Here it is. The first installment of the next section of The Servant. Not much really to say about it here, other than that there will be many more characters to keep track of besides Bahamut and whoever is the immediate human in contact with him. As for who Aleron is, she won't appear in the story for some time...


THE ALERON SAGA


Six Months Later
Ragnar…

They're coming…


The young man's eyes snapped open at that. He was still pretty sleepy, and the voice had been calm enough to keep him from being too shocked. But his brain registered enough to be surprised. He leaned up and out of his "bed" in a flash, looking around in confusion at the warning he had heard.

However, there was nothing to see…just the same small living room he had been in when he went to sleep last. He heard a pair of voices in the adjacent room a moment later though.

"Finally up? It's nearly noon, kid."

"You've got to stop pulling those all-nighters."

Ragnar groaned. He let his eyes slump a bit, and then raised a hand to his face and rubbed his eyes. Reality began to settle back in, as did where he was and who surrounded him. He slowly sighed and ran a hand through his messy hair. "Somebody's got to… You're free to volunteer to take some of my workload if you want, Cloud."

"I only scolded you for waking up late, kid." Cloud's voice came back from the bar area. "Tifa was the one who wants you to sleep more."

The youth frowned, but then twisted and pulled his legs out from his covers and set them on the ground. A moment later, he rose from the couch that had been his bed for months now. It was fine by him. It was better than the cots or bedrolls he had before… He stretched and grunted again as he did so. Another day…another storm of work…

Ragnar was back to living with the Strifes…or at least the Strife/Lockharts. If Cloud had any ideas of marrying Tifa, those had been put on hold, and technically they were still cohabiting. Cohabiting with children, even, and another man…which sounded a bit creepy when you thought of it that way. It wasn't the best arrangement in the world, Ragnar thought. He wished that Cloud and Tifa would move back to more available positions around their army, where they could be in touch with their special units. However…that idea was a thousand miles away from Cloud's mind, and he wouldn't hear it after that betrayal half a year ago… From now on, he spent every night with Tifa and the children. Yes…they had moved back in too. In fact, they had a new tenant…Ragnar the couch dweller. After all, on fleeing to Midgar, he had no place to stay. This was as good as any. He spent most of his free time with Cloud anyway, sparring or chatting… Of course, he didn't get much free time now.

Six months ago, the Sierra and the two tugboats had come ashore about ten miles outside of Midgar. Ironically, it was the same place Ragnar had landed before. He wasn't that happy to see the crotchety old man come out and start scolding him immediately. Apparently, he remembered him as well…and thought that he was using the five hundred gil as an excuse to "park wherever he damn well pleased". They didn't stay long, however. The people went to Midgar next, and in the end migrated to Edge.

Now, the subdivision of the big city was officially under "military occupation". It wasn't really as bad as it sounded. There were more than enough abandoned buildings in that sector for the six hundred member army to move into. Of course, the next day people had started to come by and demanded rent payment for the sudden onset of tenants, and the police were actually called. It was a mess to sort through…but luckily Reeve was on the case. It took some moving of money and some persuasion and diplomacy, but in the end the army could settle in. Soon, they were digging in once again, setting things up, and beginning to make the environment more homey and livable. After all…a lot of the buildings they went into should have been condemned, and they needed a lot of work to clean up the grime and make them suitable to spend any length of time inside.

After that, Ragnar had slowly gone about rebuilding what he had lost. Luckily, the organization was still in full swing. It continued to generate supplies, equipment, and funds for his forces. More importantly, the man that had been giving radio addresses for so long was now there in person. Now, any new speeches he was able to give were specific to the audiences that wanted to listen, and were face to face. Hearing that…more people began to get motivated. Ragnar still had that air about him that inspired people, and they came out in droves as a result. Not only because of that…but now because there was a true pressing concern…

At this point, the New Shinra were making their presence known. No longer were they some phantom army or of questionable existence. As they took the shore of the Northern Continent, fishermen and traders began to see them on a daily basis, fanned out on the shore and fortifying themselves more by the day. They began to erect towers and fortifications and zoned out areas for what looked like a large dock. After the first two weeks…ships began to either be sunk or go missing. The New Shinra was back at work collecting more supplies, raw materials, and work crews. When that happened, it became suicide for anyone to get within visual range of the area. Now, the commerce of Kalm and Midgar were being affected, and it became obvious that the opponents had hostile intentions.

When that happened, Ragnar found more support ready and waiting. People who had been borderline until now spilled over to the edge. He soon found that Midgar was giving him breaks on his rent, and was actively contributing supplies. They even signed over whatever weapon depots there were left uncovered in the cityto him. After all…this was a man who was willing to defend the city without necessarily forcing them to get involved. Soon, Kalm began to regularly contribute as well, and more people began to join soon after.

They still operated themselves as a volunteer organization, although they had become far more regimentalized. The barracks and chain of command worked as in an army. The troops had to adhere to training and a schedule under their officers. Ragnar finally had caved in and created a system of awards to be presented after the next battle for outstanding acts of heroism and bravery. It was based not on trying to award people with things of pride or nobility, but of just acknowledging what they did for their fellow troops. That did deserve to be rewarded, in Ragnar's opinion. However, they were lax on many of the rules that they followed, particularly where families were involved.

They were doing better. They were now numbering over 10,000 troops, not including non-combatant family members. They had replenished their lost weapons and then some. They now had quite a few heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition for them. They had a collection of RPGs as well, plus enough grenades to go around. They now had about eight artillery units, including one that used to work on mako power. They were struggling to adapt it to use basic electrical power at the moment. They lacked tanks still and it didn't seem like they were going to get any. Those things were hard to hide, after all. But they did have about twenty anti-tank rifles. They had a regular fleet of trucks operating underneath them now, and they had been armored and equipped as best as possible. The artillery units had been moved to the shore, and put to have the largest range possible. They had been reinforced by metal and concrete pill boxes, and the rest of the shore was piled up with earth and sandbags. Barbed wire had arrived two weeks ago and was still being installed. For now, unfortunately…they could only guard the strongest point of entry…and even then it was only an area of about a mile and half of coastline. Until they got more…they would have to do the best they could.

Their biggest bonus now was the addition of the Sierra. True to his word, Cid finished his other craft, and was generating enough income now to keep the Sierra on standby for Ragnar's army. If that wasn't enough, there was beginning to be a boom in industry since the war had begun. Businesses were beginning to flourish as people stocked up and bought personal weapons, and the Planet Protector Army itself was buying quite a bit. There was more need for transport than ever before, and as such Cid was getting quite a bit of funds. His airfield had doubled in value, and he was hard at work building a third airship to help take care of the workload.

Yet as much as had happened…they still needed more. They were still sorely outnumbered, and well underequipped. Ragnar had been working non-stop day and night to get more troops, weapons, and better defenses for his force. But growth was happening too slow for his tastes. They were running out of weapons to refurbish…and it was a well-known fact. He had begun receiving letters from defense contractors last month…each one of them vying to become his weapons' supplier. Each one boasted that they could manufacture newer and deadlier cannons and artillery units for him, and get him covered within half a year with all he needed. Of course, he couldn't fit their bills…but that was where the banks started coming in. Each one of them offered to take his already gathered funds as the down payment on rather sizable loans…ones that would elevate his account into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That would certainly make a difference… But Ragnar was nervous about this. He didn't know how he could ever pay these loans back…or what they would take as collateral if he couldn't. And he wasn't sure he wanted to contract an actual defense company…actually start manufacturing weapons of his own… It began to make him look less like a volunteer leader and more like a conqueror…

At any rate, Ragnar tried to put this out of his mind for now. The only joy he received nowadays was getting to wake up to a real breakfast. Because of that, after finishing stretching he began to stagger his way into the bar area. It was only early spring now, and it was still cool outside. So he was still wearing his sleeveless white t-shirt and loose pants. He didn't have to worry about being obscene or anything by coming in there before he was dressed.

As Ragnar reached the door and pushed it open, he saw a welcome sight. It made him smile. It almost felt like home… There was the table, set up just as it had been when he first arrived. It didn't have as much food this time. That was probably due to the fact that Ragnar wasn't waking up to a real breakfast at this time of day, but to a real lunch of sandwiches. It also wasn't quite asnice as before. Basically, everyone just had a plate, fork, and napkin. But the atmosphere was what he liked. Tifa was sitting down, putting her own sandwich on the table at her place. Cloud was seated next to her. On the opposite side, Denzel and Marlene were already seated and waiting. As Ragnar entered the room, Marlene looked up to him and smiled.

"Hey Ragnar."

The youth gave a smile and nod. "Hello, Marlene."

The girl hesitated after that, giving Ragnar a once over. She seemed to be confused. "Did you just wake up?"

Ragnar kept nodding as he made his way over to his chair. "Yeah…I did, actually."

"Why do you sleep so much?" Denzel asked, not afraid to ask blatantly rude questions at this age.

Ragnar stayed silent until he reached his chair, and then sat down in it a bit stiffly. "…Because then I can dream that I won't have a long, tiring day ahead of me when I wake up…" He half-murmured in answer.

Tifa smiled and raised her own sandwich to begin eating. Cloud likewise gave a snicker as he finished eating half of his. Both of them were already fully dressed and in uniform. They had been out running drills, after all. Tifa was still working the raw recruits like a slave driver, making sure that they would be more afraid of her yelling at them than the enemy shooting them next time they had a battle. Cloud usually practiced in the morning, but now he had his own special unit to instruct. He did that for about two hours a day himself. They looked more than awake and ready to tackle the next portion of the day. Ragnar couldn't stand to look at them. They put him to shame…

"Seriously, Ragnar. You should take it easier." Tifa continued as she took her first bite. "It's not like the army will fall apart if you're gone for one day."

Cloud gave a dark chuckle at that. Ragnar himself frowned in reply, and turned his gaze up to glare critically at Tifa. The woman hesitated a bit, and then realized what she had said. In the end, she rolled her eyes and leaned in closer.

"You know what I meant."

"Yeah…but after what happened six months ago, I'd like to be as hands on as possible." Ragnar responded, looking down to his own sandwich and taking it up. Luckily, Tifa knew his favorite by now. Turkey with Eastern cheese…lettuce and tomato…no dressings. Normally it would be too dry if it wasn't for the tomatoes. But with them, it was just right. And Tifa was great…salting them just the way he liked them. Once he had it positioned, he began to raise it to his lips and opened his mouth wide.

Right before biting down…the call button on Cloud's walkie-talkie rang, while the one on Ragnar's echoed out from back in his room.

Ragnar's eyes opened the rest of the way as his mouth closed, and he held the sandwich frozen in front of him.

"Looks like you've got your first chance already…" Tifa murmured aloud at the sound of it.

Cloud sighed, and gave a shrug as he reached down to his belt. "Almost got your first bite down today, kid." He snatched his own walkie-talkie a moment later, and then began to raise it to his mouth. "Probably another issue with the damn uniforms… Or some tenant wanting his money…"

"No…"

Hearing that, Cloud stopped just moments from responding to the call. Tifa too turned to him as he spoke. His voice was faraway…but it wasn't from being tired. It was from something else. The kids turned and looked as well. The young general's eyes were still open wide, and his mouth hung loose. Slowly, he began to lower the sandwich from his face.He hadturned a bit pale…and he looked like he had just seen a ghost. His eyes were fixed above them all, focusing on the wall and not blinking or deviating

"It's not that…" He slowly remarked, never looking away. "It's another attack."


Hopefully this time it won't take too long…

Red XIII thought this just before his "aide" opened the door for him. Now that they were no longer in a camp but in a city, and operating out of Edge, he realized he needed a lot more assistance to move around, particularly where doors were concerned. It was a bit embarrassing…but he had to do what he had to do.

The beast entered into a room made of concrete bricks, with a stone floor and ceiling. His side of the room that he entered into bore two tan uniformed guards. They had chairs, but they stood at attention the moment he entered. Both of them bore rifles. However, he only waved them off in response. He hadn't come for them. The other half of the room was guarded off by rather heavy, thick metal bars. They weren't what one would find in a normal jail or prison cell. They were more like the type of bars used to cage bears or elephants in zoos. They were locked with a heavy padlock as well, one thick enough to endure an hour of a cutting torch. There was one window in this side of the room, covered with the same type of bars as well. Within the bars, there was a basic cot, toilet, towel, change of clothes, and everything else that one would need as far as essentials in living.

The single prisoner within turned and looked to Red XIII as he entered. Once he saw him, he became rather eager, and he quickly rushed up to the bars. He didn't touch them, of course. They were electrified with enough power to kill a full grown man. The beast himself approached until he was directly across from him.

Once there, he turned his head slightly behind him, although he kept his one good eye focused on the prisoner. "Guards…you may leave us now."

The two men nodded, and then turned and went to the still open door. The aide held it open for them as they both exited. Once they were out, he shut it promptly behind them. The sound of a lock being turned emitted a moment later.

The two were left staring at one another in the room, both silent for a moment.

In the end, Red XIII let out a slow sigh and bowed his head a bit. "…There's not much time for us to chat. We have received news that the New Shinra are approaching. If it wasn't for the fact that your time in the stockade was nearly up, I wouldn't even have spent the time coming here today."

In response to that, Zola raised his eyebrows. Immediately, he leaned in closer, growing earnest as he did so. "…Then I got to get out of here, Colonel. They need me out there. If it's an invasion, then I need to be out fighting…"

Red XIII raised his head again at that. "That matter is something else other than the penalty that you are serving for your treason. It is true that the General has decided to retain you in his force, but you're going to be demoted at the very least to a private. And he hasn't detailed how we are going to reintegrate you with the army. That matter is still up for dispute. You may be moving out of this cell soon, but you can rest assured that you will not be able to operate as a basic soldier again for some time."

Zola gaped in disbelief at that. "What? How? Why not…? After what I-"

"It is quite true that you brought Commander Tifa back to the camp." Red XIII cut off in response. "It is also true that you tipped us off about a valuable item of sabotage. Finally, both General Ragnar and General Cloud have confirmed that you aided in holding off the New Shinra while they withdrew. That said…you also did betray to a third party, you did set up acts of sabotage yourself, you did try to incite an insurrection within your unit, and you did assault Commander Tifa in a yet undisclosed way."

Zola frowned. "I already told you what I did. I-"

"I'm well aware of what you told me, Zola." Red XIII cut off again, a bit more snappy. "And frankly, I'm still having a hell of a time believing it. And last I looked, there are no laws or precedents with how to properly punish a person for 'petrifying another'. Let us not forget, also, that I am the person who murdered your sister. Neither I not the General can honestly believe that you don't bear some anger or desire for vengeance as a result of that."

The half-esper exhaled and kept his frown. He put his hands on his hips and stared at the beast a moment, but only glared back coldly. In the end, Zola spun around and threw up his arms in a shrug. He paced back to the chair that had been set up in his room, and pulled it out. He twisted it and his body around and sat, facing the bars again.

"Alright…if you think that I'm perfectly fine with that…I'm not. She was my sister, after all. I lived with her for hundreds of years. But I've been alive even longer, and I've gotten used to losing people close to me. And I know for a fact that if you hadn't killed her, you wouldn't be talking to me right now. And I also know that if she was still alive now, then I would be the one killing her, because she would be coming after me for betraying Wyvern."

"On that note…" Red XIII announced, bowing his head down and stepping forward a bit closer. "I'd like to go over your story again."

Zola groaned in response, and rolled his eyes. "I already told you a hundred times… The story isn't going to change."

"That's not going to change the fact that your story sounds like something out of a peyote bong." Red XIII calmly answered, raising his eyes again. "I would have long ago told General Ragnar that you are a raving lunatic unfit for service if it hadn't been for the fact that I saw your sister turn into a drake right before my eyes. Personally, when Ragnar told me that he had seen you turn into a basilisk before him and literally devour the enemy units…I thought that he had crossed the border from being eccentric to needing the men in white coats. Frankly…what you are fascinates me…and fills me with fear. And it shocks me to realize that creatures like you still exist. It fills me with uncertainty. If this myth proved to be real…then I have little reason to doubt that other incredible stories I've heard might be real. So, if you please…"

Zola frowned again. He pouted for a moment, crossing his arms in front of him and staring at the colonel. However, Red XIII did not look away, and his one eye glared at him expectantly. In the end, the half-esper groaned and gave a hopeless shrug.

"…I am not a human. I am a half-esper, the hybrid between an esper and a basilisk. Because of that, I have far greater intelligence, power, and ability than a traditional basilisk. I also have the esper's immortality by some act of fate. I have been alive for well over 3,000 years. For most of my life…me and my sister were the servants of a very old, very strong esper named Wyvern. We were bound to serve him. At the time when we enlisted in the Planet Protector Army, we believed him to be dead. But after we were promoted, he returned and ordered us to sabotage the army."

"Who is this Wyvern, anyway?" Red XIII asked. "Is he still around?"

Zola closed his eyes and sighed. He had answered this before too. "Wyvern was one of the original eight espers. At the onset of the Third Age, he grew jealous with his brother Bahamut and determined himself to destroy him and succeed him. Since then, he has fought him countless times through the ages. But he's dead now."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because if he was still alive, rest assured…you would know it."

"Why did he want to work with New Shinra?"

"He only saw New Shinra as a means to an end. He didn't want to waste his energy destroying the PPA when he could get others to do it for him.His only desire was to fight with his brother and ruin what he had made. He knew that he had trained Ragnar, and so he came looking for him."

Red XIII paused here. He lowered his gaze again, and let out a slow breath.

Zola looked over to him and gave a critical glare. "…You don't believe me this time either, do you?"

The beast sighed and scratched along his nose with one paw. "…I'm one of the greatest historians on the Planet, Zola. For years I've read the legends about the great winged serpant Bahamut, Lord of All Dragons. I've studied the religions of Wutai and how they worship the Sea God Leviathan and Da-Chao. But in my personal experience, the only dragons I ever saw were lizards turned into abominations by mako waste. Even knowing what I know about you and your sister…I find it almost impossible to swallow the fact that such myths I've read about were truly real."

"Why can't you?" Zola simply answered. "You've seen my sister in the flesh, and you can't accept it. All General Ragnar did was read a series of runes and he believed it."

The two went silent after that. That note made Red XIII hesitate and think for a moment. Zola himself stared back at him simply, waiting for him to respond or say something new. After a few moments, the beast finally exhaled again, and looked back up to the half-esper. He let that question go for now.

"…I found your sister ransacking my tent." Red XIII continued at long last. "It's taken me until now to reorganize the tomes, scrolls, and notes I had there. As I've been looking back through them, I found nothing that could interest a man like Wyvern, if he is how you describe him. Can you give me any idea of what she was looking for?"

Zola slumped in his chair and rolled his eyes again. "He never told us each other's mission…especially not to me. He was thinking I would turn on him at that point. I don't know what he wanted her to find."

"Any ideas at all?"

The half-esper frowned. He looked to the ground for a moment, and let his arms fall down onto his lap again. He inhaled deeply, and then slowly exhaled. Finally, in the end, he turned his head up and looked to the colonel once more, shrugging.

"The only thing I can possibly think of is that he wanted to know where the Crystal Stone was."

The beast crooked an eyebrow at this. "Crystal Stone? You haven't mentioned this before…"

"It's something Leviathan built before the War of the Magi." Zola explained. "He built it to absorb positive energy…tried to use it to make an esper that was an amalgamation of good spirits and souls…a holy esper of sorts. But later we discovered that the thing also could store solar energy and process it into a sort of mako of its own. In a special ritual, we found out that we could transfer its energy to someone dead…and the power would actually bring their spirit back out of the Lifestream and restore them to life. But the stone needed nearly a thousand years of sunlight to charge for one use. And it wouldn't work on a decayed body, or one with a mortal wound. The body had to be ready to accept life in it. That's why we thought it could only ever work on espers. Their magicite was essentially their bodies and essences condensed. Everything was there. It just needed a spirit to live."

Red XIII leaned back a little at this. His eyebrow crooked again…and it held this time. He was silent for a while, tossing around this idea mentally for a few moments. Unlike before...this seemed to genuinely intrigue him, and captured his attention.

"Do you know why Wyvern would want this?"

"It brought him back from the dead once." Zola answered. "My only guess is…he wanted us to bring him back if he died again. That…or he wanted to destroy it."

The beast looked surprised at this. "Destroy it?"

"To keep his brother from ever using it again."

The beast was silent again after this. He continued to lean back and rest on his haunches. Crystal Stone… He didn't think he had recalled ever reading anything about that. There were thousands of references to Crystals, however…in particular the four Elemental Crystals that supposedly kept the prehistoric world in balance. They had a great collection of them back at Cosmo Canyon. Perhaps…just perhaps they had somehow been swept up in there. It merited another look…

The call button suddenly sounded from Red XIII's side. The beast frowned in response. It was his radio…and interrupting his train of thought. He hated that. What more, he hated using it. They had built a mobile one for him, but given his lack of opposible thumbs and manual dexterity, most of it had to be focused on operating on his head. Now, the speaker was continuously in his ear, fastened there the beginning of each day. As for his transmitter…it was actually resting on one of his teeth inside his mouth. Part of it overhung into the middle of it, and he had to flick his tongue in order to use it. It was rather annoying…but it was all he could use outside of battle. With a bit of a frown, he flicked it on.

"Colonel Nanaki, here."

"Yeah…this is Reeve." A metallic voice responded, solely in Red XIII's ear. However…it made him look a bit puzzled when he heard it. Reeve? He wasn't a combatant. He never used the channels of the radio. However, he soon heard more…and it sounded a bit urgent. "I'm down at the Baptismal Church. Cait Sith was running around down here to run an errand for me, and he noticed something. I've already got a team down here. We've got a problem."

The beast frowned. "That's very well and good, Reeve…but we have a problem that's rather eminent closing in on us as we speak, and I'm needed."

"Red…" The voice answered, growing suddenly cold and serious. "If we don't take care of this problem…we can kiss what's left of Midgar goodbye. Reeve out."

Naturally, Red XIII wanted to answer that. But even as his mouth opened, he heard the click of static in his ear. He immediately bared his teeth and gave a slight growl. Why was it that things like this always had to happen before battles? And why did he always have to be involved in them? The general was going to kill him if he wasn't up there. He was the head tactician. He didn't even have an idea of what was going on. What could possibly be occurring at the Baptismal Church? Had it turned into a Fountain of Youth now or something? Was he supposed to host a swim party? Yet in the end…he knew that Reeve wasn't one to overestimate the scope of a problem. If he said it was bad…if he said that it would effect all of Midgar…

The beast growled again, deep in his throat. He was finished here. Turning away from the bars, he stood up and began to walk back toward the door. Zola looked surprised at this, and quickly rose out of his own chair and rushed to the bars himself. He peered anxiously at the beast, wanting to hear some word. Red XIII ignored him, however. Once at the door, he raised a paw to knock against it. A second later, the lock clicked, and the door swung open again. He began to pass through…

However, as he did…he froze once again. He turned his head slowly around, and looked back to the prisoner, anxiously looking out from his cell.

"…If they make landfall this time, General Ragnar has authorized that you be allowed to fight."

The last Red XIII saw of the basilisk in human's clothing was him grinning as the door shut.


"Nice call this morning, kid. No show in six months, and you guessed their first attack since."

"Calling had nothing to do with it. I knew that they were going to attack this morning."

"How?"

"…I don't know."

Cloud clammed up after that. No sense in pressing it. After all…it wasn't like he had predicted the second coming of the espers or something…

Ragnar adjusted his collar and turned his cape. He was ready again. His uniform was on, fully cleaned and pressed, and he was marching with a quick step toward the meeting area. With a matter like this, he was able to wake up rather quickly. Still, he blinked quite a bit as he moved along, trying to snap out of his early morning haze. He raised a can to his mouth later that contained some sort of caffeinated soft drink, and drained the rest of it.

"You should try coffee. It's stronger." Cloud advised.

"I can't choke down that liquid chalk." Ragnar answered as he removed the can from his lips and tossed it into a nearby garbage can along their path.

"Drinking that will only make you overweight…" He cautioned. "Besides, I heard it eats your teeth."

"It does not."

"That's what I heard."

"You hear a lot of things."

The two generals were making their way down the street right now. However, this area was far from just being a normal urban lane in Edge. This was part of the militarized zone. It was older, more dilapidated, and needed improvement…but it was theirs. The buildings on either side of them housed troops in their apartments. The warehouses were storehouses for their gear. The factories had been refurbished to act as tooling areas and manufacturing sites. The streets were flooded with their own soldiers, marching in companies going to and fro. They were a bit more reckless today…because they were already being mobilized. There were also several large trucks parked here, many of them military "covered wagon" types. These were being loaded up to move out to the front.

The men were headed to one particular building. About five years ago, it had been a place that served Midgar cuisine, specifically to the tastes of people from "under the rotting pizza". It attracted quite a few notorious types in its day. More than just eating had gone on inside it…as was obvious from the fact that the building had never had any windows. However, it was reasonably clean inside, and it was enclosed. It provided a good place for private meetings, in Ragnar's opinion. Soon both he and Cloud were in front of it. Ragnar proceeded to open the door and gesture Cloud in, and then followed behind.

They walked through a short entrance hallway, out of the light of the doorway and toward where the receptionist used to be. There was nothing there now, and most of the restaurant had long since been emptied of furniture. But it still had its carpeting and its décor. It hadn't fallen victim to rot or grafitti as much of the rest of Midgar had. The two men made their way back into the main dining room first. There was some equipment here, and a few guards posted. They gave a salute to the two generals as they walked past, to the three doorways that were toward the back. They passed through the one on the right, emerging into a room that was far more illuminated than the rest of the building. The dim yellow bulbs that had once filled it had been replaced with 100 Watt halogens, filling the room with white light and showing everything.

There was quite a bit more in here…more than there had used to be at the old base, at least. Real tables were set up in here. Two long rectangular ones dominated a side of the room. Behind them against the wall was a projector screen for overhead layouts. The overhead itself was out now and on one of the tables, placing an image of the Midgar area up for everyone in the room to see. The other side of the room was set up audience style. However, the chairs were now cushioned and interlocking, forming a true environment for lecturing and briefing. The usual maps, figurines, and paper covered the tables in the room, each pile specific to the one who had brought it in. Two trays bearing water pitchers and glasses had been used too. They rested on either table at the moment.

Right now, all of the officers were gathered around the large tables. There were quite a few more. The room was filled with various lieutenants that had been appointed since the last battle, mostly to keep the infantry under control and managed. However, the usual crowd was also there. Barret…Yuffie…Mack…and Tifa, who had left right after eating, leaving Cloud to wait up for Ragnar as he got dressed. She gave them a smile as they entered in greeting before turning back to her work. There was also a new face in the crowd…

"'Bout time you got yer ass out of bed and over here." Captain Cid Highwind sounded from around the butt of the cigarette in his mouth. Ragnar frowned at him in response. It wasn't the insult or scolding. It was the cigarette. He had told him ten times, no smoking in the meeting hall. The place wasn't ventilated well enough. Then again…telling Cid to stop smoking was about as pertinent as telling him to stop flying. Neither was ever going to happen. At any rate, Cid was now an official captain of the Planet Protector Army. He was about their only captain…and the sole officer in their non-infantry division…but that was how it was at this point in time.

"Well, now that I'm here…" Ragnar responded as he walked up to the edge of the table. "I'd like to know just what's going on."

As Ragnar took his position, Cloud fell in next to him. The other officers also drew around the table. Normally they would sit, but given the circumstances they felt that this was just as good. They went silent, ending their own conversations and making the room completely quiet. After all, now that the general was here, things could really get started. As the youth adjusted himself, he began to scan for the person who normally started these things. To his surprise, however…he realized that Colonel Nanaki wasn't present. That was odd. He was always at every meeting. Ragnar had counted on it, in fact… Why wouldn't he be present at this one? This was far more important, after all…

Once everyone was standing and quiet, Cid seemed to take charge. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a laser pointer, and proceeded to aim it at the overhead projection. The other officers looked to it in response. Ragnar searched the room a moment longer before he snapped out of it and looked to the map as well. The captain proceeded to gesture around the Northern Continent.

"Alright…as you all know…we haven't been able to see head nor tail of anything around this area for a couple months. But that sure as hell don't mean that I couldn't run the Sierra up there every once in a while and run a long distance radar sweep. It just so happens I turned up something on my last run. They're gathered just outside of the shore area, massing together. From experience in the Shinra military, I know that they normally adopt this formation when they have limited dock space.They're preparing an invasion."

"How many?" Ragnar asked in response.

"As far as heavy transports go…at least a hundred."

The general's eyes widened a bit at that, genuinely surprised at that number. Cid caught that look on his face, and gave a shrug. "It's pretty standard actually, General. The heavy transports hold about two hundred soldiers a piece. So to move twenty thousand, standard army encompaniment for occupying an area, they'd naturally need a hundred. Yet other than that, they've got surprisingly little. Just about five destroyers. Apparently…they still don't think much of us."

Mack swallowed from where he was, looking a bit uneasy. "Maybe so…but five destroyers is all they'll need. We don't have enough artillery to defend ourselves from two, let alone five."

"And they probably won't be trying to come at our artillery either…" Tifa added in a worried-sounding voice. "We don't really have the coastline guarded… They could just move around and land well outside of our defenses. Then they can move in all they want."

"Assuming they even come here." Cloud threw in. "They could move anywhere else in the world and conquer it instead. We can only defend Midgar at this point."

"Even so…" Ragnar responded, calling everyone's attention to him again. "Midgar is the 'juiciest' target, so to speak. And it's not just because he has his opponents here. It's the center of the biggest industries in most of the world that are into heavy manufacturing. If he wanted to expand his war machine, here would be the best place to start. It also guards the way to Junon via the new roads and the coastline. And besides…look at the map…" Here, Ragnar gestured up and motioned to it, in particular the body of water between the New Shinra and Midgar. "That's nearly a straight, thin as it is. They won't be able to get anything through without worrying about us."

"Unless they don't consider us a threat worth dealing with." Cloud threw in with a shrug.

Hearing this, Barret clenched his teeth and fumed. He pounded his metal arm into his remaining fist. "…Then let's show them that we are a threat."

Tifa sighed slightly at this, holding a hand to the bridge between her eyes. Mack uneasily scratched his temple. Yuffie rolled her eyes and leaned back in an expression of "here we go again". It wasn't the first time Barret had come into a meeting letting his emotions against Shinra dictate his actions and words. He was a man who tended to act first and think later when it came to these things. Everyone else just tried to ignore it now.

That was why it came to everyone as a surprise when Ragnar crossed his arms and gave a nod. "I'm with Commander Barret."

Many of Ragnar's closer friends snapped their heads around and looked at him incredulously. Cid's mouth hung open…and his cigarette loosely fell out of it a moment later. He looked at him as if he had lost his mind. Even the other officers were confused by this response. The general leaned in a bit closer to the table and looked at them all as they did this, and then began to explain.

"Think about it. We lost the bottleneck. The New Shinra drove us off the shore. They think we're weak and disorganized now, not nearly a match for them, and not nearly worth their time. Technically, we don't have any way of stopping them now…except in one respect. Making ourselves a gigantic thorn in their sides. Making it so that any of their plans to ignore us blow up in their face. They plan to eventually conquer the surrounding areas and move in to crush us. But if we tease them…irritate them…frustrate their efforts…they'll be forced to spend their strength on us to try and eliminate us first. They'll focus all of their armies and navies on obliterating our army, and forget about the rest of the world."

Yuffie plasted a sarcastic smile on her face. "Terrific. We encourage them to beat our asses now…"

"And how do you plan on us doing that, General?" Cid asked in response, leaning himself a bit more on the table.

Ragnar gave a simple shrug. "It's simple. It doesn't matter if that fleet is coming for us or not…we sink it anyway."

The other officers stared back at him incredulously. Cloud and Tifa were among them. Cid removed his cigarette from his mouth and blasted out a puff of smoke and a cough. "Alright then…" He answered after a moment. "How the hell do we do that? We ain't got any boats, radar, guided missiles, destroyers, submarines, or battleships of our own. Hell, we don't even have any patrol boats. If you're thinking that I'm just going to go out there with the Sierra and blow the shit out of them all myself, think again. I know they have anti-aircraft guns on those things, and I can't take out five of them by myself."

The young general paused. That was a good point…but it didn't change what they had to do. He gave a simple shrug after a moment.

"Ok…what do we have?"


Barret finished unlocking the garage, and then poppedit off. He seized the handle afterward, gave a sharp twist, and then lifted up with one strong movement to yank the door open.

Ragnar, Cid, Cloud, Tifa, and Mack (because he had the keys to the garage area of the "encampment") looked on as the garage finished opening, and looked inside at what was revealed as the day's sunlight poured in. Ragnar soon saw a few trailers that had been parked inside the garage, holding some sort of two-tiered racks. Chained to the racks were large, boat bottomed, handle-bar topped, motorcycle-sized craft. As the garage continued to be opened, he saw that there was quite a few of them.

"Some guy dumped these off on us 'bout two months ago." Barret explained, gesturing inside. "Bunch o' jet skis…twenty four, I think. He tried startin' some wave ridin' business over in Junon, but that water was too damn polluted to go 'round in these things. He only wanted 'bout ten thousand for all of them."

Ragnar crossed his arms and looked these over for a moment. The others likewise got into relaxed positions and stared at him, seeing what he was going to say. The youth formed a thoughtful look, and scratched his chin for a moment. In the end, he turned his head slightly over to Barret. "Say Commander…we've got a few SAMs now, don't we?"

"We sure as hell do. Won't do no good until they start sending Gelinkas at us…or until they get within firin' range." The man grumpily replied.

Ragnar turned to Cid next, and gestured ahead. "…You think we could rig these things to fire a couple of missiles and a heavy machine gun?"

Tifa's eyes widened a bit from where she was. "…You're wanting to go into an actually military fleet on jet skis, having only cobbled-together weapons? That's how we're supposed to sink them?"

Cid, however, hesitated for a moment. After all, he had pulled plenty of crazy stunts in his time. He took another drag from his cigarette, and scratched his face stubble. He too began to look thoughtful, as if seriously considering the possibility. "Well…I dunno how much extra weight they can take…or how off balance they could be. But I'm assuming they can at least hold the weight of another two hundred and fifty pound person in addition to the driver… There ain't no time to give them anything fancy…but I suppose if all of the machinists put their backs into it, we can get it done in about ten hours."

Tifa turned to Cid in growing disbelief. "You're endorsing this crazy idea too?"

Cid shrugged in reply. "From what I heard…you guys have done crazier shit than this. Those transports may be heavy, but they're still just transports. They ain't got no real armor plating on them. One missile could put a hole in one. Now they got a couple of chain guns themselves to clear the shore when they make landfall, but they aren't exactly a tight defense at sea. Once they have a hole in them low enough they'll start taking on water. They won't be able to do anything else but try and bail out before they sink. That said…there ain't no way the missiles we got are going to do anything to a destroyer."

"We don't need to." Ragnar responded. "All we have to do is sink the transports…ruin the invasion. Once that's done, they'll have to turn back."

"But with only twenty-four units of our own, that's not going to be easy." Cloud threw in. "Who are the lucky twenty-four people who are going to drive them?"

The six people were quiet after that. Ragnar himself frowned a bit and sighed. That was a problem. There wasn't anyone who had experience with being a fighter pilot or anything. This wasn't quite the same, but he was pretty sure they didn't have many people who regularly used jet skis either. Even if they did, they would need a leader for this group. And no one knew who they could pick to do so.

In the end, Ragnar himself sighed and gave a shrug. "…I guess I could try and lead it."

The other turned to him at that, seeming a bit uneasy at his volunteering. "You sure you can handle it?" Cid asked, genuinely concerned, and giving him an uneasy look.

The general grimaced a moment, but then gave another shrug. "…Well…I know how to ride an ATV, snowmobile, and motorcycle…how hard could it be?"

Tifa looked a bit unsettled at that response. Cid crossed his arms and snorted, coughing a bit as he did so. "Man…if I had some little punk your age coming up to me wanting to man a console on my Sierra telling me, 'how hard could it be', I'd kick his ass so hard he'd be-"

"I'll do it too."

Again, the officers stopped. Cid finished before he could get to his crude part, and turned and looked with the rest of them to who spoke. To their surprise…they found themselves staring at none other than Lieutenant Mack. The guy really wasn't even supposed to be here. But suddenly, they found him raising a hand and volunteering himself.

"I used to be an ace at snowmobiling." The man continued. "I don't know if this is quite the same thing…but I heard once that a snowmobile moved fast enough that you could take it on an ocean if you went in a straight line, so I figure the two things are close enough to one another to be the same."

Cid bowed his head and muttered something. However, the others didn't have any dispute. To Ragnar, that was as good a reason as any. He sure as heck didn't enjoy the idea of being on one of those things. He was a hand-to-hand fighter, not a guy who ran around shooting guns and missiles…and certainly not a pilot in any way, shape, or form. Like Tifa said…these things weren't military craft. They seemed a bit flimsy and out of practice too. But he'd be a bit dumb to suggest an idea he was too scared to do himself.

"I guess I'll be going too, then." Cloud threw in.

To this, Ragnar snapped around and shook his head. "No, Cloud. Not this time."

The ex-mercenary rolled his eyes and groaned. "Come on, kid. You know you're going to need someone to save your ass once you do something crazy, like you do in every battle."

If that was meant as a joke…for once, Ragnar didn't take it. He didn't like being called that, just like he didn't like being called a kid. He could take care of himself. He didn't need a babysitter or a guardian. Anyone implying that began to upset the young general. His eyes actually burned a bit back at Cloud for a moment, before he calmed down and answered.

"It doesn't matter." Ragnar answered. "You're the other general. You'll have to be here to lead the ground troops while I'm out there."

Cloud frowned in response. He held a moment and leveled an untrusting gaze on Ragnar. He knew full well that Ragnar did have a knack for getting in trouble. First he did the crazy attack on the tank…then he did the daredevil stunt in the valley…and finally he had gotten himself shot, and would have died if Brer Basilisk hadn't come along to eat the opposition. Plus…again, he didn't like the idea of being in a spot of leadership. He hated having to be responsible for so many. But the fact was that the kid was right. The army had panicked, cut, and run last time both of them had been gone. One of them did have to stay and keep things in line, especially if this idea didn't work. In the end, he gave a shrug and acquiesced. "Alright…fine."

Cid continued to frown, but he pulled his cigarette butt out of his mouth, flicked it to the ground, and proceeded to crush it. "Alright then… If we're gonna go with 'Crazy, Half-Baked Plan #38' like we did with the other 37…we better get busy. I'm sure the New Shinra will be moving that fleet out by the end of the day…so we better be ready for 'em by that time."


To be continued...