AN: THIS IS NOT CHAPTER SIX. Please read the following.

To be honest, I am actually quite surprised about the reception of the last chapter. I was expecting quite a few complaints about having Cloud fake cry to manipulate Aerith. Instead, the reviews were mostly positive—with the exception of one or two that complained about the lack of explanation for the tropes (which was a mistake and has since been edited into the previous chapter) and for some strange reason, the inclusion of Dissidia, as though chapter 4 didn't announce months ahead of time that it was going to be involved—however briefly.

All the same, I had a perfectly good alternate version made as a backup just in case things went horribly wrong with the original. And while a couple of complaints and one review comprising almost entirely of insults are hardly enough to warrant a full reaction to, it just seems a shame to let this version sit on my computer and gather dust. Simply because I liked the idea and wanted to give the chance to see what you as the readers think and how you would prefer Cloud to act.

Some of the wording is the same. A lot of what actually happens is quite different. Yes, tropes are still used, but different ones, to a very different effect, and explanations are included at the bottom of the story. This change results in a drastically different method Cloud uses to get his way—somewhat more serious and outright logically manipulative instead of being emotionally manipulative while pretending to be weak. Yes, Dissidia is still involved and it still starts off with a flashback, only more centralized on Cloud and Zidane—mainly because I think they could both make for some amazing Magnificent Bastards if they really tried. The end bit with Mog and Eddie is the same, though. Yes, it is necessary.

So thus, here is Chapter 5: Alternate Version, and maybe the one I'll follow depending on what you all think. Truth be told, the way this is going, either chapter could work. But lets see which one goes better...


It has recently come to my attention through use of TV tropes that by making Cloud try to have fun like a normal person instead of needlessly wangsting like an emo when given a second chance to change the past, I've possibly made him more in character than most time travel fanfics have so far.

For that, I apologize. This will be corrected immediately.

By going to the OTHER extreme.

Where It All Started Going Wrong

Do not be fooled by their innocent appearance. Chocobos are deceptive and manipulative creatures. Their wings belie their inability to fly for most of their species. Their seemingly cute appearance hides the danger they can be for the unwary. They have the capacity to gain amazing abilities for travel and/or fighting—depending on what world they're from—if people go through the time and effort to allow them to do so. And given that these abilities are needed to attain some of the best weapons and resources, many would never think to question if they shouldn't.

The truth is that this is exactly what the Chocobos want...

Truth be told, it was all Zidane's fault. And Luneth's. But mostly Zidane's.

To properly explain this, we would need to involve a brief flashback. Please bear with us, as your screen will return to normal color and non-grainy vision momentarily.

During the fight against Chaos and his warriors in the land of Dissidia, there were many points when the group would split up. The reasons usually differed—whether to cover more ground, get to their destination without gaining too much attention, or to separate certain members that kept butting heads before any of them lost it and slaughtered the rest...

So this time, Luneth suggested that they all split up again, but that they should try travelling with different members to foster unity. It seemed like a good idea, except that once the groups had been decided, somehow the arrogant little smart-mouth had still ended up in a group with the mystic girl, Terra, who he had been constantly paired with every time so far. Cloud thought he should mention this, but the others had already started going their separate ways, so there was little point in arguing.

And that's how Cloud found himself paired with the short, tailed fighter for a traveling buddy. Granted, he and Zidane had never really spent much time around each other, so he didn't know much about the thief. But given that he had a tendency to get into trouble, Cloud was really just hoping they could just make it through the trip without incident. This meant having as little interaction as possible. And maybe it would have worked, except that Zidane had become bored. And in his boredom, he was giving Cloud a strange, calculating look that the blond swordsman simply couldn't ignore.

He had grown paranoid over his original adventure—with good reason—and had long been able to tell when someone was looking at him with any sort of interest. It was useful for warning when he was being followed or when there were any traps waiting. In this case, however, it just meant that he would inevitably be forced to address the other hero.

Might as well not put it off any longer than he had to. Cloud sighed and finally looked at the other. "What is it?"

Now it should be noted that Zidane was more aware of certain things than his cohorts. These things went along the lines of storylines, characterization, and near fourth wall-breaking capabilities. After all, Zidane was genre-savvy enough to recognize when a plot was thrown his way in the form of a rebellious princess, and that he was the obligatory hero character supposed to rescue her...three times over. He was rather dedicated to his role like that.

Maybe this was a result of his years of working as an actor with Tantalus. Or, given Kuja's flair for the dramatic and his almost disturbing tendency to quote stage productions in just about any situation, it could be a family thing. One would think it would be a 'genome' thing if it weren't for the fact that a good majority—read: nearly all—of the other genomes had no acting ability to speak of, if only because they weren't actually trying and didn't know anything about...well...anything.

Whatever the case may be, it was at this time that Zidane, despite being the most knowledgeable of all the warriors when it came to theatrics and plot, foolishly did the one thing no one should ever do in fanfiction. EVER.

He openly invoked knowledge of the tropes.

"You know what? You would make an amazing magnificent bastard!" Zidane said with a grin.

Forgive him, dear readers. He knows not what he has unleashed.

No, wait. He probably does. That's likely why he did it.

Cloud blinked. This was...unexpected. "A what now?"

"A magnificent bastard! Every world has one. He's the guy who has his own agenda—good or evil, though usually evil—and is a master of manipulating others to achieve his own ends. He's so brilliant and devious that it's almost mind-boggling! He's charismatic and a smooth operator, always knowing what to say or do to get people where he wants them, always has a plan and backup plan, and never loses his cool. It'll seem like he's almost omniscient at times. Annoyingly so."

That sounded familiar, but Cloud dismissed the thought. Zidane wasn't just a thief, but an actor, and was likely seeing plots and storylines were there were none.

"You're probably the one person no one would ever see it coming from." Zidane continued, looking thoughtful for a moment before saying more quietly. "Other than Terra."

Right. Like the innocent little amnesiac girl of the group could ever be so all-controlling. Cloud rolled his eyes, turning away. "That would never work."

"Why not? Sephiroth's done it."

That froze him in his tracks. Sephiroth. The bane of his existence. That one monster of his nightmares that would never go away. Sure, Cloud has killed him before and stopped his plans time and time again, but it felt like half the time he was only being played further. Even the first time he killed him inside of the reactor, he had only inadvertently helped Sephiroth get what he wanted. All he had succeeded in doing at that time was making himself the target of the madman's anger at being beaten by a kid. Oh, and set himself and Zack up for four years of horrible torture and experimentation. But you know...details.

"How would you know?" Cloud stated, trying to dismiss the conversation altogether.

"Because Kuja is my villain, and he was the exact same way. He manipulated a Queen, started a world war, held my friends captive to force me to get him an artifact he couldn't get himself, regularly tricked people into doing his bidding, and eventually destroyed a world and got revenge on his creator." Zidane shrugged. "I can recognize some of those same characteristics in Sephiroth. Besides, Sephiroth WAS the one who orchestrated just about everything that went wrong in your world, wasn't he?"

THAT was certainly true. Every step of his adventure, he was being watched and manipulated. Killing Sephiroth and giving him complete access to the lifestream, handing over the Black Materia, and even letting the monster kill Aerith. Even when he thought he understood everything that was going on, it turned out that he had some lost or missing key details, and all of his attempts to fight the ex-General and discover the truth only resulted in his own nervous breakdown.

Which was...likely what Sephiroth was going for to begin with.

It all suddenly clicked. So THAT'S what Zidane meant. "That...bastard!"

"Exactly!" Zidane said with a nod. "But look on the bright side. Sooner or later you may find yourself in a position where you can return the favor and actually get one over on him. Like if you happened to somehow find yourself taken back in time for whatever reason."

That didn't seem likely, but Cloud couldn't help himself now. He was curious, so he turned back to the shorter boy, eyebrow raised. "How can you be so sure?" Cloud asked uncertainly. The thief DID have a tendency to exaggerate things.

"Hey, I know about these things!" Zidane insisted. And maybe it was true. He was incredibly genre-savvy like that.

So the rest of their travel to the destination point was spent teaching Cloud about plots, tropes, and the finer arts of being manipulative and getting away with it. And though he had initially believed the trip would be a waste, Cloud found himself listening to him. The genome may have been a bit of a flirt, but he definitely knew what he was talking about. In this case, at least. And despite everything he had initially thought, Cloud took the lesson to memory.

"You certainly know a lot about this."

"I'm a thief, it's expected of me."

And that's how Cloud learned to be genre-savvy. And gained his "screw the Plan" attitude.

We now return you to your present storyline. Please remain seated until all color returns to your screen. And be warned that anyone quoting lyrics from the Rocky Horror Picture Show during our return to normal time will be hunted down and shot.


He froze in the middle of loading the cart. He knew that voice. It was the one thing he could never forget about her. It was the kind, gentle voice that helped to guide him on his journey. And after her death, it was the voice he heard in his mind giving him hope. Even though she was part of the lifestream, it still felt as though she were right there with him, still trying to help and support him as much as she could. She was even there for him when the rest of his still-living friends decided to stage an intervention and make him go to therapy.

Apparently they were "concerned" about some of the things he'd been trying to tell them.

Seriously? Talking to dead people? An ongoing war between gods of order and chaos? Kids destroying heart-stealing monsters with oversized keys? Sephiroth coming back to try and destroy the world a third time? Why, that's just silly as far as they were concerned! Now slip into this oversized jacket with the straps and go with the nice men in white coats, okay?

And that was why Cloud made a point of not talking to his friends. At least not until Sephiroth DID come back to try and destroy the world a third time, but that was really only because he didn't want to miss the chance to say, "I told you so".

And to kill Sephiroth. Because there was just something about offing the silver-haired psychotic mamma's boy that never got old.

Noooooo, Cloud isn't vindictive at all, why do you ask?


Sure enough, when he finally managed to bring himself to turn around, it was the familiar form of the demure flower girl that greeted him. She was a bit younger than he last remembered seeing her, and she wore a plain white sundress instead of the pink one he was used to seeing her in. She was also missing that keepsake ribbon he'd never seen her without. She seemed more shy and nervous than he remembered her, though, but it was clear that she recognized him. She knew his name and appearance before they technically ever met, and the look she gave him was like greeting an old friend. She knew him. She knew who he was.

Honestly, he was actually kind of surprised. After waking up and finding himself in the past, he hadn't considered that anyone else might have been sent back as well. Or maybe it was more that he'd been hoping no one else had been sent back with him. He actually kind of liked the solitude. And being able to simply relax and complete various mundane side quests without having to worry about preventing the world from ending along the way.

Not that any such thing stopped him in the previous adventure, but y'know...details.

Behold, the almighty side quest. The world may be in danger of being destroyed within a few days, but there will always be just enough time to race, prep, and breed giant birds capable of getting to all the secret areas of the world.

Still, this didn't change the fact that no other visitors from the future meant no one pressuring him to do anything crazy that would likely result in severe injury to himself. Like signing up for Shinra infantry and becoming a meatshield again. Or going into the SOLDIER program now that he KNOWS what they do. Or having to try and dodge questioning and suspicion from the Turks. Or just doing anything that could conceivably result in him ending up anywhere near Sephiroth. Like HELL was HE going to be the one to try and show the stoic man that there is more to life than fighting, being experimented on, his mommy issues, and attempting to destroy the world in order to become a God.

But now, Aerith was here...this certainly changed things.

By this time, the higher power with the "Plan" was patting itself on the back at the brilliance of its idea to use Aerith as a backup plan.

She was cute, seemingly innocent, and completely inconspicuous! Who would ever expect the homely girl in pink to be the last line of defense for the world? Or even the key to unleashing the ultimate secret weapon against the other secret weapon that would try to destroy the world? And now that they were in the past—pre-stabby death—Cloud's memory and guilt over her unavoidable demise made her the best secret weapon to kick start his hero complex and get him into world-saving mode again.

But what said higher power failed to realize was that this Cloud was not the regular angsty redeemer version normally sent back in time to get a second chance at saving the world and doing things "right". Oooooh, no, that would actually be making it easy on them. You see, THIS Cloud is one who has long gotten used to the mechanizations of such higher powers—to the point that he has actually come to understand them and their plans—just enough to learn how to pre-empt them. And what this particular higher power did not plan on was that Cloud himself had a secret weapon as well. One even more dangerous than Aerith could ever hope to be.

For you see, dear readers, Cloud Strife had long since attained the secret knowledge of how the world works. Or at least how stories like this one work, thus mastering the art of being genre savvy. Perhaps not dangerously so, given that "dangerously genre savvy" mainly applies to villains—namely those who have the common sense to avoid the common pitfalls of typical villainy. And Cloud was certainly not a villain—though that may be debatable depending on your stance regarding the whole "giving fate the finger and leaving the world to its own devices when he could very easily save it" plotline of this story. At least he wasn't outright evil, though. Who knows where the plotline would go if Cloud decided to become a full fledged villain for his second chance at having fun instead of simply screwing around?

Actually, that would be kind of interesting...but not where this plotline is headed.

But while Cloud is not outright evil, he is leaning more towards neutral, and is fully intent on retaining that neutrality. Even in the face of pissy higher powers. And since he IS facing such easily agitated forces of fate itself, he's going to need every edge he can get.

And thanks to Zidane in the aforementioned flashback at the beginning of this chapter, Cloud now had that edge. What's more, because of the events of said flashback, he also knew how to effectively USE that edge to get what he wants.

But in order to do so, he would have to become the thing he hated...

Then again, he was already the equivalent of a Soldier, technically a Sephiroth clone, and had been a puppet to the big bad on more than one occasion. At least giving deviousness and manipulation a try would be more fun.

And that is why what follows can be attributed to Zidane.

Cloud fully turned to face the flower girl, not quite sure just how he should react. Noticing his sudden change of focus, the Chocobo tied to the cart likewise turned as much as it was allowed to in order to better focus on the object of the blond's attention. It tilted its head questioningly, but otherwise did nothing else, seeming content to wait on the duo for further action. If anything, it almost appeared to be listening to the two speak in the conversation to come.

...Which is silly, of course, as it's not like a regular old Chocobo can actually understand what they're saying...

...As far as YOU know...

But as Cloud's focus was on Aerith, he seemed not to notice the reaction of his feathered companion. Instead, he was trying to figure out just what to say to the not-dead version of the girl he had known and possibly went on a date with depending on how you played the game. It took him a few moments and a deep breath before he finally managed to respond.

"You remember?"

She nodded, a bit uncertain. "It comes in bits and pieces, but I remember enough. The lifestream has been helping me to understand what has happened."

That made sense, he thought with a nod. She WAS the last of the Cetra and thus tied to the Planet. If it HAD sent him back in time, odds were that it would let the only person who could hear it know what was going on. So now that Aerith knew about the horrible, horrible future and their respective roles in the mess, this could either be a good thing or a very, very bad thing.

But maybe it would be best to act before Aerith revealed which one it was. Especially as he had the feeling it was leaning towards "bad thing".

"Oh!" Cloud started with a smile. "So you know everything then?"

"Well, not everything." She said, frowning a little nervously. "I know about Sephiroth's connection to Jenova and how finding out the truth made him go insane and try to destroy the world."

"Ah, I see." He hummed for a moment to himself, thinking it over. Now, he COULD take the gentle route and explain his reasons, which would take time and a lot of convincing at the risk of being persuaded into what he didn't want to do himself. Aerith was a good person who wanted to save the world, and lets face it, Cloud was pretty much leaving the world to survive or perish on its own without him when he was fully capable of saving it. He was being selfish, he would fully admit it. But it seemed as though Aerith was missing a few key details, and he also had the MUCH more interesting option of sharing those details with her.

"So wait, then do you know about your boyfriend?"

She her eyes widened in astonishment. "Boyfriend? I had a...? I didn't know. I...wasn't told that much yet."

Cloud blinked. "You weren't told about him?" His surprise grew as she shook her head, not really sure what he was talking about.

Well, this came as a shock. Cloud hadn't known about Aerith till he met her the first time, so he never knew just when she and Zack had met. But it would seem that he hasn't fallen through the roof of her church yet in this timeline. What's more, whatever higher powers were involved here didn't tell her about him.

Forget what he thought before. This could be a good thing, after all.

"Well, I guess it's already obvious, but you had a boyfriend." He said with a sheepish smile, causing her to relax slightly. "I don't know much about what you two did together since I didn't know about you until just before Sephiroth started his second rampage. He was a Soldier and he kind of scared you at first from what you told me. But he was nice—told you about the sky and other things. He..." Cloud wracked his brain, trying to remember. "He does have a tendency for grand entrances. He fell through the roof of the church and landed on your flowers. It was an accident, but still, that's how you first met." He grinned more as Aerith started to smile. "He got you a ribbon, built you a flower wagon, and protected you from rogue robots."

Wait a minute—Cloud wasn't there for any of those events. Where did all THAT information come from?

Oh, right. The integration of skills and memories of the dying best friend into his persona to retain his sanity after loss of said best friend.

Dammit, memory/spirit Zack...

"He sounds nice."

Cloud nodded. "He was. In his own way." A little TOO nice at times, given the heroic last stand and all. He shook his head, getting back on track. "But still, you didn't know anything about him?"

Aerith frowned, creasing her forehead in concentration as she tried to remember...something before sighing sadly. "No. I remember Sephiroth everything else..." She was growing increasingly anxious and becoming a bit defensive. "I remember the important things."

"So did they say how to keep you from dying? Because that's kind of important and I was hoping to avoid that this time around."

Aerith froze.


Ooh, this was awkward. Cloud blinked. " in the future. Didn't they tell you?"

"No. No, they did not." Aerith deadpanned.

"Oh." He paused for a moment, seeming uncomfortable. After what seemed like a minute of silence, though, it was Aerith who took the initiative.

"How did I...die?"

"Well, you were praying to try and summon the ultimate spell, Holy, in order to stop Meteor when Sephiroth showed up and stabbed you." He explained.

"Oh. Did it work?" If anything, Aerith seemed to calm a bit at that. If she had died trying to save the world, then at least her sacrifice wouldn't have been in vain.

"No, not really."

And that killed that hope.

Sure, the world had been saved and he had every belief that Aerith had helped them from the lifestream to use the planet's own energy to stop Meteor, but Holy itself hadn't done much good in the end, and that was what she had died for. And honestly, if all it took was having someone dead directing the lifestream, then why didn't one of the many, many, many OTHER dead Ancients do it? Like Aerith's mom? Or was Aerith supposed to become the equivalent of a Goddess when she died?

...Oh, crap. He'd better say something before anyone else picks up on that thought and actually considers it.

Noting the stricken look on the flower girl's face, Cloud frowned, a bit concerned. "Did they tell you about how to keep your boyfriend from dying?"

"...They...didn't mention that, either." Aerith was looking more disturbed now.

"Oh." Another pause. "So, what did they tell you?"

"They told me about the threats from Sephiroth, Jenova, and Meteor. Plus they talked about you a lot and how you're not doing anything to stop those threats." Okay, so for a person who had just heard that she died in the future, she was taking this rather well. Or at least annoying well enough to avoid getting off track from the reason she's supposed to be talking to him.

"Yes," Cloud mused. "Well, if they wanted the world to be saved, maybe they should have left it at the time it had already been saved. Besides, their idea of stopping the threat involves a lot of pain and effort on my part."

"But you're the only one who can do it!" She seemed so certain of this. It was the one thing the voices in the lifestream and her snippets of future memory had assured her of. "You saved the world multiple times! And out of everyone, it was YOU who stopped Sephiroth that first time! No Mako. No enhancements. Just YOU. A regular infantryman managed to defeat the supposed unbeatable General."

Yes, everyone knows that's how it turned out, but honestly, put in the perspective of the time it occurred, it was pretty impressive that a lone infantryman managed to "kill"—relatively speaking—the Silver-Haired Demon when a Soldier First Class couldn't even stop his murder spree. When even the two top Soldier Firsts had to team up just to give him a decent spar. And yet it was little normal Cloud who managed to take him out...sure, he had the element of surprise and a big-ass sword that he probably shouldn't have been able to lift at all...but plenty other opponents had similar advantages and yet the "Nibelheim Incident" marked the first time in history that anything managed to work.

But history and actual experience are two completely different things. And Cloud had no interest in repeating history.

"Exactly! I was a regular infantryman. I had no skills, no training, and no enhancements. I was a regular non-physical fighter who knew nothing about using a blade. Plus, I stabbed him in the back while he was busy ranting and completely focused on Jenova. If I managed to stop him with a buster sword and the element of surprise, then why couldn't anyone else?"

It was a very excellent point. And no, saying that Cloud was "special" would NOT work here.

"He was full-out crazy." Cloud continued by way of explanation. "He was the best swordsman out there as the General, but when he lost it, he stopped thinking strategy and just focused on torching and maiming whatever was around till things stopped moving. He only directly killed anyone who he happened to come across in the village, but completely ignored me while I was helping people. Then there was Tifa and her teacher, Zangan. They were fully capable fighters, and he didn't take notice of them either until Tifa tried to attack him head on. The only one he really bothered to be aware of was Zack, who WAS a Soldier and capable of actually holding his own in a full-on fight. That's because Sephiroth had a god complex and as far as he was concerned, the rest of us were simple, lowly humans incapable of harming him. He didn't register us as threats, he wasn't paying attention to his surroundings, and I happened to be the only one who chose to attack when he was distracted with seeing his 'Mommy' and his guard was down."

Cloud was actually starting to like this explanation. Mostly because it meant he wouldn't have to do anything. "So really, anyone could have stopped him."

Aerith frowned, thinking it over. "But who else would do it?"

"Did the higher powers mention AVALANCHE? Barret or Cid? Red? How about Vincent? He's a human WEAPON, after all, and I've SEEN the damage he can do. Did they mention anything about how well they all did on the Shinra-fighting and world-saving front without me while I was in a Mako coma?"


Another, longer pause.

"They're...not telling you much, are they?"

Aerith's eye twitched, annoyed now. "Apparently not as much as they should." And more than she needed to know in some ways. Why Ancient seduction techniques deserved a lecture while her own DEATH wasn't worth commenting on, she honestly wanted to know.

Cloud smiled. "Would you like me to fill you in?"

She looked like she wanted to say yes, but there were still other concerns that worried her more. "But...what about Meteor? Rock falls, everyone dies. Did you forget about that?"

Of course he didn't. Not for lack of trying, though. Most people would experience some form of trauma over the end of the world. In his case, with that AND the destruction of his home town AND the years of horrible experimentation AND the death of his best was just too much trouble to suppress it all—usually because something ELSE would happen the instant he made any headway in that endeavor. It was like even attempting healthy progression in his life painted a giant bullseye on his back saying "traumatized hero attempting to forget trauma and actually be happy, come traumatize me more!"

Damn Advent Children. Damn Dissidia and Kingdom Hearts. Damn fanfic authors.

But all the same, Cloud was of the belief that things would work out just as well even if he doesn't get involved. Okay, so he really only WANTED to believe it would all work out without him. It's not like his NOT going into Shinra would irrevocably change things so that the threat to the world would become so unstoppable that the world would be doomed without him, right?

...Okay, so it totally would. Shut up.

"Is the world really THAT dependent on me joining Shinra? If you think about it, that's really where things started going wrong. That was kind of how I ended up captured and experimented on for four years, your boyfriend ended up dying, and you ended up sacrificing yourself on a gambit that didn't actually work." Not the way it was supposed to, anyway. "Do you REALLY want to test and see if things will work out better for everyone by doing the exact same thing we tried the first time?"

Now Aerith was looking thoughtful. And perhaps just the slightest bit vindictive. Cloud honestly couldn't be sure, as he had never seen a vindictive Aerith before, and it was slightly disconcerting. Part of him was starting to wonder if he should be worried. "You know, that DOES seem like a bad idea."

The other part was too pleased to really care. Hurray for vindictive Aerith!

"Exactly!" He nodded, jumping on any bit of leeway she was willing to give him on this. "And if you think about it, a good number of the bad things that happened wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been there for them to happen to. So really, I'm actually doing the world a favor by staying out of things."

No, he didn't actually believe this. Not originally. He just wanted to be left alone and figured that things would find a way of working out without him...or the world would be destroyed. Either or. But at least he'd have a few years of peace either way. So at this point, he was using any bit of logic and reasoning he could to win over Aerith so she would let him be. In this case, it meant convincing her that his NOT trying to save the world would actually be what's best for the world.

Cloud knew Aerith. Or at least knew how she would be in the future. She was the last of the Cetra, tied to the planet. If it was in danger, she would do what she could to help it. So he figured that if anyone were to try to convince him to "do the right thing", it would be her, and that she would be a difficult person to persuade that he should stay out of it. Yet despite everything, it looked like she was actually starting to consider it! Maybe finding out about her future death had helped? Or how much the higher powers weren't telling her. Nobody really liked it when the higher powers neglected to mention important facts while expecting compliance from them. True, Cloud hadn't expected that bit of fortune, but given that this was still young Aerith, it stood to reason that she wouldn't be too eager for her imminent demise either way. She wasn't completely on board yet, but at least she wasn't completely against his current goal, either.

"But...what about Shinra?" Aerith asked him, still just a bit hesitant. "They're still ruining the planet and responsible for most of what happens. Shouldn't you...well...stop them?"

Easy for her to say. SHE never had to stay at the cadet dorms. A tent in the wilderness is preferable to THAT place. And he would say trying to eat a Malboro would be better than the food there if it weren't for the fact that they actually had tried to serve one as a meal by mistake once before.

He shuddered. Nope, too many horrible, traumatic memories. He had a hard enough time trying to suppress those enough to be a functional human being, like HELL was he going to actually relive any of it.

Though to be fair, she certainly didn't have an easy time of it, either. Her mother died to get her out of Shinra and away from Hojo's clutches, and even now, she was constantly being monitored by Turks. Oh sure, they acted friendly and seemed to be looking out for her, but the instant they received the order to bring her in, they wouldn't even hesitate. Maybe it wasn't ALL an act. Tseng seemed to genuinely like her. Still didn't stop him from handing her off to the freaky mad scientist in the previous lifetime, though. Or trying to hunt down one of his own friends that he knowingly allowed to be made into an experiment once that friend tried to bust out of said experiment after four years of torture. Freaking tool.

Wait—where was he? Oh, right. Shinra and avoiding them.

"They still have Wutai to deal with. And AVALANCHE was around long before I ever joined them." Though now that he thought about it, he seemed to recall fighting against them at one point while he'd been working for Shinra. "I think I even stopped one of their missions as an infantryman. So this time they might do more damage to Shinra. " Sure, lets go with that. "And you REALLY want to try having anything to do with them again?"

The disgusted look on Aerith's face answered that question quickly enough.

'Wow. This whole manipulating people thing towards a greater plan is actually easy! And kind of fun...'

What? Please don't give us any dirty looks about this. The guy is wearing green overalls and an oversized straw hat. Nobody would expect him to be a secret magnificent bastard! Half of you would have mistaken him for an innocent and completely harmless teen, and the half that wouldn't would still probably let him ignore the "Plan" anyway simply for the hell of it. Gaia knows the current path certainly looks more interesting than anything the higher powers could come up with. And more fun. And we mean "fun" of the "deviating paths, mind-screwing, causing people to end up doing things completely different from the original" variety.

Good times. Good times...

And speaking of good times...

"Hey," Cloud brightened, suddenly coming up with an idea. "You wanna help me raise Chocobos?"

Aerith blinked, surprised. "What? How?"

But Cloud was onto something, looking more inspired by the idea. "You can grow flowers, right? You could probably grow some of the different greens for them, too. I can even pay you for them. And you'd get to see all the different Chocobos we have, too! Plus I'm going to Gold Saucer...eventually. I can take you there—oh wait." Seeing her frightened look, he backtracked. "You don't like the sky, right? Well, I could bring you back things. It'll be fun! And not suicidal or hazardous to your health! What do you say?"

Now let us remember that the Aerith in the original game was more of a soft, caring, healing type of person. She was kind and gentle, and had that annoying way of getting people to do what she wanted by being...*shudder* NICE to them. She was good at getting her way and determined enough to see any plan through, even if it meant sacrificing herself to save the planet—something she had long been raised and inducted to do when the need arose.

But this is not that Aerith, and now, probably will never be. Not fully. As opposed to Cloud, with a full set of future memories and abilities packed into his pre-teen past body, this Aerith is still past Aerith, with only some snippets of knowledge of her future self. Past Aerith was a friendly person, but still somewhat naive and uncertain of herself. Scared of the sky, of Soldiers, and of the world at large—with good reason, and remained this way up until she met Zack and began to open up more and become strong.

What does that have to do with this? Nothing. Because as most of you have probably been able to tell, this Aerith had not met Zack yet. So she's NOT that strong-willed, matronly girl who would willingly sacrifice her life for the world. She's still young. She's still fairly innocent. And as a still young, still innocent girl, she is still somewhat selfish.

And she just found out, from the very guy that the higher powers sent her to "convince"—by which they really mean manipulate the hell out of—to go along with the Plan to save the world, that said higher powers didn't bother to tell her about her rather needless and very much avoidable death.

Or the future boyfriend, but priorities, people. Priorities. Right now, the horrible yet avoidable death is a bigger one.

So, having just found out about said horrible yet avoidable death waiting in the wings for her that nobody saw fit to warn her about, this Aerith was not feeling particularly kind. Or caring. Or gentle. Or in any way inclined to go through with the higher power's Plan unless it offered some sort of benefits package for the last surviving member of the Ancient/Cetra/planet-speaking people race. And they had better be some damned good benefits, too.

But since there was no mention of any such benefits—or any warning of the imminent demise, which yes, she WAS still VERY much hung up on, thankyouverymuch—this past Aerith was feeling just spiteful enough to go along with the plan—and that's the plan with the lowercase "p" in this instance—that DID.

So, it should be no surprise that her response was to smile back and nod.


And if her smile was more of a smirk or that twinkle in her eyes appeared a bit more mischievous than innocent, Cloud wasn't going to be the one to comment.

Now, if anyone were actually bothering to listen to the lifestream or the planes beyond this world, the higher power could have been trying to make the point that the Plan DIDN'T require Aerith to die this time around, and that if Cloud stopped being lazy and started following his destiny, then everything would work out fine and Aerith wouldn't HAVE to die. Unfortunately for the higher power, no one was listening. Which begs the question: if a higher power is ranting on an otherworldly plane that the last Ancient is not bothering to listen to, does it make a sound?

Of course, it doesn't. These are words on a screen.

Angry, it could do little more than watch the two plan out normal and mundane things instead of the epic plots the Plan would require, muttering something about "damn magnificent bastards".

That's when the higher power realized it needed a better backup plan.

Cloud: 1

Fate: 0

This was the first time ChocoMog had been used for anything outside battle, and even THAT was a rarity. Honestly, he should have read the job description more carefully before agreeing to be a summon in this world. He didn't even get to do that much during the brief times he was called into the middle of a fight, and at most, he would only be called on just often enough for the summoning materia to be completely mastered when it came to the more diligent and hardcore fighters.

Lets face it, there simply wasn't much use for a Moogle and Chocobo tag-team combo in a world that had the friggin King of Dragons, Bahamut, available for on-call. The fact that the world was even still standing given how many Megaflares that thing has used on the Planet is nothing short of confounding. But still, the point remained that when there were bigger, better summons available, no one ever really looked twice at little old Choco and Mog, who sadly, found themselves commonly being left out of the summons' gatherings.

Sure, Choco managed alright for himself. He was a Chocobo and fairly popular, so people still used the birds regularly. But what about poor little Mog? Sure, he was also a ridiculously cute critter, but he just didn't have the same usefulness as a bird that could be used for easier travel. He'd done his best, though, but nothing was ever enough. He'd started off iconic in one world, but was gradually seen as little more than the small annoying creature as time went on, eventually reduced to the role of optional side character and...*shudder* tutorial. Sure, he had a fighting role in Final Fantasy 6, which was pretty great, but even THAT one still cost him. In this case, it was the complete loss of his friends, his family, and all the other Moogles as well, leaving him the last of his kind and completely isolated from all outside contact for a whole year in a ruined world.

Not that he was still horribly traumatized or anything. He was fine, really. His therapist said so!

He was just so happy that someone thought he was useful enough to summon, even if it was something as simple as taking care of Chocobos. Mog didn't mind, though. The Choco half of the summon was a Chocobo, after all, so the Moogle was already rather aware of what care was necessary and well adept at looking after the creatures.

Truth be told, he never actually expected anyone to even consider that possibility.

But the nice spiky-haired blond human did. He summoned them. He offered them both a job. And he was regularly feeding his own magic energy into the materia to let them both stay out continuously. The fact that anyone decided to use their summon at all was enough to make him happy. And a happy Moogle is a loyal and hard-working Moogle. This one did that and more. He gave them a place and a purpose. And let him avoid having to face further ridicule from the other summons.

So, if the kind human wanted him to take care of Chocobos, then gosh darn it all, he was going to be the best Chocobo-caretaker there was!

The VERY best. Like no one ever was!

And nothing would stand in his way!

Eddie stared at the sinisterly cackling Moogle and hoped that Cloud would be back soon. And he couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time, just how he got caught up in this mess. He was just a poor innocent non-important, non-plot relevant OC trapped in an offshoot of a canon existence.

Pray for him, people. Pray for him.

Personally, I am rather proud of this chapter. It's a bit more serious and complicated than the previous chapter, as Cloud is more genre savvy and manipulative than trying to be adorable, but it's one I feel I could continue with. Both are, actually, but I want to know what you as the readers think. Ah, the benefits of fanfiction and creating alternate storylines.

Involved tropes are as follows:

Genre Savvy – when the character may not know they're in a story, but knows enough about stories like theirs and what does or does not work. AKA: Common sense.

Dangerously Genre Savvy – when the villain is genre savvy enough to avoid the basic villain pitfalls. Like giving the long-winded speech to the hero instead of killing him. Or leaving the hero in an easily escapable death trap instead of killing him immediately. Or waiting for the hero to arrive before completing his master plan so the hero will be in prime position to stop him. AKA: Evil Overlord List/Common sense.

Magnificent Bastard – Zidane pretty much describes it to a T. Basically, a master manipulator—one who plans for just about everything, even the possible attempt by others to counter his plan, and does it with style and class. To the point that this person is a badass, and he knows it. We know it as well, and yet we can't help but love or at least seriously be impressed with him, even if he is an irredeemable asshole.

Posted: December 11, 2011