By Brandon Boon

Corporal Neri Ralter checked his gear. A former SOLDIER candidate, he had washed out in the screening process. Actually, he was glad he did. Getting into SOLDIER meant getting that weird crap in your system. He was content staying in regular army, considering his combat skills were in the top 3 percent in the Shinra Armed Forces, SOLDIER included.

"Ralter! Get your @$$ in the van, now!"

Neri hated Sephiroth. He had been paired up with a pair of arrogant SOLDIERs, and some new guy named Clod or something. Sephiroth was annoying. Even though he was some war hero who carved up Wutai without breaking a sweat, he was really cold to people, and Neri didn't trust him to help him out when push came to shove.

The other one, Zack, tossed his sword in and helped Crowd into the back. Sephiroth stepped in, and Neri climbed into the cab, starting it up and heading away from the base. He vaguely heard the conversation in the background, Zack talking to the new guy, Cloud, that was it.

About an hour into the trip, the headset crackled, and a mechanical voice filled Ralter's earphones.

"Encrypted transmission. Code 4-13-1786-11610718. Message follows:
    Ralter when you get to the mountain, see to it that the two SOLDIERs get the problem solved, quickly. There are more rebels out in Wutai, and we need SOLDIER on the job, right now. Get Sephiroth and Zack out there immediately upon completion of the Nibelheim affair. Message ends."

Neri put down the headset, and scarcely a minute had passed before he saw a huge dark shape crash into the transport.

Oh, damn. Monster this close to the town?

"Sephiroth, something just landed on the truck!"

Sephiroth and Zack dispatched the thing rather easily, though Zack dropped like a fly. Don't get it. I could knock that boy out in straight combat, and he's a 1st class SOLDIER?

Sephiroth, Cloud, Zack, and the local guide, Tifa, were about halfway across the bridge. Neri, running drag, had just dispatched a weird buglike creature and was making his way across the ropes when it snapped, taking the entire group down over the mountain. Neri's last thoughts before the darkness claimed him were accusing, ugly thoughts. He had failed. He hadn't kept the SOLDIERs safe. He had broken his promise, and it tore at him almost as badly as the jagged edge of the mountain.

Neri awoke to the fact that he would drown if he didn't get out of this crap, whatever it was. He surfaced and took in a gasp of air, then swam to the surface in the pond.

Pond? There were supposed to be no water deposits this big in the mountain... this damn mission just gets weirder and weirder. Could've just stayed in Mideel, man. Why'd you abandon a perfectly good sunspot for this $#!+?

Neri began wringing out his hair, when he realized two things. First, the pond was full of some sticky substance. Next, the pond was full of some sticky glowing substance. He looked down and realized that he had a faint sheen emanating from his clothes. Oh well, I'll take a quick nap and get my @$$ back to the transport.

Ralter had gotten halfway down the mountain when an explosion from the reactor knocked him the rest of the way down. He came to an hour or two later, cursing whichever bastard invented explosives. He pulled himself to his feet, and stepped into the Nibelheim gates--

--to discover the Shinra mansion and some charred ruins.

There was already a containment team hauling Cloud and Zack into the mansion. They were obviously unconscious, and (this was the weirdest part) had binders on their wrists and forearms.

"Hey! Boys! Corporal Neri Ralter! Those two in the binders are Shinra Armed Forces! Get 'em out of 'em now!"

Neri expected a request for identification, immediate compliance, or, at the least, a suspicious look. He didn't expect the barrage of gunfire that the relief forces splattered him with. The sheer force of the impacts sent Ralter into what had once been a two-story house. As a pair of troops headed for the wreckage, they were surprised by a pair of strong hands grabbing their necks and snapping them.

Ralter was as surprised by the attack as the troops. He was acting on pure instinct as he jumped over a fence and a gate and began running to the lowland hills near the mountain. He'd had a day and a half to get acquainted with Nibel mountain, and he gambled that the Shinra hadn't.

Settling down to check his wounds, he realized that the bullets hadn't penetrated his skin. They had ripped through armor and his uniform, but he could see the flattened lead drops on his bare chest. He removed them, seeing that he wasn't bruised. However, it still hurt like that fat $#+ Heidegger had fallen on him a few dozen times. Must have been that fountain. Whoever thought that there was such a thing as liquid Kevlar? Neri decided to check his options. He had salvaged a rifle from one of the troops, and he guessed, from the fact that he was still breathing, that he had armor, kind of. Gotta rescue Zack and Cloud.

Zack punched out the Shinra attendant, and pulled Cloud out of the containment tube. Salvaging his sword, the two unlikely prisoners made a desperate dash for the nearest outpost of civilization.

As they left the building and started crossing the mountains for Rocket Town, a trio of shapes detached themselves from various pieces of wreckage and followed.

Neri finished bathing in the glowing fluid, and was on his way back to his "home" when he heard panting, and looked down.

A pair of injured-looking figures rushed across the path. Well behind them, probably undetected, were a trio of men in black suits. How'd I pick out that kind of detail at this range? The two in front probably didn't know about the 3 behind them, and Neri would've bet his fountain that the 2 were Cloud and Zack, and the 3 were members of that new special security force the Shinra were making, the Quirks or something. He had gotten into position to ambush the ambushers, and was about to open fire when he heard a growl behind him.

A pack of Nibel wolves had apparently decided that he was a delicacy, and they charged him before he could draw his gun. He threw the first one into the second, but the third shredded his left forearm with its teeth before his left hand choked it to death. He pulled his rifle, and shot the second wolf neatly through its head. The third decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed out.

Neri had just spun around to deal with the Turks when a blast of pistol fire threw him backwards again. Dammit! Must've made too much noise with the gunfire. He examined his arm, remembering how wolves had torn it up during a storm back in Mideel, when it glowed green and a burst of light seared his eyes.

Wesson, Vic, and Tseng lined up for another shot when there was a flash of light from above. Abruptly, a lightning bolt blasted downwards, skipped off of a loose pebble, and caught Vic in the face, electrocuting him and searing his lungs. Vic dropped, making hoarse sounds and coughint up blood.

Neri looked at his hand, closer. This's the same crap that those people in SOLDIER do! No wonder the Shinra are so obsessed with controlling all Mako deposits! He concentrated, thought about the explosion back at the reactor, and his hand glowed again.

Wesson had his comlink out and was screaming for an evac chopper when another bolt of Magic slammed into him, hurling him bodily a good 4 meters, and he writhed on the ground as his skin burned. Tseng tried to get close enough to put his comrade out, but he couldn't get closer than a meter before the flames burned him, too. Throwing courage, caution, and his sidearm to the winds, the surviving Turk headed for the Evacuation Zone.

Neri smiled. Cloud and Zack had surely gotten to Rocket Town by now, and he had done his job. He had failed to keep his promise earlier, but had made up for it by saving them here. Even though he had defied the very people that told him to protect Zack, he had kept his promise to protect him. Even as he opened his eyes again, however, he felt a jolt of pain in his stomach, and looked up to see Sephiroth, bloody, bruised, and with a sick grin on his face that told Neri he was insane.

"Did... Cloud... Survive?"

"Ernh... Why... would... you care?"

Sephiroth twisted his sword around in Ralter's stomach and pulled it out.

"I'll take that as a yes."

Neri saw the blade coming, but was powerless to stop it. And, to be truthful, he was so at peace with himself that he didn't really care that his life was ending.

President Shinra looked over Tseng's report, and up at Tseng.

"Well. With Wesson dead, and Valentine in Hojo's loving hands, you're the new head of the Turks. You're first assignment is to find and recruit some replacements for Wesson, Vic, and Valentine. Your second is to find this girl: Aerith Gainsbourough."

The lifestream accepted another resident, and Neri smiled as he saw his loved ones: Old war buddies, his grandparents, and countless others he had lost... and found.

Notes: Okay, guys, this was my first fanfic, and I tend to keep writing short and concise. I'm terrible about being original, so I just like to expand on loose ends in RPGs and close 'em up. Hope you enjoyed this! Auf Wiedersehen.