Once A Hero, Always a Hero

Sazh sighed and stifled the urge to bang his head on the wall of the elevator. Not only would it hurt, it wouldn't change a damn thing. It had been years since Katzroy Industries manufactured weapons, but some members on the board refused to back off and let matters rest.

His lips curled. In a way, he could understand their enthusiasm. Making weapons was a lucrative business, and even a single military contract could be worth billions. But it wasn't something he wanted to be involved in, not anymore. He'd seen firsthand the misery his weapons could create, and he'd be damned before he let them fall into the wrong hands. Besides, he had a family to think about now. The absolute last thing he wanted was for his son to think poorly of him, and his wife had already made her feelings on the subject very clear. Unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life on the couch, Katzroy Industries was no longer in the business of ending lives. Now, it was in the business of improving them.

The elevator slowed to a stop, and as the doors opened, he straightened out his suit. He needed to stop worrying. He had the final say in what projects the company pursued, and with the meeting out of the way, he had the rest of the day ahead of him – a day he'd carefully scheduled to give him as much time as he needed to goof off. After all, running one of the largest companies in the world was pretty tiring work.

However, his good mood faded as he stepped out of the elevator and wandered through the floor that served as his personal office and workshop. Sitting behind the desk, and looking like she had every right to be there, was someone whose very presence meant trouble. His eyes narrowed. She even had the gall to drink coffee out of his favourite mug, a gift from Dajh that proudly proclaimed him the 'Greatest Daddy in the Universe'.

"Yuffie Kisaragi," Sazh growled. "Do I even want to know what you're doing here?"

Yuffie grinned and waved her mug of coffee in Sazh's direction. How the ninja managed not to spill any of it, he had no idea. "Morning, Sazh. Long time no see." And then, just because she could, she swung her legs up to prop her feet up on his desk. "Happy to see me?"

"Get your feet off my desk." Sazh stomped over to the desk and glared down at teenager. To his utter disgust, she seemed entirely unaffected. He sighed and pushed her feet off his desk. "And what's with your clothes?"

Yuffie gave him a sunny smile, folded her arms behind her head, and put her feet back on his desk. He scowled. He could try and wrestle her out of the chair, but they both knew that despite the substantial difference in size, he couldn't lay a finger on her in unarmed combat. "Let's just say I felt like a change."

"Really?" The last time Sazh had seen her, Yuffie had been gallivanting around in short shorts and a stomach-exposing shirt. Not exactly the best clothing for saving the world, and he'd been hard pressed not to throw a jacket over her along with some tracksuit pants. Children – and she'd been a child, no matter how good she was at all that ninja mumbo jumbo – should not be dressing like that. Right now, however, she was wearing a high quality black suit, complete with matching shoes. For some reason, however, the suit seemed to be a little poorly fitted.

"You like?" Yuffie gave her clothing a pat and shot him what he assumed was supposed to pass for a serious look. "Gast though it would be better if I tried to make a good impression when I dropped by, so I borrowed one of Tifa's suits." She gestured at the suit. "I probably should have gotten one of my own though. Tifa's taller than me and well…" She glanced down at her chest and winced. "Yeah."

Sazh followed her gaze and sniggered. There was another – very obvious – difference between Yuffie and Tifa, and it had nothing to do with their height.

"Damn it, stop laughing!" Yuffie cried.

Sazh put one hand over his mouth and tried his best to look serious. "Don't beat yourself up, Yuffie. I don't think there's too many women who can match Tifa in that department." He pretended to take a closer look. "Still… it's like you haven't grown at all."

Yuffie's eyes narrowed, and Sazh blinked as several shuriken whipped past his head. Great, she was even faster than he remembered. "Now that's just rude. I'll have you know, I've grown plenty in that department." She reached for her shirt. "How about I show you?"

Sazh blanched and turned around. "No, I'll take your word for it." He turned back to face her. "Not to mention that Lahna would kill me if she even thought I'd looked at someone else."

Yuffie chuckled. "Well, it would serve you right. No one makes fun of the great, sexy ninja Yuffie and lives to tell the tale." Sazh twitched. It had been bad enough when she was the great ninja Yuffie. Now, apparently, she was the great, sexy ninja Yuffie. "Anyway, how is married life treating you? Lahna still bossing you around?"

"She does not boss me around," Sazh muttered. Yuffie just stared. He stared back. Damn it. "Fine, maybe she does a little, but I'm happy. I've got a nice family, more than enough money, and apart from the occasional board meeting, my life is relatively stress free." He glared at Yuffie. "Although I don't know how much longer that's going to be true."

Yuffie put up both hands. "Hey, don't blame me, I come in peace. No shooting the messenger and all that."

Sazh grabbed a chair and pulled it over to his desk. "So, why are you here, Yuffie? And why exactly did they send you of all people?"

Yuffie took another sip of her coffee. There was nothing like a nice, big jolt of caffeine in the morning, never mind what everyone else in AVALANCHE thought of her becoming even more hyper. They were just jealous they couldn't be as energetic as her, especially Vincent that creepy vampire. Or maybe he wasn't entirely creepy – he was actually kind of handsome all things considered – but he sure moped a lot. Maybe she should spike his tea with caffeine, or maybe a shot of vodka. Heh. Drunk Vincent, she'd pay to see that.

"Yuffie," Sazh growled. "Are you even listening?"

Yuffie shook herself. "Well, the professor did try calling you Sazh, and that didn't exactly work out too well. And as for why me in particular, well, there really wasn't much choice." Sazh was about to reply, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Yes, I know we could have sent Tifa what with her being the sanest one out of all of us, but she's busy right now. Guard duty, I think."

"Oh?" That was interesting. Tifa was too valuable an agent to assign to just anyone. "Mind telling me who?"

Yuffie shrugged. "Consider this an act of good faith and all that." She grinned. "She's watching Aerith."

"Gast's daughter?" Sazh frowned. "Why?"

"No idea." Yuffie had another sip of coffee. "But you know how it is. He gets quite a bit of say when it comes to our assignments, and what father wouldn't want Tifa Lockhart watching over their daughter? If someone even looks at Aerith funny, Tifa could just put them through a wall." She went to take another sip of her coffee and then frowned. The mug was empty. Oh well, she could always pour herself some more. Ignoring Sazh's incredulous look, she poured herself another mug of coffee. "And as for why me, there's only three people in AVALANCHE that can get past all of your security, since you've been refusing all of our attempts to make an appointment. There's Tifa, there's me, and then there's Vincent. So, Sazh, would you rather have me dropping by, or would you rather have Mister Tall Dark and Depressing?"

Sazh made a face. "When you put it like that…" As aggravating as the ninja in front of him could be, she was actually quite personable. Vincent, however, was far from ideal company, although her was definitely someone that Sazh respected. "Fine, I get it. Now, come on, why are you here? I know this isn't a social call."

Yuffie sobered slightly, although that didn't stop her from taking a sip of coffee. "You're right, this isn't a social call." She slid a data recorder across the desk to Sazh. "Take a look at this."

Sazh attached the data recorder to a special display unit built into his desk. A moment later, the air over the desk shimmered as a host of images appeared. "So, what exactly am I looking at here?"

Yuffie pointed at one of the images and it expanded to fill the space over the table. "As you know, Hojo is a teensy, little bit crazy." Sazh rolled his eyes. Talk about an understatement. Hojo had long since crossed the line from crazy to demented super villain. "Still, crazy as he is, he's damn good at what he does." The image shifted to show something that vaguely resembled a dragon, or would have if it weren't for the advanced weaponry sticking out of it. "But that thing is something new. Local police stumbled across one of Hojo's labs hidden near a small village in the Nibelheim mountains." She made a disgusted sound. "They found it after someone filed a noise complaint – a damn noise complaint – and we'd been looking for it for months. Long story short, that thing got loose and made quick work of the police before it decided to go after the local civilian population."

"I'm guessing you stopped it," Sazh said grimly. He gestured and the image became a video, a very gory, very graphic video.

"Yeah, we did." Yuffie glanced at the video. "But as you can see, it made quite a mess." She frowned. "It was strong, Sazh, and fast, and that weaponry built into it was damn powerful. And that's the thing that really bothers us. Hojo has always been a genius when it comes to genetic alteration and mako usage, but the kind of weaponry that thing had, well, he's never shown proficiency at developing that kind of stuff before." She paused. "So either he's learned some new tricks – and that's scary enough – or he's got outside help. The other thing is… some of that weaponry was a lot like –"

"The weaponry my armour uses, right?" Sazh felt a headache coming on. Four years ago, he'd retired from the hero business. As the Steel Soldier, he'd been one of the world's most famous heroes, renowned for using a highly advanced suit of armour that allowed him to stand toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful beings on the planet. He'd kept his real identity secret to protect his family, but somehow that secret had been compromised. In the resulting debacle, his wife had nearly been killed. He'd retired not long after that. Risking his own life was one thing, but he refused to risk the safety of his family. "That's what you were going to say, isn't it?"

Yuffie sighed. "Yes, that's right." She must have read the troubled look in his eyes, because she gave him one of her sunny smiles. "Look, no one is blaming you, and if anyone does, just let me know and I'll send a shuriken their way. But the professor wants you to come in and take a look. He's smart and everything, but weapons have always been more your thing."

"He wants me to come in and have a look?" Sazh laughed softly. "I have a hard time believing that's all he wants."

Yuffie nodded. "That's all."

"So, he's not the least bit interested in my armour?" Sazh had to force the anger back. Gast was a good man, but good men could make bad decisions. There was too much risk in sharing the design of his armour. If the wrong people ever got their hands on it…

"I won't say no," Yuffie replied. "Heck, even I'm interested in how that armour of yours works, but no, he won't be trying to get the design off you, and he's not interested in putting you back in the line of fire even though we could use the help. He just wants you to come in and give us a hand with the analysis, that's all."

"And after I do that?" Sazh asked.

Yuffie shrugged. "Then we all go out and get some shawarma." Sazh rolled his eyes. "Once you're done, we'll be out of your hair – which is quite nice by the way – and we can all be on our merry way. No muss, no fuss."

"You don't really think it's going to be that simple, do you?" Sazh asked.

"Well, no. Knowing our luck there will probably be some kind of horrible catastrophe or something, but I can dream." Yuffie gave him a serious look. "Look, we don't want this sort of technology becoming widespread. Take the rest of the day to think it over, have a look at the rest of the files. If you want to come, then just give me a call." She tossed a business card at Sazh. "I'm staying at that hotel right over the Eden City Grand Casino." She smirked. "No reason I can't make a few gil while I'm here."

Sazh looked at the business card and bit back a smile. Apart from a phone number, it had Yuffie listed down as 'The Amazing Ninja, Yuffie – The Greatest, Sexiest Ninja in the Whole Damn World.' "I'll think about it."

Just then, the elevator chimed, and they both looked over to see Lahna and Dajh step out of the elevator. The dark-skinned woman took one look at the two of them and frowned. Sazh winced. This was not going to be pretty.

"Hey, how are you doing, Mrs K?" Yuffie asked with a smile.

Lahna gave Yuffie a sharp look. "A girl your age should know better than to put her feet up on a table." She glanced at the coffee. "And you shouldn't drink so much coffee. It will stunt your growth."

Yuffie twitched and struggled to keep her smile in place. "I'll try to keep that in mind." She looked at Dajh. "It's been a while, kiddo."

Dajh stared and then moved to stand behind his mother. Yuffie had to fight the urge not to squeal. That was just too damn cute. With a grin plastered on her lips, she launched herself out of her chair and up over the table. She twisted through the air, spinning with a grace that only a handful of people in the world could match, and then landed with a flourish just in front of the boy. His eyes widened in wonder.

"Hmm… it looks like you don't remember me, but then again, it has been four years since we last met." Yuffie saw Lahna's expression soften slightly and bit back a grin. Heh. Being awesome with kids had its advantages. "Your name is Dajh, right?" The boy nodded. "And it's your birthday soon too, isn't it?"

Dajh nodded again. "Next week."

Yuffie smiled and suddenly there was a pack of cards in her hands. She flipped them back and forth before fanning them out in her hands. "Pick a card, Dajh, any card."

Dajh picked a card. "It's a –"

"Don't tell me what it is," Yuffie said. "Now, tell me, do you like video games?" Dajh smiled and nodded. "Good, now hide your card behind your back." Dajh did. "Tell me, is your favourite video game that new one about Blitzball?"

"How did you know that?" Dajh breathed. Frankly, Sazh wanted to know that too. Had someone been spying on his family?

Yuffie grinned. "I know magic."

"Really?" Dajh's eyes widened. "For real?"

Yuffie nodded sagely. "As a matter of fact, everyone usually calls me the Great Ninja Yuffie." She smirked. "Remember the card you picked? I bet I can tell you what it was. Was it a…" Yuffie paused dramatically. "A king of spades?"

Dajh shook his head. "No."

"Really?" Yuffie seemed surprised. "Are you sure?'

"I'm sure," Dajh said, pulling the card from behind his back. "It was a –" He stopped short, and stared at the video game that was now in his hands instead of the card. It was the new Blitzball game! "How did you do that?"

Yuffie grinned and put one finger over her lips. "It's a ninja secret, Dajh. For a ninja as awesome as me, stuff like that is too easy."

Dajh nodded slowly, eyes still wide with awe, and Yuffie gave his hair a quick ruffle before she headed toward the elevator. "Think over what we talked about, Sazh. Give me a call tomorrow morning once you've decided."

Sazh looked from his son, who was staring at the ninja in absolute awe, to Yuffie. "Fine, but how did you get past all of my security?"

"Oh that?" Yuffie grinned and stepped into the elevator. "Trade secret, but don't worry. There's exactly one person in the world who could have done it the way I did, and you're looking at her."

Sazh bit back a curse. Damn ninjas.

X X X

"You're going with her, aren't you?" Lahna murmured.

Sazh looked over at his wife. She was lying down on their bed, her eyes filled with something that was equal parts anger and sadness. He looked away from the files he'd been viewing and nodded.

"I think I have to. If these files are accurate, they need to get a handle on this as soon as possible." Sazh's fists clenched. The files had been very, very graphic, which was why he'd viewed them on a private computer monitor with earphones rather than out in the open. The dragon had killed more than a hundred people before AVALANCHE had been able to put it down, and even then it hadn't been easy. "And they just want a little help with some analysis, that's all."

Lahna's hands tightened around the blanket. "Is that where it stops though?"

Sazh sighed wearily. Four years ago, someone had managed to learn that he was the Steel Soldier. They'd gone after his family, and it had been a mix of dumb luck and unbelievable effort that had allowed him to apprehend the culprits and protect his family before the information spread any further. Had things gone even a little differently, he would have lost Lahna.

After that, he'd retired, although he'd kept working on his armour. The technology in the armour was the same technology that helped keep him alive despite the injuries he'd suffered years previously during a tour of duty as a soldier. However, that had been the end of his hero days. He wanted to help others, but he refused to let his family suffer because of that. Maybe it was selfish, but that was how he felt.

"You and Dajh come first," Sazh said quietly. "If they ask me to do anything that puts you two at risk, I'll walk away. It's as simple as that."

Lahna nodded. She was angry with him for getting dragged back into all of this, he could tell, but she was angry with herself too. "I know you miss it – being a hero – and sometimes I wonder if I'm not being selfish asking you to stay out of things. What happened wasn't that bad and maybe, maybe you could get it to work."

"Not that bad?" Sazh yelled. His wife flinched and he took a deep breath. He went over to the bed and sat at the edge of it. "You almost died, Lahna. If I'd been even a few seconds slower, you would have." He shook his head. "I can't lose you or Dajh, and there are plenty of people who can be heroes. Heck, did you ever think we'd see anybody like Captain Cocoon?"

Lahna laughed softly and took his hands in hers. "As long as you're comfortable with the choices you've made." She smiled. "But you better be back in time for Dajh's birthday, Sazh, otherwise you're in trouble." She gave him a mock scowl.

Sazh nodded. There was the bossiness he was used to seeing. "Don't worry, it shouldn't take more than a few days." He grinned. "Do I get a going away present?"

"A going away present?" Lahna rolled her eyes. "What are you, a kid?"

Sazh grinned and leaned over her, pressing her down onto the bed. "Well, I do like to think I'm young at heart."

X X X

"I knew you'd see things my way," Yuffie said with a smirk. Instead of a suit, she was wearing a pair of shorts and a jacket.

Normally, Sazh would have fired back with a comment of his own, but he'd had a very pleasant night. He could be a little indulgent. "Come on, let's just get this over with."

Yuffie skipped toward the waiting jet and then stopped. "Wait… I know that look. Someone must have had a very good night." She darted over to him and draped one arm around his neck. "So… how was it?"

"What?" Sazh squawked. "You're too young to be asking about things like that." He frowned. "And what would you know anyway?"

Yuffie smirked. "I turned eighteen not too long ago, so I'm one hundred percent legal now." She made a face. "And maybe I do know a little." Her expression darkened. She'd probably know a lot more if Vinnie didn't keep scaring everyone off. Seriously, he was acting like an older brother or something, only older brothers didn't stare at their little sisters the way he sometimes stared at her. Heh. One of these days, she'd get sick of waiting for him to wise up and just jump him.

Sazh scowled. "I want names and addresses, Yuffie. If someone touched you, I want to know so that I can make them dead."

"Geeze." Yuffie laughed as they climbed into the jet. "Just like old times, huh?" Honestly, what was with all the interest in her sex life? On the few occasions when Vincent wasn't busy scaring everyone off, the rest of AVALANCHE had been more than happy to take his place. Heck, even Cloud had gotten in on the whole frightening potential suitors away deal.

X X X

By the time the jet finally touched down at the research facility, Sazh had seriously begun to consider busting open one of the emergency doors open so that he could throw Yuffie out of the jet. Perhaps the only thing that stopped him was the knowledge that the ninja could teleport over short distances, which meant that she'd just find her way back in. Still, after several hours of being interrogated on every aspect of his life, along with being forced to listen to her recount countless anecdotes of the pranks – she called them 'bonding exercises – that she inflicted on AVALANCHE, he was willing to give almost anything a try.

As soon as they landed, several agents came to escort Sazh to his quarters. They were also kind enough to take the luggage he'd brought, although he insisted on carrying one particular suitcase himself. Even if he didn't think he'd need it, and even if he didn't want to use it, he'd brought his armour. AVALANCHE just had a way of drawing trouble, and he was not about to get killed because he was unprepared. Once he had everything organised in his quarters, he and Yuffie headed for one of the main research labs.

The lab itself was enormous and protected by several layers of security. However, all of that paled into insignificance beside what the lab actually contained. The dragon was laid out across the lab, its entire form supported by an intricate combination of raised platforms and cables. All up, the thing must have been the better part of a hundred feet long, maybe more. It had been cut open for dissection, and some of the weapons that had been imbedded in its body had already been removed. Examining it were a small cadre of scientists led by Professor Gast. Not far away were the rest of AVALANCHE, Tifa excluded.

"It's been a while," Sazh murmured as the rest of AVALANCHE caught sight of him.

"What do you know, the kid brought him back." Barret stepped forward, and extended one large hand. "How're you doing?"

"Pretty well." Sazh shook Barret's hand and glanced at his artificial arm. He'd helped build it. "How's the arm treating you?"

"Not bad." Barret grinned. "Since you're here, do you think that maybe you could –"

"Hey, leave the requests till later," Yuffie said, dragging Sazh off. "We've got work to do."

"Quit being a brat," Barret growled. "I was just going to ask. He didn't have to do it right away."

Sazh ignored the bickering pair and glanced at the others. Both Cloud and Vincent were content to greet him with a silent nod. He smiled faintly. Maker, those two hadn't changed a bit.

Cid came over and pried Yuffie's hand off Sazh's arm, much to the ninja's aggravation. "Just like old times, right?" Cid asked.

Sazh nose wrinkled. "Still smoking, I see."

"Only when I'm not around Shera." Cid grinned. "Besides, I figure long term consequences aren't something I need to worry about in my line of work."

"You tell Shera that?" Sazh had heard about Cid's wedding, though he hadn't been able to attend.

Cid made a face. "No, and I'd appreciate it if you don't say anything to her either." He sighed. "If it's not about my smoking it's about my cursing. Sometimes I wonder why I married her."

Sazh rolled his eyes. "Because you love her."

"Yeah," Cid chuckled. "There's that." He glanced away as Gast headed toward them. "Sorry about you getting called in like this." He gave Sazh a serious look. "I haven't forgotten what happened four years ago."

"Thanks." Sazh turned to face Gast. "Gast."

"Sazh."

The two of them took a moment to size each other up. Just looking at Gast, Sazh wouldn't know that he'd spent most of his time recently cleaning up all the messes that Hojo had left behind. That said a lot about how tough the man had become.

Gast's lips twitched. "It's been a while." He extended one hand. "We should talk more often – and not about work."

Sazh's chuckled, and he reached out to shake Gast's hand. It was easy to forget sometimes that he and Gast had been friends, good ones, before the disaster of four years ago. "I'd like that. Now, what have you got for me?"

Gast smiled, glad to be on more familiar ground. Their friendship – what was left of it – was fragile at best. "The dragon – at least, that's what we're calling it – appears to be a genetic mutation created by the infusion of high levels of mako into a pre-existing specimen." He frowned. "The specimen itself was probably created by splicing together the gene sequences of several species. Certainly, I've never seen anything quite like this creature before."

Sazh nodded grimly. Neither had he. "That sounds about right for Hojo." He walked over to the dragon. The smell wasn't nearly as bad as he'd expect, but it had probably been chemically treated to slow decay. "What was it like in combat? The videos were a little hard to follow at points." They were also very bloody.

"Like most subjects that actually survived mako infusion, it demonstrated unusual strength and speed for something of its size." Gast looked at Cloud. "Cloud can probably explain it better than me."

Sazh listened intently as Cloud recounted the battle. Despite his less than stellar interpersonal skills, the younger man had an excellent eye for detail when it came to combat, and his proficiency with swords was unquestioned. If anyone knew how to size up the creature's abilities, it would be Cloud, and the picture he painted was bleak. The dragon had been fast, agile, and enormously strong. But what had made it especially dangerous was its ability to multi-task. It had been able to assign different targets to its claws, teeth, and weapons, allowing it to negate AVALANCHE's advantage in numbers.

"Sounds nasty," Sazh murmured as Cloud finished. "But I want to take a closer look at some of those weapons. Yuffie said some… troubling things."

Gast gave Yuffie a look. The ninja just smiled back, and he pointed at some of the weapons they'd removed from the dragon's body. "Over there."

Sazh studied the weapons intently, ordering the scientists about like they were his employees. They were well aware of who he was, and after a nod from Gast, they hastened to follow his instructions. His findings were not the least bit pleasing. "What you're looking at are essentially highly advanced energy weapons." He pointed at one of the weapons. "This one is basically a heat ray, but incredibly focused, well in advance of what should be possible, although it bears some similarity to some old designs I turned in before things changed." He frowned and pointed at another weapon. "And as for this one, it's a high level electrical discharge array – a lightning gun." He winced. "They're both really nasty, and both top of the line, but what bothers me is the amount of energy they take. Normally, if you had something like these, you'd need something bigger than a tank to fire just one, and this dragon thing has more than a dozen." He looked at Gast. "So, my question is, what's this thing's energy source?"

Gast glanced at the other scientists and they filed out of the room. "Actually, that's the main thing I called you about, because it's something only you can really confirm." He led Sazh to a platform that carried them up and over the dragon's ruined chest. The ribs had been pulled apart to reveal a large metal sphere imbedded near the dragon's heart. Gast pressed a few buttons on the platform, and the sphere opened. "Take a look."

Sazh stared and then swallowed thickly. At the heart of the sphere was a large glowing disk. In particular, the disk was made up of an outer ring that glowed a dull blue-white and a circular area in the middle that glowed the same colour. Now and then, arcs of energy rippled between the outer ring and the centre. The rest of the sphere was taken up by a host of glowing orbs, each of them linked to each other and to the disk.

"That part in the middle looks like a Crystarium Reactor," Sazh murmured, one hand going up to his chest where a similar device glowed beneath his clothes. Without it, an old war injury would have killed him years ago.

"I know," Gast said. "But you're the only one who can confirm if it actually is one."

Sazh asked Gast to guide the platform closer so that he could examine the disk more closely. After a few moments, he breathed a small sigh of relief. The device was certainly very similar to a Crystarium Reactor, but there were several key differences. Most importantly, it did not seem like it was self-sustaining. Instead, it needed some kind of outside power regulation system along with another system for stabilising the material inside the device once it began operation. He relayed his thoughts to Gast and then glanced at the orbs that occupied much of the sphere. "What are those?"

Gast's brows furrowed. "I can't be entirely sure, but they appear to be concentrated mako in solid form."

Sazh pursed his lips. "Then they must serve as the power regulation system. Still, I didn't even know you could stabilise mako into a solid form. True, both you and Hojo have theories about how it could be done, but this is the first time I've seen it."

A dark look flashed through Gast's eyes. "I've been able to accomplish it in the lab, but the results are highly toxic." Sazh backed away from the orbs. "It's all right. The solid form is largely inert outside of direct physical contact. However, once it is liquefied or aerosolised, it becomes extremely volatile."

Sazh scowled. "Please tell me you have sensors around here for that. I don't plan on getting mako poisoning."

Gast nodded grimly. "Believe me, we do. If those orbs of mako show any sign of activity apart from background reactions, the whole lab will light up."

"Good." Sazh looked back at the sphere. "We're going to need to look at this more closely. The weapons themselves are troubling, but this is the real problem. Is there any way we can remove it from the dragon?"

Gast shook his head. "Not yet. The sphere appears to be linked to some of the dragon's tissue. Removing it from the dragon may destabilise it, or damage it beyond repair."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Sazh ran one hand through his hair. "All right then. Let's get to work."

X X X

After three days of painstaking analysis, Sazh and Gast were finally relatively certain of how the reactor operated. The orbs of mako were indeed the power regulation system. Any sudden surges in power production were handled by shunting energy into the mako, and any sudden drops in power production were compensated for by drawing upon energy held within the mako. The mako also served as the start-up system for the reactor, providing the initial jolt required to activate the almost Crystarium Reactor.

However, the reactor went even further. The orbs of mako were directly connected to the dragon's nervous system and muscles. By applying the right amount of energy, it was possible to liquefy the mako and circulate it through the dragon, vastly increasing its physical capabilities. In order to avoid injecting too much mako and simply killing the dragon, the entire reactor was linked to an intricate biological interface that allowed the dragon unprecedented control of the reactor and the mako it contained. It was absolutely brilliant – and utterly insane.

Now, they were going to see if they could control it.

Gast checked one more time to ensure that all of the appropriate safety precautions were in place and then reached for the computer console. With any luck, they'd be able to get the reactor working properly, and perhaps even reverse engineer something that might be of use to the rest of the world.

For a moment, there was nothing, and then the reactor began to emit a loud hum. The light inside it grew brighter as the unearthly glow of energised mako filled the lab. Suddenly, the readings began to spike.

"What's going on?" Sazh growled.

Gast's eyes flew over the readings. "There's some kind of biological reaction taking place. It looks metabolic –"

He trailed off as the sphere snapped shut, shielding the reactor from view. A split-second later, the mako channels leadings out of the reactor began to pulse and writhe. Before their horrified eyes, the dragon's dead flesh twitched and started to regenerate. The damn thing was coming back to life.

Gast slammed his hand down on the computer console. Immediately, cables descended from the ceiling to try and restrain the dragon, but it was nothing more than a way to buy time. The dragon's ribcage had already healed, and its arms and legs had begun to thrash about.

"AVALANCHE to the lab immediately," Gast bellowed into the intercom. "Get in here now!" He tried to cut the power to the dragon again, but it was pointless. The reactor was already generating power at a tremendous rate, power that was being used to drive the dragon's regeneration by flooding its system with mako. "Sazh, we need to get out of here, now!"

They ran for the door, but before they could get through it, the dragon tore out of its restraints. It lunged straight for them and Sazh's eyes widened as a massive claw raced through the air and –

Whoosh.

There was a sickening feeling of dislocation, and suddenly they were outside the lab. He blinked and looked back. Yuffie was there, holding each of them by the collar of their lab coat. For once, she was actually dressed like a ninja. Apart from her face, her entire form was covered in dark clothing.

"Heh, am I awesome or what?" Yuffie grinned. "I don't take credit, but some cash would be nice." There was a boom as the dragon ripped open the roof of the lab and took flight. Its scales gleamed in the afternoon sun, and the rest of AVALANCHE hurried to catch up to it. Yuffie grimaced. "Honestly, you'd think these things could have the decency to stay dead. Oh well, I'd better go help."

Sazh followed the dragon with his eyes as it raced upward. In the air, AVALANCHE would have their work cut out for them. Still, Vincent had already managed to carry Cloud onto the dragon's back, and Cid was in pursuit in a helicopter. As for Barret, the big man was leaning out of the side of the helicopter, unleashing a barrage of gunfire. His lips twitched. That was AVALANCHE. It didn't matter who the opponent was, or what they were capable of. AVALANCHE did not back down, and it did not give up.

"Yuffie," Sazh said softly. "There's a suitcase under my bed. It's steel grey and it has a scanner in front. Can you get it?"

Yuffie's eyes widened and then she smirked. "Going to get all heroic on us?"

Sazh nodded. "If I have to. Besides, it's not like any of you except for Vincent can fly."

Yuffie chuckled. "Well, you're right about that." She vanished in a puff of smoke and then reappeared moments later with the suitcase. "Here you go."

Sazh bent down in front of the suitcase. The scanner scanned his right hand, his eyes, and then took a DNA sample. Finally, he was asked to input a twenty character long code before the suitcase opened to reveal his armour, folded so that it could fit. Quickly, he stepped on top of the folded armour and held still as it began to mould itself on to him. There was surprise on Gast's face, and Sazh allowed himself a small smile. Years ago, he'd have needed an entire room for this, but not anymore.

Interlocking plates of metal locked into position on his legs before more plates moved up to cover his torso and then his arms. With all of those in place, he reached down for his helmet and locked into place as well. A faint hiss indicated that the armour was sealed and ready for use. A second later, his vision was augmented by a simple, but informative, visual overlay.

He turned to Yuffie. "Need a lift?"

The ninja smiled. "I won't say no. I could teleport there, but teleporting that far is always a pain in the neck." She shuddered. "Lots of puking involved." Her lips twitched as she took a closer look at the armour. "And it's nice to see your fashion sense hasn't changed – black and grey."

Rolling his eyes, Sazh stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Yuffie. There was a rumble and then the thrusters built into the boots of the armour roared to life. They shot upward, and Sazh angled them toward the dragon. They reached the dragon in less than a minute. Cloud was holding onto one of the dragon's scales for dear life as he hacked and slashed at anything he could reach. For its part, the dragon was doing its best to dislodge him, as it thrashed and spun through the air. Vincent, however, was doing a little better. His crimson cloak billowed in the wind as he leapt back and forth over the dragon's thrashing body, his gun trained on a partially healed wound in the dragon's side.

"This is where I get off," Yuffie shouted before she vanished from Sazh's arms. A split-second later, she appeared next to Cloud. She grabbed the blonde and hurled a handful of shuriken. They vanished, reappearing in Cid's helicopter before the shuriken exploded with a thunderous roar. The dragon howled, and rounded on the helicopter. The weapons imbedded in its body came to life, and it was a testament to Cid's skill as a pilot that he managed to keep the helicopter from being blown out of the sky.

"We need to get this thing out of the air," Sazh shouted. "Vincent, get clear."

The crimson-eyed man needed no further urging, and his cloak expanded to cover him as he shot toward the helicopter. As soon as he was clear, Sazh raised both hands. Twin bolt of energy leapt from his palms, and struck the dragon's right wing. Blood filled the air as the attack ripped an enormous hole in the dragon's wing. It rounded on him with a roar, and Sazh's vision lit up as the armour tracked more than a dozen energy projectiles headed his way. He dodged as best he could, and then turned to fire a wave of tiny missiles at the dragon. The dragon fired back, destroying most of the missiles, but two managed to strike its damaged wing. The result was impressive. The wing all but disintegrated.

The dragon plummeted and struck the ground in the middle of a forest. The sheer force of the impact uprooted trees and ripped open a large trench. But despite the damage it must have taken, the dragon was on its feet in moments, unleashing a wave of energy blasts as Sazh moved to engage it again. Behind him, Cid managed to bring the helicopter down safely, and the rest of AVALANCHE rushed forward.

Cloud was the first one to reach the dragon, and the whole dragon's body shook as the blonde brought his sword down on its side. The dragon howled, and tried to catch the blonde with one its claws, but Sazh was ready. Another salvo of energy blasts had the dragon reeling back, most of its own weaponry destroyed, before Cloud struck again, neatly severing the claw that had been trying to catch him.

"It regenerates," Sazh growled. "Don't let up on it."

"Relax, old man," Yuffie said as she leapt over the dragon, hurling shuriken. "We can handle this." The resulting explosions charred most of the dragon's back.

But the dragon wasn't done yet. Its head whipped around and Yuffie just barely managed to teleport away in time. Before it could try again, Barret and Vincent joined the fray. Bullets slammed into the dragon's head and neck, and the dragon jerked away, one eye missing, and half of its skull gone as well. But still it refused to die. In fact, some of its wounds had already started to regenerate.

"It didn't do this the last time," Barret muttered.

Sazh's eyes narrowed. Now that Barret mentioned it, Cloud's report of the dragon hadn't covered such a formidable ability to regenerate. So why was it doing so now? His gut clenched. Had Hojo planned on them capturing the dragon? Yes, that might be it. Make the dragon formidable enough that Gast would want to study it, and then, once they all thought it was dead, enable its regeneration, giving it the chance to catch all of them by surprise.

"It will probably keep regenerating as long as its reactor is working," Sazh said. He'd have to talk to Gast about his suspicions later. "We need to destroy the reactor in its chest."

The words were hardly out of his mouth before Cloud darted forward. The dragon tried to bat him away, but the SOLDIER leapt over the attack. His sword flashed down and tore open the dragon's chest, exposing its ribs. Sazh seized his opportunity and fired. The blast blew apart the dragon's ribs, and exposed the spherical reactor.

"The reactor!" Sazh shouted. "Get it!"

Cloud nodded, but before he could strike, a spear raced through the air and pierced right through the reactor. The dragon let loose a low groan and then tumbled to the ground. It twitched weakly and then went still like a puppet with its string cut. Without its reactor operational, it had no way of recovering from its injuries.

"Damn it, Cid!" Barret roared. "You can't just do that."

The pilot, who had thrown the spear, just reached for another cigarette. "I figured I'd save all of you the trouble. Besides, you guys were taking all the fun while I had to fly the helicopter."

Cloud and Vincent both gave Cid dark looks, but it was Yuffie who actually did something.

"Jerk," Yuffie muttered before a pair of shuriken pinned Cid to the helicopter. "How about you join in next time instead of letting us do all the hard work?" She glanced over at Sazh. "You know, for your sake, I really hope none of this makes the news."

Sazh groaned. Armour or not, Lahna would be less than pleased if she found out that 'analysis only' trip involved fighting a dragon with guns built into it. "I should be so lucky."

X X X

Sazh was not that lucky.

"You have some explaining to do," Lahna growled as she tossed a newspaper onto Sazh's desk.

Sazh looked from his wife to the newspaper on his desk. The headline was pretty clear: Steel Soldier Returns to Battle Dragon. And if that wasn't enough, there was even a picture of him and AVALANCHE fighting the dragon. He winced. There must have been hikers or something near the battle. "Well… it's like this…"

Lahna listened to his bumbling explanation for a few moments and then sighed. "I see." She smiled faintly. "Well, if you're going to do something, you might as well do it right. That's the kind of man I married." She dragged him out of his chair. "Now, come on, Mr Steel Soldier, your son's birthday party is about to start. We've even got a magician."

"A magician?" Sazh's brows furrowed. He didn't remember hiring a magician, although perhaps he should have. Ever since Yuffie's little trick, Dajh had been dying to see more 'magic'.

"Yes." Lahna smiled faintly. "Yuffie showed up. I don't know if she has something else they need you to look at, but since she's here, she might as well make herself useful."

X X X

Author's Notes

As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making money off of this.

So, here is Sazh. I had initially considered modelling him on Steel from DC comics, but decided to go with Iron Man. The two are fairly similar in that they rely on armour, but I thought that Iron Man would be a better fit for where I want to take this story later. As the head of Katzroy Industries, Sazh has the knowledge, the influence, and the resources to be a powerful ally. His position also lets him keep tabs on the hero world, even when he isn't entirely a part of it.

I've also decided to keep Sazh's wife (Lahna) alive. There are a number of reasons for this, but I really wanted another character that could help balance Sazh out, especially when it came to whether or not he would take up the mantle of a hero again (the ending of this chapter is mostly ambiguous with regards to this question). As Sazh's wife, her thoughts and opinions carry a great deal of weight. Lahna's presence also makes it easier to account for Dajh. If Sazh does decide to become a hero again, he's going to be spending a lot of time away from home. Any normal babysitter might become a little curious about that, but Lahna already knows about his time as the Steel Soldier.

Incidentally, the name 'Steel Soldier' is a mix between Iron Man and Steel. It is also a reference to the fact that Sazh – in this story – has spent time in the military.

With regards to Yuffie, I had initially planned this chapter with Tifa as Sazh's contact. As the most normal person in AVALANCHE, I think she and Sazh would get along rather well. However, I decided to go with Yuffie, because I wanted to have a bit more humour in Sazh's interactions with AVALANCHE. Besides, Sazh does spend a lot of time with Vanille in Final Fantasy XIII, and in many ways, Yuffie occupies the same character space as Vanille (a character space that is also shared extensively with Rikku from Final Fantasy X). I also think that sending a more serious person might put Sazh on guard immediately, whereas Yuffie comes across as less threatening due to her laidback nature. Yuffie also happens to be totally awesome. You will also notice that other members of AVALANCHE (besides Tifa) were missing. There are reasons for this.

For those who are not aware, AVALANCHE, Hojo, and Gast are from Final Fantasy VII, whereas Sazh and Dajh are from Final Fantasy XIII.

As a final, unrelated question, which female Final Fantasy character do you think would look best in a suit? This is a question that popped up in my head fairly frequently during this chapter, and I'm curious to know what you think. Out of the women in Final Fantasy XIII, I'm inclined to think Lightning (or should we call her Agent Farron?).

As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.