Notes: I've been wanting since the beginning to bring in one of Simon Oakland's good guy characters. This chapter introduces one from the Gunsmoke episode How to Cure a Friend.

Chapter Five

Elmyra still wasn't back when Aerith hurried into the Gainsborough house and up the stairs to her room. With one swift movement she latched the door and hastened to the oak desk. Her journal was still resting upon it, sealed as she had left it. Her hands shaking, she took the key from around her neck and slid it into the lock.

As the pages spilled open she took up a letter at random and opened it. Her green gaze traveled over Zack's scrawling handwriting.

General Sephiroth gave a presentation tonight. I could hardly believe it. I mean, the great General of the Cavalry, right here! You know how he's a legend in Boston? Well, it's even more like that here at the fort. All the infantrymen talk about him.

Aerith set that letter aside and skimmed through several more. Zack had not had much association with Sephiroth at that point in time, but every now and then there was a mention. After Angeal disappeared and Zack was assigned to Sephiroth, the letters talked about him much more.

At first Zack complained a great deal about how different Sephiroth was from Angeal and how hard it was to get him to so much as crack a smile. But that did not stop Zack from continually trying. Aerith had to smile in amusement. Only Zack would try such an unheard-of thing with a decorated military officer.

She had never been sure exactly what happened between them, but at some point Zack and Sephiroth had come to a better understanding. The tone in the letters changed; talk of Zack's frustrations with the General all but ceased in favor of descriptions of some of their adventures and the antics around the fort. When Zack spoke directly about Sephiroth, from then on it was in a respectful manner once more. And there was a certain depth in his words that had not been present in the earlier letters.

Aerith sank down at the desk, a well-read and crinkled sheet of paper in her hand. Of all people she had never thought she would meet. Of all people who could come out of her past and suddenly appear in the new future she was attempting to construct for herself, it had to be General Sephiroth, a man who had known and worked closely with Zack in the last years of his life.

She sighed and leaned back, staring at the letter without really focusing on its contents. "Really, Zack, this is a fine thing," she said aloud with mock indignation. "You know I came out here hoping to start over. And what do you do? You make it very clear that Boston is going to follow me wherever I go!" She set the sheet down. "You go so far as to bring General Sephiroth here, right here, where I collide right into him!"

She could just imagine Zack's innocent expression and protest. A half-smile of resigned amusement crept over her features. "Oh, now don't give me that," she would tell him. "I know you arranged this somehow, Zack Fair! You've been naughty and I'll have to see about the proper consequences."

She laughed before she caught herself. It seemed wrong to find such merriment in the ridiculous confrontation when Zack was . . . well, gone. With care she gathered the letters back into place, slipping them among the pages of her journal before she locked it once more.

A frown crossed her features as she straightened. What on earth had she done, taking flight from General Sephiroth as she had? It must have looked frightfully rude. And the General had known who she was, too. That made it even worse.

"Oh dear," she fretted to the empty room. "Now I've gone and made a terrible ninny of myself."

With a new determination she crossed to the door, undid the latch, and stepped into the hall. She would just have to go out again and find where the General had gone. Whether or not she wanted to have such a strong reminder of Zack here right now, she had to apologize. It was the only decent thing to do.

xxxx

Captain Harper's eyes were darkly narrowed as he looked through the folders and other collected information General Sephiroth had provided concerning General Genesis Rhapsodos. General Sephiroth had apparently taken a copy of all the material the Cavalry had on the absent man. For what reason, Harper was unsure. But the contents were both useful and concerning.

He looked up questioningly at the other man in the room. "General, in this report it says that General Rhapsodos displayed signs of unstable behavior more than once." He waved the folder in the air.

"That's true." General Sephiroth's response was clipped and matter-of-fact. "I was a witness to his unstable behavior, more than once."

"It also says it became worse as the Civil War went on. He expressed unhappiness with the military and how he was being used in it." Harper set the folder aside and stood, walking towards the General. "Did he sympathize with the Confederacy?"

"Not especially," General Sephiroth admitted. "He didn't particularly support either side."

"Exactly what was it he said?" Harper's uneasiness was clear in his serious eyes.

General Sephiroth turned away, uncomfortable now. "What he said was merely the ramblings of an unsettled mind. Knowing the details wouldn't help you be any more prepared, Captain."

"With all due respect, General, without knowing what he said I have to disagree," Harper countered. "And I don't want my men to be in any possible danger from him."

"They won't be. He doesn't have anything against them." Sharp green eyes stared out the window at the town below. As the morning wore on, more and more people began to appear on the streets. Every now and then a rider went past on a horse. Before long it would be time for the noon stage to arrive.

"General, you said you'd give me all the information I was seeking."

A sigh escaped the General's lips. Again he faced Harper, in resignation. "I did say that," he conceded. "Very well, if you feel it might help you. General Rhapsodos often talked of being a monster, that I and he and General Hewley were all monsters and all being used by the military for a secret project."

Harper's eyes widened. He had not expected anything like that. "What did he mean by all of you being monsters?" he asked. "And a secret project?"

General Sephiroth's frown deepened. "I don't know," he said in all honesty. "He was always mysterious and vague, speaking in riddles."

"And you didn't know how to interpret these riddles?"

"I learned to, over time. But he still kept some secrets for himself."

Harper was clearly troubled. Yet still, he was unwilling to concede to the existence of any covert project the likes of which the General was implying.

"This project," he spoke at last. "I'm assuming that was supposedly connected with this secret faction you've spoken of, General?"

"I assume so too." The General paused, uncertainty and confusion passing over his features. He stood where he was, staring into space as though either remembering something new or trying to grasp a memory that was only fleeting and refused to stay.

Harper closed the rest of the distance between them, his eyes narrowed. This was apparently one of the withdrawals from reality of which he had been warned. General Sephiroth had never been violent during one of these episodes, but Harper felt it prudent to be cautious anyway. There could always be a first time.

"General?" He kept his tone mild at first, only beginning to raise it when he received no response. "General, Sir!"

At last the General stirred from his vision. "What is it?" he asked.

Harper watched him closely, on guard for any sudden snap of control. "Were you recalling something important, Sir?"

"No." The response was much too quick. "No, nothing."

"We were discussing the military's secret project," Harper prompted.

"I don't know about it." There was an edge to the General's voice now.

"But you know about this mysterious faction within the Army, Sir." Harper was unwilling to give up so soon. "May I ask how?"

"No, you may not." General Sephiroth looked to the folder and the various papers on the table. "Have you resolved your need of that information, Captain?"

"I haven't finished studying it, General," Harper said. "With your permission, I would like to remove it to my office where I can give it a thorough examination."

"By all means, take it." The General waved his hand in a dismissive manner. "I have no use for it."

Harper had to wonder why it had been brought to Edge, if that were the case. He gathered the stray sheets into the folder and placed it under his arm. "I'll return it as soon as I'm done, Sir," he promised.

"Take your time," General Sephiroth grunted. "And if you hear even a hint that General Rhapsodos may be coming to Edge, report it to me."

"Yes, Sir." Harper saluted. When the gesture was returned he crossed to the door and stepped into the hall.

He was more disturbed than anything else by their encounter. It was certainly possible that General Rhapsodos was not the only one displaying unstable behavior.

As per the instructions he had received, he had kept a man from the fort in town to watch over the General. Perhaps now it was time to collect a report from him.

And perhaps it was also time that he have a talk with the General's personal aide, Lieutenant Epsen. Despite whatever loyalty the man likely held for General Sephiroth, Captain Harper outranked him. If Harper felt it necessary, he could order Epsen to answer his questions.

At this point he was very close to feeling it necessary. And that was very unlike him, to be so unsettled with one of his superiors. General Sephiroth was taciturn, and under normal circumstances Harper would not find it strange at all.

But there were odd overtones to this situation. The General could be harmlessly delusional. Or he could be suffering from battle fatigue. On the other hand, he could be dangerous. It was possible, as much as Harper did not want to admit it, that he had not been informed of everything he should have been.

And there was something else he wondered about. In spite of his instructions going so far as to warn him to never leave General Sephiroth unattended by one of his men, he had not been told to report to anyone on the General's activities. At the time he had dismissed it, believing that the General truly was stopping in Edge for simple recuperation and that such reports were, hence, not needed. But it did not add up. If someone needed to observe General Sephiroth at all times, the Army was worried.

So what reason could there be for not reporting? Was the Army afraid of what such reports might contain and did not want to risk the information falling into the wrong hands?

Or . . . could it be that the Army had already sent an inside man?

Was Lieutenant Epsen more than General Sephiroth's aide?

Harper slowed to a stop near the stairs. He would get the report from his own man and look more closely at this dossier on General Rhapsodos. Then he would come back to this matter and try to determine the best course of action concerning Lieutenant Epsen. If Epsen actually was a spy, he obviously did not want Harper to know, at least not yet. Maybe he was taking in the entire situation from his point of view, attempting to determine if Harper was trustworthy enough to take into his confidence.

Harper had always been an obedient soldier, not doing more than he was told. And he most certainly did not want to upset any possible plans already in motion. He was allowing General Sephiroth's unusual behavior to influence his thoughts, perhaps too much.

However, he also did not want to wait until something horrifying and drastic happened before he took action. He would stay on guard and continue to have the General watched, as per his orders. And he would maintain his faith in the United States Army. If it looked as though something was deeply amiss, he would trust that he would be contacted with new instructions.

The only time Harper had seriously gone against the military book had been during the ordeal with Captain Halliday.

He just hoped that this case, in spite of his current resolution on following orders, would not end up being the second time.

xxxx

Sephiroth sank onto the bed, running a hand over his face. It had happened again—and in front of Harper, no less. This would not look pleasing on whatever report Harper was likely making to the Army.

All of a sudden he had been so sure that he knew what the project was and how it connected to the silent faction of the military. He had paused, reaching into the recesses of his memories to find it, only to discover it had darted away and faded once again. It was absolutely maddening.

And Genesis. What about Genesis? Would he dare show his face here, in Edge?

Sephiroth had not thought so. He had not even considered it.

Not until he had seen that poster announcing the arrival of Loveless. Then it had sounded so logical.

The knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts. What was this now? Surely not Genesis. He would not blow into town and then knock on Sephiroth's door. No, with him it would be more likely that Sephiroth would return some evening and find the missing General reclining in the room, crunching on an apple.

Genesis had always had an affinity for apples. His family owned one of the largest orchards in the Northern States, in Michigan. His father had invented a special kind that was their town's trademark, a Banora.

Sephiroth got up, dreading the visitor as he walked to the door. Maybe it was Harper, back again. Or Lieutenant Epsen, aware of the meeting and wondering how it had gone and what Harper wanted.

The great General of the Cavalry was not noted for expressing surprise. But when he opened the door and found Aerith Gast standing in the hall, he was indeed surprised.

". . . Miss Gast," he greeted.

She smiled at him. But though she appeared calm, there was definitely a flicker of worry in her eyes.

"Good afternoon, General," she said. "I'm sorry to barge in on you like this. I wanted to apologize for running off like I did earlier."

"I assumed you had a reason," Sephiroth said.

"Oh, I did, but I can't say it was a good one," Aerith returned. "You see, I . . ." She glanced over her shoulder. "Well, I feel kind of silly telling all this out in the hall."

"And it would be scandalous for me to invite you in, Miss Gast," Sephiroth grunted. Not that he particularly cared for his part, but she was young and should not have to become a target for old biddies' gossip.

She was unfazed and spoke with a lightness to her voice. "Even if I just step inside the doorway and you leave the door open? I promise it will just take a minute. I don't want to impose."

Sephiroth glanced down the corridor. Well, it was empty at the moment anyway. "Very well." He opened the door wider. "Come in, for a minute."

Aerith did so, standing to the side of the doorway. "Zack told me a lot about you, General. I guess he told you about me, too."

"Yes, he did. He spoke highly of you." Sephiroth crossed his arms, unsure what to make of this encounter. She was an unconventional girl.

"Oh, I thought he might talk about the times he teased me when we were younger," Aerith said.

"He mentioned that, too. And said you usually got the better of him.

"Miss Gast, what is your point?"

Aerith sobered. "I guess it would be easiest to just come out and say it. It's been lonely in Boston since Zack . . . well, you know. And my mother passed away just recently. After that, well, Mrs. Gainsborough thought maybe I could use a change of scenery. So she invited me to come out here for a little bit and I said Yes.

"I was trying to get away from my past, even if just for a while. I thought then it might be easier to face it later. And . . . I don't know, when I suddenly ran into you and realized who you are, General, I completely lost all sense and decorum." She half-raised her arms in a helpless shrug and dropped them again. "I just wasn't expecting for there to be so many reminders of Zack all the way out here in the middle of the desert."

Sephiroth had watched and listened through her explanation, giving no sign of what he thought. "I see," he said now. "You didn't have to elaborate on your actions, Miss Gast. But I'm pleased to know if it wasn't due to anything you heard about me."

"Oh no!" Aerith quickly interjected. "Not at all, General. No, I was given a very nice picture of you in Zack's letters. He thought a lot of you, too."

Sephiroth nodded. "It was good of you to take the time to come here," he said. "But now, if you don't mind . . ."

"Of course." Aerith moved back to the door. "I should let you get back to your work. You must be very busy." She smiled in farewell and stepped into the hall.

"I hope you won't become the subject of too many tales because of your visit, Miss Gast," Sephiroth said.

"It's alright if I do," Aerith said. "People will talk; there's not much that can stop them when they get going. Goodbye."

"Goodbye then." Sephiroth shut the door and stood near it a moment, bewildered and unsure what to think. Not that he did not appreciate her consideration, but he had honestly never expected such a thing. He had thought they would only meet on the street, if ever more at all. After Aerith's flight he had supposed that she wanted to stay as far away from him as possible.

He walked to the window, idly looking to the ground level. Aerith was just leaving the hotel and continuing down the street, her parasol on her shoulder.

He slipped away before she could turn and see that he was watching.

xxxx

The stranger stood at the depot, a suitcase in hand. Pulling back the stylish red suit coat with his other hand, he reached into his black silk vest's pocket and produced his gold watch and chain. The time read five minutes to noon.

"The stage should be on time. It always is."

He looked up at the gruff yet friendly voice. A dark-haired man in a light suit and matching wide-brimmed hat was approaching. Behind him came his valet, carrying two large valises.

"That's good to know," the red-suited stranger purred.

"I'm assuming you're not from these parts," the newcomer persisted. He held out a hand. "Enoch Mills, the richest man in Dodge City, Kansas."

"Charmed." He shook Enoch's hand. "And you are leaving Dodge, I see?"

Undaunted by the stranger's refusal to drop his own name, Enoch nodded. "That's right, on a business trip. I sent two of my men out West to investigate some property I was being offered. They just sent word that, as far as they can tell, it's a bargain. So I'm off to have a look myself before I close the deal."

"And where is this property? I've traveled quite a bit. Perhaps I know something of the general area."

"It's close to a small town called Edge," Enoch said. "By the borders of the Utah and Arizona Territories."

"Ah, I see." His eyes glimmered. "Edge, you say. How curious. That is my destination as well."

"Oh? You're not after the same property, I hope." Enoch peered at him with a suspicious eye.

"Not at all. You may have your property. The wandering soul knows no rest."

Enoch still looked confused. "And what's that supposed to mean?" He looked the other man up and down. "You're mighty well-dressed for a wanderer."

"There are many forms of wandering," was the reply. "You are not familiar with Loveless, I suppose."

"Loveless? Oh, you mean that stage play. No, I can't say that I am."

"It was a book long before it was a play."

"That goes to show how much I know about it."

Enoch stepped forward, perking up as he turned to gaze down the street. A telltale cloud of dust in the distance was steadily growing closer. "Right on time," he smiled.

He looked back to the unknown traveler. "It looks like we'll be keeping each other company all the way to Edge," he commented. "We might as well start getting to know each other. Do you fancy poker?"

"I'm not against a game now and then."

"Then we'll get along just fine," Enoch declared.

"Yes," said the other. "I suppose we will."