jaw. The jaws then parted, revealing Kunsel's figure.

"...Are you ok?" he asked, grinning at the effort.

I responded by coughing loudly and then taking another breath of fresh air. With my strength returning, I wasted no time kneeling down, picking up Kerberos and launching myself out of the snake's mouth and landing in the water with a big splash.

When I came out, it was a gloved hand that reached out to me. I took it letting the SOLDIER pick me up.

"Thanks," I managed to mumble.

Without another word, we both turned to look at the fallen snake. The water around her head was starting to turn crimson with blood. From here it was easy to see the red hole at the top of his skull where Kerberos had drilled all the way through. In my moment of desperation, I pierced Zolom's brain, killing him instantly.

Now that he was still, I had time to see his entire body submerged in the water. It was easily thirty meters long. Even now, I half expected him to revive and attack once more. It was hard to believe that such a large creature could have been killed... especially by me. Had I really done this? I guess for all the bad things that happen to me, I had to get lucky every now and then to make up for it. The thought was strangely comforting, until I realized that I was probably going to be hit with some horrible new dilemma now that I had solved it.

"It's dead, right…" Counsell muttered, shaking his head. “This has got to be the craziest thing I've ever seen. How the hell did you do it?survivewhat?"

"... They tell me I have the tenacity of a cockroach." I replied slowly, my expression turning a little sour. Yuan was the only one kind enough to let me know about this feature.

"Well, I'm impressed," he said with a smile. "That was a quick thought. You're too strong for someone not in SOLDIER."

"I guess," I mumbled, embarrassed by the compliment. I knew I wasn't a bad fighter, but I was also sure that much of my advantage came from the power of the Exsphere. Otherwise, I probably would have died a thousand times.

"Anyway, shall we not go?" I asked, eager to change the subject.

His smile fell. "Yes, you're right. The other Zolom in this swamp may have been drawn into the commotion." Counsell began to walk. "Follow me; the others must wait ahead."

I shook my head. "All good."

The ride through the pastures was a bit bumpier than I would have liked. Due to heavy rains, parts of the dirt road were washed away enough to expose rocks. It would be another hour before we reached a freeway and then it would be smooth sailing from there. I didn't even notice it thereit wasroads across the continent. Maybe it was stupid of me, but I always figured Midgar was the only place around here with something like that. I think it would be kind of hard to go around the world using only helicopters and airships...

Anyway, we were all stuck in a big black van with Shinra insignia on the side, heading northwest towards Midgar. I had asked to get off near Kalm as I had no interest in going near the corrupt city.

Trent and his wife were perfect and it looked like Dean had come out of the fight unscathed. Grant was still conscious but had some broken ribs. The ship's doctor tended to him with a healing spell and he seemed to be fine for the time being.

I had to work very hard to keep my face a neutral expression, distracting myself by drying my hair with the towel she had given me. I was happy to be safe and out of the rain, but at the same time...

"Tsokombos by the swamp?" Reno laughed from the passenger seat. "Man, that's a crazy move. No wonder we had to bring a SOLDIER in here. Do you do stuff like this all the time?"

Trent grimaced slightly. "...I admit, I underestimated the power of this creature. I heard the Mingar Zolom were great, but..."

"Thistimebigger than I expected,” Kunsel admitted.

I bit my lower lip, only half after the conversation. It was eating at me a little more the fact thatRenohe was in the passenger seat. Even worse, Rude was driving. Because thehellwere there turks here? A couple of Turks and a SOLDIER…call me crazy, but that seemed a little too much for a simple businessman. Who Was Trent Cavanaugh Really?

"So you're a SOLDIER, right?" Dean asked curiously. "How did you manage to kill him?"

"Don't look at me," he said with a smile.

This made the redhead's eyes widen and he turned to me. “...Brittany?

Reno rolled his eyes. "Stop pulling my chain. There's no way a normal human could kill one of those things."

"It's the truth," Counsell insisted. Then he recounted the details of our fight, telling how the snake tried to swallow me, only to get my sword through the roof of its mouth. "You can go back and check the carcass if you don't believe me," he added.

"That's impressive," Trent said thoughtfully. "But then again, that's why I hired her for the job. As I recall, Grant here was telling me how she single-handedly killed a Malboro near Banora."

"And a Marlboro, huh?" Counsell laughed. "You're full of surprises. I guess looks can be deceiving."

"Heh heh." Grant snorted. "Look at heropticalas if a strong wind were blowing it. No power."

"Hey, thanks," I mumbled.

Reno exchanged a quick glance with Rude and then looked at me with interest. "So the story is true, huh? You killed a Mingar Zolom."

"...It's the truth," I said with a shrug. It wasn't like I could deny it in front of everyone after all that, but I still didn't like the way he was looking at me.

He turned slightly in his seat. "Your name is Brittany, right? Are you a mercenary?"


The Turk smiled. "The name is Reno. General Affairs Division, Investigations Division."

"Department of General Affairs?" Grant growled. "Aren't you in charge of looking for potential soldiers?"

"Among other things," Reno replied cheerfully, then turned to me. "Killing a Midgar Zolom is no joke, man. I've seen entire SOLDIERS beat by these things before."

To my left, I saw Kunsel nodding in silent confirmation of this fact.

I fought the urge to squirm uncomfortably. "It was a stroke of luck, I didn't do itplanoto be swallowed up, I am not so brave.'

"You don't give yourself enough credit. I know where your skills could be better used," he said, smirking. "Would you like to work for Shinra?"

There it was, the million dollar question. I gave him a blank look, barely able to believe he had asked in the first place. In the driver's seat, Rude was a silent statue, his face giving nothing away.

Do you work for Shinra? Just the thought of it made me want to shudder. I wanted nothing to do with these bastards.

"...Sorry," I said. "Not interested."

"You'd make a lot more money than you do now," Reno offered with a raised eyebrow.

I just shook my head. "I don't really care about the money. I don't want to be tied down to a corporate salary - mercenary work is fine with me, but thanks anyway."

"Is he sure?" Trent spoke. "This is too big an opportunity to miss."

“You would be the first female SOLDIER,” Counsell told me, her tone thoughtful. "On second thought, the only reason SOLDIER is all male is because no female could meet the physical demands for mako treatments. You're definitely strong enough for that, I know."

Grant and Dean were frowning, but neither of them said a word.

I sighed. "Even so, I…"

"Listen," Reno interjected. "Come to Midgar and spend the night. I'll have Shinra cover the hotel expenses. You'll meet with my boss tomorrow morning, discuss it and make a decision, yes?"

Spend the night in Midgar? Meeting Cheng? This was getting crazier by the minute and I didn't like it at all. Why the hell was that when I triedavoidwith my participation, all these people came to me? Even Genesis! What were the chances of me meetingheof all the people in a crowded city? It just wasn't fair, dammit!

"...What if my answer is still no?" I asked, stopping.

The Turk smiled, as if it were a private joke. "I don't think that's a problem. The boss is pretty convincing."

I met your eyes. Although his statement seemed like he was in a good mood, I heard the unspoken threat. I felt like I never had a choice in the matter to begin with.

Because I could feel the eyes of others on me, I leaned back and smiled to dispel the suddenly tense atmosphere. "...Okay, okay. I'll go."

"You won't regret it," he told me, even though I was sure he would.

chapter 3: Compulsion


(See end of chapter fordegrees.)

chapter text

When we finally reached the wastelands around Midgar, it was night. I had missed the small comfort of Dean and Grant. the two had received payment and landed in Kalm. They seemed to share my distaste for Midgar.

There were no windows in the back of the van, but from where I sat I could catch a glimpse of the city looking through the front windshield.

The darkness made the lights of the great metropolis even more impressive, and seeing it in person made dread settle heavily in the pit of her stomach. It looked exactly like the original game series - more defined, yes, but the same structure was there. Greenish lights and smoke were visible from the eight mako reactors lining the perimeter of the city. And there, in the center... even from here, I could see the imposing tower of the Shinra Headquarters.

I frowned thoughtfully, an image of the train station running through my head, with Cloud standing there with his Buster Sword. Talk about nostalgia... except it wasn't really nostalgia. That hadn't happened yet.

If I did something, I could stop it from happening...

Now I sighed, pulling my attention away from the city and closing my eyes. Inevitably, with the center of all the trouble so close, my thoughts turned towhat.But I couldn't start having crazy ideas right now. I had to concentrate on what was going to happen when I got out of this vehicle and how I was going to escape the clutches of the Turks.

Running away from the Turks... who was I kidding? I was losing my mind. These guys were trained killers - if they wanted something, they might as well get it. It would be better to at least meet Tseng... maybe I didn't live up to their expectations and they would let me go. Of course, that would be the best case scenario.

It wasn't like I could escape Midgar anyway... I was pretty bad at navigating cities back home, let alone a place like this. Trying to play against the Turks, who knew the city like the back of their necks, was a bad idea.

Just thinking about it was depressing...

It was really bad to be alone like this. If I was just with someone... Lloyd or Zelos or Sheena... maybe I wouldn't be so nervous. I could at least believe that even if we didn't figure out what to do right away, at least we could trust each other.

Just me to say… what the hell would I do?

Well, if I somehow managed to kill myself here, at least it wasn't like last time. At least my family and Earth were still safe. There was that, right?

...I still didn't exactly care about dying after fighting like hell to survive all this time. Blah.

"You still awake, huh?"

I opened my eyes in response, surprised to find that I had actually slept for a few minutes. I looked towards the red-haired Turk, noting that I could no longer see the city in the distance. We were surrounded by buildings.

“I called my boss and made some arrangements,” he told me. "We set you up in a hotel in Sector 8. Nice place too, right on LOVELESS Blvd."

I nodded slowly, only half listening. We were in town, which meant things would start happening now. A part of me was rooting for Rino. Could I get away with this guy if it came to that? Could I fight him if I had to and win?

My mind kept bringing up the adorable post-Meteor Turks from Advent Children. Reno spent most of the film as comic relief, and even Rude had some funny moments. When I thoughtthoseTurks, I thought I could take them.

Of course, these two were not the same. The meteor strike hadn't happened yet, and these guys still had their jobs and a very powerful company to work for. I've always liked Reno's personality and he seemed like the kind of person I could get along with, but at the same time...

In the game, Rino was part of the mission to take down the Sector 7 signal, crushing God knows how many defenseless civilians in the slums. No matter what he looked like on the outside, I had no idea what kind of person he really was at this point. It was best not to underestimate what he was capable of.

Counsel straightened, looking with interest. "Wait...don't tell me it's Wayland?"

Reno smiled. "That's him."

The SOLDIER whistled, impressed, then turned to me. "They really give you the royal treatment... this is one of the best hotels in Midgar."

I wasn't sure if I should be happy about it or not. I kind of doubted I'd be able to sleep tonight anyway. Not to mention it would look terribly out of place in a high end hotel. I was covered in blood and snake saliva.

As if ready, the van slowly came to a stop and Rudd turned to look over his shoulder at us.

"Was here." Those were the only words I heard him say all day.

Midgar by day was no more beautiful than by night.

I lowered the glass, wondering what was the point of such a huge window in the room when the view was so bad.

Maybe it was just a matter of perspective. I saw the mako reactors and Shinra HQ as ugly, although the buildings themselves weren't horrible. I just hated howcolorlessthis place was - just gray everywhere. Gray buildings, gray roads, gray pollution. There was not an ounce of natural plant life anywhere. It was kind of hard to grow trees in a park when the city was raised above the ground - and your own power source was sucking the natural life out of everything.

I shook my head and closed the curtains. What a horrible place.

However, it was pretty obvious now that Midgar was still under construction. The city would not be completed for a long time. To build such a structure... how much did it cost? The amount had to be astronomical.

Sighing, I tried to put the image of the city out of my mind for now. I had to leave in about fifteen minutes, so now I had to focus on mentally preparing myself for what was to come.

The Turks gave me a card to hand over to the hotel reception and in return the wife gave me the room key. The Weyland was as elegant and luxurious as I had hoped. I took a few glances as I walked to my suite.

At first I wondered why Shinra would care if I got a good room or not, but then I saw the location of the hotel and it all made sense. Sector 8 was right across from Shinra HQ and the Weyland Hotel was on the corner of LOVELESS Avenue and the road leading to Shinra's front steps. I couldverthe front steps to my window.

When I was right in front of their noses, there wasn't much I could do to escape. They wanted to watch me for sure.

Today was the day I was supposed to meet Cheng. I still hadn't spoken to the man. Reno had just told me a time to report to Shinra headquarters and the receptionists at the front desk would direct me to where Cheng wanted to meet me.

Since my clothes from the day before were pretty rough, I showered and changed into the only spare set I had. Unfortunately, it was just a pair of casual Earth clothes - jeans and a black t-shirt with the Batman symbol on it. They didn't seem unusual in this modern city environment, but I didyou knewCheng would be wearing a suit and I would be sitting there in the…

Ah, who cared. It wasn't that I wanted to impress them anyway.

On the other hand, maybe I could use it to my advantage. I walked into the bathroom and took one last look at the huge mirror on the wall.

I ruffled my hair for a minute and then smiled slightly. I had washed off the rest of the eyeliner I always wore, which helped - the makeup made me look older. However, I couldn't pull off the teenage look anymore. But I sure didn't look like a fighter. Just a normal citizen.

...Well, except for one small thing. There was this scar on my chin – the one Kratos gave me in the Tower of Salvation. It stretched diagonally across my chest area, ending just outside my left ribcage, though thankfully all of that was covered by my clothes. But that little portion that looked...

I shook my head. The fact that I had a scar meant nothing to them. Heck, I told everyone in the house that I fell and cut my chin on the corner of the bathroom sink and they bought it.

Embarrassed, I pressed my thumb to the scar and let out a frustrated sigh. I rememberedemotionKratos' sword hit my jaw. The wound was deep and did not heal immediately. The scar would probably be there for a long time, and no amount of concealer would hide it. The Turks would probably use it to identify me if I tried to escape too...

Ugh, why was I thinking that? It was too late for that. I just had to bite the bullet and go straight into the lion's den.

I abandoned the mirror and returned to the main room, where all my things were spread out on the couch. My maids had taken the clothes from yesterday and were washing them. Kerberos was lying on the couch, the silver patterns on his hem glinting in the light. Next to the sword was an assortment of gels left over from my previous trip that I always carried just in case - an apple gel, three lemon gels, a melange gel, a pineapple gel, and a miracle gel. I also had half a jar of panacea.

Then there was my fully loaded first aid kit, filled with lots of extra bandages. Along with it came a Swiss army knife and a compass, the broken unicorn horn, one of Zelos' white tiaras ("With this, my love, you can be as awesome as me!"), my wallet, and my cell phone.

Was it safe to leave these things here? I wasn't even a hundred percent sure I would. Who knew what could happen...

Gels can be considered as home remedies, but they can be dangerous. I wasn't sure exactly what they were made of. Hopefully the same stuff with the filters here...but again, I hadn't used a filter and didn't know how they worked. They may not instantly heal wounds like they did in the game.

The main problems here, actually, were my wallet and my cell phone. My wallet had about twenty US dollars and some change, along with my driver's license, student ID, debit card, and a number of credit cards.

I made a face. The best solution here would be to get rid of it all - burn the money, throw away the change, tear up the papers, break the phone. Leave no trace of my past existence to avoid suspicion.

But I didn't like this solution. Just thinking about how much trouble this would mean for me on Earth was a nightmare. Calling a billion companies to get replacements, going to the DMV, paying a bunch of money for a new iPhone... ugh. Not only that, if I somehow returned to Earth and ended up far away from where I actually lived, I would be utterly despondent if I had no identity or sources of money. Then I would be busy with a new adventure.

I planned to return to Earth as soon as possible. It was kind of hard to give those things up - it was almost like giving up coming home.

Frowning, I gathered them all up and put them back in my bag. I should just leave it all here and hope no one went through my wallet. Maybe I'll figure something out later.

Oops... It's eight minutes before the meeting I'm supposed to attend. While I wasn't trying to make a good impression, the idea of ​​lingering and being looked at by the Turkish leader was somewhat terrifying.

I decided to leave my bag in the room and took nothing with me except the suite key. Closing the door behind me, I looked both ways down the long hallway outside. There was no one else in the room. Taking a deep breath, I went to the elevator.

The ride to Shinra HQ was even shorter than I expected. I walked through a square with a small fountain and then I was right at the front door of Shinra. A lot of people were walking around, some in suits and some in casual clothes. I vaguely remembered that the ground floor was open to the public.

Gathering my resolve, I climbed the steps and entered the building.

The interior of Shinra Headquarters was exactly as it had been depicted in the games. This room had two levels - the ground floor was a reception area, with a large Shinra logo represented in a hologram behind the reception. The stairs on either side of the reception desk led to the upper floor, where I could see a sitting room and two elevators along the back wall. The whole place was very clean and well maintained, the marble floors were polished enough that I could practically see my reflection in them.

In short, a little scary. Walking in here made me feel kind of small and pathetic.

However, I swallowed it and went to reception. Two receptionists were there. one of them was busy on a computer, but the other smiled pleasantly.

"Good morning! What can I do for you?"

"Um, my name is Brittany Furness." I replied trying not to sound shy. "I have a meeting scheduled with the head of Tu-er, the Investigations Division of the... General Affairs Department." Wow, that was good. I barely remembered the fake name of the Turks. I should be careful with that.

He didn't even seem to notice my mistake. Instead, she just nodded, turning to her computer for a moment. "Let's see...Brittany, Brittany...Ah, here we go. Ten o'clock! You're on time." She looked at her computer a little longer, finished what she was doing and turned to me.

"You can find it on the twenty-third floor, office number 232. If you need help locating the room, please don't hesitate to ask any of the staff upstairs."

"OK thanks." I forced a smile and started up the stairs that led to the elevators.

The doors opened almost immediately after I pressed the call button, so I had some time to mentally prepare myself for what was to come. I got in and pressed the button for the floor I needed and the elevator started. He never once stopped to let other people in. in such a large building, what luck was this? People were obviously against me stopping.

As it turned out, the twenty-third floor was perfectly normal. I stepped out of the elevator into an open space with a few chairs, potted plants, and a coffee maker on a table in the corner. Directly ahead was a corridor with numbered doors. It looked like the inside of a typical office building.

I walked down the hall, passing a few other people along the way. everyone was dressed professionally but few wore suits and none of them gave me a second glance. This was definitely not the floor of the Turks, that's for sure.

My theory was proven true when I stopped at office 232. Each door had a metal sign that represented not only the office number but also the name of the person using it. This door had no name carved on it - just a blank space where a name would go. This was a spare room.

Nervously, I took a deep breath and knocked.

"Come in," called a voice from the other side.

The handle turned easily and I stepped in, forcing a neutral expression on my face.

The interior of the office was as ordinary as the floor itself. It contained a desk, a filing cabinet and a few chairs. The walls were bare. In fact, the only interesting thing in this room was its occupant - the dark-haired man who circled the table to meet me.

He smiled easily, surprising me. "You must be Brittany. My name is Cheng, head of the Research Section. Nice to meet you."

Surprised by his friendliness, I almost forgot to shake the hand he extended to me.

"Ah, nice to meet you too," I reflexively replied and inwardly cursed myself. Why was I good? I had already worked out the design in my head! I should be Kratos-y and apathetic! If he thought my personality was like that, he wouldn't find it strange when I gave vague or clipped answers.

"Please sit," she said, returning to the other side of the table. I agreed, not knowing what else to do.

Cheng arranged some papers on the table before sitting down, so I had time to get a good look at him. As expected, he was wearing an immaculate black suit and tie. His black hair was tied like it was in Crisis Core.

He was pale with fine features that looked decidedly Asian. he looked exactly as I thought he would, down to the tilak in the middle of his forehead. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but it was still weird meeting people for the first time when I already knew them.

Finally he sat up, looking up and meeting my gaze. His eyes were coal black. I forced myself to look back at him, knowing he would notice if I looked away. He picked up on any body language so I had to stop myself from moving. Shit, it was like being interviewed for a job by a damn FBI agent...

...Only I had to convince him that Iit was notgood enough for the job. That was ridiculous.

"I'm glad you came," he began, lacing his fingers together. "But I have to admit I'm surprised. Recruits selected from my branch often have excellent skills to secure a job with SOLDIER - meaning they bypass many of the standard assessments that normal applicants would have to undergo. They are it's rare for anyone to turn them down, such an opportunity, you see May I ask why you are so opposed to the idea?

I took a deep breath before speaking, forcing myself to speak slowly. "Sorry. It's very simple - I'm not interested in working for a company. I like the freedom of what I'm doing right now. I don't like staying in one place too long and I prefer to work alone. That's all."

Cheng shook his head and then adopted a thoughtful expression, as if he was really thinking about the points I mentioned to him.

"I see," he finally said. "I must also apologize. Reno is a very capable subordinate of mine, but it seems that he did not adequately explain the benefits of being in SOLDIER. You see, SOLDIER members enjoy a great deal of personal freedom, more so than many of the other company employees .”

I fought the urge to grimace. If it had been anyone else I would have left, but this guy was the leader of the Turks.

He spent the next few minutes explaining to me the benefits of the job. I was even more surprised, because Tseng made it sound appealing. It was a good thing I knew better. All the companies seemed attractive to work for. He was probably quoting straight from the employee handbook.

"So, as you can see," he continued, "those in SOLDIER have some choice in the work they do. Many have different areas of expertise and undertake the types of missions they prefer. understanding these issues. And why an individual SOLDIER equals power of a company of infantry troops, in many cases missions are carried out alone'.

I shook my head. "You make a good point, but…"

"Hmm, so you're not interested yet," he remarked, straightening his stance and considering me for a moment. "Tell me, what can I do to make the position more attractive to you?"

My forehead furrowed. "Hmm…no offense sir, but you seem very adamant about taking this job from me…why is that?"

That made him stop. Then he offered me a thin smile, his friendly demeanor slipping a little. "We happen to have a department assigned to recruit for a few reasons. The first is, of course, to bolster our SOLDIER numbers and increase the success of the program. As for the second... well, that applies to exceptional cases like yours."

"Special cases;" I blinked.

"Yes," he replied. "You showed strength equivalent to that of a SOLDIER without any treatment mako. In theory, this should be physically impossible."

Timeveryhard to keep my expression neutral with that. Because I realized he was right - it was power given by my Exsphere, but they had no way of knowing that.

"Nevertheless, we have enough testimonials to attest to your strength. I am confident that if you apply to the SOLDIER program, you will be an asset to this company and successful in many of its future endeavors. However. . ."

I swallowed hard. That was a big "but".

That subtle smile again. “You must understand. If you choosenoto enroll in the SOLDIER program and instead continue as a mercenary, free to be hired by anyone, there could be...complications.'

"You're afraid I'll become a threat to the company," I replied in a neutral voice, feeling shocked inside.

He shook his head. "I am not speaking for myself, but as a representative of Shinra. Please do not take my statements personally."

Well, that pretty much said it, didn't it? Complications... it wasn't hard to see what he meant by that. If I chose to walk away from it, I would be labeled a threat to Shinra. While I probably wouldn't be considered a criminal in public, I would be a fugitive from the company. And they would probably chase me. Maybe even from Reno and Rude, or Tseng himself.

Either way, it won't end well for me.

"Now you understand why we orchestrated this meeting. I must ask you to reconsider your decision," Cheng said.

I made a face. Thesewantedto take the job—they'd rather I be an asset to the company than die. This was the real reason Cheng was trying so hard.

"I'll come in, but only on one condition," I said slowly.

That friendly PR smile is back. "They say."

"Hojo can't be the one to administer the mako cures. And after that, I want absolutely nothing to do with the Science Department or any kind of medical examination."

Cheng raised his eyebrows questioningly, but I kept my face carefully impassive. Finally, he wrote a few things in a notebook on his desk and looked back at me.

"If that is what you want, then it can be arranged. I hope that means I have secured your cooperation?"

I paused for a moment, realizing that I might be making the biggest mistake of my life. But I couldn't do anything else, so I met his eyes.


He gave me a satisfied look, even though his eyes were cold throughout our conversation. "Excellent. Welcome to SOLDIER, Brittany."

Yeah, I would definitely kick myself for that later.


I feel like the early chapters are definitely the weak point of this fic. I couldn't wait to settle things down and start living in SOLDIER. One of these days I'll come back and rewrite/add it to the show...but I have to finish the damn fic first.


κείμενο κεφαλαίου

The process of joining SOLDIER involved signing many contracts and reviewing many documents. At first, I was careful to read the fine print on most of the documents, but as it turned out, it was all legal jargon so precisely worded that the average person couldn't hope to understand it. In the end, I just signed what I had to sign and prayed that Cheng's single status would protect me.

It wasn't like I had any other choice...

The Turks still kept me in Weyland for the time being, at least until I became an official employee of the company. I wasn't sure where I would live after that - apparently there were barracks on the SOLDIER floor, but I couldn't share the space with the men.

For now, I was just leading by the nose, doing as I was told. I didn't know what tomorrow would hold... or the day after, or the day after that. For the foreseeable future, I felt like I was trapped in this world. I forced myself not to think about it too much. it just pissed me off. I kind of knew this was going to happen, though. As much as I wanted to go home, some things were out of control.

It was the same as last time... I never hadaskedto take part Sometimes life just decided to run away from you.

This was one of those times when I had trouble feeling optimistic. I was sitting on a cold metal platform - aoperating table,Oh boy - wearing nothing but a thin hospital gown. Did I mention I hate hospital gowns? I was freezing, and that was just another annoyance on top of anything else.

Although I was on an operating table wearing a hospital scrub, it wasn't the ward. No, actually this was my first and (hopefully) last visit to the 67th floor - the headquarters of the Science Department. It was here that they did mako treatments.

I wasn't stupid. I knew there was no escape. the moment I entered SOLDIER, I was doomed to it. Because of my Exsphere, I already possessed the strength of a low-rank SOLDIER... so of course, anyone who knew about me would immediately wonder how strong the mako treatments would make me and if I could be the next candidate for first class.

To be honest, the thought of it scared me. I sincerely hoped that no one here in the Science Department knew how and why I was hired. I could picture Hojo foaming at the mouth, waiting to push and push me until I became another Sephiroth. That was the reason I askednoto be associated with the mad scientist.

No matter how much I told myself to stay still, I couldn't stop my hands from shaking. Fear was building in the pit of my stomach. I hated it. I hated being in this horrible place, where I knew that unspeakable acts would definitely commit me to further investigation. It was even worse knowing that I was completely helpless because for the first time, my Exsphere was taken away from me.

The process required the guy to remove all clothing and jewelry - no explanation why I had to keep them, so this morning I took out the Key Crest and Exsphere and put them in my bag, leaving them in my hotel room. As a result, I felt terribly weak and nauseous all day, which only added to my anxiety.

My head snapped up when the door across the room opened. A blond scientist walked in, looking at his clipboard for a moment before looking back at me.

“...Miss Furness, is it? he said. His tone was polite but very impersonal.

I shook my head slowly.

"Interesting..." The researcher looked at me and then smiled slightly. "You passed the preliminary test, as expected. Looks like you're ready."

I had trouble getting excited about it. To be honest, I expected to fail.

Before accepting someone into treatments, Shinra always performed a difficult mental and physical test to ensure that the person in question could handle the mako. My physical strength was already proven, so the preliminary test the scientist talked about was just to check my mental state. Obviously since I had been through that meant I was mentally stable. Being mentally unstable meant I would succumb to maco poisoning, so I hoped they were right about me.

The man gestured for me to lie down on the operating table. I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Cheng had already guided me on this during our meeting. I knew what the process involved. it was a three-day process involving alternating mako injections and baths, starting small and gradually increasing the level of mako exposure. I suspected that Jenova cells would be injected at some point as well, but of course Shinra would keep quiet about that aspect.

Lying down, I felt like I was going to throw up. Did I really want to do this? This was not reversible. No... did I have a choice? I might be arrested or even killed if I try to run now.

I closed my eyes, holding out my hand when the interviewer asked. Then I felt the prick of a needle in the crook of my arm - a mild sedative. Almost immediately the nausea subsided and I felt myself go limp.

I was grateful for the medicine. Keeping my eyes closed, I pushed all awareness aside until I passed out, hoping against hope that I wouldn't wake up until it was all over.

The ground beneath my feet was muddy and slippery, and try as I might, I couldn't run fast enough without slipping. I felt despair eating at the pit of my stomach. It wasn't mud I was treading on, not at all. The earth was mixed with blood.

Everything caught fire. Bodies strewn in the streets, meat cut into strips. It was a living nightmare.

There was only one way for this to end. I had to finish before this went too far. Choking on the smoke, I continued to run as fast as I could.

But no matter how much ground I covered, the tall shadow with the long blade was always far from me...

Green. I hated this color.

where was that The flames were gone, but my whole body was still burning and I was still suffocating.

I could see the blurry image of a laboratory through the glass in front of me. Lab... Shinra... mako...

I finally stopped struggling to breathe, vaguely realizing that I wasn't choking on the green liquid I'd been suspended in. There was a mask that supplied me with air.

I still felt like I was suffocating. Time stretched into eternity.

The interior of the mako reactor was completely destroyed. All the pods have been opened, revealing the terrifying mutations inside. The monsters fell to the ground, all dead.

I climbed the stairs slowly. My last energy was gone and I knew there was nothing I could do now, but I found myself unable to stop.

The next room revealed the man I was chasing. He had his back to me, his form hiding Jenova from my view.

I opened my mouth, intending to say his name, but no sound came out. However, he sensed my presence and turned around.

Those feline green eyes, locked with mine, sent shivers down my spine.

"Who you are?"

The room smelled like vomit.

At one point I was sure I had thrown up, but I didn't remember doing it. Many hands grabbed me, cleaned me, pulled me off the bathroom floor. The lights in here were too harsh - even closing my eyes didn't ease the terrible headache I had.

I hated the color green and I hated the feel of the stretchy surgical gloves on my skin. I wish they wouldn't touch me. I could kill them for touching me. Wipe, pierce...

Another slight pain in the crook of my arm, and everything went numb.

When I felt my back against the cool metal of the operating table again, I gave up and let my eyes close.

It was the first time I saw this building so empty. Last time it was full of people, even on this floor. Men and women in white coats push carts of samples here and there, some holding clipboards and others using computers...

Even though I hated them all, it felt weird when they left.

All that's left here are foreign test tubes and equipment with flashing lights and a single, long bloodstain on the floor in front of me.

My legs were moving on their own. I followed the trail of blood to the containment chamber I recognized very well, the one that housed Jenova in the Science Department.

The hall was empty.

When I came back, he was there. My eyes found the green. Combustion. He burns with hatred.

"Who you are?"


Strangely, it was the involuntary noise I made that actually woke me up. Man, it felt good to be able to use my vocal chords again... for a while it hurt to talk because I had screamed raw.

Cried...; I couldn't remember, but the thought came out anyway. I frowned, shifting a bit.

Oh. Oh, holy shit. This hurts.

"Ah, looks like you're awake." A woman's voice woke me up even more and I opened my eyes a little.

Luckily the light didn't go out. It wasn't bright fluorescent light, but soft sunlight coming through a window to my left. It felt like I hadn't seen the sun or the outside world in years.

"How do you feel? Can you talk?"

I turned my attention to the woman standing near the foot of my bed. She was wearing a nurse's uniform. Relief rushed through me in a powerful wave, and even though I wasn't feeling particularly cheerful, I couldn't help but smile.

"I'm… better I think." I answered. "Where am I?"

She smiled, jotting down a few things on a clipboard. "You're in the East Wing Sickbay. Congratulations, SOLDIER. You've completed your mako treatments. The first female to do so, by the way... I think you're going to be quite a role model."

I wanted to laugh at that last statement, but I was too caught up in the surprise it turned out to beabout.What a nightmare it was. Just a blur of pain and fear and horrible, horrible dreams...

...Only I still wasn't sure what was a dream and what was reality. I remembered waking up at some point to see someone - someonething-on an operating table next to me, screaming...

I shuddered and pushed the memory away. Not anymore. I would never go back to this place again.

"...What's going on now?" I finally asked.

"Well, we'll have to keep you here for a few days until you're well enough to walk around," the nurse explained. "After that, a senior officer will come for you. Relax for now – you don't have to worry about it."

"Okay," I sighed.

He dropped the clipboard. "Give me some, and I'll be right back with some water and some soup."

"Thanks," I said and leaned back as he left the room.

My whole body ached and my mind was completely blank. Maybe that was a blessing. The nurse was right, you don't need to worry now. I just had to pull myself together. I was still alive, and I still wasmy...that was enough for now.

After a few minutes he returned as he said, with a glass of water in one hand and a glass of broth in the other. I realized with shock that I hadn't eaten in three days. the scientists wanted to keep me hydrated, but that was about it. It was probably because I couldn't hold anything in the middle anyway.

I was hungry so the sight of only broth was a little disappointing. I got it though. My stomach would probably still be a little weak.

He left to check on other patients so I started my meal. I forced myself to consume the food slowly. I had to regain my energy. The faster I did this, the faster I could deal with everything that was happening.

Exhaustion washed over me the second I put the dishes away. Knowing there was no point in fighting it, I laid back and closed my eyes, allowing sleep to take me.

The North Cave.

Battered and bloodied, I made my way to the green light above, determined. So far I've been attacked left and right by monsters. finally they seemed to have given up. The level of effort required to get here was enormous. My body felt like it was on the verge of collapse.

However, I stubbornly put one foot in front of the other. Why; Was I still deluding myself that I could make a difference? Chasing the man's shadow, I never caught up... maybe I was destined to see him fulfill his own, powerless to do anything to stop him.

The light was getting closer and closer. I climbed up, my muscles screaming from the effort.

Finally I was in front of him. Hanging on the mako, nestled in the North Crater where it all began, he seemed almost serene. He was motionless, sleeping.

I stared at him for what seemed like forever. Then, slowly, my hand began to move. The mako here had the consistency of gelatin. it stung my skin slightly when I came into contact with it.

I reached out for his hand, feeling like I was in a trance. I just had to touch him… prove to myself that he was really there. That there was. That it wasn't -

His eyes snapped open so suddenly that I didn't have time to react. He grabbed my outstretched wrist, holding it tight.

"YOU WILL NOT INTERFERE," he hissed, his voice echoing in my ears.

I could feel the bones in my wrist being crushed. His venomous eyes trapped me there and all I could do was stare back in shock, unable to move, unable to breathe as waves of crushing pain threatened to engulf me all over.

"Well, that's a funny coincidence."

I looked up from my breakfast, staring in bewilderment at the unknown young man who had entered the room. He had messy brown hair and bright blue eyes and wore the purple uniform of a SOLDIER second class.

...Wait a second. Something about that voice...

My forehead furrowed. "Counsel? Is that you?"

He laughed, walking over to the end of my bed. "Of course it's me. Who else did you think you were?"

"I've never seen you without a helmet," I pointed out.

"Correctly." He took on an embarrassed expression. "I forgot about this... I hardly ever take it off when I'm on duty."

I smiled, setting my plate aside. "So what brings you here?" It sure was nice to see a familiar face again... even if that face wasn't so familiar. Oh, whatever it is.

I wasn't sure what I expected Counsell to be like, but this seemed to suit him. He seemed to be a year or two younger than me. Hard to imagine that these elite warriors could just be kids when it all came down to it.

"Obviously I'm in charge of you for the next few days," Counsell said with a smile. "Well they tell me anyway. How are you feeling?"

Was Kunsel the senior officer the nurse was talking about? I was so happy I could cry. Honestly, I was completely out of my element in a military environment - knowing I would have a friend around was a huge burden for me.

"I'm fine," I replied. "Irritable. At first the rest was fine, but the nurses would barely let me get out of bed."

"Looks like I'm your key to freedom then," he said. "You are officially fired."

My eyebrows rose. "What TRUTH?"

"Yes." He dropped a backpack full of clothes at the foot of the bed. "Here's your gear, SOLDIER. And this..." Now he held out a plastic card with my picture on the front. "This is your Shinra ID. Don't lose it, because it's also your key card to the SOLDIER floor."

I took the card looking at it. Well, at least the photo wasn't too bad. Below my name were printed the words "SOLDIER THIRD CLASS". It still felt unreal.

"Today I'm going to give you a tour of the facility and explain a little bit about how things work here," Counsell said. “Put on your uniform and go up to the forty-ninth floor when you're ready. I'll be waiting for you in the conference room.


He nodded. "See you then."

After Counsell left, I reached to rummage through my backpack. Immediately my hand found a sturdy knit material and I pulled out a sleeveless blue turtleneck. The uniform...

I looked around, not seeing a nurse. Well, since I got discharged, they couldn't mess with me anymore, right? It was safe to get out of bed now.

Interestingly, my body didn't hurt at all. Two days ago it hurt to even move my fingers, I don't mind the rest at all. now I suddenly felt on top of my game. I got up and went straight to the bathroom.

There was only one shower here, and I made full use of it. I hadn't showered in days and was sick of feeling bad.

When I was dry, I put on my MILITARY clothes layer by layer. First came the trousers and turtleneck. So I fiddled with the buckles on the shoulder pads for a while, finally figuring out how the armor held my shoulders. Then came the belt, the boots and finally the gloves.

Ready ready. Now then...

For the first time since waking up in the ward, I stopped in front of a mirror. The mirror here was steam from the shower. I reached out, wiping it carefully.

The sight that awaited me was like a punch in the gut.

Now was when everythingReallyhit home

I stared at my reflection, gripping the edge of the sink for support. My eyes were… shining. I knew this would happen, I had seen those eyes in Kunsel, but...

I had avoided looking at myself in the mirror for the past few days for this reason. I was really scared with what I might see.

It just... wasn'tmyeyes. They were the same size and shape, and yet...

I took a shuddering breath. My eyes must be brown. It was hard to know that I had given up part of myself for this. And not only that... now I had it.thingscells and inside me.

Brown eyes, like my father's.

I looked down. How would I deal with my family when I returned home? And for that matter, what was going to happen between now and then? Working for Shinra, what would I become…?

Devastated, I allowed myself a small muffled sob before falling silent once more. I wanted to break down, but this was not the time or place to start crying. Now I just had to hold things together, at least for a little while longer.

No matter what happens, it's still you.

That's what Lloyd would tell me. I had to keep reminding myself of this. no matter what they had done to me in the Science Department, I was still the same person. Even though it caused me emotional pain, my eye color didn't change at all. It wasn't that my family was going to reject me just because I no longer had the Furnesses' signature dark brown eyes...

Another hiccup. I sniffed slightly and then forced myself to breathe slowly for a few seconds. The lump in my throat eased and I felt a little calmer. There ... not perfect, but better.

I took another look in the mirror to check my appearance. Good; it didn't look like i was crying. My eyes were a little watery, but I could fix that in the next few minutes. A quick finger comb fixed my short hair and I was good to go.

Time to meet Counsel.

The East Wing Infirmary was located on the second floor of Shinra headquarters, in a building outside the main tower. To get to the elevators, I had to follow a path through crisscrossing corridors leading to the main room on the second floor of the tower.

When I managed to get there, I found that I had calmed down quite a bit. It certainly helped to be able to walk - I felt like I could finally act. Lying in bed was getting depressing.

Aside from my little identity crisis, I felt great physically. Like I could walk around town without breaking a sweat. Mako, apparently, was like Exsphere on crack.

...Okay, maybe that was a bad analogy. Still, the effects were definitely stronger than my Exsphere, I could tell that already. I was almost excited to see how I would fare in battle now. Almost. Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to kill a few monsters, right? Just to check. Or maybe Counsell would let me train with him...

Still thinking deeply about these new developments, I approached the elevator and pressed the call button. I was so deep in thought that it took me a moment to realize who I was looking at when the doors opened.

Genesis was the only passenger in the elevator. His eyebrows rose when he saw me. he didn't say a word, just looked at me in complete astonishment.

For a moment I mirrored his expression. By all… wow, that was crazy. Actually, I was glad to see him. It was a reminder that at least it wasn't all for nothing. I saved the Genesis from its fate. Now, even if I tore up everything else imaginable, I could at least keep this good deed.

Unable to help myself, I offered him a happy smile and stood next to him in the elevator. The doors closed, locking us inside.

"Oh, how nice to meet you here," I said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

The redhead's surprised look was almost comical. He made a low noise of protest, seeming to choke on his words for a few seconds as he struggled to form a thought that would properly fit this awkward situation.

Finally, he just shook his head, letting out a short snort.

"SOLDIER floor, I guess?" he asked dryly.


"Handy," he drawled pointing to the corresponding button, which was already lit. "I'll go there too."

We were silent for a second or two as the elevator began to rise. I saw the light above the door moving from floor to floor. we still had a long way to go, which meant I would be in his company for a few minutes. Well, that would be interesting.

Since I usually managed to make fun of myself when I opened my mouth, I decided to stay silent this time. Unfortunately, this seemed to have a negative effect on Genesis. He gave me such a blatantly expectant look it was hard.nonotice, though I could only see it out of the corner of my eye. It was actually kind of funny. He might not like it if I laugh, though.

"...I see I've missed a few things in my absence," he finally gave in, crossing his arms. "Here I spent all this time looking for you in Junon, when you were right under my nose."

Well, I couldn't keep quietwhat.I turned to look at him raising my eyebrows. “Were you looking for me?

He smiled, looking pleased that he finally had my attention. "Ah, yes. I cleared up your misunderstanding with the Junon troops and thought I might seek you out to satisfy my curiosity."

Misunderstanding? Wait... that explained a few things. If Genesis helped me then, that's probably why Shinra didn't get reports on me. Otherwise I could have been taken in for questioning.

"Huh...thanks for covering for me," I said, rubbing the back of my neck. "I owe you one."

Genesis shook his head. "No, I'm the one who owes you…Brittany, isn't it? In two weeks, you've gone from fugitive to SOLIDARITY…care to explain?"

I shrugged noncommittally, knowing the real story would outlast us. "The Turks asked politely."

She made him suck. "Really."

The light finally fell on the 49th floor and the elevator stopped. There was a short beep and a screen above the floor buttons lit up. The words "ENTER CARD KEY" appeared in blue.

The redhead's face fell and he looked a little annoyed at the interruption. He pulled out his own ID, examining it. The screen turned green and the elevator doors opened.

"Hmph... duty calls. I have a meeting to..." He trailed off, seeming to think about something, then looked at me with a frown. "Where isyouIndian?"

“Conference room,” I replied as we exited the elevator. "Meeting with superior. It's my first official day."

His lips curved into a wry smile. "You're going to have a hell of a job getting anyone to take you seriously, you know. In case you hadn't noticed, you're a woman."

"I noticed, but thanks for the reminder." I rolled my eyes, turning in the direction of what I knew was the conference room. "Anyway, I guess I'll see you in person."

He nodded and we parted ways, Genesis walking in the opposite direction in an area I didn't recognize.

"An infinite mystery is the gift of the goddess..."

I heard him mumble the words as he left, his voice thoughtful. I already mention LOVELESS, right? I glanced in his direction reflexively and had enough time to take one last look. He turned his head slightly, as if sensing my gaze. then he turned the corner at the end of the hall with a graceful flash of his coat and was gone.

Okay, normal people don't go out like that. I smiled shaking my head. it seemed that no matter what scenario he was in, Genesis always liked the dramatic.

chapter 5: Pre-arranged meeting


(See end of chapter fordegrees.)

chapter text

As expected, Counsell was waiting for me in the briefing room. Although it had been a while since I played Crisis Core, I vaguely remembered it. In the center of the room was a large V-shaped table lined with chairs. A computer screen was in front of each chair and in front of V was a large screen. I suspected that whatever was displayed on that screen was also displayed on every single screen.

The SOLDIER sat at the bottom of the V, which was probably where the Director normally sat. The room was deserted. all screens were dark.

"You did," Counsell said, turning when she heard the door open.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I replied.

He shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Here, take a look." He fidgeted with the computer in front of him for a second and the screen lit up.

I leaned over his shoulder to watch. It looked like he was on some sort of company broadcast because the red Shinra insignia was clearly visible in the upper left corner of the screen. There were a bunch of dates and times on the left side of the screen, while the right side seemed to have places and descriptions. Any itinerary or something?

“This is your schedule for this week,” Counsell explained. "Normally it's not like that, but newly minted Thirds go through something of a probationary period. You'll be very busy, especially since you're unfamiliar with military customs and courtesies."

"What, like greetings and stuff?"

He smiled. "That's it. Wait till you see it—there's a whole rulebook to study. Most of us learned all that as infantry cadets. It's one of the first things you learn."

"Fun." I frowned, rubbing the back of my neck. That sounded awful. I would probably forget things and make a fool of myself too.

We spent the next ten minutes going over the program just to make sure I understood everything. It seemed like I had a lot of workouts scheduled...I was going to miss the end of the week. At least I had some material classes though. There was something I would really be interested in knowing.

He also showed me how to log into the company's computers - they had their own network and each employee was assigned a specific username and password to access their personal documents. I was given a mobile by the company (although he called it a device and I remembered the game using the term PHS) and showed me how to set it up. It was possible to read company news and even subscribe to missions using a phone, which was pretty cool.

After that, I was given a tour of the SOLDIER floor. I was already somewhat familiar with the general layout. it was very similar to Crisis Core's depiction, though certainly more expansive. There were several meeting rooms besides the main briefing room that I met him with, offices, a VR training room (I couldn'thopeto see what it was like) and a large living room.

The west end of the floor was dominated by barracks divided by rank - the second had slightly more space than the third, while those lucky enough to be in the first rank effectively had their own quarters. I guess if you can drop that much, you've earned it anyway.

"I think the quartermaster was having a hard time figuring out where to put him," Counsell commented as we passed the barracks. "There was never a rule against women being in SOLDIER; it just hadn't been. Anyway, we don't have designated barracks for women, but there are extra rooms next to second class barracks."

He stopped when we entered a new corridor - all the doors on the left side were rooms used by second class SOLDIERS. We turned right into a new corridor, which connected the barracks with the lobby. The empty rooms were in this corridor.

Counsel stopped at a door marked 26A.

"We were using it for storage," he explained. "This room needs to be clean though. Sorry if it's a little dusty." He gestured to the lock, where there was a small slot for a key card. I realized that my Shinra ID could be used here.

Please don't be a closet,I thought, bracing myself for the worst as I turned the knob.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened to reveal a relatively normal room. It was quite small, yes - it reminded me of some college dorms I'd seen - but it was bearable enough. The walls and floor were bare. On the right wall was a single bed. the mattress had no blankets or sheets. Next to the bed was a small chest of drawers with a lamp. There was also a desk in one corner of the room. A door in the upper left corner of the room led to a tiny bathroom, complete with a toilet, sink, and a shower that was as spacious as a coffin.

... Okay, it was probably the most claustrophobic room I'd ever seen, but I wasn't going to complain. A private bathroom and a bed to sleep in... a place towithdrawalFor. Well, it was better than nothing. I had a feeling it would be anti-social and I would hide here for a while.

After that, Kunsel and I broke up. I reported to a conference room on the third floor for a grueling three-hour corporate orientation that left me close to suicidal, after which I returned to Weyland to pack and see them.

That night, I completely changed and my true stay at Shinra HQ began.

"Enough for today, SOLDIERS. Dismissed."

They all broke formation, scattering. Some of them mingled and chatted for a minute with their friends, while others were eager to get out and rest. I had a distinct lack of friends, so I fell into the latter category.

Before I left, I hesitated for a second, looking at our commander, Lieutenant Angel Hughley. It was a bit of a shock to see him on the first day I had reported for training, although I thought I would meet the man at some point.

Although I hadn't spoken to him personally, he struck me as someone who really had things under control. As a superior he was very fair. He expected the best from everyone, but his demands were never excessive. Somehow he managed to be stern and encouraging at the same time. After getting so used to a tough guy like Kratos, adjusting to Angeal's training was pretty simple.

The news of my joining SOLDIER spread like wildfire. I knew Angel had noticed the obvious fact that I was the female SOLDIER everyone was talking about, but he never directly addressed me or spoke to me after the training was over.

Unexpectedly, he reminded me of Regal—and that engendered a genuine respect for the man, because Angeal seemed to understand people well enough to protect me. He wouldn't talk to me because that could be interpreted as special treatment – ​​the reason I was disliked in general. The first female SOLDIER, hired from outside the company when they usually got into the program through internal promotions... I didn't like it, but I understood the resentment. Men didn't think it was because I was strong, so they speculated about all the reasons they hired. Their favorite so far seemed to be that I had sex with one of the executives.

Anyway, my only friend now was Counsel, and I only saw him occasionally. Genesis is deployed in Wutai, I hear. I was trying to catch up on the war news, hoping against hope that he wouldn't defect this time.

Two-thirds walked past me, looking my way and laughing softly. I tore my gaze away from Angel, shaking my head in exasperation. They probably thought I wanted to sleep with him too. I wish they could get a little more creative with their insults. I mean, sex was getting old.

Not all kids insulted me, I found out. There were only a few groups and I quickly learned their names and faces. The rest were not overtly rude to me, but avoided talking to me, probably to avoid harassment from others. That was only among the Thirds - the Seconds pretty much ignored me altogether. But then again, they mostly ignored all the Thirds, so that wasn't too bad.

I cover Kerberos, turning and exiting the training area. Fortunately, a certain amount of customization was allowed with our equipment. Since my blade was close enough to the size and shape of the SOLDIER regulation swords, I was able to use it. Of course, if I became Prime, I could use any weapon I wanted. The First Class could ditch all the weapons and armor designs they wanted, as long as they kept being tough. Not that I would do the former. even if he magically found the power to do so, he would never want to draw so much attention.

Sighing, I pulled out my phone and checked the schedule. Materia training followed. The room for this was at the end of the hall and on the left...

Suddenly I hit something loudly, cursing as I put the phone down. It fell to the ground, but luckily it didn't break. Frowning, I looked up to see a very familiar face mocking me.

"Maybe you should watch where you're going, sweetie," he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and leaning in very close for comfort. I stepped back looking.

Meet Jace. Jace and his two dorky friends, Brad and Todd, have been my personal nightmares this past week. They were the protagonists of this short and entertaining drama. it seemed like they were instigating everything, and the others just carried on.

"So? Come on, you're not even going to apologize?"

"What a bitch," Brad yelled.

It was pointless trying to talk to these idiots so I ignored them and bent down to pick up my phone.

Jace backed away with too much haste. "Hey sweetie... I know he works with the manager but I don't accept favors from trashy girls. Sorry to disappoint you."

I felt my stomach tighten and put my face to a blank slate as I grabbed the phone and stood back up to my full height. They always tried to humiliate me, and it usually worked. My face was about to turn red – whether from anger or shame or both, I didn't know and it didn't matter. The moment I would show any outward weakness, they would close in like a pack of wolves.

So, as usual, I ignored them and walked past them. Curses were shouted behind me and I kept walking.

Once I was out of their way, I let out a shuddering breath. I should think of a way to deal with these guys soon.

Honestly, I don'tCarefulwhat people thought of me here. I wasn't trying to make friends or fit in. I just wanted to find a way out of this mess as soon as possible. If I was stuck in SOLDIER, I would take advantage and find a way to use Shinra's resources.

While I didn't care if it was popular or not, I couldn't deny that it was becoming an issue. Their harassment was getting worse and making my life difficult. Not only that, if I was a total outcast in SOLDIER I would have a lot of trouble achieving what I needed to achieve. It wouldn't hurt to have at least a few connections or acquaintances - it was always important to have ways to gather information, and if I didn't have friends to listen to rumors and happenings, I'd be completely in the dark.

Another sigh. I had no idea how to solve this problem... at school all the adults always said the same rubbish - ignore the bullies, because they will leave you alone. I had never been bullied before, but I knew what I had seen, and this whole strategy was complete bullshit. Such people never gave up. They kept pushing and pushing until one day the kid either exploded and killed himself or walked into the school with a gun.

Obviously, I wouldn't let this go to extremes. But what was I supposed to do after all?

I had reached my next destination. Time to put those thoughts aside for later. I hope I figure something out soon because I wasn't sure I could handle another week of this crap...

Tenth day.

Life at Shinra headquarters was starting to become routine, which was a little scary. I had completed my probationary period and tomorrow, apparently, would be my first real mission. Of course, I had done a few virtual missions in the training room (VR was amazing), but this would be the real deal - the beginning of my SOLDIER job. Kunsel was going to accompany me, so I was really looking forward to it. It was packed in here with guys looking at me the whole time.

Fortunately, today I was out; I was free to do whatever I wanted to prepare for tomorrow's mission. This morning I had cashed my first paycheck and went to Midgar to buy some essentials and I had actually gonelegal.It's better to make the best of a bad situation, right? At least I had money - I'd barely made a dent in my paycheck with that Zolom destruction mission.

Now it was late and I was getting a little bored. Wandering around the SOLDIER floor wasn't exactly a good idea. I knew Jace's friends were out on errands today, but Jace himself didn't need backup when he was in the mood to be crazy. Counsell was exterminating some monsters in the slums and wouldn't be back for another hour, and Genesis was still in Wutai. There was no one to see and nothing to do and I wasI am bored,dime. And when I was bored, I was likely to start meditating.

Maybe I was going to see the training room. I didn't know how to configure the simulation engine myself, but I could always hope that someone else would. Most of the time there were technicians building and tuning the system and they were always happy to have someone around to test it.

I decided, I went to the room. Shit, if no one was there, I wouldcome acrosssomeone who knew how to operate the controls. I wasnoI'll be thinking about my bedroom closet for the rest of the day, that's for sure.

I realized my mistake the second I reached the antechamber door to the training room, but it was too late - the automatic door opened and the sound gave away my presence, leaving the teenager standing at the controls in tension.

It was impossible not to recognize that spiky black hairdo, even from behind. I almost left, my heart leaping in my throat, but for better or worse, I stood my ground.

Zach froze for a moment. Then he laughed nervously, raising his hands and looking over his shoulder. "Ah, Angel, you're not who you are… are you?"

Your light blue found mine. ANDwow-these have to be the first MILITARY eyes that I really liked. Looking into his eyes was like looking at the sky on a cloudless day. they were happy and bright. For a moment I wondered if Zac's eyes were blue before the mako treatments, but then I remembered who I was looking at and forced myself to clear my head.

The guilty look on his face disappeared, replaced by a hesitant smile. "Oh, sorry. I thought you were someone else." Then he stopped, frowning as he looked me up and down. After a second, her eyes widened in sudden understanding and her face lit up with excitement. "Wait a minute, you're—you're! You're that recruit! Man, that's right...SOLDIER girl!"

He smiled, stepping forward and almost shoving his hand in my face. "SOLDIER Second Class Zack Fair, at your service!"

I stared blankly at him for a moment before remembering to shake his hand. "...Nice to meet you."

Fair Zack. I had just shaken a dead man's hand.

Except he wasn't dead, he was right here in the flesh. It was... wow. I just couldn't believe it. lively and infectious, just as I had imagined.

He bowed his head, leaning forward and looking amused. "You have a name too, right?"

"Brittany Furness," I managed to reply, cracking a small smile from my shock.

"Brittany…" he tried the name, looking thoughtful. Then his excitement returned and he bounced eagerly on his tiptoes. "Hey, we need to do a practice mission! I've never met a girl who could fight with a sword like that. I was just trying to figure out how to do this—here, give me a minute…."

He went back to tinkering with the machine for a second before huffing in frustration. "Angeal always makes it look so easy..."

I was silent for a moment, just looking at his back. I knew I should probably say something, but I couldn't trust my voice right now. He was young... still second. My guess was seventeen or eighteen. Was I older than the heroic Zack Fair? This was hard to understand. I knew that the boy I saw now was not the same man who died protecting Cloud... at least, not yet. but it was difficultnoto see that man when I looked at him.

you will dieI thought, I feel bad.Shinra will use you and then shoot you when he's done.

This was awful. How could I ignore it when it was right in front of me? I had to get out of here. I couldn't let Zach into my heart, not when he was already pretty much established.

"Oh! Let's go!" The teenager smiled and finally typed in some commands and I saw through the observation window that the virtual reality system in the training room had activated.

Zac motioned for me to follow, smiling the whole time. What excuse could I find to leave at this point? It was stupid - not that I could help itforever.So I bit my tongue and followed him into the bedroom.

As with most simulations, the change was instantaneous - it was almost like leaving home. One minute I was at Shinra HQ, the next I was in the center of Midgar.

...Wait, I knew that place. I could see Weyland from here - it was close to the entertainment district and LOVELESS Blvd. We were in a small square with a fountain, not far from the front steps of the Shinra building.

"...Oh, man..." After a minute of looking around, Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought I got that right...there must be monsters here." He picked up the phone and opened it, frowning for a second. Then it brightened up a bit. "Oh, I think I misunderstood the encounter rate. Let's take a look."

Meeting fee? I almost choked. it felt like he was talking about random battles.

We started down the steps near the fountain and towards the street where Weyland was. I looked around, saw nothing.

"You're pretty quiet aren't you?" Zach said after a moment, almost squirming in discomfort at my silence.

No, I'm too busy fighting an internal battle to have a conversation with you, man. Still, it was hard not to laugh at his expression.

"...I guess," I said with a shrug, not giving away any of my thoughts.

He frowned, but then seemed to lighten up a bit. "Hey, I know! While we're looking, why don't you tell me how you got into SOLDIER? I heard the Turks got you. You must be pretty tough if you got their attention, right?"

TimeReallyZack was hard to take down, it was obvious. Here I was a stick in the mud, and he was still bouncing happily like a hyperactive toddler. I continued to fight to keep my distance, but it was practically impossible.nolike him.

Now it was my turn to squeeze. I didn't like paying too much attention - I'd even avoided putting my Exsphere on after doing the treatments as I was afraid of what the results would be. I mean, there was the possibility of affecting my body in a negative way, but I was more concerned about the effects on my strength. If I really became as powerful as a Prime Minister, the Science Department would hunt me down regardless of the deal I made with Cheng. They'd like to know what made me sneeze.

"...It's not mewhatstrong,” I finally said. "I mean...they were impressed that I killed a powerful monster without enhancements, but it actually wasn't as big as you think."

He raised his eyebrows, clearly on the edge of his figurative seat. "So you killed a monster, huh? What's that?"

"A Midgar Zolom." I tried to play it cool, avoiding my gaze, but my words stopped Zac in his tracks.

"What?"He made the opening. “Did you kill a Zolom?Whichmako improvements? No way!"

"I just got lucky!" I protested, backing away. "There was no way I could have killed him normally - he just gave me the chance when he tried to swallow me, and I stabbed him in the roof of his mouth. It was a last ditch effort..." I trailed off when he saw my words had their effect. .on the contrary.

Zac's eyes widened to the point of being comical. “Wait, wait. Try itto swallowyou? You stabbed - that's itincredible!"

"...It's not..." I tried weakly, but it was too late. That smile is back.

“Man, I never would have believed it…pick upi see you struggling now This will be great!"

I gave up, sighing, and followed him through the streets of simulated Midgar. Maybe it's best to keep your mouth shut. I seemed to dig deeper with every word I got out.

A few minutes passed with no result. It was strange to see Midgar deserted, but that was only part of the simulation. At least it made it easier to spot any potential enemies. We didn't have much luck at the moment though.

"EUsaberthere's at least a little…” Zach grumbled. “Okay, one more minute. If that doesn't work, I'll cancel the shipment and we can fix the settings. But damn, I don't think there's even a 'no monsters' setting in the sim...”

I didn't answer, just frowned slightly and looked out over the city. Anyway, I wasn't surprised. Zach didn't seem to know what he was doing at first. He probably shouldn't even be using this room, given his initial reaction to my arrival.

"So, uh…where are you from?" Damn, he was trying to make conversation again.

"...Mideel," I replied. It was kind of true.

"Mindel, uh..." He looked thoughtful for a second. "That's… south, right?"


"Seems a little late," he said with a slight smile. I shrugged his shoulders and his smile fell.

His expression was shattering my heart into a million tiny pieces of guilt. Honestly, he fit the puppy role to a T. And now, he was giving me a puppy-kicking look. He was trying so hard to make me smile and come out of my shell and I got the impression he would resort to a number of stupid tactics if he had to. Why the hell did it have to be that waycute?How could I not laugh or smile at that?

"Well, hi," he flusteredagain,apparently he's thinking of something else. "How about your sword? That's none of SOLDIER's business. May I see?"

I drew the blade in response, holding it up to the light. He whistled in appreciation.

"Looks good. Custom made or bought?"

"I'm not sure," I replied hesitantly. "My... father gave it to me."

"Your father, huh?" Zach looked at me, his eyes full of questions I probably didn't want to answer. As soon as he opened his mouth, however, the ground shook and we both froze.

Then we both saw the looming mass round the corner of the nearest building.

"You're kidding me, right...?" I said looking incredulous.

Behemoth was truly an apt name. this thing washuge. This monster was right up there with Malboros and Zolom in terms of hard fighting, I remembered.

"Ouch." Thanks for the confidence boost, Zach.

"Did you put it on 'suicide' difficulty?" I asked dryly.

He started to reach into his pocket for his phone, obviously to abort the mission, but then stopped and looked at the monster once more. He was coming towards us and growling menacingly.

Zach looked at me with a suddenly cocky smile. "You know what; I'm second, and you're down oneMidgar Zolom.This should be easy for us!'

Clear. It wouldn't be like Zack to take the easy way out. Somehow, though, I didn't feel as disappointed as I should have. The idea of ​​fighting alongside Zack was very tempting, even if it was against one of these beasts. It was just a simulation, right?

EUhe mustI was thinking of ways to avoid further association with him and was anxious to go. it was too muchComfortablyto get along with this guy. It took meeting Zac to realize how lonely these past few weeks have been. I needed a friend - onerealfriend. But I could not...

"Here it comes!" Zack said, drawing his own blade as the Behemoth let out a deafening roar.

I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and turned my focus to the monster, preparing Kerberos. It looked like it was too late to do anything but fight, so I better take advantage of the distraction while I could.

Activate battle mode,an automatic female voice echoed from somewhere in the chamber, sending shivers down my spine.

"Let's go!" called the second one, having a lot of fun with it. I gritted my teeth and shot forward and together we moved towards the great beast.

Fighting in the simulations was a strange experience. It was clear that they were meant to replicate the combat environments as closely as possible, but there were still some constant reminders of the construction nature of the system.

First, the pain could only be felt to a certain extent because the injuries acquired in the simulation disappeared by the time it ended. The only way I could really get hurt right now would be if Zack attacked me personally.

On the other hand, I knew I couldn't die here - so even though I was running straight into a Behemoth, I didn't feel an ounce of fear, just anticipation. I wish I could be this brave in every battle.

The monster snarled and raised a huge paw, its claws easily out. Zac immediately ducked out of the way and I followed suit, ducking under the beast's arm. The Second lashed out with his blade, managing to create a shallow cut in the Behemoth's side. Enraged, she jumped him and I had to jump to the side to avoid being trampled.

I rolled once and used the momentum to get to my feet, sliding back a bit. This thing was so big. I didn't want to stay in range unless I had a solid plan. Zack looked perfectly comfortable once he dived in, but I could see right away that he had a natural instinct for this - he didn't even have to think about it, he just went with the flow of the battle.

The ground shook with every movement of the monster. Okay, maybe I felt asmallfear... it was hard not to freak out to some extent when the simulation was so realistic. It was very difficult to tell my brain one thing when my senses picked up something completely different.

A little fear was good. It kept my heart beating and my mind clear.

Zach held the crossbow, his sword locked with his horns. It was strong, but not strong enough to take the full weight of the thing. at this rate, he'd be gutted. Okay, it's time to support you.

There. The Behemoth's side was unprotected, but I would have to watch out for its tail.

Readying Kerberos, I ran towards the monster and jumped into the air, twisting to the left and slicing through its tough hide. Then I turned into the air, feeling the tingling heat of magic build up on my sword arm. I let it flow along the blade, charging the newly revised version of the Hell Pyre.

I now swung the sword in a vicious arc, sending a ball of flame straight towards the wound I had just inflicted. At the last moment, I pulled my legs closer to my body as the beast's tail swept forward, missing me by inches. The monster let out an angry roar.

"Pleasant!" Zack yelled with a thumbs up, nonchalantly ducking under another claw strike. I saw a flash as he readied his own subject and the Behemoth was attacked by a powerful lightning spell.

One thing I learned was that some of my old techniques were impossible to perform without my Exsphere. this world had its own mana equivalent, but it wasn't treated quite the same way, so I couldn't throw Demon Fangs around like I used to. There was mana in my Exsphere, but I had a feeling it was in limited supply - it would probably break like a unicorn's horn if I trusted it. Back on Earth, I avoided using technology altogether.

Since I was so used to my fighting style, lately I've been trying to recreate my arts with the resources I had. I was ecstatic to find that Hell Pyre could easily be spawned with some fire matter, and it was even more powerful than before. Now I just had to find a way to do Hunting Beast and I was done.

I gasped, reflexively dodging a kick from the monster. He roared menacingly and turned, opening his mouth to rip my head off. Zack thrust his sword into the path and the Behemoth's jaws closed on him. Then there was a mad tug-of-war that ended with Zach being tossed around like a rag doll. To your credit, you crazy bastardheld.

I couldn't see that. Sketching, I aimed a fire spell at the creature's eyes. it wasn't extremely powerful, but the light was enough to make the monster lose focus. Zack managed to ground himself again and drew his blade, immediately moving to slash the Behemoth's throat. He dodged traffic and kicked out, catching us both off guard and slamming us both hard into the wall of the nearest building. I felt the bricks crack under the impact.

My head was spinning a little, but my mind was surprisingly clear despite the attack I had just received. Zach and I had a pair of matching claw marks on our foreheads. he moved away from the wall looking at me.

"Are you ok?"

"Fine," I replied, grinning. I concentrated for a second and then managed to cast a decent Heal spell on both of us, already glad I bought that All materia this morning to use with my Restore materia.

"Thank you," he said, and then the creaking of the parquet drew our attention. "Damn it!"

The Behemoth was heading towards us at full speed. The buildings on either side made it impossible to dodge - we were trapped. It was immediately obvious how this was going to end. Zack raised his sword in a defensive stance, braced against the wall behind us, and I copied the gesture, even though I knew it was pointless. I squeezed my eyes shut, anticipating the pain.

He never came. Suddenly, everything was deathly silent. I hesitantly opened one eye and was shocked to see the frozen monster, its body a few meters away.

He then moved slightly, to throw himself into the nearest building, his body crumpling as he hit the ground. The monster then stood still.

"What is this...;!"

That was Zach. My head snapped up and I turned around in time to see the Behemoth's cause of death - an extremely long and bloody katana. Masamune. What did it mean...

The shadow with the wicked sword.

Bodies everywhere, garbage on the streets, a world covered in blood.

Deadly green eyes.

Bile rose in the back of my throat as the nightmares came flooding back and I was faced with the source of my fears. He was tall and intimidating, not a gray hair out of place.


"Careless," the man said, glancing at the dead monster. "Take your eyes off the enemy. Overconfidence will destroy him."

My heart was pounding in my ears. I struggled to contain the sudden panic I felt at the appearance of this man.

Zach just grimaced at the warning, lowering his sword slightly and saying nothing. Sephiroth smiled... and walked on.


The teenager opened the opening, only throwing his sword in time to block the attack. He was pushed back, his feet sliding on the pavement. Then he seemed to regain his composure and his eyes narrowed as he pushed back.

"You're not the only hero!"

Sephiroth didn't move. He reached out and tossed Zac easily, stepping forward to strike again. Zach was on the defensive again, barely. Masamune's long range made it impossible for him to retaliate and it was obvious that the battle would be over in seconds.

Wait, the way the General held his sword - that was in preparation for a killing blow! Panic hit me full force - Zac wouldpass away,I couldn't let Sephiroth do this, what the hell was going on, oh god-

I ran at Sephiroth, desperate to stop him from going any further. I heard him laugh and suddenly he was facing me, those green eyes boring into mine. I remembered enough to avoid the side and Masamune missed by a few minutes.

Zack ran to his exposed back. Sephiroth easily defended him without evenlookingagainst him, and then proceeded to attack me once more.

The battle with Sephiroth felt like choking. The blows kept coming and each time I tried to find an opening, an opportunity to counter or at leastbreathe,attacked with renewed vigor. Silver shone for me from every angle and from thoseeyesthey were locked onto me, giving me the impression that they knew what I was even going to doEUI did, and then Masamune impaled me and tossed me aside like a sack of potatoes.

"Britain!" Zack yelled and then ran towards Sephiroth as well. The silver general lashed out, striking the teenager's sword with such force that the SOLDIER's blade snapped in two and Zack was thrown backwards. He fell to the ground writhing in pain.

"Fool..." Sephiroth muttered, slowly approaching the second fallen. He raised his sword, preparing to deliver the finishing blow.

Just as I opened my mouth to scream, another voice cut me off.


He was an Angel! The older SOLDIER appeared seemingly out of nowhere, standing between Sephiroth and Zack. Surprisingly, Sephiroth stepped back, lowering his sword without a word.

Frowning slightly, Angel picked up the phone and typed in a few commands. The words "MISSION CANCELED" appeared in the air in front of us and then Sephiroth and the rest of the world degenerated into a series of glowing codes and numbers that disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

We were back in the training room. The pain from my wound completely disappeared. I sat up long enough to make sure Zach was okay and then fell back to the floor with a soft groan.

Sephiroth was part of the simulation. This whole thing paralleled a scene from Crisis Core - why didn't I see that coming? But thanks againDeus.I was actually terrified for a minute there. These nightmares were really starting to get to me.


A heavy sigh. "Zach, what did I tell you about using the training room unsupervised?"

"Hey, don't do that?"

"The simulation can get out of hand if you are not fully familiar with the controls." Angel argued.

"But it's all fake, right? What's the problem?" asked the teenager.

"This system relies on your mind for realistic results. How everything looks and feels depends on your own personal perceptions. It is not wise to test the limits of your mind by putting yourself in situations where you will be overwhelmed."

"I...I think I understand." Zack frowned, rubbing the back of his neck. Angel held out a hand, helping the teenager to his feet. Reluctantly, I rose to my feet as well, hoping I wasn't part of the scolding.

The older SOLDIER turned to me, bowing his head in acknowledgement. "…Brittany, weren't you? You were in my training regiment last week."

"Yes sir," I replied, straightening up.

“Kill oneZolom,Angel,” Zach cut in, smiling excitedly.

"I know," he said, rolling his eyes. Then he offered me a slight smile. "I hope Zack hasn't caused you too much trouble."

"No way," I pouted, finding it impossible not to smile.

Zach's protest died on his lips as he looked at me in surprise and I realized I should have acted serious and distant to keep him at arm's length. Ugh... Mesuckedin this.

"...We were just trying out a practice mission," the teenager finally said. "You know, since I haven't seen her fight or anything yet. We could've done it! I was just warming up!"

Angel just shook her head. "Don't start getting too sure about me. Sephiroth's simulated counterpart may only be an eighth of his actual power, but that's still too much for you at this point."

I almost drowned. Aeighth?!So the real Sephiroth...

"Dude..." Zach grumbled in exasperation.

The First looked at me again, seriously. "Well, stand there, SOLDIERS. It doesn't get any easier than here."

I smiled slightly, nodding. Ah, Angel, if you knew.

He started walking towards the door, stopping just short of reaching it. "...and Zach."


"If you want to be a hero, you have to have dreams... and honor."

With those last words, he was gone. The door closed behind him, leaving us alone in the silent room.

"Huh..." Zach sighed. "What does this mean…?"


In retrospect, I would have done a lot more with the sexism aspect now, other than using a cliche bully like Jace. Unfortunately! I was a little baby when I wrote it. I still hadn't learned to recognize everyday misogyny for what it was.

Chapter 6: To Exsphere

chapter text

After a moment's thought, the teenager seemed to shrug, taking his mentor's words away for future consideration. He beamed, turning to me.

"Hey, sorry for cutting us off like this. I guess I should practice more with the controls... I really didn't expect Sephiroth to show up like this. He's usually on the hardest settings."

“I didn't even know it existedtimea simulated Sephiroth,” I lied, covering Kerberos.

Zach shrugged. "The only people who can crack the sim are Angeal and that Genesis guy. They all try, but he's really tough, you know?" He smiled. "Well, someday I'll beat him. I'll have to if I want to be first!"

"...Is Sephiroth in Wutai?" I asked.

The teenager nodded. "Yeah, he's been there for two months. Genesis just went as backup. I bet the war will be over quickly now." His smile fell slightly. "Dude...I've been waiting to go. Make a name for myself and all..."

I looked away, frowning. I was suddenly very glad that Zach hadn't been sent. he would have no innocent blood on his hands. Shinra couldn't trick him into killing an enemy he really knew nothing about.

"Well, you don't have to go to war to do that," I suggested, finally looking at him. As I looked into his face, I couldn't resist the urge to try to cheer him up. I shrugged, smiling. "Besides, you'd have no chance. I bet Sephiroth and Genesis are glory hogs anyway."

His laugh was as infectious as his smile. "Yeah, no kidding!"

We exited the training room, the door closing behind us as we walked down the hall. Late afternoon was turning into early evening. the hall's large windows revealed that the sky above Midgar was turning a rosy orange.

My smile fell slightly. Tomorrow... my first task approached. I wasn't too worried about it, but what happened next? How long would I let this go on? When would I go home?

"Hey, I almost forgot." Zach stepped into my line of sight, forcing me back to the present. "What's your plan for today anyway?"

"Out of order," I replied. "Tomorrow is my first mission."

"So are you free for dinner?" Asked. "Why don't we get something to eat? My treat."

Mini panic attack. How to avoid social interaction? Jesus! I had to prepare excuses in advance! And even worse - I knew Zach was the flirty type, but he was asking me outdata?It was hard to tell from his casual tone, but I seriously hoped not.

Please see me as one of the children,I thought.Feeling: A really girly guy...with boobs.

I looked away. "I still have a few things to do until tomorrow. Sorry."

To say it was awful, mostly because Iwantedto accept your invitation. He was so easy to talk to and get along with, and it had been so long since I'd met someone I could really relate to. I got along with a lot of people back home, but when it came to deep friendships, ever since Sylvarant I felt sorely lacking. And in this place I hardly had any friendly acquaintances. At least I had my family at home, if nothing else.

Zach frowned. "Oh, right. It's okay, it's no big deal. I suppose I'll see you around?"

"Yeah," I replied unhappily, rubbing the back of my neck. "I-"

"Pleasing the Seconds now? You're pathetic." A new and very unwelcome voice cut me off.

I looked. The look quickly turned into a glare. "...Jace."

He was walking up to the elevators. he must have been out doing something for part of the day, which explains why he waited until now to grace the SOLDIER floor with his presence.

The man smirked, his snaky eyes sliding over my jumpsuit and making me feel dirty. "The upper classes have better things to do than talk to your ilk. If you think you can fuck even the First, you've got something else coming, eh."

"What was that?" Zach stopped in front of me angrily. "What is thiswronglike you? That's no way to talk to a girl!'

To Zack's credit, Jace stepped back in surprise. The idiot was waiting for backup, for God's sake.

"I don't know what the hell your problem is," continued the Second, his eyes twinkling, "but . . ."

"Zac." I cut him off, my heart pounding. He looked at me surprised.

I wasn't going to lie - it seemedReallyI'm glad someone is finally standing up for me like this, to make Jace look like he's been slapped. Being chewed for a second was no joke. Even so, having a man defend me would reinforce my "victim" image, and I needed people here to take me seriously. I didn't need anyone to fight my battles for me.

“Let me handle this,” I mumbled.

I looked at Jace and felt a burning anger rise in my stomach. Fuck the first one, uh... that was new. I was sick of this bullshit. I wasno fucking weak.I may not have had any military experience, but I have infiltrated bases, fought monsters, dueled with angels, and endured countless physical and mental trials. I didn't risk everything and drag myself to this point just to have some idiot with a superiority complex call me pathetic.

Now that Zack is truly back, Jace's trust is back. He offered me a kind smile. "What is it, honey? Do you need something off your chest?"

“Listen, you idiot,” I began.

"Hey kid, here you go," he said immediately, sniffling.

I responded by grabbing the front of his uniform, pulling him forward and then throwing him against the wall as he lost his balance. The man opened the hatch, caught completely off guard.

I wasn't the overly demanding type. I was not a fan of confrontations. But I could honestly say that after dealing with Yggdrasill, I wouldn't be intimidated by a low-rank SOLDIER. Sephiroth, maybe, but this guy? Not a chance in hell.

“Every time you open your mouth I want to go in and pull your guts out andchokeyou with them,” I seethed. "I'm completely out of patience. Fight me, now. The first to draw blood wins. The loser has to go back to his stupid friends and admit what a tool he really is. If you don't, you'll lose."

For a moment, the man looked at me in shock, but seemed to pull himself together enough to push me away.

“You're going to regret this,” he said in a warning tone, his eyes twinkling.

"If I'm going to regret anything, it's not kicking you hard enough." I answered.

"Hello." Zach jumped in, holding his hands up. "Are you serious? Look..."

"Blood first, right?" Jace said, not taking his eyes off me.

The Second grimaced and then sighed. "Okay, okay. I'll supervise the match. Let's go back to the training room."

As it turned out, my first mission was pretty simple - an extensive slum killing of monsters, similar to Kunsel's mission yesterday. He informed me that this would be a bit more complicated so we would have to be on our toes.

When he told me we were going to a train station, I nearly died of nostalgia. Luckily, I survived and now we were heading to the slums of Sector 7. If it was the slums, that meant it couldn't be racing season, at least.

"This shouldn't take more than a couple of hours between us," Kunsel noted, checking the time on her phone. He was wearing his helmet again, so I couldn't see the look in his eyes, but I couldn't help but notice the way his lips curled. "Your first few missions won't be too difficult. The Headmaster is still watching over you, at least until Sephiroth and Commander Rhapsodos return."

"I don't understand," I said, stretching as we walked. Specifically, I tried to find out what Kunsel found so amusing. "I've been training with Angeal like everyone else. Why is Lazard still breathing down my neck?"

He glanced at me briefly and then turned his attention to the dirt road ahead. "Your tests all came back successful, but I think there's some concern about how the mako will affect you, given your gender. I'm surprised the Science Department hasn't called you in yet."

I shook my head. "That was one of my conditions to join SOLDIER. No more tests."

"Really?" Counsell frowned. “Are you sure it's better this way? I mean, I get it, but...youthey area kind of guinea pig."

It almost made me frown. at least he hadn't said "test mouse". "I'd rather not be. But if the mako is going to kill me or something, better here than the labs."

"That's a very bleak prospect," commented the Second, seeming to stare at me for a moment.

I kept my gaze straight ahead, only shrugging in response. It wasn't something I wanted to elaborate on. He would understand in time.

"In this way." Counsell let the matter drop, instead of guiding me around the edges of the field. I could see the train tracks now. the station had to be close.

"By the way, I heard about what happened yesterday."

I involuntarily cringed and glanced at him, only to see that smile on his face again. Now I understood where her amusement was coming from before. At least he was okay with tearing Jace a new one.

"Yeah, that's why…"

"Zach said you won fair and square," he offered.

"That's not what Jace says at all," I muttered with a frown.

I wasn't going to deny it - it was extremely satisfying at first to release all my pent-up anger at the guy. But in the end, like all impulsive decisions, it made things worse.

We fight, one on one, without any simulation. Just the training room and Zach standing off to the side with his arms crossed, ready to step in if things get out of hand. Jace wasn't a bad fighter by any means - he had all the training and skills required to become a third. But he wasn't Third much more than I was.

Ultimately, my advantage came from experience. All that time fighting Cruxis and the Desians paid off in the end. And even though I had received some military training since joining, my fighting style was comparable to that of Kratos and completely different from that of a typical SOLIDER agent. It threw Jace off balance and that combined with my already quickly acquired skills gave me the advantage.

The battle didn't last long. Jace finally left an opening and I looked for it, giving him a clear cut, and Zach finished the match.

It was also gratifying, to an extent, to see the look of pure indignant rage in her eyes. Of course, he immediately made some excuse - that I had cheated or something - and left. But looking back, I knew now that I had done myself no favors. That look in his eyes… I had hurt his pride. He would take it personally now. Which meant that my relationship with the bastard Jace was probably going to get much, much worse.

"Don't worry too much about it," Counsell said, interrupting my thoughts. “Zach used to get in trouble because Lt. Hewley is his mentor.

“Hmm…I hope so,” I mumbled. Speaking of Angela…

"Ha! Did you see the look on your face? That was great! Nice and clean, too – you're really good. I was worried the bastard was going to tear you apart on purpose."

"He probably would if I let him."

"No kidding. Hey, you showed him, huh? I don't know how many of your guys gave you trouble, but that should shut them up."


"Hey, maybe I should—huh? Oh, Angel, you're back? What… wait, it's not what it seems!"

Needless to say, the two of us talked a lot. One of the Seconds warned him - he said something about his annoyance that people kept shaking the training room. Angel didn't like the fact that his student was blatantly ignoring him. It took a while to convince him that we weren't using the training room VR.

Throughout the lecture, whenever Zach thought Angel wasn't looking, he kept giving me these hilarious conspiratorial looks. He was such a kid.

…Jesus Christ. Just thinking about it now makes me want to smile. That was impossible. I wanted to distance myself from the guy, but if I ended up working with him, there was no way. I wasspaciousin maintaining a cool and distant personality, especially when someone like him came along and took it easy. Most people in the house would think I was a bitch and leave me alone.

"Well, that's the old station," Counsell commented, stopping and looking around. We had already passed a platform. what lay before us looked more like a dump than anything else. There were old, broken down trains everywhere, with littered tracks that looked like they hadn't been used in a while.

"The train graveyard...?" I mumbled before I could stop myself.

My partner smiled a little. "Well you heard the little nickname going around. This was a real stop until a year or two ago. Then there was a big construction accident right next to Sector 6; those tracks aren't going anywhere anymore."

“Didn't they fix it? I asked curiously. It was strange to hear about these events now. By the time of the events in FFVII, it felt like the Train Graveyard had been around for quite some time. I had never really thought about how it happened.

Counsell shook his head. "Not with the war going on, no. Construction at Sector 6 has stopped for a while. Shinra is focusing its resources elsewhere. In the meantime, this place has fallen into serious trouble. Unfortunately, all the old trains make the perfect hiding place place. places for monsters. There we come."

"The cleaning crew, huh?" I unsheathed my sword, rolling my shoulders a bit to get rid of any stiffness in my muscles.

"You could say that," he replied with a smile, pulling his blade from its magnetic sheath.

We entered the maze of trains moving slowly. It was in various stages of desolation. the deeper we went, the older and uglier they became. Some of them were covered in graffiti, the windows broken. but eventually even these gave way. Even troubled teenagers weren't willing to go too far.

"Be on your guard now," Counsell advised in a low voice. "Easy to ambush around here."

I shook my head, watching the dark windows of the trains around us. Lots of hiding places.

It wasn't long before we heard a growl. A pack of indigo wolf-like creatures surrounded us, their eyes glowing red. Each of them had a long, whip-like tentacle growing from its back. I vaguely remembered what they looked like, but it was strangely nostalgic to actually see them.

"Guards," Counsell muttered. "Easy enough."

"Well, let's get this over with," I said, and dashed to the left end of the pack.

Four of the monsters saw my movement and reacted by jumping in turn. I slid down at the last second, falling under his fangs and claws, then used my momentum to spin and get back on my feet. With their flanks exposed, the beasts were now open to the onslaught of fire I unleashed at them. One of them fell immediately. the other three were taken by surprise, tripping over each other and growling.

Counsell, meanwhile, dodged and faced four of his own. He took down two with a powerful swing of his sword, using Bio to distract the others. In less than two minutes, all eight animals were down, and Counsell and I were not worn out at all.

As we cleaned ourselves up and continued, I had to fight back a smile. What a difference... what a difference from how things were back then. I've really improved since my days fighting giant grasshoppers and the like. Those kinds of monsters were nothing now.

"What exactly are we trying to achieve here?" I asked. "Do we have some sort of quota to meet?"

Counsell shook his head. "Sometimes that's how it works, but not today. An Eligor has been spotted around here, they're particularly troublesome, so we're under orders to dispatch him before he starts causing trouble."

"Eligor...?" I made a face. No bell rang.

"It is a fury that rides on the back of a beast," said the Second. "I guess that's the best way to describe it. They're not quite up to par with your other kills, but they're definitely the nastiest race. They use Sleepel and Silence, so hopefully you've got some potions for you."

"Yeah, I'm stocked," I said, patting my bag. I had bought a smaller one yesterday morning for short errands, just so I could carry the bare essentials.

We went. Even though we were here in the daylight, I couldn't help but find this place a little scary. It was still very dark down here because of the sign that was up, and most trains cast shadows everywhere. I remembered getting lost here in both FFVII playthroughs.

Eligor, Eligor...have I ever fought one of these? The name didn't ring a bell, but it should, right? Hopefully the fact that I didn't remember it meant that it wasn't notable and wasn't too hard to beat. However, the mention of status effects made me cringe. I've had enough of this stupid Marlboro.

We fight a few more packs of Guard Hounds, dispatching them with relative ease. There were also some flying lizard-like creatures—Deenglows, as Kunsel called them—that we had to eliminate, but they were more of a nuisance than anything else.

When the monster finally appeared, it did so by crashing into the side of a train and scaring me.

Counsell and I moved away, readying our weapons. I now saw that Kunsel's description was accurate. while it wasn't a monster that really stood out in my mind, it seemed vaguely familiar. The ghost glared at us with a single menacing red eye before giving his horse a quick kick, sending it charging straight at us.

As I prepared a fire spell (really trying to solve the issue), Kunsel charged. Despite the monster's size, he managed to hold on. Of course, I got a little worried the moment he started shooting lasers at him. Damn, Final Fantasy...

Well, it's time to give him some backup. I raised a hand, pleased to see it glowing with red magic. The material was very beautiful -

Da-da-da-da da-da-daaaa!

Huh? Shut up, phone! I still haven't won the battle!

He struck again in response, breaking my grip on the spell, and I almost cursed. Heck, that's what I got when I set Victory Fanfare as my custom ringtone on my phone... my funny inside jokes always managed to bite me in the ass.

Frustrated, I looked up to make sure my partner was holding up well, then checked the phone to see who was calling me.

Director Lazard, the screen told me. Oops, what? I had his number, yes, but I didn't know him yet - what could he want? He had to know I was on a mission...

Gritting my teeth, I opened the phone and answered it.


"Oh, I'm glad I caught you. Counsell isn't responding."

"He's a bit worried now, sir," I said, feeling terribly useless standing on the sidelines like that.

"I see,"Lazard replied."Then I'll resume the pursuit. New mission objective - return to HQ immediately."

"What?" I burst out in disbelief. A little late to tell us! “Director, we are already…”

"Use an exit theme - it can wait. We have a monster loose on the SOLDIER floor, and the rest of the seconds are on missions. Angeal will be there soon. wait until he arrives. Understood?"

I had many questions, but his tone clearly conveyed the urgency of the situation. I managed a soft "yes sir" and hung up.

"What is this?" Counsell called. He managed to wound Eligor's horse, but the monster was irritatingly stubborn.

“The monster loose in HQ,” I shouted. "Forget Eligor. the headmaster's orders."

He nodded, one hand instantly glowing as he cast a spell. He jumped back to dodge an attack and then cast Stop. Eligor froze in place and the SOLDIER lunged at me.

"This won't last," he said with a frown, noting how the monster was already starting to change a bit. "Do you still have that subject I gave you?"

"I'm already working on it," I replied, remembering Lazard's words. I closed my eyes, gathering for a moment and focusing my mind on a train stop I remembered passing on my way here. It should be close enough to work...

I gave the exit story an intellectual boost by casting Escape. The world around us disappeared as we were enveloped in a cool blue-green light. Wow... that was really cool. Better than the warps I used on both Sylvarant and Tethe'alla - didn't make my stomach want to empty.

When the light went out, we were in the place I had focused on. Here we could board the train and return to the sign.

"Not bad". Counsell nodded approvingly. "You've been practicing, haven't you?"

"Some," I replied.

Of course I practiced. not only was it nice to be able to use magic, but there were a few thingsnecessaryto be able to do it if I was flying alone. Running from battles I couldn't win was one of them. being able to heal myself was another. I was definitely going to master these two subjects as quickly as I could, even if it meant hours of grueling practice and the headaches and mental fatigue that followed.

"Keep it up. Exit materia has saved me a few times."

Counsell was about to say something else, but the sound of an approaching train cut us off. The trains through Midgar functioned as a sort of subway system. they didn't go under the sign that often, but at this time of day there were buses every twenty minutes. We were lucky and got here on time.

The platform guard didn't even ask for ID. our eyes and equipment were enough. He waved at us.

As I stood to the side, holding a drawbar for support, Counsell walked to the front of the train and began to enter a few things into a terminal. There didn't seem to be a cabin for an engineer to sit in, which led me to believe that this train was fully automated.

When he finished, he came to stand next to me and a woman's voice came through the speaker.

"Attention Passengers: New Priority First Stop—Sector 8 Station, Uptown."

"Did you reprogram it?" I asked.

He nodded. "First and Second are authorized for this sort of thing, but only if our orders call for it. If there's a monster loose in headquarters, we can't waste time."

I shook my head. "Correctly."

Since the train had rerouted, it took us just under ten minutes to get back to Sector 8. From there, we walked the short distance to headquarters, heading straight for the elevators.

"The floor SOLDIER?" Counsell frowned as I pushed the elevator button. "I wonder how anything got up there."

I shook my head. "The Headmaster didn't say…but are we really spreading this so much that he needs to call us on a mission?"

"Yeah, we've got a bunch of Thirds on a training exercise and a lot of our forces are still in Wutai," he replied with a grimace. "You said Lieutenant Hewley is on his way here?"

“Mm. We'll have to wait until then."

“How strongisthis thing;" His frown grew. “I would get ready if I were you. If Lazard summons a First, we better prepare for the worst.

The light above the elevator doors was getting closer and closer to the forty-ninth floor. We draw our weapons by stretching. What might be waiting for us up there? It would have been nice if the Headmaster had told me what kind of monster he was.

Finally the doors opened, revealing a clear view of the hall. The first thing I registered was some blood on the floor. they belonged to an unlucky SOLDIER Third leaning against the adjacent wall.

"Shit! Are you okay?" I ran over to him, shocked at the amount of blood gushing from the wound on his shoulder. I immediately started activating a Healing spell.

"J-Jace..." He choked out. I realized with shock that it was Brad.

"Jace? What about him?" I pressed, my hand glowing with soft blue light as I applied the healing spell to her wound. Our enmity didn't matter. I didn't like Jace or his friends, but that didn't mean I was going to leave them.pass away.

Brad opened his mouth again but coughed briefly before passing out.

"Dammit," Counsell muttered, kneeling over him and pressing her hand to his wound. "It's not pretty. It's still bleeding... The lesson of Restoration isn't over. We won't be able to close a wound this big."

"I have some bandages in my room," I suggested. "This should last until we get you to the infirmary, right?"

He nodded. "Go. I'll wait here—if you see the monster our friend, come back here. Don't fight it."

"Got it," I said and ran away. My room was not far from here. I ran down the hall, turning down the next corridor.

I was at the door in a minute. I reached into my pocket to scan my card, only to find that my door was already ajar. What…?

Nervously I pushed it a little further and reached to turn on the light. The room was empty.

Maybe I had left it on this morning? I didn't hear it...

It didn't matter. Shaking my head to clear it, I walked over to the spot next to my bed where I always kept my old EMS bag...



He wasn't here. Where were you? Where theCumwas it my bag?! No good, no good, no good!

Panicking, I immediately started ripping the covers off my bed, looking into the bathroom, under the table. He was nowhere to be found. The door was open... did anyone notice? But who?

My heart was beating out of control. The Turks. They must have been suspicious and came here to search my stuff - what would they think when they found my Earth ID? It had finished. It was all over. was going to-

I shook my head again. Stop thinking about it. Was there still the monster to face? After that I could freak out, but the last thing I needed was for this thing to come kill me while I was having a panic attack here.

Bandages. I had a few extras in one of my desk drawers. It's not enough to heal the wound if it bleeds, but it should be enough. Just something to keep him from dying. Although Jace was hurt… I hoped he didn't need to be.

Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the bandages and ran back to the door.

Counsell was waiting in the same place when I returned. He nodded at me, collecting the bandages and doing his best to heal the wound. He then dragged Brad to the door that led to the conference room, leaving him in the vestibule where he would be out of harm's way.

"Okay," he said. "Let's track this thing."

It didn't take long. We're just following the blood trail. There were a few other SOLDIERS down there, but luckily none of them were as badly hurt as Brad was. We did our best to cure them, and they told us where they had seen the beast go.

"Watch out," a Third told us. "It's... it's a lot stronger than it looks."

"Noted," Counsell replied. We waved to each other and moved on.

Our search eventually led us to the corridor that contained the Third Class barracks. There were cut marks along the walls. I shifted my grip on Cerberus, tensing. Somewhere... I heard the sound of shuffling footsteps...

A dark shadow appeared in the corner.

"Ready," Counsell hissed, getting into a battle-ready stance.

We watched as the shadow grew, the footsteps grew louder. I heard the sound of a long, low moan and my blood turned to ice. ONEgroan?This wasn't what I expected... it seemed almost familiar-

The monster appeared. I stood very still, shock washing over me, threatening to break my composure.

It was a tall, exaggerated humanoid form. His forearms were very long, his knuckles dragged on the ground as he walked. His skin was deep green, streaked with yellow veins. His fingers and toes ended in sharp claws.

Let's get rid of it.

WHERE?!My mind screamed. The single eye on the creature's head glowed blue with Mako. The veins gathered around a single spot on the monster's hand, where a deep blue diamond rested. My Exsphere.

Then I remembered how Brad had mentioned Jace. He wasn't talking about Jace getting hurt, was he? He meant...

The events that had certainly taken place flashed through my mind as clearly as if I had been there. Jace, seeking revenge, entered my room. I get my bag. Looking for my things. Taking the Exsphere, melting it into your skin, trying stupidly to get itaway from-just to... to...

My first thought was that this was entirely my fault.

My second…

"Whatisthis;" muttered Counsell, seeing the monster approaching. "I have never seen or heard anything like this. It almost looks like... is that a SOLDIER uniform he's wearing?!”

My second thought was a single, crystal clear picture of Genesis. The horn of the unicorn. What was and what could have been. By saving one life, I had cursed another.

My mistake.

I opened my mouth, couldn't find words and closed it again. What could I say? I knew exactly what it was, but I couldn't explain how. Dread settled in my stomach. My sword suddenly felt very heavy.

"Seems," I said in a very low voice.

Counsell shook his head. "I don't know what this is...but let's play it safe until the prime minister gets here."

I shook my head. The Exbelua-jace-He came closer and let out another moan and I felt sick. He looked like he was in pain. NO NO NO…

Then she raised a hand, pulling him back. Instinctively I backed away, but my partner continued and raised his sword. My eyes widened as a sudden thought hit me – an Exsphere on a SOLDIER. This explained why we needed a first…

"Kunzel!"I screamed frantically, but it was too late.

The Exbelua swung, hitting Kunsel so hard that he lost control of his sword and went flying. He flew down the hallway, hitting the wall hard enough to leave a dent. He slid to the ground, stunned.

Scowling, I turned to Jace, carefully noting that the SOLDIER's blade was now embedded in his arm.

Come closer. I knew it would strike again soon. What could I do? There was no cure. There is no cure without the horn of the unicorn. You should just...

He waved again and I jumped back to avoid the attack. Counsell was still conscious, but he had his bearings. I needed to hold Jace while he recovered.

Gathering my resolve, I activated a Fire spell and channeled the magic into my sword. I then slid the blade, releasing a fiery demonic fang. He punched Jace, but he continued to thrash forward.

Another blow, this time to the injured hand. I had to dodge out of the way as the sword moved in a spray of blood, flying in a dangerous arc through the air. Counsell rolled to the side just in time and avoided being hit by the blade as it hit the wall behind him.

Gritting my teeth, I dodged one of his attacks and pushed Kerberos out, catching him in the side and only managing a shallow slash. I cringed at the sight of the blood, feeling a pang of guilt - and then I was hit hard and thrown against the wall.

Jace lunged at me and then I realized I missed on purpose, redirecting my sword so the wound wouldn't be life threatening. I was too soft and now I put myself in a vulnerable position. It was going to kill me and I deserved it for letting it happen. Christ…

He was pulling his hand back and I could see his long, deadly claws flexing. It had finished.

Then it froze. I heard running footsteps. One second he was about to kill me and the next he was hit by a metal wall and thrown backwards. Angel was in front of me, swinging the Buster Sword to strike with the flat edge of the blade, causing a heavy blow to Exbelois' head. Jace screamed and stumbled back.

"Are you ok?" asked the SOLDIER without taking his eyes off his opponent.

"Fine," I grumbled and got to my feet. Counsell got to us then, ripped off his helmet and threw it to the ground. There was a dent and a large crack in the metal.

"Do you have any idea what this is, sir?" asked the Second, grimacing.

Angela shook her head. "I have no idea. Does he have... eyes of a SOLDIER...?" His face darkened. "It could be…"

He didn't finish his thought, instead straightening his stance and holding the Buster Sword vertically in front of him. He tilted his head towards her, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened his eyes once more, they were hard.

"I'll take care of it," he said. "Counsel, cover for me if necessary. Brittany, take care of the wounded. When you're done, I trust you to report to Director Lazard and ensure his safety until this is over. Understood?"

"Yes sir," I said. His tone left no room for argument and there was no way I couldcouldI argue without sounding suspicious...but all I could think about was Jace. No one knew it was him. What if Angel left too...

I turned and ran. I left the situation because I knew there was no other way to end it. There was no cure and Jace would die. I hated him, but the whole thing left a horrible sick feeling in my stomach.

…And despite my nausea, before I even thought about tending to the wounded, my mind had entered the idea of ​​damage control. I ran to the opposite side of the Third Class barracks where I knew Jace's room was and where the marks on the wall started. Its door was completely ripped open, lying in a crumpled heap and crumpled to the ground twenty feet away.

I looked around, looking for cameras. There was one in the corner between the halls, but it wasn't facing me. I gritted my teeth and ran into Jace's room, immediately finding my bag and pulling it off the bed. A quick inspection of the room revealed that nothing of mine seemed to be strewn about. Nodding to myself, I quickly left the scene and ran as fast as I could to where I knew Brad was unconscious.

For the next hour, I allowed my thoughts to be completely consumed by what I was doing. I took SOLDIER after SOLDIER into the sickbay, throwing them over my shoulder and running at top speed. When the job was finally done, I was covered in the blood of others.

Of course, I wasn't done yet. I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the fifty-first floor. Time to address Lazard... what a nightmare this day has become.

Chapter 7: Concequenses

chapter text

"…I see."

Was that all the information Lazard had? Well, that was really helpful. His de-escalation reaction and the surprising silence of the room made my nerves even more palpable. I came to attention, back straight, my face forced into a neutral expression as I stared at a point directly above the Headmaster's head. It took everything I had not to wince with the adrenaline still coursing through my system.

"Relax," he said and I let my posture relax. He laced his fingers, resting his elbows on the table and watching me. "…Brittany, aren't you? I'm sorry our first date went like this. You did great."

"Oh… thank you, sir," I said, though I wasn't happy about the compliment.

I came here as instructed, delivering my report as calmly as possible and detailing what had happened since the mission began. When I left out all the details involving Jace and my Exsphere, the story ended up being surprisingly short. All I needed to know was that the monster was unnaturally strong.

After a moment, Lazard sighed and moved away from the table so he could stand up. "... This is really worrying. On the rare occasions that HQ has been breached, the damage has never been this bad. Fifteen men wounded and one missing... and SOLDIERS, though. I'll be very interested to know where that one came from." Beast".

I was silent, thinking about it. What would Shinra do when he found out Exbelua was Jace? You're not trying to save it, that's for sure. Kill him and make a big cover up? No… too many men had seen him, that wouldn't work.

"What now, manager?" I asked, knowing the question would be expected.

He adjusted his glasses, seeming to think for a moment. "I've recalled a few others from their missions; they should be here soon. We should secure the SOLDIER floor. Heidegger has already issued orders to the Security Department; the rest of the building should be safe for now. I'd rather have this mess sorted out before the Turks arrive.

With that, her phone started ringing. He frowned, checking the screen, and then some of the tension in his shoulders seemed to disappear. He put it to his ear and answered.

"Angeal. Your timing is perfect. What's your status?"

I was a little flustered, hoping and wishing I could get the other side of the conversation. Nothing in Lazard's expression betrayed his thoughts or what might be going on. He was too controlling for that.

"Um…yes. Please stay where you are. I'd like to see for myself." He paused and then smiled slightly. “Yeah, yeah, no need to worry. Is here".

Oh, Angel was asking about me. What, did he think I was off? Maybe he saw something in my expression when I left. I still felt a little nauseous from the whole ordeal.

Lazard spoke for a few more seconds, exchanging a few short sentences before finally taking his leave. Then he turned to look at me, shaking his head a little.

"Angel and Counsel seem to have things under control. I'd like you to accompany me to meet them."

"Oh…yeah. Of course," I straightened, worry weighing on me once more. "Shall we go?"

He smiled a little. "Give way, SOLDIERS."

The SOLDIER floor felt strange with so few people occupying it. Occasionally I saw a third party hurrying past, holding equipment in an attempt to straighten things out and make the corridors more accessible. Other than that... well, with all the blood splattered everywhere, it almost looked like a certain scene from the game.

I led the warden to the Third Class barracks where I had left Angel and Counsel earlier. As it turned out, the battle ended not far from where he was. at last I saw the familiar figures, standing around a large figure that was sprawled on the floor.

The First nodded. "The rest of the floor appears to be free."

"Is this our monster?" Lazard asked, approaching. We have come to stand in a rough circle around the fallen Exbelois. "It's smaller than I expected."

"But it packs a pretty big punch," Kunsel commented.

I remained silent, staring at the deformed figure that Jace had become. Angel looked a little out of breath, but the elite SOLDIER had definitely taken a lot of damage. the floor was covered with red spots. It was enough to make me feel bad again.

Then I noticed that Exbelois was still breathing. Angel had never delivered the final blow. Why;

"Still alive?" Lazard echoed my thoughts, frowning slightly.

Angel grimaced and looked away. "Sir…to lookIn this. I can't help feeling that there's something I'm missing and I don't like."

The Headmaster frowned, carefully approaching Jace and examining him more closely. "...Clothes...? SOLDIER Uniform...?"

"It's even humanoid," Counsell said in a grim voice.

Lazard straightened, stepping back and looking thoughtfully at Exbelois. “If so,” he murmured, “thishe would beExplain how this floor was breached…”

Jace groaned weakly, shifting on the floor. We all took another step back to escape his grasp. After a beat, he fell silent again.

"What shall we do with it then?" Counsell asked. "If… if this is somehow one of ours, do you think there's a way…"

He was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. We all jumped, and I looked down just in time to see the side of Jace's head disappear in a shower of red. The suddenness was like a punch to the gut, and my head snapped up as I searched for the source of the gunshot.

The smoking gun belonged to Cheng. He was walking towards us next to another Turk with dirty blond hair, both impeccably dressed in their usual suits. They were so unfazed by it all that it almost made them seem out of place, apart from the chaos.

"You-!" For the first time, I saw Angel lose his temper as shock and rage flashed in his eyes. Then he left and immediately broke down, grinding his teeth in frustration.

“Whether or not he was a SOLDIER...” Cheng held the gun, fixing us all with a fixed gaze. "... We can't afford to compromise the safety of the building any further. The creature was too dangerous to live."

His cold words flooded me with a feeling of helplessness and I wanted to scream. How merciless... to kill Jace like that, even though he knew he could be killing a human. This was the reality of the Turks.

Jace was dead. So fast. I knew this was going to happen, I knew it was inevitable, but that didn't make it any less disgusting. How pointless it all was... all because I had lost sight of my Extrasphere for such a short time. I never really thought about the amount of damage this thing could do in the wrong hands.

… In the wrong hands. I froze, seeing the situation in a whole new light.

"...I see," Principal Lazard said calmly. "You'll get things from here, I suppose?"

Cheng nodded. "Please seal off this area. The Science Department will be arriving shortly to collect the body. We should complete our investigation by nightfall, but I will notify you if any complications arise."

"Very well." Lazard nodded and then turned to us. "I'll leave the three of you to patrol the top floor. Meet me in my office in an hour for a mission briefing."

"Sir," Counsell and I said in unison. Angel nodded, looking a little tired.

And that was it. Lazard drove off, leaving the area. Angel motioned for Counsell and me to follow. I hesitated, looking at Jace's dead body and feeling a little dizzy.

The Science Department. Of course they would want to take Exbelua and dissect it and do all kinds of horrible things to it. But I couldn't let them - if they took Jace, they took my Exsphere. If they had... ifHojoI understood...

Cum. Cheng was watching me.

Being cold, I turned and followed Kunsel and Angeal. I could do absolutely nothing, not with two Turks standing there. And even if I did make a move in the Exsphere, the two SOLDIERS with me would probably try to stop me. I would only succeed in looking crazy and raising even more suspicions.

shit shitShit!

Despite my inner turmoil, it was all I could do to follow my two superiors and try to pretend that everything was fine.

The place felt very quiet. The hallway lights were very bright. I kept my eyes on the backs of my teammates, remembering to keep my feet moving as I tried to think of a solution to this. And all the while, I had the image of Jace's face in my head, reminding me of what could never be reversed.

He was a bastard…but he also had his whole life ahead of him. Who's to say he wouldn't have changed at some point, become someone I could be friends with? There was no reason, and now his future was lost forever. I had killed and seen people die... but this, this was in vain.

What was I going to do? Someone else had the Exsphere and I had the Key Crest - there was no way it was going to end well. I couldn't let anyone else suffer from this, but at the same time… if I made the wrong move, I might kill myself before I could fix it.

"...Sir," Counsell said after some time had passed. "Do you think it was…?"

Angel was silent for so long I didn't think she would answer. But then he slowly shook his head, looking sullen.

"I'm sure the company report will come out tomorrow. We'll see who was killed in action."

"Dammit," Counsell muttered solemnly. "To think they would kill one of our own like that...those Turks are ruthless."

"What concerns me the most is how this happened in the first place," Angel replied. "Regardless, I'm sure it will be kept under wraps for the most part. I don't recommend either of you talking about this with anyone until the investigation is complete."

"I'll sweep it under the rug, huh..." sighed the Second. "If that's the case, then I sure hope they don't let it happen again."

"I agree," Angel said. For a moment he looked genuinely displeased, but quickly regained his composure and softened his expression once more. “Well, we better get back to work. I'll take the east side of the floor; you two will take the west. We'll meet in front of the elevator in forty minutes."

"Yes sir," we agreed.

We parted ways and I tried to focus on the task at hand.

The rest of that day passed in a blur where almost everything went numb. Our final patrol of the SOLDIER floor revealed nothing, as expected, and the short mission was nothing special - just repeating everything we already knew. Lazard ordered us to take the rest of the day off.

Zach returned from a mission and immediately came to Kunsel for all the juicy details, inviting the two of us out for a drink while the Turks hid on our floor. Counsell went. I refused again despite their insistence. Instead, I went out on my own to explore Midgar, just killing time in an attempt to stop myself from thinking.

When night fell, all was well once more on the SOLDIER floor. No more dark men in suits. it was safe for me to return. As it was very late, I felt safe being alone in the room instead of going back to my bedroom closet. It was easier to think there, looking out the huge window at the city lights.

What the hell would I do about this little situation...

"Well, well... I'm always missing all the excitement, it seems," came a voice from behind me, making me sit up a little straighter.

"Genesis?" I turned around surprised. Sure enough, the First One dressed in red was standing up with a small smile on his face. “... How was Wutai?

His smile faded.

“My friend, fate is cruel

No dreams, no honor left

The arrow is gone from the bow of the goddess.'

I blinked, processing it for a moment. Bitter? Disappointed? It wasn't a surprise...but it's back. He had not defected. That was something, right?

"Well… good then."

Genesis snorted. "How cunning of you. I'm afraid our beloved General has stolen most of the glory, as usual."

I made a face. "Ah, is that all?"

The humor faded from his expression and he suddenly found it a little difficult to read. "No, but that's not something we need to discuss here."

The commander came around the couch I was sitting on, moving to sit next to me. Oh boy…he wanted a real talk. I've been pretty rusty with socializing these days.

"I heard about the riot earlier," he said, quickly changing the subject to something elseEUwas uncomfortable with.

"You did?" I asked stupidly. "It's all over anyway, the Turks came in and did whatever they wanted."

He watched me carefully, speaking softly. "Yes, I know. I spoke with a contact in the Science Department - he stated that the source of the creature's power appeared to be some strange matter embedded in its flesh."

"A topic?" I grimaced, feeling my blood run cold inside. that's itspacious.Did they already know? "…Is this something I should know? I thought this whole thing needed to be sorted."

"Hmph." He smiled closing his eyes. “I guess younoI have to know. There are a lot of things you don't need to know... but to me you already seem pretty knowledgeable. How is that, I wonder?'

"That's not something we need to discuss here," I repeated like a parrot, keeping my face carefully blank. Shit, Genesis... Iyou knewyou would be trouble. Damn, why did I let myself into SOLDIER?

"Fair enough," he conceded, leaning back.

I thought about trying to escape, but decided against it. His pose was nonchalant, but I suspected he had no intention of letting me out just yet. This was awkward. I had no idea how to interact with anyone around here, least of all someone like Genesis. Counsell, at least, was down to earth and on my level. I wasn't even sure what Genesis' personality was like - before I used the word "bitter",but that trait no longer seemed to define him.

"...You must be careful."

"Huh?" I frowned looking at him. He had spoken low enough that I could barely hear him. His eyes were still closed, but the smile was gone.

"When the Turks are commissioned to do a background check, it's unheard of for them to come back empty-handed. Shinra considers you something of an anomaly, you see. I suggest you start considering what answers are right to give at this point."

"The right answers, huh." Was he prompting me to think up a backstory or encouraging me to tell the truth? Considering his tone and the fact that he spoke in such a quiet manner, I had to think he was the first.

I made a face. "There's no way you trust me enough to help me right now. I know I saved you, but you don't know anything about me."

Genesis' eyes widened and he actually looked offended.

"There is no hate, only joy

Because the goddess loves you

Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds."

"LOVE is not an answer!" I protested.

"Oh, but it is," he replied. "Youwas releasedmy. Of course, you have no way of knowing the true meaning of the action... you just have to take it into account. Rest assured, you and I will never become enemies.'

Never…? I had to question this. I was so used to the suspicious looks of my last trip that I found myself very skeptical of Genesis' supposed loyalty. Could I trust him? He hadn't become the big bad he was supposed to be, but that didn't mean the potential wasn't still there...

A small, treacherous part of me was comforted and even slightly pleased by his words. I wanted to think about itsomeonehe was with me here. But no... even Genesis can turn on me. Of course I saved him, but I also intended to leave without doing the same for his two best friends. He might think a little differently about me if he knew that.

"Yeah, well…" I sighed and got to my feet. "I appreciate the sentiment. Anyway, I have to go to bed now…training starts early tomorrow."

He stared at me for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. "Goodnight then."

"Evening," I managed to say, a little surprised. I didn't expect to get rid of it so easily. Not wanting to miss the opening, I immediately slipped out and went to my room.

Then I realized that since Genesis had returned from Wutai, I would see him much more often now. Ah... that explains it. He had all the time in the world to quote poetry, make odd comments and ask incisive questions. Okay, I guess I should add him to the list of people to avoid.

Still, though... your advice was pretty solid. I never realized how quickly I would have to use it.

The next morning started quite routine; I woke up early and got dressed, grabbed Kerberos and headed to the usual training grounds. The rest of my regiment was waiting there. new arrivals arrived every few minutes until almost everyone was present.

Only a few were missing - those caught in the attack were still in the clinic. Jace was of course absent. Some people talked about events in low voices. no one yet had a firm idea of ​​what had happened, as the company's report had not yet been published. I saw Todd standing off to the side, pale and silent, and I felt sorry for him.

"Any idea where the lieutenant is?"

I blinked, looking around, and realized I was alone. Well, that meant the SOLDIER was talkingmy.This was a strange development.

After an awkward pause, I shrugged. "I haven't seen him. Isn't he usually here now?"

The man had a thoughtful expression. She looked about my age, with shoulder-length blond hair. I remembered seeing him around, but had never spoken to him before.

"He's always been a very punctual guy. Technically training started ten minutes ago, right? Maybe it got canceled because of… well, you know." He ran his hand anxiously through his hair and then seemed to remember himself. "Oh, I'm Luxier, by the way."

"...Brittany," I replied.

"I know," he replied, tilting his head slightly. "It's hard to forget the name of the only girl around here, though. Hey, I heard you beat Jace the other day. That was pretty cool! Show everyone what you're made of, right? He's always been the tough guy."

“Oh yeah…” I bit my lip looking away. Luxiere, uh... I vaguely remembered that name. Anyway, he had no idea...

"Oh," he said suddenly. "Right. She's in the nurse's office with the rest of the kids. I really shouldn't say anything, should I? I really don't like it, but I hope she recovers quickly."

"Same here," I replied, giving up. I didn't want to be the bearer of bad news.

Then I heard the training room door open. The conversation stopped and everyone looked to see the newcomer. It wasn't Angela.

The muffled whispers started again as the teenager walked past us to the front of the group. Many knew who he was - of the highest rank even among seconds, friend of almost everyone, student of Angeal...

"Hello!" Zac waved at us with a smile and everyone immediately became attentive. He just snorted, shaking his head. "No, no, don't worry about it. Ah, calm down, everyone."

The Thirds relaxed, showing a mixture of amusement and respect. He was well-liked among his peers, friendly and informal with juniors. No doubt everyone was wondering why he was here, but his presence was not unwelcome.

"So I know you're probably wondering where Angel is," Zach said, putting his hands on his hips. "Well, he's kind of busy with a meeting right now, so he asked me to fill in for him today. Name's Zack Fair, second place! Nice to meet you!"

I found myself fighting the urge to smile. Having Zack as a trainer seemed like fun, but I wasn't.allowedjust kidding, dammit. Just... get through the workout without incident. Mix with the rest of the constitution. Afterward-

Zach noticed me, smiling and raising his hand in greeting. Nonsense. I hesitantly raised my hand.

Fortunately, however, that was the extent of our communication. There was no time to talk as he had to oversee training and keep up with everyone. from then on, it was all business. Turns out, even though he was pumped and made us do a lot of squats, Zack wasn't such a bad instructor. He and Angeal were good at keeping the kids motivated, but they had different methods.

By the end of the session, I was in pain as usual. Luxiere had decided that Zack was the best thing since she cut the bread and looked at him in awe. Oh, that's right — Luxiere was the guy who eyed Zack and emailed him in Crisis Core. Is that how it started? Strange.

After Zack declared the end of training, everyone began to disperse and head back to the Third Class barracks. The Second exchanged a few words of encouragement with some of the others and then walked over to me.

"Hey, how are you? I heard you were involved in that big incident yesterday," he said curiously.

"I'm fine," I replied, inspecting the Kerberos before letting go. "Angel was the one who took care of everything. I just protected the Headmaster."

"What a first mission that must have been." Zach whistled appreciatively. "What a shame. I was at Junon."

"Well…" I started to answer, but was interrupted mid-sentence by the Victory Fanfare. Hello! Sorry for not socializing!

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, looking at the caller ID on the screen. It was a blocked number. However, I shrugged. "Wait a second."

Zach nodded crossing his arms and remained silent. I pressed the phone to my ear.


"Miss Furness. Is this an awkward moment?"

My eyes widened. Turks… not good. "Cheng? Er... no. What is it?"

The second one next to me shifted a bit, clearly trying to hide his sudden interest.

"I have a few questions for you about what happened yesterday. There's no need to worry—this is standard protocol. Are you free?"

Ugh…well, I couldn't help but look suspicious. "Of course. Where do you want to meet?"

"Twenty-third floor, office 232. You'll remember it as the same place we met last time. Can you be there in thirty minutes?"

"That must be good," I replied in a neutral voice.

"Good. See you then."

With that, he hung up. I hung up the phone with a sigh. Hopefully "some questions" wasn't the Turkish language for interrogation.

"Turks? What are they?" Zach asked.

I just shook my head. "They're still investigating what happened yesterday. Anyway, I have to go."

"Okay," he said, nodding. "But wait a minute. Can I see your phone?"

He played with it for a minute before handing it back with a smile. "I just thought I'd give you my number. If you want to do another practice mission, give me a call! I'm having Angeal show me the controls for the simulation training room."

“Oh…okay,” I replied. "See you then."

"Correctly!" He shook his head and watched me go.

I went straight to my room, lost in my thoughts. Zach's words were quickly pushed aside in favor of my next conversation with Cheng. Genesis just warned me about this last night... had he seen this coming? Whatit wasthe right answers to give anyway?

After cleaning myself up and putting on some clean clothes, I left and made my way to the main lifts.

The twenty-third floor hadn't gotten any more interesting since my last visit. As bland as the place was, I grew to hate it. I began to associate it with feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

I passed Reno on the way to the hall. He was standing at an intersection, one hand in his pocket as he lazily tapped the EMR over his shoulder with the other. He waved at me in greeting.

"Down the hall and to your left, yo."

"Got it," I replied, walking past him. The Rhine stands guard, eh... the Turks were careful as usual.

Pushing those thoughts aside, I followed his directions and easily found the right desk. A quick knock on the door beckoned me in and I let myself in.

Cheng sat quietly at his desk and watched me. He showed me the chair across from him and I complied. I kept my face neutral, trying not to show my anxiety. So many things can go wrong. I had to choose my words carefully, especially with someone like that.

"Thank you for coming," Cheng said, folding his hands in front of him on the table. "I understand you've already done this for the Headmaster, but I'd like to hear your version of events directly from you. Please give me a full account of yesterday's mission from start to finish."

I nodded and began speaking in a monotone voice, mechanically telling him the same story I had told Lazard—with all the right parts left out. He remained silent through the whole thing, his face unreadable.

"...I see," he finally said when I was done. "The monster. What was your impression of him?"

"He was wearing a SOLDIER's uniform," I commented softly.

Cheng nodded. "Your companions expressed similar concerns. Rest assured that it was nothing more than a research sample that escaped the Science Department. That's all you need to know."

My brows furrowed, but I kept them from coming together. It was a blatant lie, but it would be foolish to doubt him.

"The company's report will come out today," Turkos replied. "Avoid speaking openly about these events until then. What you know is sensitive information and I recommend that you treat it as such."

"Yes, sir," I replied. It wasn't something I really wanted to talk about anyway. The Turks could have their little cover. "Is that what you needed me for?"

"Actually, there's something else I wanted to mention." he replied looking at me steadily.


"What is this?" I asked.

"Under normal circumstances, Shinra conducts extensive background checks before hiring new employees. You are no exception, although we did our research a little late." His face remained calm, perfectly composed.

"However…" he continued, "There are no records of a 'Brittany Furness' in Mideel, although you claim to have been born there. I have also received reports of an incident at Junon in which you were unable to provide identification for one of the soldiers us. How do you explain that?"

“Yeah…” I sighed, wishing I had more time. "It's kind of a long story."

"We have plenty of time," Cheng assured me. "Your status remains the same - you are most useful to us in our employment. I am willing to overlook the Junon violation if you will answer my questions honestly now. Please help me fill in the gaps in your company's record and I hope this is the last of our little meetings."

His tone suggested that if he had to call me back here for anything other than standard business, it wouldn't be pleasant.

"Okay," I agreed. what choice did i have

He picked up the laptop that was open on the table, typing some stuff. Then he looked at me.

"Your full name - first, middle and last."

“Brittany Allana Furness,” I replied and then explained it to him.



"Height and weight."

"Five foot four, one hundred and thirty pounds."

He nodded, entering the information. "Is this your natural hair color?"


His next questions were relatively easy to answer, and I was able to answer them honestly. Then, of course, things got a little more difficult. He started digging into my past.

"You were born in Mideel. Right?"

"Yes," I said. There were no other answers to give - I'd look suspicious by changing my story, and it wasn't like they'd find records of me in any other town.

"Do you have family in Mideel?"


"Explain," he ordered immediately.

"I'm adopted," I replied. Time to use that background I've been playing around with for the past few days…it wasn't great, but it was all I had. “My real parents… I honestly don't know. They could be dead." I took a deep breath before continuing. “I was three years old when my stepfather found me in the woods outside Mideel; all I could tell him at that age was my name. He and his wife looked everywhere for my family and came back empty handed. I've always said I was born in Mideel, but in all honesty I have no way of knowing for sure.

Cheng was writing information in a black notebook. When I stopped talking, he looked at me. It was impossible to read it as usual. I couldn't tell if she believed me or not.

"I see. Tell me more about this family then. Your mother and father?"

Here came the interesting part. One thing I learned was that it was always easier to lie if you mixed in some truth. My story was a big jumbled mess, but I intended to use real people.

"Kratos and Anna Aryon. Anna... died of an illness a few months after they found me. I don't remember her very well."

"Is there anyone else?"

"This is Lloyd, my little brother," I replied.

I'm not going to lie - I just had a little fun with the story I was telling, but I couldn't let it show. What would Lloyd and Kratos think if they listened to me now? It wasn't that the relationships were that far-fetched - Lloyd and I were definitely close enough to be brothers, and Kratos was a sure mentor to me on the last journey.

"Where do they live now?"

I shook my head. "We've been living as mercenaries for as long as I can remember. Dad wasn't one to stay in one place for long."

"And what led to the Junon incident?" Cheng was watching me carefully.

I sighed. "We got separated in the middle of a hunt by a Malboro that was giving Banora a lot of trouble. I couldn't find them again after that; I went to Junon because that was where our next job was going to be."

"And your papers?"

My forehead furrowed. "I think Dad has them. I've never had to worry about that before—our business is… well, under the table. He's always taken care of things like that."

"Then what reason did you have to escape from our men?"

"I didn't want to be detained for no reason," I replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You said it yourself – there are no records for me on Mideel. "

“Many good thingswhathe made me,” I added dryly, giving Cheng a meaningful look.

He frowned, but didn't dwell on the matter. Instead, he asked for physical descriptions of Lloyd and Kratos, which I promptly provided. It was easy to tell the truth when I knew no one would ever find them.

By the time he was done with his questions, Cheng had typed up an entire file for me, which he printed out and attached to a thick binder. There was no telling whether or not he believed my story. Instead of challenging me, he just gave me a flat look.

"Thanks for your time. I'll send you a copy of your personnel file in the morning; that along with your Shinra ID should adequately replace the papers you lost."

"Thank you," I said, hiding my surprise. Well, legal identification... that was really a big help. Maybe I can get out of Shinra now without having to explain myself every step of the way.

“We will thoroughly examine the information you gave us,” Cheng added, his eyes cold. "I'm telling you now that lies will not be tolerated - don't give us any reason to brand you as a threat. Can you confirm that everything you've told me is true?"

"It was, sir," I replied, knowingly meeting his gaze.

He looked at me for a second more before nodding. "Very well. You may go."

I nodded in return, and was more than happy to get the hell out of there.

Chapter 8: Change of heart

chapter text

Two more days passed without incident. I went on another mission with Kunsel, this time to eliminate some monsters that were threatening Kalm. I felt like Shinra didn't trust me on subtle missions yet - I was perfectly fine with that. Honestly, I'd be fine with exterminating monsters forever. It wasn't anything I wasn't used to.

No response came to my status. Cheng didn't call me back and I didn't suspect he would. there was no way they were really going to prove my story wrong. There was no record of my existence, meaning my explanation was literally the only one they could come up with. They could take it or leave it, and that was that.

That didn't mean I wasn't still sketchy about the whole thing. But as long as I continued to be useful to Shinra, they probably wouldn't do anything. That was really the important thing - how helpful I was.

As for my life, I had no idea what to do. I couldn't leave my Exsphere in this world, that was for sure. If he did, it could drastically change the course of events. This kind of technology couldn't stay in the Science Department - for God's sake, it was created usinghuman lives.Hojo reminded me of a nasty mix of Rodyle and Kvar, and I was pretty sure he'd have no problem killing countless people just to try and reproduce my Exsphere.

The last thing this world needed was its own Cruxis - Shinra with an Exsphere equipped SOLDIER army. It was a recipe for disaster and I had to stop it before it went too far.

But howcouldI? It wouldn't be the first time I had infiltrated a technologically advanced base, but this time I had no help. Without Kratos, Yuan, or information from Mizuho spies, I was really at a huge disadvantage. It was too risky... if I got caught, there would be no one to save me.

And there was the fact that I still had no idea how to leave this world. It had been a long time since I arrived and I was integrating too much into the society of this world. I had to start being more active. I had to knowasmbecauseI came to be here and I had to get the hell out before I did more damage.

"Don't let it affect you too much."

I almost jumped when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Angel standing there.

"There was nothing you could do to help him," she continued. "Some things are out of our control. We just have to do the best we can with the resources we have."

"...Yes," I replied with a nod, knowing she was talking about Jace.

The monster's identity is not to be talked about, but Kunsel, Angeal and I were well aware of the untold truth. The company's report came out early yesterday. Jace and two others were apparently killed in the battle. I wasn't sure if the other two were seriously injured or if they just couldn't keep their mouths shut. With Shinra, it was impossible to tell.

"You know, he's always been really mean to me, but he didn't deserve this," I said, covering Kerberos and shaking my head.

"There are some fates I wouldn't wish upon anyone," Angel agreed with a sigh.

The day's training had just ended. Lately, there has been a mood swing between the types. most of them were too focused on recent events to bother me. Many of them were still blatantly ignorant of my existence, but with Lyxier willing to talk to me now, things were a little more bearable among the Thirds.

"By the way, it looks like you'll be following Zach and I on our next mission," he added in a lighter tone, his grim expression fading a bit.

"Hmm? Assigned today? I haven't checked my email yet." I rubbed the back of my neck in surprise. I hope it was just a short term assignment, but if it was with a First, I had to question it…

Angel smiled a little. "The Director will explain more in the mission briefing, but from what I understand it will be a routine inspection of the reactor at Mount Corel."

"Accompanying some techies into a monster-infested desert? Sounds like fun," I remarked.

He laughed. "At least a change of scenery. From your background, I'm guessing this will be easy enough."

My background... Malboro, Midgar Zolom, Exbelua, and most recently Kunsel and I finally took care of that Eligor in the slums. Yes, I was used to ugly monsters.

I smile ironically. “I tend to invite trouble, sir, but we can wait. At the very least, I give a good meat shield.

Angel's lips curled in amusement and he opened his mouth to reply, but stopped at the sound of footsteps. Those of us still here from training were standing in the corridor outside the training ground talking - suddenly everyone fell silent.

“Hmm…” Angel smiled knowingly, stepping aside to make way. Everyone followed suit, and suddenly we were all lined up to make way for the man approaching us from the elevators.

I suddenly became aware of my heartbeat pounding in my ears, horribly recalling the drums of the Chosen from the Planet, the flames in Nibelheim, the feelings of dread and impending doom.

All the other thirds here were silent in awe and respect - I was just too choked up by my own worry. These steps are coming. The subtle sound of leather rubbing against leather, the tinkling of metal. I found myself saluting along with the rest of my regiment. The movement was stiff and mechanical.

Eventually the man appeared, waving us off and allowing us to ease into our seats. I let my arms fall to my sides and fought frantically to control the tension that made every muscle in me want to lock up.

"He's finally back, huh?" Angel was perfectly calm, his face open and friendly. "It's been a while, Sephiroth."

The General paused looking at his friend with a slight smile of his own. "Indeed it is."

Sephiroth was identical to his counterpart, over half a foot taller than me and very imposing. Masamune was in a pouch on his waist. My whole body was screaming at me to run, to fight, to dosomething— but I forced myself to stay still. I was being assaulted by an onslaught of half-remembered blood-soaked nightmares.

Always chasing Sephiroth's shadow, failing to catch up, experiencing carnage and witnessing tragedy. I struggle and go crazy, my wrist crushed in his hands, trapped under those murderous green eyes. I didn't know if the nightmares were premonitions or not, and I really didn't want to know.

"I heard the decree was signed yesterday," Angel commented.

Sephiroth nodded. "The war is over."

The Thirds from both sides suddenly exchanged glances and the excitement between them was obvious. Of course, we were all looking at a war hero - and since the news hadn't made it past the company's rumor mill yet, we were the first to officially know.

It still took a concerted effort to keep my body from visibly straining, to keep my face composed in a neutral mask. As I tried to maintain this calm facade, I found myself watching Sephiroth and noticed something - his eyes.

It wasazul.

This was wrong. They were supposed to be venomous with reptilian pupil slits: cold and unforgiving. It was the image of those eyes that scared me so much in my dreams.

But his eyes now… were more expressive. The intense hatred was absent, replaced by cold thinking.

…Was that the difference then? The Sephiroth in front of me was sane and his mind was completely his own.

Then something else hit me. It all started from my experience in the labs, mako baths and injections. Could these nightmares be caused by...?

My thoughts were interrupted when I noticed that the SOLDIERS on both sides were backing away nervously. OKAY…? Come on, I wasn'twhatfearful-

Oh Sephiroth was looking at me.

My blood suddenly turned to ice when I found my eyes locked with his. I had no idea how to react. it wasn't even the "what the hell is that bitch" look I got so many times from Kratos and Yuan. It was a hazy, vaguely disturbed look with some other emotion underneath—curiosity? Suspicion? It was very difficult to read. What the hell would that look mean?

I had to resist the urge to look around and make sure it was me he was looking at. The reactions of the others were more than enough clues. If it was anyone else, I would have given a wave to be ugly, but that was about it.Sephiroth.

Oh shit. He was coming from here. shit shitnonsense,why did this guy make me so nervous, what should i do-

"So the honorable general returns," came a sardonic voice, stopping Sephiroth in his tracks.

He looked up, momentarily distracted, and I made silent declarations of love to Genesis in my head. The commander strolled in with a smug look on his face. To my right, Angel crossed her arms and nodded knowingly.

"You've certainly taken your time," Genesis continued.

"My apologies," Sephiroth replied in a completely unscripted tone. "I was stolen in Rocket Town. Did you miss me?"

Genesis rolled his eyes theatrically at this, opening his mouth to possibly make some witty remark, but I lost it when Angel interrupted.

"Don't feel obliged to listen to these two jokes," said the lieutenant, walking to the front of the group once more. He smiled. "Training is over. You are all free to go."

"Sir!" Everyone rose, offering one last salute before dispersing.

I wasted no time running, immediately heading straight for the hallway that led to my room. Genesis caught my eye as I walked by. I saw his lips curl into a smile and he looked like he wanted to say something, but the second Sephiroth started to turn his head, I shut him out of there. Sorry Genesis, but that was a conversation I hadnowants to have

Instead of staying in the first three area, I quickly made my way to my room. After changing, I headed into town and replenished my supplies in an attempt to prepare for the next mission. Hopefully, a certain person would have forgotten my existence by the time I got back.

"Oh wow! Look at that! See that?!"

"Calm down, Zach. You're going to rock the car if you keep running like this."

"A-heh, sorry." The teenager reluctantly sat down in the seat next to mine, smiling shyly. Angel just laughed in response.

Two days after Sephiroth's return, I found myself on a small train headed for the reactor at Mount Corel. Apparently, at this time, the mountain railways had not yet been abandoned. Probably because Corel itself was still standing.

Mount Corel was not the only peak around us. From the map I got in Banora, I could see that this was only the eastern part of the Nibel range. The mountains here were high rocky cliffs, cold and unforgiving. They reminded me of some pictures I had seen of the Rockies. To be fair, Zack wasn't the only one fascinated by our surroundings. I just didn't convey my thoughts like he did.

I had to hide a smile. He and Lloyd would probably hit it off. Lloyd... God, I've missed this guy.

There were three technicians with us, sitting in the back of the car. They spoke to us a few times on the trip here, but mostly kept to themselves. It was possible that Zack's boundless energy had worn them out.

We had taken a blimp from HQ to Corel, which was really exciting for me. After all that walking in Rheards, standing on the deck of the ship was nothing. I spent most of the tour walking and exploring, fascinated.

Corel citizens were very receptive. There was no time to look for Barrett, although I was definitely keeping my eyes peeled for him. Not that it made a difference - what was I supposed to tell him anyway? "Hi do I know you;" Yeah... better leave the guy alone.

There was one other thing I had realized - the Golden Disc didn't exist yet. The railroad that our train was running on went right past the station at the base of the mountain where the cable car to the Gold Saucer would be. This station was originally intended for miners traveling to and from Mt. Corel…

Of course, Shinra couldn't pretend to be the good guys if they built a giant amusement park in this place... but it was something I hadn't considered. Not only would Shinra burn this place to the ground, they would add insult to injury and build a damn amusement park on top of it all like nothing happened... and turn the ruins of the city into a prison. Heartless bastards.

How would Barret feel watching all this happen? Is Shinra turning his old home into an over-the-top tourist attraction? Thousands of ignorant people, happy to feast over the graves of their friends, their family...

"Something wrong?"

I looked up at the sound of Angel's voice and belatedly realized I was gripping the edge of the chair with my white knuckles. I relaxed my hands and sighed, offering a weak smile and trying to push back the wave of anger and disgust I just felt.

"I'm not a fan of heights," I blurted out. Wait, how was that an excuse?

It was then that I registered the fact that we were on an elevated section of the railway and looking out the window I realized that it was actually averyA long descent. And this train was old. And rickety. Oh my God.

"Huh?" Zack blinked, clueless. "What are you… ugh! Wow, look how high we are!" He ran to the window on the other side of the car, making it shake a bit.

"G-Gah!" I stretched, stuck to the seat and held on for dear life. "Don't do that! It's not nice, it's not nice!"

"Zach," Angel said in a warning tone when the coaches voiced similar protests.

"Sorry." He turned around, with an embarrassed look once again, but as soon as he saw me, his mouth dropped open. "Dude, are you okay?"

"Quite well." I replied through gritted teeth. "But if you move the car again, I might have to force you out."

"Got it," he replied, completely unconcerned. He just smiled and jumped next to me. "What's going on anyway? You were fine on the airship."

"The airship felt safer," I murmured.

"That's a much older piece of machinery," Angel replied with a nod. "But you don't have to worry. Corel people use this train every day; it's safe."

I gave him a grateful look. Calm and poised… and there was no hint of criticism or judgment in his eyes. Over the past few weeks, I've developed a healthy respect for Angeal.

"...It's more psychological," I admitted, still feeling a little nauseous. "Just…that view from the window. Ugh."

The train hit a bump on the tracks at that moment, catching me completely off guard.

"Ah!" I screamed, immediately grabbing Zack's arm. I bowed my head, squeezing my eyes shut.


"We're fine," Angel said, though now I could hear a hint of joy in her voice.

"Come on, we're SOLDIER! A fall from that height wouldn't kill him anyway," Zach said.

It was wrong to say. Now all I could think about was the moment I fell off a cliff in the Earth temple. Yes,whatit was a fun day.

“Wow, thanks,” I replied. "Feeling much better now. Puppies and rainbows."

"So... my arm?"

I remembered myself and stepped back, immediately distancing myself from the Second. Damn it! My bad! Just because he reminded me of Lloyd didn't mean I could be weird and awkward around him too!

Another hit. I teared up once more clutching the seat.

Zach watched me for a second, intrigued, then offered a confused smile. “Well, if youwhatnervous, I think you could stick it out for a while...”

"Drink it," I replied without even thinking, making a face. "Your hand has had its chance."

Angel, exchanging a few words with one of the technicians, stopped to raise an eyebrow at me.

The teenager snorted, but suddenly stopped laughing to give me a confused look. "... You should be really scared. You don't do it alone."

I blinked in surprise. Then my face fell and I had to turn around.

He does not act alone...

But Itime.My fear of heights made me abandon the facade for a while. Well, at least I knew my deed worked...

… Why did it hurt when I heard him say that?

"Yeah…I think I am." I replied with a shrug.

He just smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. "Wait there, okay? We'll be there soon."

"Thank you," I said, then fell silent.

The distance was what hurt. Pushing others away constantly was what hurt. I knew that feeling. I had felt it so many times on Earth when one of my family members made a comment and I realized they barely knew me anymore.

I hated feeling so alone.

The figure of the mako reactor appeared in the background, in the middle of the valley we were crossing. The train had reached its last stop about half a mile from here. the rest of the trip we would have to do on foot. And as expected, there were a lot of monsters here.

"I feel better?"

I looked at Angel, smiling a little. "Yeah. Now that I'm grounded anyway."

"Ouch!" Zack dropped two bombs in front of us with one hit. now he turned to us, offering a thumbs-up. "Talk about bites. We'll be out of here in no time!"

"Don't be cheeky, Zac," Angel said, though judging by his expression, she probably knew it was pointless. "We still have to make the return trip."

We were walking in a triangular formation. Zach at the head, Angel and I at the back and the three protected technicians in the middle. Although I could see where Angel was coming from, I kind of agreed with Zack. this was surprisingly easy. What justified bringing a first here? Things would probably be fine with just Zach and me.

Slowly but surely we are approaching the reactor. The monsters weren't a big deal.

As we were walking, something happened to me.

"Hey Angeal..." Shit - too informal, too late to fix. I tried not to grimace and concentrated more on what I was thinking. "How long ago was this reactor built?"

He didn't seem bothered by the way I had handled him. The First focused his gaze on the structure in front of us, looking thoughtful. "It's still relatively new. Construction was completed six months ago, if I remember correctly. It won't be long before the coal industry here becomes obsolete."

"Probably seeing some of the last uses of this railroad then," I commented.

"Hmm... you might be right about that."

Just six months ago,... hard to believe. How long will it take until Corel burns out? I didn't know if it was defined by the game or not. Somewhere between now and the Nibelheim incident anyway. Jesus. All that lay before us was disaster after disaster.

Finally we get to the reactor, we go inside and wait while the technicians did the inspection. As Zach and Angel exchanged a few words, I found myself leaning against the railing of the platform and watching the other men work. It was stuffy in here. the air was very hot and gave off a strange chemical smell that almost reminded me of bleach. And the labs of the Science Department smelled like that.

That corrosive smell was realinsidefrom me... it was still hard to believe.

The three men made adjustments and measured various parts of the reactor. After fifteen or twenty minutes, they all met and were talking quietly, seeming to be arguing about something. Then one of them pointed to the right and started walking back towards us. The other two moved to where he had indicated, moving to make a few more adjustments.

"Something wrong?" I asked him with a frown.

He shook his head. "It's okay. We're almost done here, thanks."

Angel nodded and we waited for the other two to return. After everyone regrouped, they began to head for the exit, with Zack taking the lead once again. I followed behind looking over my shoulder to where the two technicians were working. The valve they had closed...was it steam or smoke...?

"Wow! W-What's that?" Zach's voice snapped me out of my reverie and I heard a loud roar coming up ahead.

Ah… not good! I turned around, seeing a commotion going on. The light from the open door dimmed, a large figure advancing. Everyone else had already left. the platform swayed as something hit the side of the structure.

I charged forward, unmasking Kerberos and charged into battle.

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light, but I wasn't satisfied with what I saw. The source of the disturbance was two huge dragons, circling us in the air. We were at an immediate disadvantage. the reactor was located in the middle of a huge man-made hole in the earth. The only way to dry land was a single metal bridge, a fall from which would likely mean a plunge into the stream of life.

One of the technicians ended up outside our protection, forcing Angeal to rush to his rescue. then of course the second dragon separated us from Angel. It was up to me and Zach to stand our ground and protect the two remaining technicians... but if one of these dragons collided with this bridge, we would be lost.

"Where did these things come from?" I growled at Zack, desperately wishing I had something other than Fire materia right now.

"West! Nibelheim," he called back, holding himself back. "Dammit... we have to get off this bridge."

Our dragon charged forward, narrowly missing the bridge only for Zack to deflect it with a hard slash of his sword. The technicians behind us backed away, one of them letting out a cry of surprise.

"Zac," I said. "I have an exit story."

He was a little taken aback by this and then nodded. "You think you can handle all of us? We can try to lure them back to earth."

"I'll try," I replied, hastily backing up and both technicians were close to me. So I closed my eyes, concentrating on the subject I had equipped with my right armband.

When I felt the answering heat, I pushed hard with my mind. Take us to land... a little furtherleaves…!

A loud roar. My eyes opened as soon as I cast the spell. One second a dragon was coming straight for me, ready to rip my head off in its jaws, and the next...

The image disappeared. Suddenly, we stood at the edge of the slope, about 400 meters from where the bridge started. The dragons were out of reach, focusing their attacks on Angeal, who could easily push them off if he wasn't trying to protect someone.

"All good!" Zack nodded approvingly and I saw one of his hands crackle with lightning magic. "Now to bring them back!"

He fired what I recognized as a Bolt 2 spell at one of the dragons, causing it to flicker in the air and spin around to focus its eyes on us. I took the essence and cast a Fire spell at the other, knowing it wouldn't do any damage but at least get his attention.

Angel understood what we were doing. When the dragons focused on us, he unceremoniously tossed the protecting technician over his shoulder and headed for land. One of the dragons latched onto him, but Zack threw another spell and caught him off guard. Both monsters growled at us and started coming towards us.

"Yes, that's right!" Zach scoffed, smirking. "There's more where it came from! Come get it!"

Oh shit… these things were huge, and at this rate it would take Angeal a few minutes to catch up to us. This might get a little tricky... I hope Zac can back up that confidence.

Behind me I saw a flash of light. I turned my head slightly to see that the two technicians had a protective magical barrier around them. Was that... Wall? Angeal... casting such a strong support spell from this distance? Man, the first ones were really of a different caliber.

Ok, so we won't have to worry about those two as much as long as they stay away... now let's focus on those stupid dragons.

That would be fine, right? I had fought greater dragons in the Dragon's Lair in Tethealla, and they far outnumbered us at the time. Too bad we didn't have Kratos to judge us by this...

Shit! Was here!

"I've got the one on the left!" Zach shouted, walking forward.

"Roger!" I yelled back, darting to the right. The dragon crouched in front of me, landing with a crash. It opened its jaws and threw a wave of fire at me.

Nonsense…I was really having a hard time living without Guardian! Mentally adding protective material to my shopping list, I struggled to avoid the flames without burning my hair.

And I was limited to my technicians as well... no fire in this battle! If I remember correctly, dragons absorb fire magic!

The dragon charged, opening its mouth and baring its fangs. I bent under her head, turning to get a good look at her neck. Its exterior was covered in hard green scales, but its underside looked weaker. Ok then, easy enough!

…Or not. The dragon turned its body with amazing speed, protecting its underside, and almost catches me with a swipe of its claws. I jumped out of the way and ran at him once more. Without hesitating this time, I lunged forward and plunged my sword into a gap between the scales at the bottom.

The dragon yelled in rage, but I had already twisted the blade viciously into the wound before pulling it out and jumping away again. Now he came towards me, forcing me to jump to avoid being caught by his swinging tail. His wound was bleeding.

One more thrust, and I plunged the blade into his flesh once more. I gritted my teeth and decided to risk keeping my distance, rather than grab the blade and pull it up with all my might. Cerberus tore through the muscle until he reached the monster's throat, opened it and drenched me in blood. I grimaced, finally getting out of range as the dragon fell to the ground.

Zach collapsed seconds after mine. I breathed a sigh of relief. man, this could end badly. Thank goodness I had this Exit article. Now we might as well get out of here before more of those damned dragons show up.

The Second turned, smiling at me. "All in a day's work! Dragons… I sure didn't expect that."

I smiled weakly, moving closer to him. "No joke." He offered a punch and I hit my knuckles with it - wait no! No brofisting! Gah... that kid was getting to me.

"Hello Angel!" Zack laughed, walking past me as soon as he spotted his mentor. "Looks like we didn't need you after all! Leave it to us, okay?"

Angel started a smile of his own, now walking beside the man he had saved. Then his expression changed, his eyes wide.

"Behind you!"

"Huh?" Zach turned around, but it wasn't the one Angel was talking to.

Realizing the looming shadow too late, I turned around at the worst possible moment - just in time to get hit hard by a dragon's claw slash. Zack's dragon wasn't dead.

Blood spewed out and I was thrown back, landing on the ground. The dragon approached me, raising its claws again. Kerberos had been eliminated from my scope.

No! There was no way I was going to take another hit - from that angle, I was going to get cut! There was no time to dodge... it couldn't end like this! Shit,Shit!

When the monster charged again, its claws hit metal. Suddenly, Zach was in front of me taking all the hits. The dragon managed to knock him back and blood flew as its claws grazed his shoulder, but he held on. The Second dashed between the dragon's forelegs and opened a gash he had left earlier, plunging the sword into the hilt. He cried out from the sheer effort, pushing forward and forcing the dragon back. your attacks now hit empty air.

Then Angel caught up with us. It was over in half a second. with a powerful cut of the Buster Sword, he decapitated the monster and sent the body flying over the edge of the slope.

And then, silence.

Well, until Zach broke.

"Uh... the other one is dead too, right?"

"Yes, Zach." Angela sighed.

Meanwhile, I carefully inspected my wound and resisted the urge to fall and groan. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn't too deep to fix... Boosting my Restoration theme, I cast a Healing Spell and carefully repaired it.

It still burned a bit... but at least the wound was closed. I got a little better at healing.

I wanted to hit myself. Dropping my guard like that...damn! Kratos would have killed me if he was here to see this. I already knew better. Man... it was really hard. Very close…

"Hi. How are you, Brit?"

I looked up to see Zach standing over me. He smiled, extending his hand to me.

For a moment I looked at him with wide eyes.

So you want to be in SOLDIER? Hold on tight.

You will too. Did you understand?

We're friends... right?

That look on your face. This smile. I could see the man he became...

Then the moment was over and I immediately reached out to take Zac's hand. He pulled me to my feet, steadying me.

"It was my fault," Zack admitted. "I should have made sure you weren't down for the count. Man…sorry about that."

"I... was the one who let my guard down." I shook my head slowly. "Zac…thanks for protecting me."

"Heh! Come on, you don't have to thank me for this!" He patted my shoulder politely. "Just know you'd do the same for me."

Those words hit me like a ton of bricks.

Enough to know I would do the same...

He had saved my life at that moment. He threw himself in front of me. What did I do to deserve this? I've been pretty cold to him up until now, so why...?

"This isn't over yet," Angel cut in, walking over to us. He didn't look pleased. "You two. Stay back. We'll talk a lot when we get back on the train."

The first one got the point; I recovered Kerberos and the rest of us followed. Zac made a face.

"Oh boy… we're ready for it now."

I just let out a long sigh, too tired to care at this point. A lecture from Angeal was preferable to being disembowelled by one of these dragons, at least...

... Jacques.

I glanced at him again, but he was focused on the path ahead.

He saw me in danger and ran without hesitation, putting himself between me and the dragon. He risked his life to save mine. And why; Do I walk away and leave you to your fate?

Zach... the person everyone wanted to push their problems. He spent his whole life cleaning up after others, and in the end he got killed for it. And here I was ready to let it happen.

Just know you'd do the same for me.

God how could I leavewhat;

The truth of the situation sunk in and I realized with a sense of disappointment that things had been going this way for some time. Who was I kidding? None of these people were strangers anymore. Especially Zach. Could I really leave?

Not only had been over six weeks since I woke up in this world. I still didn't know how I was going to get home. Like it or not, I had to accept the reality - I could be here for a long time. And if I was stuck here, would I really spend my life avoiding these people and standing by as they died one by one? Canlivetherefore?


No, I knew what I wanted to do all along. My instincts were screaming that this was a bad idea, that I was about to take on more than I could handle, that it could only end horribly. But at the same time... wasn't it worth a try?

It was. I had faced the Cruxis, the Forsaken, the Desians... it wasn't like this was my only experience with large, technologically advanced organizations. I was already in SOLDIER. I could change things from within. Maybe... just maybe...

That wasn't right. No, there was absolutely no "maybe" about it. If I did this... I would be fully committed. No more running away, no more excuses.

Even if I was just one person, even if it was just me against the world...he would beSalve Jacques.

Startup: avoid crises.

Chapter 9: Combat soldier

chapter text

"But Angel..."

"Enough." Angel cut Zack off with a hard look. "If you want to make it to First, Zack, you have to stop making Class Three mistakes. Never turn your back on an enemy unless you're absolutely sure they've been eliminated. That's what happens when you get overconfident."

The BIGGEST SOLDIER shook his head, then turned his eyes to me. "Overconfidence. Will undo any SOLDIER. Let your guard down too. You've behaved well so far, I'd expect you to know better."

"I know better," I sighed, lowering my head. "It was a stupid mistake on my part. It won't happen again."

"Wait wait!" Zach protested. "Don't start blaming her! She was supposed to be my death in the first place."

Angel raised an eyebrow. "Now you take the blame?"

His face fell. "W-well-I still think you're too hard on us. What about when we took your dragons, huh?"

"It doesn't change anything. Be an honest SOLDIER and take responsibility for your mistakes."

"Honor... what's all this about dreams and honor anyway?"

Angel paused, giving his student a thoughtful look. "Zac…do you remember why you joined SOLDIER?"

The teenager immediately leaned in front of it, his face taking on a determined expression. "Be a hero!"

"Heroes are known for their great deeds. For serving and protecting the people." Angela closed her eyes. "We at SOLDIER have a duty to do. Honor... will keep you from using your power for the wrong reasons, from straying from the right path. And your dreams will keep you."

He opened his eyes once more seeing us. "Without honor or dreams, we would be nothing more than mindless killing machines...monsters. Never forget that."

"Monsters, huh..." Zack frowned worriedly.

"I want you two to do better on the next mission. Don't let me down," Angel said.

"Yes, sir," I replied.

“Yeah, well…” Zach rubbed the back of his neck and then stopped to look at me. "Speaking of which...why did you become SOLDIER anyway?"

"My?" I raised my eyebrows. "I don't know, the outfit was cute."

"What what;!" Zach looked at his own outfit and then back at me. "You're not serious…"

I snorted. "No. Good reaction, though."

"Let's go! What's the real reason?"

I finally gave in, stopped to think for a second. "…There's someone I need to protect. That's all."

"Someone to protect, huh..." The teenager frowned. Then he leaned back in his chair, throwing his hands behind his head as he thought about it.

"It's a step up from mercenary work, I think." I replied with a shrug, wanting to change the subject.

"With your brother and your old man, right? Where are they anyway?" Zach asked. He seemed to lighten up a bit now that I was actually talking.

I hesitated a bit, thinking about the cold facade I had maintained. But... well, what was the point anymore? Zac was the only person I was determined to save. it didn't matter if I was attached to him, because I wasn't going to let him die.

"Who knows," I said happily, looking out the window. "Dad was always too stubborn to pick up the phone and my old one broke when I fought the Malboro. There aren't many ways for us to communicate with each other."

“Doesn't that bother you?

"Nah, they'll smell me eventually, especially since I'm in one place," I replied with a shrug. So I just smile. "Besides, I don't mind the break. My old man is kind of hard, with Sephiroth's temper to boot."

"...that explains everything," Angel muttered with a laugh.

"Huh? Explain what?" Zack turned to his mentor with a confused expression, but it was at that moment that the train stopped.

Angel just shook her head. "It's nothing. Let's go back to the city; our ship will arrive in about an hour."

We then got off the train, preparing for the journey back to headquarters. As we walked, I couldn't shake the strange feeling that I had forgotten something. Did I say something back there I shouldn't have? No... it wasn't that.

Well, whatever it was, it couldn't be very important. There were too many other things weighing on my mind right now to focus on the small details. I pushed the feeling away, turning my thoughts to the road ahead.

The three of us made it back to Midgar without incident. A glimpse of the city from the deck of the airship was enough to dampen my spirits a bit. I had relaxed a bit the past few days, traveling with Zack and Angeal in the countryside. The fresh air sure felt good.

Now he was back in the endlessly gray industrial landscape. I've never been a big fan of cities in general, but Midgar was the pit. Not to mention it wasn't fun going straight back into the lion's den where I'd have to constantly watch my back.

After entering the headquarters, the three of us split up to unpack, shower and get ready. About an hour later, we met outside Lazard's office for a mission report and then had the rest of the night to ourselves.

That was all yesterday. Today I was off duty and tomorrow I was scheduled for my first solo mission. Go figure - it was the extermination of the monsters in the slums. Baby steps, I guess. Maybe I should be grateful after the whole dragon thing. I was beginning to underestimate my own bad luck.

In fact, I decided I didn't care at all. Killing fry in the slums might be easy and a bit boring, but at least it means I probably wouldn't have to worry about drawing attention to myself.

It would be nice to do some solo missionsfor onefrom Midgar, though... anything to get out of town.

Right now, I was busy wandering aimlessly around the SOLDIER floor, wondering what exactly I was going to do today. Training went by quickly, leaving me with an entire day on my hands and no way to really fill the time.

What I really needed to do was figure out how to reset my Exsphere. It had been almost a week since I lost him and the clock was ticking.

Unfortunately, I still hadnoidea what I would do. I had to somehow get him back discreetly - if I blew my cover, not only would I be risking my life, but I'd also lose my chance to help Zack. I had to take him back and destroy him once and for all. I should have done it the second I got back to Aselia, but of course my stupid sentimentality made me keep it. I hope to be back someday... what an idiot I was. My Exsphere was the reason I got into this mess with Shinra.

There was a human soul inside this thing. The least I can do is give them a final break after all the help they gave me on my last trip. But what the hell could I do, get into the Science Department? As tempting as it was to run up and kick Hojo's ass, I would definitely be caught.

Well there had to besomething-

"Ripple forms on the surface of the water

The wandering soul knows no rest."

My train of thought crashed and burned. Wow, I wonder whowhatIt could be?

"You're coming back from your mission too, huh?" I asked dryly, hearing the sound of his footsteps coming up behind me.

"You've been walking this floor for an hour now. While it's fun to watch, I'm beginning to wonder if you don't have better ways to spend your time," the commander commented gently. He circled to see me, smiling a little.

"Says the guy who's apparently been watching me walk for an hour," I replied, rolling my eyes and walking past him.

He grunted falling into my rhythm. "It's kind of hard not to notice, you know. What the hell are you so turned on?"

I looked away. There was something I really didn't want to talk about. "It's nothing. I just have so much to do right now."

"I guess that's one way to put it," he thought. "Does this have to do with our dear general?"

That stopped me in my tracks and I gave him a skeptical look. “What the hell does Sephiroth have to do with this? Seriously? was thespanperson i wish i could chat now! As if thinking about my Exsphere wasn't stressful enough!

He raised his eyebrows, his lips curling into a smug smile. "So defensive. Sephiroth finally wants to show his face, and our only female SOLDIER is running around with her tail between her legs. I think you hurt his pride."

"Yeah, I'm sure he wrote it in his diary and cried all the way home." I muttered, shaking my head and passing the First once more. "My tail between my legs? Give me a break. What do you mean?"

He kept up with me easily. "I'm just curious."

Finally, I let out a sigh. "Maybe I find him a little intimidating. Happy?"

"Ecstatic," Genesis replied dryly. "Intimidating? And what am I then?"

"Jealousy," I replied.

He immediately seemed to have swallowed something unpleasant. In fact, it was kind of funny to watch the way the amusement drained from his face, which was immediately replaced by a kind of childlike gloom.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

I gave him a smug look. "So defensive. Did I hurt your pride?"

When he scoffed in response, I put my hand over my mouth, my shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Exists! I showed him! Maybe next time he'll think twice about following me to piss me off.

"Anyway," I huffed, "if that's all you want to talk about, you'll—"

"Not yet." He cut me off by grabbing me by the collar of my uniform. "Ifezcome find him for a reason."

I paused, wanting to groan. Of course it would take the Genesis two hours to actually get to the damn spot. Resisting the urge to huff in annoyance, I took a step back so my collar wouldn't dig into my neck. Her fingers were still hooked around him.

"Would you let it?" I murmured. "I'm not your dog."

"What youthey areit's the third rate,” he replied with a smile. "Given your many violations of misconduct in the past five minutes... right now, I think that would be the least of your worries."

I played. “You're pulling me up aren't you?

The biggest smile. "Of course I am. This outfit isn't just for show, you know. Now come with me." With that, he started dragging me down the hall.

"A-Ah! Damn it - the outfit isn't for show, you ass! What's wrong with you?!Genesiiiis!"

“My friend, your wish

It is the bearer of life, the gift of the goddess."

“Even if there's no promise tomorrow, help me, I'll kick your poetic ass the moment you let me go—oh!

Genesis interrupted me by nonchalantly pushing me through a door. I immediately stumbled backwards and landed on my ass. He rolled his eyes, walked over and held out his hand to help me up. I stared at him for a moment before finally giving in and grabbing him.

After pulling me to my feet, the First One went to a panel behind him and started typing some commands. Frowning, I looked around for a moment until it finally registered.

Huh…? We were in the vestibule of the VR training room.

I perked up a bit, exhaling slowly to calm myself. Instead of yelling at Genesis a bit, I just chased after him and tried to see what he was up to.

"It's rude to look over people's shoulders," remarked the First mildly, not looking up from his work.

"You know what else is rude?" I started, raising an eyebrow, but Genesis raised his hand.

"Save your breath. Simulation begins."

"Why are we entering a simulation?" At this point I wasn't even expecting a response, and Genesis did not disappoint. He just smiled and grabbed my shoulders, pushing me through the now open door.

It closed behind us, disappeared from view as virtual reality took over. I looked around with a frown. we were in a large, open field. Not that interesting, actually. If the Genesis was intended to do a practical mission, this was a bit of an odd scenario for it.

The commander walked lazily forward, finally turning to me. He reached up to brush the bangs out of his eyes.

"Draw your weapon, SOLDIERS."

My forehead furrowed. "What - wait,what;Did you drag me here to fight you?

It was barely a second before Genesis was on top of me. I had to dodge a swipe of his blade, grimacing as I jumped back. I reflexively pulled Kerberos from his sheath, picking him up just in time to clash swords with him.

He smirked, pushing forward hard and making my legs slide back, digging small trenches in the ground. I broke contact and rolled to the side, out of range.

“I heard about what happened on your mission with Angel and the dog,” he explained circling me. I stayed on guard, watching his every move.

"Oh this." I made a face. "Yeah, it was a stupid mistake. How about?"

"Well, it just occurred to me that I've never seen your so-called power for myself," Genesis replied. "I will not tolerate sloppiness. I cannot repay my debt to you if you run away and die at the next available opportunity."

I made a face. Sloppyness, eh? Damn it! I wasn't just a tough idiot brandishing my sword in hopes of hitting a target. Kratos had taught me better than that.

…OK, fine. Now was my chance to show him. In fact, this can be a learning experience. It had been a long time since I had the chance to train with someone above my level. If I wanted to save Zach, I'd have to get stronger, wouldn't I?

"Fine, fine. Bring it on," I said, getting into a fighting stance.

"Hmph." Genesis smiled raising his blade. "With pleasure."

Needless to say, fighting a top class SOLDIER was no joke. Twenty minutes had passed now and I was running erratically.

The redhead cast a lightning spell at me and I quickly dodged to the side, once again wishing I could use Guardian. After my unpleasant experiences with Kvar, Yuan, and summoning spirit Volt, there were few things I hated more than being struck by magical lightning.

Now it was my turn. I jumped, catching his blade with mine and using my momentum to force him back. As he retreated, I twisted my body, charging Kerberos with fire magic.

Genesis saw Hell Pyre coming. Her eyes opened slightly, but then I saw one of her hands glow with magic. he immediately raised a hand, launching Wall the second I threw the fireball at him. The barrier diffused the attack and I was forced to go on the defensive the second I landed.

The First charged, slashing his sword in a powerful diagonal slash. I stopped, his blade brushing mine and sending off a shower of sparks. This went on for almost a minute, Genesis giving me no time to counterattack. I kept fighting and fighting, scanning the situation for any opening I could use.

There! I managed to catch his sword at just the right angle, thrusting forward and locking fists before immediately turning around. Genesis had to take a step forward to regain his feet, leaving his back undefended.

Intending to end the battle by pressing the tip of the Kerberos into the back of his neck, I reached out.

"Heh heh."

Genesis' smug laugh left me behind. My eyes widened and I instinctively jumped back, only to see a giant chunk of ice fall to the ground where I had been standing moments before.

Genesis then cut through the ice, jumping to face me once more. I stopped, forcing him to retreat, then slashed my sword along the ground at a fiery demonic fang. He cut through the magic with his own sword and lunged at me. The battle continued.

There were a few things I learned fighting Genesis. Um, despite everything I've been through the past few weeks, I wasReallyrusty when it comes to sword fighting. There was a limit to how much solo training on Earth he could have done for me. I had several very close calls in the first few minutes of the match, but luckily I was now starting to warm up and remember some of the techniques Kratos had drilled into my head.

Second, my lack of arts was a huge setback when it came to challenging opponents. I had to stop myself from using Beast or Hurricane Thrust or half the other arts that I had yet to adapt to this world. Guardian was still the one I missed the most because it required a lot more energy to run and dodge things when I could block it before.

Third, I had a long way to go with matter, and Genesis seemed only too happy to do that.painfullyapparent. He was starting to get serious, the smile falling from his face and his focus shifting to magic as that was his obvious strength.

I dodged several fireballs, grimacing and cursing this world for the existence of matter. Genesis could never do this mess to Aselia. But even then, he'd probably have some amazing art to make up for it...damn.

He parried my next attacks, sending me flying backwards with the brute force of his own counter attack. I barely managed to flip through the air to land on my feet, sliding backwards onto the grass. The field was already heavily damaged by our battles.

I saw the glow of magic come from him once again. What did he throw this time? I tensed, holding myself back. If it was ice, maybe I could deal with my Fire materia-

Hearing the sound of something large running through the air, I instinctively jumped to the side. A large flaming rock landed on the ground where I was standing, spraying dirt and debris everywhere. Holy crap — Comet?!

No. Not just Comet, the next step - there's more to come. Was this idiot trying to kill me?!

Suddenly, I found myself jumping from place to place, pushing my SOLDIER reflexes to the limit. Every time I jumped, a comet collided with where I was before. I cut through one of the stones with my sword, jumping through the gap between each half. Genesis appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the other side, catching me completely off guard.

His sword connected with mine in another powerful slash, and I was thrown back to the ground with enough force to knock the breath out of me. I struggled to get my bearings, but it was too late. When I tried to sit up, I felt the point of his blade pierce my neck.

"Nng…" I groaned, rolling back and trying to catch my breath.

I heard the hiss of the Genesis blade fall back into its sheath. The sound of footsteps was heard. it went away for a second, stopped, then came back. In the next second, I saw his hand reach over me. Sighing, I reached out and allowed him to pick me up. I realized the simulation was over, the grass beneath me replaced by a metal floor.

He frowned at me. I had to wonder what he was thinking. after everything that had just happened, I expected him to brag at least a little.

“I believe this is yours,” he said, holding my Kerberus by the base of the handle. I took it from him.

The First tilted his head slightly, watching me. "It's an interesting sword. I have to wonder though, how a mere mercenary could afford an adamantite blade."

My eyebrows shot up. "Adamantite? So that's what it's made of..."

Genesis gave me an incredulous look. "You did not know it?"

"Well, no," I replied a little awkwardly. "My father gave it to me and I never asked for it." I cover the sword, not wanting Genesis to ask about the inscription on the blade as well.

Kerberos was a standard Cruxis weapon. Since the Cruxis basically ruled the world for millennia before my trip to Aselia, it didn't surprise me that they had the resources to create weapons from such a precious metal. Suspicious could I explain my gun to people here? The only solution I knew was to be deliberately vague or feign ignorance.

"Your father, um…" Genesis replied, looking thoughtful. "His fighting style also deviates from the typical SOLDIER form. I guess he's responsible?"

I shook my head. "He taught me almost everything I know." This topic made me feel uncomfortable. I just sighed, walking away from the First. "Anyway, I fought you the way you wanted. Happy now?"

"Hmph. Now I'm starting to see why they recruited you," Genesis replied, his gaze burning holes in my back. "The fact that you lasted more than five minutes against me speaks for itself."

"Someonehe thinks too much of himself,” I murmured.

“To be honest, at first I was very skeptical that the same girl who was running from the officers in Junon could be wanted by SOLDIER. ."

"Child?" I paused, squinting at him over my shoulder. "I'm twenty-one, hottie."

He smiled pressing as if I hadn't said anything. "Your swordsmanship is above average and you're fast. If you actually manage to defeat a Zolom before the enhancements, I'm happyverycurious to know more about this father of yours and how he managed to avoid Shinra's attention for so long.'

Bad topic! I tensed before I could stop myself and immediately tried to hide my own discomfort.

"...He's always reserved," I replied.

"Another vague answer. How predictable," he said with a smile. "The infinite in mystery... fitting indeed."

"Can I leave now?" I cut him off in a whimpering voice, pretending not to be bothered by his words.

He suddenly grew serious, giving me a stern look that surprised me.

"Although you clearly know how to use the sword, your knowledge of the matter leaves something to be desired. This I will not tolerate."

"Huh?" My forehead furrowed. "Uh... I know I'm not that good, but I'm just starting to learn..."

"Unacceptable," Genesis cut me off. "I still only have you use base level spells. I want you to use second level spells by the end of the month. That's the only way you'll make it…" He trailed off, obviously laughing at a private joke.

O-kay… "Well, that sounds like a good goal. I'll do it." I turned to go, only to be grabbed by the collar again. Damn it!

“Angel's training focuses mostly on swordsmanship and physical endurance,” Genesis said, pulling me back. "You're not challenging yourself enough. I'm transferring you to me."

"What what;" Genesis as a mentor? Does this whole annoying process repeat itself every morning? I was already having nightmares!

"It is important that you remain invaluable to Shinra," Genesis added softly. "You should be thanking me."

I stumbled, frowning as I thought about it. The thought that Shinra might decide I'm more of a liability than an asset... wasn't that far-fetched. Which meant I had to win my clan if I wanted to stay alive around here. If I didn't get the results they expected... if I was just another forgettable low-level SOLDIER...

Ah! But at the same time, it was bad to draw too much attention to myself! What was the middle ground?!

"I think it's pointless to protest." I replied with a heavy sigh. "…Thank you for worrying about me."

"Good girl," he said patting me on the head. "Now run, I have some important business to attend to."

"You-!" That pompous ass! I found my fists clenched in annoyance, but forced myself to turn and walk towards the exit. When I couldn't think of any witty response to his supportive words, I let out an angry huff and walked away.

Genesis was still laughing when the door closed behind me.

Chapter 10: Small flower

chapter text

"Well look who it is. It feels like forever since I last saw you. How are you?"

I looked up, immediately smiling when Counsell entered the room. We were in one of the escape rooms next to the SOLDIER lounge. there was a table with a few chairs here, a small kitchen and most importantly, a coffee maker. This place was my first stop after training, and especially today I really needed it.

"Very well, thank you. And you? Where did they send you?"

He just laughed, heading straight for the coffee maker. "Calm down. Just busy work, really. Looks like things are calming down a bit now that the war is over."

"Yes, I think so," I replied.

Staring at my coffee for a moment, I thought about it. Calming down... At this point in the original story, Genesis would have already defected, taking a bunch of SOLDIERS with him. He was still here, which meant… nothing was happening? Obviously. But that didn't mean it was okay.

After pouring some coffee, Counsell came and sat across from me. He wasn't wearing his helmet so he must have had an off day today.

“Well…” He bowed his head slightly. “Genesis, huh?

"You are up to date with your information as always." I hummed back.

"Actually, I saw you when I passed the training room earlier. Angel filled in the blanks." Counsell laughed. "How's that working out for you?"

“That guy…” I frowned. "No, I can't even describe it. It takes 'authentic' to the extreme. It makes cryptic comments and mentions LOVELESS as an explanation for everything, and half the time it's not even relevant!" I wildly gestured in frustration. "I don't know how Angel puts up with him."

"Looks like they've been best friends since childhood," Second said, his eyes brimming with joy. "They balance each other out, I guess."

I sighed. That reasoning made sense to a point... these two were complete opposites. Childhood also tended to bring together some rather unlikely people. Still... maybe I was just missing something. Had to have Genesissomeredeeming traits beyond his fighting abilities to put up with Angeal and Sephiroth.

Now I almost groaned, resisting the urge to bang my forehead on the table. Of course it had redeeming features! He was just having too much fun not to show me.

"The Commander is known for his commanding personality," Counsell commented, taking a sip of coffee. "He's taken on students before, but they never last long. He seems impatient—he gets bored easily with things like that."

My posture straightened a bit. Was that a glimmer of hope I saw? "Hey…do you think he'll get bored soon and transfer me back to Angel's regiment?"

He bowed his head a little. "Well, this situation is a bit different. Everyone I've ever seen train with him has had to spend time motivating him beforehand. This is the first time he's taken an interest on his own."

I arched an eyebrow. "Ah... should I worry?"

The Second snorted. “It might just mean you have potential. You comeit washe was recruited by the Turks, just as he was.'

He gave me pause, and I perked up a little. "Was he too?"

Counsell nodded. "Yeah, him and Angeal, about...six or seven years ago? Anyway, it was the early years of the war. We had scouts everywhere looking for good SOLDIER candidates. Some of their recruits turned out to be the best. . , like you see."

I frowned slightly. it was no accident. I kind of doubted that Shinra had any intention of leaving these two alone. Both were caught in the spider's web from unfair.

"Then relax," Counsell said, bringing me back to the present. “Zack has come a long way with a Prime as a mentor. You have just been given the same opportunity. Not that it's easy, but if you survive the Commander's training, you'll be ready for anything.

"Hmm… you're probably right." I gave in, leaning back in my seat. And maybe I could practice controlling my temper, or I'd soon run out of hair to pull.

We talked for another ten to fifteen minutes, enough for each of us to finish a cup or two of coffee. Talking with the Second helped me relax a bit after the previous stressful training session. I was especially hoping to see him more often - he wasn't bad company.

I eventually had to leave as I still had to report for a mission brief before I left. I reluctantly said goodbye and then made my way to the designated briefing room.

It was like a breath of fresh air to finally get off the train and be alone for the first time. Well, it wasn't literally fresh air, as I was in the slums of Sector 5, but still.

The mission update gave me all the information I needed. There were groups of monsters nesting in waste piles on the outskirts of the domain and I had to eliminate them. With all the pollution and mako mutations going on in Midgar, it would be impossible to completely eradicate all the monsters from the slums, but clearing this single section would be easy enough. Until they resettle, anyway.

Either way, this was a mission I could probably complete blindfolded. Killing monsters was no big deal to me. I've had enough these last few weeks alone, I don't mind the long months I spent at Aselia.

It was good though. I needed time to think uninterrupted, and now I had it. This whole day was dedicated to the mission and I could take my time if I really wanted to.

Fortunately, Sector 5 was not the sector with the Wall Market. I was a bit worried when I found out I was going to the favelas as I couldn't remember exactly what each area meant. I only knew that 7 was Tifa's bar - or would be, anyway.

So the Wall Market should have been at…6 then? Probably. This area looked very familiar. it was one of the places explored early in FFVII, I remember that. I wandered down the street, unconsciously watching where I stepped as I did so. The pavement down here was pretty cracked, giving way completely to dirt in some areas.

This was the first time I'd taken a serious look at the slums - my mission here with Kunsel was all about the Train Graveyard and we hadn't entered any residential areas.

It was hard to imagine what life would be like down here, but everyone seemed to get by in their own way. There was actually a bar and a few restaurants that looked halfway decent, but I wasn't sure I wanted to check it out. everyone around here gave me the same suspicious look. They would probably spit on my food if I sat down to eat anything. My eyes were a dead giveaway - it was pretty bad too. The food above the plate was so expensive and you were almost guaranteed to have Shinra people around. Basically, it was impossible to have a private conversation in Upper Midgar.

Although the huge slab blocked out all sunlight and cut off air circulation, it also blocked the elements. Many of the houses down here were covered with scrap metal and various other materials, and many of them looked quite fragile. I'm starting to get an idea of ​​what the weather must be like (if you can call it that) down here - hazy and warm all year round. Even in winter, the sign and walls surrounding the city would create a large isolated bubble.

It was now midday on a summer day and it was very hot down here. There were a few fans here and there blowing the hot air, but I was still sweating and I wish my outfit didn't have a thick turtleneck. The second I got back above normal, I was looking for some real summer clothes. Preferably some flip flops to replace those heavy boots.

I found myself eyeing one restaurant in particular that had a tempting sign (AIR CONDITIONING! 12-8 PM!) hanging over the door, but I forced myself to resist the urge. My mission came first - plus Shinra HQ had all the A/C I could ever need, thank goodness. Working for these idiots had its perks.

The mission, right. The designated area was about half a mile beyond this little neighborhood, as I recall.

Ignoring the looks I got from people I passed, I walked down the street. After a few minutes of walking, the houses gradually dwindled and ended. I went through a gate on a fence and then walked down a deserted road between piles of scrap metal and rocks.

This looked like the place. I drew my sword and turned right, off the main road. He then began the task of cleaning the garbage piles for monsters.

It didn't take me long to find some. my company loaned me an Enemy Lure materia for this mission. Before I knew it, I almost had monsters chasing me. They were relatively weak, so the work was just as difficult (and interesting) as cutting grass. I spun Cerberus left and right, my mind on other things as I fended off the beasts.

Exsphere, Exsphere... what would I do about it? If I was going to somehow get into the Science Department, I might as well kill Hojo while doing it - killing two birds with one stone. But that was a ridiculous plan. I couldn't just walk into a top secret area. I needed authorization, some kind of key. And then there was the matter of those pesky security cameras…

I grimaced, lashing out with my sword and slicing a pork pie in half. Yes, in my spare time I had refreshed my memory and read about the monsters of the area - and what the hell was Hedgehog Pie called anyway? Oh, whatever it is. I could list most of them, although sometimes I thought about investing in a Sense story.

Three more monsters fell in front of my blade and I moved forward, absently checking the time on my phone. Three in the afternoon.

Huh? I had a new message. I opened it curiously.

The: Kunsel

Subject: Sector 5

Hey, how's your first solo mission going? You must be bored. The monsters around this area are nothing special. However, keep your eyes peeled for any Hell Houses. These things can get pretty good - best to take them out quickly, as prolonged battles with them tend to get messy.

Zack attends a distress call at one of the construction sites uptown, but I think it'll be over soon. Ready for a drink this time? Call me when you're done. I know a good place near where you are.

I finished reading and put the phone in my pocket, letting out a silent laugh before I could stop myself. This was the third time I was asked to hang out with them. what excuse could I give this time?

Moving forward, I cut down a few more monsters that wandered my way. Meetings were becoming much less frequent and I suspected I had exceeded my limit. It was almost time to finish.

My mind went back to Counsell's message. Ah hell… why bother denying? A few drinks and good company sounded pretty good now, and I was still relatively presentable, if a little sweaty. I liked Kunsel and I wouldn't let anything happen to Zack so it wouldn't hurt to make friends. It would be a relief to let your guard down and relax for once.

All good then. I would take one last lap around this place and then call him.

I lowered my sword a bit, slowly returning to the main road. Well, my private time is up... I still hadn't found a solution to anything. Breaking into the Science Department was completely out of the question, not to mention practically impossible with the building's security. I needed someone on the inside, but I didn't know anyone...


My head snapped to the sound of a woman's scream and I stepped out into the street. A trio of Whole Eaters were moving towards a girl dressed in blue who appeared to trip and fall trying to escape.

Wait, I knew that girl!

Concentrated, I waved a hand and sent a fireball towards the monsters. It was relatively weak—my mind went back to Genesis taunting me this morning—but at least it distracted them. The Whole Eaters turned on me, tails aggressive.

There was no point in wasting time while their focus was shifted. I jumped forward, slashing two of them at once. then I turned into the air, sending a Hell Pyre at the third. The attack landed squarely, the force flipping the now charred monster onto its back. His insect-like legs flexed slightly, and then he stood still.

I watched the three monsters closely, then scanned the surroundings with a quick glance. Nothing moved. I relaxed a bit.

"Oh thank you!" The girl flinched a bit, but offered me a relieved smile from her spot on the floor.

"No problem. Are you okay? You didn't twist your ankle or anything, did you?" I held out my hand. He paused for a moment, giving me a long, searching look. Then she reached out and took it, allowing me to help her.

"I'm fine!" The girl said happily taking off her dress. "I was just scared, that's all. I haven't seen monsters on this road in a while."

“Yeah… that might be my fault,” I admitted ruefully. "I was cleaning up the area, so I probably incited them all. I didn't want you to get caught."

She shook her head. "You saved me, so it's okay."

I looked around again, frowning. Aerith was a thin girl with no muscles to speak of, and she didn't even carry a staff or weapon of any kind. He wouldn't stand a chance even against weak monsters and if he was attacked by a group again...

"Do you mind if I accompany you back to where you're going? I don't think there should be many monsters left, but still…"

"Of course! I like to have company," she replied. "I'm Aerith."

"Brittany," I said with a smile, squeezing her hand. "Nice to meet you."

Was it weird? Looking at her now, I could tell that Aerith couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen. I had the same feeling as when I first met Zach. It was strange to think that this young woman was carrying such a heavy burden. The sacred matter... your heritage on Cetra and the voice of the planet...

I can save you too.

We started walking and I had this sudden thought. Save Zack and Zack will protect Aerith... Stop Sephiroth and the crisis will be completely averted. His death occurred at least five years later. there were many ways to turn things around and save her.

The ride didn't last long. In a few minutes I saw a ray of light shining from above, coming from an opening in the plate. it shone in a very familiar church. It was really beautiful...

"I've never seen a girl with a greatsword before," Aerith commented snapping me out of my thoughts. He was watching me curiously. "How come you've been fighting monsters?"

"I... work for Shinra," I replied. Ah, I hated to admit it. "It's just part of a mission."

“Hmm...” Her gaze became even more curious after that, but instead of asking any more questions, she simply pointed at the building ahead. "We're here. Do you want to come in?"

I blinked, surprised by the invitation. So mefezI have time... and I kind of wanted to see what Aerith was like. Why not?

"Of course," I replied. "I can go out for a few minutes."

He smiled and made his way to the church. I followed close behind, feeling my steps slow as I passed the door. Suddenly, a feeling of nostalgia hit me like a ton of bricks and I stopped.


Soft light streamed in through tall windows, bathing the pews and central aisle in a warm glow. A hole in the ceiling above also lets in some light. a single bright bolt fell on a bed of yellow and white flowers at the edge of the church. It was an old building. some of the benches looked ready to collapse and the wood under my feet was worn. Somehow the old look of the place made it much more beautiful.

How many years has it been since I first saw this church in the game? I couldn't even remember. This was the first truly iconic place I had seen since coming to this world and it was surreal.

Aerith walked down the main corridor, carrying a small paper bag she had brought from wherever she had been before. She stopped when she no longer heard my footsteps and turned to look over her shoulder at me.

"You can come in, you fool," she offered.

I jumped a bit and then smirked before moving forward to follow her deeper into the building. He went to the flower bed, stooping a little to see them and looking directly at the house.

I went to one of the nearest benches, sat down lightly to see if it would support my weight. It was done and I relaxed.

"Flowers in Midgar...?" I gasped looking at her. "This is not a common sight."

She smiled. "Only here they grow. Aren't they beautiful?"


"I bought some fertilizer earlier," he said holding up the bag he had brought. "If any of them start to wither, it will make him happy again."

I tilted my head a little, watching her take care of the flowers. In a way, watching her like this was really relaxing. the only thing missing from the scene was the sound of chirping birds, but I knew I'd expect a lot in Midgar.

The flowers looked like a mix of daffodils and lilies. They reminded me a bit of my mother, who always had flowers like this growing in her garden. Daffodils were always the first to bloom, their yellow buds a sure sign that spring was on the way. Even the flowers in this place gave me a sense of nostalgia.

It was... sad though. This church and the memories of Aerith's death went hand in hand. The girl before me was Aerith, but then again, she still wasn't the woman who would sacrifice herself for the planet. Yet…

"You must be tired," Aerith commented.

I looked up, raising my eyebrows a little. "Huh?"

"You have a heavy burden on your shoulders," she elaborated, bringing her hands to her heart. It was a gesture that reminded me a lot of Colette.

"What makes you think that?" I asked slowly frowning.

"The flowers told me," she answered matter-of-factly, smiling.

"…The planet?" I mumbled before I could stop myself.

Aerith's eyes widened in surprise, but she just looked down with a thoughtful frown. "So you know that too..."

"Did the Planet tell you about me?" I asked, trying to keep my sudden desperation out of my tone. I glanced at the church door, making sure no one was hiding nearby.

She bit her lip for a moment before nodding her head. "Mmmm. Except you're not from here...and you know things."

I watched her in bewilderment. So... the planet knew me... did that mean anything? I had to... although it wasn't much to go on, that little bit of information was all I had about how and why I was here. maybe theretimean explanation and possibly a return. I just had to keep looking.

"I have to tell you something. Um…" She put her finger to her bottom lip, thinking. Then her eyes lit up and she smiled at me. "Oh, right. "You're not alone. Everything will be fine." How is that?"

I blinked. "What…?"

"Don't worry so much. You can trust me," he said. "If you're feeling tired, come visit, okay? Everyone needs to rest sometimes."

The look in her eyes showed that she knew more than she was letting on. Strangely, it was somehow comforting. I really wasn't alone.

"...Maybe I will," I said looking thoughtfully at the flower bed. "Thank you... Aerith."

"You do not need to thank me!" He assured me. "Just think of it as payment for saving me. We're still now!"

I laughed a little, opening my mouth to reply, but the sound of the Victory Fanfare cut me off. My face fell. And now? I took my phone out of my pocket flipping it open.


"Son! I just got off the train at the Sector 5 platform. Are you coming?"

I started a little. When I gave Zach my…uh, he must have stolen my phone when he was giving me his number. Hell, I wouldn't put that out of his head.

"Uh...yeah, I'm done, but where..."

"Foxwoods. It's a tavern in the slums; Kunsel and I go there all the time. Do you know where it is?"

Foxwoods… that was known. That's right, it was that place with the air conditioner sign above the door.

"Of course," I replied. "I'll be there in ten."

"It looks good!"came the cheerful reply."See you then!"

"Yeah, see you," I said and hung up.

Aerith gave me a strange look. I just shrugged, stood up and rubbed the back of my neck.

"Well, I guess I should be going… nice to meet you, Aerith."

"Also!" she answered. "Come back whenever you want."

With that, I left the church - very reluctantly. As I turned my back on the flower bed and walked back down the hall, I heard the faint sound of Aerith humming to herself as she worked.

So I found myself on the road again, leaving the church behind. did i sigh time to come back to reality. But I will definitely go again. I wish there was a way to tell her everything without the Turks overhearing…but if she really was being watched all the time, I wasn't sure I wanted to risk it. They didn't say what they would do with that information.

There were times when the Collection painted the Turks in a more positive light, but still... I couldn't get over the image of Cheng slapping Aerith, or Reno banging his plate. Ugh... Cheng wanted to save Zack, but I saw him shoot Jace in cold blood! What was I supposed to think? It was safer to avoid these shady guys altogether.

As I thought about it, I felt something tap my leg. I frowned and looked down. a small green bottle rolled slowly. Um…?

Bending over, I picked it up to examine it. Any strange names written on the label - chemicals? It didn't matter, because the word 'fertilizer' was written underneath and I knew immediately who it belonged to. This must have fallen out of Aerith's bag when she tripped. noticed a bottle was missing? At least it didn't look cracked from the fall. I put the bottle in my bag, deciding to give it back to her the next time I saw her.

Now I walked back through the gate to the fence, back to the neighborhood I was in before. It was easy to find the tavern that Zach mentioned. I stopped to brush some of the dust off my clothes and then walked through the front door.

I hesitated for a moment, looking around. The tavern was not very busy as it was still a bit early. the few people sitting at the bar looked at me indifferently before returning to their beers.

Then I saw a hand beckoning me and turned to find Counsell and Zach sitting at a table at the far end of the room.

"Hey! I was wondering if you'd show up," Zack commented as I slid in next to him.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. "I don't avoid plans. If I didn't want to come, I would have said so."

"That's good to hear," the teenager replied. "Then again, I guess you don't look like the odd guy out."

"I'm happy," I said with a snort. It would be a bummer if I generally looked like a disheveled idiot.

"How was the mission?" Counsell asked me.

"Easy," I said, stopping to order a beer when a waiter appeared. "Thanks for the tip, but I didn't actually find any hell houses."

By the way... I reached into my left armband, pulling out the Enemy Lure and placing it in my bag. Besides, it wouldn't be too pretty if monsters tried to follow me here.

Zach shuddered. "Maa... I remember the first time I fought one of these things. This shack on the side of the road just put down its weapons and tried tocomingme - I thought I was losing control."

"They're just monsters that use man-made structures as a shell," Counsell said, giving his friend a small smile. "For some reason, they're usually in small buildings. It's the main reason why you shouldn't trust any place that looks abandoned outside of the neighborhoods around here."

“Sounds weird…” I commented with a smile. "All I saw were whole eaters and pork pies."

Zach gave me an incredulous look. "Is that all? Why are you still being treated like a rookie? It's not nice. I'd be bored."

“Well thistimehis first solo mission,” Counsell pointed out.

"Anyone who can slay a Nibel dragon by himself has no connection with the Third, never mind that," said Zack.

"True," his friend acknowledged, giving me a thoughtful look. "And then there's Zolom and Marlborough."

"Both are apparently legendary," I said, rolling my eyes. The waiter brought my beer and I took a drink.

"I'm serious!" Zach slapped me on the back. "It's just stupid that they recruited you and didn't even give you room to breathe."

"Yeah, I don't even mind." I replied with a shrug. “It's a day's pay, right?

“Technically it would be a bigger salary if you were in second place,” Kunsel informed me.

Zack frowned, taking a sip of his drink and thinking about it. Suddenly, his eyes flashed as if he had thought of something and he turned back to me.

"You said you joined SOLDIER because you want to protect someone. If you want to do that, you're going to have to get stronger, right?" He nodded at me with a determined look. "That won't happen if you keep catching fry on every mission."

…Oh. That was something to think about.

After all, I had oneveryof possible obstacles around me. Genesis was originally a villain, Angeal can still be diminished, and Sephiroth... god,Sephiroth.No matter what happened, there was still the possibility that I would have to fight him at some point. These nightmares hung over me like a dark cloud.

It was true... I wasn't strong enough yet. All the first ones were still at a much higher level than me.

"I think you're right…" I trailed off with a frown.

The raven-haired teenager merely offered a smile. "It's settled then. We'll make sure of you! Hey, I'll talk to Angel about that too."

About what…; Do harder missions or promote myself? Ack, I wasn't sure which sounded worse.

"Zac, I think you lost her," Counsell said with a laugh.

I grimaced slightly and immediately changed the subject. Talking about work and Shinra made me uncomfortable.

We sat and talked for the next two hours, conversation flowing easily between us. Counsell and Zach had many funny stories to tell me about their first days as cadets, and there were a few occasions when I laughed so hard I almost cried. In turn, I told them some of my stories, slightly changing the settings and place names to better fit this world. They both loved the story of the time I drew Kratos to Lake Umacy.

After a while, I felt like I was among old friends. Zack and Kunsel were so laid back and easy to get along with. I found myself more relaxed than I had been in a long time. Why did I avoid dating them for so long? This was just a reminder of how much Inecessarythe friends.

Finally, Kunsel said he had to leave as he had some things to take care of before his next mission tomorrow. Zach and I sat and talked for a few minutes after that before deciding we both needed to go.

As we left the bar and walked in the general direction of the station, I suddenly had an idea and stopped in my tracks.

"Huh? What's going on?" Zach turned and looked at me curiously.

“Shit…” I mumbled, feigning frustration. "I forgot all about that… Hey Zac, is there any way you could do me a favor?"

"Of course," he answered easily. "What is this?"

I took the bottle of fertilizer out of my bag, holding it out to him. “Um…so a friend left this for me when I visited earlier. I was going to go back and give it back, but then you called me… anyway, I have something else I really need to take care of and I can.” t." “Don't go there now. Could you stop and give it back to me?'

Zach took the bottle from me, examining it curiously. "No problem. I have time."

"Thanks! I owe you." I said smiling brightly. "Okay, so it's right down the road over there." I pointed to the gate I came from earlier. "Just go straight ahead and you'll come to an old church - you can't go wrong. I think it'll still be there... if not, just leave it somewhere obvious."

"Did you understand!" He said with a cheer, immediately moving in the direction I had pointed. "Well, I'll be off then. See you at headquarters!"

My smile turned into a full smile as I watched him run. Exciting as ever… but this was easier than expected. I hope everything goes well.

I turned and made my way to the Sector 5 platform, walking with steady steps.

Chapter 11: We join forces

chapter text

To: Genesis

Subject: No subject

Hi... I forgot to mention this morning, but there is something I want to talk to you about. You're on duty now, I know, but maybe have a drink with me sometime tonight?

From: Genesis

Subject: My friend, your wish...

Wow, we're pretty advanced aren't we?

I have to be back in Midgar by seven at night. You name the place and I'll be there.

To: Genesis

Subject: Re: My friend, your wish...

Foxwoods Tavern, Sector 5 Slum. It's about a five minute walk south of the station.

And I'm not asking you on a date, smartass.

From: Genesis

Topic: Fate is cruel

What a shame. Chivalry dictates that I still have to pay for your drinks, so I hope it's worth it.

Hanging up the phone, I let out a groan. At least he understood howwrongheard; Maybe hanging out with Zeal made me more sensitive to any kind of sexual innuendo or put-down, but somehow I felt like Genesis knew exactly how his words could be interpreted. He really enjoyed giving me a hard time.

It was now early afternoon, the day after my solo mission to the favelas. I had escaped today. After a rigorous workout with Genesis this morning, I took some time for a coffee break before changing into civilian clothes and walking around the SOLDIER floor for a bit. I avoided the west end of the floor because I saw Sephiroth enter one of the meeting rooms there. I made sure to keep a set of elevators at a safe distance in case I needed to make a quick escape.

To be honest though, Sephiroth was far from my main concern today. I had some nagging worries—what Aerith had said, the Turks, the constant weight of the warning—but those were in the background. What concerned me most now was, of course, what I had just set in motion. I hadn't asked Genesis to meet me tonight just so we could socialize.

It took me almost two hours of fighting with myself before I finally decided to contact him. Was there no possible alternative? Could I really trust him? How would I react when it inevitably blew up in my face? I still didn't have concrete answers to any of these questions, but I was tired of constantly struggling with my own doubts.

The fact was I needed to get my Exsphere back and I waited too long to act. I didn't know who to turn to. I had no real allies here. I was alone.

So I had decided... I would try to get help from Genesis. I had no idea how I was going to do this. it would probably involve telling him some truth, but I wasn't sure how much I would tell and how much I could keep from him.

Anyway, I spent the next hour after texting him just pacing back and forth and feeling anxious about the whole thing. Worry probably didn't do me any good, but I couldn't help it. If this went wrong, it could totally screw me up. It wasn't like I got a second chance. He could take me to Shinra or something and I'd be dead or in hiding by this time tomorrow.

It was only two in the afternoon. I couldn't keep walking like this. I would go crazy. What I really needed was to fill my time until tonight, but Zack and Kunsel were out and I wasn't sure when they would be back. I could go visit Aerith, but I didn't want to raise red flags with the Turks going there too often. Maybe it's best to wait until Zac starts visiting her. I'd let the Turks focus on him, and then maybe I could pretend I'd befriended her through Jacques.

Hmm... there was a library of sorts in the staff recreation area on the 64th floor. maybe i could just hang out, have a coffee and read a bit.

Finally making up my mind, I turned and started walking towards the elevators. Maybe good non-fiction... I just haven't had time for novels. Perhaps it would be wise to study this world a bit more, especially if my background is that of a well-traveled mercenary.

I turned the corner, catching a glimpse of the elevator doors opening as I did. My blood ran cold. I ducked immediately behind the corner, staring silently over the edge for a moment.

It was Hojo coming out of the elevator. He was with two assistants, both wearing the typical white coats of the Science Department. They all walked out into the hall, pausing for a moment as Hojo said something to them.

Part of my mind was racing. Kill Hojo? No, not here. They would surely see me, not to mention that many people here had the power to arrest me easily. But damn, it wasali!

…His assistants were in charge. if I somehow managed to kill him, I would have to wipe them out as well. It was beside the point.

I stifled a sigh, calming myself down. Instead of making a move, I waited to see where they would go.

They confirmed my suspicions by heading in the general direction of the VR training room. I'd seen people from the Science Department take tests there from time to time, and I'd heard that Hojo appeared there a few times, but this was the first time I'd actually seen him.

Blah. The training room was in this hallway. they would see me if I stayed here and the last thing I wanted was to find outwhatslow march. I didn't want Hojo to know I existed—only when the day came that I ran into him.

If I wanted to get to the elevators, I had to go in the opposite direction. I turned, heading back the way I came and entered a side corridor that led to the west end.

I walked down the new route, watching as I heard the footsteps and voices of Hojo and his men fade away until they faded into nothingness. Phew, successfully avoided a bad situation. now then-

New series of steps, coming from further ahead. who was he


I saw the silver hair and immediately wanted to turn and run, but it was too late. Sephiroth had already turned the corner and seen me. Our eyes met. now there is no escape. My mind went blank for a second as I remembered pools of blood and a city burning, burning...

Then he walked by and I automatically said hello. It was what was needed and all I could think to do. Just act natural and don't let him smell your fear and maybe he'll keep walking... justKeep walking,dime…

"Relax," Sephiroth commanded with a small nod, and I lowered my hand. He slowed down when he got to me. Shit. That would be more than a passing admission in the hallway, wouldn't it? Because me? shit shitShit.

“SOLDIER Third Class Brittany Furness,” he said, holding my gaze. Her lips curved slightly. "How lucky. I wanted to talk to you, but you were pretty elusive."

Good to see you, Cloud.

It was the same expression on his face, the same tone of voice. The sound of my name on his lips made me shiver. I loved Sephiroth in Crisis Core - I really did. But now that I was face to face with him, all I could think about were the nightmares... and my memories of him in the original game. The feeling of dread that came every time Sephiroth appeared - it meant something terrible was about to happen. Nibelheim, the Shinra massacre, Black Materia, Aerith's death, Meteor...

"Was there anything you needed, sir?" I forced the words. trying not to stutter, my voice came out flat. I was going to pretend I hadn't heard the second part. Did he really notice that I was deliberately avoiding him?

"Not specifically," he answered with a raised eyebrow. "Just investigating an anomaly. I was told your abilities are beyond that of an ordinary third."

I felt myself stiffen slightly. Everything about Sephiroth set off warning bells in my head - he seemed to be talking to Mithos. I was quickly reverting to this cold persona I adopted in the beginning to distance myself from people. Well, why not? If I failed or something went wrong, this man could become my worst nightmare.

"Forgive me, sir, but perhaps it is best to reserve judgment until you see me in action," I replied slowly. The words were kind, but the tone was almost icy. Couldn't I help it? I didn't want her to know how nervous and intimidated I was.

“Hmm. Appropriate,” he said, tilting his head slightly in acknowledgement. "It's nice to see that the student is a little more humble than the mentor. Genesis told me about your exploits."

I almost made a face. "Genesis-"

"—Exaggeration," Sephiroth finished for me in amusement. "I am aware. Regardless of... youit washired, then the company is undoubtedly useful for you."

Of course. His words reminded me of my few encounters with Cheng and I had to suppress a shiver. Genesis said something similar...

It is important to remain invaluable to Shinra. You should thank me.

If they didn't need me, I'd be dead. But I didn't need Sephiroth to remind me of that. Where was he going with that? Ugh, it just didn't feel right. Part of my brain kept sending warning signals, but at the same time… there was nothing predatory about his attitude. If I hadn't been so horrified, I might have smiled at his jab at Genesis. It was just a normal conversation. With Sephiroth.

Very strange. Almost instinctively, I kept my defenses up - better safe than sorry.

Not knowing what to say, I responded with a simple 'hmm', keeping my expression relatively blank. More logic than Kratos: when all else fails, you grunt without compromise. I'd put Sephiroth to work for this debate. Maybe if I was a cold bitch he would just get pissed off and leave and that would be the end of it.

"That scar."

"Huh?" I blinked, startled, and mentally slapped myself. I just couldn't maintain an unwavering composure.

Sephiroth's expression betrayed nothing. He was much better at it than I was. "On your torso. Where is it from?"

I almost broke down. it must have been the first time a stranger walked up to me and asked me that question out of the blue. Not exactly a conversation starter, not to mention that on Earth I was usually careful to hide the scar, except for the part on my chin. It didn't bother me too much here, but I wasn't used to people pointing it out. I had changed out of my uniform earlier into a black shirt, so part of the bottom of the scar was visible.

“My dad,” I blurted out, mostly because I had no idea what else to say other than the near truth. Then I realized what I had said and immediately tried to correct the statement. "Accident in training. It's a big story. Sir."

Wow,sweet.It was very difficult to concentrate with those piercing eyes on me. Up close, I could see flecks of green in the irises, though they were mostly blue. the green still served to make his eyes glow a little brighter than the typical SOLDIER.

He continued to watch me, still unreadable. "If the blade had been angled a little differently, it would have been cut through his jawbone. It must have been a serious wound, though – not one a normal human could recover from."

A typical man.In other words, not me. I had never thought about it, but it was true – I would never have survived this injury if it hadn't been for my Exsphere. But he couldn't explain it and he wasn't sure what Sephiroth meant. if he was suspicious, I couldn't see it in his face or hear it in his voice. Only his words suggested it. It was like he was pushing me to see how I would react.

I forced myself not to look away from him despite my annoyance. "I think that makes me atypical."

He paused long enough to correct me with a thorough examination. it took a lot of effort not to squish.

"Or maybe you have access to superior healing magic. Am I wrong?"

"Not exactly," I replied calmly. "Dad has a strong recovery story."

Another lie that bordered on the truth. Kratos' healing got me out of a lot of sticky spots, though it wasn't due to matter. He probably wouldn't even be able to use magic in this world. But what did Sephiroth mean?

General “hmm” gave me a very familiar look. That look… I had seen it too many times not to recognize it. He knew or suspected I was hiding something.

"...I've read the Junon reports. Genesis was the one who cleared his name - why?"

What? My mind was distracted by the sudden change of subject and the new problem it presented. What reason does Genesis give the officers? He had never told me. I never thought to ask.

That's when my resolve broke. the pressure was too much and I looked away. "I'm not sure."

What else could I say? If the day came when Sephiroth became an enemy, myjustawareness would be an advantage. Telling him about my treatment in Genesis would show all these related issues—and unlike Genesis, Sephiroth didn't feel supportive or loyal to me. He wouldn't let these questions go.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed slightly, his gaze growing stronger. just when I thought my heart was going to stop though, it relaxed and some of the tension dissipated.

"...Hmph." The slightest smile. "Actually, an anomaly. I think I'm starting to understand."

"Sir?" I asked quietly, completely lost.

He started next to me, stopping when we were shoulder to shoulder.

“I don't know what you did or how you did it,” he murmured, “but you have my thanks...for now. Just know I'll be watching you."

He knew.

I just stood there, shocked. Next to me, Sephiroth's smile grew, as if my reaction was the answer he needed—and it probably was. He continued, passing me and continuing down the hall. I lay still, hearing the movement of skin on skin, wondering where I had gone wrong.

"…One more thing."

Sephiroth's voice interrupted my thoughts once again. I raised my head a little, looking over my shoulder at him. I didn't trust my almost wobbly knees enough to do a full turn at this point.

"Yes?" Somehow I managed to keep my voice steady.

He gave me the same worried look I remembered from the day I first met him. "Where have I seen you before?"

I frowned, confused. "I don't understand, sir."

The general immediately shook his head, turning once more. "Don't call. Go about your business."

With that, continue forward down the hallway. I stood there and gaped, watching him go. Only when he was completely out of sight did I turn and start walking. My legs felt like Jell-O.

Man… that was bad. Sephiroth made me very nervous… and hearing him tell me he was going to watch me didn't make me feel any better.

I walked up to the elevators in a daze. Where did I go wrong? What the hell had just happened?

He somehow concluded that I was the one who helped Genesis, though I doubted he could prove it. But of course that just raised more questions than it answered, so now I was on his radar, which wasspanjust what I needed right now.

And simplywhatdid he mean by the last question? I was pretty sure he wasn't referring to our informal first date, because of course he would remember that. But before that... I had never met him, except for those times when I held a Playstation controller in my hands. He was a fictional character on Earth… our worlds were connected like that, yes, but… no one had ever had this kind of reaction to me before. It had to be something else.

On that ominous note, I entered the elevator and leaned against the back wall as the doors closed. This was too much. I wanted to go and forget about it for a while...

This time, when I walked into Foxwoods Tavern, no one even looked up. Nice to met you; today was mentally exhausting. I just went to an empty table in the corner of the room, away from everyone else, and ordered a beer. It was a full-bodied stout that reminded me of Guinness but, oddly enough, was called Ultros Ale. The bottle even had a picture of an octopus on the label. hehe… meReallyI wanted to know how this happened.

At least the beer was good. Nice and strong, just what I needed. Within a minute or so I felt myself relax a bit.

I was still a little nervous at the prospect of what I was about to do, but I had worried enough all day and was now too exhausted to care. I just wanted to do this to figure out what to do next.

Fortunately, the tavern itself wasn't too busy, but it wasn't completely empty either. There was just the right amount of background noise and most customers sat at the bar without a headset.

"So you're really here."

I looked up at the sudden voice, tilting my head slightly as Genesis slid into the chamber in front of me.

"I said I would." I replied, taking a sip of my drink.

He looked at her with mild disdain. "ultras;Stop consuming this horrible substance...”

I snorted, using the rim of my glass to hide a smile. "Is it really made of something disgusting or are you just being arrested again?"

"It's not metaken," he replied indignantly. Just then, the barba brought out a glass of pinot noir. I put my hand to my face and laughed.

"Sure, okay. Drink your wine, snob."

Genesis continued to give me the same annoyed look for a moment, but then seemed to get over it and shook his head with a smile. He lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip, watching me. It was when we both poured our drinks that the atmosphere was fired up.


I straightened a little when he spoke, alert. "Yes?"

"What exactly do you want to talk about?" he asked leaning forward. "I sure hope you didn't keep me in suspense all day over something trivial."

"I wish," I mumbled. Couldn't I help it? I rubbed the back of my neck and looked away. To be honest, I still had no idea how I was going to do this.

Genesis smiled slowly. "Good. Maybe I'll finally get some of my questions answered."

"...Maybe," I replied letting out a sigh.

There was a pause as I stopped to gather my resolve. I tried to think of what I was going to say. Genesis waited patiently now that he had an idea of ​​what might be coming, though he watched my every move in the meantime.

"Look," I said quietly, looking down at my beer. After a second, I caught myself and looked up to meet his gaze. "You remember that favor you promised me, right?"

"Of course," he replied.

"Well…" I frowned. "I'd like to use it. Somehow…I really need your help."

He became solemn. "Tell me what you need."

I instinctively looked around, checking the surroundings for any signs that anyone was listening. The other patrons at the bar seemed to be deep in conversation.

"There are no Shinra people here. You chose the location well."

Read my mind. I looked up to see Genesis staring speechless. there was no longer a trace of smugness or arrogance in his expression.

“Tell me,” he insisted.

It was too much. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Well, it goes - there's no turning back now.

"I have to get into the Science Department."

Her eyebrows shot up. Clearly this was far from what he expected.

"Why would you want to do that?"

"Because that 'foreign matter' you were talking about belongs to me," I explained.

"I see," he muttered, not looking surprised. So he suspected... “Then leave it. They won't be able to trace it back to you."

I shook my head. "That's not why I want it back."


"You saw what that did to Jace, didn't you?" I pressed on, leaning forward a bit. "He was third. He stole my bag from my room and found it."

"So he was indeed a SOLDIER..." Genesis' eyes narrowed slightly. "Tell me about this matter."

"It's not material…not exactly. It's a stone called an Exsphere," I explained. "When connected properly, it enhances a person's abilities and makes them stronger. This is why I could match SOLDIER's strength without mako cures. I removed it when I joined."

"And why didn't you get the same result?" he asked looking puzzled.

did i sigh this would be a long shot. "Exspheres can be harmful to the body if attached without a Key Crest - an accessory that inhibits harmful effects. If you try to remove the stone without a Key Crest attached, your body's internal balance is somewhat disturbed."

Staring down at my drink for a moment, I thought about what to say next. "...Jace...just didn't know. I'm sure having a mako on you doesn't help much. And once you're turned into a monster, there's not much you can do to reverse it..." Not without the horned unicorn. . And even then, could I have? Could I have matched Raine's potential? Degradation wasn't quite the same as a full mutation...

Genesis frowned. "But this 'Exsphere' enhances human potential."

"Yes," I said.

"I mean, if one used it correctly... combined with SOLDIER's power, how strong would I become?"

I blinked. "I'm not sure. I didn't want to risk using it when I didn't know what the results would be. But Angel seemed out of breath after the fight with Jace."

"Then I suppose you're worried that the Science Department will try to recreate that stone," said the First, smiling slightly. "Of course they will…whether the monsters work or not. Shinra is always looking to create the perfect weapon."

"I know," I murmured. "But there's more to it than that."

"Say," he replied.

"Initially, Exspheres start off powerless. But attaching one to someone without a Key Crest... it causes a parasitic process where the Exsphere absorbs the person's mana—I mean their life force. In other words, an Exsphere it can't do anything unless… well…” I gritted my teeth, shaking my head, before forcing myself to look at Genesis again. “Look, they're made of human lives, okay? Creating the Exspheres would be a price in blood."

The wine glass stopped at her lips. Genesis looked at me, eyebrows raised. After a moment, he slowly lowered the glass and crossed his arms on the table.

"Neither Hojo nor Hollander would have any qualms about paying such a price," he hissed.

"I know," I said. "Therefore I must retrieve it and destroy it – as I should have done long ago."

Genesis smiled bitterly. “An admirable goal, but not so admirable, I think, on reflectionyouthey used such a stone in the first place. Why?"

I frowned looking away. "The people who put it on me...were trying to find a way to make it stronger. I didn't have a Key Crest to begin with either. After escaping them, I used it to fight them. I always told myself this would destroy it later, but... I know, it's stupid."

"I see," he replied calmly.

There was an awkward pause. Genesis swirled the wine in her glass before taking a sip. he was taking his time. Finally his eyes flew up to meet mine.

“Since joining SOLDIER, I've been to almost every city in the world,” he commented, raising an eyebrow, “and I've never heard anything like your Exsphere. , but there is also an organization that studies them. "

His gaze was piercing. "There are gaps in your story. What about your father and brother? How did you learn of my degradation and have the means to cure it?they areyou?"

The conversation came to an abrupt halt as the question hung in the air. There he was - he was out. This question has bothered me so many times in the past. Who was this girl, surrounded by mysteries and secrets and things that just didn't add up? How could anyone trust someone like that?

"I… I'm…" I whispered. I stopped suddenly, picking up my beer and taking a drink. The warmth from the alcohol spread through me, but it didn't make me feel any better. Maybe I needed another beer. Or two. Or five.

Genesis watched me expectantly. I couldn't just sit here in silence forever.

"Can I really trust you?" I snapped, feeling really vulnerable. That was crazy. AscouldDo I trust this man, who betrayed his closest friends in the timeline I remembered?

"Dreams of tomorrow have crushed souls

pride is lost

The wings are torn, the end is near.'

He returned to reciting LOVELESS once more, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"If you hadn't intervened, I'd probably be dead," he continued. "Yes, I would die no more than a Shinra puppy, thrown away when I outlived my usefulness. But I'm not so blind anymore - because you gave me a second chance."

The First smiled, but this time its sour quality was absent. "You can trust me. I will never betray you, you have my word."

I looked at him for a long moment, considering. It was really hard. Earth was safe. I could tell him about Earth. What about Aselia? Very long story. But that didn't explain that I knew about the degradation - that was entering my consciousness! If this got to the wrong people, this whole business could come crashing down on my head, and I'd never save Zack, or kill Jenova, or...

"I need to think," I snapped, standing up. Which is required for thebreathe.There was no way -

Just as I was about to leave, Genesis grabbed my wrist and held it tightly.

"My friend, are you flying away now?

In a world that abhors you and me?"

"I can't," I said, realizing I probably sounded completely crazy. "I just…I can't."

"Sit down."

The command in his voice left no room for resistance. I reluctantly slipped back into the cabin, worried. Genesis glared at me.

"You don't break into the Science Department alone," he said. "I won't allow it."


"Then of course I'll help you."

My eyes widened. "You are? But what about..."

"I am not your enemy." He leaned forward still holding my wrist. "Consider this proof. And after this action is complete, I want you to trust me."

Understood. In other words, he wanted answers in exchange for helping me. But wait - that wasn't all. He knew nothing solid about me except that I saved him… in doing so, he was putting his own trust in me. Trusting that what I told him was fact, that I wasn't just using him to further my own ends. Considering Shinra had done just that to him before... that was kind of big.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down. Why did he do that? Could my actions really have mattered so much? Or... was Angel's sense of honor going out on his best friend?

"Okay". I cursed myself for stuttering but managed to meet his eyes. "If we manage to do this, I'll tell you. I'll… I'll trust you."

He finally let go of my wrist, leaning back. "Fine. So I guess I'll just have to put up with being in the dark for a while." He turned, catching the bartender's attention, and pointed to our nearly empty glasses.

The barba brought another round. I raised my eyebrows at Genesis and he smiled.

"So now... let's start planning."

Couldn't I help it? despite my apprehension at the prospect, I snorted. I was suddenly very grateful for that second beer. The night wasn't over...

Chapter 12: Beast

chapter text

It was one in the morning and Shinra headquarters was dark.

Except for the security guards working the night shift and a few very late workaholics, everyone had gone home or returned to their respective barracks. Most of the building was quiet from working very late, when the noise from the traffic outside had subsided and there was little traffic in the hallways.

Of course, I couldn't afford to let my guard down. In their barracks slept SOLDIERS who would be ready for battle in a heartbeat. Not only that, there were surveillance cameras everywhere. In many ways, it was nothing like the times I had infiltrated the Desian farms. The central security system here was too sophisticated for us to just hack and disable all the cameras - and even if we could, it would basically be like sending out an invitation to attract every combat-ready person in the building.

No, most of the time it wasn't exactly the same. But in a way it was.

A faint, humorless smile played across my lips as I walked down the hall, dressed in an infantry uniform and holding a rifle I had no idea how to use. The goal here was stealth - infiltrate, get the Exsphere and leave. Then Genesis used a sleep spell on some guards, and I went in and stole that outfit and the necessary props from the infantry barracks, where there wouldn't be any cameras.

There would almost certainly be a riot tomorrow, but no one would recognize my face in that helmet. I had tied my upper torso to straighten my chest (not difficult for someone who is definitely lacking in that department) and found a suit that fit really well. The infantry was made up of so many boys in their early teens that my thin frame wasn't all that unusual.

Now I was heading for the elevator, navigating the halls while pretending I was nothing more than a soldier on patrol. Whenever I heard another person coming, I would duck into a corner and pretend to check my phone or something in my bag, waiting for them to pass before continuing.

Three nights ago, Genesis and I had drawn this design step by step and ironed all the holes. We were operating on a tight schedule, and if something went wrong, it meant aborting the mission immediately. Any electronic communication could be intercepted, revealing our identity - it was safer that way. So we had to repeat the plan over and over until we both had it memorized.

Genesis had taken a mission from Kalm two days ago, using his power as a Prime to lure me in with him - no one would think twice, as Angeal was known to do this to his own student especially for educational purposes. We had sneaked back early, but the idea was to get back to Kalm before sunrise. We were scheduled to return tomorrow night, and then we would allow ourselves to be seen again. It was important to have a good alibi if we were going to attempt something so risky.

Sneaking back was easier than expected - the board security wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It was possible because the war was over, and in this timeline Genesis hadn't defected and attacked Shinra multiple times. But the secret entrance to HQ involved the dreaded Infinite Staircase, and that was no fun at all.

In about four minutes I was in the elevator and pressing the button for the sixty-seventh floor. Genesis and I had split up—he was coming from a different floor, on the other side of the building, trying to put the guards to sleep in the Science Department's security control room.

Normally it wouldn't be that easy - I noticed that many guards in higher security areas wore gear that prevented the effects of the situation - but Genesis' hardware was of almost unparalleled caliber. I was pretty sure most of it was mastered and a lot of protection spells just became to the average magic user. And the best part about a sleep spell was that it left no evidence behind - as far as anyone knew, the guards had fallen asleep on their own.

One more minute on my phone clock. It was time to leave. I checked the hallway to make sure no one was coming, then crossed to press the elevator call button. The doors opened - no Turk was waiting for me on the other side. So far so good.

The trip up to the sixty-seventh floor seemed to take forever. My heart was pounding. I hated being still. The only way to get through this was to not think about all the ways it could go wrong. My previous infiltrations were with a decent group of people. I wasn't used to working with just one partner, and having to do my part alone like this was stressful.

Finally the elevator stopped. Usually here the console on the wall would light up and ask for ID, but instead, the doors just opened. The corners of my lips curled up involuntarily. this was Genesis in action.

I stepped out into the hallway looking around. The lights were off, a clear indication that the last employee here had gone home for the night. There may still be some delays. I couldn't afford to make assumptions and let my guard down. This was completely uncharted territory for me.

The only place I knew how to go from here was the lab I referred to for my mako treatments. Genesis, however, came here often as it dealt with degradation. He informed me that there were two specific workshops favored by Hojo and Hollander respectively. They were both in the same neighborhood as each other, so I headed straight for Hojo's workshop. Hojo was the one who was there the day Jace died. I had no doubt that my Exsphere would be in your possession.

As I walked down the hall, my surroundings became more and more familiar. I frowned, turning the corner - and it was.

The overall layout of Hojo's lab was very close to what I remembered from the game. I spotted the place where he would end up imprisoning Nanaki and Aerith and had to stop for a second. No… no, I wouldn't let that happen, so it wasn't worth a second's thought. But I couldn't help it. Seeing this place in real life was a stark reminder of just how crazy Hojo was.

Just as I was about to shake my head and move on, I heard a noise.thud.The noise made me jump and spin around with wide eyes. Nothing was left behind.

I suddenly became acutely aware of the fact that the only weapon I had with me was a dagger strapped to my hip. my sword would have stood out too much. And even if he knew how to use it, the rifle wasn't even loaded.

Shit. I had to investigate the source of this noise before proceeding further. I couldn't allow myself any surprises now.

The noise was coming from the direction of a connecting corridor. I walked down the hall, feeling tense as I slowly began to recognize him. These were the cells... this is where Cloud and the others would be held just before Sephiroth went on a killing rampage and killed the President.

Blah. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to think about right now.


I jumped again, struggling to stop myself from panting. There... coming from the cell to my left. I approached cautiously, standing on tiptoe to look through the small window in the door.

My mouth dropped open.

Inside the cell was an Exbelois. His flesh was slightly darker than Jace's, but the similarities were all there... long limbs with thick veins, deadly claws, and a single eye...

The eye didn't glow blue this time. The victim was not a SOLDIER - of course, they couldn't easily catch SOLDIERS without arousing a lot of suspicion.

My fists clenched and I felt anger rise in my stomach, both at those monsters who did this and at myself for waiting long enough for this to happen. If only I had gotten here sooner...


I tripped. Exbelois had hit his head against the wall and hard. When I saw the large blood stains on this wall, I felt nauseous. The creature's head was dripping stuff.

He shifted in place for a moment before moving forward once more.Push.A new stain colored the wall.

A new thought came to me. Was he trying to kill himself?

My breath hitched and I felt my hands shake. That was... that was horrible. To be kept alive in this condition and experimented on... what did they do with this person? It took some pretty traumatic events to bring any kind of self-awareness to an Exbelua, and if that person was that desperate to end their life…

I moved away from the door and walked slowly down the corridor, visiting the other cells. Only three others were captured and all contained Exbelois.

One of the Exbelois was motionless on the ground. Another had three long slashes on his face, the work of his own fingernails. His eye snapped open, causing fluid to ooze down his face. The third paces his cell anxiously.

Unjustified. Inhuman.

A numbness came over me. I went to the first cell and pushed the button to open the door, hard enough to break the plastic. The door opened.

The creature slowly looked up as I entered the cell, its eye on me. Even though in my head I was crying, apologizing for everything and wishing I could undo it all, my eyes were dry and my lips didn't move. I raised the dagger and the Exbelois made no move to resist as I plunged the blade into their forehead.

I killed the other three, leaving the bodies back in their cells and feeling absolutely sick to my stomach. Only one of them reacted - but those people weren't maco-enhanced, so they were no match.

There was no cure. If I had not done this, these people would have continued to live a cursed existence, tormented day after day until they lost their usefulness. I made a difficult but necessary choice. That's what I kept telling myself.

It didn't make me feel any less horrible. It had been years since I took a human life - and it never got easier.

What did I expect to find coming here? Anything but that. But there was no time to digest any of it. I was on a tight deadline and had already strayed too far from the plan.

The clock on my phone read 1:35. If I didn't find the Exsphere and get on the elevator within the next fifteen minutes, Genesis would assume something was wrong.

Now I'm back in the lab, beyond the tank. Ah... that's where Jenova would be transferred after the Nibelheim incident. A shiver ran down my spine.

The wall to my right was covered with different consoles and computer monitors. I ignored them, as I doubted I could do anything without being discovered. Instead, I kept going until I found a wall covered in glass cylinders.

Several different monster parts were suspended from the rollers - for testing, presumably. There was a brain in one of them. my stomach turned. I wasn't exactly into biology, but it looked big enough to belong to a human. At home, I would have thought it was from an organ donor, but here...

There was a set of operating tables nearby. Both were clean, but one was dented with a long scratch in the metal. I passed, not wanting to think about how this had happened.

Finally, a long table against one wall. It was filled with hundreds of pieces of paper, scattered all over the surface. An abandoned coffee cup sat to one side. I went over and looked at the papers, trying to make out Hojo's scribble, but it was nearly impossible. Even the things I could decipher were still ridiculously complicated gibberish.

After a minute of hastily scanning, I saw a few sentences that stood out.

The item is parasitic, causes mutations when removed from individuals... increases in power are seen...

…a stabilizer is needed to exploit the potential…

…Sample 303C reacts negatively to mako exposure…further testing required…

I didn't need to see much more to know that this was all about the Exesphere.

Six minutes left. I looked around the general area, huffing in frustration when all I could find were more documents detailing the research I already knew about.

Then, suddenly, I saw it. It was in a small box in the corner of the desk, hidden behind a pile of papers. I quickly opened the box and pulled it out, holding the small orb up to the dim light.

Oh yeah… that was for sure. I could never forget this - this thing got me into so much trouble. It was hard to believe that I managed to lose him.

I closed my fingers, clenching it lightly in my fist. Four minutes. I was starting to feel the pressure.

Then I noticed that the coffee cup on the table was half full - andstill steaming.

"I see you have every desire to be my next specimen."

I felt a sting in the back of my neck and jumped, turning to push someone out of the way. The man staggered back before straightening up to readjust his glasses, a slow smile forming on his face.

Something fell to the floor and broke - a syringe. My eyes widened and I felt my heart rate quicken and I realized with an immediate sense of dread that my alarm was just circulating whatever was in my system even faster.

Hojo had discovered me. His smile remained completely static, even as I began to panic at how quickly things had changed. was standingali-but there was no time. It would be so easy to finish him off, but then what? No time at all. I had to go. It was already hard to think.

I pushed past him and ran in the direction I knew the elevator would be. Even as I ran, I could feel my head spinning, the response of my limbs becoming slower and slower.

“It's useless, you bastard. Give me back what is mine."

The mad scientist's voice was just an echo in the back of my head. I pressed the call button on the elevator and jumped inside. My mind wasn't responding fast enough – I couldn't remember where I was supposed to go next, what the plan was. I shoved the Exsphere into my pocket and pressed the button I thought was for the SOLDIER floor. My breathing was labored. It was getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open.

there was a heavythudwhen the elevator shook. Falling to the ground, I looked up listlessly and hoped that Shinra hadn't somehow unleashed one of Scarlet's creations on me.

The small maintenance door in the ceiling of the elevator was forced open and a man dressed in black entered. He was wearing a cloak that made him almost unrecognizable, but I saw red hair under the hood for a brief moment and had to breathe a sigh of relief.

"Come on," he hissed and picked me up. "Fool."

He pulled me out of the elevator and onto another floor. I vaguely registered flashing red lights and screams coming from somewhere. Then there was heat and breaking glass and we were hundreds of feet in the air and I buried my face in his shoulder, feeling my stomach turn.

I waited for the sensation of falling, but it only lasted half a second. So we were going up. My head fell back and my body went limp and everything disappeared.

Gentle sun, gentle breeze...

Slowly, I became aware of the blankets covering me, the soft bed beneath me. It was good... I just wanted to stay here forever. Maybe if I was home again... I could get up and go for my morning run and dad and I could go out for coffee like we always did.

I see you have every desire to be my next specimen.

I woke up with a jolt from the memory, sitting up and having to catch myself as my head spun. Hojo — Hojo had — where was I? Where-

"So you're awake."

The voice made me jump a little, but I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it was just Genesis, sitting at a nearby table. We were in a cozy little room. there was enough generic furniture to suggest we were probably in an inn. I looked out the window and immediately recognized the medieval buildings. calm down

"Good morning?" I managed to grunt, glaring at him.

He smiled slightly. "Not exactly. It's one in the afternoon."

“Oh…” I paused to let it sink in. My eyes slowly opened wide. "What the hell happened back there?"

The smile fell from her face. "We've made a deal. You're lucky I was watching you on the security cameras. I'm not sure I could have saved you any other way. Did he see your face?"

"N...No." I replied shaking my head. "I wore the helmet the whole time."

"Did you say anything to him?"

"I said no. That would blow the cover.

Genesis leaned back in his chair. "…Good."

"What did he inject me with?" I asked, even though I had a feeling I already knew.

"A strong sedative," answered the First. "A normal person would be unconscious for days." He made an impatient gesture. "Increase."

I gave him an irritated look, but complied anyway. My body was a little slow to respond. most of the time, though, I felt good. The blankets fell and I was on my feet, stretching. Then I noticed something.

“Oh youslow march."

He arched an eyebrow. “How strange would it seem for a first to carry an infantryman through the streets of Kalm? Of course I had to undress you."

When I continued to look, he smiled. "Enough of the melodrama. Youit waswearing a base layer under everything.” To prove his point, he pointed to what I was currently wearing.

"Don't even talk to me about melodrama, Genesis Rhapsody." I rolled my eyes, walking past him to where he had placed my bag. "Whatever. Get out, I want to change." Also, the bandages holding my breasts were getting very uncomfortable, but I wouldn't tell him that.

"Hmph." He stood up, walking towards the door. "I'll wait in the hall. There are still a few things we need to do before we return to Midgar."

"Got it," I said.

When he reached for the doorknob, however, something else occurred to me and I turned sharply in his direction. "To hold on."

Genesis stopped, dropping her hand and looking at me.

"When you saved me..." Heat and shattering glass... that's what I remembered. Then going up. "You jumped out of a window? We were sixty stories up..."

He closed his eyes. Came back. Then he slowly removed the red coat, just enough for me to see the black shirt underneath. The shirt had a slit down one side and I could see pale skin through the fabric.

Something shifted - a muscle I couldn't name. Out of nowhere, a huge black wing opened and stretched out, taking my breath away. The First held out his hand, palm up, gesturing towards the appendix.

"This," he said, "is the byproduct of the condition you cured... a horrible reminder of all I am—a failed experiment."

"All that you are"? I muttered, slowly walking towards him. "You are something more. Maybe not forthese- but stopmy, at least. And Angeal... and Sephiroth too, I bet. Shinra cannot define you. I mean, sure they'll try like hell because that's control, but at the end of the day, you're the one who decides who and what you are.

Genesis was still for a moment. He slowly looked over his shoulder, a slight smile appearing on his face.

“Wings of light and darkness spread far

It leads us to bliss, its eternal gift."

"I should know. You managed to go almost an entire conversation without mentioning LOVELESS, so you had to screw it up." I let out an exaggerated sigh. "...Can I play? I do."

"You have the attention span of a toddler," he sneered, but there was mirth in his eyes. "Ridiculous. I reveal a mutated appendix and your first reaction is to clip my wings."

"You're not a mutant," I replied, still running my fingers over the black feathers.

"Oh? What am I but a monster?"

There was real interest in his voice, but I heard the bitter tone. I was treading on a sensitive area here. And that's when I realized Genesis had let himself be vulnerable, he'd shown me something he hadn't even revealed to his two closest friends.

"It's you. Simple as that," I replied lowering my hand and remembering the words Lloyd had said so many times.

When I heard Genesis snort slightly, not satisfied with that, I let out a sigh.

"I'm serious. Look, you have friends who care about you, right? It doesn't matter if Shinra injects you with weird chemicals or makes you grow wings or whatever. Deep down, you'll still be Genesis."

"…I see."

His wing retracted, folding easily across his back as if it had never been there in the first place. He turned to me.

"Sentimental...but still an interesting answer." A thin smile. “If you had said that to Junon, I would have called you a fool. A dying man has no time for feelings.

"And now?" His eyes were impossible to read.

The smile widened into a full smile. "Time makes all the difference. Maybe I'm not really a monster - although I'm happy to play the role of those who did this to me. But I'm in no rush anymore. I don't need to force things when the catalyst is right down the road." My forehead."

My eyebrows shot up. "What?"

He was already turning, throwing his coat over his shoulders, and opened the door. "I'll be down. Don't waste time, we have things to do."

The door closed and I heard the sound of his footsteps disappearing down the hall. So I leaned against the wall, letting out a heavy sigh. Catalyst, right? Maybe that was true... maybe it all started when I met him. Things were definitely taking an unexpected turn, that's for sure.

As I dug through my bag for my outfit, I thought about the events of the night before. So much has happened... I was surprised it came out in one piece. We weren't out of the woods yet, as we still had to get back to HQ, but from Genesis' general demeanor, I got the feeling he was sure we were clear. I couldn't believe we had broken into the Science Department...

Although I was glad we did. A part of me wondered, however, if this would be the first of many stealth missions I'd undertake. After all, it wouldn't end up killing Hojo or dismantling his research or stopping Sephiroth and Jenova... there was still Shinra to deal with and the only way to destroy the company was to destroy it from the inside out the outside.

The very thought of the task I had undertaken was exhausting. It was easier to just focus on saving Zack, but knowing this guy, he would die fighting any of these threats, even if I saved him in the first place.

Now fully dressed in my SOLDIER uniform, I picked up my bag and slung my sword over one shoulder. Now that the Exsphere is recovered... it's time to face the rest of my problems head on.

You are not alone. Everything will be fine.

Not for the first time, I'd like to know exactly what Aerith meant by that.

Chapter 13: Beat the Angel

chapter text

The lobby of the inn was very quaint. with the front table folded to one side, most of the small room was taken up by several comfortable sofas and armchairs. Two people were sitting on one of the sofas and playing checkers on a small table.

Genesis was impossible to miss. he was sitting at a table by the window and the afternoon sunlight streaming in made his red hair seem to glow. Sitting there in his crimson jacket, ornate sword wrapped around his hip, drinking a cup of tea... was the mysterious stranger everyone was glancing at out of the corner of their eye.

Oh my God.I rolled my eyes in exasperation. Genesis couldn't just sit there and be a normal person. he had to get the attention of the room even if all he did was read the blasphemynewspaper.

I sat in the seat across from him. Hearing my arrival, he folded the paper and pushed it to one side, the corners of his lips curling into a slight smile.

The smile faded when he saw my expression. "What?"

"You know what," I said pointing at him. "Sitting right by the window where everyone can see you, the famous SOLDIER drinking tea - don't think I don't know what you're doing."

Now he just looked amused. "Maybe you should enlighten me."

"Have you ever tried to blend in at least once in your life?" I replied raising an eyebrow.

"Of course. But here, you don't have to," Genesis replied with a smile. "What I do is find witnesses to support our alibi. Did you really think my motives would be so shallow?"

Propping my elbows on the table, I rested my chin on my interlaced fingers and gave him a fake look. "Sometimes I think the reason you turn your back when you're walking away from people is because you like the way it makes your coat billow dramatically. So yeah. I think you like people to think you're a special snowflake. "

"Special Snowflake?"The look he gave me was incredulous to the point of being comical.

I gave him my best smile, happy to have ruffled his feathers. The constant smugness became somewhat nauseating after a while.

"Come on, I can't be the first to criticize you."

"You're the first to say it…only,"he said, his voice taking on a disappointed edge. "The banter never stops with you, does it?"

"It's like you can't even hear yourself speak," I replied, rolling my eyes. "Anyway, are we going to fight all afternoon or are you going to tell me exactly what we should do next?"

There was a split second when Genesis' eyes lit up and so did Ihe sworeHe was going to tell me that I started. Then he seemed to hesitantly resist the temptation, instead leaning back in his chair and giving me a more serious look. Somewhere in that computing brain of his, he was figuring out how to answer me, but for now we were moving on.

"We'll be taking a company vehicle back to headquarters in an hour or so," he finally replied. "Business as usual. My original plans were to take a few more precautions, but it looks like that won't be necessary – Shinra has more than enough on his plate with what happened this morning."

I blinked. Was there something I missed? "What happened?"

In response, he picked up the newspaper he had been reading before I approached. I normally avoided the local press because it was all Shinra propaganda, but now my eyes were drawn to the first headline:


"…What?" I left the gap, taking the paper from her hands. Had the Corel reactor already exploded? But I was there on a mission a while back!

My stomach turned as I read the article, which details how some Corel citizens became members of a terrorist organization. they sabotaged the reactor and then attacked the Shinra employees who came to investigate. The infantry developed and…

Oh. The picture on the front page was a panorama - a decimated Corel with Mount Corel in the background, a cloud of black smoke rising from where I knew the reactor was.

According to the report, the city was caught in the crossfire because the terrorists chose it as their battleground. The blame was clearly on the terrorists, with Shinra being the heroes trying to end the chaos... but I wasn't stupid.

With valve.

A thought suddenly occurred to me. the technicians we brought in were arguing about something, insisting that everything was fine when I asked. They made arrangements and left, but that valve they stuck on... was smoking.

I was sure of it now. The dragon's attack distracts me at the moment, but something was wrong with them tooleftSo, a stupid mistake made by Shinra employees.

And how did Shinra handle the mistakes?

The edges of the paper crumpled as I clenched my fists. First those poor Exbelois, and now this... both of which I could have avoided. This maintenance trip was the entire cause of the explosion, it turned the reactor into a ticking time bomb - if I hadwas paying attentionEU-!

"My friend, fate is cruel"Genesis commented, seeming to pick up on the nature of my thoughts.

"Sinra fucked up," I whispered quietly, dropping the paper back onto the table. "They messed up and Corel paid the price. An entire city was destroyed…monsters".

My superior smiled wryly, leaning forward. "Say what you want, but wethey areon the payroll. Ah, but this is an interesting topic. Let's go for a walk;"

I didn't protest, I got up to follow him as he put the tea on the table and headed for the door. This topic of conversation was very dangerous and people were more likely to be interested when I looked so hot.

We ended up walking out onto the streets of Kalm, finding a quieter area near the city walls before our conversation even began. It was just long enough for me to begin to suppress the anger that began to boil within me. This was not something that anger was going to help me with. I had to be cool and in control. I had to be able to make rational decisions.

"Wait," I said when we reached the edge of town, remembering something.

Genesis stopped, waiting for me. I reached into my bag and dug around until I felt the familiar shape of my Exsphere. then I removed it leaving the spherical blue stone in the palm of my hand.

"Now?" he asked with a hint of surprise.

I shook my head. "I'm not taking you back to the lion's den like this. Not after what happened."

Although it was in my bag, the stone in my hand pulsated with its own heat. He had power that I no longer needed... power that was too dangerous for me to handle.

"Do you know this thing is alive?" I murmured. "We used to call them… 'inanimate beings.' It's empty. They can't help but parasitize all life forms they come in contact with. I always wondered if they could feel lonely...”

"It may be alive, but it's a truly miserable existence," Genesis noted. "You saw what happened to those guinea pigs."

"So you saw this," I said quietly, holding the stone in my hand. "You saw what I did."

"What you did was merciful." His gaze hardened. "It was infinitely less painful than the fate that befell them. Many would have walked away to save themselves the guilt of getting their hands dirty—but you made the hard choice."

did i swallow his words were balm for a wound. I wanted to believe I had done the right thing, but regardless, I still carried the weight of the lives I took. As with all the lives I've taken to further my cause before, it was my responsibility now to make sure they didn't die in vain.

I threw the Exsphere to the ground, trapping it between two cobblestones. So I drew Kerberos, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

It had been a long time since the day this thing was imposed on me... I wasn't that person anymore. It was time to say goodbye to this part of my life. It was time to stop being a victim.

The sharp edge of the sword landed on the stone. it snapped and then broke into a dozen tiny pieces. I sheathed my blade and then bent down, picking up all but one of the pieces, which I buried in the dirt next to the path. Exsphere was useless and dead, but it wouldn't hurt to play it safe.

I held the remaining fragments in my hand for a moment, looking at them. All these things I had done to Aselia, wearing this... I was terrified most of the time, butbrave,I had no? Yes, next to my friends... for all my bullshit, I've accomplished so much.

Exsphere or no Exsphere, I was still that person. This time I was without my friends, but that didn't change the fact that I had faced the seemingly impossible and triumphed - and I could do it again.

"Well," Genesis said, snapping me out of my thoughts. "The stone has been retrieved and destroyed. There will be no more of these monsters, your conscience can be at ease. I believe I have arguedmyend of the deal... or was my service unsatisfactory?"

I could see where the conversation was going, but part of me was hesitant, so I instinctively resorted to my usual defense - daring him.

"Mm, four out of five stars I'd say." I told him with a shrug. "Less talkative, more hardworking."

"Your best joke" he commented dryly. "Delay, isn't it? As much as I appreciate our verbal sparring, I'm afraid there's no escape for you this time."

"All good,all good,"I groaned, planting my feet and turning to face him. "But we need a good place to talk."

"This is as good a place as any," he replied, gesturing around us. "They didn't follow us. This area has very little traffic and these houses belonged to miners; now they are abandoned."

I sighed, realizing that this was it - as usual, I didn't have time to really think about what I was going to say. But wasn't that always the case? It wasn't the first time I'd been cornered.

He was right though… I owed him an explanation. Genesis really proved its worth last night. he had seriously risked himself to help me. And after discovering the truth about himself, he learned firsthand what kind of organization Shinra really was. Going to the Science Department couldn't have been easy for him.

Even though he knew next to nothing about me, he trusted me. He was confident that Exsphere was what I said it was and that we were looking for it for the right reasons. Now it's time to trust him. If anything, last night made me realize that I couldn't do it alone.

"It all started when I was eighteen," I began quietly. "I woke up in a forest with a concussion and severe memory loss. That was the day I met Lloyd and the others."

"My brother?" Genesis urged.

I shook my head, but he didn't seem completely surprised – he was just very interested now.

"It isn't, though it might be," I told him. "No... it took me a long time to recover and remember who I was. I remembered... and I realized that I was far from home. It took me over a year to get back - a year of suffering, fighting and learning who I was and how far I was willing to go for everything I cared about. I had to grow up a lot."

"...'That time;" asked.

"This time...I found myself near Banora. I really don't know how I got there." I looked up at the sky, watching the clouds pass by - it was so hard to meet Genesis' gaze. "I just know that the house is out of reach again. You'd think something like that wouldn't happen to the same person twice, but my luck has never been exactly great."

I forced myself to turn and face him, answering his questioning look with a stern look.

"You asked who I am. You may not believe me, but here I am," I said. "My name is Brittany Furness. I'm not from this planet - the world I come from is called Earth. It's a place without magic or matter. I don't know why I'm here, but I know that the first time I was taken, was because I had the top biological makeup to feed this thing.” I picked up the remaining Exsphere fragments.

"...Though this whole thing is a long story in itself..." I sighed, pocketing the shards and looking away again. Genesis looked slightly offended. He almost seemed to be holding back - I could feel a snide comment coming, but he still waited, still giving me a chance to say "ha, gotcha" and call it all a joke.

It was tempting. But, no... I had started this path, and now I had to go to the end. My resolve was beginning to crumble. this was different from other times. I had known my friends in Aselia for much, much longer before I revealed this information to them, and even then it took a while for it to sink in. With Genesis, it was like jumping the shark. But it was he who persisted, throwing out words likeconfidencenot really knowing me, not understanding the amount of luggage he had checked in for.

"Anyway, that's why I avoid the Science Department like the plague," I explained. "If they did some serious testing on me, they'd probably see that things really weren't happening. I was also worried about my Exsphere, but I guess that's a weight off my shoulders at least."

Now I carefully gave him a sidelong glance. He was still righteousstaring.It was one of the few times I saw Genesis speechless. Normally you couldn't shut him up.

His eyes met mine and he snorted, crossing his arms.

"That's really remarkable, but it explains absolutely nothing. You're very well behaved for someone in a completely foreign world. The day we met… not only did you know my name, but you also knew how to cure the disease that Iyou doabout." His nose wrinkled slightly. "I suppose you're going to tell me that you're a near-omnipotent being."

"I can shoot lasers out of my eyes, too," I pointed out.

He gave me a look that showed he was done with my shit. The look made me nervous, because I was beginning to realize that our friendship was on the line because of it—a friendship I hadn't realized I valued so much until today. But I was a mess inside, as usual, and I didn't want to show it, so I hid my true feelings and rolled my eyes at him.

“Look, I wasdownloadingfor the important things," I told him. “You can save the scathing comments for later as I'm sure you have plenty. Jesus, isn't it obvious why I was trying to avoid this conversation?'

My tone should have been irritated or tearful to show that I was done toodeleshit—but there must have been a hint of pain somewhere, because I saw some of the sneers leave his face. His eyes were still sharp, watching me very carefully.

There was no other choice. I could not hide any information from him. Maybe we didn't get along too well after that, but if I openly refused to tell him about my warning… somehow I felt like going against Genesis would be the worst choice I could have made. It can even bring things back to their original plot. And… well, I really didn't mean to be your enemy.

Gathering my resolve, I continued.

“Oh shit…it's only going to get worse from here,” I admitted running a hand through my hair. "Okay, you're not allowed to interrupt until I'm done."

Now I looked steadily away from him, for I did not wish to see what expressions crossed his face as I spoke.

"It's a video game in a series called Final Fantasy - the seventh game in the series. Hugely popular, released over a decade ago... it's about a corrupt organization called Shinra and a man called Cloud fighting against it."

"Cloud?"He was kidding, I could hear it in his voice.

"What did I say?" I moaned.

"Fine." A sigh. "To continue."

"Anyway," I said, "this whole plot takes place years in the future, I think. There was a prequel that came out a few years ago called Crisis Core. Zack's the main character. You're in it, and so are Sephiroth and Angeal. That's how I found out about your degradation - in Crisis Core you've been suffering from it for years.

"ONEvideo game."

I forced myself to look at him again. it was hard to read his expression. There was definitely a lot of disbelief there, I could tell.

"I know." I replied, my laugh a nervous laugh. "I guess it would be easier to tell you I'm psychic, right?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You are from another world. And this world, as you say, is the setting for a fictional story. A story in which I am a character."

"It was the same as last time," I replied. "So this isn't the first time I've had this conversation with someone. In fact, in Aselia, they didn't even know what video games were, so it was fun to explain."

"The research program that produced me. What was it called?"

"Jenova Project G," I replied immediately, lowering my voice and looking around quickly before continuing. "Project Gillian. Angeal doesn't know, but Hollander told you. Project G was shut down due to the success of Project S, which produced Sephiroth. Hollander claimed he could cure him, but he really just wanted to use it to back to Shinra and Hojo Originally, you were going to defect at the end of the war, and your defecting would start the entire main plot of Crisis Core - but you found me before that happened.

Speechless again. He was clearly thinking hard and making connections because his eyes were focused and sharp and his forehead was furrowed.

"That's impossible," he said finally.

"All these?" I raised my eyebrows.

“I didn't tell anyone about my plans to defect. Hollanderconfidenceyou do. If you could somehow eavesdrop on our conversations, then the Turks would know, and I would never live to meet you.” Now he looked disappointed. "That's all.extremelyconfidential. How could you know?'

“Your humiliating injury was due to training with Angel and Sephiroth,” I continued. "You insisted on taking on Sephiroth alone. The fight got really heated and Angel stepped in. You kept trying to fight because you're a stubborn idiot, you went and broke Angel's sword and the tip cut your shoulder as it passed. he yelled at them "just a scratch" and left the room, chanting LOVE as usual."

He was now targeting me with a glare, but I don't think it was because I was calling him an idiot.

“Oh,” I added, “and you fought at Sister Ray. And you ruined it."

Speechless and agitated at the same time.

"A video game," he repeated.


"To beit's the story you expect me to believe,” he murmured, running a hand through his hair.

"Actually, I don't expect anything," I replied. It was hard not to start moving. "I just made a deal. You helped me, so now I'm telling you the truth. Genesis, I may not be a genius, but I'm not an idiot either. If I lied to you, I might come up with something a lot more convincing."

His lips curled and he let out what sounded suspiciously like a groan. Genesis, whining like an angry teenager? I was surprised and kind of not at the same time.

“Of course.the girl full of secrets couldNevergive a simple explanation - just a whole new mystery. Aunreasonablemystery."

"I'm sorry it's so inconvenient for you." I apologized, my tone laced with sarcasm. "I really messed up, honestly. Saving you was good - if I could just do it and go home I'd be fine. But no, I have to end."employeewith the only person who would have the power to bring the truth out of me. You know what else is great? Being forced to work for aseriouslymistook the corporation for the de facto world government and then injected me with a bunch of maco and cells from an evil alien.”

All evidence of Genesis' irritation disappeared at my fussing and now he had the audacity to smile.

"Beyond all the nonsense, this has the potential to be very interesting," he commented, bowing his head. “You cured me, robbing me of my immediate reason to join this stupid and flawed Dutchman. But let's see... given the fact that I defectedhistorymJacquesis the main character, I guess that would make me the antagonist."

He was right, but that didn't stop me from getting pissed off. Noaantagonist,Theantagonist. Genesis wouldn't settle for being a minor character, no sir. If he was going to be bad, go all the way.

"Where do you want to end up?" I asked, not wanting to tell him if he was right or wrong.

"You've changed things irrevocably," he pointed out, the smile turning into a grin. "Now the bad guy has taken you under his wing, and you're working for the enemy. What are you going to do now?"

I thought of Zach lying on his back in a pool of blood, the rain falling around him. Cloud holding Aerith before letting her sink into the water, her body returning to the flow of life. Tragedy after tragedy.

Frowning defiantly, I met his gaze. "Change some more."

Things went back to normal after that.


Genesis never fully revealed whether he believed anything I said or not. He went from disbelieving to troubled to doubting somehowintriguing,and I just didn't know what he was thinking anymore. But I think he saw some truth in my story because he didn't treat me like I was crazy. In fact, it was full of questions I couldn't answer.

He was right about the Corel reactor explosion distracting us. The Turks certainly smelled for a while after we turned, but no one could recognize us and no one had any reason to suspect us. While investigations into the hack were a high priority, the company had its hands tied trying to cover up the Corel fiasco at the same time. In the end, we managed to be quiet.

I wasn't sure how to interact with Genesis now that he knew my big bad secret, so I went back to my normal routine and tried to pretend nothing had changed. Shhh, sarcasm, LOVELY, wash, rinse, repeat. Other than the fact that he was watching me like a hawk in a constant attempt to prove (or more likely, disprove) my story, everything was pretty much the same.

Now that I didn't have to worry about the Exsphere problem, I returned to my original dilemma. How was I supposed to change things while staying under the radar and what exactly was I supposed to do?

In the end, I decided to wait and orient myself to Shinra first. It would probably be best to keep quiet for a while, considering the chaos that ensued almost immediately after I was hired.

It's been a week and a half since Genesis and I returned from Kalm. I had the day off; for the first time I had managed to sleep since a redhead left on an errand last night. Unfortunately, the lack of a morning workout made me feel a bit useless upon waking. I ate breakfast and wandered around the SOLDIER floor a bit, hoping to run into someone I knew.

Counsell was nowhere to be found - he usually kept himself busy, so that didn't surprise me. And Zack…well, I haven't seen Zack since I got back. Last I heard he was on some mission in the middle of nowhere. The place seemed very quiet without him running around bothering Angeal and challenging people to takeover fights.

Stopping at the living room window, I frowned and looked out over the city. I got bored? Yeah... I'm bored. I felt so hungry for a while alone for a while there, and here I didn't know what to do with myself.

Oh! Everyone had left and it was still relatively early... maybe that meant the training room was free. There was an idea.

Helping myself gently, I headed in that direction. My hopes rose when I passed only two other people on the road. this place waspassed awaytoday. Everyone was busy. Sweet!

I walked through the door into the training room vestibule, looking around to make sure no one was at the controls. Genesis showed me the ropes last time we were here and gave me a password to access more advanced settings if I wanted. Being her protégé could certainly have its perks. Although I had to wonder why Genesis was so willing to throw me into sticky situations while Angeal was busy warning Zack out of them. Some days I thought "throwing her to the wolves" was Genesis' favorite training style...

Oh well. While there were definitely days when I wondered if he really was trying to kill me during training, I wasn't going to give up, not when I was desperate to get stronger. If I wanted to save Zach and stop everything, I had to be able to defend myself against the best of the best. I wasn't sure I could get to this point with the limited time I had, but damn if I didn't try.

By entering the unlock code, I gained access to various second tier settings, simulated missions, and enemies. That Thirds had a very limited number of things they could do here without a superior gift, but this stuff for the second was awesome.

Look at all those enemies… Behemoth, Malboro, Eligor, Nibel Dragon… damn. If I wanted a challenge, I could have it. They were all ranked in order of difficulty, although I knew the names well enough to say it myself. I scrolled down, wondering what else was available—


My stomach flipped a little when I saw the last entry on the enemy list. Nopath…

Sephiroth. It was just his name, no difficulties listed next to him - of course, you couldn't rate him on a normal scale, he was way beyond all that.

This was the same simulation that Zack and I faced back then. This Sephiroth possessed one eighth of the power that the real deal had.

It is not wise to test the limits of your mind by putting yourself in situations where you will be overwhelmed.

Yes, Angel, mesaber…shit, was I really thinking that? Was I really that masochistic?

But it wasSephiroth.He was the man I would end up facing if everything blew up in my face. Would it really hurt to at least try, to feel the way he moved and his fighting style?

Screw it. I did it. If everything went wrong, I could abort the mission.

I felt a little bold when I pressed the button to lock the settings. While I could usually fight Genesis without getting completely demolished, this was on a whole different level. This was going to be a psychological battle as well as a physical one, because I was afraid of this guy.

Entering the training room I drew my sword. The door closed behind me and my surroundings changed. I was in upper Midgar again. The city setting was the best I could think of at the time, as I didn't feel like I was ready to tackle the terrain yet.

The square was silent. I stood, alert, sword at the ready.

"Enabling battle mode."

There was a brief moment of panic as I tried to figure out where he was hiding. Then I noticed the disturbance in the air about twenty feet in front of me and realized that the system was attracting it.

For a few seconds, its shape was just a series of numbers and computer symbols. then it solidified and all reminders that it was a simulation disappeared. He seemed as real as the man I had that shocking conversation with two weeks ago.

My eyes met his and my muscles wanted to freeze.

"Hmm." His lips curled into a smile and he fell into a ready-to-fight stance, holding Masamune.

I tried to imagine it, to put myself in the right frame of mind - a day when everything went wrong, and this was my last desperate attempt to make it all right. Genesis, Zack, and Angeal were dead, Cloud was recovering from mako poisoning, and my only option now was to kill Sephiroth.

Steeling my resolve, I pulled up Kerberos and booted up.

Sephiroth saw my clenched muscles and waited for the blow before it came. He was out of the way before I even got close and I was immediately forced to go on the defensive as he attacked from behind.

It was like the last time. Everywhere I looked there was Masamune. every time our swords clashed, I was forced to take a step back, and the attacks were so fast that it didn't take long for me to jump back.

Very fast.My legs couldn't take it and I stumbled. Sephiroth stuck me in the stomach. In that second a feeling of pure terror came over me - it was a simulation, but Iforgotten,and those glowing eyes were demonic, the stuff of nightmares,why did i do this -

The simulation ended with my defeat and my surroundings melted away, replaced by the familiar metal walls of the training room. I sat stunned for a minute before I groaned and fell onto my back.

Now I understand what Angel meant. There was a moment when it was no longer pretend for me. It couldn't be healthy to put my body through it on a regular basis.

My heart was still pounding and I inwardly scolded myself. This battle lasted five seconds - was it really the best I could do?

No. I had to keep my head on my shoulders. If I wanted to become strong enough to protect everyone, I had to overcome my fears.

OKAY. One more time. This time I would be more prepared.

Removing my PHS, I enter the commands to repeat the simulation with the same settings. Once again my surroundings disappeared, replaced by the familiar cityscape.

Sephiroth appeared the same way as before. He smiled when he saw me.

"Back so soon?" tease

My heart was racing even though part of me realized that the system would keep records of how many times I used the room.

However, the simulation's ability to speak - to act with self-awareness - was disturbing. As if facing Sephiroth wasn't scary enough, whoever designed it wanted to make him as intimidating as possible.

I didn't answer, just held Kerberos by my side for a moment. Sephiroth continued to smile as he watched me. Masamune was caught in his hand, but made no move to pick it up. He was waiting for me. Giving me the opportunity to move first again.

Don't screw it up this time,I thought, narrowing my eyes.

Gathering my courage, I flew and immediately feigned to the right. Sephiroth awaited my attack once again, stepping out of the way - but this time, when I actually attacked, our swords clashed.

"Heh heh." I earned an amused smile for my efforts. There was a split second when our eyes met.

He was fast. Incredibly fast. My only chance was to stop him from attacking, because once he put me on the defensive, it was over.

My mind was racing as I swung the Kerberos like my life depended on it, and Masamune was a blur, appearing everywhere I swung almost before I even moved my arms. like himto dowhat; Was I subliminally broadcasting my moves? I learned to automatically move with the flow of combat and not overthink my moves. was there any other tic he gave me? Could he really read my body so well, be able to predict my movements a split second before I make them? It's forto reactin this incredibly short time...

Gritting my teeth, I made every line in my small repertoire, trying to somehow balance him out. My use of Fire material was improving thanks to Genesis' hard training and I cast Fire 2, engulfing my opponent in flames. Anticipating the next strike, I cast another fire spell on my sword, the magic clinging to the blade. then I jumped into the air, spinning to use Hell Pyre.

Sephiroth emerged from the smoke of my last spell just in time to parry my next strike, our swords clashing and sending fire and sparks flying in every direction. I was thrown back by his force and barely managed to lift myself up into the air, my legs sliding backwards as I landed.

"You should try harder than that," the man commented as I raised my blade once more.

There was a moment when his eyes narrowed slyly and I took a deep breath, realizing that I had stopped for too long.

I heard the slight creak of leather sliding against leather as his muscles tensed, cat-like, ready to strike.

Then he was in me, as before.

Our swords clashed. My ears were filled with the sound of metal hitting metal and I lost myself in the chaotic dance, my muscles straining from the mere effort of keeping up with him. His blade sang as it sliced ​​through the air, almost too fast for my eyes to follow. I was panting. he was laughing, not even trying hard this time.

A particularly loud thump came and my feet were not positioned properly. I was thrown backwards, fell into the fountain in the middle of the square and completely destroyed it.

He didn't give me time to recover. I was dripping wet and there was water in my eyes and I was still struggling, my legs were moving very slowly due to the resistance of the water. He tossed me out of the fountain and I flew backwards, sliding across the cobblestone twenty feet before stopping, my sword clattering out of reach at Sephiroth's feet.

That smug smile was a constant presence on his face. He started walking towards me. the city lights behind her turned her form into a menacing silhouette, her glowing eyes the only distinguishing feature.

A feeling of dread came over me and I knew this was it. I was vulnerable, and the only plausible outcome for this battle at this point was to get crushed.

“Mission aborted,” I growled.

The words caused Sephiroth to stop, slowly lowering Masamune. This gave me time to withdraw my PHS.

The system recognized the words and now a confirmation screen appeared on the device. I pressed OK and the room dissolved around me once more, Sephiroth's creepy form disintegrating.

Once again, I lay on the cold metal floor of the training room, staring at my sword across the room. I lost; it wasn't that strange. But this time I read the situation and reacted correctly. If I did this every time, I wouldn't have to deal with the trauma of total burnout and simulation violence.

Every time?Was I really thinking about doing this again?

Oh… of course it was. Because I had to rise to the challenge. I was facing an incredibly difficult task, so it only seemed right that my training was as difficult as I could find. It was the next best thing to fighting Sephiroth himself. I could practice fighting him without ever really having tointeractwith him.

Correctly. I couldn't give up. I had to keep trying… but that was certainly enough excitement for today.

The sound of the training room door opening made me look up.

“I was wondering who was here...Brittany?

It was Counsel who entered. I offered a tired smile, glad to see him.


He took off his helmet and tucked it under his arm, raising his eyebrows at me. The Second shook his head in disbelief.

“I can't believe it... I know the Commander is away on a mission so I was hoping to find Angel. But that was ityoutaking over the Sephiroth sim?'

I blinked, sitting up. "You couldn't tell?"

"I joined right after the battle was over, but I saw what the settings were," he explained. "Sephiroth, uh… you really are a glutton for punishment. Even with a fraction of your power, Genesis and Angeal are the only people who have managed to defeat you. Not for lack of trying – it's a competition between Seconds The Biggest lifetime is twenty minutes.

Curious, I stopped to check my phone. I had lasted... five minutes and sixteen seconds. Oh

“Damn,” I muttered.

"Five minutes?" Counsell stopped reading before helping me up. “Pretty good for a third, if you ask me. But then again, youtertraining with the Commander".

"Still not good enough," I sighed as I walked over to retrieve Kerberos. We left the training room together and I immediately felt my muscles begin to relax.

"Don't be too hasty," Counsell laughed. "This Sephiroth sim is a completely different caliber of enemy. The movement patterns are insane. There were rumors for a while that he was impossible to beat - at least until Genesis proved them wrong."

"To brag, I'm sure." I replied rolling my eyes. I watched him walk into the room with a smile, dozens of Seconds gathered outside the window, watching him in awe. Oh yeah, he probably loved every second of it.

"Anyway," I said, "didn't you want to use the training room?"

Counsell shook his head. "Actually, I was looking for Zack - he was supposed to be back from his mission today, but he was late and didn't respond to my messages. I was hoping to find him with Angeal."

"Huh." He wasn't all that different from Zack, so I couldn't care less. He was probably still somewhere in town.

The Second shrugged his shoulders. "Well, anyway, he knows where I'll be. Are you free? I was just going over to Cara's to watch the game, if you want to join."

Cara's was a small pub tucked away in Sector 2. It was one of the better than average places I had heard of. SOLDIERS were frequent customers, but most other Shinra employees avoided them.

The race was of course referring to the Chocobo races. It was one of the most popular sports in the area. I didn't follow much, but the matches were fun enough to watch.

"Of course," I said, smiling. "To be honest, I'm pretty bored. Just let me change..."


The sudden scream made me jump and I looked up to see an excited Zack running towards me. Where the hell did it come from? Because it was... oh God, it wasn't going to stop!

All I managed to get out was a horrified scream before Zack tackled me, nearly knocking me over. He shook me to the ground and I felt myself slowly being crushed in his arms.

Instead of helping me, Counsell just laughed, the bastard. "What is all this;

"I'm dying… help…" I mumbled.

Hearing my protests, Zac finally released me, holding me by the shoulders with a bright smile.

"You arebetter,Do you know?"

"I am;" I blinked. "What are you…" He was still talking, too excited and happy to be quiet.

“—I mean, it iscute!The way she smiles and laughs,Wow,where did you find it? No, that's silly, the church obviously, but…” He stopped mid-sentence, bouncing in his seat. "I'll help her make a flower cart tomorrow and we'll have a date on Saturday."

Suddenly, it clicked and I felt myself slowly smiling. "You met Aerith. I knew you two would hit it off."

“I really owe you one,” he said in a sad voice, finally letting go of me.

Counsell tilted his head, putting two and two together. "I would never think of you as a matchmaker."

"I'm full of surprises," I laughed. Happiness swelled inside me. I was so happy that Zack and Aerith finally got together. It looked likebomlook at it this way. And now I had an excuse to visit her!

"Okay, Zach, stop fainting," Counsell said, laughing to himself. his friend was still smiling uncontrollably. "We have a match to watch."

"Oh, right! It starts in fifteen minutes, doesn't it? We better get going," he said, getting a little serious. "You're coming with me, right?" The question was directed at me.

"Of course," I replied.

We started walking towards the elevator. It wasn't long before Zach started babbling about Aerith again. Kunsel and I exchanged knowing glances and nodded, smiling all the while.

Spending time with them was fun, relaxed and just…Comfortably.It was good to have friends again.

Time passed surprisingly quickly. The weeks went by in the blink of an eye and I was busy. Between missions, frequenting the library, training with Genesis, hanging out with Kunsel and Zack, and avoiding Sephiroth while fighting his simulated counterpart on the side, there was never a dull moment.

At first it seemed impossible, but I found my place at Shinra. Gender-related insults fell off my back now, and with Jace dead, they came less and less often. No one wanted to mess with a Genesis disciple because he took everything personally andReallyhe liked to get revenge in creative ways.

I wasn't exactly happy, but I wasn't unhappy either. I liked the way things were. I loved seeing Zack alive and happy, hanging out with Aerith. I loved seeing Kunsel in her element, always helping people and gossiping and texting one person or another. I loved the glimpse of Genesis, Angeal and Sephiroth off duty, grabbing a beer like any normal trio of friends.

I wish I could take this moment and hold it forever. The more I enjoyed myself, the more I dreaded seeing everything fall apart. So I continued to train harder and harder, fighting sim-Sephiroth until my muscles screamed, practicing matter with Genesis until my mind felt like it would crack under the strain. I got better…but not fast enough, never fast enough.

Then one day the message arrived. It was from Lazard.

Brittany -

I have something to discuss with you. Please come to my office as soon as possible.

I stood there looking at my phone with a slight frown on my face. I was about to head into town to upgrade my arsenal of materials, but that could wait. What could the director want? Normally I only saw him during mission briefings. It's been a while since I've actually been in his office.

Lazard didn't have to wait long for me. it was fifteen minutes after he sent the message that I arrived at his office. Not much has changed since I was last here, although I was surprised to find Genesis waiting for me there as well. He offered me a decidedly mysterious smile as I entered, but said nothing, instead nodding towards Lazard's desk.

"Brittany." The director smiled. "Consistent as always, thanks."

"Oh, no problem, sir," I replied, smiling politely. "What exactly do you want me to discuss?"

"You've worked very hard for the company these past few months," Lazard began. "I've been informed that you operate above the level of an ordinary third party. That's not much of a surprise - after all, even killing a Zolom is a second rate mission. Having a good understanding of how SOLDIER works - you seem comfortable."

He paused for a moment, so I rubbed the back of my neck, a little uncomfortable with the praise, but somewhat happy for the validation of my abilities. A small, insecure part of me still saw myself as a helpless teenager who didn't know what to do. it helped to have someone tell me otherwise.

"I suppose so, sir," I quipped. Me behind meswearI heard a quiet hum - shut up, Genesis. "But what exactly…?"What exactly do you want to get?was what I wanted to say, but he sounded a little cocky and impatient, so I hesitated mid-sentence and bit my lip.

Lazard reached to adjust his glasses before pushing a piece of paper onto the table.

"Genesis recommended you for second place. I approve your request - congratulations, SOLDIER. You have been promoted."

"What…;" My eyes widened and I picked up the paper looking at it. It was exactly as the director said. the First had indeed sent a formal request. He had guaranteed me.

Now I looked over my shoulder at Genesis. he was smiling, arms crossed, his whole expression sayingYou can thank me now.

I wasn't sure how to feel. Was it something good or bad? It was strange since that wasn't really something I was looking for. Still, a small part of me was surprised and proud. SECOND CLASS. I was on Zack's level now.

"Wow," I finally said, turning to the manager.

Lazard straightened the papers, still smiling a little at my surprised answer. "I'll send your outfit to your room – it might take a day or two, as yours has to be custom made, of course. Be sure to return your old gear as soon as you receive it."

"Fine," I replied, still speechless.

"And with that out of the way…" He straightened a little, watching me. "I know this is a little sudden, but I have an assignment for you - your first assignment as Second. You see, we recently hired a new recruit, and the process for him will be pretty much the same as you. I'd like you to host and show how it works. .

My mood dropped a bit and I shook my head uncertainly. I wasn't much of a teacher and had a bad feeling about how a new recruit would handle the only female SOLDIER as his mentor. But if Lazard wanted me to do it, then I was up to the task.

"Okay, I'll do my best," I said, trying to cheer myself up. "What is his name?"

"Clashes in the Cloud".

I tried to hide my shock. My mind ran through half a dozen images and memories and then I gathered my thoughts. somehow things changed andCloudI wasSOLDIER,CumCloud,Oh man. And would I be your mentor? That was - that was amazing.

"...Genesis? Is something wrong?" Lazard frowned.

I turned to see that Genesis' eyebrows were raised and he was looking at the manager as if he had completely lost his mind.

The First immediately shook. the expression disappeared from his face, replaced by an all too familiar look of disdain.

“What an absurd name it isCloud?"

Chapter 14: Living Heritage

chapter text


Sitting on one of the benches, my head tilted back to catch the sunlight streaming in through the window, I smile slightly.

"By whom?"

A laugh. "You sent him here on purpose, didn't you?"

"Oh this." I sat back so I could look at her.

Aerith was on her knees, caressing the flowers with gentle fingers. Her braid fell over her shoulder and she tossed it back before returning to work. In her hair was a very familiar pink ribbon.

He smiled as he spoke. "He's really sweet. He even helped me make the flower cart I always use."

"I know, he told me." I replied laughing. "Sometimes he can't stop talking about you."

"Really?" This made her look at me a little too quickly and her cheeks reddened a bit. But she looked happy, and I knew she was in love, and that gave me a severe case of hot hugs.

"Seriously," I confirmed.

He looked at me for a moment, eyes shining, then looked back at the flowers with a small laugh. "No way."

“He says you arewoohootI sang.

"To stop!" She laughed again, her blush deepening.

"Well well."

Grinning, I gave in, leaning back into the seat. It was nice to come down and visit again. Aerith was a sweetheart and reminded me of Colette in many ways. This was only the fourth time I'd seen her since we met, but I felt like I'd been friends with her for a while. Coming here was kind of relaxing.

We were silent for a minute or so as he worked and I tried to enjoy the moment, to get a mental picture. A peaceful moment with Aerith in the old church. Hearing the sound of her softly humming a song to herself as she careened towards the garden.

I swallowed hard, closing my eyes for a second as a sudden urge to cry hit me. Moments like this... slip through your fingers, drift like dust in the wind. Time passed and a day passed,someday i might have to watch you die

"Have you met him yet?"

I was distracted by the sudden question. I needed to catch my breath before sitting back down, not wanting my sadness to show on my face.

"WHERE?" I asked.

He straightened up, giving me a curious look. "I… I'm not sure. But the Planet seems to like him so much… I'm sure you'll know who he is when you see him."

Who else? My eyes widened a little. "You mean Cloud?"

"Cloud."He tried the name, offering me a bright smile. "That's him."

The Planet knew him... could he see his future, his heroism? It was so comforting to see Aerith smile like that, like she knew on some level it was him, it had to be him with that familiar name on her lips.

"I was supposed to meet him today." I told her taking out my PHS to check the time. “In...a.OhI was late."

Aerith laughed at me. "Too busy wandering?"

"I've been hanging out with Zach a lot," I groaned, stumbling to my feet.

"You're right. He was late too," the girl said, lifting her head. "He should have been here ten minutes ago."

"Okay, I have to get out," I said, a little panicked. I was late for my appointment with Cloudmalmost intruding on a date? It's not good.

Then I remembered something. "Ah, but before I go… can you keep a few things for me? Just in case."

"Of course," she replied. "What is this?"

I held out a small pack of things, wrapped in my old survival blanket. All the evidence of my ancestry was there: my wallet, my old iPhone, and a single piece of Exsphere. The remaining fragments were buried in various places around the world while I was on missions.

"You can look if you want," I told her. "I don't mind. Just...please keep it hidden somewhere. If the day comes when I can go home, I'll want these things back."

"You can count on me," she said, tucking the package under her arm. "Now shut up! You're late."

"Right," I said, springing into action. "Slow! I have to go!"

He was laughing as I ran out the door. I passed a very interesting Jacques on the way. At this rate, I'd be twenty minutes late...oh, poor Cloud would be sitting alone in the briefing room wondering if he was in the right place.

Damn it! I ran faster, hoping to catch the next train on the upper level.Wait for me, Cloud!

When I finally returned to HQ and entered the SOLDIER floor, I was relieved to see a familiar blonde sitting at the table in the briefing room, looking bored. Ugh... he'd probably be at least a little annoyed with me, but at least he didn't assume I wouldn't come and give up.

I had to stop for a moment and get my bearings before entering. It didn't matter how many times this happened - meeting people I already knew hadn't gotten any easier. It was Cloud now, and Cloud was another big figure in my youth, even before Zack. Even before I played FFVII, I watched my brother and Cloud was always theπιο κουλ,the guy with the spiky hair, the motorcycle and the big sword.

Now he was just a cute teenager, somewhat shy and much less damaged. Was it weird? how did he manage to become a SOLDIER anyway?

Well, enough memories. The Cloud I knew barely scratched the surface of the Cloud I was about to encounter. I was excited to meet another of my heroes, even if it was long before him.has beena hero. oh i wasafterwardkidnapping him and making him join the merry crew I formed with Kunsel and Zack.

No! Stop smiling. I should have at least had the decency to look contrite when I walked in. First impressions were important.

Straightening my expression, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before walking to the door of the briefing room.

The blonde looked up as I entered. I hesitantly raised my hand in greeting.

"Hi. Sorry to keep you waiting." Now I moved closer, lowering my hand and extending it towards him. "Cloud, right?"

"…Yes." He shook my hand, meeting my gaze. His eyes flashed with mako cures, sharp and alert and… why did he look so wary? I wasn't going to bite.

"My name is Brittany Furness - SOLDIER, Second Class," I replied introducing myself with a smile. "Nice to meet you, welcome to SOLDIER. I'll show you around and help you settle in."

"Thank you," he replied.

I tilted my head, suddenly understanding how Zach must have felt when he first met me. I was full of questions and wanted nothing more than to talk to him, but Cloud was strangely reserved. Or maybe it was just his normal nature - he never seemed to be the overly talkative type, even as a child.

However, I would consider ithe hadto be overflowing with emotion at this moment. Hadn't he just fulfilled his childhood dream? He had become a SOLDIER. now he could become as strong as Sephiroth.

Well, I'd have to introduce him to Zach soon - that would get him to open up. But in the meantime...

For the next few minutes, I was busy showing him how to connect to the company network using his PC and his PHS. He took it easy enough. In the back of my mind, I thought about all the things Kunsel had done for me in my first week and started developing a simple mental to-do list. It was already certain that I would accompany Cloud on his first mission. I wondered what it would be.

"As you can see, it's quite simple," I said. "I'm not going to give you a long lesson or anything, as it looks like you can figure the rest out on your own. Okay, next I'm going to give you a quick tour and show you around your barracks. It might seem like a lot at first , Nevertheless." but believe me, you will…”

“Ah.Leavesare you."

"No," I said stiffly.

In front of me, Cloud blinked. The same reticence was there, but I could see curiosity and surprise as well now. He was looking next to me.

I turned, climbing Genesis, who had just walked into the room like he owned the place.

"You don't meddle in it." I pointed to the door. "Out. I'm busy."

"YouI never intended for him to show up for training this morning,” the First purred, eyes glinting dangerously."All that awaits you is a bleak tomorrow, wherever the winds blow."

"I texted you," I said irritably. "Icountedyou I was busy".

"And there was such a miserable lack of detail in your explanation that I felt inclined to investigate," he replied cheerfully, his eyes darting around the room. So they settled in the Cloud and lit up with interest. “Oh.Cloud,that too?"

"I only wanted five minutes," I whined. "Five minutesto place the beginner. You couldn't even give it to me." I knew all week he was going to do this, but I seized my moment. He was very curious about Cloud, thehero,and he could not resist.

"And now he knows a Prime - what better introduction to SOLDIER could there be?" the redhead smiled then turned to extend her hand to Cloud. "Genesis Rhapsode. Most people call me Commander - please ignore my student's blatant disrespect."

"Says the guy who crashes a meeting without warning," I muttered under my breath.

Cloud squeezed his hand, watching him carefully. "Nice to meet you sir."

"There is no hate, only joy

Because the Goddess loves you

Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds."

Now the blonde's eyes widened in surprise at the Genesis recital. "WITHOUT LOVE…?"

The First smiled. "Ah, so the boy is cultured. Have you read the poem?"

"A long time ago," Cloud replied calmly. "This verse..."

Genesis was still a mystery, but I knew itexactlybecause he said those lines and I wanted to punch him in the nose. How should a beginner react when hearing words likewhatof a famous SOLDIER First?

"Genesis," I huffed. "I'm trying to work."

He sent me a wicked smile. Of course, he came here too because he was now an expert at pissing me off. This was war, of course, but it had never been openly declared. Genesis appreciated the subtlety. I was determined to beat him at his own game.

The First offered a broad bow, always the gentleman. “You have minemore honestSorry." Not sincere. "Fine. I'll leave you with that, then. Good luck, Cloud Strife."

"Thanks," I sighed, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. At least he wouldn't be hanging around being a nuisance. He probably had other things to do.

Genesis paused just before walking out the door. “What about Brittany?


Sent averyBad, look at me. "We start early tomorrow. Double time to make up today. Five o'clock sharp—be on time or ItheI'm waking you up."

The thought of Genesis waking me up that morning made me shudder.

"I'll be on time," I told him, grinning.

With that, Genesis smiled, turned on her heel and walked out of the room. The door closed behind him and I was alone with Cloud once more.

Shoulders slumped, I let out another sigh. I was trying to look a little decent in front of the person I was mentoring, but it seemed like all hope had gone out the window. Oh well. I think sotimeasking too much, hoping that maybe Cloud himself would think about itmylike kinda cool.

"Good." I rubbed the back of my neck and turned to him. "The welcome is warm, huh? You got Genesis's attention."

“Is it good or bad? Cloud asked dryly. Oh my dry humor? Sarcasm? If he had the ability to be sassy, ​​he would fit right in here.

I made a seesaw motion with my hand. "Uhh, depends on how you look at it. But while you're here, it doesn't hurt to have friends. Gen is the one who recommended me for second place - if it wasn't for him, you'd probably have some lame SOLDIER for a mentor."

Like Kunsel... except Kunsel would probably do a better job. He wasn't needlessly snapping at stupid things like me.

"Anyway, I won't waste much more of your time," I said, motioning for him to follow me. "Let's go."

The blonde dutifully got up and followed me as I showed him all the different facilities. He seemed intrigued by the training room, so I promised to take him back soon. Other than that, he listened to my explanations in relative silence, taking it all in.

When the tour ended, we ended up back where we started. In the end, Cloud had no questions for me—none but one. He asked me to tell him how I ended up enlisting in SOLDIER. Honestly, this story turned out to be the biggest part of our entire date. Cloud didn't react nearly the same way as Zack. when I mentioned Zolom, he raised his eyebrows, but was impressed, not awed.

It was kind of… annoying. I wasn't sure how I expected Cloud to play, but they reminded me of his scenes in Crisis Core. he answered Zach's conversations quite easily and they laughed too. It was before the Nibelheim incident changed everything, so he had bright eyes and a quick smile.

AstiveDid Cloud end up being recruited into SOLDIER? At first, he couldn't get in when he tried, but this time he really did.explored.What had happened? I somehow felt that this was very important and had a lot to do with his mood today.

After we said goodbye, I saw him step back with a worried expression. My main goal was to save Zack, but I also intended to prevent the Nibelheim fire, to protect Cloud's home. I wanted to save him too in a way. But somehow, it just... seemed like it was too late.

My brow furrowed and I clenched my jaw, picking up my phone and scrolling through the contact list until I found a certain name. Inecessaryto find out what was going on with Cloud.


"Hey Counsell." I immediately relaxed. "Are you still at Foxwoods? There's something I wanted to talk to you about."

"Cloud Strife? Sure, I've heard one or two."

Counsell and Zach were still at the bar when I arrived, and now we were all seated at our usual table. Zach was returning from a visit to Aerith and Kunsel was gathering information on his latest mission. People were so used to seeing him here that they sometimes forgot who he was, so he always came here to listen to the conversations. He had too much mercy to be a good Turk...but he certainly had all the right skills.

“Hey, isn't that the recruit you're supposed to be showing off? Zack crossed his arms, frowning at me in disbelief. "What are you doing digging dirt for him?"

I raised my hands. "It's not like that. It just seems... it's hard to explain. I was just wondering how he ended up being recruited. Something's not right. Call it intuition."

"Well, he seems innocent enough," Kunsel commented. "He's sixteen, he grew up in Nibelheim. He came to Midgar to visit a friend. The Turks were watching him when he was fighting some monsters in the slums. His use of matter was—well, the same as yours. Pretty impressive for a kid without maco treatments'.

"What?"My eyebrows shot up.

Counsell smiled. "Yeah. Low stamina, but he used a lot of second tier spells. He's got real promise, I think he'll be good for you. After all, now you'll have to work twice as hard to make sure he doesn't get caught."

Too late.I didn't say anything, but I had actually only mastered tier two fire spells. I was very close to the release of Bolt 2, but it wasn't there yet. I mean, my arsenal of material was a lot more varied than it was at first, and I liked to think I had a pretty good grasp of things, but...Cloud was already more skilled than me.

"Hey, looks like a real diamond in the rough," Zach commented, leaning forward in his seat. "Be sure to introduce him to us one of these days. I bet it would be fun to fight him. By the way, you still owe me a match!"

Did I even with it? I had completely forgotten to offer to go with him a few days ago. The most I did with him was practice missions in the training room. In fact, I've never had a face-to-face.

"Well, I'm single," I told him with a challenge in my voice. "And I missed practice today."

The teenager's eyes lit up. "You're up."

It's been an exhausting two weeks. It felt like I was always working out. after the practice match with Zack and the horrific three-hour Genesis torture the next day, my muscles never had a chance to recover. After that I went into a particularly tough solo mission and then more training with Genesis and then constant battles with sim-Sephiroth.

At the end of this terrible first week, reallyto strike, to strikehe.

Months passed with me fighting him at least four times a week, usually putting in two to five attempts at a time, depending on how much I could stand it. After a while, I was able to hold out more and more in combat by reading their movements better. I realized that his defenses were impenetrable - the only key to victory was finding a way to catch him off guard, even for a split second.

After fighting him constantly, I was finally able to understand enough of his attack patterns to figure out what might work. It took dozens of tries to figure out the timing of my attackjustright - and that day I finally got it. for the first time it wasmydrill bladedelethe trunk, seeing her eyes widen in shock.

I spent the rest of the day walking around as if in a dream, replaying that moment in my mind over and over, wondering if it really happened or if I was just imagining it. I returned the next day, intending to try to win him over again, just to be sure.

Someone had updated the system. Underneath the first Sephiroth sim was a second option: Sephiroth 2.0. Doing some research, I discovered that this version claimed to possess a quarter of Sephiroth's true power.

Sephiroth 2.0 had the unique ability to kill me twice as fast as before. He also liked to appear randomly - sometimes materializing in plain sight like the other guy always did, and sometimes just jumping out of the bushes and cutting my arm off. And I thought the first yes was absolute hell...

The second week was even more difficult than the first. Cloud was taking on his first missions, so I was confined to the city to accompany him. This meant being present at HQ every day, which also meant the triple whammy of facing Genesis in the morning, fighting the new and improved sim-Sephiroth in the afternoon, and then fighting monsters with Cloud. I slept like a corpse.

My suffering wasn't over, but at least today was the last day I officially taught Cloud. After that, he was on his own as far as the company was concerned. I was going to continue acting as his mentor (it was really fun to have someone to call "novice"), but I was glad I didn't have to do a bunch of extra quests anymore.

Cloud proved to be as powerful as Kunsel said it would be. He ran out of energyquickly,but he was definitely getting better. I had no idea how he could use second tier spells with that level of resistance. The second level required a good understanding of how to use the material. Learning to use matter took practice, and practicing built stamina. It didn't make sense - it was as if an intermediate step had been skipped somewhere.

When it came to sword fighting, he was decent, if a bit clumsy. Once again he was improving. He was definitely on par with the other Thirds, if not better. I could see it going to #2 someday. it reminded me a lot of how I was when I joined.

but that was itCloud.He wasn't able to do SOLDIER at first. I mean, yes, I seriously changed things by saving Genesis, but how could that have affected Cloud? Had I done something else without realizing it? It was like he was a completely different person than the boy I remembered from Crisis Core.

I gave him a sideways glance as we walked down the corridor at the east end of the SOLDIER floor. He was staring straight ahead, looking as deep in thought as I was. So thoughtful... when would I see that cute smile?! it was notexhibition.He should be young and impressive.

"What is this?" Oops, he had noticed my look and now he gave me this weird look.

"Don't you ever smile?" I let it slide.

He looked at me for a moment and then his lips twitched. I groaned.

“It was painful, rookie, justpainful."

"Maybe if you'd stop calling me a rookie," he suggested.

"It will never happen," I replied cheerfully. "I mean, unless you want me to think of another nickname."

"No." Cloud said it a little too quickly. he clearly saw the danger in this.

Our walk led us to the entrance of the training room. I told him several times that I would come here with him, even though we were both very busy by now. Genesis was on a mission today so I had some free time on top of my usual duties.

"Well, here we are," I said, entering the hall with him. "This is the control room. You can adjust the settings of the main chamber from here. There are many different options to choose from, although as a Third you will need a superior with you to access many of them. I can show you a few things tomorrow, but for now I'll just pick one of the preset practice missions to save time.”

I fiddled with the controls for a second or two, having gotten pretty good at it now after spending so much time here.

"Is it always this empty?" Cloud seemed interested, looking through the chamber's observation window.

"Only certain times of the day," I told him. "Early morning is usually a good bet. Angeal usually gets a regiment of Tuesdays here in the afternoon. Most of the seconds will be here at night and the middle of the night is usually when they mess with the system. I like to come in every such a." when, so I can try new programs first. Well... except when Hojo is here."

A pause. "...The head of the Science Department."

"Yeah. I think they help design some of the monsters used in the simulations. Makes sense I guess." I replied, straightening up. "But listen, newbie - stay away from Hojo. And I mean that literally; if you see him on this floor, turn your back and walk the other way. It's bad news."

"I will keep that in mind."

Ugh, enough of this serious talk. The thought of Hojo made me feel a strange mixture of anger and chills, and Cloud looked very tense at the warning. I opened the door to the main hall and motioned for the blonde to follow me inside.

"Okay, on a lighter note, look at this," I said with a smile.

We entered further into the hall and our surroundings dissolved. Cloud looked around in surprise as the metal floor was replaced by the solid and cracked earth of the wasteland surrounding Midgar. Although it was morning outside, the sky was red here, the sun began to set.

I've been loving this landscape lately as it was another relatively easy terrain to deal with during a close fight. there were some rocks and rock formations, but the ground underfoot was mostly flat. It was a good place to fight especially large monsters.

Last time I was here, I tested casting accuracy by seeing how well I could cast Fire 2 on a scattered group of Great Horns. When I was in the control room I pressed the button to resume my last setup so that should be interesting. Before I had found a good vantage point so I could see them from afar. now we were just going to be surrounded.

"How far does it go?" Next to me, Cloud was staring at the horizon.

I shrugged. "I've never really tried it, but I've never hit an invisible wall or anything like that. I think every landscape is a few square miles."

"It seems a little excessive," he commented.

"Shinra always aims to impress," I told him with a snort. "Anyway-"

"There's something here." Cloud cut me off, frowning and looking around.

I became a little more alert, looking around as well. “Yeah, that's why... we might be surrounded by monstersveryof monsters".

He paused long enough to give me a displeased look. "Thanks for the warning."

I flashed a nonchalant smile. "I'm just keeping you on your toes, rookie. You should . . ."

Something was wrong. Very quiet.Very quiet.

All evidence of Cloud's previous expression is gone. He was looking over my shoulder, eyes wide.

A deep laugh. "Welcome back."

Shit!Wrong application!

He was already behind me. there was no way he could avoid being stabbed in the back. Maybe if this was the first version of sim-Sephiroth... but then again it wasn'tTo closebe fast enough to overcome this.

Cloud then took a deep breath, catching me roughly and practicallygamebehind him, raising his own blade just in time to collide with Masamune. I gasped when he actually held back for a moment, though it looked like he was choking, every metal hitting metal a desperate attempt to survive.

"Cloud!" I shouted. what was heact?I didn't want him to end up losing his first time in the training room - what a miserable first experience that would be, and especially against sim-Sephiroth!

The blonde jumped back. he flipped through the air and landed on his feet next to me, readying his sword again and immediately moving to stand in front of me. He and Sephiroth clashed swords over and over and then Clown was stabbed in the shoulder and thrown to the side, butI woke upand went back for more, a wild look in his eyes.

"Cloud!"I couldn't get him to move away. He wasn't listening. “Damn, abort the mission!

Sephiroth backed off and became all defensive, giving me enough time to draw my PHS and confirm the command. Our environment crumbled to nothing. It was shocking and sudden, and then Cloud was standing in the middle of the room, panting. He looked around with blind eyes, dropped his sword and grabbed a phantom wound.

"Hi," I whispered, my heart pounding. I rushed over, grabbing his shoulders and giving him a good shake. "Cloud. Let's…!"

He let out a shuddering breath and finally appeared out of thin air, meeting my gaze. "Sephiroth. Where-" He looked around the empty room and his shoulders slumped.

"Part of the simulation," I said and released him. "I'm sorry, I – when I chose one of my presets, I must have chosen the wrong one. That's definitely Sephirothbrutal,sometimes it appears out of nowhere. Butmedicine,Cloud…"

"Simulation…" he repeated, running a hand through his bangs.

"Are you ok?" I asked coldly.

"I'm fine." Although he looked a little flustered, he seemed to be himself again. "I just…"

“You didn't expect this. I know".

I found myself making excuses for him, trying to rationalize what I had just seen, but it didn't work. Everything was falling into place. Everything makes sense now. The way he reacted, it wasinstinctive.Sephiroth was the hero of the Wutai War. he was definitely terrible, but he was on our side. But Cloud's first action was to put himself between me and him, yesprotectmy.

He had seen Sephiroth prepare to attack behind me and it was Aerith to him again.

You are not alone. Everything will be fine.

“I can fix the settings,” I offered, my mouth still moving even though my mind was numb with shock and disbelief. "Do you want to try again?"

Unsurprisingly, he shook his head. "Why were you fighting Sephiroth?"

"Ah...yeah, Sephiroth has a quarter of the power of the real deal," I replied. "I, uh, go up. Someday I'd like to prove I'm a match for the real thing."

"You have to stop".

"Huh?" I raised my eyebrows but Cloud was already gone. "Hello cloud..."

He stopped at the door, not looking at me. "Sorry. I just remembered there's something I need to do."

I gritted my teeth, not liking this, not knowing how to react. Was it really...? It changed everything. But what... what was I supposed to do?

"Beginner!" I finally called before he could go.

This time he looked over his shoulder at me, silently.

"I expect you back here for training tomorrow." I told him in what I hoped was a firm tone.

For a moment I thought he was just going to leave without an answer. Then I saw it - he met my eyes, giving a sharp nod.

Then the door closed behind him, leaving me alone in the chamber.

Still feeling numb, I stood there for a good thirty seconds before leaving. I ended up going back to my room and throwing myself into bed, staring up at the ceiling.

Serious mood. That ever wary look in his eyes. Very skilled at the material, as if he had picked it up and mastered it without having to practice. Clumsy sword skills - always trying things above your current level. He moved as if he was uncomfortable with his own body.

Because he wasn't sixteen, right? Maybe her body was, but those eyes told a very different story.

Deus,the way he reacted to Sephiroth.

"Time traveler," I whispered up to the ceiling.

Really? This boy - could he really be the man who lived it all? And if it was, what did that mean? How did he come back? Many questions, few answers.

Aerith knew. That's what he meant. I thought I was alone. I was the variable, the person who didn't belong, the outsider with the ability to change things. ButCloud…

He didn't know what I was. He would never trust me, not with the stakes so high, not when he was keeping such a secret. If I was right about that...

Maybe that's a very good thing. I just had to get himto listen.But this was a delicate situation and I would have to deal with it accordingly.

My phone vibrated, making me jump. I picked it up and looked at the screen raising my eyebrows. Good,whatit was a convenient time... I was offered a high priority mission with Cloud as my backup. It would be his first challenging mission as a SOLDIER. ANDboy,it was just perfect.

Smiling, I wrote a quick message.

To: Cloud

Subject: Have you seen your new mission yet?

Funny, because my mission last week was to control Don Corneo's excessive powers in the slums. He's been a bit greedy lately - I can't believe he actually stole corporate documents this time, now he's really into it.

This sounds a lot more like a Turkish job, but I think it has a lot of man power. We should probably penetrate the Wall Market. Well, being a SOLDIER girl comes in handy sometimes!

How about Miss Cloud? I have the perfect dress and I bet you cleanreallegal.

Chapter 15: The enemy of the world

chapter text

With the mission looming over my head, I decided to do what I could before the big day. Cloud, of course, never replied to my little message - but it did say "read" on messenger. He knew where to find me, and we had two days before Shinra wanted us to move. I gave him his space. we would spend a lot of time together when the mission started. I had a feeling it would be a learning experience.

"Well. Long time no see."

I looked up from the shopping list I was writing, a smile automatically forming on my face.

"Angeal! Welcome back. This was a long mission," I commented.

He frowned, nodding. "A flight to Modeoheim and bad weather to boot... I ended up walking halfway across the continent."

"Monteheim?" I wrinkled my nose, but inside I was very interested. “People stillandleaves?"

My reaction elicited a laugh from him. "No, it's completely abandoned – although Shinra already has a small base of operations there. Dr. Hollander asked me to retrieve some of his old research." The humor in his expression vanished when he mentioned Hollander's name.

I tilted my head, watching Angel carefully.Dutch.I had almost forgotten about him. I still thought of Hojo as the real threat, but Hollander could also be a problem. Did Genesis tell Angeal about his origins? Because if he found out the hard way...

Hmm. I would have to talk to Genesis about that.

"I see you came in second," Angel said, smoothly changing the subject and smiling once more. "Congratulations. To be honest, I can't say I'm entirely surprised. Genesis has been calling you his 'project pet' for a while now."

“Hell yeah,” I mumbled, rolling my eyes. "Well, I think he could call me worse things."

"Ah, that reminds me... I wanted to thank you." Some of his humor returned, though there was a hint of something else mixed in. "Genesis was in a bad place when you joined SOLDIER. He. Lately more than ever."

Hearing that made me feel… happy. I clung to this source of comfort. it was the only stable thing I had now. I had helped Genesis. No matter what happened, I always had to remind myself. even if it was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it was still very, very important.

"We argued, but he was a good friend to me," I said heartily. "He is one of the most loyal people I know."

"Almost flawed," Angel added, and it was clear from the look in his eyes that she understood.

Then his phone vibrated in his pocket. she pulled it out, giving him a quick glance.

"A. Duty calls; I'd better turn to reporting." With a parting wave, he turned and started to walk away. "...Take care of Genesis for me."

"I will," I replied, watching him leave. There it was again, the feeling that something was wrong... Angel seemed to have a lot on his mind. Did he have anything to do with Hollander?

Yes meby all meansI will talk to Genesis soon...

Late at night. The seconds finally ticked away and now was my chance. The technicians had come here to make some adjustments before and I wanted to test the new terrain, which was actually a vast landscape of the Nibel Mountains covered in snow.

I finally got better with my Lightning stuff. time to see how much sim-Sephiroth liked a full face of Bolt 2! … I doubted I could make it, but it was good to have dreams.

Standing at the controls of the training room, I typed in a few commands and locked on the mountainous landscape before walking through the door into the main chamber.

My environment changed instantly. Menacing rocky crags poured over my head and the wind howled, whipping my hair back and throwing snow into my face. The snow at my feet was a foot deep, but as I progressed I ended up digging into deeper mounds a few times. Well, that would be interesting.

At least it wasn't terribly cold. I grew up in an area famous for its horrible winters - it was a little cold, but not as cold as I imagined it to be in real life. Another reason why I loved VR.

The wind, fortunately, began to die down. I unsheathed my sword, beginning a walk through what looked like a mountain pass. None of it looked familiar—I'd never been on missions in that area, anyway—but I couldn't help but wonder if it was modeled after an actual location.

Now I'm frozen-leaves.I had already had enough surprise attacks to recognize the feeling of being watched. He was about to attack, but where did he come from this time...?


I turned around just in time to raise my sword and block the attack. the impact pushed me back, my feet slipping too easily on the smooth ice beneath the snow.

Sparks flew from our blades as my opponent applied pressure, grinning as I resisted.


This was a new line. Then they've also updated their dialogue recently - great, just great. Make it more threatening. Thanks guys.

I grimaced and redoubled my efforts, only to be thrown back with ease. My feet sank into one of the deep embankments and I nearly slipped. it took a calculated jump to get me out of it. I used every second, charging my Lightning Matter into the air.

Time to see how well it worked. I launched a quick flurry of weaker Bolt spells at the swordsman to stop him from starting his deadly chain of attacks. he brought down every blast of magic in the air with his blade, barely trying, still smiling the whole time.

My initial jump took me over his head. While he was still blocking those first few attacks, I dropped ten feet behind him and fired Bolt 2 at his back, summoning the last of my magical reserves to make him as focused as possible.

The bolt cut through the air with a loud thudcrack,and the offense didn't even come close to connecting. A flash of silver to my left was the only warning I had before I was hit with a progression of attacks that were too fast for my eyes to follow. Almost completely caught off guard, I could barely keep up. Shit,Shit-!

I clashed with my swords once more, struggling and failing to hold my ground. What the hell was going on?! It was himillnessesstronger than before! Had these bastards updated their program before I even had a chance to win the latest version?

"Why the hell are you so much faster?" I growled, fighting the urge to hold him.

"Oh?" A wicked smile graced his lips. "I apologize. You seem to love my simulated counterpart so much; I thought you'd be up to the challenge."


His amusement only increased when my jaw dropped. My stomach sank and I felt like snow had seeped into my veins. his words were processed and the shock and horror hit me immediately.

Suddenly I had oneveryof sympathy for Cloud and what he must have felt in those terrible moments before I aborted the mission. But this time... this time I couldn't give up, it washim, my god.

For the next few minutes, I was lost. There was no time to think, barely any timebreathe;Sephiroth kept the attacks coming and all I could hear was the clanking of Kerberus as he took the brutal force of each blow. If it wasn't for a Cruxis blade, I had a feeling it would have broken pretty soon.

He didn't give me time to counterattack. If I swung my sword to do anything other than dodge it would finish me off. I was faster than many of my fellow SOLDIERs, fast enough to keep up with Genesis now, but my pace seemed slow next to Sephiroth.

And - and the worst part was that he wasn't even there.serious.It was holding, I was annoyed.

With each rebuff I had to step back, losing ground, always careful not to trip. It was very difficult to split my concentration between the two when I barely managed to register where Masamune was in time to dodge. there came a moment when Sephiroth smiled and with a flick of his wrist, sent Cerberus flying into a deep snow.

Our eyes met. I felt the cold metal of his blade lightly press against the side of my neck. had won.

There was a split second when that small, intensely scared part of me wondered if he was going to kill me here and now.

So I reached into my pocket and pressed the button on my PHS to end the simulation. The landscape dissolved around us. the wind disappeared, the snow disappeared, and then it was just me and Sephiroth standing in an empty room. My worst nightmare.

"Hmm." After a pause, he sheathed his blade. "If your goal was to amuse me, you succeeded. But you have a long way to go if you're going to challenge me."

"You almost gave me a heart attack," I whispered, too scared to recall that cold disposition I had originally used with him.

"Yeah, that was the fun part," he clarified.

"Oh sweetie, I'm glad you had so much fun." I went to pick up my sword, sheathed it and turned to face him. "How do you know I've trained with your simulation?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Ifezto tell you I'd be watching you... and you made no big secret about it.'

There was an issue. I was beginning to wish I had kept the DL longer. how did i know the real thing would be funny to show up in a battle? Aside from the occasional SOLDIER who nodded at me as I selected the simulation from the menu, few people seemed to really notice how I spent my time in the training room.

"It's the most challenging sim. I'm just tiptoeing," I explained, feeling the need to justify myself—otherwise, my constant training against the Sephiroth sims felt a little too obsessive.

…Good. OKAY. Its kind oftime.

"Always alert. How admirable," he commented, with a mocking smile. It motivates me.

This was too much. He caught up with me and I couldn't regain that stoic composure that was hard to maintain - even if I did, at this point he'd know it was just a facade.

My heart was still pounding with fear and adrenaline, but at the same time I wasfebrilenow; I had my own business and stayed away from him, so why couldn't he just leave it all alone?

"And you then?" I counterattacked. "Doesn't the great Sephiroth have better things to do than interfere with the education of others?"

His smile faltered. “The great Sephiroth? Genesis passes through you."

My face fell into it. he had me there. I belatedly realized that the dismissive tone I had adopted was pretty much the same one a redhead always used when they were numb. Biting sarcasm, one-sided rivalry with Sephiroth, habit of mercilessly annoying my student...Deus,next I would say poetry.

"To answer your question, I have better things to do - and his reason for 'stepping' isn't the only reason I'm here."

"...Ah," I managed to say, closing my eyes. Dread settled in my stomach like a stone as I tried to form some sort of escape plan, looking past the First to the door.

"So aloof. I haven't seen or spoken to you in months; surely you can bear my presence for a while." One eyebrow rose. “Though I have to wonder how I've missed you every time I've been back to Headquarters. It's almost like you wereactively avoids me."He said that last part with some relish, his eyes narrowing in clear challenge.

A shiver went through my body. Of course he would, when I connected freely with everyone else in SOLDIER.

What could I say about that? It was the truth. For a moment, I considered telling him that I had turned him on, as that would be a guaranteed method of keeping him away, but then I decided that I didn't have the heart to do so.

Stop showing weakness. Don't let him bully you into submission.

I shifted my weight to one leg, placing a hand on my hip and trying to force some ice into my expression.

"I've been mentoring a new recruit," I explained. "Between that, new assignments and Genesis finding new ways to get me over obstacles in the meantime, I've been pretty busy."

"Hmm. I apologize if I make you miss your next date." Oh…leaveswas the sarcasm of Genesis. It was obvious that the two spent a lot of time together.

The common ground of a mutual friend, strangely enough, relaxed me a little - though I was still very alert. Sephiroth was impossible to read, but my answer must have been satisfactory because he didn't push the issue.

“Well thistimegiven practice time until you screw it up,” I joked, then mentally smacked my forehead – no filter, as usual. “Then I guess I'm free. What can I do for YOU LORD?"

His lips twitched slightly at my remark, which was probably a good thing, because maybe it meant I wasn't in trouble for being smart for my superior. But then his face returned to its usual cool mask and he turned towards the door.

With her back to me she said, “Not here. Come".

My stomach dropped. Sephiroth was already leaving, leaving no room for protest. Numbly I put one foot in front of the other and began to follow. Although I knew there was no way I could have predicted this, I deeply regret my decision to come here and train tonight.

We left the training room behind and I almost followed Sephiroth, silently hoping my anxiety wouldn't show on my face. Being alone with him reminded me of a time years ago when I followed Kratos through a deserted city, unable to escape and convinced he was leading me to my death.

Of course, in the end Kratos saved my life, but that's another story for another time. I was pretty sure Sephiroth didn't intend to do me any favors here. At least I didn't think he wanted to kill me – but anyway.

We went through the main briefing rooms and some hallways I didn't frequent. After a few minutes of walking in silence, he stopped at a single door with his name on it.

The only reason I never came down here was because of this room - that's where Sephiroth's office was. He didn't use the office much, but I didn't see the point in taking any unnecessary risks.

The First One opened the door and stepped aside to let me through. I walked in, stopped in the center of the room and looked around with a slight frown on my face. My first glimpse of the area was dominated by a pair of large windows on the back wall, offering a beautiful view of the city and what appeared to be Sector 2 in the distance.

There wasn't much to say about the furniture except for a couple of black leather chairs nestled in the corner. Sephiroth's table was to my right. it was made of a glossy, dark wood that looked like ebony and was filled with books and papers. A space on one side was opened up to fit a computer monitor.

Strangely, the table looked meticulously organized, despite the ridiculous amount of materials piled on top of it. Sephiroth was literally buried in papers, but I had a feeling the books and papers there were organized by subject or something equally crazy.

"It was worse when I came back from Wutai."

The dry remark almost made me jump. I didn't hear him close the door and enter the room.

Surprised, I felt my lips curl into an almost smile in response to the humorous image. The fact that he didn't seem completely unfriendly made me relax a bit again. I had to fight really hard not to let myself hope that maybe this whole encounter wouldn't end up being total torture.

"This is crazy. You should take a spa day or something." I muttered, blinking. Then my mind took over and I wanted to bang my head against the wall. ONESpa day?Seriously, Brittany?

An arched eyebrow. "…Noted. Although if you're so worried, maybe you could help put some of my worries to rest."

He pointed to the closed door. "We're unlikely to have any unwanted company here. It would be helpful if we could have an honest conversation."

I suddenly felt nauseous. "On what exactly?"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed a bit. "The things that happened to Junon before his recruitment and the series of unusual events that have happened since then."

"Unusual events?" I felt cold but tried to keep my expression neutral.

The First shook his head. “Let's start with Junon. About a month before he was sent there, Genesis suffered a shoulder injury that even his mako-enhanced body couldn't heal. He refused to talk about it after the first week, but I could see that he always favored another hand during training, and went regularly to see Dr. Hollander.

He stopped his story, locking eyes with me. "That is, until you arrived. Ever since he came back from Junon, he's been more himself than ever—and he's cut off contact with Hollander almost entirely. Coincidentally, the two of you get along surprisingly well."

I wouldn't give him anything, dammit. But it was hard not to cringe. "AND?"

Sephiroth's eyes were blue fire. I felt like I was burning inside them.

"Tell me how you healed Genesis."

I forced myself not to look away. "Healed him? I met him, of course, but—you're just guessing based on loosely connected events."

"Genesis wouldn't have cleared your name if he didn't owe you in some way. I know that for sure."

My frown deepened and we looked at each other for a few seconds. I tried to ignore my increasingly strong heartbeat. Finally Sephiroth exhaled crossing his arms.

“Let me be clear, ARMY.nohe wants to antagonize me."

I was very nervous, so I reacted to this sentence in the worst possible way. I smiled.

"You invaded my training and dragged me in for questioning sir."

"You consider yourself lucky not to have been a Turk. Your dark history puts you in a difficult position, and Genesis alone will not be enough to protect you. Let me confirm that you are not a threat."

Not a threat.Did I catch a cold? in many ways itime.

However, it quickly became clear that Sephiroth wasn't going to let me go without some kind of answer. And to be honest... while I didn't really want to associate with him, I also didn't want someone with his power actively working against me.

"Fine!"I snorted crossing my arms to mirror his pose. "Ifezheal him. I had a powerful magical artifact with me and the thing broke after I used it. But look, everything after that is a Genesis affair and not my story. You will have to work it out with him. You're friends, aren't you?'

His eyes clouded, slightly worried, and surprisingly, he was the first to look away. " would think."

However, he seemed to quickly control himself and looked at me again. "A magical artifact that broke after use seems a little too convenient."

"It's the truth," I said firmly. "You were theorizing that I had access to some high level healing magic - well, technically you weren't wrong."

"And why would you use something like that on someone you just met?"

Now I looked down, rubbing the back of my neck. “I went straight to him when he was running away from those pedestrians. I must have hit that wound pretty hard, because the hit basically incapacitated him. Seeing a SOLDIER First down was like this - well, I knew something was up. Very wrong. So I did something about it."

"…I see."

I could feel his gaze and the moment of silence that followed those words was suffocating. After a second or two, I worked up the courage to look him in the eye again, but I couldn't read his expression.

"If that was all, I might be inclined to let you go," he said at last. "However... even a prodigy cannot defeat a Midgar Zolom without enhancements. The average human body is weak. Fragile. Some battles cannot be won by luck alone."

"Maybe I'm the next Sephiroth," I said raising my eyebrows.

He ignored me. “Add that to the fact that you asked not to undergo extensive testing—especiallyasked to keep Professor Hojo out of the picture - and that makes for an interesting picture."

"Well, I have a few secrets I'd rather Shinra not know," I admitted, trying to ignore the shiver that ran down my spine. "The Turks suggested that something unfortunate might happen to me if I refused to join SOLDIER, so I set some conditions to cover my ass before agreeing. Is that unreasonable?"

"Not entirely," he admitted after a moment. "But the fact is, an alarming number of unknowns surround it."

"What kind of threat am I making?" I provoked. "Well Shinra wants 100% transparency from me - fine. Let them investigate all they want. But what about you?"youdo you really need it? Or are you really worried about Genesis?'

"You're assuming a little," he pointed out, a little coldly. "... But you're not entirely wrong. Very well, you've healed an old friend, and we'll leave it at that for now. Keep in mind that this is thejustthat's why I'm taking your time."

"...I see," I said.

"One last thing. I'd like to meet that rosary of yours - Strife, wouldn't you?"

My eyebrows shot up. "Cloud? Why?"

He took a piece of paper from his desk and handed it to me. It was a company incident report, dated a few weeks ago. The location puts me off-Nibelheim.

Trying to hide my sudden interest, I quickly read the report. There was... what? Did someone break into the Nibel reactor?

Did he kill Genoa?!

The question hit me hard, and I read on, looking for any useful information. But the report only said there was a break-in, though it wasn't obvious anything was damaged or stolen. It was suspected that it could have been a terrorist organization trying to discover the layout of the factory - either that or someone hoping to steal the company's secrets.

After a minute, I looked back at Sephiroth, trying to look incredulous.

"You don't think he had anything to do with it, do you? He's just a kid."

"Nibelheim is his homeland," Sephiroth said, "and the incident happened just before he left. Maybe it's just a coincidence… but it might be connected, even vaguely."

"Why do you care about these things? I mean, honestly - Shinra's problems aren't your problems, unless they're battle related."

The First smiled, though there was no humor. "It's possible I have some secrets of my own. Regardless, Strief has proven to be just as elusive as his mentor. If you could arrange a meeting, I'd be most grateful."

I looked at him for a moment, trying to understand what he could be thinking, and I understood nothing. I finally sighed. "I'll see what I can do."

"You have my thanks," he said, taking back the petition. "Fired."

I shook my head and turned to leave, my legs heavy. Hearing the office door close behind me was a huge relief. I walked back down the hall, leaving Sephiroth behind…for now.

There was no way I was going back and finishing my training now. I made my way to my room to relax for the night, intending to try and digest and process the conversation I had just had.

"Oh come on Cloud."


"Don't be like that! It's for the mission."


"I am your superior, and this is an order!"

"Is it lawful to order me to be crucified?"

"Do I look like a lawyer? Let me do your hair."

Finally, Cloud let out a sigh that was more like a half moan. "This is not what I envisioned when I decided to join SOLDIER."

We were in the slums of Sector 6 relatively close to the Wall Market and I was going through the (admittedly enjoyable) process of getting Cloud to relive a certain embarrassing chapter in his life. I could see the dress shop from here.

"Don't hate me, hate whoever assigned this mission," I said with a smile. “Come on, Wall Market is a disgusting place and so am Ilovethe opportunity to tear Don Corneo a new one. You just have to get ready for a second, okay?

He gave me a flat look that suggested he knew he was expecting too much.

"Let's get this over with."

"Right! We're going to make you try on this dress. I hope you don't mind, but I went with purple – I think it'll really bring out your eyes."

"What would I do if you didn't look after me?" he muttered emotionlessly, staring straight ahead.

"Sometimes I wonder the same, my precious daughter," I said, putting a hand on her shoulders.

He sighed, shrugged his shoulders.

Maybe I was feeling a little cheeky, but I had a feeling that today was going to be a great day.

Chapter 16: Don das Favelas

chapter text

"Wow. This might be a new job for me."

The owner of the clothing store was standing next to me, staring in amazement at the transformation I had helped orchestrate. Cloud wasn't complaining, but his impassive gaze said it all.

Of course, I chose the purple dress because I remembered his dress from the game was purple. Cloud was naturally short and thin—and because he was still a teenager, his face hadn't yet acquired the defined edges of manhood. Long story short, she still had baby fat and the dress showedbomin him. If he could just avoid talking too much, he could easily pass for a girl.

I almost felt bad. He probably thought this was a big unfortunate twist of fate. He hadnoI have no idea how much I annoyed him. When the inevitable moment came when he found out I knew all along, he was going to kill me. But for now it was pretty hilarious and I was going to milk it as much as I could.

That's not to say I didn't have any game. My intention was for him to understand me and report me eventually. I needed him to make the first move because I just couldn't risk showing my hand too early.

So until then, I was going to have fun at Cloud's expense. This was the first time I really started with a purposetriesto find out - it was great fun.

"Cloud, wait - let me use some more gel. The extensions look natural enough, but your hair is so spiky it looks like you have a mullet."

The blonde sighed as I squeezed some hair gel into my hands and smoothed his unruly hair. I was happy inside. I knew he was actually older than me, but it was really hard not to treat him like a little brother when he looked like a cute teenager.

"There!" I took a step back smiling.

"Wow," the tailor said approvingly again. "Do you do his makeup too?"

It was here that Cloud drew the line - his expressionless gaze turned direct.

"No," I said cheerfully, as if I hadn't noticed the smoldering look. “I think it looks betterNaturalAnyway. Well, I think I'll try mine now.'

Cloud stepped aside and I passed him to the changing room in my own dress. Was it weird? It had been so long since I had dressed up like this and the last time was for a formal dinner at Tethe'alla. Back then, I had basically been kidnapped by a group of Zelos employees and put in a corset and a set they had chosen for me. I looked fine, but god, I was uncomfortable.

So today I really enjoyed picking out my own outfit, which would have been totally inappropriate for the party I went to all those years ago.

The little black dress had a comfortable silky feel and slipped on quite easily, although it was a bit tight around the hips. Both Cloud and I bought dresses that fell just below the knee—long enough to look cute, but short enough to move around the closet without a problem. And boy, if Cloud had a wardrobe malfunction, everyone would be in for an interesting surprise.

Speaking of which, we both wore spandex base layers under our dresses just in case things got rough. I might also have been motivated by the thought that someone might try to rip my clothes off sometime today, considering where we were going.

Our SOLDIERS uniforms would have to be out of sight, so we would find a safe place to store them. We could run there and change later and then go back to HQ.

Satisfied with the look of the dress, I slipped on a pair of chunky black platform heels. Well... it's not too hard to get in, and a kick from them would probably hurt. I pulled the curtain and walked out of the locker room.

"So what do you think?" I asked, doing a little twirl.

"Very well," said the tailor with a nod. "A little red lipstick should do the trick."

"Oooh, that sounds good." I said with a smile.

Cloud just sighed.

Feeling sorry for him for the first time, I chose to move on. I paid the shopkeeper for the dresses and shoes and off we went, quickly blending in with the Wall Market crowd.

Well, no mixing - not exactly. This was not the place where girls went unnoticed. It wasn't long before we were being accosted by suspicious, scary men and had to pick up our pace on the street.

The strange thing was that, a few minutes ago, I feltbomshe wore the dress - but the kind of attention she received made me feel nauseous and kind of dirty. How did these sexy movie heroines ignore all the stares? I had to remind myself that I could really kick anyone's ass who tried to touch me. I was in SOLDIER, dammit. The only people I had to worry about were other SOLDIERS!

"So," Cloud said, snapping me out of my thoughts.


"I think I know a place." He pointed to the bags we were carrying that contained all our gear.

"Oh sure."

We left the crowd and walked down another street, walking until I saw the dividing wall between Sector 6 and Sector 7 come into view. For a silly moment I wondered if he was taking me to Tifa's bar – but then I realized it would probably be a long walk from here, and Seventh Heaven wasn't there yet anyway.

So we went out to the playground and I took it. For a moment I had to stop and look at the familiar structures, thinking about the different scenes that took place here. Aerith sits on top of the slide and tells Cloud how he reminded her of her first boyfriend...

The blonde moved purposefully towards a small wooden building on the outskirts of the playground. The building appeared to contain restrooms, but there was a large "OUT OF RENTAL" sign posted on the door.

"Wow, that's perfect," I said. "Did you notice this beforehand? I'm impressed, rookie."

Cloud shook his head. "…I've been past here before. I just remembered it was here."

"Well, that's extremely convenient," I commented. There was a heavy padlock keeping the door closed. I reached out grabbing the body of the lock with one hand and the shackle with the other. With SOLDIER's strength, it was relatively easy to break the latch, putting the bond back into the open position.

The inside of the building was musty with a faint smell of sewage. Two of the three shower doors were missing, revealing filthy bathrooms. the last door appeared to have been forced open. Old graffiti dotted the walls. My shoes crunched on something as we entered. I looked down and saw broken glass and - oh, great, a syringe.

"Midgar is the best," I murmured with a sigh.

We ended up choosing the third tent, hiding our bags behind the broken door so they weren't immediately visible. I made a mental note to buy a new bag after it ran out - mine would smell disgusting when we went back for it. I hope the smell doesn't seep into my uniform. These dolls were almost brand new, dammit!

I readjusted the small bag I bought especially for the occasion, tightening the strap around my wrist and giving Kerberos one last sad look before leaving her behind. The only weapon I carried for this purpose was a small knife hidden in my bag. I probably would never bother using it. Cloud and I agreed to only rely on our raw material and strength for this.

The lock on the building no longer closed, but when we left, I repositioned it so it looked good from afar. That should be good enough for now… the chances of anyone noticing while we were gone were pretty slim.

"So what exactly is your plan, other than…this?" Cloud finally said as we walked, pointing at our clothes.

"Well, I guess now is as good a time as any for a mission update," I replied. "You saw some of the details in your mission summary, right?"

"...Yes," the blonde said. "Corneo stole some confidential documents and we need to recover them or destroy them."

"Right. I did more research so I'll tell you all." Translation: I asked Kunsel yesterday and he never disappoints.

"Obviously this is something he does all the time, and isn't a serious threat to Shinra - otherwise they'd put the Turks to work," I explained. "The problem is that a lot of company employees visit the Honey Bee Inn, whether they admit it or not. Some of them are carrying things they shouldn't. Some of them are also very willing to chat after a few drinks. I bet they're taking advantage."

"Corruption?" Cloud raised his eyebrows.

"Yes," I confirmed. "He's making a lot of money out of it. These employees don't want to lose their jobs, so they'll pay a good amount of money to regain ownership of the company. And in the event that he actually gets someonegreatto frustrate his guard, he could score and get an advantage over Shinra.”

"Well that's kind of a power play," he commented, shaking his head. “Whether we get the papers or not, we're going to give him a good scare...right?

"I have a feeling that's the real goal," I said with a snort. "As for the plan itself... Well, all we have to do is get into his mansion. The intelligence report I've been given says he should be home by now. I guess we'll try the front door?"

Cloud frowned. "What if they kick us out?"

I shrugged. "Try the back door."

“You really didn't think about that before you put a dress on me, did you?

Shy smile. "I admit I was a little obsessed with this piece."

The blonde let out a sigh. "Let's try the front door."

Corneo's mansion was crazy. The building itself had some serious Asian influence going on, but it was overwhelming enough to be gaudy and off-putting. He probably thought that insulting Wutain's culture was somehow exotic and seductive. the place was probably full of abused kanji characters.

Two muscular thugs in dark suits and sunglasses guarded the front door. The moment we got up, however, they started giving us the ugliest smiles.

"I hate to say it ladies, but Don Corleone just left," said one. "Daily visit to the bee. Shame, too..."

"Uh, hey..." the other leaned forward a bit. "Come in and we'll entertain him until he gets back. Our shifts are almost over, right, Dale?"

"Yes, it is," said Dale, waking up.

Cloud and I looked at each other. I frowned for a moment, considering. It could be problematic without Corneo here. what if he had locked things up and the keys were with him? The stupid intelligence report was a mistake... but I guess they couldn't have predicted it if he spontaneously visited the brothel earlier than usual.

What to do then? The most important thing was to track down Corneo before he found out that Shinra was sniffing around - once he decided to disappear, we'd never find him or those documents.

OK, fine. Cloud was still discovering his own power, but we were actually both capable adults. I didn't have to babysit him on this mission.

I bit my lip. “Well, I had somethingReallyhe wanted to give it to Don Corleone..." A pause. "...But my friend here wouldn't mind if he came in and...shaking things upa little bit."

When I gave Cloud a sidelong glance, I saw that he had raised his eyebrows a little - but he tilted his head a little, and I knew he understood what I meant.

All the two guys heard was that they could get some. they didn't seem to notice the crucial difference between shaking things upbelowand shaking things upover.Oh well. They stepped aside to let Cloud in and I smiled my best shy smile, giving a small wave as I turned to walk back towards the market.

Don't hit them too hard, Cloud.

It was hard to stifle a laugh. I wasn't worried. he had hit a whole room of children at play. If he had to use brute force to find these documents, so be it. And if something happened... well, he had his cell phone hidden in his bra (along with some socks... by the way, HA), so he could contact me at any time.

So continue to the Honey Bee Inn. It really didn't matter where I ended up. I'd be stuck in a room full of goosebumps anyway. I had chosen to hunt Corneo as a mercy for Cloud - he wouldn't want anyone prominent to see him and recognize him as "that SOLDIER in drag". I was pretty mean to him today.

Walking the streets of Wall Market became even more difficult now that I was alone. I had to keep a determined pace with my trained gaze straight because men were constantly trying to yell at me or grab my hand or basically invade my personal space. that's itnoa safe place for girls. Talk about sketchy likehell.

I knew I was getting close to the bee when I started seeing scantily clad women begging on street corners. They were all dressed in shades of gold and black. When I saw a bright neon sign pointing in the right direction, I turned down the side street and the brothel immediately appeared. For a moment, I had to breathe and hold back any worry. it was stupid, but now that Cloud wasn't here to play, I felt a lot more insecure about that stupid plan. Just... SOLDIER power or not, places like that made me feel very unsafe.


"Hey baby! Come here!"

"Look at that ass!"

Oh Christ.I tried not to grimace, tried even harder not to blush. I knew I should look at the paper, but part of me wished I was wearing a shapeless pillow case right now.

Instead, I put a smile on my face as I walked up to the front doors of the building.

"Goodnight, honey," the man at the door said, smiling as he looked me up and down. "Looking for a job? Dark and mysterious...oh, a dime like you would do well here."

"Flattering," I lied, my smile growing, "but I'm actually here to see Don Corleone."

"Don is at a very important moment...meeting."A laugh. "Can I, uh, take a message?"

I shook my head. "I'll wait, if you don't mind, I'm patient."

"The waiting room is for paying customers, not walk-ins," remarked the doorman. "Let me tell you, my love. You entertain the guests in the waiting room and you can wait as long as you want."

"Funny?" I blinked.

“No free peep show,” he said with a smile. "Just talk to them. Dance a little. Help the girls pour some drinks."

"Okay, deal," I said, though I really didn't like the sound of that. I knew, at least, that I could save myself with a strong punch if things got too delicate.

The doorman came in for a minute and spoke to someone, then came out again and held the door open for me. I entered the building.Win.

… Well, pretty much. I still had to figure out how I was going to manage being alone with Don Corneo. What if your little onemeetingwas it late? I said I was patient, but I really wasn't.

I followed a sign pointing in the direction of the waiting room, which was actually more of a visiting room. There were plenty of couches and tables, plus a small bar in the corner. A few employees dressed in unique bee costumes walked around serving cocktails. The room was dimly lit—the brightest light coming from a television in the corner—and reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume.

Many were here chatting, drinking and flirting with the girls. Ugh… no. I really didn't want to do this. If only I could find out what room my target was in...

My eyes wandered to the men in the room. There seemed to be guys from all walks of life here - not just the oddballs I'd seen on the street on the street here. Some people here wore suits like they got off work. Well, how people wanted to spend their salary was their business…

For a moment, my gaze flickered over something white, then focused on it again. White? White suit?

Blonde hair, icy blue eyes... Rufus Shinra?!

He's looking right at me.

I teared up and quickly looked away, trying to play it cool. what the hell was thathedoing here? No one seemed concerned about it. Again, his name was known as the vice president of the company, but he was supposed to be a super private person - that's why there were so many rumors about him. I would have never thought he went to onebrothelduring your free time, however.

"Hey baby! A little bird told me you're here to help us before the game!" A dark-skinned man approached me - by the way his face was flushed, I could tell he was already halfway there.

"Why don't we do some striptease? Come on, don't be shy!" Your friend called.

"That dress of yours would look better on the floor," said another.

I gasped. Three men crowded into my personal space… how could I leave this one without making a scene? I wasn't going to start dancing for anyone, that was for sure. Especially when someone was in the room-

"Hey man, back off! We got here first!"

"Sorry, but she's with me."

Something about those words, or the look that accompanied them, must have been threatening, for I saw the three men immediately begin to back away.

"Oh hell, always," cried one of them, going back to his drink. "Who does this guy think he is?"

Meanwhile, I slowly turned around, not really wanting to believe the low, soft voice I had just heard. There was no way it could behe.

... Of course, it was.

Rufus Shinra had walked over to stand next to me. I faced him and our eyes met, his lips turning up slylyWhat We Have Herepretentious smile.


Oh, noon.

It was himvery attractive.

For a moment, all I could do was stare at him like a deer in headlights, my mouth going dry. Damn it,no!I haven't had this kind of reaction to anyone since I met Zeal, and I was a hot, hormonal teenager back then! That wasn't - I didn't have time for that! Don't blush, man!

He was about four or five inches taller than me and looked about my age—too young for a company vice president. God, he was really just a kid, but he had the confidence and poise of someone ten years older.

"Hmm," I said.

Smooth, Brittany. He nailed it.

Ugh, try again, try again.

"Are you…"

"You recognize me," he commented, looking amused. "Well, I suppose I'd expect no less from an employee of mine. That twinkle in your eye...I'd recognize you anywhere. I've heard of you, but to find you here, of all places?"

I rubbed the back of my throat, lowering my voice a bit. "I'm, uh, something of a secret. And so are you. Sir."

"So we both have our agendas," he said, casually running a hand through his bangs. "Go on then. You'll find Corneo in the Lover's room. Try not to hurt him too much - he has his uses."

My eyes widened in surprise. "Like you-?"

A slight smile. "Why else would you be here? Unless you're planning on dancing after that tight dress, I wouldn't stop you."

OKAY.Nowmy face was red. I quickly turned around and started to run away.

"Nice to meet you, sir," I said as I passed.

"Same," I heard him say.

Oh my god. Okay, avoiding Rufus Shinra for the rest of my life. I almost prefer the interaction with Sephiroth, and that's saying something.

The lover's room was hard to miss - each of the brothel's themed rooms had a large sign on the door. I found the room after only a few seconds of walking - and I talked to Rufus long enough for the other staff to stop watching me, because I made my way out of the waiting room relatively easily.

An employee was leaving the room as I approached. She turned her head and grabbed the door just as he was about to close it. Her eyes widened.

"I'm sorry, you can't..."

I entered the room and closed the door, locking it from the outside. So I pulled up a nearby chair, placing it under the doorknob.

"Huh? What does—uh,Hello."

I rolled my eyes, still looking at the door. This started out fun, but now I'm starting to think Shinra didn't pay me enough to put up with this crap.

"Who is it? The newest addition? Come back, baby!"

I'm back. Corneo was lying on his side on a plush bed, one hand holding a lit cigar. He was completely naked, but most of his lower half - thank godSir-was covered by a sheet. Then my eyes fell on a certain bump and I wished I could… just stop seeing. Don't see everything. Why. Even dirty dancing for Rufus would be better than that.

"Oh,Wow!That's good!" He sat on the bed and the sheets fell more, and I immediately had to look away.

“Shy, aren't you? Oh great, I'm notcorruptsomeone like him lately. Come here baby - daddy can show youall."

There was a knock on the door and Corneo's head snapped in that direction.

"It wasbusy-go away!"

The knocking fell silent. He had just unknowingly saved me from being dragged to security.

Then he completely pulled the sheet and I lost all sense of victory I had just won.

"Oh my God." I groaned.

“Impressive, isn't it? Corneo let out a laugh that made me shudder in disgust. "Don't worry, everyone is impressed by it at first. How about that? I'll be polite just this once!uhhhhcome in, my love!"

i'm gonna popI thought. Then I remembered myself and shook my head out of it.

“Okay, no, I amnoI'm here to have sex with you, Corneo, so you go ahead and cover yourself with that sheet again before I castrate you."

He paused, eyes suddenly narrowed in suspicious alarm. "What what;"

Then the door of the room burst open. He fell to the floor, hitting the chair with a crash. We both looked up, startled, and I froze - a man in a suit and sunglasses was standing there. Security? Shit-

He looked at Don Corleone for a moment, grimacing slightly. then he took the door, propping it against the frame to block the view of the room from the hall.

"Great," Corneo said, finally pulling the sheet off him, thank God. “Security, who is this girl?”

"We're the ones asking the questions," the man said, and my jaw dropped when I finally understood.Cloud!

He must have stolen one of Don Corleone's henchmen's clothes. Cloud wore a crumpled black suit. he'd tousled his hair in its spiky glamor and pulled the extensions into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.

I blinked.Looks like a blonde Renault.

Then I remembered myself and turned to Corneo, struggling to harden my expression.

"That's right," I said. "Didn't you notice? We are SOLDIERS."

To confirm this fact, Cloud pushed his sunglasses up, revealing his striking blue eyes. Don Corleone's eyes, meanwhile, seemed ready to pop out of their sockets.

"Suh-SOLDIER? No - it can't be! Shinra has nothing against me!"

"I found this at your mansion," Cloud said holding up some papers. “These are the company documents you stole, right?”

"No! I've never seen them before in my life!" he protested.

"Tell the truth," Cloud said, walking over to the bed and placing a foot on it, "or I'll crush them."

He... yes! It did the trick!It was hard to keep my mind on topic when I was doing a mental victory dance. Cloud was great. cloud was thebetter.

Corneo jumped. "Okay,all good!Who cares anyway?! People leave things behind all the time! Just because I keep some of them…”

"You're collecting company secrets and blackmailing employees," I gasped and joined Cloud on the side of the bed. "This is a very serious crime. I don't want to see you do it again. The next time I come back here, I'll be in uniform, not a pretty dress. I understand,Papi?"

He was shaking his head so fast I was surprised he didn't have a headache. "Yes... yes, of course, of course! I won't... I won't..."


Now, a real guardian stood at the broken door. Corneo drew attention.

"Get them out of here!"

It happened pretty quickly. A group of guards burst into the room and escorted us out, despite the fact that none of us were trying to fight back at this point. We were ushered through the front doors, much to the amusement of the customers waiting outside. Other guards appeared with the obvious intention of beating us up to teach us a lesson, but I waved at Cloud and we left.

We didn't stop running until we were out of the streets of Wall Market. If I never came back, it would be too soon.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back at the playground. I was shocked I didn't sprain my ankle running on dirt roads in high heels. Cloud took off his sunglasses and put them in his pocket, turning to look at me.

I looked at him. She looked at his suit, then his hairdo, then met his gaze once more.

So I couldn't avoid it." I swallowed, bringing my hand to my mouth. Cloud looked at me and I saw his lips curl.

"That was more of Don Corneo than I ever wanted to see," he said quietly.

He did it. I laughed and then doubled over, leaning on the slide for support. “Yours - yoursface-! Ahahaha!"

"Oh! Look who's here!"

"Uh...did I miss something?"

Cloud's amused expression vanished so quickly it was almost as if it had never been there. He turned his head at the new voices, eyes wide.

I managed to control myself in time. Straightening, I quickly wiped the tears from my eyes before looking to greet Aerith and Zack.

The look on Zach's face almost made me break into hysterics again. It was himafterwardconfused, but Aerith was just rolling with it.

"Hey guys," I said, unable to stop another laugh from erupting.

"Britain;" The Second blinked, looking from me to Cloud and back again. “I thought you were on a mission—what are yousauce?"

"It was a very complicated mission." Laughed. So I freaked out. "Hey, have you met Cloud yet?"

The cloud hardened as soon as the spotlight was turned on it. Zack's eyes lit up and he took a step forward.

"No, I don't! So you're the recruit. PRIVATE SECOND CLASS Zack Fair, at your service!" He held out his hand.

The blonde hesitated, then reached out and grabbed him. Zach, always overly eager, shook his hand with enough enthusiasm to make Cloud sway a little.

"Oh right! And that's my girlfriend Aerith!" He pulled his arm away to put his arm around her shoulders, smiling so proudly I thought I was going to explode.

Puppy,I thought and wanted to start laughing again.

"Nice to meet you." Cloud's voice suddenly choked, not having any of the confidence it had before. For a moment, I worried about him, worried about what kind of effect their meeting would have on him.

Then he offered a soft, sincere smile…and I knew it was okay.

Aerith met my gaze and then looked up to smile back at Cloud. Beside her, Zac grew serious and looked at me.

“Hey, come to think of it...didn't you say your mission had to do with the Wall Market?whatwhy are you all dressed up?"

I snorted. "Yeah, today I had to use my girl powers. Now if you'll excuse me, our uniforms are in this disgusting bathroom." I reached behind me to slam a fist into the building's wooden door.

“Oh, don't changeleaves!"Aerith laughed. "Why don't you come back to church with us? I think I'm done for the day. All you have to do in return is pull the cart!" She lightly pointed to the flower she had brought with her - it was leaning against the nearby wall.

"That's a done deal," I said at once. "Cloud, pull the cart, I'll get our things!"

The blonde nodded silently, as if he didn't trust himself to speak. In the next minute or so, we were off, heading down the dirt road that led to Aerith's old church. Cloud was standing near the back of the group, pulling the flower cart - every time I looked at him, I could see he was glaring at Zack and Aerith's backs.

Just as I decided to leave Cloud to his thoughts, Zack turned and looked over his shoulder at him.

"Hey Cloud! I heard you're from Nibelheim."

The cloud looked up, blinking. "…Yes, that's right."

"Ha! This is way overdue, huh? Man, did Brittany ever tell you about the time the Nibel dragons attacked us? We had a lecture that day..."

I smiled to myself as Zack delved excitedly into a story, and I saw Aerith's shoulders shake with stifled laughter. Some things never changed.

Chapter 17: Scars of Friendship

chapter text

It was hard for me to imagine what Cloud must have felt when we finally located the church. It was a structure that existed even in his time, but now he was following two dead friends into the past... it had to be beyond surreal.

My memories were not the same. I had seen the story told through a unique medium, but I hadn't lived it. Seeing it all first-hand gave me a hard time at times, but it should have been a completely different experience than Cloud's.

Giving up was never an option for him. He was emotionally caught up in it. this was hisZOE.If things went wrong, he would have to see these two die again.

Walking beside the blonde, I also glanced at Zack and Aerith's backs as we continued towards the church. Every good memory I had with them was always laced with an underlying feeling of pain. I didn't want to look at them like they were ghosts, but my mind kept coming back to it. The feeling would probably never stop until I completely derailed the future.

It had to be a lot worse for Cloud...

Aerith and Zack made him smile a few times, even a little chuckle once, but as soon as they stopped looking, the sadness returned to his eyes.

We arrived at the church and Aerith invited us in, letting us use some back rooms to change into our uniforms. Getting out of the dress and back into it took a few minutes, so I used the alone time to get through my thoughts. Now that the mission is officially over, some pressing questions have returned to my mind.

Angeal runs errands for Hollander.I thought about his trip to Modeoheim and his troubled mood afterwards. Genesis might have stopped seeing the doctor, but Angeal… I had to make sure she had all the facts. I couldn't afford to show my hand, so that meant I had to convince Genesis toto speakto your damn friends. Easier said than done.

Rufus is in Midgar.I had no idea what was going on with the vice president. He kept his business private. But it never appeared in Crisis Core and I didn't like the jokes... they had a habit of messing things up when I tried to fix them. I didn't exactly want to deal with the guy, but it would help to get an idea of ​​his schedule. I mean, all it would take is for something to happen to Old Man Shinra and bam, Rufus would be a big problem.

Sephiroth wants to meet with Cloud.That was huge. I wasn't sure how I was going to do this or if I was going to do it myself.wantedto take it out. I had to find out if Cloud had anything to do with what happened in Nibelheim before I went and tossed him to the damned silver wolf. If Cloud couldn't keep his cool, things could go horribly wrong on a date between the two. But how the hell could I get Cloud to launch at me? It was too early in the game towhatconversation.

Sephiroth is behind me.No no. I didn't even want to think about it, to be honest. The general sniffing me out was probably the scariest scenario imaginable and I didn't know how I was going to survive another interrogation session. I had to find a way to get him to leave me alone. But something told me that constantly avoiding him would only make things worse...

Holding onto my belt, I let out a sigh. I really needed to come up with a game plan, but now that I knew about Cloud, I couldn't just run and do my thing. If he thought I didn't know what I was doing, he might get in the way. So what was the best thing you had to do? Could I afford to spend time with it? How long Iter?That was the thing - only Cloud knew. I could only guess.

A knock on the door interrupted my thoughts.

"Hello? Everything okay there?" It was Aerith.

I looked up, putting my dress in my backpack. "Yeah, I'm fine. The zipper stuck."

She giggled a bit when I opened the door with her eyes full of joy. "You could call if you needed help."

"I've been through worse," I replied with a laugh, walking out into the hallway. "Did you sell a lot of flowers today?"

"Mmmm. It's always more fun when Zack shows up," Aerith said with a smile. "Looks like you had fun too."

"Probably more fun than it should be, all things considered." I laughed and rubbed the back of my neck.

She opened her mouth to say something else, but we were interrupted by the sound of Zac's loud voice echoing down the hall. It was coming from the main chamber.

"And man, get this - a few days ago, I fell off the roof! Off the sign! I didn't want to or anything, but that's a crazy goal, huh?"

We exchanged a look and walked over to where the boys were. When I walked in the door to the main room, I immediately saw Cloud sitting on one of the front benches. Zach was standing a little closer to the flower bed, gesticulating wildly as he treated his new friend to another story.

Cloud blinked, instinctively looked to where the hole in the roof was. I wondered if he was aware of the parallels between his meeting Aerith and Aerith's original first meeting with Zack.

I found myself looking at the Second with raised eyebrows. Of course, he'd still find a way to drop within an impossible distance of Aerith's flower bed… did that mean he'd know her if I hadn't intervened first? Hmm.

But wait. Hadn't Zach fallen off the sign after a fight with Angel? No, that couldn't happen, so… it must have been something else that knocked him out. But now that my mind was on Angeal, I began to feel unsettled again.

“Yeah, I had the idea for the flower cart when we first met...” Zach was still telling stories, now with Aerith adding information here and there. "By the way, Brittany is the reason we met!"

"She had him fertilize the flowers. Romantic, huh?" Aerith was smiling.

"What can I say, I just have a wedding present." I said with a shrug.

Cloud was looking at me, eyebrows slightly raised. There was something else in his expression now – a little confusion. Oh. Things weren't going well for him. So he had some idea of ​​how Zack and Aerith were really supposed to meet.

"What about you, newbie? Do you need a girlfriend?" I decided to push the envelope, blinking. "Need the key to someone's locked heart? Maybe I should start a side business."

"Heart blocked? Relax, now you're getting emotional," Zach laughed.

The cloud wasn't laughing. For a split second he was unreadable and I was pretty sure he had heard my obvious pun - closed heart,Lockhart.The gears were turning.

Then he snorted and the moment was over. "I'll pass. I've seen enough girls for one day."

"MIguys, don't forget,” I reminded him.

"How could?" he joked.

"What?"Zack looked between us in disbelief as Aerith laughed. "What to doto doisn't there a Wall Market?'

“So…” I started, with every intention of telling a little story, but then my phone rang.

From: 45 3058 6624

Subject: No subject

I guess you're done. Seven hours in my office. Bring conflict. Let's call it mission interrogation.

For a moment I stared at the message, not understanding, and then my blood ran cold. Good God, fromcoursehe had to make it look like we were planning murder or something. It had only been a day and a half - why did he have to be so impatient?

"What happens?" Aerith leaned towards me, curious.

"Nothing," I lied, shaking my head as I saved Sephiroth's number to my contacts. Now I forced a smile. "Service is calling, though. I don't think I can tell the story until we brief HQ."

“Oh my... they're going to ask youto beof all missions?' Zack rolled his eyes. "Sometimes I think the Headmaster has a strange sense of humour."

"No kidding," I said, still smiling as I tried to avoid a panic attack. "Anyway, we better get out. Nice to see you."

"Yes I see you!" Zack smiled and patted Cloud on the back as the blonde stood up. "Nice to meet you, Cloud. I can't wait to do some missions together!"

Tritos smiled. "...Yes. Nice to meet you too." His eyes flicked to Aerith, who was watching him.

"Come visit whenever you want, okay Cloud?"

"Hey! Don't tell him to screw up our dates!" Zach interrupted.

"Brittany already knows," Aerith pointed out with a smile.

He lowered his head. "Oh yeah. Can't a guy have privacy?"

"Timea moment!"I protested, laughing in spite of myself.

Meanwhile, I saw Aerith turn to give Cloud a sincere smile. He looked surprised for a moment, but then he smiled too.

"Thank you... Aerith." His voice broke a little at the name. I was the only one who seemed to notice.

We turned to leave, bidding them one last goodbye, and I swallowed. The blonde fell into a thoughtful silence as we left the church.

Bittersweet, to be reunited with lost friends. He had them back, but...

Zack would never remember the mission with Cloud in Modeoheim. He would never remember what they had been through, his desperate attitude towards Sephiroth, running from Shinra, passing on his legacy.

Aerith would never remember her first brief encounter with Cloud, selling flowers in Upper Midgar. He would never remember running away from the Turks, jumping over the roofs of the slums with him. That night at the Golden Saucer, watching the fireworks. Smiling at him one last time in the City of Ancients as he tried to save the Planet.

Cloud was filled with these memories. I thought for a moment what it would be like to go back to the beginning so everyone would forget about me. I felt him.


"Dispatch report?" Finally the blonde spoke looking at me. "What exactly are you going to tell them?"

"To relax." I tried to smile. "I won't mention the dress."

"Sounds like something the director just wants you to write a report on," he commented.

"Yes, but it's not Lazard we're going to find," I replied flatly.

He frowned, opening his mouth to reply, but I didn't give him the chance.

"Come on, rookie. Let's catch the train - we can talk more when we're closer to headquarters. I don't want to be late!"

Cloud nodded, but he still looked worried. I could feel the sudden tension in the air and knew my own anxiety must be clear as day. But still he followed, not feeling the true nature of things.

Little did he know that he wasn't done meeting people from his past. Old friends were one thing, but old demons...

I didn't want to do this to him. That would destroy the trust I had built with him. But the alternative, Sephiroth's denial... if on purposeignoredthe general, that would make him more suspicious. This meeting would take place whether I attend or not.

The train ride over the sign was silent. I avoided eye contact the whole time.

"What is it?"

Finally we were on the SOLDIER floor. My heart was literally pounding at this point and of course Cloud chosenowto break the silence, stopping in the hall and looking at me.

It was a quarter past seven. There were a few SOLDIERS around, but by Saturday night most had left after training exercises. The floor was pretty empty.

“Hey, Cloud…” I rubbed the back of my neck and finally met his gaze. "I'm sorry. It's just…you don't hate me for it."

His eyes narrowed, though he was still visibly confused. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I lowered my voice to almost a whisper.

"I'm going to tell you now because I don't want you to freak out. You can't freak out, okay?"

"…Freaking out?" Now his guardhe flewover; I could see it in the hardening of his expression.

"I mean, if you react the same way you did during the training exercise, he'll think you're an absolute lunatic..."

"On time. I'm impressed."

Every muscle in Cloud's body tensed. Her eyes were wide. I saw the fingers on his sword hand twitch and freeze.

The blood drained from my face as I looked past Cloud to see Sephiroth himself approaching. he had turned the corner of an intersecting corridor. It must have come from one of the meeting rooms.

I straightened, trying to get my expression into something that didn't look like a deer in the headlights. This was bad. I wanted to prepare Cloud for this, not just throw him straight.Reallyyou will hate me now

"I wouldn't dream of being late to a date with you," I replied dryly and was rewarded with a slight smile.

To Cloud's credit, he didn't lose his mind. He took advantage of the fact that he still had Sephiroth's back and visibly calmed down. His expression became unreadable.

"...Sephiroth," he finally said, turning around.

Sephiroth's eyes slid to Cloud, narrowing just the slightest bit. The blond had his chin up, showing no fear – not even fear. I felt a rush of admiration that he could look the general straight in the eyes without flinching.

"You must be Cloud," the First said slowly, giving the blonde a searching look. Then he raised his eyebrows a little looking at me. "I see your lack of decency has rubbed off on the student."

Oh. He probably should have saluted when he approached. And Cloud had just broken etiquette, probably on purpose.

I thought about apologizing or trying to save face somehow, but then I remembered how he had scared me during practice only to make fun of me afterwards. Well, screw it.

"Sorry," I said with a shrug.

His eyebrows rose even higher. A steely edge entered his gaze, which remained fixed on me.


"Give him a break? He's still a rookie you know," I continued before I could stop myself.

Eca.I wasn't capable of acting carefully when I was so nervous. The words would just come out and if I was pushed hard enough I would start making really terrible jokes in an attempt to defuse the tension.

"Hmm." Sephiroth finally broke the stare, walking slowly past us. "That's right. 'Cutting time off' seems to be all I've been doing lately."

He gave the signal to follow and we obeyed. I could feel Cloud giving me sidelong glances when he wasn't looking at the general's back. I kept my eyes trained carefully forward, though guilt consumed me.

"You're right. Everyone always talks about how big of a softie you are."

"These." He opened his office door, glancing over his shoulder at me before entering. "I'll have to fix it."

I could hear the smile in his voice. He had turned it over to me.

We entered the office and I reluctantly closed the door behind me, feeling like I was being locked in a cage with a hungry lion. This was not good. I had already told a bad joke and we were only minutes away. At this rate, I'd dig my own grave and jump in, and Sephiroth wouldn't even have to lift a finger.

Cloud was silent the whole time and that didn't help either. Half of my anxiety was about him and whether or not he was part of what happened at Nibelheim. What if Sephiroth arrested him for something?

And even if nothing terrible came of it, what would the General think of our intense mutual dislike of him? It wasn't exactly incriminating, but it was strange enough to warrant further investigation, wasn't it? We were on his radar and it left a horrible feeling in my stomach.

Sephiroth walked over to his cluttered desk and shuffled through a few stacks of paper for a moment. "I take it the mission went well?"

"Yes," I replied, relaxing a bit. "As well he might as well be gone, given the nature of the thing."

"Good. Principal Lazard expects a report tomorrow night," he said looking up.

"Understood," I replied with a quick nod.

“Wasn't this supposed to be an interrogation? Cloud noticed immediately, crossing his arms and frowning.

"What that clown Don Corneo is doing in the slums is the least of my worries. You can spare me the details." Sephiroth straightened, having found the cards he was looking for. "I apologize for misleading you. It was just a precaution."

Now the blonde looked at me. I shuddered and rubbed the back of my neck. there was definitely a hint of betrayal in his expression.

"Sorry, Cloud. My hands were kind of tied about this. He just has a few questions, nothing serious."

Cloud's eyes narrowed. he didn't believe me. Of course - it was never "nothing serious" when Sephiroth was involved.

"What is it?" He turned his gaze back to Sephiroth.

"There was an incident in your hometown shortly before you left for Midgar," explained the First. "Nibelheim. The road to the mako reactor in this area goes through the Nibel Range. Most people would need a village guide to do this kind of hike." He gave Cloud a cold, analyzing look. "There's been a reactor shutdown. I'm sure you understand why I'd like to make sure you're not connected."

The cloud was completely still. I couldn't read his expression. But seeing those two standing there, staring at each other, neither of them moving an inch... scared me.

"I've already had this conversation with the Turks," he finally said.

"I'm sure the transcript is in a classified file," Sephiroth said. He smiled, but there was no warmth. "The Turks don't keep me up to date on all their research. Allow me, Cloud. Loose ends can be...annoying." His gaze fell on me for a brief moment before returning to the blonde.

"Fine." Cloud crossed his arms, eyes narrowed a little. "What do you want to know?"

"A moment." Sephiroth turned to me. "Brittany. You're fired."

I jumped a little surprised. "H-huh?"

"Your presence here is no longer required." His face was an emotionless mask, but those eyes held the smug satisfaction of a cat wriggling a mouse.

"But…" I broke off, speechless.

He raised his eyebrows a little and smiled, closing his eyes and shaking his head, almost as if it were a private joke. "Protective. You'll only scare your student if you play the domineering mother hen; mark my words.fired,SOLDIER."

I looked at Cloud, who was still unreadable. he didn't look at me, but I saw him give a very small, very short wave.

I finally sighed. It pained me to admit it, but Sephiroth was right. Cloud was a big boy. He was older than me, even if he didn't look like him physically. He could take care of himself.

"Sir," I growled. So I reluctantly turned and left the room, trying to ignore the nagging worry eating at me. Leaving the two of them alone in a room together...

I shook my head, pushing one leg in front of the other. They weren't in a combat setting and the initial shock had worn off. Cloud would not be openly hostile. Worrying now would do no one any good. If something was going to happen, it would happenlater.It was out of my control.

Telling myself this over and over doesn't exactly relieve stress. I needed a distraction.

Sighing, I made my way to one of the empty conference rooms. Better type this report for Lazard…

Genesis crossed.

He was angry and I tried to have the decency to look apologetic, but with my face scrunched up to hold back a laugh, I probably just looked constipated.

EUfezI'm sorry though. About. Here I was at his door, visiting him at eleven at night. His hair was a bit messy so I suspected I had woken him up. Well, that and the fact that he was wearing a robe. ONEthatbathrobe. And slippers! This was the best thing I ever hadview.

“It's generally to be expected,” he blurted out, “this someonecall ahead call aheadbefore just showing up. Or is there no common courtesy where you come from?'

I rubbed the back of my throat, the sourness in his tone made me a little flustered and he remembered why I came here. "I... I'm sorry. I know it's late, I just..."

The First rolled his eyes, stepping to the side. "Come in, or people will talk."

I tried to keep the wave of relief I felt from my expression. When I entered, he closed the door behind me.

"You're the only one in a bathrobe," I pointed out.

“Considering the time, I thought it might be somethinggreat, so I wasted no time going to the door,” he whispered dryly. "I'm sorry about the state of my appearance."

"Hmm," I said, already distracted as I looked at him.

The Genesis apartment was so…Genesis.The furniture looked antique, from the well-made kitchen table to the large mirror on one wall and the beautiful bookcase nestled in the corner. Cover the cold metal walls and floor with a series of paintings and a woven rug.

The place was clean but a bit disorganized. There were books and papers piled up with no real rhyme or reason, none of the obsessive perfectionism I had felt in Sephiroth's office. I liked the chaos part. I kind of got the feeling that Genesis did too.

"You are done?" He was watching me irritated.

I turned to him and felt a little silly. "… Nice place."

"I am truly honored that you approve." He pointed to the couch. "To doHe felt free. I'm sure you would anyway.''

I sat. The sofa was comfortable.

Genesis let out a breath looking at me for another second. "…Tea?"

I rolled my eyes at him. "If...if you offer."

Behind me came the sound of him entering the kitchen, heavy footsteps. There was a noise and I heard a kettle being placed on the stove.

Grumpy and tired Genesis was kind of funny. I almost forgot all my anxiety at seeing him. Almost.

A few minutes later, the First had placed a teapot and two mugs on the coffee table in front of the sofa. When I reached for the pot, it hit my hand.

"Let it besteep,"he said giving me an angry look.

Oh my god. I raised my hands in surrender.

The First looked at the clock on the wall and then at me. A flicker of interest finally showed in his eyes.

"Well. Tell me why you are here.'

"I wanted to talk," I said weakly.

He raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, I noticed. You're all dressed up to be any other late night visitor."

"Genesis,"I growled, feeling my face heat up.

He just gave me a smug look, casually leaning over to pour tea into my mug.

“Holy shit…” I ran a hand through my hair, trying to think. So I reached out and took the mug of tea, holding it like a lifeline and comforting warmth.

A thought suddenly occurred to me while looking at the steaming drink. He could have slammed the door in my face, but he didn't... he invited me in and offered me tea. Was she really trying to make me feel better?

Mother hen.

My lips twitched. Clear. I saw the parallel now. But Sephiroth was someone who spoke to people's fear.


The amusement I felt immediately disappeared and I sighed.

“Sorry,” I said. "I couldn't sleep. Stress. You're the only person I can really talk to about all of this. It's a bit overwhelming sometimes."

The First was watching me, leaning back a little in his seat. The irritation in his expression was gone. “Then let me share the burden. Tell me what's bothering you."

My shoulders slumped. I felt some relief. "Yeah… they're your friends, actually."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Angel and Sephiroth?"

"Did you tell Angeal what you found out about Project G?" I met your gaze.

This surprised him. The fire returned to his eyes in an instant.

“What did I learn?” You mean we're not human and your mother was part of this experimenthe was bornus? This knowledge goesto ruinhim,” Genesis hissed.

"So you'd rather keep him in the dark?" I provoked.

A flash of guilt. He paused for a moment, looking at his tea.

"...I learned all I could from Hollander," he said closing his eyes. "I was the failure of Project G. I was imperfect, so I suffered the degradation. Angeal, however..."

"It was a success," I said. "I know. He won't be demoted."

"Exactly. So tell me, why should I cause you unnecessary suffering? There are times when the truth can do more harm than good."

"Because not everyone has Angel's best interests in mind," I replied. "Because you basically told Hollander to jump, didn't you? If you were Hollander, who would you attack next?"

Genesis was very still and watching me.

"Listen, he wanted to rebel against Shinra, didn't he?" I tried to speak slowly, calmly. "He targeted you first because you were dying and he could use a fantastic cure as leverage. Now Angel is all that's left. A sane Angel will never give up. Hollanderhe wantsAngel to be angry and bitter. Why not tell him the truth with a big punch to the gut?'

I gave him a pointed look. “And even better—what would hurt you more than to know your ownthe best friendhid from him?'

The First One shook his hand too hard and the mug broke. He swore under his breath as some of the hot liquid dripped onto him, soaking his thin robe and burning his thigh.

He started tidying everything up, throwing the broken mug in the trash.

“If he knew, heto understand-"

“You would goto listen?"I made a face. "Trust someone who basically keeps secrets for a living. There are no guarantees - once you hurt someone that bad, they may never trust you again. I almost lostmybest friend because I hid things from him. What if you never get a chance to explain yourself?'

Genesis turned to me, eyes shining. "What do you suggest I do then?"

"Justsayhim, gen,” I said rubbing the back of my neck. “I mean, he has you and Sephiroth—and Zack too. It will be fine".

"You're obsessed with it for some reason," he commented, falling silent again. He went and returned to his seat on the sofa. “What's happening to Angel in hisgame?"

I looked away. "Well, it's diminishing after you."

"You teach me to keep secrets and yet withhold information?" His tone was venomous. “You tryprotectI, a hypocrite."

"To stop." I closed my eyes, clenching my fists. "If that means talking to Angel…fine. But tell me. Tell me you're absolutely sure you want to hear it, because it won't be nice."

"I'm absolutely sure," he said.

My stomach dropped. he didn't know what he was getting into. But it wouldn't be able to adversely affect events if the schedule was no longer on track. I had the luxury of telling him that.

So that was it. He had asked for it.

"... You defect at the end of the Wutai War and take a group of Thirds and Seconds with you. Eventually Zack is sent to Banora with the leader of the Turks to interrogate his parents," I explained, "only to find out you killed them. .."

Genesis was silent. I couldn't look at him so I kept talking. “Then you finally told Angeal. The city was overrun by... mecopies,and Shinra attack robots. He did not remain a villager. Except for Angel's mother, but she ended up being embarrassed about participating in the experiments." I paused, my mouth dry, and took a sip of tea. "Zach saw Angel standing over her body. She thought Angel killed her. Angel didn't correct him. Things changed after that."

A pause. The silence was stifling, but still I continued.

"You two have been declared Killed in Action. Shinra sends Sephiroth after you - and when Sephiroth refuses, Zack must go in his place. Eventually... Angeal hates his existence so much that he forces Zack to fight him To save the world from itself."

"The dog kills him? Impossible."

"From then on, Zack wields the Buster Sword..."


I swallowed hard again, forcing myself to look at him. Genesis pressed a hand to her face, hiding her expression from me.

"You said you wanted to hear it." I whispered.

"There is no dream left, no honor

The arrow is gone from the bow of the goddess.'

He lowered his hand. her eyes were closed. When he opened them they were clean. Decisive.

"You really led us down a destructive path," he told me in a low voice.

"We're not out of the woods yet," I replied.

"I understand." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. - I'll talk to Angel.

"...Fine," I said, leaning back and letting out a shaky breath. I looked at the clock. it was past midnight. Man…

"Dare I there anything else bothering you?"

I made a face. Did I really want to dig up everything else? At this rate, I was going toheI also lose sleep.

"...Sephiroth is kind of on my case," I admitted.

Genesis visibly relaxed, giving me histhirdroll your eyes theatrically tonight. He bent down to pour me more tea.

“And we're backSephiroth.What, say, has the poster boy done now?'

“He ambushed me during one of my training sessions,” I said, suddenly feeling like a kid picking on a bully.

Mother hen!

My hand flew to my mouth to hide a smile. because it was sofunny?

Genesis cocked an eyebrow. "Ambush?"

"He knew something was up with you," I explained. “He thought I helped you somehow. We wouldn't be very fast friends otherwise."

"Hmph." The redhead smiled. "Relax. If she was terribly worried, she would have gotten all the answers from you by now."

"He gave me permission because I helped you," I said. "But I don't know how long I've been out of the woods. And he's also after Cloud, something about a reactor raid in Nibelheim, which is Cloud's home town."

"The plot thickens," he commented. "My own. Sephiroth could beI am bored;ThistemIt's been a while since your last big mission."

"Wait, what? He goes around interrogating people when he's bored?" I made a face.

Genesis laughed. "He's concerned about downtime. He'll follow up with potential customers that aren't very high priority."

I hesitated, thinking for a moment. I couldn't help but feel there was more to it than that, but at the same time...

"Can't he just do the paperwork or something?" I moaned.

The First waved his hand in farewell. “That's the point, you see. He spends more time organizing the bureaucracy than actually doing it.actThis. I'm convinced he's finding excuses to postpone."

"Huh." I blinked. "Sephiroth hates bureaucracy."

I mean, who?no?But for someone like him to procrastinate - like a college student avoiding the final paper, howmyliterally with everything - it made him seem a little more human.

Suddenly, I shook my head with a snort. "It still doesn't solve my problem. Why can't he just let it go?"

"God, girl. If you had interacted with him normally to begin with, you wouldn't be so suspicious." Her lip curled slightly. “I'm sure I saw you, actuallyrun to the other sideone day you saw him. And don't think I didn't noticeare youone who constantly tests his simulation. Actually, I think even I'm suspicious at this point. What's up with Sephiroth? Tell me."

It's a ticking time bomb.

Ugh, I couldn't say that. I raised my hands defensively. "Okay, no. That's onefullysomething different that I don't want to get into. It's an extremely complicated plot."

"If you intend to try to kill him, I think I should have the right to know." Genesis' tone was calm, but the look in his eyes was warning.

"No!" I shook my head, a little frantic. "Look, it's...just in case. In case I screw something up. That's the worst case scenario, okay? I...I'll try to take care of him too."

"… Exhibition." He was letting it go, but it was obvious I had given him something to think about. "If you want to stop him from concluding that he's a monster too, maybe you should stop running away from him like he's a creature from your nightmares."

My eyes widened. I gasped and then had to laugh. Genesis could read me like a book.

"R... Right. I think it's getting a little silly at this point." That didn't change the fact that Sephiroth really scared me and himtimea creature from my nightmares - but I didn't want Genesis to know.

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was past one in the morning.

"No... Gen?"


"Sorry about all this… showing up so late and all."

"There is no hate, only joy"Genesis states, a familiar smile returning. "No need to apologize. I'm awake now. Perfect night for a fight, don't you agree?"

i opened He saw the evil look in her eyes.


"SIM".He made a vocal motion towards the door. "Get your sword. Training room. Ten minutes."

"Come on!"

"You brought it on yourself. You gave me a lot to think about before I fell asleep," he said, still pushing me away. "I am going."

"Fine," I called, turning to the door. I reached out to open it, but at the last second my hand clenched. I realized something - something huge that he never said a word about.

"You are born, for your parents..."

"You're wasting your time," he said, ignoring me, but I heard the sudden coldness in his tone. "Nine minutes."

"Fine, I'm coming," I sighed, realizing I was fighting a losing battle.

I left his apartment and headed to my new room in the Second Thesis barracks to retrieve my sword. It was going to be a very long night...

Chapter 18: Recognition


Aaaaaand we caught it! If this chapter doesn't look familiar, it's BRAND NEW. An update from me after seven years? No, you are not hallucinating. I wrote most of this chapter in a cold sweat as Sephiroth held me to the sword.

chapter text

The reality of things, it turned out, was that the trio of Firsts knew each other quite well. I found it hard to believe, but Genesis was right - Sephiroth was indeed bored. I'm very bored.

I would know, because I've been chasing him all morning.

Okay no. Maybechasingit was an exaggeration. It just kind of... drags. C, no, it didn't sound any better. I just had a lot of errands to run on the SOLDIER floor, and apparently so did he, and at some point it became less about running errands and more about seeing what the scary Sephiroth was up to when he was trapped in HQ. Until last night I thought he was doing paperwork or going to meetings or something, but Genesis had shot down my paperwork theory and I hadn't seen the guy attend any meetings other than the one he left when I caught him. I saw it for the first time a few hours ago.

By now I had noticed a squadron of Thirds running drills in the training room, which seemed to really bother the general, though he didn't show it - I could tell by the way he looked at that door every time he passed by. . per.

People hailed and saluted him as he passed through the halls, but he never spoke more than a few words to any of them, apparently to avoid making small talk. That and he exuded the air of a man on a mission - only the mission wasn't very clear.

Since I just got back yesterday, today was technically a day off. Genesis was out, Kunsel and Zack were gone until the evening, and Cloud wasn't answering my messages (of course). By that time, I've managed to finish and submit a report, clean my room, fold a load of laundry, play shit with some guys at recess, read the paper, and drink about three cups of coffee.

If I hadn't noticed, I'd have thought that Sephiroth had been saddled with a ton of work from the way he'd been groggy all morning—but the reality was, funnily enough, quite the opposite. I had achieved more success so far than him. I was more productive than Sephiroth!My!

Honestly, I felt so satisfied by this fact that I was thinking of throwing in the towel at eleven in the morning. It was very rare that I had such unstructured free time. I had turned off my phone hours ago, thinking that if someone really needed me, I wouldn't be leaving this floor anyway.

It would be nice to have a real break. Grab a tub of ice cream, put your pajamas back on, curl up in a nest of blankets and read a book for a few hours… when was the last time I did that? No one was around to judge me today. Maybe some potatoes too - sweet and savory. Why didn't this world have Pringles?

Sitting down at recess, I finished the crossword puzzle I was working on and pushed the paper aside. Everyone had left a little early as they went about their day and I was enjoying the silence. But I knew the silence wouldn't last long, and the only truly safe place was my room. It was time for Operation: Tramp Day to begin. Actually, I didn't have a comfortable sweatshirt to wear... ah well, who needs pants.

The sound of footsteps interrupted my thoughts. I looked up in time to see — who else? — the topic of my morning session. He stopped at the door and saw me tooswearher eyes lit up. I felt my stomach sink as I realized that I had just been caught in Bored Sephiroth's warpath. Is this what a toy mouse felt like before the cat attacked?

"Here you are." More terrifying words were never spoken.

"Here I am, sir."

I straightened my back a little, but remained seated. I'd say it was because I was being provocative, but actually my legs turned into noodles.

"Today, I suppose?" he asked entering the room.

"...Yes," I replied with a frown. It's not like I could get away with a lie when I was literally sitting there with a crossword puzzle ready right next to me.

"Good, I need you."

He walked over to the coffee pot behind me and poured himself a cup from the half pot I left on the stove. Taking a sip, he turned to me. Her brow furrowed slightly.

"This is not company coffee."

"No," I replied, glad for the distraction. "It's from Gongaga. Zack got some in a care package from his parents. Nice, right? I was starting to forget what real coffee tastes like. The company's roast is like...not even a knockoff of a good brand , it's like imitating a childish bastard."

"I'm glad to know we're on the same page on at least one issue," Sephiroth commented, the corners of his lips turning up. "Angel never informed me that his student had access to Gongaga Kona. I admit I feel a bit betrayed."

I found myself smiling back - though I couldn't help but think that, in the end, if this was the worst betrayal Sephiroth had ever suffered, he might consider himself a lucky man. Gongaga Kona… so he was a coffee maker. Interesting. Got the black one too.

"Zach gave Angel some too," I pointed out. "He probably didn't want to share."

"Hmph. The truth is a bitter pill…" Sephiroth smiled, setting down his mug. "But that's not why I'm here. Your last mission was more important than I realized."

My eyebrows shot up. "The whole Corneo fiasco? Why?"

"Strife produced some interesting documents during our meeting. The materials the company requested were there, but a brochure about the Colosseum got mixed up with the pile." Sephiroth reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a piece of paper. He kept it for me.

I took it with a frown. It was definitely the work of Corneo, if the flashy red and gold print and gratuitous use of kanji were any indication. The flyer advertised an arena that apparently existed somewhere in the Wall Market. Did Corneo have a Coliseum? Ha. I didn't remember it.

The words "TEST YOUR STRENGTH" took up half of the front page of the brochure, and I almost choked in amusement at one particular joke. So I opened the brochure fully and my blood ran cold.

There was an image of a fighter facing a large humanoid monster. The creature was tall and wrinkled, green skin with a network of prominent yellow veins.

Let's get rid of it.

I felt my jaw drop and miraculously managed to stop the curse that wanted to come out. It took a huge amount of effort to train my expression into something a little more controlled.

"That's the monster that attacked the SOLDIER floor a while ago," I said looking back at Sephiroth. "I thought Cheng killed him."

"He did it." The general's expression turned serious. "Many details of this incident are classified, but they lead me to believe that the experimental material was the source of the mutation. The material was stolen from the Science Department two months ago, and Hojo insists that all of his…samples…are accounted for. The creature is almost certainly an escapee from the laboratory, but not ours.'

"The plot thickens," I said. The words were meant to sound sardonic and almost bored, as Genesis would say them. Instead, they left with an anxious murmur.

I frantically tried to think. How can it be? I crashed Exphere. I had spent the last few months scattering shards in random places while on missions, and I was pretty sure I still had a piece or two in my bag. Maybe Hojo was lying... maybe I missed killing one of those creatures when I was in the labs that night.

An unsettling feeling came over me. This did not bode well. I do not like it at all.

"Something wrong?"

I snapped out of my thoughts, cursing myself for forgetting my audience. Sephiroth's gaze had sharpened. His eyes darted to my right leg, which was doing an involuntary nervous dance. I still had to.

"It's nothing," I lied, and it was obvious he didn't believe me. "What does this have to do with me? You want me to go kill him?"

"No," Sephiroth replied. "The Headmaster has assigned this mission to Zach. I am heading to Kalm for reconnaissance. You will accompany me."

"You need itbackup?"I gasped in disbelief before I could stop myself.

"No. I just thought you might be interested." He smiled slightly. "I was wrong?"


Even a prodigy can't defeat a Midgar Zolom without enhancements. The average human body is weak. Fragility. Some battles cannot be won by blind luck alone.

Had he made the connection? At the very least, he knew something was up and wouldn't give me the freedom to investigate on my own. Shit.

Sephiroth took my silence as quite an answer. Before I could think of what to say, he was already gone. He paused briefly at the door, his back to me.

"A transport truck is being arranged. We leave in two hours - be ready."

With that, he was gone in a flourish of silver hair and rustling skin. I heard his footsteps disappear down the hall, so I weakly reached for my coffee mug for comfort. It was disappointingly cold.

So much for a relaxing day... Bored Sephiroth was terrifying.

My bag was packed, I was in uniform, and I had about twenty minutes before I needed to get down to the parking lot where my stoic nanny was waiting. Today felt like revenge for all the times I had spent running from the silver general. The thought of having to spend the whole day under his scrutinizing gaze made me nauseous. For now I was in my room, trying to enjoy my last few minutes of sanity.

"Dear-"Huff."-I was a little..."Huff. "- disappointed"Zach said into the phone between breaths.“I thought it would be..."Huff."—another challenge."

"Zach, do you really have to squat right now?"

«…Sorry."I heard him take one last deep breath, letting it out in a rush."Just impatient. Didn't they call Angel last time? He must have been much weaker."

"Maybe," I answered half-heartedly.

I had called him to see if he had any details about his shipment, but he seemed to have already taken care of things without much fanfare. He said Cheng was accompanying him and asking Corneo about the details of how he got the monster. Zach was on hold for the next few hours until things were cleared up. I was interested to know what kind of details the Turk's investigation might reveal, but I doubted that Zack would be able to tell me anything.

I looked down at my palm, where the last piece of my Exsphere was filled. Glistening under the fluorescent lighting, it looked like nothing more than a broken piece of marble. The sense of power vibrating beneath the surface was absent now, as was the itch.fomethe stone was usually possessed when its innate energy was not quenched by a Key Crest.

Jacques killed Exbelois... who was he? Another innocent, crushed under Shinra's heel?

My presence here... has it really made this world a better place? Or did my arrogance lead people to their deaths?

Cloud... you would know what to do.

«…you?"Zach's voice again.

"Huh?" I started, remembering that I still had the PHS pressed to my ear. "I'm sorry I don't understand."

"I asked what you did next. You mean today, right? Kunsel said there is live music at the Gob tonight.

'The Gob' was the locals' affectionate name for the Goblins Bar, a very popular venue next to the LOVELESS theatre. It was a place where the trio of Firsts used to hang out as part of a Friday night ritual. Genesis hated the nickname and called it abnormal (as if the full name of the place was much better).

"I can't go, sorry," I said in response. "I've been called on a last minute recon mission to Kalm. With Sephiroth."

"What, seriously?"His outburst was loud enough that I pulled the phone from my ear with a grimace."Details!"

I sighed. "That's all I've got. I can't imagine what we need to check on Kalm of all places, but it's probably related to those spawning monsters."

"He recognized Sephiroth, eh...”Zack was quiet for a moment, pondering the idea."I've never been on a mission with him. I've been with Angeal a lot…and Genesis once, but he made me carry his stuff while he fought."

"Sounds right," I commented, snorting with laughter.

"But hey, that's got to be good training, right? Fighting him in the simulation is nothing compared to seeing the real deal.”

"I doubt we'll fight if we're in review, Zach." A feeling of disgust came over me. Sometimes I forgot that everyone probably already knew that I was the one always obsessively fighting against the Sephiroth yes. Hell, even Sephiroth himself knew.

"Come on, stay positive! You never know! At least one of us needs to see some real action today."Exciting as usual. He failed to notice the complete lack of enthusiasm in my answers. Did Zac mistake my concern for the general with some kind of hero worship?

“You never know…” I repeated in a distracted mumble. My eyes went to the alarm clock next to my bed and I swore under my breath. "I'm going to be late. I have to let you go, Zach."

"Correctly. See you later."


I ended the call and put my phone in my pocket, still looking at the Exsphere shard in my other hand. After a while, I shook my head and put it back in my bag.

Get out of it. Time to focus.

Turning on my heel, I slung my bag over my shoulder and left the room.

I wasn't late in the end, but ended up skipping waiting for the elevator to skip several flights of stairs. A few security officers scolded me loudly as I walked by and I may have scared the bejesus out of some poor office worker, but for the most part it turned out fine. Jacques would have fully approved of my methods. he was rubbing on me.

When I finally found Sephiroth in the transport truck, he smiled and commented that I might need more training if I got out of breath running from the elevator. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I had just descended fifty floors to avoid his disapproval. It was bad enough that he was actually lookingmyhalf morning, not just running around aimlessly - when I opened my phone earlier, I saw the missed call.

We had two security force officers with us, one of them was driving. They were going to replace some others in Kalm, so we would split up and join their partners on the return trip. Both men went rigid and silent in Sephiroth's presence. One of them was playing with his bat and I had to resist the urge to grab it.

Honestly, being Sephiroth had to be annoying and isolating if most people he knew acted this way. Not that my own behavior really helped. I mean really - he could at leastto tryto be less scary.

Normally the trip to Kalm would take about two to three hours, depending on the weather - sometimes the wastes outside of Midgar could be an absolute mess in the rain. The conditions today were excellent and we covered the distance relatively quickly. Inside the transport truck, however, the concept of time ceased to exist. There was just an endless awkward purgatory where my only two human moderators refused to talk and break the tension.

Sephiroth himself seemed completely unconcerned. In fact, he was looking at his phone most of the way. Based on how much she was typing, I assumed she was answering emails or writing a report. Or maybe he was just a teenager at heart who had long texting conversations, if only I knew. by all meanstimeKind of funny to watch him snap both thumbs at a speed that would put most high schoolers to shame.

"Motion sickness?"

The sound of his voice breaking the silence brought me out of my thoughts. I was leaning against the wall of the van, my head tilted towards the ceiling and my eyes closed. I was honestly trying really hard to pretend I was anywhere else, but I could see where he might have misinterpreted my body language.

"Nah," I replied looking up to see that the general had finally put his phone down. "Just tired. I think I drank too much coffee before."

"Get as much rest as you can, then. It's going to be a long day."

I made a face. "So much for a day off..."

"A SOLDIER is always on duty." The words were said with a wry smile.

I couldn't say anything about it. Technically he was right. It wasn't even the first time I'd been robbed of a "day off" at the last minute. We went where we needed to, when we needed to. After all, we were Shinra's property.

I let out a long-suffering sigh and leaned back once more, trying to relax my tense muscles. Sephiroth began looking past the driver at the road ahead, and we fell into a silence that wasn't exactly companionable, but a little more tolerable.

It was strange to be in the man's presence for such a period of time. No questions, no searching looks or verbal sparring. Silence was easier. it gave me room to breathe and time to think.

I glanced at the general out of the corner of my eye. Shiny silver hair that almost seemed to glow in the late afternoon sun. Strong jaw, full lips, bright blue eyes dotted with flecks of green – like crushed emeralds. She had the beauty, poise and grace of an apex predator. Intact.

My mind went back to the nightmares I had. They hadn't returned after the mako treatments and had become more indistinct as the months passed, but certain scenes had flashed through my mind so many times that they were still crystal clear.

Running towards the image of Sephiroth's retreating back, my legs feel incredibly heavy and flames licking at my heels. The ground beneath me is stained with blood.

Vicious green cat eyes pin me in place. A look filled with so much hatred it was almost palpable.

The bones in my wrist snapped as the man gripped it tightly, ordering me not to stir. Feeling his thunderous instruction reverberate through my entire body, freezing the breath in my lungs and overwhelming me with a sense of primal dread.

Were these nightmares...a warning of what might happen? Many times I played these scenes in my head when preparing to face Sephiroth's sim. It was my motivation, a reminder of what Shinra's greatest hero was capable of.


An image came to mind once I saw Angel, Genesis and Sephiroth going out for drinks after hours. I was walking past the Goblins Bar when I heard the roar of laughter that Angel usually reserved when Zach did something particularly stupid. When I looked in the direction it came from, I saw the three of them through the window - Angel still laughing, Genesis looking annoyed, and Sephiroth smiling silently over the rim of his beer glass. He was the most vulnerable I had ever seen him. He looked…relaxed.Loose.

This mental image of him left me conflicted. It was hard to reconcile the two versions of Sephiroth in my mind.

I had told Genesis that I would try to take care of him. But... could I really save him? Could I, when I was so busy trying to clean up a mess of my own making? I didn't even know how much time we had left... just how much I had wasted.

"Was here."

The general's voice brought me back to the present just in time to feel the vehicle stop. I straightened my posture, trying to shake off the negative turn my thoughts had taken. One thing at a time. For now, I just had to get through the day.

The cobbled streets of Kalm were somewhat familiar to me, even though I had only been here a few times. The city was a good escape when the hustle and bustle of Midgar got too stifling. I liked that it was quiet here... although knowing that this was partly due to the declining mining industry took some of the pleasure out of it. Shinra sent SOLDIERS to the novel mine to deal with the occasional monster infestation, but the Wutai War was sidelining the company so much that it no longer seemed to be a priority. Monster populations everywhere else had also increased and SOLDIER had his hands full. The drying of the planet had its downsides.

The appearance of the SOLDIER general made many heads turn. Last time I was here, I accused Genesis of trying to get attention, but Sephiroth didn't even have to try. His distinctive silver braids made him impossible to blend in with.

I barely got out of the truck before it was halfway there, a destination clearly in mind. I spent the next ten minutes trying to keep up with his long strides. Where the hell were we going?

Suddenly, the familiarity of the streets really kicked in and I realized with a jolt that we were actually retracing the steps Genesis and I had taken earlier. We had hung out here to talk, that day a while back when I finally confessed all. It was on these same cobblestones that I destroyed the Exsphere.

Just when I had the feeling that somehow Sephirothdid you knowstopped. I almost collided with his back and managed to catch myself at the last second.


Here? I looked at him confused and then followed his gaze. I was relieved when I realized he was looking at one of the abandoned miners' houses. Jeez... what was I so worried about? There was no way he knew this particular location had any meaning to me. He wasn't the all-powerful, all-powerful being my nightmares had made him out to be.

"What's in here?" I asked, finally remembering my voice. "I had the impression that these places were abandoned."

"Abandoned, but not empty," replied my companion. "We've had reports of recent arrivals and rumors, as well as rumors of strange monster sightings."

"Strange monsters..." I hoped it was just a coincidence. But if he was, he probably wouldn't be here.

"Let's go. Our mission is not to attack, but to be on the lookout nonetheless."


Feeling nervous, I followed him to the door of the larger house. I knew this place shouldn't have much traffic, but suddenly it occurred to me that it kind of wasdisgustingas it was completely deserted in the middle of the day. I couldn't remember being this empty the last time.

The front door was locked when Sephiroth tried to open it. He gave the door a light push, breaking the lock. You don't need to open doors with human enhancements on your side.

The door opened into a long, wide hallway with high ceilings. A staircase and balustrade curved to the left, and an arched door to my right seemed to open into a sitting room. Closer to the end of the hall were three closed doors.

Soft light streamed through a window at the top of the stairs. I could see dust particles floating in the air. It smelled musty in here, with a tinge of something my nose couldn't place. As I walked down the hall, my boots crunched the fallen leaves of a dead plant.

It looked like part of a spooky abandoned house, but at the same time… it wasn't completely unwashed. I could see scuff marks in the dust in some places and odd indentations in the hall runner under my feet.

When I looked at Sephiroth, he gestured for me to go upstairs. I nodded and climbed up in silence as it branched off on its own. The landing at the top of the stairs opened into a small sitting room with a couple of doors branching off on either side.

It almost felt like a loft up here. All the furniture was covered with sheets and the dust was very thick. I didn't have the same sense of activity that I had in the entrance area. Still, I poked around for a few minutes, looking around the rooms and opening drawers. The most interesting thing I could find was the old diary of a miner's daughter. This made me pause for a moment, wondering where the family that lived here ended up.

Those abandoned houses... I hadn't thought of it before, but it would be the perfect place to hide in plain sight if you wanted to. Close to Midgar, but away from prying eyes... the side of Kalm that Shinra wanted to forget. The few security guards that patrolled the city didn't venture that far. They were more concerned with protecting the company's asset - the mako tank that powered the city. Forgotten dwellings were a low priority.

My PHS was buzzing in my pocket. I pulled it out, seeing a text alert from Sephiroth.


"It's always the basement, isn't it…" I muttered under my breath and started down the stairs.

After some research, I was able to follow Sephiroth's recent footsteps through the layer of dust on the hardwood floor. All the doors at the end of the hall were open now, but one of the doors was positioned directly under the stairs. I decided to look first and saw that my hunch was right.

The faint smell I had noticed earlier was more pronounced here. Wrinkling my nose, I descended the basement stairs.

The stairs opened into an unfinished room with a cold concrete floor. More furniture covered with sheets was down here, but it was all pushed aside to make room for everything else.

all or resti.e. crates upon crates of... rocks?

There was a desk in the middle of the room. This table was also covered in dust, but of a different kind. Some of the rocks cracked, revealing a metallic sheen that almost reminded me of fool's gold.

No... it's not fool's gold, not exactly. Nothing else. These stones looked like...intimate.There were bottles of different mixtures on the table and I realized that what I was smelling all the time was chemical.

A single dim lamp hung over a table in the corner where Sephiroth stood. In his hand he had a pile of crumpled papers. He put the papers down and looked up as I entered.

"Up there?"

I shook my head. "Nothing. But this..."

"Hmm. Looks like the mining operations aren't quite finished."

Frowning, I reached out and grabbed one of the stones on the table. I turned it over in my hand, looking at the glittering gold pockets inside.

"That doesn't sound like a myth," I commented.

"Orichalcum," Sephiroth said, stepping forward. "Very expensive to process and cure, but a powerful magical stabilizer. It's built into matter slots to prevent accidental discharge. The technology to process it is a Shinra trade secret."

I looked at the papers he was holding. It appeared to be an unreadable mess of scientific shorthand, with some scribbled diagrams. I wondered how much he was capable of understanding.

Sephiroth put the notes into his coat and then reached out to take the orichalcum out of my hand and hold it up to the light.

Useless in its current state, he thought. "But this cache suggests there may be a processing facility nearby. We'll have to keep moving."

I nodded, following him up the stairs and out the front door. There were still a few other houses in the area that we were able to check out. Orichalcum, uh...

"What exactly would anyone need all this for?"

"Is not it obvious;" Sephiroth turned his head, looking over his shoulder at me as we walked. "To stabilizewhatmaterial."

I stopped in my tracks. Thistimeapparent. So obvious, I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it right away.

“Suspension ore,” I breathed. The ore used to forge Key Crests.

Sephiroth had also stopped, looking at me with a silent question in his eyes. I realized that my treacherous mouth had once again moved faster than my brain.

" what you would probably call it!" I continued the statement, but my voice went up an octave. "Anyway, we're losing daylight. Let's go!"

I walked past him, hoping to lead him so he couldn't see my expression. Never mind the fact that I had just shown more enthusiasm for the mission than I had all damn day. Why did I have to be so bad at this?

Steady footsteps behind me showed Sephiroth following uncomplainingly. Somehow it was ten times worse that he didn't just call me out on my slip up. It looked like he just filed the error to record and look at later.

Key Crests… mine was still nestled in the bottom of my bag, attached to a gold choker I was wearing. Of course the orichalcum looked familiar. It was the same stuff my coat of arms was made of. I remember sitting by the fire one night years ago, watching Lloyd meticulously carve runes into ore.

But if my Exsphere was destroyed... what good would a Key Crest be?


How long has Hojo had my Exsphere before Genesis and I went to get it?

Very long.Two weeks at least. What if... even if they had managed to reproduce it somehow?

The idea was too revolting to bear. Turning towards the next house down the road, I steeled my resolve. I needed answers.

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