Soldiers of Fortune

Title: Soldiers of Fortune
Premise, or Lack Thereof: Final Fantasy 7 role reversal
Reason for Banishment: Plot follows original canon too closely


Soldiers of Fortune (tentative title)
an FF7 Alternate Universe ‘fic by Dot


Prologue: A Strange Dawn

Midgard was already a modest-sized urban center when the Shinra Electric Power Company got its start in the business of providing energy to run the stuff of modern convenience. Once Shinra became the de facto entity ruling the Planet, Midgard also rose in prominence, ballooning to swallow up all the suitable land around it. When it could no longer grow wider, it built up and up, the city’s center sprouting gargantuan edifices of steel and glass. The original rail lines expanded along with the city, and soon many trains ran day and night without stopping to serve the needs of its residents.

Aerith Gainesborough lived a few sparse blocks from the busiest station in Midgard. She had no need for an alarm clock, as every morning the 6:30 would come roaring past her window with a racket that could wake the dead.

Today, the 6:30 was running late, but she arose out of habit anyway, and after freshening up changed into her favorite outfit, a pair of faded pink overalls. She ate a simple but filling breakfast with her mother, engaged the usual teasing banter about her job, and traded kisses on the cheek just before she set out.

She tied a yellow ribbon around the basket when she was done filling it with the freshest flowers, keeping her eyes and ears open for the latest news. She pressed into the knot of commuters streaming from the station. Most of them avoided her, taking her to be one of the nameless, faceless poor that scratched out an existence in the lower districts, and went on their way. A few dropped money in her basket but refused the flowers. Fewer still completed the transaction. Aerith tagged the ones that had the potential for a follow-up visit before extracting herself from the crush to rest against a wall.

That’s when she saw him. Or, rather, the crowd’s reaction to him, at first. Then he himself came into view. He had the bearing of a predator, and though his eyes were hidden behind a pair of expensive shades the pedestrians scurried to stay clear from his line of sight. He stuck out like a sore thumb in his outdated suit-and-hat combo, looking every bit like one of the old mobsters that Shinra had expelled from Midgard in a series of bloody conflicts. He even carried a case as long as he was tall, and although it was too thin to hold any kind of gun Aerith had no doubt that it wasn’t for, say, cue sticks.

It wasn’t until after he had rounded the corner that Aerith realized he was heading straight towards the Mako reactor that served this neighborhood.

Don’t tell me he’s the newest Avalanche recruit, Aerith thought, remembering the rumors she’d picked up from a patron who sympathized with the ecoterrorist group. Isn’t the point to not be noticed until stuff blows up and then take credit afterwards?

***

I’m walking into a trap. Sephiroth found himself thinking yet again as the elevator descended towards the Plant Core. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that the moment he decided to stop running away was the same moment all clues began leading him back to the heart of Shinra.

If he knew then what he knew now—he shook his head. What was the point in contemplating hypothetical situations? He couldn’t deny the past no matter how he wished otherwise. And he did have some kind of obligation to distinguish between the truth from what was nothing more than his so-called brother’s megalomaniac delusions.

“No escaping destiny, huh,” he muttered to his reflection in the polished metal, his tell-tale ‘Mako Eyes’ staring back at him. He had once taken pride in his distinguished looks; all members of Soldier had some degree of artificial enhancement that affected their irises, but he was the best of the best, a member of the elite squadron. Never mind that his parents headed Shinra’s research and development wing and had nothing but glowing recommendations for their dear boy; Sephiroth made it a point to never take a position he hadn’t earned himself and worked his way up the ranks until he was in serious contention for a place with the Turks.

But that was all before Niebelheim and everything took on a different meaning. To save what was left of he sanity he had sheared off his long silvery locks and dyed the remainder a deep navy blue, but using colored contacts proved to be futile; he couldn’t do a thing about his eyes other than digging them out of their sockets and he didn’t hate himself that much–yet. He had some time ago run out of mirrors to smash, though, and even now it took considerable control to refrain from driving a fist into the wall.

He gave a start when klaxons went off and the elevator lurched to a halt between floors. What, already? He checked his watch and verified that the time frame he’d been given was indeed accurate. Damn. I should’ve taken an earlier train after all.

He opened the panel beneath the console and pressed what he hoped was still an active password followed by the manual override code. When the elevator started up again, he didn’t know whether to feel relieved or dismayed that Shinra still hadn’t bothered to update its security protocols.

And again, he got that nagging feeling this was far too convenient, as if someone had expected him to be here. But ever since that fateful day five years ago he had grown to trust his instincts–and they told him to press forward despite whatever other doubts he had.

***

Tifa hadn’t expected the response to be so pathetic. Avalanche had taken the guards by complete surprise and killed most of them before they had a chance to react. Tifa was responsible for the few who weren’t panicking but had been attempting to call for help instead.

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. They were supposed to put up a fight, not freak out and run away.

Or scream like that. Gods, the screaming.

Barrett glanced over at Tifa when the group paused by the edge of a corridor to wait out a sporadic burst of gunfire. “You having second thoughts, rookie?”

Tifa felt her eyebrow twitch. Not this discussion again. “I’m being paid to help you, not to like it.”

Barrett loaded a fresh set of bullets into his own weapon. “You’d better get used to this fast, girl, because we’ll be hitting a lot more Plants before the week is done.”

“I know,” Tifa answered, her voice cold.

Jesse pulled a flash grenade from her sack. “Argue later. Kick ass now.”

The grenade went off, silencing the guns for a moment, and they charged forward again in that brief reprieve. Tifa blocked out her thoughts to focus on the battle. After all, she hadn’t signed up with Avalanche to be some big damn hero. This was about revenge, pure and simple.

This was personal.

***

Sephiroth staggered to his feet, stabbing Masamune into the ground for leverage. Cloud hovered above him, Murasame on one shoulder and a smirk on his face. “You’ve gotten soft, Brother. You hang on far too tightly to the illusion of humanity.”

Instead of trying to come up with a snappy comeback, Sephiroth just activated another Materia on Masamune’s hilt. Guardians of the sacred flame, little brother of the sun, touch me with your consuming power, lend to me your burning essence. The air around him became superheated, taking on the shape of an immense sphere. “Firaga!” He completed the spell as he drew its sigil with a sweep of his arm.

As the spell raced toward him, Cloud held out a gloved hand and clenched it. The magical energies twisted and condensed at a spot in front of him. He sneered. “You call that a Firaga?” He raised that arm into the air and drew the same sigil, generating a sphere at least twice as large as what Sephiroth had been able to call forth.

Sephiroth gripped Masamune with both hands this time. Hand of wind, open the doors of heaven. Rushing torrents, bury my foes beneath a watery grave. Deadly flames, retreat before the powers I command! Be gone!

This is a Firaga!” Cloud shouted, throwing the amplified spell back at Sephiroth.

“Aqua Rake!” Sephiroth answered, pulling Masamune free and using the entire length of the weapon to direct the wave of bubbles towards the flames.

The two spells collided in midair, its explosion sending Sephiroth tumbling again. This time, however, he was prepared for it, and he uttered a quick Float, landing on his feet against the back wall. He cast Haste as he pushed off, dodging a string of Thunders and then bringing Masamune up to block Cloud’s vicious strike. Cloud grinned and angled Murasame against Masamune so that Sephiroth was forced to leave his stance open and began dashing inward.

Sephiroth pulled back in frantic retreat, sending a shower of Ice spells at Cloud. Cloud, for his part, just ignored the chunks of frozen water pelting him and kept charging.

Feeling his heel hit against something, Sephiroth jumped to avoid tripping backwards and let go of his sword. Not expecting this, Cloud stumbled a few steps, but caught himself in time and twisted upwards, stabbing at Sephiroth. Sephiroth rolled to his left, parrying with his gauntlet and kicking Cloud in the shoulder, causing the latter to drop his sword.

By the time both men regained their footing, each was holding his weapon again, their breaths labored with the effort of their battle.

Cloud recovered first. “Not half bad. I suppose I have to take back some of the nasty things I’ve been saying about you now.”

***

Tifa was the first to notice the stench when Barrett broke the final set of doors barring their way to the Plant Core and recognized it at once while the rest of the group choked and gagged.

“What the fuck is that?” Barrett wanted to know, pressing his forearm against his nose and mouth.

Tifa clenched her fists, raw power gathering there. She would never forget that odor. “Burnt flesh.”

Barrett cursed and filled his gun with fresh ammunition. “What are we hanging around here for, then? Move move move!”

Tifa felt as if her body was moving on its own, her mind descending into the same nightmare that had haunted her for the last five years. As she neared the Core, she could even hear the same voices.

“It’s him.” Her own voice came out as a ghost of a whisper. “He’s in there.”

Everyone fell silent and filed in behind Tifa. They inched forward, approaching closer and closer.

Tifa had to keep reminding herself that this wasn’t a dream. That this was real.

They stepped through the doorway.

***

“SEPHIROTH!”

Sepiroth wasted precious moments staring as he recognized the furious woman that was charging him; of all the people he thought he’d run into, the last survivor of Niebelheim was not one of them. In the nick of time his survival instincts kicked in and he brought his arms up to shield his face and forced his body to go as slack as he could allow it without losing consciousness, activating the Cure materia hidden in his shoulder guard at the same time.

By the time the other members of Avalanche thought to restrain Lockheart, Sephiroth was doubled over on the ground in a combination of real and fake pain, tasting copper in his mouth as he exaggerated his gasps for air. He didn’t bother resisting as he felt a large hand grabing the nape of his neck, lifting him to his knees.

“So you’re Sephiroth,” this observation seemed to belong to a masculine-shaped blur that Sephiroth couldn’t quite make out due to the spots dancing in his eyes, although with this man’s thick accent the ‘you’re’ sounded more like a ‘yer’. “I don’t suppose you’re here for some kind of touching reunion.”

Sephiroth almost laughed at the irony, but he held his tongue; though his serious injuries had now healed due to the magic, a display of weakness seemed the most prudent action. He did not hide a wince as the business end of a rifle was pressed against a bruise in his cheek that had yet to fade. As Tifa struggles to break free of her cohorts, Sephiroth felt himself being dragged to one of the pipes jutting out of the ground.

“Do you really expect to save the Planet by hitting one measly Plant in the poorest part of the city?” He asked as his arms were forced behind him and then tied to the pipe with a coarse rope. “Do you even know how these Plants work?”

The smallest of moments flit by as the three—or maybe it was four, it was rather difficult to tell at this point—AVALANCHE members holding onto Lockheart give each other a look; then she was whaling on him again, and this time all Sephiroth could do was grit his teeth and hope he would not pass out.

The large one grabbed him again, this time by the hair. “We know enough, Shinra dog,” he hissed, and flung Sephiroth back to the floor.

Sephiroth remained on the floor even after their footsteps disappeared down the hallway before he began to work on breaking free. From their previous attacks he knew he had precious little time to do anything other than save himself; as much as it hurt his pride to let these assholes get what they wanted, he would not be able to stop the Plant from overloading before they realized that something was amiss and charge right back in.

At least the Core is too far gone to feel any pain. Sephiroth thought, sucking in a sharp breath as he just about dislocated his shoulder in order to wrench his arm through the slight give he had worked out among the knots. The rest of the rope fell away with a few more tugs, and here Sephiroth had to stop as a wave of intense vertigo assaulted him.

The quiet, ominous beeping of the Plant control system brought him back to his senses. Closing his eyes to center himself, he triggered the necessary Materia and began to chant: “When all else fails, retreat. Speed us away from danger, o fleet footed ones, transport us to save haven.” The intense burst of agony almost made him lose focus, but he grit his teeth and named the spell. “Warp!”

The last thing Sephiroth was aware of was to keep a tight grip on his sword while aiming the spell towards an abandoned part of the lower city, praying against all odds that he would not wake up embedded in a wall.

***

Chapter One: The Scent of Flowers

Aerith had gotten used to quite a number of strange things happening in the neighborhood, but someone falling through the ceiling of the church and destroying several rows of pews startled her so much that all she could do was stare at the wreckage for several moments. Then the rubble shifted and her instincts took over as she rushed over to assess the situation.

She stopped short again when she saw that the same dark-haired man she had spotted earlier was now crumpled in a heap of broken bones at her feet, and she felt her heart jump in her throat as her mind imposed a far more familiar face on the man’s features. Moments later, the earth beneath their feet shuddered, sending waves of rolling dust into the air, and the man choked, his mouth attempting to form words.

“Shh, it’s okay, you’re safe,” Aerith soothed, stroking his hair and knitting his bones back together with careful applications of magic, making sure not to push his body too far. He struggled to stay conscious without much success, his head sinking into her bosom as he passed out.

Would Zack be jealous if he saw me like this? She wondered, wiping the sweat and dried blood from the man’s brow. Even now she expected to see Zack leaning against some door frame, a lopsided grin on his face and teasing her about the cute new boyfriend she picked up, or the stranger’s slimmer, almost feminine features to morph into Zack’s rugged ones.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

***

And then there was light.

Sephiroth woke and yet did not wake, his mind coming to clarity first. He fought the momentary wave of panic that rose in his chest when he tried to move his body and found himself paralyzed. After a few furtive attempts to rise to full consciousness, he managed to calm himself using an old meditation technique and his eyes opened almost on their own accord.

A pair of bright blue-green eyes stared back and blinked in surprise. “Oh!”

He reacted at once, reaching for his sword and rolling away at the same time. Except all he managed to grab was a piece of wood that sent splinters into his palm and he fell flat on his rear from the residual effects of his body recovering from having just about every bone in his body broken. He still managed to roll to one knee, and when even this proved unstable, propped himself up by leaning against a nearby pew.

Meanwhile, he was still being stared at by someone who was by all appearances an unassuming-looking young lady, but he knew better than to judge a book by its cover. He kept his gaze neutral, but in the meantime he was analyzing every nuance of her body language to gauge whether or not she was a threat.

That was about when she got up and knelt next to him. She almost reached out to cup his face, but thought better of it and just peered at him with such intensity that if he wasn’t trained to stare people down he would have been tempted to look away.

“This might sting a bit,” she told him, and the jewel on her wrist began to glow.

He might have attempted a second getaway, but he couldn’t detect any malice from her and his body was far to sore to move that much further, so he just stayed put while the healing magic washed over him.

I must be somewhere in the slums, he thought, using this opportunity to scan his surroundings. Then he focused back on the girl, trying to figure out why she looked so familiar. Zack had shown him the picture of his “girl back home” enough times for Sephiroth to memorize the photograph down to the last inane detail, but it seemed rather far-fetched that the girl doting on him would be the same person.

“There,” the girl declared, lowering her hand and letting it settle into her lap. “How do you feel now?”

He tested his limbs. “Like I’ve been run over by a truck, but it’s a definite improvement compared to being dead.”

“I guess you owe me one now, hm?” Her smile became more forced as she glanced over his shoulder. “You can pay me back by getting me out of here—you can move now, right?”

He was about to ask her what she was babbling about when she handed him his sword without comment and inclined her head just far enough forward for him to realize that she was pointing. He nodded back, drawing the entire blade free with no sound and minimum movement.

***

Aerith wanted to question the wisdom of waiting until they were surrounded before leaping into action, but she had to admit that she felt a perverse sense of satisfaction watching several elite-rank SOLDIERS just about wet their pants as the Man-From-the-Sky lifted his sword and swung it with minimal effort towards their leader, stopping just before the edge of the blade would cause a fatal decapitation.

And then he turned to face said leader, giving him a dismissive once over. “Do I want to know what you did to necessitate Turks being sent after you?” he asked her, as if trying to decide whether she was worth the trouble.

She clicked her tongue. “How rude! You don’t see me asking what you were doing before you put a hole in the roof.”

The Turk cleared his throat, looking annoyed. “Excuse me, but we’re still here.”

Man-From-the-Sky wasn’t impressed by this display of bravado. “And it’s my recommendation that you walk out of here before I make it necessary to carry you out in body bags.”

“If you’re going to fight,” Aerith interrupted, already picking up signs that the smack talk was going to escalate into a full-scale battle, “at least do it somewhere that doesn’t ruin the flowers.”

“I have a better idea.” Man-From-the-Sky rose to his feet, pointing to the group. “Don’t move.” Then he turned to Aeris. “Come on. Do you have someplace safe that these guys don’t know about?”

She nodded, heading out the back door. “Follow me.”

“Where you you think you’re going?” The Turk exclaimed, and attempted to give chase, before realizing that the Man-From-the-Sky’s earlier edict was a spell to bind them in place.

To be able to cast just by Naming the spell, and on such a large group of people! Aeris kept sneaking glances back at her mysterious protector as she lead him through the slums. Who is he?

***

It was just a matter of time before the adrenaline rush wore off and Sephiroth found himself stumbling. “Hold up—I need to take a breather.”

“Sure.” The girl led him to lean against the remains of an abandoned playground. She smoothed down the folds of her dress and looked up at the stars while Sephiroth allowed himself to sink to the ground. “I—” she began, faltered, and took in a breath to work up her courage. “I never did get your name.”

Sephiroth pretended that he was still too winded to talk very loud. “You first.”

“Fair enough.” She smiled at him and tucked a stray bang behind her ear. “I’m Aeris Gainesborough. Nice to meet you.”

Sephiroth wanted to laugh, but managed to cover his face with his hand. Perhaps Cloud was right and the Planet hated him after all. “What are the odds,” he muttered.

Aeris was about to ask him what he was talking about when she gasped. “Sorry, but could you wait here for a sec? I’ll be right back.”

In the blink of an eye she had vanished, her footsteps echoing down the street. Sephiroth debated, for a brief moment, going on his way, and then just as soon as the thought flitted through his head he shot it down. He pulled himself to his feet, using his sword as a makeshift crutch.

He had to keep Aeris safe. He owed Zack that much.

***

The hooligans blocked Aeris’ path, leering at her. “Well, well, well. You want to be Don Corneo’s bride, too, sweetness?” A hand reached out to caress her cheek. “It’d be such a waste for let that fat slug have such a delicacy.”

Aeris was about to introduce her new “friends” to the blunt end of her staff when the Man-From-The-Sky trudged up to them with such an intense expression on his face that they fled before he needed to say a single word. She jumped when he put an arm around her shoulder in an unambiguous possessive manner and scanned the crowd, as if daring anyone else to try laying a claim on her. When no such challenger stepped forth, he slipped the arm around hers in a much more chivalrous manner and took a few tentative steps forward, telegraphing to her through his body language that he was expecting her to lead the way. “So what possessed you to run headfirst into the red-light district alone?”

“I saw a friend of mine,” the lie slipped out easier than she expected it to. “I think she’s been kidnapped and they’re about to sell her to Don Corneo.”

The Man-From-The-Sky must have recognized the name, because he scowled all the more. “Let me guess—you were going to charge in and stage some kind of dramatic rescue?”

“Actually, I had a different idea in mind.” She sized him up again. “You’re a bit on the tall side, unfortunately, but with a little bit of makeup magic I think I might be able to pull it off.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do I want to know?”

She smiled. “You’ll see.” She lead him deeper into the Wall Market, and he let her, a vague look of amusement on his face. “By the way, I still haven’t got your name.”

“I try not to give it out. I’m kind of wanted.”

“And who am I going to tell?” She pointed out. “Besides, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you’re some kind of ex-SOLDIER, in which case I don’t blame you for not wanting to broadcast that to everyone you meet.”

He kept his expression neutral, but Aeris could tell he was still assessing her. “Can’t you just call me ‘a friend’?”

“Friends address friends by their names, don’t they?”

He fell silent for a long time, and when he spoke again, hesitation still lingered. “Crescent. The name’s Crescent.”

A blatant lie, but Aeris’ gut told her that this was as much as she was going to get out of the Man-In-The-Sky for the time being. “Alright, Mr. Crescent. Let’s get ready to paint the town!”


Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Although I’d like to think that this story is a more cynical, Trigun-inspired take of the philosophy presented in FF7 that gives Sephiroth a chance to be a good guy, what really served as the major impetus is the mental image of Sephiroth in a dress for the Don Corneo subquest. (Mind you, I mean the original design, not the Advent Children version.)
Spell names follow Square’s Japanese naming scheme but the incantations are something I made up for another project.

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