A/N: After half an eternity, more rewrites than I can count and over seven hours of non-stop editing yesterday and three more hours of 'final reading' today, I finally present to you the long awaited next chapter. A long chapter at that, but you deserved it for waiting so patiently.

This massive delay was presented to you by lack of either time or motivation, and a series of very unfortunate events. In other words: Again, I can only apologize (I'm SO SORRY), and assure you that it will most likely not happen again. The next two chapters are already completely planned out and partly written, so I should be able to do the next update within a month, and return to my 'usual' pace after that.

I will neither give up on writing, nor on fan fiction (at least not before I'm done with this story). That is a promise.

So what is this chapter about?

Well, it's one of those transition chapters... From now on, the events of the subplot(s) will start to tie to the events of the main plot (which will become clearer over the next few chapters), and the first mysteries are (apparently) solved.

Therefore, if you read the previous chapter a long time ago, it might be worth going back and re-read it first before starting with this one (sorry for that inconvencience). If you still remember what the combinations 9-16-18 and 04 303 mean, you will be fine. If not, you might want to check...

This new chapter also contains drastic mood changes from scene to scene, which might lead to slight emotional confusion at times, but that was intended... the aim was to create a very specific, 'not entire comfortable atmosphere', while also adding some necessary information to prepare the stage for upcoming events.

After reading, you should know who the mysterious intruder from the last two chapters was (don't expect the events to make perfect sense yet, that will happen only later ;). If not, you can either wait until the next chapter, or let me know (I'll gladly tell you at this point).

Finally: Thank you all for your love, support and endless patience.


Warning: Swearing and sheer endless innuendo. In one scene. (Gotta make use of that M rating... ;)

Dedication: In a way, this chapter is dedicated to all my lovely readers out there, who still stick with me and that story. I love you guys, more than I can say!

However, there are also a few special people I would like to address in particular (because it's looong overdue). Sadly enough, I know neither of them personally, but that doesn't change my love and deep appreciation for them:

Oztan– you are a very special reviewer to me. You have been with this story from the very beginning, and if I remember correctly, you reviewed almost every single chapter since then. I'm always looking forward to your comments :) Thank you so, so much!

ForsakenRealms – we briefly talked a while back, and you were such a great motivation. Hope Art School exams are going/have gone well!

tacks – this is unfortunately not an FFnet name, or I would have contacted you (since I love writing review replies ;). You wrote a really nice review for chapter 17, which put a huge smile on my face. I really hope you are still reading, because you are about to find out more about the things you mentioned you were curious about. Thank you very, very much for reading and reviewing!

I also received a wonderful anonymous review to chapter 18… I'm not sure if tacks is responsible for that, too. If yes: double THANKS! You are amazing. (Please, make an FFnet account, so I can get back to you personally ;)

If not: whoever you are, you are amazing, too. Thank you very much.


Final remarks – not 'need to know' but 'nice to know', and stating some sources:

1) Quotes: Like the previous chapter, this one contains three quotes from Sun Tzu's Art of War (two in the first scene, and one at the very end). The saying about progress quoted in the first scene is by George Bernard Shaw. Everything else that seems 'quote-like' is taken directly from my own mind ;)

2) Naming: The name of the Wutai village (Dong Tien) is a made-up combination of two actual Vietnamese village names. I was trying to stick to the topic of war here, as well as considering the fact that Wutai does not represent a specific Asian nation, but a mix of several ones.

3) Spanish: Again, like in one previous chapter, I used a few very simple remarks in Spanish (which represents the native language of the Costa del Sol area in my writing) in one scene. Most of them can easily be guessed, but just in case someone wants to know:

Por fin = finally

De nada = you are welcome

Andale = come on/let's go/hurry up

4) Bonus feature: Strategy/Tactic – what's the difference?

In modern usage, both terms might refer not only to warfare, but to a variety of business practices. Many people consider them to be synonyms, but that is not true at all, even though they belong to the same continuum and are therefore closely connected.

In order not to bore you out of your mind, the nutshell explanation goes like this: In the strategy phase of a plan, you essentially decide what your goals are. In the tactical phase, you decide what actions you will take to reach those goals. Or put differently (and very simplified): strategy = overall goal; tactic = action(s) to reach that goal.

5) And last but not least: lyrics quote (since this is the beginning of a new part). I changed this one in the very last minute, because the one I originally planned just seemed a tad too cliché:

Should it hurt to love you?
Should I feel like I do?
Should I lock the last open door?
My ghosts are gaining on me...

This is taken from "All That I'm Living For" by Evanescence (the acoustic version, please!), hands-down the best match to this part of the story when it comes to lyrics.

However... the quote I finally chose is another close-to-perfect match (to several characters in this story, but especially to one), and I'm really fond of the song and its message (not referring to the political background here, btw). Therefore, it's Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready To Make Nice" instead...


V. Haunting

~°oOo°~

Forgive, sounds good
Forget, I'm not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I'm still waiting…

~°oOo°~

'Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. - Sun Tzu'

This inspirational line had been hanging at the wall right next to the big computer screen for as long as he could remember. Some things never changed, and some things were just utterly predictable. Today, he had known from the get-go that this was no ordinary strategy lesson, no matter how hard they obviously tried to make it look like one. Well, 'lesson' was the wrong word anyway. It was more a 'strategy debate club' than anything resembling a class. Why they still stuck with the term was anybody's guess. Well, some of the attendants were newly promoted Firsts, and they still had a few things to learn; unlike him, an established member of the unit. Due to his experience, he had seen straight away that the scenario they were supposed to work on today resembled a familiar setting in Wutai down to the rocks and patches on grass on the ground. He knew what this meant. The highest level of command expected an escalation of the situation soon, and was already trying to come up with a plan of attack.

These days, a battle plan was no longer carefully drawn on a piece of paper, or represented by different chess-piece-like figures on a map. No, Shinra had turned to a state-of-the-art computer program for such things long ago. It reminded him of another saying: 'Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.'

Most of his comrades didn't even lift their eyes from the smaller computer screens in front of them and the simulations they were working on. He didn't mind. Less glances to dodge. While he still pretended to concentrate – just in case - his mind was busy with tactics of a very different kind. Deep down, he waged another war, not the one Shinra paid him to fight, but something much more personal. He had set up his strategy long ago, in the way a wise and experienced commander would, and he was not going to change it now. It definitely took more than a few minor difficulties to dishearten him. However, he had to admit that his current tactic might be in need of some adaptation.

His eyes drifted slowly over the room, casual, as if he was trying to get some inspiration for his task. He knew precisely what – or better, who – he was looking for, yet his gaze did not settle on its goal immediately, like a bird of prey drifting past its victim first before eventually closing in to attack. When he was certain that no one was taking notice, he finally chanced a glimpse at the SOLDIER working right next to him. Even now he was still careful, watching his comrade only from the corner of his eye, while pretending to read another quote on the wall.

'Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.'

How oddly fitting. A thin smile appeared on his lips.

Unlike him, the other SOLDIER seemed completely focused on the task at hand. The constantly changing light from the computer screen created tiny sparks of light in his eyes, making them look greener than they actually were; and strands of his hair glistened like spun copper in the dim light when he cocked his head slightly. To complete the picture-perfect impression, his left index finger was resting lightly on his lips. All in all, this intense concentration had something almost touching. Or even sensual.

When his mind warned him that he was staring too intensely, it was too late already. The signs were subtle, yet unmistakable. Something in the other SOLDIER's features tensed, like a rabbit that suddenly becomes aware of a strange sound or smell, an indication of looming danger.

Within the split of a second, bright blue eyes turned into his direction, alarmed and alert. And within the same second, he lowered his head in a slow, seemingly casual movement. Their eyes never even met, but he could feel the glance resting on him like an accidental touch. Not heavy, but noticeable. After a short moment, the feeling faded, indicating that he was no longer being watched. He didn't raise his head to check though. That would have been a beginner's mistake, and he was no beginner.

Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on the screen in front of him, while he savoured the thought for a moment, compared it to other possible options like a jeweller trying to find the perfect gem stone for a precious necklace.

Not yet. This is my last card, and I'll only play it when everything else fails…

~°oOo°~

"So this is the current situation. However, the problem is..."

As much as Angeal tried to concentrate on his friend's words, his thoughts were drifting mercilessly. His concentration, normally solid and condensed like a piece of rock, now equalled grains of sand, impossible to hold on to, simply running through your fingers. Speaking of which...

The memory was so vivid that he could almost feel the slender fingers entwining lightly with his own. The way they kept shifting, never entirely motionless, spoke volumes about their owner's state of mind. Little movements took the form of gentle caresses, yet they were an obvious cover for sudden nervousness.

"Hey... I never said 'here and now', did I?" He closed his hand slightly, careful and without pressure, as if he was trying to pick up a small, injured animal.

Genesis showed a tiny smile, unsteady like the flame of a candle. A courtesy smile. And then, suddenly, he voiced an unexpected question: "Do you still remember your first?"

When he recovered from the initial shock, Angeal returned: "As a matter of fact, I do."

"I bet he was an amazing person."

"Why that?"

Genesis lowered his eyes. "Because you would never be with someone who… wasn't."

The slight insecurity seeping through these words was strangely touching. Angeal tightened his grip around Genesis' hand. "Exactly. This is the reason why I'm with you."

This time, the smile was a tad more stable than the previous one.

"And as for my 'first' being amazing... well, you can judge that for yourself. You knew him. Dean Marquez."

Genesis looked up at him again. "Oh."

Would that be 'Oh, damned', 'Oh, really?' or 'Oh sweet Gaia, how could you?' Or something completely else?

He had always admired Genesis' ability to convey a whole world of meanings in a single syllable. This time, however, the meaning was hidden and cryptic, as if his beloved had spoken in strange metaphors.

"Angeal?"

A wave of guilt instantly coursed through him. This was a friend talking, not a random stranger, so how could he just drift off in his thoughts as if nothing else mattered? Even worse, if he knew the topic of the conversation was rather serious, and said friend might be in need of advice?

"Well, I would say it depends..." The words had made their way over his lips before he had found even a moment to think, and Angeal almost instantly regretted them. True, it was not like him to be that easy distracted, but it was even less like him to try and cover up such a lapse by feeble attempts to pretend it had not happened. He knew he was a bad liar, inexperienced in the game of successful deceit, and Sephiroth was not exactly a person to fall for cheap excuses.

"Spare me. I can clearly tell you were not listening to a word I just said." Indeed, Sephiroth was more than just mildly annoyed. If he hated one thing, it was having to repeat himself over and over because someone was not paying attention. That this someone turned out to be the one person he considered his friend, maybe even his best friend, was even more insulting. However, it was not like this had ever happened before, so it was worrying at the same time. Sudden, unexpected changes in an established pattern usually predict a major disturbance lying underneath. Therefore, even tiny details are worthy of closer examination. A rule that was easy to follow if it was about war and strategy, but much harder when it came to people.

"You are right," Angeal finally admitted, "I was somehow carried away. I'm sorry about that, and I promise it won't happen again." He showed a small apologetic smile, before changing back to the original topic: "From what I gathered, there are a lot of rumours flying around, as usual. Nothing was stolen in this break-in attempt, so some people even claim it was a joke, most likely the Turks trying to mess with the MIC, while others downright deny anything happened at all."

Sephiroth's mood didn't lighten, but at least he seemed no longer annoyed. "Well, the MIC has been stumbling around in the dark for the last five days, but there is proof that neither of these theories is right. It definitely happened, and it definitely wasn't a bad joke."

"And what does this have to do with you?"

Looks like I have to repeat everything I just pointed out... "Nothing, I hope. Yet the MIC apparently sees a connection to me."

"And what would that be? That you started your career in the regular armed forces, too? So did everyone else, big deal. They could just as well make a connection to Genesis or me, for that matter."

Sephiroth looked at him for a moment, and Angeal could not really read that glance. It was heavy, as if something bothered the SOLDIER, but at the same time calm, showing not a trace of discomposure. "The Fairmont Campaign." He added not a single word of explanation, as if everything he just said was reason enough.

"The Fairmont Campaign? But..." Angeal struggled for a second, realizing he had chosen to disagree just for the sake reassuring his friend, without really thinking about what exactly he wanted to say in return. "...why?"

"The information the intruder was trying to access was about an infantryman who had been under my command back then." As usual, Sephiroth answered questions brief and down to the point.

"But so were we about a hundred others."

"140, to be precise." And with just a trace of gravity, he added: "80 of them survived that day."

"It could have been less. Think of other those other..."

There was no need to interrupt; Angeal stopped the sentences on his own before he could finish it. Sephiroth had only lifted his head slightly, but the unspoken That's exactly what I'm thinking of was as clear as if he had stated it. For a moment, the room was plunged into absolute silence.

"It was still a disaster."

And 'disaster' is putting it lightly. Angeal did not see himself as an overly religious or superstitious person, but he remembered the instant need to fall down on his knees and thank every deity known to man that he and Genesis – SOLDIERs Third Class back then - had been nowhere near that catastrophe when it happened. Despite all its power and resources, Shinra was still far from winning this war, and Wutai had a similarly impressive list of decisive victories. This has been one of them, but as far as I heard, they are not exactly proud of it...

It didn't even sound real, more like the plot to a very bad movie. On an innocent, sunny day in early summer, a leading commander of the Shinra Army had ordered an air strike on a military facility. Not an unusual measure in the ongoing war, but this time, something went gravely wrong. The commander later claimed the MIC had provided the wrong coordinates, while the head of the MIC countered that either the soldier putting in the coordinates had been incapable, or the commander himself. One kept blaming the other, and a later investigation bore no satisfying results. Due to human error. Another row of cold, rational words that could not express the amount of pain hidden behind them.

On that warm, perfect day, Shinra bombs had hit their wrong target with deadly precision: a small village named Dong Tien. To say the results had been devastating was putting it lightly yet again. All of the victims were civilians, most of them women and children. A war crime in the eyes of the enraged population of Wutai, who soon doubted it had been a mistake in the first place. Both the Turks and the MIC had instantly predicted an act of revenge; they had just disagreed on when, where and how.

Yes, it sounded like the perfect set-up for dramatic tale of vengeance. Only this wasn't a book, or a movie. This was real life. The dark, cruel side of it.

Angeal hadn't expected Sephiroth to dwell on those unfortunate events, but to his surprise, he continued: "As I was told a few days ago, there exists not entirely flawless career. Every single one has at least a minor dark spot." And whether I like it or not, this might be mine. "And I can't even claim that I didn't see it coming. Because I saw it clearly. From the first moment on. As soon as Fairmont revealed his 'great plan', I knew that we were heading for disaster. I mean, this fool was basically asking for it. It was the kind of strategy I would have expected from a Cadet in the Army during their first assignment. He called it 'daring' and 'straightforward', and all I could think of was 'imprudent' and 'disastrous'."

The units were placed right next to each other like pearls on a string. It might have worked in a different setting, but in their current situation, it could turn out to be a fatal flaw. Just like a string of pearls, the line-up could easily be torn apart by the enemy, and with no back-up worth mentioning, the separated units would get crushed like fragile pearls under the mighty heel of Wutai's army.

Even though this weakness was blatant and obvious, no one dared to point it out. Sephiroth did not even know why he finally spoke up. Commander Fairmont was not known for listening to advice in general, especially not when it came from a person he outranked by far. But this plan was so flawed at its very core that he just had to raise his voice: "Excuse me, sir, but I have one comment to make. Spreading our troops out like that is going to weaken them considerably. And if Wutai's troops manage to break through and reformate in our back, they can easily split up the units and attack them one after the other. Especially those at the far ends are in high danger of being cut off completely. And if that happens, we..."

"Then we won't let that happen, as simple as that."

Sephiroth's eyes darted around, looking for support from any of the senior officers, but everyone seemed to avoid his gaze. Cowards, all of them.

Then suddenly, a calm and very clear voice interfered: "I have to agree with what the young lieutenant just said. This is not going to work out. Wutai will easily foresee that line-up, it one of the most common ones in the book, and if they manage to separate our units from each other, they can easily surround and crush them. It's their territory; they know how to use it to their advantage."

"Major Kendrick was the only one who shared my opinion back then. Or at least the only one who dared to admit it openly. However, Fairmont did not even bother with a proper reply. He just seemed to ignore our protest completely. At least this is what I thought until I saw the definite battle order the next day."

Sephiroth frowned. Not that it really bothered him; he was almost used to being treated as inferior and inexperienced due to his rank by now. In fact, a position somewhere in the middle or – even worse – with the back-up units had upset him even more; yet he couldn't suppress a subtle feeling of dread when he looked at his position. The far left. Second to last unit. Followed only by...

"You shouldn't have spoken up yesterday. Now you are stuck with heavy frontline duty."

Talking of the devil, obviously. "Just like you," Sephiroth pointed out calmly.

Kendrick gave him the confident smile of an experienced senior officer. "That's right, just like me."

Despite not feeling like it, Sephiroth chose to return that smile. "Well, at least that means being stuck with someone who knows what he's doing. I prefer that to watching from the back with those other idiots."

He had expected an amused laugh, yet Kendrick remained surprisingly serious. "Anyway, be careful out there. After the unfortunate events at Dong Tien, Wutai is raging. The population demands revenge, and the army is more than happy to deliver it. No matter if we lose or win, this battle is going to get messy."

"And unfortunately, this was an understatement."

Angeal remained silent. There was nothing he could have said, as the word 'understatement' was just another way of putting it lightly...

It hadn't looked like a complete disaster in the beginning. True, it was odd that the large army Wutai had sent into this battle had apparently decided to take their time with a counterattack, but then again, who knew what kind of strategy they followed. Maybe they had decided that they didn't want an open battle, not that day, and had just sent a few units to cover their retreat. Or maybe...

And then suddenly, all hell broke loose.

No one had foreseen that sudden change of tactics, not even Sephiroth himself. Within seconds, everything went haywire. Around him people were running, falling, screaming. And dying, obviously. He needed a change of plan, and he needed it right now, or they were lost. Damn, I can't think like this. But I need to. I have to.

Don't ever expect everything around you to stand still, just because you need to think. The enemy will move forward, the battle will rage on. No one and nothing will wait patiently until you evaluated all the options and made a decision. With every minute that passes, the situation changes. If you don't make up your mind fast enough, you might never be able to do so. Maybe even never again.

And in the middle of this raging chaos, Sephiroth knew without the shadow of a doubt that he only had two options: one was trying to move forward, unite his unit with Kendrick's and try to fight their way back to the Shinra forces together. The other was to withdraw, right now, and make it back to the main part of the army on his own. The chances for succeeding were good, since they were not completely cut off yet, and it was the direction his soldiers moved in anyway under the pressure of the Wutaian forces. But besides a chance to escape, it also meant leaving Kendrick behind. And Sephiroth was not even trying to tell himself that his comrade might stand a chance in that case.

Morally, it was a dilemma. Strategically, it was a clear choice. Always settle for the option that promises the most successful outcome.

And so Sephiroth gave his orders.

"I don't have to tell you anything about the result. The pictures were all over the place, leaked out even though both the Turks and the MIC did their best to avoid it. Wutai got their revenge, but at the end of the day, I doubt they were proud of it."

Angeal nodded gravely. He still recalled Genesis' face, pale as death, when the news had spread and the gruesome details were revealed. He hadn't felt much better himself, to be honest. It was one of those days where he questioned his decision to join the Shinra Army.

You cannot call a SOLDIER a murderer, in the same way you can't call a sword a murderer either. Why blame a tool for fulfilling the mere purpose of its existence? True, you could always blame the creator of said tool, but wasn't it public demand that lead to the creation in the first place?

"I assume that this Infantryman was one of the few soldiers in my troops that were cut off along with Kendrick's unit. Not that I can tell for sure, because I literally saw them for the first time this day and didn't even know their names. However, the fact that he has a KIA entry at least means he could still be identified. Others weren't quite as lucky..." Sephiroth paused, as if he felt the need to wipe these pictures off his mind. Wutai had not taken a single prisoner this day, and Shinra had not lost that many soldiers in a single battle since the early days of the war.

"It's not your fault, you know," Angeal instantly returned in a calm, almost soothing tone.

Sephiroth looked at him with a mixture of slight confusion and cold determination. "Of course it isn't. I know that."

~°oOo°~

Finally. The class was over. It was not that Alexander Griffin disliked strategy. Quite the opposite, actually. But today, minutes had turned into hours far too easily, and his work had been far from efficient or brilliant. Too many other things on his mind to focus on battle plans.

While getting up, he tried to stretch in a not-too-obvious way. Damn, it really felt like he had just taken a nap, one of those short, very unsatisfying ones that leave you feeling even more exhausted. Looking around, he realized that most of his fellow SOLDIERs didn't seem to share this lack of enthusiasm. Most of them just happily and speedily picked up their files, papers and booklets – if anyone had told him that higher positions in the military required that much paper work, he would have considered the position of a secretary instead – and left the room, or got at least ready to do so.

Alex cast one last glance back to the computer screen, just to make sure that his attempt at a battle plan had been transmitted properly – for evaluation, of course... damn, is anyone seriously believing this? - and the system was shutting down as required. Normally, he was that concerned with sticking to the rules, he just hated the thought of anyone messing with his data. Anyone other than those officials who are messing with it anyway...

Right next to him, Genesis Rhapsodos was getting ready to leave as well. His movements had something hurried and erratic, just the fracture of a trace, but a strong contrast to his usual effortless grace. Though it had been more obvious a few weeks ago, Alex had never addressed this change, he had just taken notice. Rumour had it that Rhapsodos had suffered some sort of accident during the exams for First Class, which seemed a plausible explanation. However, if Alex had learned something during all those years in the Shinra Army, it was that 'plausible' not necessarily equalled 'correct'.

Just in this second, Genesis turned around a bit too sudden, and a single sheet of paper escaped the folder he was holding. Alex knew that he could have easily caught it before it even touched the floor, thanks to the reflexes that came with being a SOLDIER, but why make such an effort for virtually nothing?

He had a reputation to keep up, after all. There was this nice little story about the time when he had been stationed in a Shinra-controlled fort in Wutai. The alarm had been set off, and everyone else was running around nervously, Alex had remained seated, feet put casually on the desk, watching the chaos around him with some sort of calm amusement. After a very nervous comrade shouted at him, Alex slowly put his feet back on the ground and stated: 'Well, it's is a break-in, and we are in the control centre. This means the intruders will come here anyway, on their own. What's the point in running after them?'

So instead, he waited until the paper had settled on the grey tiles with an almost unperceivable rustling sound. For just a second, it felt like a déjà-vue. He took a deep breath, fought down the odd feeling and finally made a step forward to bend down and reach for the fallen object.

"Is that yours?" Polite, nonchalant. He slowly raised the hand holding the sheet, risking a peek at it. Nothing too exciting, just a bunch of lines and numbers. Besides, it was crumbled and didn't look like something important, more like an old memo. Maybe there has not even been a point in picking it up...

Raising his glance from the piece of paper, he realized that Genesis stood there like rooted to the spot, his eyes slightly widened, fixed on him in the way a rabbit might eye a snake. Odd... He decided to raise a white flag. Showing a bright smile, he suggested: "Well, if you don't need it anymore, I could..."

"Give that back!"

The three words hit him with all the force of an unexpected slap in the face, and all the iciness of a sudden blizzard. Before he even had time to react, Genesis had taken the paper back so violently that it would have been ripped in half if Alex had held on to it any tighter. But this was not what made him stop dead in his tracks. Alex had seen quite a lot of unexpected violence, and taken his fair share of undeserved abuse ever since he had joined the Shinra military. What made this situation so weird was the expression in Genesis' eyes. It was something fluid and drifting, a deep panic that already bordered temporary insanity. Alex had seen it before, but on the battlefield, when people became suddenly aware that their lives were on the line, never in such an ordinary situation. If they look like this, people are likely to overreact. In a way that equals chasing a mouse with a hand grenade. In other words: countermeasures are required. Immediately.

"Are you ok?" Decidedly, Alex tried to reach out for Genesis, but when his hand barely touched his arm, the other withdrew it immediately.

"Don't touch me!"

Still, the effort alone obviously showed some sort of effect. As if he had just been woken up from some sort of dream, the almost feverish aggression in Genesis' eyes shifted into ordinary cold annoyance.

Success. At least partly. Alex would have left it at that; but unfortunately, their little clash had not gone unnoticed.

"Why don't you two sweethearts get a room, instead of making out in public?"

Phil Harvey. Of course. Trust him to find something compromising in any situation...

"If you can't see that there's absolutely no making out involved, it's high time you got some glasses," Genesis instantly returned in an obvious 'don't mess with me, I'm not in the mood'-tone, and added in a lower, yet very audible voice: "Gosh, if that's his Mako-improved perception, he must have been virtually blind before."

At first, it seemed the confrontation was over for both of them. Harvey turned away, and Genesis put the sheet of paper back into his folder.

However, Harvey suddenly decided that he preferred to pay back in kind. As if he was mainly talking to one of his comrades, he stated clearly: "You know, it's the same with dogs. The smaller they are, the louder they bark. Annoying."

It was obviously meant as an insult, and therefore Genesis could not let it slip that easily. "I heard that," he returned, seemingly calm but with a noticeable acidic undertone.

On the spur of the moment, Alex decided to join in: "Oh, and by the way, I heard it, too."

Harvey looked from Alex to Genesis and back, first with a trace of surprise, then with barely hidden disgust. "Damn, you two make such a cute couple."

Alex stoically returned his glance without the slightest sign of annoyance. He knew that would most likely irritate Harvey the most.

Genesis, however, wasn't quite as calm. Therefore, it was only logical that Harvey chose him for his next attack. "Don't you agree, sweetheart?"

"Don't 'sweetheart' me, idiot," Genesis hissed back.

"Why so upset? Because I'm the only one who does?" He threw a triumphant glance in Alex' direction. "You should really treat your lovers a bit nicer... even if they are below your usual standard. Am I right to assume he makes up for it in different ways?" And with a sly smile, he added: "We all know how fond you are of numbers... especially those below 70."

Alex' fondness of mathematical problems and equations was an open secret in the unit. Yet this was obviously not what Harvey intended to hint on. Still... a 69 joke? Honestly? That is recruits-in-the-infantry level...

The choir of loud, insinuating laughter that instantly followed the statement didn't make the situation any better.

Genesis sighed, obviously trying hard to stay calm. "What a very grown up conversation, Harvey."

"It is, isn't it? Strictly mature content."

Most of the other SOLDIERs around started chuckling again. They are very easily amused, as usual...

Genesis narrowed his eyes slightly. "Forgive me for not laughing, but I don't consider one-dimensional puns proper entertainment…"

"Wow, impressive choice of words. By the way, Rhapsodos, what's your personal number again? Something with 68, am I right?" And without waiting for an answer, he added: "Which implied that you never got as far as 69…"

"Ok, since you obviously don't get it any other way, let me translate it into the only language you understand: Do me a favour, Harvey, and just shut the fuck up."

Genesis swearing that bluntly was a very rare event. Normally, his words were thrown like knives, hitting the opponent with a certain lightness and grace, but also extremely painful. Whenever he was using the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer, it was a clear sign that his opponent had pushed him too far.

Yet Harvey didn't want to give up yet: "Oh, that's exactly the point. Sounds like..."

But before he could finish the sentence, Genesis interrupted him: "You know, if sex is all you can think of 24/7, you have a serious problem. For the love of Gaia, either see a psychiatrist, or go get yourself laid." And with a disdainful glance at their observers, he added: "Or do you need an audience for that, too?"

The older SOLDIER had obviously not expected that. He struggled for words, and finally managed a weak: "You..."

And with a cold smirk, Genesis returned: "Oh, you wish. But in case you still haven't gotten the message, it very simple: No. Not now, not ever." Then he turned around and left Harvey standing.

The older SOLDIER looked thunderstruck, avoiding the glances of those surrounding him.

Alex decided to use the chance to deliver one final blow. "You know, Phil, if I was you, I'd reconsider my methods." With an insinuating wink in Harvey's direction, he hurried after Genesis.

"Looks like we won," he announced cheerfully as soon as he caught up.

"We? As far as I remember, you were not exactly helpful," Genesis pointed out in a less playful tone.

"Oh, I just wanted to give you a chance to get even. Our little lunchtime argument two weeks ago, remember?" And in the same, nonchalant small-talk tone, he added: "But tell me, isn't it odd to get that worked up over a piece of paper?"

"Mind your own business, will you?"

And with a suddenly very serious expression, Alex returned: "That's exactly what I'm doing."

~°oOo°~

"Por fin! I'm so out of here."

Angeal could not help but nod in honest agreement. It had been a hopelessly boring afternoon, spent somewhere downtown Midgar, in front of an unimpressive building that looked like most others around here. Guarding the Turks guarding one of Shinra's high-ranking executives, because the latter seemed to suffer from even more paranoia than usual lately. During the last hours, Angeal and his partner had exchanged only a handful of words. Neither of them really cared much for small talk, and Angeal would not have known what else to talk about. Except… but no, he was not really in the mood for that.

Obviously delighted that their shift had just ended, David Garcia sported a broad smile. "And do you know the best part? One of the drivers owes me a favour. Fancy a ride back the headquarters?"

"That would be great. Thanks, Garcia."

"De nada. And I told you already, it's David. You are one of Dean's friends, after all."

There is was after all. The topic. The name. Again. No, not again. It had always been there, somewhere, in the background. As if it was haunting him... No, 'haunting' is definitely the wrong word...

"Wait here for a second, I'll be right back."

Angeal waited until Garcia had disappeared around the corner, and then leaned against the wall. Maybe it was wrong to fight those thoughts. Maybe he should try to remember, instead of trying to forget. After all, he could not avoid that topic forever and ever. Especially not with Genesis. Angeal was still unsure of how much his current boyfriend – yes, the word felt still odd – knew about his first one. The official answer was 'nothing', yet Genesis' reaction recently as well as his own conviction told him otherwise.

The most important thing in a relationship is honesty. That, and being able to talk to each other. About everything. But how can I possibly start talking about... this? At the very beginning? With a classical 'how we met' story?

If the old saying was true, and people indeed fell in love, the closest available description was that they had been crashing into it. A controlled crash for the most part, but a crash nevertheless. And it had literally started at first sight...

While most of the other candidates still gazed at the SOLDIERs with wide eyes, not realizing that they were only a step away from becoming part of Shinra's elite force themselves, the established members of the unit pretended to pay little or no attention to their future comrades. It was an unspoken 'don't even dare to think you are important enough to get noticed'.

Angeal was torn between silent admiration and slight annoyance himself, when his eyes were suddenly drawn to one specific SOLDIER. As he would later learn, it was by far no coincident. The person he noticed instantly had the ability to stand out in every crowd, not by impressive or unusual looks, but by the way he acted. Every little gesture marked him as a natural leader, and no one could really avoid seeing that. Just a second ago, he had said something to his comrade right next to him – David Garcia - who had instantly burst into laughter. With a very satisfied smile, the SOLDIER turned his head – and their glances met.

A SOLDIER's eyes were something else by default, yet Dean's had an unusual colour even for SOLDIER standards: a very light shade of greyish blue, so light that it seemed almost colourless seen from a certain angle.

They did not exchange anything else that day, not a word, not a gesture, just this one glance. And neither on the next day, nor the second-to-next. More than a week passed without... anything really.

The first step happened unexpected – at least from Angeal's side – after an ordinary training lesson. Well, not really ordinary. Angeal had been surprised that his new Mako-improved abilities were already developed enough to allow him to take on a Second Class SOLDIER. In sword fighting. He had not won, but it had been a close call. Smiling to himself, he was completely lost in thoughts when someone suddenly addressed him.

"Not bad. Not bad at all."

He looked up at the older SOLDIER in surprise. Truth be told, he had not even heard him approaching.

"However... you could do better." A brief smile. "I could give you a few pointers, if you want."

For a moment, Angeal was too thunderstruck to react, so all he managed was an eager nod.

The smile broadened. He held out his hand: "Dean Marquez. Well, actually, it's Damián, but no one calls me that."

And finally, his ability to speak returned: "Angeal Hewley."

So it had started, innocently enough. Only training lessons, nothing else. Angeal's skills improved soon, and so did their relationship in general... he was flattered by the fact that an older SOLDIER showed interest in him, even if it was obviously just about mentoring. Or wasn't it? There was this odd feeling every time they met, as if they were carefully surrounding each other, checking each other's every move even outside of sword practice.

That one day, they had been practicing as usual. For some reason though, Angeal found it particularly hard to concentrate, and so Dean was pointing out a particular movement for the fourth time already.

"Not like this. You always stop midway, without using the full force of the blow. Let me show you..."

And before Angeal could even react, Dean had stepped up to him and taken hold of his arm. Standing right behind his mentee, he had slowly demonstrated the movement. But it was not like Angeal was taking in any of it. Close. Too close...

"See? It's that easy..."

As if drawn by some invisible force field, Angeal turned his head to look at him. For a moment, Dean just calmly returned the glance, but then... then the carefully kept distance was washed away like a wall of sand by a flood wave.

When they finally broke the kiss, it was like waking up from a trance. Reality hit hard, and sudden. For a moment, they just looked at each other, unable to put their confusion into words. The situation was nothing short of awkward. Any other person might have run out of the room, but neither Dean nor Angeal were of the dramatic kind.

Still, they hadn't seen each other for a few days after that – days in which Angeal had tried to tell himself that this meant nothing, that the kiss meant nothing, and that they were totally not avoiding each other. Then, to his surprise, Dean had waited for him right after one of his obligatory lessons. While Angeal was still trying to make up his mind what he could possibly say, Dean simply stated: "Let me buy you a drink."

After entering the small bar in sector five, they had spent their first moments sitting there in an almost unbearable silence. It was late afternoon, and the premises were virtually deserted. Then suddenly, Dean asked a question Angeal had not expected at all: "What would you say if I told you that I wanted to ask you for a date right from the start, but I didn't have the guts to do so?"

"I wouldn't believe it," Angeal returned.

"And if I swore it was true?"

"I guess I would feel flattered," he paused. "So are you saying you offered me those training lessons only because you were afraid to ask me out?" It sounded unreal, like a strange dream.

Dean rarely avoided answering a question, but he obviously decided to skip this one. "You know me by now. I always stick to the rules. They don't want you to date a fellow member of SOLDIER, so I never even considered that option. So when I suddenly felt drawn to you, I first tried to ignore those feelings, which didn't work, as we have seen recently. Of course we could both pretend that nothing happened and continue as usual, but for some reason... I don't want that. Looks like you are the first and the only person that made me seriously reconsider my own rules."

"I take that as a compliment," Angeal returned, calm as usual, despite the fact that his heart was beating twice as fast by now.

"Well, that's what you should." Dean took another sip of his drink, before he announced firmly: "Playing around is not like me either. Do it right, of don't do it all." He paused briefly. "So if I remember correctly, you said you never had a serious relationship before?"

Had they ever spoken about that? But even if not, what was the use in denying the obvious? "That's true."

"In this case: Would you like to have one?"

"Ready to go?"

Angeal had not even realized that Garcia had returned, until the other SOLDIER stood right before him. He nodded briefly, and Garcia ignored his silence with a cheerful "Andale!"

He opened the car door with the perfect gesture of a professional chauffeur, and Angeal climbed into the back seat. Garcia took the front seat right next to their driver, obviously a native from the Costa del Sol, too. The two soon started chatting in their own language, and even though Angeal understood a few words and phrases, he could not be bothered to pay attention. Instead, he leaned back and looked out of the window, where the metropolis passed, the almost uniform buildings blurring into one solid gray mass.

Not exactly what one would call 'highly romantic'. Looking back, I can't help but think it might have been a rational decision to begin with. You can't fight the desires, so accept them. Make them less inappropriate. Which in no way meant 'make them official'. Oh hell no, far from that. As proven by the fact that not even Dean's closest friends had any idea what was going on. Again, it was the rational thing to do. And if there was something this relationship had from the beginning on, it was plenty of rationality.

Does that make me sound bitter? They say that hindsight makes you smarter, but maybe that's just what you are trying to tell yourself in order to feel better. However... I'm not bitter at all. There is nothing about it I truly regret. Back then, I was 16, and I had met my first true love. It seemed like the best thing on the planet. Forget 'seemed'. It was.

Still, he had never told Genesis. As far as he could remember, that had been the first secret they had not shared, at least from his side. Often he had wondered about himself, tried to nail down what it was that kept him from confiding in his best friend. After all, a first love is a good thing, isn't it? Well, maybe something deep inside of him had been afraid it wasn't. Not from Genesis' perspective. He had always been strangely protective of Angeal, of the bond they shared. Nothing and no one was supposed to come between them. How would he react when he found out that now, someone had technically done exactly that?

It shouldn't have been easy to keep such a massive secret, but in reality, it turned out surprisingly simple. Maybe Genesis was too occupied with his own problems at that time. And it was not like they used to spend every waking moment together. That had never been the case. In addition, Angeal always told Genesis when he was going to meet Dean, often even told him what they were going to do – just without mentioning a few significant details. He kept telling himself that it was not lying. And he always felt as if Genesis could see right through him anyway. If he did though, he never pointed it out. So Angeal kept waiting. The moment Genesis asks, I'm going to tell him. But for some reason, Genesis never asked. And Angeal had no idea why...

~°oOo°~

The liquid running over his face was warm. Sickeningly warm. Almost like...

With an angry movement, Genesis broke that thought. It's just water. You turned the wrong tap by coincident, so it's warm instead of cold. What's the damn problem? He reached out for the towel, ignoring the treacherous metallic taste in his mouth.

For a moment, he buried his face in the soft fabric, inhaling the clean, sweet scent of freshly washed cotton. It was only afternoon and still he felt tired, downright exhausted. Slowly, he lowered the towel and... dropped it instantly.

No. No, that can't be.

His heart was racing, felt as if it was about to explode at any minute, yet he forced himself to bend down and pick up the towel. Holding it at arm's length, he examined it carefully. It is gone... Some part of his mind insisted he should be relieved, while another pointed out remorselessly Of course it is gone. It was never there in the first place.

Yet he had seen it clearly. Just a second ago, there had been a blood stain on the white fabric. It had been so bright, so real . Maybe it was just the light... And from the corner of his mind, a well-known voice returned icily: Yeah, sure. Keep telling yourself that.

Genesis sighed in defeat, and put down the towel next to the sink. First nightmares and now hallucinations? What is that? Some sort of war trauma? Impossible, I never had problems of that kind. Why should that have changed all of a sudden? And last but not least, weren't you expected to see large amounts of blood then?

Without being asked, the voice joined in again: Whatever this is, just get over it already. You are so close to reaching everything you ever wanted... don't ruin that now, will you?

He cast a last glance into the mirror, before he reached out for the light switch. Maybe it's nothing but a late reaction to my recent 'infirmary holiday'. After all, he hated hospitals; and apart from the battle field, this was the only place where he had been faced with blood recently. And what makes it worse is the helplessness. On a battlefield, you can at least fight back...

Returning to the main room of his apartment, he walked over to the wall covered in notes. On his desk right next to it, there was a small pile of paper, topped by a crumbled, worn piece that featured rows of numbers and lines and circles, the very lines that had been constantly on his mind for the last few days. Yesterday night, he had decided to remove it from the collage on his wall, because it was just not helping to see this manifestation of his endlessly circling thoughts. If only I could banish them from my mind that easily... Why in Gaia's name am I so convinced there is a meaning behind it all? It was just a dream... For some reason though, the paper had not ended up in the trash as intended – strange, because he could distinctly remember crumbling it in his hand and throwing it into the waste paper basket under his desk before trying to go back to sleep. Did I take it out again? When? Why? He looked at it with a small sigh. Seeing the sheet of paper in Alex' hand had almost been like seeing a ghost. I should have burned it...

Part of him wanted to laugh – as if this was a solution! – while another part pointed out with great seriousness that this might be a very suitable thing to do.

And then there was this other voice in the back of his head commenting in an acidic tone: Oh sure, go ahead... given your recent incompetence, you'll most likely singe your fingers and end up in the infirmary again.

Infirmary. Again. His mind stumbled over those words like a person trying to run through brushwood. Repetition. Hastily, he lifted the crumbled paper, trying to smooth it out with his hands. Parallel. 9 – 16 – 18. Of course...

It was a riddle indeed, but not a mathematical one. Those numbers were not parts of an equation, they represented something else. Years in my life. Years that have a parallel, because the same thing happened... with 9, I had this serious fever, with 16 this odd reaction to Mako –

Odd is a nice way of putting it, the cold voice spoke up again.

-and recently, I had this accident. It all makes sense now.

He realized that he had held his breath, and released it with a sound that came close to a sigh. His left hand slowly closed around the note, crumbling it once again. In the very same moment, he felt a sharp pain running from the palm of his hand through his arm and all the way up to his shoulder.

But it's all right. Now that I solved the riddle, now that I know it's nothing to worry about, everything is going to be ok...

Yet there was this disturbing, low voice in the back of his head insisting Are you sure you really solved it? Think again. Maybe you missed something. Maybe there was something else. Why don't you try a bit harder to remember?

~°oOo°~

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

Sephiroth looked up from the file he was studying. The blonde SOLDIER stood daringly close to his desk, yet not close to be blatantly impolite. If he remembered correctly, Griffin had stood in exactly the same spot during their last conversation. His glance was calm and open, yet Sephiroth was unsure whether it was just polite interest or eager expectation. If it was the latter, he would have to crush it.

He decided to come straight to the point. "You might be aware of the fact that I am in no way obliged to inform you about any ongoing investigations."

"Of course, sir."

"Yet I appreciate the effort you made in this... matter we discussed a few days ago. Therefore, I decided to ignore the protocol for once." Sephiroth registered the slight tension, fingers that twitched, but did not turn into a fist. "I would like to inform you that I have decided not to investigate any further."

The tension became more obvious for just a heartbeat, and then vanished all together. Nothing in the SOLDIER's glance changed in the slightest though, his expression was still nonchalant, calm like the even surface of a lake on a hot summer day.

Sephiroth had to admit to himself that he had expected some sort of reaction, and was now uncertain how to take the complete lack of it. He turned back to his file, but could not concentrate on the content. The whole situation was highly unsatisfying. Even though the other had not asked for it, he felt the need to explain himself: "I don't have much time as it is. So why should I waste it with work the MIC gets paid for?" It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, yet to his surprise, he got a reply to it.

"Because it would be in your own interest not to rely on unreliable personnel in a matter that might concern you."

Was there a hint of reproach? Or even of concern? Concern about me, of all people? Who does he think he is? Sephiroth raised his eyes at once, a cold gleaming indicating that the other SOLDIER had just overstepped a line.

As if he was aware of that, Griffin lowered his glance in the very same moment. "Forgive me; I am not entitled to force my opinion on you in such a blatant way. I sincerely apologize."

Does he really mean that? Griffin's downcast eyes could indeed indicate repentance and submission, but it was hard to tell.

"Accepted. For once. You should choose your words more wisely next time," Sephiroth returned curtly.

"Of course, sir." Yet he remained standing. Again.

"Your services are no longer needed, SOLDIER."

Griffin's eyes met his once more. They were cold and opaque now, absolutely unreadable. Sephiroth halfway expected him to voice some sort of protest, or to try and continue their conversation, but instead, the SOLDIER saluted briefly and then turned towards the door. Every step he took was carefully measured, swift yet not hasty. This was not a flight, it was a tactical retreat.

Sephiroth continued to stare at the closed door for a moment as if he was able to see right through it, trying to evaluate what to make out of this. He came to the conclusion that it did not deserve his immediate attention. With the possible military crisis to consider, there were more threatening problems at hand than one SOLDIER's too obvious interest in classified information. Just when he had turned back to his file – the latest field report from the troops currently stationed in Wutai – a sound informed him that he had received a message. With slight annoyance, he turned to the computer to check his inbox. When he tried to open the message, another screen popped up, asking him for his identification and clearance code. He knew immediately what this was about, and his annoyance vanished in an instant.

After he entered the requested data, another screen informed him that he had exactly 3 minutes to read the information, that he could not print it and was not allowed to share it with anyone. After he confirmed, a green progress bar appeared for a few seconds, and then the screen went dark.

"Just for the sake of it, let me make a prediction: the code you'll find when looking into that matter starts with 04 303."

Faint green letters appeared. Taylor, Levery. Negative internal records: 2 Two lines of numbers followed, but it was the second code that caught his attention immediately. 04 303 22 1.

Sephiroth stared at the numbers until the timer ran out and the screen went black again.

~°oOo°~

After he closed the door behind him, the expression on Alexander Griffin's face changed drastically. The polite smile he had kept up a minute longer just in case he would run into anyone literally melted away after he had noticed the empty hallway. It was replaced first by serious frown, and then by narrowed eyes and an expression of intense concentration. Damn. I was so close…

His phone interrupted those thought. The frown deepened when he saw that there was no number shown on the display. He waited another second, checking that the hallway was still empty, before he moved into a corner and answered the call.

"Looks like your usual luck has left you."

"Who is this?" Alex countered coldly.

"Believe me, my name adds nothing to that conversation, so you don't need to know."

"For me personally, it adds a lot to every conversation to know who I'm dealing with…" Still casual, unimpressed.

"Ok, let's just say we have a mutual friend who told me you were after a certain piece of information. By sheer coincidence, I can provide this information, but only in exchange for something I can use for my own incomplete puzzle."

Alex settled for a bitter laugh. "Tell me something I don't already know. However, since we are now talking in person anyway, I'd prefer a few more details regarding your 'incomplete puzzle'."

"Sadly enough, this is not about personal preferences."

"Then why are you calling me at all?"

"I wanted to remind you of the fact that your current pace is unusually slow. Much too slow, to be precise. Ever considered to try… speeding things up a bit?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" A trace of impatience started to seep through Alex' words. He hated being played, hated it more than anything else.

"Maybe a slightly more physical approach would help. I heard you were pretty good at that back in those days…"

Even though Alex couldn't believe what he was hearing, his voice was steady as ever, giving away none of the infuriating anger he felt. "Oh, does that mean we have met before?"

"Oh no, I never had the 'pleasure'." Biting, taunting, yet with an obvious element of amusement. The caller, whoever he was, surely enjoyed this.

"Well, your loss, not mine." Without another word, Alex hung up. Most likely this was what the person on the other end had least expected. A faint smile appeared on his lips. Combined with cold sparkle of his eyes, one could not help but label it scary. Enjoy your triumph while you can… it won't last long, I'm afraid.

In this very moment, Alexander Griffin made a decision.

'He will conquer who has learnt the artifice of deviation. Such is the art of manoeuvring. Therefore, let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.'