Author's Note: I wanted to take a break from things and do something a bit creepy for Halloween ... And, as usual, my blurb idea kind of snowballed into something much larger with multiple chapters needed to convey the story. It'll be an interesting format, which you'll see starting with the next chapter. I probably won't get it finished in time for Halloween, but I guess it'll be close enough! Hopefully, it won't take too long to finish up! Next up, when I finish this, will be the next installment of the Detective AU, probably followed by the next chapter of Distant Worlds. Many thanks to LuckyLadybug for help on this fic!

Nothing needed to know here, except that this takes place in the regular old world of FF7 - no fancy crossovers or AUs this time! Hope everyone enjoys it, and Happy Halloween!


Scapegoat

By

Kazaam


Chapter One

Intruder

The hallway was cool and quiet, only the low hum of distant machinery and circulating air breaking the silence. There was no taptaptap of busy keyboards, no slamming of file cabinets, no sounds of rolling chairs or normal office chatter. Though everything was brightly lit by artificial lighting, the stillness was eerie, and lay heavy upon waiting ears.

Zack Fair carefully advanced down the hallway, stepping slowly and deliberately to prevent his boots from clumping on the tile. He kept his breathing measured and soft, the Buster Sword held at the ready before him. Despite his care, the slight noises he made seemed loud to his ears.

A small microphone hung at the corner of his mouth, held in place by a thin arm, which in turn attached to an earpiece secured around his left ear. The communications device was silent for the moment, and Zack kept his senses tuned to the air around him, straining for the sound of anything out of the ordinary.

He neared a corner. Slowing, he pressed his back against the wall, shuffling up to it. He counted to three under his breath. Then he sprung around, prepared to block the strike he knew was coming.

There was nothing there.

Letting out the breath he'd been holding, he warily examined this new stretch of hallway. Unlike the previous one, someone had darkened the lights at the end, probably forgotten during the evacuation, leaving it in heavy shadow. Freeing one hand from its grip on his weapon's hilt, he wriggled his fingers to loosen them from their stiffness, and thumbed the switch on the wall.

It remained dark.

He muttered under his breath. "Lazy ShinRa custodians."

Resigned to exploring in the dark, he resumed his search. He hadn't taken three steps, however, when he spotted a series of dark spatters on the floor just ahead. Eyeing the dim hallway, he warily advanced and kneeled beside them to get a better look.

A quick dab of a gloved finger and a sniff revealed what it was.

"Blood …" he breathed. His eyes flicked back up, scanning the area. "Seph, we've got blood here." He spoke at a level barely above a whisper, certain now that something else was in there with him somewhere.

"… Understood." The voice over the mic buzzed faintly with static. Zack assumed it was interference from all the electrical systems and machinery in the building. "Can you be more descriptive?"

"A handful of small spots … Looks like there's more up ahead; smeared around a bit." Getting up, he moved further down the hallway. It ended abruptly; an open door in the right wall led to some other room. He eyed the red path streaked into it. "… Seems like it's leading into this room. I'm going in."

There was a hiss of static. "… Affirmative. Proceed with caution."

Zack smirked. "Don't I always?"

"Be careful, Zack."

Zack grinned, always getting a kick out of goading Seph into breaking his usually cool, professional tone. But Sephiroth was right – whatever was roaming these halls was not to be taken lightly. It had already succeeded in evading detection … And now someone else had paid for it.

The smile faded.

Readjusting his grip on the sword, Zack glided into the room, keeping to the walls. A test of the light switch once again proved futile, though something sparked from the ceiling. Zack frowned.

Digging into a pocket, he removed a flare and activated it. There was a loud hiss, and green light flooded the room.

For an instant, Zack thought he saw something dark flicker at the edge of his vision. Whirling, he tried to follow it, but found nothing.

… Probably my imagination …

He turned his attention back to the room. It was a very large conference room, with a long table stretching its length. The room was so large, in fact, that the end of it was still cloaked in darkness. Taking a step forward, Zack bent and rolled the flare toward the far wall.

It rolled past a few fallen chairs and over a handful of papers abandoned on the floor, before coming to rest. But it did not stop with the expected clack against the wall, instead halting rather silently against some dark, lumpy object, which seemed to be covered in some kind of black, reflective substance. With some trepidation, Zack ignited a second flare and approached. He kept shy of the conference table, scanning the underside and peering hard at the threatening shadows of chair legs.

Finally, he came to a stop before the object. In the shine of the flares, it almost looked like someone had dumped oil over it. He frowned. What on Gaia …? It also lay in a pool of the sticky-looking black stuff, which he toed, trying to determine what it was.

Realization dawned. It only appeared black because of the green light of the flare.

It was blood. Which meant that the object was …

Zack felt he was going to be sick.


"This is the fourth death in three weeks! When's the President gonna get it through his head that he needs to lock down the entire building and conduct a thorough sweep? Does he honestly expect people to keep working like this?" Zack paced Sephiroth's office in frustration.

"Likely not until he feels threatened himself." The General ignored the second question, the answer to it self-evident. With an organization as large as ShinRa, the President probably felt he could not afford to shut down all operations, even for a short period of time. Sephiroth sat at his desk, scanning the reports of the killings, his brow slightly furrowed in thought.

Zack came to stand in front of the desk. "Well, if whatever's doing it keeps advancing through the levels the way it has been, his head's gonna be the one that's next! Hasn't Hojo come forward yet to tell us how to stop it?"

"Hojo claims it's not one of his experiments."

"Oh, really?" Zack rolled his eyes and resumed pacing. "Has he even bothered to check? He doesn't even know what he's got until it goes missing! Just last month I had to pin down three of his critters in the girl's locker room!" The First waved an arm for emphasis. "He kept claiming they weren't his … until I showed him the dang experiment tags with his name on them!"

Sephiroth sighed. Hojo was well known for losing track of his monster creations, which usually sent one or more of the SOLDIERs scrambling on a recovery and damage control effort. The man's experimentation was out of control. But, unfortunately, President ShinRa continued to allow him his leeway.

"We haven't seen any direct evidence of the culprit being a monster," Sephiroth said, grimly. "For all we know, we could be dealing with a serial killer."

"A serial killer?" Zack shook his head, incredulous. "Seph, have you seen the last body? It was … No human could do that. It … it wasn't even recognizable." He shuddered, haunted eyes recalling the horrific scene. Returning to the desk, he dropped wearily into the chair in front of it, even as Sephiroth raised his eyes to him in concern. It was true … According to the report, they were still in the process of identifying the body, both through dental records and DNA.

"Besides," the young SOLDIER continued, "if it was just some guy, how come he's been able to slip through security so well? They haven't even caught him on surveillance."

"And you think a monster of some kind would have an easier time of it?"

"Well …" Zack rubbed the back of his neck, and sighed. "I dunno. If Hojo's done some funky stuff to it, then I guess, yeah."

"Hmm." Sephiroth leaned back, considering his friend. Zack hadn't been the first one sent out when they discovered the initial body. Security had taken care of that, as well as the next two. But, with the deaths escalating in violence, and still no evidence of the culprit, by the time the fourth emergency call had come in, it was decided it was time for SOLDIER expertise. They evacuated the level, sealed it off, and sent Zack in … only to find nothing, aside from yet another body.

It wasn't difficult to see that Zack had been shaken by the experience. And it was far easier to think that a monster was at fault, rather than a person, especially with such an inexplicable, and eerie, disappearance.

"There's another possibility we need to consider." When Zack looked up, questioningly, Sephiroth continued, "That, rather than a monster or intruder, the murderer could be someone we know – someone already working for ShinRa."

Zack frowned. It made sense, and it would certainly explain why the culprit had seemingly been able to vanish before anyone arrived at the scene – by disappearing into a crowd that knew him – but … "But why would anyone do something so horrible? Those people were innocent! They could have been co-workers with the murderer, for Pete's sake!"

Sephiroth shrugged. "There are a number of people who would seek to make an example of ShinRa, and many disgruntled workers, I am sure. Or, it might have nothing to do with the company … maybe there's something else to relate the people killed."

Zack considered the idea. The victims had all worked on different levels, in unrelated areas, but it was a possibility, at least.

He rose from the chair and leaned on the desk to view the reports. "Let's see if we can figure something out. Have you found any connections between them, yet?"

At that moment, the door to the office swung open, and the familiar, suited figure of a Turk stepped through.

Zack glanced over his shoulder in surprise. "… Oh, hey, Tseng! Got any new info? We were about to take a better look at the reports …" He turned his attention back to the documents, reaching for the most recent one. "Someone like you could probably-"

There was a peculiar, airy-sounding pop; Zack jerked as he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck. He slapped a hand to it, then slowly drew it back, his face a mask of confusion. He stared at his hand. There was a dart gripped in his fingers.

"What …?"

He was unable to complete the thought. A sudden rush of dizziness assaulted him, and his senses fled. He collapsed.

"Zack!" Sephiroth was unable to reach his friend before he hit the floor. About to dart around the desk, he was brought up short by a pistol aimed at his head. He stared in disbelief, then narrowed his eyes. "Tseng! What is the meaning of this?"

"Please, stay where you are, General," Tseng replied coolly. "SOLDIER First Zack Fair is under arrest on the charge of murder." Maintaining a steady aim with the firearm, the Turk gestured behind him. Two security guards hurried in, grabbing Zack by the arms and hauling him up. He hung limply from their grasp.

"Murder? Explain yourself," Sephiroth demanded, barely reigning in his fury. His eyes flashed, promising deadly consequences if the explanation failed to convince him.

Ready with his answer, Tseng produced a letter, tossing it onto Sephiroth's desk. The General gave him a hard look, before reluctantly diverting his attention, grabbing the letter and savagely ripping through its seal. He read through the contents, once, then twice, unable to believe the words. After the third read, the letter fluttered to the desk from numb fingers. It had been signed directly by President ShinRa, himself.

Finally, Sephiroth spoke, his mouth dry. "What evidence do you have of this?" The words were quiet; he gazed at the unconscious Zack in shock. He wanted to interfere, to do something, but he was rooted to the spot. And even if he could move, his interference was strictly forbidden, with Tseng's orders coming direct from the highest authority. He clenched a fist, knuckles turning white.

"The murderer made a mistake this time. We have video footage of him … of Zack … carrying out the deed." Brown eyes softened. "I am sorry, General."

Conflicted eyes examined Zack's face. "… There must be some mistake." Abruptly, he whirled on the Turk. "You say you have footage? Where."

"My office." He gestured toward the door. "I invite you to come look." Though the words were cool, his eyes said, And please tell me that I am wrong.

Sephiroth nodded and swept from the room, after the security guards. It took all his self-control to refrain from going after them and freeing Zack. Sometimes he despised his position as General.

"… How sure are you of what you saw in the video, Tseng?" Sephiroth murmured, ignoring the curious and astounded faces of those they passed in the hallway.

The Turk shook his head, his eyes betraying his own turmoil. "General, if there had been any chance … I would not have acted as I did. Even now …" He stopped, rethought his words. "Well, let it wait until you've seen it."

Another nod. And here was where their path separated from Zack's; Sephiroth stopped at the intersection and watched as the guards proceeded to the elevator. He did not divert his gaze until several minutes after the doors had shut.

"See that no harm comes to him, Tseng," he warned.

"I will personally see to it that he is treated well. You have my word."

Sephiroth grunted in response, turning back to the hallway. He did not need to say what would happen if Tseng failed.


Sephiroth stared at the screen in utter disbelief, unable to keep the shock from his face. "… Replay it."

The events rewound, jumping back to the beginning of the clip. The camera was mounted on the ceiling; it showed a partial view of the hallway, along with a water cooler. As things proceeded at their normal pace, Sephiroth watched an office worker he didn't recognize come into view, take a paper cup from the plastic stand on the cooler, and begin filling it.

As he did so, another figure sauntered into the frame, the dark, spiky hair and First Class SOLDIER uniform unmistakable. The figure grinned, mouth moving in a soundless greeting. Hey! How's it goin'? Sephiroth's inner Zack provided.

The worker straightened, turning toward the energetic SOLDIER. Sephiroth couldn't see his face from this angle, but he must have said something, because Zack laughed, and responded. They exchanged a few words, the conversation ending with Zack smirking and shaking his head, waving off some comment. Then the two turned in the camera's general direction, and continued down the hall.

As soon as the worker's back was turned to him, Zack's cheerful expression abruptly darkened. With swift precision, he wrapped his arms around the worker's head, snapping them quickly to the right. The man dropped like a rock, never having seen it coming. Zack then bent down, grabbed the center of the man's shirt with one hand, and hauled him up. Still wearing the stony expression, he proceeded in the same direction, dragging the man with him. There was a moment, just before he passed out of view of the camera, where he glanced up at it. Then he was gone.

Sephiroth rewound the tape again, this time freezing it on Zack's face. He studied it, willing it to somehow morph into a different visage. But the identity was unmistakable.

It was unquestionably Zack – a Zack with a coldness in his eyes that had no place there.

He felt numb. Turning away, he leaned back in the chair and rested an elbow on the armrest, propping his chin on his fist. Troubled eyes stared unseeing at the floor, as he tried to figure out what all this meant.

"… A clone," he finally said. "Like the Genesis copies, probably created in a similar way-"

"We have had no reports of such copies," Tseng replied. "Though it doesn't discount the idea, it seems highly unlikely. The behavior is too accurate-"

"Personality imprinting. Behavior modification. It's possible – Professor Hojo once wrote a report on the subject, theorizing that with proper application of Mako and stimulation-"

"To what end? To infiltrate ShinRa with one man?"

"As an imposter, yes. Perhaps his goal is to cause panic, discredit SOLDIER-"

"When the man he is impersonating is still within the building? And why go to the trouble to hide his actions in the previous three murders, when the goal is to implicate a SOLDIER?"

"Do we know for certain that the previous murders were carried out by the same person?"

"We can be reasonably sure."

Sephiroth frowned, falling silent, as he tried to offer up a different explanation. "… Maybe the goal is to frame Zack, force us to arrest him, as we have done, and have us conclude that, since no other option seems logical, he is the true murderer." Murderer … The word felt like ash on his tongue.

"Isn't that a bit of a stretch, for the murderer to orchestrate things so that we initially believe that it cannot be the person who seems to have committed the crime, only for us to turn around and then believe it is that person, after all? By extension, shouldn't he also realize that if we have thought that far, we might think a bit further and see that, because we have fallen into his trap and believe it to be the person he wants us to believe it is, it really cannot be that person?"

"… So you believe it to be Zack, then." It was not a question.

There was a long pause. "… I do not wish to believe it. But my wishes are irrelevant in this matter." Tseng's words were bitter. "However," Tseng held up a hand to forestall Sephiroth's protest. "I do have teams searching the building for anyone else of Zack's description."

The General hesitated, then nodded his acceptance of Tseng's actions. The only thing that remained now, much as Sephiroth despised it, was to consider the possibility that Zack actually had committed those murders, and why he might have done it.

"… You may want to examine the idea that perhaps Zack is not the man you believe him to be."

"No."

There was a sigh. "General-"

"I will not consider it. Zack could never do something like this, not willingly." Tseng opened his mouth to reply, but Sephiroth overrode him. "I don't care what you have to say about stress, possible cracking under the pressure SOLDIER has put him under. Zack would not do this. If he has, something else must have forced him to."

"… Something, or someone?"

"… Are you saying someone might be manipulating him?"

Tseng shrugged. "Perhaps. If someone was able to find the right pressure points to succeed in blackmailing him, then maybe …"

Sephiroth was already shaking his head. "I cannot believe there would be something of such magnitude that would force him to murder. It goes against his very nature – he would rather suffer harm to himself than bring that harm to another."

"What if the threat of harm would not be to himself?"

"Then who …?"

Tseng shook his head. It could not have been a threat to Sephiroth or anyone else at SOLDIER, unless it was very grave indeed – they knew the risks associated with their chosen line of work, were more than prepared to deal with them. Much as Zack might hate himself for it, he would know it would be best to transfer that threat to Sephiroth, one who was more than capable of defending himself in most circumstances, than attack innocent civilians.

So, who could it be? It would need to be someone important to Zack, someone not associated with ShinRa …

Tseng's blood froze as he came upon the answer.

"Aerith." The name was spoken by two voices, each of them having arrived at the same conclusion. For a moment, they stared at each other in alarm.

A split second later, Tseng had his cell phone to his ear, dialing the number of one of the few people he trusted with this matter. There was a click as it picked up on the third ring.

"Heeey, boss man, what's up?" The voice drawled. "Me and Rude were just-"

"Reno, I need you to proceed to the church in the Sector Five slums," Tseng spoke in a clipped voice. "Find the young girl there and keep an eye on her. Make sure nothing happens."

"The Flower Girl? Aw, man, I was just-"

"I don't care what you were "just," Reno. Do it. Report as soon as you find her."

There was a brief pause as Reno took in the urgency in Tseng's voice. "Sure thing, boss. No need to get snippy! I'll tell your girlfriend you send your love."

"Reno-" But the line went dead as the other Turk hung up.

Tseng sighed, snapping the phone shut and sliding it back into his inner coat pocket. "… At least that base will be covered."

Sephiroth nodded, studying the Turk. "How well do you trust this Reno?"

Tseng lifted his gaze to stare Sephiroth directly in the eye. "Well enough."

Sephiroth appraised the man for a moment, then inclined his head in acceptance. "Very well." He lifted his gaze to study the wall, avoiding the frozen image of a face that was not Zack's on the computer screen.

"… You don't believe that Zack is under the threat of blackmail," Tseng ventured, after watching Sephiroth.

"… No. I believe Zack would be clever enough to avoid something this repulsive, or at least find a way to communicate his situation. Besides …" Reluctantly, Sephiroth's eyes drifted back to the face on the screen. "That is not Zack's face. I do not know of anything that could turn him so cold, nor lead to the subsequent butchering of the bodies."

"… Then, perhaps, he is affected by something else."

"Yes. That is what I fear."


The first thing Zack Fair was aware of when he finally regained consciousness was a splitting headache. He winced, groaning, and rolled over to bury his face into his pillow.

The sudden lack of any kind of support beneath him jarred him to full wakefulness as readily as the impact with the hard, concrete floor. He yelped, throwing out his hands to catch himself … but his arms seemed glued together. His forearms struck the floor, but not soon enough to provide the leverage needed to prevent his head from smacking into it. As it was, he barely managed to avoid a full faceplant by turning his head, instead striking the concrete with the corner of his forehead.

"… Owww …" He lay there, whimpering in misery for a moment, before prying his eyes open to get a look at his surroundings. "… Huh …?" This wasn't his bedroom.

He sat up, only to find when he attempted to push against the floor that his arms were locked within some kind of cylindrical restraining device. He rolled over, leaning back against the bed to get a better look. The device bound his forearms together so that they rested across his stomach, completely enclosing his hands. He tugged his arms apart, trying to draw them out of it. A mild electric current shot into his arms, weakening them and making his skin tingle uncomfortably all the way up to his shoulders. Frowning, he tugged harder, only for the intensity of the current to increase until he grit his teeth and was forced to abandon the effort.

What was going on? Utterly confused, and becoming rather alarmed, Zack glanced around the small room. It looked like it was made of reinforced steel, the same kind used in the virtual reality rooms supposed to be SOLDIER-proof. Behind him was a single bed – or cot, rather – with a thin mattress and pillow. A wool blanket was folded and lay across the end of the cot. And before him was a wall of vertical bars – but not ordinary vertical bars. It looked like they were made of cohesive beams of energy, blue-green in color, and faintly humming with power.

He stared for a moment, uncomprehending. He was … in a cell? Why? Where? He only remembered …

The dart. Someone had shot him … Tseng? But why? And wouldn't Seph have done something to prevent this? It couldn't be real!

Shooting to his feet, he bounded the three steps it took to reach the bars.

"Hey! Is someone there?" He scanned the limited field of view offered through the bars, but could see only the blank wall across the hallway from him. "What's goin' on? I'm not supposed to be here! Hey!"

Frustrated at not receiving an immediate answer, he slammed his shoulder into the bars. There was a painful zap, and he was thrown back to the floor with a yell.

Groaning, he rolled over and stumbled back to his feet, approaching the bars more warily. He scanned the hallway again. "Helloooo!"

Finally, a set of measured footsteps answered him. He waited, relief and apprehension warring within him. He knew those footsteps …

The figure appeared from the left. "Seph! Man, am I glad to see you. Get me out of here, will ya?" Zack grinned, but the smile faded as he took in Sephiroth's expression. "… Seph? … What's goin' on?" He raised his arms slightly to emphasize the presence of the restraints, his nervousness causing his Gongagan accent to thicken.

Sephiroth's eyes flicked to the indicated device, and an expression of distaste flashed across his face. "I told them not to …"

"… You … told them? W-what are you talkin' 'bout?" Zack searched his friend's face. "Seph, talk to me! What's goin' on?"

"… You don't know?"

"Know what? Seph, what am I supposed to know?" At his continued hesitation, Zack snapped. "What is it? Tell me, Sephiroth!"

Sephiroth shook his head, eyes dropping to the floor. "You … We have surveillance footage of you killing the last victim, Zack." He raised his gaze to evaluate Zack's reaction.

Zack was taken aback. "… What? I … I … What?"

"There is evidence of you committing the murder. Did you kill him, Zack?" Sephiroth's voice was weary, his eyes pleading with Zack to deny it.

Zack stared in shock. Then he vehemently shook his head. "No! No! Of course I didn't, what were you thinking? How could you think that? That I … No!" He gazed at Sephiroth, feeling the sting of betrayal he'd never thought would come from his friend. "How could you think that?" he repeated.

Thank Gaia. That denial was all Sephiroth needed. He sighed in relief, allowing himself to lean against the wall to the side of the cell. "I'm sorry, Zack. I didn't want to believe it." He shook his head. "The orders came from the President … He had the Turks arrest you because of that video. They couldn't take any chances, with you being First Class."

Zack frowned, trying to process the information. "… I … don' understand. There's a video of me murdering someone? How's that possible?"

"That's what we're trying to figure out."

"Well, it's gotta be someone else, you know that, right?" His eyes pleaded with his friend. "Someone who looks like me?"

Sephiroth nodded. "That's one possibility. We're in the process of investigating it right now."

Zack drew back slightly. "… What's the other possibility?" He didn't like where this was going.

Sephiroth took a deep breath. "The other possibility … is that it was you-"

Zack whipped his head back and forth. "No!"

"-acting under the influence of something else-"

"Seph, no!"

"-of course, unaware of what you were doing-"

Zack scowled. "Sephiroth!"

"-which is why you don't remember anything-"

"I didn't do it!"

Sephiroth pressed on. "You can hardly be held responsible, Zack."

"Seph!" Zack glared at him, breathing hard. Then he shook his head, muttering an angry curse under his breath, and backed away to sit on the cot against the corner of the wall, drawing his legs up in a defensive posture.

Sephiroth's eyes softened. "Please, Zack …"

Again, Zack shook his head, scowling. "I can't believe you'd think that," he said, thickly. "After all we've been through?" He shot an accusing glare at his friend, violet eyes shining more than usual.

Sephiroth sighed. He'd known Zack wouldn't take this well – the very idea of murdering an innocent person was abhorrent to him. And with the way the bodies had been mutilated beyond recognition, specifically the most recent one … The thought of being responsible for it was sickening. And to be accused of something like that …

"Zack …" Sephiroth fought the strange urge to kneel and hold a hand out to the younger SOLDIER, making his stance less threatening. "Of course I don't believe it. I don't believe you'd ever do anything like that, if you could help it." As Zack defiantly looked away so he could glower at the wall, Sephiroth sighed again. "Zack, please … I'm just trying to help you. If something is affecting you, I need to know about it."

"Nothin's affectin' me," he replied, stubbornly.

"Are you sure? You know it's not always possible to be aware of something that's wrong. You know first-hand that the victims of a Manipulation or Confusion spell aren't necessarily aware of it, or that they're doing anything abnormal."

"… You sayin' someone's cast some kinda spell on me?"

"Possibly. Or a creature you might have encountered. Or it could be the product of some kind of poison or sickness."

"I feel fine, except for whatever it was that Turk stuck me with," he bit out, bitterly. He felt slightly woozy at the moment, which, combined with the turmoil of his emotions, wasn't helping his stomach any. He set his bound arms upon his knees and rested his forehead against them, the cool metal of the locking device bringing some measure of relief.

"I know you do, Zack," Sephiroth replied, kindly. He was about to continue, but Zack interrupted.

"Why couldn't you, ya know, tell me, before knockin' me out and draggin' me down here like this?" he asked, quietly. "I prob'ly woulda understood. You didn't hafta shoot me."

Sephiroth's heart ached at the hurt in Zack's voice. "I didn't know about it, Zack, or I would have done things myself," he said, gently. "Tseng was unable to notify me beforehand, since he felt the need to act quickly. As it was, he followed established procedure for apprehending a SOLDIER First – rendering one unable to retaliate before they know what is going on is the safest method for all involved."

"… What about this place? Never been here before."

"This is the First Class detention cell block. It is rarely used, but we keep it operational in the event that something … goes wrong with one of the Firsts."

"How come I didn't know 'bout it?"

"You had no need."

Zack grunted, shaking his head. "… And this thing?" He raised the arm lock, regarding it in disgust. "Do they think I'm gonna try to kill myself, or somethin'?"

"Perhaps. Or that you would be able to escape, despite the wards against it."

Zack returned to scowling at the wall. "Great. … So what now?"

"While we continue to search for your possible doppelganger, I need to find out from you whether you might have come into contact with anything that would have caused you to act so differently."

"How the heck am I supposed to know that?" the SOLDIER demanded. "If you say I wouldn't be aware of it in the first place?"

"You might not be aware of it. But perhaps we can figure it out …" Sephiroth stepped as close to the bars as he could. "Together."

Zack raised his head to gaze at his friend, the hurt still evident in his eyes. But then he sighed, replacing it with weary acceptance. "… Fine. Where do we start?

Somewhat heartened, Sephiroth spoke, ready with his answer. "With your mission to Mideel."

"… Huh?" Zack tilted his head in confusion. "That was … a whole month ago, Seph."

Sephiroth nodded. "And you returned a week before the killings began. It might have some relevance."

"You think so? Huh." Zack's sight grew distant, recalling the events of that strange excursion. "But nothin' happened. I gave you my report."

"I know. But I want to hear it from you directly."

"Hmm …" Zack pondered a bit, then began, a bit haltingly at first, recounting the events of his most recent mission.


to be continued …