Counter Crisis
by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


Chapter 19 – Crisis of Cartel
[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (June 17th)


It was eerie. Shotgun pressed herself against a wall, mindful of the burning score on her bicep where a monster had ripped through her sleeve. When there was an attack, one expected certain amounts of drama to ensue. This silence, the lack of—well, everything that invoked the imagery of an attack by a terrorist organization on a world superpower—was somehow more ominous. There was nothing but a slew of dead guards and the sound of recycled air moving through the ducts. No alarms, no panicked screams, no sounds of fighting. Nothing but her own half-stifled breathing as she listened for the next set of claws to approach on the polished floors.

Very, very carefully she slid her hand away from the trigger—which she hated to do because they could attack again at any moment—and reached down to pull her phone out of her pocket. With the same care she flipped it open, wincing slightly when the hinge gave a plastic clack as it caught. She thumbed the speed dial for Veld and waited. He picked up almost immediately.

"Shotgun?"

"I think we're going to need to use a little more force, chief," she whispered. "These things are a little tough."

What had started out as a top-secret mission to subdue Professor Hojo's escaped experiments had turned out not to be as straightforward as Shotgun had expected. Normally monster elimination was a SOLDIER's duty, but due to the sensitive nature of the Professor's work this had been left to the Turks. The first monsters she had encountered–half a dozen grinning Bombs–had been subdued without much trouble, until she'd run into a pair of wild-eyed Hippogriffs. She'd managed to shoot one down, while the other had tried its damnedest to take a chunk out of her arm. It had been joined by more of the beasts as they were attracted to their brethren's shrieks. She'd been forced to retreat against the greater numbers.

"What's your status?"

"A bit banged up, and in need of a few more rounds, I think. Not too bad otherwise. I could probably take them if I had to, but I'm not fond of close combat." She tucked her phone between her shoulder and ear, and quickly patted her pockets down in search of more ammunition for her beloved shotgun. She found several shells, and moved them to a pocket she could access more easily.

"Your location?"

"The sixty-sixth floor, sir. I'm near the stairwell down though, in case I need a place to duck into." She wouldn't call it retreat, even if the chuckling trills of the monsters that echoed down the corridors were coming closer. Strategically, she was certain she could keep the beasts at bay if she funneled them into the stairwell. Presuming they cooperated and followed her, that is.

"Hmm. Understood. Hold them from your position for now." With a click Veld ended the call on his end, and Shotgun quickly tucked her phone away. Well, it wasn't like she hadn't faced some crazy odds before, and she couldn't help get a thrill out of it. You just didn't get this kind of excitement in a normal job. With a little grin on her face Shotgun edged closer to the door, which was stuck in the open position, and peeked around the edge of it. She thought she could see a flash of bright pink feathers.

The challenge of the hunt was something she reveled in. Since coming to the steel and concrete city, she hadn't had the opportunities she enjoyed back home in the wilds surrounding Mideel to pursue big game. While she hadn't expected it, today least of all, she wasn't one to back down from a challenge. Rolling her shoulder to test if her wound would slow her down, Shotgun slipped silently along the corridor. It was time to stop being prey and start acting like a hunter.

The first attack was heralded by a flurry of claws on tile and an irate squawk. Shotgun tumbled out of the way as the massive bird pounced. These monsters she knew fairly well, having encountered their ilk when she was growing up, but whatever it was the Professor had been doing to them had made them far more savvy than she was used to. Coming up to one knee she swung around, brought her gun up, and fired. The retort was almost deafening in the silent halls. The spray from the shot caught the leading edge of the Hippogriff's wing as it dove out of the way with a shrill scream.

Shotgun jolted to her feet and chambered another round, the empty shell chimed as it bounced off the floor. Already she could hear more of the beasts approaching. She couldn't afford to be cornered. The Hippogriff was on its feet, blood smearing the walls and floor where its injured wing brushed against them. Unable to take proper aim, Shotgun twisted to fire a round at it to keep it at bay. In a sudden flurry of feathers and shining mad eyes, the beast shrugged off the shot and charged. She had time to suck in a gasp before she was forced to duck under its claws and scramble out of the way. With a resounding crunch, another Hippogriff she hadn't noticed coming up behind her collided with the first. She gave a breathless laugh as she found her feet and chambered another round. "I meant to do that."

The two monsters had cut her off from the stairway. They clawed at each other, rolling around in the hallway until they managed to get their feet under them. One of them gave a feral hiss, while the other looked back over its shoulder at her. With a surprising amount of flexibility the two clawed their way around and charged for her. Shotgun turned and ran. She needed a strategic place to make her stand.

As she sprinted down the hall she chanced a glance over her shoulder to see how close they were, and let a grin spread over her lips. This was turning out to be a little risky, but what was a good hunt without the danger? She made a sharp turn and found an open doorway coming up on her right.

Skidding to a halt, she slid on the slick tiles and took all of two steps toward the door before she had to jump back. The Hippogriff inside the large meeting room lunged for her, and she quickly brought her gun up. The beast's beak clamped down on it hard enough to jar her to the bone and make the gash in her bicep ache something fierce. She kicked out, catching the beast in the vicinity of its craw, and yanked at her weapon. It let go more out of fury than anything as it tried to grab her leg. She barely managed to escape, leaving behind only a bit of tattered black pant leg for her efforts.

She turned another couple of corners and lunged into the next available door. This time there weren't any Hippogriffs inside and she was able to fumble the thing closed again. The metal rang loudly as her pursuers slammed against it. Shotgun gave another breathy little laugh. It was just her luck that her refuge was the bathroom of all places. Though…if she remembered right, from the training courses she'd taken to familiarize herself with the building...

Shotgun hurried past the stalls to the one she wanted, and shouldered it open. Setting her shotgun down to lean against the toilet she climbed up on top of it and reached for the vent. It popped free with little fuss. That was likely a security hazard, but the sound of another solid body hitting metal made her move. No time to worry about a little thing like that!

Reaching down, she grabbed her gun and tossed it into the vent, then hauled herself up after it. This probably wasn't the most hygienic decision she'd ever made it her life, but it could be worse. Getting mauled by Hippogriffs for example. She made her way along, pushing her gun ahead of her and pulling herself forward with her elbows. It was surprisingly spacious for an air vent. Whoever designed this place was either really weird, impractical, or planning for subterfuge. In short order she reached the opening above the boardroom and tested the grating.

It was solidly in place, though she wasn't sure whether to be pleased about that or not. The small barrier wouldn't prove much trouble to a prepared Turk. Shotgun slid her hand into her suit and fumbled in an inner pocket where she kept a few useful tools. It was a small for the job but the little screwdriver would do. The angle was awkward but she managed to quickly loosen the screws holding the grate in place. Then she heaved an elbow into the grating and sent it crashing to the floor.

She landed in a rough tumble and was on her feet in seconds. There wasn't any sight nor sound of the monsters in here, though she could hear them in the distance. Quickly, Shotgun made her way to the open door. If she could sneak up behind them— No, she was brought up short as she caught sight of a pair of the beasts charging up the hall toward her on the left, warbling and calling. They were answered from down the hall to her right as the ones that had been after her before responded. She backed up a step into the doorway of the board room, closing the door to gain her a few moments to think.

"This is about to get a little sticky," she said with a sigh. At least if she could use the door to funnel them in she might be alright. Her lower back bumped into the edge of the table, and she shifted a few steps to the side so as not to be boxed in. Not a second too soon, because with a rattling cackle a Bomb swooped out from under the table where she'd been moments before. Damn...she'd forgotten about the other monsters in the chaos the Hippogriffs had caused. It hovered right in front of her, too close for her to put her gun into use, not unless she wanted to go out with the proverbial bang. This was what happened when a Turk didn't pay attention.

Behind the Bomb, the doors to the boardroom burst open under the weight of a Hippogriff. It paused in the doorway, shaking bits of the wooden doors out of its claws as another one leapt over the debris and into the room. Struck by sudden inspiration, Shotgun backed up another step and switched her grip on her weapon. With a silent apology to her gun, she swung the butt end of it right into the Bomb's grinning face and batted it at the foremost Hippogriff.

The Bomb self-destructed, sending out a shockwave that picked Shotgun right off her feet. It sent her flying painfully into the nearest chairs, where she went down in a tangle of limbs and furniture. (Not very graceful...) Once she managed to pull herself from the wreck of splinters, she cast a furtive look at the door. Or what was left of them. At least the Hippogriff seemed to have been spread just as thinly across the room. Its brethren had only been partially caught in the blast, though it had blown off one of its front legs and half of the side of its head. Shotgun couldn't argue with the results.

Grimly, she faced the door as the remaining monsters overcame their shock and began to prowl forward over their fallen fellows. There was a sudden sharp sound of gunshots in the air, but not from Shotgun herself. One of the Hippogriffs stumbled, falling to its knees as blood poured down its shoulders from the wounds in the back of its head. Shotgun straightened in relief. She recognized the sound of Two Guns' signature weapons, as well as the two figures that had appeared in the doorway behind the last of the monsters.

Martial Arts and Fists didn't give the Hippogriffs a chance to address the new threat. Fists stepped forward and caught one's head, giving it a quick, efficient twist that snapped its neck instantly. Martial Arts didn't have his size or strength, but she darted forward and kicked the other monster in the haunches. The beast's legs went out from under it as it squalled in surprise, and Martial Arts moved swiftly forward to deliver a sharp kick to its throat. Two Guns stepped into view as he delivered a decisive killing shot with a bullet to the Hippogriff's head.

A short, meaty sound behind her made Shotgun whirl around, before taking step back from the inert dead body of another bomb as it hit the floor. The neat sword cut had disemboweled the monster before it could activate its suicide explosion. Shotgun shot a grateful grin at Katana who hopped off the top of the table. She could see vague dusty prints on his knees and the cuffs of his suit that matched her own. He must have followed her path through the vent.

With his free hand Katana adjusted his glasses in a way Shotgun imagined was supposed to come off as mysterious, but only seemed unnecessary to her. "Are things always this exciting at headquarters?"

"Sometimes!" she replied cheerfully.

"Now's really not the time for chit-chat," Two Guns said pointedly. With quick, efficient moves he checked both of his guns over.

"We brought you this," Martial Arts added. Shotgun glanced up in time to see her pull a box of shells from under her coat and toss it to her.

"Thanks! Should we sweep the floor or get this show on the road?" she asked. She couldn't help but feel unaccountably perky.

"We cleared the floor on our way to you," Katana replied as he gingerly attempted to dust off the knees of his suit. "It would be best if we proceeded."

From where he lounged near the door—unconcerned by the corpses cooling at his feet—Fists straightened up with a grin of anticipation. "Ah, it's been awhile since I've worked with so many colleagues," he rumbled. Inclining his head to Martial Arts, he motioned toward the door. "Ladies first?"

Martial Art sent him a narrow eyed look and turned on her heel. "Just go."

"Yes, ma'am."

Shotgun held her gun loosely in both hands as she followed the bulky figure of Fists and the slighter Martial Arts as they ran down the corridor. Two Guns fell into step beside her with a nod of acknowledgement while behind her she could hear Katana keeping pace.

This had been a doable, if delicate, operation when Shotgun had begun on the lower level. Bombs could do a lot of structural damage, but were easily rendered mostly harmless if they were killed quickly enough. ShinRa had a specially trained group of scientists—called, tongue-in-cheek, The Bomb Squad—who knew how to get Bomb corpses dismantled into useful pieces without causing postmortem detonation. Her mission was to keep this as undercover as possible, something she hadn't been sure she could accomplish with the additional threat of the hippogriffs. With her fellow Turks as support, however, she was sure the rest of the mission would be a piece of cake.

Fists slowed down as the stairwell came into view. He craned his neck up to be sure of a clear path, before taking the steps two at a time. Shotgun ignored the burn in her legs as she clattered up after him. Fists and Martial Arts split at the top of the stairs but straightened up when there was no immediate threat. As they exited into the corridor beyond, Fists and Martial Arts took the lead again. They fanned out in the corridor, Shotgun keeping her sights trained between them.

Nothing charged at them immediately. Silently, Fists and Martial Arts fell back with Katana allowing Shotgun and Two Guns to take the lead. The curve of the hall was gradual enough that distance could provide an advantage. As they rounded the curve, sweeping the hall with their guns, they found no monsters.

"All clear!" Shotgun called over her shoulder. The other three Turks joined them, and after a nod they proceeded slowly down the hall to where it branched off. Two Guns spun aside as they cleared the corner, aiming down the hall to their right.

Shotgun slowly lowered her gun, and glanced to the side where Two Guns was doing the same. Two Guns nodded toward the hallway straight ahead of them, and rolled his shoulders as he began walking along it. "I'll take care of things this way. If we split up, we can cover more ground."

"Veld instructed us to only move with a partner," Martial Arts snapped after his departing figure. Two Guns raised one of his weapons in an exaggerated shrug, though he didn't turn back. She frowned disapprovingly, but didn't call after him again.

"He's right, though," Fists said, scratching the back of his head and shooting her an apologetic look. "I'll go after him and make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble. You three can take care of—" The sound of Two Guns' weapons going off rapidly caused Fists to break off, as all four of them turned toward the corner he had disappeared around. He reappeared a moment later, both guns trained the way he came as he let off another round of bullets. The empty magazines hit the floor with a dull clang, ejected rapidly from his guns. He turned in the same movement and charged toward them, pulling new clips out of his jacket.

"Move it!" he hollered, just as the first Hippogriff skidded around the corner, shrieking and clawing for purchase on the tiles. It was followed by another monster, then another, until Shotgun couldn't see past the rabid beasts. There was no time to plan or strategize; once Two Guns was close enough, they turned and fled down the other end of the corridor.

Shotgun fell back to the rear of the group, then turned and sent a shot at their pursuers. The leading monster spread its wings as far as it could and jumped over the spray of pellets, swooping toward them. Shotgun was jerked backward by a hand on her collar, and in a blur of movement Fists was in front of her. She stumbled into the side corridor, and immediately flattened against the corner. The next thing she knew Fists went flying past and collided bodily with Martial Arts. The blow sent both of them into the wall where they slumped to the ground heavily.

Two Guns backed up as he quickly tried to reload his guns. A second later he had to jump back to avoid a slashing talon. Before Shotgun could try to assist, Katana darted forward, blade flashing. A splatter of blood arched through the air, staining his suit as he made quick work of the attacking Hippogriff.

Shotgun glanced toward Fists and Martial Arts as the other woman shoved Fists off. She appeared to be favoring one arm, and Shotgun could see a bloody stain spreading across Fists' chest. "Are you two okay?" she called as the ratchet of Two Guns' weapons kicked up again.

"I've had worse," Fists mumbled as he shoved himself upright. Martial Arts gave a grunt of agreement. Fists pressed a hand against his chest in an attempt to staunch some of the blood flow, and extended the other to Martial Arts. She gave his hand a glare, and after a moment was able to get herself upright. Martial Art swayed slightly as she got to her feet and Fists reached out to steady her with a hand under her elbow. She frowned at him, but didn't jerk away as she tilted her head in consideration.

"It feels like a wrist fracture," she admitted, "and a possible concussion. If it comes to it, I can still fight."

There was a sudden, shrill sound of claws on tile and Shotgun jerked as Two Gun's tumbled between her and the other two Turks, swearing, Katana following shortly after him. The Hippogriffs were now blocking their retreat to the stairs.

Martial Arts and Fists fell back first, Katana easing back past Two Guns and Shotgun. They began backing after the other Turks, never taking their sights off the monsters that were beginning to claw their way around the corner, shoving and squabbling as too many bodies tried to squeeze into the comparatively narrow space.

"It appears we underestimated their numbers," Katana murmured. "We should retreat." Glancing sideways at their injured members, his face darkened and his lips thinned in trepidation. A Hippogriff twisted its upper body around the corner trying to push past the others and grab at them, its claws leaving scores along the walls. Katana lunged forward to slice deeply into its neck, and Two Guns finished it off with a bullet expertly shot through one of its eyes.
"I saw a door just a few feet down the hall," Shotgun said. She didn't dare take her eyes off the monsters. "Is it...?"

"Locked," Fists called back. "But the hall looks clear so far. Aren't the containment cells back here?"

"Good idea," she heard Katana say. "If we can get into one we can probably hold them off. The doors are small."

The shrill sound of Shotgun's cellphone cut through the noise of the monsters and occasional gunfire. It spurred the Hippogriffs into a further frenzy. Shotgun and Two Guns immediately opened fire, holding their ground while the other three Turks made a hasty retreat. When she was out of shots, Shotgun fished out shells and began feeding them into her gun's magazine, then brought the weapon back to bear on the beasts. A sharp whistle pierced the air that signaled the all-clear from behind her. As one, Two Guns and Shotgun turned and dashed for the open door to one of the small cells.

Shotgun dove inside and yanked her phone free, hit the answer button and shoved it between her ear and shoulder. Over the rasp of her own panting breaths she heard, "Shotgun?"

"Veld, sir," she replied, sitting up slowly. Around her she could see Fists helping Martial Arts to sit on the low, uncomfortable bunk while Two Guns manned the doorway. Katana was close behind him.

"Shotgun, report," Veld commanded smoothly.

"We're in a bit of a tight spot, chief, but we can probably manage if it comes to it." The cries of the Hippogriffs echoed in the small room. Shotgun settled her gun on her thighs and twisted to check the gash on her arm. "They've got us pinned down in the holding cells on sixty-seven, sir. Martial Arts and Fists have both been injured, and Martial Arts may be out of the game." There was a negatory grunt from the Turk in question, but Shotgun ignored her. "Fists too if he keeps bleeding the way he is. Did we at least keep them from getting down to the lower floors?"

"Negative," Veld responded. It was a credit to his abilities that his calm, even voice never changed. Not for the first time, Shotgun was glad that he was in charge, and that he'd come back after that fiasco with Heidegger. "I can see the monsters on the sixty-sixth and sixty-fifth floors now."

Shotgun muttered a curse under her breath. "I'm sorry, sir. I thought we got them all but..."

"It's fine. The monsters are a diversion; AVALANCHE set them loose and have taken over the main lab. We're going to have to call in a few of the SOLDIERs. The urgency of this matter has overcome the need for complete secrecy."

Shotgun bit back a sigh. "Understood. What should we do?"

"Hold your position and try to keep their attention on you. We need to keep as many monsters from escaping to the lower floors as possible. When that situation is taken care of, take steps to ensure AVALANCHE does not get what they are there for."

"Yes, sir!" Shotgun tucked her phone away again and went back to examining her wound. "Chief says we're to try and hold their attention from here, and he'll send help. Looks like AVALANCHE has come out to play."

"Who else?" Two Guns drawled.

Katana knelt beside her and set his sword on the floor with a quiet clatter. "May I?" he asked, pulling a handkerchief from an interior pocket of his suit coat.

Shotgun blinked, then smiled gratefully. "Oh! Thanks." When she held out her arm, Katana gently wrapped a hand around her bicep and leaned in closer to look at the wound. After a moment he released her, folded the handkerchief, and tied it in an efficient, serviceable tourniquet.

"I would be sure to get it looked at later," he said. "There's no telling what these creatures have been into, and I doubt the Science Department will want to tell us." He looked beyond her at Fists, and gave a nod to the man who had shucked off his suit coat to use as a compress. "That goes doubly for you."

Fists grunted in acknowledgement, and gave a wry grin. "It's a sad day when a little scratch like this puts me more at risk than a bunch of drunk thugs in a back alley." He winced a bit as he shifted his make-shift compress. He shared a glance around at them then asked, "And none of us thought to have a cure did we?"

"I never expected it to get this rough, so I didn't grab one," Shotgun admitted. "Cures aren't really my style, anyway."

"I was off duty," Katana put in. "I only just returned to Midgar when Tseng requested my aid." Shotgun wondered if he'd learned anything during his trip to Gongaga. Somehow, she doubted it.

Fists twisted his head around to shoot Two Guns a look. "I don't suppose I even have to bother asking?"

"Never need them," Two Guns replied casually, with a little shrug. "I don't let them get close enough." As if to illustrate his point, he leaned out into the hall and fired off two shots at the first sound of a monster getting too close. There was a heavy thump as the beast's body hit the ground, followed by a slick squelching.

"It's strange, don't you think?" Martial Arts asked from her seat on the bunk. The sounds of the monster's squabbles still echoed loudly down the corridor, but the doorway remained free of any of the beasts. "They haven't tried to follow us in here."

Two Guns shook his head, keeping his attention on the hall as he responded, "They started eating the corpses. I don't think they'll come over here unless there's not enough to go around." He peered around the doorframe again, then turned and motioned Shotgun over. After checking that her gun was ready for action, she stood up and approached the other gunner. Checking the hall one more time, he nodded his head at the cell door opposite. "We can keep them at bay from a distance. Cover me."

She stepped out into the hall to fire a shot as Two Guns dashed across to the other door. He ducked inside it and positioned himself for an optimal view, giving Shotgun a nod. All was clear on his end. She moved back into the cover of their own door not a second too soon as an opportunistic Hippogriff took a flying leap for her. In a blaze of gunfire, it went down under their combined assault, so close that Shotgun felt the gust of its dying breath against her shins.

"I think that means our break is over," Shotgun said. Several other Hippogriffs took a renewed interest in them. Across from her, Two Guns gave a grim little smile as he took careful aim. His precision in killing the monsters was admirable, but there were too many for either of them to take out before they ran out of ammunition. Shotgun checked her pockets again. Three shots left in her gun, five loose in her pocket, and the box Martial Arts had given her probably held about twelve shells. Not the best of odds, though she wasn't about to give up yet.

The smell of gunpowder filled Shotgun's nose as she fired down the hallway. She was careful to aim toward the center so the spray from her gun hit less wall and more monster, and left the more precise shooting to Two Guns. He was living up to his reputation of being a top shot, and was able to kill with minimal effort despite how much the creatures moved in their relentless advance. Another shot–(Fourteen...)–and Shotgun sensed a presence at her back. Katana leaned in close to peer around her, though he was careful not to get in the path of the recoil from her gun.

"Focus on the back of the pack," he murmured. "I will take care of the ones that come through." He stepped around her and into the hall, bringing his sword up in a defensive stance. Obligingly, Shotgun ignored the next charging monster as she aimed over its shoulder. Even as Katana dispatched the Hippogriff, more of the monsters broke free of the pack and tried recklessly to reach the smaller humans that were just out of reach.

The sounds of the Hippogriffs' shrieks suddenly escalated, and Shotgun could see some of the monsters further back turning around. There was a flash of blond hair, and then Shotgun could suddenly see Cloud clearly as he leapt up, using the wall to propel himself into the center of the milling Hippogriffs. Even before he landed one of the monsters pounced on him, and he disappeared from view under the bulky mass. It hardly mattered, because a moment later the same monster was thrown violently into the wall as Cloud tossed it off him. Without pausing, Cloud ran forward and jumped up to kick off the head of one of the monsters. It fell to the floor with a squawk, and Cloud slid a few inches on the polished floor as he landed near Katana.

"Whoa," Shotgun breathed out. In an undertone to herself she added, "Weird or not, the kid's still a show off." Seemed like he was now tough enough that he could throw himself into the middle of a pack of rabid monsters without fear. Even so, it was a stupid move if you asked her. Impressive though. Convenient too that he showed up now in the middle of this mess from the Science department. She snorted to herself. Tseng's paranoia was rubbing off on her.

"Stay back," Cloud said sharply. He held out one hand in front of him. In a bracer on his wrist a materia was already glowing brightly. Katana raised his eyebrows and stepped back, his dark eyes focused and observant. He hadn't had a chance to interact with Cloud directly yet. And judging by the rising pressure crackling through the air, he was going to get front row seats to the sort of destruction that followed the kid around.

There was a shrieking of metal and grinding of concrete, and suddenly the hallway was filled with jutting spires from all directions. A number went right through the soft bodies of the Hippogriffs, until the passage was effectively blocked off with twisted spears. Shotgun recognized the work of an earth spell on the building, and recalled Cloud had done something similar in his fight with Sephiroth in the Training Room. She'd never thought a spell that relied on rock and soil would work so well in such an artificial environment as a building, and up until now had doubted that the simulation had properly reflected how the spell would act in a practical situation, yet here was proof in front of her.

Cloud brought his hand back down to his side, flexing his fingers absently. "That won't hold long," he said, eyes traveling from his handy work to Shotgun. His gaze lingered on her, and she wondered if he was trying to remember her. If so, there was no change in his expression to indicate it. She frowned inwardly, feeling oddly snubbed.

Two Guns stepped out from the cover of the doorway, and gave a low whistle as he took in the totally destroyed hallway.

"Impressive," Katana said. "Though I'm not sure what good it will do us. We are now cut off and unable to prevent them from spreading further."

Cloud gave him an uncertain look, before shaking his head. "Zack and a couple others are clearing out the lower floors." There was the sound of a body hitting the makeshift wall that separated them from the monsters, and he spared it a brief look. Shotgun could see the spires shudder under another assault. "Zack said there were injured...?" Cloud asked as he made an abortive motion toward the his materia studded bracer.

Shotgun glanced up at the sound of fabric rustling to find Fists leaning against the door frame next to her. "You have a cure, kid?" Cloud grunted an affirmative, and popped the green sphere out of his bracer. Fists caught it with a murmur of thanks when Cloud tossed it to him.

Stepping out of the doorway, Shotgun idly slotted a few more shells home to make sure she had a full magazine when the fighting started again. "Nice timing, Cloud. Guess we're working together again." There was nothing wrong with rubbing it in a little, was there?

From the cell she could hear Martial Arts protesting as Fists tried to heal her first. Cloud rolled a shoulder at her in what might have been a shrug. Shotgun thought he just looked uncomfortable. The squealing of the monsters brought her attention back to them, back to where the Hippogriffs were trying to claw their way between the spikes blocking off the hallway.

"Well," she said thoughtfully, "what do you say we just get this over with?" Meaningfully, she chambered another round, and leveled her gun at the beasts.

Cloud gave her a perfunctory nod, and without a word lunged forward. With a sweep of his blade he brought the barricade he'd created crumbling down. From the sound of it, Shotgun was pretty sure he might have brought part of the ceiling with him. She wondered if he was being excessively destructive on purpose. Among the scream of wounded Hippogriffs and through the settling dust she could see the sparking ends of exposed power lines and the shape of rubble.

"I think the Science Department is going to be on vacation for a while," Two Guns said as he observed the damage. "See, this is why delicate operations should be left to us."

"It's not like they can't afford it," Fists commented with a chuckle as he stepped back out into the hall, shirt and coat gone. The gashes on his chest were healed up, his skin pink where they had been. "You know they get a big cut of the budget." Behind him, Martial Arts trailed after, looking better but still favoring one arm. They knew better than to heal potentially broken bones without a doctor checking them first, unless the need was dire.

A few Hippogriffs that had survived the collapse pressed relentlessly forward, one shrieking as it was shocked by a dangling wire. Over the dust clogged air Shotgun caught the whiff of singed feathers and wrinkled her nose in protest. Cloud was already moving forward to meet them, though he paused as Katana stepped up beside him silently.

"You should –" Cloud began.

"Do my assignment," Katana said smoothly, moving forward to meet one of the beasts that had freed itself from the rubble. Fists passed Cloud by with a chuckle at his hesitation, Martial Arts at his side. He lashed out with an uppercut at another Hippogriff, which Martial Arts finished off with her signature kick to its throat, snapping its neck. Shrugging philosophically, Shotgun exchanged an amused glance with Two Guns.

It didn't take them long to take down the remaining monsters between the five of them and Cloud's added power. When they were done with them, the hallway was a mess of feathers, dead monsters, and sparks. Shotgun wiped her forehead on the sleeve of her coat, as silence fell and the last of the dust settled. She used the chance to subtly observe Cloud again. He stood with the point of his sword touching the cracked tiles of the floor. It was a stark contrast to the brash kid she remembered. He held the heavy sword with ease and familiarity, while the furrow of his brow and frown–though similar–had a sharpness, a deepness to it, rather than the mulishness she remembered from their brief encounter. He glanced up sharply after she'd been staring for a few minutes, and almost seemed to shy away. At the very least he ducked his head and looked away quickly.

"Not bad, kid," Fists said. "No wonder they picked you out for SOLDIER."

"I'm not—" Cloud's protest cut off as a nearby door's lock released and it hissed open. The tip of Cloud's sword jerked slightly.

From the open door a tremulous voice sounded, though the speaker was too nervous to brave actually moving into the doorway. "Hello? Is anybody there?" While she couldn't refute that it was a ridiculous query, considering the circumstances, Shotgun was more startled to know that there were still people up here.

"Ah, just what we need, civilians," Fists grumbled. Raising his voice, he replied, "I'm going to need you to remain calm and identify yourselves."

"And if they turn out to be AVALANCHE members, I'm sure they'll come out with their hands up," Two Guns said sarcastically. Fists gave him an unapologetic shrug

"Oh for–!" a caustic voice hissed from inside the room. "Steward, out of the way." A disheveled woman in a lab coat shoved past the man and stood glaring at them with her hands on her hips. "It's about time you arrived! Professor Hojo was in the upper laboratory when the monsters escaped."

"Sorry, miss–" Fists began, but was cut off by the irate woman.

"Doctor Penning, if you please. With the mako research sector."

"Doctor," Fists said with a polite smile as he drew the syllable out. "Of course. Well Doctor, I believe you are familiar with the evacuation procedure–"

"Yes, yes, but what about the Professor? One of you is going to go and make sure he's alright, aren't you?"

"Yes ma'am," Fists said easily. "We're just trying to make sure all is well here. So if you'll excuse us, we'll finish checking the lab. It might be best if you lot sit tight in there for now."

She cast a glare at the group, lingering on Fists' lack of uniform and—strangely—on Cloud as well, before she sniffed disapprovingly. "The Professor will be hearing about your incompetence, you have my word on that. How are we supposed to work with the floor in shambles?" She turned away without waiting for a response, striding back through the doorway, and shouldering the poor man who was still standing there.

Katana gave a polite cough, and adjusted his glasses again. "I think it would be best that we continue with our assignment?" Without awaiting a response, he set off down the hall, and the others fell in behind him. Shotgun saw Cloud hesitate, his attention on the door as it slid closed, the lock engaging once more. After a moment he did turn and follow the Turks, carefully ducking around the sparking live wires in the destroyed section.

As they reached the corridors intersection, weapons were readied once more. Shotgun watched her fellow Turks head for the hall that lead to the laboratory proper, but hesitated. One of them did need to go check the next floor, particularly if the Professor was up there.

"I'm going to go ahead and find the Professor," she said, decision made. "You guys take care of things here!" With a wave, she turned and set off for the stairs again, not giving them a chance to protest. Time was of the essence, and they were all Turks. They knew their duty.

Besides, she could do it. New goal: Make sure Professor Hojo was safe and sound.

In the past, Cloud had worked briefly, reluctantly, with Reno and Rude. It had been born of necessity, and he hadn't like it much then either. He could not, however, remember a time when he'd been forced to work with more than two Turks at a time. He didn't enjoy having them at his back, as every nerve in his body screamed that they were enemies. The feeling was akin to having Sephiroth standing behind him. Within two feet. Naked blade in hand.

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't quell some of his instinctual reactions. Idly, he wondered if exposure would ease them away like what had happened with Sephiroth, whom he remained wary of but no longer saw as an overwhelming threat. On the other hand, Reno.

"Cloud Strife?" The question made him jerk, and Cloud looked to the Turk at his side. He was too on edge, the combination of haunted memories of clawed out, blood-stained walls warring with the feeling that Hojo could pop out at any second. If he did, Cloud wasn't certain his nerves would stay his sword from skewering the scientist.

The Turk who'd spoken bore an eerie resemblance to Zack, down to bearing a scar on the same side of his face. His hair was tamer, though, and he wore a pair of slim glasses through which he regarded Cloud with dark eyes. Was he one of the Turks who was watching him and Zack? Did it matter? What one Turk knew, surely all of them knew.

"Perhaps," the Zack look-alike went on, "it would be best if you aid Shotgun?" He indicated the corridor that lead to the stairs to the next floor up.

Cloud frown faintly. While he had been sent up here to aid the Turks, he had no compunctions about leaving them behind. Turks were like roaches, anyway; no matter how many times you stomped them down, they always came back to bother you. He just had no desire to go after Hojo. He may not have been the same one from that other life, but Cloud highly doubted the Professor had suddenly become tolerable, let alone a decent human being. Indeed, most of his crimes had happened long before he got his hands on Cloud. Still….

He gave a sharp, jerky nod of agreement. He had been sent here to secure the science department and its secrets against some unnamed invaders. Veld hadn't been forthcoming when he'd conscripted him and the other SOLDIERs, but Zack had confided in him that it was probably an AVALANCHE attack. He couldn't let them get their hands on Hojo. That would spell disaster to any chance that their future plans would turn out.

"Hey Katana," another of the Turks called as he beckoned the with the gun in his hand. He was addressing the Zack look-alike, who looked over his shoulder in acknowledgement as the other continued, "You're with me. We're clearing this floor and meeting up with the SOLDIERs below."

"Understood," Katana said smoothly. He turned back to Cloud, adjusting his glasses with his free hand. "It was nice meeting you." Cloud couldn't say the same.

"Save the niceties for when we're not on the clock," the other Turk said, impatience thick in his voice. The hair on the back of Cloud's neck stood on end as Katana gave him one last look, something in his dark eyes screaming that Cloud would be seeing him again, before the Turk turned and joined his partner. Pushing down his paranoia, Cloud turned on his heel and loped off toward the staircase Shotgun had disappeared up. Hopefully she hadn't gotten too far ahead of him. Now was not the time to wonder at the Turks' hidden agenda.

He kept an ear out for any sound of further monsters, though he was pretty sure there were no more alive on this level. He'd swept most of it before he'd made it back to the corridor the Turks had been pinned in. The Hippogriffs had been an unpleasant shock to run into. When Zack had told him some of Hojo's creatures had gotten loose–"Again," he had said with great disgruntlement– Cloud had half expected the malformed, unrecognizable creatures that had come from the worst of the scientist's experiments. He hadn't known the mako-mad monsters had been collected rather than exterminated from that mission that seemed a lifetime ago. Their time in Hojo's lab had only made them more vicious, though with the limited maneuverability of the hallways it hadn't been difficult to subdue them. He made sure to kill every beast he came across; he didn't want to give Hojo any more 'test subjects', not even monsters.

The doorway from this hall that led to the room with the stairways came into sight as Cloud turned another corner, and he swung himself inside carelessly. He immediately regretted it as he was forced to leap back into the hall to avoid the shower of bullets that greeted him. With his sword, he managed to deflect the most dangerous shots from hitting him before he got out of range, but he could feel fire burning from a few grazes along one calf as well as his side. Letting out a quiet hiss, he reached for his Cure, before remembering he'd given it to the Turks. Well, that would teach him to go around being considerate.

He pressed his back against the wall by the doorway and listened to the shuffle of feet in the room. There had been two men, and from what he had seen they were only equipped with rifles. Their features were covered by goggles and helmets, though their clothes suggested a uniform. So this probably was AVALANCHE, then. It left a sour feeling in his gut to defend ShinRa against them. They weren't his AVALANCHE, he reminded himself. He had to get passed them to get to Shotgun, so there was little choice but to take care of them here and now. Plus, he didn't want them running around loose and possibly hurting Zack or the others if they were caught unaware.

Since they didn't immediately follow him back out the room, he took a moment to contemplate what to do as he listened to the low murmuring from inside. While charging into the room was most likely the only way to get this done, he wasn't particularly looking forward to it. The sword Zack had given him was serviceable, but it was not Buster or First Tsurugi. After having two of the unreliable blades break on him, along with his memory of the flash of steel that had passed too close to his face during his first encounter with Sephiroth, he was understandably wary of overtaxing the blade, and he'd need to use it to deflect the bullets.

Of course there was always materia. Checking over his remaining equipment, Cloud smiled in grim satisfaction. Timing would be key. But, he chuckled softly, that was the point.

The time materia was already glowing brightly when Cloud moved forward, putting on a burst of speed as he leapt. His boots found traction as he crouched for a heartbeat against the wall across from the door, and he could see the men framed by the doorway. Two more were halfway down the stairs to join the pair Cloud had seen. There was no time to change his plan, however, as all four of them were reacting to his presence, the muzzles of their guns raising to intercept him. He cast his hand out in front of him as he pushed off of the wall, and the Stop spell snapped into place just as the first gunshots cracked through the air. The bullets froze mid-air as Cloud manipulated the spell to capture all of them, even as he rolled underneath the affected space and into the room.

He hadn't gotten the men with the spell since he was unsure what sort of spell protection or resistance they had. Besides, he knew he'd have no trouble taking out normal fighters however many there were. As he came to his feet, he released the spell and heard the bullets hit the wall behind him in a cacophony of sound. The first man snapped out of his shock from Cloud's unorthodox entrance, and brought his gun around to try and get another shot. Cloud didn't let him. He lunged forward and snapped a kick at the rifle, sending it smashing into the attacker's face. The man went down with a cut off cry, but the encounter stalled Cloud enough for the other three to regroup.

Cloud staggered forward, pain blossoming across the side of his head as the nearest gunner smashed the butt of his gun into his temple. Blinking stars out of his eyes, he could feel a hot trail of blood drip down the side of his neck. (Careless...) With a grimace, he twisted around quickly to smash his elbow into his attacker's nose. The force broke it, and the man reeled back with blood streaming down his face. Immediately, Cloud lunged forward at the third attacker and seized his gun. He jerked the man forward by the rifle, pulling him right into the straight punch Cloud delivered with the hand gripping his sword.

The man slumped to the floor unconscious almost as soon as Cloud released his hold on his gun. In the next second Cloud was forced to flatten himself against the floor as the man with the broken nose and the fourth one remaining by the stairs swept the room with a hail of bullets. He pressed his palm against the floor and sent a low powered earth spell through it. The tiles bucked underneath the men and sent them crashing down with yells of surprise.

The first man he'd attacked, forgotten in the scuffle, had regained his feet and came at Cloud from behind. The slight scuff of boot and metallic click from the rifle cocking was all the warning Cloud had to avoid another spray of bullets.

This was taking too long. With the noise of bullets reverberating through the halls, it would call every monster in the vicinity, not to mention warn any of their companions about Cloud. Cloud scowled as he rolled smoothly to his feet and turned sharply, casting magic widely as he went. As before, the bullets hung suspended mid-air, one inches from his face. In a heartbeat, he was at the gunner's side. Cloud didn't give him a chance to react as he snaked his sword out and smacked the flat of it against the man's knees hard enough to knock his legs out from under him. He pushed his advantage, and kicked out. The heel of his boot connected hard enough with the man's chin that he went down without further fuss.

The fourth attacker hadn't moved from his position guarding the stairs, though now with two of his team down he looked a lot less sure. He raised his gun purposefully, while the man with the broken nose did the same, clearly trying to catch Cloud in the crossfire. Shots cracked through the air. Instead of casting magic again as he suspected they were expecting, Cloud ducked underneath the line of fire, flattening himself against the ground. He was fast enough so that he braced himself against the floor to propel himself forward at the nearest gunner before they could adjust their aim. His sword hand came up as he did, and Cloud buried the hilt of it into the man's gut as he knocked the gun aside. The man gave a weak wheeze, curling up around Cloud's fist as he went limp, and Cloud let him fall to the floor. That only left one attacker.

From above, echoing down the stairs, Cloud could hear the sound of footsteps. For a moment he thought that the fight had been heard, and the back up he'd half-expected was on its way. However, the steps passed quickly, probably heading up the other set of stairs, and within seconds the heavy clatter of boots faded back into silence. The last attacker didn't give Cloud any time to react to that. There was a flash of steel as the man eschewed his gun and pulled a knife from his belt, and he lunged desperately at Cloud with a wild cry. Cloud stepped backward to avoid the slash, and almost casually brought his knee up into the man's chin as he overextended himself. The flat of Cloud's blade sent the attacker down for good.

Without pausing, Cloud hurried up the nearby stairs. When he reached the next level his steps slowed as the sprawled body of a ShinRa trooper came into view. The corpse was decorated with sword wounds, and had he not been intimately familiar with the types of wounds that Masamune left it might have made his skin crawl. Frowning slightly, he looked toward the upward leading stairs and considered following the people he'd heard previously, then shook the notion aside. He hadn't heard the lighter footsteps of Shotgun following them, so she was likely still on this level. Possibly injured or detained, if she wasn't immediately after the fleeing attackers.

Exiting the stairwell, Cloud could feel the heavy weight of recollection and paranoia settle over him. He still almost expected to walk out into that hall and see the floor and wall marred with blood stains and gashes. It was somewhat more disquieting to see it pristine, and to remember that Sephiroth was sane and...currently lurking about ten floors below him. He gusted out a quiet sigh. He'd kind of prefer that to willingly walking into Hojo's domain like this. All he needed was to rekindle the scientist's interest in him.

It was too much to hope that Hojo would have forgotten about him. He knew too well how tenacious the man could be when he got something in mind. A trait, perhaps, shared by his son. It was a thought Cloud didn't want to dwell on, and as such he banished it quickly. He would make sure Shotgun was fine—the fact of those men from before promised that all was not well. Tightening his grip on his sword, he continued cautiously but quickly down the hall.

As he rounded the last curve in the hall, the door became visible on his right. Cloud stopped when he reached it, and hesitated a moment longer before jabbing the button to open it. It hissed open, and immediately there was a rushing, cackling sound. Cloud threw himself forward and rolled into the hallway beyond. He was back on his feet and facing the doorway just in time to see the two bombs that had swooped at him collide.

The monsters floated away from each other, hanging motionless mid-air, but Cloud knew what was coming. He darted away from the open doorway and down the hall just in time to avoid the flood of fire as the monsters exploded. The door frame provided some protection against the heat of the flames he could feel on the back of his head. It died away rapidly as the flame ran out of fuel to burn, leaving behind a sucking silence.

The moment Cloud slid to a stop inside the lab, remembrance swamped him. There, ahead of him and to his left, was a familiar specimen tank. Here was the very place that Aerith had been held captive, and from which he and his friends had once rescued her. Now, that same tank stood empty. A glass cage with no captive. He fought down a shudder, tearing his gaze from it as he swept the area.

Across the room from him he could see Shotgun backing toward the wall as a dark figure—a Raven—approached her. The Raven's eerie laugh echoed in the silence of the lab, making the hairs on the back of Cloud's neck and arms stand on end for a completely different reason.

"...they just...laughed and attacked us." Zack's word echoed hollowly in his mind. Was this another SOLDIER turned Raven? Was it someone Zack knew? He pushed the thought aside.

Before he even had a chance to try and join the battle, Shotgun took a final step back and a sly quick grin flitted across her face. In a second she dove away from the open doorway beside her as the Raven lunged in, sword raised. Shotgun's hand swiped out, the air just outside the doorway warping wildly as a gravity spell blossomed into life. The Raven gave a choked off sound as he was yanked into the gravity well and propelled into the room beyond.

"Cloud!" Shotgun called, waving her free hand at a panel nearby. "Get the button over there! It won't—" She cut herself off as the Raven snarled, beginning to claw at the edges of the doorway he was trapped in to try and escape the spell. Cloud didn't pause to question the situation. He darted over to the panel, eyes scanning it for the button Shotgun had indicated. It was a confusing mess of dials and gauges, so Cloud just pressed the most obvious button just as the sound of a heavy door clanging closed echoed behind him. A red light began flashing above the door the Raven had been trapped behind, and he could just hear a horrific cry of pain that was drowned out by the rushing sound of fire. A bit taken aback, Cloud cast Shotgun a startled look.

"The only way to kill a Raven for good," she said through gasps for breath, "is to destroy their body."

Pressing his lips together in displeasure, Cloud cast a hooded look at the machine. Now that he was able to look closer, he could recognize it as an incinerator. He could also guess why Hojo had one directly in his lab. It didn't make him any happier at realizing he'd just been party to a murder. His past aside—or perhaps because of it—Cloud tried to keep casualties to a minimum.

Before, he hadn't had many compunctions against killing anyone who got in the way; they were ShinRa, they were the enemy. Now though...now he knew many of the men personally. Sure, not all of them were great, but they were just men following orders. AVALANCHE was likely the same. Mostly made up of men who were fighting for what they believed in, while the ones in control were the ones to take it a step too far.

Then again, he could remember Zack's bowed head, the pain in his voice as he spoke of his friends who had been twisted as this man had. Cloud wanted to do his best to preserve lives unless he had no other choice. Even so...

"It still seems a bit...much..."

Shotgun gave a little laugh, and looked at him with what Cloud could only call fondness. He thought he heard her mutter something, but he couldn't tell what it was. In the end she just shrugged and flippantly said, "Hey, I'm a Turk."

Cloud supposed that was the long and short of it. Turks always did their jobs.

"There's no time for this right now," Shotgun added suddenly. She fumbled her phone out and hit a few buttons in rapid succession, speaking into it almost before she had it up to her ear. "Chief! AVALANCHE has abducted the Professor. I'm going after him right away." Shotgun paused, clearly listening to the person on the other end. "Of course. I've got some back up anyway. It'll be no problem."

Looks like the 'secrecy' part of this operation just got thrown out of the window, Cloud mused. Zack had been right after all, now that Shotgun had confirmed AVALANCHE's involvement. Though the presence of the Raven had done so as well. He was more than a little irritated that Hojo had managed to get himself captured. Still, it was his job right now. Didn't mean he had to like it.

Shotgun moved as she tucked her phone back in her pocket. "You are going to back me up right? It'll be just like that other time." She grinned, a hint of a challenge in her tone.

"They also know you're having memory problems."

Kunsel's words echoed in his mind, the warning still fresh. Cloud merely nodded in assent to Shotgun, and fell into step just behind her as she took off. With how she kept dropping hints about it, he knew she was fishing for a reaction. He pushed the feeling of unease down, ignoring it as he turned his attention to the task at hand. There would be time later to worry.

When they reached the stairwell, Shotgun hesitated briefly as she seemed unsure which direction to proceed. "I heard several people heading up the stairs earlier," he offered quietly. The stairs were the only way in and out of this floor, so it was likely he had just missed running into Hojo and the AVALANCHE members. Something Shotgun realized as well.

"You should have gone after them!" She shot him a look of reproach as she turned to the ascending staircase. "Now we have to waste time catching up."

Cloud shrugged and followed her, taking the steps two at a time as she did. "I was looking for you," he replied. Worry churned in his gut. He had no idea why AVALANCHE had taken Hojo alive. Maybe they were looking for a ransom, or–and he had to push down the chill of memories–maybe they needed Hojo's expertise for their Raven project.

She sighed in aggravation, before holding up a hand to halt his progress as she peered around one of the the doorframes of the sixty-ninth floor. Cloud shifted his sword and moved to the other doorway, listening for any sounds in the hallway beyond. There was nothing but silence, and a judicious look revealed this corridor to be empty.

"There are AVALANCHE soldiers in the hall over here," Shotgun hissed quietly. "I'm surprised they're so prepared, and to be up here..." She went quiet, and shook her head. Cloud didn't mind, as he didn't particularly care about their conspiracies. He knew how one could break ShinRa's system if it came down to it. Shotgun backed into the room, and gestured him to come closer. Cloud shook his head in response, and waved her over to him instead.

"It's clear over here."

Shotgun was at his side a moment later, and peered out the door around him. She gave a sharp nod. "This way is closer anyway. The access stairway to the roof is just across the foyer."

Cloud gave a brief nod. Shotgun slipped soundlessly by him after another cursory check of the hall and he followed after her. Their familiarity with the layout of the floor aided them in avoiding detection. Though dodging the notice of the occasional AVALANCHE soldier was tedious, they made good time across the breadth of the floor and ducked into the stairwell that allowed access to the roof.

By the time they emerged into the buffeting winds atop the building it appeared to be too little too late. Across the open span from them, atop the helipad, the single helicopter perched there was already whirring to life as the eerie metallic green glow of Midgar's ambient lighting glittered along its curves. Shotgun darted forward without a word. Cloud loped after her more slowly. As they drew closer the air vibrated with the heavy chop of the machines rotors, and with a whine it lifted away from the tarmac.

"Wait!" Shotgun yelled. "You're not getting away!" It was pointless, as pointless as Zack's constant chats with the monsters they fought, but Cloud said nothing. His attention was focused on the helicopter as it turned toward them. He threw his arm up to shield his eyes against the glare of the lights mounted on it. Between him and the looming machine he could see Shotgun, her pony tail fluttering riotously in the wind off the rotors. Shotgun dropped her arm from where she had been shielding her eyes and leveled the barrel of her shotgun grimly at the helicopter.

The weapon couldn't do much to damage it, let alone prevent its escape. She didn't even get a chance to try, as with a sudden sputter the machine gun mounted on the helicopter's underbelly came to life. Cloud dove out of the way, the heavy fire sending splintered chunks of cement flying in every direction as it ate its way across the rooftop.

There was a sudden sharp crack, the retort of a firearm, and it was enough that Cloud knew Shotgun was still alive. The sound was followed by another, though the echoes were quickly lost beneath the roar of the helicopter passing close overhead as it accelerated away. Cloud scowled after it as he rose from his knees to his feet. He could have brought it down, could still bring it down now, but that would almost certainly kill all passengers. He contemplated doing it anyway.

"Cloud! Are you alright?" Shotgun's voice called. He glanced at her across the pitted rooftop and raised a hand in acknowledgment.

"Fine."

Her face registered relief before her brow puckered in aggravation. "Damn. This isn't good..."

She fished her phone out, and he looked away to follow the faint lights of the helicopter's position. ShinRa wouldn't just allow Hojo to be stolen away, and a brief murderous urge surged through Cloud. He should have just shot it down. It was out of range now of anything he had on hand. He let out a hiss of air from between his teeth, letting go of the surge of hatred. That wouldn't do him any good right now.

"They stole a helicopter and escaped," he heard Shotgun say. He glanced over at her, the business-like look on her face not changing as she nodded to whatever was being relayed to her. "Understood." With a sharp snap the phone was closed and disappeared into a pocket. "I've been given orders to pursue them."

Cloud looked back across the rooftop at the receding lights of the helicopter, then raised his eyebrow sardonically. Was she seriously suggesting they chase after the helicopter from here? She laughed at his expression, and beckoned him to follow her. "We need to get to ground level, first. Then we just need to meet up with our ride. Come on, Cloud!" she added when he hesitated to follow. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to get caught up in this rescue mission, though he supposed he didn't really have a choice. Zack had trusted him to back up the Turks, and they in turn had trusted him to back up Shotgun.

They clattered down the stairwell from the roof, his boots muffling the Turk's quieter footfalls, before bursting back out onto the sixty-ninth floor. The AVALANCHE members that had littered the area were gone now, probably having pulled out once their objective escaped successfully. That was good, Cloud reflected, because it meant he and Shotgun didn't have to slow down as they raced for the glass elevators that would take them directly to the ground floor. Shotgun's well polished shoes slid on the tiles as she came to a halt a few paces ahead of Cloud. His boots left scuff marks on the shiny floor as he drew to a halt beside her, sword in hand. Absently, Cloud switched his sword to his other hand and flexed his fingers to loosen them up a little. After he transferred the sword back, he brought his arm up to dash it across his forehead and clear away the sweat that had gathered there.

"Come on..." he heard Shotgun mutter. She jabbed the button beside the closed elevator door several more times in impatience. "Come on, come on! It would figure that the one time you're in a hurry the elevator is busy..." Shotgun swiped her phone from a pocket and flipped it open. She tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling as she waited. When she glanced at him, Cloud nodded back in the direction of the stairwell. She gave a sharp nod and the two of them hurried off. As they cut through the lounge area between them and the stairwell, Shotgun gave a grateful sound, "Chief! The elevators aren't working. Is something going on?"

Cloud took the lead, and quickly opened the door into the stairwell, then swung around the top of the downward stairs. Shotgun's steps were quick and light behind him as they descended, her voice echoing in the void as they darted to the next downward set of stairs after hitting floor sixty-eight. "On Sixty-four? Right, got it. Thank you, sir." Cloud chanced a glance back at the sound of her phone snapping closed. "The Director says that one of the elevators is stuck on sixty-four. The other one is stuck on a lower floor, so that's the one for the quickest access."

Cloud nodded, and picked up his pace. "Let's go."

It didn't take long for them to scurry down the stairs, though as they descended onto the sixty-fifth floor Cloud became aware of a sound. He rounded the bottom of the staircase just in time for a Hippogriff that had escaped being killed yet to force its way through the door. Reaching back, he grabbed Shotgun around the waist, and hopped across the small space to the top of the other staircase. As soon as he landed, Cloud twisted and jumped down the stairs. Behind him, he could hear the monster slamming into the wall followed by the scrabble of claws as it came after them. He landed heavily on the floor, practically dropping Shotgun, and twisted just in time to let the Hippogriff impale itself on his sword. Cloud yanked the blade to the side to free it, cutting off the beast's death gurgle. A spatter of blood painted itself across the large, black number sixty-four on the wall.

"Not bad," an amused, masculine voice said. Cloud turned to see the Zack-like Turk, Katana, helping Shotgun to her feet with a wry smile. He looked up at Cloud and nodded toward the door. "Your friend was asking after you."

Cloud nodded, unsurprised, as Shotgun said, "We need to get to the ground floor. The Director said one of the elevators stopped on this floor, and it wouldn't come when I called for it."

Katana shrugged. "I've been here the entire time. Something about enough sword swinging going on with the SOLDIERs loose."

"No worry," Shotgun said. "We'll check it out."

When they reached the elevators they could see the door was stuck open thanks to the heavy corpse of a Hippogriff. The melting ice coating it, the puddle around its haunches, as well as the twisted alignment of its spine told the tale of its death. Cloud's attention was dragged to further down the hall as movement caught his eye. Zack stood there at the intersection of the corridors, his back to Cloud. Two Hippogriffs were charging at him, and as they reached him, Zack ducked down under the first's leaping lunge, came up, and kicked the second in the chest as it reared up. He followed through with the blow by bringing Buster Sword around to end its life. But it was the first Hippogriff that had Cloud's attention. It had managed to pull itself up short, and twist around.

Cloud was already a few steps down the hall before he even realized it, his own voice hollow in the mostly empty halls as he called a warning to his friend, "Zack!" He could see Zack turn at his yell through a shower of feathers, the dark tangle of his hair following the movement and Cloud felt the pinch of panic as he realized he couldn't reach him in time. Then, as if it had bloomed from its neck, a sword was impaled there, the boots of the Second wielding it crashing onto the Hippogriff's shoulders and sending it into the floor with a meaty thud.

"Kunsel! Perfect timing, man!" Zack's laugh filled the air, the two SOLDIERs bumping their forearms together in a friendly victory salute.

Cloud breathed easier as he slowed his charge, stopping a few feet away with a grateful nod at Kunsel. Maybe he was a little too used to being Zack's only backup during missions. He had honestly forgotten the other SOLDIERs were still around, though Kunsel hadn't been there initially with them at the start of this mess. Either Zack had called him in, or Kunsel had 'invited' himself to the fray. Cloud was a little worried it would bring the attention of the Turks onto Kunsel. Well, there was nothing he could do about it now regardless.

Zack turned toward him and stepped over the dead monster between them. "You get everything taken care of up there?" he asked, all business.

Cloud nodded, dipping his chin to hide a slight grin behind the barrier of his scarf. It had been surreal of late. Ever since Lazard's disappearance, he'd seen the effect on the SOLDIERs immediately. Cloud had watched as Zack was approached again and again by SOLDIERs looking for guidance in the absence of their leader. Even now he was taking charge without a second thought. It was good for him, Cloud decided. Zack needed the distraction, and helping his fellow SOLDIERs kept him occupied. He rose to the challenge wonderfully, as Cloud would have expected him to. It was odd that Sephiroth hadn't stepped in to the leadership role...yet it also wasn't. Sephiroth did not play well with others, even if it was to give them orders.

"Yeah," he replied belatedly. "There was some extra trouble…."

Zack gave an amused snort as he reached out to ruffle his hair, and Cloud ducked self consciously away with a frown at him.

"We met the Turks as they came down, so I expect we'll do a more thorough sweep—" Zack cut off abruptly and returned Cloud's previous frown. "You alright? You've got some blood..." he said, reaching up to hover his fingers vaguely over his temple in indication.

"It's nothing," Cloud replied with a negligent shrug. He'd forgotten about the injury in the commotion, though now that he was reminded he could feel the dried blood irritating his neck. "I wasn't paying enough attention." For a moment it looked like Zack was going to pursue the issue, then he shrugged and shouldered Buster Sword.

"Cloud!" Shotgun's voice cut across the conversation. "You coming?"

"You too, Zack!" Kunsel barked, nodding at Cloud as he nudged Zack into motion. "We left Luxiere dealing with that pair in the nap room."

Zack rolled his eyes good naturedly as he moved into a trotting shuffle, "Yeah, yeah I'm coming." Cloud hesitated, but Zack lifted his hand and made a shooing motion. "We can handle things here. You go ahead and help the lady."

Not needing any more reassurance, Cloud turned and jogged quickly over to the elevators. Shotgun was waiting, impatience written across her face as she held the doors open with one hand. The Hippogriff corpse had been shoved outside the door, and Cloud stepped over it to enter the glass walled enclosure. Beyond the walls Midgar spread out below them, the green glow from the mako reactors fighting against the ever-present gloom that hung over the city, even above the plates. Cloud's eyes didn't really take in the view as his eyes scanned the sky for any sign of the retreating helicopter.

Shotgun tapped the button for the first floor, then turned to stare out the glass as the elevator doors slid shut and it began its descent. "We'll catch them," she murmured, eyes hard as she stared out across the city. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, and wondered if she was trying to convince him or herself.

The ride to the ground floor was completed in silence. While the executive elevators were faster than the general access elevators, the wait still seemed interminably long. Shotgun continued to stare out the window, her eyes tracking back and forth as she searched. Cloud watched the numbers slowly descend, until at last they came to a stop. Shotgun was out the doors as soon as they opened, shouldering her way through when the gap was big enough for her to slip out. Cloud followed on her heels as they exited ShinRa tower, the lobby eerily empty of all personnel for once. He'd half expected to see one of the loquacious secretaries still sitting behind the desk, but it looked like the evacuation of the building was complete.

They'd barely reached the front steps when there was a screech of tires as a truck came skidding to a stop in front of them. Shotgun started in surprise as she caught sight of the driver. "Tseng?!"

"Shotgun! Cloud! Get on!" Tseng called through the open window. If he was surprised to see Cloud there, it didn't show in his expression. Cloud hesitated, Zack's insistent voice echoing in his mind that Tseng and vehicles did not mix, before he ran forward after Shotgun. He had barely tossed himself into the back of the truck before the engine revved and it swerved away from the ShinRa building.

"Nice timing," Shotgun praised from where she knelt beside him. "Nearly clipped me with that Crysale poker of yours though." Cloud sat up, his sword scraping against bed of the truck.

"Sorry..." Cloud muttered, if only because it was polite. She didn't seem that upset by it in reality, and Cloud still didn't really know what to think of her. He was starting to realize how uncomfortable being around people who he ought to know made him. It was one thing when it was Connally, but...a Turk?

Over the rush of wind and the engine he could make out the heavy thump of helicopter rotors and the occasional ratched of gunfire. ShinRa had likely set up troopers on some of the higher buildings to try and delay the helicopter's escape, forcing it to circle to find the clear path. Whatever the reason, it had given them enough time to catch up. Beside him, Shotgun shifted, her gun clattering against metal as she set it down beside her. "Hey, Tseng? Are you going to be able to keep up with them?"

Cloud didn't hear Tseng's response, his attention focused out the back of the truck. He was sure that for a second he'd caught another sound. Frowning, he ducked his head to listen for it, though a moment later it didn't matter. Through the half-darkness on the deserted highway, a glimmer of light flashed, fast approaching and with it the sound he'd heard—the purr of a motorcycle. "Shotgun," he said, raising his voice to be heard over her reply to Tseng.

She made an interested sound, then gave a soft laugh. "Looks like we've got trouble, Tseng!" In a flash, she was laying flat on her stomach, the butt of her shotgun braced against her shoulder as she stared down the barrel. "And now I'll show you why a good gun is better than any sword."

He gave her a sideways look, but didn't bother contesting the claim. Cloud had seen amazing damage done by weapons of all sorts. Vincent had managed some impressive kills with the Death Penalty, but also with something as small as a pistol. No gun he'd ever seen, nor any other weapon, however, could stand up to the sheer havoc wrought by the Masamune. Between the reach and the mastery of its wielder, there was probably little that was more devastating in such a proficient way.

The roar of the motorcycles grew as they drew close enough for Cloud to make out their riders. They were definitely more AVALANCHE members. They must have thought far ahead if they were prepared for ground support as well as their aerial escape.

Loud even through the other sounds, Shotgun fired. Her aim was good, possibly even measured up to Vincent's with a shotgun, and the leader of the three bikers pitched forward violently as its front tire was shredded. The man on it went flying over the handlebars. There was a clatter at Cloud's side as Shotgun chambered another round, and fired again. The bike on the left fishtailed violently, tires squealing, and hit the street in a screech of shredding metal. The one on the right shot forward, the rider leaning low over it to avoid flying shrapnel.

The situation reminded Cloud vividly of his escape with another AVALANCHE—with Barret, Tifa, and a rescued Nanaki and Aerith. During that time he'd been on a bike himself, and whatever the weapon, Cloud figured it was the best way to fight other motorcycles. It had worked well for him when the Remnants had attacked Edge, at least. The feeling of nostalgia in his chest made him wonder if it was just him missing Fenrir.

"Hold on," he muttered gruffly when Shotgun prepared to take aim. "Leave this one to me." Shotgun turned to him, her face a picture of confusion in the flicker of passing lights. Before she could ask, they were both forced to flatten themselves against the truck bed as their pursuer unleashed a spray of bullets at them. As he waited, Cloud settled his sword on his back in preparation for his next move.

Cloud took his chance the moment the attack ceased, and lunged to his feet. He reached over and grabbed hold of the metal bar that supported the canvas canopy. Through his hair, buffeted by the wind, he narrowed his eyes at the oncoming bike. When the biker was close enough for Cloud to see light flashing off his goggles and shining along his rifle, Cloud used his grip on the bar to swing himself off the truck as he kicked out at the rider. His boot caught the man full on in the side of the head, catapulting him off the bike to tumble across the pavement at speed. If he felt any sympathy for him, Cloud buried it under the reminder that these were people that apparently wanted Hojo of all people for some unfathomable reason. He released the bar and used his momentum to swing himself around so that he landed astride the bike. Quickly, Cloud yanked it straight again as it began to list to the side.

The motorcycle responded easily to his touch, though this machine had nothing on Fenrir. It had more in common with the Hardy-Daytona he'd briefly used during his AVALANCHE's escape. He slowed the bike, allowing himself to fall back behind the truck the two Turks were in.

"Good job, Cloud!" Shotgun yelled, a grin apparent on her face. Cloud lifted a hand to wave at her in acknowledgment. She turned away after a second, and appeared to be addressing Tseng. Cloud used the chance to glance over his shoulder to see if there was anyone else coming after them. He couldn't see any yet, but a part of him wanted to use it as an excuse to pull back. He wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing Hojo again. Surely the Turks could handle it...? A sharp whistle pulled his attention back to Shotgun before he could make up his mind. "Tseng wants you to try and get ahead of them!"

"Right," he said, though he was fairly sure she wouldn't be able to hear him. He slowed the bike more, turning his head to check where they were. It didn't take him long to recognize this particular stretch of highway. He'd been in and out of the old Midgar ruins often enough. Cloud revved the engine and muscled the bike around in an abrupt one eighty, tires squealing against the abrupt change of momentum. There would be an off ramp not far back that would give him access to one of the lower highways. He could use that to slip in front of the helicopter, hopefully unnoticed.

The pavement slipped away under the bike as Cloud raced along, the hypnotising flashflashflash of the white stripes going by unceasingly. It felt good to be driving again. Despite the urgency, he was enjoying his brief freedom to the fullest. The wind buffeted his hair as it whipped in and out of his vision, which brought forth the disjointed thought that he needed to look into getting it trimmed. All he needed was for it to get a few inches longer, and he'd be copying Zack's wild mane.

Slowly, Cloud became aware of a familiar hum growing stronger in the back of his mind. It wasn't, he was forced to admit, an unpleasant feeling, given that he knew where it was originating. What confused him was that it was getting more insistent. Ahead along the side of the road, a dark figure strode purposefully forward, the familiar silver hair and dark leather stirring in the breeze.

(What is he doing...)

Last Cloud had been aware, Sephiroth had been in the ShinRa building. How he got out here so fast was a secret only Sephiroth probably knew. Torn with indecision, Cloud was surprised at himself when he found himself cutting the throttle and slowing the bike down. It came to a rumbling idle, and Cloud silently regarded Sephiroth with a touch of bemusement.

Sephiroth halted his stride when Cloud pulled up next to him, locking his eerie gaze with Cloud's. Nothing on his face gave away his thoughts, or why he was walking along this abandoned stretch of highway all alone. Somehow, though, Cloud knew that Sephiroth was also caught up in this circus of a rescue. There was no reason for Cloud to have stopped; Sephiroth obviously had his own plan in mind, and if he'd needed assistance he had all of ShinRa at his disposal. Yet Cloud almost felt like laughing at the absurdity of the man walking so casually in the middle of nowhere.

"Sephiroth," he said, his voice carrying over the rumble of the motorcycle. He tilted his head to shake his bangs out of his eyes, before bringing his attention back to Sephiroth's face.

"Cloud," Sephiroth acknowledged. He sounded as bemused as Cloud felt. Cloud let his gaze sweep across the road in front of them. Still as empty as it had been a moment ago. There was no reason, he told himself, no reason at all, but….

"It's faster..." Cloud trailed off, unsure how to make the suggestion less awkward. In the end he just gave a half shrug, indicating the seat behind him. It was up to Sephiroth to choose to ignore the implicit offer, or not. He still wasn't quite sure why he was volunteering to be in such close quarters with Sephiroth. Really, he should be avoiding these kinds of situations, but found himself drawn into them all the same.

Sephiroth gave a slow blink, and Cloud saw his eyes flicker downward. When his gaze landed more firmly on the bike, his frown deepened and his brows furrowed. Sephiroth lifted his head to look in the general direction Cloud knew the helicopter had been heading, and gave voice to a very faint sigh.

When he looked back at Cloud there was something akin to irritated resignation on his face, and Sephiroth grudgingly offered, "It would be best..." Yet, he didn't move. Cloud almost, almost thought he might be hesitating. But Sephiroth wasn't exactly the type to hesitate at anything.

Ducking his chin below his scarf to hide his slight grin, Cloud took a moment to compose himself. He wasn't sure what Sephiroth's reaction would be to being laughed at, and didn't particularly want to find out. They did have a job to finish, however distasteful. "They'll be outside of Midgar soon," he said calmly. Peering at Sephiroth out of the corner of his eye, he saw a sharp frown on the man's face. He had the distinct impression that the idea rankled a bit.

Whatever the cause, Sephiroth seemed to come to a decision as he straightened his shoulders and moved toward the bike. Cloud shifted forward on the seat to accommodate Sephiroth's presence behind him, which would hopefully lessen the awkwardness already permeating the situation. Sephiroth swung his leg over the bike, Masamune angled parallel to the road so as to be out of the way as he settled in place. Though Sephiroth hadn't touched him once, not even an accidental brush of clothing, Cloud could feel his presence against his back as surely as if the air between them were on fire.

Ducking his chin beneath his scarf, Cloud hoped the slight flush of embarrassment wasn't visible to his passenger. He revved the engine once, before opening the throttle and speeding off down the highway again.

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes speculatively at the back of Cloud's head and wondered just who he was to be able to slither under his skin and prickle his weaknesses so easily. Not for the first time he was overcome with the imagery and desire to drive him to the ground and pin him there with Masamune like a bizarre insect collector. At least then the irritating enigma that he presented would be over with. There would be no lingering threat of his effect on him, no strange encounters to plague Sephiroth with tantalizing hints and curiosities.

And no blond haired teenager who dredged up memories, made the raw edges ache, and made Sephiroth's steely hold teeter precariously.

Genesis' voice echoed languidly out of his memories. "So smug..."

It was perhaps Sephiroth's greatest fault—his pride, his arrogance, his self assurance. He failed to see it as a fault in and of itself, but there was no doubt others attested it to be one. When you stood at the very pinnacle, there was no point in mitigating overconfidence as there was no way to fail. Now, he was not so sure. He'd been incapable of helping the two people important to him, and now there was this boy—scrawny, gangling, still growing...and he was able to reach Sephiroth's pinnacle with irritating efficacy.

Cloud got under his skin, could read him, made him react, think, and challenge his beliefs. Sephiroth didn't like it.

"You're lying."

He'd done it again just now. The words had been so calm, so matter-of-fact. They shouldn't have dug into Sephiroth's sense of pride and galvanized him. No one had done it on such a regular basis. Not Genesis. Not Angeal. No one. Until now.

He couldn't help but wonder if the constant off balance feeling—the nagging thoughts, the irrational urge to consider himself, the world, and everything else—was worth the effort. Was it really worth it to see he didn't fall into the hands of Hojo and his ilk? Hojo who was a worthless commodity, taking up space and skulking around. Sephiroth had his doubts that he would even know what to do with Cloud should he attain him as a specimen, and yet... His childhood memories were all too real. Doubtless, it would only lead to more wasted effort on his part.

For now, the most rational thing would be to continue his grudging protection of the boy, and make sure no one could exploit the effects Cloud had on him. Once he had come to a conclusion whether they were dangerous or not, he would decide if it was best to keep him alive. Zack would be displeased no doubt, but Sephiroth had seen where close ties had lead his former friends. Perhaps Zack, too, was a liability.

He didn't like the thought.

"I don't know, maybe I'll retire before then."

Sephiroth remembered the words, unbidden. Remembered the strange display of camaraderie so easily on display at the end of that mission. (Could it really be...that simple?)

Why did it seem that all around him people could break their ties with ShinRa, and yet Sephiroth could not? He remained here, trapped, wanting freedom and watching everyone walk away, and yet…. And yet, perhaps it was time to begin wondering if it was that simple. Sephiroth let his gaze on Cloud turn speculative, calculating.

(I wonder...)

A sudden explosion rocked the overpass that ran parallel to the road they were on, and Sephiroth jerked his gaze aside to watch a ball of fire and smoke bloom in the darkness. Perhaps it was best he'd fallen to his pride, then. Sephiroth had been aware of the progress in AVALANCHE's abduction, had not feared being late to stop them. He'd only just received a call before Cloud had arrived that had given him an update on the proceedings. They'd been moving too slow to be trying to escape at speed. It had been an obvious trap, and looking at it coming to fruition now, Sephiroth could only give a faint snort.

He'd have arrived eventually, in his own time. It wasn't like this mission was altogether worth his effort regardless. Unless that girl was there, then perhaps...

Through the wafting smoke, chunks of concrete that had been blown free rained down on the highway. Without warning, Cloud shifted the bike to slalom through them, and Sephiroth was forced to reach out to maintain his balance. Refusing to fully touch Cloud, Sephiroth lightly settled his fingertips atop one of his shoulder guards, and immediately pulled back the moment he'd regained his balance. Cloud hadn't even seemed to notice, and in a short moment had directed the bike up a curving on ramp. At the top, he spun it expertly around to face back the way they'd come. Sephiroth's hair whipped into his face with the sharp turn, and he shook it away with only a fleetingly irritated feeling. It was blown back a second later as the motorcycle tore down the road toward his quarry anyway.

Ahead of them, settled right in the middle of the road, the massive green bulk of a dragon could be seen. It was hunched over, obviously intent on something, and had its wings unfurled with aggression. Through the growl of the motorcycle, and the thump of the hovering helicopter came the sounds of a gun. The sound was quickly drowned under the angry roar of the dragon.

In an attempt to draw his attention Sephiroth leaned in closer to Cloud's back and said, "Cloud." The slight turning of Cloud's head was all the indication he needed that he'd been heard.

"Hold on," Cloud said. It was a simple, brief exchange, but with it came an odd assurance that they were in accord. It was a confidence that Cloud had understood what Sephiroth was trying to impart with little effort, and it was a feeling that Sephiroth was not sure he enjoyed. He narrowed his eyes speculatively at the back of Cloud's head. In equal measures he was repulsed and drawn to such a notion. He was not the type of man that easily shared any part of his life, for any reason. His youth had predisposed him to wanting to keep everything he could private—a lack of control and freedom, perhaps.

Sephiroth had no time to consider it further as they drew close to the dragon. Shifting his footing, Sephiroth lifted himself until he was nearly standing. The bikes tires screeched as Cloud slammed on the brakes, wrenching the bike around as he did so. Sephiroth pushed off of the bike, Masamune held high, and let the momentum and gravity pull him back down and add power to his attack. The blade sliced through the thick scales of the dragon, leaving it to give a twisted scream of pain. Sephiroth's boots had barely touched the ground, his knees bending to absorb the shock as his hair settled around him, when the beast collapsed in a thunderous crash. Several feet away, Sephiroth could see the shell shocked expression on a female Turk as she struggled to rise from the ground.

He didn't bother to wait for a response from her, wasn't interested in one regardless. Using the slight crouch he'd landed in, Sephiroth pushed off into another jump that carried him to the roof of a nearby building. Sephiroth turned to face the helicopter, the wind buffeting his coat and hair. With the helicopter too far away to jump to, and the risk factor inherent in such an action regardless, he would have to bring it down another way.

Sephiroth flicked Masamune back and called awake the lone, yellow materia currently slotted into the blade—Just enough power for a single attack. With an effortless move he slashed the blade forward and watched through narrowed eyes as a single, glowing blue line arced through the air. With neat precision it sliced through the tail of the helicopter. It spun, out of control, and dropped toward the pavement of the highway below.

With an easy jump, Sephiroth alighted upon the highway once again. He slanted a glance at the still pale Turk, and lifted his hand to run it through his windblown hair. His fingers caught on snarls as he pushed it back, and with a careless yank he pulled them free. The sound of more footsteps approaching over the pavement made him glance back along the destroyed road, but upon seeing Tseng approaching he turned away. He could see Cloud sitting idly astride the motorcycle, the ruins of the helicopter behind him. Sephiroth turned his attention to freeing several hanks of hair from where they'd caught on his shoulder guards, and ignored the Turks as they hurried by him, intent on seeing if Hojo was safe.

By the time the Turks had freed Hojo from the wreckage, it appeared that the AVALANCHE members who'd abducted him had already scuttled away. Satisfied that he could no longer be forced to endure this debacle, Sephiroth shook his hair back and strode forward. "Turks," he said, drawing all attention to him and away from Hojo. "I'll leave the rest to you. My mission is over."

He'd only taken a few steps when a voice gave him pause. "Sephiroth." Lifting his eyes, he didn't bother to acknowledge Hojo, and instead directed a bored gaze toward the spread of Midgar and beyond. "You've grown stronger."

Paltry praise from a nobody.

Without a word he began walking again. As he drew level with Cloud he was brought up short again by the persistent ringing of his phone. A feeling of intense disgruntlement settled over him briefly, and he took another step forward. With careful precision he was able to prop Masamune against the side of the bike. It was automatic to turn himself and lean back against it as he drew his phone out. Sephiroth flipped it open, and paused. The background display was still LOVELESS themed. He hadn't bothered to change it, even after realizing he'd left it there since Genesis disappeared. It had never seemed important. He was fairly certain that the only images available on his phone at this point were LOVELESS themed, or of plants and fauna courtesy of Angeal.

They'd insisted he needed to broaden his horizons. How changing the display on his phone was supposed to do that, Sephiroth had never understood.

Putting the matter aside, he answered the call and set the device to his ear though he didn't bother to say a word. "Sephiroth. Status?" Veld's voice commanded.

"The mission was successful," he replied. "Professor Hojo was retrieved safely. He's in the hands of two of your Turks now."

"Good," Veld's voice carried the barest hint of satisfaction. "A helicopter is on the way to retrieve him. You're to return to the building and await debriefing."

"Understood." Without preamble, Sephiroth snapped his phone closed, irritation settling in him. If he was understanding the veiled insinuation, he was expected to return with the Turks and their charge. Sephiroth was not inclined to acquiesce. (I have no interest in further listening to Hojo.) It was always an exercise in futility. Ever since he'd been a boy he'd been exposed to the man's constant inane theories. Once he'd been let loose of his clutches he'd wanted no more of it, and did his best to avoid it at every turn. Now was no different.

Cloud had been leaning against the handlebars of the bike as it idled. While he hadn't turned at Sephiroth's approach, he'd been paying some attention to him. "I need to get back," he said, voice as calm and matter-of-fact as before. Sephiroth slanted him a glance, at once irritated, amused, and baffled by his utter indifference toward who he was. Or was it indifference? He thought of the sullen, irritated companion Cloud had made on their trip to Icicle. He had thought then that Cloud's attitude had been a result of that adolescent discomfort.

"You'll need to attend the debriefing as well," Sephiroth informed him. Cloud's head turned slightly, a single mako bright eye peering at him over a shoulder guard limned with Midgar's electric ambiance.

"I know." Cloud studied him, and Sephiroth couldn't help that uneasy feeling welling up again. He frowned slightly, eyes narrowing in return. After a moment, Cloud shrugged slightly and asked, "Are you walking?" It was an out, Sephiroth couldn't help but think. The immediate thought afterward was to wonder if Cloud was aware it was as well. Had he truly burrowed that far under Sephiroth's skin? The idea that he had was enough to throw him off balance again, though he refused to let it show.

Sephiroth flicked his gaze further down to take in the motorcycle Cloud sat astride, lips pressing into a faint line of displeasure. He hesitated, just as before, to accept. It was perhaps strange that the lauded Sephiroth had a near debilitating dislike of any form of vehicle. He supposed it was a good thing his pride kept him from showing it often, though Genesis and Angeal had found it in turns hilarious and baffling. He'd never been able to explain it to himself, let alone anyone else. Angeal had insisted on calling it a phobia, but to Sephiroth that denoted fear and he was too proud to think of it as a fear. It was just...intense dislike. He'd rather get about under his own power. The close proximity to another person only made the whole affair more annoying.

Still... He could already hear the heavy thump of helicopter rotors approaching. Sephiroth gave a faint sigh, and held his hand up. "A moment." Reaching back with both hands he lifted his hair from his neck, and separated it out before deftly beginning to twist the strands into a simple braid. When he got too far to reach comfortably, he pulled the half completed braid over his shoulder and continued. Though he could feel gazes on him, he ignored them. He'd had quite enough of having his hair blown about—another reason for his intense dislike of transport. One could only have their hair caught in all manner of places so many times before it became obnoxious. Once he'd finished—though lacking of a hair tie to restrain the tail—he flicked the heavy plait back over his shoulder negligently.

Cloud had waited patiently for him to finish, and as Sephiroth swung his leg over the bike to sit on it properly Cloud revved the engine, indicating his readiness to leave. Picking up Masamune and making sure it was out of the way, Sephiroth gave a slight nod of assent. They left the rescue group behind without ceremony, the bike eating up the distance back to ShinRa tower. It wasn't an interminably long ride, and was marginally more tolerable now that his hair wasn't whipping around his face. Cloud still drove the bike at a ridiculously fast speed for the broken highway, seemingly confident enough not to worry about a possible crash. In no time, they were pulling up to the front of the building, and Sephiroth wasted no time in dismounting the bike before Cloud even brought it to a complete stop.

As he strode purposefully toward the doors into the ShinRa building, Sephiroth reached back with his free hand. The braid had been unraveling slowly due to lack of a tie. Sephiroth took the time to finish working it free again with efficient tugs of his fingers, and when it was at last free he slid his hand through it. Still tangled compared to usual, but not as bad as it would have been otherwise. Sephiroth shook the mass back, and smoothed his hand through his bangs again. Around him, in the large foyer he could see a few people had returned already. A pair of receptionists stood before their desk, and a knot of scientists were clustered by the glass elevators. Sephiroth walked past them and headed toward the stairs where a pair of infantrymen were standing guard. They stepped aside without a word, and he continued upward.

Behind him, Sephiroth heard them murmur greetings to Cloud as he followed after him with near soundless footsteps. By the time he reached the elevators at the back of the foyer's second floor, Cloud was there to slip in with him. They ascended in silence, and upon reaching the floor he'd selected Sephiroth departed without even giving him a glance. There was a lengthy pause before Cloud too disembarked. Sephiroth stepped into Lazard's empty office and made his way over to the table on his left. With care, he lay Masamune upon it, uncaring of the blood still drying on the blade. He would clean his sword later, and the staff could deal with any of it that dripped onto the table's pristine white surface.

There was a faint, sleepy peep near his boots. Sephiroth glanced down to see Viri's head just peeking out from beneath the table where he'd left the chocobo napping earlier. It seemed that the bird hadn't missed him in his absence. A soft sound came from behind Sephiroth, and he glanced back over his shoulder to see Cloud beckoning the chocobo. The chocobo's head jerked up and hit the underside of the table with a loud thunk. Viri gave a sharp wark of surprised pain, then preceded to edge slowly out from under the table in an awkward sideways shuffle, claws clicking on the floor. Sephiroth considered him. The chocobo was starting to look a little shaggy—a mess of patchy down and feathers. His head and neck were almost completely feathered in, while his body retained a great deal of gray black fluff, and his tail was mostly untouched. A sign of his impending adulthood, no doubt.

Viri darted out of his line of sight, though Sephiroth could hear his immediate happy coos as he begged attention from Cloud. Sephiroth gazed absently down at his hands where they lay, fingers spread, and standing out stark against the table top. A clipboard was next to his left, a sheaf of papers secured in its clip. A glance told him they were unimportant. They were documents that had been there since before Lazard's disappearance. Sephiroth picked it up anyway, and turned around before letting himself lean back against the table. He'd learned long ago that if he had something in his hands, if he appeared to be busy, or heading somewhere important people would often avoid bothering him. It was a simple psychological trick, but an effective one. So he focused his gaze on the papers, letting his mind wander, and listened to Viri's happy chuckles as Cloud helped the bird free more of his itching down.

No more than twenty minutes had elapsed when the sound of several people, their footfalls those of heavy military boots, approached the office. Sephiroth didn't glance up, though he observed through lowered lashes as Zack walked in accompanied by three 2nd Class SOLDIERs. One of them he recognized; Kunsel would occasionally stop and speak with him, ostensibly to bring him official and less official word on ShinRa's goings on. It had been from him that he'd gleaned some of Angeal and Genesis' movements. The other Seconds came up short, hovering uncertainly in the entryway.

"How'd I know I'd find you here?" Zack asked. He gave Sephiroth an amused look, though his eyes slid toward Cloud a second later, before returning. Sephiroth frowned when Zack walked over and tugged the clipboard down to get his attention. "You know, I've been wondering. Didn't they give you your own office?" His expression was quizzical, though there was a long scratch down one cheek, and a smear of dry blood across his jaw line. Sephiroth blinked.

"Hmmm. I believe so," he answered. He couldn't even recall the location. He'd been both uninterested in the entire affair, and found it entirely pointless. It wasn't as if he had actual paperwork to complete. He'd only ever had it for his private research, and even then he usually just kicked the mayor out of his office since it was within the library.

"And yet you always loiter around here," Zack said as he wandered around Lazard's former desk. He pulled his sword off, and set it against the wall behind it then flopped into the chair with a groan. Kunsel had settled against the wall next to Cloud and Viri, and was watching the proceedings with quiet, interested eyes.

"...but you're the General?" Cloud's voice was soft, as it often was, though it carried easily in the quiet room. He sounded confused.

Sephiroth blinked slowly, slanting a look at the boy. "The Silver Demon and The Silver General were...nicknames that they came up with for me during the war with Wutai. The latter became popular with our own troops and the press made it more well known." He paused, thinking back on it. The titles were rough translations from Wutai's tongue at best, though they evened out to mean almost the same thing depending on who was asked. Both a curse and a sort of restrained awe saved for a powerful enemy. He would be proud of it if he bothered to care. "It boosted morale," he said dismissively. "I hold only the rank of SOLDIER 1st Class, same as Zack. Nothing more."

"Oh…." A frown passed across Cloud's face before it smoothed back into its normal impassive mask.

Cloud was almost as adept at that as Sephiroth himself. He couldn't help but wonder at the reaction, and after a moment offered, "The President became fond of using the title for propaganda. It's semi-official."

"I guess I never questioned it," Cloud replied, nodding slowly. "He...the President is fond of such tactics."

Sephiroth gave a faint hum, filing that away for later consideration. He bowed his head, bangs falling forward, the motion both to mask his thoughtful gaze as well as much as to show agreement.

"So," Zack said loudly, breaking into the looming silence that followed the exchange. "They sent us off to wait." Sephiroth wondered, slanting a hidden gaze toward Zack, if it was a distraction or if it was just Zack's interest in hearing his own voice. "Director Veld is speaking with the group of Turks that we helped out right now. Is that the right term for a bunch of Turks? A flock? A herd?"

"Zack..." Cloud said, voice edged with a sigh.

Zack seemed to wilt in his seat. "Sorry," he mumbled sheepishly, sinking down. "I'm still sort of wound up."

The other Seconds finally edged into the room and settled against the wall next to Kunsel. Sephiroth held back a sigh and focused back on the clipboard in his hand. He still didn't understand either Zack or Cloud's motives, but he supposed he had plenty of time to figure them out. Zack, who Angeal had told him wanted nothing more than to be a hero and now who was apparently willing to leave that chance behind. Cloud who had jumped from a simple nobody into someone the entirety of ShinRa seemed to be interested in.

Sephiroth knew Cloud had been offered a promotion straight to 1st Class shortly after Lazard's disappearance despite his...precautions. Cloud had turned it down. The refusal had surprised everyone—except Zack, it seemed—though Sephiroth himself remained indifferent. This, Sephiroth knew, would not be the end of it. There was little chance that ShinRa would let such talent stagnate.

The complications continued to grow, and Sephiroth did not bother to fool himself in thinking his patience in mitigating them would last forever. Cloud Strife would doubtlessly be in SOLDIER before the summer was out.

It was only a matter of time and planning for the eventuality now.


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

A/N: Koorii's computer is dumb and wouldn't let her upload the full chapter, so it's Sama to the rescue! Sorry for the confusion peeps, here's the full chapter