A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 9

By Twig


If North Corel had been revived by the war, and Cosmo Canyon had managed to survive through it, Rocket Town had all but been destroyed by years of resting at the very edge of hell.

The rocket that had given the town its name and distinctive profile had been rebuilt after its triumphant launch, but the new rocket now stood at just slightly above half its former height, the top section smashed and torn away, as if a gigantic child had torn it in two.

"Yeah..." Cid spoke as soon as he noticed that everyone was staring, "Yeah, they're pretty goddamned close to the action out here. That happened to the tower... almost a year ago, I think..." Cid tried to sound cheerful, but it was obvious that losing the rocket hurt. "I guess it's a good thing I got into space when I did, eh?"

Ro and Zack seemed to know exactly where they were heading, moving quickly through the town with the rest of the group on their heels.

"... just doesn't make sense... I mean, he hasn't called in before, but that was..."

Tifa strained to listen to the two men's conversation, but could only catch bits and pieces, knew enough only to know that it didn't sound good. A large, dark hand patted her shoulder briefly as they walked, and she turned to give Barret a grateful nod. The dark man's smile was comforting, but his eyes were just as worried as hers.

Rocket Town seemed to be running under some sort of skeleton crew, Tifa only saw a few ShinRa soldiers and Wutai fighters, as well as a lot of civilians. Everyone seemed to be on the alert, moving quickly and with purpose, taking hardly any notice of the strange group that made its way through town.

"General, sir!"

A young soldier, with ShinRa badges on an actual ShinRa uniform scrambled over to them, skidding to a halt close enough to throw a cloud of dust over the top of Zack's boots.

"What is it, soldier?"

"General Kisaragi, sir. She's waiting for you at the com. Wants you to go there immediately, sir."

Tifa realized, as Zack walked away, that the communications tower had been built into the remains of the rocket, with a few small antenna just barely sticking out over the top edge.


"What do you mean, you don't /know/?!"

The group walked into the tower only to find a screaming Yuffie and a pale, terrified group of radio operators and low-ranking soldiers. The ninja girl turned quickly as they walked through the door, and seemed to calm down slightly, throwing up her hands as she walked past them.

"I give up. I just give /up/... stupid goddamned know-nothing ShinRa..." She pointed at Zack, "/You/ talk to him. I'm done."

The man who had been at the receiving end of Yuffie's tirade was white as chalk, and looked as if he might run screaming for the hills at any moment.

"Uh... major Adam Ray, sir..." He saluted, staring at them all with a slowly increasing mix of awe and fear.

"Explain, major."

"General Kisaragi was a little... upset... because we couldn't give her much in the way of information."

The major ran a hand through his hair, grimacing.

"We're getting a lot of interference from something out there... we don't know what it is yet, but nothing's working right, we can't get many messages out, or /receive/ clearly... something's wrong..."

Zack's eyes narrowed, clouding over in deep thought.

"Not just a coincidence?" Sephiroth murmured, and Tifa jumped in surprise. He hadn't spoken for so long, she had almost forgotten about him entirely. Tifa chastised herself sharply for it, swearing not to let it happen again.

Zack shook his head.

"Nothing's a coincidence, not in this war... Hojo's up to something..."

"... and /we/ think we know what it is!!"

Rude, Reno and Elena walked into the room, looking just a little out of breath, Reno still as angry as ever.

"We just got a call, not /five/ minutes ago... there's a problem in North Corel, and Anjele wants us all back there now."

"What /kind/ of problem?" Zack growled between clenched teeth. Reno laughed, shrugging.

"Knowing him? He probably broke a nail... Though we /just/ got here and all... North Corel kind of is our turf, and I figured we should tell you before we head back, in case you thought this was important enough... I figured you wouldn't leave, but /someone/ should go back... just to shut him up..."

The red-haired Turk looked around for a moment, "... besides, it doesn't look like there's much going on around here..."

"It couldn't be a diversion... you can't get much of a force to North Corel without going right through here..." Zack barely pushed back a string of swear words, trying to keep calm. "... but it would be like Hojo to jerk us around like that... son of a bitch..."

"You're not the only one tired of playing his little games..." Reno laughed. "When this is all over, remind me to tell you about what happened in /Midgar/ while you were away..."

Tifa could tell, while the two men had been talking, that Barret had been going over something in his mind, scowling in concentration, just on the edge of speaking it aloud, but forcing himself to hold back.

//That's unlike him...//

"Uh... do you mind if I ride with you?"

Reno's eyes widened, he seemed to want to say something caustic, but the earnest expression on Barret's face had stopped him cold.

"I jus'..." Barret looked at all of them, a little abashed, "... it's not like I don't care about Spike, but you're all here for that, and he never liked me much /anyway/... an, if something's wrong with... with... my town..."

"Go for it Barret," Zack grinned, "I'll give Cloud your regards..."

"Hey, don't I get a say in this?" Reno scowled.

"No. No you don't." Zack replied, the smile still on his face, almost challenging Reno to disagree.

After a few awkward moments, in which the redheaded Turk and the gunarm-toting AVALANCHE member kept /almost/ hurling insults at each other, the Turks and Barret walked back out the door, and Tifa heard an engine turn over as Reno started the truck and they drove away.

"Well... back to business..." Zack muttered, staring at a radio log that told him only what he already knew, that for all intents and purposes, Cloud and the forces he had been leading had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.


Hours later, it was nearing dark, and as far as Tifa could tell, nothing had changed. There was some problem with the main radio that no one could seem to fix, Zack was still discussing the situation with Adam, while Cid and Cait Sith got into a long and involved argument about the future of the Highwind, and whose property she really was. Ro had taken off, he apparently knew some people here too and wanted to visit.

Tifa had considered joining Yuffie. The ninja girl had gone to see the large group of Wutai refugees who were making the long trek towards safety, fleeing from lands Hojo had recently taken. They had all camped out on the western edge of Rocket Town to rest and recuperate from the long journey, and Tifa finally decided that she couldn't find her friend in such a large group, even if she wanted to.

//... and we're not friends... not really... are we?//

Tifa finally decided to take a walk, clear her head, and eventually seated herself on a hill a little way out of town, scowling slightly as she curled up against the chill of the night wind, unsure of what to think about /anything/ anymore.

"Do you mind if I join you...?"

Tifa smiled as Nanaki padded up to her side, sitting down when she moved over to accommodate him. The brunette had often refrained from petting the massive beast, not wanting to treat him like some giant housecat instead of an intelligent ally, but just didn't have the energy to hold herself back at the moment.

Tifa hesitantly rubbed her knuckles against the top of Nanaki's head, smiling as he pushed up against her hand, and started to purr, sitting close enough to make her whole body vibrate slightly.

"Do you want to talk about it...?"

Tifa shrugged.

"I'm not really sure what there is to talk about... everything's so confusing, I don't think it will make sense..."

"Sometimes talking helps..."

Tifa made a noise of dismissal.

"Tell that to Cloud... he never talked to me... didn't say much even when I was /inside/ his thoughts..."

Nanaki didn't respond, simply sat there, and Tifa suddenly felt words just pour out, all the emotions that had been tangled so tightly inside of her suddenly let loose.

"I don't know what he wants because he won't ever /tell/ me what he wants! I know it hurts him when I get angry, but what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel, when he just /leaves/ like that... with no explanation... for five /years/... when he doesn't even tell me what I did wrong?!"

"What if you didn't do anything wrong?"

Tifa shook her head wildly, completely disregarding Nanaki's words.

"Then why would he leave? I must have said something... or done something... there must have been a reason!"

Nanaki made a rumbling sound, deep in the back of his throat, and hung his head low.

"...sometimes... there are no reasons."

Tifa realized what he meant after a moment, and that she was not the only one in need of comfort tonight. The brunette gently put an arm around the great cat's massive shoulders, laying her hand on one of his enormous paws.

"You still miss him a lot, don't you?"

Nanaki nodded.

"Every day, I fear that Grandfather... that he could have done things better... he could have done more for my people than I can do. The canyon... sometimes I feel like I can't even protect it properly..."

"Zack thinks you're doing a great job, he told me so. He said you're holding a key position, doing a valuable service... they couldn't fight this war without the canyon."

Nanaki nodded again, more slowly this time, but said nothing. Tifa looked up, eyes scanning the distance, when a tall, dark figure moved out of one of the buildings, swiftly, with purpose. Without even thinking about it, she scowled.

"... do you always have to look like where you're going is so damned important...?" Tifa muttered, not realizing that she had even spoken out loud, until she saw Nanaki watching her strangely.

"Sorry... it's just..." Tifa wished she could snarl the way the giant cat could, or at least flex her hands into claws and dig up some earth, shred something delicate into tiny pieces.

"I thought, if nothing in my life stayed the same... at /least/ I thought... I could always hate /him/..."

Tifa took a deep breath, not sure whether to speak or not, realizing at last that she /needed/ to get her feelings out, whether Nanaki would judge her poorly or not.

"I nearly got hit by one of those transport trucks today... just a couple of hours ago... I didn't see it or hear it, everything's always moving so fast around here. I just..." Tifa shrugged, cheeks burning with humiliation.

"Sephiroth pulled me out of the way at the last moment. He saved my life. My God, that sounds /so/ stupid."

Tifa bit her lip.

"As soon as I saw him, of course, I got angry. I jerked away, I'm sure I looked disgusted, furious... even though he was barely touching me... after he had just kept me from getting flattened..."

The brunette pounded one fist against the bench she was sitting on, feeling angry with herself for a sympathy she did not want to have.

"I apologized... for pulling away... I /apologized/... to /HIM/. Why on earth did I...? It got so damn awkward, and he just walked away, didn't say a word... but why did I...? I /know/ he doesn't care... even if he's not evil, not crazy... he's still a cold, vicious bastard. He's just fine with or without my appreciation, /or/ my anger. Why the hell did I bother trying to... it's not like he /cares/ if I hate him..."

Tifa was surprised to hear Nanaki laugh, a soft, gentle chuckle that floated lightly through the air.

"Of course he cares. /Everyone/ cares... in one way or another..."

"What do you mean?"

The brunette knew that her teammate was young, very young in fact, but just couldn't treat him that way. Nanaki never acted like a child, and most of the time was surprisingly, profoundly wise, and intensely thoughtful about the world around him.

"Grandfather explained it to me, in one of my first lessons... before I even realized they /were/ lessons. He said that everyone in life ultimately wants the same things, acceptance, appreciation, friendship, love. It manifests itself in strange ways sometimes, or twists into dark corners because of abuse, or other forms of personal pain. Some people can only find a way to reach for those emotions through power and destruction, through hurting themselves or others in order to force the world to give them what they can't find on their own. Even Hojo, mad as he may be, is only searching to create the world he thinks will appreciate him /correctly/, whatever that is..."

Nanaki's tail twitched back and forth, the flaming tip no more than a dim red glow in the twilight.

"I don't pretend to know the motivations of anyone but myself, but I believe what Grandfather said was true.

Sephiroth is not invulnerable to loneliness, or immune to want or need. He is simply a man, who has spent his entire life separated from the world, knowing that in some ways he /is/ very different from everyone else. He has had to teach himself to act like he doesn't care, I think. Like many people do, he has had to pretend that he doesn't have feelings, that he doesn't want or need anything from anyone. On the inside, though no one can see it, I think he is really no different than you or I."

The giant cat sighed.

"No one wants to be alone forever."


Though it was tearing her apart, Tifa realized that she at least /had/ Cloud to worry and care about, that whatever happened, the world was full of people who looked like her, lived and loved like her. Nanaki was the only one of his kind in the entire world.

"It's all right." The giant cat bared his teeth in a fairly good attempt at a smile, "I'd rather be feeling sorry for myself than worrying right now, anyway..."

Tifa nodded, feeling her stomach constrict painfully, all her muscles tense up with fear.

"Do they know anything yet? Do they know where Cloud is?"

Nanaki slowly shook his head.

"Zack and Ro have been going over the radio logs with Major Ray for hours... most of the soldiers who are supposed to be here, who might know something, they are out of town, about twenty miles north of here. There's some small group of Hojo's creatures that showed up just before we arrived, they're not strong, but they can't be allowed to just wander free... There's still no word from Cloud, though... nothing..."

Tifa nodded, and in the silence that followed Nanaki's words, turned her eyes toward the brilliant night sky, hoping that somewhere, a pair of beautiful blue eyes were doing the same.

//Cloud... where are you?!//


Sephiroth knew instantly that that something was strange, that somehow, the world had been... altered. He opened his eyes to see that he was surrounded by darkness, a complete and total void.

"I didn't know if I could still reach you... it's interesting, really, how little things have changed..."

The white haired man whirled around, staring at the girl standing in front of him, her face at once both unknown and completely familiar. She said nothing, large, cool green eyes watching him calmly for the few moments it took him to piece the past back together. He glanced at the staff she was leaning against, and looked back into her eyes.

"You weren't holding that weapon when I killed you... Aeris."

"I didn't need it then," she murmured, letting a gentle smile play across her face.

"You knew."

The girl nodded, the end of her brown braid swaying slightly from side to side.

"I knew."

"You could have done something... you didn't have to die."

"I did what I had to do. If I had worried about my own life, Holy may not have worked. I needed to give my life for the Planet, and save everyone... it was fair."

"Zack misses you."

Hurt welled up inside her calm green eyes, and Aeris looked away for a moment, speaking very softly.

"I know. I miss him too."

"So, what is this?" Sephiroth gestured to the darkness around them. "The Lifestream?"

"No." Aeris paused. "It's... a dream..."

"Coming to challenge me?" Sephiroth smiled, a thin smirk, even as he readied himself for an attack. He wondered if he could somehow conjure the Masamune into this dream world, wishing for the steady weight of a sword in his hands.

"I've noticed how taken the Planet is with Strife... are you afraid I'll try and kill him?"

He was surprised by how pale the girl turned at his obvious taunt, and her sudden, bitter smile seemed very painful, her words not directed toward him at all as she turned away.

"A mistake... I knew it... what was I..? How can I expect? He doesn't understand /anything/..."

"What are you talking about?" He frowned as she remained silent. "Answer me."

Aeris's eyes were fathomless and unreadable, full of conflicting sorrows he couldn't follow to a recognizable source.

"I can't give you anything but a map, Sephiroth. You have to choose your own direction. For his sake... I hope... I hope..."

The girl seemed to be on the verge of tears, and as she turned away, she whispered quietly to someone Sephiroth couldn't see.

"I'm sorry..."

"What? Choose? Whose sake? Zack's? What are you talking about?"

Sephiroth blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, he was standing in Midgar, in the corner of one of the ShinRa training rooms he had spent almost half of his life in.

The white-haired man heard the clash of metal on metal, looked up to see himself and Zack, trading sword strokes in the center dueling ring.

//A memory... I do remember this... but what, and why?//

What purpose was there in showing him this, the memory of a practice session no different from a thousand others? What was going on? What was the Cetra girl up to?

The dream started to fade, the ring, the fighters, everything becoming misty and blurred. A sudden flicker of light caught the SOLDIER's eye, something flashing high above. Sephiroth looked up, past the balcony walkway, the open second floor, to a small space high above the room. Someone was there, someone had been watching...

//Who...? Is this some kind of warning? Was Hojo up to...?//

That idea was silenced, as the figure shifted, moving into a ray of sunlight, and Sephiroth could easily see a pair of bright blue eyes and a shock of spiky blonde hair.



"General, sir!"

Sephiroth woke immediately, to the sound of urgent pounding on the door. It was just near the end of night, and they had been working in the dark for hours. He couldn't have been asleep for very long.

"General, sir! Please come to the communications tower... it's an emergency."

The dream was still fresh and vivid in his mind as he rose and quickly threw his coat on over the clothes he had slept in, the last image of Cloud watching him and Zack from the rafters burned into his memory. He pushed it aside for the moment, promising himself to study it more carefully at the first opportunity.

//The Cetra, Aeris... comes to me, but explains nothing... Cloud, watching Zack and I in secrecy, well before anything happened at Nibelheim... but why? Why didn't I see him then? What does any of it /mean/?//


When he arrived at the communications tower, Zack was already exchanging final instructions with Yuffie as she tied an extra gun to the side of his chocobo's saddle. The dark-haired SOLDIER didn't stop moving as he saw Sephiroth approach, loading bullets into another gun he holstered at his hip, switching Materia around on all his equipment, tossing a few of the spares to the ninja girl.

"I'm heading out, the rest of the troops are already ahead of me, everything this town can spare... That "small problem" out of town turned out to be a goddamned ambush. Hojo's pulled this kind of bullshit before, drawing us out and attacking en masse, without any real purpose except carnage. Thankfully, it's a pretty pathetic strategy most of the time... but we got a call in... they're getting hit pretty hard out there... somebody's got to go help..."

He flipped a blue Materia out of a slot on his sword, replacing it with a small green orb.

"Yuffie and Ro will be in charge... sort of." Zack grimaced, understanding how stupid it sounded, leaving a General under the command of two other people, one of them a lower ranking officer.

"I know it sounds insane, but as soon as we figure out what the hell is going on, as soon as everyone's got a spare second to /breathe/... it's just... they'll listen to Ro, where they might not... they don't know you yet..."

Sephiroth nodded.

"I understand. Are you sure you don't need any backup?"


Dark brown eyes looked quickly right and left, and Sephiroth realized something was up, the SOLDIER was making sure they weren't being watched. Zack took a half step closer to him, speaking in a low murmur.

"There's something going on around here, Seph. Look at the fatality records for me, will ya, and see if you see anything out of the ordinary. Check the radio specs again, too... Maybe I'm just paranoid, but..."

"You're not paranoid," Sephiroth said, and Zack grinned. They had both spent too long around ShinRa executives not to trust their senses: if something seemed like it wasn't right, it probably wasn't. Not to listen to their instincts was to court certain disaster.

"Any idea what I'm looking for?"

Zack shook his head.

"The radios... broken all the time... the ambush... I'm not even thinking about what's happened to Cloud and the army yet... but the fatality records here are /strange/... I just can't figure out..."

"I'm on it."

Zack leapt into his chocobo's saddle, and the dark-clad man grabbed the reins, handing them up to his friend.

"Be careful."

"You too."

To any outsider watching or listening, the words would have seemed cold and distant, almost uncaring, but there was more emotion in the glance that passed between Zack and Sephiroth than a thousand words could express.

Zack's chocobo quickly darted out of town, Sephiroth watched it pause briefly when Tifa appeared, and she and Zack exchanged a few words before the bird took off again.

The white-haired man turned back toward the radio tower as the first few scratches of dawn appeared, jagged tears in the cover of the night sky.

Zack's instincts were the equal of any man's, and in some areas he was even more dedicated to detail, attuned to danger than Sephiroth himself.

//I would think, even more so... after Nibelheim...//

Zack hadn't said anything, but Sephiroth knew his friend blamed himself for what had happened, for not saying or doing something that could have changed the tragic course of events, could have saved his friend.

//I know you're thinking, that if you had only seen it coming... that you could have done something... but this was /not/ your fault, not anyone's fault but my own, and I'll do whatever it takes to prove that to you...//

The white-haired man let that thought go, concentrating on the task at hand. If Zack said there was a problem, then there /was/ a problem.

//... and it's up to me to find it.//


"Anything I can get you, sir?"


Sephiroth frowned, picking up the file of one dead soldier, cross referencing the man's date of death with the calendar in front of him, where many other marks for other casualties had already been made.

//All of them worked with the radios in one way or another... and all died within a few weeks of one another, the last one, only a few days ago...//

"The flu hit us pretty hard, we almost thought it was some new weapon of Hojo's, how lethal it was. Except for Dell and Jenny... she went and got fried on a bad connection, and Dell put a bullet in his head. Suicide, though The General makes us write 'em down as casualties of war, just like everybody else."

Sephiroth looked up with an icy glare, but Major Ray wasn't looking at him anymore, busy tinkering with a piece of equipment in the far corner. The radio operator had come in a little after Sephiroth had arrived, and had offered nothing but useless conversation since then.

//... and I can't concentrate, when all I can think about is what stupid, pointless thing he's going to say next...//

Unlike Major Ray's assumption, there was nothing but doubt in Sephiroth's mind that any, let alone /all/ of the fatalities he had out in front of him had died of the flu.

//Too specific... there aren't many other deaths here... and for a sickness to /only/ target radio operators and technicians? I don't buy it.//

Accidents and suicides were also easy covers for something more sinister, especially if Sephiroth refused to believe what he was looking at could be explained away by coincidence.

//No... Zack was right. There /is/ something going on here...//

The radio logs themselves were fairly worthless, showing nothing but that the radios had been working only intermittently for a long time prior to their arrival, sending out streams of gibberish at odd hours, or not working at all.

"We don't know what's going on, why the radio keeps going out. We've checked all the equipment, twice... it's like there's a ghost in there or something."

Sephiroth clenched his jaw to keep from grinding his teeth, refusing to lash out, no matter how tempting it was. He could hear the Major tapping a pencil against the top of a terminal, whistling slightly as he worked, between the periods he was talking, of course.

//He has got to be the most annoying...// He forced himself to stop thinking about it, to keep his mind on the task at hand.

//You're just angry because you /know/ the answer is staring you in the face, and you can't figure it out...//

There was something hidden amidst the files under his hands, the documents told a story, no less real for its subtlety. It was in between the lines, the important information, and all he knew, after a good hour of searching, was that he knew nothing at all.

Sephiroth didn't ever panic, couldn't remember a time that he had done so in his entire life, even during the worst moments of the Wutai war, but he did feel a strange sense of urgency.

Cloud Strife had disappeared without a trace, along with a thousand armed men, at the edge of the battlefield they were now upon. There had been no radio contact, maybe because the radios /never/ seemed to be working, maybe not. Zack was now gone, launching an attack against Hojo, charging into the middle of an ambush that seemed to have no logical purpose at all.

//Fragments... all I have are pieces of the bigger picture...// He frowned. //... but /what/ bigger picture?//

Sephiroth heard a slight sigh, looked up to see Adam Ray watching him from across the room. The white-haired man tried to ignore the soldier as he had before, but the major kept staring, making no attempt to hide his gaze. While he didn't ever panic, Sephiroth /could/ get angry, and quickly.

//If he starts talking again... and I mean just /one/ word, I'm going to drop kick him to Midgar, I mean it... I don't have time for this... /idiot/.//

Sephiroth couldn't concentrate, not knowing that those eyes were tracking his every move, every expression, and after another few moments, another, deeper sigh from the other man broke the SOLDIER's tenuous hold on calm.

"Is there a /problem/, Major?!"

Adam jumped, quickly averting eyes full of panic.

"Uh... no sir... nothing, sir..."

Sephiroth was glad that the man quickly scurried toward the door, and held back a disgusted sigh, gratefully returning to his work.

"I just... it's amazing... to finally meet /his/ son..."


Sephiroth's head snapped up, but Adam had already disappeared.


Vincent sat on a pile of rubble at the edge of town, staring out toward the distant horizon.

Hojo was out there, somewhere. No one knew his location for sure, the creatures he had created came from all directions, and never seemed to return to any base, any secret laboratory. Most people Vincent had talked to thought he was in the north, well past where the dark-haired man had been spending his time, perhaps as distant as the Northern Crater.

Of course, most of that area belonged to Hojo's forces, the insane professor had taken it early on in the war, and from the reports Vincent had read, it was covered in monsters as far as the eye could see.


Vincent felt a twinge of guilt, he should have known better than to just walk away, to distance himself from /everything/, and expect that the battle had simply ended.

//Simple? That was simple?!// He dropped his eyes toward the earth. //But... I /will/ finish this... if it takes me a thousand years, if I have to hunt him to the end of time... I will...//

"Yo! Grandpa! Heads up!!!"

Vincent held up his claw hand in a reflexive reaction, and caught the pack Yuffie had thrown straight at his head. The ninja girl grinned, completely nonplussed by his lack of emotion.

"Come on! We've got border patrol. I thought we'd go check out this Materia well I heard about too, see if that's any good. There's nothing going on around here any damn way..."

Vincent raised an eyebrow.



There weren't enough chocobos to justify taking two out on routine patrol, and Vincent knew without asking that there was no way Yuffie would ever give up the front seat. He still had to ask himself how he ended up riding behind the ninja girl, arms wrapped tightly around her waist, feeling as if he were about to lose his balance at any moment.

The chocobo leapt over a small ravine, and Vincent felt himself sliding backward. He lunged forward, reaching out for whatever he could grab onto, and realized after a moment that he had reached up just a little too high, overshooting Yuffie's waist entirely.

"Watch it, gramps. Trust me, I'm more than you can handle." Yuffie quipped, watching him quickly remove his hand from her breast. Vincent didn't say anything, but was grateful that she turned away, sure he had turned as red as his cape.

They rode for a long time, over windswept plains, down through wooded grottos. Silence surrounded them, not even pierced by birdsong.

"There are no animals here..."

"Uh-uh." Yuffie shook her head. "We're right by one of the first battlefields, where we took the Pass a couple of years ago. Anytime Hojo's monsters attack an area, it takes a /long/ time for anything to heal, and most of the animals don't stick around too long. There are places in Wutai I used to..."

Yuffie cut herself off.

"... nevermind, it's not like you really care about that."

There was a surprising amount of hurt in the ninja girl's tone, but Vincent shrugged it off after a moment of contemplation. Whatever was wrong, odds were he was too out of touch, had been away too long, to even begin to help her.

They reached the top of a small ravine, and Yuffie dismounted.

"You can wait here or whatever... I'll go down and check for any Materia... it should only take a minute..."

"Leaving me for Materia... at least nothing important has changed between us."

Vincent had intended for it to be at least slightly funny, but was almost shocked by the sudden, brilliant smile that spread across Yuffie's face. He was sorry to see it fade, didn't want to see her turn away.

"Ha ha, Gramps. If you want to come, by all means... just leave the bird there. He's fast, but he gets nervous in small spaces."

Vincent dismounted, and left the giant bird foraging for greens in a nearby field. Yuffie was already hopping gracefully down the rocks towards a dark chasm in the side of the cliff wall. The ex-Turk thought the slash, carved into the rock, seemed a little too foreboding, that danger almost certainly lurked in the darkness inside. The ninja girl didn't seem to care, already squeezing herself through the small space.

"Yuffie! Wait!"


Was it just her imagination, or had his voice seemed a little frightened, just a little nervous?

//Don't be stupid, Kisaragi. Like he cares...//

"What? It's not enough I have to drag you along, old-timer, but now I have to wait for you too?"

Yuffie knew he wouldn't react, that there was little she could say or do to get him to even speak to her, let alone carry on a conversation or have any fun. True to form, the dark-haired man's expression didn't change as he walked up, pulling Death Penalty from its holster.

"How do you know there's not something down there?"

Yuffie grinned.

"You kidding? That's half the fun."


The passageway was at first tight and very narrow, and Vincent kept his gun out, sure Yuffie's oversized shuriken could do nothing in such a confined area. It was suddenly very hard not to panic, the glow from one of Yuffie's Materia barely lighting up the path in front of her, giving him no view as to what she was walking into.

//I just wish she'd let me walk in the front...//

After only a minute or so, the path widened dramatically, and Vincent looked down into a large cavern, a massive stalagmite of raw Materia shooting up from the center of the floor.

Yuffie quickly pocketed her tiny sphere, its light was unnecessary, the entire room was already a brilliant blue from the massive slab of raw Materia. She turned back, to give Vincent another gleeful grin.

"See, I told ya it was here."

The path wound its way down around the side of the room. It took them a while to navigate the badly eroded course, slowly make their way to the ground.

Vincent did not have to be as careful as the ninja girl was. Hojo's experimentation had given him an incredible amount of balance and agility, and he paid little attention to the path underneath him, keeping his eyes on Yuffie instead.

The short-haired girl wasn't moving that much more slowly, taking just a few seconds every few feet, adjusting her footsteps, holding on to the wall for support, testing the way... presumably, for him.

//She's grown up, then...//

Vincent knew there would have been a time the ninja girl probably would have set traps, instead of trying to find the safest route.

//She /has/ grown up, you know...//

The red-clad man tried to ignore that voice, even though he couldn't ignore that his eyes were telling him the same thing. Both of them had turned blue under the light of the Materia, and the color hid Yuffie's golden tan, but only accentuated the soft shadows her clothing made over her supple form, and highlighted the gentle curves of her slim body.

//Five years... is a long time...//

Yuffie would never look... well, to put it bluntly, she would never look like Tifa, but she had grown up into an incredibly strong, beautiful young woman since Vincent had seen her last. There was no mistaking the cheerful, mischievous fire still blazing in her eyes, but she had used it to help forge her body into a powerful weapon, to become General Kisaragi, who had been leading the Wutai forces into victory since the beginning of the war.

Her proud, fierce beauty had also caused Vincent to stare at her, more than once for increasingly lengthy periods of time, which was what he found himself doing now.

The dark-haired man shook his head, tearing his eyes from her, focusing on the gleam of his flexing metal claw as it gripped the side of the wall.

//Don't pretend that you can... and don't look at her too long. Terrible things happen when you...//

"Damn it..."

He heard Yuffie gasp, grumbling as she made her way across a particularly narrow dip in the path, and realized she was actually having a much more difficult time than he was.

"I knew... I should have... stuck with old traditions... and just stolen... your guys'... Mater--!"

Yuffie yelped as her hand slipped on the wall, and the path under her feet suddenly gave way. The ninja girl reached out silently, hands grasping at empty air as she plummeted backward.


//Well /that/ was certainly stupid, Miss General...//

A small voice sniped at her in the back of her mind, with more than enough time to do so, as the fall seemed to stretch out into slow motion.

//All because you were trying to impress him...//

Her stomach doubled back on itself, and then bottomed out as she dropped toward the ground. Yuffie winced, eyes squeezed shut, waiting for the impact, knowing there was nowhere to hit that wasn't solid rock.

Out of nowhere, a cold, hard arm wrapped around her waist, and another, human hand cradled the back of her head, holding her tightly against a thin, muscular chest. They fell together, she could hear a cape rustle slightly as it trailed behind them, and the man holding her turned his body, curling around her to take the force of the fall on himself.


They hit.


The ground was unyielding, the fall hurt, but the Turks had taught him well in both how to take a fall, and that pain was neither important nor impossible to ignore.

Vincent still felt quite content, at least for the moment, to lay on the floor and simply keep breathing, working past the sudden fire burning in his lungs. Every muscle and bone in his body protested when he shifted positions, especially with the added weight on top of him.


The ninja girl was fine, he had absorbed most of the damage from the fall, but she was still stunned, knocked out for a moment. Vincent hoped he would feel like moving, and be able to get her somewhere else, further away from him, before she woke up.

//Don't want her to freak out...//

He felt his metal claw flex again, and it caused a twinge of pain inside his chest, an aching sorrow, //don't want her to look at me... disgusted or afraid... because of me... of what I am...//

The adrenaline running through his system as he lay there didn't make the situation any easier... and made all his prior problems of simply looking at her, watching her, pale to nothingness, now that she was in his arms.

//Just leftover fear... adrenaline... sharpens your senses... no need to be stupid... just don't think about her... don't think...//

That was an exercise in futility, he knew, as he let his hand slide slowly through her short, dark hair. It was so delicate and fine against his fingertips, like the brush of a butterfly's wing, barely a sensation at all. Her body was warm and soft, pressed tightly against his own, and it felt absolutely wonderful. It had been a long time, even without his years asleep under the Nibelheim Mansion, that he had held any woman this close, and he felt the stirrings of something inside his heart, of the man that, most of the time, he thought had died with Lucrecia.


Vincent quickly pulled his hands away as Yuffie stirred, slowly opening her eyes. The gray-green mirrors focused on him in dazed bewilderment, before quickly sharpening to a tight, panicked focus as she realized where she lay.


Yuffie quickly scrambled off of him, and nearly jumped to her feet, groaning as soon as she did so, holding her head with one hand.

"Off good, up bad... up very, very bad... Owww..."

"Are you all right."

Yuffie frowned, and nodded slightly.

"Yeah. Thanks for the save."

Vincent didn't respond, and after a moment, Yuffie's attention quickly shifted to the large spire of Materia they were standing right next to.

"All righty... lets see here..."

The ninja girl approached the slab of rock, pulling a small hammer out of some hidden pocket inside her armguard.

"God, I just hope this is a good vein..." Yuffie muttered, "Maybe we can mine it for All, or even find some Full Cure... it might even be enough to get back in /Dad's/ good graces..."

Yuffie grimaced, and Vincent knew she must have been feeling incredible stress in her position, not just as leader of a massive army, but knowing her father was always staring over her shoulder.

"Lord Godo. He must not be... pleased... knowing Sephiroth is back."

"Yeah," Yuffie's smile was grim, "If he knew, I'm sure he'd be pissed as all hell..."

Vincent blinked.

"You mean... he doesn't..."

"Uh-uh. Though, by now... probably... I don't know that there's anyone who /doesn't/ know, and the rumors are flying a mile a minute..."

Yuffie broke off a chunk of Materia, looking more closely at it, before dropping the rock with a disgusted sigh.

"Damn it! I thought for sure..."

"What's wrong?"

The ninja girl picked up the piece of raw Materia again, and pulled out one of her own Materia. The tiny yellow sphere glowed, just slightly, while the rock, now unattached from the glimmering blue core, seemed hollow, dark and empty.

"Dead. A whole shaft of dead Materia. Nobody knows why it comes out like this either... but..." Yuffie shrugged. "Oh well, it was worth a shot."

Vincent smiled, just a little, as he took a closer look at the yellow orb in his hand.


Yuffie grinned.

"A girl's gotta have her hobbies..."

The ninja girl flashed her Minerva Band, and flipped over Conformer to reveal all its Materia slots, every one full of a gleaming sphere. Vincent hadn't failed to notice the Sneak Glove on her other hand, either.

"I...er, /borrowed/ some of these from Anjele and the ShinRa... and kept most everything Tifa and Barret gave me... when they thought they wouldn't need most of it anymore," she grinned evilly, "I figured, if they wanted anything back, they'd ask... I was gonna ask you too, but... you just went away."

Vincent stared at the top of Yuffie's head in shock, the dark-haired girl had already turned away, refusing to look up.

//She sounds... hurt? But that's crazy... that's just...//


"Hey... this place must remind you of Lucrecia's cave, huh?" Yuffie looked up with a bright smile, turning around to gaze up to the arched ceiling of the small cavern. "That's where you went, right... to be with her?"

"No... I..." Vincent paused, "I tried to... I /did/ go there, but she wasn't... I thought she might return... but she was gone. After Meteor... and the final battle... she was gone... forever."

"Oh." Yuffie traced a line into the cavern floor with one foot. "I'm sorry."

"Yuffie... I..."

Vincent froze, taking a step forward, staring at the wall opposite them, quietly drawing the Death Penalty and sliding the safety off.

"What...?" Yuffie murmured, slowly bringing Conformer up to a ready position, following his gaze but seeing only a blank slab of rock.

"... something... I can feel it... something's... THERE!!!"



Sephiroth looked up, to see Ro standing in the doorway. The intrusion was the same, same words, another person getting in the way of his thoughts, but somehow the redhead didn't seem quite so annoying, not nearly as bothersome as Major Adam Ray.


"Er... Reeve wanted to make sure you were all right, that there wasn't anything you needed... it's well past lunchtime... I could bring you something..."

"Probably just wants to make sure I'm not going crazy again..." Sephiroth muttered to himself, looking up to see Ro staring at him in confusion.

"Never mind, and I'm not hungry... thank you."

Ro saluted, and disappeared.

//Strange... not to see that fear... that trepidation. I'm a General to him, but nothing more... nothing foreign... or unhuman... not anymore...//

It seemed that in many ways, Cloud Strife had taken his place, as The General, as the one to watch, and the one to fear.

//Well... if he wants that, it's all his...//

Sephiroth rubbed at his glowing green eyes with one hand, forcing himself to concentrate on the words that he had been staring at for the last few hours, wishing he could find what he knew had to be there.

//Something's here... I can see... something...//

He had linked them all in his mind, the radio failures, the sequence of deaths... but it still made no sense, even if he assumed Hojo was behind it all. What point would he have in destroying the Rocket Town radio system? What could that get him, when the system could be reassembled and re-staffed within a matter of weeks?

//It's here... I know it...//

Sephiroth flipped through a few more pages, searching for answers... his mind slowly losing interest, and quietly wandering back through memories of long ago...


//"...and today, cadets, we'll be studying officer's tactics..."

Sephiroth looked over, where a dark-haired teenager was still trying to get him to crack a smile, making increasingly silly faces behind the teacher's back. No matter how little the white-haired young man reacted, the other boy would not give up, talking to him in the hallways, sitting next to him at lunch, generally being a total nuisance.

//... but you have to admit... it's better than being alone...//

Sephiroth ignored the boy, Zack, sure that the dark-haired student was merely trying to get close enough to humiliate him somehow, just one more attack against the white-haired "weirdo," now that he had grown more than strong enough for the other students to stop picking fights with him. The last fight had sent his opponent into the infirmary for the better part of a month, and Sephiroth could see fear in the eyes of even his most bitter enemies now.

//Let them talk about me... let them fear me... I don't care... I don't have to care.//

Most of the time, he almost could make himself believe it.

"Tactics make up the maneuvers of war that do not involve a sword or a gun, but can be some of the most devastating weapons imaginable. /These/..."

The straight-backed old general turned swiftly on his heel, and the riding crop he carried with him came out sharply across Zack's cheek before any of them could blink. Zack hissed in pain, staggering back slightly as his hand flew up to his cheek. A few of the other cadets laughed outright, until the teacher's scowl silenced them all.

"Soldier... you'd better have a good explanation, or it'll be another hundred push-ups on top of the two-hundred I'm already expecting from you after class."

"Uh..." Zack grinned, still rubbing his smarting cheek. "Tactics, sir."

"/Tactics/, soldier?"

"Yes sir."

"Please enlighten me, son. I can't /wait/ to hear this."

"Um... yeah..." Zack put a hand behind his head, shuffling his feet slightly. "Uh... the tactics of..." His gaze flicked to Sephiroth for a split second, and no one saw. "...er... continued assault, sir."

"Continue." The gruff old man appeared, if not amused, at least slightly interested in what Zack had to say.

"Uh... well... it takes a while, sir. You pick a target... size him up..." His eyes flicked to Sephiroth again, and the white-haired young man swore he saw Zack wink. "... and then you attack, sir. Slowly, in little ways at first... you get the target to open up a little, and then a little more... and you just keep... fighting for it... until you've met your goal."

"Well, soldier. That does seem like an awful lot of work."

At this point, Sephiroth didn't understand how everyone else couldn't notice that Zack was staring right at him, amusement and something that was almost a challenge sparkling behind his brown eyes.

"Well, sir... with all due respect... sometimes I think it's worth taking the time..."

"Well enough, soldier. Sometimes, a steady, continued attack is the only way to break down walls... only two-hundred push ups then..."

He turned back to the class, unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened, but Sephiroth could not stop taking little glances at the dark-haired young man, could not believe what he thought he saw. A smile, while the young man rubbed his still aching cheek, and the promise in those cheerful brown eyes, of a hand outstretched in friendship, determinedly offering him something he had never had before.

"While our young soldier's strategy has its benefits, there is also something to be said for a well-planned and strategized sneak attack. It can be built just as slowly as a continued assault, and then explode, like dynamite, at the perfect moment for attack, when the enemy least expects it..."


Sephiroth blinked, the memory fading back into the past, and stared down at the papers once more. This time, the words locked together like building blocks inside his mind, making instant and total sense. The dark-clad SOLDIER picked up the death records, and then the damage reports to the radio tower, staring at one and then the other, and suddenly felt the entire picture come together in crystal clarity, the entire chain of events, and things to come, held right in his hands.

He stood up quickly, almost running out the door to find Reeve, Roman, and anyone else who could fight.

//We have to get the army back here.../now/.//


The enormous monster burst through the wall in a wild spray of thrashing tentacles and gnashing teeth, screams of blood rage tearing through the air, echoing loudly off the rock walls. It slammed into the Materia spire, tearing it down to a third of its height and plunging the room into almost total darkness.

"What the hell?!" Vincent yelled, quickly taking cover behind a slab of rock. Yuffie darted to the other side of the cavern, also finding a place to hole up while the dust and rubble cleared.

"One of Hojo's, it has to be! Don't know what it's doing this far from home, though!"

Yuffie darted away from the side of the cave long enough to throw Conformer at the massive beast, dodging back as the massive weapon ricocheted around the cavern, repeatedly slamming into the monster and slicing off tentacles at every pass. The creature roared, writing in pain, Conformer finally skittering off and getting wedged in the rocks near the monster's feet.

"Damn it..." Yuffie muttered, watching as Vincent lined up a shot with the Death Penalty.

"Watch out, gramps! We don't know what kind of Materia might be good for this --"

The ninja girl's warning cut off, and Vincent, who had only been paying half an ear to her as he tried to line up a decent shot froze, as he heard a slight, choked gurgle come from the ninja girl's corner.

"Yuffie... YUFFIE?!"

From the other side of the cave, he could still see Yuffie's profile in the dim light, and two large spines sticking out from the side of her neck, just before she collapsed.


It always happened without conscious thought, but this time Vincent didn't care, and embraced the hot rush of fury that flowed through him, the feral beast that awakened from deep inside. The monster wanted /out/, and wanted out /now/.

The dark-haired man looked up at his opponent, the last true decision all of his own, feeling teeth elongate into fangs, muscles rippling and bulging beneath his clothes... the sound of tearing fabric, and the painful, sweet release of wings...

The man named Vincent Valentine disappeared, and the creature named Chaos tore the air with a furious howl, wings and claws outstretched as it dove towards its enemy...


"... Cid..."

"... mmph..."

"Cid, wake up."

"... damn it, Shera... go to the damn store by yourself... n' get me some cigs while you're there..."

"Wake up!"

"... five more minutes... go fix something..."


Cid's eyes snapped open, and he looked up into a pair of wide hazel eyes, perched above the biggest set of fangs he had ever seen.


The pilot realized he had been sleeping in a hammock as he turned to flee from the monster perched over him, and his hand met with empty air. With one swift movement, the hammock went one way, he went the other, and was unceremoniously dumped face first onto the ground.

"... er..." Nanaki graciously looked the other way as the blonde pilot stumbled to his feet. "Sorry..."

"Don't /do/ that!" Cid yelled, bending backward as he rubbed the place his back had hit the ground. He was still stretching and muttering to himself about the "... stupid... #$ @ &!... cat..." when Tifa darted past them, racing toward something on the other end of town.

"What's up with her?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you... Sephiroth's been looking through all of the files concerning the radio problems, and everything else that's been going wrong... he's talking to Reeve and Ro right now, and says he's found something."

"Yeah he has..." Cid grumbled, following Nanaki as the giant cat took off after Tifa, "...found a way to disturb my fuckin' sleep, that's what he found..."


Tifa had seen the large cat and the pilot out of the corner of her eye, and waited so that they could all show up together. When they entered the small building, Ro was nowhere in sight, and Cait Sith and Sephiroth were discussing the papers the white-haired man had lay out on the table in front of them in low, urgent tones.

"... we've never had... no one has... no one would..."

"Someone would... someone /did/, Reeve. We've got to get a hold of Zack right /now/."

"I know... we've already got..."

"Excuse me..." A girl squeezed between Tifa and Cid, quickly coming to a stop in front of Cait Sith and Sephiroth.

"I couldn't get anything through, sir. All our radios... the locals as well as the transmitter in the tower... they've been sabotaged somehow... and it's real clear too, this was no accident... Some of the parts were just /smashed/... it'll take us at least a few hours, maybe more..."

"Why would someone be that obvious...?" The tiny cat muttered, chin in one paw. "Surely, they'd know..."

"It doesn't matter now." Sephiroth shook his head. "If the radios are down, he's already accomplished his objective."

"Who the hell you talkin about?" Cid nearly yelled, just as Ro appeared in the other doorway. He didn't even bother to salute.

"Sir... we've alerted everyone... even the Wutai civilians, but... he's gone sir. Major Ray's on the run..."


Vincent opened one eye, groaning softly as he struggled to pick himself off the ground, feeling cold air through the slight tears in the back of his shirt.

//How I manage to have any clothes left at all after... that is a mystery for the ages...//

The dark-haired man ached a little, but mostly he just felt tired, weak from the aftereffects of a change that drained him of nearly all his energy. He only had to glance up once, to see that Chaos had done its job. There wasn't a scrap of the monster bigger than a gil among the bits and pieces that liberally painted the walls and floor.

//... 'least it worked...// He thought groggily, frowning in concentration at a thought nagging at the back of his mind, something urgently important... the reason Chaos had come in the first place...

He blinked, and looked over to the other side of the cave, heart leaping into his throat as he saw the slight, slumped shape of Yuffie's motionless body on the floor, and instantly remembered what had happened.


He was utterly terrified, in the dim light from the remaining, crumbled mass of Materia, he couldn't tell if she was even breathing.


Vincent reached her side within moments, turning her over to face him, relieved to feel that she was still warm underneath his hands.

"Yuffie...? Can you hear me...?"

The ninja girl groaned softly, eyelids fluttering.

"... spikes... get them out..."

He winced as he tilted her head to the side, staring at the two large dart-like spines she had been hit with. The ends were barbed, buried deep in her flesh, and she moaned again, coughing slightly, flecks of blood on her lips.

"... just get them out... please..."

"Hold on."

Vincent wrapped his hand around both of the barbs, putting his claw firmly on Yuffie's shoulder to keep her from moving, and pulled the spines out in one swift, sharp movement.

Yuffie screamed, straining against him for a moment in blind agony before she crumpled back into a dead faint. Vincent quickly picked her up, wrapping a part of his cloak around her neck to staunch the blood, and almost lunged toward the spiral pathway back to the surface.

"Yuffie... come on... wake up!" He yelled, nearly running back up the circular path, which now seemed much too long, as the ninja girl paled by degrees in his arms.

"... Hey old-timer... don'... don' worry bout me..." Yuffie's words were badly slurred, and her head lay limply against his chest. He swore he could /feel/ her body giving up, her life draining away.

"Just stay awake... stay alive... everything's going to be fine..." He tried to keep his voice level, even though panic was rising inside of him like a sea of liquid lightning.

"...poison... I think..." Yuffie murmured. "... feels... numb... can't breathe... no Materia... Esuana..."

Vincent knew the girl didn't have any Materia that worked against poison, or any Antidotes, and that he didn't either. This simple border patrol had now turned into a race against time.

"Please... just hang on... for me..."

The light at the top of the cavern seemed impossible to reach, and Vincent simply ran as fast as he could once the path was clear, scrambling toward the surface. He finally slammed his way through the crack at the top of the crevice, reaching fresh air and sunlight, looking up to see Yuffie's black chocobo watching them from the rocks above.


"Get down here! NOW!"

He didn't actually expect it to work, but the chocobo jumped at the sound of his voice, and quickly bounded down the rocks to meet them.


The chocobo nudged one of Yuffie's pale, shaking hands with its beak, and cooed softly, a mournful sound, staring at Vincent with an unblinking beady eye.

"She's not dead yet! Now get going!"

Vincent leapt into the saddle, and the chocobo bounded up the rocks with little effort, quickly retracing its path back toward Rocket Town.

"...Vince...?" The ninja girl whispered weakly. "...you still there? Can't see... all blurry..."

"We're out of the cave, Yuffie, and we're going back to Rocket Town. Just don't die on me... keep your eyes open... you'll be fine... you'll be fine"

The part of him that was always calm, always focused, was still there, but barely covering a powerful terror, a fear so strong that it overpowered almost everything else.

//Don't die Yuffie... don't die... not now... not yet... /please/... don't leave me...//

The chocobo slowed as they approached the side of a cliff. Before, they had simply taken the time to go around the small obstacle, but that was definitely no longer an option. Vincent had to bite back a scream, to tell the chocobo to hurry, as it looked at the near vertical rock face, the bird much too slowly deciding the easiest course to the top.

"... hey... you hear sumthn... I hear...wha izzat?"

"Sh... don't try to speak..." The dark-haired man wiped more blood off of her lips with a trembling hand, as she whispered something even he couldn't hear. Vincent tensed, and quickly looked around, as he realized that Yuffie /had/ heard something, or more specifically, felt something.


The ground underneath them was shaking, vibrating with some steadily increasing force. Vincent looked out to the horizon, but even his keen eyes could not tell whether what he was seeing was simply a heat mirage, or if there /was/ a dark line of some kind where the land met the sky.

"Get up to the top! Go!"

The chocobo took off, bounding to the top of the cliff without ever seeming to touch it, never shifting Vincent's position more than a few degrees backward. The red-clad man figured his ignorance was what kept the black chocobo from slipping and falling, or tumbling off it's seemingly impossible hold on the rock, and just tried not to think about it.

//Not hard... considering what's happening... What's happening? The ground... and the horizon...?//

Vincent didn't want to pause even the extra second it took to turn the bird around, but knew he had to, pulling a pair of small binoculars from a pocket in his cloak to give him a better view of his surroundings. He focused the small lenses with the tip of one finger on his claw hand. His other hand tightened its hold on Yuffie as he got a good look at what his eyes had not been able to see clearly.

"Oh... God."

Vincent's jaw dropped, as he slowly moved the binoculars from one end of the horizon to the other. The dark line had become almost too clear in the small view of the magnifying lenses, breaking up into an endless sea of shining fangs and sword-length claws, hellish, deformed creatures swarming together into one massive wave.

Hojo's army had arrived. Vincent knew instantly where they were headed. There was only one place for them to go.

Rocket Town.

"Move... /move/!"

He whispered harshly to the chocobo, but the bird needed no encouragement. It took off like a shot towards the opposite horizon, carrying a girl at the edge of life and death, and followed by a writhing mass of creatures that all the nightmares of the world could only begin to describe.


"Oh no... what... the..."

The tiny black cat looked up with wide, confused eyes, and the giant stuffed Mog suddenly let out a tiny electronic burble.

"What is it, Reeve?"

The black cat opened its mouth to speak, but nothing came out. It gestured frantically for a moment, and suddenly shut down, the cat flopping backward as the Mog slumped over towards the ground.

"Reeve? Reeve?!" Tifa shook the tiny cat slightly, but there was no sign of life, the tiny robot flopped limply in her arms.

"... we've been cut off..." Sephiroth murmured, staring towards the edge of town, back in the direction of North Corel. The town could have been a thousand miles away, he knew, for all the good it did them now.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Cid muttered, lighting another cigarette out of pure instinct, preparing for the worst by stocking his bloodstream with as much nicotine as possible. The white-haired man was still looking toward the horizon as he answered.

"First Reno and the other Turks get called back... then Zack gets sent to an "emergency situation" far out of town... then the radios stop working... and Cait Sith gets deactivated, leaving Reeve helpless at Costa Del Sol. Someone's trying to isolate us here."

Tifa looked around, tugging on her fighting gloves for comfort, Sephiroth's words bringing on a sudden, intense fear. It was a horrible sense of foreboding, the feeling that there was something watching them, gathering together, waiting for just the right moment to strike. It was also the feeling that she had only just noticed something that had been building for a very long time.

"Why would anyone want to isolate this place?" Cid murmured, one hand gripping tighter around the Venus Gospel. The pilot jumped at a slight, low growl, as Nanaki leapt down from a low wall to join them.

"No sign of the Major... everyone's looking... but I think..." Nanaki lifted his nose high, taking two or three deep breaths. "I don't want to alarm anyone... but there's something in the air..."

The giant cat turned, and paused, staring at the slumped form of Cait Sith.

"Reeve...? Er... Cait...? What happened to him?"

"I /would/ like to talk to Major Ray..." Sephiroth murmured, completely ignoring Nanaki's question. Tifa was still adjusting the straps on the Premium Heart, when she suddenly realized who else was missing.

"Hey... have any of you seen Vincent and Yuffie?"


Before any of them could react, a black Chocobo lunged over the wall, skidding to an ungraceful stop as everyone jumped out of the way. Tifa looked up as Vincent leapt to the ground in a swirl of red and black.

"Vincent?" She gasped, seeing a moment later that he was not alone, Yuffie pale, bleeding and unconscious in his arms.

"She was poisoned... we went to a Materia cave west of here... there was a monster..."

"Here." Cid pulled the Esuana out of the Venus Gospel, grateful he had decided to bring that Materia along. Vincent placed the small orb directly over Yuffie's breastbone, gently cradling her head with his other hand, and her body started to glow gently as he cast the spell.

"It's worse than that..." He murmured after a moment, not taking his eyes off Yuffie's face as he spoke. "When we got out of that cave, I saw... Hojo's army... they're coming... we put some distance between us and them, but they'll be here in less than an hour..."

"How many?" Cid said, wide-eyed.

"I don't know... thousands... maybe more... we have to warn North Corel, and get Zack to..."

"Zack is gone." Sephiroth said, as all the bits and pieces he hadn't understood suddenly fell into place. "Zack is miles from here, with the rest of this base's fighters, and doesn't know what's happened. We have no way to contact him, or North Corel, or /anyone/."

"We found him!!!"

Ro suddenly appeared, along with two very large Wutai civilians who were holding Adam Ray between them. They dragged the smaller man along, and his feet barely touched the ground. Either one of the men could have broken the soldier in half easily, but the diminutive radio operator looked up with an insane, almost beatific smile on his face.

"It's over. It's over... we've won."

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