Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy 7.

"Boy, is this place ever in the boonies," Zack mused, looking out from the back of the transport. "Reminds me of Gongaga, but colder."

Angeal looked up from the reports to glance at his protégé, Zack Fair, SOLDIER 2nd Class, as he hung half-in, half-out of the truck, trying to take in all the scenery at once.

"Zack, be careful."

The warning came automatically to Angeal's lips, even though he had given it a hundred times before. Zack looked back at his mentor with a cheerful grin. "Don't worry, Angeal! Heroes never fall!"

Angeal humph-ed. Zack came over and hunkered down next to Angeal. "Say, tell me about this mission. Why are we going to Nibelheim again?"

"According to these reports from Hojo's lab, there have been reports of a strong energy signature and new species of monsters in the area." Angeal perused the reports. "The monsters are harassing the villagers. The energy signature might be Mako contamination or the formation of some new Materia. Our orders are to investigate the source of the energy signature and eliminate the monsters."

Zack huffed and stood. "In other words, easy stuff. Just when I thought we were going to do something interesting!"

"Zack, focus."

"Yes, Dad."

"We're so glad that you've come," Trent Lockhart had stated, as he shook hands with Angeal in his living room. Zack looked around, feeling out of place in the daintily appointed living room. Although it was noon, the town square was deserted and the one hotel locked and barred. All the houses had their curtains drawn though the fabric shifted as they walked through the town square as though moved by the breath of furtive ghosts.

"What's the situation?" Angeal had asked after pleasantries had been exchanged, even though he already knew most of it.

"The animals that've been appearing near the reactor are unlike anything that anyone's in the village ever seen. Move faster than our mountain cats. Fangs and claws like knives and skin like armour. We've managed to take one of the creatures down but we lost three men to such creatures. Guns and bullets only slow the creatures down. We, er, only got it cos the last man, Miguel, managed to get his knife into its throat while it was chewing off his arm. We've got it out back if you want to see it..."

Angeal had wanted to see it. Now, they stood in the backyard looking at the creature that Mr Lockhart had uncovered from under a heavy black plastic sheet. Zack whistled under his breath when he saw it. It had to be taller than Angeal! Dried green ichor crusted the slashes that marked its sinewy-muscled, scaly, armour-like hide and the hideous gash at its throat that went through it, from back to front. Its form was bipedal, humanoid, with scalpel-like claws; its skin mottled red and green. Its face was nothing human though, more reptilian, lizard-like, with one gouged out eye and the other slit yellow and a mouth full of shark-like teeth, frozen in a bloody snarl in a rictus of death.

Mr Lockhart broke the silence, worry making his voice crack. "They've been sighted around the reactor and they're moving down the mountain. It's getting such that we're afraid they'll come down to the village in the middle of the night and ..." he trailed off.

"I understand," Angeal said, with quiet confidence. "We'll move out right now." Mr Lockhart couldn't disguise his relief.

"According to my reports, it's a four day hike to reach the reactor," Angeal continued, "we'll need a guide."

Mr Lockhart turned pale and cleared his throat.

Odd, thought Zack.

"I apologize, but we don't have any guides now. I'll draw you a map..." Mr Lockhart was saying when a petite girl walked into the yard.

"I could lead them, Papa!"

"Tifa! Get back to your room!" Mr Lockhart's voice was hoarse with worry.

"I was the one who killed the monster, not Miguel! Why won't you believe me?" she cried.

"Stop talking nonsense, Tifa! There's no way you could've killed that thing! Now stop wasting our time and get back to your room!"

Zack was inclined to believe Mr Lockhart's words. The girl, Tifa, though athletic, was too slim, too slight and (in Zack's self-admittedly chauvinistic point of view), too pretty to have taken the monster down, though, she was no fragile flower like Aerith. Dressed in a white tank top, brown hiking shorts, hiking boots and with a cow-boy hat perched on her head, with perfectly tanned skin, she looked the part of guide, not fighter. Straight black hair fell to just below her shoulders and wine-coloured eyes gazed at her father in part defiance, part appeal as she matched wills with him. Zack assessed her stance; she was trying hard to show respect for her father, yet wanting his recognition of her ability.

Her eyes suddenly widened and she ducked and dodged three simultaneously thrown rocks, all of which embedded themselves a foot deep into the ground. The fourth and fifth, she blocked with resounding smacks with gloved hands, else they would have plowed straight into Mr Lockhart. Letting the rocks drop from her hands to come up into a fighting stance, crimson eyes snapping sparks, Tifa yelled at Angeal, "Are you trying to kill my father?"

"Just seeing if you can take care of yourself," Angeal quietly said, dusting off his hands. He turned to Mr Lockhart. "We need a guide, you need the monsters gone and your daughter can take care of herself. We will look out for her as well, of course. With your permission, we will set out within the hour."

He turned from the deflated Mr Lockhart to Tifa, who was still fuming. "Your reflexes are good. Did you receive any training?"

"I was trained by Zangan," she stated.

"Zangan? Zangan-ryu?" Angeal paused as Tifa nodded, his eyebrows rising. "I guess that makes me and him," he indicated Zack, who was watching with his hands behind his head, "your seniors."

She looked from Angeal to Zack, who grinned and waved. "Please take care of me."

A/N: Hope you enjoyed it.