Fandom: Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (FFVII, Advent Children, Crisis Core, Before Crisis, Dirge of Cerberus)
Pairing: Established Zack/Aerith, Eventual Sephiroth/Cloud (Subject to possible additions)
Rating: Teen (Subject to change)
Warnings: Violence, Language, Pretty much what you'd expect from FFVII. (Subject to additions)
Genre: Time Travel, AU, Action/Adventure, Drama, Friendship, Romance.

Special Thanks To: Our darling, amazing beta/guinea pig reader leasspell_dael for all of your help, Nightpounce for helping inspire the summary, and the rest of the peanut gallery.

Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama

Chapter 01 – Crisis of Circumstance

[ μ ] – εуλ 0009 (May 4th)

The air was bitingly cold when Fenrir purred to a halt. Cloud couldn't feel the icy chill, his skin forever mako warm thanks to the good doctor. This was a familiar cold, one that was ingrained into his very soul; one that not even his spotty memory could forget. Above him, Mt. Nibel loomed amongst its lesser companions, dark and jagged. A violent monolith perched over the minuscule town nestled at its feet.

Cloud sighed, his breath puffing out in a cloud of white in front of him. He leaned on the handlebars of his faithful bike, taking comfort in its low rumble as it idled. For a while he just sat there staring blankly further up the road that would eventually take him to the site of his birth.

The town that rested there now wasn't his town, but the people there had adapted to the harsh climate and hard living. They had taken their orders from ShinRa literally, adopting their new names and histories with single-minded enthusiasm. A few good winters had tempered them further, and now he doubted any of them even remembered their lives from before. Cloud felt that maybe the tough people of Nibelheim would have approved of the new tenants.

In the distance, he heard a nibel wolf send up a baleful howl. Cloud recognized it as a rallying call, a pack readying itself for the hunt. Slowly each individual voice faded away as the wolves ended their hunting chorus and moved off into the mountains. Cloud shook himself out of his lethargy. He needed to finish his long journey and find a room at the inn for the night.

He was reluctant to continue on. In some ways, the peaceful village was more painful than even the Ancient's Forest, more than Midgar or Aerith's Church. It was the place he was born, the place where simple 'Cloud Strife' had died, and this new 'Cloud' had been born again. It was where Sephiroth had been created, and where the great General fell from his pedestal into madness.

It held so many bitter memories, and if he were honest with himself, he couldn't remember a time he'd been happy here. As a child he'd been selfish and arrogant, unable to let go of the hurt caused by the other children, the ostracization forced upon him by the adults. When he had returned as a failure, he'd been sunk in misery and dread at being discovered by Tifa, pretty Tifa to whom he'd promised the stars.

A harsh ringing sound from one of his side pockets broke Cloud's reverie again. He extracted his cell phone gingerly, and pushed back the old urge to let it ring through to the voice mail. He'd promised to be better. This time he knew he could keep that promise. Cloud pressed the connect button carefully, as he often felt he'd crush the delicate looking thing by accident.

"Hello?" It came out quieter than Cloud expected, and he cleared his throat hastily. "Hello?" he repeated a little stronger. He heard a warm laugh over the phone, and flushed a little as his friend's mirth died away.

"Hey Cloud," Tifa's voice crackled over the line. The mountains were nearly out of range of even the newest phones.

"Hi Tifa," he said as he felt a wave of contentment twisted with guilt wash over him. It was an odd combination, but he was used to having more violent emotions dragging him down. The contentment came from just hearing his old friend's voice, knowing that she was happy that he had picked up the phone, and hadn't returned to his seclusion. The guilt stemmed from the fact that he had still left Edge such a short time after the battle with the Remnants.

His time with the spirits of Aerith and Zack had healed him of his wounds from his battles, and he'd stayed long enough to be sure that the children were well once more. Denzel's smile and Marlene's laughter had been soothing, though their adoration of him still made Cloud twitch nervously. That, combined with the warmth of forgiveness and happiness he'd found at the end of the hard battle, had made him restless. When Reeve had mentioned strange readings coming from the old reactor above Nibelheim, Cloud had leapt on the excuse, and volunteered to investigate. Cloud had expected Tifa to protest. She had surprised him by shoving a package at him with a delivery slip, then gave him her brightest grin as she told him that he couldn't get out of his job that easily.

"Planet to Cloud, are you there sleepy-head?" Tifa's voice cut through his thoughts, and he hastily brought his mind back to business.

"Ah, sorry Tifa. What did you need?" he said hastily, while switching the phone to his other ear so he could rummage in his side pocket.

"Nothing serious, so don't frown," she teased. He scrunched his nose up to get rid of the frown that had been forming on his face. "I just thought you'd have arrived by about now, and wanted to make sure you were okay."

"It's only Nibelheim," he protested mildly. Cloud pulled out the delivery slip for the package secured on the back of his bike. He glanced over it absently as Tifa continued to talk.

"Don't give me that. You know exactly what I meant," she chided. "And I can hear the wind whistling. You're not even there yet, are you? Honestly Cloud, your delivery business is going to suffer if you keep making your customers wait like this!" Her tone was light, but he knew that she was sincerely concerned. Nibelheim wasn't an easy topic for her either.

Cloud didn't really have a response for her teasing, and still found himself unsure deep down when it came to her. He knew she had feelings for him, which had grown, ebbed, and changed over the years and trials they'd been through. He had loved her when he was young, with all the bright enthusiasm and blindness of youth. Now she was a dear companion, but he didn't know if he could ever live a normal life, ever settle down. His past still haunted his thoughts, even if he was learning to let it go.

Her worry was more than just his physical safety, and even more than his mental well being. She was afraid that he would leave her behind again, leave all his friends behind. He'd spiraled into isolation after Meteor, unable to fight the encroaching depression as he'd come to term with all his lost memories.

There'd been no time during the long fight against Jenova and Sephiroth for the friend he'd lost and forgotten about. Except he hadn't really forgotten Zack. He'd wrapped his memories into a protective shield, crawled inside it, and let Zack be his protection against the world when he was no longer able to function in it. Those delusions had been stripped from him, leaving him bare again to the harshness of the world. He'd fallen apart and plunged deep into his own mind. It had taken the very one who'd let his charade continue for so long to pull him out of his own Lifestream induced madness.

Tifa had taken away his illusion of greatness, the lie that allowed him to move forward, but she'd given him back more than the parody of a life he'd been living. She'd given him back himself, and more importantly, she'd given him back Zack. The memories he'd taken as his own had been returned to their rightful place, shining like a diamond among the mire of his own being.

Early after the Planet had rescued Midgar from Meteor, he'd gone to the bluff above Midgar. There'd been no sign of the remains of his friend. He liked to pretend that Aerith had pulled Zack's body into the earth, returned it to the Planet as the hero he was. Logic always asserted itself, insisting that monsters had ripped apart any trace, long before even Aerith's death. With no body to bury, it had seemed pointless to create a grave. The unforgiving weather that surrounded Midgar would have ensured that no monument would last long in the baking heat and harsh winds, but he hadn't been able to leave nothing behind.

In the end he'd left the Buster Sword on the site of Zack's death, had stuck it into the dirt as securely as he could with his enhanced strength. It had been then, standing next to the cold steel, feeling the bitter wind ruffle his hair, that it had become too much. Guilt had driven him to his knees and his breath caught in his throat, choking on dust and bile and the bitter taste of failure. If he'd been faster, if he'd been stronger, smarter, if he'd been a better person

The memories were hazy with the green of the mako poisoning, but he could still pick out fragments of their flight. Cloud had been a dead weight, too messed up from Hojo's games and experiments, and it had been up to Zack to break both of them out, to fight every step for their freedom. They'd arrived at the bluff, salvation just in sight. Midgar was so full of places to hide, where you could buy anonymity and safety, and where ShinRa was a hated enemy. Zack had kept up a litany of promises, some empty, some realistic, some so beautiful that even filtered through the poisonous haze it made Cloud's heart ache.

Then Zack had been gunned down.

It had been sudden; one moment Zack had been there, ruffling his hair, and the next he'd walked off to face his death. Even cornered, Zack had done everything he could to protect Cloud. Cloud knew now that if Zack had been unburdened he probably could have escaped, even by leaping from the cliff's edge. His tough SOLDIER body would have been able to take the punishment if he used a little cunning to break his fall. Instead, Zack had stood his ground, unwilling to abandon Cloud to the soldier's mercy. It was almost laughable that they hadn't considered Cloud even worth wasting bullets on. Cloud was still unsure if that was laziness, part of Hojo's convoluted and insane plot to bring Sephiroth back, or if they just hadn't noticed him.

The clouds had wept icy rain drops, washing away the blood before it could soak into the parched ground. Cloud had come into a moment of lucidity then, had pulled himself out of the green haze to crawl to Zack's side. He'd hoped that at least he could have a moment, just a second to tell Zack how grateful he was, to protest at the unfairness, and, selfishly, for Zack to lie and tell him everything would be okay.

He hadn't been able to say a word, tongue too tied from shock, grief, and the continued effects of the mako. All Cloud had been able to do was uselessly parrot Zack's words back to him while inside he raged against the unfairness of his friend being stolen from him. Until Zack had entrusted his hopes and dreams to him before going still, and Cloud had managed to scream his anguish to the cloudy sky.

Even now Cloud thought he could vaguely remember the feel of Zack's blood on his face from that last embrace, from the bullet holes riddling Zack's chest. The worst had been the wounds from after Zack had fallen, when the soldier's had maliciously emptied another round into him just to make sure he stayed down. It had been unnecessary and cruel, and so very ShinRa.

Cloud hadn't been able to cry, when he'd set Zack's sword in remembrance to his fallen friend. For all the remorse and painful memories that had filled him, the tears wouldn't come. He hadn't felt that he deserved the release, for living instead of Zack that rainy day.

He'd withdrawn from his friends, the guilt eating away at every waking moment, and nightmares plaguing his dreams at night. He'd tried to fight it, tried finding ways to distract himself. His delivery service turned out to be more harmful to that goal since it gave him more excuses to avoid interacting with anyone. For a while, it seemed as if helping out the orphans would be enough. Their smiles helped heal his heart, bit by bit. Then the geostigma hit, and that had also become a painful reminder of how badly he'd failed.

When Aerith's rain had fallen, healing the rotting flesh from geostigma's taint, Cloud had begun to hope again. The Remnants were tough enemies, but he'd already been through so much, and surely he could stop mere copies of Sephiroth.

Then Kadaj had gotten a hold of the piece of Jenova, and Cloud's world had nearly ended again. Sephiroth was a formidable opponent in life, death, and everywhere in between. His words that came out almost lovingly were filled with venom that cut right to Cloud's heart and soul. All those dark feelings; failure, unwanted child, puppet… They were always magnified when those cat-like green eyes stared down at him, amused at his futile struggles.

He'd triumphed again, with the help of all his friends. Just knowing they were there supporting him, that Aerith's hand was still outstretched to pull him up when he fell, had given Cloud the strength needed to defeat the phantom of his enemy.

Sephiroth's parting words had rung in his ears as a threat and a promise, but Cloud knew the truth behind them. Sephiroth would never be a mere memory. His presence was forever carved into Cloud, into the very Planet. Maybe in future generations the name would mean nothing, but the greatness, the terrible horror, would still have its echoes in stories, warnings, feelings… The Planet didn't forget the Calamity from the sky, nor would it ever forget Calamity's favorite son.

Waking up in the church had been like waking up after a long nightmare. Cloud's body had felt light, and the very air sparkled with the joy of the children, the relief of the adults, and the peaceful aura that had always been present in Aerith's church. Then he'd looked up to see her behind the crowd, still beautiful and smiling and forgiving. And in the doorway was Zack. Over the years, Cloud had seen Aerith's image occasionally. In waking dreams, in memories, always just out of sight, out of reach, but still there. Though he'd sensed his friend's presence during these last battles, never once had he seen Zack, not since the day of his death.

Zack hadn't said anything, had merely cracked the barest grin, and Cloud had been able to read a thousand words in his dearest friend's face. Pride, forgiveness, and that quirky humor that had defined his life and hadn't been lost in death.

Cloud had been so distracted by the overwhelming happiness that had swelled in his chest, that his hand had half raised to respond to Zack's wave of farewell. He'd only stopped because one of the children had grabbed his arm, tearing his attention away from the pair in the doorway for the split second needed for them to vanish back into the Lifestream.

He'd visited Zack's memorial that night. With the stars twinkling brightly overhead and the lights from Edge glowing on the horizon, he'd knelt there, forehead pressed against the cool blade where it once again rested as a testament to his friend's sacrifice. Tears of relief had streamed down his face, as he was finally able to release the pent up emotions that had haunted him for so long.

He'd taken the sword back with him, because this place was no longer a place of death and bitter sorrow, but a place where his journey had begun; a place where Zack had given him a new life. He'd cleaned Buster Sword of the rust, dirt, and grime it had acquired on the bluff and set it in the church as a real memorial to his departed savior.

A familiar tune slowly brought him out of his memories, and he realized he was still sitting astride Fenrir, with his cell phone held loosely against his ear. Tifa's voice was coming through the speaker, humming the tune he remembered from his childhood. She'd loved playing the simple song on her piano, and it had stuck with him, even when his identity had been lost.

"…Sorry Tifa, I'm here," he said quietly over her humming.

"That's good to hear," she replied, voice warm. "You won't go off where we can't follow, right Cloud?"

"There's nowhere in this world that you won't chase after me." Tifa wouldn't even let that stop her. She'd braved his broken mind and the poison of the Lifestream to get him back, and Cloud had no doubt she'd do the same and more in the future.

"Damn right," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "Just keep yourself out of trouble, okay? Reeve said the readings were strange, even for a mako reactor."

"Some monster probably broke in. Might be suffering from a case of mako poisoning, depending on how strong it was," Cloud said. "But I'll be careful," he added, when he heard her draw breath to rebuke him.

"Hm… You'd better. Denzel and Marlene send their love. You'll be back soon?" she asked, hope shining in her voice.

"Just as soon as I clean up here. It might take a few days, I don't want to miss anything," he replied.

"Alright. Take care."

He waited until he heard the phone click as she hung up, before taking it away from his ear and ending the call from his side. Talking with Tifa had been easier than he'd anticipated, though that might just have been because he was still reluctant to continue on up the mountain path.

Cloud knew that he'd rather face Sephiroth ten times over, than spend a few days up at Nibelheim. He'd already planned for most of his time to be spent up in Mt. Nibel, but he did need to take a little time to talk to the locals. They would know if anything had changed recently, and might be able to give him enough information to go on.

"Let's mosey," he mumbled under his breath, allowing a faint grin as he remembered his companions' reaction the first time he'd said it. Underneath him, Fenrir roared back to life, and he sped up the mountain path once again.

Cloud swore under his breath, pressing his back hard against the freezing boulder he was crouched behind. The air shook with another enraged roar, and he braced himself, waiting for his moment.

The villagers had been helpful. Oh yes, they said, the monsters had all been acting up. The nibel wolves were nervous, they said. A dragon had been seen up Mt. Nibel, obviously insane with mako poisoning. No, it hadn't made it to the village, but they were all worried the ferocious beast would target them next. What they had failed to mention was that the mako poisoned dragon was a mother dragon, and her nestlings were suffering from a dose of insanity like their dam. What was it about Nibelheim that seemed to drive everything to madness?

He heard the scrape of claws, felt the vibration through the rock, and dove away as one of the nestlings launched itself over the top of his hiding spot, green foam dripping from its jaws and maddened eyes locked on him as he scrambled away. Cloud didn't want to kill the dragons. Yes, they were monsters, and yes they were extremely dangerous, even in normal circumstance, but they normally lived high up in the mountains and didn't bother the villagers. It was an existence of 'I'll ignore you if you ignore me', and it had worked out for hundreds of years. Only fools who wandered too far into the mountains, who didn't know when and how to avoid the large beasts, met a grisly end. He'd grown up knowing to respect, and more importantly avoid, the local wildlife.

These dragons would have to die, no matter how he felt about it. Cloud knew it, knew the mako poisoning had claimed too much of their minds. They'd probably nested too close to the old reactor, which still leaked foulness and death.

Cloud had already tripped over the remains of the father. The carcass had shown signs of degeneration from the mako as well. What was left of it, at least. The mother and nestlings had obviously eaten it, which explained their accelerated and violent madness.

He twisted abruptly to the side as another of the nestlings tried to disembowel him, and kicked away its tail before the barbs could take a chunk out of his arm. His biggest problem at the moment was the fact that the mother seemed to have disappeared.

The fledglings were fast, vicious, and relentless. Cloud had not yet been able to do more than wound one of them; he had scored a lucky shot with his sword as he was flung one way and the dragon charged the other. There had already been a few too many close encounters with the ground thanks to the big one, but now she'd just vanished, and he knew that maddened mind still had a shred of cunning. She was likely planning something that would leave him bruised at best, dead if he made any mistake.

He stood, sword at the ready, as the nestlings flanked him on three sides. It was impossible to keep them all in sight, so he relied on his other senses to tell him when the one behind him would leap. Despite their madness, they still possessed the tactical intelligence that made them such deadly adversaries in the first place.

Cloud saw the two dragons to either side tense, heard the whistle of air behind him, and abruptly had no more time to worry about anything other than surviving with his skin mostly intact. He dove for the ground, flattening himself against it and felt claw tips ruffle his hair as the nestling sailed overhead. He rolled immediately to his left, only to hiss when the tail nicked his cheek despite his attempt to dodge.

There was another flash of scales, and Cloud curled in on himself to flip over backward. The ground was hard under his gloves, one hand still gripping his sword even as the chill from the frozen rock seeped through the thick leather. The constant high wind had stripped much of the ground bare of snow, though it did nothing about the ice left behind. It made the fight more hazardous as he went from the slippery rock to the unstable snow. Cloud compensated for it as best he could, flexed his arms, and sprang away from the further swipes of the nestlings. The resultant landing was anything but graceful. Cloud's foot slid a few inches before he could get himself under control. His moment of inattention was all that was needed for a nestling to nearly gut him. He blocked the claws with First Tsurugi, but the blow lifted him off his feet and sent him tumbling across the frozen ground.

The air wheezed from his chest as he came to an abrupt halt against something solid, his back stinging from the impact. From the hollow, metallic sound he knew it was man-made. Cloud used it as a brace to send the next attacker flying, and felt a flash of vindictive humor at the enraged warble as it cart-wheeled away. It tried to use its wings and claws to stop its flight, which only served to send it further out of control. The other two dragons shrieked as their brethren tumbled past, before they turned to charge him again.

A quick survey of his surroundings confirmed that he'd been driven all the way to the abandoned mako reactor. At his back was one of the metal support struts, jutting out of the snow as a dark reminder of ShinRa's mark. He dove out of the way of his two attackers. One collided with the strut and dented it with a shriek of tortured metal. Cloud dashed toward the building, not wanting to remain cornered any longer than necessary.

Getting inside the reactor was a good idea. It was designed to withstand both the weather and general monster incursions, though it probably wouldn't stand up against the determined efforts these monsters would put it through. It would, at least, give him a bit of time to recuperate before the dragons broke in. He was winded enough to need the breather.

The snow next to him exploded suddenly, blinding him despite his hastily raised hand. He desperately tried to blink his vision clear, and caught sight of a dark, blurry shape rushing him. Cloud barely had time to swear as the mother dragon's jaws closed around him. Instinctively he brought his sword up to defend himself in an attempt to angle the point up high enough before the jaws finished snapping shut.

He was only partially successful.

Cloud let out a cut off yell of pain as teeth pierced his shoulder, the strong jaws bringing him to his knees, head bowed against his chest. With his unharmed arm, Cloud thrust his sword awkwardly into the soft tissue at the back of the monster's throat in an attempt to wound her enough to release him. He was jostled painfully around as the mother's momentum drove them forward across the frozen ground.

Then everything stopped. The suddenness of it jarred her teeth out of his shoulder and knocked Cloud flat. The monster's tongue was disgustingly slimy under him, and her upper jaw pressed uncomfortably against his back. Cloud struggled desperately against the pressure, sure at any moment that he'd have the unfortunate experience of learning exactly what the inside of a dragon was like. There was no further movement, except for the final gust of breath expelled from the dragon's corpse. His blade had struck home.

Cloud managed to get a knee under him so that he could lever himself up and push the upper jaw higher until he was able to sit up. His shoulder was burning, and he was covered in the dragon's saliva from head to toe. It was one of the more disgusting ends to a fight Cloud had experienced in a long time. Tifa would laugh at him, he was sure.

A survey of his surroundings made him blink in surprise. Instead of the snow covered mountain terrain full of starving mad fledgling dragons he expected, he was staring at the inside of the mako reactor. Cloud stepped out of his temporary accommodation, the dragon's mouth falling closed with a squelch and clack of teeth. The mother dragon had ambushed him at exactly the right angle for her momentum to carry them right up to the mako reactor's door. Her head and some of her neck had broken through the door before her body had hit against the side of the building. The wall was indented, but had held under the impact.

Cloud stared for another moment as he listened to the shrieks of the fledglings outside, before sending a word of thanks to Aerith. Whether she'd had any hand at the lucky break he didn't know, but he still liked to believe she could touch his life in small ways. He also sent a mild curse at Zack. The terrible humor of nearly being a dragon's appetizer felt like something his friend would laugh himself sick over.

Outside, the shrieks of the fledglings cut off, replaced by the sound of tearing flesh interspersed with squabbling warbles. Cloud closed his eyes against the sound of the cannibalism, sickened anew at the mindlessness mako had driven the creatures to. Such actions weren't unheard of among the monsters, but it was rare among the normally solitary dragons that lived up here.

A dripping sound caught his attention, and he grimaced at his arm. Blood was dripping off his sleeve from the bite wound on his shoulder. He needed to tend to that. Dragon saliva probably wasn't good for it, despite his mako enhanced immune system. He gave First Tsurugi a cursory cleaning before he slipped it into the straps of the harness on his back, promising to do a better job once he'd tended to his own wounds.

He turned, his feet making a hollow sound against the metallic walkway. Cloud had no desire to continue listening to the dragons' current meal. He began to regret his decision almost immediately. Climbing down the ladder one-handed provided no obstacle, but the memories of this place were already pressing down on him.

This place was his grave, Sephiroth's grave, and even Zack's grave. The years of experimentation, the escape and flight to Midgar's bluff could hardly be called living. And what Sephiroth had become... Cloud brought one foot in front of the other, as he slowly proceeded toward a doorway that held so many painful experiences. Tifa's broken body, mad green eyes, the alien creature suspended in its glass prison, the pain-filled, betrayed expression on Zack's face...

He paused at the closed door, breathing shallowly as his heart pounded in his ears. Cloud slid his phone out of its pocket, mildly surprised it had survived his many tumbles and impacts. He needed the support of his friend, the only one still alive who'd been there that day. Tifa would understand, and would probably be delighted he reached out to her when he needed the support. He was trying to be better.

Disappointment filled him bitterly as he found there was no signal. It should have been no surprise; he was much farther in the mountains than Nibelheim, which already had bad reception. On top of that was inside a metal structure, underground, near a large source of mako. Cloud pressed his forehead against the cool surface of the door, hand clenched gently around the useless device.

He could have stayed there, kept the barrier of the door between him and the worst moments of his life. He was far enough from the entrance that the outside noises were barely perceptible. But in some way it felt inevitable from the moment he'd decided to come to Nibelheim. He'd known he would have to face his past sometime, face more than the broken memories he'd regained over the years.

Slipping his phone back into his pocket, Cloud rocked back on his heels. Before he could think further, he pressed the keypad on the side of the door to trigger its opening mechanism. It slid open silently, ShinRa's meticulous maintenance still evident after years of disuse. The lights had long since burned out despite the unlimited power the reactor produced for such a small need. Since ShinRa was no longer sucking the Planet dry, the reactor was on a self-sufficient standby mode.

Cloud shuddered as he stepped into the gloom, his mako eyes already adjusted to the darkness from the previous room. In front of him were the tiers of machinery, the pods broken and empty of their pitiful experiments. Another step forward allowed the door to automatically slide shut behind him with an electronic beep as the lock reasserted itself. The room was filled with the metallic, chemical, and indefinable smell of the mako that Hojo had used to play god. Even the thought of him made Cloud's jaw clench.

When he'd met the scientist on his quest to stop Sephiroth, he hadn't remembered what the madman had done to him and his. If he could go back in time, Cloud would have made sure that the bastard died in the most painful way possible. Such wishes were futile, and Hojo had gotten what he deserved in the end. Cloud dismissed the notion as he made his way further into the room and began climbing the long stairway. He would visit the room where Jenova had been housed, to finish this painful chore as fast as possible.

A sound, a hint of movement in the murk, made him freeze. There shouldn't be anything alive in the building. The doors had all been closed, and none of the indigenous monsters had the size or appendages to manipulate the keypads, even accidentally. Another movement had Cloud spinning, drawing his sword, and adopting a defensive stance. A pair of glowing eyes emerged from behind an overturned pod. Cloud watched it warily as the shape shambled closer with a bestial grunting sound. It was only humanoid in the vaguest sense, in that it had two arms and legs, one head, and shuffled along in a bipedal manner. Everything else was twisted and bloated, skin bulging along limbs that were too thin in places, and too thick in others. The eyes were filled with the glow of mako and madness.

Cloud abruptly realized what he was seeing. Hojo had experimented on humans in the room, always trying to find the perfect formula of mako and Jenova to create a god, one that would even surpass his greatest success; Sephiroth. The pods had all been in use when Sephiroth had gone on his rampage. Years later when Cloud had revisited the reactor, they'd still been occupied, though apparently lifeless.

Perhaps, he thought as more shapes clambered over the wreckage of the room, they'd merely been dormant. The secret of their survival despite being isolated for so many years was obvious in every shuddering gasp, every jerky movement, in the bright mako-filled gazes. The chemical that had twisted them beyond humanity also kept them alive, sustained by the proximity of the mako.

Cloud's stance on the stairs was not optimal for fighting, and he didn't want to be trapped in the building with so many opponents. He took a single step back down the stairs, his eyes tracking the creatures' movement. It turned out to be a bad choice as they immediately sprang forward, fast compared to their initial shamble. Their bodies looked like they could barely hold themselves together, but their agility and strength belied the deceptive appearance.

He was forced to dive to the side, sword clicking against the metal floor as he rolled between two empty and broken pods. His attackers' momentum sent them crashing against another of the pods, where they pushed and fought each other to turn around for another charge. The ones closest scrambled forward, deformed arms stretching toward Cloud almost plaintively. The wound in his shoulder was screaming in pain, but Cloud forced himself to his feet and retreated as fast as he could while continuing to face the approaching creatures. They quickly gained momentum again, and threw themselves upon him. He blocked awkwardly with First Tsurugi, then brought one booted foot up to kick them away. The move gained him a moment of breathing room before they were on him again.

First Tsurugi responded to his touch as he triggered one of the short blades to release, allowing him more blocking power with a blade to each hand. Cloud was immediately forced to use both as the creatures attempted to surround him and attack from all directions. The blows from their blocky arms that made it through his guard were like sledgehammers. Their clawed hands ripped into his flesh until blood was running down his arms and sides like ribbons.

Cloud knew he was in trouble. The creatures were much stronger than the average monster, testing even his mako enhanced body to the limits, and fighting on the sloping stairs and amidst the broken machinery made footing treacherous. If there had only been a few of the creatures they would have been no problem, but he was already tired from his fight with the dragons. The wound in his shoulder was giving him problems, and he could feel exhaustion setting into his muscles. Cloud had managed to kill three of the monsters, but there were still over a dozen more. He could feel himself slowing down.

He quickly recombined First Tsurugi, using the momentum of the coupling to swing his sword in a wide arc. The monsters were forced back, but one managed to slip under his guards. It seized Cloud's arm, lifting him off his feet with ease. Cloud kicked out hard, since its grip meant he was unable to bring his sword into play, and hit the monster on the side of its head. It howled in pain before it flung him spinning away.

Cloud's head struck the wall with a painful crack. Through the ringing in his ears, Cloud noticed he'd hit the door at the top of the stairs. Already the monsters were swarming up the stairs toward him, and he knew he couldn't afford to be cornered here. One gloved hand reached for the keypad as he sliced down an enterprising monster mid-leap. When he heard the whoosh of the door, Cloud wasted no time diving through it. As soon as his boots hit the floor he leveled First Tsurugi at them.

The reflected green glow from the mako pooled below broke through his battle focus. He'd been expecting it, but it still struck Cloud hard as realized he was now in the chamber that had been Jenova's prison. His heart leaped into his throat as he fought back the memories, trying to stay focused on the task at hand. The doorway hadn't had a chance to close behind him before the creatures pushed through, so he only had a small window to take them out while their numbers weren't overwhelming.

He gathered himself, and swung his sword in a practiced move that sent a shock wave into the first monster. It shrieked an abruptly cut-off death scream as it collapsed, severed nearly in half. Two others immediately took its place, with more pouring out behind them. Cloud's vision was getting blurry as fatigue and blood-loss took their toll.

The omnipresent pulse of the Lifestream pushed at his back. Even without looking, Cloud knew he had backed up to the edge of the pipe that stretched above the green glow. This room, despite his delusions and patchy recollection, was now etched into his memories in white-hot relief. He didn't want to turn around, knowing the empty, broken glass tube would be looming hauntingly above him. Even if Jenova was no longer present physically, there always seemed to be an echo of her malevolence in this place. Perhaps it was because of the bad memories associated with it, but the unease was driving shudders of dread down Cloud's back. Despite being so close to the Lifestream, he couldn't feel the reassuring warmth of Aerith's presence.

He stepped backward onto the precarious pipe, drawing the monsters in. His position forced his enemies to funnel to him one at a time. He didn't bother with finesse, and instead used the blunt side of the sword to bat the creatures off the pipe. If the long fall didn't kill them, the Lifestream certainly would. A monster was pushed off the edge of the platform by its enthusiastic brethren, its shriek of defiance joining the other's dying screams.

Sweat ran down the side of Cloud's face as he fought mechanically. The monsters were tenacious, clinging to the side of the pipe, climbing over each other in their fervor to reach him. One grabbed his boot, and he stomped down hard on the arm. He could feel the bone shatter beneath the blow. He was confident in his own balance, sure that if he kept this up he would be able to exterminate them all. His mind threw up the thought that others had survived a dip in the Lifestream, but he shoved the feeling aside. These mindless things were nothing compared to Sephiroth.

As if his mere thoughts had conjured it, Cloud swore he could feel a presence at his back, malicious and heavy. Swore he heard a low, dangerous voice that was an insubstantial purr in his ear.

"Cloud." Then, softly mocking, "Watch out."

He whirled around, heart pounding in his ears. (Not again.) He'd just been through this hell, just fought his demons from the past. He'd defeated Sephiroth! He couldn't—

There was nothing behind him but the gaping empty container that had housed Jenova. Cloud didn't even have time to curse as a creature tackled him from behind. First Tsurugi slipped from his hand as Cloud's knee hit the ground, while a further blow from a misshapen arm sent the blade flying up into the air. The extra weight on his back caused Cloud to slip and pitch forward off the side of the pipe. He scrambled desperately for a handhold, anything to stay his descent. Two more monsters piled against him, and wrenched him further away from his only safety. He heard First Tsurugi hit with a crunching shriek of metal, but couldn't see where it had landed. With a final cry he dropped, unable to prevent his tumble into the heart of the reactor.

The wind of his passage began whistling in Cloud's ear as he picked up speed. Teeth and claws tore at him from his attackers, their tenacious drive to kill apparent even as they fell to their deaths. He reached a hand over his shoulder to wrench one of the monsters off him, and tossed it savagely into the side of the pit. It hit with a wet sound of flesh striking metal, before dropping lifelessly away. The glowing Lifestream was approaching rapidly, even as Cloud shook off his other two attackers similarly.

There was no more time. Cloud hit with an almighty splash before he disappeared under the surface. The burning of the pure life ate into his flesh. He screamed, voice muffled by the liquid quality of the mako. His world filled with green as his consciousness faded, and Cloud hoped Aerith could forgive him for intruding on her afterlife again.

For a while he floated in the endless expanse of green. The pain had faded away, leaving Cloud feeling detached. It was a familiar feeling, both comforting and terrifying. Had he really died this time? He hadn't meant to. The irony of dying just when he'd begun to live again was not lost on him. Perhaps he had more of Zack in him than he thought.

"Hang on Cloud, just hang in there!"

A memory? Cloud's recollection of that time after escaping the Nibelheim labs was a broken stream of green-tinged fragments. Zack's warm voice had filled his world, mostly unintelligible in his delirium. Sometimes the words came through. Zack's unceasing determination had saved Cloud.

"He's slipping…"

It felt like it; Cloud could feel movement, though all he could see was the endless green. Even his body was absent, increasing the detached sensation of the moment.

"Cloud, don't get lost again... okay?"

He stirred uneasily at the quiet plea. Zack had sounded worried and sad, something Cloud never wanted to hear again. In death, Zack had always sounded at peace.

"I won't." His voice came out nearly inaudible, hoarse and muffled.

"Don't worry, he's strong." It was Aerith's voice, growing fainter with every word. It confused Cloud more than anything. His mind churned as he desperately tried to separate memory and hallucination from reality.

"I can't help but worry with all the trouble he gets into..." came Zack's voice again, on the barest edge of perception.

Cloud sat up, abruptly finding himself with a body again. No air filled his lungs, nor did his heart beat. He still felt unreal in the featureless landscape, but now he had a sense of self. He strained his senses, trying to catch his friends' voices again. He prayed that they were here to greet him, guide him, help him in any way.

A sound caught his attention, and he turned around, or felt like he turned around. With no landmarks, where even up and down looked fathomless and indistinguishable, the only way he knew he was moving was when a slumped figure came into his line of sight. Cloud moved his legs in an attempt to walk the short distance between them. He seemed to make no progress, and wondered absently if it was him that wasn't moving, or the other person who was sliding away at the same pace. In the next heartbeat he was standing over the figure, uncertain of exactly when the change had been made.

He took in the full horror of the slumped body. It was severely burned, covered in blackened skin where there was any skin at all. White bone showed up starkly against red tissue, while scraps of clothing still clung futilely to the ravaged flesh. Cloud realized the figure was trembling, and in this odd place he knew that it wasn't from pain. There seemed to be no pain here.

Silent sobs wracked the broken frame, and Cloud was overcome with a sense of guilt, grief, and regret that emanated from the form. He squatted down awkwardly, not having much practice but knowing he had to provide some comfort. As his arm went around the scarred shoulders, the person jerked violently and twisted their head up. They regarded Cloud with wide, familiar eyes. It was like looking into a distorted mirror. Cloud knew they were his eyes, that this wreck of a creature was somehow himself, but they lacked the mako glow that haunted his own blue eyes. It was like that time he'd been lost in his mind, and Tifa had to come rescue him from his own distorted perceptions.

He must be still broken, if the Lifestream provided him with this shattered vision of himself. Something in his head needed healing, and this time there was no Tifa to tell him who he was, no Zack to give him an identity to hide behind. There was only Cloud, and what he had become.

"It's okay," he murmured at the trembling body.

He noted absently that the words were flat, not even the barest echo to reverberate in the air. They did reach the other despite that. Their blackened skin took on a lighter hue, and the shaking limbs steadied gradually.

"Who…?" came a cracked voice, as flat in this place as his own.

"Who else could I be, but myself?" Cloud countered softly. He ran a hand over the other's head in a familiar, comforting gesture. The wild blond locks were absent, but even as his hand passed over the bared skin it took on a healthier look. Haunted blue eyes turned away from Cloud's, and the other curled in on himself again.

"I…I failed…I made a mis—" the hoarse voice choked off in a throaty wheeze. It was a familiar sentiment to Cloud, who'd had years and years of heavy guilt hanging off his shoulders like lead weights. He found it…odd, to see his own despair from the outside.

"A mistake doesn't make you a bad person," he offered quietly. A hard lesson to learn, Cloud knew. Under his glove, the burns were melting away, leaving pink, healthy skin behind. In response to his awkward reassurances, they were somehow healing this broken part of him that was still clinging to guilt.

"…I will never make my dream…" came the soft, plaintive whisper. It was full of disappointment, longing, and despair.

"I will make new dreams for us."

The other shuddered, uncurling from the tight ball they had tucked into. Blue met blue again, and Cloud had a moment of vertigo as he took in the healthy form of a much younger self. The Lifestream didn't necessarily show you as you were on the outside, instead showing a reflection of your soul. Was he still this young and innocent inside?

"Then…I think it will be okay," the other said, then reached a hand out and pressed it over Cloud's heart. Cloud noticed the other's shape was blurring, taking on the green hue of their surroundings.

"…Yeah," he agreed quietly, as he watched his other self fade into the Lifestream.

He knelt there in the unchanging green, for an eternity and no time at all. Slowly he became aware of a feeling of placement; that there was suddenly an up above him, down below him, and space to all sides. He was no longer kneeling, but floating, and he could feel liquid rushing around him, tugging at his clothes and trying to pull him down even as he was buoyed up. Pain was creeping in on him again. It started out as a mild itching that was quickly increasing to the burning agony of when he'd first hit the mako. His clothing shifted against him oddly, and something was suddenly obscuring his vision. He flailed a hand wildly to try to dislodge it, the disorientation making him clumsy.

This was no longer the peaceful green sea that was Aerith's domain; this was the real burning sensation of mako. If he wanted to survive, he'd have to start working his aching limbs into some semblance of service. The poison was setting in, and Cloud was finding it hard to think, let alone move through the dizziness and pain.

Above him, he could see light shining through the surface of the Lifestream. In his mind's eye, a familiar hand stretched toward him, and with a last desperate lunge he reached out.

Tifa shivered as the wind gusted by, cutting through her jacket with depressing ease. It had been so long since she'd lived in the harsh climate of Nibelheim, and to her disgust she found she no longer could brave the mountains in her preferred short sleeves. Still, the weather wasn't what was filling her with a cold dread.

Cloud seemed to be missing. Considering his normal habits, this shouldn't have been so worrying, but he had promised Tifa that he would call her as soon as he got back down from the mountains. Days had gone by without a word, and she had decided to take matters into her own hands.

With a mixture of anger, determination, and dread, she'd 'recruited' a guardian for the orphans—Denzel had been happy enough to spend time with Johnny—then 'requested' a lift from Cid's airship. The fact that she wouldn't have taken no for an answer was somewhat moot, since Johnny had been overjoyed at being able to do her a favor, and Cid—once he'd heard that Cloud was MIA again—had only spent a few minutes swearing before giving in.

Leaving Denzel and Marlene with promises that she'd drag Cloud back one way or another, she and Cid had taken the Shera straight across to Nibelheim. Cid's crew was exemplary as always, and they arrived hours sooner than expected. Tifa had left the captain to his landing procedures—most of which consisted of swearing at each and every member of the crew for minutes at a time—and headed straight into town.

The people had been nice enough, at least by the standards of Nibelheim people. Tifa had still felt the dark horror at every encounter, every building visited, even just by being in the town itself. It was worse than a ghost town for her; it was as if her past had never existed in the first place. How much worse it must be for Cloud, who can't remember half of his past at all?

Everyone she spoke to had told her the same thing; Cloud had arrived, delivered the package to the store, and then immediately headed up the mountain four days ago. There had been no further contact, no further sign of him, and the villagers were too frightened of the monsters to venture very far up the mountain. The knot of worry had tightened in Tifa's stomach. Surely there was no monster that Cloud couldn't handle, but what if he was too hurt to move?

She'd been halfway up the mountain, following the old, familiar trail, before her phone had gone off. The reception had been terrible, but she heard enough to realize that Cid was not happy with her impulsive decision. It hadn't stopped her from continuing on. The further up she hiked, the more disturbed she became. There were signs of dragons, which should not have been present in this part of the mountain. For a while Tifa had been unsure that Cloud had actually come up here at all. Then she began to see signs of a fight, and knew that he must have run into more trouble than anyone had expected.

Now she was here at the reactor, wind chilling her face and unease making her queasy. It was obvious this was where the fight had ended. The giant corpse of a dragon lay half-eaten and exposed, blocking the doorway into the reactor. Around it, three smaller dragons lay dead. They'd been killed by gunshot, she noticed, so it was obvious that they'd still been alive when Cloud had…stopped fighting. She refused to think he could be dead. Not after everything he'd gone through. The Planet wouldn't be that cruel.

Next to the dead dragon's neck, which had filled up the entryway, something had wrenched a hole into the side of the reactor. Tifa gingerly stepped through the opening, careful of the jagged edges of metal that stuck out haphazardly. What had broken in had not been worried about neatness.

Inside was as she remembered, if darker. The utilitarian metal walkway rang ominously under her feet as she made her way deeper into the gloom. When it became too hard to even walk in the darkness, she sent a lick of power into the materia in her armband to light a small fire that danced in her palm. Around her, mutilated…bodies lay strewn about, the cause of their demise obvious in the deep cuts. Cloud had been here.

Tifa swallowed hard. She didn't want to move on, fearing what she would find at the end of the path. This was too much like that day from long ago, where she'd lost everything important to her. Fate wouldn't be so unkind to do it to her again, not here.

She stepped through the doorway that lead to Jenova's old resting spot, the door held open by another corpse. That one had been killed by gunshot wound, and she could see the other bodies strewn around had been dispatched similarly. She didn't look at the figure standing silently to one side, unable to take her gaze off the sword that was stuck into the floor like a grave marker.

"…He's gone away again, hasn't he?" she whispered quietly, tears coming to her eyes. She knew, despite being able to see what had obviously happened, that Cloud was not dead. Aerith wouldn't have let him die in this place, Tifa was sure.

Beside her, Vincent said nothing, merely moved forward in his long, fluid stride. He stopped next to the sword, then reached out and pulled it free of the metal with an earsplitting shriek. Tifa hugged herself, not feeling brave enough to tempt fate and approach over the narrow metal pipe with how shaky her legs were.

Vincent returned to her side, proffering the sword without a sound. Even his footsteps had made no sound, she noted enviously. The sentiment was quashed as she remembered just what he'd had to lose to gain such inhuman stealth. She reached out and took the cool metal, arm tensing against the full weight of the weapon.

"I should return this to his bike," she said lightly. She pasted a tremulous smile onto her face. "He'll be wanting it when he returns."

"If he doesn't?" Vincent's soft, deep voice insinuated itself through the air as smoothly as he moved. Tifa closed her eyes, and imagined she could hear another voice, lighter, sweeter, calling out to her.

"Then," she said, turning around and heading for the doorway, "We'll just have to follow him and bring him back."

Tifa had braved death more times than she cared to remember, all for those gentle blue eyes and rare smile. Behind her, she heard the faintest swish of a cloak moving, and she felt a swelling of renewed determination. Cloud would never have to face his problems alone.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 10th)

The heavy thump of helicopter rotors cut through the high blue of the sky, as far below the ocean skimmed by. The surface glittered like threads of silver, while to the south and east dark lines of land smudged the horizon, and in the distant west flickers of an oceanic squall could be seen. The complement of helicopters was flying in a vague v-shaped formation as they skimmed the coastline, headed east-southeast from Junon where they'd stopped briefly for refueling. Each heavy bellied personnel transporter was full with either rookie SOLDIER 3rds or infantryman. Among those in the lead helicopter was a single SOLDIER 1st class: Zack Fair. He would have been enjoying the ride more if he hadn't been vaguely worried he'd endure his second crash landing in far too soon. Modeoheim was still stark in his mind.

Absently, he tried to pass his hand through his fringe, only to touch bare forehead. He covered his own mishap by smoothing his gloved hand back over the top of his head and ruffled the wild mess of his hair, an easy grin on his face. The SOLDIER 3rd next to him was shaking in his brand new SOLDIER issue boots. Zack reached over and slapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, don't worry. We'll be fine so long as our pilot is better than Tseng." The Third gave a strangled laugh as if he wasn't sure whether he was allowed to find amusement in that or not. Zack got that a lot lately.

"I heard that," a low voice announced through the crackling of Zack's earpiece, and going by the fact that the visible lower half of the Third's face had paled, so had everyone else.

"Smooth as ever, Zack," a lighter, feminine voice commented.

Zack gave a quick grin, and cheerfully crowed, "Tseng! Cissnei! I had no idea you were joining us on this little operation. What brings you Turks to the SOLDIER's neck of the woods?"

"The President wants a preliminary report as soon as possible. It will be my job to survey the area and take it back to him," Tseng replied calmly.

"He's really that eager, huh?" Zack mused, aloud. Inwardly, however, he couldn't help but dryly think that someone just wanted to keep an eye on him. There was no way the Turks would sink to the level of messenger boy without a good reason, no matter who was giving the orders. No answer was forthcoming, and he hadn't been expecting one. It still felt like an acknowledgment, that maybe they knew he knew. It was possible he was just over thinking things again. Everything that had happened with Genesis and Angeal was making him paranoid, making him see conspiracies everywhere.

Zack's eyes drifted to the side and looked past the SOLDIER 3rd to the small window and the horizon beyond. He could make out the vague shape of mountains rising above the rest of their surrounding landscape in the distance. Zack passed his hand over his hair again before his hands found the hilt of his—Angeal's—Buster Sword and tightened around it with the faint creak of supple leather. He wasn't altogether sure what had driven the change in hair style. Maybe he felt it was finally time to grow up, or maybe he just wanted a reminder, or maybe he just wanted to show off the really cool scar he'd gotten. He had heard all kinds of rumors about the sudden change that had followed his acquisition of the Buster Sword. Zack couldn't say what was true himself; he was too conflicted on too many things.

He fought down the urge to fidget as restless energy sizzled through him. Waiting had never been Zack's strong point, and even being en route was no guarantee of getting him to behave. It was only tough lessons that had brought about some hard-earned control on his part, and even then he was still the same old Zack.

Outside the window, the scenery gave way to a final spit of land before it was nothing but glittery, deep blue ocean for miles in either direction. Zack listened to the static swathed comments shot over the airwaves as the pilots coordinated themselves, and the occasional spate of conversation that would break out among the rookies with him as they tried to soothe their nerves. He offered nothing, merely grinned at the familiar sentiments that echoed some of his own from years gone by.

It was as the sun was making the final leg of its ascent toward the middle of the sky that Tseng spoke up again. "We have fifteen minutes before we reach the Mideel Area. All units prepare for landing and disembarking."

Zack, unable to contain himself, pumped a fist, though he missed the nearby Third's flinch as he nearly caught the rookie in the ribs. His earpiece gave a faint crack at his joyous whoop, and judging by the winces around him, it had done the same to theirs. Next to him, the Third attempted to edge away as far as the cramped confines would allow without looking like that was what he was doing.

"Finally! I thought we'd never get there. You sure you can set this tin can down alright, Tseng?"

Tseng didn't dignify that with a response. Zack took to watching the approaching shoreline as best he could. He jiggled his leg restlessly, and tightened his fingers on the red wrapped hilt of the Buster Sword again. He listened to the radio chatter more intently, carefully following the thread of conversation as they coordinated the landing. To all sides a mixture of grass and dirt spread out in a relatively flat plain while a thick tangle of forests and cliffs darkened the horizon lines in almost every direction.

In a second, Zack had his harness unstrapped and had shimmied closer to the door as the helicopter came in low and evened out in preparation to land. With a fluid movement, he settled his Buster Sword on his back, then keyed the door open before anyone could protest. He turned his head enough to grin over his shoulder as wind and sound howled into the cabin and whipped his shaggy black hair into a frenzy. Zack lifted his free hand to his forehead in a jaunty salute. Over the noise, he yelled, "I'll go secure the perimeter. Try not to kill my troops!" With a final wink, he jumped.

As air rushed up to meet him, Zack spread his arms as if to welcome it and the spike of adrenaline it drilled through his system. The black fabric of his fatigues was plastered to the front of his body, the wind tearing over his bare arms, and it probably should have hurt but he couldn't feel a thing besides the thrill. It was a matter of timing, knowing what his body could handle, and how he could handle it.

At the right moment he twisted, swung his legs forward and hit the ground at a speed that would probably have shattered the legs on a normal human being. He used his momentum to keep moving forward, tucked, rolled, and came back to his feet with one gloved hand braced on the dirt and the other gripping the hilt of the Buster Sword. Dirt swirled around him, kicked up from his landing and the rotors of the choppers as they came in lower. Zack propelled himself forward in a crouched sprint to get clear of the landing zone before he turned around, danced back a few more steps, then lifted a hand to shield his eyes.

He made a show of looking around the area. As expected, there wasn't a monster or insurgent out to attack them for miles. Lifting both arms, Zack waved to the helicopters and jogged backwards even further to watch them set down. Dust and bits of plant matter swirled through the air in a choking cloud, though not enough to obscure the gleaming metal of the machines.

With low, mechanic churning sounds the doors on the choppers were thrust open and his troops began to disembark. Infantrymen with rifles slung over their shoulders scuttled out from under the still spinning rotors with light cases, and rookie SOLDIER 3rds followed with larger supply crates. They hadn't brought much with them, but it was enough to be self sufficient during the time designated for the mission.

Over the heavy tread of standard issue boots, the rotors of the helicopters began to whine as they picked up speed again and all but one took to the air. They'd be back in around a week to pick them up again if things went well. The mission wasn't one that they were expecting to give them trouble, a fact that made Zack think he ought to be worried. He shrugged it off as a burgeoning sense of paranoia, and turned to grin as Tseng and Cissnei approached from the lone helicopter that had remained on the ground and was now shut down and quiet.

Tseng regarded him with cool dark eyes before he simply said, "Is the perimeter secure?"

Zack never knew whether or not Tseng was joking when he said stuff like that with such a straight face, but his inherent optimism preferred to believe that, yes, Tseng had a sense of humor. Zack cracked a grin in response, arms swinging loosely at his side. "All safe and secure as far as I can see." He switched his bright gaze to Cissnei and cheerfully asked, "So what do you think?"

Cissnei gave that little thoughtful hum of hers, then looked at Tseng. "Next time, we should let Rude and Reno deal with him."

Tseng gave a low, quiet chuckle and began to walk away with a gesture for Cissnei to follow. Zack, left slightly speechless, found his tongue in time to call ineffectively after them, "Wha—? Hey!" Zack subsided back onto his heels with a slight laugh, and rubbed the back of his neck. "There's no dealing with Turks..." he muttered to himself.

"Don't you have something you need to do? I'll join you after I have a word with Cissnei," Tseng called over his shoulder, and it was only then that Zack realized he'd been heard. He manfully resisted making a face at Tseng's back while he watched the two Turks carefully place themselves out of hearing range, then turned on his heel to observe the loitering troops.

As if they were personally attuned to the gaze of a commanding officer—maybe they were—the red scarf wearing officers immediately gave a bark of command that sent the troopers scuttling to line up and come to attention. Just the way ShinRa liked it, he supposed. The rookie SOLDIERS were a little slower on the get go, probably still high off their new ranks, but they too fell in line. It was still a little odd to be deferred to like this, but he was getting used to it. Zack clapped his hands and gave a sharp nod, more to himself than anything.

"I've already briefed you on why we're here. This isn't supposed to be a tough mission, but don't get careless. One mistake could end up in you or one of your comrades hurt or killed. Watch your backs out there, and watch the backs of your comrades."

A chorus of 'Sir's' was the only response Zack got as he looked over them, faintly troubled by the fact that he was in charge of this many lives for the first time in his career. It had always been Angeal looking after him, but now that was no longer possible. It was his turn to step up, but was he ready for it? He'd never been one to doubt himself in the past but now he was starting to wonder... He hadn't been able to save Angeal.

"Alright, let's get moving. Scout teams two and four, I want you to head south west. Scout teams one and three head south east. The rest of you spread out and proceed due south in parties. If you find any monsters take them out. We don't want anything nasty at our backs!"

The reaction was immediate, and the thud of military boots on the dirt soon filled the air alongside shouts of command as they got ordered and began to mobilize. Zack stood still among it all, watching and wondering. He was about to follow after the main detachment of troops when his phone beeped to signal a new mail. He paused, one foot extended mid step, then relaxed back into a stationary position. He fumbled his phone out and flipped it open with hardly a glance at the sleek if not slightly scuffed black casing, then thumbed open his mail folder's Inbox. Zack wasn't terribly surprised to see it was from Kunsel.

I heard you're on your first mission as a big time CO?
At least it's just checking out some reports of a new mako spring and some monster elimination, right?
Don't worry, we all know you'll do fine, Zack.
Just remember to use your brain instead of your sword for the thinking.

The last line surprised a laugh out of Zack even as he glanced over another mail that had arrived. This one proved to be from Luxiere, praising him for his speech to the rookies. He snorted faintly; all he'd done was parrot the words Angeal had drilled into him. Pride, dreams, and honor... Right. Zack closed his phone with a snap and tucked it away. He couldn't help but wonder what those things meant to him now, in a world where your comrades could be fighting at your side one moment, and then you'd be forced to kill them the next. As always, he shoved the lingering doubts away and lifted his head to gaze after his troops. If nothing else he had a duty to make sure they all got back safe and sound, so he'd focus on that goal for now.

"Zack," Tseng's solemn voice spoke up from over his shoulder. Zack glanced back at him, neither surprised or bothered by the Turk's quiet arrival. Tseng might be a Turk, but he was also a friend.

"Yeah, Tseng?" he asked curiously. The Turk's passive expression gave nothing away.

"There seems to be a problem."

"Huh?" Zack turned just in time to see Tseng flick the smallest of glances back toward the helicopter. When he looked, Zack discovered a few infantrymen and a couple of SOLDIER 3rds clustered around a fourth trooper who was sitting in the dirt, his helmeted head in his hands. "I'll take care of it, hold on." Tseng gave a sparse nod, and Zack strode toward the little group. He waved at Cissnei as he passed her, though she gave no indication of noticing, then came to a halt beside one of the SOLDIER 3rds. "Is something wrong with him?"

"Apparently he's airsick, sir."

One of the troopers stood up from where he'd been talking to his buddy and turned to face Zack. "It's nothing unusual. It seems he gets motion sick, but he'll be fine in awhile, sir. Always is."

Zack stepped around the trooper and crouched down beside the sick man, clapped a hand on his shoulder, and said, "Hey, take all the time you need." All he got in response was a half hearted groan, that he couldn't help but think sounded familiar. Giving a faint laugh, Zack gave the trooper's shoulder a squeeze before he stood. "You lot stay here with him, and catch up once he's feeling better. I don't want you to push him or yourselves; it could end in disaster, so take your time. The trail should be easy enough to follow."


Another groan, one that sounded faintly like agreement came from the miserable trooper. That was good enough for Zack. "Get his helmet off him so he can breathe," he said breezily as he returned to Tseng's side. "Ready to go then?" To Zack's disappointment, if Tseng was bothered by the fact that he was being forced to trek through the countryside again he didn't show it. Tseng gestured for him to proceed him, and Zack strode off after the retreating backs of his troops.

An uneasy feeling nagged at him, as if something very wrong was going to happen. As Zack crested a low hillock, he paused to look in the direction he recalled Banora being. Zack tried to push the unease aside as a result of bad memories, but he'd never been one to ignore his gut instinct and didn't really want to start now.

"Is something the matter?" Tseng asked as he came up alongside him. Zack had no idea if he actually cared, or was just asking because it was expected. Turks were hard to read when they were relaxed, let alone while on the job. For a moment, Zack considered telling Tseng that he had a bad feeling, but the moment passed as quickly as it came.

"Nah, just admiring the scenery."

Tseng gave a noncommittal hum, then remarked, "You should admire it a little more closely then."


Tseng didn't need to answer, because Zack found out swiftly enough when he had to skip back to keep an green colored, sickle shaped claw from taking out his kneecap. The insect like monster skittered after him, and propelled itself into the air to take another swipe. Zack yanked the Buster Sword off his back and smacked it aside with the flat of the huge blade. Beside him, Tseng pulled his pistol and, as calmly as if he were skeet shooting rather than gunning a monster out of the air, the Turk fired off a single shot. The Head Hunter hit the ground, already dead, and curled into itself with a crackle of its exoskeleton. Zack flicked it casually out of the way with Buster Sword's tip then set off again.

Zack's heavier footfalls nearly covered Tseng's quiet tread as they continued onward, picking their way between gathering scrub and rock. The sounds of occasional gunfire and shouts floated to them. Monster encounters were few and far between for the pair, whether because the rookies were enjoying their freedom a little too much, or because they'd fled the area from all the racket was hard to tell.

The terrain faded into patchy areas of grass as they followed a slight incline alongside a shadowed cliff. It was mid-afternoon when Zack stopped to use the edge of a rock to scrape bug guts off his boot while he waited for Tseng to catch up. A trooper came running toward him, pulled up, and saluted. Zack waved at him to hold on without even bothering to look up. In fact he went so far as to reach down, grasp his ankle, and haul his foot up. He leaned forward, balancing, and tried to peer at the bottom of his boot. Zack wrinkled his nose at the bits of slime and gunk still caught in the grooves and let go. Once he straightened, he turned toward the trooper. Something about the man's posture seemed to radiate incredulity, but Zack just gave him a grin. "Was there something you needed?"

"Uh, Sir!" he snapped, coming to attention again. "We've found the spring."

Zack perked up. "Good job. Where is it?"

The trooper pointed, and Zack gazed off in that direction as if he could see it. "It's about two miles southwest along the cliff. There's a little wood down that way, and it's in there, nestled right up against the cliff face, sir. You can't miss it."

"Hear that, Tseng?" Zack called as he noticed the Turk finally catching up. "We're almost there!"

Although Tseng wasn't visibly ruffled in any way, Zack liked to think he could detect some discomfort in him as he said, "So I heard."

"You need a break first?" Zack wheedled.

"It would be best," Tseng opined as he continued on, walking past Zack and the trooper, "if we arrive as quickly as possible so I can report back to the President."

Zack followed after him, rocks crunching under his boots as he picked his way among them with ease. "You just want to get back to Midgar, and out of the boonies. I always thought you Turks were tougher." Behind him, the infantryman followed in uncomfortable silence. Zack wondered if he was worried the infamous Turk would decide to take him out for his cheek. Blithely, Zack carried on, eyes locked on the back of Tseng's head in the hopes of some sort of reaction, "You need to get out more, Tseng. Take a hike, go camping, something..."

"Camping. In the monster infested wilderness," Tseng responded dryly, his pace never wavering. Zack braced a gloved hand on a rock, and scrambled up the pile to walk along the jagged ridge they provided.

"Sure," Zack said. He spread his arms slightly to keep his balance as he put one foot before the other like he was walking a balance beam. "Builds character."

"And this is something they subscribed to in your hometown?" Tseng asked, finally deigning to give Zack his attention when the SOLDIER jumped from the rocks to land a few feet in front of him, Buster Sword in hand. Zack neatly bludgeoned another green bug into a spatter against the cliff face, and shook the resulting muck off.

"Absolutely," Zack replied cheerfully, even as he twirled Buster Sword over his head in a brief victory pose and put it back in place on his back. He turned to face Tseng, and propped his fists on his narrow hips. "Look how I turned out!"

Tseng stared at him for several long seconds, then murmured, "... I believe that's more of a warning against the practice than a compliment to it." Beyond the Turk, the lone trooper that had been gamely trooping after them seemed to be at a loss even through the helmet he wore.

Zack took pity on the poor guy, and, deciding Tseng didn't require a response, dragged him into the conversation. "What do you think?"

The trooper startled, helmet glancing to either side briefly. "Uh, about what, sir?"

"Camping! Nature!" Zack enthused, arms lifting in a quick gesture of emphasis that took in their surroundings.

The trooper straightened up as if suddenly losing his bafflement. Zack kind of felt bad as he realized he might be putting the guy on the spot, but it was kind of amusing watching him sweat it out like his attempt to involve him in the conversation was a life or death, career deciding test. "It's part of army life, sir! I mean, uh," he stuttered, then more calmly, as if afraid he'd be reprimanded for asking, added, "Did they really do that in your hometown? Send you out to the monsters, I mean."

"Oh, yeah," Zack said, face carefully modulated into a serious expression. "When I was being particularly bad my parents would toss me out with nothing more than a rock and a crust of bread."

Zack had to turn and continue on to keep from laughing when the trooper gaped at him in surprise. "No wonder you got into SOLDIER, sir. If you were able to survive out there with just a rock for a weapon, I mean!"

"Nah, I ate the rock and used the bread for a weapon!"

"That, uh, doesn't sound healthy, sir," the trooper opined carefully.

He couldn't keep a straight face any longer, it just wasn't possible. Tseng walked past him with a little sigh, after Zack stalled out on the path from his laughter. Zack turned and grinned at the infantryman. "You're alright."

"Uh, thank you, sir," the trooper said. It sounded as if he wasn't sure if he ought to be thankful or not.

Onward the three walked in silence, Tseng in the lead. Apparently the Turk had caught a second wind. Zack's pace was far more leisurely than either of them. He soon grew bored of moving so slow, overtook Tseng, and continued on ahead. After skirting an eighty degree grade of scree, Zack found himself confronted by a small tuft of tough little wildflowers with tiny purple petals. They were situated in such a way that they got the most sun in the day that they could.

Zack couldn't help but crouch down for a closer look, and his mind superimposed the image of Aerith happily cradling the blossoms of her small church garden momentarily over the scenery. He didn't reach out and touch. Aerith had scolded him often enough about his inability to properly handle the delicate little things that he was a bit wary of it. Zack couldn't help but think that Aerith would like these hardy blossoms. They were a lot like the ones she babied in Midgar which seemed to embody the people of the slums; tough, but hiding something that was worth paying attention to.

The faint scuff of a boot sole on rock alerted him to his company catching up again, and Zack pushed himself upright. "Just there," the trooper was saying. He pointed down the hill before them which consisted mostly of rock falls, scree, and shale. Near the base, a tattered row of trees eventually thickened into a small forest, longer than it was wide. Zack could see a splotch of blue loitering on the edge of the trees. "Sparo's waiting for us, see." He lifted his hand and waved. The trooper by the trees returned the gesture.

Zack sent a look toward Tseng, who was standing as nonchalantly as possible with one hand braced against the sheer cliff face beside him. "And just think, once you have a look around you can hike back and get out of here, Tseng!" He thought he got a glare for that one, but it was there and gone so quick it might have just been a trick of the light. Their trooper 'guide' started down the decline, sliding and slipping on the loose rock as he went. He was obviously trying to keep his gun from being jostled and keep his balance at the same time; it was an interesting process to watch.

Tseng started down next, and Zack was even more amused to watch the Turk pick his way among the rock in his nicely polished shoes. With a final glance back at the flowers, Zack made a silent promise. If he had time before they went back to Midgar, he'd stop here again and dig one of the plants up to take back to Aerith. Then he too started down the slope.

His boots slipped over loose gravel until his ears were filled with the scrape, slither, and clatter of moving rock. Zack leaned back in an attempt to keep his center of gravity from going completely AWOL until he was about five feet from the bottom. With what he considered to a philosophical shrug, he slid the rest of the way down, nearly toppled from the weight of Buster Sword and his own momentum, and stumbled onto even ground again amongst a veritable miniature landslide.

They covered the rest of the distance in a matter of minutes, and were greeted by a vivid white smile against dark skin, and a cheerful, "Welcome back, Jac! I see you managed to find the CO without getting too lost."

"I didn't get lost," their guide, apparently named Jac, muttered sulkily. "Just because you have an uncanny sense of direction and can navigate your way anywhere without so much as a map doesn't mean we're all freaks of nature, Sparo."

"You found the spring?" Zack broke in, and was immediately graced with a salute from Sparo, as if the trooper was just noticing the SOLDIER 1st was there.

"Yessir! It's back that way in the forest, and if I do say so myself it doesn't look good, sir."

Zack was instantly on alert, and if the quiet, listening sort of vacuum that seemed to gape open at his side where Tseng stood was anything to go by, so was the Turk. "What do you mean?" Tseng asked, voice low.

"Well..." Sparo said, rocking on his heels. He turned to look back into the forest, then seemed to come to a conclusion. "I think you ought to come and see for yourself, sir. It's fairly obvious."

Sparo turned and lead the way into the woods with the other three following. As they walked, Zack could feel the hair on the back of his neck and along his arms prickling. The woods were dead silent. Not a single bird sung out, not a single animal rustled through the undergrowth or the tree branches, and he had the creeping feeling that he was being watched. It made his skin crawl uncomfortably, and Zack found himself reflexively gripping the hilt of his Buster Sword as they crept through the undergrowth.

Tseng was a silent shadow a few paces behind him. The two troopers seemed to have lost any of the buoyant attitude they had displayed before. He slowed his breathing until it was the merest of whispers through his nose, and strained to hear anything in the silence. Zack knew from growing up in Gongaga that a quiet forest usually meant the presence of a threat that had scared everything into hiding. It was possible that they were just hiding from the troops, but there was also the very real possibility of something else in the area causing them to flee. Zack had just opened his mouth to ask Jac and Sparo if they'd swept the area for monsters, when, with a sound like a gunshot in the quiet, a twig cracked somewhere ahead of them. The troopers immediately brought their rifles up.

Zack held his hand up to hold them off and edged forward. The last thing they needed was a friendly fire incident because they'd all gotten too hyped up from the atmosphere. He shoved aside a tangle of vegetation and continued forward. Each step he took was carefully placed with all the silent premeditated ease of a stalking wolf. Then, through the brush came another sound. Zack held his hand up to signal his companions to freeze, and listened.

"What if there are mako crazed monsters out here?" a voice floated to them, accompanied by the slightest jangle and the scuff of a boot. Another twig snapped. Zack felt all the tension drain out of his shoulders and began to shove his way through the brush with less stealth.

"Don't be an idiot. If there were mako crazed monsters they'd have sent a First or some Seconds. Not a bunch of troopers and rookies like us," another voice replied to the first.

"But they did send a First. I was sitting next to him on the way."

"...Really? What was he like?"

Ahead of him Zack could see the blue uniforms of two rookie SOLDIER 3rds loitering in a relatively open area. Behind them the sheer rock wall of the cliff loomed. Zack whistled slightly as he meandered out into the clearing himself. The cliff was split jaggedly by a vertical fissure, from which glowing green mako flowed like some sort of fountain. It looked like the ground itself had been scored with a gaping wound. At the base of the cliff it had formed a pool from which a luminescent aurora wavered upward and colored the air with an eerie sheen. He barely noticed the two Thirds jumping to startled attention at his presence.


Zack tore his gaze away from the natural beauty of the spring, in favor of looking toward Tseng who was kneeling in the grass to the left of the main pool. The Turk was keeping a careful distance. "That didn't sound like a good hmm," he noted.

"It's not," Tseng murmured as he stood. He brushed grass from his knee with a few economical swipes of his hand, then turned to spear Zack with a dark eyed, serious look. "This wasn't a natural mako pool."

Behind him, Zack heard someone mutter that it sure looked natural to them. Zack thought it looked pretty natural too, but he walked over to join Tseng and see what he'd seen. What Zack found made his nerves stand on end again. "Oh yeah, that's not good," he muttered, low enough not to be heard.

The troopers and Thirds shifted nervously in the ensuing quiet. Zack squatted down and peered down at the clear mountain stream that was meandering off further southwest, creating a series of little pools and waterfalls as it went. Even as he watched some of the thick mako slid over the surface of the water and was carried downstream. It was obvious that the pool had once been the headwaters for this stream, still was to a degree, but now it was tainted with mako. If he had to guess, Zack would bet that there had been an earthquake in the area that had cracked the cliff open like an egg. From there...he looked back to the oozing waterfall of mako. The walls of the crack through which it flowed already had some small crystal formations beginning, as did the edges of the pool. He couldn't help but wonder how long this had been here.

That uneasy feeling was back again.

Zack settled back on his heels. "Hey, you two," he called, gesturing to the rookie SOLDIERs.

"Gibbs Richards, sir," one of them said. "And he's Edge Mueller."

Zack nodded absently. "Where's the rest of your team?"

"They went off to scout the area further, sir," Edge said carefully. "Should we go look for them?"

"No," Zack said. "It would be best if you stayed here."

"Sir?" There was a wariness to Gibbs' tone. Zack stood at last and turned to them with an easy grin.

"I'm going to start calling the rest of the company here so we can do a proper sweep of the area, so there's no need." Except for the fact that they might already be dead if there really were mako mad monsters in the area. He hoped that the water had diluted the run off mako enough to keep them from ingesting an amount that would have an effect, but he wasn't willing to stake anymore lives on it. After he'd sent out the call for the troops to gather, he'd go look for them himself.

The sky had darkened with the onset of twilight until it was a faded mass of pinks, purples, and bruised blacks and blues. Zack couldn't help but feel jittery. His check of the area hadn't turned up either of the two missing troopers, nor had any of the incoming teams seen them. Tseng had left shortly after he'd seen Zack had things well in hand, and Zack could only hope that his report would bring some sort of resolution to the steadily growing mess.

With the green glow of the mako around him, the clearing was well lit even with the fading daylight. Those troops that he hadn't sent back out in reinforced groups to watch the edges of the forest or to scout, lingered around the clearing, clearly at a loss. Zack, for his part, had set aside Buster Sword and decided to burn off energy by partaking in his favorite exercise routine and left most of the menial running of things to the lower ranked officers. His mind was more focused on the probability that this mission had gone from simple and easy, to possibly life threatening.


Zack did a few more squats, then stood and stretched his arms out. The trooper that had approached him was carrying another helmet in his hands, and Zack felt a trill of unease skate down his spine. "What did you find?"

The trooper pressed his lips together, looking pale. "It was found up a tree, sir. We found a rifle stuck in another."

If Zack had been prone to it, he would have started swearing. "Alright, where did you—" He was interrupted by a shout off to the side, and looked up to see another group joining the clearing. One of the troopers was lagging behind his buddies. Zack couldn't help but think that, with his hunched shoulders and bowed head, he looked rather miserable. It took only a second to make the connection with the group that had been left behind at the landing zone. He dismissed them from his mind for the moment, but as he was turning back to the trooper he'd been speaking to, movement and a flash of color caught his attention.

Zack jerked back around just in time to see the small group skirting the mako pool, and a hippogriff, eyes wide and mako bright in its vividly feathered face, come tearing out of the shadowy forest with a shriek.

"Whoa—Watch out!" Zack yelled, already taking a half step toward the little group. The rest threw themselves out of the way, but the sick trooper, still obviously not feeling well, reacted too slow. Zack could only watch as the hippogriff collided with him and sent him careening to the edge of the pool. The trooper brought his rifle up as the monster grasped for him with its talons, and squeezed the trigger. The beast screamed in pain and backed off with harsh flaps of its dark wings that overbalanced the trooper.

By the time Zack crossed the clearing, the trooper had already disappeared under the surface of the glowing mako.

Next time on Counter Crisis it's a Crisis of Confusion!