Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...

 
 

We would like to apologise to anyone who has played the game for the lack of interest in this chapter. The whole 'memory loss' thing was deemed inappropriate content for this fanfic.

The authors

Writing of Wrongs

 
 

September 27th

Dear diary,

Daddy says it's only one more day now until the Shinra group arrive to find out where all the monsters are coming from. I hope he's right. I don't like the thought of those things creeping around outside at night, but... I wonder who's coming? They said they were sending one of their best men. A SOLDIER perhaps? Maybe... Maybe Cloud made it after all. We haven't heard anything from him since he left last year. Oh... I can only hope... What I would give to see him again. I didn't realise until he left, but...

I'm getting all soppy. I must stop this. I've got to guide them to the reactor when they go there, and it wouldn't do to be acting like this, would it?

Tifa

 
 

Ess awoke. She didn't recognise the room she was in, but that wasn't particularly surprising. Integration was a tricky business at best, and it often took a minute or so for your Past to come online. Until that point, the plot didn't acknowledge you, and there were certain things you could do only in that limited time. Perigee had introduced a menu system, whereby you could change what you would be like for the duration of the integration.

Some actions can only be adequately described by words which give no explanation for how the actions occurred. As such, Ess opened the menu, and went to her personal stats section.

They seemed in order. Lvl 2, reasonable Str, Dex and Int above average, Mag unusually high. On a whim, she shortened her hair slightly, and dropped her age by five years, to sixteen. She smiled at the thought of how the changes would affect Perigee.

Her class wasn't defined, which was out of the ordinary. For as long as she could remember, she'd been classified as a Medic or a White Mage. She had a natural talent for both, but she longed to try her hand at something else. Were they finally giving her a chance?

She carefully entered 'Samurai' into the Class field. Instead of the usual, "Classchange not allowed" message, she got a complex error.

"Error $00A87CBF: Class.Count > Class.CountLimit. Class.ClassName = 'Samurai', Class.CountLimit = 1, Class.Items = {Sephiroth}; Abort/Retry/Fail?"

Ess carefully selected Abort, knowing that Retry would be useless and Fail could crash the world. The screen's background changed colour, from black to light blue. The changes she had made washed over her, and her Past arrived at the same time. She checked the class box again, her new memories telling her the answer anyway. She was 2nd Lieutenant Ess Harrison, Shinra Medic.

She swore.

 
 

Someone knocked on the door. Ess woke from her reverie and cautiously opened the door a few inches. Her Past piped up and mentioned in passing that it was the door to her personal quarters, on the twenty-fourth floor of the Shinra HQ in Midgar.

"Hey, Ess, it's me, Zack! Let me in!" announced the man on the other side.

Ess searched her memory for who this Zack was. She found that they'd grown up in the same town, and so had known each other for years. He seemed harmless enough. She opened the door the rest of the way, and Zack pushed into the room.

"Hey, I just got off duty, so I thought I'd check in on you," he began.

"Sure, you did," Ess replied, half-smiling. "You've gone off duty every evening for six months, and this is the first time you've visited me. What's the real reason?"

"You slander me!" Zack said with mock hurt. "I do something nice for you and you get all suspicious! But now that you mention it, there is a favour I'd like you to do for me."

"Now we're getting somewhere! How much?"

"Not money! Although... no, better not. Listen, there's a guy I think you'd like to meet. Wait, let me finish. He's about your age, moderately good looking, and has passable manners. So how about it?"

"You said this was a favour. What do you get out of it?" asked Ess.

"The guy's a friend of mine. Cloud - his name's Cloud - he's fairly new in town, and he's kinda homesick." Zack scratched the back of his head. "His pain is my pain," he added dramatically.

"Oh, alright. Where and when?"

"He's going to be at the 'Sector 9' bar in an hour. You can't miss him, he's got really spiky blond hair."

"You're not coming?"

"No, I'm meeting Aeris in Sector 5 in half an hour." His girlfriend, remembered Ess. "Oh, one more thing," Zack continued. "Sephiroth wanted to see you in the foyer at nine tomorrow."

Ess blinked. Sephiroth...?

"He didn't say why, but I think it's about his next mission. Something big's going on at Nibelheim, and even the great Sephiroth needs all the help he can get."

 
 

'Sector 9' was the Shinra Tower's unofficial nickname, and the Sector 9 was one of the most popular bars among the Shinra troops. The execs and all the other white-collar workers preferred the more genteel Excalibur.

Ess casually pushed her way into the Sector 9. Anyone with a Shinra uniform on got an automatic 10% discount, so she was wearing her Medic outfit - that she thought was suspiciously like the traditional garb of a white mage.

Zack had been right. She spotted Cloud's starburst haircut almost instantly. She started to head his way, then hesitated.

DjEvu.

How many times had this happened before? Pretty girl walks into a bar, meets hero, they both fall in love. This had happened to her nine times out of the last ten missions, the one only because she'd been killed off before she'd even been there five minutes. Every time, when the LTF had left, she'd been heartbroken. Sure, her character stayed behind, living happily ever after, but it wasn't her.

She'd mentioned it to Kea, since she wasn't sure how Perigee would take it.

"So vat's the problem?" he had asked. "You can love, but you don't haf to stay and endure a relationship. You get the good vithout the bad."

"But the heartache..."

"Life is like that. Vith a vonderful vine, the best in the vorld, you still get a hangover."

Well, forget that, she decided. I'm not going to have my emotions twisted to suit the needs of a story.

Cloud turned, and for a second their eyes met, his pale blue eyes drawing her to him. The people around them moved away, voices becoming muffled. The walls and the drinks and the bar faded into pink clouds, leaving only Ess and Cloud, alone but for the soft music.

A bowl of salted peanuts collided with her face, completely destroying the moment. Reality - or whatever close approximation - rushed back. A tall scientist, with wild eyes buried behind glasses thicker than even Iota team's Hans Niesentose's and long black hair mostly tied back in a ponytail, was standing on a chair shouting, "FOOD FIGHT!"

His target appeared to be a lanky, unshaven man leaning on the bar and trying to fish his flying goggles out of his beer on the other side of Ess. He glanced up, a certain 'give me a break' expression on his face, and shouted back at the scientist, "Shut up, Hojo! You couldn't hit me if I -" before being interrupted by a large custard flan travelling at high velocity and low altitude.

All around Sector 9 alimentation began to be projected wildly. Ess ducked under a curry, only to be broadsided by a plate of boiled vegetables. In her peripheral vision she saw Cloud leap off his barstool and head her way. Once at her side, he shouted something that was lost in the chaos, then reached behind his back to produce a short sword. It had glowing runes engraved on it, noticed Ess. Taking her arm with his left hand and fending off volleys with his sword, Cloud led Ess to the door.

 
 

Once outside, Ess leant up against the wall and picked chilli beans off her sleeve.

"Sorry about that," Cloud said, his voice a pleasing tenor. "You seemed to be right in Hojo and Highwind's crossfire."

"You know those two?"

"Sure! They can't stand each other, and as soon as they've both had a drink, WHAM! It's the Wutainese war all over again!"

"Which one's from Wutai? High...wind?" asked Ess, remembering Wutai to be a lot like Earth's Asia.

"No, Hojo is. Couldn't you tell?"

"Hojo's the scientist?"

"Yeah, that's him."

A pause.

"Anyway..." Ess glanced at her feet. "Thanks for getting me out of there. And I don't even know your full name."

"Cloud Strife," said Cloud, sticking out his hand. Ess took it, his handshake strong but careful.

"I'm Ess Harrison. I... I'd better go. I've got a meeting early tomorrow, and it's getting late."

"Yeah, I guess I should be off too. It's nice having the Great Sephiroth as your leader, but he gets up at the crack of dawn."

"You're in Sephiroth's group?" asked Ess, rather pointlessly. "He's who I'm meeting tomorrow! So I guess we might see each other then."

"Yeah." Cloud scratched the back of his head. "So... See you tomorrow."

"Yes." Ess smiled briefly, then turned and began heading back to the Tower. All employees were quartered there - floors twenty to forty were dedicated to that purpose.

 
 

September 28th

Dear diary,

They're arriving today! Most people in the village seem rather nervous, but I can't help but feel excited. It's not every day you get to see the best soldiers in the world, is it?

Zangan doesn't trust them. He says he knows what those arrogant elite types are like, and that I mustn't let them boss me around. I said I can take care of myself, but I don't think I'll need to. Particularly not if it's going to be who I hope it is...

Tifa

 
 

The next morning, Ess was doing a final check of her equipment before heading out.

"Let's see... Medic's uniform... weapon..." a battle-deformed frying pan - for some reason her weapon class was 'kitchen utensils' - "Accessory..." her medic's kit, which added 50% to her curative magic strength.

"...I guess that's it." She only had four materia: mastered Restore and Revive, and two mastered All materia. This was the standard loan to medics, and though she was allowed to buy them from the company at half price, the two Alls were more than one and a half million Gil together, so there wasn't much chance of that any time soon.

Sephiroth and Zack were already in the foyer. When Ess approached, Zack grinned, while Sephiroth just looked at her.

"I guess I'd better introduce you," began Zack. "Sephiroth, this is Ess Harrison. Ess, this is Sephiroth. But you knew that, right?"

"Charmed," said Sephiroth, bowing his head slightly. "Miss Harrison, Zack here tells me you are an excellent medic, as well as being reliable and trustworthy. Is this true?"

"He forgot modest," Ess replied casually, taking a chance. There was a tense pause, then Sephiroth smiled.

"Good! Intelligence, too! Well, then, Miss Harrison, would you like to join my team? Our last medic was rather inept, and was mortally wounded on his training mission, so there's a place available."

It's nice having the Great Sephiroth as your leader, but he gets up at the crack of dawn... "I'll take it. When do I start?"

"We're leaving for Nibelheim in under an hour. There's a problem at the reactor there - monsters all over the place."

"Okay... um... this is all so... I mean... yes?"

"Good. Meet outside the main doors at quarter to."

At that moment, Cloud ran up, his shirt untucked.

"You're late, Mr. Strife," Sephiroth observed coldly. "Go wait outside. You've got first shift."

"Yessir," said Cloud unhappily. He threw a quick smile at Ess, and was gone.

 
 

The journey to Nibelheim was somewhat uneventful. Ess had, of course, ridden in an aeroplane many times before, but this was only Cloud's third flight, and for him it had lost none of the wonder.

Planes were not common - helicopters were more popular for medium distances; for longer journeys there were land vehicles, and of course the common foot. Planes required runways to land, and runways took up too much space to be cost-effective. Oh, there was always someone announcing a new, runway-free aircraft, but these 'airships,' as they were known, had never quite made it into reality.

If Perigee had been following this train of thought, he would probably have smiled knowingly, but he wasn't, so he thought Um to himself instead.

 
 

The five walked through Nibelheim's town gates, and surveyed the area. Another Shinra guard had been waiting at the runway for them, and had accompanied them to the town.

"So how does it feel?" asked Sephiroth suddenly. Cloud realised the question was directed at him.

"What?"

"It's your first time back to your hometown in a long time, right? So how does it feel? I wouldn't know because I don't have a hometown."

Cloud looked surprised, while searching for a way to dodge the question. He wasn't sure how he felt. "Ummm... how 'bout your parents?"

"My mother is Jenova. She died just after she gave birth to me. My father..." His voice trailed off, and he covered his mouth with his hand. His shoulders began to shake.

Worried, Ess asked, "Sir, are you alright?"

Sephiroth waved her away. "I'm fine. What does it matter...? All right, let's go."

They strode into the town square. It was completely deserted. Not even one villager had decided - or perhaps dared - to come out and meet the squad. Sephiroth shrugged unconcernedly.

"We leave for the reactor at dawn," he announced. "Make sure you get to sleep early. You," he pointed at the new guard, "keep a lookout. Miss Harrison... You can have the evening off. Just be sure you're ready tomorrow. Zack, you can come and help me get our rooms arranged." Almost as an afterthought, he turned to Cloud and added, "Oh, that's right... you may visit your family and friends. Take over the lookout at two, so get some sleep beforehand. You're dismissed."

He turned and strode away into the inn, Zack trailing behind. The lookout followed them to the door, then leaned up against the wall and stared blankly at the sky.

Uncomfortably, Cloud met Ess's stare.

"So this is what you meant by 'having the Great Sephiroth as your leader,'" she observed amusedly. "I thought you were in SOLDIER or something."

Cloud shook his head sadly.

"Not yet," he replied. "But someday... I'm gonna be just like Sephiroth."

Ess smiled. "Nice to see someone sticking to his dreams."

"Yeah. It's a long way to go, but I'm already making friends at the top."

Ess thought back to earlier that morning. You're late, Mr. Strife... "Nice town," she remarked, deciding not to risk spoiling his enthusiasm. "A lot better than Midgar, anyway."

Cloud nodded cheerfully. "Well, I'm going to go see some people. Hey, why don't you come along? Pass the time?"

"Um... yeah, sure. Who first?"

Cloud laughed. "My mom, of course. Who else?"

He's taking you to see his parents, said the voice of Ess' LTF training. Um... parent, anyway.

So? replied the pink fog from last night. Why not?

After several seconds careful consideration, Ess decided to go with the fog. Why not indeed?

"After you," she said.

 
 

"Ye---s? Cloud!? Welcome home, Cloud!"

"Hi, mom," said Cloud.

"And who is this young woman with you?" asked Mrs. Strife.

"Oh, right. Mom, this is Ess Harrison. Ess, this is my mom."

"Hello," said Ess awkwardly.

"Nice to meet you, dear. And let me say now that I'm happy for both of you."

"What?" asked Cloud and Ess in unison.

"I just think it's so nice that you two are together. Cloud's a wonderful boy, Ess, although he does talk in his sleep. Or did you already know that?"

Cloud and Ess stared at each other.

"Eeew!" screeched Ess.

"Mooom! We're not... that's just... geez, we're not even going out or anything yet! Whe... I don't know how you got such an idea! Ess and I just work together, okay?"

"Oh, okay, Cloud. I'm sorry." Mrs. Strife winked at Ess. "Don't worry, I won't tell a soul."

"Okay. Fine. That's fine," interjected Ess hastily. "That's just what we want, right, Cloud?"

"Uh... yeah. That's what we want. Don't tell anyone." He looked at Ess apologetically, and she shrugged.

 
 

Zack laughed. "Very nice tricks, and all that. Sorry, though - I'd still prefer a sword in my hands to a pair of gloves, no matter how tough they are."

The man he was talking to - an elderly martial arts master by the name of Zangan - leaned back on the inn's reception desk and raised an eyebrow. "You think you can defeat this old man?"

Zack shook his head. "No, no, I'm not after a fight or anything. I'm just saying I'm more comfortable cutting monsters in half than giving them a good pummelling, that's all. What'd you say your pupil's name was? Tina?"

"Tifa," Zangan replied. "I'd say she could run circles around you, easily."

"Really?" Zack smiled. "What's she like?"

"She's too good for the likes of you, that's what I'm saying. You keep your hands off her, you hear?"

"Eh? Oh, I see. Don't worry there - I'm spoken for." Zack spread his palms wide in a gesture of innocence. "Your girl's safe from the likes of me, and I'm pretty sure Sephiroth's not too bothered."

"Well, good. Make sure things stay that way, won't you?"

Zack shrugged and, turning away, trudged up the stairs to their bedroom. As with every other inn he'd been quartered in during his three years or so as a SOLDIER, each room seemed to have three beds. It must be one of those unwritten laws of the world or something, he'd decided.

Sephiroth was standing by the window, staring out toward the large mansion at the other end of town. Zack hadn't been too impressed when he'd seen it. It had obviously been quite luxuriant at some point, but years of disrepair had not been kind to it. He ambled over and watched over Sephiroth's shoulder.

"What are you looking at?"

Sephiroth didn't even look at his subordinate. "This scenery..." he muttered. "I feel like I know this place..."

"Been here before on another mission, perhaps?"

"No... it's not like that. It's more djEvu. Everything seems familiar..."

Zack nodded. "Yeah, I feel like that sometimes. The best way to get round it is to go have a drink."

Sephiroth smiled and turned away from the window. "We have an early start tomorrow," he commented, ignoring Zack's offer. "You should get some sleep soon. I've hired a guide to the Mako reactor. I've heard she's young; I hope we can rely on her..."

He glanced back over his shoulder at the mansion, but Zack had seen this coming and positioned himself in front of the window. "Come on, you said yourself we should get some sleep. Let it drop. The feeling's always gone by the morning."

 
 

Sephiroth rolled over onto his back and stared despondently at the ceiling. Sleep was not coming easily to him tonight. For one thing, this bed felt as if someone had stuffed the mattress with rocks and the duvet with flour, but that wasn't the only catalyst for his insomnia at the moment. Practically the moment he'd turned the lights out, his sole reservation about this mission had come rushing back to remind him of its existence.

"ZZZZZZzzzzzz..."

And then the silence came rushing in. For a brief moment the night seemed peaceful and tranquil once more. Sephiroth held his breath. Could the man really have stopped?

"ZZZZZZzzzzzz..."

Sephiroth sighed. Seriously, possibly Zack's most prominent flaw was that he snored more loudly than anyone else the other had had the misfortune of encountering.

"ZZZZZZzzzzzz..."

Almost as if acting of its own volition, Sephiroth's left arm reached over to his bedside table and his hand clamped itself round the first thing it came across, which happened to be one of those collectable 'plushy' things that shops and inns had recently started giving away with certain purchases.

Zack was halfway through the fourth Z when he was hit by a six-inch tall, fluffy replica of a young man holding a short wooden sword in one hand and sporting a more exaggerated orange spiky haircut than even Cloud or Zack himself. He mumbled something incoherently and turned over onto his side.

Sephiroth grinned widely. That was one major advantage of his SOLDIER training - it had certainly improved his aim.

"ZZZZZZzzzzzz..."

This was going to be a long night.

 
 

September 29th

Dear diary,

They came, and they sent Sephiroth! I never even dreamed I'd see him! The Great Sephiroth in person... He looks a bit cold-hearted, though. I hope he's nicer when I have to take them to the reactor in half an hour or so. There's another guy with him - another SOLDIER, perhaps? - and a girl about my age. Oh, of course they brought a couple of normal troops with them, but they're not nearly as exciting! It's a bit disappointing about Cloud not being here, but maybe he's on another mission somewhere else? Besides, I think I can put him out of my mind. I'm helping the Great Sephiroth!

Tifa

 
 

"Sir!" Cloud saluted as Sephiroth wandered out of the inn, Zack following a few seconds behind. Sadly, he forgot just how prominent the visor on his helmet was and promptly hit his hand against it. "Nothing to report from the night watch, sir!"

"Very good, Mr. Strife." Sephiroth nodded to him. "Where's our guide? She should be here by now."

"So you're Sephiroth, eh?" A middle-aged man of about forty, with less hair than was average for his age, came striding over and pointed a finger accusingly at his face, something that very few people even dared to do. "I want you to take care of my daughter, you hear? Don't want -"

"I can assure you, I will do everything I can to ensure that your daughter is returned to you unharmed. Once she gets here," he added pointedly.

"Sorry I'm late," called a young girl, hurrying over. Zack raised an eyebrow at her. As he'd pointed out to Zangan the night before, he was currently taken, but had he not already met Aeris, he would certainly have tried to get to know this girl. She was good.

"Good morning," said Sephiroth, rather coldly. He hadn't slept too well the night before. "You would be...?"

"Tifa," Zack informed him. "Glad to meet you. I'm Zack, Sephiroth you'll have heard of, and this beautiful young woman here is Ess, our medic."

"Anyway," Sephiroth put in, "we should get moving. It's quite a distance to the reactor, and the sooner we get there, the more time we'll have to do whatever we need to. Follow me."

"Wait! Mr. Sephiroth?"

This voice belonged to a particularly unimportant villager. Quite a crowd had turned out to see the party off, it seemed. "Could I just get a photo? You know, for the album?"

Sephiroth opened his mouth to make an uncharacteristically nasty comment, but Zack had seen his superior wasn't in the best of moods right now and made sure he got in first. "Yeah, sure. Come on, Seph. Ess? Tifa? Over here. Right, now," he began arranging the others, "Ess, you go over this side, Seph next to her, then me, then Tifa. Right? Smile!"

Click.

As Sephiroth steered the two girls off towards the path out of the village, Zack hung back and fell into step next to Cloud, who brought up the rear of the group along with the other soldier.

"What's up with you?" he enquired, not too loudly. "I know she's good looking, but it's not exactly courteous to stare like that, is it?"

Cloud shook his head. "It's not like that. She... I just knew her, before I left for Midgar. That's all."

"Really? Why don't you go talk to her, then? She can't recognise you with all that gear on, you know."

"No, I... I mean... I told her I was going to be in SOLDIER. I can't talk to her like this, it'd be so demeaning... the thing is..."

Zack shrugged. "Up to you, I guess. Your call."

 
 

Cloud looked with suspicion at the worn bridge spanning the gap between two peaks. It had been the boundary of his childhood world - it had looked dangerous enough ten years ago, and time had not been kind.

"What's taking so long?" called Sephiroth from the other side.

"You afraid of the big bad bridge?" taunted Zack, already halfway across.

"Alright already!" Cloud tentatively took a few steps, then proceeded cautiously along the bridge. Tifa and the other guard, following Cloud, were barely a few feet out when the bridge decided it had had enough and snapped between the two of them.

Cloud and Tifa were lucky enough to grab one of the planks and simply held on for dear life as the bridge swung down and smacked into the cliff on the far side. Zack was able to make a flying leap for the far cliff, but the other guard floundered and fell.

Ess and Sephiroth, the only two on solid ground, glanced at each other across the chasm. Sephiroth bent over and hauled Zack up next to him, then asked loudly, "Are you two going to be all right?"

"I'm fine," shouted Cloud. He reached down as far as he could and just about managed to grab Tifa's hand. He heaved her up to his level, then began clambering upwards towards the two SOLDIERs.

"Ow... I'm a bit beat up, but I'll be okay," called Tifa.

"Miss Harrison!" shouted Sephiroth.

"Y-yes?"

"See if you can take care of our fallen comrade. I suspect he will not be fit to travel the rest of the way to the reactor, so take him back to the town if he can be moved, or wait with him there and we will meet you on the way back."

"Yes sir!"

"That was a little cold, don't you think?" asked Zack quietly.

"She's new, and needs to learn to take orders now, when it's not so important. Then when it is important, she'll do what she's told without thinking."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

Zack leaned down and took hold of Cloud's left hand as he neared the edge, then pulled the two of them back onto horizontal ground.

"Nice one, private," he remarked, remembering about Cloud's wish for anonymity. "Good work."

Sephiroth nodded in agreement. "Impressive," he concurred. "Anyway, let us continue. Miss Harrison? We will see you later!"

 
 

The guard had landed on a path, and as Ess climbed down the rocky cliff, she knew he'd never make it back to the village. Nevertheless, she made a great show of getting out her medkit confidently; then at least he wouldn't think she'd given up on him.

He lifted one arm slowly. Ess pushed it back down and said, "Let me do it. You need to conserve your strength." She carefully lifted his visor towards his helmet.

A set of parallel waveforms in the literature plane overlapped just enough, distorting the boundaries between realities. Something in the corner of Ess' vision flickered, but when she looked there was nothing there.

"I..." croaked the guard. "I... I'm not gonna make it, am I?"

"There's always hope," said Ess reassuringly.

"Yeah... I guess you're right. Not for..." he broke into a fit of coughing. "...not for me, though. Tell... tell Rinoa I always loved her..."

He died.

Ess brushed his blond hair out of his eyes, and absentmindedly fingered the scar on his forehead. "If I meet her, I'll be sure to tell her. But I don't even know your name..."

An idea struck her. All Shinra troops had their name and rank on a pair of metal dogtags that hung around their neck. She fished his out.

"Seifer Almasy... Don't worry, Seifer. I'll tell her."

 
 

"Hmm... intriguing..." Sephiroth mused, wandering around the reactor antechamber. The room was sloped at quite a worrying angle, leading from the lower area - where he was currently standing - up a single flight of steps in the centre to a door set in the back wall. He could just about see a word painted on the wall above it, but from here he couldn't quite make out what it said. Still, that didn't really bother him right now. Far more important were the rows upon rows of large red egg-shaped pods - the Mako crystallisation chambers, if he remembered correctly from that hefty official document that he'd been forced to trawl through before the mission. They were the devices that actually condensed the Mako and extracted the energy from it, so they seemed a suitable place to start if he was to find this fault.

"Whoa, this is kinda surreal," Zack observed as he joined him. He'd been inside one or two reactors on duty before, but this was one of the very first the Company had constructed, and its innards weren't quite as well hidden from the public eye as in the newer models. They weren't as well put together, either. From the pipes all around him, clouds of faint blue smoke leaked out where the joints hadn't been welded properly.

Sephiroth nodded in agreement as he knelt down by one of the pods and examined the base. In keeping with the general atmosphere of the room, a whole collection of small pipes came out from it, presumably carrying the Mako away - or in. It probably didn't make that much difference either way.

He tapped a valve with the end of the Masamune. It creaked loudly and released a puff of foul-smelling greenish vapour.

"I think we have our fault," he commented to Zack. "Looks like the chambers are leaking. We'll have to go round and tighten all these up - that should do it, I reckon."

Zack nodded. "Yeah, sure. You want to do that side, I'll do this one?"

"A sensible suggestion."

But first, he mused as he straightened up and made his way towards the stairs, he'd go and see what that word was. For once he was curious - after all, it was quite interesting to see exactly how these things worked. Hojo and his cronies kept all their secrets pretty well locked up, even from guys like Heidegger, technically their superiors.

"J..." he murmured to himself, tracing out one of the faint letters. "E..."

"Ack!" Zack exclaimed behind him. He'd successfully turned the valve the wrong way, and it was now pumping out dense, high pressure clouds of Mako into his face, making it nigh on impossible for him to actually get back to turn the thing off. "Waah! Help!"

It took Sephiroth no more than a second or so to bound back down the stairs and force it closed. He sighed wearily at Zack.

"Careless, Zack, careless. You don't realise what's inside there, do you? Believe me, you wouldn't be so hasty if you did."

"Huh? No, haven't a clue," Zack replied cheerfully.

"Go ahead. Have a look."

Each pod was fitted with a small observation window, a circle of frosted glass maybe a foot across, and cleverly placed just above head height to make it particularly inconvenient should anyone actually wish to observe anything. Zack threw both his arms over the top of the chamber and hauled himself up so he could see inside.

"What the hell is that?" he said once he saw.

Sephiroth smiled. "Concentrated Mako," he explained. "The reactor draws it from the Planet, then extracts all the energy from it in there. That's why it's such a revolting colour."

"Yeah, but... what's the thing in there with it?"

"Excuse me?" Now it was Sephiroth's turn to be confused. "The 'thing?' Let me see."

Zack hopped down and allowed the other through. Sephiroth was tall - considerably taller than most - and he could get a glimpse through the window without having to strain himself.

"Good lord," he muttered.

As he'd expected, the chamber was filled with the swamp green fumes of 'dead' Mako. Actually, that wasn't entirely true. The word 'filled' implies that the smoke was the only thing inside. It wasn't. Curled up in a ball at the bottom of the pod was... well, perhaps at one point it had been a person. Perhaps it had been a cat. Perhaps... It was impossible to tell. All that was certain now was that it had been mutated beyond anything mere evolution could do.

And then everything became clear.

"Oh, I see," he mused. "Now I get it."

"What? What exactly is it?"

Sephiroth stood back and nodded towards the pod. "You know the basic Mako theory. When Mako is condensed, it becomes a gas, like in there. Take the process further and...?"

"Uh..." Zack could tell Sephiroth was testing him. "Don't tell me... Ah, got it. You get materia, don't you?"

"Indeed. Pure spirit energy coalesces around dust particles in the air to give you imperfect materia - fire, ice, lightning, that sort of thing. I think the guys in R&D're still trying to get it to coalesce without a core - you've heard of the Ultima Project, I assume?"

"Yeah. The 'perfect materia,' and all that."

"Correct. Anyway, that's beside the point." He tapped the window with the point of the Masamune. "So you tell me. What do you think happened to that... in there?"

Zack's eyes widened. "You mean... they put something in there? Deliberately?"

Sephiroth nodded again. "Doctor Melchior Hojo," he stated flatly. "Insane, true, but I never thought he'd do anything like this... I believe this is the source of our monsters. He's obviously too conceited to tell the others that he's been doing this. Thinks we'd just come here, tighten a few screws and let the thing pass." He shook his head sadly. "What an idiot. The only thing you can do with a place like this is to burn it down."

Zack 'hmm'ed in agreement.

Sephiroth glanced back up towards the door. Still, it aroused his curiosity. There had to be... hang on...

J-E.

Jenova.

Without saying anything, he strode back up the stairs. Yes, once you knew what you were looking for it became much easier to read the faded word. Jenova.

So that was why. He'd used her as a guinea pig. Hojo had taken his mother - his mother! - and locked her away like those poor souls in the pods, using her as nothing more than an experiment... and he'd told the world she was dead. Only the Cetra knew what she could have become by now - if she was still alive.

Sephiroth shook his head sadly. He'd never known his mother well enough to form a familial bond - he'd never really known his mother full stop, what with her dying (supposedly) while he was barely more than a baby. He couldn't even remember anything about her, other than what the adults had told him once he'd grown old enough to understand; she'd loved him, and she'd died hoping he would be happy, and other such tripe. He didn't even know what she'd looked like.

He wasn't the most sensitive person around. He appreciated that. This discovery didn't hit him in the emotions, but he could appreciate that it might have done, had he known his mother better - had he actually been given a chance to know her, in fact. That scientist couldn't do this sort of thing. He'd have to be stopped once they got back to Midgar. Sephiroth vowed, then and there, that hed see it done.

He stepped up to the door and peered through the window set in it into the room beyond. Something in there was glowing so brightly he couldn't make out a thing.

...my son!...

He stood back and shook his head. Wonderful. Now he could barely see, full stop.

"You alright, sir?" Zack asked, worriedly. "You went a bit thoughtful there."

Sephiroth smiled weakly. "Just wondering what's through there," he remarked. "Don't worry about it. Let's just head back to town, shall we? I think we've seen all we need to see."

 
 

Ess looked up as she heard footsteps approaching from the path to the mountains. At last, she thought. She'd got back to town maybe two or three hours ago, but whenever she tried to go anywhere where there were other people, such as her room at the inn, she got so many sly glances and comments along the lines of, "Oh, so where's Cloud, then? I thought...?" that she'd decided she was better off just waiting by the road until the others got back. She hadn't really been looking forward to telling Sephiroth that she'd let her first patient under his command die.

"Ah, Miss Harrison!" Sephiroth called over. "You found your way back, I see. How is..." He caught sight of Ess' apprehensive expression. "Oh. I see."

"Sir, he was practically dead by the time I got down there," Ess explained, a tad defensively. "I think he must have crushed his -"

Sephiroth waved a hand dismissively. "The details mean nothing to me, I'm afraid." He gave her a sad smile. "The company pays me to inflict wounds, not to understand them. I'm sure there was nothing you could do."

Ess was surprised. Unlike many of the officers she'd worked under previously (well, supposedly, anyway) he sounded as if he actually meant that. "Thank you, sir. But... did you find the fault at the reactor? Is everything okay?"

"In a way." Sephiroth nodded toward the Shinra mansion. "Yes, I did find the problem. It's not fixed yet, but I shall make sure it is once we get back to the headquarters," he replied cryptically. "Before we set off back, though, I need to do some research here. There is quite an extensive library in the mansion over there - I believe this was something of a retreat for the late Professor Gast in earlier years. You will have to allow me some time in there before we can return. I must ascertain some facts."

He looked back over his shoulder. Tifa had been following pretty close behind him, and was now waiting demurely to be dismissed. Cloud and Zack, however, had been taking their time, chatting to one another, and were only now nearing the town.

"Hurry up, you two!" he shouted back at them, then happened to notice Tifa. "Oh, I do apologise. Miss Lockhart, thank you for your assistance and your patience. I hope we will have no further need of your services. You may leave. I fancy our business from now on will only bore you."

"Um... thank you!" Tifa replied. She hurried off, pausing a few metres away for a second or so to look back over her shoulder. It had been kinda interesting helping with a SOLDIER assignment, but... she couldn't help but wish it had been Cloud they'd sent, however gentlemanly Sephiroth was.

"As I was saying to Miss Harrison," Sephiroth told the two latecomers, "I have some research to do before we may leave. I will be in the mansion basement. Mr. Strife, you will take the watch to ensure that I am not disturbed. Zack, Ess," in a gesture of goodwill he decided to use her first name, "you two may have the rest of the day off. I shall call on you when we are ready to depart."

"I'd better go start watching," Cloud said as Sephiroth strode off. "I'll see you guys later, then."

He turned and hurried after Sephiroth's departing back.

Zack shrugged. "Well?" he began to Ess. "What -"

"Oh, don't you start as well," Ess retorted venomously. "Look, I'm not going out with Cloud, okay? Got that?"

"Whoa, whoa!" Zack took a few paces back, holding his hands out defensively in front of him. "I was only going to ask how the mission's been so far! But, seeing as we're talking about Cloud," he grinned, "how long haven't you two been going out, then?"

Ess tried to glare at him, but it didn't last long before she, too, started to smile. "It's not like that. He's a nice guy, and I'm glad you set the two of us up. But things aren't serious. He's just a friend."

"So why the outright denial? That only means one thing, you know."

Ess shook her head. "His mum's got some weird ideas," she replied.

"Tell me about it. I went into there last night - Sephiroth suggested I ask around in case there'd been any recent sightings - and she started going on at me about how she thought a young man like me ought to settle down and find a nice, older girlfriend to take care of me." Zack shrugged and scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. "Guess that means you're not my type, then."

"Shame," Ess agreed.

"True." Zack glanced over to the inn. "You know, I think I'll go get all our stuff sorted out - room and board paid for, that sort of thing. Sephiroth'll have me do it all before we leave, so I might as well get it done now. Why don't you go keep Cloud company?"

Ess gave him a dark glance, in case there was a hidden meaning to that last sentence, but Zack's face betrayed only innocent goodwill. She relented.

"Yeah, why not?"

 
 

Sephiroth pulled another book from the shelves and inspected the cover. 'Mako and its uses in weaponry.' Another Gast book. Honestly, the man must have been obsessed with terrachemistry. Sephiroth shrugged, calmly tossed the volume over his shoulder and picked another.

He'd never really known his mother. After all, she had died thirty-odd years ago... or so he'd been led to believe. Somehow, finding a sealed door with 'Jenova' stamped on the wall above in huge capital letters made one begin to wonder if something more complex was afoot.

...you are...

Sephiroth would have been the first to admit that he was no scientist. To be perfectly honest, most of the stuff just went straight over his head, and in general that didn't bother him. He was a soldier, no, better than that, he was a SOLDIER, and it was right that he was more concerned with, say, how a sword could be used in battle, as opposed to how one could turn it into gold, which wasn't much use when there was a crazed behemoth charging straight at you.

...my son...

Even as a child, when it had become clear at the age of six or so that he wasn't like the other kids, he hadn't been too concerned. He'd been perfectly happy just to admit that he was different and to leave it at that.

...come to me...

But this... this piqued his curiosity, although that wasn't really the best phrase to use...

...i am part of you...

What was so special about this reactor? Why was his mother's name plastered across that door?

...let me use you...

He discarded another book and moved on to the first one on the next shelf. 'The Jenova Project,' yes, by Gast again.

...goodnight, my son...

This looked like being an interesting read.

 
 

"So now what?" asked Ess. "We just sit around while Sephiroth does research?"

"That's the idea, I guess," said Cloud.

Ess looked around the small room. They were in the Shinra Mansion, protecting the door to the staircase leading down to the basement from, currently, dust bunnies, small gusts of wind and one particularly confident moth. The only objects of interest in the room were a couple of potted plants and a creaky floorboard that Cloud kept stepping on. Ess was beginning to suspect that he did it on purpose.

"Well," she said uncertainly. "Isn't this nice."

 
 

September 30th

Dear diary,

It wasn't nearly as exciting as I'd hoped yesterday. Sephiroth is a very nice person, but he was obviously more interested in the mission than anything else. I suppose he should be, really. Apparently he was up all night reading up on stuff in the mansion. I don't think I could ever take a job that seriously.

I don't know why, but the village seems... different. Zack - he's the other SOLDIER who came with Sephiroth - told us all that they'd found the problem and fixed it, but our confidence hasn't returned. Everyone's still staying in their houses and looking nervous. I can't stand it! It's so... suppressed. I think I'm going to go for a walk in the mountains later. Maybe people are just wary of Shinra, but I don't want to stay indoors all day!

Tifa

 
 

Sephiroth lifted his head off the desk and stared around the room, wide-eyed from sleeplessness. His head felt as though he'd been repeatedly beating it against the desk for a few hours. Come to think of it, his entire body felt absolutely dreadful. Perhaps this was what it was like to be ill? He'd never experienced the sensation before, but, as the saying went, there was a first time for everything. Maybe he'd caught something up at the reactor or something.

...caught something? how ironic...

He stood up slowly, wincing as every joint in his back cracked, one by one. Pain? That was new, as well. As far as he could remember, he hadn't felt pain for ten, fifteen years, at least.

What was happening to him?

...you are the chosen one, my son...

"Um... sir?"

Sephiroth spun round to face the source of the voice, so fast he surprised even himself. To Ess, standing just inside the door, it looked almost as if he simply rotated without even moving his feet. That unnerved her even more than his appearance.

"Ah, Miss Harrison," he said weakly, leaning and supporting himself with one arm on the desk. "What would you be doing down here?"

"Sir..." Ess began uncertainly. "Sir, I was worried about you. Are you okay?"

...don't make me laugh...

Sephiroth gave her a half-hearted smile. "Don't concern yourself over me, my dear," he replied. "I'm fine."

...fine? really?...

"Sir," Ess continued, not really sure whether this was such a good idea but determined to keep going nonetheless, "as your team medic, I really do think you should go and lie down for a bit. You look awful."

...don't stop now!...

Sephiroth nodded. "You're probably right. I just need... just got to finish this research," he said.

...good boy...

"Thank you, sir."

Ess turned and hurried out, a worried frown on her face.

 
 

Cloud turned from the window as Ess came up the stairs. "Hey, Tifa's left her house," he said.

"You're spying on her? That's not very... nice," said Ess.

"No, it's not that, I just... I mean... aw, I'd better let you in on it. She's got this great piano in her room, been in her family for ages. I always used to sneak in there and mess around on it. That's actually how I learned to read music."

"You can read music?" Stupid question. He just told you he could, why'd you ask?

"Yeah. So I thought I'd try one more time. For old time's sake. Wanna go with me?"

Maybe it was nothing, but as Ess stood there she thought she heard herself answering, first with, "No, I've got stuff I need to do," then with, "Sure, I'll come along!"

So it was a Choice, then. She usually played a minor character, and so had only had to Choose a handful of times. A Choice was something that would alter the future of the plot - one way would be good, the other would be bad. Choices were rarely important in the long run, but in the short term...

"Sure, I'll come along!"

 
 

Physical sensation had been the first to go. The entirety of his body had gone numb, from his feet to his crown. And then everything had gone cold. It shouldn't have been possible once he'd lost all feeling, but the room had suddenly seemed freezing. But now, neither of these bothered him. Conscious and coherent thought were things of the past.

Sephiroth stood motionless, a book in one hand. He stared straight at the page in front of him, eyes not moving, unblinking.

...black materia? this may be something i can use...

Every few seconds he turned the page, his face showing no sign of registering what he was reading. Even after he turned the last page, his hand continued to turn the pages that were no longer there. Once he realised, he dropped the book and automatically took another from the shelf in front of him.

...a fountain of mako...

...i will ascend in the place where i descended. how ironic...

...i will become one with the lifestream...

...but i must become stronger first...

In one fluid motion Sephiroth drew the Masamune and stabbed it down into the floor. The blade passed smoothly through the stones until the hilt got stuck. Sephiroth collapsed next to it, breathing heavily, his fists clenched around the sword.

"Why...?" he murmured, so quite he was practically inaudible. "Why..."

 
 

"How can you just stand there, guarding?"

"Because I'm a guard!" grinned Cloud.

"But it's so dull! I thought we'd be, you know, fighting monsters and stuff. I thought it'd be interesting. I thought it might even be scary!"

"The life of a fighter is usually short periods of excitement followed by long period of being bored," said Cloud enigmatically.

A pause. Cloud shifted his weight, and a floorboard squeaked.

"Well, I'm bored," announced Ess.

"I'm not surprised."

"Hey, I noticed a restaurant near your Tifa's house. You want to buy me dinner?"

"What? I'm on duty, I can't just..."

"Look, it's not as if anything's going to try to get in here. The villagers think this place is haunted, and I'm sure Sephiroth can take care of any monsters."

...monsters? ha, ha, ha...

"Uh... yeah, I could do that... uh... maybe? I mean... yes?"

 
 

Silence.

Absolute silence.

...how dare you disobey me? you are my son!...

...Your son? I was created from you!...

Sephiroth stalked around the room, his footsteps inaudible. To all sides torn pages and fragments of hardback covers littered the floor. Every step he took was mechanical, every movement identical to that before. It was obvious there was no conscious thought going into the motion.

...it is my right to rule! i am the rightful heir to this planet!...

...The Cetra are the heirs! They defeated you once, they -...

...the cetra are insignificant! i am as they are!...

...You are what might have been! You are nothing now!...

...i am the future!...

Sephiroth's body convulsed. His feet slipped out from under him and he hit the floor face first, coughing blood.

...why do you fight me? i am giving you eternal life!...

...Because... because you have no... no right to... kill us...

...i gave you your life!...

"Hey? Sephiroth?"

Sephiroth stared up as a man came down the stairs into the library. Fairly tall, black spiky hair. No recollection.

"I brought you a sandwich," Zack called as he ambled through the door. "You haven't been up for days, I thought you might... whoa, man, what happened to you?"

Sephiroth's glare focused.

"...sandwich?" he muttered.

"Huh? What's up with you?"

...is he not pathetic?...

...He's just like me!...

Sephiroth sprung to his feet. His arm moving so fast it was a blur, his hand gripped itself round the hilt of the Masamune and swung it at head height. Zack barely managed to duck in time.

...you are so much better than him!...

"Go!" Sephiroth yelled. "Leave now!"

As Zack departed with some alacrity, the Masamune fell from Sephiroth's limp fingers.

...submit...

...No... I... will not...

...submit...

...good boy...

Sephiroth strode over to Zack's fallen sandwich, dusted it off, and began to eat it with every sign of enjoyment.

 
 

The restaurant, called the Mako Bowl, seemed pleasant enough on the inside. Ess smiled when she realised that the tall, moustachioed, dark-haired waiter who ushered them to their table, in defiance of all literary laws, spoke with an Italian accent. He was wearing the standard penguin suit of waiters everywhere, and would have looked extremely smart were it not for the incongruous green beret he wore at a rakish angle.

"I'm a little worried about Sephiroth," said Ess as they perused their menus.

"How come? Oh hey, they've got Red Bat Soup. Kinda expensive, though."

"Well, he seemed a little distant when I last talked to him, and I'm sure he hasn't been getting enough sleep."

"You think he's sick or something? I don't think he's ever taken sick leave. Ooh... no way! I could buy a tent for that much!"

"So you think he's okay?"

Cloud lowered his menu and looked Ess in the eye. "I'm sure Sephiroth can take care of himself. But I'm not sure I can say the same about us, though. I've never been in here before, and this stuff is expensive! I don't have nearly enough on me to pay for most of these things."

Ess glanced at her menu. "What about this lobster?"

"Uh... yeah, I could just cover that, if we don't get dessert."

Responding to some instinct, the waiter materialised at their table. "You-a ready to order now?"

"Yeah, I think we're both going to have the lobster," said Cloud, pointing at the item on his menu.

"Okee-dokee. So you want-a two Lobster Bisque, heh?" His mustache twitched in such a surprising way when he spoke that Cloud had to stifle a laugh hurriedly. "And-a what to drink? The speciality tonight is-a Kerokero Cola."

"Sure, I'll try that. Ess?"

"Water's fine for me," she said.

The waiter took their menus and dematerialised.

 
 

"I wonder what his other name is?" wondered Cloud idly.

"The waiter?"

"No, Sephiroth."

"What do you mean, his other name? Isn't he just Sephiroth?"

"Well, everybody else I know has two names. Cloud Strife, Ess Harrison, Zack Ebony... Sephiroth only has one."

"What, you mean like... Fred Sephiroth?" asked Ess incredulously.

"No, Sephiroth could be his first name. Like... oh, I dunno... Sephiroth Nobbs?"

"Sephiroth Nobbs? Cloud, what are you like after you've been drinking?" laughed Ess.

"Hey, I bet he's the son of some executive at Shinra. That's why he doesn't use his last name. Sephiroth Shinra? Sephiroth Heidegger? Sephiroth Hojo?"

"Hojo? Seriously? The food fight guy?"

"You never know." Cloud attempted to look serious and professorial, and didn't entirely succeed. "Love strikes in the most unlikely places."

The waiter rematerialised. "Here's-a your soup-a." He placed a steaming bowl of gloppy orange soup in front of each of them.

"Excuse me, but I don't think we ordere..." Cloud was cut off by a short portly man with an even more extravagant moustache slamming the door open.

"Hey, it's-a me!" announced the man.

The waiter peered at him with something close to recognition. "Who?" he asked suspiciously.

"Mario!"

"Mario? Hey everybody, this is-a my long-a lost brother, Mario!" shouted the waiter. Most of the diners broke into applause, while Ess just glowered into her soup. It's a reunion of childhood pals, she thought, and then wondered why she had.

 
 

"Yeah, this is Zack Ebony, SOLDIER First Class, ID... um..." Zack dug one hand into his trouser pocket and rooted around for a few seconds, finally producing a creased plastic card. "470-26Z."

"One moment, sir," replied the condescending voice on the other end of the line. Zack sighed and tapped his foot impatiently for a few seconds until the HQ operator had done whatever she was going to. "Your identification has been verified, Mr. Ebony. To whom do you wish to speak?"

"Get me Heidegger," Zack snapped irritably.

"Sir, I'm afraid General Heide-"

"Now."

One thing few people expected of Zack when they first met him was that he could make his tone of voice incredibly commanding when absolutely necessary, to the extent that most people he ordered around obeyed him without even thinking about it.

He wandered over to his bed and slumped down on it, still holding his PHS to his ear. This wasn't good... this really wasn't good...

"Huh?" said Heidegger's rather distinctive voice eventually. "What? Who are you? What do you want? I'm busy!"

"Zack Ebony," Zack informed him flatly.

"Who?"

"SOLDIER, First Class, on assignment in Nibelheim with Sephiroth."

"Oh, right. What is it?"

Zack took a deep breath.

"I want Sephiroth taken off duty."

There was an uncomfortable pause, finally broken by Heidegger's nervous laugh. "You know, there must be something wrong with this -"

"There isn't."

"Then... what possible reason could you have for wanting him out of action? No offence meant, but you damn well ain't good enough to take on reactor spawn on your own. I've seen 'em, and they ain't pretty."

"Sephiroth is more of a danger to this mission than any creatures we could go up against," Zack said calmly. Originally he'd been a bit unsure about this, but with every word he became more and more certain. "I don't know what, but something happened to him up at the reactor. It looks like he's going mad or something. A few minutes ago he just tried to kill me."

"What? Geez... You sure about that?"

"It's the sort of experience that sticks in your memory, if that's what you're getting at."

"Okay, okay, point taken." Heidegger hesitated. "This is most irregular..."

"You think?"

Heidegger sighed loudly. "Oh, fine. Ebony, you have the right to remove Sephiroth of his weapon and take over command of the mission."

"Sir, that really isn't good enough. If I try to take the Masamune off him, he'd run me through. We'll need a team with tranquillisers and stun spores and whatnot. ASAP."

There was no reply from the other end.

"Heidegger?" Zack shouted into the mouthpiece, becoming more agitated. "Heidegger? This is important, damnit!"

"Good afternoon, Mr. Ebony," said a calm, quiet voice. "I am Dr. Hojo. You obviously do not comprehend the importance of this mission. Delays of any sort are simply unacceptable. You will proceed as planned."

"Perhaps you don't 'comprehend!'" Zack yelled. "Sephiroth tried to kill me! He's a danger to the entire team!"

"Really?" Hojo laughed softly. "Then I suggest you do your best not to annoy him until the mission is over. Either that or simply stay out of his way until he has finished his mission."

"But -"

"No buts, SOLDIER. Do not meddle with affairs of which you have no understanding. Good day."

There was a brief silence before Heidegger's voice returned.

"You still there?" he asked.

"You -" Zack began.

"Shutupshutup!" Heidegger's voice was barely above a whisper. "Look, Hojo's playing God. I haven't a clue exactly what he thinks he's doing, but he's acting on his own there. He's got no authorisation from above. You just stay put and I'll have a squad leaving for Nibelheim within an hour or so."

Zack was, to put it simply, speechless. He knew none of the Shinra execs really got on with one another, or with anyone else for that matter (with the exception of Heidegger and his new secretary Scarlet) but to see them openly defying one another came as quite a shock. Heidegger must be really worried about this new turn of events, although - this was certain - not nearly as worried as Zack himself.

"Um... thanks, sir," was all he could manage.

"Stay alive out there, Ebony."

 
 

Ess stopped outside the door to her room. A few seconds later, Cloud ambled unhurriedly up the stairs and joined her.

"So, um..." Ess stared at the floor, not really sure why she was doing so. "It's getting kinda late. I guess we should probably be heading off to sleep. Hopefully Sephiroth'll finish whatever he wants to do tonight, and we can head home tomorrow morning."

Cloud nodded sagely. "Yeah, suppose so. Um..." He paused, obviously finding it difficult to say whatever he wanted right now. "Look, er... I've really enjoyed talking to you. D'you mind if we... well... get together after this is out of the way? On a more personal basis?"

Ess smiled. "Yes," she replied confidently. "I'd like that."

Cloud beamed. "It's a date," he announced to the corridor as a whole. "Well... I'll see you tomorrow. G'night, Ess."

He practically bounded off down the passage, and Ess slowly stepped into her room, closing the door behind her. She wandered over to her bed and sat down heavily on it. What was she thinking? Hadn't she decided, only three days ago, that she wasn't going to let herself become just another love interest? Not again. She was going to do things her own way this time. She was an agent, damnit!

There was a tentative knock on the door. Ess cursed inwardly as she realised she'd leaped up and had her hand on the handle before even one conscious thought had passed through her mind.

Unsurprisingly, it was Cloud, looking even more sheepish than he had earlier. "You know, it's not that late, really," he said softly. "Would you mind if I came in for a bit?"

No! yelled the voice of Ess' training. It's been nice, but I'm staying on my own this time!

But it didn't really stand much of a chance, as the pink fog flowed in once more, engulfing it and reducing its words to mere suggestions of thoughts, unheeded. In love, no one can hear you scream, it mused sulkily as it slumped in one corner of her mind and watched the proceedings gloomily.

"Yes," Ess said, her voice not much above a whisper. "Please do."

 
 

October 1st

Dear diary,

I'd hoped things would be different today, but nothing's changed. The atmosphere seems so stifling! I could barely sleep last night. In the end I just gave up trying and messed around on the piano for a while. Even that feels sad, somehow. Half the notes weren't working properly. They kept sticking all the time.

What's wrong with the town? Why is everyone like this? Aren't we safe now?

I just hope the Shinra people leave as soon as possible. Sephiroth scares me. It's about five o'clock in the morning now, and the lights are still on in the mansion. I don't think they've been turned out since we came back from the reactor. Something isn't right.

I'm scared.

Tifa

 
 

Cloud opened his eyes, and took in the view dispassionately. Another unfamiliar ceiling. He'd woken up in many different places since he'd joined the massed Shinra troops, and was starting to get the hang of it. He cautiously prodded his memories, trying to wrest some information from them, but they hid behind his pounding headache and refused to have anything to do with him. No help there.

It wasn't until Ess mumbled something in her sleep, then rolled over and dragged all the sheets to her side of the bed that things started falling into place.

Quietly, so as not to disturb her, he stepped into his uniform and snuck out of the room. The two of them would have plenty of time together later, but now, while he still had the chance, he had to find Zack. He smiled in anticipation of the look on the SOLDIER's face.

 
 

"Hey, Sephiroth?"

Cautiously, Zack stepped into the library, ready to dive to either side if necessary. His sword was strapped to his back - he'd decided that this time, no risks.

"Sephiroth?"

This part of the library was empty, but - far weirder - it was tidy. All the mess from last night had just, well... disappeared. The books were back on the shelves as if nothing had happened. It was almost enough, if anything actually was, to make Zack doubt that what he remembered happening last time actually had.

There was a thin passage connecting this part of the library to what was referred to as the 'inner sanctum' - a circular room, the walls lined entirely with books. In the very centre was a small desk, behind which sat the great man himself.

He smiled at Zack and beckoned to him. That had to be a good start, Zack mused.

"Ah, the human. Do come in."

That wasn't so good.

"You feeling any better?" Zack hazarded hopefully.

Sephiroth beamed. "As good as can be expected, yes. You will, of course, be waiting to ask what happened to Sephiroth last night."

...third person? thought Zack.

"Uh, yeah," he said.

"How predictable. Very well." Sephiroth nodded towards the books. "I shall explain."

He did so.

"What? You mean -"

"Yes, indeed. And there is more."

He related it.

"But -"

"Allow me to finish, human. I am..."

He elaborated.

"...my mother," he finished a couple of minutes later. "You can have no idea what you are dealing with, human."

Zack began to reach for his sword. "So what are you saying? That you're..."

Sephiroth stood, waving a hand to silence him. "If you follow, you will behold the ultimate power. But first... you will have to excuse me one moment." He stalked calmly past Zack, then paused and looked back over his shoulder. "I have to demonstrate the frailty of your species."

 
 

The heat felt like a solid wall as Zack sprinted out of the mansion. Everywhere, buildings were ablaze. The sky was literally black with the smoke. Through the fire, one or two men were just about visible running into the houses and trying to rescue any potential survivors.

Zack stopped and stared. What... Sephiroth...?

As he stood, a familiar voice called out, "Merton!" and a second wave of heat flowed over the village, igniting most of the houses that hadn't yet been overcome by the flames. Zack spun round until he spotted him. That...

Sephiroth returned his gaze and waved cheerfully with his left hand, neatly skewering a couple of villagers with the Masamune in his right. Grinning, he raised his hand above his head and shouted, for Zack's benefit rather than out of necessity, "[EternalFlame]!"

Zack was forced to look away as a blinding white light burst out from his palm, engulfing everything around him. A brief moment later the light winked out, there was a deafening explosion, and Zack looked back to see Sephiroth striding away across literally molten ground, heading for the reactor.

He grit his teeth. He couldn't just walk away from all this.

Testing his grip on his sword, he charged through the blaze and headed after the murderer.

 
 

Not more than half a minute or so afterwards, one of the bodies - dressed in the Shinra soldiers' uniform, complete with gauntlets and helmet - in the town square began to stir. Cloud sat up, trying to blink away the flashing lights in front of his eyes for a few seconds before he realised that they were actually real, and that his hometown was on fire.

His. Hometown. On. Fire.

Still somewhat concussed, he tried to piece together what he remembered. He'd left Ess inside, yes. He'd gone back to the mansion to find Zack. Then Sephiroth had come striding out past him. He'd hurried after the SOLDIER, trying to give him a report. And then... Sephiroth had turned to him, said something, and... After that, everything was blank.

With deliberate calm that he knew would disappear the moment he truly realised what was going on, he got to his feet. There was a group of men clustered around the inn, and he made his way over to them and tapped one on the shoulder.

"Sephiroth," he said simply. "Where?"

The other glanced back, then pointed over towards the other end of town. "He's gone off towards the mountains, thank the Cetra," he replied. "Say, you all right? You don't look so... hey! Come back!"

But Cloud, as he sprinted off, wasn't paying any attention. The man shrugged and turned back to the inn. Flames spurted from one of the upstairs windows. "He's been in there for too long. I'm going in after him."

"I'm fine," came a voice from inside. It was followed shortly by Zangan, who came running out of the building with Ess over his shoulder. "She's the last in there. All the others either got out or..." He shook his head sadly.

"How is she?"

"She'll live, if taken care of." He stared around the town. "Okay, that's every house done. I want you lot to get away. Go to Cosmo Canyon to the south. But don't let Shinra know you're still alive."

"What? Why?"

"I know the President," Zangan sighed. "He'll want it covered up that Sephiroth did this. You're all liabilities, and you need to disappear. Either do it yourselves or they'll make you. Now go. I'm going to deal with Sephiroth myself."

 
 

The door was still there. Pathetic, not more than a few inches thick. To think that anyone could have believed something this thin could have stopped her son... The idea was laughable.

Sephiroth calmly tossed the Masamune over his shoulder. Why did he need such weapons? His true strength was inside him. Only these ridiculous humans relied on anything as frail as weapons. He planted both hands against the door, and began to push. The metal buckled easily.

The footsteps behind him were easily audible. Calmly, unhurriedly, he turned, reaching out with one hand and catching the Masamune as that girl from the village tried to hit him with it. She must have followed him all the way here. How touching.

He stared directly into her eyes as he twisted her arm round, crushing her wrist in his grip. It took no more than a second to wrest the sword from her, and then... He swung, smiling grimly as he heard her cry of pain, saw the blade tear the skin, felt it scrape along the bone. So helpless... so easily destroyed...

Ignoring her as she fell, he turned back to the door. One more blow was all it needed before the entire thing crumpled before him. And beyond... to be finally free, after all these years...

He stepped through into the gloom beyond. Yes, it was there. Before him, a huge statue of iron and steel, designed to steal her life force away. To cripple her, for the good of these pitiful humans! What did they think gave them the right to do such things?

"Mother and son, reunited..." he mused darkly as he approached. "The spirit of one with the body of the other... So amusing."

With one calm sweep of his hand he tore the metal 'mask' from the statue before him. The seal was broken. Now -

"Hey!"

He sighed wearily and turned. Oh. The SOLDIER.

"Ah. You," he observed coldly. "Begone."

"What is this for?" Zack shouted at him. "Why? The town, all the people, everything... Why?"

Sephiroth began to smile. "You want to know why? Look at this place!" He waved an arm expansively. "Those pathetic beings... the humans... they caged my mother here, thinking they had defeated her. They tried to take this planet from her, knowing full well it was rightfully mine!... Um, hers."

Zack glared. "You... whatever happened to you must have messed you up more than I thought..." He unslung his sword from his back. "You're not the Sephiroth I used to know!"

"How true..."

 
 

By the time Cloud finally arrived in the Jenova chamber, Zack's dropped sword in hand, Sephiroth's mood had deteriorated considerably. He was standing next to the... the... next to Jenova, his back towards the entrance, gripping her head with both hands and shouting loudly at it.

"Will you just let me have your head?" he was yelling. "It's not as if you need it any more, is it?"

Running on adrenaline rather than conscious thought, Cloud began advancing towards him.

"This would have been so much more impressive if only your neck wasn't so tough!" Sephiroth continued. "I could have - ow."

This rather impassive final word was caused by Cloud sprinting up and sticking Zack's impressively large sword between his ribs. Coldly, Sephiroth glanced down and stared at the blade now protruding from his chest.

"I resent this," he snapped, not even looking back. "Pathetic fool."

Putting all the strength he could muster - which, in his current state, was not inconsiderable - into his arms, he gave Jenova's head one last heave. With a painful ripping sound, it finally came off in his hands.

He turned round and gave Cloud a nasty whack on the head with it. The WHUMP echoed around the chamber for a good five or six seconds, by the end of which period Cloud had collapsed at his feet.

"Whuh... hate hate hate... ugh..." he mumbled before passing out. Still holding Jenova's head in one hand, Sephiroth stepped daintily over him and made his way towards the exit. The rest could wait. For the moment, it was probably best to find somewhere where those human idiots would not come looking for him.

The room adjacent to the antechamber - the maintenance chamber, or, to give it its unofficial name, the Pit of Death - consisted of not much more than a deep chasm, at the bottom of which were dense clouds of Mako. Engineers and technicians who needed to check the bottom always had to be given intense abseiling training beforehand. One rather thin bridge spanned the gap. In one of those moments of corporate ingenuity, whoever had designed it had seen fit not to include any barriers on either side, obviously for fear it would destabilise the bridge or something similarly stupid.

Sephiroth clambered up onto it and began trudging across. For some reason it was rather difficult to move his feet. They felt as if someone had sneaked slabs of lead into each shoe. For that matter, every movement was kind of difficult. Even keeping his eyes open required a surprising level of concentration.

He happened to glance down as he reached the centre of the bridge. Oh, yes. That would be it. That damn sword was still sticking straight through him. Blood loss, probably. This body must be dying.

"Oh, bugger," he muttered as he toppled sideways off the bridge.

 
 

"...and that's the long and the short of it," Cloud concluded.

The Author took his hands away from his ears for the second time. "My word," he said mildly. "What a plotline."

"Can I just make sure I got everything there?" Mr. Big cut in. "So... you two, Zack and this Sephiroth chap we keep hearing about came to do a mission in Nibelheim. Miss Tifa here took you up to the reactor, where Sephiroth saw something that made him burn down the village and try to kill all of you. While he was doing this you two were getting jiggy with it, and after the whole affair you, Cloud, killed off Sephiroth and promptly disappeared from the limelight for five years. Am I correct?"

"Yeah..." Cloud agreed.

"Now jes' hang on a damn second!" Barret piped up. "Didn't Sephiroth show up back at the Shinra HQ?"

"Yeah."

Barret looked confused. "Now that jes' don't add up..."

"But what happened after Sephiroth knocked you out?" Jessie enquired. "How'd you survive? How did you get to Midgar?"

Cloud shook his head. "...I don't know. All I recall is everything going black after that, and then... the next thing I can remember is arriving here in Midgar. Everything in between's just... gone..."

"Convenient," Ess muttered darkly. Cloud gave her a despairing look.

"Um, well, anyway," Perigee cut in quickly, spotting an opportunity here, "I'm sure we all want to head off to bed and mull this over, if you follow me, don't we? I'd say that, whatever happened between then and now, Sephiroth is obviously back, isn't he? And that can't be good. So we'll want to follow him tomorrow, right? Therefore we should get some sleep. Ess, I'll walk you back to the bar."

Ess shot him a rather nasty glance, then nodded once. "Why don't you? I'm sure there's lots you have to tell me." She beckoned to her son. "Come on, Roch."

"Hmm..." Mr. Big began once the three of them had left the room. "He seemed rather keen to get out, didn't he?"

"Probably just being a diplomat," the Author replied. "He's got a point, though, hasn't he? If we are to get moving in the morning, I suggest we do start getting ready to drop off now. Anyone got any hideous objections?"

None, unsurprisingly.

"Glad to hear it. In that case, I shall bid you farewell and good night, and," he smiled over at Aeris, "make my leave. Care to escort me to my room, my dear?"

 
 

"So are you okay?" asked Perigee once they were out of earshot of the others.

"I suppose," said Ess, whose well of sarcasm had run dry for the moment. "It's a little weird, knowing that you've only existed here for a couple of days, while I..."

"Yeah," said Perigee when it became clear that the rest of that sentence would never see the light of day. "Listen, um... I think it would be best if you stayed away from Cloud."

"......"

"He's supposed to be getting interested in Aeris, and... hang on." He looked at her carefully. "What did you just say?"

"I didn't say anything."

"So how did I hear you not saying anything?"

"What, like this? '......'"

"Yes, that!"

"Everybody can do that. Everybody in the world. Why, haven't you noticed?"

"Well, I have, but..." Perigee shook his head a couple of times. "That settles it, then. I'd guessed at it before, but now I'm sure. I haven't integrated properly. I shouldn't be able to notice things like that."

"......" Ess grinned at him.

"Anyway... what were we talking about?"

"Cloud."

"Oh yeah. He and Aeris are supposed to get together in the next couple of weeks or so. That's not going to happen if you're trying to patch things up with him."

"......" said Ess, without really meaning to.

"I know you haven't seen him in five years, and he's probably much more mature now than he was then, but try to restrain yourself. You know the role you tend to get absorbed into."

"So you're saying I don't have any self-control?"

"No, it's not that, it's just that you tend to let your emotions lead, rather than your thoughts."

"Really? You think that? Then you'll understand exactly why I'm breaking up with you."

"What?" Perigee stopped, and simply stared.

"Come on. After all that's happened, you really expected that there would still be an Us?"

"Well, I..."

"Maybe I like Cloud. Maybe he at least makes an effort to understand me."

"I..." Perigee, true to form, let curiosity wrest control of his mouth from his feelings. "What, you're actually interested in Cloud?"

"Is that so surprising?"

"Granted, he is a hero, and has all the normal associated attributes, but he's not real! He's completely fictional!"

"He's no less human than you, Gamer." Ess was almost sorry she'd said it when she saw the look on Perigee's face. Almost.

"Well, I've got work to do," she said uncomfortably. "I suppose I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah."

She walked off quickly. Perigee half-expected her to stop at the door to the bar and look back, but she didn't. He sighed, turned around, and almost tripped over Roch.

"Are you Perigee?" asked the boy.

"That's me," said Perigee. Roch kicked him in the left shin.

"Mom doesn't like you. She says you don't care enough." He pushed past the chemist and ran off.

 
 

"...I'm worried..." Aeris was saying, sitting next to the Author on his bed.

The Author raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Well..." Aeris looked slightly embarrassed. "Cloud was saying Sephiroth said something about the Cetra, wasn't he?"

"Hmm?"

"What if he tries to make me..." Aeris paused. "...help him?" she finished. It obviously wasn't what she'd been thinking of, but in polite company - or at least relatively polite - she didn't want to say what was actually on her mind.

Mr. Big opened his mouth to say something, but for once in his life decided this wasn't the moment and closed it again. The Author, who had been about to make a comment, was so shocked by this that he completely forgot what it was he'd wanted to say.

"I don't think you need get too scared about these things," he came up with after a few seconds. "Just think - he was in the Shinra building at the same time as us, wasn't he? If he'd wanted to do anything with... to you, he could easily have done it then. Unless, of course, he was scared of us, in which case you definitely haven't got anything to worry about. You're not planning to abandon us any time soon, are you?"

She smiled weakly. "No fear of that."

"In that case you're okay. Look, as I said back in Midgar, I have no intention of letting you die. I'm sticking to that. I'll be with you if you ever need me, okay?"

"Yeah..." She hesitated. "Thanks."

"No problem." The Author leaned over and kissed her gently on her forehead. "Now get off to your room and get some rest." He glanced up as someone knocked on his door, destroying whatever moment there might have been. "Yes?"

The door opened a few inches, and Perigee's head poked itself round. "Might I have a word?" he enquired, in a voice that made it perfectly clear he was going to have a word whether the Author liked it or not.

The Author shrugged unconcernedly. "Go ahead. What's up?"

Perigee limped in, then turned to Aeris. "Would you mind just leaving us alone for a bit?" he asked sweetly. "This is... um..."

"I get the idea." Aeris stood up and smiled at him, then looked back over her shoulder. "Goodnight, Author."

"I can't help noticing you -" the Author began as she left and closed the door softly behind her.

"Well?" Perigee cut him off.

The Author raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. "Yes, thank you for asking," he replied, deliberately missing the point of the comment. "How are you?"

"Don't give me that," Perigee snapped. "Come on, you can't fool me. I'm afraid I know exactly who should be around by this stage, and you shouldn't. We're the only team integrated, you should know that."

"I'm afraid I really don't follow you," replied the Author guardedly, beginning to hazard a guess as to up which tree the scientist was barking.

"Come off it," Perigee continued loudly. "And you're not even trying to pretend you're not interested in Aeris. Look, I've rumbled you, okay? So who exactly are you? What's your motive?"

The Author sighed. The LTF was really going downhill, if this was the sort of person who ended up working for it. Still, perhaps the man had hidden qualities. Very well hidden.

"You want to know who I am?" he retorted coldly, standing up and returning Perigee's venomous stare evenly. "Allow me to introduce myself, then. The Author, ex-commander of Omega team. You would be Perigee... Roberts?"

Perigee stood perfectly motionless for a few seconds, then sagged.

"Yeah, that's me," he said wearily, sitting down on the bed. "You're reinforcements, are you?"

The Author nodded.

"Well, the Lord didn't think you could handle this on your own," Mr. Big put in pointedly. The Author waved a hand to try and shut him up.

"So you thought I was 'FG,' did you?" he asked mildly. "You were mistaken, though. Quite a rash move, charging in and accusing me, wasn't it? What if I'd been a normal character?"

"With a name like 'the Author?'"

"He's got a point," Mr. Big agreed sagely.

"Okay, I'll let you off on that one. So... you're the team proper. Would I be right in assuming that the new girl... Ess... is one of yours?"

Perigee nodded sadly. "Yes. She was my... well... we were rather close."

"Were?"

"Yes. I don't think she's too keen on me now after what happened to her five years ago."

"Five years...? Oh, yes, I remember. You lot all integrate at different times, don't you? Silly idea. Never held with it myself."

"Yes," Perigee replied flatly. He'd heard about the antics of Omega team, before they were disbanded by popular demand from the Writers. Well, 'popular demand' means that the Writers all went on strike and refused to let history continue until the team had been kicked out. The leader of that team - who, until now, had never been named - had not exactly been blessed with a regard for tradition. Perigee, who took his job perhaps too seriously, had not broken a rule even once since his appointment to the head of Phi team, and couldn't really identify with anyone who did. "Look, if we could -"

"What exactly happened that she doesn't like?"

"You mean apart from falling in love with someone who got her pregnant and then disappeared?" Perigee practically spat at him. The Author took a pace back.

"Why don't you talk to Cloud about this?" he suggested. Perigee shook his head.

"It's not Cloud's fault. Don't ask me how I know, I just do. I've -"

"External references?"

Perigee stopped. "Huh?"

"Let me guess. You've played this game."

"Er, what, um... I mean, yes, but... how did you know?"

The Author shrugged modestly. "An educated guess. These things happen, more often than you'd think. Major plots can get repeated throughout history, sometimes just as books, films, or computer games, all linked together. You change the story in one, you change it in all of them. Anyway, do go on."

"Um, okay. Basically, Shinra took Cloud to do experiments on him. That's why he can't remember what happened. He only escaped a few weeks ago, I think."

"Have you considered telling him this?"

Perigee shook his head emphatically. "No. He's meant to figure it all out himself later on - it's part of his character development. We shouldn't change more than we have to... oh, and that brings me to another thing I wanted to mention. I don't want you doing anything with Aeris."

"Why on earth not?"

"I..." Perigee paused and considered his argument. "I know that Sephiroth's going to try and kill Aeris, like the letter said. I know when, as well, and where, and how. But... you know the laws of integration and differentiation, right? If we change things now, it might happen in a different place, or a different time. And I want to keep the plot as close to the original as I can, so that I know what I need to do to stop that happening."

"Hmm... So, let me just get this straight. You know when this Sephiroth person is going to try and kill Aeris."

"Yes."

"So you want to make sure that happens."

"Yes. I mean, no, of course not. I just want him to try when he's supposed to."

"Right." The Author considered this. "Interesting way of working. What team are you?"

"Phi team."

"Ah. That explains it." The Author shrugged again, and leaned forwards. "No."

"No what?"

"I'm not going to steer clear of her. You can't predict everything that's going to happen, my friend. Besides, the most important thing is to stay in character. It'd look out of place if we all started staying away from her because we knew that was the best way to get her killed later on, wouldn't it? If my role in the story dictates that I'm to look after her, that's what I'll do." He gave a smile, reached into one of his pockets and produced a die. This trick was one of Croft's favourites. "Look, I'll show you that things don't happen the way you expect them to. I'll give you thousand to one odds that this shows a six."

"So..." Perigee thought for a moment, distracted by the problem in hand. "If you roll a six, I get a thousand times my stake?"

"Yes."

"No, then. I'm not betting."

"And why not?

"Because it's got to be a trick. You wouldn't give me those odds otherwise. I'm not stupid."

"Fine." The Author held out the die for inspection. There were six spots on every face.

"Clang!" said Mr. Big cheerfully. "Gotcha, thank you, come again." He grinned. "That one's pointless, but strangely satisfying."

"That's just a trick, though," Perigee observed astutely. "What's that got to do with anything?"

The Author smiled wryly. "Take this principle," he explained, indicating the die. "Now apply it to the plot. I'll see you in the morning. I assume your friend's coming with us?"

"Hmm?" Perigee's mind was already hard at work on the new conundrum it had been set. "I think so."

He turned and walked wordlessly out through the door. On the second attempt he tried opening it, which worked rather better.

 
 

"Well?" Mr. Big asked once the two of them were alone.

The Author gave him a slightly confused glance. "Well what?"

"What do you think of him?"

The Author shrugged. "Seems sincere enough, at least, even if he does have some rather unusual ideas as to how I should go about protecting Aeris. Still, he seems easily good enough for Phi team. You remember those idiots in Phi when we joined up?"

"How could I forget? That guy with the silly hair. Zell... something-or-other. Incompetents, the lot of them."

"Whereas I get the impression that Perigee could actually be reasonably good at times," the Author pointed out. "He's got the intelligence, if not the sense."

"Yeah." Mr. Big paused, then took his sunglasses off and gave the Author a knowing look. "So what's the deal with Aeris?"

"The 'deal?'"

"Yeah. I can see what's happening, you know. Protecting her indeed. You've got other ideas, I can tell."

The Author opened his mouth, rethought what he was going to say, and closed it again. Other ideas? Did he?

"Do I?"

"Oh, come on. Look, all those suave lines back at the church. That moment in the Shinra building - you know, with the pod thing in the labs. And you've been talking to her pretty much non-stop since we left the city. Like I said, I recognise the signs. You can't hide it from me."

The Author held his gaze calmly.

"I can assure you I have no intentions other than to guard her," he said flatly. "The fact that she has a wonderful amiable personality merely helps matters."

"Yeah, whatever. Sooner or later you'll be sacrificing your life for hers, you know."

"Please. I don't plan to get myself killed for any reasons at all."

"So you'd rather she was the one to get killed, then?"

"Don't be ridiculous." The Author stared at his rabbit thoughtfully. "There must be some way I can sacrifice you instead."

 
 

In a darkened room, on the other side of the world, a man squinted into a crystal ball and pensively watched the flickering image within it. Finding a suitably sized materia sphere with no imperfections would have been nigh on impossible, and the shear planes in this one turned parts of the picture upside down and did even worse things to other bits, but it was clear that he was observing the Author. The representation of Mr. Big was remarkably accurate.

He leaned back in his chair and calmly flicked the power switch on the orb to the 'off' position. With an audible 'eeeooowww...' the flow of MP into the materia cut out, and the picture faded from view. The man stood up for a few seconds and stretched, practically every joint in his body cracking loudly, before sitting down once more. Observing someone from this distance required phenomenal amounts of mental energy, and it was clear - from the empty two-litre bottles labelled 'ether' casually discarded on the floor - that he had been going through it at a rate of knots.

"It's been some time, Author," he mused aloud. "Nice to see you accepted my invitation. A shame that these other fools will be in the way to spoil the fun, though. I'd been hoping it would be just you and me, but sadly it appears I shall have to deal with the others as well."

It should be pointed out, in case the reader was wondering, that there was no one else in the room with this man. He was not talking to anyone in particular. It was just that he knew the laws of literature as well as, if not perhaps better than even the Author himself, and was forced to comply with them. After all, every mysterious villain shrouded in secrecy has to rant and rave out loud for the benefit of the readers, does he not? Indeed, it is practically unacceptable for any one of his scenes to go by without some hideous plot twist being revealed. And this man knew these things only too well. For he was a prize-winning, critically acclaimed, best-selling author, but more to the point, he was an ex-Writer. His name was Fishook Grysley. Yes, indeed, this man was the enigmatic 'FG.'

"It is so pleasant to see you getting close to the girl," he continued. "That, I will admit, is something I had never foreseen. But it works so well in my favour. You see, Author, I had two objectives when I sent that letter. The first, of course, was to attract you here. But the second was to save her life and get her out of this miserable story. And you so conveniently provide the way." He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and let out a particularly manic laugh. "Oh, will it not be so amusing when I have to separate you two?"

 
 

Darkness. Almost complete silence, broken only by the buzzsaw of Barret's snoring.

"Tifa...?"

Silence.

"Tifa...?"

Again, silence.

"Tifa?"

"KNOHHHHH... uwee uwee uwee... wha'? Yeah, I'll give yo'... bean soup, see here..."

Cloud sighed. "Look, Tifa, it wasn't... I mean, it just... sort of... there wasn't anything... how can I put this..."

"Just shut up, Cloud."

 
 
Prologue: Writing of Wrongs
Part 1: For What We Are About to Receive
   Chapter I: Editorial Changes
   Chapter II: Insert Chapter Title Here
   Chapter III: Biohazard
Part 2: Present Imperfect
   Chapter IV: Ahead on our Way
   Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...
   Chapter VI: Feather in the Wind (reprise)
Part 3: World Travel
   Chapter VII: Twelve Good Men on a Dead Man's Chest
   Chapter VIII: Music of the Night
   Chapter IX: Drawing Inexorably
Part 4: Crossroads
   Chapter X: The Trousers of Time
Part 5: Calculus
   Chapter XI: Differentiation & Integration
   Chapter XII: The Sunrise and I
   Chapter XIII: The Best Is Yet To Come
Part 6: Introduction to Destruction
   Chapter XIV: Makes No Difference
   Chapter XV: Second Impact
   Chapter XVI: Judgment Day
Epilogue: Loose Ends
Return to index