Misaligned World


The Story of a Dead Soldier

I hope this works. That's all I was thinking after my escape. Oh, sure, I thought of different things, but it was always at the back of my mind.

It all began after the war. I found documents in a waste bin in the Shinra HQ that clearly had been disposed of incorrectly. I picked them up out of the trash receptacle, meaning to hand them to my CO, Major Sephiroth. It may sound ridiculous, but that's how I found them.

The front page fell out, and I recognised the pictures. Read the words. They were about the reactor in Gongaga. My Gongaga. How could I not read them when I realised what they were?

I'd joined SOLDIER a year before the end of the war. I'd never wanted to fight in Wutai. Truth be told, I was afraid of fighting the Wutaians. After all, they'd killed twenty million of my countrymen in the five years of war before. I'd always wanted to help Gongaga get rid of the Monsters. The monsters that grew out of control with the reactor accident and the war.

The monsters that had killed my little sister. She'd been warned not to play outside the village. She was ten years younger than me. It was my sixteenth birthday. She'd had her sixth two months before. She had went missing. We had searched. The whole village searched. I heard her scream.

Only four things could happen to a defenceless young girl facing monsters. Either she'd escape, lucky and live. Or she'd be turned into a frog, and then knocked out by the creatures to use as bait to lure in a larger monster. Then they'd attack it and kill it. Then take their bait and kill, and eat them both. You'd find the bodies beside each other if you ever found them.

Or they'd just rip her apart. Nothing cunning, nothing that animal experts would call a fascinating method of hunting, nothing surgical. Just flex their claws and slice their prey to ribbons, or grab their heads and tear them off. Or crush them by jumping on top of them. Or tear them in half.

Or they'd petrify her. Cart her back to their nest. She was small, light. Even if she was petrified she'd be a nice target for those ones. They'd take the prey and smash it against a rock. Turn each shard back to flesh and feed

I had a one in three chance of it being something I could save her from. It took thirty seconds before you stopped moving, and ten minutes to petrify enough for them to want to take you away. If you screamed you still had at least ten minutes. If you screamed, you can’t have been a frog yet, and that means you can't be unconscious for at least a few seconds. But if it was one of the other kind of monster, you'd die screaming.

I found her, bleeding badly. Two bounty hunters from Midgar had cornered the beast, and were firing off the magazines of their rifles into it as it tried to stand up. I raced to my sister, carried her back to the village. She was bleeding so much. Her face was so pale. She was unconscious, and she had four deep claw marks across her chest.

I took her to the doctor. My parents were strangely quiet while we waited. The doctor called the city for help. The city sent a Junonian Army medic. He urged them to medivac her to hospital. Then came an air raid. The helicopter was grounded after it got halfway. It was dawn before it took off again.

She died as it landed in the middle of the village. My mother was the first to scream. Then I think it was me. Then I don't know what happened. It all became a blur. My next memory is burying her three days later, in that graveyard. Filled with so many who died in the reactor accident, in the war. So many fathers of the village children. So many sons, so many daughters. So many brothers, and my sister.

I swore I'd do what I could. I'd swore then if I could save just one life from monsters in the future, I would. I considered becoming a bounty hunter before the government tried to conscript me into the army less than a week after the funeral. My father suggested SOLDIER. He knew what the Gongagan contribution to the Wutaian campaign had meant. A gun, a helmet, told how to shoot, shipped to Wutai, slaughtered in the canyons and mountains. SOLDIER meant I might live the war out. Meant he might not lose his last child. My mother reluctantly agreed.

I signed up for the unit. I told them my story, told them I wanted to join the monster hunting group. They told me at the moment they needed men in Wutai first, but that I'd be with the Monster Reaction Teams for a little while after basic.

I served my six months of basic, and then two months of war. I wound up part of Unit 002, Sephiroth's unit. Everyone had heard of him. Major Sephiroth, the mighty warrior who had taken an entire fortress single handed. The legend who had assassinated three commanders of the enemy army in one night. The name that made Wutaian soldiers tremble. The man who wielded a sword only he could use. He was like a god.

And in reality, he was just a man. He made sure to explain that to every recruit. Said that half his exploits belonged to a dozen other people and that the other half had been exaggerated. He never denied it when I asked if he really had killed seven nests of monsters on his own when he had been in Gongaga with MRT. That meant more to me than anything like legendary fights on the battlefield. I guess he knew that as well, though, because he just smiled at me when I asked. Just said it hadn't been tricky. Said I'd do better if I put my mind to it.

It was like God had told you Himself that you could create heaven and earth in three and a half days and still do better than Him if you just tried.

And so I gave it everything. Every waking moment devoted to killing monsters from that day until the end of the war. I managed to think of every Wutaian as a monster. Imagined that Wutaian just doing his job had my sister's blood on his claws and had disembowelled the two bounty hunters. Imagined him looking at me like I was number four. Imagined them roar when I slaughtered them. Then I returned to Midgar. Still trained, but didn’t waste any time I was off duty. A year passed after the war. Met a girl in the slums of the lower city because the bars were more fun there. She was in Wall Market, protesting she was only a flower seller and not a worker from the Honey Bee Inn to every drunk who walked up to her. I knew she was about to tell me the same when I bought a flower for her. I noticed that the owner of the whorehouse had kindly made sure at least three of his best goons watched over this girl, as I learned that many of his girls loved it when their "hires" brought in a flower from her. That was why she stood there, really, as she explained a night later when I convinced her to join me for dinner. She was sixteen, and a looker, so I'm not ashamed to admit I let it develop further. She broke it off when she admitted she didn’t see it going anywhere beyond the bedroom. We remained friends. I never told anyone much about her, like she asked.

Then came the document, just a few weeks later. When I read that document, I saw the Shinra as the monster. Saw it's claws drip with the blood of not just my sister, but everyone that had died. In the reactor accident. In the war. My friends. My family. My countrymen. My comrades. Even my enemies, for they had been victims like me. Victims of greed and selfish boardroom cost-cutting thousands of miles away in a well defended tower block far from the nearest scene of carnage. Always high above those they killed, like false gods, raining a light of corporate judgement upon the hapless people below just trying to make a living.

A few days later, Sephiroth took myself, SOLDIER (Second Class) Private First Grade Cloud Strife, and (Third Class) Privates Second Grade David Petersen and Jack Archer. Cloud was the only Nibelheimer on the mission, and Sephiroth had picked out the guy because he was from Nibel, and I'd said he was a pretty good soldier. Joined at fifteen, the Gongagan unit of SOLDIER, just in time to miss the end of the war. Lucky for him, but he seemed disappointed. A lot of the rookies did. All of the men who'd been there tried to convince them otherwise. Sephiroth changed his approach to his legend. He just started neither confirming nor denying it. A smile. Telling them it hadn't been difficult.

That's when I knew he'd lied to me back when I met him, but I didn't care. It had been motivational. I'd taken those words and forged myself a weapon stronger than any gun or sword would ever be and unleashed it.

It was his hometown, it turned out, and the tables almost turned. Sephiroth began asking Cloud and me all these questions about our hometowns. Dave and Jack were both city boys, so their home town was a sector. Nothing interesting. Not a village in the country. Cloud had been mortified when Sephiroth began, but he eased out. Slowly let himself open up. Told us about his mother. About his war veteran father, killed in the Nibel campaign at the battle of Wolf's Pass in Eighty-Six. About a girl he had liked in the town. About his awkward childhood. Sephiroth told us he had been an orphan. Raised by a SOLDIER officer.

We arrived, and Cloud met up with old friends, and even a few kids he had told us had bullied him. They'd never believed his father had really been a pilot. But Sephiroth himself had found the citations. He'd earned THE medals. The Midgarian King's Cross of Valour, posthumously. The Nibelheim Congressional Medal of Gallantry. Twice in the last case, the second posthumous. The highest honours of the two countries in question, the latter had only ever been given to a hundred people while they were alive, and only ever earned by three men twice. Only one man had earned both Midgar and Nibelheim's highest honour. Sergeant Jurgen Hans Strife, husband to Helga Strife and father to Cloud Strife.

On the fourth night of fighting at the battle of Falhiem, Sergeant Strife did perform actions above and beyond the call of duty as a soldier of the Nibelheim Republic. Sergeant Strife and his platoon, under heavy fire and surrounded by enemy infantry, Sergeant Strife first led his squad to safety in allied lines, single-handily dragging his wounded lieutenant to safety. A further three times than night did Sergeant Strife move out under enemy fire to rescue wounded comrades, sustaining gunshot injury in the third occasion as he and Private Johan Schmidt were found by the enemy in the darkness. The Sergeant fought off the enemy troop numbering at least ten soldiers, and dragged Schmidt to safety, sustaining a further four wounds from gunshot and grenade shrapnel.

On the second day of the fighting at the battle of Wolf's Pass, Sergeant Strife did perform actions above and beyond the call of duty as a soldier of the Nibelheim Republic. Sergeant Strife and his platoon, having suffered casualties and having lost their commanding officer, had encountered a Wutaian tank in the village of Lupirlin. Sergeant Strife charged the tank single handed, and threw a grenade in the top hatch of the turret, killing the crew and then capturing the vehicle to attack and immobilise a second tank before the second tank set fire to his. Though badly burned, Sergeant Strife first took a second shot, destroying the main gun of the enemy vehicle, before he escaped the tank and led his platoon in an attack upon the stricken vehicle, destroying it in the same manner as the first. Sergeant Strife refused medical assistance and attempted to lead his platoon to allied lines, when the enemy did surround and commence an assault upon a bunker position held by Midgarian forces including a General Officer. Sergeant Strife aided the defence for four hours, until it became clear the enemy would overrun the position. Sergeant Strife and four others volunteered to perform rearguard action as the Allied troops retreated, and with the four others, Sergeant Strife held back the enemy attackers for a further hour. When Allied troops returned to the position, the analysis by the commanding officer of the unit indicated Sergeant Strife had been found dead outside the position, apparently having charged out of the bunker after the death of the last of the four other men. A Wutaian POW confirmed that the Sergeant had held out for twenty minutes on his own inside the bunker until the ammunition of the machine guns had been exhausted, upon which Sergeant Strife charged the enemy forces, holding a rifle in each hand. In this charge, the Sergeant killed seven enemy soldiers and exhausted the magazines of both rifles before engaging in hand to hand combat with an eight man, whom he killed. Seizing the rifle from the dead man, the sergeant killed a further three Wutaians before he was shot by the combined fire of seven Wutaians.

The above citation was given to Nibelheim's Parliament with regards to the bravery of a soldier who I am proud to say I served alongside, even if only for a few hours. Sergeant Strife's sacrifice is, in my opinion, one of the greatest acts of selfless heroism and is a fine example of the courage and honour that the soldiers of Nibelheim have fought with in the campaign thus far. I therefore recommend also that, in honour of his brave actions that undoubtedly saved the lives of many men, Nibelheimer and Midgarian, and is a shining example of courage the likes of which I have never seen nor ever heard of, and courage the likes of which I am certain I shall never see again.

-General John Jefferson Parker-Windsor, Midgarian 4th Army.

A hero. The son of a hero. These Nibelheim boys had mocked Cloud in his youth, for his father had often been away from home. They had come to the conclusion he did not know his father and that his mother lied about him being a soldier, and then from there began concluding his mother never knew his father. The citation shut them up. Made one of them actually throw up. When Sephiroth convinced Mrs. Strife to show the medals, the rest seemed like they were about to hurl as well. I was in awe myself, but not enough to fail to notice the looks Cloud got from a few of the town's girls, one in particular who as it turned out would be our guide the next day. I noticed him return the looks. Turned out also it was the girl he had liked.

We wound up stationed there for two months as more reports of rampant monsters came in throughout the area. David was killed, falling from the mountains during a battle. And Sephiroth became distant. He'd spend days on end when we had no mission in the library of the old mansion in the village. Cloud spent his days, or more accurately, nights, doing what a young boy who has just found a young girl who likes him does. I spent most of the time training, but some of it reading.

I learned about the Jenova project then. Every detail. Sephiroth actually read every book, but I picked out the ones he had kept going back over, speed reading them. I learned the truth about Jenova, especially it's memory-altering abilities.

Then he went mad. Sephiroth, burning the town down and killing many inhabitants. I saw the girl Cloud liked chase after Sephiroth, who had dropped his sword. I chased after her. My friend had lost his hometown already. I owed him at least saving his girl, I guessed.

I caught them both at the reactor. She had his sword. It would have been funny any other time. Her, carrying this sword about three times the size of her, me charging up with a pistol in my hand and a sword over my back. He had a rifle. From the reactor door, he shot at her and I managed to throw her out of the line of fire and take the shots with my armour. It still broke a few ribs, and I urged her to go back to the village. She protested, tears in her eyes. I told her again as I followed Sephiroth. I remember getting into the room where he was trying to open a door and feeling something was wrong with him. Like it wasn't really him. Even when I fought him it felt off. He swung the rifle about like a club, even though I discovered it was loaded when he fired into the air during the struggle. Then he disarmed me, and fired a single round into my chest. The armour didn't stop it this time.

I drifted in and out, and awoke to see Cloud lying over the prone form of the girl. I'd told her. He grabbed his sword after I urged him to go and kill Sephiroth. I heard a scuffle, some yelling, and then, Sephiroth walked out carrying something. It looked like a box over a head or something. I passed out again.

I dreamt of my sister. Lying in the middle of the village. Bleeding to death, along with the townspeople. Along with my comrade's girl.

The ignorant bastards. They'd put it here. Hidden it in an isolated reactor along from where they'd done the first experiments. More blood on their claws.

I first learned the Shinra knew what secrets I had uncovered when I woke up with three rifles in my face and Private First Grade Strife bleeding all over the steps into the reactor.

They took us to the ruins of the village, where they'd faked the crash of a transport plane carrying fuel into the village. The survivors... I never found out what happened to them, but I know they listed the girl and her martial arts mentor missing. I never saw her again for four years, and never spoke to her after that barked order to go home. I presumed she was dead. I was pleased to learn otherwise, but saddened when I realised that Cloud might never know what he had shared with her then. It was Hojo. He had decided to use us as experiments, as they rebuilt the village. Mind control and mind alteration. They tried to change our memories. Hojo explained it to me once after he had finished another failed attempt to change my memory. About his success with Cloud.

They twisted his mind. He'd been a good soldier. Nervous, not too talkative, but a good soldier. A good kid. No, a good man. But he seemed to have a weak mind. They made him think he'd been a First Class Corporal, then a Third Class Private Third Grade and dozens of other ranks. Hell, they probably tried to make him think anything. God knows what memories they ruined. His first kiss, first kill, first time with a woman, favourite food, favourite woman, what ornament he broke when he was five, what exactly it was his teacher had given him lines for in year seven of school, where he was from. I'm sure Hojo's mind control experiments would have broken me, given another while.

I broke out. The Public Safety Maintenance grunts from Shinra's private army were no match for me unarmed, and when I got a weapon, they were cannon fodder. Rescued Cloud psychically, but what I saved from the mansion wasn't the man I knew. He remembered a thousand false memories and barely any true ones. He told me he had just been a PSM trooper. A lie. We had no PSM troopers there. It was heartbreaking to hear him mumble out his false memories, ever changing. I swore I'd kill Hojo for that but the bastard had run off the second trouble stirred.

I'm told the Shinra fictionalised our escape, and even my back-story. Claimed I was a rouge SOLDIER who had been kicked out after the war despite having joined at 14. Claimed it was worse because I had been trained by and fought alongside a legendary warrior named Angeal, which was probably a more plausible lie than the one that had me join SOLDIER to dodge enlistment in the Gongagan cannon fodder. For the record, the only Angeal I knew was a Captain who died in Wutai.

They're supposed to have claimed I had came into the mansion armed to the teeth and slaughtered every man I could find. Not true. Not only had I been in the mansion for three years before then, I gave the poor bastards a chance to surrender every time. Most of them did. They claimed I kidnapped a wounded SOLDIER to use as a hostage. An obvious lie. Claimed I had hitched a lift on a truck and dodged a SOLDIER marksman, then killed him. We never met one. Claimed I had fought and killed a platoon of Gongagan soldiers in the ruins of Bolsivstad. I was never even in Bolsivstad after we escaped. I've never been to Bolsivstad in my life.

I made it to Midgar. I planned to leave Cloud with my old girlfriend to make sure he was safe, because she knew people. I would owe her big, but it was all I could think of.

Then I met Captain Henry Kemp. An old friend of mine I had known as a Private when he was a Corporal, he and his troop cornered me. He caught me on his own as I tried to get Cloud to safety somewhere. He asked me if it was true. I told him the truth, and he told me the plan. None of his guys believed it either.

He let me go, and told me where he would corner me. I made my way there, and met him and three others I knew. Louis Draven, Peter Mann, Alan Waters. They shot into the air, as Kemp used Sleep materia. Heard him shout loudly I was dead as I drifted off. I put my trust in him and it paid off.

Kemp managed to get me and Cloud to safety in Sector Three Lower somehow, and told me that he'd overheard a girl in a bar over in Sector Seven mention him by name. I risked it to see if it was someone I knew, and it was her, the girl from Cloud's village. She'd changed a little, but I knew it was her. She'd been hardened by her trauma and life in the slums, but it was her. I was desperate at that time, and brought Cloud a week later after watching her routine. I left him in a spot she was sure to find him, and sure enough, she found him. I prayed she might snap him out of the trance somehow, but never found out. I had to hide if I were to ever get the revenge I wanted on Shinra. I went to Junon, underwent some painful surgery to alter my appearance. They aged my appearance by five years, gave me a few scars, and changed the profile of my face, plus, gave me drugs that would change the pigmentation of my skin taken at regular monthly intervals. I made sure never to wear the purple SOLDIER dress uniform ever again. I cut my hair short and I started a little myth about myself in my own head as I recovered. Changed my name as well. Grew a light beard and moustache, because in CDS, every man had one of the two, or so went the stereotype. They were common enough in reality. I could never hide my eyes. Mako eyes can be faked, but never suppressed. Contacts would glow behind them.

I count the day on that hill as the day a SOLDIER from Gongaga named Zack died violently for his criminal acts in Nibel, and the following days from then until when I first left Junon four months later as my afterlife. I counted the very day I walked out of Junon as the first day in the life of Lazarus Estevez, a former SOLDIER Second Class Corporal from Costa Del Sol. It was a common name. Just the kind of thing a real legend is born from, and I knew that a legend would be useful for my goal.


Shooting Party

It was unusual to see the Vice President of the corporation wearing anything but his trademark white suit, but onlookers knew it was him by the sawn-off shotgun he used. Though older members of the hunting club often made sure to complain at the use of such a weapon, they would not do so today, nor ever again. After all, even when President Shinra had been alive, complaints had been listened to but essentially ignored . Now he was dead and the Vice President was a few formalities away from assuming control of the corporation, Rufus Shinra was no longer a man for whom club rules applied to even in theory.

But today, he wore black. A pretence, of course, that he was in mourning for his father. If anything, the only people who would miss him would be the rich in Midgar, legal or otherwise. President Shinra had been influential in a manner negative amongst lower classes, but by and large, the man had never done anything bad to people who actually mattered. Why, under his stewardship, shares in Shinra had increased vastly in value. The slump in the markets caused by his death and the Sector Seven disaster was already worrying a few of the elite that it might drop further, and that Rufus was not the man to restore confidence in a damaged market.

Already, Midgar Dynamic Aerospace and Lockair, Shinra's chief rivals, were rising in value as the Shinra took their hits. And the announcement later on this afternoon of who had won the first round of the Midgarian Army's new trials for a rifle to replace the AAR-10 had many privately concerned, for with rifle followed all manner of equipment, and the shareholders were concerned a vast chunk of Midgar's annual 700 billion Gil military budget would slip from their hands. The rumour mill was already claiming that loss of the service rifle of the army would soon lead to the downfall of Rufus. But there he was at the club on the border of Junon and Midgar, where the rich from Midgar who dealt in stocks would meet those from Junon rich on fronts for drugs and other criminal activities.

'There will be changes,' he said, raising the shotgun. He shouted an order for a clay pigeon to be hurled into the air. As it sailed, a single shot rang out, and the clay disc exploded.

'Changes?' Palmer said fearfully.

'The Investigative Division of General Affairs Department, for example. Why does that small group exist in the boardroom? It's a subdivision of the Internal Affairs Unit. They already have the director of the whole unit sitting on the board, and Midgarian Director. Surely Robert Peel and Michael Amador don't need backup from Tseng?'

'Your father found it beneficial to have three Turk votes present in many situations. Thus he created the IDGAD as a private taskforce ostensibly to police the Turks from within,' Scarlet said.

'And in reality, they're bird dogs,' Rufus finished the statement. 'But will I find them as useful?'

'Gya haa haa haa, of course, Mister President. Your preference for control will be... Most compatible with the Turks of both the IAU and the IDGAD. And my own Public Safety Maintenance Military Police...'

Another shout for a clay target. Another shot. The shotgun was reloaded.

'If you're after a fourth seat for your own bloated... Organisation, Heidegger, then I advise you show me some results.'

The overweight man looked flustered, before Reeve spoke.

'Actually, sir, there are some interesting developments afoot. As you know, one of our business partners in the slums betrayed us yesterday evening, leading to the ultimate failure of the IDGAD mission in Sector Seven. '

'A failure that was clear from the start. The SOLDIER plan of action was far superior.'

Heidegger smiled for a second at praise for one of the groups he effectively controlled, until Reeve spun the statement to his own advantage.

'Indeed, sir, I personally felt the same. But I have a report that an agent of the SIAU succeeded in tracking down our man.'

'Excellent. Is that fat bastard dead then?'

Another target. Another shot.

'Actually, sir, your father's plan of action involved using Cornero as bait,' Heidegger quickly interjected.

'Oh? Bait for what?'

'As you know, we have tolerated organised crime in the city for some time, but recently, the influence from Costa Del Sol has grown.'

'Yes. And we have no influence in Costa Del Sol because the Mafia and the Cartels run everything away from the coast. How can a fat pimp possibly help us with increasing influence by the CDS Mafia?'

'Simple, sir. SIAU and IDGAD have organised a strategy where the various factions in Midgarian organised crime will go to war with each other, and the mission this afternoon was the first step.'

Another order for a target, but Rufus paused, letting the target fly off. He still reloaded.

'Engineering a gang war and moving in to claim the spoils when they decimate each other with loyal support from those caught in the crossfire? Fear tactics? I never knew the Old Man had it in him. Money and power was his forté. Those ridiculous projects with robotics. Those charity initiatives. Every one of them useless. In Junon, if someone wasn't complying, you didn't bribe them. You kneecapped their children.'

'Junon is not Midgar, Sir,' Scarlet pointed out the obvious.

Another target, but both barrels fired. Both barrels reloaded.

'The application can be different but the end goal can be the same. Though crippled children amongst the rich and stubborn here might cause problems, we don't need to actually do it. The sudden threat of such action will be enough.

'See that blonde woman and her two daughters over at the clubhouse?' Rufus pointed. 'She's Midgarian. The brunette they're talking with is from Junon. If you tell her that you'll have her made some perverts sex slave in a brothel somewhere, the brunette won't flinch. She's made of sterner stuff, because she's fought dirty to get where she is, maybe even dirtier than her husband. She knows he won't stand for it, even if he does have five mistresses. She's running six affairs of her own after all. But point the gun in her face, she might just do what you ask. Say the whorehouse line to the blonde and her daughters, they'll give in. Point the gun, they'll wet themselves. '

'I don't quite follow, sir.'

'Psychology. Push with the right force, they comply, and keep complying. Push too hard, they get too frightened, and eventually get sick of piss stained undergarments and start to rebel. Midgar's grown soft, because they inherited it from people who fought tooth and nail to get it. But if you don't keep fighting, you lose it. The rumours I won't hold power? Those were going before Sephiroth did the company a favour and sliced that fat bastard to ribbons. People are frightened now, and if I keep them frightened, I stay in power. After all, we won the war with patriotic feeling and fear of the Wutaian Terror.'

Another target. Another shot.

'Midgar belongs to us. We need to remind them of that,' Rufus concluded. No one objected to this new approach.


A Man who Never Lived

I spent my first three months making a new name for myself back in Gongaga. Hunting monsters, I migrated around, but let my new legend stay where I had been and move ahead of me before I went back to my hometown. That was the hardest part of this new life, so I decided to get rid of it quickly and connect it to my old life if I could. It still took me another month to get the courage.

I walked into the village, dressed in Jungle camouflage fatigues with a Wutaian-made assault rifle slung over my back. My short hair was shaven almost to the scalp, and I wore sunshades. Lugging a rucksack over my left shoulder that clinked with the glass bottles of healing potions and medicines, with two pistols holstered in my belt beside spare magazines and water bottles, plus a half dozen magazines for the rifle in my green canvas webbing as well as a few grenades looped in. All that plus the short sword strapped to my back meant I looked like a typical bounty hunter, albeit one with better weapons and equipment than most.

I saw my first test at the entrance to town. Old Mikhail, long the gate watchman of town, sat down in front of the gate reading the Gongagan Daily Truth with a half drained bottle of Vodka beside him. He glanced up at me, then looked back at his newspaper and spoke only when I was a few feet from him

'A bounty hunter?'

'Yes,' I replied.

'Your name?' he murmured, before taking a belt of the drink beside him. I could smell that distinctive scent from here, Iosef's home brew. The innkeeper had not stopped brewing the wonder drink. It could do anything. Clear the mind, cure a cold, make a woman fall in love with you, strip paint, power a car, you name it. I'd been certain that it would have made some vicious firebombs if I didn't have so much respect for the potent brew.

'Estevez,' I said, taking my sunglasses off. He looked up.

'Lazarus Estevez?' he asked, his white door-brush moustache bristling as he spoke. His grey eyes filled with surprise and his brow furrowed in shock. I was worried I was blown for a moment, then he spoke once more.

'It is you. Lazarus Estevez. The scourge of the monstrosities in the jungle!' he almost bellowed, leaping to his feet and shaking my hand. I had been recognised, but as my new life.

'I'm just a simple bounty hunter, my friend,' I said in the Solian accent I had picked up. I'd done a lot with the language. Learned it to the level of a native speaker. Began cursing in it, as in moments of anger, you swear in your native tongue. And in moments of extreme pleasure, as a few women had found when I let the legend expand in expected ways.

Lazarus Estevez. The Man from the Costa Del Sol who had came to Gongaga a few months ago and set the bounty hunter scene buzzing with rumours from day one. Fearless warrior. Was he an Ex-SOLDIER? Few had seen him take the sunglasses that seemed glued to his head off. Cool personified. A ladies man who took the finest beauties to heaven and back in the greatest night of their lives. A man who could drink the most experienced natives under the table on the hardest Vodka. Unimaginable strength. Unprecedented monster killing abilities. The man who had taken a dozen full grown monsters with his bare hands. Somewhere along the way, rumours of my past surfaced, and to my delight, I had found out that those men who liked to wear glowing contact lenses and pretend to be former SOLDIER troopers began claiming to have met me in Wutai and Gongaga.

'Simple?! Comrade, your exploits have travelled almost as far and wide as you. You are a hero! What brings you here?' Mikhail asked, still shaking my hand.

'An old friend of mine was born here. You might know him. His name was Zack?'

Mikhail's eyes grew mournful for a moment, and he spoke. His voice trembled for a second.

'Yes. I knew the boy. A fine child. He left here during the war. His parents were left with no one when he died, but they still think he is alive somewhere. No one has the heart to correct them. No one dares put the memorial stone we put beside his sister's grave back. A tragic story.'

I paused before responding.

'I had heard of his death, but never had he spoken of his sister.'

'If you knew him, Comrade Estevez,' Mikhail asked suddenly. 'Then tell me: Do you believe it? What they accused him of?'

'Not for one minute,' I said.

Mikhail smiled.

'Good,' he said, and opened the gate to the town.

I walked in, and turned to speak to him.

'Where is the graveyard?' I asked simply. He pointed. I walked to it.

I stood at the grave of my sister. Little Natalia. Only six years old, failed by her big brother in her hour of need. Killed indirectly by the reactor disaster. Killed by the Shinra. One of millions of victims. I made sure to also stand at the empty space sitting beside her grave where a stone had been placed, and then removed.

A few others stood in the graveyard. Petya Borandenko, widowed a year before my sister died when her husband Alexi had died in battle. Ruslan Golovko, standing at the grave of his wife and unborn daughter, killed by the reactor explosion. Dimitri Romanenko, who had lost his wife in childbirth and then his son Yuri to the war, with his son's twin sister beside him, Roksana. She had always been the beauty of the village, the crush of many a young boy who had a pleasant night's dream of her voluptuous curves and silky red hair, and still she was a beauty. Alongside her was Yaroslav Fedeyvich. The lucky dog held her hand tenderly, and she sported a gold band that matched the one on his own ring finger. She held a bundle in her arms, a baby about three months old.

What else had changed since I was gone?

I heard movement behind me, and turned to see my parents walking towards me. They did not recognise my new face.

'Why are you standing at the grave of my daughter?' my Father asked.

'Forgive me if I have transgressed in any way, my friend, but a comrade of mine had asked me to come here. I had decided to pay my respects to his sister before I completed my task.'

'You know my son?' my Mother asked.


'You have seen him? Recently? Or are you another liar who claims he is dead?' my Father continued.

'I have seen him, my friend. In fact, I can tell you he lives. However, I must also tell you that he is in hiding. You understand, of course, the charges they have fabricated... They are not ones you can escape easily. He asked that I give you a message, and a gift.'

My mother's eyes lit up, and my father smiled.

'Then come and give us the message in our home. A friend of our son who brings us news of him deserves a warm welcome.'

I sat in my old home. It had not changed much, except that more pictures of me had been put up. The fireplace shelf still held the photo of Natalia, flanked by candles and flowers. Above her, a photo of me in my uniform from the day I graduated basic training. Over the walls, many of the photos Natalia had taken, including a few with a shadow of a finger over the lense.

'Your son has asked me to tell you he is alive and well, but he regrets to say that he has had to go into hiding as I explained. He says he does not know when he will ever see you again, but that he loves you both very much and wishes he could have told you in person that. But of course, they suspect he still lives. He asked me to give you this parcel,' I said, producing a brown paper package from my rucksack. I knew the contents even as they opened it. My medals and the locket I had worn much of my life since Natalia's death until my own "death". Inside were two pictures. One of me and Natalia, just after she had been born, my smiling face looking into the camera as my sister slept in my arms.

A second, just of her that I myself had taken on her fifth birthday, the same one on the mantelpiece. It had been taken with my present to her, a camera from the city. She had asked that I take the first photo, and take it of her. She had me spend the entire spool that day, taking photos with her new camera. She then spent the spools my father bought her taking photographs of the town, townspeople, and the forest. She'd often plead with me to escort her out into the forest under the watchful eyes of Mikhail, and we would not venture far.

The day she had died, she had left the camera at home, on a mission to explore the forest she had been forbidden from entering rather than take photographs of the relatively safe areas I had taken her to. She had discovered that a photo of the forest where she was not allowed would have led to her being in trouble when I had told her a few weeks before.

She'd had Gregoriy, the innkeeper, develop them. She had shown them to me first, fortunately. I could tell her what was wrong with the last five.

'Natalia, you aren't allowed into these parts of the forest! If Mother finds out, she will be cross with you.'

'But why?' she asked, tears in her eyes.

'Because it is dangerous! You think Father lies when he says there are monsters out there?'

'I've never seen one,' she protested.

I struggled to think of an excuse.

'Yuri Romanenko. He was killed by the monsters.'

'No he wasn't. He was killed by the Watians,' she said.

'And what do you think a Wutaian is?'

She paused.

'... A monster?'

'Exactly! They don't live in our forest any more, but they were here a few years ago, and if they ever learned a beautiful girl like you was in the forests, they'd come back and eat you!' I said, trying to scare her. She just giggled.

'You sound like papa,' she laughed at my melodramatic speech.

'Whatever,' I said, frustrated. 'But the point is, Mother and Father can't see these photographs, or they will know you disobeyed them.'

'Please don't destroy them!' she said, fear in her eyes. I relented.

'I... Won't. I'll say I took them. But I took them for you, alright? You annoyed me into doing it,' I explained.

She smiled and sat down, then looked puzzled.

'But... Any time I try to have you take me there you never agree. Are you scared of the monsters?'

'What?! No! I could fight them with my eyes closed! It's just.... Mama and Papa told me never to take you into the forest. And not to go myself, for they knew you would try and follow,' I lied, teenage bravado writing my script.

She giggled again.

'You're lying.'

'I am not!'

'Are too!'

And thus began the bickering, which ended in her insisting I take her around the town to take more photographs. The last time I ever did that with her.

I'd sat there, in a trance remembering that day as my parents had done the same. My father spoke first, after almost half an hour of silence. He held one of the medals, a shining metal star, in his hand like the few grams of brass and the red and white ribbon were the most precious thing in the world. To him, it was.

'The People's Star of Bravery. My son had told me he had earned this medal. He wore it proudly every time he returned home. Did he wear it often away from home?'

'Only on special occasions, for you see, though every soldier wears his medals with pride, rarely does he ever wear them unless he is in a parade, or under inspection. To be truthful I am jealous of his achievements, for he has earned so many medals while I have earned only a few mentions in the dispatches. But never mind, eh? Neither of us fought to earn medals, it is just that he did earn them.'

My mother smiled at this. We spent the next hour, my parents asking me what I knew of my battlefield exploits, and Lazarus Estevez told them everything he knew. I left, and made my way to the inn.

The next day, I went into the jungles, rifle ready. Since I had left, the creatures of Gongaga had been supplemented. Mutated butterflies of the Kimara strain had infested the woods, alongside the ever-present touch mes and triffid type creatures. The Gagighandi's had been chased out by concentrated effort, but they still infested the jungles in the north of the nation.

The reactor accident had spread mako across the country, causing mutations of animal life and the encouraged growth of monsters. As the government started a real program to combat the increased threat, the war broke out. Wutai's infamous 12th Army smashed into the country and slowly tore us apart. And Midgar, having started the war, sat back and let her allies bleed. They started taking part just in time for us to have lost a hundred thousand heroes like Jurgen Strife, like Nicholas Engel, the former Nibelheim City police officer who led his Territorial Army tank platoon to hold the enemy back for three days at the fifth battle of Bauerlin, and Boris Vladmirovney, the Gongagan marksman who held up an entire army for a week as they hunted him, dying at the cost of ninety of Wutai's soldiers to earn his fourth and final Hero of the Gongagan Republic medal.

And perhaps more significantly, the war meant the monsters went unchecked. Refugee columns were threatened with attack at all times, from the enemy or from monsters. But post-war, the rebuilding began, and the bounty hunters came. Nationwide prices were set for confirmed kills of monsters, and an industry sprang up. Gongaga had always had bounty hunters, but mostly at the village or town level. Never before had the federal government actually placed open bounties on any monster at set prices. Where once a few war veterans from foreign lands would come to Gongaga and travel the countryside, picking up bounties posted upon particularly deadly creatures roaming the area, armies of veterans demobilised from the vast forces that had been recruited to slaughter each other flooded the country, along with runaway teenagers seeking fast money and a new life, many of them Wutaians who held romantic views on tradition and Wutai's former glory.

But none of them ever seemed to realise the tricks I had picked up in SOLDIER. A rifle is a very loud noise. A loud noise scares and agitates the average monster. Ergo, if you can kill them with a quiet noise, you kill more.

I screwed the suppressor onto the front of the weapon. On full auto, it still sounded like gunfire, but could only be heard for about one hundred meters rather than half a kilometre on an average day. But a suppressor was an expensive thing to obtain unless you could make your own, and I had one for every one of my weapons.

I treated it like it was a covert operation behind enemy lines. Making my movements slow, making as little noise as possible. That's another trick. Patience. Too many of the young hotheads forget it. War veterans remember it, but even they underestimate their prey and charge in sometimes.

And another fault of the inexperienced. They threw away their bullets like coins into slot machines at the Gold Saucer, gambling with their lives. They failed to realise, a weapons magazine or indeed a shard of materia had finite ammunition or mana. The time to reload a weapon or get an ether to restore your ability to draw upon the energies of the planet was all the time a monster you'd just wounded needed to rip you in two from crotch to head. I fired eight shots from my forty-three calibre pistol that morning, and brought back four monsters. Two rounds each in the base of the skull or between the eyes. That simple. I stopped to gain confirmation of my kills, usually by severing the head with the sword I carried. In just under two hours I earned a thousand gil. The other bounty hunter paying over heads from a three day excursion looked in envy at the four I brought back. He had killed four of the frog-creatures called Touch Me's, only worth a hundred gil each.

I left the village with my money, and it felt a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was now ready in my mind for the task of starting to hurt the Shinra. And I could think of no better way to do that than to train others who sought to harm that vile corportion. And so, I made my way to the jungles of Cosmo, where many an aspiring terrorist, be they nationalist, socialist, republican, environmentalist, or just plain crazy, could be found getting some experience in the skirmishes between the warring Desert and Jungle tribes of eastern Cosmo. The two month travel saw me amass yet more money, and kill dozens of monsters along the way before I began my new job. I'd left a legend behind me, and sought to foster a new one in the nation to the northwest.



He walks into Wall Market, bold as brass and giving off an aura that you can almost see if you stare at him too long. The man is dangerous. It's obvious if you know the signs. Your average Midgarian hoodlum or thug, he carried himself around trying to look imposing. Thought the size of your gun and your muscles meant something, but this man was different. He looked Solian, and walked with an air of calm that few in the slums could ever carry themselves with, as if he'd faced worse than any danger the cutthroats and thugs here could ever pose. But that wasn't the interesting part. His eyes.

They shone that glow. Mako eyes. And not just any Mako eyes. These green-blue eyes shone the promise of something more than what he presented himself as, like he knew what I knew. That size and power doesn't matter, when the correct application of them can be a hundred times more efficient than a stronger or larger weapon.

He flirts with the flower girl who hangs out in this Sector sometimes. She's lived down here, a constant anomaly, for so long without the usual fate of women like her. She looks like a stiff wind would snap her in half, but unlike the man just entered the scene, she concealed the truth. She was tougher than she looked. She had to be to survive in Midgar's slums. In no small part, she had lived because of a code of honour among the thugs. She was one of their own people in a way, a creature as unusual here as the flowers she sold. Any man who dared to try attack her, either to rob her or more likely force himself upon her, well... That man might never be found again.

But in walks this stranger, and even her three bodyguards assigned to watch over her by the owners of the market stalls and the whorehouses that benefit from her standing there selling flowers see that this man is one to be cautious with. He gets her to blush quickly. She had a reputation of being a difficult girl to get to know, in no small part thanks to the defensive nature of the slums at times, and in no small part thanks to the fact that for some reason, the Shinra wanted her.

But my mission was nothing to do with her, and for that I'm thankful. Seventeen agents had been sent after her in seven years. We still haven’t found three of them. No, my task was to watch Wall Market for signs of trouble at the Honey Bee Inn, or in the stalls and rows of shops. A group called AVALANCHE had sprung back into life. Either a splinter group or survivors from two years earlier when a combined team of Turks and SOLDIERs launched attacks on their camps in the mountains of Corel and Costa Del Sol. They'd been a nuisance in the last two years, letter bomb campaigns, graffiti, acts of vandalism. But this afternoon, they'd become a real threat. The records and information on a quarter of the cities Shinra employees had been lost in a bomb attack on an accountant office up in the city above.

Then he caught my eyes, and saw the message I transmitted. In that brief second, we both clocked each other beyond doubt for what we both were. Now we both held that knowledge, we were both a threat to the other man. He made his excuse with the girl he flirted with, and left, to the relief of the three goons who had been shitting bricks since he walked in.

He left for the sector exit. I followed, no point in really concealing myself, because he'd see me either way. My backup was summoned to follow on as well, two fellow agents. He was at the border between sectors, the playground at the gate to Sector Seven. I drew my pistol and lined it up with his back.

'Hold it there.'

He stopped right away. He turned when I ordered, and didn't show a trace of surprise or fear as he saw the gun lined up with his face from thirty feet away.

'Why this hostility, my friend?' he asked.

I laughed at that. Friend. He was one of those people. Tried to be everyone's buddy. But then again, the alternative was you were with him or against him, and if I had the choice, I know what side I'd pick. But I had no choice in picking my side.

'Do you know what you're dealing with, "friend"? I'm from the Shinra Internal Affairs Unit. You know who we are,' I said.

'The Turks,' he said. He was playing this cool. That wasn't good.

'And I know too. But you're telling me things. That's good. Tell me, who are you really?' I ordered

'I'm Lazarus Estevez. Former SOLDIER Second Class...'

I interrupted.

'Bullshit. But if that's how you want to play it.'

My associates had arrived, pistols drawn and levelled on him behind me.

'Cuff him. We're taking him in for questioning,' I ordered. The agent to my left walked forward, covered by both of us. For any normal man, that would have been more than enough.

He moved with demonic speed, grabbing the arm of my colleague, and spinning it back in on itself with a wet snap, and twisting his head with the same deadly efficiency before tossing him away. My associate landed like a rag doll on his broken arm and neck, another set of cracks being released by his corpse. It had happened in an instant, and the pistol the dead agent had held was now in the suspect's hands and spitting death. My other associate screamed as he was cut down by the bullets as I returned fire, but he dived into cover, without my shots having an effect.

He ran. He had nothing to gain from fighting me here, and he sought better terrain. The ruins between Sector Six and Sector Five were perfect. Buckled roads left in ruins, abandoned and burnt out warehouses. A decaying concrete jungle, for this guerrilla fighter to slip into the shadows like a phantom.

I requested backup as I followed, knowing it was likely either I or he would die before it arrived. I span round at every falling rock, then checked all around me in case it was a trap. I watched the shadows like death sat in every black pit, or hiding behind every pile of charred wood and fallen masonry.

Nothing behind one. No signs of life in the wreck of an old timber stockyard. Nothing in the shell of a chemical works. It was cat and mouse, and my skin crawled as I realised we both had the potential to be the cat, and whoever shot first would surely rip the mouse to ribbons.

I then heard the blessed sound of rotors, and was told that a helicopter full of backup had arrived nearby. I ran to the clearing in the rubble where it had set down, and saw Reno and Rude. Two of Tseng's men, backed up by four more, two toting rifles.

'He's in here somewhere,' I told Reno. 'Two of our men are down at the Wall Market entrance.'

'What's their status?' my fire-haired colleague asked

'Dead,' I replied. This man wouldn't have just wounded my second associate.

Reno growled in anger, and signalled to the riflemen to fan out. He and Rude started walking, when he ordered the other two to stay with the helicopter. The blonde female rookie seemed crestfallen with the order. Perhaps she realised it made her a sitting duck, or perhaps she was too eager. Either way, she didn't want to be there.

I went back into the ruins, finding nothing until five minutes later, gunshots from the landing zone. I raced back, more gunfire rippling out, rifles. They fired all too briefly, and I knew that the man with Mako eyes had killed more Turks.

And there he was, bold as brass once more, sitting in the cockpit of the helicopter. The son of a bitch waved as I raised my pistol, firing off the whole mag and reloading as Reno and Rude appeared. Neither of them bothered to fire as the helicopter soared into the air and away from the city, and as the slide slammed home on my fresh magazine, neither did I keep it up. The bastard had got away. Even if we called in the Air Force, he'd have set down in the minimum seven minutes it would have taken for a fighter to scramble and engage him. The man had been dangerous. You didn't need to know the signs to prove that any more.



The political situation of Cosmo is a complex one. Three hundred years ago, settlers from Nibelheim migrated south after the end of the miniature ice age that had blocked passage from Nibel down into the rest of the continent. Those settlers encountered native tribes in the deserts and the jungles. Fifty years of colonisation, and fifty years of so-called "Tribal Wars" between musket-wielding settlers on horseback and arrow-hurling tribes.

Those tribal wars became something of a joke compared to recent and ongoing ones.

The east of Cosmo was lightly colonised, with few major cities. Much of her populace had stayed on the west coast, secure and surrounded by fellow settlers. The eastern borders were populated, but only about a quarter of the population could be found there, for the deserts and the canyons were generally inhospitable to those who wished to stay in one spot. For the nomadic Desert tribes, this was not a problem. Sixteen major tribes existed, either vast "Supertribes" like the Helghni and Samvnar, or tribal "federations" such as the four-tribal unification of the Dishan, Tuvwa, Missimi, and Systellack. There had once been seventeen major tribes until the most recent clash between settlers and natives.

The Gi Tribe had attacked Cosmo Canyon, a small village located in the largest valley of the nation's central belt of valleys, canyons, and mountains. A depository of knowledge that the townspeople had shared and learned from the Jungle and Desert tribes, when the Gi launched their attack, seventy three people were killed, among them twelve Midgarian observers and scholars who had came to catalogue the library of knowledge. Midgar piled the pressure on the government, demanding that action be taken. And so, the Cosmo government went to war with the Gi. Their policy was random at best, though, and many villages belonging to smaller tribes were attacked. The Jungle tribes blamed the Desert tribes for antagonising the settlers. The Desert tribes accused the Jungle tribes of directing the settler airstrikes. And so, the Deserts and the Jungles went to war. This was not a sticks and stones affair, but a war fought with a variety of contemporary weapons and equipment. The Second World War had them receive equipment from both sides to fight their enemies, and in the sixties, that meant many tribes backed up their traditional weapons with rifles and heavy weapons.

The end of the war saw the Gi almost wiped out. A few tiny bands of remnants roam the deserts today, still using the petrifying arrows they became infamous for. But they also learned that against a well-armoured soldier who has been given an injection designed to counteract petrifaction, it was like using a pea shooter on an elephant. Now, their warriors carried submachine guns and assault rifles with their crossbows slung over their back, and blades that wept the petrifying venoms sheathed in their scabbards. But those weapons had become prized finds for bounty hunters. As the Gi were xenophobic and unwilling to trade, this meant armed gangs took them by force. Sometimes they would succeed. Other times, their bodies would be found, riddled with bullets and their own weapons taken from them.

The Desert tribes as a whole were generally paranoid and unwilling to give settlers the time of day. The Jungle tribes like the Makram were a different story. In fact, the Makram and most jungle tribes ran training camps for bounty hunters, mercenaries, and those who wished to become freedom fighters/terrorists.

I didn't care what I trained, so long as some day they began hurting the shinra somehow.

I walked into the Makram village of Makra Salanatin. Here, I would work alongside another mercenary, Midgarian Judiah Seth. He was a man about forty, a grizzled veteran of the war who had been with the infantry for ten years before being kicked out in ninety-one. He didn't look much like a soldier, it had to be said. Short, wiry, and wearing thick rimmed glasses, not to mention balding and sporting a beer belly. But he could certainly make someone learn how to shoot and how to run. He just didn’t have much chance keeping up was all.

The village elder greeted me, shaking my hand warmly and showing me the hut I'd share with Seth. His various warriors all sized me up as I walked past, and I knew most of them noted I had the look of one to be respected. The rest seemed to wonder if perhaps they could best me in hand-to-hand combat, sparring a favourite pastime of the tribe. Then I was shown my recruits. Six of them stood before me, two girls and four boys. Not one of them looked over twenty, and one of the girls, a Wutaian, looked like she wasn't a day over twelve at first glance. Then again, the black haired Wutaian boy beside her who was meant to be nineteen looked about four years old. The rest of them looked Midgarian, except the other girl. Something about her long blonde hair and bright blue eyes told me she was from Junon.

'You, girl, where are you from?' I asked the blonde. She spoke back with a Junon accent so thick it could give a guy a boner just listening to her.

'Junon, monsieur, the Capital,' she said.

'And you?' A red haired youth who revealed himself a native of Point Gar, a city in the north of Midgar.

'And should you not be in school, girl?' I asked the Wutaian.

'I'm sorry?' she said, looking nervous. Well, I say nervous, but the brunette Wutaian standing before me in a green top looked ready to piss herself in her far-too-short khaki shorts.

'What is your name and age?'

'I... I'm Yuffie Kisaragi,' she stuttered. 'I'm eighteen.'

I laughed out loud, a little theatrically.

'Girl, you do not look older than sixteen,' I chortled.

'But I am eighteen,' she protested.

'Very well, then a beautiful woman such as you will have felt the touch of a man. What is it like for Wutaians?'

She blushed, confirming my suspicions.

'Are you... Are you like, coming onto me?'

I laughed.

'Girl, if you think that is an attempt to bed you, then you clearly have little experience. You need not lie about your age here, in fact, the truth can be helpful. The old perverts like myself who are not gentle will leave alone, and boys your own age who shall be as nervous as you the first time will be those who aspire to be your suitors. But who knows, perhaps in a few years when you have some experience, you can return and "come onto me", as you say. I never refuse a pretty lady.' I said, laying my own faux accent on thick, because I found it often had the same basic effect on women as the Junon girl's would have on a man. 'Unless of course, she is underage. Like you are.'

She blushed, and stared at her feet. I moved on to a boy standing beside her, himself blushing a little and suppressing a snicker.

'And you?' I asked the brown-haired Midgarian beside her, who turned out to be Iciclean.

I finished up, and then watched to see what my recruits could do. Poor marksmanship mostly. Decent hand to hand fighting, especially the young Wutaian girl.

As they sat at dinner, I was asked to meet some representatives of a client group along with the elder, and Seth. They were apparently a man and a woman from a group called AVALANCHE. I knew the name. A friend of mine in SOLDIER with the counter-terrorist section of the organisation had led a squad into the slums of Midgar to hunt down a cell of them near the end of the war. Environmental terrorists who blew up materia shops and power plants.

I'd heard of Barret Wallace before. A big Corel man, who was said to have a gun for a hand. That could pose a problem if he was a patriotic Corelian, for my adopted persona was from Costa Del Sol, historic enemies of Corel. But we had a greater evil to fight together than mere nationalist rivalries. He walked up, about twice my weight, but shorter than the somewhat thin, but strong-looking, woman beside him. He wore olive green trousers and an open brown shirt with the sleeves torn away. She wore a pair of shorts that stopped just above her knee and a tank top.

I hadn't expected her, and it took serious effort not to react to her with surprise. I converted the look of shock on seeing her into a brief, lustful stare. As I gave her the once-over, focusing on her legs and her breasts, which I got a good look at for the first time since Nibelheim five years before, and I had to admit, even if I wasn't posing as a lecherous womanising Solian mercenary, I'd have made a move on her, Cloud's girl or not. But considering what I'd seen her go through, I wasn't surprised to see her as a terrorist.

'This is Barret Wallace,' the Elder introduced him, and I noted that a handshake would be impossible as his right hand was the one that sported the gun. I also saw him glare at me, possibly as a result of the look I had given the girl. Or possibly because he was the patriotic Corelian I'd worried about.

'And this is Tifa Lockheart,' he continued. I took her hand gently and kissed it, partly because A) It was a very Lazarus thing to do, B) because I really did like what I saw of those legs and C) to see if it annoyed Wallace any more. It didn't, but she blushed.

'This is Lazarus Estevez and Judiah Seth,' the elder introduced us. Seth, an unadventurous Midgarian, simply shook the Nibel woman's hand.

'Pleased to meet you,' she said in Midgarian with a light trace of a Nibel accent, and sounding relived that Seth had not kissed her hand also.

'From Nibelheim?' I asked her, and kept going. 'I knew a man from Nibelheim once, from the village of Old Nibelheim, at the base of the mountain.'

I knew she was from there, but had to react surprised when she replied that she too was from the same village.

'My condolences for the losses you must have suffered in the plane crash there.'

Her eyes grew distant and cold when she replied.

'It wasn't a plane crash,' she said simply.

We spoke with the elder and the two AVALANCHE terrorists over our dinner in the elder's hut. By now, the recruits had been sent to their huts along with another seven who had been out in the jungles earlier on, a total of eight males and five women. The tribe had divided by gender, I noted, a good thing. Unisex barracks could be fun after lights out but they did have a nasty effect on a soldier's attitude. Especially if he or she woke up exhausted the next morning from, as they say in Midgar, shagging like rabbits until sunrise.

My mention of Old Nibelheim had interested Tifa, and she spoke to me after dinner as I was sitting in the village square. She asked who the man I knew was.

'It was Cloud Strife. He was in SOLDIER, just after the war. I met him and a man named Zack during a mission or two in Gongaga hunting the monsters there. But I am told both men are dead, along with their commander. Killed on the ground in the plane crash.'

'I can tell you that Cloud is alive,' she replied, but before she could tell me it wasn't a plane crash, I interrupted.

'He lives? Dios mio! How is young Strife? Did he make First Class?'

'Well... He says he did, but,' she paused, and I saw the hint of a tear well in her eyes before she buried it. 'He seems to have amnesia. He remembers some things. The town we grew up in, some parts of our childhood, but he hasn't told me much of where he's been the four years since the fire. And he doesn't seem to even remember that we...'

'The fire?' I interrupted again. I had decided to maybe press the issue of her denial of the plane crash.

I knew the truth of course, and looked as shocked as I could as she told Lazarus her tale. All Lazarus knew was the cover story. A Nibelheim Air Force CRC-15 Aerial Refuelling Tanker had lost engine power and crashed into the village despite the best efforts of the pilots to set her down either past the village or long before it. A tragic series of accidents all culminating in almost a whole village burning to death under a rain of jet fuel.

She'd sat in the mountains with her martial arts mentor and watched the plane fall into the town. She didn't know exactly how they could have crashed it without someone being aboard, despite being there. The conspiracy theory on the crash, she said, was that it had been remote controlled, but that was what made it implausible. But she could offer nothing else but that a man deliberately flew the plane into the ruins of the village.

'Bastards,' I whispered. She had convinced Lazarus she spoke the truth.

'So, you say Cloud has amnesia? Is it because of the incident?'

'I think so. It's hard. I keep having to try and remember that he simply might not recall something I want to talk about, so I have to try and find out what it is he knows.'

I spoke with her a little longer, before she left and went to her hut. The tribal elder had put her and Wallace in their own accommodation, and I saw that they took turns, one awake and keeping guard, the other resting. Good practice, if a little paranoid, but the elder had come to expect paranoia from these kinds of people, and took no offence.

I trained the recruits for a month, the two terrorists mostly isolated from them and never meeting the men and women I was training to fight. However, as Barret left, he made me an offer. If ever I was in Midgar, to contact him, for he could use me on a mission almost any time. And so, a few months later, I made my way to Midgar and took him up on his offer.



Rufus had returned to the Shinra HQ, and was preparing for the function at the Grand Midgaria Hotel where the Army Top Brass were set to announce the winners of the first round of the Modern Small Arms of the New Century Project. Virtually every major gun maker on the face of the planet had tendered a rifle. And rumour had it the Shinra's offering, the XAR11, was to be rejected along with Icicle Combat Industries Rifle 4 and Army Combat's Improved Combat Rifle. But Rufus had no concerns if he lost the contracts to produce the Midgarian rifle. Other avenues would make far more money.

A knock at the door as he fiddled with the ridiculous bow tie that went with the formal dress code of such pointless endeavours.

'Enter,' he instructed. It was Tseng of the Turks, holding a file. Rufus noted that unlike most Turks, Tseng did not wear sunglasses. Then again, his little subdivision of the IAU had a reputation for being unusual, with only one of them really conforming to Turk stereotypes of sunglasses and a sensible haircut.

'Sir, as you're aware, some shareholders wish for you to attend tonight's function with a bodyguard,' the blued suited man began.

'And I rejected it, because it makes you look weak to be flanked by gorillas that look even more ridiculous in a tuxedo than you do.'

'Well, sir, we have a compromise for your approval. Your father was not as relaxed as you were, so he often ordered this same plan to be carried out on occasion,and in fact it's standard company policy to carry this out in requested,' Tseng said, handing the folder over. Rufus flicked through it, noting it was a black and white photocopy

'Cute girl, but the only women who join the Turks are bigger knuckle draggers than the rest of you. No offence.'

'Not this one, sir. She's the younger daughter of an instructor at Public Safety Maintenance Academy. Her elder sister is also part of the organisation,' Tseng replied, not acknowledging the jibe.


The president looked over the file once more.

'Well, so long as she doesn't have facial hair and knows the score about these sort of parties, fair enough. What sort of orders can I give her?'

'You're the President, sir. You can order her to do pretty much anything within reason.'

'Fair enough. So you say that many of the pretty young women my father was seen with at social and company functions were Turks?'

'Some of them,' Tseng admitted.

'And the rest were just whores. Oh well, this might make things more interesting. I presume she won't drop her knickers at the drop of a credit card like every other bitch I go to this sort of thing with?'

'No, sir. She's a fairly eager and professional officer and might I add, unlikely to obey any orders along the lines you speak of.'

'Come, Tseng, do you really think I'd order a young professional just doing her job into bed for my own thrills?'

Tseng walked to the door, making only one comment.

'Your father frequently tried to.'

'Well, I'm not that randy fat shit, am I?'

* * *

'But sir, I...'

'But what, Elena? You've had simple missions since that incident in the slums a few weeks ago to give you some rest, and this one's just the last one,' Michael Amador told her. Amador was a career officer of the Turks, and had risen to second in command overall in the organisation, as well as overall command of all Midgarian Turks.

'I would like to point out that...'

'You protested that decision. Well, it was policy. That man who hijacked the helicopter left you for dead and it's a miracle you weren't dead with the rest of the people we lost down there. You needed to recover from the trauma, especially if you seriously want to stay in Tseng's unit. He can't use someone burning themselves out.'

She was about to protest again, but Amador cut her off.

'Elena, this is the only mission of this kind you'll ever do for a long time. Most female rookies wind up having to escort a company executive a dozen times in their first year. You have your orders from us, now go and get ready.'

She resigned herself to defeat. She'd never expected to be forced to act as a cheap call girl for bigwigs when she joined the Turks. She went to the locker room, and found that her clothes for the evening had already been picked out. A cream strapless dress with a hemline that looked far too short. A handbag barely big enough to fit a subcompact pistol in if you took it apart. A stupid amount of jewellery. High heeled shoes that looked like they were designed to snap ankles. And even makeup and underwear. The only way she'd have looked more like a whore in her mind was if there had been no bra and the panties had been crotch-less. How the hell was she supposed to actually act like the bodyguard the mission claimed she was if she would take up all of the space in that tiny handbag with even the smallest gun?

* * *

The limousine rolled up to the hotel, where the media were lined up. This otherwise mundane event had evolved overnight into the first chance since the two disasters a few nights before for the media to get a real look at the new President of the largest corporation on the planet, and just at the time it was possibly about to start losing it's biggest contract.

The young blonde Turk had spent most of the trip from Shinra HQ in silence. Rufus had made some idle conversation, but the girl's replies seemed forced. Though she did look good in the dress, she was clearly uncomfortable with the short hemline. Well, it was reassuring to know she didn't want to be here either.

A Midgarian Army soldier, in dress uniform, opened the door of the limousine and saluted as Rufus and his companion emerged from the vehicle onto the red carpet. Rufus was annoyed to notice the hotel was actually surrounded by Midgarian Army soldiers, and even spotted the uniformed and armed ones on the roof. Elena meanwhile was more concerned with stopping tabloid photographers getting a shot up her dress as she climbed out of the car.

Rufus took her hand, making sure to kiss her on the cheek for the assembled photographers. She'd been forewarned that to keep the ruse up Rufus would have to occasionally give her a light kiss so the media gossip columns had something to talk about the next morning, but she still flinched a little when he did it. The assembled press began shouting a barrage of questions that Rufus ignored until he reached the door of the hotel, the Sergeant there as a doorman saluting. Only then did he reply to some of the questions.

'The Shinra Corporation is confident that our offering into this program for a new service rifle for the Midgarian Army will be accepted as the superior offering it is. Despite the tragic events occurring a few days ago, I am confident the corporation will rise onwards and upwards, in no small part due to the strong foundations left in it by my late father,' he said. A simple speech that answered none of the truly probing questions. Elena was relived that the tabloid gossipers questions of who she was had been dismissed. They entered the hotel.

'Another whoremonger,' the hack for the Midgar Evening Record commented to his colleague from the Morning Star.

'Still, a pretty whore he picked out. Not like some of the gorgons the Old Man brought out,' the other journalist replied.

'You realise she's probably a Turk?' a woman's voice pointed out.

The two gossip men turned to look at the Senior Business Correspondent of the Midgar City Times.

'That girl? No bloody chance. She looks like a typical dumb blonde,' the man from the Record opined.

'Still, if she was a Turk, wouldn't mind her black bagging me,' the man from the Star joked. The woman from the broadsheet glowered at the immature Tabloid hacks, failing to notice the grin on the face of a red haired man posing as a Junonian journalist.

* * *

Inside, the hidden earphone Elena had in her left lobe crackled before Reno informed her that only the smart members of the press suspected she was a Turk. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

'By the way, if you look like you're chatting about something pointless, you fit in a lot better at this sort of thing,' Rufus instructed her.

'I don't generally have much to say, sir,' she said, and almost cringed at the mistake.

'And most of the eye candy a VIP brings to a formal dinner rarely call the person on their arm "sir", might I point out.'

* * *

In the end, the predicted Shinra disaster did not happen. The Military announced the three rifles moving though to Phase Two were the Shinra offering, the MDA offering in the shape of the Mark 1D General Assault Rifle , and the only foreign-made offering to survive was the Lockair Battle Rifle X2 as predicted. However, the Shinra suffered a mild but not unexpected blow when the Army revealed the M1DGAR was currently the preferred bid and that the two other competitors had to make changes to win the contract. But not a disaster, after all.

The press again. Another short speech, this time at the door of the limo after Rufus held the door open for the Turk.

'I can't say that I'm pleased with our product coming second best, especially considering the high quality of our design compared to others tendered, but it is an early stage of the contract bidding. Rest assured that the recommended improvements given by the Army will be implemented into our product well in time for the next phase of testing.'

'What do you think of the Dynamic Aerospace product?' the Times reporter asked.

'I have to compliment them on selecting a fine initialism for their product, but hope that they can put up a better fight at the next stage that appeals to patriotic sentiment, as they should be full aware the updated product of my company will be a tenfold improvement over our already fine offering,' Rufus said, before entering the limo. It drove off, and shortly after, both passengers were relived to get on with more important duties.



The woman on stage has a voice like an angel. I watch from the balcony, lamenting for a moment what I must do this day, but not even beauty can outrun death.

She sings on, the stage lighting surrounding her like a halo, her red hair like fire in the lights. The song reaches a crescendo as the piece she sings nears the conclusion. As the orchestra stops and her voice fades, the applause ripples forth. The crowd are on their feet, and roses are hurled onto the stage. She bows, accepting the applause, blowing kisses to her audience.

She leaves the stage for the last time. I race downstairs, hand over my heart, and over my pistol. Such a waste this mission is, but it is her fault, after all. She was once in the employ of the Shinra, informing us what secrets she found from her many admirers. But she stopped, and as I near her dressing room, I'm thinking of her last performance. That memory from just a few long moments ago lingers as the orchestra of cordite plays the song of death. I leave a rose, in tribute of her last performance.



In Sector Eight, there once stood on the corner of Barnard Street and Central Road, an office building. Dating back to the very start of Upper Midgar's construction in the fifties, the faux sandstone corner block of five floors vanished in a cloud of flame and dust one afternoon. We had been instructed to leave the area, but I had managed to find a place to watch. First a flash, then the ball of flame, which quickly gave way to a cloud of dust, blossoming into the air. Up, up it rose, and leaving behind it, the building. A great hole had been torn into the building, visible just through the cloud of dust, before the remaining sections gave way. More dust, billowing upwards and rolling down the streets. People running, no doubt screaming. Drivers abandoning cars in terror near the scene of the explosion. And then sirens, racing to the site. I turned away. I had participated in my first blow against the Shinra and had no intentions of being caught watching what I had contributed to.

I walked into the bar in Sector Seven Lower, patrons already having filtered in.

'You're early,' one of Barret's men, Wedge, told me as I ordered a drink.

'A man cannot walk into a bar in Midgar and ask for a drink these days without being too fast? Would you prefer I brought a tiny man playing a piano to the counter and told you about my deaf genie?'

The reference went over his head.

'It's a knob gag,' a customer helpfully interjected. 'As in, he never asked for a twelve inch pianist.'

Wedge stared at me like I was something he had stood in.

'First that jumped-up swordsman and now a Solian gunman who thinks he's a fucking comic. Are all you dogs of war annoying bastards?'

I swallowed some of the thin Midgarian beer. Not a patch on Vodka from the old country.

'No, my friend. We dogs of war, as you say, are all annoying sons of bitches."

Shortly, after I'd drained the beer, Barret arrived, with Tifa, Jessie and Cloud. So much for splitting up.

'Lazarus, over here,' Tifa summoned me to a table by the door. Cloud had already sat down. As I neared, Barret produced some money. Not much, but I'd pay to hurt the Shinra. Cloud took his money, looked at Tifa, and left, to her obvious disappointment.

'Well?' Barret asked, as I sat down. My money sat on the table.

'Well what?'

'Ain't you gonna take your hard earned cash and wander off like that spiky son of a bitch?'

'My friend, I have no need for money at this stage. Call it a free trial of my skills, since so few of them were used.

It had come close. How the whole bombing had unfolded was, to my displeasure, all too fast. Upon arrival in Midgar two days before, Barret Wallace informed me that he wanted me and Cloud to escort Tifa over to Sector Two. There, a group of Shinra soldiers habitually picked up prostitutes in a bar. These prostitutes and their minders had an arrangement with AVALANCHE. Any Shinra soldiers would be sent the way of a girl "just starting her shift, she's in the back room just now, let me get her", and then that soldier would "start trouble". Cloud and I would then drag the protesting soldier from the bar's upstairs bedrooms, and toss him out into the street, regardless of his state of dress. It had taken two hours for a suitable candidate. When we walked in, the trooper protested she'd just hit the alarm button for no reason, but we were posing as security. Security never listen. The soldier was thrown out. On the way, his ID card and wallet were stolen from him. Meanwhile, Tifa would sneak out the back, and Cloud and I would have our shifts end.

An AVALANCHE member named Jessie took the card, and forged four copies. A picture of myself, a picture of Cloud, one of Tifa, and one of herself.

The target was known to be a payment office where PSM troops dropped off shipments of money to be counted and sorted into pay accounts for Shinra workers. Our false story was that we had been ordered to deliver our strongbox of cash here, arriving just as a lunch break had begun. Our target was not lives, but the records of pay files stored here. The receptionist and security guard argued with us for a short while, but gave in when we said we'd return after the lunch break. After all, anyone who could sort it out would be away to lunch, and really, they should be too. The guard conceded the point, and let us ensure the strongbox was locked in the main sorting office on the ground floor. We left the keys with the receptionist, as per Shinra Finances Divisional policy in dealing with money. We left, and split up. They made their way to wherever they went, and I watched as the building exploded.

But back in the bar, a few hours later, Barret seemed surprised at my rejection of the money.

'I thought that's all you people wanted,' Jessie said.

'But to maintain a good working relationship with a client, a free sample is always an excellent way to ensure they desire more of your product. It is good business practice. Ask the Mafia in my country.'

'Well, I'll be hirin' you again for sure. That fucker Strife just takes his money and leaves every time,' Barret said. 'And like a sucker, I let Tifa convince me to hire him again.'

I grinned.

'She has good reason beyond sentimentality. I served with Strife after the war. He was a skilled fighter, and like me, you have barely begun to tap the resources he can offer you in terms of experience and abilities. In addition, he has settled into Midgarian life well, but I, a Solian, I yearn for the variety of life. I will not stay in one job for too long.'

'You sure you don't have sentimentality, being a war buddy of his?' Tifa pointed out.

'Perhaps I do, but then again, I never served with him in War. Only in monster hunting on the Corel border. He was only at the grade of SOLDIER Second Class then, but I see he has exceeded my rank in between then and now.'

'You mean that spiky motherfucker really is SOLDIER First Class?'

'Si,' I replied, noting a harsh look Tifa gave Barret every time he spoke ill of Cloud.

'Well, we'll make a note of your advice on Cloud,' Jessie said. 'Thank you for your help.'

I bid the terrorist group goodbye, and left. I knew where I was going as I walked out of the sector into it's neighbour. Sector Six, and Wall Market. The radio announced news of the bombing as I left. Three people injured, but no one dead.

And there she was. The first time I had seen her for a long time. My flower girl. Or rather, the ex-girlfriend of a deceased member of SOLDIER from Gongaga named Zack Fair. Her only relation to Lazarus Estevez was that he was a womaniser, and she was a pretty woman. I walked up to her, the accent on thick. The three goons had changed, but there were still three. I clocked them fast. At least one spotted my mako eyes and gave a signal to the others to be cautious. A veteran or someone otherwise in the know.

'How much is a flower?' I asked her.

'One Gil,' She replied. I handed over the coin in exchange for a flower.

'Since arriving in the city, few flowers have I see. Those on the upper plate, they are not cared for. These ones, though... Beauty that matches anything growing the plains of Del Sol.'

'Thank you,' she said. 'I've heard that the flowers there are supposed to be naturally beautiful. You're from Costa Del Sol?

'Si. The flowers there, even those that they would call weeds here, they are tended lovingly by the greatest gardener of all, mother nature. Still, I must confess, this flower is not the most beautiful thing I have seen in Midgar during my stay,' I said.

'Oh?' Interest. She wants to know what that thing I saw was.

The cloud of dust rising from the bomb. No one killed, no one injured. The perfect start to it all.

'That is simple. That would be you.'

She blushed. Success, but I knew that was as far as it would go. Unless she'd changed. Or unless I'd underestimated Lazarus. I thought that even he would be unable to bed Aeris Gainsborough in just one night of meeting her. Even if he did borrow my experiences with her into the bargain.

She spotted my eyes. She paused.

'...What's your name?'

'My name? Lazarus Estevez.'

Goon Number Three seemed to recognise the name. Goon Number One, the cautious man, also did. The same signal, but more frantic. A quick look left to Goon One by Aeris. The Goons calmed down a little. I doubted she recognised the name.

'Well, um... I'm Aeris Gainsborough. I asked you because...'

'My eyes? Many people see my eyes and ask me my name in other places, but in Midgar, few are interested. I must admit I am curious why you should be the first.'

She paused again, a little surprised.

'Well... I had a boyfriend. My first serious boyfriend. He was in SOLDIER, and his eyes were almost the same as yours.'

'What was his name?'

'Zack. He was a SOLDIER First Class.'

'Zack Fair? From Gongaga?'

Surprise registered on her face.

'You know him?'

'I have met him, yes. A fine soldier.'

It was then I saw the other man. He looked professional. I took a look at him. A look that led him to meet my eyes. I met his. We both recognised what we saw. He saw a former SOLDIER. I saw danger.

'Now, if you'll excuse me, lady, I'm afraid I must go,' I said. If this man was what I think he was, I had to draw him away from her. I moved towards the exit of the sector. The man followed. We were almost in the secluded border between sectors.

'Hold it there.'

I stopped, as ordered. I knew when he told me to turn I’d see a gun in his hand. I was right.

'Why this hostility, my friend?'

The man laughed.

'Do you know what you're dealing with, friend? I'm from the Shinra Internal Affairs Unit. You know who we are.'

'The Turks,' I told him.

'And I know too. But you're telling me things. That's good. Tell me, who are you really?'

'I'm Lazarus Estevez. Former SOLDIER Second Class...'

He cut me off.

'Bullshit. But if that's how you want to play it.'

Two others had walked out from the Market. Both had their pistols drawn and aimed at me.

'Cuff him. We're taking him in for questioning,' the first Turk ordered. One of the newcomers walked forward, and grabbed my hand, trying to put the cuffs on.

I moved so fast I don't think he felt the pain until he hit the ground, landing on his broken neck and arm. I had stolen his pistol, and fired off five shots. The second newcomer Turk fell from two bullets The first one started firing straight away, and to my surprise, actually hit me. The bullet struck the meat of my thigh, and passed through as I dived into cover. The Turk was fast too. I had ran into the ruins between Sector Six and Five, buckled roads and abandoned warehouses all around. He followed, screaming for backup only once before I drew him into a game of cat and mouse in the ruins. I then heard rotors, and saw a helicopter swoop in a few hundred yards away. I carefully made my way over and watched a red haired man, a bald man, and four others in the turk suits jump out of the helicopter when it landed. Two carried assault rifles, and one was a blonde haired girl. The Turk I had been playing with ran towards them.

'He's in here somewhere. Two of our men are down at the Wall Market entrance,' he told the red-haired man.

'What's their status?'


The red-haired man seemed pissed off by this. He had the two riflemen fan out, and walked off with the bald man, but not before ordering the girl to stay by the Helicopter. She looked upset by this order, but another Turk stayed with her. The leftovers all spread out as well, pistols drawn and meaning business. But so did I.

I moved to behind the helicopter quite easily, the blonde girl and the other Turk wandering around it. Both had pistols out. I had the stolen handgun plus my own, but I wanted stealth here. The second Turk failed to spot me in the shadow of a ruined section of road, and I ran up behind him. Snapping his neck and turning to face the girl didn't take long. She looked at me from the other side of the helicopter, horrified. I dived. She raised her pistol. Two shots. Both misses. I threw myself over the nose of the helicopter, landing right in front of her, stealing her pistol. She didn't scream at all, just kept staring in shock until I punched her unconscious. Now I had more ammo for my stolen pistol. I ejected the magazine from the dead one's dropped weapon. I then frisked the dead one and the unconscious girl for more ammo. And since she was a Turk, I knew there was little to gain from letting her live. But as I was about to shoot her in the skull, a Turk pistol in each hand, I saw the two riflemen emerge from the ruins.

I raised my hands, emptying the clips. One rifleman fell, the other opened fire before my shooting struck him. As the bullets hit him, he convulsed from the various impacts, before dropping to the ground. The slides locked back on my stolen guns, and I slid one into my belt. I dropped the mag from the other, and quickly reloaded. Then the other was reloaded. I had my escape route, but had to be fast. I hopped into the helicopter, and into the pilot's seat. Engine on, rotors spinning. Almost there.

The Turk I had spotted in Sector Six emerged from the ruins next, firing his pistol at the helicopter as I started taking off. He did nothing except put a few holes in the body. I mockingly waved as the helicopter lifted off, and I span it towards the city limits. I'd go a little distance before landing in a field, and then escaping into a nearby town. Midgar would be off limits for a while.


In The Snack Bar

Rain falls outside the snack bar, lances of water falling from the heavens and bouncing off the grey streets outside. The Fat Man sits at his table, looking nervous under his thin blonde hair and red jacket as a pretty blonde waitress gives him a refill. He's worried about the two men in suits sitting under a poster for the film version of Loveless, the fifty year old classic adaptation of the stage play that's still going strong. The Fat Man does well to hide his looks to appear to be taking in the sights on the wall. He seems to be ignoring the waitress. Unusual for him.

The mood in the bar is a little muted after the two shocks in the news. First, the terrorist-influenced collapse of the Sector Seven plate. Remarkably, there were no fatalities on the upper plate thanks to quick response, but as a Midgarian Fire Brigade official admitted this morning, an earlier report that claimed the lower sector had been fully evacuated during the attack was mistaken. It was unknown how many bodies were now trapped below Sector Seven, but there was no chance of survivors. The television over by the counter displays Midgar Broadcasting Corporations All-Day News Service channel, the program itself showing a split screen image of the fallen sector from a helicopter and the montage of security measures being wheeled out across the country. Tanks at the airports, openly armed police at train stations, soldiers deployed around the support struts of the other sectors.

The other news item, buried slightly by the disaster, was the death of the President of the Shinra Corporation of a heart attack at sixty nine. MBC All-Day hasn't really mentioned it much today.

He almost jumps out his skin when a black-haired woman walks in. He mistakes her for someone else. His relief upon seeing she's not the woman he feared is blatant. He starts pretending to look at the movie posters and classic adverts slapped all over this restaurant. The man he's supposed to meet is late.

The door opens, and from the rainfall enters a well dressed man. Bronze skin and a moustache, his dark blue velvet suit hasn't got a drop of water on it as he closes his umbrella. He leaves it by the door, and sits in front of the fat man.

'Such terrible weather,' the man says in a thick Costa Del Sol accent. 'Not like home.'

The Fat Man is about to speak, as the suited man produces a cigar from the left hand breast pocket of his jacket. He offers it to the Fat Man, who shakes his head. A moment later, he lights the cigar himself, blowing blue smoke into the air. The conversation switches from Midgarian to Solian.

'Tell me,' the Smoking Man asks the Fat Man. 'Why here?'

'It's in public. Not even they can do anything in public.'

The Smoking Man looks disappointed, taking a draw of his cigar.

'This is Midgar, my friend. You have told me many times there is nothing they will not do.'

The Fat Man is exasperated.

'Never mind that. This is as safe as it gets. In a dark bar, they'd just shoot us both and ...'

'Calm down,' the Smoking Man says as he takes a third draw. 'You seek protection. We will give it to you.'

The Fat Man looks relieved.

'Thank you. But I have to get out of Midgar fast. They think I betrayed them...'

'And did you?'

The Fat Man is flustered. He stutters, tells him the story of the incident in his home, last night in Sector Six. The Smoking Man laughs at one point.

'It's not funny! I was terrified she'd rip them off! I saw it in her eyes.'

'Threatened by two women and a cross-dresser. My friend, you have grown weak with your vices. '

'Never mind that!' the Fat Man almost shouts. 'Will you help me?'

The Smoking Man nods. He pulls out a mobile phone, and prepares to dial. But he pauses, takes a draw from the cigar, and stares at the Fat Man

'What is in it for us?' he asks. The Fat Man squirms.

'The Inn. And the pick of the girls.'

'That is it?'

The Fat Man sighs, and pulls out a booklet.

'This is the account number and password to my entire savings.'

'How much?'

'Eighteen Million Gil.'

The Smoking Man chuckles.

'So much money yet you need our help to flee. Tell me, why is this?'

The Fat Man swallows.

'They have people everywhere. Bribes here, spies there...'

The Smoking Man laughs again.

'You are paranoid, friend. Come. Unless they have people in here, we will soon be in Costa Del Sol and safe. Outside the coastal cities, they have no influence.'

The Fat Man stands, as the Smoking Man stubs out his cigar, and puts the remaining half back in his pocket. The Fat Man looks around the room as the Smoking Man stands. The window tables. The wall he had been facing. The counter seats.

Then he looks at me as I'm rising. The Smoking Man looks up, his eyes on me as well. His hand starts moving. Mine already was.

The Fat Man starts screaming and running before I even have the pistol clear of my jacket. He knocks into the table, and it's flung into the stomach of the Smoking Man. He gasps, the wind knocked out of him. I line up the sights with his chest. I fire two shots into the centre mass, then one in between his eyes as his face registers the surprise of the impacts. The Fat Man keeps running as the Smoking Man falls down, his head limp. The Smoking Man didn't even get his gun out before I killed him. The Fat Man is now out of the door, and he has left the Man from Costa Del Sol behind. I'm out the door a few moments later, but I don't chase the Fat Man. The Shinra want him dead, yes, but he remains useful. The Shinra want the CDS Mafia to go to war with their cousins in Midgar, and with the death of the Smoking Man, the men Del Sol will be suspicious. The Fat Man will run out of hiding places as the war begins. And the Shinra can move in when the dust settles. When the Fat Man thinks himself safe wherever he runs to, my Turk colleagues will hunt him down, and the Shinra hopefully get it all: Control of organised crime in Midgar and their treacherous agent from the slums in a body bag along with dozens of other mafia goons like the man bleeding over the tiles of the snack bar.

All That Glitters Is Cold 4 Fanfic Competition

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