Part 1- Phoenix Rising
Prologue

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Green. Vegetation represented the natural, the clean, the freedom of the land outside. Sky blue, earth brown, leaves green.

The stems of the flowers she sold were green. The bills which she received in return were green. Her eyes, so warm and lovely, the projectors of every emotion she had ever felt-her eyes were green.

Green represented life. Pressing her fingers against the glass, Aeris marveled that the blood flowing inside her wasn't green. The glowing liquid inside this pipeline was green.

The Shinra propaganda may have fooled Midgar's population into thinking the power company was completely open, but...something seemed off. There was something about this power source that...since twenty years ago had given the power company a monopolizing hold on the Planet.

Until the war, that is. But Shinra still held half the world in its clutches yet...because of this green glowing liquid.

(It's the life of the Planet) the flower girl mused, standing up. As she brushed herself off, in another part of the city, a train pulled into a station.

At sector 1.

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Chapter 1

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Hopping out of the train door, the bald man was confronted immediately by an armed footsoldier. With a few swift kicks, the guy was on his knees, wanting his mommy, and the bald man hadn't even shown a facial expression.

"Good job, Rude," commented the statuesque brunette, who had followed him off the train.

He merely nodded, noting that when a pretty smile lit up her features, one could barely notice the purple scar marring the right side of her face.

"Are we gonna stand here and chit chat, Tifa?" A third person joined them on the platform.

"Of course not, Zack."

"Then get your asses in gear," he urged them. As the group ran off, he turned back to the train. "And you, get on the fucking ball, newbie."

"Don't rush an artist," came the reply. The thin red-haired man flipped out the train door with a grand gesture, only to be ambushed by another footsoldier. Grinning, he dodged the first bullet and swung hard with his nightstick. Pressing a button on the side, he watched as the soldier was electrocuted. "Better cut down on the frying. It's bad for your health."

"Come on," muttered Zack. "Reno, we're on a schedule."

"You're ignorant of the way the street works." Reno leaned over the charred corpse, finding a few gil coins and an undamaged Ice materia. Slapping the orb into an empty slot on his simple armlet, he stood upright. "Just because I'm new to your group doesn't make me a fresh, green, na´ve little boy."

Zack merely glared back at him.

Flashing another grin, he began to walk away. "Well," he said, glancing back, "I thought we were on a schedule."

******

"So we're blowing this thing up?"

"Not so loud," hissed Tifa.

"Hold your horses, scarface, I want to get filled in on why the hell you guys exactly want to destroy part of this city."

Rude shook his head and went back to entering access codes.

"I speak Rude gestures," said Zack sarcastically, "that one means you should have been asking this question before you hooked up on this mission."

"That's it? Come on." Reno raised an eyebrow. "You know you wanna try and recruit me to your glorious cause."

"Look...we're on a mission to take out the enemy. If they get the strength to finally finish Junon, complete with the big guns and impenetrable armor, we're all screwed. Not just us here, but all of our family and friends back home."

"Your 'back home' people sided with Wutai, that makes this imminent danger your own damn fault. Wutai's victory fifteen years ago was a fluke. A fluke you can thank that dumbass Sephiroth for." Reno snickered. "Not that the Shinra aren't assholes, too. That's why my cause is the best one. The cause of money."

"That seems like a damn lonely side," said Tifa.

"But honey, think about it. If your terrorist group fails at bringin' down Shinra, I win. I have the money to buy security. Same thing if your foolish pipe dream manages to bring a billion gil corporation to its knees."

"Don't you even care about their tyranny and oppression? That the awe-inspiring victory of Wutai means absolutely nothing if Shinra conquers the free people anyway, now by brute force?"

Reno reached up and caressed her cheek. "Sweet thing, as long as you pay me, I'll try my damnedest to make your mission a success. I can even pretend to believe in it if the situation requires." He slid his hand lower along her body. "And maybe afterward..."

"I'm in." Rude stepped back from the console, and the door to the reactor slid open.

Reno turned from Tifa. "We'll talk later." Patting Rude on the shoulder condescendingly, he smirked. "And to you, congrats on achieving the art of the sentence, man."

******

The explosion had lit up the skies brighter than any Victory Day fireworks. Then again, Victory Day was a cover-up for the Wutaian defeat. Shinra's claims of victory in the war fifteen years ago had been a fabrication.

The Planet had told Aeris that much of the truth. Perhaps that's why the blast had scared her so much. What if that old enemy was coming to finish off Midgar, once and for all? Twenty minutes passed before she allowed herself to emerge from the abandoned car that she had used as a makeshift shelter.

She decided to head straight home. People were rushing around her with a strange sense of urgency. Home sounded pretty good.

Suddenly, someone knocked into her, full force. Landing hard on her bottom, Aeris winced in pain and watched in disappointment as the contents of her basket scattered all over the alley. Then she realized that the person's head was in her lap. "Excuse me," she said softly.

"You know that whole 'watching where you're going' thing...it's a good idea," the guy mumbled as he slowly sat up. "You're quite solid, honey, do you work out?"

A giggle.

"Wow, most girls would've strangled me by now." He flashed her a smile. "I'm Reno, and I'm sorry for knocking you over...even if your lap is quite the nice place to be."

"You're the first person who's apologized for spilling my flowers. Happens quite a bit," she said softly.

"Mean ol' Midgar." He stood and reached a hand down to help her up. "Actually, I probably have spilled your flowers before. Guess it takes falling on top of a sweet thing like you to actually notice her."

"You're coming on to me!"

"Is that a complaint or a startling realization?"

"Probably a combination of both." She rolled her eyes and looked at her flowers sadly. Reaching down and picking up her basket, she began to collect the broken blossoms.

"Hey...like I said, I'm sorry about the flowers." Reno stuck his hands in his pockets. As he fidgeted, a jingle rose to his ears. "Oh, I completely forgot!" He pressed the gil pieces into her hand. "Maybe this'll make up for it."

"I don't need your money-"

"Shut up and take it, before my conscience ceases to exist for another month. I'm getting paid soon tonight anyway, so it's no biggie."

She looked at the coins warily. (They look like they've been in a fire...)

"I just want one thing in return. A date."

Aeris stared at him in astonishment. "A date?"

"Hell, I'll even bring you flowers. Where do you live?"

Her head was spinning. "Sector 5..." she managed. "...the slums," she added softly. (Why am I doing this? I can't have this grungy guy coming over and asking my mom if he can have the pleasure of my company.)

Reno slapped himself. "Jeez, I almost forgot. What's your name?"

She spoke softly. "It's-"

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Several footsoldiers came running down the street. One of the spotted Reno and yelled. "There's one of them!"

He gave an apologetic smile to Aeris and began to run in the opposite direction. "We'll finish this later, flower girl..." His voice trailed as he ran off into the night, soldiers behind him in hot pursuit.

She cautiously followed behind, just in time to see the thin man pause in front of the train tracks. His bright blue-green eyes caught hers, and he gave her a wink.

The sound of whistling grew closer and the vibration of an oncoming locomotive resounded underneath the street.

"Ta ta, gentlemen!" called Reno, as he backflipped onto the top of the rushing train, disappearing into the darkness as it entered a tunnel.

Aeris ducked back into the shadows of the alley before the soldiers could recognize her. Heart pounding, she shook her head and sat back down on the cold, hard ground. (The last person I need to have in my life is another renegade.)

******

The rumble inside the train was only slightly deafening. Just enough so the three people in the freight car had to yell to be heard.

"I wonder what happened to Reno." Tifa sighed. "At first, he seemed like a candidate for the long haul."

"He's an egotistical jackass," stated Rude plainly.

For awhile, the only noticeable sound was the rattle of the door latch.

"He acted like he was eager to help. Plus, he had all that knowledge from escaping Shinra jail."

"You sweet on him, Lockhart?" asked Zack.

"Of course not. It's just he was so hateful towards the Shinra when I met him at my bar."

"He thrives here. Stench of Shinra coats him."

Tifa shrugged and looked away. "If he can help us, it wouldn't matter if it were Sephiroth himself. It's just too bad he's-"

There was a loud crash as the train door was kicked open and a man jumped inside. Sliding the cover back, Reno turned to the group. "What can I say? Love dramatic entrances."

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Tifa suppressed her happy reaction into a tiny smile. "So you did make it."

"Of course doll, I need to get paid. Managed to run out of cash. I bought some flowers."

"Flowers?"

"Yeah, knocked a pretty girl's basket over."

"You'll get your money when we make it back to the hideout." Zack gave him a hard look.

"Sure thing, sir." Reno performed a mock Soldier salute. "Then we can discuss the terms of my next mission."

The train lurched to a halt. "This is the stop," remarked Rude, throwing the door open and stepping outside, followed by Reno.

"Next mission, huh?"

Tifa turned her eyes downward.

Zack stepped towards her. "If he can help us with our mission, then we must keep him. No other reason. He's not worth your bother. You deserve better than him...if not because he was once the leader of a Midgar street gang, then because he doesn't respect you."

She stepped towards him. "I hear jealousy in your voice, that, and fear. Who's losing sight of the mission?"

He slowly descended to the platform, watching the slender girl run through a place where the sun would never shine, and rain would never fall. The sun never set on the slums-that was because sunrise never came.

There was more than one thing he was fighting for.

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Chapter 2

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Sector 7 was one of the more tolerable slums, for a number of reasons. The first was its age. The portion of the plate sealing it off from the sky was a recent development, compared to other areas of the city. The corresponding reactor had yet to be activated. So while the streets were lined with dying trees, at least the residents there remembered what the trees looked like when they were living. The people had managed to save some hope, though that was dwindling.

Secondly, there existed a tavern. Tragic Eternity was its name; the image of a fallen angel graced its logo. Tifa had helped found the bar, with the aid of a local woman named Jessie Baxter.

The group from the train filed into the bar, with some yawns and stretching. "How'd it go?" asked Jessie, from behind the counter.

"All in all, I think it was all right," Zack said as he straddled the barstool. "Gimme something hard."

She slid a brimming shot glass over to him and turned to the others. "Guys?"

Rude merely shook his head and walked over to an arcade console. Moogle-man. It was a retro title with some little white puffy circle going around, eating pellets. He reached underneath, pushing a hidden button, and the entire section of floor descended into a basement below.

"Well, I have to say, that's clever." Reno slung his arm over Tifa's shoulders. "Did your brilliant mind come up with that one?"

"Actually, Jessie is the techno-whiz."

"No shit..."

The girl just blushed and refilled Zack's glass.

Tifa was eager to regain his attention. "Well, the pool table was my idea."

Reno patted her on the shoulder. "We'll have to play a game sometime, kiddo. I'll take a handicap. You go for the eight-ball. I'll have to get the rest in first."

She rolled her eyes and walked over to the hidden elevator. "You're coming down, right?"

"Sure thing."

Zack slammed the empty shot glass down and walked to her side. "Let me go down with you."

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Jessie took out a rag and started wiping the counter vigorously. "What you lookin' so smug about, Reno?"

"I thought this group was ragtag when you introduced me to 'em, Jess, but it turns out ragtag can cut it. The Shinra defenses are down to zilch. They're either complacent, or incompetent, or a combination of both."

"They're not unaware of the incident tonight. Their propaganda is already filling the television airwaves."

"I have faith. If we can get you another month or so, you'll be able to intercept that and reveal whatever you want as the 'truth.'"

She shook her head. "We don't want power. We just really want the people to know the truth. That the people that the Shinra tells them not to trust are really just people like them. And the Shinra are the real enemy here."

"Is this what it's all about, then. Tell me, why is it that you're the guts of this operation, but little miss tight top over there is all the glory?"

"Zack is the leader."

"Bullshit, Jessica," Reno shook his head. "Look, little cousin, the only person with real control here is Tifa. Because you gave it to her."

"If you don't like the way I run things, then you can just-"

"I want you to be safe, I want you to be successful. I can't help that I also want all of Zack's money I can get. But it drives me nuts to see those brown puppy dog eyes staring at me like my every whim could be promised if I screwed her."

"Reno!"

"I may have only been twelve, but when your father left for the war, I promised I'd look after you until he came back. He died in Wutai, so I'm bound for life. I want you to tell me, what do you want to do next?"

"Why don't we go down and address the group?" Jessie stepped over to the Moogle-man game.

He nodded and ruffled her hair.

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"I think we need a name," said Tifa as the two walked into the hideout.

"Whatever you want is fine with me," said Jessie, as she hopped onto the chair at her workstation. "Oooh! ...my calculations for the explosive device worked out perfectly. How were the passcards for the train?"

"Fine, as always, Jess," said Zack, with a look of boredom on his face.

"Good, because we'll need them for the next mission."

"Next mission?" Rude lowered his sunglasses and peered at her.

"We?" Tifa shook her head. "Jessie, you can't be serious."

"I am... If this is my 'unnamed terrorist group,' then I have to be out there and active. Not sitting here in the bar every time you guys go out."

"I'm sure they understand that," said Reno. "But I'm still wary of the cards. Shinra technology could screw up enough just to notice that they're not real cards."

"What is this 'next mission,' Jessie?" asked Zack, interrupting him.

"It's another reactor...the complementary one in the cycle. I think it will wound Midgar, and show them we're serious. If they think we can and will take out all the reactors, I'm sure they will try and listen to us."

Silence filled the room.

"What's wrong, guys..." She nervously fidgeted. "I thought that's what we wanted to do. Get them where we want them."

"Are you honestly so stupid as to think that they would listen to our demands?" Zack shook his head. "They're monsters, every single last one of them. They only care about profit, about gil. If they can make money without the Mako, you can be damn sure that they won't give a shit about a small group like us and our 'demands.'"

"Then what the fuck are you doing here, Zack?" sneered Reno.

"Stay out of this-"

"Stay out of what? You whining and moaning because you don't like your directives, thinking that it skews your mission into some tiny little insignificant thorn in a lion's paw, when that's all it ever was? Even if you did manage to bind together your half of the world, the chances that it would beat Shinra is low. The Wutai win was a toss of a many sided die that chanced to pop up with their lucky number."

"There's nothing wrong with wanting to live free."

"Of course there is, I'm sure someone like you would find something to bitch and moan about."

"I'm not the one dependent on me for my paycheck!"

"Stop it!" screamed Tifa.

The two men turned away from each other, disgusted.

.

"We're not helping anything here. Zack...we should follow Jessie's suggestion. Listening to her has never gotten us off course before. I was only concerned for her safety. And Reno...if you want to keep your job...you don't have to sympathize with or understand our m.o., but we can't keep you with us if you will ridicule it."

"I am what I am."

"And this group is also what it is. If you didn't know when you signed on, you know now."

"I haven't started running, Tifa."

She nodded. "Zack, I think you should pay him now."

The dark haired man tossed a medium sized gil pouch to the center of the room. Reno scooped it up, examining the contents. "It looks good. Now about the next mission..."

"Aren't you doing it?"

"Yes, hon, just trying to get a raise out of the deal."

"How much?" asked Zack.

"Twenty-five. Percent."

"Get your ass out the door..."

Reno opened his mouth to form the word "fine," but glanced at his cousin. Mournful, deep blue eyes were fixed on his. "How about ten percent?"

"I can live with that." He stood up. "Sleep down here if you want, I'm going to my place."

The group made their way up the elevator, leaving Reno alone in the hideout. He sighed, remembering what Jessie said before she went up to the bar. She had mouthed the words.

"Thank you."

* * * * * *

"How'd you sleep?" Tifa was bouncing around with a bit too much perkiness for someone about to execute a mission of blowing stuff up.

"I dunno." Reno rolled his neck around on his shoulders, stretching his arms above his head. "Do rocks sleep?"

She smiled brightly. "I can make you breakfast. I think Zack actually left a couple cinnamon rolls."

"I probably couldn't stomach it, doll."

"Hey!" She put her hands on her hips and pouted.

"I'm a very, very delicate mercenary man," he protested. "Besides, just because Zack praises your cooking don't mean it's particularly good. Otherwise, wouldn't the guy be getting fatter?"

Tifa smacked him. "You should be nicer to your employers."

"You should stop trying to make me more than an employee."

"Right, like I-" She rolled her eyes and walked to the door. "Look, everyone else is already at the train station. We're catching the one that comes in fifteen minutes. If you don't make it, good riddance."

He followed her, calling out the doorway. "You know you want a ride on this-" Reno grinned and walked over to the counter of the bar. Grabbing a cinnamon roll and taking a big bite, he hurried to catch up with the other members of his cute little terrorist organization.

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Chapter 3

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"The train is about to pull out, Teef," muttered Zack.

"He's coming."

The locomotive engine groaned as the train began to lurch forward.

"Damn him."

"We need him for the mission-"

"Like hell we do! Stop trying to make our mission, which is business, into something personal."

"We do need him this time though," said Jessie softly. "Rude and I need to guard the doors. We're the only ones that know the technology. That leaves Reno to set the bomb, and you two to watch his back."

"No use for any of us if we can't get there." Rude paused, then nodded towards the entrance of the station.

The man walked up to them hair mussy, clothes disheveled, and eyes ablaze. Reno also happened to be ten minutes late.

"Thanks a lot! Another train doesn't come for at least an hour!" Tifa crossed her arms.

He shrugged and turned towards the tracks. "Where we going... Sector 5?"

"Yeah," said Zack. "Not much service there-"

"Good thing I don't rely on others then." Reno jumped onto the tracks and began walking towards the tunnel.

"Stupid." Rude adjusted his sunglasses.

"No, he's onto something. It'll be empty if no trains are coming, and we should be able to bypass the security checkpoints." Jessie followed behind him, then she waved.

"If this fails, and we live through failing," Zack muttered, "I want a new leader."

* * * * * *

Getting past the robots and ducking the security cameras had been hard. Judging how much farther the group had left to go, though, turned out to be harder.

"Dammit, I thought you said we were close!" Zack snorted derisively.

"Hey, I said I thought we were close," protested Reno. "Don't forget last mission was my first time in one of these things, too."

"Just come on, then." He was unable to think of a comeback. "What's eating you, Tifa?" He placed a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Nothing," she said quickly, startled. "Nothing at all." Her heart skipped a beat. (Only memories.)

* * * * * *

The small band of Shinra troops had descended onto Nibelheim, using the tavern to get drunk and the inn to sleep off their hangovers. When they awoke, this process was repeated.

This wasn't the celebration of a hard-earned victory; this was the drowning of a shameful defeat. Five years after the war, a surprise second assault had failed miserably.

Their leader hung back, not joining in with his men. Green Mako eyes haunted the memories of anyone who had seen him. He had decided to lock himself up in a private room for awhile, and the townspeople were very thankful.

One day, chance dictated that he head out to the tavern for a hot lunch. Just outside the entrance, a blond boy collided into the commanding figure.

One glare of the Mako eyes set the child into trembling, but that was not enough. "Where is your father," he demanded, "that he couldn't manage to teach a snot-nosed brat like you to watch where he walked?"

His blue eyes filled with unshed tears, but the boy managed to speak. "He died in Wutai-fi...fighting the Shinra scum!"

The general grabbed the child by the collar. "Come." His voice was filled with fury. "You will see why a child should be seen and not heard."

A girl had watched this encounter in quiet fear. Noticing that the man was heading up the trail to Mt. Nibel, she hesitated before following behind.

.

He tossed the boy to the floor right outside the core of the new Nibel reactor. "We build you a shiny power plant, treat your simple village with more respect than it deserves, yet...you peasants side with the barbarians against us!"

"You guys try to control-"

A long, thin sword swung, leaving a large, ugly gash on the left side of the boy's face. The man didn't seem to hear the soft gasp coming from behind a barrel near him.

The girl watched in terror. (How can this man use his sword on a kid?!)

"Their children proclaim our 'worthlessness' in the streets...yet we hold their entire existence in our hands!" Flipping back silver hair, he challenged the boy with his eyes. "You, who dare to mock us, speak your name, so I can figure out to which mother I should deliver the pieces."

He stood. "Cloud Strife." Something showed in his eyes; this was not complete surrender. "This is for my father," he said, wielding a dagger.

The man was taken completely by surprise, but Cloud wasn't tall enough to reach his throat. The would he left on the chest bled enough, but wasn't critical.

Stumbling on the catwalk, Cloud fell to his knees. Gasping, he turned in time to see the shadow fall over him.

.

"No!" screamed the girl, barreling into the Soldier, sandwiching the man between herself and Cloud.

The man yelled in rage and pain as Cloud took the opportunity to lay into the general with his dagger. With a burst of energy, the man threw the girl off of him and swung hard at Cloud.

For a brief moment, the boy held onto the catwalk, refusing to let go and give up. He noticed the girl who had helped him. "Tifa?" he whispered.

Then the soldier kicked Cloud, who let go, falling hundreds of feet into the Mako pools below. "The Lifestream will drown him," said the man, emotionless. "But what shall I do with you, little girl?" he sneered.

Tifa slowly backed to the railing, stealing a glance down into the Mako.

"In some ways, you're lucky. I have no use for your body, and I don't feel like killing you. I shall teach you a lesson. Kneel."

She slowly did as she was told, a tear slipping down her face.

"Heed my words, child. I leave you today so you live to suffer...and never forget how powerless you are. Lest your memory become unreliable..." With one stroke of his blade, he left a wound on the right side of her face, mirroring Cloud's. "I'll let your reflection remind you."

She was left as she was, on her knees...and bleeding.

* * * * * *

Tifa gazed at the core of the Sector 5 reactor. (These all look the same, even like that little one back in Nibelheim...all those years ago.) She couldn't remember having ever liked the Shinra, but her vendetta against them had begun about ten years ago-after a classified attack on Wutai was aborted, making the company's prized general a failure twice over.

His name could be heard along with mocking laughter on the streets of Midgar. The Shinra had built a city filled with inhabitants nearly as ruthless as they themselves were. In Tifa's head, however, the name only echoed along with hopes for vengeance. It streamed through her head like a mantra during her teen years, when she trained with a master martial artist named Zangan.

Her life in Midgar, her true mission, only existed for revenge. In every thing she did, she heard his name.

(Sephiroth.)

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"I've got it!" Reno hopped back from the time bomb, admiring his handiwork, and disintegrating Tifa's reverie.

"Shouldn't we get going?" Tifa raised an eyebrow.

"Sure," he said. "No huge rush, though."

The three of them had made it out of the core room and a little ways down the hallway before they were interrupted. By the loud whirring of a helicopter.

A tall young man dropped down onto the walkway in front of them. "Greetings from Shinra, Inc."

"Look who's playing errand-boy for Daddy." Reno laughed.

"Tsk, tsk." Rufus Shinra shook a finger at him. "You don't leave yourself much room for mockery. After all...you refused a job with us to take up with a group too inept to even name itself."

He snorted in return. "I think that's more a reflection on your company."

Ignoring Reno, the vice-president fixed his eyes on Tifa. "Now you, sweetheart, don't look like you're so worthless you need this crew."

She turned her head, revealing her scar. "I have my reasons," she said, burgundy eyes alight.

"Yeowch. Y'know, there are doctors who can fix that."

"Can they bring back the dead?" Tifa asked bitterly.

"Some of them can. Shinra is on the brink of breakthroughs in technology and medicine!"

Zack rolled his eyes. "Well la-dee-fricken'-da. Can you do us a favor and kill us before you bore us to death?"

Rufus shrugged. "I'm just supposed to deliver a message. If you guys make it outside, remember that we will find you, nameless or not. Shinra only has one more mess to clean up, and that is you!" He climbed into the helicopter and flew away into the Midgar gloom.

"Why did he say 'if you guys make it'?" Zack wondered out loud.

He was answered almost immediately by the sound of gears turning and a robotic voice. "You are not authorized. I must terminate you." A whir and a click. "Have a nice day."

He shook his head. "I just had to ask."

"Hey," said Reno, "on the bright side, at least we'll die knowing we've met the Shinra's politest employee."

* * * * * *

"Get me Amine on the phone, pronto."

"Yes sir!" The secretary quickly checked the database, dialed, and handed the phone to the commander of the Turks, batting her eyelashes and not so subtly displaying her cleavage. "Anything else, Sephiroth?"

"Yes," he said coldly. "Privacy."

"Hmph." She got up and made a big display of sauntering to the door and closing it behind her.

Someone picked up on the other line. "Hello?"

"Tseng."

"What do you want? I took my leave of Shinra years ago for a reason. There was nothing left in it. I decided to take the right path, be responsible..."

"And the president has allowed you your stupidity. You don't sound too grateful."

"I can't be grateful, not when you keep hounding me about my-"

"Well, the director of Science thinks he can work the late Dr. Hojo's Promised Land theories into a viable enterprise for the company."

"Damn your needs to hell! You will not have my daughter...or my niece."

"Ah yes, Ray-something. She must be nearly of age now. Tell me, do you happen to know where she is at the moment?"

"Of course." Tseng paused. "She went to a private training school..."

"Oh, sir. I wish for your sake, that she was there. But, if you would kindly turn the screen on your PHS to the Shinra video feed..."

Only a whisper was audible over the line. "Dear god...no..."

"We here at Shinra are not completely unreasonable. Favors are bestowed onto former servicemen such as yourself."

"What do you want from me?"

"Although we both know the girl was created by mixing your DNA with that of an Ancient, making her suitable for our plan...that's not the most favorable subject, as the original Ancient still lives. Rumor holds that you know her whereabouts."

"Is this a trade?"

"Certainly." Sephiroth smiled to himself. (At least the good man knows what he's dealing with.) "You come here and aid the Turks in finding Ms. Gainsborough, and we will release Raieyana to you, provided we can be allowed a DNA sample."

Tseng's voice was strong. "I will do it. My loyalty to the girl exists because of Ray...but I am a father above all else."

"Though we wish to have your help in person...if you give me a lead now, we could find her, and be able to release your daughter as soon as you arrive from Junon."

"The only one I can think of is a church in the Sector 5 slums. She used to grow flowers there." A bit of pleading entered the man's usually cold voice. "Please don't harm my daughter."

"Thank you Mr. Amine. A Gelnika will arrive for you shortly, in the usual place." Hanging up the phone in disgust, Sephiroth made a promise to himself.

(I will never be controlled by something as irrational as an emotion. Only the strong withstand it, and can dictate their own lives.)

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Chapter 4

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Zack and Tifa stood on one side of the robot, Reno on the other.

"Nothing we try seems to slow this thing down!" Tifa shook her head and concentrated on a Bolt spell. A burst of electricity pulsed into the machine, stunning it for a mere moment.

"Damn, is it shielded against Lightning or somethin'?" Zack darted forward, putting all his weight into a swing of his broadsword. Unfortunately, this blow glanced right off the galvanized coating.

"That spell was supposed to crack through that junk!"

The robotic guard rolled towards them, dealing out a generous supply of bullets. "What the fuck are you doing over there, Reno?!" screamed Zack, hand covering a wound in his left arm.

.

Reno looked up from the device he had been tinkering with. "I'm done. One word, you two: run."

Tifa was shocked. "What?! Are you craz-"

"Yes, but you're not, sugar...so run."

As the two turned tail and fled, Reno attracted its attention with a few shocks from his nightstick. The counter on the trigger slowly ticked off the seconds. Eleven. Ten. Nine.

At the last second, Reno turned and dashed past the robot. After making a few strides past the bomb, he tripped, one of his shoelaces caught on a bolt. "Shit," he whispered as the entire walkway collapsed with the impact, and he fell several stories into oblivion.

* * * * * *

Aeris knelt by the waterfall beside her home, probably the freshest source of water in all of the slums. Humming an old tune happily to herself, she dipped a watering can into the pool, filling it to the top.

As she reached for the other can, she got the strange feeling that she was being watched. Quickly finishing her business, she stood and half-ran back to the old church that was her sanctuary.

"Oh dear." The sight greeting her eyes was that of the roof collapsed on most of her flower bed. "Might as well inspect the damage."

The wreckage moved slightly and groaned.

"Hello?" she asked cautiously.

"This is hell, isn't it?" Another groan.

Leaning over, she managed enough muscle to move the beam that had been pinning the man. "I hope I'm not the devil, then." She giggled.

"I've heard that laugh before." Reno slowly opened his eyes. "This doesn't count as our date-"

"Why not?" A wink.

"Because I can't officially ask you until I know your name." He struggled to sit up. "A little help here? I did fall off the plate, you know."

"Fell? You probably blew a hole in that pizza." She reached down and, grabbing his hand, pulled him up. "I'm Aeris."

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Now that I'm doubly indebted to you, does that make for two dates then?"

She had stopped paying attention to him. Her eyes were fixated on a place behind him, and she looked kind of frightened.

"Geez, don't be so scared-looking. I was kidding."

Aeris shook her head slightly. "I think you've gotten an opportunity to repay me," she whispered.

"Huh?" Reno stood up-slowly-and turned to see what she was looking at."

Green Mako eyes.

"Oh no, they've found me," Reno and Aeris said together. Then... "They're after you?!"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I hope you're not trying to be cute. Otherwise, you've failed. Aeris, a pleasure to see you, as always." He smoothed the blue suit of his Turks uniform.

"I don't think we've met." She backed away a few steps.

"No? I know you rather well, though perhaps you haven't seen me watching you. Anyway, our head of Science has a world of ideas. Trouble is, our prized specimen has flown off and we need it back."

"Let me get this straight then..." Reno looked back and forth between them. "I'm free to go?"

"You're no concern of mine." Sephiroth waved a hand.

He waved to Aeris. "I guess this is bye for now. Keep a Friday night open for me, all right?"

"You're just gonna leave me here?!"

"I've got my own business, doll, but hang in there. I know you're a trooper."

Aeris watched in disbelief as he sauntered out the door, her mouth open wide. "Of all the nerv-"

Reaching over and grabbing Aeris by the wrist, Sephiroth sighed loudly. "We don't have all day. There's a helicopter waiting outside. I'm sure you know the drill by now."

Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be led out of the church. She and Sephiroth were flanked on either side by a soldier, though the measure went off without a hitch. Even the helicopter take-off was flawless.

Flawless, that is, if you discount the disheveled man who had wedged himself in and was hitching a ride on the landing gear.

* * * * * *

Tifa picked at her dinner, staring up at the news being broadcast on the television screen. "I wish I knew what happened to Reno. Even if he didn't make it, the Shinra would be using him as a scapegoat, wouldn't they?" She banged her fork down in disgust.

"I hate the waiting, too," Jessie said sympathetically. "At least we are getting to the point where no news is good news...right?"

"We will as soon as the Rude-man gets back," Zack offered. "Geez, as much as I hate to admit it, we all owe the guy for his ballsy move back at the reactor. We were gonna be toast."

"Don't say toast!" Tifa sniffled.

Jessie put her hand on the girl's shoulder, comforting her. "Come on...my big cuz wouldn't die so easily."

.

They all looked up as Rude entered the bar. Silently, he took a stool and sat down. Jessie could swear, though, that she saw a smile twitching at the corners of his usually stone-set mouth.

"Well?" Tifa asked softly.

"Well," he said, "well, well, well. No news of Reno. Probably on his way back."

"That's good, right?"

"Of course," answered Jessie quickly. She eyed Rude carefully. "There's something else, isn't there?"

He nodded. "Found a rat. Said that a Turk was asking for our location. In Wall Market."

"Sector 6 is the next one over...dammit!" Zack slammed his fist on the counter.

"He spent time at a place called Don Corneo's. We need to find out what this Don guy said."

"So we just sneak in and bust the place-"

"Wrong. The man is looking for a bride. Only people allowed inside are women. Three a day, and one is picked to spend the night with him."

"Ah," said Jessie, "Teef and I could dress up and be sneaky girls."

"True. The only way to make sure we get to him, though, is to have a 'girl' in all three positions."

Jessie saw his mouth twitch again, and met Tifa's eyes. The busty girl was suppressing a giggle. Then she glanced at Zack.

He gave the three of them a funny look. "Why is everybody looking at me?"

Tifa's giggle broke through, and she laughed out loud.

"Oh man." He shook his head. "Not that."

Rude finally grinned. "Yes."

* * * * * *

Two aircraft touched down on the Shinra helipad at the same time. One helicopter, one Gelnika. Sephiroth stepped out with Aeris, just in time to be face-to-face with Tseng.

Reno watched from beneath the helicopter. (Is the Turk guy gonna hand her over?)

"I see you did find her."

Sephiroth nodded. "As easy as plucking a flower. Makes one wonder why you never did it in the first place."

Tseng flinched. "Now, Raieyana. Before you take the other girl inside."

He nodded to his men. "Go bring the girl out."

"What is this?" demanded Aeris.

"He simply ratted you out," said Sephiroth sweetly. "Can't blame the man, though, we had something dear to him."

A brown haired girl came running out, blue skirt flowing behind her, slowly followed by the two men. She wrapped her arms around Tseng in a warm embrace. "Father."

Aeris' eyes widened. "I never knew he had a-"

"Now you do." Sephiroth jerked her arm and quickly forced her inside.

One of the men turned to Tseng. "We'll call the pilot to fly you back to Junon."

He nodded, and the two soldiers walked back inside the building.

.

Reno had been taking this all in very carefully. Then, when the girl pulled back from her father, he finally got a good look at her.

She appeared to be in her late teens. He stared in amazement as he realized this girl could have been a twin to Aeris, or at the very least, a sister. The only difference lay in a different hair style-shoulder length wavy hair, a little more in the curves department, and Mako eyes...though, on second glance, she did appear frailer.

"I tried to be careful. They got me when I stopped in Kalm for lunch."

"It turned out all right, this time. They just wanted to blackmail me for information."

She looked at him knowingly. "What information, exactly?"

"I told them where Aeris Gainsborough was." Tseng lowered his eyes.

"You did what? You wouldn't even tell me, and she's my-"

"It was for your safety."

Raieyana turned away. "Stop fooling yourself, Dad. Now they have her...of course they won't be satisfied without me. The last great thing Dr. Hojo did before they lost the war." Suddenly, she paused. "There's a man under that helicopter," she said, matter-of-factly.

Reno backed up a little, eyes still locked onto the green Mako ones. (I hope this doesn't get ugly. She's too cute to kill.)