Ashen Skies - Chapter 1

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Ashen Skies

by Xenobia

Libraries: Action, Alternate Universe, Drama, Erotica, Final Fantasy, Male/Male - Yaoi, Romance, Series

Published on / 28 Chapter(s) / 2 Review(s)

Updated on

The world is ravaged and humankind struggles to survive against rampaging WEAPONS when the planet sees humanity as a threat that must be eliminated. Alternate Universe, het, yaoi, violence, mature.

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Chapter 1

Ashen Skies

“Ashen Skies”

Chapter 1

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(Author’s Note: This is an Alternate Universe story and does not follow original game canon.  Like most other AU fictions, the plot of this is on a “what if” basis.  Some canon events never occurred and others occurred differently.  Some characters that died in canon are alive in this fiction and likewise, some characters that were alive in canon are deceased.  This story will also contain both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.  I will post warnings at the beginning of each chapter if there are romantic/sexual scenes, followed by “Het” or “Yaoi” so that those who can’t stand one or the other will be forewarned and can choose to either skip the scenes or not read the chapter at all.)

 

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*Disclaimer:  Final Fantasy and all related characters belong to Square-Enix.  This fiction piece is strictly a non-profit exercise of creativity and entertainment for people (like me) who can’t get enough of this world and the characters.* 

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            I am part of an organization that once used Mako energy for everything.  We used it as an energy source.  We used it to manufacture weapons.  We used it to create useable materia.  We used it to enhance human beings and create the ultimate soldiers…living weapons that made it possible for ShinRa Inc to stand unrivaled in military might.  The president of the company even forged a new operation in secret, so greedy for world domination that Mako energy, SOLDIER and wealth weren’t enough for him.  In his attempt to create even more powerful soldiers, he created Deepground…right beneath our feet under Midgar.  Not even his sons knew about it.  The Deepground soldiers were given much higher concentrated treatments of Mako—to the point where they needed regular infusions just to live.

 

            None of us knew about Mako Reactor 0 and the superhuman army being bred beneath it.  Well, almost none of us.  Of all the high-ranking company executives, only Scarlet, Heidegger, Hollander and Hojo were aware of the Deepground project.  Perhaps if we had known it was going on, we could have stopped the disaster that put the world into the sorry state that it’s in now.  Perhaps if someone had killed President Shinra, Hojo and Hollander years ago, the rest of the world would be at peace today.  Some might call it poetic justice that President Shinra and Heidegger were amongst the first casualties in the Deepground event.

 

            As it stands, we barely survived the Deepground uprising and the summoning of Omega.  You see, without Lifestream, life itself isn’t possible.  Omega nearly ascended and if it had, it would have taken all departed souls and the Lifestream with it.  With the help of Vincent Valentine and the entity called Chaos that he harbors inside of him, we defeated Deepground and stopped Omega.  Afterwards, Vincent went dormant and left Chaos in control of his body.  That would have been a very bad thing for all, considering that Chaos feeds on spirit energy.  Fortunately, the “demon” was exhausted by the final battle and he chose to go into hibernation. 

 

            Civilization moved on and began to rebuild, but our problems weren’t over.  The planet now felt threatened and we began to get reports of strange activity at the Northern Crater.  The teams we sent to investigate never returned and it wasn’t long before we discovered why.

 

            The planet still felt threatened.  Omega was gone, but the planet was still quite capable of creating and releasing WEAPONS…creatures designed to protect Gaia from threat.  Now it seems the planet considered US the threat and the solution?  To obliterate human kind.  Whole cities and communities were wiped off the map as the first WEAPONS rampaged over Gaia, killing everything and everyone in their path.  Survivors banded together to fight the creatures and seek shelter but before long, we humans became an endangered species.

 

            We’re now spread out…scattered over the globe in small, remote clusters.  Our forces are divided, so that we don’t make a large, easy target.  Director Lazard leads SOLDIER in Modeoheim.  President Rufus is in charge of the Turks in Cosmo Canyon and Commander Wallace and Captain Highwind command AVALANCHE in Fort Condor.  The cave system beneath these towns provide somewhere for people to hide if a WEAPON attacks and we’ve been gathering survivors across the world and bringing them to these sanctuaries.  

 

            We’re at war with our own planet.  I don’t know if there will be any future generations to read my journals, but history must be recorded so that mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. Hope is a difficult thing to hold onto, these days.

 

-Reeve Tuesti

 

~**************************************~

 

            “Head’s up!”

 

            Zack’s shout of warning was accompanied by an ominous, loud whistling sound.  A huge projectile of some kind was shooting through the air in an arc, heading straight for them.  The object was spinning in a corkscrew motion as it descended and it was trailing smoke.  Reeve’s mouth fell open and he stumbled, trying to get out of the way.  A heavy body crashed into his and the next thing he knew, he was rolling away and there was an explosion of earth, snow and rock. 

 

            When the shower of debris cleared, Reeve coughed and reached out for the scanning visor that had come off his head in his tumble.  He looked at the dark-haired man lying beside him in the snow to be sure he wasn’t injured.  “Thanks.  Are you hurt?”

 

            Zack got to his hands and knees and shook his head to clear it.  “I’m all right.”

 

            Members of their team were readying their weapons, searching for the source of the projectile.  Zack straightened the patch covering his left eye and grunted a little as he got to his feet and drew his sword.  He reached down with his free hand to help Reeve up and the engineer took it and got his balance before replacing the visor over his eyes.

 

            “Incoming!” Someone shouted.

 

            Another projectile streaked in and this time it struck before some of the fighters could get out of the way.  Three of their men went flying with the exploding earth and Sephiroth only avoided the hit because he manifested his wing and took to the air.  Zack swore and glared out over the snow, trying to spot where the attacks were coming from.  The rest of the fighting team was running to join the scouting team and people were trying to drag the injured behind rocks and snowy hills for cover.

 

            “Where the hell is it?” Zack muttered in frustration.  He looked up at his hovering comrade and shouted to him.  “Any sign of it, Seph?”

 

            “None,” answered the General.  His emerald gaze flashed as he looked down at Zack.  “I’m sure your shouting will draw its attention again, soon enough.”

 

            “It already knows we’re here,” Zack pointed out.  “Reeve, what are you picking up?”

 

            Reeve stared through the visor and reached up to make an adjustment to the scanner.  “It doesn’t make sense,” he muttered.  “It should be here…we’re practically on top of…oh, hell.”

 

            “’Oh hell’ what?” Zack prompted, readying his sword and looking around with a wary, amethyst eye.

 

            His answer came a moment later when the ground began to shake beneath their feet and shifted.  Something was breaking through the surface of the snow, rising up from beneath them. 

 

            “Get back,” Sephiroth ordered, “Form defensive lines.” 

 

Despite the danger of the situation, his voice was calm and level and it helped keep the other men from panicking.  They followed his orders and the rest of the fighting team closed the distance and took positions as well, watching as the gigantic creature steadily rose up out of the snow.  The WEAPON was ivory in color, which made good camouflage for the snowy region.  The hunting team might have walked right on top of it without even knowing it was there, had they gone much further before it began its attack. 

 

“Wait for the order!” Zack hollered when he noticed more than one fighter looking like they were going to start shooting.  He stood ready near the front lines and Sephiroth’s masamune flashed in the dull light of day as he hovered overhead and waited.  Reeve retreated to the back ranks and removed his scanning visor before checking the materia he had equipped on the bangle around his wrist.  Above the ranks, Genesis and Angeal flew to Sephiroth’s side and hovered beside him with readied swords.

 

“Interesting,” Genesis remarked, studying the creature with narrowed, aqua eyes. 

 

It had a shark-like face and a rounded shell on its back.  A section of the shell slid away and something shot out of it.  It was one of the projectiles from before and men shouted and scattered as it arched through the air.  Sephiroth and his two winged companions broke apart to evade it as it shot toward them, but Genesis wasn’t quite fast enough and he got clipped in passing.  He tumbled through the air for a moment while Angeal shouted his name and swooped to his aid.  The big man caught him from behind and noticed that the redhead had his left hand pressed to his right ear.  His sword was still tightly clutched in his right hand and Angeal struggled to hold onto his own sword while supporting him.  

 

The missile hit the ground somewhere behind the two of them but the shot had over-reached and struck behind the back ranks, giving everyone a scare but causing no injuries. 

 

“Are you hurt?” Angeal asked of his companion, trying to pull Genesis’ hand away from his ear so that he could look.  The redhead allowed it and Angeal sighed in relief when he saw that the blood dripping down Genesis’ jaw was caused by a tear in his earlobe.  The projectile had apparently caught his dangling earring and torn it off in passing.

 

Genesis gingerly touched his earlobe and when he realized the earring was gone, he scowled and pulled out of Angeal’s hold.  “It took my earring,” he stated, glaring at the creature ahead and beneath them.

 

“You’re lucky it wasn’t your ear!”  Angeal reached for him, knowing that look on his face. 

 

Genesis shrugged out of his grasp and ran his left hand along the ruby blade of his sword, igniting eldritch fires along the length.  He was diving at the WEAPON before Angeal could grab him again and the redhead unleashed a volley of flaming darts at the creature.  The WEAPON roared when the flames struck it. Its attention became fully focused on the Soldier in red as Genesis followed in the flames’ wake and started hacking and slashing at the huge, armored body.

 

Sephiroth pressed his lips together in annoyance but he was too disciplined to lose his temper over Genesis’ reckless move.  He gave a nod to Zack and the brunet shouted the order for the close combat forces to move in, while the ranged fighters stayed back and waited for confirmation to begin firing.

 

“At least he makes a good distraction,” Zack grunted as he charged toward the target with Kunsel at his side.  He activated his Barrier materia for protection and his companion did the same. 

 

“Yeah,” Kunsel agreed with a breathless, nervous laugh.  “All that red’s got to keep it interested for a while!”  He’d never quite gained the same confidence in battle as his old academy friend and it was always comforting to go into battle with Zack at his side.

 

Zack and the other Soldiers closed in on the WEAPON in a flurry of steel.  Their enhanced strength and weapons allowed them to inflict damage where normal men wouldn’t be able to cause a dent.  The creature swiped at some of them angrily and a few weren’t quick enough to get out of the way.  Combat medics came up behind the embattled Soldiers and worked quickly to drag the wounded away and see to them.  Sephiroth and Angeal joined Genesis and the three of them worked in practiced synch to attack the creature’s head and upper body while the others fought on the ground.

 

Genesis made a long gash in the side of the WEAPON’s head, where the ear would have been if it had one.  He avoided a laser shot fired from the creature’s tail and smirked nastily, feeling that he’d given the monster at least a little payback.

 

Sephiroth deflected a beam aimed for him and he decided that the creature’s tail had to go.  He narrowed his eyes and launched himself toward the raised appendage, soaring to it with his long blade drawn.  He abruptly swooped away as another laser fired from the tail at him and he circled around behind the creature.  With a powerful sweep of the masamune, he slashed a deep gash in the top of the tail.  It began to flop but Sephiroth wasn’t satisfied.  He returned for another pass and finished the job, cutting the top off of the tail and rendering its laser useless.

 

Angeal drove his sword down into the shell of the creature’s back.  The buster sword’s thick, heavy blade did more damage than most and his blow disabled the panel that had been launching those heavy projectiles. 

 

“This one’s pretty slow,” Reeve observed from his spot in the back ranks.  The last WEAPON they’d taken down was the Diamond one and it had been much faster and deadlier than this one.  This new creature was bulky, slow and it didn’t appear to be too bright.  He removed his backpack and got some of his explosive gadgets ready, but he couldn’t use them until the close combat forces moved. 

 

They had a routine and so far, it worked better than any other strategies they’d employed.  The General and his Lieutenants always took the lead when patrolling the countryside.  They led the charges and attacked the targets up-close and personal, keeping it distracted so that it wouldn’t launch ranged attacks into the ranks of the medics, techs, gunners and materia users.  After they’d wear it down enough, they’d retreat and the back ranks opened fire on it and used destructive materia and summons. 

 

Sephiroth flew high into the air over the WEAPON’s head and waved his sword, giving the signal for the second team to ready their arsenal. 

 

“Be prepared to start firing when I give the signal,” Reeve shouted to ranks  “Save the summoning spells as a last resort.”  He waited as the Soldiers cleared away from the wounded WEAPON.  It tried to follow but it was crippled from the damage to its limbs and the Soldiers ran much faster than ordinary men.  Reeve counted under his breath, gauging the distance between the creature and his comrades.  When they’d cleared enough distance to be safe, he hollered the order to fire and began to activate his little friends.

 

The half dozen iron-colored objects laid out on the snow at Reeve’s feet came to life.  They looked suspiciously like metal golf balls until tiny propellers emerged from them and began to whirr, lifting them all from the snow to hover around Reeve like bloated, metal bees.  Each of them had a red lens in the center that served visual and targeting purposes.

 

“Target?” the objects queried in tinny little voices.

 

“The WEAPON,” answered Reeve.

 

He realized his mistake when the little robots spun around in confusion before settling down to hover in front of him again.  “Negative,” they said in unison.  “Too many targets.”

 

Reeve cursed, remembering that telling them to hone in on a weapon confused their limited intelligence.  They were literally surrounded by weapons and they couldn’t understand the difference between a gun and a huge monster created by the planet.  Missiles were streaking away from the ranks of his fellows, gunfire rang out and various destructive spells were being activated.  He may as well have told the little fellows to blow up his own people.

 

“Target the large non-human,” Reeve explained.

 

The miniscule bombs turned around and extended their lenses as one, turning this way and that.  “Insufficient input.”  Obviously there were wild creatures within proximity.

 

Reeve wanted to tear his hair out.  He clenched his fists and the metal and circuits grafted to the pads of his fingers dug into his palms.  Before he could issue another command, Zack jogged over to him.  The black-haired Soldier gave Reeve’s hovering bombs an amused but impatient look.

 

“Quit playing with your toys and send them in, Tuesti,” ordered Zack.

 

“I’d love to,” Reeve snapped, “but the little bastards won’t listen to me.”

 

“Just tell them to hit the target everyone else is shooting at,” suggested Zack.

 

The suggestion was brilliant in its simplicity and Reeve felt like an idiot.  “The target is the big thing that everyone is shooting at,” he said with a sigh.

 

The orbs turned, examined the scene and buzzed away.

 

“Some fine tuning still needs to be done,” Reeve explained to Zack, who was grinning at him.

 

The little orbs raced through the air toward the target and when they reached the WEAPON, they attached themselves to its hard shell with tiny drills and exploded.  Zack whistled, impressed as pieces of the monster fell away from the surprisingly powerful explosions.

 

“The little guys pack a punch.  Good work, Reeve.”

 

            The WEAPON went down after most of the missiles and half of the artillery was depleted.  Knowing that Hojo and Reeve would want parts to study, Sephiroth ordered his men to disassemble as much of the creature as they could for transport.  Parts of interest were of course brain tissue samples, shell layers and organ tissue.  Study of WEAPON anatomy had helped them understand the creatures a bit better but they had a long way to go before they could kill a single one of them without massive firepower.

 

            When he was satisfied that his orders were being carried out, Sephiroth joined Reeve, Zack, Genesis and Angeal several meters away from the fallen monster.  “What is the casualty report?”

 

            “We lost five, this time,” Angeal answered.  “Three are in critical condition and seven are injured.”

 

            “Could have been worse,” Zack said.  Ever positive, that one…even after the loss of his eye.

 

            “Have the severely wounded seen to first.”  Sephiroth looked over his shoulder at the carcass of the WEAPON they’d dispatched.  Yes, it could have been worse…much worse.  “When they’re stabilized, get them and the other injured onto the transport unit.  I want it done quickly.”

 

            The others nodded.  They couldn’t stay immobile and out in the open for long.  They’d tracked this WEAPON down before it came looking for them but the planet seemed to be producing more and more of them every day.

 

            “So, what are we calling this one?” Zack inquired with a nod towards the corpse.

 

            “Ivory,” answered Reeve without hesitation.

 

            “Hmph…so that’s Diamond, Emerald and Ivory we’ve taken down so far.”  Zack looked up at the overcast sky and shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat.  “They just keep coming,” he finished softly, finally showing a little pessimism.  

 

            “Don’t forget Ruby,” reminded Reeve.  “And Sapphire.”

 

            Zack shrugged.  “The Turks took those out.  I was just counting ours.”

 

            “Doesn’t every victory count?” Pressed Reeve.

 

            Genesis smirked at Zack.  “Someone’s feeling competitive.”

 

            The black-haired Soldier managed a grin and kept his good eye lowered.  “Just gives me more incentive, I guess.”

 

            “It’s not a game, Zackary,” Sephiroth said sternly.  “If you treat it as one, you may lose the use of your other eye.”  He walked away to oversee the progress and if he felt Zack’s glare on him, he didn’t seem to care.

 

            “He can be a real dick,” Zack muttered.  “And a party pooper.”

 

            “He’s doing his duty,” Angeal said, his dark eyes following the retreating General.  “Part of that duty is keeping his men in line…and that includes you.”

 

            Zack sighed and lapsed into silence.

 

~***************************************~

 

            They returned to base after collecting as many samples as possible.  Sephiroth gave a report to Director Lazard and Hojo studied the new samples with disturbing enthusiasm.  Sephiroth noticed it and he gave the professor a level stare.

 

            “Concentrate on finding their weaknesses so that we can use them to our advantage,” he warned.  “That’s the only reason you and Hollander are permitted to do this research.”

 

            Hojo looked annoyed.  “Frustrating boy.  Has it ever occurred to any of you that if we can find a way to splice the DNA of these creatures with human—“

 

            “No,” Sephiroth interrupted, his eyes flashing.  “That’s the sort of thing that put us in this situation to begin with.  Either do your job as instructed or you don’t do it at all and I have you taken into custody.”

 

            Hojo scowled at him.  “That’s no way to talk to your father.”

 

            Sephiroth smirked without humor.  “You don’t deserve my respect.  Get to work.”  He turned on his heel and left the laboratory, leaving the man who had turned him into a monster behind.

 

~******************************~

 

            “I’m getting life readings in Nibelheim,” Reeve reported a few days later.  “I’m also getting some fainter life readings to the east, near Bone Village.”  He’d been to Nibelheim once before, after Hojo admitted to his hidden lab in the mansion and the man he’d sealed away in the basement.  It wasn’t until recently, however, that Reeve perfected the long-distance scanners and he’d been under the assumption that the mountain town would have already been wiped out by now and Vincent was the only survivor. 

 

            “How strong are they?” Lazard kept his eyes on the reports he was reading over but Reeve knew the man could read and listen at the same time. 

 

            “Scanners indicate multiple life forms in Nibelheim,” answered the engineer.  “The signs I’ve picked up near Bone Village are weak, but still strong enough to bear investigation.”

 

            “Send out search parties to Nibelheim and Bone Village, then.  Contact our allies and see if they can lend aid.  We may not have enough room to transport many people alone.” 

 

            “I didn’t say Bone Village,” corrected Reeve politely.  “The readings I’m getting are near Bone Village, not in it.  They appear to be coming from the north of the village.”

 

            Lazard sipped his coffee and grimaced.  The grounds were stale but until they could get coffee beans growing in the hydro gardens, old supplies were the only option.  “Are you certain your readings are correct?  From what I understand, the only thing north of Bone Village is a forest that’s nearly impossible to navigate in.  Who could possibly be living there?”

 

            “Maybe it’s someone with woodsman skills,” Reeve suggested.  “Either way, I think it should be looked into.  The population’s thin as it is, without leaving possible survivors behind to get picked off.”

 

            Lazard looked up at the engineer and adjusted his glasses.  “If you say you think it should be looked into, I trust your judgment.  I want you to go with the Nibelheim team however, since you say the readings are stronger there.”

 

            Reeve nodded.  “I’ll get the word put out right away.”

 

~************************************~

 

            Several minutes later, they were in the strategy room—or strategy cave, to be more accurate.  The cave was at the end of a tunnel so that they could station guards to keep nosey civilians from listening in when they discussed strategies and missions.

 

            “Three search teams,” Sephiroth said as he studied the map spread out on the rickety table.  The lantern overhead cast poor light on the map, but everyone in the makeshift room had Mako enhanced vision, so lighting wasn’t much of an issue. 

 

“Two will investigate Nibelheim and one will search the area surrounding Bone Village.  AVALANCHE is unable to send aid but President Shinra is sending his Turks with two helicopters to aid in the evacuation.  Whomever we can’t fit into our aircrafts will go to Cosmo Canyon.  Angeal and I will lead the teams investigating Nibelheim and Zack will investigate the latter.  Reeve will go with us to pinpoint the life readings and Genesis can operate the scanner for Zack’s team.”

 

            Genesis and Angeal shared a very brief, covert look at one another over the table and Sephiroth caught it just before they looked away.  He knew they didn’t like to be separated but Zack would need someone competent with the equipment.  Genesis’ obsessive reading was to blame for his understanding of scanner operations.

 

            “I guess we don’t need a big team if the readings are faint around Bone Village.”  Zack scratched the stubble growth on his jaw and looked at Reeve.  “If anyone’s there it’s probably going to only be one or two people, right?”

 

            “If there’s human life, there’s a small hope of one,” Reeve sighed.  “It’s possible that my data isn’t accurate.  It’s attuned to human life but it could be feedback from animal life.  That forest does odd things to equipment, so there’s no guarantee.”

 

            Zack shrugged.  “We won’t know until we check it out.”

 

            “Make your preparations and get assembled,” Sephiroth ordered. 

 

            Nothing more needed to be said on the matter and the group disassembled to make their arrangements.

 

~*********************************~

 

            One of the biggest concerns they had was the risk of rampaging WEAPONS destroying the few remaining aircrafts left to them.  Fort Condor had already lost every craft they had except for the Highwind air ship and the only reason Cosmo Canyon still had six choppers was because they kept them inside a large cavern high on the plateau. 

 

The Modeoheim base was using a lower cavern they’d expanded as a hangar, so while their choppers weren’t out in the open there was still a chance that a WEAPON attack could destroy their air transport.  The chosen helicopters were readied and the search and rescue teams assembled inside of the hangar. 

 

            “Hey Zack,” Kunsel called out.

 

            Zack stopped on his way to the chopper and grinned at his friend.  The other Soldier jogged over to him and stopped before him.  “It looks like I’m going with the General’s team.  Take care of yourself, okay?  Keep both eyes open.”  He smirked at Zack teasingly.

 

            Zack scowled at the other man, but there was no real anger in it and he betrayed himself with a grin a moment later.  “No Cyclops jokes, asshole.  I’ll see you when we get back.”

 

            Kunsel looked over his shoulder and saw Sephiroth boarding one of the helicopters.  “Guess I’d better not lag behind.  See you, Zack!”  He exchanged a high-five with the Lieutenant and hurried to his assigned aircraft. 

 

            Zack smiled at his friend before boarding his own helicopter.  He buckled in and looked over his shoulder at Genesis, who was sitting in the back with the complicated scanning device strapped to his lap.  The redhead looked less than pleased to be there.  “How’s it going, Genesis?”

 

            Genesis answered by flipping him off and he kept his eyes on the screen.  His mouth was pressed into a grim line as he fiddled with the touch-screen controls and readied the device.  Taking the hint, Zack put his headset on and checked to be sure he was tuned into the right channel.

 

~**************************************~

 

            They were halfway to Nibelheim when the life readings began to rapidly change.  Reeve tensed in his seat and drew his brows down as he looked at the screen on the small device.  His fingers flew over the touchpad and network of circuits grafted into the pads allowed him to communicate with the device much faster than normal. 

 

            “We have a situation,” Reeve hollered over the noise of the engine.

 

            Sephiroth unbuckled his safety belt and moved through the cabin to sit beside the engineer.  “What kind of situation?”  Reeve was sitting in the “special” chair that each of the choppers had been equipped with.  It had control panels that would allow him to directly access the aircraft’s mainframe computer, if needed.

 

            Reeve turned the screen toward the General and pointed out the blips of light that were quickly vanishing.  “I’m losing life signs at an alarming rate.  I’ve checked and there are no glitches.”

 

            “Nibelheim is under attack, then.”  Sephiroth narrowed his eyes on the screen.  “This rescue mission may be for nothing.”

 

            “We can’t turn around,” Reeve insisted stubbornly.  “If even one civilian survives, we have a duty to collect them.”

 

            Sephiroth’s feline gaze studied him thoughtfully.  “It may be kinder to just let them die.”

 

            Reeve gave him a horrified look that wasn’t feigned in the least.  “That’s cold…even for you.  What makes you say such a thing, Sephiroth?”

 

            “Realism,” answered the General.  “You want to offer them a slow death in exchange for a quick one.  The planet isn’t going to stop producing WEAPONS and it’s only a matter of time before its goal to rid itself of us succeeds.”

 

            “So you believe the solution is to just let the WEAPONS cull the remaining survivors?” 

 

            The slit pupils dilated slightly.  “Then their troubles would be over.”

 

            Reeve scratched his beard growth and considered Sephiroth’s words and the flat hopelessness he saw in his eyes.  “Why do you fight, Sephiroth?  If you think there’s no point to it, why do you keep going?”

 

            Sephiroth smirked humorlessly.  “Because it’s all I know.  Simply existing isn’t always enough, though.”  He looked away and ran his gloved fingers through his pale hair.  “The mission will proceed.  I just hope you’re ready for more casualties.”

 

            “I’m looking at the casualties right now,” Reeve stated grimly, pointing at the screen.  Chances were, the life readings would be utterly gone by the time they arrived at Nibelheim.  With any luck, some of the citizens of Nibelheim would be fortunate enough to find a hiding place until the attack was over.

 

~**************************************~

 

            “Fox twenty-four here, you read?”

 

            “We copy, Fox.  What’s the situation?”  Sephiroth pressed on his headphones and looked through the window at the blasted landscape below.  It was ironic that the planet was damaging itself in its efforts to eradicate humankind.  He could see the other chopper following alongside theirs.

 

            “The WEAPON that hit Nibelheim ain’t around anymore,” answered the familiar voice through the transmission.  “Looks like it picked up its toys and left, yo.  Hollander says he’s still getting a few life readings, so we’re going in.”

 

            “Affirmative,” answered Sephiroth.  We’ll arrive to assist in approximately ten minutes.”

 

            “Hmph…might as well not bother,” the other voice said.  “But ya came pretty far, so knock yourself out.  See ya there, General.”

 

            The transmission ended and Sephiroth pulled the mic away from his mouth and got out of his seat again to check on Reeve.  The Engineer’s handsome, refined features were tense as he studied the data he was getting on the scanner. 

 

“Our Turk allies say the WEAPON responsible for the attack is gone now,” Sephiroth informed him as he took a seat beside him again.  “Hollander claims to be getting life readings, still.  Can you confirm this?”

 

Reeve nodded.  “There are still a few.  They seem to be clustered in one area.  Some appear to be overlapping others so it’s difficult to get an accurate count.”  His dark eyes lifted from the screen to regard Sephiroth.  “I was right.  They found a way.”

 

“So have a cookie,” groused the General.  “We’ll be arriving in under ten minutes.  Angeal’s team will clear rubble while we search for survivors.”

 

“Understood.”  Reeve watched Sephiroth return to his original seat and he again wondered why the man continued to fight.  Sephiroth didn’t seem pleased that some of the civilians had survived the attack and the fatalistic attitude he demonstrated would ordinarily indicate a desire to just give up and die.  The General defied that script and kept fighting, which meant he either didn’t truly think it was hopeless or he felt obligated to keep going.

 

It was common knowledge by now that Hojo considered Sephiroth to be his crowning achievement. He and Hollander were quite competitive and Sephiroth, Genesis and Angeal were a testament of their brilliance.  Unfortunately, the discovery of what they were nearly drove Sephiroth and Genesis over the edge.  Angeal’s iron stoicism and concern for his comrades was probably the only thing that kept him from following their lead and if it weren’t for him and Zack, Sephiroth and Genesis might have caused some severe damage. 

 

Reeve didn’t know if it was true but rumor had it that Sephiroth tried to kill himself when he found out about the experiments that made him.  Confusion over who his real mother was probably hadn’t helped and there was still some speculation over whether Hojo was his real father.  There was absolutely no resemblance between the two.  Sephiroth’s beautiful countenance clearly couldn’t have come from Hojo’s genetics and though Lucrecia was reputed to have been beautiful, one would think having a father with Hojo’s looks would have thrown a wrench in the works for inherited beauty.

 

Was it possible that Hojo’s claims of siring Sephiroth were false?  What was the real truth behind Sephiroth’s origins?  Child of Jenova, they called him…but he had a human mother.  Injecting him with alien cells couldn’t change the fundamental truth that he was, in fact, human at the core.  Convincing him of that, however, was a challenge nobody had managed to succeed at thus far.

 

~Sephiroth, you’re a living puzzle.~

 

~**********************************~

 

            Nibelheim was a mess.  Most of the buildings were collapsed or on fire and Reno had some of his people make use of the town well to begin putting out the flames.  Cissnei and Elena worked with several other Turks to douse the fires while the rest assisted with the search.  Rude led a team to help Angeal’s group clear away the rubble, while Hollander and Reeve scanned the town and alerted everyone to locations where readings showed life signs.  Sephiroth assigned men to help put out the fires and then he and Kunsel assisted with the rescue.  He activated Ice materia to form a chill coating on some of the flaming buildings, taking a more creative approach in smothering the fire. 

 

Some operatives were assigned to clearing out the charred and broken bodies and the number of corpses stacking up outside the broken mansion became appalling.  Reeve swallowed to try and clear the lump in his throat and he covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief to filter out the stench of burning flesh as he worked.

 

After marking the area, there was nothing more to do until the debris could be cleared away to reach the survivors, so Reeve had a seat on a broken bench and took out his journal to write in it.  He would have liked to help clear the way to reach the survivors but there was a certain way of doing it to minimize the risk of structures collapsing and killing the trapped victims, so he left it to the people that were trained for it. 

 

“Hey Reeve.”

 

The engineer pulled his attention away from his journal to look up at Reno.  The Turk’s left cheek was smudged with soot and it partially concealed the crescent tattoo on that side.  His spiked, vivid red hair had flakes of ash in it and the end of his long ponytail appeared to be damp.  He was a comely fellow with sculpted, angular features and crafty blue-green eyes but his use of crude slang and frequent swearing made him barely tolerable to the engineer.

 

“Hello, Reno.  I trust the President is in good health?”  There was no need to be rude, after all.

 

Reno shrugged and produced a flask from his blazer.  “He’s as healthy as a horse.  How’s the Director doing?”  He unscrewed the cap and took a pull on the flask before offering it to Reeve.

 

“No thanks,” Reeve declined.  “Lazard is doing well, thank you.”

 

Reno nodded and he looked at the engineer curiously as Reeve began to write in his journal again.  “So, why are you always writing in that thing, anyhow?”  He took another drink as he awaited the engineer’s response.

 

“Because people need to know history,” answered Reeve absently.  “It’s for future generations.”

 

“Future generations?” Reno scoffed.  He chuckled bitterly and put away the flask to get a cigarette out of another pocket.  “Ya slay me, Tuesti.”

 

Reeve stopped writing again and looked up at the Turk.  “What’s so amusing about that?”

 

Reno gave him an incredulous look and he spread his arms, holding the unlit cigarette between two fingers.  “Take a good look around you!  Do ya really think there’s gonna be any ‘future generations’ to read your crap?”

 

Rather than argue with the man, Reeve closed his journal and replaced it in his coat.  “It was good talking to you, Reno.”  He got up and decided to see if he could be of use elsewhere.  Thankfully, Reno didn’t follow him.

 

~***************************************~

 

An hour later, they had rescued seven survivors from the ruins.  The people that lived through the attack had sought cover in their basements and while it kept them from being annihilated with the rest of the town, being trapped under the buildings would have eventually led to their deaths.  Cissnei recovered a crying infant from the arms of his dead mother and the brunette Turk tried to comfort the baby even as she wept softly herself.  Elena helped her, gently taking the baby from her and encouraging her to take a break.

 

“General, we’ve found two more!”  Kunsel waved his arms almost frantically, while Angeal grunted with effort and helped Rude push aside a broken wooden beam.

 

Sephiroth stepped over bits of debris and joined Kunsel and Angeal outside the partially collapsed house.  “Are they alive?”

 

“We don’t know yet,” answered Angeal.  He wiped the sweat off his brow and clicked his flashlight on.  “We’re about to go in.”

 

Sephiroth nodded and followed behind the big man, ducking under low-hanging beams as they navigated through the damaged interior of the home.  They stopped at the stairs leading into the cellar and Sephiroth could see a pale, out-flung arm on the earthen floor from his vantage point.  Angeal went down first, testing the wooden stairs with his greater weight to be sure they’d hold.  Sephiroth was close behind him and Kunsel took up the rear with two other Soldiers.

 

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they shone their flashlights on the occupants and the first thing Sephiroth noticed was a head of fluffy blond hair.  It was dulled with soot and the young man it belonged to was half-sprawled over a woman as though he’d tried to protect her with his own body.  An old sword was loosely clasped in the blond’s left hand.  Sephiroth deduced that the young man had the quaint notion that he could defend the woman and the two older people lying in the cellar with him.

 

Sephiroth motioned for the others to come closer and he knelt down and pulled one of his gloves off to check the blond’s vitals.  Just as he laid his fingers against the dirt-smudged neck, the blond abruptly regained consciousness and lunged at him.  Sephiroth sprung to his feet and backed up as the blond swung at him with the old sword.  Ocean blue eyes stared unwaveringly at him from beneath the spiked golden locks, set in a face of youthful, masculine beauty. 

 

“Hold,” Sephiroth ordered as the others reached for their weapons.  To the blond, he said: “Nobody here is your enemy.  Can you understand me?  We’ve come to evacuate your town.”

 

The young man’s gaze wavered uncertainly and the blue eyes flicked to the other operatives surrounding him.  His sword trembled as his strength began to wane and he struggled to hold it up.  Those pretty lips pressed together determinedly and he grunted, shifting to shield the young woman behind him with his body.

 

“Put the sword down,” Sephiroth ordered in a calm, low voice.  “Nobody’s going to hurt you or the young lady.”

 

Reeve had come down to investigate and the engineer’s kind, cultured voice was soothing as he added his persuasion.  “It’s all right, son.  You’re amongst friends and we’d like to see to your companions and get you all safely away.  Please, let us help.”

 

The blond’s resolve failed further and he slowly lowered his weapon.  He licked dry lips and looked at Sephiroth again, his gaze confused and uncertain.  He turned around and struggled to lift his female companion.

 

“Tifa,” he said in a hoarse voice.  “Tifa?  Wake up.”

 

“Here, let me see to her,” Reeve offered.

 

The blond shook his head and the motion seemed to make him dizzy.  “I can…I can take care of her,” he argued, even as he began to pass out.

 

Sephiroth caught him before he could hit the floor and Reeve moved around the two of them to check on the girl’s vitals. 

 

“These two are dead,” Angeal confirmed from his squatting position between the other man and woman.  “It looks like they were injured before they sought shelter.”

 

“The young lady is alive,” Reeve announced after checking her pulse.  “She’s suffered a blow to the head but I don’t think it’s serious.”

 

Sephiroth frowned at the brunette girl that Reeve was seeing to.  There was a resemblance between her and the older couple.  He looked at the blond in his arms and he guessed the young man had dragged all three of his companions into this cellar.  He felt along the blond’s scalp carefully and beneath the soft hair, he felt a bump on the back of the cranium.  The debris on the floor from parts of the ceiling breaking loose suggested that the blond was struck on the head while attempting to get his…family…to safety.  There wasn’t a ring on his finger or the girl’s, so he assumed the two of them weren’t married.

 

A roar broke through Sephiroth’s thoughts and it was so deep and loud that it shook the ground and made bits of plaster fall from the ceiling.  The rescue operatives exchanged alarmed looks and their fears were confirmed when Reno bounded into the house, shouting at the top of his lungs.

 

“We’ve gotta get moving, yo!  The fucking WEAPON’s coming back to finish the job!”

 

 Sephiroth wasted no time.  He gathered the blond into his arms and lifted him, while Angeal collected the girl named “Tifa”.  Kunsel and the others made tracks for the exit while Sephiroth and Angeal followed behind with their burdens.  When they exited the house, the scene was chaotic.  The survivors were panicking and the Turk and Soldier rescue operatives were having a hard time keeping them in order to guide them to the aircrafts.  Rude shocked some sense into them.  The bald Turk wasn’t normally a vocal man but he proved that under the right circumstance, he could bellow with the best of them.

 

“Everybody STOP!”

 

The townsfolk froze and looked at the intimidating Turk.  Despite his outburst, his bronze features were cool and emotionless.  “Do as our people direct you and board the aircrafts.  The more disorganized you are, the longer this will take.”

 

The townsfolk settled down with frightened murmurs and the rescue operatives had a much easier time getting them organized and ushering them to the choppers.  There were only twenty-three survivors in all, but even a small group of panicking people could slow things to a crawl.  Reno came up beside Rude and watched the progress with a smirk.

 

“Nice, partner.  Ya probably saved us from having to leave a few behind before the big bad gets here.”

 

Rude grunted in acknowledgement, once again going silent.  There was another roar, closer this time.  The  survivors cried out in fear but continued to follow instructions.  Elena was boarding Reno’s chopper with the now-orphaned baby in her arms and Cissnei was busy directing a group of survivors to another chopper.

 

Angeal approached Rude with Tifa in his arms.  “Would you mind taking her?  I want to fly up and have a better look…get an idea of how much time we have before the creature’s in range.”

 

Rude nodded and took the girl from the Soldier.  Angeal’s wing emerged from his back and he launched himself into the air while Rude and Reno watched.  Reno’s attention turned to the unconscious brunette and he smirked, admiring her figure even in such a dire moment.  “She’s a cutie.  Nice, big tits.  Think she’s a stripper or something?”

 

“She’s unconscious,” Rude reminded him.  “And no, I don’t think she’s a stripper…not in a town like this.  You always think women with big breasts are strippers or porn stars, Red.”

 

“Just saying, she’s got the body for it.”  Reno shrugged. 

 

Overhead, Angeal scouted the horizon and his eyes widened when he saw how close the gigantic WEAPON was.  The creature was humanoid in form, walking upright.  It looked a lot like Diamond weapon but its armored body was an amber color, bleeding into orange at the edges.  It pushed through already broken trees as it approached and flocks of birds burst from the canopy and flew away in alarm.

 

Angeal kept his wits about him and descended to the street again, seeking out Sephiroth as he spoke to Reno and Rude.  “We’ve only got minutes, at best.  Get everyone onto the transport as quick as you can.”  He spotted Sephiroth at the edge of the village, carrying the blond into the cabin.  Reeve was standing at the side of the cabin, fiddling with some sort of gadget in the palm of his hand while the civilians boarded.  Angeal looked uncertainly at the brunette Rude was carrying, feeling responsible for her. 

 

Reno seemed to sense his hesitation.  “Don’t worry man, we’ll take care of her.”

 

Angeal nodded and sprinted to the edge of town to speak with his superior.  Sephiroth had already climbed into the chopper with his burden and Angeal was forced to retract his wing to squeeze past boarding civilians to get in.  Sephiroth was securing the blond into a seat when Angeal approached him.

 

“This is going to have to go faster,” muttered Angeal in a low voice, “that WEAPON is closing in fast.”

 

Sephiroth finished buckling his charge in and he frowned at the bigger Soldier.  “Then I suppose we can’t spare the time to organize who goes where.  We can sort out surviving families later.  Get them boarded.” 

 

Angeal nodded and exited the chopper to help speed things along.  While he did that, Sephiroth ordered the pilot to start the engine and conveyed the order to the other helicopter.  Reeve came in to help people get situated and he shut the hatch and took the last remaining seat when the passenger capacity was reached.  Angeal finished loading the other chopper and the Turks took the remaining passengers. 

 

Unfortunately, there was no time to pick and choose so Rude took Tifa onto one of the Turk choppers.  Kunsel found a straggler back in the village and in his effort to help the civilian; he missed his chance to board his chopper.  Both of the Soldier helicopters and one of the Turk’s had already lifted into the air.  The approaching WEAPON roared again, shaking the ground.

 

“Come on,” Cissnei shouted to him when she saw the lone Soldier half-carrying an old man.  “We’ve got room!”

 

Kunsel hurried thankfully to the brunette Turk’s aircraft and she helped him get the civilian inside before shutting the hatch and getting herself buckled in.  Kunsel secured his safety belt and pulled his satellite phone out, quickly dialing to reach Angeal.

 

“Kunsel!  Are you still down there?”

 

“It’s okay Sir,” answered Kunsel, “I got on board one of the Turk choppers.  I guess I’ll have to organize a ride back to Modeoheim later—“

 

He abruptly stopped talking as the chopper lifted and the advancing WEAPON’s attention was drawn to it.  Huge, evil orange eyes glared at the aircraft and Kunsel stared out the window as a panel opened in the creature’s body armor.  “Uh, Angeal…tell Zack to take care of himself, will you?”

 

~************************************~

 

            “Fuck…it’s not doing any good,” Reno shouted.  He and Rude saw the way the WEAPON fixated on the sister chopper and they’d unloaded gun and missile ammo on it, in an attempt to give their comrades a chance to reach a safe altitude.  The panels that had opened on the creature’s body armor lit up and while it staggered under the assault from Reno’s chopper, it remained focused on the immediate, easiest prey.

 

            Elena was watching through the window by her seat and she spread her hands over the glass and shook her head.  “Cissnei…”

 

            The WEAPON unleashed its white-hot energy bolts and they hit the chopper containing Cissnei, Professor Hollander, Kunsel, two Turks and five civilians.  The force of the blast caused the aircraft to explode, leaving no hope that the occupants could survive.

 

            “Cissnei!  Cissnei!!  Elena began to pound her fists against the glass as she watched the stricken helicopter fall to crash into the ruined town of Nibelheim. 

 

            In the cockpit, Reno stared in shock, his brain refusing to register what he’d just witnessed.  Rude came to his senses first and he took control of the stick when he realized his partner was too stunned to sufficiently pilot.

 

            Angeal’s helicopter was already out of range, but the WEAPON focused its attention on Sephiroth’s next.  It began to power up its weapons again and Sephiroth realized what was happening. 

 

            “Reeve, we have a situation.”

 

            “I’m already on it,” answered the engineer tensely.  He’d flipped open one of the panels on the arm of his chair and he plugged the cord into the jack grafted into his right temple to communicate directly with the computer.   His fingers rapidly worked over the buttons on the panel and his eyes went blank as he communicated with the mainframe.  He found and activated the program he was after and a moment later, a scintillating, transparent bubble encased the helicopter.

 

            The WEAPON fired at the chopper but it was a glancing blow and Reeve’s shield absorbed the hit.  The aircraft shook from the force of it and people yelled in alarm, but no damage was done.  Sephiroth looked over at the unconscious blond he’d rescued, assuring himself that the safety straps hadn’t come undone in the turbulence.  If the situation weren’t so dire, he might have questioned why he was so concerned for the safety of one single survivor.  As it was, he had other things on his mind.

 

            “We can’t take another hit,” hollered Reeve.  The magnetic shield he’d erected was already sparking and fading from existence. 

 

            Sephiroth looked out the window at the dwindling WEAPON.  “We’re out of range, now.” 

 

            The creature evidently decided the same thing.  Now that its flying prey was beyond its reach, it began to take its rage out on the remains of the town.  The Soldier choppers and remaining Turk chopper flew away in different directions while the WEAPON destroyed what was left of Nibelheim.

 

~************************************~

 

            “There’s a city down there.”  Zack was staring out the window with surprise.  They’d flown low over the mysterious forest beyond Bone Village and as they circled it, he saw the ruined, shell-shaped building tops. 

 

“So, that’s where the life signs are coming from,” he guessed.  “Pilot, take us down when you can find a decent landing spot.”

 

He twisted in his seat to regard Genesis.  “What are you getting, Sparky?  Any life readings?”

 

Genesis grimaced at the nickname but his attention remained focused on the scanning device.  “Yes, I’ve still got life readings.  I’m going to lock them in.”

 

They touched down on the outskirts of the shell city and exited the helicopter.  Genesis tripped over a rock as he followed behind Zack and the others, so intent on reading the scanner that he didn’t pay attention to his own feet.  He caught his balance just in time and glared at one of the other Soldiers when they offered a solicitous hand.

 

“Pace yourselves,” Zack advised as they entered the ruins of the strange city.  “We don’t know how long it’ll take to find this life form.”

 

“The signal is coming from the northeast,” informed Genesis.

 

The search team followed his instructions as they explored the city.  It was a creepy atmosphere.  Their human senses instinctively prickled and one of the Soldiers shouted in alarm when a frog jumped out of a pond as they passed it.  Zack gave the man an amused smirk but he refrained from making fun of him.  He was a little spooked too and he couldn’t blame the others for being jumpy.  Genesis was too involved in following the tracking signal to pay much attention to his surroundings, and thus he was the only one besides Zack that wasn’t spooked.

 

They followed the signal to one of the largest shell houses and Genesis insisted that the life signs where coming from there, even when they found nobody inside.  “It’s here…we’re right on top of it.”

 

Knowing that the possibility of error was slim with someone as tenacious as Genesis manning the scanner, Zack ordered his men to do a thorough search of the house.  He was getting frustrated until he stumbled upon a hidden stairwell and he practically lost his balance and took a tumble down it. 

 

“Over here,” Zack called to his companions. 

 

They followed him down the stairs and they were collectively amazed to find that it led to a huge, underground cavern.  When they reached the bottom, Genesis confirmed that the source of the life reading was nearby.  Zack clicked his flashlight on and followed the redhead’s instructions, until he came to a tiny building by an underground spring.  He checked inside and saw a young woman there, sitting against the back wall with her knees drawn to her chest.  She was weeping softly and her honey colored hair spilled around her like a blanket.  She was wearing a worn, peach colored skirt and an equally ragged peasant blouse.

 

Not knowing what else to do, Zack spoke to her.  “Uh…ma’am?  You okay?”

 

There was no verbal answer but a pair of oak-green eyes stared out at him from beneath tangled locks of hair.  One of the other Soldiers took a step toward the girl and she cringed, pressing herself against the wall.  Zack grimaced and scratched his head.  The place seemed safe enough but they couldn’t spend all day trying to coax the little lady out.

 

“You go to her,” Genesis suggested with a nudge.

 

“I might just scare her more,” Zack muttered out the corner of his mouth.  When the redhead gave him a puzzled look, he pointed meaningfully at the patch over his eye.

 

Genesis rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “The ladies still swoon over you,” he whispered, “you’ve got a way with women.  Go on.”

 

Zack smirked nervously and self-consciously adjusted his eye patch before taking a few hesitant steps into the room.  “Hey there,” he said gently.  The girl looked up at him warily and he was reminded of a doe ready to flee.  He stopped for a moment and spread his hands.  “It’s okay, I’m unarmed.  I won’t hurt you, honey.”

 

   She hesitated, visibly relaxing under his kind, gentle words.  Zack took a few more steps toward her and lowered his flashlight so that it wasn’t shining in her eyes.  He knelt before her and offered the torch to her.  “Here…it’s okay.  Have a look at me.”  He cringed inwardly as her slender hands took the flashlight from him, but he held still as she shone the light on his face.  He forced a smile.  “See?  I’m just a guy.  So, what’s your name?”

 

She studied him with tearful green eyes and she sniffled before answering.  “A-Aerith.”

 

Zack cocked his head.  “Aerith, huh?  That’s pretty.”  She was quite pretty too and he wondered what she was doing in this place, all alone.  “Will you trust me, Aerith?  We want to take you someplace safe, where you can be with other people and be protected.”

 

She bit her lip.  “Mamma said I shouldn’t be around other people.”

 

Zack frowned.  “Where’s your Mom now, sweetheart?”

 

She began to weep again, her pretty, green eyes filling with tears.  “She…she’s gone.  She went back to the planet when I was still a little girl.”

 

Pity filled Zack’s heart. He couldn’t imagine what would provoke a woman to raise her daughter in a place like this, cut off from human contact.  “I’m sure your Mamma wouldn’t want you living here alone, without any protection.  Will you trust us, Aerith?”  He offered her his hand slowly, holding the palm out flat.

 

She stared at the offered hand and then back at him.  Zack swallowed and held still, hoping that Genesis was right.  Aerith studied his face for a few moments before slowly reaching out with one hand while keeping the flashlight clutched to her chest with the other.

 

“I’ll trust you,” she murmured with a guarded look beyond Zack at the other men.

 

It made him feel special, for some reason.  This obviously traumatized girl was putting her trust in him, despite his disfigurement.  He took her hand and carefully put his other arm around her, drawing her close.  “It’s okay,” he soothed, “I’ve got you.  I won’t let anything happen to you.”

 

Aerith allowed him to pick her up and she kept one arm around his neck as he lifted her.  Zack let her keep the flashlight and he turned around and shifted his hold on her.  “I’ve got you,” he murmured again.  His chest constricted oddly as she laid her head on his shoulder. 

 

“Let’s go.”  Zack kept his voice even and authoritative, despite the surge of emotions he felt.  Aerith’s weight was so slight…the first thing he intended to do was get some food into the girl when they made it back to the base. 

 

~***********************************~

 

-To be continued  

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