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Off the Line

Chapter Text

The funny thing was… Cloud was assigned the thing as a medical device.

"I know it's a bit unorthodox, but it's proven to be a great cure for insomnia – definitely better, than taking sleeping pills. Much more reliable," said Doctor Hield, their regiment's assigned physician,  while holding out the unopened, pristine box to Cloud – and a set of instructions. "It puts you to sleep and keeps you asleep until you log out – just set the time like I've instructed here, and you get the amount of rest you need."

"But… isn't the point of sleep to rest your mind?" Cloud asked, bewildered, staring at the box in his hands.

"You will get that – it's as good as dreaming, only… a lot more lucid," the doctor assured. "It's basically instant and continuous REM sleep – which is why VRDC players usually don't need more than 4 hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested."

"Huh," Cloud murmured, still staring at the box. "So I… this um," he looked up and lifted the box a bit. "Aren't these really expensive?" he asked. He had always wanted one, but could never afford it - even when he had became an infantry man and started earning money, he hadn't been able to justify the expense. It was almost 3000 gil, after all. He only made around a thousand per month.

"Well, yes. But this isn't precisely yours," the doctor said, amused. "Technically, ShinRa Health and Medicine owns it – but it's assigned to you until your insomnia is either cured, or you buy your own. So don't go selling it or anything, alright?"

"No sir," Cloud answered, wide eyed.

"Good. Now, you have the rest of the day off, yes? I suggest you go to your bunk and try it on. Report back to me tomorrow morning before your duties, to see how it went."

In a daze, Cloud wandered out of the infirmary, clutching the VRDC in his arms. He had always had a bit of trouble sleeping – where most people grew out of their childhood night terrors, he got them often and they were usually violent. On top of that, he was extremely sensitive to noises and lights and sleeping with his bunk mates had never agreed with him – that was to say, he mostly just didn't. Not until he was on his third to fourth day with no sleep, by which time he usually just collapsed on any available surface for a couple hours of intense nightmares.

At first he had been able to handle it, when he was still in basic training and most everyone around him sucked as bad as he did – no one had noticed if he had been a bit wobblier than the rest. But now, as a Private? It was getting harder to keep up with the other guys. So he had gone to Health and Medicine, hoping at most to get some sleeping pills – the infirmary handed them out like candy to the employees, better drugged than off duty was their motto… but this?

Once he made it to the room which he shared with seven other guys – all of whom were in his squad, none of whom were there, it being a day off – Cloud sat for a long while, just staring at the box. The front of it was clear plastic and the headset sat inside like something out of a sci-fi book. It was so… shiny, the visor gleaming. He had seen them before, of course – three of the other guys in his room had a set, and pretty much every electronic store everywhere sold them. First time he had seen one had been when Mayor Lockhart had bought one for Tifa for her thirteenth birthday, and she had paraded it in class, but…

He hadn't really expected to ever get a set for himself; to get a chance to use one.

Careful, so very careful because it was probably the most expensive thing he had ever handled, Cloud unboxed the visor. VRDC, Virtual Reality Dream Console – ShinRa's latest in virtual reality technology. People said that it was actually developed for SOLDIER, to let them train in their sleep, before it had been modified for the general population and released for anyone to use.

It only had about five games. A fighting simulation, just a basic thing that pitted two – or more – people against each other in a variety of settings. A combat simulation, which let small groups of people fight each other using mostly real world equivalent gear and equipment. The third was a pilot simulator for a variety of machines, which people used to learn how to drive a car, motorcycle, combine harvester and whatever else they wanted to know how to drive. Those were the original programs that had been created for ShinRa's employees and SOLDIERs.

And then there were the games people actually bought the thing to play – the MMORPGs.

There was Asgard, which was a sci-fi game that let people do things like make and pilot ship, harvest asteroids and moons, create space stations and colonies – have colossal space wars with fleets of ships.

And then there was Terra Online, a whole lot more popular game, which was a fantasy game that let people run around, fighting monsters. Terra Online had millions of players. Most people who had a VRDC played Terra – most people bought the thing to play just that one game.

Cloud swallowed, setting the headset down and looking at the instructions given to him by the doctor. Ever since Tifa had shown off her VRDC and boasted about how she was a martial artist, already level so and so, and how cool the game was… Cloud had wanted to play Terra Online. Mostly it had been one of those vague if only dreams that his childhood was full of. If only he was rich, if only he had been born in Midgar, if only this or that and things would be different. If only he had a VRDC, he too could play Terra Online and be cool like Tifa.

Then he had grown a little – just a little, unbearably little, and the wish had changed to, if only he had a VRDC, he too could be somebody else. Someone who wasn't short and skinny and weak and unfunny and uninteresting and useless. Someone who could actually do things – and it wouldn't even matter if he did them wrong because it was just a game. Failure didn't mean the end of everything, not in a game.

With slightly trembling fingers, Cloud hooked the VRDC into an outlet and waited for it to charge enough to turn on – and once the screen on the left side lit up, he entered the commands like Doctor Hield had written them down. 7.5 hours, precisely – unless outside influence shook him awake, of course.

Cloud had never been quite so quick in washing up and dashing back to his bunk, to lie down. The VRDC felt weird around his head, a tiny bit claustrophobic – and he had to lie on his back, which was a bit uncomfortable for someone used to sleeping on his side. But he could bear it; he could so bear it for this.

He hit the start button, and the visor activated. A flash of light ran through the visor, making him squint, before the ShinRa logo appeared for a moment with the VRDC logo and slogan, [ENTER THE WORLDS OF YOUR DREAMS] appeared. They hung there, in front of his eyes for a moment before the headset told him, [Thank you for choosing Virtual Reality Dream Console by ShinRa Power Company, the distributor of state of the art technology for over forty years!]

The text vanished, and then more appeared. [ENTERING VIRTUAL DREAM STATE IN 10] it read before counting down, tick by tick, to zero. [PLEASE STAND BY] the visor said, and everything went dark.

Then he was suddenly standing in a hall of a somewhat old fashioned looking building, his feet bare on the wooden floor, with the heat of a nearby fireplace on his face. The hall was decorated by tapestries depicting battles and heroes, and from the ceiling about twenty flags hung just over head, with artistic animals and crowns and swords and flowers on them.

"Welcome to Terra Online," a voice said and Cloud whirled around. There was no one there and he looked around, confused, until a voice from above quipped, "Oi, up here."

There was a black cat with a crown and a cape, sitting on the wooden beam just above him. It was grinning at him. "Please register your ID by entering your name and SHR security number," the cat told him.

"Cloud Strife, 1008864436-NBH," Cloud answered blinking.

"Thank you for choosing Terra Online, Cloud Strife," the cat said and jumped down from the ceiling, landing with a flip in front of him. "Now we can proceed to character creation," the cat said, and motioned to the middle of the room, where there was a circular pattern on the floor.

A copy of Cloud appeared there, except for the fact that it was all nude.

"Please select a race," the cat told him.

Cloud frowned at his avatar copy, trying to remember what the races were and the differences between them. There were about a dozen of sub-human categories, he remembered – beast humans, elves, fairies, and so on. They all had initial stats, he knew that much, and some races were better at some things than others. He just couldn't remember which was which.

Well, he knew one thing – what he wanted to be. A swordsman. That was the only thing he had ever wanted – and the one thing he absolutely sucked at in real life. His abysmal attempt at becoming a SOLDIER having proven that to him almost painfully. "What's a good race for a swordsman?" he asked, looking at the cat.

"Human, Werewolf,  Bangaa and Elf have initial stats suitable for a Swordsman build," the cat informed him.

"Okay. Hm, show me how I look as a werewolf," Cloud said and the avatar changed. He stared at it in disbelief – it was… fluffy. Sure his hair was a bit spiky, but good grief, the wolf-him looked like a poodle with a bad hair day. "Erm, okay, make him – er me – into a, um  Bangaa?" Cloud said and then took a surprised step back. Bangaa, it turned out, was a lizard man. Not a good look on him, lizard. "Okay never mind. How do I look as an elf?"

He stared at the elf-him for a long while. It was… the best of the other options – and he didn't want to be human, seeing that he was human all of the time and it wasn't exactly a stellar existence. But elf-him looked a lot like human-him, except a whole lot pointier. Higher cheek bones, sharper chin, with slightly slanted, oval shaped eyes and eyebrows that gave the avatar a perpetual frown. Cloud wasn't exactly round faced to begin with, but the avatar looked pointy enough to prick something.

"Er… how much can I change my appearance?" Cloud asked, turning to the cat.

"As an elf you may alter your height by twenty centimetres and your weight by twenty kilogram. There are a variety of hair styles and colours to choose from, and you can alter your skin and eye colour within ten variables," the cat said and Cloud spent a moment running through them. Long haired he looked kind of… girly. Somehow the skin colour changes made him look even more like himself – and all the other eye colours made him look, somehow, more wide eyed. None of them looked right - none of them looked like what he thought he could bear to look like.

Once you chose an avatar in Terra Online, that was it – there was no changing it later on. So he had to get it right on the first shot.

"Are human, wolf, Bangaa and elf the only races suitable for a swordsman?" Cloud asked, a little plaintive. Wolf-him was too fluffy, lizard-him too… lizard, and the elf just looked off.

The cat considered it. "Burmecian, Miqo'te and Viera are suitable for fencing," it then offered somewhat tentatively.

Burmecian was a humanoid rat and Cloud made a ridiculous rat. Miqo'te was a cat and the cat-him was… well, there was that pointy-face problem again. And last one was a rabbit-man – and somehow it looked the most promising so far.

The Viera had a base of dark skin and light hair, and the Viera-him appeared just like that, several shades darker than Cloud would ever be, and with white hair. And of course, long white rabbit ears which really ought to have looked ridiculous, but somehow didn't. Probably because the Viera-him was the only version of him on whom his actual hair style somehow fit.

The Viera-him wasn't as sharp faced either – it actually had slightly rounder features than he did, with his cheek bones eased out a bit, his chin not quite so pointy. All the races had had varying height and so on, and the rabbit him was tallest, with the exception of the wolf-him. It probably had a lot to do with the feet – the rabbit-him stood on the balls of his bare feet, just like the werewolves did.

"Can you show me the starting stats of the Viera?" Cloud asked, and a window popped beside his avatar. The Viera had pretty high speed and agility, which even he with his utter lack of experience could see made them good for fencing. It had pretty high intelligence and wisdom too – probably good for mages. Strength was decent-ish, and vitality and defence… not so much.

"Can you show me a human's base stats?" Cloud asked, and then compared the two. Human had higher str, def and vit, but Viera had more spd and agi – it had higher int and wisdom, which reminded Cloud of something. "Is it true you can have two classes?" he asked, turning to the cat.

"When you reach level forty, you can choose a secondary class," the cat nodded.

That did it. "I'll be a Viera swordsman," Cloud said. "And once I make it to level forty, my secondary class will be black mage."

The cat gave him a dubious look. "You could kill two birds with one stone, and be a Red Mage instead," it suggested. "A fencer that can learn black and white magic. A Viera is very suited for the Red Mage class."

Cloud frowned at that. "All black magic?" he asked.

The cat scrunched up its face. "Well… just the low level stuff." It admitted

"Then no. I'll be Viera swordsman and a black mage," Cloud said, looking at his avatar determinedly.

The cat sighed. "If you say so," it said and rested its paws on its hips. "Would you like to alter your appearance?"

"Can I make myself taller?" Cloud asked, curious.

"Viera height or weight cannot be altered. You may alter hair style and colour within three variables."

Cloud considered his avatar. It looked like him but not at all like him – the skin and hair colour made a huge difference. The white hair was pretty good looking, but the length…

"Make my hair shorter, and even length all around," he said thoughtfully. He used to have long hair, before he got out of Nibelheim and could finally cut it without having to endure his mother's pouting face. Except the guy who had cut it had messed it up pretty badly and now it was different length everywhere, falling in his face all the time – and he hadn't gotten the chance to cut it again. So he was rather curious to see what it looked like.

The shorter hair, he thought, suit the Viera-him pretty well. It stood on end, just as his own did, and made the avatar look a bit wild. Not a bad look, not at all. Cloud grinned. "Perfect. That's the one I wanna be."

The cat sighed again. "If you're sure," it said. "We can now proceed to job selection. The available jobs are black smith, alchemist, cook, armourer, beast tamer, and craftsman."

"Black smith, definitely," Cloud said, nodding. That way he could make his own weapons.

The cat sighed again. "Please name your character and you may proceed to the game," it said.

Cloud frowned at it. What's with the sighing? It was hard to tell but it almost looked like the cat was… disappointed in him. Or maybe pitying him? It was just an npc, wasn't it? "I'd like to be named Storm," Cloud said slowly. It was the name he had always wished his mother would've given him, rather than Cloud.

"That name is already in use," the cat said, folding its arms. Paws. Whichever. "Please try another name."

"Um… Rain?"

"That name is already in use. Please try another name."

Cloud frowned. "Rainstorm?" he said. "No wait, that's a stupid name –"

"Your avatar is now named Rainstorm," the cat said, ignoring him, and a character screen popped up.

 

Rainstorm LV. 1

[RACE] Viera
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 1
[JOB] Black Smith LV. 1
[STR] 11
[DEF] 8
[VIT] 7
[SPD] 12
[AGI] 13
[DEX] 12
[INT] 11
[WIS] 13

Cloud stared at it wide eyed. The stats were shown beside an equipment setup, which was of course empty. His avatar was standing on the screen with the equipment slots all around it and it… was wearing almost nothing. The thing his Viera-avatar had on – which was pretty much the only thing it had on – amounted to little more than a loincloth.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait," Cloud said, turning to the cat with a horrible, horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. "What does gear look like on a Viera?"

"Your character creation is now complete," the cat calmly informed him as the room around them begun to blur. "You will now be teleported to the beginner area. The Terra Online Development Team hopes you will enjoy your gaming experience."

Chapter Text

 

Nanaki didn't much like to go to towns, in Terra Online. People always thought he was either a monster or someone's pet and they either attacked him, or completely ignored him, leaving him with only npcs to talk to – and then, when he did, everyone stared at him like, well. Like they had never seen someone like him before. Which, granted, they probably hadn't.

When he had gotten a VRDC it had, for the lack of better word, glitched. Unable to handle his mind or physiology, or whatever the reason, he had emerged into the world of Terra as exactly himself, a CosmoCanyon beast. It was only because the mod had tracked him down that he had been able to get a class and a job at all – he had completely by-passed the character creation screen all together.

Thank Gaia Cait Sith had been understanding and hadn't instead booted him from the game.

"I gotta admit, the game was made for human brains, not one of your race," the cat-mod had said, eying him thoughtfully. "I'll make a deal with you. You let me access your data and I'll see what I can do about making you a head set that works for you a bit better."

"Access my data?" Nanaki had asked, suspicious.

"Yeah, to see how you match with the VRDC. There's always a bit of back and forth between the headset and the user. I can use your data make you a more suitable headset – and maybe you can even change your race. Though all the races are humanoid – walking on two legs and all."

"I thought there were beast people?"

"Well. Humanoid beast people," Cait Sith said, apologetic. "It was made for humans, you know. They'd have a bit trickier time of it, if they had to go around on all fours. I'm sorry, but we’ve got to work with the majority here."

In the end, Nanaki had both let Cait Sith access the data, and had stayed himself in the game. His first months of the game, before Cait Sith sent him a new prototype headset that fit him better, were full of glitches. Attacks missing or not doing anything, terrain glitching – he found himself often either flying in the air or swimming through the ground. For an entire month he could walk through walls, which was nice when people tried to attack him.

Thanks to Cait Sith's efforts, the glitches eventually petered out – and the new headset definitely helped. The people though never stopped treating him like he was a monster, and every time he entered a town, city, or a village, someone always attacked him. And when he talked, they either thought he was a npc or some sort of boss – and someone usually attacked him again.

In the beginning, he got corpse camped on a regular basis. In the end, he just figured that he'd be better off avoiding people all together and sticking to the fields and dungeons. Being a shaman-black mage and an alchemist too, he was pretty well off by himself – he could buff himself, make all the potions he needed and his dps was decent. And if his inventory was always full of loot he could do very little with and couldn't even sell, well. It wasn't like he needed the money anyway, seeing that you needed to go to towns to buy things.

It was out in the fields not far from Albrook Port – one of the beginner starting locations – where he met the Viera. Well, meeting him wasn't quite what happened – he saw him standing in the field, surrounded by flans.

A Viera man. Despite not going into towns often, Nanaki knew how rare those were – judging by what he'd seen in the general chat, most men didn't like male Viera, because of the way equipment tended to look on them. Female Viera were, of course, a different thing – human women baring skin was apparently more attractive than men doing the same thing. Nanaki would never understand humans – but the fact remained. This man was the first and only Viera man he had ever seen.

The Viera was, judging by the looks of him, completely without equipment, he didn't even have a weapon. Wearing only a scant cloth around his hips, he was kicking and punching the flans, slowly and arduously wearing their HP down until they finally melted into the ground.

"Staff again," the Viera grumbled after finishing and threw the item one of the flans had dropped away. "What do I have to kill around here for a sword?!"

Nanaki considered his options and then jumped down from the tree branch where he had been lounging. If the Viera attacked, it wouldn't do any harm – judging by the time it had taken him to beat the flan, the Viera was probably level three at most. "You'd have better luck with ahrimans – flans only drop stuff for mage classes," he said and the Viera whirled around. "Though if I were you, I'd level and take on the Aragu cave. There's a low level boss there that always drops gear that fits you."

The Viera stared at him in surprise, blue eyes wide beneath the spiky fringe of white. His ears, Nanaki was amused to note, twitched exactly like a rabbits. "Aragu cave – where's that?" he then asked, resting his clawed hands on his mostly bare hips. "And can I take the boss on, without any gear?"

"It's not far," Nanaki answered and considered him. "And… probably not, actually. I think it's level ten."

The Viera sighed. "I'm level two," he admitted, eying the melted puddles of goo left behind by the flans. "I guess I'll try the ahrimans, since the evil ice-cream scoops don't have anything useful. Um, which way are they?"

"I can show you," Nanaki said, curious – the Viera didn't seem to care that he was a beast at all. Didn't think he was a monster or a boss or an npc. Interesting. "This way."

He led the Viera off the meadow and into the grassy fields where ahrimans spawned – and then sat back to watch as the Viera slowly and painstakingly fought them. The only thing the Viera had going for him was his reach and pretty decent jump – it let him catch the ahrimans in the air and drag them to the ground where he could pummel them with his fists. But it was so slow – the man only did a couple dozen hit points worth of damage with each awkward attack.

After a couple of such awkward fights, Nanaki sighed and hit him with a Protect and Shell.

"Um?" the Viera said, turning to him with surprise.

"Just defence buffs. I'd fight with you, but then you wouldn't get any exp," Nanaki explained, sitting back down. "You might want to use a potion if you have any."

"I don't – I don't have a satchel, so, no item inventory," the Viera said and sighed.

"You… get one of those from the starter quests in the port, don't you?" Nanaki asked, confused. "Didn't you do it?"

The Viera shook his head. "The people there were… bothering me," he said with a grimace and glanced down at himself. "I'm guessing because of this, you know," he said, motioning at his bare chest and legs. "I figured I'd try and get some gear out here and try again."

"Ah," Nanaki said. "Did you get griefed?"

"No, just… followed and mocked," the Viera shrugged and eyed the Protect and Shell around him. "Defence buffs, huh?" he said and turned to the re-spawned group of ahrimans. "Okay, let's try this again!"

He didn't get any better with the fighting, and it was still slow and painstaking, but at least he didn't take as much damage as quickly. In the end, though, his hit points wore down almost to nothing and finally he backed away from the ahriman spawning spot and fell to sit beside Nanaki, to passively recover hit points.

"Ow," he said, rubbing at his side where he had three long, sluggishly bleeding gashes. He was scratched all over – having no gear, the ahrimans had been able to slash him pretty easily, but luckily for the Viera, ahrimans don’t do much damage. "Are the first levels always this hard to get?"

"Most use quests to level up to five, at least," Nanaki said, his tail flicking from side to side in amusement. "Grinding mobs isn't that good in the starting zones. You want red mobs and bosses for that."

The Viera sighed and then looked at him. "I didn't know there were races like that – I thought they were all humanoid," he said. "I'm Rainstorm, by the way."

Nanaki shrugged. "RedXIII. Nice to meet you," he said. "Didn't you get any gear yet?"

"Just fencer and monk stuff so far," Rainstorm said, waving a hand at the item boxes littering the ground where he had been fighting before leaning back and lying down. "I'll try again in a moment, once I'm not bleeding anymore."

Nanaki nodded, eying him curiously while he lay there, recovering HP tick by tick. "So, you're a swordsman? I don't think I've seen a Viera swordsman – most of them are mages, or archers." Most of them were women too, which might explain it – judging by the way Nanaki had seen most women playing, they didn't like to get close enough to actually get hurt.

"Apparently they're better as mages or archers – or fencers," Rainstorm shrugged. "But I wanted to be a swordsman and I liked how the Viera look, so… what can you do." He glanced curiously at Nanaki. "And you're a mage of some sort?"

"Shaman primarily, black mage secondarily," Nanaki nodded. His stats had been a bit messy in the start, but his int and wis had been high, so… "Shaman's are good for buffs and black mage does the best aoe damage." So he could buff himself and take on even big crowds of mobs. It worked pretty well for him.

"Huh. So you're over level forty?"

"Forty eight," Nanaki nodded.

The Viera gave him a strange look. "Why are you hanging around in the starting zone when your level's that high?"

"I'm looking for potions ingredients, mostly – they're easier to find here, where there's not so many people harvesting them – my job's an alchemist, so I make my own potions," Nanaki explained.

"Oh. Cool," Rainstorm said and considered him. "I want my second class to be black mage too. What's it like?"

They talked about black mages and single target versus area of effect damage for a while, until Rainstorm's hit points recovered. Then Nanaki watched how the Viera took the ahrimans on again, having now figured out how to catch them and fight them with minimal injuries, which made the whole thing pass quicker – and Rainstorm even survived the awkward fights mostly unscathed.

"Aww, yeah!" Rainstorm crowed, crouching to pick up the loot dropped by one of the monsters. "I got an armour!"

Nanaki watched how he equipped the chest armour and then let out a small chuckle.

"Oh for fuck's sake," the Viera grumbled, looking at himself. Apparently male Viera and female Viera had a similar gear style – it was white and only covered the man's chest and barely even that, leaving his stomach and the bottom of his ribs still bare and looking hardly thicker than normal cloth. Really, it didn't look at all protective.

"I'm having a premonition of being half nude for the entirety of my Terra Online experience," Rainstorm sighed, tugging at the useless looking armour. "Are they all going to look like this?"

"What I've seen, Viera tend to be… scantily clad," Nanaki said, amused. "You can get capes and cloaks when you get to level twenty, though."

"Great," Rainstorm sighed. "Maybe if I get other armour it won't look so bad…"

Over the course of next hour spent grinding, Rainstorm got a full set of armour – and judging by the man's expression, the sharp, high heeled shoes, the fingerless white gloves, the trousers that were mostly made of straps and the shoulder pads – which really were just jewellery that fit on his shoulders – didn't help.

"I look like a pole dancer," the man said, standing on one foot and eying the sharp heel of his sandal.

Nanaki chuckled. "But your stats are better?" he asked.

"Hm. I got a level too," Rainstorm nodded, and opened his character screen while Nanaki got up to have a closer look, curious to see how the man did.

Rainstorm LV. 3

[RACE] Viera
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 2
[JOB] Black Smith LV. 1
[STR] 11 (+7)
[DEF] 8 (+25)
[VIT] 7 (+6)
[SPD] 12 (+2)
[AGI] 13 (+1)
[DEX] 12 (+2)
[INT] 11
[WIS] 13

"Well. It's a start," Nanaki said slowly. For a swordsman – even one of level three – it wasn't exactly stellar. "Have you used any of your stat points yet?"

"No, not yet," Rainstorm admitted, considering the simple bronze short sword one of the ahrimans had dropped. "I wanted to see what sort of difference gear did first. But I guess I should put it in strength and defence…"

"Depends on what sort of swordsman you want to be," Nanaki said, considering it. "And what sort of weapons you want to use. Or if you want to be tank, then you'd want more defence than strength. And I think for heavier swords, you want more strength, but if you want to use smaller swords or maybe try dual wielding, then you'd need dexterity too…" or so he thought. He hadn't ever really talked with a swordsman – what he knew about them was just what he had learned from the general chat.

"Hm," Rainstorm murmured. "I got six stat points, so I could put three to str and dex each."

Nanaki shrugged. "They're your stats. Do what you want," he said, and Rainstorm nodded, adding the points.

"I guess I should go to town and try and get myself a satchel now," Rainstorm murmured. "I'm guessing none of the mobs drop them?"

"Not around here, no. Bosses sometimes drop them, though," Nanaki answered.

"You wanna come with me, Red?" Rainstorm asked, sheathing his sword.

Nanaki considered it – usually he didn't bother, but… Rainstorm was, beyond a doubt, being the nicest anyone had ever been to him in the game. People would probably think he was Rainstorm's pet or something like that, but the man himself didn't seem to think there was anything weird about Nanaki so… so maybe it'd be worth it.

"Sure," he said.

Rainstorm grinned then opened his command menu. Nanaki jerked back with surprise, as a message popped into the air in front of him.

[Rainstorm wants to be your friend!]
[Accept / Decline]

With a toothy grin of his own, Nanaki accepted it.

Chapter Text

The people in Albrook Port weren't any nicer now that Cloud had some gear than they had been when he had first spawned there. He still got cat called and hollered at when he walked into the square to get the starter missions from the npcs there.

"Nice ass, sweetheart!" a passing Bangaa warrior grunted at him, making the human and elf he was walking with laugh uproariously.

Cloud sighed and ignored them, and the words, "Whoa, shake it, baby," one woman breathed when he walked past them. And sure, his trousers were pretty much just a thong with a stretch of cloth along the sides with straps holding the whole thing together, but did they have to, really?

"I see what you mean about being bothered," RedXIII commented, making a couple of elf girls jump back with surprise.

"Yeah. I'll just get the quests real quick and we'll get the hell out of here," Cloud muttered, smothering the urge to cover his behind with his hands. Thankfully with the Viera's dark skin, no one could see him blush. At least he hoped they couldn't see him blush. Damn it, if he had known Viera would look like this, he would've gone with an elf instead; and damn the pointy face. Whoever had come up with the Viera model needed to be knifed in the kidneys.

Nothing he could do about it now, so he just bore it and got the quests, swearing to himself that the moment he could get a cape, he'd cover up and never ever show skin again.

He got the quests, rushing the npcs through the dialogue without bothering to listen to the story line – something about increased monster population and lost merchandise that needed replacing, it didn't really matter. RedXIII wandered off for a moment to talk to a merchant, coming back with the bags strapped to his back looking a little lighter.

"I got you a satchel and some low level potions," the beast commented.

"Thanks," Cloud muttered and grimaced as someone whistled long and loud behind him. "Come on – let's go."

He breathed a whole lot easier once they were out of town. "If it's like that everywhere I go, I dunno if it's worth visiting towns. Not even for missions," he grumbled.

"I tend to avoid them as well," RedXIII commented and sat down. "Come here, I'll give you the bag."

Of course the satchel didn't help matters any as far as Cloud's clothing went – it strapped to his hip and hung there like a particularly jingly decoration, looking about as useless as the rest of his gear. But despite how small it looked on him, it had ten item slots, five of which were immediately taken by the potions RedXIII had bought for him.

"Thanks," Cloud said, adjusting the satchel a bit. "I'll pay you back once I have the money."

"No need – it was just spare change for me," the beast said, grinning toothily at him. "So, the quests?"

"Hmm… they all sort of stack up. Kill fifteen ahrimans and flans and get ahriman wings and flan goo and take it back to port," Cloud shrugged. "Should be easy, since I've already fought them before."

RedXIII nodded and stood up. "Let's get to it, then."

The monsters were a whole lot easier to kill, now that Cloud had a weapon – and with armour, as useless as it looked, he didn't get injured nearly as easily. RedXIII sat back and watched again as Cloud fought, letting Cloud collect the items and the exp by himself.

"Are there any good places to grind here?" Cloud asked once he was done, not really wanting to go into the town again so soon. He could just stick to the fields, try and get a couple of levels and maybe then do it.

The beast considered it. "There's a forest nearby, where ochus spawn. They're higher level than these," he nodded at the nearby group of recently spawned ahrimans. "It's a good place to gather potions ingredients too."

"Let's get to it, then," Cloud grinned and followed RedXIII away from the fields and to the forest. He spent a moment marvelling at how realistic everything looked and felt – the air was a bit cooler in the forest and smelled damp and earthy. The programmers who had made the terrains were really something else.

Then he saw one of the ochus and didn't have time to marvel at the terrain. The ochus were plant like… things with vine tentacles for arms, roots for legs and an enormous sharp toothed mouth – and if Cloud judged them right, they probably killed you by eating you.

"So, what's the strategy to use on these things?" Cloud asked, a little uneasy with the way the things smelled.

"Don't get caught by them," RedXIII grinned. "Being eaten isn't a nice way to die."

"Very helpful, thanks," Cloud sighed and took out a sword. "Um. Can I have the buffs, please?" he then asked tentatively and with a small laugh. The beast cast Protect and Shell on him again. "Thank you," Cloud nodded and then, with a deep breath, attacked.

The ochu wasn't at all like the flans – which just sat there and cast spells – or like ahrimans – which swung back and forth and did small swooping attacks. The ochu just came at him, tentacles flailing towards him and maw gaping open as if already anticipating eating him. With a grimace, Cloud jumped out of the way of one of the tentacles – thank you Viera agility – and began his attack.

The thing was tough – at least a couple levels higher than the ahrimans, if not more. And even though the main body was slow, the tentacles flicked back and forth quick as anything – and even armoured and with higher defence, it hurt being whipped by them. And that was pretty much what they did – they whipped at him, making it damn hard to get at the main body – and when he did, well, the thing had at least three times more HP than the ahrimans or the flans had.

"Damn it!" Cloud hissed, after receiving another whipping blow to his stomach – which thanks to the stupid Viera model, was all but bare. "How the hell do you kill this thing?"

"Should I tell you or do you want to figure it out for yourself?" RedXIII asked, amused, from where he was examining a bush of berries. "Doesn't being given all the answers take out the sense of adventure?"

"Screw the adventure! Tell me before I start looking like a bdsm experiment gone bad!"

The beast laughed. "Take out the tentacles first, then the body," he said.

"Oh," Cloud said with a blink and then lifted his sword for another attack. When one of the tentacles whipped at him next, instead of ducking out of the way he swung his sword at it – somewhat clumsy but at least he hit it. It didn't break, but it was slower and the next time it lashed at him, he managed to sever it with a slightly better aimed swing.

"Alright," Cloud said and then rushed at the other tentacle, with every intention of severing it too. It lashed out at him, but instead of whipping at him like it had done before, it wrapped around his bare waist instead and with a yelp, Cloud found himself lifted into the air.

"No – you – don't!" he grunted and hacked at the tentacle with his stupid little sword, taking bits and pieces of plant-like flesh, until the tentacle wobbled and dropped him on his ass. "Ow. goddamnit," he grunted while the ochu roared and came barrelling at him, maw gaping open.

"You need help there?" RedXIII called at him over the roaring.

"I'm fine," Cloud quipped back, jumping up and out of the way. Now that the tentacles were out of the picture, it would be easier. Maybe. "Alright, you ugly bastard, let's do this," he muttered and rushed forward, sword at the ready. The ochu, more than ready for him, roared and rushed at him - and just before they would've collided, Cloud ducked to the side and slashed the sword out at the ochu's body, slicing into it.

It only took out maybe thirty hit points of three hundred and fifty, which wasn't nearly as much damage as he had been doing to the ahrimans when he had gotten a sword. So the ochu had higher defence too, Cloud mused and gritted his teeth. Well, he had the agility to avoid being eaten and all the time in the world to wear it out. Which he did, slowly but steadily, ducking and weaving around it and slicing at the body, until finally the thing's HP trickled down to zero and it collapsed backwards.

"Well, that was tiresome," Cloud muttered, rubbing at his stomach where he had mostly been taking the hits. "And what nice and useful gear this is," he grumbled at his chest armour.

"Are you alright?" RedXIII asked, coming closer to him.

"Fine, fine. Just a bit bruised but nothing that won't heal by itself in a moment. And the exp wasn't bad," Cloud nodded. Almost four times more than ahrimans gave. "Pity that it didn't drop anything. But now that I know how to fight the damn things, it shouldn't be too difficult to get up a couple of levels at least. So… I'm going to find another one."

"Alright. I'll look around for some more ingredients," RedXIII said, and cast the Protect and Shell on him again. "Let me know if you need some help."

"I will, thanks," Cloud nodded, and threw himself into level grinding with gusto.

Levelling in Terra Online was surprisingly hard. It took him more than hour to get to level four and after that he would've had to kill more than fifty of them to get anywhere. "I'm starting to see why people level by using the quests," Cloud muttered, opening his stats screen and putting the points into strength and dexterity again. Then he glanced at the loot he had gotten.

Four potions, which made up for the ones he had used. A knife which had a weaker attack than his sword did, but it turned out he could dual wield so he could have it in one hand and the sword in the other, so that was nice. A shield which was useless to him – he had no intention of being in any form or fashion defensive. Another pair of footwear, with higher agility than the ones he had – and attack too, for some weird reason.

"And of course, they're goddamn sandal stilettos," Cloud muttered after pulling them on. They were white, very artsy with straps that curled up his calves, and had heels that were sharp as knives and about five inches in height.

Viera were totally the bikini armour race of Terra Online.

With a sigh, Cloud put his old shoes into his inventory, still eying the new ones. They had no right to be as comfortable as they were – but with the way Viera feet were, the stilettos were actually sort of supportive. It made no sense, but Cloud had an easier time walking with the things. Though that might've been the higher agility they gave him.

"This race's armour set up doesn't make any damn sense," Cloud sighed, when RedXIII appeared.

"Lots of the armours I've seen don't make much sense," the beast informed him. "Some of the shoulder guards I've seen should be too heavy for anyone to lift, never mind wear, not to mention the weapons. Now, I have something for you, Rainstorm."

"Hm?" Cloud asked, and the beast took out a silver necklace with a blue gem in it.

"I had to kill couple of ochus. One of them dropped this – it’s low level but gives agility and dexterity. Figured you could use it."

"Nice," Cloud said and accepted the trade and then stared as the necklace transformed in the passing, going from a perfectly respectable chain and pendant… into a white lace choker adorned with a big blue gem. "Oh, you got to be kidding me," Cloud muttered, holding it up. It was definitely a choker and definitely made of lace. "Seriously?"

"I'm thinking you might need to get used to that," RedXIII said with a laugh.

With a sigh Cloud fitted the choker on and checked his stats idly. "Well, at least it still does its job," he mused, tugging at the choker. "Anyway, I'm not getting much from these ochus – not enough to keep wasting this much time, killing them. I think I'd like to try that cave you mentioned now."

The beast nodded. "Alright. I think there was an npc on the field you can get the quest for it from, too, so no need to head to the town."

Cloud nodded and they began making their way out of the forest, Cloud sorting through his inventory. "So, did you find the ingredients?" he asked.

"Enough to keep me in potions for a couple more nights," RedXIII nodded and glanced at him. "I'd suggest you start working with your job as quick as you can, by the way. You can only gather certain level materials at certain job levels and the level one through five ones are all in this zone, I think."

"Yeah," Cloud nodded and opened the job inventory. It was mostly blank, only with the viable materials listed. Bronze and copper, in his case. "Do you need formulas or recipes?"

"Yeah – mobs drop them sometimes, and you can buy them from npcs and from the auction house. And when you level your job, you get formulas as rewards – and the easiest way to level, is to gather materials," RedXIII said thoughtfully. "You might need a pickaxe, being a blacksmith, but I'm not sure. You should try it and see how it goes – I think you can try it at the cave."

Cloud nodded. "I'll do that then," he said and glanced at the beast. "What about skills, though? Because I'm level four now, and I have zero attack skills. Or defence skills for that matter – I've been just swinging my sword mostly randomly."

"For magic attacks you need crystals," the beast answered thoughtfully. "Which you attach to weapons and gear and then you need to level them up by use. Crystals can also be added to increase stats and such – there are many different types."

"Like Materia?" Cloud asked, surprised.

"Pretty much. Craftsmen make them, so there's lot of them in the auction house," the beast said. "There are crystals for some physical attacks too I think – special attacks and such. There are also guide books and trainers for some skills. And of course if you do something enough times, it can become a skill."

"What, like kick something enough times and voila, a skill named Kick?" Cloud asked, eyebrows arching.

The beast nodded. "I don't know what sort of skills a swordsman can make that way, though," he said apologetically. "I don't really know that much about physical classes – I fight magically, after all."

"Hm. Well, I ought to get some sort of sword ability eventually, then," Cloud said, pulling the bronze sword out and scowling at it. "With how many swings it takes for this thing to do any proper damage, I'm bound to master something soon."

The beast chuckled. "You should try different things – if one thing doesn't get you a skill, you're probably doing it wrong."

"Hm. I guess," Cloud agreed. "This game is pretty complicated. Levelling up and getting skills is harder than I thought."

"Wait until you become over level forty and try to balance equipment for two classes," RedXIII grinned toothily. "Equipment, their fortification, the crystals, your own stats…"

Cloud snorted. "I can't wait," he said honestly. They stopped along the road for Cloud to chat with a npc – a lumberjack who had apparently been run over by a lizard that had stolen his lunch or something. Once Cloud had gotten the mission to defeat the Lizard of Aragu Cave, RedXIII showed him the way there.

"It's not a very big dungeon – just three rooms in total, about a dozen mobs and the boss," the beast said, sitting down by the cave mouth. "I can't enter – I'm too high level. You're on your own."

Cloud hesitated. "And the boss is level ten?" he asked. "Can I take him, at level four?"

"If you're smart about it, you should be able to take him on," RedXIII said. "Just don't lunge straight at him and you'll be fine – and use potions if your HP drops below sixty percent – trust me. Potions are easier to get than the exp you lose when you die."

"Right," Cloud said, taking his sword and knife out and eying the cave mouth. "Wish me luck."

The beast's flame adorned tail flicked amusedly. "Good luck, Rainstorm. Try to not get killed."

Chapter Text

Yuffie was stuck. On the ceiling. Of a cave. Where she had been for the last three to four hours.

"Oh, come on already, just un-aggro me!" she pleaded to the boss below her. "Please?" she asked, with her hands and feet braced against the stalactites of the cave ceiling. "I'll just leave, alright, you can keep your stupid loot!"

The boss monster, of course, neither listened nor cared and kept trying to jump at her, jaws snapping and snarling just a little below her. It had already taken a good half of her HP and she had no potions left – and she was down to her last smoke bomb which she was pretty damn sure wouldn't be of any use against the boss, not when she was the only thing for it to aggro its stupid face on.

And she couldn't even flee – with her HP this low, the lizard would just kill her and then she'd be dead in this stupid cave, right in front of the stupid lizard and its stupid ass would just kill her again the moment she tried to re-spawn!

"Stupid Overseers and their stupid asshole members and their stupid faces and high levels and stupid, stupid guild master…" Yuffie grumbled. "You just wait – I'll get my levels back and then I'll kick all your asses."

How was she to know that the elf she had stolen from was one of them? She hadn't looked anything like an Overseer. Well, she might've been a seer – a mage of some sort. Which had all but painted a big red bull's-eye on her ass because mages were so beautifully easy to steal from! And the loot, oh, the loot – the crystals that woman had been carrying! Just beautiful!

Except then there was stupid Civil and stupider Zoto and damn that stupid guild to hell!

Growling under her breath, Yuffie looked down at the boss – a lizard, pretty much the best boss in the beginner zone – it could be fought over and over again, gave a ton of exp, and the loot was always usable or good for selling. Except the last time she had fought it, she had been higher level than her stupid measly five. Damn the Overseers!

And the boss wasn't letting up at all, gnashing its maw full of sharp teeth at her. "I want down from hereee!" she wailed. Her arms were cramping and her shoulders ached and she was still bleeding from somewhere and it was getting really, really boring!

"Hello?" a male voice called from near the room entrance. "Is there somebody in here?"

Salvation! "Hey, hi, hello! Up here – I'm stuck!" Yuffie quickly called, trying to crane her neck to see – but the damn stalactites were in the way. "I'm on the ceiling, just above the damn lizard! I've been here for hours! Please, please, please kill this thing so that I can get down!"

There was a moment of quiet. "I guess I could try," the voice said. "If I draw it away from you, can you get down by yourself? Because I think I'm gonna need help killing it."

"Yes! Absolutely! Just draw it away from me!" Yuffie said. She sure as hell wasn't going to stick around to fight the Lizard of Aragu – with no potions, no bombs, no nothing! No, once the sucker of a rescuer had drawn the boss away from her, she was going to get the hell out of the cave, do some stupid daily quests, get a couple levels higher and come back for sweet, sweet revenge!

Below her, something struck the side of the gigantic lizard's face, making it start and turn at the impact – a rock; the sucker-rescuer had thrown a rock at it. Awesome. Then another rock was thrown and with a grunt the lizard turned, searching for whomever had hit it.

"Here, wormy, wormy, wormy," the male voice said and the lizard noticed him. "That's right, come and get it," the man, whoever it was, the sucker-rescuer, said and the lizard roared.

And then it was no longer aggroing on Yuffie. "Yes!" she breathed and waited until it had charged away from her and at the sucker-rescuer. Then, with a grin, she dropped down from the ceiling, spreading out her wings to catch the air so that she glided down, rather than falling like a rock.

Grias rocked!

"I'm free, I'm free!" Yuffie said, punching the air and then turned to throw a wave at her gullible rescuer. The words, so long, sucker were on her tongue, but then she stopped.

It was a Viera. A male Viera. With a shitty low level sword in one hand and a shittier knife in other, the Viera was just ducking around the lizard's charge and swiping the sword against the flank, drawing a long cut along the scaled body. It was shallow, bleeding only very sluggishly – but the guy had hit the thing on the first try and without even using a skill.

"The hell?" Yuffie asked, staring, because the Viera guy had his back to her now – and whoa that was a lot of mostly naked male booty. "Good god, man, cover yourself!" she snapped, covering her eyes "That's more than my poor innocent eyes needs to see!"

"What? Oh, for – a little help here?!" the guy snapped at her, as the lizard doubled back and made for him again.

"I don't think I can do that – in good conscience I just can't interact with someone so indecent," Yuffie said, even while peeking through her fingers and, whoa. That was some ridiculous armour – the guy was bare from ribs to hip bones. The little girl she most definitely wasn't any more was shrieking at the whole ensample because, ew, if his thong thing was a little smaller she could see things she most definitely did not want to see. In the meantime, the teenager she was growing to be… was rather admiring the line of his flat stomach, and the way his hip bones jutted out.

"I'm thinking indecent things, this is horrible!" Yuffie groaned. Also kinda cool because, HA! Now she could brag to the girls in her class about what she had seen because they definitely had never seen a guy wearing something like that.

Except they'd never believe her.

"I gotta screen cap this," she muttered and quickly held her hands, thumbs and forefingers at frame angles, framing the shot of the indecent Viera guy with. "And Snap!" she said, prompting the system message of, [Screen capture saved as 25261.fe in your VRDC screen capture folder!]

Yuffie grinned and framed another shot with her fingers. "Snap! Snap! Snap! Hey, dude, turn around a bit?"

"Goddamn it," the Viera dude snapped at her. "Should've left you on the ceiling!" then, switching the way he was holding his sword, he rushed at the lizard again, jumping at it – and hello Viera thighs, you look fine all flexed out. Then the man crashed, stiletto adorned feet first, against the lizard's forehead and drove the sword down into its back – and even at this distance, Yuffie could see the yellow numbers of a critical hit flashing.

"That was awesome!" Yuffie said, as the Viera guy jumped away again. "I didn't get it though – could you do it again?"

"How about you either lend a hand or piss the fuck off?!" the Viera growled at her.

"Aww, geez. What a grouchy bunny you are," Yuffie muttered but lowered her hands and took out her shuriken instead. "Fine. Here you – GO!" she shouted and threw it with all her might – which, at level five, wasn't exactly impressive. But her dex was still pretty high and the shuriken sliced right across the boss's eyes before the throwing star swung back through the air, and returned to her. "Ha, take that, wormy!"

"Finally," the Viera said with obvious exasperation, and then prepared for another attack. Sadly he didn't lunge again, but instead stayed on the floor, slashing and cutting at the beast in about a dozen different ways – probably trying to hit that sweet spot with his attacks that turned them to skills. It was a bit messy, but between him attacking the beast up front, and Yuffie offering long range support, they wore the lizard's HP down and eventually to zero.

Yuffie made to automatically collect the loot the boss dropped, only to find herself face to, er, to mostly bare chest area. The Viera didn't look particularly impressed with her. "Heh," Yuffie said, sheepishly holding her hands up. "Thanks for the assist!"

"Right," the Viera said, slowly putting his sword and knife away. "Aren't you a little young to be playing on a VRDC? Isn't the age limit thirteen?"

"I am thirteen!"

"Yeah, and I'm in the president of ShinRa," the Viera said, giving her a look. The sort of look she got often from her instructors. Then he looked down at her bruised leg and up to her left wing, which was scratched and still bleeding. "You need a potion?" he offered.

"Um. Yeah, that would be… cool, yeah," Yuffie admitted before giving him and his, erm, meagre wardrobe a suspicious look. "Where are you even keeping potions?" because it definitely didn't look like he could fit them anywhere.

 With a shake of his head, he took a bottle from pouch hanging from his hip – a pouch which was smaller than the bottle he had taken from it! She accepted it gladly and gulped it down, letting out a sigh of relief when her HP went up and the dull pain on her thigh eased.

"So, I didn't know male Vieras were a thing that, you know, existed," she said, looking him over. "Also, what's with the clothing? You some sort of pervert?"

The Viera just sighed, turned his back to her – and hello backside, nice to see you again. Yuffie looked away awkwardly as the guy crouched down to inspect the loot. "There's a shuriken there – I don't need it," the guy then said, standing up again.

"Awesome!" Yuffie said and bounced to have a look. "Aww, the atk sucks," she muttered after seeing it, but put it into her inventory anyway – she could sell it later.

"Soo…" she said, turning to the Viera who was inspecting a silver ring the lizard had dropped – it was a really girly looking ring, with a sort of curly pattern and lots of glimmering gems. "Are you going to do the boss again?"

"Maybe," the Viera said while easing the ring on. He really must have a thing for pretty girly gear, judging by the look of the choker and the shoulder… things.

Yuffie grinned. What a weird guy. "I was thinking, we could party and do it together and get levels?" she offered. Weird guy or no, he had been decent enough in a fight and as a party they could get an exp boost and really, fighting the lizard would level them both up faster than doing stupid boring quests. "And we could divide the loot evenly?"

The Viera frowned at her, his long bunny ears leaning backwards. It looked weirdly cool. "Not if you're going to just stand back and be useless for most of the fight," he said slowly.

"I was injured, and I had just fallen from the ceiling! I had to, uh… take a moment to recover myself," Yuffie said, her wings flaring in indignation before she pulled them in. "We could do it just once? Might get you a better sword," she wheedled. "Parties get more loot, you know."

The man eyed her silently for a moment before sighing and opening his command menu. He took a moment to shoot a private message at someone, before opening the Party commands.

[Rainstorm invites you to a party with him!]
[Accept / Decline]

"What kind of name is Rainstorm?" Yuffie asked while accepting the invite.

"What kind of name is Treasure Princess?" he answered mockingly and shook his head at her. "So, how long until the boss re-spawns?" he asked, looking around.

"We need to get out of this room and come back – and it'll be here again, once the room loads," Yuffie shrugged. A lot of the dungeons only spawned the bosses once a day, or you had to exit the dungeon entirely and come back. In the low level areas though the bosses re-spawned as quickly as you could kill them – to let people level up faster, probably.

"Right," Rainstorm said, and stalked out of the room, his stiletto adorned feet clicking against the stone floor. Yuffie bounced after him, gliding a little between every step.

"You didn't answer me though? What's with the clothing?" she asked. "Are you like one of those strippers in real life? Shouldn't you be playing as a dancer in that case? Or illusionist?"

"It's the Viera model – the gear just looks like this on Vieras," Rainstorm grumbled, casting her a look. "What are you anyway? I didn't think there were races with wings."

"I'm a Gria! I am a dragon-beast-human… thing!" Yuffie said, giving him a look. "You haven't been playing for long, have you? In the upper level something like every other person ends up equipping wings – mostly angel wings and boring crap like that. They make moving and stuff easier – though they're really hard and expensive to make."

"I thought that’s what mounts were for. And teleporters," Rainstorm mused.

"Yeah, but wings let you get to places you can't get with a mount – and teleporters are just for travelling between zones," Yuffie shrugged. "You need wings to do a lot of the higher level quests that are up in the Conde Petie mountains and places like that."

"I guess… Grias don't need to equip wings, then?" Rainstorm asked, peering back into the room where the wormy boss hadn't yet re-spawned.

"Nah, we do. Grias can glide but we can't fly any more than anyone else," Yuffie sighed, looking at her wings. She used to have a set of magnificent phoenix wings – they had sort of blended into the Gria wings and the result had been really cool, a mix of leathery dragon wings and the flamey feathers of phoenix wings.

She'd need to get those back somehow from the Overseers, the bastards.

"Looks like the boss' back," Rainstorm commented.

"Let's go kill it then," Yuffie nodded and together they headed back.

In the following couple of hours, they killed the wormy boss six times, distributing loot between themselves with some arguing – Rainstorm took all the pouches, the asshat! But Yuffie got a decent pair of boots, gloves and a few new grenades, so it wasn't like he took all the loot.

She also got another level, which was cool.

Treasure Princess LV. 6

[RACE] Gria
[CLASS] Ninja LV. 44, Thief LV. 12
[JOB] Craftsman LV. 35
[STR] 13 (+41)
[DEF] 10 (+36)
[VIT] 7 (+13)
[SPD] 13 (+23)
[AGI] 16 (+19)
[DEX] 12 (+20)
[INT] 6
[WIS] 4

With a grin, Yuffie put her stat points into agility and speed, and then almost jumped out of her skin when Rainstorm leaned in.

"How the hell do you have that much bonus on your stats?" he asked, looking fascinated.

"Properly enhanced gear," she said, pushing at his chest. "Get your scantily clad bosom off my face, dude," she said before explaining. "I got crystals on most of my gear. It makes a difference."

"Huh," Rainstorm said, not budging. "How are you level six when your class and job levels are that high? And you got a second class too!"

"It's called being killed a freaking lot of many times," she muttered. "I pissed off a guild and they corpse camped me to level one. Assholes. I lost forty five levels in one night."

"Ouch," Rainstorm said, not sounding particularly sympathetic. "What did you do?"

"I robbed this mage girl and it turned out the guild master had the hots for her or something. He took… issue with me taking her stuff," Yuffie pouted. "Though… I might've made her cry when I took her stuff. Kinda feel bad about that. Or did, before they killed me, the assholes, and I am so gonna kill them right back, you just wait, once I get my levels back I am going to roll that whole guild up and eat it for breakfast! And take all their stuff too! Ha!"

The Viera gave her a look and let out a chuckle. "Sure you will," he said, shaking his head and opening his command menu. "It's almost time I wake up," he mused, checking the clock before firing a private message at someone. "I'm out of here."

"You heading to the Inn? I'll come with – I want to sell some stuff to a merchant," Yuffie said, following him quickly.

"Inn?" he asked.

"Jeez, is this your first day playing? You ought to get your ass to an Inn before you log off – or get a tent or something like that. Otherwise your avatar will just sleep wherever you leave him. People get robbed blind that way," Yuffie said. She would know – she had done a lot of the robbing. "Get a tent as soon as you can – it'll save you a lot of grief later on, when you get to the bigger zones."

"Get a tent, got it," Rainstorm nodded, frowning. "I thought the avatar just vanished once you log off," he said.

"Nope, it sticks around. Adds a bit of realism or something like that, I don't even know," Yuffie said, following him through the dungeon rooms and to the exit, where they emerged into the woods.

There was a single mob there, sitting by the entrance – a red beast she had never seen before, definitely not in the starter zone. She was about to take out a shuriken and see if it dropped any sort of interesting loot, when the beast looked up at them – and talked.

"I see you found a friend," it said in masculine and perfectly human voice.

"I found a pest," Rainstorm said while Yuffie gaped. "But I gained a couple of levels and got another sword, so I'm good. Didn't try mining, though, but I can do that tomorrow night, I guess." He gave the beast a curious look. "What did you do in the meantime?"

"Harvested more ingredients. I'll make some extra potions and sell them in the auction house," the beast said.

"Okay, what? I mean, what – what?" Yuffie asked, motioning at the beast. "What?" she added, emphatically.

Rainstorm blinked and turned to her, one of his ears listing to the side. "What?" he asked, looking confused.

"Thing," Yuffie said, pointing at the talking beast.

"Rude," the beast answered, giving her a suspiciously human – and extremely unimpressed – look.

Definitely intelligent – and definitely not a program. Meaning, "Hacker?" Yuffie asked, wondering. She had heard that some people tried to hack Terra Online but she hadn't heard of anyone succeeding. If he could hack to make his avatar look like that… maybe he could hack all her levels and gear and loot back!

"No," the beast answered, harrumphing and looked at Rainstorm. "Do you want to head to the port?"

"Yeah. It's about time I wake up anyway," Rainstorm said slowly, looking between the two of them and then shaking his head. "She says I need to go to an Inn before I log off," he added, pointing at Yuffie.

The beast nodded, standing up. "Yeah – or get a tent. Otherwise you risk being robbed and killed while you're offline."

"Huh," Rainstorm murmured and then nodded. "Good to know. Let's go."

Together the two of them turned and began heading off, making Yuffie blink after them with surprise. "Hey, wait!" she said, bouncing after them. "How about some instructions? Or, you know, a thank you for the great help I gave you in the cave? And what's with the beast avatar?! Guys?!"

Chapter Text

"I got most of my skills that way," Treasure Princess explained while they headed towards Albrook port. "Ninja skills are sort of clumsy and flashy in this game – nothing like they ought to be. So I just did stuff the way a ninja ought to do it, until I hit the sweet spot."

Cloud nodded thoughtfully, idly swinging his new sword. It was iron, sort of rusty, but had higher atk than the bronze sword – and dual wielded, the two made a decent combination. "What is the sweet spot, though?" He asked. "I tried a lot of things at the cave but nothing clicked."

"It's the point where the attack is… realistic I guess," Treasure Princess said thoughtfully. "Or the point where it's most efficient. Where it works right. Hitting it just right once isn't enough though – you need to do it at least five times."

"So, I might've hit the point without noticing it, and then never got the skill because I just did it once?" Cloud asked with a sigh.

"Probably," she shrugged. "Most people practice on trees and training dummies – towns and cities are full of them, just so that people can practice skills. I do it on monsters because it's much more satisfying, cutting them up rather than some dumb old training dummy."

"I see," Cloud murmured and glanced at RedXIII who was walking by him silently. "Do you have any skills like that?"

The beast shook his head. "Not really. All my skills are crystal based. I can stack buffs though, put some buffs together and double and triple the effects of some. It's not really a skill, but it's not something you can do early on."

"You're a shaman, huh?" Treasure Princess asked, leaning past Cloud to look at the beast. "That's sweet. You know how many raids I could've beaten oh so easily if I had a shaman with me? Hey, can you do Haste? Shamans can do haste too, right?"

"Maybe," RedXIII said nonchalantly.

"That's so cool!"

"What's Haste?" Cloud asked, curious.

"It makes you move like super fast," Treasure Princess said. "Super super fast. I've seen it in action once – stupid Loyal – but it was awesome. I've always wanted to try it. Hey, hey, Red, can you cast it on me?"

"No," the beast answered.

"Stingy!"

"You have your own speed buffs, don't you? Being a ninja," RedXIII asked, amused.

"Well, yeah, but they're like regular spd plus skills. Haste is like… a whole different category of speed buff," she said. "It's so unfair that only shamans and time wizards can do it. Why'd you become a shaman anyway? I hear the early levels of shaman suck."

RedXIII glanced at her and flicked his flame adorned tail in her direction. "Because shaman is one of the best solo classes. Especially paired with black mage," he answered. "Once I find the Regen crystal, I'll be able to take bosses much higher level than myself."

"Regen, huh?" the Treasure Princess asked, a sudden glint in her eyes. "I might know where you might be able to get one."

"Oh really?"

"Yes, really. And I might divulge this information, for a price."

Cloud looked between them as they began haggling for the crystal – which, it turned out, the Treasure Princess had stolen from someone and stored in her storage house – thanks to which the guild that had beaten her back to first level hadn't been able to steal it. RedXIII, despite being usually pretty calm and controlled, got pretty passionate about the haggling too. Apparently Regen was a big deal.

The price they settled on made Cloud feel a little light headed. He had barely thirty copper to his name – and RedXIII would be paying over a hundred gold for the Regen crystal from Treasure Princess.

"I guess the money you make at higher levels is better too," he murmured.

"You just can make better stuff. It's the auction house. It is your friend," Treasure Princess said solemnly. "Level up your job quickly and start selling the stuff you make – you'll get money too."

Then they reached the port, where there was a whole lot more people than there had been the previous times Cloud had been there. Of course – it was almost morning in Midgar and probably a lot of players came from the region. If they all had to get to the Inn before logging off… of course there'd be traffic.

"Damn," he murmured and steeled himself for the leering. Though he had really, really hoped to get another pair of trousers, the lizard boss hadn't dropped any, more's the pity. Which left him still wearing the ridiculous thong-string-getup.

"Ug, morning time in the East, I guess," Treasure Princess grimaced. "I bet the warehouse manager is swarmed."

He was, but that didn't seem to stop the ninja any, as she took a deep breath and then lunged at the throng of people, sneaking and flicking past them with surprising agility. Or maybe it shouldn't have been surprising – she was a ninja, after all.

"Warehouse is a safe storage, then?" Cloud asked.

"Only one you can't be stolen from," RedXIII agreed. "I suggest putting some of your money there as you make it, as well as gear and crystals you can't use yet, things like that."

Cloud nodded – and then grimaced as he heard someone saying, "Whoa, check out that Viera!" and "Didn't know there were male Viera in the game!"

RedXIII gave him a sympathetic look, while Cloud lifted his chin and tried to ignore the whistle aimed at his direction. "You can head to the Inn already if you want," the beast offered.

"No, I want to befriend the Treasure Princess first. Since we're close to the same level, I'm guessing we could do more bosses and such together," Cloud sighed. He had a feeling that he needed all the neutral friends he could get in this game. Though the Treasure Princess had made some comments, she hadn't been too bad, for a brat.

Then he jerked as a sudden window popped up in front of him.

[You have been invited to SweetDelicious Guild!]
[Accept / Decline]

Blinking, Cloud glanced around and saw couple of women, a bit older than him, who blew kisses and winked at him. "Accept!" one of them hollered. "We'll take good care of you, honey!"

With a grimace, Cloud declined, ignoring the "Aww!" they moaned in his direction.

Thankfully, Treasure Princess returned then, with a gleaming green crystal in hand and a triumphant look on her face. "Now, fork over the gold, buster!" she grinned at RedXIII, holding the crystal up.

Cloud watched as they made the trade curiously, an inventory window appearing between them, into which RedXIII deposited the gold, and Treasure Princess the crystal. After they had both accepted the trade, the items switched sides, and the beast took the crystal while the winged, horn adorned girl snatched the gold.

"Score! Sweet, now I can get some better gear! Hah!" she said and turned to Cloud. "Could buy you some better pants too, while I was at –"

[You have been invited to Redhearts Guild!]
[Accept / Decline]

Cloud frowned at the window in front of him while Treasure Princess leaned in to look at it too before they both glanced around.

There was a group of men and women loitering nearby, and there was a definite theme to their guild. The women, Cloud noted, wore armour not that different from his own – one of them was actually wearing a chain mail bikini and loin cloth. They grinned at him and waved him to come over.

"Come on," one of the men, an elf in sleek black armour that covered him from neck to toes. "With you in our guild, we'll get so many more girls!"

Scowling, Cloud declined the invite – only for another to pop up.

[You have been invited to PlayGirls Guild!]
[Accept / Decline]

"Whoa, nakedness is popular," Treasure Princess noted while Cloud declined the offer with increasing irritation. Sure, he was a Viera, and his armour was what it was, but… really? Really?!

[You have been invited to Seksay Guild!]
[Accept / Decline]

Before Cloud could decline that invite, he felt hands on his hips, sliding along the hip bones, and down his front. "Come on, darling, ditch the little girl and come with us," a husky voice said from behind him while both Treasure Princess and RedXIII jumped back with surprise. "You'd look so good in our Guild – we'll get you some nice gear and a prettier pet than the ugly mutt. We'd take real good care of you, I promise."

There was laughter behind him – women and men – and then the hands on his skin reached their destination and, without any shame, squeezed him. And the mounting horror and annoyance in Cloud… snapped.

With a grimace he whirled around, lifting his elbow as he did and braining the woman behind him right to her temple. She fell, surprised, and thanks to the hold she had on him, she pretty much crumbled right at his feet – and Cloud just couldn't resist the temptation to lift his foot and stomp her down even further with a foot on her chest.

Except, he forgot what he was wearing. The sharp heel of the stiletto, as good as a knife, paid absolutely no heed to the woman's leather corset get up, and pierced right through it, right through her. It all happened so quickly that he almost stumbled over her, heel firmly stuck in her chest.

The numbers of a critical hit flashed in the air, 124, startling Cloud. And then they kept on flashing, 113, 105, 128… until the woman just froze, with a surprised look on her face, her eyes going glassy.

[Sek has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 1!]
[Rainstorm's Infamy is now 10!]

While Cloud stared at that, surprised – his Murder Count? – another player, probably from the woman's guild, let out a shocked sound. With a cold shiver running down his spine, Cloud lifted his foot, the sole of it coming out bloody, the heel absolutely soaked.

He had just killed someone. It was just a game, of course, but…

"You bastard!" another woman, a Miqo'te, a fencer by the looks of her, shouted and they all pulled weapons. Cloud glanced up at them and then was forced to jump back and away from the attack. Quickly, more out of self-defence than any urge to fight, Cloud pulled his two swords, just in time to defend himself from another attack.

"Rainstorm!" RedXIII called, while Cloud looked wildly between the attackers. There were six of them against him – even with Red and Princess, he was out numbered. He was going to get killed and pretty brutally too, judging by the looks on their faces. But then again – he apparently just killed their guild master. With the heel of his stiletto.

"You two get out of here," he said to the beast and the ninja over his shoulder. It was his mess – they didn't need to get into trouble for it – and it wouldn't bother him as much, to get corpse camped at this point. He was only level six anyway – another night and he'd get his levels back.

"But," Princess said.

"We'll offer you support from the back," Red said and then nudged at her. Cloud could see them rushing away –could see Red jumping up and on to a nearby rooftop, Princess reluctantly following. Then he was too busy with the fight to pay them any mind.

"You bastard, you'll pay for that!" another from the Seksay Guild, another Miqo'te, growled – he was a warrior of some sort with a colossal axe which he seemed all too eager to use on Cloud. Cloud's eyes widened a little as the axe went up, black and blue blade gleaming in the sunlight, and then came rushing down at him.

The attack's dexterity was lower than his agility, though – he managed to duck it, if only barely. That was when another of the guild members attacked him from the side – the fencer, who sliced a long cut along Cloud's side, grinning as she did it.

"Come on guys, we'll do this nice and slow and painful," the woman said. "And someone throw ma'am a potion!"

The woman Cloud had killed had already resurrected – and she looked pissed. While Cloud avoided another hit by the axe guy, the woman drew twin pistols from the small of her back and aimed them at Cloud. "I lost a level, you son of a bitch! You're going to suffer for that," she growled and fired.

A familiar blue glow washed over Cloud then – only, it wasn't the Shell or the Protect RedXIII had cast on him before. Blinking, Cloud waited until the buff icon appeared in the upper corner of his vision. Invincible, with only 10 seconds of run time – enough to deflect the bullets that came at him. It was only the first of the buffs, because then another icon appeared. Protect, then Shell, then Reflect, then Faith, then Null Magic, Bravery and then Regen – after which, Cloud's HP which had been ducked by the fencer, began trickling back up.

Cloud didn't need to check his stats to know that they had suddenly gotten a huge boost – and the buffs kept coming. Killer Aura, ATK plus, Quick, Bloodlust and Invisible, that made Cloud's hands suddenly see through. And then, finally, Haste.

Suddenly the world around him was slow and when the axe warrior made to attack, it was all in slow motion. Cloud blinked, stepping past the attack easily and watching curiously how the axe imbedded itself into the ground. Almost like in dream, Cloud stepped to the warrior's side and sunk his bronze blade into the warrior's belly, watching the HP tick down. It took more than just that one attack to kill the man, and Cloud delivered the blows in a haze until the man fell, still oddly slow.

[Senjet has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 2!]
[Rainstorm's Infamy is now 20!]

"He's got a haste on!" someone shouted, the words slow and dragging.

And Cloud remembered the other attackers. Taking comfort in the buffs – which Red seemed to be redoing constantly – Cloud lifted his swords and threw himself into the fight with the same fervour he had fought the mobs and the lizard boss. They wanted to attack him, okay. He'd attack them right back – and with Red putting this much effort into him not dying, he sure as hell wasn't going to die.

The fencer was fast, even with Cloud under Haste, but not fast enough – he took her out with a sword to the wrist and another sliced through her throat, killing her instantly. Making a mental note that instant kills were apparently a thing in Terra Online, Cloud rushed at the other attackers, aiming for vital spots – for throats and hearts. The world was a blur of attacking figures and Cloud almost danced among them, getting into the flow of fighting now, taking out people left and right, his murder count ticking up person by person. Three, five, seven…

Someone nailed him on the shoulder with an arrow and even without pausing Cloud pulled the offending arrow away and let the Regen heal him. He turned to the archer and rushed at her, jumping over the downed axe warrior and slicing at the archer even while still in the air, almost taking her head completely off with a downwards strike. Murder count eight, now.

[A new skill discovered!]
[Braver Lvl 1 exp 0.00% / MP:0]
[A non-elemental jump attack with 300% attacking power. To activate, user must jump and slash downwards with a sword(s).]

Cloud ignored the window. There was a quick one coming at him, a man, maybe a thief or a ninja like Princess, who almost kept up with him. Cloud barely noticed the knife stuck in his belly as he rushed at the man, knocking his sword aside and thrusting the iron sword into the man's belly, angled up to reach the heart. Instant kill, murder nine.

The attackers were blending into each other and Cloud was feeling a little high with the buffs, his blood pounding in his ears. He was hit some more, mostly by stray weapons rather than by actual attacks, but the cuts meant nothing, healing almost as soon as he got them. Murder eleven, fourteen, seventeen… they just kept coming. Kept reviving and trying again, he mused, but he couldn't really see them anymore, couldn't recognize them. They were so slow, just blurs, and getting slower and slower.

In the corner of his vision he could see that the buffs he had on were stacking up. He had three hastes on now, and five Regens. No wonder being hit didn't hurt anymore.

Murder twenty nine. Murder thirty four. Fifty eight.

[System Alert!]
[10:00 minutes until automated wake up call.]

He was running out of time. Gritting his teeth Cloud looked around and then stepped up his game – he needed to finish this and get to the damn Inn. So, with every intention of finishing this, he rushed forward – now aiming for quick instant skills. Throats were easiest to get at, so he sliced them left and right, flicking from person to person as soon as they got up until they stayed down. Some people were running away now – good. Less people to bother with.

At murder seventy nine, no one got up again. Cloud waited, swords at the ready. The Shell and Protect ran out. Then Bravery, and his speed and attack came down. The Invisibility ran out, and he became visible again. One by one, the buffs eased off, and the hastes too, slowing him spell by spell until he was back to being as slow as the world around him.

Albrook Port's central square was littered with bodies. It wasn't just the six and their guild master who had attacked them – there were other people too. They lay where he had left them, most of them with their throats cut open. Cloud waited, but none of them revived again.

Cloud waited for a moment longer before he was satisfied that the attackers had stopped trying. Then he looked up at Red and Princess, who sat half hidden on a nearby rooftop. Princess looked a little sick while the beast was eying Cloud seriously from where he was sitting. Neither of them made a move to join him. He couldn't blame them.

With a sigh, Cloud sheathed his bloodstained swords, turned, and headed off to find the Inn, before the VRDC would wake him and leave him lying among the people he had just killed.

Chapter Text

Since perfecting the Cait Sith AI, Reeve hadn't really needed to do much admin work on Terra Online. Cait Sith was perfectly capable of dealing with most of the issues by himself, with minimal guidance from him – which was what he had designed the program for, after all. Though Terra Online was largely Reeve's baby, he preferred to have a hand's off approach to it – like he had on most things he made. Once made, he preferred to let his creations… grow in their own way.

But occasionally he had to get his hands metaphorically dirty in Terra Online's workings. A game with over seven million users had to work perfectly after all – especially considering the sheer intricate delicacy of the machinery involved. It couldn't be allowed to have any flaws. So, he read Cait Sith's reports and occasionally talked with the AI, and kept in touch with events.

Like the fact that despite being largely ShinRa exclusive tech, quite a number of Wutaians played the game. Normally they wouldn't have been able to – you needed a ShinRa security number, which only those born as legal citizens of the East, had… but Reeve might've made a bit of an exception there. The Wutai War was almost over anyway – and really, it was only a game. It couldn't really do any harm, to share it with friends and enemies alike.

Cait Sith had also informed him about RedXIII and his predicament. That was the first time since the perfection of the VRDC technology that Reeve had gotten into the hardware side of things, designing a headset that worked on the beast. It had been great fun, though, and there had been something very gratifying in the knowledge that a whole other intelligent species enjoyed his game.

"It is a way to see things outside my home," RedXIII had explained to Cait Sith, which was why in the end Reeve had bothered to redesign the headset at all. The beast had a very gratifying approach to VRDC and to Terra Online.

And now, Cait Sith had informed him of an event that had over fifty players filing abuse reports.

"It's nothing serious, mind you," the AI informed him when Reeve connected to the Terra Online Database, at the heart of which Cait Sith existed. "No actual abuse happened. But it was quite interesting."

Interesting – which from Cait Sith meant it was an event that hadn't ever happened in Terra Online. The cat knew him all too well – Reeve loved it when new things happened in the game. That was why he kept his hands off it – to let it evolve on its own and whenever it did…

That night Reeve – who usually preferred to play Asgard, it having a much more satisfying building element in it – logged into Terra Online instead. He came into the game in Cait Sith's house – where first time players created their characters – and met the AI with a smile.

"You have something interesting for me," Reeve said, bending down and lifting the cat to his shoulder.

"It was a massacre – a rather brutal one," the cat said and waved. Windows popped into the air in front of them, the biggest one of them listing the complaints. "I haven't gotten this many abuse reports from one event since the first years."

"A massacre?" Reeve asked, frowning as he read a couple of the abuse reports. Most of them seemed to be about being griefed by a player way higher level than he appeared. "How many players were killed?"

"Fifty nine – some of them several times," Cait Sith said. "It happened in Albrook Port."

"The beginner area?" Reeve asked, his frown turning into a scowl. Normally neither he nor Cait Sith much cared whether people got griefed or not – they had created a world with its own laws of physics. Laws of society… those they had left to the people playing the game, as part of the game's potential evolution. Whether they set up a moral or ethical system was up to them – Reeve wouldn't manipulate the system there one way or the other.

 But even he didn't care for it when high level players went around killing low level beginners for fun – that wasn't what the game was for.

"I know what you're thinking and no – he wasn't a high level player," Cait Sith said and grinned. "He was level six."

"Six?" Reeve asked, surprised, looking at the AI. "And the people he PKd?"

"Highest was twenty three," the AI said and waved a paw at the air. In the middle of the room, a character model appeared – a male Viera in rather scanty armour, life sized but lifeless. Beside him a window with the character profile for one Rainstorm popped into existence. 

Rainstorm LV. 6

[RACE] Viera
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 3
[JOB] Black Smith LV. 1
[STR] 14 (+34)
[DEF] 8 (+29)
[VIT] 7 (+11)
[SPD] 12 (+12)
[AGI] 13 (+9)
[DEX] 15 (+12)
[INT] 11
[WIS] 13

"A male Viera?" Reeve asked, smothering a chuckle. The Viera model had mostly been a joke between him and Cait Sith. They had already had a dog – werewolf – a cat – Miqo'te – and a rat – Burmecian. Adding a rabbit into the mix had mostly been for laughs, and the armour design had been something of a mockery of some video game armours they had seen. They honestly hadn't expected anyone to pick the race for their avatar. Some had, but even among women it was rare. But men? Pretty much nonexistent.

"Technically the only one in the game," Cait Sith agreed. "He didn't check out the armour layout before he went into the game."

"Hmm," Reeve murmured, smiling at the model before frowning at the stats. "How the hell did you PK someone on level twenty three?" he asked.

"You wanna see?" Cait Sith asked, and without waiting for an answer, shifted the environment. The house blurred away and from below them the central square of the port of Albrook appeared, growing around Reeve in a soundless rush. For a moment it was empty and soundless, but then Cait Sith accessed the memory logs and with a blur it was filled with players, all frozen.

"There," Cait Sith said, pointing.

Not far from them the Viera man stood, with a young Gria next to him and… "Is that RedXIII?" Reeve asked, surprised while looking at the beast, sitting beside the Viera man and the Gria girl. The three of them were looking at a pop up window in front of the Viera man.

"Mm-hmm. RedXIII and a Wutaian girl," Cait Sith nodded. "And here's what happened."

The world snapped into motion and Reeve watched, first with amusement as the Viera man declined guild invites, and then with slight discomfort how a woman, a human gunner, all but groped the man, breathing her brand of not so subtle or nice enticements into his ear.

And then the first PK, with the furious looking Viera beating the human woman down and piercing her chest with the heel of his shoe. While Reeve and Cait Sith watched, the woman's guild attacked and the Viera drew weapons and then, very, very quickly, the massacre started.

"RedXIII is buffing him," Cait Sith said, pointing to the nearby rooftop where the beast was throwing up spells, before opening the Viera Rainstorm's character window again.

Protect LV. 4, phys def increase of 50%. Shell LV. 4, mag def increase of 50%. Reflect LV. 3, 50% chance of reflecting enemy spells back on castors. Faith LV. 2, overall status increase of 10%. Null Magic LV. 3, 30% chance of nullifying magical attacks. Bravery LV. 5 – str and def up by 120%. Regen LV. 1, 3% of HP restored every second for 30 seconds

While Reeve did a quick calculation in his head to figure out where Rainstorms stats stood, Cait Sith spoke, "And here's an interesting thing," Cait Sith said, and moved them – or the world around them. Suddenly Reeve and the AI were on the rooftop beside RedXIII and the Gria girl. "Look at her," Cait Sith said.

Reeve did. She was rummaging through her bags and came away with a white crystal, which she equipped into a Protect Ring. Then, without pause, the Gria girl aimed at the Viera Rainstorm in the square below before starting to buff herself.

Except the buffs were reflected off her, and onto him.

Killer Aura LV. 6, spd, agi and dex up by 40%. ATK plus LV. 3, str up by 50%. Quick, LV. 7, spd up by 90%. Bloodlust LV. 6, str and dex up by 150%. Invisible LV. 5, dex and agi up by 60%, status invisible.

All of them were Ninja specific buffs – buffs the girl ought to be able to cast only on herself, but they all landed, square and true, on the Viera. "How is she doing that?" Reeve asked, fascinated.

"A reflect crystal," Cait Sith said. "She's throwing off the buffs like they were offensive spells, and since she has Rainstorm selected, they land on him."

Reeve shook his head in amazement and counted. Buffs stacked up in the order they were cast. With the starting str of 48, Rainstorm's strength went up by 10% with Faith, jumping to 52.8. When Bravery was cast, it used that 52.8 as its base rather than the original 48, so it went up to 63.66. Then the Gria cast the Killer Aura and it used the Bravery increased str as its base and went to 88.704, then the atk plus from that, and Bloodlust from that

By the end of being buffed, Rainstorm's str was 332.64, and the same happened to all of his stats. And that was before RedXIII's buffs started to stack up on top of themselves, doubling and tripling their effects on the Viera. And then RedXIII started stacking up Haste's on the Viera, and Rainstorm turned into a blur in the square, barely visible among his attackers.

"People started to get drawn into the fight at this point," Cait Sith said while they watched the massacre take place below them. Reeve nodded, as people who originally had been minding their own business tried to attack the blur that was Rainstorm – and then got themselves cut down for it. And no wonder – with the speed buffs and the Hastes, Rainstorm's speed was almost six hundred.

"How many kills did he get?" Reeve asked.

"Seventy nine, before people realised that they were better off getting away or staying down," Cait Sith shrugged.

"Seventy nine in, what, half an hour?"

"Twenty four minutes," the AI nodded. "Seventy nine kills, in twenty four minutes, by a player who just started playing. And who was level 6, while most of those people were over level ten at least – fourteen of them over level twenty. He got four titles, all from this – and he broke the record for most player kills at lowest level. Twenty or so more, and he would've beaten the record of most kills inside an hour."

"Huh," Reeve murmured, looking at RedXIII and the Gria girl. Without them the Viera would've gotten slaughtered after the first kill, but regardless… it was rather impressive. Not to mention interesting. If he wasn't seeing the recording with his own eyes – well, with his mind anyway – Reeve wouldn't have thought it was possible, for someone so low in level to do so much, so easily. And yet he had, and without hesitation.

It was just what he wanted to see, in Terra Online – the users doing unexpected things.

"They're calling it the Albrook Newbie Massacre," Cait Sith said. "In the general chat, that is," he added while below them Rainstorm stopped, left as the only one standing in the entire square – the rest of the people were either dead or they had plain escaped the place.

"How very imaginative," Reeve smiled, stroking his fingers along his beard thoughtfully. A male Viera who just so happened to get in contact with RedXIII and a Wutai girl, and then went on and massacred a whole lot of players who were at much higher level than he was… because he was groped.

Well. Reeve probably would've punched the woman too, if she had taken such liberties with his person. And Reeve could very well imagine what it must be like for the man, being Viera.

Still. All of it was very, very interesting.

"We'll need to keep an eye on this one," Reeve said, smiling. "And I think… Rainstorm deserves an Honour to his name."

Chapter Text

The day after his first try with Terra Online passed in a thoughtful haze for Cloud. He began by reporting to the doctor that falling asleep hadn't been a problem at all and yes, he felt more rested – and apparently it showed in his haemoglobin, blood pressure and the oxygenation of his blood, so that was good.

"It wasn't anything like I thought, though. The game," Cloud admitted, thinking back. A lot of it had been like he had thought but at the same time… not quite.

"The realism shocks most people at first, but you get used to it," the doctor said, finishing with the check-up. "Now, keep using the device every night for next week and we'll see how you look then."

Cloud felt shorter and weaker for the first hour or so into the day – Rainstorm was about twenty centimetres taller than him, the tall Viera bastard. Rainstorm also was stronger – and though Cloud hadn't done much more than run around killing monsters in the game, he felt the difference. Rainstorm’s swords and his own rifle were about the same weight – and where Rainstorm swung the swords around with contemptuous ease, the rifle still felt heavy in Cloud's hands.

He spend most of his duties that day – which consisted of his Squad patrolling the streets, nothing very exciting – trying to get used to the weight of the rifle and his clothing. His squad mates gave him some strange looks as he hefted his rifle up and down and tried to familiarize himself with it again – except for those who had VRDCs of their own.

"It's weird, isn't it? Being so much weaker on this side," one of them, Jaise, said while giving him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "You get used to it."

"I guess," Cloud agreed and lifted his rifle up again.

He wasn't too close to his squad mates, so he wasn't surprised that none of those who had VRDCs of their own asked for his name or what he was in the game – it wasn't like he wanted to spend time with them in the game either, not when they were together 24/7 in the real world. Mostly the others were busy talking about the bar they had gone to the previous night and some girl that had danced on tables and kicked a bouncer when he had tried to get her down.

Cloud ignored them, and kept adjusting his weapon and clothing. Rainstorm had one thing going for him where armour went – it might've been skimpy as hell, but at least it wasn't too big on him.

Once their duties were over, they headed back to the base to get food and report for base duty – which usually mostly consisted of cleaning, weapons maintenance, stuff like that. After that came the thing everyone waited for – personal training, during which they all headed to the gym to try and put some muscle on their bones. Cloud made a beeline for the weights – he always did, after stretching – while the others scattered about the gym to work at this or that machine.

Cloud was done picking the dumbbells for himself, when he noticed a couple of guys from another squad who were practicing with swords. He didn't know them – the infantryman rotated in and out of Midgar on a regular basis, he didn't know hardly anyone outside his own squad. But he could recognise that one of them – a man with short blond hair – was much more skilled than the other, young, brown haired guy.

"No, hold it like this," the blond guy instructed the brunet. "Up here, closer to the cross guard. These things are weighted, you know, and the centre of balance is at the cross guard. There, you got it."

The blond walked the other guy through his attacks, while Cloud watched them idly, wondering if the swings and swipes and thrusts the man was teaching would work in Terra Online. Treasure Princess had said the point where the attack is realistic so, who knows… And even if it wouldn't become a skill, even then, knowing a bit more about sword play wouldn't hurt.

Especially not if what happened in the Albrook Port square happened again.

Turning his eyes away, Cloud hefted the dumbbells up and started on a set. He couldn't wait until he was level twenty, and could get a damn cape. Maybe he should check the auction house, see if there were better trousers for Rainstorm there – the thong-string thing had to go.

He'd need to make money to get it, somehow. He kind of doubted that RedXIII and Treasure Princess would bother hanging out with him, after that whole thing. He probably wouldn't have either, if he had caused that much trouble for everyone.

Feeling a bit sullen about it, Cloud worked through his exercise silently, keeping a sidelong eye on the other infantry men who were still training with swords. After an hour or so he headed to the showers to get rid of the sweat he was drenched in, lamenting the lack of Rainstorm's physique. Rainstorm was on the skinnier side, like he was, but still pretty strong. Rainstorm could've run through all the machinery in the gym and never broken a sweat.

Did avatars in Terra Online sweat? They bled, but he wasn't sure about sweating. If Rainstorm had, he never noticed it – but then, he probably wouldn't have since the avatar was mostly naked, any sweat he perspired would've dried up pretty quickly. What purpose would sweat serve in a game anyway? Though if they did, did it mean that there were places to bathe in Terra Online?

He really didn't know much about what was or wasn't possible in the game – he had skipped right through the tutorial section and then he’d had to run from Albrook Port because people were being… people. And then he had met RedXIII and had been too busy trying to get gear and then get up level – and then avoid going back to the town and so on…

When he got back in, he needed to actually figure the stuff out. And also look into the whole murder count thing – there was probably some sort of game mechanic included.

He finished his day by tidying his bunk and making sure his uniform was clean enough for another day of boring patrolling. His squad was still new and pretty much untested, so they had them on light duty for a little while before they would assign real duties to them – the superiors were probably waiting to see if they worked at all as a squad or if they'd strangle each other in their sleep given the chance. It was rather boring, but Cloud didn't mind, seeing that it gave him the chance to use the gym every day. Plus, real beds! Well, bunks, but they were almost the same thing.

Once they got to the field, it'd be sleeping bags and tents from there on out, no doubt.

But that wasn't a worry for today. With his things tidied up and the last clean up done, Cloud took the VRDC and settled down to sleep – to play.

 

[ENTERING VIRTUAL DREAMSTATE IN 10]
[PLEASE STAND BY]

Cloud emerged in the game not in the room where he had created his character, but in the Inn, lying down on a bed. He was for a moment confused about why the ceiling changed, before the virtual reality asserted itself on him with a pop up window that appeared right in front of his face.

 

[You have a new Private Message!]
[From: RedXIII]
[To: Rainstorm]
[Subject: STAY WHERE YOU ARE]

[Whatever you do, don't go down to the Inn hall – it's absolutely swarming with bounty hunters waiting for you to log in; you'll be killed the moment you step out. I don't know if you know about the bounty system, but since yesterday you've had about four hundred gold bounty on your head, so there's a lot of guys out there, looking to kill you. Check out your Fame – it's another leaf in the character stats. It's pretty impressive, actually – you even have a wanted poster.
Send me a PM when you get online – Princess and I will help you get out.
Red.]

Cloud blinked at the message, sitting up on the bed. Confused, he opened the character stats screen and then noticed the different pages it had. Stats, Class, Job, Fame. With something like trepidation, he hit the Fame.

 

Rainstorm LV. 6.

[Honorific] The Rabbit of Caerbannog
[Title] [select]
[Guild] none
[Fame] 10
[Infamy] 2155
[Heroics] 1
[Murders] 79
[Credits] 0
[Bounty] 395 Gold

"I have a bounty? And the hell is an Honorific?" Cloud murmured and then poked the [select] on the title. There were four options. Player Killer, which gave +3% aggro and which he had achieved by killing another player. Spree Killer, which gave +5% aggro and +10% infamy, that one he had gotten for killing five players. Serial Killer, which gave +10% aggro and +20% infamy, from killing twenty players. And finally, Mass Murderer, which gave +20% aggro and +30% infamy, reward from killing fifty players.

He eyed the stats – none of the titles seemed to give him anything useful. Well, having +40% on aggro might be useful if he wanted to grind or something, but what did Infamy do?

Shaking his head, he turned to the message from Red and hit reply.

 

[From: Rainstorm]
[To: RedXIII]
[Subject: the hell is infamy?]

[I'm online now and still in the Inn. You're going to have to explain this to me. How did I get a bounty on my head? From killing those people? And there are bounty hunters in the game? Also it turns out I got a lot of titles for it – they're all kind of horrible.]

Cloud considered for a moment adding something about how he hadn't expected to hear from Red or Princess again, but decided against it, and sent the message as it was. Then he stood up, taking a moment to adjust to being taller, stronger, and a whole lot more naked once more, before walking to the window.

There were a lot of very well armed people, hanging around the inn. A lot of them, judging by the looks of them, were either assassins or ninjas – and all of them seemed to be paying a lot of attention to the Inn. They couldn't all be there for him. Right?

 

[RedXIII invites you to a party with him!]
[Accept / Decline]

Cloud accepted the invite, and almost jumped when he heard Treasure Princess' voice, "… lot of them. I don't think I've seen this kind of gathering of absolute asshats since the Fanpocalypse of Alexandria!"

 "Four hundred is a lot of gold," RedXIII's voice answered and then asked, "Rainstorm? Can you hear us?"

"Yeah?" Cloud answered, looking around. "Where are you guys?"

"On the Inn rooftop," Princess answered. "You've made a huge mess, mister! Albrook's been taken over by assholes, because of your little killing spree!"

"Yeah, so I see," Cloud answered with a snort, looking out of the window. "Are they all really here for me?"

"A four hundred gold bounty, who's level six? Of course they're here for you – you're practically free money at this point," Princess snorted. "The bounty, plus the looting – which, by the way, I am so mad at you for because you didn't loot any of those people yesterday! What a huge waste – and by the time I got down there, most of them were already resurrecting and ugh. What a waste of an excellent opportunity!"

"What?" Cloud asked, confused.

"You can loot a dead player's equipment and inventory, even if you're not a thief," RedXIII answered. "And you automatically get half of their gold when you PK them – how much did you get yesterday, by the way?"

"Uh," Cloud answered and opened his inventory. What had been 31 copper was… 558 gold, 24 silver, 98 copper now. "Um. Holy fuck. I didn't even…" he trailed away. "So, um, if someone kills me now, they get half of what I have?"

"That, and the bounty," RedXIII agreed. "The bounty goes to the first person who kills you, though, and only them – which is why they're all here, trying to be the first to get you."

"So whoever kills me first… gets over six hundred gold," Cloud murmured.

"…how much did you make yesterday?!" Treasure Princess demanded to know – and then let out a string of Wutainese, when Cloud told her. "Can I be the first to kill you?" she asked then. "You don't need that much money, really, do you? You're level six, it's not like you can even buy any good gear yet!"

"Piss off," Cloud answered, looking down to the street again. "I don't feel like getting killed right now. You said something about helping me get out of here?"

"Yeah. With a ninja and a shaman on your side, the distractions we can offer are oh so fantastic," Princess said.

"Do you think you could climb to the rooftop?" RedXIII asked.

Their distraction was a mess of Princess' grenades and smoke bombs and RedXIII aoe attacks, which turned the streets around the Inn into a mess of smoke and fire, taking the bounty hunters for a moment by surprise. Cloud used the smoke cover to open the window and swing himself onto the window sill, before climbing his way awkwardly up the drain pipe and onto the roof, where the ninja and the shaman were waiting for him.

"Um," Cloud greeted them – because RedXIII had a pair of white wings on his back, and Princess was sitting on a black chocobo.

"Well, come on!" the Gria girl snapped at him, even while lobbing another twenty or so smoke grenades down to the street below. "Get on! We need to get out of here!"

RedXIII spread out his wings, looking really rather weird while doing it, and roared some more fire down on the street, where they could hear cursing and shouting and someone letting out a shout of pain. Confused but all too willing to get away before the pair of them set the whole Inn on fire, Cloud jumped to sit behind Princess on the chocobo's back, and barely had enough time to grab a hold of her waist before she kicked the bird into motion.

The chocobo jumped, and suddenly they were on another rooftop, the chocobo running over it in couple of powerful steps and then they were jumping again, onto another nearby rooftop, and then another – with RedXIII hovering above them, sending fire down as necessary. Within a few minutes, they had covered most of the port town via its rooftops and then they were out, dashing into the woods and out of sight.

They still kept running, weaving and ducking about in the wilds, from the meadow to the woods to the glen to the field and to another patch of trees, before Princess and Red seemed to think they were far enough.

"Well," Cloud said, once they stopped. He let out a breathless, bewildered chuckle. "That was interesting."

It was kind of sad when a game was much more exciting than real life, but there it was. He certainly hadn't had as much excitement in his whole day, than he’d had in these first ten minutes here.

"Interesting, sure," RedXIII said, dropping down and quickly un-equipping the wings.

Princess snorted. "You’re one of the most wanted people in Terra Online right now, and it's interesting," she said. "You do realise how hard it will be to for you to go to towns, now? You rank on the leader boards! Like everyone knows who you are and what you look like. You're like the only male Viera in the entire game!"

"Like I even want to go into towns, after yesterday," Cloud said, shaking his head. "Leader boards?"

With a huff the ninja opened her command menu and brought the rankings up. "Here," she said, scrolling through. "Most kills at lowest level – you beat Sephiroth's record!"

"What?" Cloud asked and leaned in.

 

[INFAMY RANKINGS / Player kills by level]

[Rainstorm – LV. 6 – 79 kills]
[Sephiroth – LV. 7 – 76 kills]
[Loyal – LV. 7 – 71 kills]
[Zoto – LV. 8 – 64 kills]

"Sephiroth?" Cloud asked, surprised. "Not the real one, right?"

"Sadly it's the real thing – everyone knows it's him. He even looks like himself. Human swordsman with long hair and all," Princess said, and switched leader boards away from Infamy Rankings, to General ranking. "He's the highest ranking player in the game too."

 

[LEVEL RANKINGS]

[Sephiroth – LV. 81]
[BELOVED – LV. 75]
[Noble – LV. 74]
[Loyal – LV. 69]

Cloud stared at the rankings, speechless. Sephiroth played Terra Online? And had a level that high? Well, the level wasn't that big of a surprise really, but still. Sephiroth was playing the same game he was? And Cloud had beat Sephiroth's record on something?

"So you see, a lot of people are out to get you now," RedXIII said solemnly.

"Fucking hell," Cloud murmured, running a hand over his face. This so wasn't what he had expected to happen when he started the game. Not at all.

"Can I see your Fame stats?" Princess asked. "I wanna see how much infamy you got."

Sighing Cloud opened the character stats and leafed through them to the Fame page. "What does infamy do anyway?" he asked and then looked at the others when they didn't answer. "What?"

"You got an honorific?!" Treasure Princess shrieked.

"What?" Cloud asked, leaning away from her a bit with surprise.

"You have an honorific," RedXIII said, nodding. "The Rabbit of Caerbannog."

"Yeah?" Cloud more asked than answered. "What about it? What does it even mean?"

"Rainstorm, honorifics are unique. There's like only a handful of them in the entire game – they're specifically given by the Admin," Princess said, shoving at his shoulder in frustration. "Like Sephiroth has one – the General – and a couple other people too. But it's seriously, seriously rare. They're given for like… really special reasons."

"Does it give you any stats?" Red asked, curious, and shaking his head Cloud tapped at the honorific.

 

[The Rabbit of Caerbannog]
[The most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!]
[All stats +20%, aggro +20%]

"Erm," Cloud said, blinking at the stats. "Somebody has a sense of humour, I guess."

"Aside from the aggro, that's pretty awesome," Princess said.

"I got four titles too – all of them add aggro. And infamy," Cloud said, and equipped the Mass Murderer title. "What does infamy do anyway?"

"Ah, it's kind of bad actually," Princess said. "It makes bosses harder, loot drop rate goes down, and npcs charge you more. Stuff like that. It's to discourage player killing and stuff. And yikes, you got a lot, didn't you?"

"How did I get this much?"

"The more people you kill the more infamy you get from it," RedXIII shrugged. "First ten kills I think its ten infamy for each. Ten after that are fifteen infamy. Ten after that are twenty, and so on. Seventy nine people killed… it means a lot of infamy."

"Oh," Cloud said, and unequipped the title. "And, um, any way to make it go down?" he asked, pointing at his 2155 points of infamy.

"Fame and heroics sort of cancel it out, but the points never go anywhere," RedXIII answered.

Cloud nodded thoughtfully. He had ten points of fame. "And how do you get those?"

"By doing good deeds. I guess you got that from helping me at the Aragu cave," Princess said, eying the points. "Healing other players and giving them stuff free of charge gives you Fame too, though not as much. Some quests give you fame, too."

Cloud sighed. "Great," he murmured, eying his stats. "Bounty hunters after me and almost two thousand infamy to my name… this is going to be a whole lot of fun, won't it?"

Well. The game world was much more fun than the real world – but it sure as hell wasn't easier.

Chapter Text

 

"So," Yuffie asked, looking between RedXIII who was considering the woods around them and Rainstorm who was staring dismally at his own Fame stats. "Now what?"

"Obviously we can't stay here," RedXIII said, glancing at Rainstorm. "Or we could. But with the zone full of people specifically out looking for you…."

"Yeah, I don't really feel like sticking around either," Rainstorm said with a sigh and closed the window. "But can we leave? I mean, Princess and I are level six."

"Nu-uh. You are level six. I am level twelve, now," Yuffie grinned. "I grinded like a… a… like something that grinds. Grinder. Anyway, after you logged off yesterday, I stayed online for another six hours because I am not from the stupid East Continent and it was still the middle of the night for me. And so I gained some levels."

The Viera cast her a look and nodded, nowhere near to being suitably impressed but acknowledging her triumph which was almost good enough. "If you're not from the East, what are you doing online?" he asked. "Isn't it pretty early in the West?"

Yuffie shrugged. "We figured that you'd end up being screwed if we let you log in on your own, so Red and I decided to log in early to give you a hand," she said. "I'm technically having an afternoon nap right now."

 "Thanks for the save, it's appreciated," Rainstorm said, nodding. "So, can I leave the zone, at level six?" he asked, glancing at Red.

"Yes, but you stand the chance of getting killed by simple mobs," the beast said thoughtfully, looking the Viera up and down. "Granted, you stand the chance of getting killed wherever you go now, with that bounty. There are options though. It all depends on how you want to play the game though."

"Hm?" Rainstorm asked.

"Do you want to play it, and enjoy the experience… or do you want to survive it?" Red said. "Easiest way of being left in peace now would be for someone to kill you once, which would take care of the bounty and the wanted poster and after that the bounty hunters wouldn't bother you – after which you could play however you want, mostly whilst being left in peace."

"Like I was left in peace before?" Rainstorm asked dryly, glancing down at himself. "Somehow I doubt that's gonna happen," he said, motioning at himself in his 80% nakedness.

Yuffie grinned. "That reminds me!" She said and dug into her inventory, pulling out double fortified, crystal equipped leather trousers. Aside from being very finely fortified, they were perfectly normal looking. "Tadaah! I got these for you. They ought to cover up your tush properly. Plus they have excellent def. And you can pay for them too, since you're filthy rich now."

Rainstorm eyed the trousers dubiously. "Can I first hold them, before I pay for them? Gear has the habit of transforming in my hands."

The trousers did transform in his hand, turning completely white with the sides opening up all the way from hips to the end of the legs, with straps holding the trousers together. They all stared at the transformed pair of trousers for a moment before Rainstorm sighed. "Well, it's not a thong," he said. "How much do you want for them?"

Yuffie struck a pose, pointing at him. "A hundred gold!"

The Viera gave her a flat look. "How about my shiny heel up your ass?" he asked, even while opening the trade window. He put five gold in it – which Yuffie hurriedly accepted before he could change his mind – because five gold was seriously over priced for level 6 gear.

"You got robbed," RedXIII commented.

"I’ve got over five hundred gold in my inventory, which I didn't ask for," Rainstorm said while examining the white leather trousers with something like dismay. "I should probably try and get it all into a warehouse somehow…."

When equipped the trousers revealed quite bit of skin – maybe even more than they actually covered. But it was definitely an improvement to the thong he was wearing previously.

Rainstorm ran his hand over the sides where they opened up and showed a lot of his hip bones before sighing. "So, say I don't particularly want to be killed by anyone," he said, turning to RedXIII. "Because somehow I doubt that it would take care of the problem entirely. What with the leader boards thing and the honorific thing and there's the infamy too…."

RedXIII considered him. "I could help you power level," he said slowly. "I could take you to the Wastes and level you through at least twenty inside one night. You'd end up missing a lot of the game that way, though – plus you would have to go back and level your job after the fact, which can get tiresome. But the Wastes are so big that we probably wouldn't be bothered by anyone."

"Can I come too?" Yuffie asked. She didn't much care for the Wastes – they were too big and too boring and had way too many high level monsters – even at level 40 they had been hard to be in. But they were damn good for levelling. "At level 12 I can even contribute…" she wheedled. "Plus I was already way higher level, so I won't be missing out on anything."

"I guess," RedXIII said, sighing.

Rainstorm folded his arms and considered it. "I don't know if I'd want that," he said finally. "I guess it would make things easier but…" he shook his head. "It doesn't seem that much fun."

"Oh come on!" Yuffie said. "Do you really want to grind your way through a bunch of useless low levels, with all those asshats after you?"

Rainstorm shrugged. "I guess," he said and rested his hands on his hips. "It's no fun if it's easy," he then said. "Don't you think?"

"No, that's what makes it fun! Getting to a high level as fast as possible and not having to worry about the little things!" Yuffie argued. "Not having to do the stupid little quests and grind your way through stupid little levels until you can actually get up level and actually do stuff! You can only do the interesting things when you get to level forty! Like get a second class!"

Rainstorm shrugged. "I like working my way through things, achieving stuff on my own merit. Having things just handed to you… wouldn't make those things worth anything," he shook his head and turned to Red. "Thanks all the same, but I'll level up on my own."

"Tch!" Yuffie scowled, kicking some dirt in the Viera's direction. "You are the king of lost opportunities!"

Red though seemed satisfied. "You can power level on your own; though with your infamy it might be a bit difficult," he said, "by fighting higher level mobs and bosses as much as you can. There are a few in this zone, aside from the lizard of AraguCave. If we're lucky, you'll even be left alone there."

"Let's go then," Rainstorm said before pausing. "Actually, before that… what should I do with the money?" he asked, opening his inventory. "I kind of don't want to just hang on to it, if by getting killed I'll end up losing a lot of it. But I can't access the warehouse right now."

"Only if you get killed by a player – if a mob kills you, you only lose exp," RedXIII said. "One way to secure money that doesn't take the warehouse would be sending it in a PM to another player. Given that the player leaves the money in the message and doesn't add it to their inventory, it's pretty much as safe as in a warehouse. So long as you can trust the player, that is."

"Send it to me!" Yuffie said quickly – and of course Rainstorm didn't, the scrooge. He sent the bulk of his money - 550 gold, yikes! – to RedXIII who nodded, leaving the money in the message.

"You guys suck," Yuffie grumbled, as they headed out of the patch of woods to find some monsters for Rainstorm to kill.

They didn't make it very far, before they were startled by a party of bounty hunters – a gunner, sniper and archer team, which opened fire the moment they saw Rainstorm, catching him on the shoulder, Yuffie on the thigh and completely missing Red because they weren't aiming low enough.

"Son of a –" Yuffie cursed, almost falling down, while Red let out a snarl and covered himself, Yuffie and Rainstorm in Invincibility.

"Keep firing!" the archer shouted and they kept firing, their bullets and arrows dinging against the shield of Invincibility without causing any damage – but the buff was short lived, and quickly running out.

"Shit," Rainstorm muttered, getting his swords out while Yuffie downed a potion. "Can we take them?"

"Psh!" Yuffie said, looking at the bounty hunters. "With that gear? They're only level thirty at most. Red can take 'em on, easy."

"She's right," Red said, all the while throwing up buffs on all of them – but mostly on Rainstorm, upping his defence, speed and attack by leaps and bounds. "I probably can take them, but the kills… I don't have any on my stats, and I don't want any. So Rainstorm, if you wouldn't mind…."

"Yeah, I guess I already have so much infamy that a bit more wouldn't hurt," Rainstorm muttered.

Yuffie considered it – she had about thirty murders on her account, but… yeah, she didn't want a bounty. So, she quickly equipped the Reflect crystal and started throwing her ninja-buffs off herself and onto the swordsman. "Let's do this," she said, taking out a handful of stat grenades.

The Invincibility ran out and the bounty hunters fired faster, the gunner going as far as firing rocket missiles at them. By that point, though, the Hastes were already up – and with the ease of 300% increase in speed, they could easily avoid the slow moving missiles.

And damn, being under Haste was awesome. Gunners and snipers were fast, but with the Hastes on her, they seemed so slow, Yuffie could almost see the bullets as they flew – so, so easy to avoid now!

Whatever the bounty hunter party had been expecting, it obviously wasn't a shaman – which was pretty stupid, all things considered, Rainstorm had been Hasted pretty heavily in the Albrook Newbie Massacre after all. But what was more, they obviously hadn't expected A, a ninja or B… a black mage.

And damn, what a black mage Red made. In a single roar of aoe fire, backed up by all the buffs he had on, Red bathed all three of the bounty hunters in flames, taking out a good 50% chunk of all their HPs. Before they could recover, Yuffie started lobbing the grenades at them – all backed with status effects. Confused and Blinded within moments, the bounty hunters had next to no chance of defending themselves when Red made another aoe attack, a rain shower of fire that took the hunter party's HP away bit by bit as they were hit by the fiery droplets. Yuffie wore the rest out with a couple of lower level grenades.

And then Rainstorm rushed in and simply cut all their throats, leaving the sniper, the gunner and the archer all slumped over on the ground.

"We kick some MIGHTY ass!" Yuffie crowed in delight, jumping in the air and throwing her fist up. "Also these guys are idiots! Why'd they all just stand there, in one spot – and all in one place! What's this, their first try at bounty hunting? You suckers!"

The sniper resurrected then, looking irritated. "Actually it was," he started to say with a finger pointed at Yuffie – before Rainstorm cut his throat again, and he slumped back to the ground.

The archer resurrected, looking furious. "You son of a –!" and Rainstorm cut his throat too.

"Um," Yuffie said, a bit awkward. "Rainstorm?"

"What?" the man asked calmly, holding his swords out, aimed at the bounty hunters, obviously waiting for them to resurrect.

"There's a certain etiquette to these things," RedXIII said slowly. "Considering that we beat them they're unlikely to try and fight us again. You don't need to –"

The gunner resurrected – and was killed again by Rainstorm.

"Um," Red said and looked at Yuffie, looking, for the first time the girl had known the beast, helpless.

"Rainstorm, you're walking the fine line of defending yourself and just being an asshole and just plain griefing these guys," Yuffie said. "They're not gonna fight us again – probably not, not unless they're complete idiots. You don't need to keep killing them – they're just trying to resurrect so that we don't rob them too."

"They attacked us," Rainstorm said, the points of his swords on the throats of the sniper and the archer, expecting them to be next. "With the intention to kill. Don't you think they deserve a bit of a punishment?" he smiled at the bounty hunters. "Come on; resurrect again. Let's see how high I can get my infamy on you bastards."

They, understandably, didn't resurrect.

"The Rabbit of Caerbannog," Red said slowly. "The most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you ever set your eyes on, wasn't it?"

"It's surprisingly fitting, actually," Yuffie said with a nod. Then, after a moment of watching Rainstorm try and get the guys to resurrect again so that he could kill them again, she shrugged – and went to check what the bounty hunters had in their inventories, adding her insult to Rainstorm's injury.

Rainstorm LV. 6.

[Honorific] The Rabbit of Caerbannog
[Title] [select]
[Guild] none
[Fame] 10
[Infamy] 2350
[Heroics] 1
[Murders] 85
[Credits] 0
[Bounty] 425 Gold

Chapter Text


[You have a new Private Message]
[To: Sephiroth]
[From: Loyal]
[Subject: Infamy Rankings]

[Have you by any chance looked at the Infamy Rankings lately? Someone recently broke a record you made – and just set the record again. I have been asking around and no one knows who it is – perhaps you might?]

Sephiroth read the message from the corner of his eyes, while finishing his seven-slash attack on the Wastes Dragon, leaving the colossal monster cut up and dead on the dry, lifeless ground. After checking the exp he got – a couple hundredths of a percent – he reached out to tug the message window nearer to the centre of his vision and arched an eyebrow at it.

He had set a lot of records in Terra Online – quite a few of them in the Infamy Rankings. All of them, at one point – but that was before Zoto had taken up the corpse camping duties of the Overseers guild and thus gathered infamy in the tens of thousands. As it was, he still had the highest bounty in the game on his head, seeing that unlike Zoto he didn't let himself be killed just so that someone could collect it.

He wouldn't have been surprised if Zoto had broken a record he had set… but someone Loyal didn't know? That was a rather tall order. The Overseers knew everybody who was anybody in the game.

Sheathing the virtual copy of Masamune, Sephiroth opened his command menu and from there went to the Leader Boards. It took a few moments to find the one record Loyal was speaking of, but he did.

[INFAMY RANKINGS / Player kills by level]

[Rainstorm – LV. 6 – 85 kills]
[Sephiroth – LV. 7 – 76 kills]
[Loyal – LV. 7 – 71 kills]
[Zoto – LV. 8 – 64 kills]
...

"Rainstorm?" Sephiroth murmured thoughtfully. It didn't sound familiar – though he would've been surprised if someone new was someone familiar to him. Most people he knew in real life already played Terra Online and had been playing it for months, years in some cases, and he knew the majority of the better SOLDIERs in the game as well as out of it. Rainstorm wasn't something he thought any of them would pick for themselves.

Maybe Angeal's protégé? No, he had been playing for months now and had a wolf-related name, didn't he?

Curious, Sephiroth tapped at the unfamiliar name to get the profile.

[The Rabbit of Caerbannog]
[ <no title selected> ]
[Rainstorm]
[Level 6 Viera]
[Class: Swordsman LV. 3]
[Job: Blacksmith LV. 1]
[ <doesn't belong to a guild> ]
[Credits: 0]
[Bounty: 425 Gold]
[Status: Online]

Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at the profile. Well, it certain looked like this Rainstorm was a new player, seeing that he hadn't done anything yet. Except kill eighty five other players. Taking a seat in a nearby cluster of jagged rocks, Sephiroth turned to look at the player kills by level rankings. Eighty five at level six. He wasn't sure if that was impressive or just downright suspicious.

It could be unrelated but… it did rather look like the Viera had gone out his way to specifically break Sephiroth's record. Some had tried it before, but it wasn't as easy as it seemed, to kill people in the lower levels – most who tried got themselves killed in the process. It took surprising amount of skill, to do it – and not die while at it. Loyal had done it mostly thanks to the fact that he was a cunning bastard and Zoto, well… Zoto was Zoto.

But usually even after a couple kills most got taken down by bounty hunters after easy money – and this guy, it seemed, still had his bounty from all of his kills. So he had managed to kill eighty five people, without being killed once since then – or during, for that matter. With a bounty like that he would have people crawling over each other trying to get to him first, and no one had gotten him yet. That took skill, too.

After a moment of though, Sephiroth opened his Friends window, and checked BELOVED's status. Genesis, he thought, would be the one to try something like this – somehow setting up a new character just in order to break Sephiroth's record. He certainly had tried breaking the records in other rankings. Sephiroth didn't think there was a way to create new characters in Terra Online – but he knew the admin could make exceptions as he liked, so it wasn't impossible either….

BELOVED was shown online – so not him, then. But maybe someone else - another SOLDIER perhaps, a new one? Considering it for a moment, Sephiroth opened the private message menu.

[To: Noble]
[From: Sephiroth]
[Subject: Rainstorm]

[Have we added any new promising SOLDIERs into our ranks?]

With that done, Sephiroth stood up and brushed the windows to the edges of his vision before heading off to find another dragon to kill. They didn't give nearly enough exp to make any difference for him, just fractions of percentages at most, if even that. But they were a way to kill time.

Maybe, if he was lucky, the Wastes Demon would appear. It was about the only boss in the game he hadn't killed yet – and who knows, it might give him actual percents of exp. And maybe, if he killed it enough times, he might even get to level 82.

Reeve and Cait Sith really needed to add some tougher bosses already. Sephiroth had been stuck at level 81 for months now, making only infinitesimal progress. But perhaps that was a way to limit how strong players got. Terra Online had no level cap, but after level 60 it got damn hard to gain levels – nothing gave enough exp to make the right percentages.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Sephiroth]
[From: Noble]
[Subject: Rainstorm]

[New SOLDIERs? Not that I know of – I'll ask Zack when he logs in, but I think if there was one, I would've heard of him by now. I HAVE heard of this Rainstorm person, though – one of the players he killed in Albrook Port was part of Heroes. It was quite a massacre, apparently – seventy nine people, in half an hour. Plus the guy is a male Viera. I hadn't even realised they were a thing before this guy – I thought Viera was a female exclusive race. Though, it would be somewhat strange for one race to be female exclusive when none of the others are.
Why are you asking?
Angeal]

Sephiroth's eyebrows shot up at that. Seventy nine people in half an hour? He had thought it had been a gradual thing – that this Rainstorm had gone around killing lower level players, but… that many in one go?

Utterly fascinated now, he opened the general chat window – which he usually ignored – and sure enough, some people were talking about the Albrook Newbie Massacre – it even had its own chat window, with a rather descriptive name.

[GENERAL CHAT / That Viera Bastard]

<Genteeeel> the mods' doing nothing about it – ton of people have filed reports.
<sinsek> yeah apparently the whole thing was all legit. the guy's genuine LV. 6 – he was just buffed to fucking heaven in Albrook.
<Duckrack> the asshole has a shaman!
<sinsek> and a ninja too – someone smoke bombed almost whole Albrook to get the guy out of there.
<Fenrek> have you guys been watching the leader boards? His kill count jumped up again!

Curious, Sephiroth opened the leader boards – and true enough, Rainstorm kill count was now 89 – and then it jumped to 90 and then to 91.

<sinsek> BHs are going after him, I'm guessing – and then he kills them too.
<Duckrack> you guys realise how high this guy's bounty's gonna be? It's already what, 450G?
<Genteeeel> I'd love to be the guy who killed this asshole.

Sephiroth watched the chat for a while, coming to the conclusion that the previous night, Rainstorm had instigated a massacre in the Albrook beginner town, killing the first 79 of his kills – and the ones after that were bounty hunters who went after him.

Even if the initial event happened in a beginner town, the fact that he was now taking down bounty hunters was very interesting, and Sephiroth found himself wondering how high level the people Rainstorm was taking down were.

Very few players over level forty bothered with bounty hunting – there weren't that many high bounties in the game, really. The ones that there were, were either too high a level – like Sephiroth – for anyone to even try it… or they let their friends kill them to collect the money. So overall, bounty hunting wasn't that good a way to make money and usually bounty hunting gave you at most twenty, thirty gold per bounty – if that. And after level forty, most people were busy levelling up their second class, or making their job items and selling those, since it was easier way to make money that way.

But most bounty hunters were usually at least over 20 – plus a level 6 with that high a bounty would've inspired a lot of first time bounty hunting. You couldn't make that sort of money before you started making level 40 items, after all – if even then.

After a moment of thought, Sephiroth opened the PM menu again.

[To: Cait Sith]
[From: Sephiroth]
[Subject: Rainstorm]

[Could you, by any chance, start a leader board ranking for Rainstorm's kills? I'm very curious about the levels of the people he's taking down.]

And as always, he hardly had to wait more than a couple of seconds, before Cait Sith answered.

[To: Sephiroth]
[From: Cait Sith]
[Subject: You, sir, ask the strangest things]

[But this whole thing has been so much fun, that why not. The game hasn't had this much excitement since BELOVED Shouted that you were in Alexandria. Give me a couple of minutes and you'll have your Rainstorm specific rankings. Though just so you know, he just took down a level 33. It was a White Mage, though, so there's that. I'll add classes to the rankings too, shall I?]

Sephiroth smirked at the window and then killed some time with a few more dragons, waiting for the mod to set up the leader board subset. While he was at it, he kept an eye on the space around himself in hopes of spying the Wastes Demon, but of course it was a no-show. Still, there was a certain satisfaction to ripping right through the level 65 dragons – he didn't really even need to use skills for this, but he did anyway.

He was through his third dragon and just taking on the forth when Cait Sith messaged him that the leader boards had been set. Sephiroth finished the dragon with Octaslash, leaving it torn into pieces behind him, and quickly opened the leader boards. Rainstorm's Duel rankings were a subset of the Special Rankings – Sephiroth had his own Duel ranking too, with Genesis and Angeal and Loyal at the top of it, naturally.

[SPECIAL RANKINGS / Rainstorm's Duels]
[Challenger – Level – Class – Time – Duration – Winner]

[Heartly LV. 33 – White Mage – 23:22, Jan 6 – 4:32 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Heartly LV. 32 – White Mage – 23:26, Jan 6 – 0:10 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Deseco LV. 31 – Archer – 23:04, Jan 6 – 1:24 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Heartly LV. 31 – White Mage – 23:28, Jan 6 – 0:12 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Vasion LV. 30 – Gunner – 22:41, Jan 6 – 2:43 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Swiftly LV. 30 – Archer – 22:43, Jan 6 – 3:02 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Deseco LV. 30 – Archer – 23:06, Jan 6 – 0:03 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]

Idly Sephiroth scrolled down on the list. The bulk of Rainstorm's challengers were made of levels five to twenty – beginners from his initial slaughter, most likely – but the latest kills seemed to be long range attackers. Apparently people didn't want to get close to the guy. Also, judging by the looks of things, Rainstorm killed his attackers numerous times. They attacked him, he killed them. Then he killed them again, at least once – right after they resurrected, judging by the time it took him.

The guy was apparently well deserving of the name people called him in the chat. Rainstorm's kill count was now 95, and he was still level 6. Though judging by the rate of bounty hunters after him, he probably just didn't have time to try and level up.

Sephiroth watched for a while how the rankings shifted about as more people were added and couldn't help the thought of how entertaining it must be. Nothing had given Sephiroth a real challenge in the game since he had been level fifty – right now things were almost boring for him, with nothing able to so much as scratch him. To be level six again, and to do something like that…. Definitely different from scouring the Wastes in hopes of finding something that offered him anything new.

It was almost enough to make him wish he could just have someone corpse camp him down a few levels… but he couldn't give anyone that satisfaction. And to leave Genesis the highest level player in the game? No one would ever hear the end of it.

But who knows… a guy who at level 6 was killing people more than twenty levels higher than him? Maybe he could give a decent challenge, at the higher levels. Maybe by then Rainstorm would have as high a bounty on his head as Sephiroth had on his. It was definitely something to look forward to.

If the guy could ever level up, with all the bounty hunters coming after him.

[To: Loyal]
[From: Sephiroth]
[Subject: Infamy Rankings]

[No, I don't know who Rainstorm is. But I am very interested to see what becomes of him. Do let me know if you find anything of interest about him.]

Chapter Text

"This is getting annoying!" Princess groaned. "How many of those guys are gonna come after you?!"

"All of them, I'm guessing," Rainstorm sighed while downing a potion. They had left yet another bounty hunter party behind them after Rainstorm had corpse camped them into submission and Princess had looted their bodies – which at this point was less about it being mean, and more about it being necessity. They were running out of potions – and the other two couldn't use Nanaki's potions, seeing that his were too high a level.

"At a guess, they’re sharing their location in the chat and that's how they keep finding us," Nanaki said, his tail flicking from side to side in irritation. He was almost out of mana potions – it was hard, keeping a party of three constantly buffed up. "This area is too small to hide from them. Rainstorm, can't we go to another zone? Any zone?"

The Viera swordsman sighed. "I guess we have to," he said. "I'm sorry about this, guys. You don't really have to stick around – I can… I could probably log off or something, let you two play in peace."

"And miss all the loot you're getting me? Are you kidding?" Princess said. "I have my gear all picked out for when I make it to level 30 again, this is pretty sweet!"

"This is fine – it's interesting in its own right," Nanaki admitted – definitely more exciting than roaming the fields and zones by himself. "But we need a break – and I need a moment of peace to make potions. Let's just switch zones – the other zones are much bigger, we would have better luck at hiding."

"There's one problem with that, though," Princess said. "The portal."

Nanaki sighed. The portal indeed.

"Portal?" Rainstorm asked.

"That's how you switch zones – you go through a portal from one zone to another," she explained. "They're usually like on roads or in valleys, stuff like that – bottle necks. It's got something to do with zone loading and stuff, apparently it's easier on the servers if they're separate pieces – but anyway. It's gonna be absolutely covered with people looking for you. All the portals from here to… to anywhere are gonna be manned."

Rainstorm nodded. "I guess we need an exit strategy then," he said. "Some way to… clear the way. We have distractions covered anyway, with you two."

"They're going to be expecting us, by now," Nanaki said. "Smoke bombs and aoes won't cut it."

"I could help you folks out, for a price," a male voice said from above, and out of simple instinct born from being attacked so many times, Nanaki automatically threw Invincibility up. He wasn't the only one who had gotten paranoid – Rainstorm instantly drew his swords and Princess had a grenade in each hand.

"What a hostile bastard you are," the voice said, and Nanaki looked up to a nearby tree. There was a Moogle sitting on a tree branch there, goggles covering his eyes and a wide, amused grin taking most of his face.

"What the – how long have you been up there, you asshole?!" Princess demanded to know.

"A while," the Moogle answered and jumped down, landing with a thud in front of them. "Don't sweat it," he said when Nanaki prepared to cast some more buffs on them. "I'm not here to kill ya. I thought about it, but it's been far more fun just watchin' you suckers stumblin' around. Besides, it's not like I need the money," he added and opened his own character menu.

[Naut LV. 59]
[RACE] Moogle
[CLASS] Machinist LV. 59, Dragoon LV. 54
[JOB] Armourer LV. 43
[STR] 34 (+1334)
[DEF] 8 (+1229)
[VIT] 7 (+902)
[SPD] 32 (+823)
[AGI] 29 (+1198)
[DEX] 52 (+1403)
[INT] 9 (+120)
[WIS] 5 (+42)

The Moogle grinned at them. "At this level, I can make five hundred gold just by selling gear and shit. So I don't exactly need to resort to damn bounty huntin'. Besides, if I wanted to kill ya, you'd be dead already."

"Then why are you here?" Nanaki asked, looking at the Moogle's stats somewhat uneasily. He was right about them being dead if he wanted them dead – even with all the buffs, they couldn't match those spd and str stats. What kind of gear did the Moogle have, to have plus stats up in the thousands? "At that level."

"Probably for the same damn reason you are – to find craft material," the Moogle said, and closed the stats window. "Friend of mine started playing a couple days back, I'm making her some armour and shit – but didn't have the material so, here I am, with ya noobs."

"Oi, I used to be level forty six!" Princess snapped.

"Well, you sure as hell ain't now, are ya, girlie?" Naut asked, his grin widening.

"…You said you could help us out?" Rainstorm said, looking a little uneasy as he put his swords away. "What's the price?"

"You're a blacksmith, right?" Naut asked. "And the girlie is a craftsman and the beastie is an alchemist. You three kit my friend properly and I'll help you out of the zone."

"How the hell do you know that?" Princess asked, uneasy.

"I looked at your fucking profiles – jobs aren't exactly a secret," the Moogle answered, rolling his eyes. "Besides, I'm a machinist. Scan was literally the first skill in my menu."

Nanaki sat back and glanced at Rainstorm – who hadn't done any blacksmithing and was thus still level one in his job. Rainstorm seemed to remember it too. "What level is your friend?" he asked slowly.

"She's a glorious level four," Naut grinned. "So don't worry – ya don't need to bust your ass for this. Just make her a rapier that'll do for her up to level ten at least. That, and the crystals for it, and any potions she might need and is able to use at her level. Then I'll bust ya out of here."

Rainstorm sighed, running a hand over his chin. "I could," he said. "If I wasn't beset by bounty hunters at every turn. I haven't even been able to level up, because we've had to fight players."

"Yeah, I saw – it's been hilarious," Naut said with a laugh. "Which is why I’m gonna watch your backs while ya do some minin' and blacksmithin' and shit. Trust me – no shitty bounty hunters are a match for what I can bring to the table."

Nanaki nodded thoughtfully. The delivery of the words aside, the Moogle was probably being pretty truthful. Even level 30 machinists were hard to take on – but level 59? Plus with the Moogle's stats? It was hard to say how being a machinist and dragoon matched, but just as a machinist the Moogle would be pretty much a one player army.

"Say we do this. How are you going to get us out of the zone?" Rainstorm asked.

"Ya haven't seen a machinist in action, have ya?" Naut asked, amused. "We're kinda like summoners with a shit ton of machines. Trust me, no fucking bounty hunter can match me."

"Okay. How can we trust that you're going to actually do it?" Rainstorm asked, resting his hand at his hips. "We just met you and you've been nothing but fucking unpleasant."

The Moogle grinned at that. "Check my fucking profile if you don't believe me."

[Judgemaster]
[Naut]
[Level 59 Moogle]
[Class: Machinist LV. 59, Dragoon LV. 54 ]
[Job: Armourer LV. 43]
[Member of Masters of Air Guild]
[Credits: 2043]
[Bounty: 0 Gold]
[Status: Online]

"That's a lot of credits," Princess said. "How the hell did you get that many?"

Naut shrugged. "Dealin' fairly," he said simply. "Plus I make a lot of crap I don't need, that I give to people. Shit like that."

Rainstorm didn't seem to understand the significance of that – or of the title. Nanaki nudged at him slightly. "Judgemaster is a title you get only when you work as one of Alexandria's judges and get enough votes. I'll explain it later, but it's pretty rare to get it. I think he's… probably trustworthy."

Rainstorm glanced at him and then shrugged. "Fine," he said and sighed. "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

"Oh, don't say that. Bad stuff always goes down when people say that," Princess moaned. "Now he's gonna stab us in the back and take all our loot and it'll be all your fault."

"Tch, you got some imagination, girlie," Naut said and looked at Rainstorm. "So, we got a deal?"

"I guess we do," Rainstorm said. "And I guess it's time I start mining then?"

Naut took them to a nearby ravine – the existence of which neither Nanaki nor Princess had known anything about. "Well, why the hell should ya?" Naut asked. "You're fucking hunters and gatherers, aren't ya? I got to mine shit, same as tall, dark and stripper-like over there," he motioned at Rainstorm who was examining his job commands. "While you know where to find the right fucking weeds, I know where to find the right fucking rocks. Shouldn't be a damn surprise."

"I mine too, a bit," Princess pointed out sullenly

"And I don't give a rat's ass. Make the damn crystals. Int and str. Come on," the Moogle clapped his hands. "Chop chop."

"I'm gonna chop chop your head off," the ninja muttered but settled down to craft, muttering Wutainese curses under her breath as she did.

Nanaki sighed at her and then opened his own crafting menu, to see if he had the materials for low level potions. "I need to gather a bit," he said after a moment of considering and glanced at the others, unsure if he should leave Rainstorm and Princess alone with Naut. The Moogle was a Judgemaster – but that didn't mean that the Moogle would care if bounty hunters came and killed them. Naut might just stand there, let Rainstorm be killed for his bounty and….

"Well, go on then. Get to it, beastie," Naut said, making a shooing motion. "We'll be right here."

"Rainstorm?" Nanaki asked.

The Viera glanced away from the window. "Go. We'll be fine," he said and glanced at Naut. "Probably," he added.

"Avenge us if we die," Princess added, sullen.

"…Right," Nanaki said, sighing. "I'll be right back."

He collected the herbs he needed as quickly as he could, scouring through the places where they grew most numerously. The time he spent going from place to place – he needed to go to the meadow and that wasn't near – seemed to last forever and the longer he spent away, the more worried he got over his party members. Rainstorm was what he was and the Princess certainly wasn't helpless, but their levels were still so low ….

Once he had all he needed to make a full batch of HP and MP potions both, Nanaki ran all the way back to the ravine, through the woods and the glen, almost stumbling right over the edge of the cliffs and into the ravine itself – just in time to see an attack.

Or, well… the attempt of a one.

"Bet ya weren't expectin' this, bitches!" Naut cackled as his machines – bronze little helicopter-type of creations – harassed the party of bounty hunters all across the ravine. "Yeah, that's what ya get, son, that's what ya get! Ahahaha!" the Moogle threw his head back and almost howled with laughter.

It looked… oddly terrifying. Nanaki had never found a Moogle to be quite so intimidating – but Naut managed it, somehow.

Shuddering a little at the machinist' cackling, Nanaki quickly looked around for his friends and found them a little further into the ravine. Rainstorm and Princess, both looking rather bewildered and mildly unnerved by the Moogle's cackling, were sitting on the ground, beneath what looked like a tank with legs – another of Naut's machines.

Quickly Nanaki jumped down into the ravine, taking advantage of the distraction offered by Naut, and rushed to his friends. "You two okay?" Nanaki asked, quickly checking them over and casting Regen over both, just in case.

"The damn asshole Moogle summoned this thing right on top of us!" Princess almost snarled, holding onto her long, sleek horns. "I banged my head on it!"

"I heard that, girlie! Bitchy, bitchy!" Naut called back at them, and she flipped a finger at him, mostly to his great amusement.

"We're fine," Rainstorm sighed, also rubbing at his head. "A bit banged up but alive."

"Please tell me you got the herbs," Princess said. "Please, please, please. Rainstorm almost has all the ore he needs and I'm done - please tell me you're almost ready too so that we can get the hell out of here!"

"I got the herbs," Nanaki promised. "The crafting won't take me more than a couple of minutes."

Behind them Naut had cornered the rather terrified looking hunter party against the ravine wall, surrounding them with the machines and eating away their HP by having the machines do little jabs and lunges at them. The party, made of a black mage, a sniper and a berserker, all looked rather like they had bitten off more than they could chew.

"Oi, skimpy?! D'ya wanna kill these suckers?" Naut asked after wearing the bounty hunters down to their last few digits of HP. "Because I ain't gonna kill 'em – don't want the infamy."

"At this point I think it would be considered a mercy killing," Princess muttered, while Rainstorm got out from under the protective machine with a familiar gleam in his eyes. The Gria ninja sighed. "I'm thinking we've created a monster, there," she said, pointing at Rainstorm who made quick and efficient work of the terrified looking bounty hunters.

"What do you mean we?" Nanaki asked – though she was right. Rainstorm had rather gotten into the whole bounty hunter killing and it was getting to the point where the man might be enjoying it a bit too much.

"We could've just let him die in Albrook," Treasure Princess sighed. "This is what we get for being nice. Our very own psychotic killer rabbit."

"I can hear you, you know," Rainstorm said while cleaning his swords and sheathing them.

"We know," Princess said, and she and Nanaki also got out from under the tank-machine. "We’ve got to change spots, you know," she said to Naut. "They're gonna spread the location in chat and we’ll get swarmed."

"Excellent!" Naut said, leering. "Let 'em come! It's been a while since I had some proper fights – and with the psycho bunny over there, I don't even have to worry about clean up or settlements! I'm likin' this!"

Nanaki exchanged looks with his friends and Rainstorm sighed. "Let's just finish this quickly, and get the hell out of here," the Viera swordsman said, turning to continue mining.

"Wimps," Naut said to them. "You have no idea how much fun you guys are havin' right now. Trust me, when you get to my level, you'll long for times when bounty hunters were enough to give you trouble."

"Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever, gramps," Princess said, rolling her eyes – and got slapped over the head by a lance. "Ow, what the hell?!"

"Some respect for the elderly, girlie," Naut said, waving the lance – which was a good four times taller than his somewhat minute Moogle height was – at her. "We've been playing these games longer than you and have mighty high levels – and can kick your puny little ass right back to the beginning!"

"Piss off already, old man… Moogle… thing!" she snapped back. "Why are you a Moogle anyway – Moogles are stupid!"

"Because fuck you, that's why!"

Nanaki glanced at Rainstorm and they shared a long sigh, before getting to work. Hopefully they'd finish before any bounty hunters came for them. Hopefully. Maybe.

Probably not.

Chapter Text

Naut didn't just get them through the bounty hunters hanging around the portal from the Albrook Port zone to the Mushroom Rock Road zone – he absolutely demolished the bounty hunters in their way.

It started with a little robot critter that flew over the crowd of bounty hunters – which then exploded in a magnificent array of electricity, stunning the whole bunch. Then an army of the little helicopter robots Naut seemed to be able to make by the dozens lunged at the stunned crowd, jabbing and slamming into the players, wearing out their HP bit by bit. When a few of the bounty hunters started to recover, Naut sent another status bot at them, and promptly filled the whole area with smoke which even at the edges was impossible to breathe in

"Ahaha, suckers," Naut cackled as people passed out left and right. "None of them have any status defences!"

One of them did, an assassin who rushed out of the smoke, looking annoyed and confused and making a beeline for Cloud, only to have yet another robot lunge at her, wrapping it's long wiry arms around the assassin and sending her stumbling down. The same happened to everyone else who managed to make their way out of the smoke – they were shackled down by more robots, or just plain over run by the helicopter robots.

Naut, Cloud figured, was pretty much overkill in fighting the bounty hunters.

"D'ya wanna kill these ones too?" Naut asked, grinning widely as he nudged his little Moogle boot against the assassin's shoulder – she apparently had been silenced too because though her mouth was moving, she wasn't making a sound.

"You know, for once… not really," Cloud admitted. It was one thing to kill the bounty hunters who came after him – since they had come to kill him, they deserved what they got. But these guys had been just hanging around the portal – which was a bit cowardly, sure, but… they hadn't quite gone out their way to piss him off.

"So ya don't kill everythin' ya lay your eyes on? I'm shocked, fucking shocked," Naut grinned at him.

"Let's just go through already," Princess said, looking around nervously. "I don't like this place." The portal to Mushroom Rock Road was in a rocky valley and Cloud had to admit, he didn't like it much either. There could be any number of people in the cliffs above them, getting ready to snipe down.

"Fine fine," Naut said. "Let's get ya bitches out of here."

Going from zone to zone was a bit like what it felt like entering the game – there was a shift in reality and suddenly you weren't in the place you expected to be. Mushroom Rock Road suddenly opened up in front of them, strange and rocky and oddly cavernous.

"Why'd ya wanna come here anyway? Mushroom Rock Road is the shittiest place in the game," Naut said.

Cloud shrugged – he had no idea. Red and Princess had decided the next zone – he had no idea where they even were or what Mushroom Rock Road even was.

"Because MRR has about seventeen portals to other zones," Red said. "One of which we will be taking as soon as possible."

"Ah. So ya wanna put some distance between you and the shitty bounty hunters. Got it," Naut said. "Well, I don't give a crap I guess – I got what I wanted and delivered my part of the deal. Whatever the hell ya do from now on ain't none of my business."

"Your utter lack of concern is appreciated," Cloud muttered, looking around. It didn't seem like there were any people around, but he still wanted to get away from the portal. "I guess we ought to get moving."

"Before ya do, though, I got somethin' ya might want, skimpy," Naut said, considering Cloud. "Ya probably can't go to any towns like… ever, at least not unless someone takes that bounty of yours – and even after that, you've pissed off so many people that there's a fucking man hunt out for ya. So, if ya want it, I got an item ya might use as a disguise."

"Disguise?" Cloud asked, frowning. "There are disguises in the game?"

RedXIII nodded, eying the Moogle suspiciously. "Some. I don't know how well any of them would work on you, though, seeing that Viera apparently shift all the gear into their race appropriate look," he said slowly. "Being the only male Viera in the game, no matter what you wore, it wouldn't make any difference. As long as you look still Viera, and still male, everyone will know it's you."

"Yeah," Cloud sighed.

"Hah, yeah. Masks and shit like that won't do for ya, but this one will," Naut said, taking out a pendant from a pouch and holding it up. "It's probably the only one that will do, actually, for you. It's not exactly a disguise – it's a transformation item."

Cloud narrowed his eyes. "A what?"

"Oh, one of those things that turn you into something else? Like a monster?" Princess asked, leaning in curiously. "Where did you get it?"

"It was a quest reward. I got zero use for the fucking thing – hell, I can't really think of anyone who would use it. Except maybe for skimpy here," Naut said, grinning, waving the pendant a bit. "I'll give it to ya, for a price."

"And the price is?" Cloud asked suspiciously.

"Make rapiers and send them to me," Naut said. "You'll probably end up makin' a shit ton of random weapons to level up your job anyway, so why not? Might give you a couple credits, even."

"Hm…" Cloud answered, leaning back a bit and eying the pendant. It had a sort of Wutainese symbol in it – the two interlocking drops, one white and other black. "I guess I could do that. How does it work?"

"Well, ya wear the fucking thing like any other damn equipment, and it transforms ya. Take it off and you're back to being your skimpy self," Naut said and lobbed the pendant at him. "And take care of the damn thing – they're pretty fucking rare.”

Cloud nodded slowly and turned to look at the pendant – which, of course, changed into a choker in his hands. The symbol remained the same, mostly – it looked more gem like on the choker though. "Thanks, I guess," he said; and he had to hand it to Naut, the Moogle had an attitude and a half, but he had dealt with them pretty fairly.

"Right, that's me done here then," the Moogle nodded and turned to head back to the AlbrookPort beginner zone. "Also, ya might wanna check out the leader boards. Ya got your own fucking category – it's hilarious as shit."

"… What?" Cloud asked, but the Moogle had already taken the portal, leaving him, RedXIII and Princess alone in the Mushroom Rock Road zone.

"Finally!" Princess said, punching a fist in the air. "We got rid of him!"

"He wasn't that bad," Cloud said, still examining the pendant. "So, you can transform in the game with items, huh?"

"They are pretty rare though," RedXIII said. "What's the stats on it?"

 

[Necklace of Change]
[Transformation Item, Necklace]
[Reward for the Wizard Queen of Fynn Quest]

"Hmmm… it doesn't really say much. Doesn't give any stats or anything, I guess. Just transforms you," Cloud said thoughtfully. "Should I try it?"

"While I'm sure it would be all cool for you to not be half naked for once – can we get the hell out of here, away from the portal?" Princess asked. "Because it won't take long before the asshats start coming here, looking for you."

"I think Naut might've infected your vocabulary," Cloud commented, as he put the necklace into his inventory. "But yes, let's get away from here."

It was very easy to get lost in Mushroom Rock Road, apparently. The zone started out as a mountain side road – and then led them right into a cave system which had Cloud's sense of direction completely confused within a couple of minutes. The place was like a maze of cliffs and rocks and drops, going up and down and across – and there were no road signs or anything like that.

"Perfect place to lose our tail," RedXIII commented. "The mobs here are level 20 to 30, though, so you probably want to hang back, Rainstorm."

"Hmm… any chance I could take them while buffed up?" Cloud asked. "I would love to get a couple of levels."

He was still level 6. And he had over a hundred murders on his account – he had over 2700 infamy and had capped the infamy he got from kills – now every time he killed a player, he got 50 infamy for it. His bounty was half a thousand now, and going up with every kill.

"I suppose you can," Red mused. "Actually, check your job inventory – can you mine level 20 ore yet?"

Cloud opened the menu, checking the available actions and formulas – he had a couple low level weapons for every class and would've loved to get enough copper and bronze to make a Sleek Short Sword which had +25 atk and +8 agi and dex – and which could be dual wielded. All his ore had gone to making the Bronze Rapier though, which he had given to Naut.

"I can mine nickel now," Cloud said slowly. "Copper, bronze and nickel's. Nickel's job LV. 5 though."

"Hm, I don't know if you can mine that here. Sometimes you get lower level materials when you gather them in higher level zones though…" Red murmured. "You could try. You need some better weapons and if you can make them here, then maybe you could have a chance against the mobs."

Cloud agreed and had another try at mining. It was a bit weird, to have a pickaxe just mysteriously appear in his hands, but he had almost gotten used to it in the ravine with Naut. At first he didn't get anything even while hacking away at the cave walls of Mushroom Rock Road but he did get a little bit of job exp with each swing.

"This is gonna take a while," he said after a few swings, checking his job. He was a level 4 blacksmith now, but it wasn't enough to get him any ore from the cave yet. "And I'm not getting anything yet."

"Keep at it," RedXIII answered from where he was sitting, idly sorting through his inventory.

"You just want to sit around and have a break, don't you?" Cloud asked flatly, giving him a look. "And making me mine is giving you the opportunity to just laze off."

Red considered it and then nodded. "Yes, pretty much. But it won't hurt you to get a couple of job levels anyway."

"Hey, guys?" Princess said, glancing away from the array of windows she had up all around her. "I found the thing that shitty Moogle was talking about. Rainstorm's got Duel rankings."

"I've got a what?" Cloud asked, and quickly got closer to see.

 

[SPECIAL RANKINGS / Rainstorm's Duels]
[Challenger – Class – Time – Duration – Winner]

[Damascus LV. 36 – Berserker – 02:43, Jan 7 – 6:34 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Splosion LV. 36 – Black Mage – 02:45, Jan 7 – 6:11 – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Heartly LV. 33 – White Mage – 23:22, Jan 6 – 4:32 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Eagleeye LV. 32 – Sniper – 02:47, Jan 7 – 7:04 – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Heartly LV. 32 – White Mage – 23:26, Jan 6 – 0:10 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Deseco LV. 31 – Archer – 23:04, Jan 6 – 1:24 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]
[Heartly LV. 31 – White Mage – 23:28, Jan 6 – 0:12 min – Rainstorm LV. 6]

"Um, what?" Cloud asked, staring at the list with wide eyes.

"I guess you've made enough noise for this," Princess said. "There are a few of these – like, Sephiroth’s got one, and Loyal from the Overseers, and a few others. I guess you rank high enough in your sheer… assholery that the mods decided this needed to be a thing."

"Oh," RedXIII said and just sort of sighed.

"Oh damnit," Cloud groaned. "Why? Like I don't get enough trouble already!"

"So now people will want to kill you because A, your bounty is freaking huge, B, you're sort of an asshole and C… they'll probably get a title for it," Princess said, nodding thoughtfully. Then she began to laugh at him.

Cloud gave her a flat look. "You're very sympathetic, aren't you?" he muttered. "Really feeling the fellowship and solidarity here."

"You have to admit – it is getting somewhat ridiculous at this point. And this is only your second night of playing too, isn't it?" RedXIII asked and shook his head. "What did you do in your previous life, for this sort of bad luck?"

"I'd say mass murderer, seeing that he's enjoying being one now so much," Princess said.

Sighing, Cloud flipped a finger at them both before taking out the mysteriously appearing and disappearing pickaxe and continuing to mine.

Chapter Text

Cid made quick work of the bounty hunters still hanging around the Albrook side of the portal, cackling at their faces as he sent them all running. "Yeah, that's right. Run you pussies," he laughed after them before setting up camp in front of the portal, to guard it and keep people from going through it.

Might as well give the three weirdoes a bit of a head start on their bounty hunters – they hadn't been that bad, after all.

Rainstorm was a weird guy – what kind of guy wanted to be male Viera for god's sake? Female Viera Cid could've understood, hell, he wouldn't have minded a day as a female Viera if Cait Sith decided in its insane wisdom to make a transformation item for it… but male? But despite that, Rainstorm hadn't been as bad as Cid had thought. Probably gay, but not like flamboyantly gay, nor whiny, or bitchy.

Though anyone with 103 murders on his account probably just didn't do whining. Fuck, Cid didn't even want to know how much infamy the poor bastard had.

RedXIII had been pretty cool – sorta quiet and obviously the reason why all of them were still alive and not like murdered a million times over. What he was doing with Rainstorm and the annoying Gria girl was anyone's guess. Probably weirdness seeing other weirdness so that it wouldn’t seem as weird or some shit like that – the guy was in a beast-like form after all. Where the hell had he found a transformation item for that, anyway?

The Gria girl, Treasure Princess, had been the worst of the three, but in a fun way. Cid wouldn't have minded riling her up some more – people in the game these days just didn't rise to the challenge properly, which was a fucking pity. What SHE was doing with the other three was an even bigger mystery than why Rainstorm and RedXIII travelled together.

But who the hell knew what was going on in their weird heads, weird ass team that they were.

[You have a new Private Message!]

[To: Naut]
[From: LongSuffering]
[Subject: Where are you?]

[I thought you were just going to pop off to get the materials for the armour? I've been doing nothing but cooking for the last hour – my job level is now twelve.  Where are you? Though this is a change, me waiting on YOU for once.]

"Tch," Cid answered the message. She was getting impatient with him? That was a laugh.

[To: LongSuffering]
[From: Naut]
[Subject: Don't get your fucking knickers in a twist]

[I met some people and got them to make you a better weapon, some potions and enough crystals to equip both the rapier and the armour, so stop your whining, woman. I'll be there in twenty minutes or something – cook some more or some shit like that. Sell the stuff in AH, whatever. And your name is still stupid.]

He sent the message away and looked up to see one tentative gunner approaching him. "Nope," Cid said, taking out a lance. "This is a no-go zone for a little while, so fucking sorry. You're going to have to try another portal."

"I'm pretty sure this is against the rules, or something," the gunner said. "Why the hell are you covering for them anyway?"

"For some fucking reasons and check your precious fucking rule book again. Except, oh yeah. Terra Online doesn't fucking have one," Cid grinned, the lance held level towards the gunner, ready to give the guy a bit of a spanking if he got too close. "If it can be done, it's fucking allowed. So if I can sit here and cover for them, I'm fucking allowed and until you get a higher level asshole up here, there's not a thing you can do about it."

"Fuck you man – we're just trying to make a bit of money," the gunner snapped at him. "Besides that guy is an asshole, he deserves it."

"Boo fucking hoo," Cid said, and summoned his Rotor Critters. He grinned at the dismayed look the gunner gave him. "That's right. Ya better start running, bitch!"

He cackled until the gunner was out of sight, chased by the helicopter robots all the way. He usually didn't really care for playing around with low level players, but this was pretty fun – and he could buy into Rainstorm's philosophy on bounty hunters. If they came for you, they were fucking asking for it.

After guarding the portal for about twenty minutes – ought to be enough for the weirdo team to get enough distance between themselves and it – Cid dismissed his robots and summoned his golden chocobo instead, jumping onto its back in a single leap. Moments later, he was making his way towards AlbrookPort, still thinking about the male Viera.

Fucking male Viera. That would never get old. Still, it would be pretty interesting to see how long Rainstorm could keep the bounty he had, being as low level as he was. Red and the shitty Gria girl could probably keep him alive for a bit longer, but after a while it would stop being just about the money, and start being just about the challenge. And at that point much higher level players would start going after the three.

Plus there were the duel rankings. Duellist wasn't exactly a rare title, but seeing that most players you had to kill to get it were pretty much above level 60, it wasn't that common either. Rainstorm had the lowest Duellist ranking ever, probably, so he'd be the easiest way to get it. Hell, if Cid had been anything like some of the achievement hunters in the game, he would've killed Rainstorm the moment his back was turned, just for the title alone.

That kid was in for some interesting times, that was for damn sure.

Chuckling quietly to himself, Cid made it to Albrook, which was still full of fucking bounty hunters – they were lounging about the town square, probably having a lovely circle jerk of whining over Rainstorm or some shit like that. Cid ignored them and looked around until he spotted her.

Shera, the smart woman she was, had ditched the street level and was sitting on a nearby rooftop, with the Cook set-up laid out around her as she made food. With a grin Cid dismissed his chocobo and jumped from windowsill to windowsill until he could get to the rooftop she was on.

"I have returned victorious, with some excellent shit with me," he announced.

She glanced at him, and even as a Burmecian her unimpressed face was exactly the same. "That sentence started almost nice," she commented, and set the skillet down. "Also I am not seeing the interest you have for this game yet. It's been pretty boring so far."

"Well that's because ya haven't fucking done anythin' yet," Cid answered and started unloading the stuff he had for her, the rapier Rainstorm had made, the crystals from Treasure Princess and the batches of HP and MP potions from RedXIII. "Here, have shit."

"How nice, thank you," Shera answered with a sigh, but accepted the items. "Oh, this is better," she murmured, taking the rapier into her hand and holding it up. "How come it has better stats than the one I got from the Lizard of Aragu?"

"Player made equipment always has better stats," Cid shrugged. "Mind you, it's still a shitty piece of weaponry, but ya can't use higher level shit yet. Ya need more class levels for that. So what do ya say we head out and grind ya a couple?"

"Alright," she said and dismissed her cooking gear. "Also, here," she added and got a stack of food out of her inventory. "It probably won't do much for you, but…."

Cid grinned from ear to ear. It was tea. She had made him fucking tea. "Yeah, it won't do anything, but thanks, I guess. Yay, shitty tea," he said and checked the stats. +20 agi and dex for 10 mins, the hell would he do with that sort of buff? Well it didn't matter – what mattered was that she had made some stuff and gotten her job level up.

They got down from the rooftop and started making their way out of the town when someone called, "Hey, aren't you the fucking Moogle who protected that Viera bastard in the ravine?"

Cid glanced at the speaker over his furry shoulder and grinned. "Oh, look who it is, the shitty little black mage and his shitty little friends," he said in the most insulting baby voice he could manage. "What's wrong, babies? Did ya get killed by that Viera bastard?"

"Yeah, because you fucking protected the asshole! If you hadn't been there, we would've gotten him!" the sniper snarled, taking out a rifle.

"Do ya really wanna do that? Really?" Cid asked, grinning. "Because I would just love to run ya around the town the way I ran you around the fucking ravine."

"Cool it. He's level 59, it's no use trying it," the berserker said, tugging at the sniper's shoulder – and wasn't that a laugh, a berserker who was the calmest of the lot? "Do you know him, that Rainstorm?" the berserker asked. "In real life, I mean?"

"Haven't got a fucking clue who he is and I don't fucking care either," Cid shrugged. "And even if I did know, do ya really think I'd tell ya? Or anyone?"

"Then why the hell did you protect him?!" the black mage almost roared.

"And why didn't you kill him yourself?!"

"It was a business transaction," Cid shrugged and grinned. "And I, unlike some, am not a fucking bounty hunter. I've got better things to do with my time than harass lower level players for their shitty bounties – though on the other hand, it was fun as hell, harassin' you wimps!"

"You asshole!"

"Cool it!" the berserker said again, shoving the black mage and the sniper behind himself. "If you see him again, mind passing along a message for me?" he asked. "Tell him we're going to fucking kill him."

"Ya know, I think the guy already knows that he has shitty bounty hunters like you after him. And I sure as hell ain't your fucking delivery boy – tell him yourself," Cid snorted and turned to leave. "Come on woman. Let's seek more intelligent company. Like mobs."

"We're going to kill you too, you shitty Moogle!" the sniper called after him.

"You're fucking welcome to try, ya fucking noobs!" Cid called after them and laughed at them, loud and as insulting as possible.

"Um," Shera said, once they were out of hearing range. "What?"

"There's been some interesting happenings in the game," Cid cackled. "There's a guy pretty much everyone wants to kill – I got him to make the rapier for you. It's been hilarious."

The Burmecian eyed him for a moment and sighed, scratching at the side of her muzzle. "I am starting to see why you play this game, rather than Asgard."

"Why the fuck would I play Asgard?" Cid scoffed. "I'm fucking goin' to get to space in the real damn world – no fucking way am I goin’ to waste my time with some shitty simulator that gets 90% of the fucking science wrong."

"Yes, yes," she sighed. "You sure are."

Cid snorted at her. He had tried Asgard and sure it had some fun elements – but it sure as hell got shit wrong. Like, say, explosions in space, noises in space, fucking directions. He had pretty much stopped when he had realised how damn badly the programmers had gotten gravity and shit – and there was absolutely zero mechanics about space radiation, nothing about micro asteroids, nothing. Shitty ass mock-up of the real thing. At least Terra Online never even bothered to try and claim any sort of realism.

"Why'd ya choose Burmecian?" Cid asked, after they had made to the woods and she was trying her hand against the ochus.

"Why'd you choose Moogle?" Shera asked and shrugged. "Because I could. And I thought red mage seemed like an interesting class, and Burmecian was the best race for it."

"Hm," Cid nodded. He had chosen Moogle because it was best race for Machinist – but also, because the thing had looked so fucking hilarious. What made a man choose Viera, though? And a swordsman too. Vieras, if his memory served, weren't that inclined towards swordsmanship. More rapiers and white magic and shit like that. So what? A tendency towards nudism, maybe? Hell if he knew.

"Ya would've looked fucking fantastic as a Viera," Cid commented, leering.

"You, sir, may fuck off," she answered without a pause, making Cid throw his head back and laugh.

Chapter Text

"Aww, yeah! Level 20! Suuuck iiit!" Yuffie shouted, throwing her arms up and laughing uproariously before pointing a finger at the recently downed Dual Horn. "Thank you, beastie, for your excellent exp!"

"Congrats, I guess," Rainstorm said, rolling his shoulders and opening his own stat menu. He made a face. "Why is it that I make levels slower than her?" he asked, glancing at Red who was idly throwing Regens on them. "We've been fighting the same monsters at the same rate, and I'm only level 10 so far. She had six levels more than I did at the start, but she's made twice as many levels!"

"Infamy," Red said sympathetically. "You get less exp than her."

"Oh for fucks sake," Rainstorm groaned. "There's no perks to infamy, huh?"

"Not really," Yuffie laughed, bouncing to his side to check his stats. "Hm. You could try and get some exp boost items, I guess. They're rare but some people sell them in the Auction House, you might get lucky. Of course it'll be expensive as hell but you’ve got, what… over six hundred gold? You should be able to afford it."

"Hmm… I guess I'll have to," Rainstorm sighed, sheathing his swords. "Is there a town in Mushroom Rock Road?"

"Sort of," Yuffie said. "It's more of a military base actually – it's to do with the story line which I'm guessing you pay zero attention to."

"I haven't really gotten the chance to enjoy the story much," the Viera muttered.

"Some of it's pretty interesting, occasionally, but most people I think ignore it," RedXIII said, coming closer. "Around here it went something along the line of a big monster attacking the settlements so some warriors and whatnot banded together to fight it. The zone boss of Mushroom Rock is pretty interesting to fight."

"Zone boss?" Rainstorm asked while putting the stats screen away.

"Yeah. They tend to be huge and hard to kill - every zone has one or several that spawn once a week or so. It usually takes up to a hundred people to take them down," RedXIII said. "I think the record was actually made in Mushroom Rock Road. Almost a thousand people showed up to kill Sin, once."

"No, that was broken a couple months back. There was like organised events – forty clans up and decided to take on Omega together," Yuffie said. "I wasn't there but I heard later that it was a pretty much a mess. Almost three thousand people, fighting one boss – and it still took them over an hour."

"Omega is hard," Red shrugged. "Though it's a world boss, not a zone boss."

"Po-tay-to, po-tah-to."

Rainstorm looked between them and shook his head. "Well, I won't be joining those fights for a while," he murmured while opening his inventory and taking out the necklace he had gotten from the shitty Moogle. "So where's the town base whatever?" he asked while eying the necklace dubiously.

"It’s a bit of a way from here," Red said, and opened up a map, eying it thoughtfully. "And the caves near it tend to have people in them, so you might want to equip that thing now."

"Do it – I wanna see what it does," Yuffie agreed, turning eagerly to watch. Transformation items were so rare – she had only seen one in action once and it had been pretty cool – it had turned the user into a mermaid sort of thing and let them swim faster and breathe under water, stuff like that.

"Right," Rainstorm murmured and took off his usual blue-gem adorned choker. "Also, just for the record, I have a bad feeling about this," he added, and put the transformation necklace-choker on.

The transformation was instant, taking them all a bit by surprise – and Yuffie couldn't have stopped the burst of laugher even if she had been prepared for it. The transformation necklace didn't turn Rainstorm into anything else, really. He still had dark skin and white hair and bunny ears and his armour set up was still skimpy as hell.

It was just now he had boobs and hips to go with it.

"Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me," Rainstorm groaned and covered his face with his hands. Even his voice was different, higher pitched and feminine now. "I'm gonna kill that fucking Moogle if we see him again!"

"I'm dying!" Yuffie gasped, bent in half. "Can't breathe! Help!"

"Piss off," Rainstorm said, giving her a glare, only making it worse – his face was different too, and his eyes, god those lashes…!

"Actually," Red said, considering the now female-Rainstorm thoughtfully. "That might be the only way to disguise you. As a male Viera you are something of an oddity. As a female…. Well, they aren't as rare and no one is looking for a female Viera, are they?"

"You're kidding, right?" Rainstorm asked flatly, looking down at himself. His chest armour, pretty revealing and useless before, had been shifted to what now amounted to a bikini top. The trousers that were literally held together by string had shifted to reveal a bit more of his skin – they made his hips seem even wider and more feminine. His stiletto shoes though hadn't changed – but then again, it wasn't like they had been in any form or fashion masculine before.

"This fucking game…" Rainstorm muttered viciously, eying his now curvy chest with dismay. He grimaced – which his newly feminine face made look almost pretty. "I swear it has it in for me."

"We might have to break party before we enter the Knights' Camp, seeing that the bounty hunters know what our party consists of," RedXIII said, ignoring both Rainstorm's cursing and Yuffie's badly smothered laughter. "But I think we can enter the camp without anyone being the wiser."

Yuffie giggled at the faces Rainstorm was making. "Might wanna put a helmet on Rainstorm, though," she wheezed. "Because his hair is ridiculous and hasn't changed much."

Red nodded. "Do we have a helmet for him?"

"One of my old ones might do," Yuffie shrugged. They were headbands when she wore them, of course, she being a ninja. It would actually be interesting to see what they'd look like on Rainstorm. She quickly picked through her inventory and picked one that gave 13 def, 4 dex and 3 agi, not good but decent, before handing it to a somewhat harassed looking Rainstorm.

They watched the thing shift in his hand, away from the headband it had been and into a blend of hair band and a tiara. They stared at it for a moment and Yuffie couldn't help but crack up again when Rainstorm, with the look of someone who had all but given up, pushed his bangs back and put it on.

He made such a pretty woman, it was ridiculous!

"I hate my virtual life," Rainstorm said flatly, slumping down a bit. "Hate it, with the passion of a thousand suns."

"We know," Red said sympathetically.

They headed for the Knights' Camp, Yuffie bursting into giggles every time she looked at Rainstorm – he had a swing to his steps now and damn he had some hips on him! Rainstorm had a decisively stormy look on his face when they finally parted ways, using different entrances to go into the camp – after Red had sent Rainstorm's Gold back to the female Viera and instructed Rainstorm on where to find the Auction House manager.

"Be careful," RedXIII told the Viera before they headed different ways. "Don't accept any trade or party or guild invites – they'll see your name if you do. And don't kill anyone. Better yet, don't get into fights!"

Rainstorm just sighed at that.

Still giggling to herself, Yuffie headed to the camp, with every intention of getting rid of the useless stuff cluttering her inventory, putting some money into her warehouse and maybe getting some better armour. She also made sure to buy three tents, just in case they couldn't come back to the town when it came time to log off – it would suck, having to log out without a place to sleep in safely.

She spied Rainstorm the moment he entered the camp, mostly by the reactions of the few players in the camp. Viera women, whilst not as rare as men, were still sorta rare and she was turning some heads as she walked in, in all of her mostly nude Viera glory. Trying desperately to smother the giggles she was still getting, Yuffie hid in the shadow of one of the camp's tents and watched.

Of course some idiot had to go and start bothering Rainstorm, pushing to the Viera's side with a leer on his face, saying something that made Rainstorm's ear's fold back dangerously  – and Yuffie sharply remembered why the Albrook Newbie Massacre had happened in the first place.

"Shit," she muttered and jumped back to her feet, quickly pushing to Rainstorm's side and right between the Viera and the elf dude bothering him. Thinking quickly, she grabbed hold of Rainstorm's arm and, in her best little girl voice, said, "Mommy, can I have a new shuriken, please? Please, please, pretty please?"

The look on Rainstorm's face almost slayed her – she had never seen someone look so horrified before. The elf dude jerked back with surprise and then made a face, but didn't go anyway. So, better to up the ante.

"Daddy said I should get a new one," Yuffie said, looking up at Rainstorm and then, when he continued to look horrified, she stamped her foot on Rainstorm's toes – which thanks to the fact that his footwear tended to be freaking sandals, were bare. "Come on, mommy, please?"

Rainstorm made a sort of choked sound and forcibly relaxed. "Yes, sure… fine," he said, sounding absolutely horrible. "Whatever you want, Princess – fucking hell –"

Yuffie stamped on his toes again. "Where's Daddy anyway?" She asked, squeezing the Viera's arm harder.

Rainstorm grimaced. "He's about. Somewhere. Should be here soon," he choked out.

The elf dude made a face then and backed away.

"Fucking hell," Rainstorm grunted out, shifting his feet a bit. "What the fuck, Princess?"

"Got the elf dude off you, didn't I?" Yuffie grinned and then glance down – apparently she had stepped on the same toes twice. "Sorry," she said, wincing a bit. "But in my defence, you weren't playing along."

"I wonder why not," he groaned, rubbing his free hand over his face. "How about some warning the next time?" he asked plaintively.

"How about I'll stick to you like the good daughter I am, and make sure to buffer away any unwanted suitors," Yuffie giggled. She stayed with him as he made to check the Auction House – which also made it easy for her to offer Rainstorm suggestions on what to buy. The gear Rainstorm ended up buying for himself was pretty sucky as far as def and stuff went – but they managed to get most everything with an exp boost on them. It wouldn't give Rainstorm much of an edge, but it kind of sort of levelled his stats out so that he got about the amount of exp he would've gotten, if he hadn't had so much infamy.

Rainstorm also bought a couple exp potions, which would, for a couple of hours, double or triple his exp gain. They were really expensive and Yuffie sure as hell wouldn't have bought them for herself – but then, she wasn't the one crippled by a huge amount of infamy. Plus, it wasn't like Rainstorm with his over 600G didn't have the money to spend.

In the end, though, Yuffie's close proximity didn't stop people from being assholes.

"Hey a there, pretty lady," someone said, and glancing backwards Yuffie saw a huge Gria man, a paladin judging by the looks of the shield slung between his wings. "You and your daughter by yourself here?" he asked, leaning closer with a friendly smile. "Want some company?"

Yuffie squeezed Rainstorm's arm harder, nudging at him to speak. "No, thank you," Rainstorm said, obviously struggling to sound polite. "We're just fine by ourselves."

"You sure? Mushroom Rock Road is a dangerous place," the Gria man said with a gleam in his eyes, leaning a bit closer. "And so confusing, you might get lost or killed! And you're what, a sword user? And a ninja – two attackers, all by yourself? You'll need someone to defend you."

There was a tick under Rainstorm's eye now. "Thanks all the same, but we're fine," he said and his speech came out gritted through clenched teeth.

The Gria grinned – and then went and grabbed Rainstorm by the chin. "But what if you get injured?" the man asked. "You got such a pretty face, it would be shame if something happened…."

 Yuffie could feel the tension run through the Viera, could feel Rainstorm coiling in for an attack. She clung harder to the Viera's arm and Rainstorm almost visibly restrained himself, and instead of attacking just reached up and pulled the Gria man's hand off. "Please, leave us alone," Rainstorm almost growled and his hand shook a little with the effort to not lash out.

The Gria man grabbed Rainstorm's hand by the wrist and then went to kiss it. "Man, there aren't nearly enough hot MILFs in this game," the Gria breathed while Rainstorm let out an outraged noise. "Yeah, I'm thinking we should party. Do you have an in game husband yet?"

"Hey, buddy – the lady said to leave her the fuck alone," another male voice said, and suddenly the Gria man was dragged backwards by a huge hand, grabbing him by the back of his neck. Yuffie looked up with surprise, as the Gria man was all but thrown back by a huge Ronso. Like, Ronsos were usually huge, but this guy had to be like the biggest guy in the entire game, seriously.

"Hey man, I saw her first!" the Gria man said, getting up and glaring at the Ronso. "Piss off, dude."

"No, you piss off, you arrogant little dickweed," the Ronso said and pulled a freaking cannon from his back and aimed it at the Gria. "You're obviously not wanted here so save yourself the fucking trouble and just fuck off, man."

The Gria man stumbled away, throwing curses their way, and the Ronso shook his head. "Shit, no one has any fucking manners in this game," he grunted and turned to them. "Sorry about that, ma'am. You're okay?"

"Just fine," Rainstorm said, still gritting his teeth. "Thanks."

"No problem. And don't worry, I'm not gonna fucking hit on you. Got me a wife, both in and out of the game," the Ronso said, hoisting the huge cannon over his shoulder and to his back and pointing. "That's her over there," he added, nodding towards the warehouse manager. "Ain't she gorgeous?"

Yuffie and Rainstorm looked at where he was looking. There was another Ronso there, talking with the warehouse manager, with blue fur and white hair and a heavy sword at her hip. She was, Yuffie supposed, sort of nice looking, for a Ronso.

"Very nice," Rainstorm said, and finally relaxed a bit. "And thanks, really. I was about to put my sword through the guy's throat – better that I didn't have to."

The Ronso guy grinned. "Busting up idiots is my greatest pleasure," he said and held out a huge, claw adorned hand for Rainstorm. "I'm Bigshot and my wife over there's Mena. We're about to head out and do some grinding, maybe try a couple of quests while we're at it. You and your kid can join us, if you want to."

"Ah… well," Rainstorm, glancing at Yuffie who just shrugged in answer. They could use more party members – bigger parties got better exp anyway. And Bigshot didn't seem bad. "We have another party member, need to talk with him first and ah…" Rainstorm trailed away. "We'll need to do a few things in the camp before we head off.  How about we meet outside the camp?"

"Sure. How about in the crossing to the upper level?" Bigshot asked, grinning. "Mena and I'll meet you there, then."

Yuffie and Rainstorm watched as the man walked over to his Ronso wife, and then shared a look.

"This is gonna be fun," Yuffie pronounced, grinning. She couldn’t wait to see Bigshot's face when Rainstorm took the necklace off.

"Yeah," Rainstorm muttered. "Fun."

Chapter Text

Despite how much Cloud loathed the sex-change disguise, he had to admit – it worked. Aside from the occasional cat call and suggestive comment he got as a Viera woman, no one seemed to even consider the possibility that he might be Rainstorm, the 500G Bounty. He got to do his business in the Auction House and visit the warehouse and he even got to store his own gold properly, all without having to worry about someone coming along and stabbing him in the back.

Even after he and Princess met up with RedXIII, no one attacked them even once all the way out of the Knights' Camp.

"Okay, it's sort of… messed up, but I guess this thing works," Cloud mused, fingering the transformation choker uneasily. "Not something I'd like to use all that often, but definitely in towns if it means I'll be left alone."

"Left alone by people except for horny bastards," Princess snorted, and told Red what had happened at the Auction House.

"Are you sure this Ronso couple aren't bounty hunters?" Red asked worriedly.

"They didn't look like they were," Cloud answered and then frowned. Bounty hunters didn't really have a look though – they were mostly normal players who took advantage of an opportunity, so who knows. Bigshot might've very well been a bounty hunter. But the guy had stepped in for them without knowing anything about them, so he probably wasn't bad. Probably. Hopefully.

"I guess we'll see when we meet them," Cloud said, and checked the time on his inventory. "I'm gonna have to log off in an hour, so either way, we won't be spending much time with them. Or, I won't be anyway," he said thoughtfully. "You guys have been playing longer today than I have, haven't you?"

"An hour or so longer," Red agreed and looked at him. "You have a precise schedule, don't you?"

"Yeah – I'll be logging in and out the same time every night," Cloud agreed.

"Good to know," Princess said. "Still, I dunno if I can log in this early every day – well… my parents might like it if I go to bed early and wake up early, but not this early. I'm going to have to stay in game for like over ten hours just so I don't wake up in the middle of the night. Tomorrow I think I'll log in a couple of hours after you, at least."

"I don't really have a daily schedule, so I can log in more or less whenever I want. But I think I too will be logging in a bit later than you, Rainstorm. Today was a special case."

"It's fine. And I appreciate it for today, really," Cloud assured them and then looked between them curiously. "You're both from the west, aren't you?"

"Psh, I'm from Wutai!" Princess said.

"Cosmo Canyon," Red said and looked up at him. "You're from the East continent, though, with your schedule."

"Midgar," Cloud said – though that wasn't precisely right. He lived in Midgar currently, though, so….

"Ugh, Midgar. I hear it's a horrible place. What's it like?" Princess asked. "Is it really as polluted as they say?"

Cloud considered it and then shrugged. "It’s a city like any other, I guess," he said. Really there wasn't that much difference between Midgar and Nibelheim as far as pollution went – Midgar was just more technological and had more people and buildings. As far as air and atmosphere went… they were about as equally saturated in Mako and pollution, thanks to the reactors.

"Bigshot said to meet him in the crossing to the upper level," Cloud said, not really wanting to talk about the real world in Terra. "Where is that?"

"Just over there – that's where the tunnels lead to the upper levels. Mushroom Rock Road is divided into four different layers, the higher up you go, the stronger the monsters," Red explained. "Are those the Ronsos?"

Cloud looked up and sure enough, Bigshot was lounging about the crossing of roads with the female Ronso who was looking through windows – leader boards, judging by the looks of it.

"Hey there," Bigshot said, noticing them and then looking around confusedly. "I thought there was another in your party."

"That would be me," RedXIII said and calmly sat down while the Ronso took a surprised step back. "Hi," the beast added, grinning toothily.

"Fuck, I thought you were a pet. Sorry about that," Bigshot said and then bent down to look at the beast. "Huh. Never seen a character skin like that. You hackin'?" he asked and then shook his head. "No, wait, don't tell me – don't wanna have to report ya if you are."

"Like you would anyway," the female Ronso said, closing the windows and smiling at Cloud. "Hi," she said with a friendly smile – or what passed for friendly for a Ronso. She looked rather fierce, even while offering her hand for a shake. "I'm Mena. Hubby told me you had some trouble in the Camp?" she asked.

"Yeah, about that," Cloud said, a little awkward, looking between the Ronso couple and then backwards towards the camp. "I'm not being completely honest here – I got a transformation item on," he admitted, pointing at the choker around his throat. "Probably better for us all if I take it off before we get all friendly."

"We might want to get further away from the camp before you take it off," Red said. "There are still people around here."

"Transformation item? Those are really rare," Mena said and then blinked at Cloud. "Wait. This," she motioned at Cloud, glancing up and down. "Is a transformation? If you're not a Viera then why –" she stopped and blinked. "A Viera swords user. A Gria ninja girl. And a beast…" her eyes widened a bit – and then she let out a chuckle. "Oh my. I didn't know there were transformation items like that."

"What?" Bigshot said, confused, looking between Mena and Cloud.

"Let's just get away from the camp, okay?" Cloud asked with a sigh. "Where were you heading?"

"To level two, to hunt garudas," Mena said, still chuckling. "Come on, it's this way."

They headed to the upper level and at Red's insistence further into the caves, until they were properly lost in the bends and turns such that it would be pretty rare for anyone to come across them, let alone see them from afar. After making sure that there really was no one around, Cloud went about removing the necklace, while Princess leaned in closer, to see how the two Ronsos would react.

Bigshot's eyes widened and he stumbled back. "Freaking – fuck. What the hell!"

Mena chuckled, ignoring her husband's flailing. "I'm guessing you're Rainstorm, the Albrook Newbie Massacre player killer?"

"They're not really calling me that, right?" Cloud asked while putting the necklace back into his inventory.

"No, seriously, what the fuck?!" Bigshot asked.

"No, they mostly call you That Viera Bastard," Mena said, amused. "I head that you got out of the Albrook zone and came to the Mushroom Rock Road zone, but everyone figured you must've continued right through it to someplace else."

"Seriously, whaat?" Bigshot demanded, pointing at Cloud. "Why? Why?"

"We were going to, but Rainstorm wanted to grind," Red said. "I'm RedXIII, by the way, and this is –"

"Treasure Princess, the lord and master of all the loot!" the Princess said, pouncing forward to shake Mena's hand. "Pleasure to meet someone who's not trying to kill us or harass us or is just generally being an asshole, for once!"

"But. Why?" Bigshot asked. "Why? Why would you even…?"

"Hubby, darling… calm down," Mena said, patting his arm. "Take a deep breath."

Bigshot took a deep breath. "What?" he then asked, motioning at Cloud. "Why?"

Cloud shrugged. "I'm apparently the only male Viera in the game and since I’ve got a bit of a bounty on my head, I can't go… anywhere," he said, annoyed and motioned at himself. "And Viera have this annoying habit of changing the way gear looks, so even if I tried on disguises, I'd still probably look like a male Viera, so it would be pretty much useless. So… gender bender necklace, because female Vieras aren't so rare."

"Ugh," Bigshot said, shaking his head before looking interested. "How big a bounty?"

Cloud frowned. "If you're thinking about taking it –" he started.

"No, I've got bounties on my head too, a few times," the Ronso answered. "Biggest was about thirty gold – had to teach a lesson to this bunch of idiots. So I'm just wondering."

"Isn't it over five hundred now?" Mena asked. "Last I looked it just broke the five hundred limit?"

"525," Cloud sighed, and turned to his inventory – he wanted to change to the exp boosting gear, even if the def was lower on it. "It's 525 Gold now."

"Hah. Well no wonder you can't go anywhere," Bigshot murmured and looked at Cloud thoughtfully as he went about changing his gear. "How'd you get a bounty that high?"

"I told you about what happened in Albrook, didn't I, honey?" Mena asked. "He's the one who did it. Male Viera, remember?"

"Oh," Bigshot said and folded his big, heavily muscled arms, frown coming to his face. "The guy who killed 79 newbies? Why'd you go doing that anyway?"

"Lot of them were higher level than I was, and I did it because they were being annoying," Cloud answered.

"There was harassment and groping and a lot of leering involved," Princess said. "Rainstorm is bad about that stuff."

"Ah," Mena said, understanding while Bigshot frowned, looking uneasy.

Ignoring them, Cloud tried on a piece of gear that read as a jacket, which would take both the chest armour and shoulder guard slots. He was expecting the transformation now, and wasn't really even surprised when the chest part of the armour pretty much vanished, leaving him with what amounted to… just the sleeves.

Mena snorted. "Does all your armour do that?" she asked

"Oh yeah. It's a Viera speciality," Cloud sighed, tugging at the cloth. It sort of covered his shoulders too. But his chest, stomach, everything below… not so much. "Okay, let's see how much worse the trousers can get," he murmured, and equipped them.

They got worse – he went from full length slacks which were sort of revealing into a sort of… shorts get up. They were loose, sort of bunched up around his thighs, had neither place for belt nor any proper way to tighten the waistline - and which were gaping open at the sides. Over all, they seemed to stay on him by some feat of magic, or something – and they left 60% of his legs completely bare.

Princess let out a laugh. "It's always hilarious, watching him change – it's like a coin toss of whether the new gear looks slightly better or oh so much worse," she said, while Cloud took off the headband-tiara thing and replaced it with a helmet – which, helpfully, turned into a pair of twinkling hair clips because why not.

"Moment of truth," Cloud said, glancing at Princess who grinned widely. "Time to try on a new pair of shoes."

They were… well. Better wasn't the right word – for once they weren't sandals and actually covered his toes. But on other hand, they were pumps instead. Stiletto pumps. Very girly, cutesy stiletto pumps.

"Verdict?" Cloud asked, looking up.

"Despite the fact that we can see your oh so manly chest now, you somehow look girlier," Princess said.

"Well, of course I do," Cloud said with a sigh and finished his gear change by adding a necklace – which of course turned into yet another choker, but at this point he was used to it – and an earring into his gear set up. After checking how the earring looked on his rabbit like ear – thankfully it was just a silver ring near the bottom of the furry ear lobe – he checked his stats. "I got about 30% exp boost now, though, so, maybe I can actually grind properly now."

"Exp boost? Oh, because of the infamy," Mena asked. "You must have it up in the thousands by now."

Bigshot had his head tilted to the side and was considering Cloud thoughtfully. "So are you gay, or…?"

"Hubby!" Mena said, punching him in the shoulder. "You can't just ask something like that, it's rude!"

"What? It's a legitimate question!" Bigshot said and waved at Cloud. "Look at him!" he shook his head. "And what's the fucking point of circling around it all coy-like, when he's standing right there in pumps. I want to know, so I'm fucking gonna ask. You gay?"

"Um," Cloud answered, taken back a bit. "If I could change the way the gear looked, I would. Trust me, it's not what I'd choose for myself."

"Not answering the question," Bigshot said, scowling and pointed a big, claw adorned finger at Cloud. "Gay or not?"

"Does it matter?" Cloud answered, uneasy. It wasn't quite the first time someone had asked him – granted, that had been in the real world, back in basic training, when everyone had been trying to haze each other into performing worse than themselves. In Terra Online, no one had asked – though granted, there hadn't really been any opportunity for it.

"Yes, damn it, it fucking matters," Bigshot said, ignoring how Mena was trying to make him settle down. "Answer the damn question."

"Then fine, yes, I fucking am," Cloud answered. "Well no, I'm slightly on the gayer side of bisexual, not that it has fucking anything to –"

Bigshot took him by the shoulders and squeezed and for a moment Cloud was absolutely terrified of being strangled or head butted by the big Ronso. Bigshot looked at him with a serious scowl on his Ronso face and then nodded his furry, mohawk adorned head. "Good on you, man," the big guy said seriously and squeezed Cloud's shoulders again, nodding again seriously. "Be proud."

"…What?" Cloud asked in a strangled voice as the big Ronso patted his shoulder almost hard enough to send him to the ground.

Mena sighed. "Sorry, Rainstorm," she said. "Hubby gets pretty passionate about these things. He has some friends he's very protective of."

"Okay. Wonderful, good to know," Cloud answered, taking a careful step backwards. Fuck, his heart was pounding and his knees felt a little wobbly – he had thought he was going to get killed.

"Phew," Princess said and RedXIII relaxed – they had apparently thought the same. "Okay, so. Gay Rainstorm, wonderful. Anyway, Rainstorm is on a bit of a time limit and has to log out soonish so can we go and kill some monsters now?"

"Yes, lets," Mena answered with a sigh, and slapped her husband on the shoulder. "You need to work on your people skills, honey."

"Why? My people skills are fucking excellent," the grenadier answered, making her just sigh in answer.

Chapter Text

 

Nanaki sat back, watching how Rainstorm, Treasure Princess, Bigshot and Mena fought the garudas. Bigshot, he thought, was below twenty in level – eighteen or nineteen probably - while Mena was a bit higher level, twenty three possibly. They made ideal party members for Rainstorm and Princess.

While Nanaki didn't really quite mind sitting back from the fighting, and he was a shaman for a reason, buffing the others wasn't exactly a hardship… it was starting to get a bit boring, just watching them fight. And as they fell into a sort of pattern – Mena, who had the highest defence stats, being in the front with Rainstorm while Bigshot and Princess did long-range damage – Nanaki had to admit, he felt a bit left out.

Well, at least this way Rainstorm and Princess would level up faster, and get to his level quicker – especially so now that Rainstorm had some exp boosting gear.

"I'm going to wake up in ten minutes," Rainstorm said after another encounter, checking the clock in his commands. "Do I have time to get to the Knights' Camp?"

"You don't need to because I, being the wonderful stellar shining example of a human-dragon-being that I am, bought us tents," Treasure Princess said, stepping closer. "They're the one time use only sort of items, but it'll cover you for the night."

"You from East continent, Rainstorm?" Bigshot asked, hoisting his cannon away.

"Mm-hmm. Midgar," the Viera said while accepting the tent item from Princess. "How do I use this thing? Is it really safe – I mean, I won't be killed in my, uh, sleep?"

"It's perfectly safe and you set it up like this and then when the time comes you just get in," Princess said, pointing while Nanaki stood and walked closer to them.

"Tents are indestructible and inaccessible by anyone except the person inside," Nanaki said. "They are the only items that are, really. It'll be perfectly safe to log off in one."

Rainstorm nodded and then went about setting the tent in the outer edge of the cave. It was a small one person tent, a somewhat shabby looking thing that would vanish when the user logged into the game. "One time use only, huh?" Rainstorm murmured and glanced at Red. "Are there tents that are good for multiple uses?"

"Yeah, but those are quest rewards for the most part," Nanaki answered. "And a little harder to get than these simpler sorts."

"Hmmm…" Rainstorm hummed and glanced at the clock again. "Seven minutes to go," he said before opening his stats screen.

 

Rainstorm LV. 11

[RACE] Viera
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 3
[JOB] Blacksmith LV. 8
[STR] 22 (+32)
[DEF] 8 (+12)
[VIT] 7 (+5)
[SPD] 12 (+9)
[AGI] 13 (+19)
[DEX] 23 (+5)
[INT] 11 (+14)
[WIS] 13 (+8)

The Viera sighed. "Well, at least I'm not level six anymore, so there's that?"

Mena and Bigshot both leaned in to look at his stats, while Nanaki sighed. Rainstorm's job had gotten to a higher level and he had both mined and made some pretty good things….

"Why's your class level so low?" Bigshot asked curiously. "Shouldn’t it be easier to level up than job level – I mean, all you gotta do is fight some damn monsters and it goes up, right?"

"Not for me apparently," Rainstorm said. "I can't seem to hit any skills. Well, I hit one," he recalled. "Back during the fight in Albrook, but I haven't made any progress since."

"What sort of skill was it?" Mena asked, and Rainstorm explained the Braver skill to her. She hummed, considering the Viera. "A jump attack with a downward swing while in the air…. That doesn't really sound like a dual swords skill. What have you tried so far?"

While Rainstorm described the attacks he had tried to no avail, Nanaki checked his own clock – which was attuned to Cosmo Canyon’s time zone. It was still pretty early – he wouldn't be logging out for another couple hours at least.

"After Rainstorm logs out, I'm going to try and grind some more," Princess said, crouching down beside Nanaki. "The beasties here give good exp, and as level 22, I can more or less fight them by myself. You know, unless the Ronso duo wants to keep at it with me."

"Hm," Nanaki nodded.

"Are you gonna stick around?" she asked, giving him a look. "I mean, it’s gotta be so boring, just watching us go at it. Don't you wanna go somewhere and grind yourself? Like the Wastes – there's a portal near here, isn't there?"

"Yes, but I think I'll refrain from building up my stats for a while," Nanaki shrugged. He wanted Rainstorm and Princess to catch up to him – not to get even further ahead of them. "I'll see about levelling up once the two of you are higher level."

"Oh. Right," Princess said and looked up at Rainstorm. Mena was nodding at the man's descriptions with a frown on her feline face.

"I think I might be seeing your problem," she said, reaching out and taking Rainstorm by the wrist, lifting the Viera's arm and moving it from side to side. "I don't think you're precisely suited for dual swords. Or, no. I don't think you're suited for light swords."

"I thought Viera were suited for fencing – and using two blades takes about as much dexterity, doesn't it?" Rainstorm asked, frowning.

"Yes, but there's you to consider too. The race stats are added on top of your own ones, after all," Mena said. "Viera might be suited for fencing and all that. But you are not. You can't hit the skill points because that's not how your body works – your real life body, that is. Some of that reflects here, you know. Where what you're doing might get a skill for someone else, it won't work for you because your points of optimal efficiency are elsewhere."

"Huh," Rainstorm murmured, and took out his swords – which were rather sleek and thin bladed. "So, I should switch to using just one sword?"

"Hm maybe not. I think you should switch to using much heavier weapons. You're a blacksmith too, right?" Mena answered, and opened her job menu. "See, here? This is a bit more advanced and so easy to get horribly wrong, but we can modify the recipes a bit – and weight and size is one thing you can change. Next time, try making something heavier, something bigger. It can be dual sword, or one handed, or two handed – just try something heavier for a change."

Rainstorm nodded slowly, while Bigshot laughed uproariously.

"That's my woman! She's some fine-ass blacksmith in real life too – bit of a swordswoman, too!" the male Ronso said proudly, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "She knows her shit!"

"Who are you calling your woman?" Mena asked, but fitted herself comfortably under her husband's arm. "You better get in the tent, Rainstorm," she added, pointing at the clock in the corner of her job screen. "It's almost time."

"Yeah. See you guys tomorrow night, then?" the Viera asked, glancing around.

"You bet your ass you will," Bigshot said and they all bid the Viera farewell. It was a bit amusing saying goodbye to someone when all they did was crawl into a tent, but such was Terra Online.

"So, now what?" Bigshot asked, turning to Nanaki and Princess. "You two wanna keep on grinding? I could use a couple more levels."

"Sweet!" Princess said and jumped up.

Nanaki sighed and stayed where he was. It would've been fun to fight too, but if he joined their party he, being higher level, would pretty much nullify all the exp they could get. "I think I'm going to look around, see if I can find any cave mushrooms," he said. They were ingredients in some mid-level potions – he didn't need them, but they'd be good for the others. "Send me a message if you need any help."

"Yeah, yeah," Princess waved at him and with a shake of his head Nanaki headed off.

It was… somewhat strange, but it was easier to be a party with Rainstorm around. Rainstorm knew the least about the game between all of them, and was missing out even more thanks to the bounty on his head, and the necessity of hiding. But when Rainstorm was logged in, they were a group. When he wasn't… they rather fell apart.

Maybe that was what they meant when they said all those things about strong leaders. Rainstorm might've not been knowledgeable, but he was a leader. Bigshot had some of the same qualities in him, but Rainstorm, when he was around, simply took charge without ever actually making it obvious.

It really made Nanaki wonder what the man did in real life. But of course he wouldn't ask – any more than Rainstorm would ask about his beast form, or about how Princess, a Wutai citizen, had gotten her hands on eastern technology like a VRDC.

"Well, don't you look gloomy," a voice commented from somewhere to the left of him and stopping Nanaki looked up to see Cait Sith sitting on a pile of rocks. "Heya there, Red," the mod greeted him and jumped down. "How's it going?"

"It's… good," Nanaki answered, eying the cat suspiciously. Whenever Cait Sith wandered about the game, it usually meant changes. "How unusual to see you in Mushroom Rock Road."

"Ah, it's not as unusual as all that," the cat grinned. "Especially considering the fact that I'm pretty much stalking your party," he added, without any hint of shame. "You're starting to look like a very interesting group."

"I suppose," Nanaki agreed slowly. They certainly had made themselves noticeable – or, well, Rainstorm had and Nanaki and Princess had let themselves be caught in the Viera's typhoon-like infamy. "Interesting enough to make Duel ranking statistics for Rainstorm," he added, sitting down.

"People were curious about the levels of the people he took out," Cait Sith answered. "I guess it won't be that interesting from here on, seeing that he's making levels now – it's pretty noteworthy when a level 6 takes down a level 30, but level 10? Not quite as fantastic."

Nanaki didn't answer, just eyed the moderator worriedly. "If it won't be so interesting, why are you here?" he asked.

Cait Sith looked at him and then grinned, reaching one black and white paw into the air, and drawing a book from it. "Give this to Rainstorm, will you?" he asked. "I want to see what he'd do with it."

Nanaki frowned at the book – it was a Guild Book, an item with which one could create a guild in the game. They weren't exactly rare or impossible to get, but they were either hard to get or very expensive. To be handed one just like that… was a bit unnerving. "He probably won't do anything," Nanaki said.

"Hm?"

"Rainstorm doesn't like having things spoon-fed to him. If he wants to create a guild, he'll prefer to work at it himself, do the quests or buy the book himself," Nanaki explained. He could make any number of potions with just what he could gather in the zones – they were basically free in the end, he only had to pay for the flasks. Rainstorm still insisted on paying for them. And the first weapons Rainstorm had made in Mushroom Rock were all rapiers – because of his deal with Naut.

"Hm. Didn't think he'd be the honourable sort," Cait Sith murmured, looking at the book with a frown.

"He's not. He's a hands-on type of person," Nanaki shook his head. "Wants to work at his own accomplishments, that sort of thing." It was one of the things he admired about the man, actually. Anyone else would've gladly taken up the opportunity to be power levelled by Nanaki, but Rainstorm had just shrugged his shoulders and declined. It was a bit foolish maybe, considering Rainstorm's situation in Terra Online, but it was admirable too.

Cait Sith sighed and dismissed the book. "Well, that's no fun," he murmured.

"Is that the only reason you're here?" Nanaki asked.

"Nah, I'm heading to the Wastes – I'm hunting down a glitch," Cait Sith shrugged. "But then I saw you and thought it might be fun. This game could use a bit of stirring up, it's gotten a bit stagnant lately," he said. "Plus I think if someone like Rainstorm started a guild, it could very well rise up to meet the Overseers. They've had a monopoly a bit too long now."

Nanaki flicked his tail at that, considering that the Overseers were the biggest and most powerful guild in the game – they all but owned Alexandria. Rainstorm rising up to their level? He could see it, he could actually see it very well. It would be a road littered with dead players, maybe, but if Rainstorm decided to head down that road, he probably could make it.

"Maybe you could put the notion of making a guild in his ear?" Cait Sith asked hopefully. "He has the money to buy the Guild Book if he wants to, doesn't he?"

"Probably," Nanaki murmured. He had never been in a guild and one run by Rainstorm… it could be pretty interesting.

Or, with Rainstorm's luck with Terra Online, it could also be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Chapter Text

 

The next time Cloud logged into Terra Online, after a very boring day of patrolling and cleaning up duties, he was alone in the game, with everyone else offline. The caves of Mushroom Rock Road were quiet and echoing, as he crawled out of the tiny one-man tent and got to his feet. It was an odd feeling, to stand there and know that Red and Princess wouldn't be around for another couple of hours at least.

"Well," Cloud murmured, glancing towards the tent as it collapsed into itself and then slowly faded away. "I guess this gives me time to do some mining."

Heavier weapons, Mena had said. Checking his inventory Cloud came to the conclusion that he didn't have enough ore and so, with a sigh, he walked to the nearest wall, took out the magically appearing and disappearing pickaxe, and began to mine.

Funny, how even doing that was much more interesting than patrolling Midgar had been, in the real world. Cloud was really starting to see why Terra Online had so many players – why millions went to bed with VRDC on. Even without the excitement of being chased by bounty hunters, the game would still be more interesting that most people's everyday life.

Now, if only the gear could look a bit better… though, to be honest, Cloud was pretty much getting used to it. He would still grab at anything more covering with both hands and pay his weight in gold for a cape or a cloak if he had to, but for now he could live with showing a little – a lot – of skin.

He spent about half an hour mining, his thoughts circling away from the Vieras' stupid gear set up to his companions in the game. Would Mena and Bigshot want to play with them again? Cloud definitely wouldn't have minded that – Mena was obviously a more accustomed sword user and knew the stuff he needed to know to get anywhere. Having her advice would be nice – and Bigshot, loud and clumsy as he was, wasn't bad either. They had both been excellent in a fight too.

After getting enough ore to try and make himself new swords – and another job level too – Cloud opened the job menu and examined the list. He only had the earliest of weapons recipes – mostly beginner weapons with a little bit of a boost – though with each job level he had been getting a couple more simple weapons recipes. Some of them were for weapons he couldn't use – like for rapiers, lances, fire arms, staffs and so on – but there was one heavier sword there. It was a two handed sword though, a broadsword, rather than something that could be dual wielded.

"Well, it can't hurt to try," Cloud mused, and cautiously modified the attributes of the Simple Broadsword, to make it a bit bigger and a bit heavier. Then, shaking his head, he just maxed out the gauges – making it a lot bigger and a lot heavier. If it came out useless, he could just get the ore again and remake it.

Then, much to his own amusement, he pulled out an anvil and a hammer from the air, and began forging. It took him all of thirty seconds to make the sword which, well, came out very big and very heavy. The blade was something like twenty centimetres wide, and almost a hundred and forty in length – and the weight was something in the neighbourhood of thirty kilos. In real life he would've never been able to even lift it, probably.

As Rainstorm he could, though. The blade was still heavy, but it was an oddly comfortable weight – he even could handle the sword in one hand, which was a bit ridiculous, but that was video games for you.

After taking few practice swings with the big sword, Cloud glanced around and saw a couple of the garudas he had been hunting with the others the previous night. He probably couldn't take them straight on by himself, at level 11, but… he had seen how they moved and despite being flying creatures, they weren't very fast. He could probably kill them.

With a roll of his shoulders, he held the sword at the ready and then lunged forward, to do just that. It took him precisely one swing with the heavy broadsword to figure out that, A, his usual attacks would never work with the thing, B, the range would take getting used to, and C, it did more damage than his shorts sword combined. In that single clumsy swipe, he took out a good quarter of the nearest garuda's HP, and it was barely a glancing blow.

The big broadsword was a very crude sort of weapon. All of what Cloud knew of finesse went out of the window, and he just swung the thing, letting the sheer size and weight do the job. And it did. It was a bit slow and he did get hit, but meanwhile it did twice and thrice the damage he had previously done, and he could even do aoe damage. Which was to say, when he went to hit one of the garudas, he ended up hitting all of them because the range on the thing was insane.

After he had killed the LV. 23 mobs with surprisingly little effort, Cloud eyed the broadsword with a sort of wonder and checked the stats.

[Simple Broadsword]
[A Beginner's heaviest friend! Custom forged, atk +50, def +10, agi -20, dex -25]

Well no wonder it handled clumsier and still did more damage. Swinging the sword in one hand, Cloud nodded to himself. He hadn't hit a skill, but he had to admit – there was something about the heavier sword that just felt more comfortable, the negative agi and dex aside.

Then he headed out to find some more garudas to kill.

He was through his tenth or so batch of garudas when he heard a party approaching, their steps and talking echoing in the cave. Pausing in cleaning his sword, Cloud listened and then swallowed a curse. They had been left alone in the Mushroom Rock Road caves the previous night and he had kind of been hoping that the caves would stay as empty this time around – but apparently not.

Quickly, he ducked into another cave, not wanting to be seen. Which, of course, was pretty useless. "Hey' there's another group of dead garudas here!" someone called. "Looks recent."

"Fuck," Cloud muttered under his breath, hesitated for a moment, and then set out deeper into the caves. As he ran he considered his options. Running was a viable tactic, maybe, except unlike RedXIII and Treasure Princess, he didn't have the full map of Mushroom Rock explored yet, so he had no idea where he was going. The further he went, the more lost he was going to get. Sticking around, however….

So he ran, and ran, and ran, right into a dead end. Or, specifically, a dead end with a portal at the end of it. Eying it with dismay, Cloud stopped, a little out of breath. Then he looked back, his ears twitching – and thanks to Viera hearing he could hear them, the party, coming down the same stupid tunnel he had taken. Probably coming for the portal too.

"Please be some place empty of people," Cloud muttered at the portal and then lunged at it.

The portal spat him out of a cave, and onto a cliff – and thanks to the running leap he had taken at the portal, his momentum carried him right over the cliff's edge. It took him a moment to realise what the hell just happened. Then he was already falling, fast.

"Fuck!" he gasped and quickly whirled around in air, arms spreading at each side for balance. He could see wide, rocky terrain in front of him – below him – and behind him there was what might've been a mountain. Below him there was lots and lots of space and a lot of jagged rocks and cliff edges and ledges – and he was falling right at them. Panicked, Cloud tried to reach for the cliff wall, to grab a hold of it and maybe slow down his descent. He almost managed – but he was falling so fast now that his hand just knocked against the passing rock, and he spun wildly in the air, losing his direction and then -

Then, by some miracle of Viera physiology, he caught the cliff wall with the heel of his shoe and a moment later he found himself running down a sheer wall. For a moment he thought he was imagining it – but no, he was running down a sheer wall.

Fucking Terra Online physics made no freaking sense.

Unable to stop and ponder on it, Cloud found himself automatically leaping from ledge to ledge as he headed down the side of the mountain, towards a dry, rocky valley beneath. He could see a hint of light there – a camp fire – and leaping over another ledge, Cloud made for it – only to realise a moment later that at his momentum he was going to either crash down and die, or… well, crash down and die was pretty much the only option, seeing that he was running down a mountain side.

"Well fuck that," he grunted and pulled out the Simple Broadsword. With a little twist in the air, he plunged the blade into the rock and then hung onto it for dear life, the blade screaming in complaint. But it did slow him down, tearing a scrape along the rocky wall until Cloud made it to the bottom of the camp.

His momentum finally stopped, about three, four meters above the camp. After making sure that he wasn't about to be over taken by a landslide of his own making, Cloud, hanging from the grip by one hand, examined the broadsword where it was, imbedded in the rock wall. Quickly he shifted against the wall so that his feet were against it, and pulled at the sword while pushing with his feet – it took some effort, but he managed it. And then he was falling again and had to twist in the air so that he fell onto his feet rather than on his head, landing on one knee with the massive blade held between his hands.

The sword was less than an hour old – and he had already worn the durability down to 8%. Great.

"Holy shit," someone said and Cloud finally looked up. There was a party of players sitting by the camp fire – two warrior types, a mage, a healer, a gunner, and possibly a dancer judging by the woman's get up. They were all staring at him, wide eyed and gaping.

The mage narrowed his eyes. "Wait, aren't you –"

"Right," Cloud said, looking at them and then deciding that whoever they were, he wanted nothing to do with them. Hoisting the almost broken sword onto his back, he ran past the party and got the hell out of there before they caught on to who he was and what sort of money they could make off him.

He kept running even once he was out of view, weaving and zigzagging in the weird, rocky valley and trying to make sure he couldn't be followed. It seemed like it worked too.

Five minutes later he ran into a group of level 45 mobs, and realised that wherever he had ended up, it wasn't a friendly place. The mobs – sort of demon dogs or whatever – gave him next to no warning. The moment they saw him, they just came at him, maws gaping open and claws reaching for him and Cloud just kept running, as fast as he could.

Past another group of demon dogs, and another, and another – and then he ran into a fucking dragon and fucking hell he really should've just stayed in Mushroom Rock Road. About a dozen groups of mobs later, his stamina was wearing out and he was actually losing a bit of HP, his chest heaving and with a stitch in his side as he tried to gasp for breath.

But fuck if he was going to die here, wherever here was. Cursing, he looked up – there were a lot of weird rocky formations all around in this place, and one of them had to be climbable. It took him a moment to find one that looked like he could scale it, and he made a beeline for it, with a party of seven or so dogs after him. Jumping, he caught the rough wall of the rock formation, clawing himself up and out of the dogs reach.

It took the rest of his strength to get up the rock wall and he just fell flat on his face when he got up there, gasping for breath. "What the hell is this place?" he grumbled.

Then he heard a growl – different from the dogs barking and snarling below – and quickly looked up, hoping against all hope that he hadn't just climbed all the way up here just to find himself face to face with a dragon.

He hadn't. The growling came from a crouched, sort of humanoid man with large red wings and a head crowned by jagged horns. A Gria? No, Grias only had two horns, and much smaller wings than this guy. There were bigger wings in the game though, and who knows, maybe there were helmets with horns. The guy could've been human for all Cloud knew, under the horns and the head band and the cloak. Or maybe even an elf.

"Sorry to barge in," Cloud said, pushing himself up and to his knees, eying the man uneasily. God, he hoped the man wasn't interested in bounty hunting. "I had to get away from the dog things below," he added – glancing backwards. The dogs were still there, surrounding the rock formation. "Great," he murmured.

A split second later, he found himself flat on his back with the winged guy on top of him, growling in his face with a mouth full of fangs. "What the hell –"

"I will not be killed!" the guy growled at him, his voice low.

"What?" Cloud asked, surprised.

"I will not be killed!"

"Yeah, I got that part," Cloud said and shifted a little under the guy's weight – only to get a clawed hand to his throat. "Fuck – what the hell said I was going to try and kill you?" Cloud gasped, grabbing at the hand. "Calm down, asshole, I'm here just to get away from the mobs!"

The guy didn't release him, just leaned low and growled some more. This close up, Cloud couldn't miss noticing the gleam of his single visible eye – red. It looked furious and oddly glazed. Then the guy was lifting his other hand, adorned by a golden talon, for a strike.

Cloud moved, half by instinct and half because of training. This much, at least, he had learned in basic training. He kneed the guy in the stomach, holding his leg there to keep the guy from getting closer, and grabbed the hand holding his throat tighter. Then, lifting his other foot and pressing it against the guy's side, he twisted and pulled at the hand holding him while kicking with all his strength to get the guy off of him.

He didn't get the guy as far away as he would've liked and the winged man managed to grab a hold of his wrist, so Cloud wasn't quite able to get free. Instead, he was forced to twist a leg around the guy's waist and spin them around to get better leverage, using the hand holding onto his wrist and twisting until he got the guy onto his stomach, with the gold adorned hand pinned between the impressive red wings, holding onto the guy's neck to keep his head down.

"Calm the fuck down!" Cloud snapped at the man, who's growling intensified by a magnitude of ten. "I'm not here to kill you but if you make me, then I fucking will, alright?!" he asked, reinforcing the words by squeezing the guy's neck warningly. "So calm down!"

The wings thrashed for a moment against him – the guy actually tried to claw him with a wing joint – but after a while he stopped, giving in. "Fine," the guy snarled. "Take my head then – I will revive soon anyway."

"Yeah, so do we all," Cloud said rolling his eyes. Did the guy have a bounty on his head or something? On his head and in his head too, judging by the way he was talking. Well, it didn't matter – Cloud had no intention of killing the guy. The moment he did, it would go into his duel rankings and people would find out that he was making levels – it would make the hunt for him worse, probably. It was best to just avoid that.

He waited for a moment until he was sure the fight had gone out of the winged man. Then he released him, shifting back to sit on his knees. "Now stop being an asshole," he said with a sigh and rubbed at his throat. "I'm too fucking tired to fight."

The winged man lay there for a moment, frozen still. Then he twisted to his hands and feet, crouched like a golem and staring at Cloud with obvious confusion. "Why?" he asked, his voice still a growl.

"What?" Cloud asked, irritated.

"Why not kill me?"

"Because I'm just not in the mood right now," Cloud muttered, and dug out a potion and downing it. Then he fell to lie on his back, still a little breathless from his run. "Less than two hours into this day and I'm already pretty much screwed," he muttered at the reddish sky. "Another fucking day in Terra Online."

Chapter Text

 

"Looks like the Rabbit of Caerbannog has been sighted, at long last," Genesis commented, making Angeal look away from the ingredients he had been preparing. The elf red mage was sitting on the kitchen table, examining the latest Info Leaflet released by the Overseers. "He dropped in on a party in the Wastes, coming from the MRR portal – took the short route down the mountain side without wings. Mad bastard."

Angeal shook his head and turned back to the ingredients. "I don't understand the fascination you and everyone else have with that guy," he commented while checking that he had everything he needed. "Also, sit on a chair like a normal person – that's what they're there for."

"So strict," Genesis said, but jumped down from the table and actually pulled out a chair. "And don't you think it’s fascinating? The guy has over a hundred kills, all made at level 6 – and no one has yet to collect the bounty on him! Even Loyal got himself killed within the night when his bounty got over three hundred, and this guy has a 525G bounty on his head. There only are something like ten players with higher bounties – and Zoto will probably let himself be killed to collect the money soon."

"Hmm," Angeal answered, not really interested, as he took the LV. 60 cooking gear out of his inventory and began preparing the food. If he got it right – and at level 60 it was very easy to get things wrong – he would get one of the best consumable defence buffs in the game – 1200pt defence increase for 6 hours. He didn't precisely need it, with his gear, but it could be useful if Sephiroth decided that he needed a spar – or he could sell it for some decent gold.

"And no one knows who this guy is," Genesis continued, waving the leaflet in Angeal’s peripheral vision. "It takes something special to manage what this guy is managing, and no one's ever even heard of him, in or out of the game."

"Hmm," Angeal answered again and entered the ingredients in the pot. The heat, stir and time gauges appeared above it and with a frown he concentrated on keeping the temperature perfect, stirring the pot just so while the time ticked out.

"Rainstorm has pissed off something like twenty guilds too," Genesis added. "And didn't you say there was one of the Heroes in Albrook, when he massacred all those newbies?"

"There was," Angeal said. The kid – a third class SOLDIER who had only recently bought the game – had been killed somewhere near the middle of the massacre by a blow to the neck.

"And yet you're not interested in revenge? If one of the LOVELESS had been there, I'd have hunted Rainstorm down immediately," Genesis said, frowning.

"It's not my say – I'm not the guild master," Angeal answered with a shrug. And even if he had been, he wouldn't have. The kid that had gotten killed had brought it on himself – he admitted that he had tried to sneak up on Rainstorm from behind, to stab him in the back. It was a small wonder he hadn't been booted out of the guild then, but theirs was a forgiving guild master.

"You should be," Genesis scoffed. "You pamper that puppy of yours too much."

Angeal smiled and shook his head. It was a good learning experience for Zack, running a guild – and Angeal had all the leadership duties he needed in his real life. He didn't want to keep doing his job in his sleep too – no, he'd rather enjoy himself whilst doing things he couldn't indulge in in real life.

"So the guy is in the Wastes now? He must've made some levels," Angeal said, to turn the conversation away from a constant source of arguments between them.

"Hm, yes," the red mage said, turning to the leaflet. "He was spotted just half an hour ago. They don't know where he is at this moment, though – he took off before anyone could try to follow him, just headed off to the den of the Behemoths."

"Well, they won't find him there, if he knows the place at all," Angeal said. "The canyon is like a maze." And it was hard even for a full party of high level players to handle. Angeal and Genesis could, at their levels, but anyone below 50 would have trouble, going there alone.

"Hopefully he won't be killed by the monsters there. That would be just… lame," Genesis hummed and then leaned back, looking at him. "What is the puppy's opinion on Rainstorm? I know the Overseers have a close eye on all the rumours, but they've not yet marked him as a target since he hasn't stepped on their toes yet. We in LOVELESS don't really need the bounty and none of our guild members were killed, so for now I'm satisfied just watching this develop. What's the Heroes' view on him?"

Angeal shrugged. "Zack's thinking along the same lines. We don't condone player killing outside duels and none of us precisely like what the guy did in Albrook – but since then he hasn't killed anyone below his level, and everyone he's killed has been a bounty hunter coming after him. So…."

Genesis nodded thoughtfully, leaning back. "Seems to be a common notion, among us higher level guilds. Most of those going after him are either individual players or guilds below level thirty," he said, opening a window and accessing the bulleting board. "Players for whom 500G is a lot of money. Most guilds above that are just watching and waiting."

Angeal nodded absently and watched the heat and stir gauges closely as the time ran out. Cautiously, he opened the pot and it snapped out of existence, turning into a stack of three Golden Dragon Stew. Satisfied, he put the cooking gear away and examined the food stats.

"I find your lack of interest in this matter disheartening," Genesis commented and looked at the food Angeal had made with interest. "Any of that for me?"

"You wish," Angeal said, and put the stack of food into his inventory. "And I don't really care about Rainstorm one way or the other. He's a player killer. That's all I need to know to figure out that I probably wouldn't care for him if I met him. And I have better things to do with my time than worrying about guys like that."

Genesis smiled wryly at that. "Like making delicious foods," he commented and looked around them. "And home décor, of all things," he added with a snort.

Angeal glanced around in his kitchen. The house might be virtual, and fairly small as estates in Alexandria went, but it was his and he was rather proud of how it had come out. "Precisely," he said. "There's more to this game than fighting and killing and damn bounty hunting and I'm perfectly satisfied enjoying the little things."

"So speaketh the third strongest player in the game."

Angeal shook his head and turned to the red mage. Genesis looked somewhat out of place, in his dark red armour and flashy cape, his back adorned by black and red wings which he never unequipped. Angeal's rather modest kitchen wasn't precisely designed for entertaining someone of Genesis's level of sheer flashiness.

"Why are you so interested in Rainstorm? Aside from the fact that at level 6 he killed over a hundred players," Angeal asked, curious.

Genesis grinned and snapped the leaflet shut, putting it away in his inventory. "Oh, my friend, the reasons are many. First, he's the only male Viera in the game and I'm dying to see if his gear really looks as ridiculous as they say. Secondly, he's not just a Viera, but a Viera swordsman – have you ever heard of such nonsense? Thirdly, most of those he killed were higher level than he was – all the kills past the initial 79 have been mid level players, ranging from the twenties to the forties. That's no mean feat, from someone at level 6. Fourthly…."

"Yeah, okay, okay, so he's somewhat interesting," Angeal rolled his eyes. "He's still a player killer."

"So am I, when I have to be," Genesis shrugged. "This Rainstorm is the first breath of something new we've had since… well, I can't even remember. The players haven't been this agitated since Sephiroth came to Alexandria the last time. It's entertaining, Angeal. The whole thing is amusing to watch."

Well that explained it. "You need new hobbies, my friend," Angeal answered, shaking his head and opening his character inventory, to switch out of his cooking outfit and into his armour.

"Yes, well. There are only limited hobby opportunities in this game," Genesis sighed. "And since we just finished a production and the members want a break, there's little to do around the theatre either."

"There are hundreds of things you can do in Alexandria," Angeal answered, not impressed. "Everything from board games to… to house building. You could do anything – art, music, fireworks, whatever. Instead you… follow gossip."

"Hmph," the red mage answered and gave him a look. "I have tried the board games, and they bore me. And I did my share of building when the LOVELESS guild house was built. I already do art, music, and occasionally even fireworks at the theatre. I also do costumes and dye crafting and even design slogans," he said and waved a dismissive hand at it all. "Some of us aren't quite so happy with the little things, my friend."

Angeal gave him a look. "I'm a hair's width from suggesting that you find yourself a nice girl and settle down, you know," he said, amused. "But with that sort of litany, maybe you need a nice boy instead, since you're almost the perfect wife."

"I'm not the one who has level 60 cooking skills. Nor am I the homemaker between the two of us," Genesis snorted, motioning at the kitchen around them. "And what a fine home you have, Miss."

Angeal shook his head at that. "Was there anything else you needed, Genesis, aside from having someone to listen to your gossip?"

"Not really. I'm just bored," the elf admitted, crossing his legs and leaning back. "Alexandria is boring these days. Almost makes me want to join Sephiroth in scouring the fields for bosses, but what a waste of time that would be," he sighed. "Maybe once Rainstorm makes it to Alexandria things will get more interesting."

"And we're back to that guy," Angeal sighed. Then a thought occurred and he looked at Genesis a bit closer. Genesis, when he was bored, was bored with his whole body – all dramatic slumps and disgusted expressions. He wasn't quite slumping now, and his expression was keen. His eyes were shining and out here they had no Mako to make their eyes shine.

"Genesis," Angeal said slowly. "Are you… could it be… have you, of all people, become a fan? A Rainstorm fan of all things?"

Genesis took a double take, looking at him with disbelief and then standing up in outrage. "Of course not!" he snapped, grimacing. "I am merely keeping an eye on the situation, and that is all. Nothing about it in any form or fashion could ever indicate that I –"

"You've bought the Overseers’ info about the guy," Angeal pointed out. "You actually bought info from the Overseers and you hate giving any money to other guilds."

"Well, the name of their guild is the Overseers – they tend to have the latest info about everything," Genesis defended himself, folding his arms.

"And you felt the need to have this info," Angeal said, amused now. Genesis the fanboy – it was the most ridiculous concept he had ever thought up and yet it was looking rather likely. "You wanted it so badly you paid money for it. Probably had one of your guild members do the actual buying, but you still had to get it." He grinned at the face his friend made at him. "Merely keeping an eye on the situation, yeah, right."

"Oh, shut up," Genesis answered. "What else of interest is there, really?"

"For you, I guess, nothing," Angeal grinned and patted his shoulder. "Looks like you've joined a fandom, Genesis. Congratulations."

"Oh, get your furry paw off me," Genesis grumbled and fell back to the chair, arms folded and sulking like a teenager. "I am so un-friending your unfriendly ass," he said, as if confirming the image he presented, despite all of his gleaming armoured glory.

"Sure you are," Angeal answered, smiling. "When do you think Rainstorm will make it to Alexandria, then?"

"No one knows. It's a pity he went to the Wastes, really," Genesis added, sighing. "The chances of him running into players there – or of someone finding him – are so low it's almost sad." Then he frowned "Isn't Sephiroth still in the Wastes?" he asked, looking at Angeal.

Angeal considered that. "Yes, the last I heard from him," he said slowly. "But the Wastes are almost as big as the entire eastern continent. What are the chances of those two meeting?"

Chapter Text

If Cait Sith had to pick the one place in all of Terra Online that he liked the most, it would be the Wastes. The Wastes were, paws down, the most chaotic zone in the entire game. The weather algorithms were designed to be unpredictable, the terrain was still somewhat evolving with the weather, and the mob AI was the most intricate, each and every type of Wastes monster having the capability of adapting and even moving and migrating, if they were triggered just right.

It had yet to happen, but if something big enough happened in the Wastes, it could very well change the entire ecosystem of the zone because the zone had been built to change. Cait Sith almost hoped that someone would trigger an Omega Event in the Wastes – the resulting destruction would change the entire landscape and the whole zone would be stirred up. But of course they wouldn't – no one wanted to fight a world boss in the zone that boasted some of the highest level mobs in the game.

Sure, Alexandria was a work of art and it was growing more and more intricate with each passing day as the players contributed to the ever evolving cityscape – Alexandria was, currently, the only place in Terra Online where players could build things and, if they wanted to, destroy buildings. They could even, if they really got into it, change the street layout. Lots of very surprising and fascinating player creations had come from Alexandria. But, programming wise? The Wastes had more to it.

Cait Sith was actually toying with the idea of introducing a building element in the Wastes, just to see what the players would do. They already occasionally built sort of tent villages in the Wastes, when a lot of players decided to head out there for days, sometimes weeks. There were even known tent formations for creating sort of momentary safe zones in the Wastes – and it was, beyond a doubt, fascinating.

If he let people build actual buildings in the Wastes, it would be interesting to see if an actual town, or maybe even a city, would be formed out of nothing. Alexandria had a framework of indestructible NPC buildings and there had been something like 200 buildings originally, which the early players had been able to purchase, so Alexandria had already been there before the people. A city made entirely by players though? That could be interesting. Especially since, without any NPCs, it would have none of the amenities of an NPC town. No Inn, no warehouse, no auction house, no general store, nothing.

Another idea he had been toying with was introducing facilities in the game. Sure, there were the guild houses, some of which said guilds had adapted to certain interests, like the great LOVELESS mansion which was part barracks, part theatre. But a player house, that could also function as an inn? A player who, when he was at his house, could play the part of a sales person? An auction house, entirely run by players? Maybe even an actual auction house, where people had to gather to see a limited list of wares and actually bid for them….

Terra Online had millions of potentials hidden in its layers of coding, and Cait Sith often had to hold himself back and stop himself from introducing new things – he, like Reeve, liked to see the game evolve and throwing new stuff at it at every opportunity could hinder that.

The idea of building in the Wastes was one he was probably going to implement soon, just to see what would happen. He just needed Reeve to approve the programming and then, once it was approved, select a good moment to introduce the new mechanic and watch what happened. Maybe he could even draw Reeve into the actual game for once, to watch what happened as it happened, rather than later as recordings. Reeve, Cait Sith felt, didn't play Terra Online nearly enough.

But that was an issue for another time. Right now he was busy watching Rainstorm – whom he really hadn't expected to stumble upon in the Wastes, nor had he expected to see the man stumble right into the glitch he had been hunting. Sitting on a nearby formation of sedimentary rock in the RavageBasin, near the portal to Mushroom Rock Road, Cait Sith watched with great interest how the only male Viera in the game and the glitch talked.

And before then, Cait Sith hadn't known the glitch could talk.

"Will you move on from that?" Rainstorm was asking with irritation, throwing a pebble at the glitch. "Your life in this game must suck even worse than mine, if you think everyone's out to kill you."

"They usually are," the glitch growled, shifting where it was crouched and hunched awkwardly.

"Then you have my condolences, and all that, but just quit it already," the Viera grumbled. "I didn't kill you before; I'm not going to kill you now. You know, so long as you return the favour of the general not-killing thing." He peered over the edge of the rock where he and the glitch were. "Except maybe those things. Those things we could kill."

Cait Sith shook his head in wonder at the pair of them, his vision and hearing enhanced by a zoom-in window. Rainstorm somehow got the glitch to look over the edge too, at the behemoths that were surrounding the formation now in an ever growing pack – they had the ability to attract more of their kind from the surrounding area. The bigger the pack, the more other behemoths would be attracted to it, and the packs could sometimes grow to number in the dozens.

"What are those things anyway?" Rainstorm asked, honestly expecting the glitch to know.

The glitch said nothing for a moment, looking between the player and the mobs. "People call them behemoths," it then said. "People avoid the area because of them. That's why… I come here."

Cait Sith squinted at that – because that was even more surprising than the glitch's ability to talk. It indicated that the glitch could store data and make estimations and decisions. He had figured that the glitch had originated from an AI algorithm gone bad; but this was more than he had given the thing credit for.

"I can see why," Rainstorm said. "Damn, what kind of aggro range do these things have? And I guess getting out of their line of sight doesn't help with them."

While the pair of them talked about the behemoths – awkward and stilted on the glitch's part and openly curious on Rainstorm's, Cait Sith aimed at the glitch and then opened a code screen. As always, the glitch's code was all over the place, jumping and fracturing and blending into itself. The thing had been around since before Terra Online had even been launched, a carryover from those early days of VDRC, probably even before the original SOLDIER simulations.

Cait Sith had almost lost count of how many times he had tried to delete the thing, only to have it pop back in a few days later, as messy and chaotic as ever. He had tried to contain it, isolate it, he had even created a momentary alternate server and tried to push the glitch into it, and out of Terra Online – but it always ended up back in the main game, somehow. Like the data was, somehow, untouchable. Stored away on a server Cait Sith couldn't actually influence as much as he liked. Or at all, really.

The glitch and its removal wasn't that high on the list of priorities, though – mainly because it wasn't that big of a threat. It could and occasionally did kill players that found it, but it was translated to players killed by mobs and had only the usual dangers and penalties of being killed by mobs. In all the years it had existed, it hadn't corrupted the system, hadn't even influenced the environment much. It just… was; glitchy and by all appearances indestructible, roaming the Wastes however it damn well pleased. And it had been doing so for long enough that the players  had noticed it too They had even given it a name.

The Wastes Demon.

Cait Sith had known the thing had some logic to it – it always tried to run from him, when it saw him, so it somehow knew and remembered him. But an AI of this level, with the ability to talk and actually hold a conversation, with memory, the ability to judge things like safety? It was obviously hiding from players – which explained why people saw the thing less and less in the Wastes. It knew they were hunting it, and it was hiding.

And now Rainstorm had somehow stumbled onto the thing and was engaging it in conversation.

Though on the other hand, who else could it have been, but Rainstorm? The man was a bit of an anomaly too.

"My level's nowhere near high enough to kill those things," the Viera was saying to the glitch. "I don't suppose you could help me out of here?"

Before the glitch could come up with an answer, Cait Sith kicked off from the rock where he had been and jumped over to the rock where Rainstorm and the glitch were, crossing the fifty meters worth of space in a couple of seconds. As he landed, the glitch's eyes widened and it instantly made to open its wings and take flight – but Cait Sith was old hat in stopping him, and summoned the Chains of Anima, one of the summoner skills, to wrap around the glitch and pin it down.

"What the –?" Rainstorm asked and then quickly stepped between Cait Sith and the glitch, drawing his almost broken Simple Broadsword and was actually protecting the thing.

"Hello," Cait Sith greeted him, waving a paw, while the swordsman stared at him with surprise and the glitch thrashed in the chains, growling like an earthquake. "Nice day we're having here in the Wastes, aren't we? You caught the weather setting on a good day, by the way – most of the time it's so windy, you couldn't even dream of staying up in a place like this. You'd be blown off, instantly."

"I see," the Viera said slowly, frowning in confusion. "Wait, what? You're not… weren't you in the character creation screen?"

"Yep. I don't think we've been formally introduced – the name's Cait Sith. I'm the game's moderator," Cait Sith greeted him cheerfully. "And you, Rainstorm, are a very interesting player."

The Viera frowned in confusion and then, as the glitch let out a snarl, seemed to remember him. "What are you doing?" the Viera demanded. "Shouldn't you, as moderator, be beyond this sort of thing?" he asked, nodding back at the glitch.

Cait Sith smiled at that. The guy really thought the glitch was a player. For a moment he entertained the notion of keeping the Viera in the dark, but… "As a moderator, I should be on top of these sorts of things," he said and nodded at the glitch. "That, right there, isn't a player."

"What?" Rainstorm asked, the sword lowering a fraction of an inch as he turned to the growling, writhing glitch.

"It's a program. An AI. A faulty one at that," Cait Sith said, resting his paws at his hips. "A glitch, really. I've been trying to get rid of it for… well, for years."

"A program?" Rainstorm asked with disbelief. "He's pretty damn human for a program."

"So am I, and that's still all I am. A highly sophisticated AI," Cait Sith said and stepped past the swordsman, to the glitch who snarled low and ferocious at him. Ignoring it for now, he opened the data window again and pointed it at Rainstorm. "This is him. And this…" he opened another window, where the code ran true, clean and straight, "is me. I'm sure you can see the difference."

The Viera was still frowning, but he did crouch down to look at the windows. "A glitch," he murmured, looking at the so called Wastes Demon who hissed and looked away. It looked almost dismayed, which was absolutely fascinating.

Did the thing have emotions? Cait Sith did, but he was a simulation lovingly created by Reeve over years of programming. Who the hell had programmed this thing? Had the early programmers of VRDC even had that sort of capability?

"Hey," Rainstorm said. "I have code too, right? Can you show it like this?"

"Player data is a whole different thing, Rainstorm," Cait Sith said, turning to him with confusion. "AI programming and player data aren't in the least compatible."

"Yeah, I figured. Do it anyway," the swordsman said and with a shrug of his shoulder, Cait Sith aimed at the man and then opened his data window. It took some fiddling to translate it into programming code rather than as the synapse data it existed as. Sure, the two data languages interacted, they had to, but data coming from people and data coming from the programs of Terra Online were two wholly different beasts.

Then he had Rainstorm's character data in programming language – and he had to stop and stare at it.

While nowhere near as messy as the glitch's data, and there was none of the blending or blurring… it was messy. There was none of the neat efficiency of Cait Sith's own code, and Rainstorm's code jumped around too, skipping up and ahead and then back, redoing bits and circling them, code patterns repeating.

"What the…" Cait Sith trailed away and then enlarged the glitch's and Rainstorm's data streams, to see more of them at once. They weren't the same, not at all, but Rainstorm's code was closer to the glitch's code, than Cait Sith's was.

"Hey," Rainstorm said, and Cait Sith turned to him, only to see the man looking at the glitch. "You never told me your name. I'm Rainstorm – though that's just my name in this game."

The glitch hissed and then cast its single visible eye on the man. "They… call me the Wastes Demon," he growled. "But… I call myself Vincent."

"Oh my god," Cait Sith murmured. His first thought was that it's self-aware! Then, he caught up. It wasn't self-aware. It wasn't even an it. He was a player!

"Nice to meet you, Vincent," Rainstorm said, smiling and then glanced at Cait Sith, single eyebrow arching in challenge. "Can you take these things off of him?" He asked, tugging at the Chains of Anima.

"Y-yeah," Cait Sith answered, and dismissed the chains. The gli – no, Vincent instantly jumped back and to his hands and feet, crouching down and eying them suspiciously – and Cait Sith didn't miss that he jumped just a little behind Rainstorm. As if… as if taking shelter, seeking protection. Freaking hell.

"How did you know?" Cait Sith asked, turning to Rainstorm. He felt… oddly stupid. How hadn't he seen this before? All the years of hunting the glitch down and he had never seen it. He hadn't made a mistake this bad since the early days of Terra Online, back when he had been too young to really understand everything – when people had all been abnormal, inconsistent things whose actions and reactions never made sense.

Rainstorm shrugged. "Never seen a mob or NPC looking confused or scared before," he answered. "And he's been scared of me the entire time. And he's terrified of you. It was… kind of obvious."

Cait Sith let out a huff of disbelieving laughter, just shaking his head at him. The guy was such an anomaly.

Chapter Text

Cloud had no idea what the hell was even going on, but to be fair, he was getting used to that feeling in Terra Online. Okay, so, the mod looked like a stuffed cat, great. Was the cat the same cat from the creation screen, or were they just identical copies? He could distinctly remember the character creation screen cat giving him strange looks. Did it matter? Probably not.

At least the cat wasn't bullying Vincent anymore. Vincent who, Cloud did notice, was all but hiding behind him. Which was just great – like Cloud could do anything to protect him. Though, judging by the situation going on, maybe he could.

"How the hell did you end up thinking this guy was a program anyway?" Cloud asked, nodding at the winged man who was watching them silently, warily.

Cait Sith grimaced. "Because that's how he looks code wise. Plus there is his behaviour, and how long he's been around," he said and plonked down to sit with a sigh. "He, Vincent, has been here since before we even started to build the first terrain. He was always this… intruder in the system. Originally the programmers thought he was a virus, and tried to isolate and delete him the same as I did, but he always popped back in. When we finally had an environment, he went from a cluster of data into… this. So we thought he was an early progressive learning AI, with the ability to translate itself to other modes of programming, but…."

Cloud frowned, looking at Vincent who didn't say anything, just looked back, single visible eye gleaming. "How long has Terra Online existed?" he asked, confused – because it was at least for over four years, he knew that for sure.

"The first environment – which is actually here, in the Wastes – is about ten years old now. It was supposed to be one of those SOLDIER training simulations, and that's how it worked for a while, but it out grew its original purpose, as you can see," Cait Sith said, also looking at Vincent. "He's been here since then. He reads as a mob in the system, players think he's a boss – it's helped me isolate him here, since mobs can't interact with portals, but…."

"Wait, wait, hold on," Cloud said, turning to him with an odd feeling in his stomach. "It sounds like you're saying he's never logged off."

"He hasn't. He's always been here. When he dies or is deleted, it takes him up to three days to return, but he always does," Cait Sith said. "And he's exactly the same as he was, before being killed."

"Damn. And for ten years… I guess that explains why you might think he's a program. How the hell does a person even stay on that long?" Cloud asked and turned to Vincent. "Are you in a coma in the real world, or something?"

Vincent scowled and didn't answer, looking away instead.

Cloud shook his head. "Ten years, fuck," he muttered.

"He is still glitchy," Cait Sith said thoughtfully. "He's not quite compatible. Now that I know that he's not a program…. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably because whatever gear he's hooked into the net with is either broken, not compatible with him somehow, or, most likely… just too old. The modern VRDC is miles ahead of the older gear, after all. That, or something about his brain in general, makes him… look like that."

Cloud looked at Vincent, and nodded thoughtfully. The horns, the teeth, the eyes. If they weren't some sort of gear then yeah, the guy did look a bit off. And easy to confuse for a humanoid mob, probably.

"Why would someone hook a comatose person into virtual reality though?" he asked. "Or wait… I guess seeing that he's comatose, it might be the only way to communicate with him."

"Your world view is refreshingly optimistic," Cait Sith commented wryly.

Cloud grimaced. Yeah, he couldn't really see ShinRa bothering with something like that; it was a bit too… charitable. Sure, he had only heard rumours of ShinRa's not so ethical human trials, and how bad things had been, just a few years back. Ten years ago? He wouldn't have put it past ShinRa to test something as potentially dangerous as technology that interacted with the brain on someone who was unable to say no. Hell, he wouldn't have put it past them if they had put Vincent in a coma just for that purpose.

Fuck, one of the reasons why he had wanted a VRDC was to escape from the fucked up things of real life – and here was one, staring at him suspiciously, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Now what, though?" Cloud asked, looking between Vincent and Cait Sith. "If players think he's a boss mob, then I'm guessing they go after him often, try to kill him and all that. Hell, that was the first thing he thought I'd do. We can't just let that continue."

"We can't, huh?" Cait Sith said and folded his furry arms and considered Vincent. "I don't know what I can do for you, though. How you interact with Terra Online has a lot to do with the gear you're using to interface with it, and yours is probably ten years out of date, at least. Maybe even one of the prototypes. There's limit to what I can do, thanks to that."

"Then don't," Vincent growled shifting back a little. "Just leave me alone."

"You're going to keep getting killed by players if I don't do anything," Cait Sith muttered, frowning. "I can't allow that to continue, now that I know what you are. It's not right."

Something relaxed in Cloud's guts at that. Whatever the mod had thought or done previously aside, he obviously wasn't intentionally cruel. Thank fucking Gaia. "Can't you turn him into a proper player?" Cloud asked.

"I don't think so. He's not… adaptable at all," Cait Sith said, opening the programming window again. "His level if you can call it that stays the same – he never changes. Player adaptability and their character data are stored in their VRDC gear anyway, and his doesn't seem to have much memory. He can't change, not that much. I might be able to…."

"What?" Vincent growled, apprehensive and almost nervous.

"Well, I could try to change him into another type of mob. That wouldn't be too hard, wouldn't take too much of the programming space. Something like an NPC mob or…" Cait Sith smiled. "Pet mob."

"Pet mob?" Cloud asked, incredulous.

"You might remember that there is a job called beast tamer," the mod said. "Their job ability is to take an existing mob and turning it into a pet. It can even be done to boss mobs – though that would take such a high level of skill that it hasn't really been done much. It's not a popular job choice, because any existing player can only have one pet at a time and people don't see it as being as useful as being able to make weapons or armour or potions, or whatever. So it's not as profitable as other jobs."

Vincent was growling under his breath but Cloud leaned in. "And… what are pets like? How do they work?" he asked thoughtfully.

"They are rather like summoned creatures that don't take your MP – they have their own HP and MP and their own set of skills. You can usually set their behaviour in certain ways – they can automatically attack other mobs or, if it's a magic using mob, sit back and attack or heal from a distance. That sort of thing," Cait Sith said. "They follow players; some of them automatically collect loot and so on."

"Hmm," Cloud hummed and looked at Vincent.

"I am not a pet," the winged man growled at him, looking furious.

"It would let you leave the Wastes," Cait Sith pointed out. "Albeit, if Rainstorm was attacked, you'd be attacked too –"

"Wait, what does this have to do with me?" Cloud asked, turning to him with surprise and suspicion. "You're not saying that –"

"Well, if I make Vincent into a pet mob, he'd need a master – er, someone who's pet he'd be," Cait Sith said plainly, wincing a little as Vincent hissed at him. "And I can't take him with me, I'm not even physical here most of the time – or what passes for physical in Terra Online. I'm mostly in the programming, monitoring the system. He'd crash the whole game if I took him there. No, he'd have to go with an actual person. And you're the only one who knows his situation."

"Damn," Cloud murmured and looked at Vincent who glared at him. "Hey, you’ve got to admit, it might be easier than being a boss mob and being hunted down by players," he said, and then caught himself. "Er," he said and glanced at Cait Sith. "I'm being hunted by players too."

"True," Cait Sith grinned. "But so far you've shown an incredible ability to survive ridiculous odds."

Cloud sighed, hanging his head a little.

"Vincent," Cait Sith said. "It's your choice, of course. I can leave you as you are. But that'll just mean nothing will change. Players will still come after the Wastes Demon. They will still try to kill you."

Vincent scowled and shifted back a little, looking uneasy. "I'm… used to it," he said uncomfortably.

"It can't be nice," Cloud said and then thought about it. "Hey, if Vincent was a pet, my pet to be precise, what would happen to him when I logged off? Two thirds of the day, I'm not even in the game," he pointed out.

"Hm. I'm not sure, but I imagine he could hang around in your tent, or inn, or house, where ever you logged off. That's what pets do. When people with pets log off without going to a secure point first, the pets stay with them and even try to protect them from mobs and players…" Cait Sith trailed. "If you stay in the fields, I suggest getting a bigger tent, though."

"He'd be safe in a tent, right?" Cloud said slowly.

"Yes, tents are safe points – neither mobs nor other players can destroy or access other people's tents," Cait Sith nodded.

Vincent looked between them. "Safe point," he said. "I couldn't be killed?"

"Hell, you couldn't even be found in one, if you stayed in the tent – or the room, where ever Rainstorm was staying," the mod nodded. "That's a pretty sweet deal, don't you think? You could leave the Wastes and for a good sixteen hours every day, no one could touch you. It might be pretty boring but –"

"Alright," Vincent growled, looking at Cloud. He still looked uneasy and awkward, with a grimace on his lips that displayed his array of very sharp teeth clearly. "I… alright. Fine, yes. I'll…."

Cloud smiled awkwardly. God, what must the guy's life be like? Unable to log out, players coming after him… he was probably never able to relax. At least Cloud could just log off and then people weren't gunning for him. Vincent might say that he was used to it but it was damn obvious he didn't exactly enjoy it.

Cait Sith looked between them. "Rainstorm?" he asked.

"Yes," Cloud said, without looking away from Vincent. It wasn't like he could leave the guy here, to an existence like that. "Do it."

Cait Sith nodded and begun fiddling around with the programming window. Cloud left him to it, and turned to fully face Vincent. "I'm not very high level and people are sort of coming after me too – I got a bounty on my head and thanks to someone making duel rankings for me, people want to kill me just on principle. But I'll try and keep you safe," he said. "I don't exactly want to be killed either."

Vincent scowled but nodded. "You're… the first one who didn't," he said. "Who didn't even try. I don't know if…" he trailed away and shook his head. "It can't be worse," he then said.

"Let's hope," Cloud said, cracking a smile.

Vincent nodded and then gave him a look which, for the first time, didn't look suspicious or frightful. "Why are you half naked?" he asked, and he sounded almost curious.

Behind him Cait Sith let out a snort of laughter and Cloud just sighed. "Because some idiot thought that my race all needed to look like strippers," he said, rolling his eyes at the heavens. "Trust me, if I could change the way the gear looked…" he trailed away and turned to Cait Sith. "Hey, couldn't you –"

"No can do, Rainstorm," the mod grinned widely. "It's just not fair. If I started making exceptions for you, then I'd have to make them for everybody. And you're the one who wanted to be a Viera, remember?"

"Goddamnit," Cloud grumbled. Well, he was almost level 12 already. Eight more levels and he could finally have a cloak.

Vincent eyed him silently. "You… always look like that?" he asked, looking up and down and tilting his head a bit at the stilettos Cloud was wearing.

"Oh no. Sometimes I look worse," Cloud grumbled. "Every race has their own look I guess, which changes how the gear looks on them. The Viera – which is what I am – look just… like this. Stilettos and ridiculousness."

"Class matters too, a bit," Cait Sith commented, sounding amused. "So far you've worn mostly just clothes, you know. You should try some heavy armour – you're a swordsman after all, so you're able to. It might make a difference."

"Why does that sound like a trap?" Cloud asked suspiciously, and the cat cackled at him. "Freak," Cloud muttered.

"So says the guy in stilettos," the mod answered.

Vincent looked between them and, finally, seemed to relax a bit. "And… you have a bounty on your head?" he asked Cloud.

"I might've killed a few players," Cloud shrugged. "But in my defence, they had it coming."

"In which world is over a hundred a few?" Cait Sith asked with a snort and leaned back a little. "And I am done. Vincent, are you ready? I don't know how this will feel for you. Weird, I'm guessing."

The winged man let out a breath, staring at Cloud as he nodded. "I'm ready," he said and Cait Sith executed whatever program he had rewritten.

There was a tearing sound and Vincent vanished for a moment in a whirl of red code. An instant later he re-appeared, crashing into the ground before Cloud with a pained sound, shuddering where he lay. Cloud automatically shifted closer to him, taking him by the shoulders to try and… and something. Whatever was happening, it looked painful. It was changing the man, somehow. Shifting and morphing him.

"It's hurting him - why is it hurting him?" Cloud demanded, looking back at Cait Sith.

"It's his data. The interaction between him and the game, it runs deeper with him than with players. You have buffers to protect you from things here and you don't feel pain as real here as you'd feel it in the real world. He doesn't have those buffers," Cait Sith grimaced. "It should be over in a moment."

It didn't feel like a moment. Vincent writhed under whatever changes went through him, gasping and growling until finally, finally… it seemed to stop. He was a bit different now, something about the way he looked…. Gently, Cloud turned him around and blinked.

He was still somewhat demonic, the wings were still there, but the horns were gone and his hands weren't quite as claw like. Well, the left one was still an odd golden talon, but the right one was an actual hand now. His face wasn't quite so pale and the veins running over it had mostly vanished; now only showing as faint ghosts under his skin. And Cloud could see both of his eyes, now.

"Hey, are you okay?" Cloud said while Vincent blinked his still red hued eyes.

"I… yes," the winged man murmured and sat up quickly, almost knocking his head against Cloud's. "I feel different," he then said, touching his chest and frowning. "I feel… different."

"Open your character screen, Rainstorm. You should have a pet page there, now," Cait Sith said, and quickly Cloud did as he was told.

Vincent, LV. 99
The Demon of the Wastes
[Type] Gunner

[STR] 999
[DEF] 999
[VIT] 999
[SPD] 999
[AGI] 999
[DEX] 999
[INT] 999
[WIS] 999
[AI] <unchangeable>

"Um. Wow," Cloud said, wide eyed while Vincent leaned in to look.

"You should see him on the upper left corner of your vision," Cait Sith added. "Below your own status, above your other party members."

[Rainstorm, LV. 11, Swordsman]
[HP] 624/624 [MP] 79/79

[Vincent, LV. 99, Pet Gunner]
[HP] 9999/9999 [MP] 999/999

[RedXIII, LV. 48, Shaman Black Mage]
[offline]

[Treasure Princess, LV. 25, Ninja]
[offline]

[Bigshot, LV. 22, Grenadier]
[offline]

[Mena, LV. 27, Swordsman]
[offline]

"Damn," Cloud murmured in wonder. "Were his stats like that or did you make them higher?"

"They were already high to begin with, but I maxed them out," Cait Sith said. "It's the least I could do, all things considered. It's a damn poor apology for… everything, though. Of course, mob stats aren't quite on par with player stats – you can have higher stats with gear, Rainstorm, and get more HP with crystals and such, but…" he shrugged.

"Are the stats good, then?" Vincent asked uncertainly.

"You, my friend, freaking kick ass," Cloud said honestly and reached to squeeze the man's shoulder. Vincent looked down at the hand on his shoulder and ducked his head down a little – and it almost looked like he was blushing.

"I'm going to be looking into this whole matter, and I'm going to let the admin know," Cait Sith said, frowning. "Somewhere out there, Vincent's body has been hooked online for years and years. If we can find it… maybe we can fix this."

"You'll let us know if you do," Cloud said. "Right?"

"Of course. Nothing will be done without Vincent's say so," Cait Sith assured. "It might take time – he doesn't register as a player and we already know we can't trace him back to his login point. Is Vincent your real name? Do you remember what happened before, where you were, how you --"

"No. I don't. I think Vincent is my name. It feels like it – it's what I've been calling myself. But I don't… I don't remember," the winged man answered with a grimace. "I don't remember much of anything, from before," he admitted.

"Try," Cait Sith said seriously. "Anything you remember about how you ended up like this will help us fix this."

Cloud squeezed Vincent's shoulder compassionately. He couldn't do much to help with that, not really, he wasn't a programmer and had no idea how the behind the scenes things worked with Terra Online. But he could try and make Vincent's life in the game a little bit better, from here on.

Chapter Text

Vincent felt different. It was hard to say how, though – he had always felt somewhat wrong. Alive or dead, wounded or healthy, he had felt… off. And he still did – there was a distinct unreality to the world around him. He knew it, he could feel it – none of what he was seeing, hearing or feeling, was actually real. Never had been and even in his most confused state he had always known that. He hadn't known why or how in the beginning – it had taken him years to understand that he was, somehow, in a game. A game that utterly hated him, that took every opportunity to destroy him.

But now… the atmosphere around him was different. Somehow the virtual world didn't feel quite so hostile, anymore.

"Okay," the cat said. "I've done about all I can do for you, right now. I’ve got to get off the game, to contact the admin, see what he thinks. I'll let you know what, if anything, we find out."

"I don't suppose you could help me out of this zone first?" Rainstorm asked, sounding hopeful.

"I'm sure you can figure out your own way back to Mushroom Rock. Besides, you have a map, don't you?" the cat grinned. "Besides, with Vincent… I don't think the local mobs will be a problem for you."

Vincent turned his attention to Rainstorm who sighed and stood up. "I can't tell if you're helpful or not," the dark skinned, white haired man said. "And I get the distinct feeling that you enjoy screwing around with me."

"Who, me?" the cat asked, amused and jumped into the air, hovering there as if gravity meant nothing to him. And, if he really was in control of the world around them, it probably didn't. "By the way, Rainstorm, ever thought of starting a guild?"

"A guild?" Rainstorm asked, his rabbit ears leaning back in suspicion. "I can't say I have. I've been too busy just trying to survive this game. Why?"

"Hm. Just asking. Just so you know, you can buy the Guild Books – which are required for starting guilds – from the auction house," the cat said. "Or you could do the quests, but for that you'd need to go to Alexandria, and you'd get killed instantly if you did. So buy it instead."

"And why precisely do you want me to start a guild?" Rainstorm asked, suspicious.

"For no particular reason," the cat said, grinning, and waved its paw. "I'll be in touch!" it said, and simply vanished.

"You know I've had this feeling that the game is out to get me. Now I'm sort of certain that it actually really one hundred percent is out to get me, and it's all thanks to that damn cat and his bad sense of humour," Rainstorm grumbled and turned to Vincent. He blinked. "Hey, you okay?"

Vincent shook his head, realising that he had been glaring at the man. "Yes, I'm… fine," he said. And he almost was. He was confused, out of his depth and not quite sure what was happening. But he felt better than he had in a long time. He felt….

He felt safe. It was almost an alien sensation, but he couldn't deny it. For the first time in his entire existence in the game, he felt safe in the company of a player.

"Everything happened kinda fast, huh," Rainstorm murmured, running his hand through his shockingly white hair. "I can't believe no one else realised that you're a person before this. Did you ever try to tell anyone?"

Vincent looked away. He had tried a couple of times. Other times… he hadn't been so sure himself. The more time that had gone by, the harder it had been to remember. In the end the only things he had managed to hang on to were his name and… and the feeling of wrongness. He hadn't really felt like a person in a long time – and sometimes it had been easier to pretend that he wasn't.

"Well," Rainstorm murmured awkwardly when the silence stretched. "Things will be different now, I guess."

"Different, yes," Vincent agreed and frowned. He wasn't a boss mob anymore. He was a pet mob. "What… do you intend to do?" he asked, his hands curling into fists.

"Me? Right now I just want to get out of this zone," Rainstorm said and a translucent two dimensional rectangle appeared in front of him. "I kind of stumbled in without meaning to and the mobs here are something like thirty levels above mine. This is not a friendly place for me. Hmm…. I guess the portal would be that way," he mused, pointing to the left of them while peering at the window.

Vincent looked at the direction he indicated. "The mountain?" he asked. He didn't have a map of the Wastes – but he had been here for years. He knew the place in ways he didn't know himself.

"Yeah, it was up on the mountain. I sort of came crashing down from there – it was kind of embarrassing," Rainstorm agreed and closed the window with a sigh before peering over the edge of the rock where they stood. "First I guess we need to do something about these guys…."

They were surrounded by a moat made of behemoths. Vincent eyed them for a moment, before pulling out his gun and taking aim. This, he was satisfied to see, stayed the same though the transformation – his gun, with its three barrels and comforting weight that had stayed with him through the years in the Wastes, he still had it. And it still fired true.

While Rainstorm watched with wide eyes, Vincent started culling the pack of behemoths, taking them out by clean shots through the forehead, just between the horns. He was stronger, now, and the effect was obvious. When before it would've taken multiple shots, now it only took one bullet to kill the behemoths, and he didn't even need a clean head shot. Within a minute he had halved the pack – though it wasn't like counting served any purpose, he neither had nor did he ever run out of ammunition.

"Fucking –" Rainstorm muttered, opening a window and shaking his head. "Vincent, stop."

Vincent stopped, frowning. "Why?" he asked, turning to the rabbit eared, mostly naked man who was eying what looked like a status screen.

"I'm getting the exp of the things you kill – I made three levels from that," Rainstorm said, pointing at his name Rainstorm, LV. 14, at the top of the window.

"The more levels you have, the stronger you are, yes?" Vincent asked. People always boasted about their levels, when they came to kill him, after all. "Shouldn't it be a good thing?"

"For some maybe. This isn't how I want to play the game though," Rainstorm said with an uneasy look. "When I get levels, I want to earn them. We need to figure out another way out of here – one that doesn't include you killing mobs here."

Vincent blinked at that. "But wouldn't becoming stronger faster be better?" he asked.

Rainstorm shrugged. "It's just not how I roll," he said. "I'm already missing most of the game content because I can't go where there's other people – I can't really do the quests, because if I go to towns people either try to kill me or they just harass me and that's just…" he shook his head. "I want to experience the game, and if I get power levelled, I'll end up missing even more of the content. It just doesn't seem like fun."

"Power levelled," Vincent repeated, confused.

"That's when someone stronger, like you, kills high level mobs and I leech off the exp they make," Rainstorm shrugged, pointing down at the behemoths. "Like right now."

 "I… see," Vincent murmured, not sure how to take that.

"So, let's figure out another way," the player said and then jerked with surprise. As Vincent watched, he opened another window. "Red's online," the swordsman murmured. "He's one of my friends in the game," he added for Vincent's benefit.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Rainstorm]
[From: RedXIII]
[Subject: Pet Gunner?]

[A LV. 99 Pet Gunner at that? What did you do now, Rainstorm? And where are you – you're not in the Mushroom Rock Road zone anymore, so I can't party chat with you. Please tell me you didn't go back to the Albrook zone.]

"Heh," Rainstorm said, awkward. "Oh boy. I'm so never going to hear the end of this, am I?"

"How so?" Vincent asked frowning and then shifted a bit where he stood. "Is my being here –?"

"Oh, this is almost par for the course for me," Rainstorm answered waving a dismissive hand at him. "Don't worry about that."

[To: RedXIII]
[From: Rainstorm]
[Subject: Yeah about that]

[I sort of accidentally stumbled into the Wastes and stuff happened and I'd really rather explain this all in person. Right now I'm kind of surrounded by behemoths, trying to figure out a way to get back to the portal to MRR, one that doesn't involve trying to take on the local wild life. Any suggestions?]

[To: Rainstorm]
[From: RedXIII]
[Subject: Well of course you did]

[Couple hours alone in the game, and you end up in the Wastes. Why did I not see this coming? If you're in a safe spot, stay there – I'll come to you. I’ve got wings, so I can make it there much faster than you can trying to get here, especially without getting yourself killed. Just… stay there. I'll be there in half an hour or so.]

"So you have an affinity for stumbling into other zones?" Vincent asked dubiously, while giving the message an uneasy look. Another player… one who was going to join them.

"No, I have an affinity for stumbling into complete bullshit situations," Rainstorm sighed and fell to sit on the ground, his legs crossed. He smiled up at Vincent. "Red's a good guy, though. I've put him through all sorts of shit since I met him, but he's stuck around. He's not quite normal either – or not what passes for normal for this game anyway. So I think he'll be understanding."

Vincent frowned. "If you say so," he murmured, though he couldn't help but trust Rainstorm. The man had been the nicest anyone ever had been to him in the game. That was worth quite a bit, in Vincent's books. "You have other… friends, in the game?"

"Red was the first one – he's a shaman and a black mage. Then there's Treasure Princess, she's a ninja and will be a thief too, once she gets back to level 40," Rainstorm said while opening up another window and motioning Vincent to have a look. "Red's not human, I don't think – and I'm pretty sure Princess is playing the game illegally, she's Wutaian, and the game's not even released in Wutai. So when I explain this stuff to them, they'll probably get it. Dunno about Bigshot and Mena, I haven't known them for too long, but they seem like decent people."

After a moment of considering Rainstorm's friends window, Vincent crouched down beside him. "So you… make a habit of making strange friends, then?" he asked thoughtfully.

"Yeah, we're a weird bunch. It's just how things turned out," Rainstorm shrugged and smiled at him. "You'll fit right in."

"And if I don't?"

"Then we'll work around it, somehow. But trust me, you will fit," the Viera said, reaching out and patting his shoulder compassionately.

Vincent looked down at the hand, tensing a little under the touch. His clothes, a heavily strapped leather jacket, was in between Rainstorm's hand and his skin but it still felt warm and somehow electric. He could feel it on every inch of him, the connection, and… he didn't know how he liked it. He was all too aware that Rainstorm was the first – the only – player who had ever touched him without the intention to hurt or kill. The last time he had felt another's hand on him had been when a player had held him down so that another could decapitate him.

He didn't know how to handle it. It felt alien and so nice. He wanted to lean into it, but at the same time he wanted to get away from it.

"Vincent?" Rainstorm asked and there was something knowing, something almost unbearably perceptive in his eyes as he kept the hand firmly there, on Vincent's shoulder, gently squeezing.

"It… feels strange," Vincent murmured and leaned in, unable to help himself.

He saw a flash of Rainstorm's sad smile and a moment later he was enveloped fully in the man's arms, a palm spread out on his back, stroking – another on the bare back of neck, beneath his hair, right where Rainstorm had held him down before. Vincent froze for a moment in disbelief and then, before he could stop himself, leaned hungrily into it, his wings shuddering as he ducked his head down, pressing his face against Rainstorm's neck, basking in the warmth.

It was no more real than the world around them, he knew that.

He just didn't care.

Chapter Text

Cloud hadn't really realised it before, but touch in Terra Online felt pretty much the same as it felt in the real world. The man felt heavy against his chest, solid beneath his arms, warm. Running his hand though Vincent's hair felt like actually running it through actual hair. Vincent even had tangles in his hair.

Humming, Cloud combed through the gunner's – his pet's – messy, dark hair, easing the tangles open. What a weird thing to make possible in a video game – it would've had to be coded in, right? Everything else was, after all. And how weird that he was doing it here, in Terra Online when in the real world the only hair he had ever touched was either his own or his mother's.

Vincent wasn't shaking anymore though, so it was probably working. Actually, Vincent was kind of limp. Frowning, Cloud tilted his head to the side, to see Vincent's face and… the guy was asleep. Well. Of course. Except how the hell was the guy sleeping in a virtual reality that you could only access in your sleep? Or was it different for Vincent, who never logged out?

"I’ve got a feeling I'm going to be asking a lot of questions like that in the future, with you," Cloud murmured and shifted back a little, easing Vincent down to the ground. With the gunner's head in his lap, Cloud sighed and looked around himself. The Wastes remained… rather waste like. Now that he wasn't in danger of losing his life, and with RedXIII on the way, Cloud let himself relax and fully take in the environment.

It wasn't a bad looking place, actually. All dry rock and ravines and odd rock formations. A canyon, he supposed – though he had never been to CosmoCanyon in real life so he couldn't tell how accurate the place was. Did canyons really have just random layered rock formations here and there, for no apparent reason? Maybe he'd ask RedXIII – coming from CosmoCanyon, he'd know.

Checking his command menu for the time, Cloud pursed his lips thoughtfully. It had only been ten or so minutes since Red's message, and if all he'd be doing was sitting down here, waiting… might as well finally take a moment to have a look at the commands.

 

[Character]
[Inventory]
[Job]
[Quests]
[Achievements]
[Guild]
[Friends]
[Settings]
[Help]

He didn't have any achievements, except for the Rabbit of Caerbannog thing, he had no quests since he hadn't bothered taking them after Albrook, and his guild menu was empty too, aside from a leaf for active Guilds that let anyone join them. In his friends list there was only RedXIII and Treasure Princess – he hadn't remembered to befriend Bigshot and Mena, if they even wanted to be…

Frowning a little, Cloud opened the settings. There were the usual things – setting the time and location and so on. But then there were the social commands – most of which he had turned off. No chat, no PMs from strangers, no relationship status, no challenges, no combat arena…

He didn't even know what most of them were. Cautiously Cloud enabled the chat, and watched how another command popped into the game commands. It opened a window where people were… apparently talking with each other, without limitations.

 

<Dressmei> want to get quick gold? pm me for 100gold!
<Jackside> Selling Mythril Paladin Gear, PM for info!
<rippah!> anyone doing the GL in GFM?
<Beyte> lfg drh lv. 45!
<Groate> who the hell killed the dragon of aisenfield?! I wanted that fucking achievement!
<Dressmei> want to get quick gold? pm me for 100gold!
<Feranc> In your face Groate, the achievement is mine!

Cloud watched the chat for a moment before shaking his head and closing it. He eyed the no PMs from strangers thing for a moment before enabling the PMs – and then regretting it a split second later.

 

[You have 5274 new Private Messages!] The message window announced happily, popping up right in front of his face and displaying the first twenty or so.

[Debonah] Fuckers like you piss me off.
[Murdez] Join our guild!
[Roselette] I hope someone kills you
[Hanad] Just die already
[Slayer] That fucking bounty is mine.
[Deathray] How the hell are you still alive?
[Lilith] Ppl like u ruin the gaim.

Cloud scrolled down the list of messages from people he didn't know and sighed. Of course – he should've figured that something like this would happen. As it was, he was lucky that his PMs were only enabled for friends, before, and he'd been spared from all the hate mail. And that was mostly what it all was – hate mail. Lots and lots of hate mail, some of it from people he had killed, a lot of it from people who hadn't even met him. With a few guild invites from guilds mostly consisting of player killers peppered in between.

 

[Delete all private messages]
[Are you sure? You will lose all items that have been attached to the messages!]
[Yes / No]

Cloud deleted the lot of them. If there were items involved, he didn't want them. As it was it was disheartening enough to know that he had been getting messages like that – he didn't want to know what sort of bullshit items people would've tried to send him. Ticking time bombs probably.

"This game really doesn't like me, huh?" he murmured. All the years of wanting a VRDC so he could escape the bullshit of reality and the game treated him worse. Of course it did. Though Terra Online was still more interesting than real life and damn patrolling was, at least people didn't go specifically out their way to send him hate mail in the real world.

Closing the command menu, Cloud looked down at the gunner sleeping more or less in his lap. He didn't really have any right to complain though. What was a little hate mail, really, when compared to Vincent's situation? It was nothing. And hell, at least he had a couple of friends in Terra Online. In the real world? He had a squad that was content to pretend he wasn't even there. And his town had been almost in a hurry to kick him out – probably would've, if he hadn't left.

"Rainstorm?" A familiar voice called and RedXIII landed on the rock formation, white wings spread out to soften the landing. "Are you alright?"

"Just peachy. Aside from the, you know, being lost in the Wastes thing," Cloud said, looking up and smiled. "Hi, Red. Wanna lecture me about stumbling into unknown zones and getting into trouble?"

"I think, judging by the number of behemoths you've attracted to this place, you've probably learned your lesson," the beast said dryly and tucked his wings in before coming closer. "This is…?" he looked down at Vincent.

"Vincent," Cloud said. "The pet. It's a… actually it's not really that long a story, but it's a kinda weird story."

"It's you. Everything with you is a kinda weird story," Red said, sounding amused. "Spill it."

Cloud did, telling him what he and Cait Sith had figured out, and why Vincent was now his pet. Red nodded along, a serious look on his furry face, looking at Vincent. "The Wastes Demon, huh?"

"That something special?" Cloud asked, while opening the pet window. There was The Demon of the Wastes below Vincent's name.

"I've never seen him myself, before now, but he's one of the strongest bosses in the game – and the hardest to find," Red said. "I've only second hand information from the general chat, of course, but people say he never stays in one place and unless you manage to engage him first he'll run away, or something… I guess it makes sense."

"You don't seem surprised that he's a person, under all of it," Cloud said, frowning.

"I'm not, really. There are a lot of weird things with Terra Online – some of them are bugs, or old programs. And I've gone through quite a few glitches, in my time of playing. This is a new level of strange, but… no, I wouldn't put it past Terra Online. Nor would I put it past ShinRa, which after all created Terra Online."

Cloud nodded, looking down at the still sleeping Vincent.

"Is he logged off now?" Red asked

"I don't think so. Cait Sith said that he never does, and the only time he's off the game is when he's been killed," Cloud shook his head. "I think… actually, I have no idea."

"Hmmm," Red hummed. "Do you think you could wake him up? We should get out of here – you're still relatively close to the MRR portal and people know you're here."

"How?" Cloud asked, frowning.

"Chat," the beast shrugged. "Somebody saw you."

"Oh. Right – I dropped in on a party when I came here. I guess we can't go back to Mushroom Rock, huh?" Cloud murmured, while gently shaking Vincent by the shoulder.

"Probably best we don't."

Vincent woke up with a start and a split second later had jumped away from Cloud and almost into the air. While he looked around wildly and nervously, Cloud stood up and held his hands up in surrender. "Vincent, calm down – it's okay. Do you remember me?" he asked, carefully approaching the gunner. "It’s okay, it's okay. No one's gonna hurt you."

The Demon of the Wastes eyed him before grimacing and relaxing a little. "Rainstorm," he murmured and then turned his gaze to Red, his eyes narrowing.

"This is my friend Red. I told you about him," Cloud said. "He's not going to hurt you either."

"Indeed I'm not," Red said and bowed his head a little. "I'm RedXIII. You have my sympathies for your situation, Vincent."

"You told him?" Vincent demanded, turning to Cloud.

Cloud shrugged.

"I won't tell anyone else, if that is what you're worried about," Red said and turned to Cloud. "We really should leave this place. The portal to the Great Forest of Moore is… well it's not exactly nearby, but I think it would be safest if we head there. It's a good place to hide in. It's a LV. 25-30 zone, so it shouldn't be too difficult for you to handle."

"Hm. I guess. Though unlike you I can't fly, so how are we going to get there? Especially if it's far away," Cloud asked. "Everything here's over level forty – I'm not exactly a match for anything here."

"We'll just have to be careful, I suppose," Red said. "You've made a couple of levels, though."

"Yeah, well, Vincent can one-shot everything here – and I get the exp," Cloud said. "Which is why I kind of want a way out of here that doesn't involve him fighting. That's not how I want to make levels."

Vincent looked between them with a frown. "I could carry you," the gunman then offered, motioning behind himself, at his wings.

Cloud turned to him. "Can you?" he asked, glancing at Red. "Is that possible – pets carrying their owners?"

"With some pets, yes," Red said thoughtfully, examining Vincent. "I've never had one, but dragon pets and some of the other larger, flying type monsters, they serve as mounts as well as pets. I suppose you will have to try."

"Well… I guess," Cloud said and then frowned. "How would this –"

He couldn't finish, because Vincent let out a smothered noise and just snatched him up and into his arms – in a freaking bridal carry. Cloud only managed to let out a single sound of annoyance, before the gunner had already spread out his massive bat wings and leapt up and into the air, easily carrying him up.

"How about some warning?!" Cloud snapped, even while winding an arm around the man's shoulders for support. "Also can't you carry me in some other way? Because this, this is just humiliating."

"No," Vincent answered. "And don't call me a pet."

"Just for that, I'm so going to call you pet. All the freaking time. Everywhere."

 He could hear Red's laughter as the beast leapt up to follow them. Cloud flipped him the finger over Vincent's shoulder, before looking at the gunner himself. Vincent had a frown of concentration on his face and was studiously avoiding looking at his face. Cloud couldn't help but notice that Vincent's hands, as covered as they were in leather and metal, were both on his bare skin – and he had a feeling Vincent had noticed that too.

"You okay?" Cloud asked quietly. "Am I heavy?"

"It's fine. You're… fine," Vincent answered and there was a hint of red on his cheeks. Cloud smiled a little at that. Vincent probably hadn't had much human contact that hadn't ended in pain, he figured. It would probably take him while to get used to it.

It was kind of cute. Horribly tragic and kind of heart breaking, but still cute. And it didn't hurt that Vincent was freaking gorgeous. Though Cloud really shouldn't have thought that way, but the fact stood. He was.

"I'm going to take care of you," Cloud promised, squeezing the arm around Vincent's shoulder and leaning in a bit, until his forehead touched the bandana around Vincent's head. "Players won't be killing you from here on out. Hell, they'll be too busy trying to kill me to even bother with you. So don't worry. We're going to be just fine."

"Hn," Vincent answered, looking a little embarrassed even as he nodded.

"Oi, you two!" Red called from behind them. "You do know you're going the wrong way, right?!"

Chapter Text

"Yo."

Sephiroth looked away from his inventory menu, frowning slightly at the Miqo'te who sauntered towards him with an insolent look on his vaguely feline face. The martial artist, perfectly aware of how it annoyed Sephiroth that the man could sneak up on him, grinned while throwing a lazy salute his way. "Fancy seeing you here, sir," the Miqo'te said. "Though, you don't really leave this place these days, do you?"

"And what can I do for the Overseers today, Zoto?" Sephiroth asked, smothering the urge to reach for a sword. Zoto wasn't a danger to him. While the man might've been more than happy to take Sephiroth out – and in doing so claim the four thousand gold bounty on Sephiroth's head – the man simply didn't have the ability. Sephiroth had a good twenty levels on him. As it was, it was only the mechanics of the game that let the man even attempt to sneak up on him – martial artists had higher agi and dex than swordsmen by default, after all.

"Not really looking for you – just happened come across you," Zoto answered. "I'm looking for Rainstorm, actually. You seen him?"

Sephiroth sighed. "I can't say I have. I'm not exactly close to the MRR portal, in case you hadn’t noticed," he said, smothering the urge to roll his eyes. Genesis had sent him about fourteen private messages since Rainstorm had been sighted in the Wastes, and now this? Sure, Sephiroth wouldn't have precisely minded having a look at the infamous Rabbit of Caerbannog, but the interest some people had went beyond mere curiosity, and into the realm of borderline stalking.

"Hm. So not looking for him?" Zoto asked with that annoying way the Turks had – all innocence and calm, always fishing for more information than you knew you were giving them.

"Not in the slightest," Sephiroth said and pointed towards the southeast, the direction of the Mushroom Rock Road portal. "You'll have better luck in that direction, I think," he added and cast a sideways glance at the martial artist. "Are you going to take his head?"

"And spoil all the fun of having a guy like that around in the game? Hah, no. I'm just here to get pictures," Zoto grinned. "Do you know, despite everything, no one has a picture of that guy? Any info about him is seriously hot right now, but there are no pictures what-so-ever. Even the wanted poster doesn't have anything but a description."

Sephiroth leaned back a little. He couldn't deny that he too would've liked to see what a male Viera – and what Rainstorm himself – looked like, so he could understand why the Overseers would want to be the first ones to capture the guy's image. "I see," he said and turned to leave. "Good luck with your little project."

"I could cut you a deal if you want some pics of the guy?!" Zoto called after him.

"I'm quite sure I can survive without," Sephiroth answered. And besides, once the overseers started selling them, people would copy those pictures and eventually they'd start going up for free in the general chat. He could wait – and in the meantime avoid supporting the Overseers monetarily.

"How cheap," Zoto murmured, shaking his head and then waving a hand at him. "Well, I'll be off. See you around, sir!"

Sephiroth shook his head and waited until the Miqo'te was far enough away before letting himself relax. How the hell did the overseers keep finding him anyway? There were no actual methods of tracking someone in the game, a person's location data was always secret – except with parties and guilds. And Sephiroth was in no one's party and no one's guild, never had been.

If he didn't know how keen Cait Sith was about keeping certain things fair, he would've suspected that the Overseers either had insider data or were hacking. And hacking something that was largely based on people's brains… Overseers knew better.

Still. When the Overseers wanted to find him, they could – and though they didn't make use of the ability all that often, it was still rather annoying.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Sephiroth]
[From: BELOVED]
[Subject: STOP IGNORING ME]

[I know you're online, you bastard! Stop ignoring me and answer me already, damnit!]

Sephiroth rolled his eyes and deleted the message without bothering to answer it. It would be good for Genesis not to have his way for once. Having the LOVELESS guild waiting on him hand and foot in game and SOLDIER in real life was already making the man a bit unbearable. Sephiroth had no intention of contributing to that.

Sighing, Sephiroth opened his character screen and gave his exp stats an annoyed look. Still nowhere near level 82. Maybe it was time to switch games anyway. Asgard wasn't really to his taste, but Terra Online had gotten a bit irritating of late and he was running out of new things to experience and enjoy. And the damn Wastes Demon was still hiding somewhere.

He was about to head off and find something to kill when a shadow passed over him. He glanced up just in time to see a figure falling from the sky, straight down and almost directly at him. It landed with a resounding crack just a couple of steps away from him, a player with dark skin and a shock of spiky white hair, from which two bunny ears stuck out.

The Viera glanced over at him, crouched slightly after the impact, the heels of his stilettos grinding against shards of rock they had created simply by shattering the ground upon touching it. "Nice cape," the Viera commented after a moment of tense silence.

"Thanks?" Sephiroth answered, blinking. A male Viera – this was Rainstorm? The very same Rainstorm Genesis had been bothering him about all day, and the one Zoto had just headed off to try and photograph? What were the odds that the man dropped in on him just like that?

The Viera couldn't be insane enough to have come looking for him, could he?

No, apparently not. After another glance, the Viera turned to look upwards, completely ignoring him – and then Rainstorm was already dashing away, towards a nearby rock wall. While Sephiroth watched silently, the mostly nude Viera leapt at the rock wall and then ran a couple steps straight up, before kicking off into a rather impressive leap.

Automatically Sephiroth lifted his hands and framed the shot. "Snap," he murmured, and ignored the window that popped up to inform him that the screen capture was successful. It was then Sephiroth noticed that there was another, much larger figure in the air. And it was falling, not quite as fast as the Viera had – the limply splayed wings were slowing it down, a little.

Which gave the Viera man just enough time to catch the winged figure in mid-air into a rather clumsy bridal carry, before coming down again hard.

The whole operation took maybe three, four seconds, and Sephiroth felt a little like clapping, as the Viera straightened himself up and looked at the unconscious human man in his arms. "He logged off mid-air?" he asked instead, looking curiously at the two.

Rainstorm, the Rabbit of Caerbannog… was a whole lot more naked than he had assumed. And younger too – of course, there was some distortion between how old a player was and how old their avatar looked, and in some cases, it was possible to blur the apparent age some… but he doubted Rainstorm was over twenty. If that.

The Viera glanced at him and shook his head before crouching down and easing the man in his arms to the ground. The other man, a gunner judging by the firearm at his hip, was obviously a high level player – he had to be over level 40, to have wings, after all. He didn't look much older than Rainstorm. He was also completely offline, judging by the looks of it.

"Something like that, I guess," Rainstorm said and glanced up and to the sky – making Sephiroth aware of a third figure, coming down to land in an actually controlled descent, rather than in free fall. A red beast with white wings, a rather odd mixture for a mob but there were some strange things in Terra Online every now and then. A pet?

"What happened?" the red beast asked, tucking the white wings in and going to Rainstorm's side. "You were fine just a moment ago."

"Vincent lagged out, or something," Rainstorm answered, shaking his head. "Might be a problem with his connection – he is working with older gear than we are. And what happened before, when… yeah. I don't think flying's a good idea right now."

"Hm," the beast answered and then looked at Sephiroth. His eyes widened a little and he shifted towards the Viera – protective or seeking protection, it was hard to say which. "Rainstorm?" he asked, keeping his eyes on Sephiroth.

The Viera glanced at Sephiroth, who arched an eyebrow at him, framed the shot and took another screen capture. Rainstorm's ear twitched ever so slightly at that – and kept on twitching through the following screen caps Sephiroth took, just to see it happen again. Then Rainstorm's eyes narrowed in thought. "I don't suppose you would like to kill me, sir?" he then asked.

Well that was unexpected.

"What?" the beast asked sharply, turning to the Viera.

"It would take care of the bounty – and the damn duel rankings," Rainstorm said, calmly considering Sephiroth. "And after I was killed by Sephiroth of all people, well… you can't really go higher than that. Maybe the whole thing would finally die down."

"Tch," Sephiroth answered. "You may just as well find someone else to commit your suicide through, because I have precisely zero interest in such matters."

It was interesting though. Not the request – that was just annoying – but the Viera's behaviour. Neither surprised nor expectant, awed nor terrified. Hell, the man had barely even cracked an expression. It was almost like he had known Sephiroth would be there – and like he wasn't in the slightest interested. Even now, at Sephiroth's refusal, he merely shrugged his shoulders in indifference.

"I figured," he said and glanced at the beast. The beast nodded sharply towards the west and then turned a watchful eye on Sephiroth while Rainstorm hoisted the logged off human up, slinging the man over his shoulder. "We'll be off then," he said to Sephiroth and without another word, he took a few running steps and then jumped off a nearby ledge, the winged beast following him.

Sephiroth stared after them for a moment before shaking his head. Well, that happened. And it had some interesting connotations. And not just how Rainstorm had addressed him or behaved – but what he and the beast had said, how they had spoken. The fact that the beast had spoken at all. A player, wearing an obviously custom made, hacked skin. Of course there had been rumours about Rainstorm cheating somehow… but hacking?

Terra Online was supposed to be unhackable.

Sephiroth considered it for a moment, frowning at the direction where the Rabbit of Caerbannog and his companion had headed off to. Cait Sith had looked into Rainstorm's case, though – Sephiroth had asked for the duel rankings, and Cait Sith had delivered and on top of that, Rainstorm had been given an honorific for Albrook. So, Cait Sith – and what’s more, the admin was aware of Rainstorm.

They wouldn't have condoned any sort of hacking – Sephiroth, as one of Terra Online’s longest standing players, knew that damn well. Cait Sith had a strange sense of humour and he could be downright cruel if he wanted to be, but there was always an element of fairness to everything he did. He wouldn't have made the duel rankings, nor would Rainstorm have been given an honorific, if the man was cheating.

But still, Rainstorm and his cohorts seemed to be playing the game on a different level. Custom skins, massacres at the lowly level of 6, and the gunman who was using older gear… if they weren't hacking, then what?

Sephiroth turned the concepts in his mind for a moment, opening his screen capture folder as he did. He hadn't taken more than five or so shots, four of them while Rainstorm was crouched on the ground beside the human gunman. He didn't have much skill in photography, in or out of the game, so the shots were somewhat haphazardly framed. The first one, where Rainstorm was in the air, though…

[To: BELOVED]
[From: Sephiroth]
[Subject: Now will you shut up?]
[Attachments: 1]

Chapter Text

Carrying a guy with wings was… hard. They kept flopping all over the place, in Cloud's face – and he almost stepped on them more than once. After a while he had to stop and switch to carrying Vincent in his arms, rather than on his shoulder – it pinned the wings down, and kept them from getting everywhere, though it didn't make the carrying much easier.

"You should probably contact Cait Sith if this happens more," RedXIII commented, watching him. "If he's not supposed to be able to log out, but he keeps passing out in game…"

"Yeah. I'll send him a message once we get out of the zone," Cloud said, testing to see that the gunner was securely in his arms before standing up. God bless game physics – the guy wasn't even heavy. "How far are we from the portal?"

"Not that far now. Come on," Red said, and jumped back into air. Cloud took a breath and then dashed forward to follow him. With the beast scouting from above for mobs he had been able to avoid them so far, but he really wanted to get out of the zone. More than anything, he wanted to get Vincent out of the zone and somewhere a little safer – somewhere where the man could safely pass out without the danger of a random mob coming along and killing him.

Thankfully they were away from the canyon part of the Wastes and it was mostly dry, desert-like plains from here on out, so running wasn't a problem. Not that it had really been a problem before. Viera, it turned out, were mad good at jumping – though maybe that shouldn't have been surprise. They were sort of like the rabbits of the game, after all.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Rainstorm]
[From: Bigshot]
[Subject: fuck is a pet gunner?]

[And where the fuck are you guys? Do you still wanna party together, or what? Me and Mena are in the Knights' Camp right now – lemme know if you still wanna play together or not. Oh, and if you need any shit from a merchant.]

Cloud slowed down to read the message and then called for Red to stop, to read it too. "What do you think?" Cloud asked. "You played together with Bigshot and Mena yesterday after I logged off, right?"

"Princess did, I mostly went around Mushroom Rock, collecting materials," Red admitted. "But I suppose they seemed decent enough people. From Corel, I think I heard Mena say. And you might want party members in the forest, the mobs are higher level than you are."

"Yeah, that's true for pretty much every damn zone, isn't it?" Cloud answered, but hit the reply button.

[To: Bigshot]
[From: Rainstorm]
[Subject: It's a thing]

[I had a bit of a snafu and ended up in the Wastes for a while. Red and I are heading to the Great Forest of Moore now, because I want a place I can hide in and can't really go back to Mushroom Rock without risking someone seeing me. You can join us there, if you wanna.]

After sending the message, Cloud and Red continued on their way towards the Great Forest of Moore portal, and Vincent stayed out cold through the whole trip, his head lolling slightly against Cloud's shoulder. The portal to the Great Forest of Moore was in a ravine, of course, sitting on the first patch of grass Cloud had seen in the entire Wastes zone.

"I'm guessing there are no plants in the Wastes?" Cloud asked thoughtfully.

"Not really. I think the whole idea of the Wastes was to make them as inhospitable as possible – usually it's much worse in here," Red added. "The weather is being very agreeable right now – usually it's very windy here. Or there's a sandstorm going on."

"Wonderful," Cloud said and turned to the portal. Then he looked down at Vincent – who had never left the zone. He kind of wanted Vincent to be awake for this – to pass from zone to zone under his own power… But if Vincent hadn't been awoken by their running, or the free fall to instant death he had almost experienced, he probably wouldn't wake for this either.

Cloud walked through the portal, Vincent in his arms. The world twitched and reloaded and then he was out of the Wastes.

The difference between zones was obvious. The very air was different – it was more humid and smelled of green things, rather than of dry earth and rock like the Wastes did. The ravine where the portal stood continued on a little further, before opening up into a green valley covered in grass and flowers and across from it the forest started.

"Oh thank god," Cloud breathed when he saw there were no players hanging around the valley or the portal or anywhere in sight.

Red let out a laugh. "Yeah. We better get under cover though, just in case."

Cloud nodded and they made their way to the forest, under the cover of branches and leaves. The Great Forest of Moore deserved it name – it was very great, the trees all knotted and ancient looking, their branches hanging low. There was rather little light beneath the leaf coverage, though, and it showed in the earth – after a while of walking, Cloud stopped seeing grass or shrubbery and eventually even most of the moss petered out. By that time, it had gotten rather dark.

"This place is rather gloomy," he commented.

"Here and there it is, yeah," Red agreed, dropping down to the ground and taking his wings off. "There are clearings and meadows here, some ruins and whatnot, and about two dozen different rivers. It's a pretty big zone, though not as big as the Wastes."

"Is there a town here?" Cloud asked.

"Yeah, though we're pretty far from it," Red said and opened the map of the zone, nodding at it. "That's it there – the Elder Tree. The town is in the branches."

"It's a tree… town?" Cloud asked incredulously and the beast nodded. "Huh. How many zones are there in the game, anyway?"

"Fifty or so," Red answered. "There used to be more, but I hear that some of them were combined. Like Mushroom Rock Road used to be three different zones. The Great Forest of Moore used to be seven, I think. Rumour is that they're eventually going to combine all the zones and get rid of the portals all together."

"It would make travel easier," Cloud mused.

"And it would get rid of bottle necks," Red agreed. "But it's just a rumour. There are some advantages to having separate zones, I think. If nothing else, it makes hiding easier."

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Rainstorm]
[From: Bigshot]
[Subject: like hell it is]

[We'll come there – we've sorta outleveled Mushroom Rock Road anyway. It's gonna take some time though, because MRR is a fucking maze and Mena says the forest is huge or some shit.]

"Guess we'll have to wait then," Cloud mused and glanced around. "Is this a good place? I want somewhere where I can put Vincent down without having to worry about some mob killing him, but I want to kill some mobs myself. Preferably in some place where other players won't find me."

"In that case," Red said and nodded him to follow. They made their way into a valley, which seemed to be largely taken over by a gigantic bugs nest.

"Really?" Cloud asked, arching his eyebrow at the bugs that flitted back and forth in the air.

"There's a lot of them, they're not very strong, and they spawn at a high rate," Red shrugged. "And so long as you don't go after the nest, you only have to fight one or two at a time. Might be a good opportunity to try and hit some skills with your sword."

"Oh, yeeah, right," Cloud murmured, wincing a little as he remembered the durability of his sword. "I probably need to make a new one soon. Don't have much ore though."

"There are some boulders here and there you can mine. They're sort of grown over though," Red said glancing away and then nodding towards a mound of earth. "Like that. You have to go around it to find the spot where the rock is visible, but you should be able to mine it."

"Excellent," Cloud said, glanced around and then laid Vincent down on a soft looking but relatively dry patch of moss, careful with the wings. After checking that the man was something like comfortable, he opened the message menu. "I'm going to ask Cait Sith about this," he said to Red.

"Probably best you do."

[To: Cait Sith]
[From: Rainstorm]
[Subject: Vincent]

[He keeps passing out. Is that something he just does, or did the change from boss to pet do something to his connection? Or are YOU doing something to his connection?]

He sent it, and got up, intending to kill some bugs until his sword died – but before he could, he found Cait Sith popping into existence right in front of him. "He's passing out?" the cat demanded while Cloud just blinked at him with surprise.

Then Cloud sighed, running a hand over his face. Right. AI mod – it wasn't like he needed time to process things. "Yeah. This is the second time," Cloud said, motioning at Vincent. "We were flying in the Wastes, making our way here when he just… dropped off. And I meant that literally – I had to catch him and he hasn't stirred since."

"Hmm," the mod said, approaching Vincent and opening the code menu, while Cloud glanced at Red who didn't seem fazed at all, to find the mod suddenly appearing from nowhere.

"So, is it a connection issue?" Cloud asked.

"No I don't think so – his connection is actually incredibly stable. More so than with most people. He can't be disconnected from this end, because the hardware he's using is more… invasive than what most players use," Cait Sith said. "When I redid some of his code, I tried to stabilise him a little, though – not the connection, but his character model. He was sort of all over the place, and the back and forth between the programming and his actual mind was sort of stuttering, it couldn't have been comfortable. So I cleaned it out a little."

The cat shook his head and Cloud crouched down beside him, to look at Vincent too. "And?" he asked.

"Vincent's connected more deeply than players, though. If you're processing Terra Online with 10% of your wetware, he's doing it with at least 80% of his. When I did my little clean up, I probably created new pathways that thanks to that connection went a little deeper than I intended. If I had to guess, I'd say that his mind… sort of reads this place as reality," Cait Sith said, glancing at Cloud. "You know how VRDC works, right?"

"It's basically REM sleep, right?" Cloud asked. That was why he had been assigned the device – to combat insomnia by forcing REM sleep on him.

The mod nodded. "To you players and to your minds, this is all very lucid dreaming. You're processing this all with relatively little of your brain power, while the rest of your minds are concentrated on performing whatever task they need to perform during the rest period. Cleaning out sensory information, charging up for the next day, and so on. Vincent though is connected more deeply than that."

"Okay," Cloud nodded slowly. "And it's not like that for Vincent."

"No. Vincent isn't sleeping. He is actually, in a way, very awake when he's here. And so while you are in a sense cooling down even while you play, he isn't." Cait Sith sighed. "And thanks to what I did to his coding, it now reflects back to the game. His brain has had ten years of almost constant sensory overload and now it's catching up with him. In a sense, he's sleep deprived."

"So he's actually sleeping, in the game," Cloud murmured.

"Is this going to happen often?" RedXIII asked, coming closer.

"I imagine it will, at least for a while," Cait Sith said. "It might be that this is the cause of his memory problems, at least in part. Human beings go insane and even die when they go long enough without sleep, when their brains aren't allowed to rest and recuperate. And he's… been awake for a very long time."

Cloud scowled, looking away. He kind of wanted to find the person who had thought it would be a good idea to hook Vincent permanently to a VRDC and kick them around a bit – while wearing stilettos. Preferably a pair made of steel.

"So, do you think he will recover his memories?" Red asked.

The mod shrugged. "Time will tell," he said and then turned to Cloud, holding one paw up and drawing something from the air. "Here. And you're damn well going to accept it."

"What is it?" Cloud asked, even while accepting the item and a window popped up.

[Two Man Tent]
[Special Rest Item, Eternal, Bound on Pick Up.]

"There are big tents in the game, and tents that last forever rather than wearing out after one use," Cait Sith explained. "But only houses can have more than one bed. You could have Vincent in a normal tent, sure, as long as it was big enough, but that wouldn't be too comfortable for him. So I made this one, seeing that you two are going to be out in the field more than not."

Cloud frowned and then turned away and began setting up the tent. It took thirty seconds to fully assemble and once done it looked a little like a military tent, green and large enough to stand in, with the tent flap rolled up. Cloud eyed it for a moment before picking Vincent up and carrying him inside. He expected to find camp beds or something inside – but of course he didn't. Instead there was one king sized bed, sitting in the middle of the tent and it wasn't even camp bed – no it was a four poster monstrosity with curtains and everything, the sort of bed that had no right being in any normal bedroom, never mind a tent.

But Cloud was beyond caring at this point. With a shake of his head he just laid Vincent down on his side so that the wings could spread out over the expanse of the bed – and okay, maybe there was a reason for the single big bed after all.

"Is that better?" Cloud murmured, while pulling the cover over the man. It was a bit funny – Vincent had been completely unresponsive during the rough fall and run and all of it, but now his eyes flickered open just for a moment, looking up at him from beneath the bandana and the messy black hair. Then, with a happy hum, the gunman almost nuzzled into the pillow, and fell back asleep.

Cloud stared at him in disbelief. "Well… okay then," he murmured, shaking his head a little. So, Vincent was adorable as well as gorgeous, okay. "Fuck," he then murmured. This was going to be problematic.

Chapter Text

Reeve glanced up as Rainstorm left the tent and then sighed, looking down at Vincent. Fuck summed up the whole situation rather nicely, he thought as he sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at what both he and Cait Sith had thought to be a bug for years. Vincent was already deep asleep – deep enough to dream – and as unaware of the administrator's presence as the Viera player had been.

It was no wonder he read as a bug, though. Vincent was… invasive in the system. He didn't play along with the rules, he ignored the barriers. Sure he was limited too, more so than normal players, but that was only in the sense of the game play. In the sense of simple player-game interaction… Just the very act of sleeping within the game broke right through the limitations and barriers Reeve had so carefully installed between the game and its players. And that was just the beginning.

Reeve glanced up as Cait Sith walked through the tent wall, as intangible and invisible as he was. "Hm?" Reeve asked.

"I explained to them some of what we figured out," Cait Sith said, jumping onto the bed. "I think Rainstorm's probably figuring some of it out for himself, though – he worried about it being a connection issue, but his first reaction, back in the Wastes, was that Vincent was probably just exhausted. That kid has weird instincts with the game."

Reeve nodded thoughtfully, looking back at their so called bug. He had some dozen search programs trying to back-track Vincent's connection, with little success so far. The way the man was wired in was just… abnormal, in terms of how VRDC operated. It wasn't just that the man was hooked in with first-gen tech – no, he was probably hooked in with pre first-gen tech. Not just a prototype, but something from before that – from when they were just figuring out dream based virtual reality technology.

The truth was, the technology had been around for a couple of decades now. It had started out as one of those ShinRa science experiments that had had a completely different goal originally, the same as pretty much everything. It had probably been intended for interrogation, or maybe for mind control, originally – or just plain exploitation. Put a genius in a virtual world, have him invent all sorts of things, copy those inventions in the real world, that sort of thing – ShinRa had had a lot of weird ideas like that.

It was hard to say what had been the goal with Vincent – the only thing that they knew for sure was that the man was still hooked in. And had been for at least ten years – the timeline could be backtracked from the history of the Demon of the Wastes bug, that was how long they knew it had been around. But before that… Vincent might've been around for as much as ten years previous, there just hadn't been an online virtual reality for him to exist in, and no one to record his passing. Ten to twenty years, hooked online.

It was no wonder Vincent couldn't remember. Hell, Reeve was surprised the man wasn't completely mad. Well, maybe the man was – it was hard to tell.

And after all that – after all that time knowing about the Wastes Demon bug, Reeve hadn't had any idea. Neither had Cait Sith. It had taken Rainstorm, a relative newbie, to notice that maybe there was something weird going on with the boss mob.

"What do we know about Rainstorm?" Reeve asked, narrowing his eyes. "His actual background."

"Do you want me to break confidentiality?" Cait Sith asked slowly, frowning. He was the only one truly privy to all of the players – he knew all their real names and identities, their locations and most everything about their history. Cait Sith was the original brain hacker – and he hacked millions of minds every day.

That was why Reeve had installed damn good secrecy ethics on the AI – as well as even higher security protocols. If someone got access to the data in Cait Sith's possession… it didn't bear thinking on. No one living and thinking that had a bias should have that much power. So Reeve lied to his superiors, told them the interaction was superficial, no, the game didn't really go into the player's mind that much, no secrets were gleaned. They were, though. And Cait Sith told no one, not even him, no matter what he learned about the players, it was all confidential even to the game's creator.

Reeve bit his lip. He had never asked. He knew who some people were in the game – he knew Sephiroth went by his own name and Genesis Rhapsodos had made himself rather obvious by his name and his guild, and he knew that the Overseers guild was almost completely made up of Turks, their informants, their charges and whatnot. But that was what he had learned in game. He had never asked Cait Sith to break confidentiality.

This was different though. Rainstorm was… there was something strange about him. His first choice of a companion in the game was RedXIII, who wasn't even a human. His second was an under-age Wutaian. It was hard to tell about the two Ronsos yet, but Reeve had suspicions. And now this, out of the blue? Add to that, the fact that this was the man's third night in the game, and the fact that at level 14, he had an over 500 gold bounty on his head – and no one had yet managed to kill him.

A person could be lucky – but that lucky?

"Tell me," Reeve said. "Just him, though. Tell me who Rainstorm is."

Cait Sith gave him a long look and then settled down with a sigh. "He's a ShinRa employee – a Private Second Class in the 49th Regiment, a relatively recent recruit. The VRDC he is using is actually owned by the ShinRa Health and Medicine department – it was assigned to him as a medical aid device to combat insomnia."

Reeve frowned, turning to look at him. "Really? He didn't buy it himself? Has he used one before?"

Cait Sith shook his head. "Nope. I have no previous recordings of his brain waves - this really is his third night in the game."

"Where's he from? Midgar?"

"No. A little Western town called Nibelheim, south east of Rocket Town, just past the Nibel mountain range," Cait Sith said. "Also, he's sixteen years old."

"Really?" Reeve asked, blinking.

"Yep. He has little to no schooling – he knows how to read and count, but that's about it. I'm guessing Nibelheim doesn't have much of a school. He actually came to Midgar to join the SOLDIER program, but he failed the entrance exam and was offered a place in the infantry instead, which he took. He's currently in the Midgar patrol roster along with the rest of his squad – a period of grace before they're assigned somewhere out of the city."

Reeve frowned, running a hand absently over his beard. It didn't sound particularly remarkable – and if there had been anything of note in the young man's mind, Cait Sith would've told him. "So he really is… a nobody. And don't think I haven't noticed you not telling me his name."

Cait Sith grinned. "He really is nobody. As far as his background and what he knows, what information he's taken in, goes. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything, you know that."

"I do," Reeve murmured. The thing about the VRDC technology was that no matter how it had started or what it had become later… it had been perfected as a training tool. To teach SOLDIERs strategy and tactics and whatnot – even fighting methods. Reeve had stripped as much of that as he could away from Terra Online – but the VRDC itself was basically a learn in your sleep trainer. And it still worked for some people like that.

Terra Online had been created to be entertaining, to be distracting – to be an escape from everyday life. And it was that, sometimes having a somewhat addictive side effect on some. But beneath it all, the way the game worked, the baseline structure, the base physics… it still worked like a training program. While they had tried to build up a fantastic combat system, they hadn't been able to get rid of some of the original elements. Players still had natural affinities, they still had inclinations and the skill sweet spot, where a player could learn a skill just by doing something more than once, was still a thing.

If you stripped away the classes and jobs and races, stripped the players down to only what they themselves brought into the game, you were left with just a person. And if that person had skills learned by the skill sweet spot, without in-game aids… well. Those skills, ones learned by the skill spot, were completely feasible in real life.

"Has Rainstorm learned any skills by in-game aids?" Reeve asked.

"Nope," Cait Sith said. "And he doesn't seem to intend to. Whenever he can, he's trying to find the sweet spots. Plus, when you look at his actions, he's sort of weirdly against in-game aids in general."

"All in-game aid?" Reeve asked thoughtfully.

"Most, yeah. He rarely upgrades his armour – usually he does it for aesthetic reasons, rather than for stats. Even now he's working with below level 10 gear and he doesn't seem bothered by it – though granted, he got the gear for the exp boosts, to bring his exp gain back up after the infamy he gained. He doesn't fortify, he doesn't upgrade, and even with Treasure Princess around, he never equips crystals. The only thing he tolerates as a stat boost tends to be being buffed by RedXIII. And, most of all, he's dead set against being power levelled because, get this, he wants to experience the game himself."

Reeve frowned. "Weird instincts, huh?" he said slowly.

Cait Sith grinned at that. "It all kind of piles up, doesn't it? The company he keeps, the stuff he does, the way he plays the game. Now Vincent? It could be luck. Or he could be hacking, somehow. Or he could just have some sort of weird sixth sense about this game. Honestly, I don't think he's even aware of how he goes about it. He just does, and it comes naturally to him."

Reeve snorted at that, shaking his head. So Rainstorm was pretty much a video game protagonist. Wonderful. "I guess we were right about keeping an eye on him," he said and turned to Vincent. "Do you think it's right, leaving Vincent with him?"

"I think it's probably the only right decision, for Vincent," Cait Sith said. "Rainstorm, whatever he is, is protective of his friends. And he's been pretty gentle with Vincent so far. I'm not sure if any other player, if presented with a pet of Vincent's level, would've been. Rainstorm at least won't take advantage."

"No, probably not," Reeve agreed. "We need to keep a close eye on this. Whatever Rainstorm is aside, Vincent's our priority now. Setting things right is our priority. We need to find him and…"

And release him, if it was even possible. There were lots of problems with that, though, lots and lots of problems. Like the fact that, when one got down to it, hooking Vincent online had probably been a company project – and the fact that Reeve hadn't been informed about an experiment or project of that sort? That made it also a company secret. There might very well be a person out there who didn't want him or anyone to know – who was keeping Vincent hooked up in secrecy.

And under the memory loss, who knew what sort of person Vincent was, who he was or why he had been hooked up. Lots of human experiments had gone down in ShinRa's history. Some of them had been done to volunteers, involuntary innocents, some to company employees – a lot to convicted criminals. Maybe Vincent had volunteered or maybe he had been a company enemy. It was impossible to tell, and the searches were coming up with close to nothing.

"For now, make sure Rainstorm treats Vincent right," Reeve said, giving the mod a serious look. "The guy's gone through enough. There can't be any more abuse."

"None at all," Cait Sith agreed grimly.

Chapter Text

At the start Barret had been somewhat suspicious about the VRDC technology and Terra Online. He still was to some extent. While he was one of those rare individuals in his home town that fully supported ShinRa and was damn glad that the Corel Reactor had become a thing, that didn't mean he was blind to what ShinRa was. And tech that interacted with the mind? Fucking suspicious shit.

But those he knew who played the game had all assured Myrna and him that it was a hundred percent secure, that it didn't really get into your mind, it was more like you got your mind into it and so on and it hadn't really made much sense to him. But Myrna had wanted to try and so… so they had tried. Myrna more than him, though.

She slept a lot more, after all.

"You okay?" Barret asked his wife as they ran through the rather unusual looking Great Forest of Moore. There were forests around Corel too, so it wasn't like he was some little shit from Midgar who had never seen a plant in his life, but it was still sort of unusual. Ancient and stuff – all the trees were kind of too big and the forest below was sort of lightless. Kind of creepy.

"Oh, don't fuss," Myrna answered, waving a hand at him. "It's not like I can get tired here."

It was weird, seeing her here as opposed to seeing her at home. Sure, they both looked different – they had both chosen to be Ronsos just to look a bit different and though a female Ronso had a more human-like face than a male Ronso did, she still looked a lot like a big beast walking on two legs. But she was still herself under the blue fur and white hair, it was her face and her eyes and her expressions. More or less her body that was running without any trouble, jumping over rocks and roots.

She wasn't able to do that in real life. She couldn't really even walk these days.

"I'll fuss if I damn well please," Barret answered with a harrumph. It was hard to say if it felt weird to him, the whole thing – her being strong here, weak in real life – or if he was glad of it. She was so much more lively here. That's why they had gotten the game after all, so that she could live a life that wasn't bound to a bed or wheelchair or doctor's office. It felt off though. Like an illusion, or a lie… like they were ignoring the problem, a little.

Myrna loved Terra Online – had thrown herself into it fully the very moment she had logged in. That scared Barret, sometimes. That she liked it here more than she did at home – and of course she would. Things didn't hurt here.

Myrna smiled at him, obviously knowing what he was thinking. "I love you, you idiot – now stop it," she said. "The game will boot me off if something happens, same as you, as everybody. It's fine."

"Tch. It's still ShinRa tech," Barret murmured, and sure it had been a while since he had seen ShinRa tech fail, but… it did. Usually somewhat catastrophically.

He let it go though. They didn't come here just so that they could keep on rehashing the worries of daily life, after all.

"So where are they?" Barret asked with an annoyed sigh, looking around.

"Still a little further away," Myrna answered, looking at the map screen which she had open and which was hovering just a little to the left of her. "That way," she added, pointing.

They made their way through the creepy forest, ducking around the random bunches of mobs and almost stumbling into the hole in the ground where Rainstorm, RedXIII, and whoever the third guy was, were. The valley where the three were, Barret was annoyed to find, was full of damn bugs – which Rainstorm was slashing at with a big ass sword.

"What a lovely fucking place you got here," Barret greeted him and RedXIII who was going through his inventory.

Rainstorm glanced towards him and then finished the bug he was toying with in a single downward swipe. "We like it," the Viera said and then scowled as the sword in his hand dinged and promptly broke to pieces, turning into dust and raining down to the mossy ground. "Huh. So that's what happens when durability wears down to zero."

"Wasn't that a new sword? What have you been doing to wear it down to nothing already?" Myrna asked, amused.

"I took on a mountain side," Rainstorm shrugged and took out another sword – an even bigger one – from his inventory. He grinned. "Made another one just now though – I just wanted to break the old one before I tried this one. Also, turns out heavier swords do it for me – it's somehow much easier using these."

"Told you so," Myrna grinned and stepped forward. "Let me see, though. What is this, Simple Broadsword?"

"Beginner Claymore actually. I maxed the weight and size."

While the two of them talked blacksmithing shop, Barret glanced at RedXIII and then frowned at the tent that was sitting in the shelter of a tree, not far from them. And not just any tiny tent – no, this one was about the size of a small house. It had windows. "The fuck? Is that an NPC tent?"

"No, it's Rainstorm's," Red said, closing the inventory. "It's a long story."

"The kind of long story that ends with his ass in the Wastes and explains what the hell a pet gunner is?" Barret asked, glancing at the party list. It was still sitting there, just below Rainstorm's name. [Vincent, LV. 99, Pet Gunner].

"Yes. But it is also Rainstorm's story, not mine," Red added.

"Hey, hubby, do you have any of the heavy armour gear you made?" Myrna called as she handed the big sword back to the rabbit man. "You made some extra pieces to level up your job, right?"

"Yeah, I should have some. Why?" Barret asked, stepping closer.

"Rainstorm's wearing mostly light armour – heavy armour's better for a swordsman."

"I need this gear though – because of the exp boost," Rainstorm said and then frowned a little while the sword vanished into the mystery place where weapons went when they weren't in use. "Although… I did accidentally make some levels today…"

"The hell do you make levels accidentally?" Barret asked, even as he opened his inventory and then initiated a trade between himself and Rainstorm. The Viera blinked while Barret threw the extra heavy armour pieces he had into the inventory. "And that'll be two gold for every piece you –"

"Hubby!" Myrna said, punching him in the shoulder.

"What? That's my fucking hard work right there – I deserve some damn compensation!"

"It's fine. I got more cash than I really need anyway," Rainstorm said, shaking his head. Then he looked through the offered pieces, narrowing his eyes a little. After a moment of consideration he tapped the gold icon and added twelve gold into it. Barret accepted it quickly and the trade transferred sides.

"You got robbed," Myrna told Rainstorm.

"I usually do," Rainstorm nodded and transferred the items to his inventory. Then, making a face, he opened his character screen. "This is gonna be fun," he grumbled. "I just know it."

"Oh yeah, your gear shifts, doesn't it?" Myrna asked, laughing.

Rainstorm just sighed and then started by switching his out his gloves for the gauntlets. As they watched, what were fingerless cloth gloves turned into… some sort of hand jewellery. There was a large, elaborate ring around his middle finger and a triangle of chains led away from it and over the back of the hand, wrapping around the wrist in a thick, elaborate band of interlocking chains.

While Barret stared at the thing in disbelief – it had been an armoured glove when he had made it! – Myrna let out a snort and even RedXIII chuckled.

"Oh yeah," Rainstorm sighed, holding his hands up and examining the jewellery. "This is a good start."

The sleeves Rainstorm was wearing were replaced by a shawl of chains and jewels that arched over the shoulders and trailed down the upper arms. They sort of looked like shoulder pads – in the same way a flower sort of looked like a tree. The chest armour… it was basically a mess of thick, intertwined necklaces that trailed down over the guy's bare chest, down to his belly. The helmet was similarly a net of chains that looped around the ears, with a few longer ends hanging down to his neck. The perfectly normal armoured trousers Barret had made… were turned into a coin belt that was adorned with chains and jewels.

"Sometimes I hate this game," Rainstorm said while switching from the stiletto pumps into metal sandals that were held secure to his feet more by fucking faith than by the strength of the thin little jewelled chains they were made of. "And of course... they're still stilettos," the Viera murmured, looking at them.

Myrna was laughing so hard she looked a little sick. Barret couldn't even laugh – because this, this? He sure as hell hadn't made any of that shit. "That's fucked up, man," he said as consolingly as he could, shaking his head while Myrna collapsed against his shoulder, giggling into his upper arm.

"Yeah," Rainstorm sighed, looking down at himself. "So, I've done the stripper and the pole dancer. And now I can add a belly dancer to my repertoire of Viera looks. Wonderful." Then, to add insult to injury, he tilted his hips a bit and the coin belt jingled merrily.

"Oh my god," Myrna wheezed breathlessly and Barret patted her back consolingly.

There was a choked noise coming from somewhere behind them, and Barret frowned, looking over his shoulder. At the tent, looking like he had just been stepping out, there stood a black haired human man with red wings on his back – and a somewhat frozen look on his face as he stared at Rainstorm.

"Morning, Vincent," Rainstorm said, and spread his arms a little. "Look, I got new armour, isn't it wonderful?"

The winged man opened his mouth, said nothing, and then just backed up and got back into the tent. Rainstorm looked after him and sighed. "Yeah. Fun," he said and then, after taking a deep breath as if to steel himself, marched after the winged guy and into the tent with him.

"Um?" Barret asked, turning to Red.

"Like I said, long story," the beast said, stretching a bit and then sitting down and looking up at them. "And not mine to tell. And since we've technically just met you guys and Rainstorm has known you even less time than I have, I am not sure if he will tell you. Might be best you put it out of your minds."

"That guy's his pet though?" Myrna asked. "It says it in the name and Vincent's indented a little just after Rainstorm's name. That makes him Rainstorm's Pet."

"That guy's a mob?" Barret asked.

Red flicked his tail at that. "Something like that, I suppose. Weird stuff happens to Rainstorm," he added philosophically. "It is easiest to just accept it and move on."

Myrna looked towards the tent with slightly narrowed eyes, while Barret did the same. He had known there were pets in the game. But human ones? Sure, there were NPCs that talked and acted like they had a will and stuff, but…

"Weird stuff like hacking?" Myrna asked thoughtfully. Red didn't answer, just flicked his flaming tail again. Myrna eyed him for a moment and then glanced up at Barret who just shrugged in answer. They both had known there was something off with Rainstorm's party right from the get go – after all, there was Red who had an obviously hacked skin, and then there was Princess who was not only just too young to be playing the game but also probably a Wutaian. Now this, whatever this was?

It was no skin off their back, so why the fuck not?

"You guys probably are trustworthy, though," Red murmured, turning to the tent. "Rainstorm tends to attract a certain type of people."

"Like hell am I attracted to that guy!" Barret grumbled and then considered. "Though if he was wearing the sex-change necklace while wearing that getup…"

"Hubby!" Myrna said, looking at him with mock horror. "How can you say things like that, while I'm here!" then she paused to consider it. "Although… there's a lot to be said about a guy who isn't afraid to show a little skin…"

Red rolled his eyes and Barret could swear he muttered something like "humans" under his breath. The beast didn't say anything more, just looked up as Rainstorm walked out of the tent with the winged human in tow.

"Guys," the Viera said to them, motioning at the winged guy who was giving him a somewhat harassed look. "This is Vincent. He's technically my pet. Touch him and I will end you."

"You will, huh?" Barret asked, eyebrows arching.

Rainstorm grinned. "Yep," he said. "I will kill you dead."

Barret frowned at that and glanced at Myrna who was tilting her head to the side a bit. She glanced at him and then shrugged her shoulders with a little laugh. "Nice to meet you Vincent," Myrna said with a toothy smile. "I'm Mena – and this is my husband, Bigshot."

"Welcome to the fucking madhouse, I guess," Barret added.

The winged man eyed them suspiciously and then nodded. Then he looked around them and his face fell a little at the sight of all the trees and bugs and shit. "Where are we?" Vincent asked quietly, glancing at Rainstorm unsurely.

"The Great Forest of Moore," Rainstorm said and smiled at the man. "Welcome out of the Wastes, Vincent."

"This… is another zone," the man murmured and looked around again, frowning.

Rainstorm shrugged and then took out a sword. "I think I'm going to kill more bugs," he said, examining the too big, too heavy Claymore. "I wanna break this thing in, too," he added, running a finger along the too thick blade.

Vincent turned to look at him. "Should I…?"

"You should sit back and take in the nature," Rainstorm said and pointed a finger at him. "No shooting at anything."

"But –"

"No shooting."

Vincent frowned. "You are strange," he grumbled, but stepped back a little while Myrna and Barret shared a look and Red let out a quiet snort of laughter.

Rainstorm just grinned at the winged man and then turned towards Myrna and Barret. "How about you guys? You wanna stick around or get some quests from the town or what?"

"I think we could use some old fashioned hacking and slashing," Myrna said glancing at Barret.

He shrugged. He had no idea what the hell was even going on here, but fuck it. That was how it was half of the time with this damn game anyway. "Sure. Let's kill some shit."

Chapter Text

Vincent didn't know what to do with himself. Rainstorm was distracted, fighting the large insects with the two new players – Mena and Bigshot. No one was really paying him much attention,  which was so very strange. There were now four players around him, and not a single one of them had made any indication of wanting to fight him, or kill him, or claim some title by taking his head. Rainstorm had even made threats in his protection – and then had told Vincent to sit back and take in the nature and that was… not very helpful.

He did take in the nature, such as it was. The place around him was alien – green and overlapping, full of stuff that moved and made noises and he knew, somehow, what it all was even though he had never seen any of it before. Or at least he didn't remember having seen it. And yet he knew – trees, branches, leaves, grass, moss, bushes, vines. He knew them, their names and purposes and what they were.

None of it was real – but he knew that… he had known things like them. Real things. The things of which this terrain, this zone around him, was a virtual copy.

It was a definite change from the Wastes – and a definite improvement, too. The air here was cool and humid and pleasant. Nothing stirred the air. It was calm. Well, aside from the sounds of fighting coming from Rainstorm, Mena and Bigshot where they were fighting the mobs.

"Are you alright?" a voice asked and Vincent turned to Rainstorm’s beast companion. RedXIII, he recalled. The beast was sitting back from the fight, and was idly browsing windows and screens to past the time.

"I don't…" Vincent trailed off and frowned. He had no idea how to answer that. No one had ever asked before. No, Rainstorm had asked. What had he answered? "I'm fine," he said.

The beast glanced at him, looking unimpressed. "You're not," he said, turning back to the windows. "That's fine, though. No one expects you to be. Rainstorm doesn't expect you to be. You're allowed to be not fine."

Vincent let out a breath and shifted where he stood, unsure what to do with himself. He was used to moving, to flying and running and occasionally hiding, but mostly moving. This standing still, doing nothing, it was so odd. He felt open and vulnerable and like someone was about to stab him in the back.

"What is expected of me, then?" Vincent asked finally, glancing behind him. He liked this place better than the Wastes already – it felt nicer. But at the same time there were so many shadows, all around them and he didn't like their position, in this valley, in low ground. It was so… indefensible.

The beast seemed to consider that. "I don't expect anything from you. Except possibly for you to have a hard time with things thanks to your situation, but that's not an expectation, really, it's more of an assumption on my part and I really shouldn't be making those. Bigshot and Mena expect nothing from you, they know you even less than I do and are thus largely ignoring you. And Rainstorm… expects you to be."

Vincent scowled. "What does that mean?"

"You're inside his sphere of influence now, and he expects you to stay there. He expects the same from me, from another of our acquaintance – from Mena and Bigshot too, I imagine," RedXIII answered, flicking his tail. "You are here now, and he expects you to remain. And that is all."

"I don't…" Vincent trailed away, and looked towards Rainstorm and the others, to where they were fighting. His mind felt sluggish, and he was teetering on the edge of understanding what the beast meant. Grimacing, Vincent lifted a hand to his forehead, willing his mind to just turn. Why was everything suddenly so slow?

RedXIII looked at him. "Why don't you sit down?" he offered. "We're safe here – the only mobs nearby are those bugs, and the others can handle them."

Vincent hesitated, but sat down on the mossy ground – Rainstorm had told him to sit back after all. "I don't… understand," Vincent finally admitted.

"I can't say I do either," the beast commented. "Yours is not a situation I'm in any way familiar with, and I can't even begin to imagine how it must be for you." He tilted his furry head a bit, considering Vincent almost kindly. "If you want to talk about it, however, I'm willing to listen."

"I don't," Vincent answered with a near growl and looked in Rainstorm's direction. If Rainstorm asked, he might've, but… no matter how Rainstorm might trust this beast, it hadn't been RedXIII who had stood between him and Cait Sith.

"That's fine. Rainstorm's probably willing to listen too, if you ask him," the beast said. "But if you want to change the subject, that's fine," he added and turned to the windows open all around him. "Can you see his stats anywhere, by the way? Rainstorm's, I mean?"

Vincent scowled, glancing to the upper left corner of his field of vision. Rainstorm was there as [Rainstorm, LV. 14, Swordsman] with [HP] 574/769 [MP] 79/79 below his name. Vincent himself was there too, LV. 99 with [HP] 9999/9999 and [MP] 999/999.

"Those numbers mean life-force and health?" he asked, watching of Rainstorm's HP went down with the hits he took, and then went back up as the man downed a potion.

"Hit points or health points, depends on whether you receiving or inflicting," RedXIII answered. "If the HP numbers trickle to zero, you die. Same for Rainstorm. Of course, death is not permanent, but…"

Vincent swallowed the snarl he wanted to spit at the beast at that. Death might not be permanent, but it wasn't pleasant. It was different for players, he knew, but for him? Every visit to that place… He shook his head, not wanting to think about it.

He turned his eyes to Rainstorm instead, watching the man fight. Mena was instructing Rainstorm judging by the looks of it, and Rainstorm was judging every swing and thrust of his sword carefully, repeating them many times – that was why he was taking so much damage, because he wasn't as much fighting as he was practicing against a live opponent. Well, as much alive as a mob could be.

Rainstorm was… strange. Vincent couldn't understand him at all. He could trust him. The man hadn't killed him yet, had actually stood in his defence, more than once – had carried him here. But understanding him was completely beyond Vincent's capability.

"Why did he help me?" Vincent asked after a moment.

"Rainstorm? Probably just because you needed help, and he happened to be there," RedXIII answered. "He's… kind. On a certain level."

"And on another?" Vincent asked, because that sounded like there was more to it.

"You know about his bounty, yes? We've had many encounters with bounty hunters because of it. People come after him with the intent to kill him for the money or for the title – or just because. In those cases he's not kind at all," the beast said. "The limit is wide and easy to discern from this side – but when he crosses it, he crosses it completely."

Vincent looked at Rainstorm and… he couldn't see it. Rainstorm didn't seem threatening, not in his get up. And though Vincent hadn't missed the threat the man had made for his sake, Rainstorm hadn't been anything but friendly and… kind.

RedXIII glanced at him. "You will probably see it happen sooner or later," the beast said. "We sit back when he does, and support him from the side. It's… worked for the best, so far – and it keeps us out of harm’s way when he lets loose."

"He doesn't seem dangerous," Vincent admitted, eying Rainstorm. The man was now even more naked than before. Apparently no matter how armour looked, it still provided protection but… Rainstorm was still mostly naked. He didn't quite look vulnerable – he didn't act like he was vulnerable – but still. It was a lot of unprotected skin.

"He doesn't, does he?" RedXIII answered and looked away as another window popped up in front of him. After reading it, the beast looked towards Rainstorm who was just finishing the bug he had been fighting. The rabbit-man jumped back, looking at the window that had appeared in front of him too. He read it, answered whatever message he had received, and then turned around, jogging over.

"How long do you think it will take her to get here?" Rainstorm asked RedXIII while Mena and Bigshot followed and Vincent looked away.

"Maybe ten, fifteen minutes," the beast answered. "She's probably going to teleport from Knights Camp to the Elder Tree. And she has a decent mount, so she can cover ground faster."

"Hmm…" Rainstorm hummed. "I want a mount. How do you get one?"

"Quests, beast tamers… easiest way would be to simply buy one from the auction house, though they tend to be expensive," RedXIII answered and stood up. "Should we head to the Elder Tree? I want to put some things in the auction house anyway."

"Ugh," Rainstorm said, tugging at the lace choker around his throat. "I'd have to use that damn necklace, wouldn't I? And with this get up too…"

"Well, nobody recognized you, did they?" RedXIII asked, amused.

Mena let out a laugh and elbowed her husband. "Guess we'll get to see it after all."

"Can I have second thoughts about that?" Bigshot asked, frowning. "I mean. This is a big enough mind fuck as it is."

"Screw you two," Rainstorm snorted, waving a dismissive hand at them. Then he looked at Vincent – who was studiously not looking back. "Vincent?"

Vincent closed his eyes for a moment, sighed, and then forced himself to look at the man. Rainstorm looked… well. Vincent didn't have a word for the concept – he couldn't quite remember it. It was easier looking at Rainstorm at a distance, where he couldn't quite see the details. Now he could – every line of muscle, the hip bones above the loosely sitting belt of coins and gems and chains…

"Yes?" Vincent answered, awkward.

"This is gonna be a bit weird. Don't freak out," Rainstorm said, his inventory open as he took off the choker around his throat. He replaced it with another one – and promptly changed shapes. His waist narrowed, his hips widened, his chest expanded – and suddenly, he was a female version of himself. Some of Rainstorm's gear had shifted with him – namely, the necklaces, which had added into their array a coin and gem adorned bikini top – but mostly it was exactly the same.

Vincent blinked at the sudden complete transformation. Rainstorm looked down at himself and sighed. "Oh good," the Viera murmured, his voice slightly higher, slightly softer, as he tugged slightly at the coin adorned bikini top. "Not showing nip."

Mena snorted. "Whoever designs the armour is seriously perverted, but they usually keep you from flashing, huh?" she asked amusedly.

"They walk a very fine line," Rainstorm said and looked at Vincent. "Freaking out?"

"… No?" Vincent answered. He wasn't entirely sure what to think of this suddenly female Rainstorm, but… Well, it didn't actually change things much – there was still so much more skin revealed than was being covered. Vincent could still see his hip bones.

"You poor guy, being stuck with me," Rainstorm snorted, holding out a hand to him. "You'll get used to it, maybe."

Vincent shifted where he sat. He was pretty sure he wouldn't. Rainstorm was simply too strange. But he accepted the hand regardless, taking a split second to appreciate the warm strength of Rainstorm's palm, before he was being pulled up and to his feet. Rainstorm flashed a smile at him, before turning towards the tent and taking it down, Vincent's eyes following him as he crouched down to pick it up.

Rainstorm's back was completely bare aside from the thin chain of the bikini top, and Vincent couldn't help but wonder if he was as warm throughout. Rainstorm was always warm when he touched him, Vincent could always feel it radiating through his clothing. Would his back be warm? Or the bare stomach, the hip bones, the legs that were almost entirely bare?

Vincent wanted to touch him to find out and the fact that so much skin was being bared wasn't helping.

RedXIII glanced up at him. "Well, this will be interesting," the beast murmured and grinned when Vincent looked away, embarrassed. Mena, to add insult to injury, laughed knowingly.

Interesting wasn't the word he would've used for it. Humiliating seemed more like it. A new form of torture perhaps – though he much preferred this to the alternative. Much preferred the oddly alluring temptation of Rainstorm's warmth, to the painful cold darkness of death, however momentary it had been.

Rainstorm put the tent into his inventory and then returned to Vincent's side. He was smiling and didn't seem to think there was anything wrong. Vincent relaxed a bit – the Viera hadn't noticed the exchange. Good.

"Well then," Rainstorm said. "Let's go."

The others nodded, still looking amused, and began making their way up from the valley. Rainstorm didn't move at first, waiting until they had passed by. Then he glanced up at Vincent, grinned – and threw his arm around Vincent's waist, beneath the wings, squeezing. He was softer than before thanks to the feminine curves he now had. But he was still strong. Still warm.

Vincent looked at him uneasily, trying not to melt against the hold while the Viera smiled up at him. "Okay?" Rainstorm asked.

Vincent hesitated and then nodded, looking away and feeling his face heat up – and wasn't that strange, being able to blush somewhere like this, somewhere not real.

"You're adorable, you know," Rainstorm told him amusedly, squeezing again.

"And you're very strange," Vincent answered, even as he leaned against him helplessly, sinking into the welcoming warmth.

Rainstorm laughed, lifting a hand up and petting his hair, easing his fingers through the tangles. "If you need something, let me know," he said almost directly into Vincent's ear. "If you need a hug, tell me. I won't say no."

Vincent hummed, closing his eyes for a moment. Going by the evidence he had gathered so far… he didn't need to say anything. Rainstorm seemed to know. How, Vincent didn't know – maybe it showed on his face, maybe Rainstorm was good at reading people, maybe the owner-pet bond just made Rainstorm somehow aware of it. It didn't matter and he didn't care.

Rainstorm was warm.

"Oi, lovebirds! We'll fucking leave you behind at this rate!" Bigshot called, making Mena and RedXIII laugh.

Vincent froze but Rainstorm just snorted. "Oh, piss off!" the Viera called back without pause, but he did release Vincent's waist and took his hand instead. He looked at Vincent's face for a moment and Vincent had no idea what he saw there, but it made the Viera smile and nod, seemingly satisfied.

"Come on," Rainstorm said, and Vincent followed.

Chapter Text

Tifa idly watched how the argument at tables seven and eight slowly got more and more heated. The idiots from the Heroes and the dumbasses from the Army were shouting insults across the space between the tables – what had started out as sort of light hearted needling at each other was turning into an outright shouting match.

"Yeah? Seriously? And where were you guys when we took the Ziteng? I lost friends there!" someone from the Army shouted.

"We were following fucking orders the same as everyone – and didn't your idiot colonel go all gung ho, we don't need no back up, no need for SOLDIER here? You assholes got what you deserved!"

Tifa sighed and pushed herself away from the counter. "Bee, watch over the front," Tifa said to the elf girl who was usually waiting tables, and after the girl had hopped over the counter, she moved in. The few customers who saw her quickly got out of the way, a group from the Overseers going as far as moving their entire table in a quick efficient procession. She ignored them, and moved in on the Heroes and the Army goons.

"Hello, gentlemen. Are we having a problem here?" she said, resting her hands on her hips. They were newbies mostly – a couple from each table blanched at the sight of her, but mostly they just glared and one of them actually jeered at her.

"No, ma'am," one of the Army said quickly. "Just a friendly rivalry is all –"

"What's it to you, bitch?" another from the Army said cockily.

"Yeah, mind your own fucking business, men are talking here," a newbie Hero agreed while one of the more experienced members of Heroes let out a choking noise.

Tifa smiled pleasantly, shifted her stance, leaned in, took the two speakers by the necks – and slammed their heads together.

[RedChampion had been killed by Sonata!]
[Sonata's Murder Count is now 195!]

[Foreverstrong has been killed by Sonata!]
[Sonata's Murder Count is now 196!]

"So," Tifa said as the two bodies fell to the floor between the two tables, between the Heroes and the Army members. "Are we having a problem here?"

"But – you bitch –" one of the Heroes started to say, only to be quickly silenced by the more experienced Hero, who all but shoved his fist into the speaker's mouth.

"No, ma'am!" the Hero said hurried. "No problem here. In fact we were just about to leave."

"Yeah, us too. It's been absolutely lovely, great establishment you have, love to come again –" the Army goons added.

Tifa watched as they emptied the tables, resting her gloved hands on her hips until they had stumbled out of the room, carrying their dead members with them. Then she sighed, shook her head and smiled at the rest of the customers. "Apologies for the racket," she said with a sheepish smile.

"No need," a woman in the Overseers laughed, lifting her tankard while some people laughed and a couple cheered. "They were being noisy anyway."

"Cheers, ma'am!" said another player from further back in the room, also lifting his drink.

Smiling, Tifa bowed to accept the applause, and then returned to the counter where Bee was giving her a look.

"You're going to have bounty hunters after you at this rate," the elf commented. "You can't keep killing paying customers anyway."

Tifa shrugged. "They know the rules. Or they damn well should," she said, turning to the chest and checking to see that they were fully stocked up on food and drink items. "That's what keeps this place going anyway. People wouldn't be coming here near as often if they thought I'd allow them to fight here."

"True, I guess," Bee murmured. "Still, I think you're going to get in trouble if you keep killing people."

"I don't keep killing people," Tifa said defensively. Usually she threw them out and that was usually enough – but usually they didn't call her a bitch. She had limits too, and that was one of them. "I just… sometimes you have to make examples of people," she said, shrugging.

"You've made a lot of examples, haven't you, lady Sonata?" a familiar voice asked and Tifa turned to see a player customer walking towards the counter.

"Hello Zoto," she said, giving the Miqo'te a smile. "I heard you were in the Wastes."

"Yes, I was, then this happened," the Miqo'te answered, ears laid back in annoyance as he took out a poster and rolled it open. It was a rather impressive picture of a male Viera in mid leap, in what looked like the deserts of the Wastes – and in the corner of the poster there was a logo. "Look at this!" Zoto said, sounding disgusted as he tapped the logo. "LOVELESS caught him!"

"Caught him?" Tifa asked while accepting the poster and looking it over more closely. So this was the Rainstorm which had had her little bar buzzing with rumours for a couple of days now.

"Well, they caught a picture of him anyway. The guy's still who knows where, bounty intact and all," Zoto grumbled while pulling out a stool and sitting down. "These damn posters are now freaking everywhere in Alexandria and they're not even charging much money for them, the bastards. BELOVED's sense of business – or lack there off – pisses me off."

Tifa smiled, tilting her head a bit. Rainstorm looked… pretty much how she had imagined. Like a Viera, but male. She had heard about how the gear looked even on Male Viera so that wasn't a surprise. Pity, though – you couldn't quite see his face in the picture, the sun was angled just so that it was cast in shadows. All she really could see was that he had short white hair and the signature ears of a Viera.

"Well, my condolences for not getting there first, I guess," Tifa said and rolled the poster up, handing it back. "Do you want a drink to get over it, or what?"

"I'd love one," Zoto said and leaned in. "The chocolate one, with the cream. I'd love one of those right about now."

Tifa smiled and took one of the Deluxe Hot Chocolate's out of the chest. "That'll be forty silver," she said, as the item materialised on the counter between them.

They made the trade and Zoto pulled the drink towards himself. "We seriously need alcohol in this game," he murmured, stirring the drink a bit with the straw. "Although, I don't mind the sugary stuff. At least here it doesn't make you fat."

"There is that," Tifa agreed. Oh the amount of cake she ate in Terra Online – in real life she would've died by now. "Alcohol would be nice though. The taste at least, if not the effect," she mused. People always asked for it, and the best she had managed to make so far was cider that sort of tasted alcoholic. But to make actual drinks… that would've been something.

Zoto nodded and then glanced at her. "Soo… any LOVELESS assholes seen here lately?" he asked. "Because I would love to know how the hell they got that picture."

"Not lately. They prefer their own guild house," Tifa shrugged. "And they don't do as much inter-guild dealing as you guys do."

Overseers made up most of her customers, really – the Seventh Heaven was one of the few neutral establishments in Alexandria, mainly because Tifa had fought tooth and nail to keep it that way. And it was in a damn good spot too, almost next to the city square, with most of the major guild houses within a block or two. It had taken almost a year of fighting the Overseers and other guilds to establish her place and to keep the spot and not to lose it to other guilds, but… it had been worth it.

Of course, Seventh Heaven was basically a guild house too. But the Seventh Heaven had precisely one guild member – herself – which made it something of a special case. And with a building design that was basically one big reception area, furnished with tables and chairs, it was as close to a public restaurant as one could get in Terra Online. A good restaurant at that – she even had the game version of a grand piano sitting in the corner, which she sometimes played for her customers. Hell, sometimes she had musical performers, even stand up comedians, performing shows in the place.

Mostly though, Seventh Heaven was popular because it was neutral ground, and because inside guild houses only the members of that guild could kill. Which meant only she could kill people, and nobody else. It made the place a safe meeting place for pretty much everyone. And the Overseers, after deciding that they couldn't make her budge, decided to just make use of it.

Tifa still wasn't quite sure how she felt about being on good terms with most of the biggest guilds and having them frequent her place, but… running a restaurant – or a bar – was her dream. And she had made it as close to reality as she could, in Terra Online.

"And you haven't heard anything?" Zoto asked. "About Rainstorm?"

"Not today. Aside from the piece of gossip of him coming down from the MRR portal along the mountain side without wings," Tifa answered, folding her arms. The Analytical – a guild consisting mostly of ShinRa scientists as far as she could tell – had sat for a couple of hours in her place, trying to calculate the odds of surviving a thing like that. They had ended up somewhere along one in a hundred and fifty. "Rumour has it that Rainstorm is still probably in the Wastes and probably trying to make levels. He made a couple really fast a little while ago."

"Yeah, jumped from 11 to 14 in a couple minutes flat. Must've taken on a boss, or something," Zoto agreed. "He's being annoyingly quiet though. How can you go from doing something like the Albrook Newbie Massacre, killing bunch of bounty hunters and then… nothing?"

"If I had as many people after me as he does, I'd probably hide too," Tifa pointed out. "He doesn't have a guild to fall back on or anything, just a couple of people he plays with and they're not high level either, are they?"

"The hacker – the beast – is probably close to level fifty," the Overseer said. "It's hard to say because no one knows his name. And the Gria ninja, well, we know her – she's level 25."

"You know her?"

"Yeah – she used to be higher level, 46. She pissed off the boss, I corpse camped her," Zoto shrugged. "She and Rainstorm must've met when she was trying to get her levels back – she would've had to go to Albrook to start, after all."

Tifa gave him a look. She'd kill a player if she had to, but corpse camping? "You people disgust me," she said.

"It's a dirty job, lady Sonata, but someone has to do it," the Miqo'te grinned, lifting his hot chocolate in toast. "Someone has to set up some sort of rules in this game; someone has to inflict the hard lessons in life. You can't just do anything and everything you want, after all."

"Uhhuh," Tifa answered, unimpressed. "Isn't she like a little kid or something? I've heard she's looks really young."

Zoto winced a little. "Yeah, that was kind of… but orders are orders," he said and shrugged. "Besides she was bothering people anyway – you remember the guild house robberies, a couple weeks back? And the pickpocketing thing that happened just five or so days ago in the central square? That was her. So we brought her down a peg. Or, you know. Forty five of them."

Tifa made a face. Overseers mostly behaved themselves, but sometimes she rather wished they didn't frequent her place so often. And sometimes she really wished that LOVELESS, as damn flamboyant as they were, could just overtake their damn guild. Even for a little while. Just to break their damn monopoly for a while.

"Aww, don't make faces at me, lovely Sonata. We're not all bad," Zoto said.

"I can kick you out, you know," Tifa said, pointing a finger at him. "So watch it."

"I'm definitely watching it," he grinned and she narrowed her eyes. "Sorry, sorry, I'll behave."

"You better."

"Sonata, guy at table four is asking if we have Golden Phoenix Roast," Bee said, coming closer. "What do I say to him?"

"Tell him I'll happily make him some when he brings in the ingredients," Tifa answered and rolled her eyes as the elf headed back to inform the customer that, no, they didn't have the highest level foodstuffs on stock. Who the hell did?

"Golden Phoenix Roast?" Zoto asked, interested.

"Level 60 dish, and among other things you need Phoenix Legs to make it – and to get those you need to kill the field boss from the Mandalia Plains," Tifa shrugged. She'd made it twice and happily ate it all herself. It had been one of the best in game dishes she had ever made – and, being food, it had a str 1200% buff for six hours. It had been glorious.

"Huh," Zoto said. "I'm curious, which one of you has the best cooking skills, you or Noble from Heroes? I hear he can make level 60 dishes too."

"I think he's a couple levels higher than me – but I have more drink dishes," Tifa said smugly and pointed at his mostly empty hot chocolate. "Like that one. Limited recipe – I'm the only one who has it."

Zoto looked suitably impressed. "No fucking wonder I can't get it anywhere but here," he murmured, glancing away as a message pop up appeared beside him. "Sure you can't sell it in stacks?" he asked hopefully while idly opening the private message he had gotten.

"Nope. It's one per customer," Tifa smiled. Selling things in stacks would ruin the whole point of having a restaurant, after all. "Enjoy your drink," she said, turning to leave to check that the rest of the customers were getting along.

"Before you go," Zoto said, looking up from the message. "Have you seen Flower today?"

"Yeah, I did – she came in for her usual smoothie," Tifa answered, frowning. "That was maybe a couple hours back. Why?"

Zoto frowned, glancing at the message. "Looks like she's missing."

Tifa blinked at that. "Missing? How can she be missing – don't you guys –"

"She's un-friended pretty much everyone and apparently took a portal out of Alexandria before anyone noticed, and isn't answering her messages," Zoto said while opening a couple of windows, checking his friends and messages. After a moment he shook his head. "Yeah. She's definitely missing."

Tifa shook her head. The Overseers had lost someone they had already had under guard. That… was a first. And Flower? She was all but the Overseer princess – they certainly treated her like she was. The only way they could've had a closer watch on her was if they had locked her up in a damn tower – and they probably had tried.

Quickly Tifa turned to face the other way so that Zoto wouldn't see her smile. So, Flower had decided to make a run for it.

Good on her.

Chapter Text

As they made their way through the Great Forest of Moore, heading towards the Elder Tree, Cloud kept a close eye on Vincent. The gunner didn't look tired, but there was still that slightly bleary quality to the way Vincent looked at things that made Cloud stick close. That way, if Vincent suddenly fell asleep again, Cloud would be in position to catch him.

Besides, he wasn't too sure about Vincent's sense of direction. That might've been the general sleep deprivation the man was suffering from but Vincent had gone off course several times in the Wastes and the man had lived in the place for years. Here, in a place he didn't even know? Vincent was very easy to keep an eye on though. Aside from being fairly noticeable thanks to the wings, the man was very easy on the eyes.

Yeah, Cloud was keeping a close eye on him. So close that he wouldn't have noticed the Elder Tree in the distance if Red hadn't pointed it out – and the tree was rather hard to miss.

"That's it?" Cloud asked, a little dubious as they stopped for a moment on a little hill, from where they could see over most of the Great Forest of Moore between them and their destination. He had figured that the tree would be big – it had to be, to have a village in its branches, but seriously. The thing towered over the already rather impressive forest, and made it look like grass, that's how big it was. "How tall is that thing?"

"About five hundred meters, give or take," Red answered, flicking his tail in amusement. "It's the fourth biggest city in the game."

"I don't doubt you," Cloud murmured and glanced at Mena and Bigshot, while Vincent peered suspiciously at the distant Elder Tree. "You two ever been here?"

"It's the first time for us too, and yikes that thing is big," Mena murmured.

"Fucking video game physics," Bigshot snorted. "In real life there is no way in hell that thing would be structurally sound. Not even as a tree, but a damn town? No fucking way."

"Well, we're not in real life, are we?" Mena said, elbowing her husband and looking at Cloud. "Shall we race over there?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"Last one there buys everyone else food!" she said and dashed forward, leaving the rest of them staring after her with surprise.

"Um," Cloud said, glancing at Bigshot – only to find the Ronso grinning. RedXIII was already jumping after Mena and a split second later he was amidst the trees and then out of sight. While Cloud stared after them in astonishment, Bigshot vanished ahead too, leaving him alone with the stoic Vincent.

"Okay then," Cloud said slowly and considered the distance before glancing at Vincent. He smiled at the somewhat worried look the gunman was giving him. "Fancy a flight?"

"If I must," Vincent answered, glancing over him uneasily.

"You don't have to," Cloud added quickly.

"It's… fine," Vincent said, clearly uncomfortable. "Just… don't you have any more… covering gear?"

Cloud glanced down at his stupid jewellery get up – heavy armour in-fucking-deed. "Well, some. What I was wearing before is about as covering as it gets, though," he said apologetically. "I'm not exactly loving this myself, and this is about as bad as it's gotten so far, but it's… kind of all more or less like this."

Vincent looked at him dubiously and Cloud shrugged. "If it bothers you I can just keep a distance," he said – though he rather doubted that was it. Vincent… wasn't very good at hiding his emotions. It was probably the lack of human contact or maybe the lack of memories, but he almost broadcasted everything he was thinking. And Cloud had seen and felt him lean into his touch too many times to think it bothered Vincent. Vincent got confused and embarrassed by it – but he always leaned in.

The poor man was so confused he didn't even realise how damn skin hungry he was.

Still, there was a very fine line between when Vincent craved touch and when it made the man uncomfortable – Cloud could just barely see it and tried to act accordingly, not touching the man or even standing too close to him when it made Vincent squirm. And he had probably pushed Vincent over the edge of craving and into embarrassed discomfort earlier.

"We can walk," Cloud added.

"No, it's… fine," Vincent said, and glanced away. "If it doesn't bother you."

"What, me being mostly naked? Or the touching?" Cloud asked and smiled when Vincent looked away, hint of red on his cheeks. "I'm… don't tell the others, but I'm kind of getting used to this," he said, motioning at himself. "And as long as it's consensual and not gropey, I don't mind touching either."

"…gropey?" Vincent asked, frowning.

"Yeah. You know, copping a feel, feeling up, molesting… being generally too liberal with another person's personal barriers without permission, that sort of thing," Cloud shrugged.

The gunner eyed him for a moment and then shook his head. "So… consensual touching is fine," he said, and frowned with confusion. "I don't… there's a connotation to that I don't remember," he murmured.

Cloud let out a little laugh, feeling his face heat up a bit. "Yeah, there's a connotation to that," he agreed, grinning. "But yes, consensual touching is fine. So, fancy a consensual bit of flying?"

Vincent considered it for a moment. "Yes," he said then.

Of course Vincent had to carry him bridal style as they flew – and with the damn gender bender necklace that was even worse than before. But it was just one of those damn Terra Online inconveniences that Cloud was getting used to and, besides… they totally beat the rest of the party to the tree.

The Elder Tree was even more magnificent close up. As they got closer, the city hidden in the branches began shining through the leaves, with sparks of light breaching the cover of green, like glitter hidden in the tree. The sparks of light, Cloud soon found, were paper lanterns which were hung all over the tree’s so called interior. And the interior itself… was amazing.

There were wooden platforms and walkways, rope bridges and endless amounts of little ladders everywhere, and the buildings were nestled into crooks and bends of the gigantic branches like bird nests. There were two types of buildings – the sorts that were built on top of the branches, and ones that were hung suspended from them, with rope bridges leading from one to another. They were made in part from wood, and interwoven branches that were, by the looks of them, still alive somehow, and roofs made from leaves.It was all very fantastic.

"Just, to save you from the confusion, a place like this does not and cannot exist in the real world," Cloud said, as Vincent brought them to land on a sort of platform-balcony which, judging by the looks of a couple of winged players, was made for those with flight to use.

"I figured," Vincent answered, touching down on the platform and then letting Cloud down. The other players looked at them with interest but that was all– as much as Cloud loathed the sex-change necklace, it did its work admirably. With him looking like a Viera woman and Vincent looking like a human player, they weren't too unusual. Not unusual enough to attack at any rate. Score one for them.

Still what the hell were they staring at?

"Oh my god, you got an armour change," a familiar voice said and Cloud turned around just in time to see Treasure Princess go through stages of shock, horror, amusement, delight and finally complete utter mirth, before the girl exploded with laughter. "You look like… like…!" she gasped and pointed a finger at him. "You're a harem girl! Oh my god!" and then she topped over, laughing.

"How nice that you approve," Cloud muttered, while Vincent shifted uncomfortably and the other players chuckled.

It took the Gria ninja a while to gather herself, and even then she was overtaken by the occasional fit of giggles when she looked at him. "What is that, heavy armour?" Princess asked.

"Yeah. So very heavy," Cloud rolled his eyes. "Give it a rest already."

"Never!" she answered with a grin. "Also I am so mad you changed without me there. It's always so much fun, seeing you change."

"Tch!" Cloud answered and glanced around them, at the other players. "Come on," he said. "Let's go somewhere more private. I got something to explain to you."

Princess turned a bit more serious at that, glancing to the left of her – probably looking at the party list, where Vincent's name and status would be displayed even to her eyes. "Yeah," she said. "I know a place, come on."

She led them across half a dozen branches, higher up along the tree and finally above most of the tree city, where the walkways and rope bridges ended, and there was only natural tree. On one of the branches, Cloud explained some of Vincent's situation while the gunman watched on silently, his face completely expressionless.

Princess took it all in quietly – with occasional chuckle aimed at Cloud's gear, but that was about it. Finally, when Cloud was finished, she nodded. "It's one of those things, yeah?" she asked, giving Vincent a sympathetic smile. "ShinRa things."

There was a weight to what she said and Cloud sighed, nodding. Being a Wutaian, she would understand. And wasn't it awkward, she being Wutaian while he was part of the ShinRa Military. Even if he had never set a foot on Wutai soil and never fired a single shot in the war taking place on the said soil… yeah. All the better she didn't know, really.

Though really, Cloud couldn't boast of his loyalty or faith in ShinRa either. He never could've, but now… "Yeah, ShinRa things," Cloud agreed, and looked at Vincent.

"It's kinda weird, though. I mean, Cait Sith. Isn't he ShinRa?" Princess asked, folding her arms. "Why is he helping? I mean, if Vincent is one of the skeletons in ShinRa's closets… shouldn't he be trying to cover it up, hide it, stop the word from spreading, and so on?"

"Cait Sith is an AI. He's a program," Cloud answered with a shrug. "I'm not entirely sure he actually works for ShinRa at all. I mean, when you look at this game… it's rather unbiased. ShinRa advertises and boasts all the time in the real world, but here?" he shook his head. "This game is rather ShinRa free, when you look at it."

"Yeah. Kind of weirdly so," Princess agreed. "Though there are tons of guilds made by ShinRa employees. Most of the big ones are all ShinRa employee guilds, actually - except for LOVELESS, it's just full of LOVELESS and theatre fans, but the other big ones? Overseers, Heroes and Army are all completely made of ShinRa employees."

"Hmm. That's just people though," Cloud murmured. He didn't really know much about the guilds, but they were made by people. "The game itself is rather ShinRa free, though."

Princess nodded thoughtfully and looked like she was about to say something when the sound of voices carried their way. In unison all three of them glanced downwards. There were people on a rooftop some twenty, thirty meters below them – about half a dozen of them. And it was easy to recognise the scene they made, at that distance.

"…All the same, I'd rather go on my own," a long haired female player was saying as she backed away from the group that was all but cornering her on the rooftop.

"Are you sure? We could help you level up a bit," one of the male players – a dark furred Ronso – said. "We know all the best spots for grinding in the forest. We could really help you out, you know."

"And you're a white mage, right? So it's not like you can really go out your own," another, a Gria, said. "White mages were made to be a support class."

"Come on, it'll be fun," another player coaxed, stepping forward and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "We'll take good care of you, and you can have all the cool loot and –"

"Please let go of me," the woman said, squirming and trying to get away.

"Let's get you kitted up," the man said and begun steering her with him while the others all but surrounded her.

Cloud didn't even think before hoisting himself over the edge of the branch and jumping down. The drop was rather long but he had survived worse – though the impact when he hit the roof was a bit of a surprise. There was a mighty crack of wood and he made an indention in the rooftop with his landing, and it was a pure luck he didn't go right through the damn thing.

So, apparently he could damage buildings. Good to know.

"What the hell?" one of the men asked, giving him a surprised look.

"I don't think the lady wants to go with you," Cloud said, straightening up and carefully stepping out of the near crater he had made. "I think you should let her go her own way."

The men blinked at him and then one of them snorted at him. "Or you’ll what?" he asked with amused disbelief. "Dance at us?"

"Hey, maybe you should come with us too," the Ronso said, looking Cloud up and down.

"No way. I hate sluts," another said, giving Cloud a look. "Ever heard of subtlety?"

Cloud stared at them with disbelief and then shook his head, turning to look at the female player who was still all but held captive against one of the men. She was looking at him with astonishment, all the while still trying to squirm away. "How about you let her go now?" Cloud asked the human holding her.

"How about no?" the man asked, rolling his eyes and pulling a sword. He held it up, tip aimed at Cloud's throat. "Now piss off, bitch, before I --"

There was a bang, something abruptly hit the human man's head and his eyes instantly went glassy.

[Furiouz has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 106!]

The elf woman's eyes widened and she jumped away from the human man who was now falling, the top of his head blown open. Cloud blinked at the pop up window, then at the now dead player, and back at the window. "Well… fuck," he muttered and quickly pulled a sword while Furiouz's party members just started realising that the man had somehow been one-shotted right in front of them.

"What the hell?!" the Gria asked, eyes wide, wings flaring. "How the…?!"

"Rainstorm!" the Ronso snapped and pulled out a spear. "It said Rainstorm! Where the hell is he, how the hell did he …?!"

"You!" the Gria growled, looking at Cloud. "You!"

Cloud smiled grimly, aiming the Beginner Claymore – with its maxed weight and size – at them. He so hated situations like these – and more than that, he hated players like these. And as much as he had wanted to avoid making noise about himself… it looked like it couldn't be avoided. "You might wanna step back," he said to the elf woman who was looking a little confused about the whole situation. "This might get a little messy."

Well. It had been a while since he had had a nice little massacre.

Above them, Vincent aimed for another shot.

Chapter Text

Aerith stared in blank incomprehension as the Viera woman, who had just literally fallen from the sky, swung her massive sword and just rushed at her opponents. Wearing what amounted to, well… strategically placed jewellery might be the most polite way of putting it, the Viera woman looked rather like she was committing a very heroic suicide against the well armoured male players.

Well. Aerith couldn't say she didn't appreciate the intervention – it was definitely appreciated. But… she hadn't been expecting this. And she wasn't entirely sure what she was supposed to do now. Step back like the woman had told her, run away? Or stay and help, because the woman looked like she would probably need the help, considering her gear – or lack thereof.

Except Aerith hadn't really done much fighting since her very first day in the game, and that had been months ago, and since then she had mostly been in Alexandria with the Overseers and she wasn't sure how pvp even worked. Plus… her skills, such as they were, were rather awkward to use in a place like the Elder Tree.

But she should help, shouldn't she? The woman had helped her, so she should return the favour or at least back her up or --

"NOW!" the Viera shouted and Aerith came out of her thoughts just in time to see a good dozen bombs dropped right between the male players. The bombs blew in rapid succession, and suddenly the rooftop was covered in noxious smoke. It was thick and dark and smelled awful, but it wasn't thick enough to keep Aerith from seeing the woman rush forward, a gleeful look on her face.

Aerith froze, transfixed, as she saw how the woman attacked. The enormous sword she had moved in massive sweeps and swings and by its sheer weight and size ignored the shield the Ronso man tried to lift up. The woman was grinning as she swung it, and that wasn't all she did.  A small shriek escaped Aerith's lips as she saw how the Viera kicked up, high and rather indecent considering her gear. It wasn't the kick itself that was surprising, though. No, it was the horrible cut the Viera's heel made, right across the Ronso's throat. And not just that. The heel caught the man on the underside of the chin and the Viera brought the man down with her foot and then there was the most horrible sound and a burst of blood that drenched the Viera's foot in red.

[Fearsomeone has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 107!]

Aerith managed to just blink at the pop up window when the Viera spun around, thrusting with the colossal sword which she was somehow wielding with one hand. The sword's massive blade went right through the Gria man's armour and while the man looked down with surprise, the Viera woman's face curled into a horrible grin and she wrenched the sword up.

[Blackdawn has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 108!]

Without pausing, the Viera pulled her sword back and flipped it around in her hands. Then she jumped, aimed the blade tip straight down, and came crashing down, right on and through the chest of the human man who was just resurrecting.

[Furiouz has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 109!]

The Viera woman jumped up, sword at the ready and looked around. "Come on! Resurrect!" she snarled at the downed men – who very pointedly did nothing of the sort. She waited for a moment and then straightened her back, relaxing from her obvious battle readiness. "Tch!" she muttered and waved the sword, blood splattering everywhere, before turning to Aerith. "Are you alright?"

Aerith let out a sort of meep sound, and almost fell over. "Oh my god," she said, touching her chest. "I almost had a –"

She yelped and almost stumbled back and off of the rooftop entirely, when a large dark shape dropped behind the Viera woman, followed by another, smaller shape. Two players, a winged human man and a young Gria girl.

"Well, now you've done it," the Gria girl said, even as she skipped to the nearest body and began rummaging through their packs and satchels. "Five minutes and this place will be crawling with bounty hunters."

"Don't blame me – Vincent fired the first shot!" the Viera said and pointed a finger at the winged man. "Why did you do that anyway?"

"He was threatening you," the man answered, frowning.

The Viera blinked, resting the sword on her shoulder, the blade grinding against the jewellery running over her shoulder. "That's… very considerate of you, but you really didn't need to," she said and sighed. "Thank you. But don't do it again."

The man said nothing to that, just glanced away and at Aerith who was seriously wondering if they'd notice if she made a run for it. The Viera turned to look at her as well, smiling awkwardly. "Sorry about that. Are you alright? Didn't mean to startle you or anything, but it looked like you could use a hand."

"You call this giving someone a hand?!" Aerith asked, motioning at the dead players the Gria girl was robbing.

The Viera woman blinked and looked at the bodies. "… Yes," she answered eventually. "Yes I do."

"Which is very sweet and all," the Gria said while finishing her robbing by pocketing a number of crystals. "But everyone close enough to get the murder announcement will know you're here now. We need to get the hell out of here before they figure out where you are."

"It's too late now," the Viera said, peering over the edge of the rooftop. "I think they have a pretty good idea where we are."

Aerith peered over the edge too, to see quite a few players dashing about, running up and down branches – a rather large group of them were coming straight at them, all with weapons drawn and buffs up. "Um," she said, unsure what was even going on anymore. She had seen people killed in game before, but… this had never happened before. Was this what people did, out of Alexandria, when a player killed another player?

"You're not seriously considering taking them on! This isn't Albrook, Rainstorm – this is Elder Tree! Players here will be levels twenty five and up!" the Gria girl said, tugging at the woman's arm. "WE need to get the hell out of here!"

The Viera considered the people coming for them. They were crowding the branch below, congesting the rope bridges leading up. Then she glanced at the hole she had made on the rooftop earlier, when she had landed. Then she smiled. "I have an idea. But I'll need some str buffs," the Viera said with a thoughtful look, glancing at the girl. "Strongest you’ve got."

"You're being an idiot!" the girl said, throwing her hands up.

"Fifty gold if you do it," the Viera said, hoisting the massive sword from her shoulder and holding it at the ready.

"You're totally a genius," the Gria answered without a pause and quickly lowered her hands, taking out a white crystal and equipping it onto her glove. "I got a bit of food, it'll give you 600pt str buff, but I am charging extra for it."

The Viera shrugged agreeably and the girl buffed her up, somehow, despite being obviously a ninja rather than a shaman or anything of the like. Then they quickly made an exchange, and the Viera ate her way through a piece of roast meat while peering over the edge of the rooftop. Instantly she was lit up in the glow of the buffs, the very air around her radiating with heat.

"I'm gonna need a lift in a moment, Vincent," the woman said and then, without another word, jumped off the roof.

They blinked after her and then the winged man dropped right after her, to stop her or catch her, who knew. Aerith watched them fall, feeling seriously out of her depth. "Is she insane?" she asked the Gria girl, bewildered and helpless and almost wishing she had stayed in Alexandria.

Before the girl could answer, the Viera woman spun in mid drop until she was going down head first. Only, she held the sword ahead of her and Aerith had a sudden horrible feeling about what she was planning to do. And then she did it – she crashed right into a branch directly below them, using an attack skill of some sort that made her sword glow for a moment.

There was a snap – only it was a snap in the same way that a thunder clap was a snap, or the same way a forest fire was a flame. It was sudden and deafening and followed by a horrible moment of silence while the people on the branch froze, the ones on the bridges stopping mid scramble. Then the wood groaned as it began to bend under the weight that it could no longer hold, with a long deep crack in the bend of the colossal branch spreading away from the Viera's sword, away and through the wood.

"Holy fuck," the Gria murmured and Aerith nodded in breathless wonder as the enormous branch, as thick as a house, started to fall. People fell, the rope bridges attached to the branch snapped, and suddenly the air was filled with noise – leaves rustling, wood breaking, people yelling and screaming. It reminded Aerith of watching how a junk pile fell over – something she had seen happen in the slums more than once. When it started, there was no stopping it and things just fell and fell, spilling and tumbling down without any control, chaotic and unstoppable.

Moments later, they were all swarmed by murder notices. From [Finesse has been Killed by Rainstorm!] to [Retrat has been killed by Rainstorm!], from murder count 109, to murder count 143. Aerith couldn't even see the Elder Tree past them and only heard the impacts as the cut off branch hit other branches and fell further and further. Murder count 173, murder count 205, 239, 285….

374 by the time the noise died down.

"Well that was fun," the Viera woman said, just as the notices finally started disappearing. Aerith looked up, just in time to see the winged human land with the woman in his arms, how he let her gently down. "Wasn't sure if it would work, though, but apparently it did."

"You are fucking insane," the Gria said, sounding impressed. "375. Fucking hell. Do I even… no, I don't want to know how high your bounty is. You owe me fifty gold, plus for the food. Fucking god."

The Viera shrugged. "They were asking for it."

Aerith looked between them and then down to the city below. The cutting of the branch had been bad enough, but while going down it had destroyed buildings, bridges, platforms… and taken lots and lots of people with it. "Were the people below asking for it?" she asked, faintly, trying not to think how far they must've fallen.

The Viera, Rainstorm, seemed to seriously consider it, when a message window popped in front of her. Aerith was close enough to read it – and try as she might, she wasn't unable to not read it. It was all in angry capslock.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Rainstorm]
[From: Bigshot]
[Subject: YOU SON OF A BITCH.]

[WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO? HOW THE HELL DID YOU EVEN DO IT? NEVER MIND, I DON'T FUCKING CARE – YOU FUCKING KILLED ME! JUST WAIT UNTIL WE GET UP THERE – BECAUSE I'M GONNA MURDER YOUR ASS!]

Rainstorm blinked at the message. "Oops," she said and winced, quickly opening a window and opening some sort of ranking page. She looked through it and sighed. "Oh good. Didn't kill Red. Doesn't seem like I killed Mena either."

The Gria girl let out a sort of choked noise. "You are… not human," she said, making a flailing motion at the Viera's direction. "How do you do these things? How? How in any world do you do these things? What are you?"

"The person who can just not give you any money," the Viera said, frowning. "No need to be rude."

The girl flailed an odd gesture at her. "Just so you know, this is supposed to repel evil and bad luck," she said viciously, and flailed some more. "Repelling you so hard right now. Repel! Repel!"

"You're cute," the Viera woman said and shook her head in amusement. Then she glanced at herself and tugged at her necklace. "Guess I don't need this anymore," she murmured – and a split second later, she wasn't a Viera woman anymore, but a Viera man.

And Aerith promptly remembered where she had heard the name Rainstorm before. "Oh," she murmured and her knees just gave way and she fell to sit on the rooftop. Blearily she looked down to the all but destroyed Elder Tree, blinking rapidly.

Tseng had always told her that Terra Online was a dangerous and strange game and she was better off staying in Alexandria, where it was safe. Somehow though she wasn't sure he meant something quite like this.

She looked up as a shadow fell on her, and the Gria girl was suddenly there, looking at her. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Well, obviously not, you just had a near Rainstorm encounter, so… wait," she paused and frowned at Aerith. "Don't I know you? Wait, wait, wait… aren't you the elf girl that I –" she stopped. "Oh. Erm. Shit."

Aerith blinked and looked at her more closely. "Aren't you the one who stole my stuff?" she asked faintly.

"Erm, yyeeeah," the Gria said. "Hey. You look good?"

Aerith blinked at her, then at the Viera wo – Viera man who was eying them curiously. Behind him, the winged human was looking down. "Looks like it's not over," the human said and all four of them looked down, to see some very angry looking people all but clawing their way up the trunk of the Elder Tree in mad bid to get at them.

"Heh," Rainstorm said, tilting his head. "I have some new fans. How nice."

"Can we get the hell out of here now?" the Gria girl asked plaintively. "Please?"

"I guess so," the Viera said and glanced at Aerith. "Coming with? Because, erm… well. They can see you here with us and um. Association and all."

"As in guilty by association?" Aerith asked faintly.

"Pretty much," the Gria girl sighed and held her hand out to Aerith. Not sure if she wanted to, but unable to think of what else she could do, Aerith took it, letting herself be pulled up and to her feet. They felt a little wobbly. She felt a little wobbly. And she wasn't sure what she had just agreed to, but she knew it probably wasn't anything very good or safe.

"Now let's run like hell," Rainstorm said, grinning as he took the winged human's hand, and promptly took off, dragging the other man with him.

Aerith shared a look with the Gria girl. Then they ran like hell.

Chapter Text

On one hand, being around Rainstorm was very profitable. Sure, Yuffie hadn't managed to loot all of the, hm, almost two hundred people the man had just gone and dropped. But she'd make a decent enough bit of gold with what she got off the first three AND Rainstorm now owed her gold so…

But on the other hand, it was also very bad for one's health. They were now being chased by what seemed to be the entire zone, as they tried to make their way down the side of the Elder Tree which, it turned out to be… not easy when there was lots and lots of pissed off people between them and the ground.

And Rainstorm, the asshole, was loving every bit of it. "So this is –"

"Say interesting and I will freakin’ stab you!" Yuffie screamed at him. Beside her the elf girl – Yuffie couldn't remember her name, if she'd ever even known it – was breathless and wide eyed, looking around at the sheer devastation Rainstorm had wrecked. There was a path of destruction that ran down along the side of the tree, made of broken bridges, shattered platforms and ruined buildings; a few of which were hanging by a thread to the tree. And Yuffie had to admit – it was almost impressive.

She would've preferred to enjoy looking at it all whilst not being a participant in causing it all.

"There," Rainstorm said, pointing, and ran, Vincent the Pet right after him. Yuffie cursed and followed them down a rapidly thinning branch and then watched how Rainstorm jumped down and to a branch below. Apparently he was suicidal as well as a lunatic – but he also had damn impeccable aim with his stupid Viera leaps because he landed squarely on the branch and didn't even stumble. Asshole.

"No way," the elf girl gasped. "No way can I make that jump. No way!"

"Aw man!" Yuffie answered, and looked behind them. There was a furious looking berserker coming right at them, axe in hand, buffs in place.

"Vincent, get them down here please," Rainstorm called from below and that was the only warning Yuffie and the elf got before they were both grabbed by the waist, hauled up like so much luggage and then Vincent had already dropped down. There was a disorienting moment when there was nothing below Yuffie and she kicked automatically, and then they were down, Vincent gliding easily to Rainstorm's side.

"Damnit. I could've made the jump! I'm a Gria, I can glide!" Yuffie snapped, but was completely ignored.

"This won't work," the gunner pet person said to his stupid Viera owner, while unceremoniously dropping Yuffie and the elf down, making Yuffie curse and the elf girl yelp with dismay. "There's more people the further down we go. We need another way down."

"Yeah," Rainstorm mused glancing around to make sure they wouldn't be overrun before looking at the winged gunman. "I could probably make it down by myself… I don't suppose you could carry the girls down for me."

Vincent levelled a frosty look at him. "No."

"I could – I could arrange," the elf girl gasped, took a breath and then sat up on her knees, rubbing at her stomach. "I could summon something to carry us down."

"You're a summoner?" Yuffie asked, with something like hope sparking in her guts. "I thought you were a white mage, with that get up, I mean. Never mind; can you summon something big enough? Something winged? Something that'd get us the hell out of here?"

The elf girl considered it and then nodded. "Y-yes but, um…" she looked around. The branch directly next to them was bent, broken with the impact of something large and heavy that had fallen on it recently, wonder what that could've been. "I guess it doesn't matter at this point if I smash this place up a bit more," the elf said. "But summoning takes time. I'll need a couple of minutes."

"We'll get them for you," Rainstorm said grinning, and took out his sword. "This place good for it?"

"It works," the elf said, jumping to her feet and summoning a rather impressive looking crystal adorned staff – the sort that must've cost a fortune. Then, after an uneasy glance around them, she stepped onto a bend in the branch, faced away and concentrated, holding the staff up as she went to work on the summoning.

Already the base of the branch they were on was teeming with people scampering to get at them, with more people above them, below them, all around them. Yuffie cursed and pulled out her shurikens. "Do you think we can handle a couple of minutes? Like this?" she asked, just as someone took a shot at them from above.

"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" Rainstorm asked with a grin.

Vincent looked between them and then the people closing in on them. "Now should I fight?" the man then asked wryly. "Or do you want me to sit back and do nothing while we get overrun?"

Rainstorm gave him a look. "Well look at you, being all sarcastic. I like it," he said and grinned. "Sure, go ahead. Shoot at will."

Vincent, shooting at will, was a thing to behold. Yuffie was too busy throwing stun and smoke grenades and trying to drop people off the branch - and ignoring the murder messages that started popping up around them, to appreciate it fully. But she could sense the lethal efficiency. It reminded her of the ninja of her father's court, all understated danger and lethality, the way Vincent stood there, still and concentrated and just… aimed, shot and killed. And judging by the looks of it – he was making instant kills every time.

And with every death counting as Rainstorm's kill… Yuffie did not even want to know how high the guy's infamy would be after all of this.

Vincent was also aiming for the long distance fighters, for which Yuffie was infinitely grateful. Gunners, archers, mages and that sort – and it was only thanks to him a grenadier didn't completely bombard them and drop them all off the branch they were on. It didn't stop them from being a threat, though – didn't stop them from shooting Rainstorm clean through the shoulder and stomach and almost making him fall off the branch.

"Still having fun?" Yuffie asked while quickly hauling the man back before he fell.

"Absolute blast!" Rainstorm grinned, downed a potion and then rushed forward to face off against a paladin. He was cut and slashed twice before he could knock the female miqo'te off the branch, and then he was facing a swordsman and Yuffie had serious doubts about the man's survival instincts, never mind his chances of survival. Despite everything, Rainstorm was still level 14 and his HP was dropping fast. Hell the only reason he wasn't dead yet was probably because he was still on the buffs he had used to cut off the branch that started this whole mess!

They had all gotten adjusted to having Red there, with his buffs and regens and hastes, and it was costing them now – her own HP wasn’t doing any better. She took a hit on the wing and another on her shoulder and could feel a knife catch her on the leg and seriously, they were not going to make it at this rate. For every one person they dropped, there were four eager to replace them. And they all wanted to kill them.

"Please tell me you're getting close, elf girl!" Yuffie called back to the summoner.

"Little bit more!" she answered and Yuffie cursed, taking out another batch of stat grenades.

That was when there was a familiar voice shouting and then Bigshot was dropped right out of the sky, right behind Rainstorm. "You asshole!" the Ronso said, while taking out his cannon. "I am so going to kill your ass!"

"Please do it later!" Rainstorm answered, kicking another warrior off the branch, prompting another murder message. "I'm too busy to die right now."

Bigshot didn't answer. Instead he did something that looked vaguely dangerous with the cannon, making the barrel glow heated red and causing the air around it to bend. Whatever skin he was using had a serious load time – it took almost ten seconds before the man even bothered to take a firing stance. Then, roaring and without bothering to warn them, Bigshot fired.

There was a blinding flash of light and a beam of intense golden heat shot out of the cannon, tearing through the people on the branch. Yuffie cursed and ducked to the left while Rainstorm dropped down to crouch below the shot and together they watched how Bigshot just mowed the people down with the attack.

Then, before the heat could dissipate at all, Bigshot launched another skill and launched several small missiles in rapid succession. They exploded on contact and for a moment the tree was lit with destructive fireworks that knocked people off not as much by the damage, but by the shockwaves, making it rain bounty hunters and assholes.

"Damn, big guy," Yuffie said, impressed. How was he firing this fast, though?

"Don't mess with grenadiers, fuckers!" Bigshot roared and then cursed as someone shot rapid fire across his chest, obviously trying to take him out. He ignored it and launched another barrage of missiles and the wounds healed in ticks. Regen.

That explained the speed. RedXIII had apparently buffed him, before he had made his grand appearance – and it was definitely paying off. Grenadiers were a slow, sluggishly slow class, and usually they sucked in pvp because in the time it took for them to attack, most other classes had already killed them. But what they lost in speed, they gained in sheer destructive aoe damage, which the Ronso was now happily demonstrating whilst under the hastes that brought what would've been painfully slow attacks to rather impressive speeds.

Yuffie did her part though, as did Vincent who kept dropping the distance fighters, as did Rainstorm who took out the tanks that tried to block them off.  Together they bought enough time, if only barely, and both her and Rainstorm's HP was down to double digits before they heard the "Ready!" from the elf girl.

What happened next then defied pretty much everything Yuffie knew about summoners. There was a crash above them, followed by another, and another, enormous loud bangs of big wooden things being destroyed and looking up Yuffie could see the sheer devastation coming from above. Branches, not just one but pretty much all of the ones above them were just hacked out of the way as a colossal black summon came down, tearing through everything and anything in its way. Branches, platforms, bridges, people, everything was so much torn paper.

"Is that Bahamut?" Yuffie asked feebly, as the colossal branches started raining down all around them – branches, people, buildings, and enormous clouds of leaves; just dropping. It was utterly unreal.

Then the summon was there, with about a quarter of the Elder Tree destroyed in its wake. It stopped beside the branch where the elf girl stood and reached its head out to her, eyes gleaming, maw full of sharp, sharp fangs just in front of her. She smiled at it, patted the enormous black snout like the enormous dragon was a pet or something and then climbed on.

They stared at her, at the dragon, at the destruction and then shared a surprised look.

"Rainstorm, I'm blaming you for this. Somehow, this is your fault," Yuffie said. "I don't know how yet, but somehow it is."

"Noted," Rainstorm said.

"Well, come on already!" the elf girl shouted at them. "Get on!"

They got on, Rainstorm first because he was a lunatic, Vincent following him because… he was probably also a lunatic. Bigshot hesitated for a moment, looking between the dragon and the destroyed Elder Tree and the people who now were, for the first time ever, running away from them rather than towards. Yuffie let out a curse her father would've killed her for, and then jumped on the dragon, Bigshot following her with a curse of his own.

"If you can summon things like these, why weren't you fighting those guys from before?" Rainstorm was asking.

"Bahamut is the only thing I can summon, and, uh," the elf shrugged, pointing at the tree or at what was left of it. "And it does that when I do."

Rainstorm glanced at the tree. "I don't see the problem," he admitted.

"You wouldn't, you madman," Yuffie muttered and clambered over to them on the base of Bahamut's neck. "Can we get out of here now, finally, at last, hooray, hooray, safety? Please?"

Rainstorm glanced at Bigshot. "Where's Red and Mena?" he asked. "Not on the tree, right?"

"No, they're down in the forest – people recognized Red, and Mena wants nothing to do with your insanity. I'm here because I'm gonna kill you," Bigshot explained.

"Can I bribe you out of it?" Rainstorm asked.

"Never mind that – go, elf girl, go, get us out of here!" Yuffie said, nudging at her. "Go, go!"

"Yes," she answered, and patted the dragon's neck. "Go, Bahamut. Get us clear."

Leaves and twigs rained on them as the dragon turned and tore its way out of the tree and into the clear sky. Yuffie ducked her head to avoid most of it, and looked up only once nothing was falling on her, letting out a breath of relief. They were out. They had cleared the Elder Tree of Doom.

Then, very careful, she looked backwards to said tree – and winced. Rainstorm had done a number on the tree when he had cut off the branch, but that completely paled in comparison to what the elf girl's summon had done. That whole side of the tree was just wrecked and the ends of broken branches stuck out sadly from the now bare trunk.

"Fucking hell," Yuffie said. "How the hell is that even possible? That isn't possible!"

"Looks very possible to me," Bigshot said and shook his head. "Damn."

"No, you don't get it. It's not. You can't destroy NPC towns any more than you can destroy portals or player buildings or tents. You can't destroy… buildings and stuff. It's just… it's not possible. Trust me, people have tried and this? This shouldn't be possible!" Yuffie said, pointing at the tree. "It shouldn't, it just shouldn't!"

Rainstorm glanced backwards while beside him Vincent tucked his wings in and glowered at them. "Maybe people are wrong?" he asked. "You can destroy some terrains, can't you? Like with mining and stuff. And I've destroyed a bit of mountainside in the Wastes. And I'm pretty sure you can affect the ground too, and stuff."

"Yeah, but the terrain is made like that, you can affect the surface of it – and it heals over time. Towns are just… indestructible. Invincible. You can't do anything to them," Yuffie said faintly. "It's just… it's just how it is."

"It is?" the elf girl asked, looking between them in confusion while wind tugged on her hair and made it swirl around her. "Um."

"What?" Yuffie asked, frowning at her.

She scratched her neck, looking confused. "No it's just that I've seen towns get destroyed. Well, buildings in them, anyway. I took out a couple of the houses in Albrook when I summoned Bahamut the first time. And I've seen buildings in Alexandria be destroyed too. So…." the elf girl trailed away, shrugging again and looking between them. "Um. I'm Flower, by the way. It's, uh. Nice to meet you?"

"You too," Rainstorm said and glanced backwards, at the Elder Tree. "Nice work," he added, grinning. "Very impressive."

"Ignore the lunatic, please," Yuffie sighed. "I'm Treasure Princess, Vincent's the poor asshole over there who's stuck with the lunatic, who on other hand is Rainstorm, curse upon his house. Then there's RedXIII but maybe he smarted up and got the hell out of this spiral of madness that sort of concentrates around Rainstorm. It's nice to meet you too, you poor, poor woman. Sorry about stealing from you and all."

"And I'm Bigshot and my wife Mena's somewhere down there," the Ronso said, also looking at the Elder Tree. "I'm with Rainstorm, though. Impossible or not, this is fucking impressive. Holy hell. You must have even more kills than Rainstorm now."

"Yeah," Rainstorm agreed and grinned. "I wonder if there's rankings for most kills in the least amount of time. If there is, I think you probably broke the record there. Congrats."

Looking alarmed, Flower glanced between the two insane men, at Yuffie who just sighed and hung her head, at Vincent who said nothing. Then she looked back at where they had come from. "Thanks," she said feebly and winced.

In the distance, another branch of the Elder Tree went tumbling down.

Chapter Text

"So," Mena said while they watched the ruination that was the Elder Tree. "This… happens a lot with Rainstorm?"

Nanaki sighed. There was a pile of broken branches at the base of the tree and pretty much all the ways up had been destroyed – bridges, stairs, none of it had stood a chance when the branches and buildings and general rubble had started coming down. Now a good quarter of the tree was just blown open, with broken branches sticking out of the bare trunk. It looked lopsided and… well, bare.

"This is his third day in the game," Nanaki said. "He ended the first day with the Albrook Newbie Massacre. So…."

"Hm," the Ronso woman answered. "So he was relatively normal yesterday."

"Depends on what you call normal," Nanaki mused, thinking back to Naut and the necklace of change and all of that. "For all I know he spent yesterday night gathering up momentum for today."

Mena let out a laugh and shook her head. "Wonderful," she said. "We probably should go after them. You know, if that was them on the dragon," she added, peering at the direction where the colossal shape of Bahamut had gone.

Nanaki sighed and opened his map. "Yeah, that was them," he said. Unlike Mena, he had the whole Great Forest of Moore explored so he could still follow the rest of the party on the map, and judging by the speed they were going, they were indeed on the dragon. "Come on," he said, and together they set off after them.

"How on earth did they get a dragon anyway?" Mena wondered as they ran.

"They must've met up with a summoner," Nanaki answered. "A pretty high level summoner at that. Bahamut isn't exactly a low level summon."

Mena hummed and they ran, past recently revived, furious people, past the fallen branches, past the devastation until they were clear of the destruction. As they ran, Nanaki wondered about the fact that Rainstorm had somehow managed to destroy an NPC town – or at least a large part of it. That wasn't supposed to be possible. Was it? He was pretty sure that the NPC towns were made to be indestructible. Pretty sure. Or did it have something to do with Vincent, who was more deeply connected to the game – did Vincent's presence somehow allow this sort of thing?

It took a long while to catch up to the rest of the party – and the only reason they did was because thankfully the others had dropped off Bahamut's back at some point, and didn't cross the entire zone on the dragon. They found them on a hill top, where Bigshot and Rainstorm were in the midst of haggling, Princess was sulking, Vincent was looming over Rainstorm looking especially expressionless, and an elf woman was staring, blank faced, at a couple of windows. Inventory and her character profile, judging by the looks of them.

"Can't leave you alone for a minute, can we?" Nanaki said as he and Mena made it into hearing distance. "And I'm pretty sure we left you behind. How did you get to the Elder Tree so fast?"

"I cheated like a dirty cheater," the Viera man – who had apparently ditched the disguise at some point – said, motioning at Vincent. "But then again none of you exactly laid down rules when you dashed off, so it's not technically cheating."

"You okay, honey?" Mena asked, going to Bigshot.

"I'm fucking fantastic," the other Ronso grumbled and then grinned toothily. "Also, rich."

"Did you collect Rainstorm's bounty?" she asked, amused.

"No, I bribed him out of it," Rainstorm sighed. "Not that it really cost me much, seeing that I made just a little over a thousand at the Elder Tree," he added, opening his inventory. "Killing people wholesale is profitable business."

Nanaki gave him a flat look. "And how's your infamy looking?"

"Well. Heh," Rainstorm murmured, rubbing at his neck sheepishly. "It's… kind of impressive. I’ve got nothing on Flower, though. She kicks my ass, hands down."

"Flower?" Mena asked, turning to the elf woman who sighed.

"That'd be me. Hi," she said, waving and then hanging her head. "Summoning Bahamut in the middle of the Elder Tree wasn't the best idea I ever had," she sighed, and gave her profile a sad look.

Flower LV. 21.

[Title] Great Merchant
[Guild] none
[Fame] 40263
[Infamy] 27150
[Heroics] 56
[Murders] 579
[Credits] 4692
[Bounty] 2895 Gold

Rainstorm grinned at the stats and then opened his own. "Like I said," he said, pointing. "Flower kicked my ass. She made more money than me too."

Rainstorm LV. 14.

[Honorific] The Rabbit of Caerbannog
[Title] [select]
[Guild] none
[Fame] 20
[Infamy] 23750
[Heroics] 2
[Murders] 511
[Credits] 0
[Bounty] 2555 Gold

Flower made a face. "This is not a race I wanted to get into!" she bemoaned.

Nanaki looked at the Viera who was looking at their stats almost proudly and then at the elf who looked downright morose. "I am so, so sorry," he then said to the elf sympathetically. "But… what happened? I can understand Rainstorm getting into things like this, but… how did you get involved?"

The explanation, when it was given, was sadly very believable. Rainstorm had jumped in and then things had gotten completely out of hand, as they often do. Now they were left with a destroyed NPC town, more murders on Rainstorm's conscience – and some on Princess's and Bigshot's conscience too, though nowhere near as much as on Rainstorm's and Flower's. And Flower, who judging by her stats was a nice sort of player, now had a rather ruined record.

"You're lucky, having so much fame," Nanaki commented. "This won't affect your game play. Aside from whatever fallout you get from the bounty you now have."

"How did you get that much anyway?" Rainstorm asked. "Doesn't it take like real effort to get fame? And can someone explain credits to me?"

"Credits are stuff other people give you," Princess sighed. "Like if you did something nice for me, I could give you a credit for it and it's like a recommendation that one person thinks you do fair deals and stuff. Which I won't give you because you're nothing but trouble and deserve none of my credits. 4692 is a damn lot of credits, though. How did you get that much?"

Flower sighed and hung her head. "I used to be in Alexandria and most of what I did involved the auction house and trading and stuff like that. And, uh… I knew a lot of guilds that did nice things for me," she added, sounding almost sullen about it.

"Guilds like the Overseers?" Princess asked and pointed at the elf. "She's the reason I got corpse camped, by the way. I stole her stuff and the Overseers got pissy about it and –"

"And totally overacted," Flower sighed. "I'm sorry about that. I was having a bad day and I had worked really hard to get those crystals and then you just… took them. I got a bit emotional. And Loyal has the habit of… well. Overreacting, when it comes to uh… me."

"Uhhuh," Princess said and dropped to sit on the grassy ground. "Now what, though?" she asked, turning to Rainstorm. "You've blown everything, you know. Your disguise's pretty much useless now, you got a shit ton of infamy now and no fame to counteract it, so you're pretty much screwed. You and Flower wrecked the Elder Tree and I'm seriously wondering why you're not being banned right now. So. It's a wonderful disaster all around."

"And I didn't even get to buy anything," Rainstorm muttered, frowning. "I really wanted a mount."

Princess rolled her eyes. "Yes, because that's totally the worst thing about this," she muttered and glanced at Flower. "You know, with the Overseers being overly protective of you… how will they react to this?" she asked, motioning at Flower's profile which was still hanging in the air, beside Rainstorm's profile.

Flower winced. "I'm trying not to think about it."

Nanaki eyed Rainstorm's and Flower's profiles thoughtfully. "27 thousand infamy," he said and shook his head, almost impressed. "Princess is right, Rainstorm. You're pretty much screwed. You'll have to work ten, twenty times as hard to make exp now, than you otherwise would've."

"You fucking deserve it," Bigshot muttered.

"It is a lot, huh," Rainstorm mused, glancing at the profile. "I've kind of gotten used to it by now, though."

"You're going to be left behind when the rest of us level up, though," Mena pointed out. "You're already lagging. And I don't think exp boosting gear and stuff like that will help at this point."

She was right. Even Bigshot had made a level and was now LV. 23. Rainstorm was lagging at 14, and had only gotten past 11 thanks to Vincent. And for all that Rainstorm liked to do things on his own, it would be somewhat awkward for the rest of them if he stayed so low level while the rest of them made levels and moved on.

"Yeah," Princess agreed, looking at Rainstorm. "You seriously need to fix this. It's not just awkward but it's getting embarrassing."

Rainstorm blinked and glanced at Nanaki. "What do you think?" he asked, frowning.

"Sorry to say it, but I agree with them," the beast sighed. "It would be easier all around if you could progress the same as the rest. But who am I to say anything? I'm level 48. From my perspective you're all lagging."

"Look who's being all high and mighty," Princess grinned, nudging at Nanaki's side.

Rainstorm frowned, looking between them and then away. Nanaki almost felt a bit sorry for him, except… really, the man had more or less brought it on himself. It wasn't like he had accidentally killed so many people. The first massacre in Albrook they could've moved on from, because while Rainstorm had lagged behind after it, it hadn't been this bad. But now?

"I don't want to power level," Rainstorm muttered and sighed. "I guess I need to do some fame quests and stuff, then. Somehow. Except, you know… I'd have to go to towns and I sort of can't. Not now that the disguise is blown."

"Um," Flower said. "There are other ways to make fame than just by quests."

"Yeah, well, I can't do that many heroic deeds either, while so many people are out to kill me, can I?" Rainstorm asked, grimacing.

"Well, yeah, there's that, but there's other stuff too," Flower said and pointed at her fame count – which was rather high. "I haven't done that many fame quests, and at my level you can't do that many heroics in Alexandria either. I got most of my fame by charity. You know, making things and giving them away for free."

Rainstorm considered that and sighed. "I'm a blacksmith," he said, shaking his head. "The stuff I make is kind of time consuming to make. And I don't have that many things I can make, it's mostly just the beginner stuff."

"Not to mention at his level of blacksmithing, it wouldn't be worth much. No offence," Princess said. "No, actually, all the offence. All of it."

Flower considered them and then ran a hand over her chin thoughtfully. "If I were you, I'd start a guild," she then said. "Guild's can mass-produce stuff, after all."

"Huh?" Rainstorm asked, and he wasn't the only one surprised – Nanaki was too, and even Princess looked surprised.

"Didn't you know? That's how most guilds make funds – they mass produce stuff," Flower said, shrugging. "You start with one production but as the guild levels up they can get more productions. Like the Overseers, their main production is a printing press, they make pamphlets and books and posters and stuff. LOVELESS has a bunch, printing press, wood working, textile industry, forestry and logging, green houses…."

"… I’d heard guild members got to do stuff solo players can't, but mass production?" Princess asked.

"I guess it's a pretty new," Flower shrugged. "There's stuff like mining – some guilds can own actual mines and stuff. Then there's husbandry, with it a guild can breed mounts and pets and produce leather and things like that. Farming, artistry, weapons production… though, uh. You need a guild house for most of it, and you can only build guild houses in Alexandria and…."

"And that'd be suicide, pretty much," Nanaki said. "Still, it's a thought."

"A guild, huh?" Rainstorm asked, folding his arms. "I dunno. Cait Sith asked me to make a guild and since HE suggested it, it's probably a bad idea."

"But mass production!" Princess said. "Imagine the money you could make!"

"At this point, more money is not exactly what I need," Rainstorm said wryly.

"Guilds get bonuses, though, don't they? Like guild buffs," Mena asked, leaning against Bigshot's shoulder. "At least I heard they do. That the members get str and def and stuff."

"You need to level up a guild for that stuff, but yeah, eventually," Flower agreed. "If you start a guild, I suggest you start with a printing press. It's the cheapest to run, most guilds start with it because of that."

"Cheapest?" Rainstorm asked.

"Yeah. Every production takes time and materials and those can cost," she shrugged. "With a printing press all you need, aside from the machinery, is wood and ink and those are pretty cheap. Overseers run theirs pretty much for free because they also have logging and green houses, so they can pretty much make their own materials."

"I've never seen ink in the auction house," Princess said thoughtfully.

"There's a special auction house only guild masters can access, which is reserved for production materials," Flower explained.

Rainstorm frowned. "Okay," he said slowly. "What does it take to make a guild?"

"First, a Guild Book," Nanaki answered thoughtfully, thinking back to when Cait Sith had offered one to him, to give to Rainstorm. "You can probably find one in auction house. Though… to get one we'd obviously need to go to town."

"The town which you pretty much destroyed," Princess reminded.

Rainstorm sighed. "Great," he muttered. "I don't suppose one of you could go and get it?" he asked. "Maybe you, Mena, since you're the only one who probably hasn't been linked to, well… us."

"No way in hell," Bigshot said. "We're done with you lot. You're all mad and you just cause trouble! We're out."

Mena nudged at him. "You have no foot to stand on, honey, when it comes to causing trouble," she said and considered it. "I guess I could. Though, with Rainstorm being the guild master… it'll be easily the most hated guild in the game."

"I don't have to be the guild master," Rainstorm pointed out, shaking his head. "Shouldn't Red be it? He's the highest level."

"No, thank you," Nanaki said quickly. "I'd very much rather not if that's all the same for you."

"Yeah," Princess snorted. "You think any of us want to be responsible for you? Hell no. I'd rather be the one pointing at you, rather than the one people point at when you do stupid shit."

"You're all heart," the Viera rumbled, but everyone else pretty much agreed. He sighed and looked at Flower. "How about you?" he asked. "You can still probably make a run for it. Maybe. If you're lucky."

She looked between them and then towards the Elder Tree. "I don't know," she sighed. "There are five hundred and seventy nine players out there who probably disagree. And the Overseers probably know I'm here now and what I did…" she considered that and then smiled slowly. "Oh, it would piss them off if I belonged in your guild, wouldn't it? It would bother them ever so bad."

They looked at her with surprise. Nanaki shared looks with Rainstorm who shrugged. "I guess we're making a guild then," he said and glanced back and towards Vincent who had been watching the proceedings with a sort of fatalistic silence. "What do you think?"

"Don't even look at me," the gunner said flatly. "Just don't."

Rainstorm laughed at that. "So, this'll be interesting," he said cheerfully, making pretty much everyone else groan in dismay.

"Stop jinxing everything!" Princess said, throwing a fistful of grass at him. "Just stop!"

Rainstorm grinned. "Never."

Chapter Text

Cloud sighed. Mena was off, carrying a good two hundred of his gold with her, heading back to Elder Tree to see if the auction house manager was still, well, around. Chances were that either Cloud or Flower had killed the manager but if the NPC was still alive she'd hopefully get a Guild Book from the auction house and then… then he'd start a guild.

And the rest would join it, apparently.

Truth was he didn’t know what to do with that idea. He had gotten used to the idea that in game he had… companions. Maybe even friends. RedXIII and Princess he could almost call friends, though he wasn't sure if they'd call him that. Bigshot and Mena – and Flower too – were a bit too new to him for him to even dare call them companions, though they didn't seem to mind him.

Though, right now they were all ignoring him, rather pointedly too, with Princess occasionally throwing a glare or sticking her tongue out in his direction, so right now they minded, and okay, maybe he deserved it. They were all looking at the chats and apparently people were furious with them. Cloud mainly, but more or less all of them had been seen in the Elder Tree so all of them were on someone's to-kill list. That aside, they were still there. And though all of them were higher level than him, they didn't seem to want to get rid of him. Even Bigshot hadn't really wanted to kill him. So maybe they were, or could be… friends.

But a guild? That was a bit too official. It was like a commitment. And apparently… apparently they were all intending to join it. Join his guild, despite everything what had happened, what he had done. And Cloud could brush that off with a grin or a smirk or a laugh, but really… he had no idea what to do with it all.

Just as well that they were ignoring him. He really didn't feel like a future guild master right now.

Cloud looked away from them, making a pretence of checking his gear. His eyes fell on Vincent, who was standing a little to the side, looking at the rest of them, still unable to shake of his suspicion. And no wonder really. Vincent was different from them, and not just because they were players and he wasn't. Vincent had a lot more bad experiences than them, with players, with the game, with killing. And unlike them, Vincent didn't have a choice.

After a moment of thought, Cloud brushed his character menu aside and walked over to his human pet. "You alright?" he asked, quiet so that the others wouldn't hear. He glanced at Vincent's HP. They had all taken hits in the tree, but out of combat his HP had passively recovered – Vincent's too, and it was once more the pristine 9999/9999.

"Fine," Vincent answered, frowning.

Cloud arched an eyebrow at that and glanced at the others. RedXIII glanced back and flicked his flaming tail at their direction and then went back to ignoring them, talking with the others. Cloud looked away and then stepped past the gunner. "Come on," he said, tugging at Vincent's shoulder gently. "Let's walk a bit."

Vincent followed – he always did and for a moment Cloud wondered if the man had a choice about that either. Could pets leave the vicinity of their owners? He didn't really know much about how the pet system worked. None of the others had pets and despite Vincent, they hadn't really talked much about it. Yet another thing to look into, at some point.

"This all must be going a bit fast for you," Cloud said, and judging that they were far enough not to be overheard, hopped up to sit on a fallen tree. "It's going fast for me too, and I'm adjusted to it. So if you're not okay, that's fine."

Vincent didn't answer, looking at him expressionlessly. After a while, the man shrugged his wings, settling them more comfortably against his back. "It's… better, than in the Wastes," the gunner finally said.

"High endorsement," Cloud snorted, shaking his head. "Better than being chased by players looking to kill you, hm. Actually, that's sort of what's happening here too, isn't it?"

"Yes, but… I'm not the only one being chased, here," Vincent said, looking at him. "Your group has more… options, than I alone ever had."

"I suppose so. Still, I'm not exactly offering you the safe environment you were probably hoping for," Cloud said and patted the tree trunk beside him, inviting Vincent to sit down. "While I'm asleep and in the game, it'll probably be like this most of the time."

"That's fine," Vincent murmured and after a moment of hesitation sat down beside him. "It's still better, this."

Cloud eyed him and then let out a laugh. Vincent's words weren't exactly comforting – if anything they just made him feel worse about the whole thing. The man's situation really must've been hellish, before, for him to prefer this. "I'll try to do better," he promised and looked towards the group. "Somehow."

This really wasn't what he had been envisioning, when he had gotten the game. The only thing he had really expected was a chance to be someone else. Now he was standing at the bottom of a hole made of goddamn infamy, and around him were people who were for some godforsaken reason… sort of… looking up to him? And while they somehow, for some stupid reason, thought he was the leader of the group, he was holding them back, holding them down thanks to his stupid infamy.

 And he hadn't even thought about it before. Sure he had been progressing slower but he hadn't cared because he was just enjoying the game at his own pace – only, his own pace wasn't the same pace as everyone else's. And for some reason, instead of deciding to just ditch him and move on….

And now, soon, he'd be a guild master. The fuck was he supposed to do with that?

Vincent was looking at him, with an oddly perceptive look in his eyes. "You didn't plan for any of this, did you?" the gunner asked.

"Hm?"

"Me. Them. The guild," Vincent said, motioning at the others. "You didn't expect this."

Cloud smiled wryly and leaned back a little, looking away from the other and up to the sky instead. It was almost hidden behind the branches and leaves but he could still see hints of blue past the leaf coverage. "Nope," he admitted. "I just want to escape reality and enjoy the game, but… it's not quite that simple, turns out."

Vincent looked away sharply and Cloud laughed, nudging him. "It's not you," he said. "Or them either. Hell it's not even me. It's…" Cloud trailed away, trying to put words to the concept. "This is still a type of reality. Even with fantastic logic, physics and elements splattered all over it, it's still a type of reality. It's fake, but at the core of it all we're all still people. And that makes it real. Sort of. So, what we do here, what happens to us, it's still, in sense… real."

"More so for some of us," Vincent murmured.

"Yes," Cloud agreed and glanced at him. "We haven't really talked about this, but this whole pet and owner thing, you don't have to… I mean. I don't actually own you or anything. You don't have to do everything I say. Right?"

"Is that a statement or a question?" the gunner asked, giving him a look.

"A little bit of both," Cloud admitted with a laugh. "I don't want you to think you have to. But I guess I need to know that there aren't any sort of fucked up game mechanics forcing you, either. So, if there is…."

"I don't… think so," Vincent said, considering it. "I suppose I wouldn't know if there is, but I don't feel like I'm being forced. Connected, yes, but there are no compulsions. I think I could disobey you."

Cloud nodded slowly and then glanced around before pointing at a nearby tree. "Shoot at that," he said.

Vincent blinked and seemed to realise what he was about almost instantly. "No," he said.

"I'm ordering you to shoot at that tree," Cloud said, putting bit of force into the words.

"No," Vincent said again, stronger, and they shared a relieved look.

"Here's to hoping it applies to combat situations," Cloud said and nudged at Vincent's shoulder slightly. "This works both ways too, though. You don't have to do what I tell you to, if you don't want to. But if you want something, then… do it. Or ask. Or something. Never think you can't, just because of this… whole… thing."

"You told me that before," Vincent answered.

"And I'm telling you again," Cloud said, shrugging. "So far what's happened is just what I've been doing and you've been following along. If you want to do something or go somewhere, then we can. Probably – you know, so long as it doesn't get all of us killed."

The gunner nodded. "I don't really want anything," he said, looking away. "Peace, maybe."

Cloud winced at that. "That's a tall order from me, you realise."

"Yes. I'll settle for not being killed, for now," Vincent said.

They were quiet for a while, and Cloud watched the others as they talked amongst themselves. Red was talking mostly with Flower and it looked like Princess and Bigshot had gotten into an argument that involved a lot of posing and rude gesturing. It looked lively and comfortable and odd. He had gotten used to watching stuff like that happening from afar – it was odd to know that he could go over there and be, sort of, welcome. That if he'd go over there, they wouldn't give him odd looks and then quickly vacate the area.

In his life, the only person he’d had that was something like a friend was Tifa and Tifa hadn't… really belonged in the same world. Which, now, was a bit weird because Tifa was somewhere in the game – possibly right at that very moment Tifa was somewhere in Terra Online, playing the same as him. Though she had been playing for over three years now, so she'd be way higher level than him. Probably higher level than Red too.

Probably better he didn't try contacting her. Rainstorm was a mess of murders, chaos, and infamy. Better not to draw her into it as well.

"So," Vincent said suddenly. "I can ask if I want something?"

"Yes," Cloud said quickly. "You can ask. And if I can give it, then I will."

The gunner nodded and didn't speak for a while. "Could you…?" he trailed off and then looked away, his cheeks dusting with red.

Cloud grinned and threw an arm around his waist, pulling the gunner a bit closer. "Like this?" he asked, while Vincent leaned against him gratefully. Cloud smiled and lifted a hand to brush his fingers through the man's hair. "You don't need to ask for this," he said. "You can touch too, you know. I don't mind."

"And that's consensual?" Vincent asked, his eyes closing.

"Mm-hmm. From here on and with me, yeah," Cloud said, watching how the man's face relaxed. "How does this feel for you?" he then asked. "Just out of curiosity," he added, not wanting the man to feel weird about it. But still, he was curious. Because having not been touched kindly for years and getting the chance after years was one thing. This though? Vincent seemed to go into an almost drugged daze when Cloud touched him, so maybe he felt something more than just the touch.

"Warm," Vincent murmured, slowly going lax against him. "It feels warm…."

Cloud frowned and then glanced around them. The air in the Great Forest of Moore was pretty temperate. It was sunny and there were some beams of light in the forest – one of them hit his foot and that felt warm, it even heated the metal chain-straps of the stilettos he had on. A couple more beams of sunlight hit Vincent too, he taking more space than Cloud did thanks to the wings.

Cloud eyed the light beam falling on Vincent's wing. "How does the world feel for you?" he asked "Can you feel the sunlight? Or the air? It's not exactly cold here."

Vincent shifted a little, almost shrugging, and his eyes opened a fraction. "I know there's simulated warmth here," he said, glancing at nearby patch of sunlight. "But it doesn't feel real for me. None of it does."

"And… that simulated warmth aside…."

The gunner glanced at him and then away. "I'm cold," he admitted. "All of the time. Even in the Wastes. It never goes away. Except…."

"Oh," Cloud said. "I'm so sorry," he murmured and rested his hand against Vincent's cheek, watching the man lean into it. Well… that explained it, he mused, watching the man sadly. No freaking wonder, if it had been like that for the man, for ten years. Was it a connection issue? Or… maybe because of Vincent's body? His real body. Where ever it was, was it cold there? He'd need to send message about that to Cait Sith. Maybe it would help him and the admin to find where Vincent was.

There was a burst of giggles nearby and Cloud looked up to see Princess and Flower both staring at them, Flower giggling at them while the Princess, judging by the gestures she was making, took pictures. Cloud scowled at them and had to take his hand off Vincent's cheek in order to flip a finger at Princess who stuck out her tongue in return.

"Ignore them," Cloud murmured when Vincent stiffened. "It's fine."

"Is it?" Vincent asked, looking at him while Cloud took his right hand into his, idly rubbing the fingers. They didn't feel cold to him, but… that didn't really mean anything, did it.

"I'm… maybe remembering some of the connotations," Vincent said, looking at their hands.

"Tell me if they start bothering you, then. Right now it's fine. It's all fine," Cloud assured and grinned. "You don't really think I care what people think? My track record should speak volumes about that."

Vincent considered that. "I guess it does," he said and promptly tucked his face into Cloud's neck, humming. "I'll just indulge myself then," he murmured, all but purring, and Cloud laughed.

In the distance, Flower let out a loud coo in their direction, Princess made faces, Bigshot gave the gravest thumbs up Cloud had ever gotten, and Red just looked amused about it all. Cloud made a face at them and then ignored them all.

He might've not known what to do with friends. He didn't really know what to do with Vincent either. But he knew what it felt like to want kindness and not get it – what it was like to wish someone would just hold you and to find that no one would.

It wasn't like he didn't get anything out of the whole thing, after all.

Chapter Text

[Great Merchant]
[Flower]
[Level 21 Elf]
[Class: Summoner LV. 18]
[Job: Beast Tamer LV. 1]
[ <doesn't belong in a guild> ]
[Credits: 4692]
[Bounty: 2895 Gold]
[Status: Online]

Tseng stared at the profile in front of him, willing it to change. It didn't, like it hadn't for the last hour or so he had spent staring at it. Neither did the implications it had when paired with the rumours, the angry shouting in the chat, and the reports of the Overseers he had sent to scout the Great Forest of Moore. The very thing he had feared – and tried his hardest to avoid – had happened.

"Goddamnit, Aerith," he murmured. "I told you to stay in Alexandria. I told you it'd be safer."

Damn willful girl. Maybe he should've seen it coming – no, he really should've. She had been getting impatient with him and the Overseers. Her refusal to join his guild and all the other guilds should've been a warning sign. The way she had gone about, so secretive, should've been a warning sign. But instead of taking it as such, he had thought everything was under control – that she was under control. He might've not put it that way in her presence, but that was it, wasn't it?

And now it was all coming down. Worst of all, it wouldn't affect him or the Overseers in any way. No, it would all instead fall on her, and he wouldn't be able to cover it up the way he had covered it up when she had almost destroyed Albrook, all those months ago.

[You have a new Private Message!]
[To: Loyal]
[From: Civil]
[Subject: Elder Tree]
[Attachments: 14]

[The reports aren't exaggerating the destruction – a third of the tree is in ruins. 16 branches were severed, 8 platforms, 9 bridges, 5 walkways and 7 buildings were destroyed. 6 NPCs and 1284 players were killed, 405 of those by Rainstorm, 579 by Flower, others by miscellaneous members of Rainstorm's party. I've attached pictures of the destruction.
Flower, according to witness accounts, engineered their escape on Bahamut 31 minutes ago. Rainstorm and his party – including an unknown human gunner, the Gria Treasure Princess, and a Ronso named Bigshot – went with her. As of now it does not seem like she was coerced to it – if anything, Rainstorm’s party protected her while she performed the summoning and of course after Bahamut was summoned she could've ignored or eliminated all of them and the fact that she didn't speaks volumes.
They were last seen heading northeast, but that's all anyone knows for sure.
Do you want me to continue investigating?]

Tseng scowled at the message. Rainstorm. Of all the people for Aerith to run into, it had to be that one, didn’t it? Until now Rainstorm had barely been a blip on the Overseer's radar – just a novelty amusement that existed in the unimportant fringes of the game. The only interest Tseng had had in him concerned the info about him – it was selling well in the auction house and they made the majority of their profits by selling info. Aside from that, the Overseers had more important things to do and aside from the information trade aspect Rainstorm provided, Tseng hadn't really cared what the Viera did, one way or the other.

But now Aerith was with the Rabbit of Caerbannog, unquestionably the most famous player killer of the game. And, what’s more… she had been drawn into the obvious chaos that swirled around the man. So much so that he had done the very thing Tseng had fought so hard to prevent. And now….

Now it was too late to prevent anything. She had hundreds of kills on her account and an NPC town had all but been destroyed. And while Rainstorm and the rumours around the man masked some of it, it did nothing to hide the fact that almost half of those killed in this… disaster, had been done by her. She had an almost three thousand gold bounty on her head. And Tseng could do nothing to hide that. Nothing to smother the rumours or hide her. She was out there now, and everyone had seen what she was capable of.

Scowling, Tseng closed the message window and stood up from his desk, walking to the window instead. From his vantage point in the third floor office in the Overseer guild house, he had a perfect view over the central square of Alexandria and, of course, it was full of people, all of them talking about the disaster. Someone would give it a name soon, no doubt. Whether the destruction of the tree would be attributed to Rainstorm or Flower….

"You lied to me."

Tseng froze in the middle of scrolling through the chat. Grimacing he lowered his hand and then glanced backwards, to see a very grim looking Cait Sith sitting on top of his desk, furred arms folded, tail flicking in irritation. "I did?" the guild master of the Overseers asked, cursing mentally.

"When that summon almost destroyed Albrook you said that it was an incident with a souped up, hacked VRDC and that it was under control," the mod said, glancing away. A large window appeared in the air, showing video footage of the events that had occurred when Aerith had first started to play the game. They watched as Bahamut landed on top of a house, crushing it, before a panicked Aerith managed to dismiss him.

Tseng grimaced, his hands clenching into fists.

"You've been able to cover up for her pretty well, I'd say," Cait Sith commented, and other windows opened up, small incidents that had happened all over Alexandria. Walls collapsing, buildings being damaged, support structures collapsing. "I knew there was something a bit wrong, but for a while I was convinced that the programming of Alexandria was just a bit buggy – that there was glitch in the building and construction mechanics that I just hadn't been able to root out yet. It wasn't a big problem and people seemed to find it a natural part of game mechanics, so I didn't give it the highest priority. No one had been killed, after all."

"And now?" Tseng asked, uneasy. Cait Sith was an AI, but he was in contact with Reeve Tuesti. Reeve Tuesti was a Department Head, with a direct line to the President of ShinRa. So far Terra Online had been relatively free of the company's influence, but that didn't mean it wasn't connected.

Cait Sith didn't look at him; lifting a paw up and creating a miniature version of the Elder Tree right in the middle of Tseng's office. As Tseng watched, one large branch went tumbling down – and then a few seconds later, Bahamut was summoned above the miniature tree and it rammed right into it, bringing down more branches, and all but shaving a side of the tree.

"It was magnificent," Cait Sith commented. "I was there, by the way, investigating a completely different thing, when suddenly Rainstorm did the impossible and cut off a branch. He took what was a built in part of terrain and turned it into an object with physics and weight and an ability to affect the terrain around it. An object which then destroyed a bit of a town; and in so doing, killed a whole lot of people."

Tseng said nothing, scowling at the miniature tree instead.

Cait Sith smiled, feline and sharp. "I almost, almost attributed it to Rainstorm. Except I've been rather deep into his game data and I know he, while capable of a lot of things, is not actually capable of changing the game physics or altering terrains," the mod continued. "And then Bahamut was summoned and I remembered where I had seen that Elf before. Flower, level 1 at the time, in Albrook."

A transparent version of Aerith's game avatar appeared beside Cait Sith. Long haired, sharp eared, wearing the costume she usually did, that familiar, almost aristocratic dress. She looked odd standing there, an expressionless and dead eyed ghost of how she usually looked.

"Somehow this woman applies real world physics to Terra Online. She forces different physics onto the game around her. She makes terrain and objects destructible, she adds weight and support dynamics to buildings. When she's there, you can destroy things around her; including towns and non-player characters. You could almost say she makes things physical," Cait Sith said, turning to look at Tseng. "And you've been hiding her for months."

Tseng forced himself to relax. So he had been discovered. No use trying to cover it up now. "So I have," he said. "It's not her fault, though. She doesn't even realise it. I've been –"

"Yes, you've been hiding it from her too, haven't you?" the mod said, turning to look at the transparent version of Aerith's avatar. "You give yourself entirely too much credit though. The only reason you've been able to hide her at all is because her data is invisible in the game," he said and opened another window. It was empty. "This is her code, and I can't even access it," Cait Sith said. "What sort of gear is she using?"

"… The normal VRDC headset," Tseng answered, uneasy.

"So it's not the tech but the brain. Thought so," the cat answered and folded his arms again. "Not human then. And you knew it, you've known it for months, you've been hiding it. You know her in real life too, Tseng of the Turks. I'm guessing you got her into the game in the first place, to have immediate access to her right from the start, to hide this."

Tseng let out a breath. Yes, he had. He had given the headset to Aerith, he had even connected Elmyra Gainsborough’s house to the grid, just so Aerith could play. To… give her experiences she couldn't have in the slums. It had been a foolish act of kindness – an attempt to placate her, maybe persuade her to his way of thinking. It hadn't worked, not really – and in the game she had behaved… differently. He hadn't even thought of it, but of course… she was an Ancient.

Of course she wouldn't be compatible with technology made for human brains.

And he, stupidly, hadn't taken the VRDC away from her. He couldn't. She had seemed to enjoy the game so much, he just hadn't been able to take it away from her so soon after giving it to her. So instead… he had tried to hide her, cover up her effect on the game. For months he had managed.

Cait Sith glanced at him. "Now what, Tseng of the Turks?" he asked, and the damn cat sounded amused. "Now what do you intend to do?"

"I'll…" Tseng trailed away and grimaced. "I'll bring her back, I'll get her under control. This won't happen again."

The mod eyed him and then smiled. "No, you won't," he said and hopped down from the desk. "You can try, but it won't work."

"What?" Tseng snapped. "You don't meant to say –"

Cait Sith smiled. "The layer of reality she installs in the game… has a certain potential, don't you think?" he asked. "It's not just the terrain or the physics; it's more than that, much more. And the game could do with a bit of a reality check."

"What does that mean?" Tseng asked uneasily.

"It's about time I added new game mechanics anyway," the mod said, ignoring him. "The Elder Tree gives me a perfect starting point."

"And… Flower?" Tseng asked slowly. "What'll happen to her?"

Cait Sith grinned, waved his furry paw, and began to fade out of sight, taking the windows and the transparent version of Aerith's avatar with him. "She's with Rainstorm now," the mod said, his words fading. "You'll have hard time trying to pry her away from that one…."

Tseng stared at where the mod had stood just a moment ago and snarled a curse. Damn the moderator. Any other game, any other situation, any other mod would've tried to fix the situation, to repair the flaw, undo the damage but not this damn one. Cait Sith fucking incorporated things instead. And maybe it would make for a more interesting game, but what would that mean for Aerith? And what the hell did he mean, about Rainstorm? What did Cait Sith know? And did the fucking cat even care?

Letting out a hissing breath, Tseng opened his command menu.

[To: Shuriken]
[From: Loyal]
[Subject: A New Guild Bounty]

[Fire up the printing press. Two thousand gold for the player who kills Rainstorm – five thousand if they can corpse camp him. I'll pay the bounty from my private funds, no need to involve the guild bank in this. Add something about the Elder Tree to it and make it quick. And have someone steer the chats and the bulletin board if at all possible.
I want this on him. All of it.]

Chapter Text

Vincent was half asleep against Rainstorm by the time Mena returned, out of breath and tired, but obviously successful.

"I got it!" she said, brandishing a rather elaborate, thick book with covers that were decorated with gold and gems. "Climbing that tree was freaking impossible because you two destroyed all the stairs up but I made it, and the auction house NPC was still alive and I got the book! Congratulate and praise me, for I return victorious!"

"That's my woman!" Bigshot said, patting her shoulder proudly.

"Who are you calling woman, you big lout?"

Rainstorm shifted, obviously making to get up. Vincent sighed and lifted his head from the man's shoulder, half annoyed. He’d just got comfortable, but there was no helping it. They stood and approached the others. "Good job," Rainstorm said, as he and Mena made the trade for the book. "How much was it?"

"Hundred and fifty nine gold, ninety nine silver and ninety nine copper," she said. "I am keeping the rest for my troubles so don't even try asking for it back."

"Yes, yes, fine, fine," Rainstorm said and took the book from the menu, holding it up. It looked… ridiculously decorated and shiny. "So. Now what?"

"It's pretty easy," Flower said, stepping forward. "Open the book – it doesn't matter what page."

Rainstorm opened it and while a long feather quill appeared in his hand, they all leaned in to look, Vincent included. The book was empty, the pages thick and old looking. Flower pointed to the left side page. "Now choose a guild name and write it here."

"Um. I haven't really given any thought to it," Rainstorm admitted, lifting his hand and the quill away from the book and looking at the others.

"Well, seeing that it's your guild, I think you should call it Player Killers. Or Those Bastards. Agents of Chaos," Princess said thoughtfully. "Screw All Bounty Hunters. Hmmm… Infinite Infamy?  Many Murders? Uh."

"You're hilarious," Rainstorm grumbled.

"We're All Screwed, seems like a good one," Mena said.

"Fucked Up Shit," Bigshot offered. "Or just Fucked Up as in You Fucked Up."

"Um, it has to be one word," Flower said awkwardly.

"Murderers!" Princess offered. "Assassins! Killers!"

"Screwed," Mena suggested.

"Fucked," Bigshot said.

"How about something that’s not profanity? Or something that doesn't make us all seem like, well… like Rainstorm?" Red asked with a sigh. "Can't we at least try to sound like we're not bad guys by choice?"

"Yeah, let's name us Knights or Heroes or Saviours, that's totally, like… accurate," Princess grinned.

"They're also all probably taken already," Flower said. "There is guild called Heroes at least, it's a pretty big one too. And I think there's a Knights guild too. If you try and take a name another guild already has it –"

"Saints!" the princess laughed. "Angels, Guardians, Protectors! Oh god, someone calling Rainstorm Angel, I'm going to bust a rib…."

"Devils is more accurate, really," Bigshot grumbled.

They threw around suggestions, which grew very random very quickly. Vincent looked between the players as they bounced back words like Fuckers, Misfortune, Jerks, GoodGuys, BadGuys and so on, before they devolved into shouting pretty much random words at each other. BadApples, Rotten, Screwed was suggested more than once, then for some reason someone said Mushroom and then suddenly they were suggesting everything from Shoes to Butterflies and what sense the discussion had completely left it.

Rainstorm was looking at the others as they shouted at each other and then glanced over his shoulder at Vincent. "What do you think?" he asked.

"I think this group needs some serious re-organisation," Vincent said wryly, even as he leaned in to look at the Guild Book over Rainstorm's shoulder. "But, taking into account everything I've seen you do… Overkill seems to fit."

Rainstorm glanced at him and then grinned. While the others continued to argue, he put the quill down to the book, to the top of the left page, and wrote it down with somewhat awkward penmanship, probably due to unfamiliarity with the quill. The name was recognisable, however, and it seemed to take instant effect, setting the book aglow and silencing the others.

 

[The guild OVERKILL has been created!]
[Guild Master: Rainstorm]
[Members: 1]
[Level: 1]
[Guild House: none]
[Production: <you cannot choose a production before the guild has a guild house>]

"OVERKILL, huh?" Bigshot asked and threw his head back to bark out a laugh.

"I guess it does fit you," Princess said, giving Rainstorm a look. "You are overkill, pretty much all the time."

"Uhhuh," Rainstorm answered, eying the Guild Book curiously. It had changed and the pages were now full of info sections that seemed to detail OVERKILL's data. Most of it was empty. "Okay, how do I invite you lot?"

"You let us write names into the book, and that adds us to the guild. After that, you can kick us out by striking the names out, or we can leave by doing the same. Once the guild levels up a bit, you don't have to use the book anymore – you can invite people in through the commands," Flower said, and Rainstorm turned the book around, handing the quill to the nearest person. Treasure Princess joined first, writing her name down with a flourish and a grin before passing the quill to Bigshot and Mena, who added their names to the book as well. Flower hesitated for a moment before steeling herself and adding her name in with the others. After that, all that was left was RedXIII.

The beast sighed. "Writing is really not my strong suit, but..." he took the quill into his mouth Rainstorm crouched down to let him write. The beast scrawled something that almost looked like words into the book, but apparently it was enough. Members: 6.

"Okay," Rainstorm said, looking over the book. "So, we need a guild house before we can have a production. How do we get one?"

"You'd need to go to Alexandria, buy a plot of land and build one," Flower said, opening her command menu and bringing up a map of a large city with elaborate roads with somewhat nonsensical names. "That might be difficult, though," she added. "Overseers own most of the real-estate in Alexandria… plus any given time there are at least couple hundred thousand people in Alexandria. So, if you go there...."

"I run the risk of being hunted down and killed for my bounty?" Rainstorm asked wryly. "That sounds familiar. Any chance I could send someone to do it for me?"

"Hmm…. You'd need to promote someone to be the second in command," Flower said. "There are three ranks in a guild. The guild master that has the final say in anything, a second in command and then there can be several thirds. Thirds usually are leaders of groups – raiding parties and whatnot – while the second in command has almost as much power as the guild master. They, I think, can access the guild treasury and make decisions like buying things like estates."

"Our second in command would be Red, definitely, but..." Rainstorm glanced at the beast.

"But everyone knows I'm in your party and I stand the chance of being killed just as you do," RedXIII sighed. "Of all of us Mena is the only one who has the anonymity necessary."

"I'm not sure if I want to be the second in command. Besides, I don't know what I'd even do in Alexandria or where to start," Mena said with a frown, folding her arms. "All this building a guild house business seems pretty complicated. And do we even have enough money for it?"

"How much does real estate in Alexandria cost?" Rainstorm asked, turning to Flower.

"Couple thousand for a small bit of land. More for bigger. Everything in the city centre is taken, though – you'd need to buy some piece of land near the edges, here," she said, motioning around the outskirts of Alexandria. "After the piece of land has been bought, a simple house is built on it automatically – it's basically a shack in the beginning, though. Upgrading takes funds and actual effort. Also, to start a production you'd need to buy the machinery and so on, which would be housed in the guild house – and which then would need a person to be there, using it."

They all eyed her in dismay. "So one of us would be chained to Alexandria? That blows," Princess muttered, folding her arms. "Won't be it."

"Is there any way to build guild houses anywhere else?" Rainstorm asked with a sigh while a window popped in front of him.

 

[System Alert!]
[10:00 minutes until automated wake up call.]

"No, Alexandria is the only place," she said apologetically, peering at the message.

"Wake up call, already?" Rainstorm muttered, opening his command menu. "Huh. Didn't realise I've been playing this long. Seems like I've done nothing this night."

Princess let out a choked noise and Red gave Rainstorm a look. "Nothing? Oh let me count. You stumbled into the Wastes, you did something impossible there, you met Sephiroth – yeah we met Sephiroth, Rainstorm almost fell on him – then we came here and sure, for a while we actually played normally and then… you pretty much destroyed the Elder Tree. Hm. Yes, it's been a quiet night."

"Is that a complaint I hear?" Rainstorm asked, grinning. "You can't talk to your guild master like that. I can kick you out of the guild you know."

The beast snorted. "Oh the horror."

Rainstorm shook his head and glanced around. "Guess this is as good a place as any set up a tent," he said and put the Guild Book into his inventory before taking the Two-Man Tent out. He glanced at the others. "What are you guys going to do?"

"Level up because there's now no doubt something like a thousand people out there after our asses and I, unlike some, am not staying weak and getting killed," Princess said, giving him a look. "Not that you seem to have much luck with that anyway."

"I think by not getting killed I am being lucky, rather than the reverse."

"Yeah but if you just got killed then maybe this all would finally blow over!"

"Yeah, right," Bigshot snorted. "I'm sure that'd work."

"We'll grind some too, see if we can get some quests around here," Mena said. "And see if we can do anything about this guild house business, maybe figure a way to do it without one of us having to move to Alexandria."

"I guess I'll join you?" Flower said hesitantly. "I'm not very good at fighting, though, and Bahamut is the only thing I can summon."

"All the more reason for you to practice," the Ronso woman said, grinning, and threw an arm around the Elf's shoulders. "Now, let's have a look at your gear lay out, see if we need to make you anything...."

"I'll see what I can find out about guilds and such," Red said, looking at Rainstorm. "When you get into the game next time, could you, please, not… get into any more messes? And maybe stay in the zone. And refrain from destroying more towns. And killing people. And –"

"Yeah, yeah, I got it," Rainstorm rolled his eyes while staring to set up the tent. "I'll be good, second in command, I promise."

The beast sighed and looked at Vincent. "Could you try keeping him from screwing things up?" he asked.

"I don't know. Could I?" Vincent asked and he rather doubted it.

The beast sighed. "I'll see you tomorrow night," he said, flicking his tail at Rainstorm and turning to follow the others away from where Rainstorm had now set up the large, somewhat military-esque tent.

"Aaand we're ditched," Rainstorm said, amused and stood up, brushing his hands together. "Really feeling the love here, guys!" he shouted after the others. "You should show more respect for your GM!"

"Die in a fire!" Princess answered.

Vincent glanced after the others and then looked at Rainstorm who just laughed. "You will… log out, now?" he asked, thoughtful.

"In a moment, yeah," Rainstorm said and lifted the tent flap out of the way. "After you," he said and after a moment of hesitation, Vincent stepped into the tent. It was the exact same it had been, when Vincent had woken up in it earlier. Large and relatively spartan – aside from the somewhat overblown, king sized four poster bed.

"I don't know how it works after I log off – if my avatar will stay here or if it will vanish. Everything sort of suggests that it sticks around, but I wouldn't know, would I?" Rainstorm said while closing the tent flap. "Either way, the tent will stay here and as long as you're inside, you'll be untouchable."

Vincent nodded, hesitating by the bed. There was only one and though it was large… "How long will you be offline?"

"About sixteen hours. I'm on a sleep schedule," Rainstorm shrugged and sat down on the bed, looking up at him. "It might get boring," he added wryly, glancing around. "Doesn't seem like there's much here to entertain you."

"Sixteen hours of peace and safety is already more than I hoped to get," Vincent admitted and looked around. It seemed flimsy, the tent, but he could feel the separation between it and the zone outside. It all felt strange, but… it felt safe too. "I definitely don't mind boredom, if I can have that."

"I guess you would," Rainstorm murmured and then kicked his feet up and lay down. "C'mere."

Vincent went, awkwardly sitting down on the other side of the bed before, slowly, lying down. Rainstorm watched him with amusement and then took Vincent's hand and tugged him closer – and a moment later, Vincent was tucked against the man's body, feeling the warmth radiating all along himself, from his feet all the way up to his face, which he tucked against Rainstorm's shoulder.

"Warm?" Rainstorm asked while Vincent fell lax against him, the tension fleeing his body almost instantly.

"Mmm," Vincent hummed in answer, his eyes falling shut. He could do this for sixteen hours, he thought. He could very easily do this for sixteen hours every day for the rest of his life.

"Here's to hoping I'll stay warm, even when I'm not logged in," the other man murmured, his hand sliding into Vincent's hair, fingers easing through the tangles. "Wouldn't want you to be cold."

Vincent opened his eyes, watching how Rainstorm opened the command menu, to keep an eye on the clock. "Why do you care?" he asked, while Rainstorm stroked his hand through his hair. "It doesn't affect you, so...."

"I've been cold, I've been frozen – I've nearly died of hypothermia, once. Fell into a pond in the middle of winter, that was fun," Rainstorm answered. "And I might not know what this is like for you, but… I've been alone, too. And it's not nice."

Vincent let out a breath and eyed the clock in the corner of the command menu. "You still don't have to," he said.

"No. Doesn't mean I don't want to," Rainstorm answered, and looked down at him with a smile. "Those connotations, remember? I don't precisely mind them."

"… Oh," Vincent murmured, frowning, trying to remember. It was all vague and blurry but… "So this is –"

"Rather pleasant from this end too, yeah," Rainstorm agreed, smiling. "And it turns out I like cuddling. It's nice and I could do with more of it in my life, virtual as it is."

Vincent said nothing to that. He wasn't sure how he liked it. It felt nice, but he wasn't sure if it would've felt as nice, if he hadn't been so cold all the time. If Rainstorm wasn't the only warm thing in the world, then maybe he would've preferred to keep his distance. Maybe the person he had been before didn't like being touched. He didn't know.

Sighing, Vincent closed his eyes and tucked his face against Rainstorm's mostly bare neck. "I want to remember," he murmured, not sure why he felt like it needed to be said, but it did.

"I want you to remember too," Rainstorm answered softly.

"And… I want out of this game," Vincent added, frowning and not opening his eyes. "This is… this is nice, but I want out. I want...."

The player sighed. "I know," he said. "I know."

Chapter Text

With a sigh Cloud pulled the VRDC off his face, still feeling Vincent's weight there, against his side. Glancing to his right he made a face – of course, it was empty. And not just empty but past the edge of his bunk he could see the other set of bunk beds with their occupants and wasn't that a reality check?

For three nights he had played Terra Online and… it really wasn't like anything he had thought. Part of him kind of wanted to start all over, with a different character – without Rainstorm's past deeds and infamy… but of course that wasn't possible. One avatar per player and no redos. Terra Online was harsh like that – and he sort of got why. No, he really could understand why.

It was easy to do… horrible things in Terra Online. He should know – he had done some of that himself. But other things too. At first he had thought that the sexual harassment stuff was just bad luck on his part, that because he was a Viera people just reacted that way to him and that was something he'd have to bear… but then there had been Flower and while she was a pretty elf, she wasn't exactly throwing herself out there the way Cloud had to admit Rainstorm was.

While Rainstorm went at least 80% nude, Flower had worn a long dress. It had been a nice dress, very well made – sort of historical with frills and stuff. But it had covered her entirely from throat to the tops of her toes – she had even worn gloves to cover her hands. She covered almost as much skin as Vincent for crying out loud… and she still had gotten bothered by assholes.

Maybe it wasn't just Vieras. Maybe it was everyone, everywhere. He could see it, almost too easily. After all, Terra Online didn't have real world consequences. People were anonymous until you yourself told them your identity. So whatever you did in Terra Online… didn't affect you in the real world. If you went around killing hundreds of people, no one in real life could tell it was you. And if you went about harassing women… there'd be no consequences.

He had been wondering why he was missing certain bits of his anatomy. It was sort of lucky on his case – if he had been anatomically correct, he probably would've been anatomically correctly slipping out of everything he wore. Viera clothing was not designed for function, and would've never worked in real life, not like that. He would've been giving more than eyefuls of skin to people. But since he was built like a freaking doll in Terra Online, that wasn't an issue. Thankfully, but still, it had seemed odd since most everything was sort of realistic. Why omit that? It wasn't like the game was shy about giving people realistic injuries and sensations and whatnot.

But if people could have sex in Terra Online, things probably would've been much, much worse. Groping and harassment in the game was bad enough, but…. Yeah. It was probably better people just were incapable of shit like that.

His phone let out a buzz and with a frown Cloud glanced towards the shelf at the end of the bunk. It wasn't time to get up yet – he had the headset waking him half an hour early now, so that he could recover from the game. So, not an alarm but a call – or a message.

[From: Office 32, 49th Regiment, ShinRa Infantry]

[Private Second Class, Cloud Strife, is to report to Office 12 on the 15th floor at ShinRa HQ at 0700 Midgar Standard Time. Failure to answer this summons will be punishable by suspension of pay and menial labour in accordance with rule 274 § 25 of ShinRa Infantry Rules and Regulations.]

"Great," Cloud sighed and quickly got up. It was 0624 now. Just about enough time to for a quick shower, he thought and jumped down from his bunk, to quickly go through the routine of clean up. Thankfully, at this point, it was almost muscle memory, thanks to the hells of Basic Training.

He was almost used to being human again, when he headed out of the barracks and towards HQ, running over the bridge that connected the two buildings near the base. He still had ten minutes, when he made it to the elevators, now in full infantry uniform – and wasn't that weird, wearing clothes rather than jewels. Shrugging his shoulders and trying to get the thick fabric to settle, he swiped his key card across the reader and then entered the elevator. His shoulder guards felt heavy and he really didn't like the scarf infantry wore. It all seemed so… clumsy and in the way, all of a sudden.

"Tch," he murmured. Terra Online was getting him used to running around in near buff and of course that would be easier than having fabric getting in his way all the time.

Office 12 on floor 15 was one of the fairly standard meeting rooms – the sort where his squad had had a couple of briefings before they had been put on patrol duty for the time being. It had a long table, about dozen chairs around it and dozen more around the edges of the room, and a projector and… that was about it. It was also empty when he got there.

After checking to see that the room was the right one, Cloud stepped inside to wait. There were still a couple of minutes to go and to be honest he wouldn't have been surprised if no one showed up at all – he had heard that the secretarial department got numbers wrong and sent summons to the wrong people and stuff like that. As it was, it was a bit weird that he'd been summoned alone – but it wasn't his job to wonder about that, so he didn't. Instead he waited.

Was Vincent still warm in Terra Online? He hoped so. It was a bit awkward knowing that Vincent was possibly with his virtual body while he was here – to know that life, such as it was, was still going on in the game. Of course it would, but… it was different now, somehow. Before he hadn't given any thought to it, to the time spent out of the game, but now… now he was missing things.

Three days and the game and its experiences had gained an importance he really hadn't expected it to have in his life. It was a damn game and he worried about it outside of it. That definitely hadn't been part of the plan.

The door to the meeting room opened and a man in a sleek, dark suit stepped in. Cloud quickly stood at attention – he didn't know who the guy was, but suits meant one of two things. Either Turks – which this man wasn't, the suit was black – or… higher ups.

"At ease," the man said, closing the door and locking it before walking to the table and setting a small device on it. While Cloud watched, the man flicked it open and… Cloud was pretty sure it was a transmitter of some sort.

"There, a little bit of privacy," the man said, and turned to look at Cloud. He was a good looking man and the longer Cloud looked at him, the more like a business man he seemed. The neatly trimmed beard, the expensive haircut – definitely not an ordinary secretary or even a high standing official. This was a person who was someone's – a lot of someones' – boss.

The man looked him over thoughtfully. "Now, do you prefer Private Strife, or should I call you Rainstorm?"

"…What?" Cloud asked, unable to help himself, his back turning ramrod straight.

The man smiled wryly at him, folding his arms. "Allow me to introduce myself. Reeve Tuesti, the head of Urban Development – and the creator and administrator of Terra Online," he said. "I know who you are, in and out of the game. Normally I wouldn't do this – normally player identities are confidential and only available to Cait Sith, but… you're becoming something of a special case, in the game."

Cloud blinked sharply. "Sir," he said and then had no idea how to continue. The hell was even… Tuesti, head of Urban Development – as in one of the Department Heads? He hadn't realised that the admin of Terra Online was somehow that high up. He had thought it'd be some computer geek in the bowels of ShinRa, not one of the leaders!

Mr. Tuesti leaned against the table, giving him a look. "I said at ease already, didn't I?" he asked. "Right now I'm more interested in talking with Rainstorm and not Private Strife. So, if you would just relax a little…."

Fucking easy for him to say. Cloud closed his eyes and then breathed in slowly. Rainstorm. Right – he had just spent almost eight hours being Rainstorm. He could be him a little bit longer.

He let the breath out, relaxed his stance, swung the standard infantry rifle to his back where he could ignore it – and then shifted his footing until his weight was more on the balls of his feet than his heels. "So, what's up?" Cloud asked, tugging at the stupid scarf; chin held level with the ground, expression open. Rainstorm after all had literally nothing to hide.

Tuesti smiled. "You are an interesting individual," he said and shook his head. "Cait Sith and I've been looking into your game data, trying to figure out what makes you special but we can't figure it out. Your brain is perfectly normal and perfectly human; and yet you play the game differently from… almost everyone else. Instinctively, you understand the game on a level almost nobody else does."

Cloud tilted his head a bit. "No idea what you're talking about," he admitted, a bit uneasy. He didn't think he was playing the game differently. But he probably was, judging by his track record. "I'm just playing the game how the game comes to me, I guess," he said and shrugged. "Bounty hunters and all."

"You have no idea," Tuesti said and laughed. "Let's start with Albrook and the massacre. Why do you think you didn't die?"

"Red and Princess buffed me," Cloud shrugged.

"No. You didn't die because you killed everyone before they could kill you," Tuesti said. "In mid battle you figured out something that takes most player weeks, if not months to figure out – and a good 70% of them never do. That players and avatars, no matter how strong they are, have human weaknesses."

Cloud considered it, thinking back to Albrook and the fight. "Weak points, huh?" he asked.

"Yes, and no," Tuesti said. "You figured out you needed to go for throats and hearts, yes, very well done, but that's not it at all. The part you don't realise – the part even Cait Sith doesn't realise – is that most players still move like humans in the game. Like themselves. Their avatar might be taller or stronger, but most players subconsciously limit themselves into the frameworks of their own physical body. Their avatar might be able to lift a thousand kilos worth of weight – but they don't because subconsciously the player knows they can't. With time they learn to overcome this, but the movement is harder. Speed and agility. Do you understand?"

"…Yes," Cloud said slowly, folding his arms. "Now that I think about it… yeah, I see what you mean." Players were easier for him to kill than mobs were, at times. Their attacks might be stronger, but that was only if they actually managed to attack him. As it was, half of the time when fighting players, Cloud could parry almost everything they threw at him. Everything, but distance attacks, bullets and arrows and such. Everything else… always came sort of slow.

"There is a separation between what a player is capable of and what their avatar is capable of. There are players that moved past this – the ones that make it to levels 50 and above need to learn it to make it – but most players never do. And you learned it on your very first night of playing," Tuesti said. "And that echoes through everything you do in the game. Tell me, why did you befriend RedXIII?"

Cloud shrugged. "He’s nice," he said. "And there, and not as much of an asshole as everyone else had been, up to that point."

"Mm-hmm. How about Treasure Princess? She's not quite as nice, is she?" Tuesti said. "How about Bigshot and Mena? You could've ignored their invitation to play together."

Cloud shrugged again. "Why not?" he asked. "They're all good players."

"Yes. And they all use real world abilities in game," Tuesti said. "Not as much as you do. But the way they move and utilise themselves. Same as you, Mena doesn't use in-game aids but instead relies on her own swordsmanship. Treasure Princess, I imagine, is something of a ninja in real life too. And RedXIII, well. He's a special case, isn't he?"

"Yes, yes, fine. I've surrounded myself with a fine bunch of weirdoes in the game. What's the point in this?" Cloud asked, frowning.

The business man shook his head at him. "Vincent," he said. "Vincent is the point in this. Years I've been working with this game. Years I've known about the Demon of the Wastes. And for years I thought he was a bug, a virus, a glitch in the system. Three days of playing and you instantly saw that he was a human being. Your instincts, Rainstorm, are inhuman."

"So… It's my fault that you suck?" Cloud asked and rested a hand on his hip, eyes narrowing. "What's going to be done about that, anyway? Or is anything?"

Tuesti gave him a severe look. "Of course something is being done. The thing is, we've been trying to root Vincent out for years, even before I knew what he was. And for all that time we haven't had any luck. Knowing that he's human changes actually very little, when it comes to tracking him down. It's still borderline impossible. He's still hidden."

"Then what?" Cloud asked, scowling. "You didn't call me here to whine about it, did you?"

Tuesti snorted. "You really are interesting," he said, sounding almost impressed. "Cloud Strife is written down as a meek, shy and quiet little thing, but as Rainstorm…."

"Rainstorm is tired of all the bullshit," Cloud cut in. "Can you please cut to the fucking chase already?"

"I'm going to need your help to track Vincent down," Tuesti said finally. "How you do it aside, you understand the game differently from most people. Myself included," he added almost ruefully. "I'm hoping that might also cover the programming and connection aspects of it."

"Um…?" Cloud trailed away, thrown for a loop again. "I sort of dropped out of school a while ago," he said slowly. "And programming includes a lot of mathematics, doesn't it? I think you might be looking at the wrong person here."

"I don't care what's in your brain but how you use it," Tuesti rolled his eyes. "In the end book smarts is nothing but clutter in a person's brain – a genius is a genius even if they never learned to read or write or count."

"So… what?" Cloud asked, uneasy, pretty sure genius didn't work like that, but whatever. "What does that mean?"

"I want to bring you to work on the Terra Online Development Team," Tuesti said plainly, giving him a look. "That's what it means."

Well. He certainly hadn't seen that coming.

Chapter Text

"Well," Reeve said after a while, when Cloud Strife said nothing. "Vincent isn't really all of it. Currently he is the main priority for me at least, but you've surrounded yourself with some interesting people otherwise too. Even without Vincent, that alone would make me want to bring you in."

"You mean Red," Strife said. It was hard to say what he was thinking – he was still wearing the infantryman's helmet that covered half of his face. But right now Reeve didn't think the man was quite against him. Or, well. Youth, really. Strife was sixteen, after all.

"Red, yes. Princess also. But right now the Elf girl, Flower, is a bit more dangerous than the two of them," Reeve admitted, thinking back to the data. She was still all but invisible in the system and neither he nor Cait Sith had any idea how she was doing it. It probably would've freaked them both out more, if it hadn't come so close to Vincent's revelation. Hell at this point, they figured that expecting anything from Rainstorm was bad idea. Best let things happen and roll with it afterwards.

"I don't know what she is, not yet, but I have a suspicion," Reeve said. "That's for her to tell, if she chooses to, but…. Aside from Vincent I would prefer it if someone on my payroll was keeping an eye on her."

"Oh," Strife said, shifted his footing and somehow he was infinitely more like Rainstorm. "So aside from whatever you think my brain can do, you want me to spy for you?"

"Nothing so crude. I don't need spies in Terra Online. Cait Sith sees all," Reeve shrugged. "No, but… there is a certain danger with her. You do realise that you two shouldn't have been able to do what you did at the Elder Tree? Terrains aren't that malleable, and definitely not destructible, not that way. And definitely not towns."

"I've been told," Strife said, his lips a thin line. "You think she somehow made it possible?"

"I know she did. Where you play the game like you were born in it, she… bends it, like it was made for her to play with," Reeve smiled. "When Red first started playing, there were compatibility issues and he suffered many glitches. The game is made for humans, after all. Flower's brain is closer to human, but… well, the only way I can put it is that she's more powerful than the system. She forces her own reality onto her surroundings; which at times includes real world physics."

Strife considered that for a moment. "She's been playing for a while now, though. Hasn't she?" he asked. "So you've known."

"No, I haven't. She's been hidden from me by the most powerful guild in the game – the Overseers. Another tale for her to tell," Reeve said, shrugging. "Now she's broken loose from them and what's done is done. Elder Tree is destroyed, thanks to her and you. Where did you get the idea to cut off a branch anyway?"

The young infantryman shrugged. "When I jumped down, I damaged a bit of a building's roof. I figured that if I could damage that, I could damage other things," he said. "It wasn't that complicated."

Reeve snorted at that. So it stretched to other things as well. A few seconds in Flower's presence and Rainstorm had already adjusted his world view to a whole new set of rules and then made quick and ruthless use of them. Not complicated indeed.

"So," Strife said. "She's a danger to the game but you're not going to kick her out? Instead you want her watched?"

Reeve nodded. "Well, she's a danger to the game only for as long as her physics and the game physics fight each other. Cait Sith is going to change that," he said. "You will find that Terra Online evolves all the time. Whenever Cait Sith sees something or gets an idea which he likes, he incorporates it into the game. The physics she installs… they'll add a new layer of reality into Terra Online."

"One would think you'd mind something like a player changing the game."

"Other games would. I have a largely hands off approach to Terra Online," Reeve shrugged. "After I finished creating the game, I admit it lost most of its interest for me. It's more Cait Sith's baby now, than mine. And I'm perfectly happy letting him do whatever he wants with it."

It had lost its interest. Reeve was a builder, a creator, a maker…an inventor. While he could administer and manage things to the world's end, it wasn't his preferred way of going about. He was the head of Urban Development, and that was what he wanted, but… after the developing part of things was done, he got bored easily. It had happened when Midgar had been finished, after which he had delegated the management duties to others, and moved onto other things; namely, Terra Online. And then it had happened again when Terra Online had finished.

The game was changing now, though. It was hard to say which way it was going but it was going through a transformation – and Rainstorm stood at the heart of it, with the elements and symptoms of the game's changes around him. RedXIII, Treasure Princess, Bigshot, Mena, Vincent and Flower. Elements and symptoms.

"I don't think I care for the notion of being somebody's spy," Strife finally said.

"Not a spy – I told you, I don't need spies," Reeve said. "More like a bodyguard, really. Now that she's out of Alexandria and away from the Overseers and their smothering… we want her to stay out and in the field where she can wreck happy havoc on the programming and coding with her influence."

Strife didn't seem convinced.

"Well," Reeve said and laughed, shaking his head. "Truth be told, it's simply easier with all of you people in one place. Your guild, I mean."

"Hmm," Strife answered, noncommittal.

"The priority is Vincent, though. Finding him and releasing him from the game, if at all possible," Reeve added. "Everything else is just a nice bonus."

Strife looked away from him, thinking about it. "I suppose I'd have to leave the infantry," he then said.

"It would be easiest, yes," Reeve said, eying him keenly. "The pay would be better," he added.

"Tch," Strife answered and glanced at him. "I entered ShinRa for a reason and joining the techies wasn't part of the plan," he said. "As it is, I was going to stay in the infantry only because it gave me access to the gyms and health care."

"You can still have that, as a techie," Reeve said, amused.

"How about the chance to try at the SOLDIER exam? Will I still have that?"

Well. The records did say that Strife had started out as one of the SOLDIER exam candidates. If that was still the man's goal…. "The next exam is, when, in four months?" Reeve asked, considering it. Strife failed to enter SOLDIER on his first try, meaning he'd need to train and practice if he ever wanted to have a chance. As an infantryman most of Strife's time was taken by menial duties, probably. At least they would be, until Strife got prompted and got his chance to try himself against tougher missions. As it was… as an infantryman the youth didn't really have that good a chance for self-improvement.

Working for Terra Online's development group would give him more free time for self-training. "I don't see why you couldn't try the exam again, even if you were a techie," Reeve said finally. "No, it would probably give you more time for training and such. Plus…" Plus it would give Strife access to all the toys in Reeve's department.

"Plus?" Strife asked.

"Well, the pay is good," Reeve shrugged, smiling. "A month of working for me, you can probably start buying your own gym equipment, if you wanted to."

Strife said nothing for a moment, before finally sighing. "I need to think about it," he said. "And I need to know what would be expected of me, what my duties would be, stuff like that. No way am I entering any ShinRa contract blind."

"Of course," Reeve agreed and stood up. Lots of people would, just for the chance of better pay. Not to mention that working in Urban Development versus working in the infantry? Much better for your health in general. "Come with me and I'll have someone print the contracts and terms for you to study."

Strife nodded, but didn't budge. "Out of curiosity, which one are you trying to hire here?" he then asked. "Cloud Strife or Rainstorm?"

"I'm hiring the brain behind both," Reeve grinned while picking up the signal jammer from the table and flicking it shut. "But it will be Cloud Strife's name on the contract, for legal reasons. Avatars, as it is, don't have legal rights."

The infantryman snorted and nodded, following him out of the meeting room. As they walked, Reeve kept a curious eye on the infantryman. It was somewhat… amusing, seeing Cloud Strife after having seen Rainstorm first. The Viera was quite a bit taller than Strife was. Also the moment they stepped out of the conference room, Strife shifted back into his previous behaviour, becoming the stiff, nervous infantryman once more and that was even more hilarious after having talked with the spirit behind Rainstorm first.

"How do you do that?" Reeve asked, amused, as they entered the elevator.

"Do what, sir?"

"Change personas like that."

Strife didn't answer, not before they were in the elevator and the doors were shut. Then he shrugged. "It's just a mindset, in the end," he said. "Rainstorm doesn't have to bother with social norms and appearances. Cloud Strife does."

"I suppose so," Reeve murmured. He didn't really play Terra Online so he didn't have that duality of how things were in real life and how they were in game. In Asgard player and character interactions were completely different and behaviour didn't really factor into it as much as it did in Terra Online. He supposed it was like that with most Terra Online players – most of them were probably different in game than they were in real life.

Cloud Strife and Rainstorm seemed to be two whole different people though. "If you had to choose, which one would you be?" Reeve asked curiously.

The infantryman made a face. "Cloud Strife, obviously," he said. "He gets to wear clothing."

Reeve smiled wryly at that. "That's not what I meant."

"Well you haven't even bought me a drink yet, sir," Strife said blandly. "So I am afraid I'm not inclined to discuss such personal matters with you."

Reeve snorted and shook his head while the elevator let out a ding and the doors opened. He led the infantryman – who once again ducked his head down and became all humble – out and to one of the floors that belonged to Urban Development – this being floor 34. It was mostly offices for Research and Development here – meaning that half of the offices were empty, and other half were probably used for poker tournaments. There wasn't much left to be researched or developed in Midgar.

It was also where the UD secretaries were, though.

While Strife hung back awkwardly, looking out of place in his infantry uniform, Reeve had one of the secretaries print out all of the necessary forms. The woman kept giving Strife some curious looks while she did so – and no wonder, it wasn't every day Reeve recruited as it was and definitely not from the infantry, but Reeve ignored it.

"Here, this should be all of it," Reeve said once the printing of the good thirty pages was done. "Take it all with a grain of salt, though, especially the parts about work duties. Your case would be… mostly hands on field testing, really."

"Meaning?" Strife asked, frowning.

Reeve shrugged. "I wouldn't waste your abilities in front of a computer or behind a desk. No, you'd be in VR most of the time. It'd start with us testing to see how far your abilities stretch, what you can do in other virtual reality simulations, but overall… it would mostly be about Terra Online."

Strife nodded, accepting the stack of papers. "How much time do I…?"

"I took you off duty for the day, so you have some time," Reeve assured and took out his phone. "I'd prefer it if I got an answer today, though," he added, holding the phone out to Strife, showing him the screen. "My number. Let me know when you make a decision."

Strife nodded, copying the number to his own phone. "Thank you, sir," he said. "I'll let you know when I make up my mind."

Reeve watched as the infantryman returned to the elevator and headed down. It didn't take long for the secretary to dash past her desk and to his side. "Who was that, sir?" she asked. "He must be someone special. I've never seen an infantryman here. Never mind one brought by you!"

Reeve smiled. "We'll see, won't we?" he asked and with a chuckle headed off. Hopefully Strife would come to the right decision. And if he didn't, well….

Strife was the first and only prodigy of virtual reality he had ever come across and he had only scratched the surface of his own abilities, if even that. So, really. It wasn't beyond Reeve's pride to pester, bribe and bother him until he changed his mind.

Chapter Text

Zack was still half asleep as he stumbled out of the elevator and towards the cafeteria counter. He had been so wiped the night before after a string of missions that he hadn't even managed to get the VRDC on before falling asleep, and he was paying the price now. Four hours of sleep without the helpful aid of VRDC and its forced instant REM sleep….

Right now, he hated his life. His dreams had been weird as hell and it didn't feel like he had gotten any rest at all. And also, he had a mission in an hour. Yay.

Thankfully, sweet Jane was behind said counter and already had his triple espresso and huge slice of cheesecake ready; the first steaming hot, the other dripping with sweet sauce. She laughed, handing them over without a word while Zack waved his card at her haphazardly.

"Go sit down and eat before you take someone's eye out, you zombie," she laughed and Zack groaned thanks in answer before making his way to the nearest table to sit and recharge. Mornings, he thought blearily, could go hang. And die. And be burned in a fire. Or something. And to think he had once been a morning person. The wonders of Mako.

It took him four sips and three bites before he realised that he had just invaded someone else's table. An infantryman was sitting across from him, helmet on and mouth slightly open with some official looking papers spread across the table. Zack's espresso was sitting on one of the papers. It had already made a couple coffee rings.

"Oh. Shit. Hi," Zack said, staring at the rings. "Um. Fuck. Sorry."

"It's… okay," the infantryman said slowly.

"Ruined?" Zack asked, pointing at the paper.

"It's… just some instructions, they're not valuable," the infantryman said, again slowly. "Are you, um… okay? Sir?"

"Sir? Where?" Zack asked and then paused. "Oh. Right. Gimme… gimme a mo'."

He downed his espresso and then slapped himself across the face a couple of times before turning pleading eyes towards the counter. Jane, the mind reader she was, was already bringing him another cup. She was something like fifty and had wrinkles on her wrinkles, and reminded him a little of that one crazy woman back in Gongaga. Jane was also his absolute favourite person forever.

"You are angel among women, you are," Zack said, a little more verbal now. "A flower among weeds. A queen –"

"Yes, yes. Watching you regain your humanity is the brightest point of my mornings, I swear," she said and ruffled his hair. "Eat your cheesecake, honey."

"Yes ma'am," Zack said and sipped the second triple espresso. "Sorry man," he said to the vaguely terrified looking infantryman. "SOLDIER metabolism. It takes a proper kick to get it into gear."

"Uh-huh," the infantryman said slowly, still looking at him oddly. "Wouldn't food be better for that?"

"In the long run, yeah," Zack said and yawned. "But caffeine is faster." He looked at the paper he had pretty much ruined and winced. "Sorry about that," he said, taking the page and looking at it. It looked like instructions or maybe a piece of a contract – it was full of paragraphs of tiny text. It was also pretty much ruined. "Maybe, ah. You can get a replacement."

"It's not important," the infantryman said with a sigh and held his hand out. "Like I said, just some instructions. I can still read it."

"Buy you a cup of coffee in apology?" Zack asked. Though technically he wouldn't be buying anything – SOLDIERs got their food for free everywhere in ShinRa HQ, but still.

"You don't need to, sir. And I already had a cup," the infantryman said awkwardly

"Come on, man. You gotta let me repay you, otherwise I'll feel bad about it the whole day!"

The trooper sighed. "I could use something to eat, I guess," he admitted.

"Plate of pancakes, coming right up," Zack grinned and after one more sip of his espresso, hopped up order some. Jane of course had some practically ready and a moment later Zack sauntered back with a plate full of syrup covered goodies.

"Thanks," the infantryman said awkwardly, shifting the papers out of the way while Zack placed the plate down.

"You are very welcome," Zack grinned and sat down to attend to his cheesecake with spirit and gusto. As he did, the infantryman idly picked at the pancakes, his attention more on the papers. "So," Zack said after a moment. "This all looks very official and papery. Shouldn't everything be by email these days?"

"Mmm," the infantryman agreed, his nose practically on one of the papers. "Contracts are still all paperwork, I guess."

"Uu, a contract," Zack said and eyed the guy. Private, if he knew his colour codes. Kinda smallish in stature. Didn't look too toned either – or at all. Actually he looked sorta skinny and, well… petite. "You being promoted?" Zack asked, rather doubting it. "Didn't think they needed paper contracts for that?"

The infantryman paused and turned to him, the line of his lips thin and said nothing.

Zack lifted his hands. "Sorry, sorry, none of my business," he said. "Ignore me. It's too early for social interactions."

"Mmm," the infantryman said and put the paper down, looking at him. "If someone offered you another job, would you quit being a SOLDIER, sir?" he asked.

"Nope, never," Zack answered and nodded at the papers. "So, it's a job contract?"

"Yeah, I got… an offer. I guess," the infantryman sighed, stacking the papers up. "The pay's better, the hours are better… but I'd have to quit the infantry, obviously."

Zack considered that. If he was in the infantry, he probably would quit for a job with better hours and pay. Infantry sort of sucked as a job – though then again, he had never been in the infantry so he didn't know what it was like for the actual members. Lots of people outside SOLDIER would rather die than have Mako pumped into their veins, so… who knows.

He probably shouldn't encourage the guy to leave the infantry anyway. He was in the military and it was sort of in the military's best interest to keep its members. Unless, of course, the other job would be in ShinRa and having the guy there rather than in the infantry would be better for the company as whole.

"I dunno, man. What sort of job is it?" he asked, scratching at his cheek. "If being trooper is like your dream, then screw that noise, you keep to the infantry. But if it isn't…" as far as he knew, lots of infantry members rather wished they weren't. It wasn’t exactly glamorous. Nothing like being a SOLDIER. Or even a Turk.

"No, it isn't," the infantryman sighed, and poked at the pancakes. "And the other job would be a techie position, or something like that."

"Oh. Hm. Well, if you got the smarts for it," Zack said, shrugging. He definitely didn't – nor did he have the patience. Sitting behind a desk and all that. How boring. But some people liked that sort of stuff. "And if you like the techie stuff."

The trooper said nothing, just bit into his pancakes, considering it. "I guess I would be a little less likely to die in line of duty," he mumbled and swallowed. "The pay would be better, but on other hand I would have to find a place to stay, probably. So I would have more expenses…."

"Yeah, that sucks. Though on the other, er, other hand, no bunk mates," Zack said, pointing a spoon at him. "And also privacy. Can't have much privacy in the military."

"Yeeah there's that too," the infantryman said, folding his arms. "I could get an actual bed."

"And TV and a couch and a table and stuff. Private shower," Zack said, getting into the spirit of it. "Maybe even a tub."

"Oh, a bathtub," the infantryman agreed. "Wouldn't have to wear a uniform."

"Yeah but third – or fourth – hand, you'd have to do your own laundry," Zack said apologetically.

"I could eat whatever I wanted," the trooper counteracted. "No more mess hall sludge."

"Yeah. But you'd have to make it - and clean up afterwards."

The infantryman snorted. "After basic and doing unimaginable things with a toothbrush, I can't say I'd mind a bit of dishwashing."

Zack grinned and held out his hand. "Zack Fair," he said. "SOLDIER Second Class. Nice to meet you."

The infantryman smiled and then shook his head, taking his helmet off. Beneath it he was surprisingly pretty, with spiky blond hair and insanely bright blue eyes. "Cloud Strife, Private Second Class in the 49th Regiment of ShinRa Infantry," the trooper said, shaking the offered hand. "You too."

"So, you gonna take the other job?" Zack asked. Cloud. What a weird name – but hell, he had seen weirder. And it definitely fit the sky blue eyes and the sunny hair. The hell was the guy even doing in the army, with his looks?

"Maybe," Cloud answered, glancing at the papers and sighing. "Actually… I joined ShinRa because I wanted to be a SOLDIER, but… it didn't quite work out that way."

"Oh," Zack said and gave him a sympathetic look. Lots of guys washed out of SOLDIER and into the infantry – it was practically an everyday occurrence. It never ceased to be sort of sad, though. "Sorry, man. That's tough."

"Not really. I wasn't really prepared for the test," the infantryman answered. "Can't say I was really prepared for the infantry either," he added wryly.

Zack shrugged, not sure what to say. Some people just weren't cut out for the life. He probably shouldn't say that, though – it wouldn't exactly be comforting. "I guess you need to decide which you would enjoy more, then. Being a trooper or being a techie," he said and that was maybe a little bit traitorous, coming from a military man, but still.

Cloud thought about it and smiled sort of crookedly. "Being a techie would probably be more interesting," he said.

Zack only barely managed to keep himself from making a face at that. Being behind a desk, more interesting than the military? Seesh, some people had no priorities. Still, Cloud seemed like a decent guy so, if brainy pursuits of… braininess were his thing, then who was Zack to judge. "I guess that's your answer then," he said and finished his cheesecake.

"I guess it is," Cloud said and frowned. "I’ve got to find a place to stay. And at Midgar's rent fees… oh god."

Zack grinned. "I guess you do," he said. "I think ShinRa has dormitories or something for employees which aren't so expensive. Or maybe you could do the share thing and get a roommate. Or something. I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"Comforting," Cloud sighed, taking his pancake plate in hand and going about finishing them. "Do SOLDIERs live in shared quarters too?" he asked.

"Yeah. Thirds share one room between four people, and for Seconds it's two per room, so it's not so bad," Zack said. "Firsts get their own private rooms, of course. Which makes sense; I can't really imagine Sephiroth sharing his sleeping space with anyone."

The infantryman's lips quirked at that and Zack remembered what he had just said. "Well," he said, thinking about it and then shaking his head. "No, actually I can't imagine that either," he said and shook his head.

Cloud let out a quiet chuckle and finished his pancakes. "Thanks for the breakfast," he said.

"You're welcome," Zack said and got up to his feet, gathering his cups and the plate. "Gotta head back up to the SOLDIER floor and get about doing some work stuff, I guess," he said and then glanced at the soon to be former infantryman. "Hey, will you be working in ShinRa HQ for the new job?"

"Yeah," Cloud agreed. "Dunno about my hours or anything yet, but… yeah, I'll probably be at ShinRa HQ most of the time."

"Sweet. Maybe we'll run into each other sometime," Zack grinned. "And you can tell me how the new job goes and stuff."

"Sure," Cloud said, smiling. "It'd be nice to know one more person in the building, yeah."

"See you then, Cloudy," Zack grinned and turned on his heel to take his dishes away. From the corner of his eye he could see Cloud looking after him, before the infantryman took out a phone, tapping the keyboard a couple of times before bringing it to his ear.

"Tuesti," Zack could hear, even across the cafeteria thanks to all the lovely SOLDIER enhancements. Zack paused at that, slowly putting the cups away, stalling to listen. Tuesti… as in Department Head for Urban Development, Reeve Tuesti?

"It's Strife," Cloud said. "I'll take the job."

"That was fast," the man on the other end answered, and the satisfaction in his voice was almost palpable. "You're still in ShinRa HQ?"

"…Yes," the infantryman sighed and Zack could see him leaning his head back, running a hand over his face. He looked rather like he was regretting his life choices right there and then. "I'm in the cafeteria."

"Excellent. Then we can get started right away. Head back to floor 34 and the secretary there will give you the key card to my office. Then come up here."

"Already?"

"There's quite a bit for us to talk about, lots of things to cover," Tuesti said, sounding amused. "And I want you to start working right away. Don't you?"

"… Fine, I'll be there in a moment," Cloud said and hung up. After a moment of staring at the phone in dismay, he stood up, gathering the papers and his helmet from the table. "I better be paid damn well for this," the former infantryman grumbled to himself while walking towards the elevators.

Zack stared after him, a little unsure now. The hell sort of job had he just convinced Cloud to accept?

Chapter Text

"There are two versions of virtual reality technology," Tuesti explained after Cloud had signed his soul – or his brain anyway – over to the man. "VRDC is the technically older, but also technically newer, type. The technology of accessing brain waves and signals and manipulating them has been around for a while, but it took… almost a decade to make it safe. The second type, a MVR or Manual Virtual Reality, was developed after the first generations of brain signal manipulating virtual reality proved to be… unsafe."

"Okay," Cloud said slowly, awkwardly leaning back in the chair across Tuesti's desk. "How does Manual Virtual Reality work?"

"Well, first of all… you're awake for it," Tuesti smiled. "The actual virtual reality is generated in a blend of hologram technology, various environmental manipulators, and a visor that the user wears over their eyes, which displays images and which finalises the virtual reality. All this requires a specialised facility – a fairly large room, in fact, with all the necessary technology. They are extremely expensive to make – there are currently only four state of the art MVR rooms in existence."

"Well. No wonder you use VRDC then," Cloud said.

"There are definite benefits to MVR," Tuesti said. "VRDC is essentially only an intellectual exercise at best. At worst, it is somewhat addictive to the user thanks to all sorts of annoying social and biological factors that gear people to striving for achievements which I won't get into right now. MVR however is a full body experience. SOLDIERs use it for training, actually. It's expensive, yes, but cheaper than losing SOLDIERs due to mishaps in field training."

Cloud nodded and then eyed the man. "I'm hoping there's a point to this all," he said. "Not seeing one right now, but I'm hoping."

Tuesti smiled, leaning back in his chair. "Both types of VR technology have had their… generations if you will. VRDC as you know it is about the fourth generation of brain signal manipulating technology. MVR, as it is used by SOLDIERs among other people, is approximately in its sixth generation. VRDC started out not as a virtual reality, technically, but as a… well, medical interrogation and torture device. MVR on other hand started out simply as a rather splendid visual display instalment. VRDC is older, but MVR went through more generations. You follow me?"

"Still waiting for the point," Cloud nodded.

"MVR has been many different things over the years," Tuesti continued. "It's so called second generation included a suit that applied minute electrical charge to the user's muscles, to further simulate them and to imitate actual physical exercise. Its fourth generation moved past this and instead made use of larger spaces, forcing the user to move around more in it, and so forth."

"Utterly fascinating," Cloud answered blandly.

"I'm getting to the point," the older man chuckled. "Now, there was a time, when these two technologies crossed paths – VRDC generation two, MVR generation three. Of course neither was called that at the time and these aren't exactly official facts – I've had to do lot of backtracking to figure this out. But there was a time when there was a virtual reality… device of a sort, that gave the user both a mental and a manual experience."

Cloud frowned at that and then leaned forward. "That's what Vincent is in, isn't it?" he asked.

Tuesti pointed a finger at him. "Good," he said, sounding almost proud. Like a teacher, satisfied that the student had caught on quick enough. "Yes, I think so. It took me a while to figure it out, but part of the reason why he… doesn't quite work with Terra Online is because he is connected very bodily into it. Plus, Terra Online is designed to interact with the mind, and not the body. The signals he sends back just… aren't compatible. As it is, it's a wonder he's doing this well."

Cloud considered that for a moment, thinking about what little he had learned about Vincent and what he had gone through. "Does he… when he's…. when he's hurt or when he dies in the game, does he feel it in the real world?"

Tuesti sighed. "Probably," he said. "But seeing that he can't get out of the game –"

"And if he feels something in the real world, is he aware of it in the game?" Cloud asked, ignoring the words.

The other man frowned. "Maybe," he said slowly, shifting forward and looking at him seriously. "Has he said something?"

"Just that he's cold all the time," Cloud shrugged. "I was sort of hoping that it'd be a connection issue and not how it was for him, wherever he is."

Tuesti nodded slowly, considering it. "It's not much to go on," he murmured. "Might be that where he is, the air conditioning is just cranked up to max. Which might very well be necessary, just to keep the system he's in cooled down…."

"How old is the tech he's in?" Cloud asked.

"That… I'm not entirely sure about," Tuesti admitted. "I was brought into the VR projects – either of them – relatively late in their development. VRDC tech was iced for years and years, it was only dug up a little less than ten years ago, which was when they started to try and perfect the generation three of VRDC – and it took them good five years to manage, and another two until generation four as you know it was made. And they had more or less figured out the MVR tech by the time I into it. The older generations – especially that one… well. It was a long time ago, and there aren't that many records."

"How long?" Cloud asked, confused. "I mean… Vincent doesn't look older than twenty five maybe."

"It's hard to say, it really is. It's been at least twenty years plus," Tuesti admitted. "Though, it's hard to say when Vincent was put into the machine. It… might've not been that long."

"Do you have any idea how long for sure, then? I mean, he existed as the Wastes Demon… thing, so –"

"That bug, as it was thought at the time, was first encountered… almost ten years go," Tuesti said quietly. "Around the same time they started working on brain signal manipulating technology again. Cait Sith… did tell you, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but…" Cloud trailed off and grimaced, running a hand over his face. So, as much as he wished to change it, the past was past and Vincent had been stuck in VR for at least that long. Fuck it all. "And despite knowing all this shit, you still can't backtrack him?" he asked.

Tuesti sighed. "He's connected in a way that… just isn't used anymore. He's hardwired in. Or at least the connection he's using is. This tech is from before the network was organised, before terminals and connections had their own addresses. He's a landmark in a world made of street signs," he shrugged. "He's there and he interacts with the system, but he's just… not pinned on any map."

"And there's no way to do anything about that, huh?" Cloud asked.

"We're doing the best we can, with little luck so far. But that's why you're here," Tuesti said, giving him a look. "How did you figure out that Vincent was a human beneath all the horns and growling? Ignoring the conversation and everything – before either of you even said a word to each other. You knew there were NPCs in the game, and humanoid monsters wouldn't be that that big of a jump up from there. And Vincent didn't look that human. So how did you know?"

Cloud frowned, thinking back to it. Then he shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "It didn't even cross my mind that he wouldn't be."

"Not even for an instant?"

 "… Not really?" Cloud said and folded his arms, really thinking about it. "No, I figured out pretty much instantly that he was a human being. Granted, I thought he was a player, but…."

"How about RedXIII?" Tuesti asked. "When you met him? Did you think he might be a mob in the game? He doesn't look humanoid at all."

"I was surprised, sure, but… no. Though he talked to me first, before I even saw him, so that helped," Cloud said, shaking his head. "I thought he was just another player, just one with a very weird avatar."

"And now?" Tuesti asked, looking at him keenly

Cloud frowned. "I know he isn't human," he admitted. "It's sort of obvious the longer you look at him move or do pretty much anything – it's too natural, he doesn't make any sort of motions like a human, nothing. He's probably pretty much the same in real life as he is in the game."

"And did you figure that out by observation or –"

"What, you think I have some sort of sixth sense for this?" Cloud asked, frowning. "For… anomalies in Terra Online?"

Tuesti smiled. "Your track record speaks volumes, wouldn't you say?" he asked and then stood up. "Come on. I want you to try something."

Cloud eyed him a bit dubiously but stood up as well. He wasn't sure how he felt about the man fanboying after his damn brain – it was weird as hell, kind of creepy, and reminded him a lot of the start of the Albrook Newbie Massacre at times. But he'd signed the contract and if this would help him help Vincent….

He'd just keep a decent bit of distance between himself and the man, until he was sure Tuesti wasn't about to lobotomize him and put his brain in a jar, or something.

"Here," Tuesti said, leading him into what looked like a workshop and a dentist's office had had a baby, and then a mad scientist had moved in. The room was full of computers and screens and all sorts of half-finished technological gadgets that looked vaguely dangerous. It was the end of the room that called for attention, though. There were four very high tech chairs – the sort with their own motors that moved by remote control – arranged in a fan formation there, near the wall furthest from them. Each of the chairs had a bulky, elaborate helmet with a very familiar visor sitting on them, all of them wired right into the walls behind the chairs. And not just with one wire, but several.

"What's this?" Cloud asked, as Tuesti made his way to the chairs and, judging by the sound of a sudden mechanical hum, turned them on.

"These are… well," Tuesti smiled, lifting one of the helmets. "These are supercomputer versions of your usual VRDC. These are what was and still is used when games like Terra Online and Asgard were created. Come here and sit down."

"Do I have to?" Cloud asked, but went forward, sitting down in the dentist chairs from an ergonomist's wet dreams. He practically sank into it and had a moment of vertigo – the chair, however it was made, made him feel almost weightless.

"Lift your head," Tuesti said and Cloud did, grimacing slightly as the man fit the rather heavy helmet into his head. The visor was bigger than he was used to and the edge cut into his nose for a moment, before Tuesti adjusted the helmet in a couple easy, practiced motions. Then it fit perfectly.

"There. Now give me a moment, to set myself up. Here," Tuesti added, handing Cloud a remote control. "Make yourself comfortable."

Cloud didn't really even get a proper chance to figure out how to work the damn remote, before Tuesti had already finished fitting himself in to the chair beside his, helmet on head, visor in place. The man adjusted his own chair, reclining back and lifting the feet up.

"Comfy?" the man asked.

"Let's get this, whatever this is, over with," Cloud sighed, setting the remote down.

Tuesti smiled – and the world fell away, literally fell somewhere far below them. Cloud looked after it with mingled confusion and fascination, before sensing a surface beneath his feet, and dropping down to it, Tuesti doing the same beside him

The place they were in was nothing like Terra Online. For one, they were themselves with their actual clothing and bodies – Cloud had even brought the itch he had had on his left shoulder blade with him into the simulation. And for another… there was actually nothing around them. It wasn't even black, or white – or anything. There was actually just nothing there.

"This is what we call the Primordial Soup, in VR development," Tuesti said, resting his hand at his hips. "It has all the physics of the real world, gravity and so on, and it has air. The space is infinite and filled with precisely nothing. This is where all Terra Online terrains, objects, creatures… pretty much everything in the game was created."

"Okay," Cloud said slowly. "And you brought me here because…?"

"Because I want to see you create something," Tuesti said.

Cloud waited for the man to continue, but he didn't. "… Okay," he sighed. "And how the hell do I actually do that?"

Tuesti just smiled and said nothing.

"Oh for love of –" Cloud grumbled. "Is this a test or something or are you just fucking with me?"

"Think of it as a test if that makes it easier," Tuesti said and out of nowhere a chair appeared – an incredibly comfy looking throne. The man sat down on it smoothly, crossing one leg over the other, watching him. "Just ignore me and make something. Doesn't matter in the slightest what, or why, or how. Just… make something."

"And you're just going to sit there, not telling me how I'm actually supposed to make this… something?" Cloud asked wryly.

"It'll come to you, I'm sure," Tuesti said, the smug son of a bitch.

"Great, just great," Cloud grumbled. So, he'd sign up to be Tuesti's dancing monkey. Wonderful.

Chapter Text

Reeve watched with a faint smile while Strife paced back and forth, trying to figure out the system. He had no doubt that the youth would figure it out eventually – he probably wouldn't even need to wait for that long. But how he did it was the key point. There were many ways to use the system. Which one Strife would select… that was the key thing.

Of course, none of this was strictly speaking necessary. He had no doubts about Strife's abilities himself – only that he didn't know them all yet – but Strife himself needed to see it, needed to figure it out. And if he was truly honest about it, he really wanted to see how the young man would do, with something like this. His brain and this system….

VRDC was as close to perfect as it could get, or so it seemed. It took a good game to make use of the system's capabilities, but as it was there were very few flaws in the technology. If the game was good enough, the experience not only rivalled, but simply surpassed actual reality. In the case of Terra Online, he’d had to actually make the game less realistic to keep people from losing themselves in it entirely. The temptation was still there, to forfeit on real life and live a virtual life instead, but….

As it was, the technology was perfect, it worked just as it needed to, it was at the peak of its evolution… or so people thought. Reeve had his doubts. And Cloud Strife, he thought, would be the key to the next level. Granted, it would be a dangerous step forward, one perhaps best left untaken, but… but if anyone could make the way to it, it would be this young man.

The young man who had now stopped pacing and was walking away instead, away into the colourless, odourless nothingness. Reeve watched him go and didn't follow, waving a hand instead and summoning a camera to follow him. With a few adjustments he had the camera positioned directly behind Strife and when he opened a window attached to the feed, it showed a perfect third person point of view of what Strife was or would be doing.

RedXIII and the way he worked in the system of VRDC was interesting. Flower was more so, the way she bent the programming to her own reality had many possibilities. But the fact remained – they weren't human. Whatever they did to the technology… didn't really matter beyond their own, unique situations. It had no application beyond them because the majority of the people on the planet were human. So, it would be humans who would be needed.

Strife sat down on the non-existent floor of the PS space, legs crossed, staring at nothing for a long moment. Reeve watched him through the video feed, while the younger man considered the space around him. What would Strife start with? How would he start? With a shape, or…?

Strife reached forward a little and placed a hand on the non-existent floor. A split second later, it was changed. A ripple ran over it, bending it, rushing outwards from where Strife was touching it – it reached all the way to Reeve and continued on to the limitless distance. Then, suddenly, the floor wasn't floor anymore – it was water, a bottomless still ocean, and they were sitting at the surface.

Reeve blinked with surprise, looking over the hand rest of the chair and into the floor – the surface of the water. Quickly he stood up and knelt down, touching the water – it reacted to his touch, it felt wet. He was barely over the fact that his hand came away from it wet, when the space overhead changed in a flash, and suddenly there was a clear blue sky there – and a moment later, it was dotted with clouds, fluffy and lazy as they passed overhead. Another moment later a sun appeared, and everything was lit up, the depths in the surface below included – and it went on forever.

Reeve stared at the water and then looked at his hand. Either Strife had just created a whole new terrain feature out of nowhere, or he had altered the physics of the world, making the water denser than they were – otherwise they ought to have been sinking.

And the young man had done it all without even opening a command menu, never mind a code screen.

Turning to the screen that showed what Strife was doing, Reeve watched as the young man walked on the water's surface, sending ripples over it with each step. Then Strife brought his hand up and the whole ocean beneath them froze over into a single, endless block of clear ice. A moment later, the sky was covered in clouds and it was snowing.

"I knew it," Reeve murmured, watching the screen as Strife played around with the environment. The ice world was smoothed away by a field of grass with every single blade of grass perfect and unique, by a sandy desert where every grain of sand could be shifted and moved, by ravines and swamps and rocky expanses, and eventually a forest with unique trees and shrubbery, which Strife spent a moment aging, aging, aging until the trees were as tall as ShinRa HQ and looked like they were ancient.

Then it was all gone, and there was a grassy plain with a sunny sky, and only one tree, in the shade of which Strife turned to other sorts of creating. He started with a small cube that fit his hand, and then changed the material of it, from glass to ice to jelly to stone to metal, the weight of it shifting with the material and with Strife throwing it between his hands, like trying to think of what to make. He settled on a faintly greyish metal and then started shaping the cube, stretching it out, flattening it, and starting on what Reeve soon realised was a sword design.

First a colossal shape, longer than Strife himself was tall, rather like an enormous bulky kitchen knife. Strife fiddled around with it for a moment before lifting it up into the air, blade held horizontal, and hung it there.Drawing lines across the sword with his fingers, the young man drew shapes into the sword, long lines along the blade, and at first Reeve thought he was making a texture design.

A moment later, the sword broke into pieces – into six individual swords that all fit together. Strife spent some time designing the guards and tangs and actually conjured up some leather to do the grips, idly adding mechanisms into the swords, perfecting the design.

Then he stood up and plucked the longest sword – a broadsword that split open in the middle – from the air and held it up. Slowly, he begun fitting the other swords into its enormous guard by hand, first a hollow blade, then a pair of twin swords with jagged dull ends, then the twin short swords with foldable handles. The assembly was enormous and Reeve didn't need to even see it up close to know that, unlike most first creations in the PS space, Strife's sword probably had no clipping issues.

Shaking his head he stood up and then headed to where Strife was swinging the sword around idly. "Did you add weight to it?" he asked when he was close enough to Strife.

"Hmm," the young man nodded and flipped the sword around, holding the grip towards Reeve. "This system's pretty easy to use when you figure out the trick of it."

"No. No it isn't," Reeve sighed, and accepted the sword – or tried. The moment Strife's hand left it the sword fell like a stone, right out of Reeve's hand and to the ground where it imbedded itself in the grass. Strife grinned at his reactions and Reeve rolled his eyes – though this too was pretty fascinating. Strife hadn't just manipulated the weight of the sword but had made himself immune to it.

"It takes months – in some case years – for people to figure out how to work the system like you do," Reeve said, opening his command menu and giving himself the so called God Mode, before crouching down to pick up the fusion sword Strife had designed. "The designers all start with coding first, or by the tool menu," he added, opening said menu and pointing at the basic shapes and textures there. "Then they manipulate the shape into whatever they wish to design. They don't just… make things out of nothing. There’s a whole shaping process to it."

"Seems a bit slow," Strife said, while Reeve examined the blade.

"For you I imagine it would," Reeve said, turning the blade in his hands and then awkwardly taking one of the smaller blades off it. With a frown, he opened the scan menu and examined the physics of the blade, the design.

It worked. The damn thing would work in real life. It would weigh almost fifty kilos if made from the material Strife had used, but it would work. The design was actually feasible.

"So, what makes me so special?" Strife asked, folding his arms. "I'm not a genius or anything; I'm not really even all that smart. I dropped out of school and it was only partly because I wanted to. I sucked at school. I suck at learning. Just ask my instructors from basic training. They certainly never made me forget it."

Reeve smiled, shaking his head and handing the swords back. "It's hard to say, really. Technically every human being has the potential. The human brain is a wonderful thing and despite all our advancements in VRDC and such technologies, we know very little about how it actually functions. But ability or genius as you say works differently in different people. You know what a virtuoso is?"

"Someone who is very good at playing an instrument?" Strife asked, looking at him dubiously.

"Someone possessing outstanding ability in one select field. It's often used for musicians or composers, yes, but it can be applied to other things. You don't need book smarts to be a virtuoso pianist, do you?" Reeve asked. "You don't need to be that smart to be a fantastic singer. You are like that, I think."

"A… virtuoso of virtual reality?" the young man asked with a snort, while fitting the fusion sword back together and then thrusting it into the ground beside him, to stand there, imbedded in the grass.

"You have the raw talent," Reeve said, eyeing the casual display of terrain manipulation with a faintly jealous eye. "In Terra Online, well. You already know what you do there and how you do it, don't you?"

Strife folded his arms, leaning his shoulder against the sword's flat side. "Hmm," he said noncommittally.

"Here it’s different – here you're not bound by the rules and laws of Terra Online's reality, and can shape reality instead. And with a similar instinct you discerned the possibilities and with a similar ability you brought them to life," Reeve said and looked at him meaningfully. "Don't you think that’s a bit like genius?"

"It's just a game though," Strife said, shaking his head. "Sure if it's that amazing then it's pretty cool I can do it, I guess… it's just a game. It has no use outside virtual realities."

Reeve smiled at that. "You've never heard of mind over matter have you?" he asked, amused.

Strife gave him a flat look. "You're kidding me, right?"

"Nope, not in the slightest. VRDC was created to be a training tool, same as MVR," Reeve answered, shaking his head and opening a command menu. He saved the design of the sword Strife had made into his private files for later study. "Lots of human limitations are all in the mind, you know. People tell themselves they can't do something and so they can't – that sort of thing. Your mind on other hand… well. It's telling you no such thing, judging by all this."

"I sure as hell can't do the things I can do in Terra Online in the real world," Strife answered, sounding annoyed. "Rainstorm is stronger, taller, more agile –"

"Have you tried?" Reeve asked. "Have you really tried? You go to the gym, don't you; you work out, lift weights? When you do, do you go at them with the mind-set of Cloud Strife, the SOLDIER dropout?" he arched his eyebrows and smiled. "I wonder what you could do if you tried it again, but as Rainstorm."

"The body is still that of Cloud Strife," the young man muttered.

"Yes, but Cloud Strife, I think, is a little too used to failing," Reeve said, and flicked the young man on the forehead with his finger. "Open your mind a bit. For you it really shouldn't be that hard."

The former trooper glared at him. "I thought I was getting a job. Not a… creepy cryptic wise man," he grumbled. "I feel like a freaking apprentice from a fantasy book. Wizard's Apprentice. This is fucking ridiculous."

Reeve considered that and then grinned. "That's an excellent idea! You can just call me Master Tuesti from here on out."

"And you can just go to hell," Strife answered slowly, enunciating every word carefully.

Reeve chuckled. "Still. You should try it. The results might make you a believer."

"Oh god, now you're starting a cult. I'm out of here. How the hell do I get out of here?" Strife said, opening the command menu and searching for a log out button. "Yes!" he said, tapped the log out, and vanished.

Reeve laughed after him. "You can run but you can't hide! You signed a contract, you know, you work for me now, and I own you!" he called after the young man. "And no way in hell am I going to let you waste that brain of yours."

Chapter Text

Aerith set the VRDC down on her bedside table gently and pulled her knees against her chest, staring at it. Two weeks of planning and she had finally made it out of Alexandria. It had taken an invisibility item – which had cost her almost seven thousand gold to make, The making of which had been made even more difficult by the fact that the Overseers monitored high end items in the auction house and while the buyers were anonymous, the sellers weren't. So if they wanted to, Overseers could step in and go after the seller, to figure out the buyer's name, and wouldn't that have been a mess?

But she had made it. She was out of Alexandria, and in the Great Forest of Moore. It… wasn't much like she had imagined, to be honest. The forest was great, the Elder Tree was beautiful! Er, it had been anyway. And now she was stuck with some interesting people, in their guild, in the infamous Rainstorm's guild. No, not what she had imagined at all.

Rainstorm wasn't much like she had imagined either. With the rumours and everyone talking – everyone hating the man – so much, she had gotten the impression that Rainstorm would be the worst of the worst. One of those horrible players who went around and just PKd for fun. And sure, the guy probably had had fun killing all those people – he certainly hadn't seemed to have any qualms about doing it in the first place, but… it had started when he – a she at the time – had stepped in to help her.

Aerith smiled faintly, leaning her cheek against her knee. RedXIII was nice and so very understanding; she liked him. Treasure Princess wasn't too bad,and she seemed all too willing to give it as bad as she got when it came to Rainstorm. Mena was just nice, the sort of confident woman Aerith wished she too could be. And Bigshot was loud, but not bad either. They were nice people, in their weird way, and they followed Rainstorm and seemed neither scared nor really all that bothered by him.

"You should think of it like he has a button," Treasure Princess had said. "And until you press that button, he's a relatively normal guy, albeit a mostly naked one. Well, sure he's bit of an asshole, but it's not so bad. He's… almost sorta kinda nice, if you can ignore the frills. Sometimes literally."

"And…. When you press the button?" Aerith had asked, dreading the answer.

"Then that sort of stuff happens," Princess said, pointing towards the Elder Tree. "Well, there's two buttons, but they pretty much go together with him. Sexual harassment and bounty hunters. Present him with one of those two things – or both – and we get the Killer Bunny for a while, and have to deal with the consequences."

That, Aerith had to admit, didn't sound too bad. She still wasn't sure about Rainstorm's complete disregard for the innocent bystanders, but… well, it was a game. And whole lot of people had, sort of, been asking for it.

Time would tell what the guy really was like. For now Aerith was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. At least she didn't have anything to worry about from the guy, seeing that he had a big massacre trigger for sexual harassment and seemed to be in an extremely cute relationship already, so…. And at least his guild seemed to be nice – and he took suggestions and advice and the occasional loud pointed insult very well. Definite a step up from Tseng.

"Aerith! Are you awake?" Elmyra called from outside her room, knocking on the door.

"Yeah, Mom," she said and hopped to her feet as the door was opened.

Elmyra glanced inside, towards the VRDC which made her frown ever so slightly, and then looked at her. "Tseng is here," she said then, and Aerith's good mood evaporated. "He wants to talk with you."

That was the downside of her plan – the fact that Tseng was an over controlling, overprotective creep both inside and outside the game. Aerith sighed. "Yeah, okay. I'll be right there," she said and Elmyra gave her an awkward, sad smile and stepped out, leaving her to change.

Stupid Tseng and stupid Turks. Some of them were nice, some of them she didn't mind – Cissnei was nice, especially when she came out of uniform and for a little while they could pretend like she wasn't there doing a job. She was pretty much the closest Aerith had ever gotten to having a girl friend. The others… well, she didn't mind Reno, but he was a bit too much. Tseng….

Tseng could be nice. But he could also be a righteous ass.

Sighing, Aerith pulled her nightshirt off and went about putting some clothes on before running a brush through her hair and tying it up. She was tempted to take her sweet time with it, but that would just mean her mom would have to endure the awkward small talk longer, and really, she might as well just get this over with.

After a quick stop by the bathroom to brush her teeth, she headed downstairs where Tseng was standing by the door, stiff backed and blank faced. "Good morning, Tseng," Aerith greeted him and smothered a smile at his twitch. "You look tense. Didn't you sleep well?"

His eyes narrowed and without a word he turned on his heel and walked out. Aerith looked after him, not very impressed by the theatrics, but sighed and followed the fool of a man anyway.

"I told you… not to leave Alexandria," Tseng said once they were outside and out of Elmyra's hearing range.

"Yes, and I told you I was bored, that I actually wanted to play the game, and that you were being an overbearing, annoying, overprotective ass," Aerith answered and shrugged her shoulders.

"I told you something bad would happen," Tseng added, giving her a glare.

"Yeah, I guess you did," Aerith answered. How had he known anyway? No way could he have known that she'd end up running into Rainstorm. "And something did, yeah, but… it was pretty interesting too, don't you think?" she asked and smiled. "Certainly more exciting than Alexandria."

"Aerith," Tseng started and then stopped and just looked at her. "You should… it's not safe. Out there. You should get back to Alexandria where –"

"Why did you get me the game, Tseng?" she asked. "You went through a whole lot of trouble to get me in, didn't you? The game itself, it's cheap, but the connection? Why did you go through all that trouble? Just to make me as much a prisoner there, as I'm here?"

He scowled and looked away.

"I want to… do stuff," Aerith said, crossing her hands behind her back and peering upwards, to the bottom of the Sector Five plate. "Stuff I can't do here. I want to go out and see the sky, even if it's all virtual. I want to run around and fight monsters, maybe even befriend a couple of them. I want to see things and meet people and… and in Terra Online I can."

"You can meet people in Alexandria," Tseng answered.

"Yeah, all of them vetted by you, which means I already know all of them in real life," Aerith murmured and smiled. "Less than an hour out, and I met some interesting folks and I'm pretty sure most of them have never even seen Midgar. I like that."

"Yeah, and one of those people is Rainstorm the player killer," Tseng said, giving her a look. "Why did you fall in with his lot anyway?"

"I was in spot of trouble, sort of. And he saved me. It was a huge surprise too, him falling in on me like that. Pretty cool too, now that I think about it. He's not at all like the rumours make him out to be, either," Aerith shrugged and then smiled slyly.

He glared at her. "He destroyed the Elder Tree."

"I destroyed a whole lot more of it than he did," Aerith shrugged and her smile widened. "Did you see my profile? I think I have a higher bounty than you have!"

"You don't," Tseng grumbled, looking away. "But if you stay with that man, you might end up with a higher one. You do realise what sort of trouble that would be? If you're not going to come back to Alexandria, then you should at least look for some better company."

Aerith chuckled, grinning. "You didn't look at my profile before logging off, did you? He started a guild. And I joined it."

"No," Tseng said, disbelieving. "You wouldn't."

"I did," Aerith said proudly. "Its name is OVERKILL and it is already awesome."

He opened his mouth, closed it, and then sighed, running a hand over his face. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked plaintively. "This is serious, Aerith!"

"No, Tseng, it isn't. It's a game," Aerith counteracted. "It's a game with elves and werewolves and bunny people in scanty underwear-esque armour, and it is not serious in the slightest. Its people like you and the Overseers who take it too damn seriously that make it that way. Rainstorm and his group? They just want to have good times in the game. And that's what I want too. I want to run around and have fun, to see new things and enjoy myself. Not… sit around in stuffy old Alexandria like a freaking doll while you network with your freaking spies all over the darn planet."

He looked taken aback for a moment. "You really think that?" he asked.

"I know… that you use Terra Online and the Overseers as just another tool for the Turks. For training or for information gathering or whatever. For passing instructions to spies and assassins and whatever," Aerith murmured, looking away. "It probably works for you but… I think that's a waste. I guess it makes some things easier, for the Turks, but… I don't think that's why the game was made. And besides, no matter how you play the game, I'm not a Turk. So why do I have to play it like it's part of my job? I don't have a job!"

The Turk eyed her silently for a moment and then looked away with a sigh. "I still don't like you being with that guy. He's not… exactly the good sort of company."

"How would you know? You've never met him. I find him an extremely good sort of company," Aerith answered with a huff. "Him and the OVERKILL. They've been much nicer to me than your lot has been. And they definitely won't be smothering me with stupid overprotective tendencies."

Tseng just sighed again at that. Then, after a moment, he chuckled. "I set a guild bounty on that man."

"On Rainstorm? Why? How much?" Aerith asked, turning to him with surprise.

"As a punishment, I suppose. Two thousand to the person who kills him… five thousand to the one who corpse camps him."

"Oh for Gaia's sake, Tseng!" Aerith groaned, running a hand over her face.

The Turk chuckled. "Can't say he doesn't deserve it, considering the damage he's done."

"I did more! I did most of the damage really. Does that mean that you'll put a guild bounty on my head too?"

"Of course not," Tseng said calmly.

"That's not fair. Not to me and not to him," Aerith grumbled and then considered it. Rainstorm though… was probably adjusted to it. "What are people saying about me? My bounty – my actual bounty – is higher than his."

Tseng hesitated and then shrugged. "People want to kill him more than they care about you. But you'll have bounty hunters after you too. You would, even if you didn't have a bounty on your head. Everyone who associates with him is target by, well… association."

"Yeah, they told me," Aerith sighed. "That's not fair either, but whatever. OVERKILL is used to it, and I will get used to it too. And besides…" she smiled, thinking back to what Rainstorm had said – how the guild all had groaned at it. It was probably something Rainstorm said a lot, but he was right. "It definitely makes things interesting."

Tseng sighed again, shaking his head and leaning against the side of the house. "What is he like then?" he asked. "Since I apparently don't know him and the rumours are wrong about him. Now that you've met him… what's he like?"

Aerith considered it and smiled. It was hard to say, really, but from what she'd seen… "He's full hearted," she said. Everything, from fighting perverts, to destroying towns, to talking, to caring for his boyfriend, Rainstorm seemed to do everything with a full heart and no regrets. Sure he had hesitated a bit while creating a guild, but… "He does everything without dithering and I don't think he regrets much. He's… very lively. I like him." Well, as much as she knew him. But she'd had a chance to talk with the people he'd surrounded himself with and they all seemed to like the man.

"And yet he kills people left and right," Tseng grumbled.

"Only when he's pushed into it," Aerith shrugged. "I think if he was left alone, there'd be no murders at all, but…" she shrugged. Rainstorm was what he was, and he had bit of a reputation now. And judging by the way things had gone… so would OVERKILL. So would she.

"I still don't like it," Tseng said, giving her a look. "I don't like it at all."

"Too bad," Aerith answered and smiled.

Chapter Text

Over the course of the day, Tuesti ran Cloud through a variety of virtual reality simulations, most of them for designers and developers. He also put Cloud through the basic training programs a couple of times to demonstrate where the basic structure of Terra Online came from.

"You've been using it from the start, though," Tuesti said while Cloud wielded a simulated sword against a generic simulated opponent. The feel of the combat simulation was a little different from Terra Online – the physics in the simulation were different – but a lot of it was the same. The weight of the weapon, the way it felt to swing it, and the way it felt when it hit something, a lot of that was exactly the same. Some of it was different though. Rainstorm's reach and strength and agility, for one, were missing. For another, everything was heavier.

It was closer to reality than Terra Online. And yet…

Cloud spun past the blade making for him and finished his opponent by a rough slice across the throat. "Yeah, it feels similar," he said, spinning the blade in his hand. It was smaller than what he used in Terra Online, and still heavier, and it felt off somehow. "It's still not exactly like it. Not exactly like reality either."

"Well, it is a training program," the man shrugged, while Cloud's opponent disintegrated and vanished. "Intended for the learning of sword arts. You can add your own physical limitations to a hundred percent reality into it, but sometimes those limitations are pretty detrimental. The idea is to teach the right way to the mind here, and then go about teaching it to the body in real life – or in MVR. Do you know why you have such a hard time learning skills in Terra Online?"

Cloud frowned. "It has something to do with my body, I guess," he said. "Mena thinks I'm suited for heavier, bigger swords and she's right, I think, but… I'm not as tall as Rainstorm, not in real life. Nor as strong. So there is a separation that makes it disconnect, somehow."

"Very good. There is another thing too, though," Reeve said. "You still don't know swordplay, not well enough, not yet. Your Braver is an extremely basic, extremely simple attack when you think about it. Jump and downwards swipe, basic stuff. What makes it a skill is the precision you need to use it – precision both when you jump and when you deliver the attack which is done while in the air. Considering that, what can you extrapolate about what your next skill might be like?"

While Cloud thought about it, Reeve walked around him, considering him. "A lot of what's possible in Terra Online is based on your own body potential. Yours is… somewhat strange, I admit, but very interesting too. Heavy swords and precision. And you knew that too, right from the start. You've put all your stat points into Strength and Dexterity after all. Why?"

Cloud shrugged. At the time he had figured that as a Viera, it would make sense but… he didn't really do things the optimal way for a Viera, did he. Sighing he rested the sword against his shoulder and glanced at Tuesti. "So, what would be my next skill then?" he asked.

"Honestly, I think it will be a combo attack," Tuesti shrugged. "You've been trying single attacks, single thrusts and swings and swipes and they all work… but they don't optimise your potential the way skills do. Braver indicated a sort of over use of strength and also precision, yes, but also certain a sort of flashiness. So… whatever the attack will be like, I think it will be something of an overkill."

Cloud rolled his eyes at the man's chuckling. "Okay, a combo attack, will have to try that," he mused. "What's the point in this all, though? All these simulations? Or are you putting me through these things just to see how I do?"

Tuesti smiled. "In part, yes, but mostly I want you to adapt to thinking of virtual realities as a malleable systems. In Terra Online you conform to the rules in the end. I want you out of that mind set," he said, looking around them in the virtual training room. "Terra Online isn't a perfect world. It is full of flaws and errors and weak points and I want to see you take advantage of them all. The battle system, I think, will be easiest for you to start with. Once you break it and make it yours, everything else should follow neatly."

"And then?" Cloud asked frowning.

"Then, I think, you can start hacking the system," Tuesti looked at him plainly

"…Hacking?!" Cloud asked, surprised. "You want me to hack Terra Online?"

"Yes," the man nodded and smiled. "Don't look so shocked. There are two types of hackers – those who abuse the system to their own ends, and those who test it to find flaws and errors so that they can be fixed. You will be the latter sort. It's my hope that eventually you'll be able to find the flaws and the errors, the holes and the weak points. And that eventually… you can use those things to find Vincent."

Tuesti smiled and looked away. "We developers look at Virtual Realities in a certain way, as something we can make and mould and fix. When I start looking for flaws, all I find is things that I want to develop further, systems I want to evolve. I need someone with different mind-set. Someone who looks at the system and instead of something to perfect, he'll see something to simply take advantage of. Terra Online is a creation for Cait Sith and for me; it's an art work, the worth of which is in what it is. For you… it's a tool to use."

"So all this talk about self-betterment and whatnot –"

Tuesti shrugged. "Well, I certainly wouldn't mind if you made use of it in real life. But yes, I'm trying to make you both see and figure out how you can use the system to your own ends. And inspire you to do it. Is it working?"

"Yeah, I guess," Cloud sighed. "Dunno how I feel about it, really, though. I want to play Terra Online the same as everyone, not… break the system, or whatever."

"Nothing stops you from enjoying the game. I'm not telling you to cheat," Tuesti laughed. "Just… find different ways to play. Terra Online doesn't actually have rules, you know. It never did, it only has limitations. Besides… you have things heaped against you in the game. You're practically collecting handicaps. So how about a bit of an advantage?"

"I suppose," Cloud sighed. He still wasn't sure about any of this, but… at least Tuesti seemed to know what the end game was. And if it would help them find Vincent, well… there were worse things. Probably.

Tuesti smiled. "I think this is about enough for today," he said and finished the simulation. A moment later Cloud found himself in the high tech chair, staring at the inside of the visor that informed him that he had spent 204 minutes in the simulation and perhaps he ought to get something to eat now.

"The helmet is telling me to eat," Cloud said while Tuesti took off his own helmet.

"Yes, we needed to add in security measures to keep our developers and programmers from skipping meals," the man laughed. "Which reminds me, do you have a place to stay for the night?"

"…Not really. I didn't think I'd be out of the infantry this fast," Cloud sighed, and took his helmet off. All his things were still in the infantry barracks too – though, he hadn't really brought that much to begin with. "I guess I have to go to a hotel, or something."

"I have a guest room, you're welcome to it until you find yourself a place to stay," Tuesti said and stood up. "Probably best you stay with me for a little while anyway, while I talk you through your future duties."

"…Not entirely sure I like the idea of working even during my off hours," Cloud frowned. Nor did he know how he liked the idea of staying in Tuesti's presence. The man occasionally gave him some major creeps. Being in the same house while he slept…

The Department Head glanced at him pointedly. "You will be using VRDC in your sleep, won't you?"

"Yeah, but…" Cloud trailed away. "Actually, my VRDC was issued by ShinRa Health and Medicine. I… probably have to hand that back now that I'm not in the infantry anymore. How did I get out of the infantry this fast anyway?"

Tuesti smiled amusedly at him. "Do you really think that I, as a Department Head, need to go through the proper channels? All I needed to do was to inform your superior officer that I'd taken you into my department and that was it. ShinRa, you might not be aware, is extremely corrupt."

"…Wonderful," Cloud groaned, running a hand over his face.

"Come on," Tuesti said. "Let's shut the floor down and get out of here. Do you want to pick your things from the barracks? Then meet me in the cafeteria in half an hour and I'll take you home."

"Do you have to say it like that?" Cloud asked grumpily. "I am not your date."

"No. You're my asset," Tuesti grinned at him.

Cloud glared at him suspiciously. "You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?"

The developer grinned and walked off. "Half an hour, Strife. Don't keep me waiting."

The guys at the barracks gave him some narrowed looks and, while Cloud changed out of uniform and into his civilian clothes and as he emptied his overhead shelf, he could hear them muttering. There were a few mumbled traitors and cowards from his former bunk mates, which he had pretty much expected. The infantry didn't exactly look up to the people who quit. Not that his fellow troopers had exactly looked up to him before either.

Cloud endured it to the point where he had his things and turned to leave, only to find the other guys barring his way to the door. He looked at them as they lounged there, suspiciously casual with their legs out stretched so that he couldn't walk past them.

"Do you really wanna do this, guys?" he asked.

"I don't know, quitter. What are we doing, exactly?" one of them asked, folding his arms. "I'm not doing anything. How about you guys?"

"Just hanging around," another said almost casually.

Cloud glanced between them and smothered the urge to sigh. They hadn't… quite bothered him, since they had become part of the same squad. He had always been the smallest and weakest, sure, and to his annoyance the prettiest too… but while that had gotten him shoved around, hazed and not so kindly propositioned a lot in basic training, in actual duty it was different. The others knew that screwing around might get them kicked out of the army, after all. So mostly he had been left alone, a lot. Left behind in patrolling, left behind when the others headed to mess hall, left behind everywhere. And whenever the others had headed off to town, they very pointedly never invited him. He hadn't minded, really. Bars weren't his scene, as it was.

And that had been, what, respect shown to a fellow trooper? And now that he no longer was, all bets were off. Wonderful.

"Go on, quitter," Jaise, who usually was pretty decent with him, jeered. "Leave. We're not stopping you."

Cloud snorted at that and eyed the distance between himself and the door. About four meters. Four meters, and seven guys all bigger and stronger than him. No way would he get there without severe bruising and bleeding. And wouldn't that be fun, showing up at the HQ cafeteria to meet with Tuesti, all the while needing medical care.

Cloud narrowed his eyes, glancing from guy to guy. With so much VR behind him, with the whole day spent talking about Terra Online, he couldn't help but think; if this was the game, these guys would all be under level five. They were big but clumsy, barely trained, and they made a poor party. None of them had weapons, or armour. The quarters were cramped.

If he was Rainstorm, he could do this without breaking a sweat. If he was Rainstorm… he could jump right over them.

He wasn't Rainstorm, though. He didn't have a Viera's jumping abilities, nor the speed, the strength, the agility. Except… some of that was based on him. A lot of it was based on him, on his own potential. Not what he was capable of, no, how his body was, but what it could be. And what had Tuesti said again, about Cloud Strife being used to failing? And in the meantime, Rainstorm… was used to no such thing.

If he did nothing he'd just get beat up. So really, what did he have to lose?

"Mind over matter," Cloud murmured. While the nearest guy blinked at him he threw his bag past the guys and through the door, into the hallway. Then he jumped ahead.

The leg in his way turned into a stepping stone and he kicked off from it and over the second one. When the third guy tried to reach for him, Cloud grabbed the hand in his way and tugged the guy out of balance and somehow landed onto his back, crouching there and then kicking off again. Somehow he ended doing a damn flip over the fourth guy, and there was the fifth guy, in his way. Cloud twisted in air and landed feet first on the guy's chest, sending him backwards and then he was already jumping forward, reaching for the next one, grabbing him by the shoulders and using them for leverage, pushing up, flipping over him. The last guy he almost accidentally kicked out of the way and then…

Then he was at the door, with seven very confused looking guys staggering in the room behind him.

"Fuck," Cloud murmured. Sure he had always been sort of agile himself, and he had been decent in what little gymnastic type of exercises they had had in basic, but… "Fuck," he said again with more feeling.

"What the fuck?!" one of the guys asked, and spun around. "You son of a bitch!"

"Well, that's a déjà vu," Cloud murmured as his brain caught up on the fact that he had managed to get away, pretty much unscathed. That would only last for as long as he managed to keep his distance. So he spun around, grabbed his bag from the floor, and got the hell out of there.

His mind was still catching onto what he had done, a little unsure how exactly he had done it, when he made it to the ShinRa HQ cafeteria. Tuesti wasn't there yet, so Cloud sank to the nearest table, rewinding the incident in his head. How the hell had he done that? What had he actually done?

He had… well, not quite fought, but that was how he moved as Rainstorm while fighting. Sort of anyway. Rainstorm was an agile type of fighter, ducking past weapons and going for single hit kills. Cloud hadn't quite done that, but… the movements were similar.

Did that mean that Tuesti was right? That… he could really do some of the things Rainstorm could, and the only reason he hadn't been able to so far was because he hadn't actually really tried? If he could move like Rainstorm, could he fight like him too? Mena had told him that Rainstorm's stats were based on his own body and abilities and he hadn't really believed. He still wasn't sure but…

It had been so easy. How the hell had it been so easy when for years everything had been so hard?

"Strife?" He heard Tuesti ask and looked up to see the man watching him with a frown. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Cloud said and stood up. There were people staring, the staff of the cafeteria, a couple random employees, a few guys wearing SOLDIER uniforms. He barely even saw them. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Did… something happen?" Tuesti asked, still looking at him worriedly. "You look shaken."

Cloud looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He quickly squeezed them into fists. "I'm fine," he said and smiled. Fuck was even happening right now? He had no idea. He felt a little like he was stuck in a game, in a simulation, and the physics made no sense. But… if he could do it again, if he could actually bring Rainstorm out like that again…

He straightened his back and lowered his hands. "I'm fine," he said a third time and this time he actually believed it. "Shall we go?"

Tuesti looked at him a moment longer and then nodded. "Alright. Let's go."

Chapter Text

Vincent couldn't remember being so comfortable. It was all simulated, of course, all of it fake, but… for the first time he allowed himself to enjoy that simulated comfort, sink into it. The bed, ridiculous as it was, was soft, and the tent was, despite everything, safe. So much so that he had allowed himself to drift in and out of sleep for the past hours, letting himself rest in luxurious indolence the like which he hadn't allowed himself in… ever. Or as long as he knew.

And Rainstorm… Rainstorm was still warm. Had been warm for hours, despite lying there, immobile, silent, still.

 "I remember something like this," Vincent murmured against Rainstorm's shoulder. "I can't… I can't recall what it was, where it happened. But I remember this. Just lying down somewhere, being lazy, being comfortable. It was warm then too."

He shifted his head a little to see Rainstorm's face. The man was all but dead, so stationary he was. He was still breathing his simulated breaths and Vincent could both hear and feel it, but there was emptiness there. The mind behind Rainstorm wasn't there, and Vincent could feel the absence of it.

"I think there was someone there with me," Vincent murmured to the player. Rainstorm, of course, didn't answer, and for a moment Vincent allowed himself to examine the man's face. Connotations and all that aside, Rainstorm was good looking. Both in and out of the game.

Maybe he should tell the man. Tell him that sometimes, he could see through the player avatars. They were like masks, usually solid but sometimes… sometimes things were blurry for him. Sometimes textures turned into blank grids, sometimes objects became masses of lines and fractals and sometimes he saw humans, rather than players. Or beasts, in RedXIII's case.

But… probably he shouldn't tell. There was a reason why Rainstorm had chosen such a different looking avatar, probably. Right now all Vincent could see was the mask of Rainstorm, the dark skin, the white hair of the Viera. The golden haired player wasn't there.

With a hum, Vincent reached his right hand out and cautiously touched the white hair. Shorter than the player's actual hair, but… they probably had the same texture. Maybe. It was hard to say, through the glove. He considered the strand of white hair between his fingers for a moment. Rainstorm had said that touching was okay, after all. That he didn't need to ask. Of course the man wasn't there and Vincent had a feeling that this probably wasn't quite the same thing, but…

He shifted a bit, burying his nose in Rainstorm's hair.

Oh, it was soft. It was very soft, almost downy. A little like fur actually. Which reminded Vincent of the ear and made him reach for the nearest one where it lay, slightly lopsided against the pillows. It, unlike rest of Rainstorm, wasn't warm. Of course not. It wasn't real. But it was soft.

"Mmm," Vincent hummed, shifting until he could bury his face in the downy white softness just where Rainstorm's human ear would've been, if he' had one. There he dozed off for a while, right up until he felt the body against him tense a little.

"Vincent?" Rainstorm asked and Vincent froze for a split second before quickly making to pull away. In a flash Rainstorm had him by the back of his head, fingers digging into his hair, tangling. "What the hell?" Rainstorm demanded, turning his head and making the strands of white brush against Vincent's cheek and that felt nice too.

"I'm sorry," Vincent said awkwardly and winced as the hand in his hair clutched harder. "It… won't happen again –"

"No, I'm going to need an actual explanation," Rainstorm said, looking up at him and blinking a little blearily.

"It… it's soft," Vincent admitted awkwardly, tense and wondering how much it would hurt, if he tore himself loose from the hold Rainstorm had on his hair.

"What is?" the player asked, giving him an annoyed look.

"…Your hair."

"…My hair? Wait, you were –? Oh," the player blinked and then sighed, running a hand over his face. "Oh, my hair. Of course," he said and released Vincent's hair, wrapping his arm around his shoulders instead and pulling him down and against him. "Sorry," he said, stroking a hand over Vincent's shoulder apologetically. "Shouldn't have grabbed your hair like that. You just surprised me."

Vincent blinked at the man's chin with surprise and then looked up. "What did you think I was doing?" he asked, confused.

Rainstorm smiled, looking a little sheepish. "Going for my throat," he admitted. "You kinda look like a vampire, you know."

"A… vampire?"

"Yeah. Evil dark creature of the night that comes upon hapless people and bites their necks and sucks their blood," the player said with a chuckle. "Sorry, sorry," he said, patting Vincent's shoulder. "It's been a weird day," he said and then turned so that he was lying on his side, and Vincent was all but nestled against his chest. "So, how was the day for you, in the tent? Did you get bored?"

"Not really. I slept a lot," Vincent admitted, slowly relaxing again now that it didn't seem like there'd be any fighting, and Rainstorm wouldn't… do something.

"Did you stay warm?" Rainstorm asked, soft.

Vincent looked down and nodded, embarrassed. He had all but cuddled the man through the long hours. It had been… nice.

"Good. That's good," Rainstorm murmured, petting his hair for a moment before opening a command menu in the air above them. "Doesn't look like anyone else's online yet," he said and leaned his forehead against Vincent's hair. "This is nice. And I don't feel like going anywhere or doing anything just yet, so let's just stay here for a moment."

"…Okay," Vincent answered softly. He certainly didn't mind staying in the invincible protection of the tent for a moment. Especially not if Rainstorm kept petting him. The whole pet thing aside, it… felt nice.

"Got some things I need to tell you anyway," Rainstorm murmured against his hair. "How much do you remember about the real world?"

Vincent frowned. "I don't… know? I wouldn't know. It's not as if I can remember what I've forgotten, after all."

"Do you know Midgar? Or ShinRa?"

Vincent scowled. They sounded familiar. Midgar, he thought, was a place. It brought to his mind metal and jagged support structures like claws sticking out at the sky. And ShinRa… ShinRa he knew. "It's a company. ShinRa is. They make this place?"

"Hm," Rainstorm hummed and nodded. "ShinRa the Electric Power Company, though they do so much more these days. Midgar is a city they pretty much built, and where ShinRa operates from, more or less. ShinRa's Headquarters are there. VRDC, the Virtual Reality Dream Console which we players use to get into the game, is their technology. And this place, the game Terra Online, was also created by them. Specifically by the Urban Development Department of ShinRa. Do you follow me?"

"Yeah," Vincent murmured. The words made sense and he could connect them, could almost remember.

"I work in ShinRa."

Vincent tensed a little at that and then lifted his head. Rainstorm smiled wryly, lifting a hand to Vincent's cheek and pushing aside some strands of hair. "Yeah," the player said. "I used to be an infantry man, a trooper. Today I got a new job. In Urban Development."

"Did you… why …" Vincent frowned as the words trailed off. Job, he know what that was. Maybe anyway. Infantry man; that he knew too. Going from that, to working with technology? That… didn't make sense. "How?"

"Terra Online's administrator – who, it turns out, is also the Head of Urban Development and the head of Virtual Reality Research – tracked me down and recruited me," Rainstorm snorted. "Because of stuff that's been happening in the game and because of some things I've done. He thinks I've got… talent, for work in Virtual Reality."

"Is that a good thing?" Vincent asked, because he wasn't sure. It sounded… ominous, actually, and something about it made him feel uneasy.

"Maybe. Hopefully. The administrator is a weird, weird man, but… I think he has the right intentions. I was brought in pretty much because of you, though," Rainstorm admitted. "Because my so called abilities might help them find you, in the real world."

"Oh," Vincent murmured. "So you will be… looking for me, there?"

"That's the idea," Rainstorm nodded, smiling. "I have no idea how long it will take, how hard it will be. I can't even promise we will succeed. But I will try."

Vincent looked away from the man. "I'm putting you through a lot of trouble," he said, frowning.

Rainstorm snorted and leaned in, turning Vincent to face him so their foreheads touched. "It's not so bad. Actually, it's a pretty huge leap ahead in life for me. Plus, I get to play around in virtual realities both for business and for pleasure, and it turns out I do have something of a talent with this stuff. It's not bad," he said and smiled. "No need to feel guilty about it. Say thank you."

Vincent shifted awkwardly. He could see the player behind the avatar again. Their eyes were exactly the same vivid sky blue. It was… a little disorienting. "Thank you," he murmured.

"Good," Rainstorm said and settled back down again, relaxing. "I'll probably end up logging into the game more now," he added. "And my schedule will change, we'll see how that will affect everything. Plus we'll probably be seeing Cait Sith more too. There are things about virtual realities I need to learn, and he's the best teacher. But I made sure that when we're in this tent, we'll be left alone, so there's that."

Vincent frowned. "Whenever you talk with him, can I stay here?" he asked.

Rainstorm chuckled. "If you want to. I'll put the tent up anytime you ask, I promise," he said.

They lay there quietly for a long moment before Vincent broke the silence. "Will you still be playing normally?" he asked. "With the others?"

"Yeah, I will. Wouldn't want all their hard work to go to waste and besides, it's fun," Rainstorm smiled and then narrowed his eyes a little at the tent ceiling. "I just will be doing a bit more, and stuff that's not necessarily normal, in the game," he said and looked at Vincent. "There's actually something I'd like to try right now, before the others log in… but it might be a bit dangerous."

"Like what?" Vincent asked, uncertain.

"I want to find myself a group of bounty hunters and take them on," Rainstorm said and then sat up, releasing Vincent. "I've got some theories about the battle system I want to test."

Vincent considered him and then sighed and sat up. "I thought you were going to avoid stuff like that," he said.

"I was. I will, when the others are logged in. When they aren't though…" the player shrugged and smiled. "If you want to stay here and safe, I can leave the tent here. I don't know if that will work, though, if it will stay up, if you can stay here, without me. We might have distance issues."

"No, I'll come with you," Vincent scoffed. "What's this theory you want to test, though? Can't you do it without inviting other people to kill you?"

"Not really," Rainstorm said and grinned. "And I can't really say what the theory is, it's bunch of different things, it's kind of hard to explain, but it has a lot to do how people interact with the game," he said and stood up from the bed. "I do it a bit differently, it turns out. I wanna see how far that will take me."

Vincent sighed, but followed him out of the tent. The tents of the others were clustered around Rainstorm's larger Two-Man Tent. Vincent looked at them thoughtfully, while Rainstorm collected his tent, putting it into his inventory.

"Now, let's see," Rainstorm murmured and opened a window.

Rainstorm LV. 14

[RACE] Viera
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 3
[JOB] Black Smith LV. 11
[STR] 23 (+57)
[DEF] 8 (+75)
[VIT] 7 (+22)
[SPD] 12 (+13)
[AGI] 13 (+14)
[DEX] 24 (+10)
[INT] 11 (+2)
[WIS] 13 (+6)

"Okay," Rainstorm said. "This, plus the all stats +20% which I get from Rabbit of Caerbannog…" he considered it for a moment and then smiled. It was an unnerving, almost evil sort of smile. "It's not actually that bad, when you think about it. I think I can really do this."

"Can do what?" Vincent asked, uneasy. What the hell was the man planning now?

Rainstorm grinned at him with a glint in his eyes as he closed the window and opened another. He send a quick, empty message to RedXIII, dumping all of his money – all 1728 Gold, 53 Silver and 64 Copper – into it. Then he opened number of other windows, where text shifted and changed in rapid succession, and user names flashed by quickly. Chat rooms, Vincent mused.

"Knew it," Rainstorm said, pointing at a window titled That Viera Bastard. "Looks like there are still plenty of people looking out for me. Excellent," he said and closed the windows before cracking his knuckles. "Now. Let's find me some bounty hunters."

That, it turned out, wasn't hard in the slightest. Less than ten minutes after leaving the place where they had camped, Rainstorm walked out into another clearing, one where a party of seven players was camped, crafting and cooking and checking their equipment judging by the looks of it. While Vincent kept his distance and stayed out of sight as per Rainstorm's instructions, the Viera waved his hand in cheerful greeting.

"Sup?" Rainstorm said. "Lovely day isn't it?"

The other players stared at him for a moment in blank incomprehension, before one of them let out a gasp and shouted "Rainstorm!" and then they were all ditching their previous activities and drawing weapons instead. Vincent watched it all from the shelter of a couple of trees, still uncertain what the hell Rainstorm was thinking. It looked a little like the man had gone mad, actually. He didn't even draw a sword.

"He still has his bounty! We've got to kill him!" one of the players shouted. There were two gunners in the party, two warriors, one of them a paladin, a black mage, a white mage, and the last one was an assassin. A relatively well balanced team, as far as Vincent could judge these things.

They worked very well in a team too. The paladin immediately dashed forward, shield at the ready to cover others, while the gunners pulled out their weapons and the black mage began preparing a spell. The assassin dashed after the paladin, to attack from the paladin's cover, and the white mage was already preparing healing spells. Obviously a team that had fought together before, many times. Long enough to know how to work as a team.

Vincent took out his weapon and got ready to fire, when Rainstorm – who still hadn't drawn a weapon – moved. He dashed forward, almost dancing past the paladin and for a moment Vincent though the Viera was about to suicide on the assassin's dual swords, when Rainstorm reached behind him, grabbed the paladin by the straps of his armour and twisted. A moment later, the paladin was skewered on the assassin's swords, both of the players looking shocked.

Rainstorm narrowed his eyes and then jumped at the paladin's back, knocking the Ronso into the Elf assassin, sending them both into the ground with the Viera's weight bearing them both down. There was a cry of pain and Vincent could see the swords pushing right through the paladin, but… it wasn't causing any damage.

"Theory one proven, theory two disproved," Rainstorm said, took out his sword, and just skewered both the paladin and the elf in a single downward thrust, putting all his weight onto the sword so that it imbedded itself, almost to the ground, and then… he twisted, wrenching the sword around and prompting two instant death messages.

"You son of a bitch!" the black mage howled and sent a wave of fire at Rainstorm, only to have the Viera flatten himself to the ground beside the downed Ronso and the Elf assassin. The gunners were both now firing madly and the white mage prepared healing spells. In the meantime, Rainstorm had pulled the Ronso paladin off the Elf, and used him for cover, taking in the situation.

"Oh," Vincent murmured, transfixed. It was… so very cruel. The Ronso player had just resurrected, and could do nothing as the other players bombarded him with their weapons fire. It did no damage to the man's HP, but it obviously hurt judging by the way the man shouted before they realised who they were hitting. The moment they stopped firing, Rainstorm pushed forward and into the nearest gunner, knocking the Ronso at her and then following with his sword. Another two death messages and before the others could recover, Rainstorm was already rushing forward.

Whatever teamwork the people had was utterly destroyed. The second gunner was skewered in ice lances sent by the black mage who tried to aim at Rainstorm, only to have him push the gunner into the attack, before using the gunner as a shield and going at the black mage. It was ruthless, so cruel and so very efficient, as Rainstorm used the party members against each other and to his advantage and all but demolished the party from the cover of its own members. The white mage, last one to live, died the quickest, with Rainstorm's sword through her chest.

"And that's that," the Viera said, pulling the sword out and letting the white mage drop beside her teammates. "That's what you get for being greedy. I just wanted to say hello," he said, and crouched down beside dead players, prodding the white mage with his finger. None of them resurrected. They apparently knew better. "You could've just said hello back and ignored me, but noo…"

Vincent shook his head. The man was unbelievable. Theory. What theory – that he could grab people and move them against their will? What sort of theory was that? Or… what, actually, was going on here? What had Rainstorm just done?

Rainstorm snorted and stood up. "Well, this was fun. Be seeing you around," he said to the dead party and turned to head away, humming and whirling his weapon idly. Vincent fingered his gun tensely, but the party remained dead until Rainstorm was out of sight, and even then they waited for a moment before resurrecting and rushing at each other, full of apologies and horror at what had just happened.

Rainstorm was grinning at the scene they made. "Bit of a pity, but I guess it makes sense," he said.

"What does?" Vincent asked.

"That friendly fire isn't a thing in Terra Online. I was hoping that I could get them to kill each other, but apparently party members can't damage each other," Rainstorm said, sighing. "Still, they could take hits for me, so there's that. I think I need to practice a bit more, but I think I can make this work."

"Uh…" Vincent just stared at him for a moment in incomprehension before shaking his head. Unbelievable. "What was the theory?" he asked.

Rainstorm shrugged. "People don't really know how to play this game. Or… maybe they do and I'm the one who plays it wrong. Either way…" he trailed off and grinned. "Come on. Let's find another group. I want to practice."

Vincent looked after him as Rainstorm headed off, still idly whirling his blade. The golden haired young man shone right through the Viera shell, and he looked… different somehow. Of course Vincent hadn't seen enough of him to really tell – just glimpsed really, never quite the full picture, but…

He looked stronger.

Chapter Text

Cait Sith idly kicked the air, sitting on a tree branch just above a clearing where Rainstorm was fighting. A day with Reeve, with playing around in virtual realities, and the difference in Rainstorm was already visible. It was still kind of hard to see what it was, exactly, that Rainstorm did. Used some sort of extra sensory perceptive instincts maybe. Whatever it was, Rainstorm had kicked it up to max.

Level fourteen against eight players, all of them level thirty – and he was kicking their ass without mercy. And now, thanks to the data Reeve had fed him from Cloud Strife's first day at work, and how that data now played out, Cait Sith was starting to see why.

Virtual reality, Cait Sith knew, had its flaws and its quirks. Players didn't know it, but everything actually worked on a slight delay. It was blurred away from player perception by VRDC technology's many subtle manipulations, and people were made not to notice, but it was still there. The problem with working with a system as big and as delicate as VRDC and the planet wide network was that… well.

The problem was in the brain, and in the network and in the sad fact that the technology wasn't quite up to par. The human brain processed signals faster than the network or VRDC could interpret them – and it dished out those commands with the speed itself could handle them, which sometimes clogged the system. There was some signal delay and some signal decay. And what was more, 0.01% of player commands just didn't get passed through at all.

In normal conditions it didn't matter in the slightest. But when players were performing fast paced actions – like say, fighting? Then it was the difference between a blink and a wince, a breath and a gasp – between movement and a split of a second freeze up.

Rainstorm didn't have it anymore. Cait Sith wasn't entirely sure if he ever had. Rainstorm worked at the system's pace – had matched his own speed with it. Technically that meant that his brain worked a fraction of a percent slower than most people's. His signals weren't as fast as they ought to have been. In practice, it made him actually faster because where everyone else was slowed down by the signal delay, he had no such thing.

That wasn't all of it. But it was a key to the puzzle of what made Cloud Strife's brain so much different from other people's. Whether it was a natural mutation of his neurons or whether he had somehow subconsciously slowed himself down to rid himself of the signal delay and decay…

Either way, Rainstorm had that advantage – and it was just the start, the base work on which everything else was built upon. Whether it was thanks to how Cloud Strife was paced with the system or not, the player was more attuned to his avatar. Rainstorm was… more, than most players. Cloud Strife's control over him and his body was absolute.

It made him faster and more perceptive in a fight, obviously. All Cait Sith had to do was look at how Rainstorm grabbed another player to use as a shield, saving himself from a barrage of bullets, to see it. Rainstorm moved differently, with different precision and speed. He actually moved as his stats allowed – he wasn't just in possession of decent agility and dexterity, but he was utilising them. And most players never figured out how to do that.

Strength too. The more Rainstorm fought, the more precise his application of str was. He put it always where it hurt the most and half of the time that meant that he, despite his relatively low stats, managed to do instant kills. Rainstorm had always been a rather precise and quick fighter – the Albrook Newbie Massacre would've never worked if he hadn't. But he was getting better at it.

It was almost a pity that Rainstorm wasn't an assassin, or a ninja. He would've been magnificent as either one. But then again, Cloud Strife did everything instinctively and he had chosen Rainstorm to be a swordsman probably for a good reason.

Cait Sith smiled as the fight ended with the opponents dead and Rainstorm almost nonchalantly downing a potion to erase whatever wounds he had received. When the Viera turned, humming, to join Vincent, Cait Sith jumped to another tree, to another branch, and followed.

"I don't suppose you're done yet?" Vincent asked when Rainstorm came into hearing distance.

"Hmm… I think I've got it down now," Rainstorm said, stretching a little and grinning. "It probably won't work every time and not against higher level opponents. And maybe not at all, once word spreads. But it's definitely been a learning experience."

"And… what did you learn, exactly?" Vincent asked as they turned to head back towards where they had been camped, Cait Sith following them, silent and unseen.

"It's hard to say, actually. Something about the way people move is off. I guess that's the whole thing about people having a hard time adjusting to their avatars, to the strength and speed and movement and all that," Rainstorm said thoughtfully. "My creepy new boss said that it was an issue with people's subconscious – that because they think they can't do something, they can't. So it won't matter how strong they are in game if they don't believe they are. Something like that."

"And… you're different?"

"Apparently," Rainstorm laughed. "It sounded a little like he thought I was extra good at fooling myself, but whatever. If it works, then it works and that's more than fine with me," he said, and then nudged at Vincent's shoulder. "Cold?"

"I'm fine," the gunner said, shaking his head. "Will this new… fighting method of yours affect your situation with levelling up, with exp gain?"

"It only works against players – mobs don't have the lag people have," Rainstorm said, sighing. "And my infamy is still there, sadly. So no, it won't really affect anything. Except my future pvp fights."

"That's something, I guess," Vincent mused, and for a while they walked in silence while Cait Sith watched.

So, keeping an eye on Rainstorm had been the right decision. And Cait Sith could see the gamble Reeve was making, and maybe the man had bet on the right odds, this time. Whatever made Cloud Strife different aside, the fact was that he was different. It would be a coin toss from here on out, of course – 50% chance it would make a difference, 50% chance it wouldn't and all it would do was make Cloud Strife just an exceptional VR player.

They were, Cait Sith had to admit, pretty good chances. VR technology had started out with much lower chances. And should the coin fall on the right side and Cloud Strife would prove to be everything Reeve was hoping for then…

It was maybe a little unfair on Strife, though. All Strife knew was that Reeve wanted him to learn and improve and eventually find Vincent. What a small tip of a terrifying iceberg that was. Sure, finding Vincent, setting things right, getting him out of his imprisonment inside the system, that would be something. But after that… maybe then Reeve could actually build his VR utopia. It was a scary thought. Scary and magnificent.

For now though, training and teaching Cloud Strife would be priority. Well, one of the priorities – one of many, many priorities. Thankfully Cait Sith had no trouble dealing with multiple things at once. No way could he have moderated a system like Terra Online alone, if he had.

With a smile, Cait Sith split apart into two bodies – well, from fifty one to fifty two, the other fifty bodies being busy elsewhere, mostly with the recoding of the system. While Cait Sith number 51 stayed on the branches, to observe from above, Cait Sith number 52 jumped down and made himself visible.

Vincent noticed him first, and not so subtly moved behind Rainstorm, his firearm coming to his hand, his fingers gripping nervously. Cait Sith smiled awkwardly at that and held a paw up in greeting. "Yo," he greeted Rainstorm. "How goes it?"

"Fine," Rainstorm said, glancing between him and Vincent and sighing. "What can we do for you, Cait Sith? Or is this about the lessons?"

"In part, yeah," Cait Sith said and swiped a paw across the air, opening a commands screen. "Flower will probably be joining you in the game soon, judging by her usual logging time, though, so I'll make this short and sweet. Here," he said and pulled a string of code out the screen, "is your homework assignment. Open your map."

"Mmm?" Rainstorm said, but did as ordered, watching as Cait Sith put the command into the map. It prompted the appearance of several pins on the map. "What's this?" Rainstorm asked, frowning. A lot of the pins were on empty parts of the map – places he hadn't explored yet, and which thus didn't show.

"These all are glitches in the Great Forest of Moore," Cait Sith said. "They're pretty minor and don't hurt anybody so I haven't fixed them – plus, there are a lot of glitch hunters in the game who find stuff like this amusing. Anyway, I want you to go to at least five of these things and have a look them and then write down what you think about them and PM what you think to me."

"Is this another test?" Rainstorm asked with a frown.

"Pretty much. I wanna see how much those instincts of yours can do," Cait Sith said. "Another thing I want you to do is to head here," he said, pointing the map and adding another way point. "There is a monster that occasionally spawns there called the Magic Pot. I want you to kill at least ten of them and see what you think about it."

Rainstorm blinked and turned to look at him. "It… sounds like you're giving me a quest," he said, frowning.

Cait Sith grinned. "If you like I can even give you a quest reward for it. But I'm serious."

"Hmmm. Magic Pot. Okay, I guess it's not too far off," Rainstorm said. "I'm guessing there's a reason why you want me to kill these things. They work in special ways?"

"Something like that, yes."

Actually, the Magic Pot was another bug, but one of the more interesting ones. It had been intended to be a tricky sort of monster in the first place, one that could be only killed when the player figured out the trick for it. Something had happened when the mob had been implemented in the game though and now… now the trick was different every time. And Cait Sith wanted to see how quick Rainstorm would figure it out.

"Do you want me to go right now?" Rainstorm asked.

"If you want to. Just do what I asked sometime during this night and it'll be fine," Cait Sith shrugged. Just by being in Terra Online, Rainstorm was learning, after all, and for now Cait Sith wanted to observe more than anything else. Besides… every night Rainstorm did something different and usually something game changing and Cait Sith couldn't wait to see what the disaster of Rainstorm's fourth night was.

And he certainly had no intention of getting in the way of said disaster.

"So… that's all? You just want me to hunt for bugs and pots?" Rainstorm asked.

"For tonight, yes. Can't do much before I know how good you are, and what you need to work with," Cait Sith said and glanced at Vincent who was, judging by the looks of it, getting more and more uncomfortable. "And that's all I wanted," he added and waved a hand. "Have fun playing."

"Thanks?" Rainstorm said after him, as Cait Sith jumped back and made himself invisible. Rainstorm frowned for a moment at where he stood, unseen, and then the player shook his head. "Whatever," he said and looked at Vincent. "Wanna hunt some glitches?"

"I suppose," the gunner said, scowling in Cait Sith's direction.

Rainstorm chuckled and threw an arm around the man's waist, steering him the other way. "Come on. Let's get you away from the scene of the scary moderator."

Vincent growled. "Stop mocking me," he said, even while leaning slightly into the man.

"I'm not. I'm looking out for your mental and spiritual well-being," Rainstorm grinned, looking at the map. "Looks like there's one pretty nearby. Sweet. Here's to hoping we don't run into people while we're at it."

"Considering what you've been doing for the past hour or so, would you really mind?" the gunner asked.

"Well that's different. I pretty much arranged those fights. Having fights land on me without warning, that's different," Rainstorm grinned.

Cait Sith smiled, following them both on ground level and above in the tree branches. Who knew how things would turn out, if Cloud Strife would really be Reeve's long sought for game changing prodigy. But at least the guy wasn't bad to be around. Vincent certainly didn't seem to mind, judging by the way the man's wing hovered over Rainstorm's shoulders, almost possessive.

It was almost cute. It would probably come to bite all of them on the ass, whatever was building between the Rabbit of Caerbannog and the former Demon of the Wastes, but… it was almost cute.

Chapter Text

When Aerith logged into Terra Online, waking up in her Luxury Camping Tent, she half expected to be the first one in OVERKILL online. She wasn't. For a moment she lay there, on the tent's rather comfortable bedroll, eying the party list at the left side of her vision. Everyone else was offline, except for Rainstorm. And judging by the looks of his HP, which was missing about quarter, fighting somewhere. Opening a map, she saw his dot about four miles off to the north, more or less stationary.

"Party chat," she said and then cleared her throat. "Good evening, guild master!" she said cheerfully. "Are you about to die?"

"Hiya there, Flower! And, psh, no. I'm fighting effin flower pots, this is nothing," she heard his voice as if he just there, right beside her. "Gimme a moment to finish here, and me and Vincent will come over there."

"That's okay, I'll come meet you – you don't have a mount, right? So I'll cover the ground quicker," she answered while glancing to her right. There, the private message icon was flashing. 426 new massages. How wonderful. "Just give me a moment," she said, opening the message screen.

Most of the messages were from Overseer members, but not all of them. There were a lot of messages from people she had never heard from before. Curious, she opened a message from person named Addeath, titled OVERKILL.

[To: Flower]
[From: Addeath]
[Subject: OVERKILL]

[Hey, can ya put a word in for me to Rainstorm? I've send him a million messages but he never answers. Anyway, I wanna be in his guild. Let him know?]

"The hell," Aerith murmured.

"What was that?" Rainstorm asked.

"I got a private message from somebody who wants to be in OVERKILL. Have you been reading your messages?"

"Ah, that. I get a lot of hate mail and spam so I just have them turned off – I only get messages from people I'm friends with," Rainstorm said flippantly. "Do you know them? The one who wants to be in the guild?"

"No, I've never heard of them," Aerith admitted, scrolling through her messages. "I got a lot of similar messages, and uh…" a lot of hate mail too, once she was at the third page, going backwards in the timeline. She hadn't bothered to check her messages the previous night but now… well. There were a lot of people out there, unhappy about the whole Elder Tree thing.

She cleared her throat. "Yeah, there are a lot of people asking about OVERKILL but I don't know them. And uh, a lot of them don't look too pleasant," she added, reading one of the messages. The person who wrote it said that they'd be absolutely perfect for a murder guild like OVERKILL, telling her their murder count was almost a thousand. "Uh, Rainstorm?"

"Yeah?"

"Are we a murder guild?"

"I don't think so," Rainstorm said slowly. "Although… actually we might be more of a massacre guild now that I think about it. If we go by our track record, anyway. It kinda speaks for itself. Anyway, just ignore the people, delete the messages, whatever. I'm not inviting anyone in, no one I don't know anyway."

"Alright," Aerith murmured and selected all the messages and deleted them, checking a couple from the Overseers to get the gist of it – which was oh you horrible girl get back here and go to your room, you're grounded for life, yadda yadda. She deleted them too, thinking back to what Tseng had said, about the guild bounty on Rainstorm's head.

"Does it bother you?" Rainstorm asked.

"What does?"

"The whole massacre thing," he said. "I know I joked about it, but it's kinda heavy for someone not used to it – you didn't have any murders before yesterday, did you? So. You okay?"

Aerith considered that and then smiled. "Are you worried?" she asked. "Is Rainstorm, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, That Viera Bastard, the Slaughterer and Mass Murderer, worried?"

"Hey, you're in my guild. I gotta look after my guild," he said, grinning judging by the sound of his voice. "The others leave the killing mostly to me, when it gets down to it, because they don't want the murders and the whole thing that bothers me. You might wanna do the same in future."

Aerith chuckled awkwardly, thinking about her murder count. "I think that might be a little too late," she said and sat up, crawling out of her tent. "Anyway, I'll pack my tent up and head over to you. You going to stay where you are?"

"Yeah, we'll be right here for now. Give me a holler if you need anything," Rainstorm answered and then the connection fell silent.

Aerith smiled. Of course she had figured that Rainstorm wasn't a heartless monster or anything, and he did care at least for his older teammates – and for Vincent, who was a bit of a confusing mystery, being a pet and yet no one acted like he was. But it was good to know that the care might stretch to her too. Even if jokingly. And despite that, he trusted her to cover the distance herself, didn't even offer to come and get her. That was nice too.

Quickly Aerith packed the tent up and then summoned her Golden Chocobo, petting the bird's neck fondly before hoisting herself onto its back. Checking the map, she directed the bird's head towards Rainstorm's dot on it, and then set out.

"So," Rainstorm said, sounding a little out of breath. There was a gulping noise, and his HP jumped up a bit. "You from East Continent? Since you're logged in this early."

"Yeah," Aerith answered, hesitating for a moment before adding, "from Midgar, actually."

"Really? Me too," Rainstorm answered. "The others are from the West and Princess is obviously from Wutai. So we'll have to wait a couple more hours before they log in. Red's usually the one who logs in after me and last time he logged in about three hours after me."

"So it's just you and Vincent and me until then?" Aerith asked and smiled, sighing silently with relief. A lot of players, when they found out she was from Midgar – and who didn't already know her, as in, weren't Turks – asked to if she would like to meet them in person. There were some Terra Online meets in Midgar – a lot of them, actually – but Aerith didn't take part in them.

Rainstorm, apparently, didn't care. Probably for the best – for Rainstorm anyway. Who knew what Tseng would do if he found out who Rainstorm was in real life.

Ducking her head to avoid being brained by a low hanging tree branch, Aerith checked the map. Still a ways to go. "So, what's up with Vincent? Or can't I ask about that?"

"You can ask," Rainstorm answered and said nothing else for a while, the silence loaded and heavy. "I'll tell you what I told Bigshot and Mena, though. Touch him and die."

"I wasn't about to!" Aerith said, and she felt a little like she was supposed to laugh. But she couldn't. Because this was… this was something odd. The whole thing with Rainstorm and Vincent – she had asked the others about it the previous night but no one had really answered. It was, apparently, a Rainstorm thing and thus better left in mystery.

Rainstorm was protective of Vincent though. And acted nothing like players usually did with pets. Sure, some of them could be pretty smart but Rainstorm treated Vincent like he was a person. A somewhat stoic person who, in Rainstorm's obvious opinion, was in need of a lot of cuddles. Actually, the others acted like Vincent was a person too. What little she had seen of the interactions between him and the others… well, they didn't talk with him much at all, but they didn't ignore him either.

Aerith bit her lip, thinking about it. RedXIII was probably not human – either that or he was hacking – and Treasure Princess was obviously from Wutai. Add that to Rainstorm and Vincent.

"Hey… are you hacking? You and Vincent and the others?" Aerith asked. "Not that I care but… I used to hang around a lot of ShinRa employees, back when I was in Alexandria, and we mighty run into them at some point, and if you're hacking…" she sighed, wondering how to bring up the bounty and then shaking her head. "I would hate for you guys to be banned."

Rainstorm chuckled at that. "That is very much not a concern. Trust me," he said, and he sounded a little irate. "No way in hell am I going to be banned now."

"Huh?"

"Ah, never mind," the guild master said. "Anyway, there's no need to worry about that, not really," he said and then let out a thoughtful sound. "ShinRa employees you say? Like who?"

"Um," Aerith said. "You know that the Overseers are a ShinRa guild, right?"

"I heard something about it, yeah," Rainstorm said.

"Pretty much all the high level members are Turks. And I… used to hang around them," Aerith said and waited for the reaction.

Rainstorm said nothing. "Huh," he said. "I guess it makes sense that they'd make use of the game. And that they'd be the biggest guild too. Damn."

"Also, uh… they um. They put out a bounty on you," Aerith said, opening the command menu, opening the guild commands and then using the search to find the Overseers guild profile. There, on the first page of the profile, was the announcement of the guild bounty.

[BOUNTY ANNOUNCEMENT]
[In light of the recent destruction in the Great Forest of Moore server, namely the destruction of the town of Elder Tree, the Overseers have decided to take action against the player known as Rainstorm. The Guild Bounty Rules apply – first one to make the kill, gets the bounty]

[WANTED]
[RAINSTORM]
[Member of the OVERKILL guild]
[System bounty: 2800
[For the destruction of the Elder Tree and for past crimes committed.]
[2000 Gold for the player who kills him for the first time]
[5000 Gold for the player who brings him down to Level 1.]

Aerith read the bounty aloud, feeling a little ill. Rainstorm though just whistled in appreciation. "Whoa, I guess I killed some of their guild members or something," he said. "That's some A-grade grudge right there. Nice."

"You… I don't think that's how you ought to react to something like this," Aerith said. "You already have a huge bounty on you and this?"

"When you think about it, it's flattering as hell. Makes things more difficult, yeah, sure, but then things haven't exactly been easy for me since the beginning," Rainstorm said. "Did you get one? You killed more people than I did."

"Um… no. I didn't," Aerith said guiltily.

"Good. Maybe they'll heap the Elder Tree on me and forget your part in it. Ought to make things easier for everybody," Rainstorm said and then suddenly let out a shout. "Yeah, that's right you fucking pot, JUST DIE ALREADY!"

"What the hell?!" Aerith answered, almost jumping off her chocobo's back out of surprise.

"Sorry. I'm fighting these annoying things called Magic Pots. They are seriously annoying,"

"I'll take your word for it," she answered, shaking her head. Then she opened Rainstorm's profile out of curiosity

[The Rabbit of Caerbannog]
[ <no title selected> ]
[Rainstorm]
[Level 14 Viera]
[Class: Swordsman LV. 3]
[Job: Blacksmith LV. 11]
[Guild: OVERKILL]
[Credits: 0]
[Bounty: 2800 Gold]
[Status: Online]

"Hey… have you been fighting players? Your bounty is higher," Aerith asked.

"Um. Yeah, maybe. A little bit," Rainstorm said, sounding a little leery about it. "It was just a bit of fun really."

"… Right. How high is your infamy, right now?"

"It's, uh… 26200 points," the guild master answered sheepishly.

That was a lot of infamy. "Are you getting any exp at this point?" Aerith asked, wincing at the thought of it. At least she had fame to counteract hers, but Rainstorm didn't, did he?

"I get a little bit of exp. It's… not really noticeable at this point, but I get it," Rainstorm said and then jokingly added. "So, any strategies for getting fame quickly?"

"Guild production would be the easiest way to go about it," Aerith said with another wince. "Which would require a guild house which would require going to Alexandria and buying one. I told you, didn't I?"

"Yeah," Rainstorm laughed. "So. Any strategies for getting to Alexandria undetected?"

Aerith considered it. She still had the invisibility item, but it was bound to her and thus no use to Rainstorm. There were a lot of other ways to hide who a person was, though. She had considered a whole bunch of them, when planning her escape before deciding that the invisibility one was the best one to go with. Some of the others would've been easier and cheaper, not to mention right at hand, except Aerith hadn't been able to use them because her hair had been too obvious. That was the downside for having as long hair as she did – it reached her knees in the game and that made it rather noticeable.

She thought about it and then opened her inventory, leafing through the inventory pages to her costumes. Normally it wouldn't have worked, but then again… Rainstorm could switch sexes. Aerith smiled. "How do you feel about a bit of dress up, Rainstorm?"

Chapter Text

"You're not going to tell her?" Vincent asked while Cloud finished looting after his tenth Magic Pot. "That you work for the game's development team, I mean."

"Nah. Not yet anyway. It doesn't change much about what I do with them," Cloud shrugged, turning the dagger he had gotten in his hands. He didn't use them anymore, with heavy swords taking pretty much both his hands. And he couldn't sell it either, seeing that he'd need access to an npc for that.

"Doesn't it?" Vincent asked blandly.

Cloud glanced up at the gunner, who was sitting on a nearby boulder, one leg crossed over the other. He laughed. "Well, not yet anyway, I don't think. I'm just learning and even after I figure out what I can do and learn what I need to know, it's not like it will affect much. They might say I'm part of the development team, but I'm not, really. They have different use for me, than development."

"Do you really think that tracking my body down is the only thing they want from you? If your… perception in VR is so different –"

"Nah, of course not. Tuesti has other agendas. But I think he's sort of done with Terra Online. Terra Online, as far as he is concerned, is just Cait Sith's project now. Whatever Tuesti has in mind, it doesn't have anything to do with Terra Online, and thus," Cloud grinned, "it won't affect my game play here."

The gunner gave him a dubious look. "And those other agendas don't bother you?"

"No, they do," Cloud shrugged and stood up, walking over to him. "But everything is a dual edged blade with ShinRa, and I've figured that if you always wait for the other shoe to drop, you miss a lot of things. Weird stuff is happening – I'm good with weird. I'm going to enjoy the weird. If there's bad things coming, then I'll handle them as they come."

"That's not a very sound sounding strategy. If you know there's something coming, you should prepare for it," Vincent argued.

"Probably. And I will. Doesn't mean I won't let loose and enjoy myself in the meantime," Cloud said and nudged at the gunner's leg. "Are you worried?"

Vincent just stared at him and Cloud laughed. "Spread 'em," he said, knocking his knuckles against the man's knee, and with a frown Vincent eased up his position, shifting his knees apart. Cloud stepped between them and then turned around, leaning his back against the man's chest, reaching back to take Vincent's hands and wrapping the man's arms around his own shoulders.

"What?" Vincent asked, sounding baffled.

"You're cold," Cloud shrugged, leaning back. "And I want to write my report to Cait Sith before Flower gets here, and I can't do that while hugging you. So… I thought this would be cosy and it is," he added, smiling while Vincent shifted a little, his arms moving to a more natural position around his shoulders.

"I think we're moving beyond realm of… comfort, here," Vincent murmured, even while leaning in and almost nuzzling into Cloud's hair, forcing his ears to flop a little bit apart.

"And if that bothers you, just tell me," Cloud said, making himself comfortable and then opening his command menu. With a flick of his finger, he brought up the private message screen, and a virtual keyboard appeared in front of him. Idly Cloud typed Cait Sith into the receiver box before starting in on his report about the glitches he and Vincent had taken a look at, and the Magic Pots that he'd fought.

Vincent watched him write silently for a moment. "Rainstorm," he said then. "Do you… want that?"

"Want what?" Cloud asked, glancing backwards.

The gunner considered how to answer and then shifted a little. "That," he said. "Relationship. Or sex. Whichever."

Cloud frowned and turned sideways a bit, so that he could see the gunner's face. "Am I giving you that vibe?" he asked. "I told you you could just not do stuff I tell you. If you don't like this, just let me know, kick me off, whatever. I'm not going to push."

"That's not what I asked." Vincent said quietly, looking at him steadily over the collar of his ragged cloak thing.

Cloud smiled wryly at that. "Alright then," he said. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know. All of the above," he said and shrugged. "I'd love to, to be honest. Won't deny that. But the circumstances are what they are and that makes it not just kind of impossible but kind of wrong too. You don't remember which means… you can't quite give your consent to anything. And we don't know what state your body is in. We don't know what will happen. This is too weird, too new, and too uncertain. So yes, I guess I'd like to. I like you, as much as I know you. But no, I'm not going to try and make it happen."

Vincent frowned, eying him, red eyes flickering between looking at Cloud's left and his right eye, like trying to see if he could catch something illusive that kept flickering from one to the other. Then, without word, he grabbed Cloud by the chin, and kissed him.

It was, actually, Cloud's first kiss – and it was… not really at all like he'd imagined kissing to be like. It was warm and sort of awkward thanks to the angle, and Vincent's presence against his face was sort of overwhelming. His own nose was against the man's cheek, Vincent's smashed into his, and that was weird – he hadn't thought that would happen, but then, of course it would, human bodies being what they are.

It was also over before Cloud could figure out how he liked it.

"Um. Wha-?" Cloud asked, confused, blinking.

"You keep reminding me of things, sensations," Vincent murmured, looking at him. "Someone's done this before, I… keep almost remembering. Touching and holding and warmth. Kindness and understanding and patience. Kissing," he let out a breath and looked away. "I'm sorry."

Cloud blinked again and looked away for a moment, almost forcibly smothering the urge to touch his lips in wonder. He… kind of wanted to kiss Vincent again. A lot. The kiss had been kind of closed off – nothing like those epic movie kisses, deep and passionate. If anything, Vincent's kiss had been kind of stiff and awkward. And Cloud really wanted to see how much it would take to – how long would they have to work at it – to go from that to the epic movie kissing type of kissing.

And whoa, this was a whole new problem wasn't it.

"Okay," he said and then looked at Vincent. "It's okay, don't worry about it. Have you remembered anything concrete? Names, faces, places, anything?"

"Just sensations. Situations. It's very… fleeting and blurry," Vincent said, low. "But it's more than I remembered before."

Cloud hummed, nodding in understanding. Well, that was something, maybe. At least before the hell of Terra Online Vincent had led a better life, if kindness brought out memories. "Okay," he said again. "I don't know how effective kissing is as a tool for remembering, though."

"Surprisingly effective," Vincent murmured, closing his eyes and licking his lips and Cloud just froze, staring at the man's mouth.

That was when they heard the running steps of a mount, just before Flower crashed through the foliage and into the clearing. "Heya, guild master! Vincent! You're looking downright adorable today!" she greeted them cheerfully. "Hope I didn't interrupt anything."

Cloud tore his eyes away from Vincent. "Hey," he said, but didn't move away from Vincent. "You cover ground fast. And… you've changed your clothes," he added.

Flower jumped down from her chocobo's back, and the bird disappeared. She looked down at herself and grinned, doing a little spin. "Bigshot made them for me," she said, displaying the armour she was wearing. It looked nothing like the long dress she had been wearing before – this one was all brown, travel worn leather, formfitting and vaguely corset like, with boots that reached above her knee and coat tails that almost looked like a skirt. She also had a short cloak on, one that reached her knees and had a large hood, folded back and almost hidden beneath her hair – it was a nondescript green.

"I'm going to buy some clothes dye when I get the chance and change it all to pink and red, of course. But right now it doesn't look too bad, does it?" Flower asked. "Makes me stand out a little less."

"From my perspective, anything that covers more than 30% of skin looks amazing," Cloud said honestly, while saving his unfinished message to Cait Sith and closing the window. "Clothes dye?"

"Yeah. They're stuff you can dye your clothes with, obviously. They don't work on costumes though," Flower said and smiled. "You can get them from the auction house."

"Hmm… I will have to try some, sometime," Cloud said and, feeling like he had recovered a bit from the bombshell Vincent had just dropped on him, he straightened up a bit. "So, you had an idea about how to get into Alexandria."

Flower grinned and opened her inventory. Leafing through the pages, she grabbed an item and brought it out, making it unfold from the icon into an actual object.

It was a long blue coat that looked more like a dress, with a hem that reached the ground, a tight waist and a cut that emphasized the curves – one obviously made for a woman. It also had a large hood.

"You know the moment I take hold of that, it will shift into the coat equivalent of a swim suit, right?" Cloud asked.

"Nope, it won't. Because this, my dear guild master, is not gear. It is a costume," Flower said, grinning. "And they don't shift with race or class. They'll only shift to fit the body, and that is all."

Cloud blinked. "What, really?" he asked, and with a gentle squeeze against Vincent's wrist, moved away from the man. "What's the catch? There's got to be a catch?"

"They're bound to the player who first wears them," Flower admitted. "I've got lot of costumes, but most of them are bound to me. This one included," she said, and flipped her inventory around, showing a wide array of outfits ranging from cute to comical to downright disturbing. A lot of them were dresses, there were a few furry suits, but there was also one that apparently added effects of the plague on a character.

"Also, costumes are tailored to the wearer's sex, so only women can wear female clothing, and only men can wear male clothing," Flower added. "But since you have that handy necklace of yours…"

"We are so making costume making one of our guild productions," Cloud murmured, for the first time seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel that was Viera appropriate gear. "So, which ones aren't bound?"

Flower peered at the inventory, scrolling it down. "This," she pointed at costume that was basically just a fur shawl. "This," another one that was gory monstrosity of blood and flesh that made bones stick out from the wearer's chest. "This," Flower said, motioning at a dress that looked like it was made from spider webs. "Aand… this."

The last one was a dress that looked a lot like it had been made from a lot of multi coloured scarves that bundled around the hips and trailed down in an artistic mess. The top of the costume was a sort of bustier top that covered more skin than most of Cloud's gear ever did. It didn't look very good for hiding. Except for one thing.

It came with a large scarf – a sheet really – which judging by the image could be wrapped around the whole costume – and the person wearing it.

"It's the dancer costume," Flower said, grinning. "It's a bit too flashy for my taste but –"

"How much do you want for it?" Cloud asked. As ridiculous and over the top and yes, very very flashy, as it looked – it looked so much better than the jewellery armour he was currently wearing.

Flower sold the costume to him for twenty gold, easily paid thanks to all the players Cloud had killed that day. While Vincent dropped down from the boulder he had been sitting on, Cloud took out the gender-bender necklace and for the first time since getting it, didn't hesitate at all in putting it on. Then he equipped the dancer costume, prompting a message of [Once the item has been used, it will be bound and can no longer be traded or given to other players]. He ignored it.

The costume was… kinda silly but oh, how beautifully it covered so much skin. For the first time, not a bit of his thighs were visible, and even his knees only barely peaked past the flurry of scarves that made the skirt. The costume also shifted his footwear, from the stilettos to… well, he was still wearing high heels, but the heel of the sandals was only about a third of what he usually was forced to wear.

And the best thing was the big red and gold scarf – bigger than a bed sheet – which appeared over Cloud's shoulders. He wrapped it quickly around himself, grinning and Flower laughed at him.

"No, no. Gimme that," she said, taking the scarf and then she arranged it with practiced ease. She flattened Cloud's ears gently back and then brought the scarf over Cloud's hair, covering his hair completely. Then she somehow managed to arrange the rest of the scarf so that it looked like a natural part of the dress, all the while covering Cloud from his head almost to his ankles. She even managed to tuck the scarf in so that it stayed in place.

Cloud blinked and opened his character menu, to see the reflection of his avatar there. He looked… nothing like he had before. Hell with the scarf hanging over his face like a hood, he didn't even look like Viera at all.

"Damn," he murmured. "Flower, you are now my best friend forever."

She laughed and glanced at Vincent. "What do you think?" she asked, turning Cloud around to face the gunner. "Does he pass?"

Vincent glanced up and down and sighed. "I preferred the way he was before, but I guess there's no avoiding it," he said, and Flower let out a peal of giggles while Cloud stared at the man, wide eyed.

"What?" Cloud asked.

"More skin contact that way," Vincent said, utterly unabashed, and Flower almost toppled over at the sound of the strangled sound Cloud made.

"I –  eheh," Flower wheezed. "I-I got something for Vincent too," she said, leaning onto Cloud's shoulder.

"Something for Vincent?" Cloud asked, tearing his eyes away from the gunner. "Please tell me it's something embarrassing."

The elf grinned. "I'm a beast tamer, you know. I make pets," she said. "So I've got a lot of pet gear too – and that, unlike costumes, doesn't bind. I don't know how they'll do for someone like Vincent, but it can't hurt to try – he's kinda noticeable, and people saw him at Elder Tree too, after all."

"… Pet gear?" the delighted Cloud asked in unison with a horrified looking Vincent.

Flower nodded, grinning wider. "Yep. Pet gear."

Chapter Text

Aerith hadn't enjoyed herself this much in Terra Online since… well, ever. Alexandria had its entertainment, of course, everything from various forms of battle in the battle arena, to theatre by the LOVELESS guild, to half a million board game simulations to debates to concerts to random rap battles that sometimes broke out in the central square without notice.

But it certainly didn't have a male Viera, transformed into a female Viera and hidden under the guise of a Dancer, doing his best to try and put a collar onto his not-quite-AI pet – who had now escaped Rainstorm's attempts into the sky and was hovering several meters above them in the air, glaring at his owner.

The most hilarious thing was that Rainstorm had managed to put cat eats on Vincent before the man had managed to escape. Furry, pink cat eats, that twitched every now and then, running a random animation. And Vincent, despite all his attempts, couldn't remove them.

"Oh come on!" Rainstorm wheedled. "You know I'm not going to leave them on – the point's not to attract attention. I just want to see."

"Well, I don't," Vincent growled in answer. "Put that thing away Rainstorm." That thing being a pink, diamond adorned collar with a comically huge round bell on it, which Rainstorm was holding up as if he could equip it from a distance.

Aerith watched all of this with a giddy little grin. Rainstorm, it turned out, was absolutely hilarious, utterly unabashed and, probably, absolutely evil. She almost felt sorry for poor Vincent. Almost but not quite. It was too much fun to watch.

"Just for a little while? Hell, it's not like it'll be that visible past the cloak anyway," Rainstorm said, almost pouting.

"I wish I could kill you right now," Vincent answered darkly, and Rainstorm made a sad face.

"You are absolutely no fun," Rainstorm sighed, but turned to Aerith and opened a trade window. He put the collar, as well as most of the other pet gear Aerith had given him, back. The kitty paws, the wide selection of tails, ears, collars…

"You are no fun," Aerith agreed, pouting right alongside her guild master. It would've been absolutely hilarious to see Vincent wearing a tail. Not in any way dignified, but hilarious.

"Alright, come down and I'll take the ears off," Rainstorm sighed. "And we can see what we can do with the rest. Spoilsport."

Vincent eyed him suspiciously for a moment, but slowly descended, touching down a few meters away from Rainstorm and looking like he was preparing for another leap into the air if necessary.

Rainstorm held up empty hands in a sign of peace as he walked closer, and removed the cat ears almost sadly. "Pity you didn't have black ones, Flower. They might've actually fit him pretty well," he said, while dumping the cat ears into the trade screen.

"Yeah," Aerith agreed, eying Vincent who was glaring at them both.

"Alright, sourpuss, here," Rainstorm, said, opening his inventory on the pet gear screen and turning it around so that Vincent could see. "You pick something," he said and glanced at Aerith. "Do you know if there's a way to remove the cloak he has on, or the wings? They're kinda eye catching."

"If you can't remove them, then they're part of his skin," Aerith shook her head. "Have you tried?"

"Hmm… no," Rainstorm said thoughtfully. Vincent let out a sigh and glared at the man while Rainstorm went about opening the clasps of the cloak and opening it. "Guess I can. Excellent," Rainstorm grinned, putting the cloak into his inventory, and going about the rest.

A moment later, a furiously glaring Vincent was standing in front of them, shirtless. Aerith leaned in interestedly while Rainstorm almost unconsciously ran a hand over the man's bare, pale chest, down to his stomach, to the waistline of the strap and belt adorned trousers. "Don't," the gunner said when the Viera tried to open them.

Rainstorm froze at that, and pulled his hands away. "Sorry," he said, wincing. "Um. Turn around, let's see if the wings are gear."

Vincent was most definitely a person, Aerith was absolutely sure of that. And Rainstorm was most definitely not a bad person, she was absolutely certain about that too. No one who was as gentle with someone seemingly under their control could be bad.

Maybe it was a D/s thing. Kinda weird to go as far as those two had gone – to the point where they were hacking the game to make themselves the owner and the pet, but… she wasn't going to judge anyone.

"Looks like these are part of the skin," Rainstorm said, after moment of gentry trying to tug at the wings. "Can't remove them."

"Hm," Vincent answered, swaying a little into the other man's touch.

Aerith grinned. They were so adorable. Weird and kinky and adorable. What a bunch of cute pervs. "Guess you'll have to try and hide them away another way," she said and considered it, thinking back to all the pet gear she had given Rainstorm. "I think there might be some feathers in there."

"Feathers?"

"Yeah. For turning bat wings into angel wings," Aerith shrugged. "A lot of mobs have bat wings after all and not all people like them, so…"

Rainstorm hummed and scrolled through the list until he found the aforementioned item. "Okay," he said, pulling the item out and showing it to the suspicious looking Vincent. "Just feathers, I swear," he said, and when the winged man nodded, Rainstorm put the feathers on him.

The effect was instantaneous. The feathers just sprouted all at once and what had been a rather magnificent set of dark red demon wings turned into an equally magnificent set of dark red angel wings, darker near the tips of the feathers. Vincent still looked vaguely demonic, but the feather wings looked more like something a player could actually equip.

"Oh. Hello," Rainstorm grinned and ran his hands over the wings in admiration. "Oh these are downright pretty."

"Rainstorm," Vincent grumbled warningly.

"They are! Look at 'em," the currently female Viera grinned, taking the nearest wing by the top and spreading it out gently, the long red feathers stretched out in the air. "Not that your own wings aren't a thing of beauty but hello, feathers!"

Vincent just sighed, shaking his head.

While Aerith enjoyed the view, they looked over the rest of the pet gear. That itself wasn't so special, but the way they just shifted together, Rainstorm pressing himself against Vincent's back between the wings, arms around the pet's shoulders, moving the gear inventory in front of Vincent so that he could look through it… it was the sort of casual, comfortable intimacy she could only dream of.

Not for the first time she wondered how old Rainstorm and Vincent were and how long they had been together.

"This one," Vincent said finally, motioning at an item in the inventory.

"We just too one cloak off, and now you want to put on another one?" Rainstorm asked.

"It has a hood. I want the hood."

"Ah. Hm. Might wanna put the jacket back on then, since the cloak covers you. Pity," Rainstorm hummed.

Vincent frowned. "Pity?"

The Viera grinned, squeezing his arms around the man's neck. "More skin contact this way, hm?" he asked, and pulled the items from the inventory, first the jacket which he eased onto Vincent, and then the cloak. Aerith remembered the cloak – it was completely black, meant for humanoid pets. It made Vincent look a lot like, well… a mage, actually. It covered him from top to toe, plentiful and impressive.

With a chuckle, Rainstorm turned Vincent around and pulled the hood to cover his face and suddenly the pair of them looked nothing like they had before. With Rainstorm looking like a female dancer in his dress and Vincent looking like a particularly gloomy mage with his long robes and deep hood…

Aerith chuckled. Even in disguise they made a cute looking couple.

"Pity the pet gear doesn't give any stat boosts," Rainstorm said, looking over the inventory. "Not that Vincent needs any but still…"

"Yeah, pet gear is basically the same thing as costumes. Just aesthetical," Aerith said, looking at them. "But the aesthetic isn't so bad, is it?"

"No, it's pretty damn cool actually. You know, I think this might actually work," Rainstorm said while adjusting Vincent's hood and glancing towards Aerith. "What about you though?"

Aerith grinned and pulled out her Cloak of Invisibility. She pulled it on, and judging by Rainstorm's impressed expression, it worked just like it was supposed to – erasing her avatar completely from view.

"Damn, Flower," Rainstorm said, sounding suitably amazed. "You have the coolest stuff."

"I've spend months doing nothing but going at it in the auction house," Aerith laughed and took the cloak off, since it made interactions a bit difficult. "My title, the Great Merchant? You get it when you make more than a hundred thousand gold in the auction house."

"Hun - hundred thousand?!" Rainstorm asked, gob smacked.

Aerith nodded. "That being all the profit you made combined, thankfully, and not all the money in your inventory or anything like that. The next title after that would be Tycoon, you get that from making a million in proceeds. Only one person has that title, though. Loyal of the Overseers."

"Hell," Rainstorm murmured, shaking his head in wonder. "You Alexandria people are nuts."

Aerith grinned. "You'll get right up there too, once we get guild production going," she said. "So. Now what? Shall we try at it in Alexandria or will we wait for the others?"

"Are you kidding me? Of course we try at it right now. If we wait, Red and Princess will try and talk sense into us," Rainstorm grinned. "Besides we'd have to disguise them too and that'd take forever. If we go now and be quick about it, we might make it there before Red logs in."

Aerith laughed. Before she hadn't much cared for the notion for going back to Alexandria, especially so soon after escaping the place. Now…

Now she couldn't wait.

"So, how do we get there?" Rainstorm asked.

"Two ways," Aerith said and opened the map before zooming out from the zone map into the world map. "Either we make our way there by manual means, as in, cross over zones. Alexandria is this one here," she pointed near the centre of the map. "We'd have to cross over two other zones to get there."

"Well, that'd take forever. What's the other way?"

"We take the portal, here," Aerith said, tapping at Elder Tree. "That's how I got here. It costs ten gold to use though."

"Well, we ought to have enough money for that. Though I sent most of my cash to Red before I set out bounty hunter hunting earlier…" Rainstorm checked his inventory. "Yeah, I have more than enough."

"Do you have enough money to buy a guild house though?" Aerith asked. "It's two thousand for an unclaimed lot. More, if you want something another guild has already bought."

"So guilds can buy more than one estate?" Rainstorm asked, frowning.

"Yeah. The Overseers own most of Alexandria, actually. Something like half of the guilds pay them rent."

Rainstorm frowned. "Well, if you combine what I made in Elder Tree, with what I had before… I should be able to afford it. Red has most of my money though and the rest is in the warehouse, so we'll have to wait for him to come online after all."

Aerith considered. "You know," she said slowly. "If you killed me, you'd instantly make over two thousand and eight hundred gold."

Rainstorm scowled at that. "No," he said. "No way."

Aerith gave him a look. "Everyone does it, you know. Let their friends kill them to collect the bounty. It's practically standard procedure." In the Overseers, it tended to be a bit of a spectacle when a member accumulated enough bounty to make that necessary. Loyal was always the one to do it and it wasn't just an execution – no. It was a battle, done in the Battle Arena, and it was as much a rite of passage as it was simply a way to collect the bounty – not to mention, it drew in a crowd and the Overseers always charged ticket fees for those wanting to watch.

The battles between Loyal and Zoto were the third most viewed battles in the arena – they were so close in levels that it was always long and intense and close, and with each battle Zoto had gotten closer and closer to beating Loyal instead. Only battles between BELOVED and Noble were more popular – and the most popular were, of course, by now almost mythical occasions when Sephiroth entered the arena. That hadn't happened in over half a year though – Aerith hadn't ever seen it herself.

"There is something deeply fucked up about casual use of the words; let their friends kill them," Rainstorm grumbled.

"You should do it," Vincent said.

"What?" Rainstorm asked, turning a frown at the man.

"It would remove her bounty," the gunner said, pushing the hood back and giving Rainstorm a look. "She'd stop being a profitable target. And you prefer if the bounty hunters concentrate onto you, don't you?"

"Hey, that's right," Aerith said in realisation and launched herself at Rainstorm, grabbing him by the shoulders. "You've got to kill me. That way no one will get any profit from killing me, and you'll piss even more people off by collecting the bounty. I'll become practically invisible next to you!"

"Erm," Rainstorm said, looking at her strangely. "I don't think I want to –"

"You already killed Bigshot," Vincent pointed out.

"Accidentally! I did it accidentally!" Rainstorm exclaimed.

"Come on," Aerith said, pleading. "A guild master is supposed to take care of the guild members, right? Leaving my bounty on isn't protecting me!"

"It'll remove a level," Rainstorm pointed out.

"I can make it again," she shrugged. "It's just one level. And besides, I made a couple levels yesterday with the others, so I kinda sorta have extra to spare. It's a small price to pay anyway, to get rid of the bounty."

The guild master eyed her seriously from beneath the scarf created hood of his dancer costume. Then he lifted both hands to cradle her face almost gently and for a moment Aerith thought he was about to do something weird.

Then, without a warning, she died.

It didn't even hurt. There was just a twist and an awkward snap and a moment later she was pushed out of her avatar and into ghost form behind it, watching as her body hung limply from Rainstorm's grasp, her head at an odd angle, the neck broken. Wide eyed and a little shocked, she watched how Rainstorm laid her down on the ground, ignoring the pop up window.

"Holy shit," she murmured, unheard and unseen in the ghostly realm. She'd never seen a weapon user kill someone bare handed with one act. Especially not one that was lower level than the player who they killed. "How the hell did he just do that?"

"Because of what he is and what you are," a voice informed her from above and with a start Aerith looked up, to see a vaguely familiar black and white cat sitting there in the air, one furry boot adorned leg crossed over the other. The cat waved, and Aerith frowned, trying to remember where she'd seen him before.

"Hey there, Flower. I'm Cait Sith, the moderator," the cat said. "And I have something to talk about with you, so if you would, don't resurrect just yet. There are some things that the Overseers – Loyal especially – were keeping from you and it's time you knew."

Chapter Text

Cid was just about fucking done with Masters of Air.

The guild had been started by people interested and specialising in aeronautics and while that wasn't precisely his main field of interest, it was the closest he could get in Terra Online. And he had actually fucking enjoyed the talks between the members, the stupid debates and arguments and the occasional time when one of them had written a shitty paper or came up with a bullshit theory or something like that and brought it into the virtual world, to read to the others. They were a pretty small guild – just thirty or so members, nowhere near enough to make it into the rankings – and they'd been fine with that. They only came together in the guild house to talk about aviation and similar interests.

Then, a couple months back the damn guild master had dropped off the face of the planet – probably died in real life, the old man had been old – and so the guild master had changed and with that, so had the interest of the guild. At first nothing had changed, and things had gone as they always had. They mostly soloed around the maps, occasionally banding together to take on bigger quests but mostly going about their business alone, and coming to Alexandria to talk shop with like-minded people. But then, now, suddenly, things were different.

First, they started including more people. First just aviation hobbyists and people like that, and that was okay, no biggy, it never hurt to bring in newbies into the wonderful world of aeronautics. But then it had started being fucking random idiots. Anyone and everyone. They went from a guild of 30 to a guild of 70 in two weeks, and majority of the people added? Knew fucking nothing about anything to do with air. Ask them, and they didn't even fucking know what the stuff they breathed was.

And suddenly, they were making wings. They had three guild productions – a printing press, forestry and wood working, basic stuff. When they had gone from a level 3 guild to a level 7, more production slots had opened and then Wingcraft was suddenly added into the list – and suddenly it was their main gig. Making fucking wings. All the fucking time. And of course selling them by the shit ton in the auction house.

Masters of Air fucking indeed.

Shera wasn't too impressed with the guild either, though she didn't really seem to give a crap – she was busy making levels and getting into the game. But where as before the guild hadn't cared what the guild members had chosen to look like and they had had any and every race from here to kingdom fucking come, now they seemed to care. Cid had noticed an annoying trend with the people his oh so excellent new guild mates were inviting in. It had the trend of "busty elves" when it came to females and Shera, being a Burmecian rat person with zero bust and almost zero femininity, was now looked down upon.

Cid probably would've been too, if he hadn't been the highest level player in the guild. At level 59, no one fucked with him. Not that that stopped people giving him amused looks and asking, down their noses and with a high and mighty know it all air, why had he chosen a Moogle when Moogles were, well… fucking midgets.

"I'm thinking it's time we ditch this joint," Cid informed Shera, eying the auction house and the wings his guild members had set up for sale – they hadn't even known how to price the fucking things right.

"Go solo?" Shera asked, scrolling through a list of mastered cooking recipes and ingredients she had in stock.

"Or join another fucking guild. One with some fucking class," Cid mused. He liked guild bonuses and preferred to have them – going solo had its advantages, sure, but it had some setbacks too. And it was nice to have a place to go to in Alexandria. He'd probably end up getting a house eventually, since Shera would need a kitchen to master the higher levels of her job, but no way would he waste money on it yet.

"I don't know. You're not exactly classy yourself, you realise," Shera said. "Maybe we should join a guild that's actually fun and does stuff. I don't mean to be insulting, but Masters of Air was and still is… kind of boring. They still don't do anything."

"Too fucking true," Cid mused. The original guild had been sort of boring – sure, most of the members played and levelled up and whatnot, but a lot of what they did involved sitting around and talking. The new guild was only interested in making it to level 40 – so that they could wear wings, of course – and after that… not a fucking thing was accomplished. It was boring and annoying and a generally shitty way to go about. Especially in a game as interesting as Terra Online.

"Maybe we should join OVERKILL," Cid snorted, opening the guild screen and typing in the guild's name, to see what it was doing. Currently only Rainstorm was around – another member, Flower, had just been killed judging by the way her name had been greyed out. Others, most of whom Cid didn't know, were offline. "At least with that asshole around, it would be interesting."

 Shera frowned. "OVERKILL?"

"Yeah. Rainstorm's guild. The bastard created it yesterday," Cid said. He kept an eye on Rainstorm every now and then out of sheer boredom – watching Shera grind wasn't all that interesting. The poor bastard had been stuck in the low levels for a while, it was downright pitiful, but on the other hand… the mother fucker had destroyed the Elder Tree. And damn if Cid didn't regret not being there, watching.

It must've been fucking hilarious. How the hell the guy had done it aside.

"Rainstorm, huh," Shera said and put the cooking inventories away. "He still sends me rapiers, doesn't he?"

"Yeah, well, it's not like they're any use to ya anymore. You're higher level now than he is, since ya make levels faster than he levels up his job. So his shitty rapiers are useless and I just sell 'em," Cid snorted. "That's what he gets for his infamy. He must have racked it up in the tens of thousands by now, the poor bastard."

"And he created a guild?" Shera asked, thoughtful.

"Mm-hmm," Cid nodded. "I guess he's going to try to use it to get some fame – which is pretty much the fastest way for him to get rid of the exp debuff. If, you know, he gets to Alexandria…" he trailed away and then smiled. "That'll be where he'll head next. To Alexandria. Well, I'll be damned."

"Oh boy," Shera murmured.

"He'll need to buy a guild house and get a production going," Cid mused, grinning. "He'll have a tough time managing that one."

According to the rumours Rainstorm had blown the gender-bender disguise Cid had given him. And ever since the word went out that Rainstorm could switch sexes, well… there were rumours galore.

The most popular one was that Rainstorm had never actually been a guy at all – but a female Viera, using a sex-change item to appear male for some weird reason, possibly to rebuke advances by guys or something. Which was freaking hilarious. And which had prompted the creation of a handful of new, utterly embarrassing guilds that most of the Rainstorm hunters had fun bashing.

Of course there had been Rainstorm fan guilds before. Like WhenItRains, the biggest Rainstorm fan guild and it was fucking terrifying. Made of mostly player killers, griefers and such. And of course weird, weird fetish players that for some fucking messed up reason dreamed of being killed by the Rabbit of Caerbannog. They actually hunted for Rainstorm not because they wanted the bounty but because they got their kicks from the idea of being killed by the famous player killer. Fucking creeps the whole lot.

But now there was the MissRainstorm<3 guild which was… also kinda fucking creepy. Mostly made of guys – again, mostly player killers and such – who believed the idea that Rainstorm was a woman so hard core that they had all but gone to war with WhenItRains when they had tried to rebuke the idea of female Rainstorm. MissRainstorm<3's main guild production involved lot of creepy ass fanart. It was embarrassing.

Rainstorment was another creepy fetish guild… which pretty much paired Male Rainstorm with Female Rainstorm. Cid had glanced at the bulletin posts they had made, as well as the stories they had written, and he was fucking scarred for life now. The fics involved beds of corpses and a lot of blood and pain play. It was horrible, just straight up fucked up shit, all of it.

And so on and so on. The only actual good guild to come out from the whole thing was the Vieravenger, a guild consisting only of Viera players, all of whom had sworn blood feuds with Rainstorm. All thanks to the fact that now no one was sure about whether Rainstorm was female or not, there was sort of an all-out hunt on all Vieras, which had led to a lot of perfectly innocent Viera players being killed for no other reason than because there might be the smallest of chances that they might be Rainstorm in disguise. They all wore rabbit-skull masks, and in the less than a day they had existed, they had become freaking terrifying.

It turned out, assassin and ninja were surprisingly popular Viera classes. Add to that the fact that red mage, white mage, black mage, summoner and shaman were also popular with Vieras, you had a lot of very scary women you didn't want to piss off. Plus, according to the rumours, the guild master was downright terrifying, a level 65 assassin/time mage, and even the Overseers had been giving her a wide berth.

Cid was a hair's width from idolising the guild. Their public chats were fucking hilarious, their bulletin board posts were a thing to behold, the rants they went out on were just beautiful, and they took zero shit from anyone. Terrifying, competent Vieras. Fucking glorious. It made him almost regret that he wasn't a Viera too, because if there was ever a guild he would've loved to join, that was the one.

Anyway, there were a lot of people after Rainstorm. Some because they were fucked up, some people he had screwed over, some because they just wanted to kill him for the bounties, yadda yadda yadda. If he went to Alexandria, it better be under a damn good disguise, otherwise there'd be a happy Rainstorm roasting party in the central square and even the asshole's miraculous luck wouldn't help him at all.

Cid grinned and Shera gave him that look that meant that he was looking especially manic. He didn't care. Rainstorm in Alexandria, with all those guilds out to get him… it was gonna be fucking hilarious.

"Okay, time we head back to Alexandria, I think," he said, cackling. "I wanna see what'll happen when that asshole gets there. It is going to be grade A hilarity."

"Uhhuh," Shera said, rolling her eyes. "I think I'll pass."

"Like hell ya will. This'll be fucking historic. No fucking way you will miss it."

"But I don't care," Shera sighed. "It's just a game. And I want to level up my job a bit."

"Damn it woman. Ya have some fucked up priorities," Cid said, grumbling. "I'll get ya some new gear 'n shit. And a mount. And shit."

"Yay, faeces," she said drolly. "All I ever wanted from life."

"I've told ya to watch the fucking sass, haven't I? So watch the sass!" Cid snapped, pointing a stumpy Moogle finger at her. "I'll fire ya."

She smiled indulgently, patting him on the top of the head condescendingly. "Sure you will, sir. Sure you will."

Chapter Text

"… The only reason Rainstorm could kill you at all," Cait Sith finished with an almost disturbingly nonchalant shrug of his furry shoulders. "Neither guild members nor party members can kill each other – and currently, you're both with Rainstorm."

"But… I've seen guild members fight each other – and kill each other!" Aerith exclaimed.

"In the battle arena – and around you," Cait Sith said pointedly. "Loyal took advantage of it occasionally, I'm sorry to say. He was always very careful about it, of course, probably didn't want you or anyone else to figure it out, but he did. Mostly thought he took advantage of the fact that around you, buildings can be destroyed. Didn't you ever wonder why he never let you get within a block's distance of the Overseers guild house?"

Aerith let out a strangled sound, looking towards to her body where Rainstorm and Vincent were sitting next to her, talking – apparently the fact that she was taking her time resurrecting didn't bother them in the slightest. "S-so the Destruction of Elder Tree –"

"Well, it's not entirely your fault," Cait Sith laughed. "Rainstorm started it, after all. He's even better at taking advantage of your effect than Loyal was – partially because he doesn't bother to hide it or try and cover it up. Don't take me wrong," he added quickly when Aerith turned alarmed look at him. "In his case it's not precisely malicious. Rainstorm is… a very special sort of player."

"You mean he's a hacker," Aerith said slowly, squirming where she sat, on her knees in the grass.

"In a sense. Do you know what a white hat hacker is? Or black hat?" the moderator asked and she shook her head. "A white hat hacker is one that offers his – or her – services to an existing company, rooting out bugs and errors and whatnot in their system and reporting back to them, so that they can then fix the flaw. Black hat is what you think an actual hacker is – the one that exploits the user to whatever their own goals are. Rainstorm… is the former."

"He works for Terra Online?" Aerith asked with surprise.

"He's keeping it – heh – under his hat, and probably would like to keep it secret, but he works for Terra Online's development team," Cait Sith shrugged. "You running into him was actually pretty lucky for you. If you hadn't, and if he hadn't taken the effect you have and just ran with it, I never would've found you."

Aerith swallowed, and looked down at her knees for a while. So… the fact that she wasn't human did have an effect in the game after all – and Tseng had been covering up for her. Hiding her and… and using her too, now that she thought about it. Everyone had always known that the Overseers had some special item and that was how they could destroy other guild houses when they damn well pleased, but that had just been her, mutating the system around her.

"I know you're probably an Ancient," Cait Sith added. "The game admin knows too, and if Rainstorm won't figure it out soon, he's not as smart as we think. It's okay," he added, waving a dismissive hand at the panicked look Aerith gave him. "We neither care nor do we spread confidential information past our circle of need-to-know. You're not the first non-human player. You have a greater effect on the game, maybe, but it's not that unusual of a situation."

"And… that's okay?" Aerith asked, worried.

"It's fine. The ripples you send out in the coding is helping me reconfigure the system – Terra Online is going to have a system update very soon, which will change the whole game," Cait Sith smiled. "After that, I doubt your effect will even be noticed. The main issue here is for you to learn what you can do, and take the necessary precautions."

Aerith frowned, her hands squeezing into fists on top of her thighs. "What do you want me to do, then?" she asked, steeling herself for the worst.

"Talk it out with Rainstorm. Test it with him. I'm sure you two will have a blast. I'm going to redo the whole Great Forest of Moore server soon, so it's okay if you demolish the whole place," Cait Sith said. "Also tell him to watch out for party members. Around you, they're not safe from his destruction anymore."

"But we're going to head to Alexandria soon," Aerith said slowly. "At least that was what we planned."

Cait Sith hummed at that. "Well. I guess that's fine too. It would probably be for the best if he didn't destroy buildings there, seeing that most of those are guild houses and if he destroyed them he'd end up pissing off a lot of people. But that's really more his problem than mine."

"The idea is for us to go under disguises," Aerith frowned. "We won't destroy anything."

The moderator laughed. "Yeah, you just tell yourself that, I'm sure it'll help make it true."

Aerith sighed at that, shaking her head. "So… the effect I have, it's not… I don't have to stop playing?" she asked.

"No, don't you dare. I'm having too much of a blast with the program mutations you make," the moderator grinned and began fading away. "Talk with Rainstorm. I'm sure between the two of you, you'll figure it out."

Then he was gone, leaving Aerith alone, an unseen ghost sitting beside her body. She took a moment to think through what she had learned, curse Tseng and Loyal and whatever those idiots thought they was doing, never telling her. The next time she saw him, she'd give him a piece of her mind!

Then she resurrected, coming into herself with only 1 HP and 1 MP on her stats, and an awkward feeling at her neck.

"Had a fun chat?" Rainstorm asked, looking away from Vincent whose hair he was brushing with his fingers.

"You knew?" Aerith asked.

He shrugged. "I've started to notice it when Cait Sith butts in. And I figured he'd want to talk with you, considering everything."

Aerith frowned at his nonchalant answer and complete lack of surprise. "You could've told me too, you know," she said, sitting up and rubbing at her neck.

"I just knew you changed the world around you, I don't know the details. So I figured I'd leave it to the expert," Rainstorm shrugged and gave her a slow look. "You okay?"

Aerith sighed, looking down. Was she okay? She wasn't sure. It was one thing to be different in the real world but here? She had thought she could be normal here. Just another person, no different from all the rest, just enjoying the game. Loyal had made things different by all but keeping her prisoner, but even that had seemed like, well, semi normal. No Ancient magic involved. Except it had been, it was and even here, she was an Ancient. The last Ancient.

"I don't know," she finally murmured. "I don't really like it. And I don't like the fact that the Overseers hid it from me, I don't like that at all."

"They knew?" Rainstorm asked.

She nodded and looked at him. "Cait Sith said that you work for him?"

"I work for his boss, really, the Terra Online Administrator," Rainstorm answered. "Though right now I'm not doing much but getting myself familiar with the whole thing. The system and VR in general and whatnot."

"You… work for ShinRa?"

Rainstorm considered that. "You know, I don't think I do," he said. "I don't think Terra Online is actually a ShinRa product. When you think about it… Well, ShinRa has its propaganda and its goals and aims when it comes to its products. Total control and absolute profit – you can see it with everything ShinRa sells, and how they market those things. And Terra Online lacks all the usual marks of a ShinRa product. It's almost completely unmonitored and there is zero propaganda, there isn't even any subliminal marketing, nothing, in the system. And, most of all… it's actually free to play."

"Huh?" Aerith said, surprised.

"It is. You pay for a VRDC, and you pay for the network connection – but playing Terra Online itself, after all that's said and done, is free. You get the game for free when you get a VRDC and after that there are no monthly payments and no other fees either. You could very easily put in registration free, or maybe a subscription free, or maybe special items you can buy with credits that you have to pay actual money to get, but no. Everything, absolutely everything in Terra Online, is free."

Aerith blinked, lifting her head a bit. She hadn't ever thought about it – the VRDC and network connection alone cost so much. "But isn't that a good thing? For players anyway."

"For players, yes. But for company like ShinRa? With the way they run things? By all logic they should be charging the users through the nose for this. Terra Online boasts, what, seven million users?" Rainstorm gave her a pointed look. "Add into that the fact that, really, Terra Online has zero advertisements in the game, no marketing for ShinRa goods, nothing. The only time I've heard ShinRa even mentioned is because some ShinRa employees have their own guilds, but that… is it."

Aerith thought about it and slowly nodded. "That is strange," she said slowly. "How are they letting Terra Online exist like this?"

Rainstorm grinned. "Because the administrator is a creepy bastard who probably runs circles around everybody. And if I had a guess, when VRDC was launched for public use, no one thought Terra Online would actually be this popular or huge. It probably was just one zone at the start, with barely any features. And slowly but steadily, it was grown into what it is these days and now… well. Add a fee to it, and it would royally piss off all those seven million players. And even ShinRa doesn't dare to do that."

Even Vincent looked surprised by that, eying Rainstorm with a thoughtful look while Aerith let out a slightly shaken laugh. "Oh my god," she said, shaking his head. "This is insane. Why didn't I ever even think about any of this?"

Rainstorm shrugged. "Terra Online isn't actually geared to be thought about. It just is," he said, and stood up, holding a hand out to Vincent and pulling him up as well. "So, now that I'm two thousand, eight hundred and ninety five gold richer… shall we head off to Alexandria? We have a guild house to buy."

"Yeah," Aerith said, taking her guild master's hand and letting herself be pulled up. "Cait Sith said that it would probably be better if you didn't destroy any buildings in Alexandria," she said.

"Sure it would be," Rainstorm grinned and adjusted the hood created by the scarf wrapped around him. "Shall we head to Elder Tree then? Before the others wake up."

"Let's," she grinned, and after checking their maps, they turned to head towards the Elder Tree, Vincent pulling his hood on as they walked.

"So," she said after a moment. "Cait Sith said I should talk with you about the whole effect thing. And that we should test it – he also said that the Great Forest of Moore will be redone soon so we can destroy it if we want to."

"Aww, it's no fun when you have a permission to do something," Rainstorm grumbled, shaking his head. "But I guess we can test it all out when we're done with Alexandria," he added and glanced at her. "Do you have something you're worried about right now, though? Something we can try and do to check it out before we reach the tree."

"Nothing specific really. I'm just… I'm not sure what I'm doing exactly," Aerith admitted. "Cait Sith said that I mutate or transform the programming. Something about physics? I… don't really get it."

Rainstorm considered that. "I don't either, really. But the way I see it goes is that a lot of how Terra Online works, how it looks, how it functions – it's all in our heads," he said. "There are two levels to Terra Online. On the base level, everything is sort of based on reality. Like how stats are based actually on ourselves and on our races and classes after the fact. You know the skill spot system?"

"The whole thing about how when you do something long enough, it might become a skill?"

"Yeah. And they're always different for different people. Turns out those skills are completely feasible in real life. So, Terra Online is based on what's actually real. And that comes from here," Rainstorm tapped the side of his head. "We're what brings that bit of the game here. It comes from our heads. You follow me?"

"Mm-hmm," Aerith nodded.

"Most of us bring that bit of reality only to our own avatars and that bit of reality only affects ourselves," he shrugged. "This tech uses our brains and our brains use the tech. We move our avatars by our minds and what those avatars do to the virtual reality around us… is also actually done by our minds. Your influence just reaches beyond that."

"Yeah, but… the surroundings, the terrains and textures, objects and whatever. That's not me – that's made elsewhere, in the Terra Online Servers. How can I affect those?" Aerith asked, confused.

"Yes, but no," Rainstorm said, giving her a look. "Think of a player – the you behind the avatar – as a ball of, hm… energy. An aura. The rest of us have an aura that reaches only the outer edges of our avatars. Yours reaches about fifty meters in each direction. The mind behind Flower takes control of the surroundings. So, actually… all of this is you," he motioned around them. "Right now you only force your reality into the game – you subconsciously expect real world physics, and so real world physics exist around you. If you concentrated, you could probably control that, control the gravity or physics and every single object within your aura's influence. You could make trees grow or fall down or disappear entirely, if you wanted to. Or just create stuff out of nowhere. It might take a bit of practice, but I think you could probably do it."

Aerith opened her mouth and closed it. Then she tried again. "What?!"

Her guild master grinned. "You are the God of Terra Online, Flower. Congrats."

Chapter Text

"Oh man, it really is busted," Zack said, half horrified and half laughing. The Elder Tree was in ruins around them – half of it looked like someone had sheared the tree with a blunt axe, and the remaining half had seen better days too. There were loose branches hanging by a thread everywhere and the wooden walk ways – what few that still remained – were covered in splinters and twigs and leaves which were already turning brown.

"Yep," the slender elf beside him agreed, peering over the edge. Luxiere grinned slightly – there was someone below, trying to climb the broken branches. "The way I hear it, over a dozen branches were cut off – big ones too. The weapons shop, the inn, a lot of NPC houses, all were trashed."

"Sixteen branches," Kunsel on Zack's other side said. The human opened a window and flicked through the tags. "Eight platforms and all told seven buildings. And well over a thousand players."

"Man," Zack said, resting his furry palms at his waist and shaking his head with dismay. "All the interesting stuff always happens when I'm not around. First the Fanpocalypse and now this. This is so unfair."

"That's what you get for being promising and talented and all that," Luxiere said with a snort. "It wasn't really that interesting though."

"A minor city gets destroyed, something which I think has never happened in Terra Online before – and it's not interesting? Light, my friend, I do believe you're full of crap," Zack snorted.

"Well it wasn't – back in Alexandria all we knew was that people started screaming all over the message boards. By the time we figured out what actually happened, it was already all over," Luxiere shrugged. "Reading messages isn't that exciting."

"The pictures don't do the whole thing justice either," Kunsel agreed. "Can we go a bit further away? I want to see this from a distance."

"Yeah, sure," Zack said with a shake of a head before grinning – all teeth – at his fellow Heroes. "Last one down buys a round at Seventh Heaven!" he said, and jumped over the wooden railing.

The Elder Tree was totally busted though. It was the sort of destruction Zack was more used to seeing in the real world, not in Terra Online. He hadn't even known that you could do stuff like this in Terra Online. Maybe a new update that had changed the terrain a bit? Made it destructible? Though wouldn't there have been a warning for that – and if that was it wouldn't other people be doing that too now, destroying things?

Zack landed on one of the lowest branches and stopped there, looking up with a grin. Kunsel was close behind him, using his spells to cheat like a dirty cheater naturally. Luxiere was not far behind him though and then moment Kunsel was about to finish their race, Luxiere whipped out a shield and Bashed it down. It never stopped being hilarious, this slender elf swinging around a huge shield that by rights should've weighed more than he did, but ridiculous or not, it did its job.

Kunsel was knocked askew and he went flying past Zack with a yelp and as Luxiere flipped around and landed beside Zack, there was a crash below them as Kunsel hit the ground.

"Man," Zack muttered, shaking his head sombrely and peering down at the ground. "That's just cruel."

"All is fair in war and races," Luxiere shrugged and the shield vanished. He then looked up at the Elder Tree above them.

Zack did the same. The tree looked even worse from below. "Do you think they're going to fix it?" he asked. "Like a server roll-back or something?"

"It's been a while and they haven't done anything about it yet," Luxiere said and then glanced over his shoulder as Kunsel appeared behind them, surrounded by the sparks of teleportation. "You lose, Guide."

"Technically I won," Kunsel answered, brushing away imaginary dirt from his shoulder. "I made it the furthest down, didn't I? Almost landed on a couple of people coming up too – scared the crap out of them."

"Still, I look forward to eating everything on your tab."

"Piss off, Light."

Zack looked down. There was a party of two coming up, a winged mage and someone in dancer costume. Judging by the looks of it, they had no idea how to navigate the tree with the stairs and catwalks gone – the woman was covering her mouth in thought and the mage just looked… gloomy.

Though that might be the cloak.

"I'm gonna go give them a hand," he decided after a moment of staring, and then jumped down.

"Of course you are," Luxiere answered – and followed.

Zack landed on a gigantic, moss covered root just a few meters away from the small party, making the mage's wings lift a little in reaction and making the woman reach for a not-yet-spawned weapon. "Hiya," Zack greeted them, waving a furry, clawed hand at them and grinning, well… wolfishly. "You folks need help getting up?"

The mage's wings lowered slightly and the woman tilted her hooded head. "Nah, I don't think so," she said, resting the hand that had been reaching for a weapon on her waist instead. "If I can't figure out a way up, Vincent can just fly us both up there," she added, motioning at the gloomy looking mage. "Thanks for the offer though," she added.

"No prob, thought I'd offer," Zack said and looked up again. "Man," he then said. "It's a real wreck isn't it?"

For some reason that made the woman laugh. "Yes. Yes it is," she said, looking up as well and grinning widely. "It was amazing."

"Were you here when it happened?" Zack asked eagerly. "I wasn't even online – missed the whole thing."

"Yeah, we were there. Got front row seats and everything," the woman said proudly. "It was a fantastic mess."

"What was it like?" Zack asked, leaning in. "There were over a thousand players there, weren't there?"

"Biggest event in months," Kunsel agreed.

"Well," the woman mused, smiling widely and stroking her dark chin thoughtfully while the man beside her made an aborted noise of objection. "It was a bit like someone poked an ant hill with a stick – and all the little ants scurried up to meet the evil stick…"

To Zack's delight, she told the whole story – apparently she and the mage had been up on the upper levels, just chilling, so they'd seen the whole thing, right from the start. How Rainstorm had dealt away with a few players harassing a low level female player and how it had then gotten horribly out of hand – because everyone had seen the death messages and Rainstorm was apparently a bit popular, god knows why. Then there'd been dozens of them coming up, hundreds – and to deal away with them Rainstorm had cut off a branch, sent a lot of them just falling down.

The woman was a hilarious story teller – in no time flat she ended up acting out things, and making voices, obviously having a blast. "And they were all – kill that Rainstorm bitch!" she said, alternating between her own voice and a mock manly-man voice. Then she whirled around to face an imaginary opponent, striking what she apparently thought was Rainstorm-esque pose – standing high on the balls of her feet. "And Rainstorm was like – nope! – and then they were jumping down the branches, he and the poor bastards with him and then –"

The mage beside the ridiculous woman had fallen to sit on the tree root and even with the hood and all he looked like he was this close to face palming – his wings were drooping and he was half slumped over in despair. Meanwhile Zack had taken a seat and was leaning in a bit, enjoying the show. Even Kunsel and Luxiere were sitting back, watching the woman play-act the event.

Even the forest seemed to enjoy the show – Zack could swear he could hear it smothering giggles around them. Surprisingly feminine, the Great Forest of Moore.

The woman acted out a fight, Rainstorm and his party – a ninja, a summoner, a gunner and then eventually a grenadier – against just a flood of enemies. She even did sound effects – going pew pew for gun noises, it was hilarious – and then she whirled to a dramatic stop. "And then the summoner went and summoned a huge ass dragon that came down like the goddamn apocalypse. It pretty much tore the Elder Tree open and then they made their epic escape! The end!"

Zack applauded her while laughing uproariously – Kunsel even whistled in appreciation. He'd seen actual plays – no one could put up a show like the LOVELESS guild and he'd gotten front row seats a bunch of times – but this was definitely special. "That was great!" he laughed. "Man, now I'm even more sorry that I missed it. It must've been epic in real life."

"Thank you, thank you," the woman said, bowing a couple of times and laughing. "And it really was."

"We should get going," the mage she was with said, his voice gravely and defeated. "If you want to get there before the others log in."

"Yeah, yeah, I guess we should," the woman said and sighed. "Well, boys, it's been fun, but we've got to head up now."

"You heading for the portal?" Zack asked, standing up.

"Yeah, we're going to Alexandria. Got a few things we need to get for our guild," she said almost apologetically and then she grinned. "I've never been there before. I'm pretty excited."

"We're all doomed," the mage muttered with a sigh as he stood up and stepped to her side.

"Stop it," the woman answered, even while winding an arm around his waist and tucking herself against him. "You secretly love it."

"I really don't."

Zack grinned at them. What a weird couple – the gloomiest of all gloomy guys and this hilariously cheerful chick. Guess opposites really did attract. "We're heading back to Alexandria too," he said. "And hey, if you need a guide to show you around, here's Guide," he added, motioning at Kunsel and grinning. "He fits the job perfectly."

"You're far too kind, Guildmaster," Kunsel answered, voice flatter than a pancake. He shook his head and turned to the woman. "We can show you around Alexandria though. It's a pretty complicated place. And pretty big too."

"We kind of have a guide already but… I don't see her anywhere," the woman said and grinned. "Gotta get up first, though. Vincent, mind giving me a lift?"

The gloomy mage sighed and then just grabbed her, swinging her into his arm in a bridal carry. She laughed out loud, half delighted and half embarrassed and a moment later they were aloft. For a mage, he apparently was pretty strong.

"What a weird couple," Luxiere said, half laughing as he peered up after them.

"I like them," Zack decided, and then quickly equipped his own wings and headed after them, his guildmates quickly following him.

They met the dancer and the mage on the first stable platform, just a little ways down from the portal. While she looked around, grinning at the signs of destruction all around her, the gloomy mage rustled his wings and settled them down, looking a little disgruntled in the shadows of his hood. Zack landed beside them and the woman grinned at him.

"A wolf with wings," she laughed. "That's ridiculous. I love this game."

"It's great, isn't it?" Zack asked with a grin. Her delight in everything was weirdly infectious – it was hard to even try and take offence when she was so thrilled about everything. "You got the funds for the portal?" he asked, looking her over. Since she didn't have wings herself she was probably below level forty. "What's your name, by the way?"

"Yeah, we're good," she said. "And my name is Rain-y," she introduced herself with a funny little hiccup and motioned at the mage. "And this is Vincent."

"Cool. I'm Wolfhound, this is Light and Guide, we're from the Heroes guild," Zack said and held out his furry palm. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Rainy."

"Likewise," she laughed and shook his hand.

Chapter Text

Getting through the portal was a bit of a hassle. It took effort to convince Wolfhound and his buddies to go first – they wanted to do the gentlemanly thing and let them go first. Which, considering that Vincent was a pet, was a bit of a bother.

"So, I'll select Alexandria, pay this and Vincent can come through with me?" Cloud asked, motioning at the screen hovering in front of him and glancing over his shoulder at the empty space where Flower was.

"Yes, it should work," she said, her voice coming closer – another window popped up seemingly for no reason into the empty air. "Vincent doesn't de-spawn, does he?"

"No," Cloud said, absolutely certain of that. He would butcher Cait Sith if there was a chance of that – and he doubted very much that Cait Sith would be that callous. "No, he doesn't de-spawn." He damn well better not.

"Then he should be able to follow you through. Though you could hold hands, just to make sure," Flower giggled and paid for the fee, the window in front of her invisible presence vanishing. "I'm good to go."

"Right," Cloud nodded and after selecting the city, he accepted the fee request by hitting the [OK]. 10 of the near 3000 gold he had was extracted from his inventory with a quiet little ding and the portal in front of him – a sort of wooden platform with pedestals around it – activated. A whirling green vortex appeared there, leaves spinning around it lazily. It was kind of pretty. "Do they all look like that?"

"Each zone has a different type of portal, they sort of reflect the zones. The Great Forest of Moore is a forest so… leafy green portal," Flower answered. "Good to go then? Let's try to go at the same time – you going through should mask me."

"Okay, invisible woman, let's do it your way," Cloud said and reached a hand out to Vincent. "Alright?"

Vincent hesitated only a little before taking the hand in his. "Alright," he said.

Cloud grinned at him, winding their fingers together. "On the count of three, then. One, two…" he counted, stepping backwards towards the portal. "Three."

The switch from the Great Forest of Moore to Alexandria was pretty much like switching zones via the zone portals – pretty much instantaneous and not that impressive. One moment Cloud was on one of the Elder Tree's remaining platforms, and the next he was standing on smooth, multicoloured pavement under the gracefully carved stone arches of the rather gigantic Alexandria portal.

Wolfhound was there waiting, and the moment Cloud and Vincent were through, he spread out his arms as if to display everything around them. "Welcome, milady, milord, to the Golden City of Alexandria!"

Cloud just stared. City apparently was pretty much right. The Alexandria portal was sat in the middle of what he figured was some sort of central square of the city – it was a wide open area almost completely covered by player stalls and peddlers who were yelling out their wares – items, armours, weapons they'd made, batches of potions they'd brewed, items they'd collected while raiding.

The square was surrounded on all sides by high stone buildings, each of them more impressive than the others, with pillars and statues and elaborately carved window frames. One of them had stained glass windows that displayed an angelic figure Cloud vaguely remembered seeing in some advertisement in the real world. From the buildings hung flags and banners, picturing what Cloud supposed were guild insignia – there was one with an elaborate shield and sword with an H emblazoned on top of them, another with a golden LOVELESS against a deep purple background, one with a severe looking red O on a black background and so on.

There was music – a group of bards playing various instruments not far away with a golden pot sitting in front of them, a screen reading [DONATIONS] hovering above it. They were pretty good, actually, and there were actually some people dancing to the tune. Not far from them, there was an enormous white horse-unicorn thing with a mane like snow and horn like a lightning bolt just chilling amongst the stalls, thrice as high as all of them. And above there was what looked like a bird made of fire, which was just flying around.

Cloud's fingers twitched. "This place is amazing," he breathed, his eyes wide.

"Be a shame if something were to happen to it," Vincent murmured under his breath.

"Quiet you," Cloud said, grinning widely as he nudged at his side with his elbow. He could feel Flower at his back – her hand was resting on his shoulder lightly. He turned to Wolfhound. "How big is this place?"

"I think it's about twelve square kilometres," Wolfhound said grinning. "It spreads out as people buy land – for each plot of land bought, another pops up at the edges. So it's always growing, bit by bit," he said and crossed his hands behind his neck, ruffling the mane of grey-black fur he had in place of hair, being a wolf-beast man. "So, would you like a tour or is there something specific you want to start with?"

Cloud considered that. Would it be weird if he headed right off to buy the plot of land for a guild house? Did that show up in some listings – would it make people aware of his presence there? That would suck. "How do you buy land?" he asked thoughtfully.

"You head to the castle," Wolfhound said, motioning over a couple of the tallest buildings to an even taller one in the distance. "Talk to the NPCs there – Earl whatchamacallit sells land. Sorry, can't remember his name. Anyway, he should show up on your map as the Estate Manager. You go to him, he shows you a map of available plots of land, you pick one and buy it from him. You thinking of buying a house or making a guild house?"

Cloud eyed him and then shrugged. "Something like that," he said and then looked around. "Where did the others go?" he asked and stopped to stare at one of the stalls nearby.

"Light headed off to the Wastes to do some dailies, and Guide saw someone he knows and went to talk to her," Wolfhound shrugged and then leaned in. "What is it?" he asked, and followed Cloud's gaze.

There was a stall with an enormous sign that read WhenItRains and it was absolutely covered in posters. Of him.

"What the hell is that?" Cloud asked, half laughing, and quickly went to check it out, jumping down from the platform of the portal and dragging Vincent and Flower with him as he went. Wolfhound followed after them, looking puzzled.

There were three guys in the stall, and they all looked pretty gruesome. A berserker, a paladin and a dark knight, all wearing spindly armour painted with what looked like blood – some sort of clothes dye maybe? One of them was crafting something while the other two were pouring over a map of the Great Forest of Moore. They looked like they were plotting a trip.

One of them, seeing them, looked up. "You looking to join the guild?" the Berserker asked. "You gotta be an active player in the hunt and have at least two murders on your account."

"You guys are a guild?" Cloud asked, staring at the poster of himself. Or of Rainstorm. It was taken in mid leap and showed more of his ass than he would've liked and for a moment he wasn't sure where it had been taken. Then he saw a hint of burnished rock in the corner. The Wastes.

Sephiroth then? Oh god.

"We are the biggest Rainstorm fan guild there is!" the berserker said proudly. "Four hundred and eighty nine members, all of us dedicated to Rainstorm, to finding him and killing him or being killed by him!"

"Or her," the paladin intersected. "Rainstorm could be a her."

"There's no way he's a girl. Imagine a girl doing the shit he's done."

"Nothing says Rainstorm can't be girl – Rainstorm has a gender-bender item. She might've just as well been using it to pretend to be a guy this whole time!"

"Where's your fucking proof?!"

Cloud blinked, watching as they suddenly broke out into an argument, the dark knight ignoring them entirely as he kept on crafting. Behind him he could feel Flower leaning against his shoulders and smothering giggles into the scarf that hid his ears. Vincent was staring the same as Cloud, just as confused as he was, and behind them Wolfhound made a thoughtful sound.

"There are a lot of Rainstorm fan guilds," he said slowly and Cloud looked at him over his shoulder while the berserker and the paladin suddenly began to arm-wrestle. The wolfman was looking at Cloud with an odd expression. "You thinking of joining one of them then? I thought you were already in a guild."

"No I'm not interested in joining them!" Cloud said, letting out a burst of disbelieving laughter. "Fan guilds?" he asked and shook his head. "Really?"

"You think there's something funny about it, bitch?" the berserker asked, turning to him,

"It's fucking hi-la-ri-ous," the paladin answered, utterly deadpan. "Get your head out of your ass, you pompous bastard. We're an embarrassment and everyone know it."

"You fucking –"

The two of them broke out into a fight again and with a little shake of his head Cloud backed away from the guild. So apparently he had fan guilds and judging by the looks of these guys the fan guilds were a fucking mess. Alright then. "I didn't know there were posters," Cloud said, motioning at the pictures of his ass mostly that were plastered all over WhenItRains' stall.

"There's just the one, I think. I haven't seen any others." Wolfhound said, shaking his head. "LOVELESS makes them, who knows how they got it. They're all over the city now, they started adding it to the wanted posters too."

"Huh," Cloud mused, narrowing his eyes at the picture of him. "All over the city, you say?"

"Rainstorm is pretty… well not popular, but everyone knows him, so… it's kind of popular I guess," Wolfhound said, shrugging his shoulders. Then he looked at Cloud. "Hey, if you got any pictures of him, you could make a lot of money with them."

"Hmm. Well that's a thought," Cloud said and grinned as he felt Flower leaning into him. He tilted his head a bit to the side, and felt her press her face close to his.

"We should get moving," she whispered. "There's a skill that can see through disguises – a good scan can read your name."

And it would only take one person seeing his name in Alexandria before everyone would know. Right. Cloud looked at Wolfhound. "Can you show us to the castle now?"

"Yeah, alright," the wolfman said and bowed theatrically. "This way, milady."

Cloud, Vincent and the invisible Flower followed him through the busy marketplace. There was no shortage of things to stare at – there were so many high end items on display that everything was sort of sparkling. There were a couple of stalls selling costumes and such, and Cloud stopped to stare at one of them longingly before Flower urged him on, whispering, "Buy them from the auction house – it's anonymous, trades aren't."

"Pity," Cloud sighed and then followed Wolfhound.

Once they got out of the marketplace it got a bit easier to move. There were a few stalls there too, but less people, so there was a lot more open space and Flower didn't have to stick to Cloud like glue to avoid running into people who didn't see her.

"So, how long have you been playing?" Wolfhound asked.

"Not long, few days. My other guild mates have been playing a lot longer. I'm kind of the newbie of the bunch," Cloud mused.

"And they gave the newbie house building rights?" Wolfhound asked, surprised.

"I guess I'm good with money," Cloud answered, grinning. Good at accumulating it by murdering people, sure, but Wolfhound didn't need to know that. "And I guess the others didn't want to do it, lazy bastards. How about you, how long have you been playing?"

"Pretty much since the beginning," Wolfhound said, and they spent the rest of the time chatting about their gaming experience so far – though mostly it was about Wolfhound warning Cloud about potential pitfalls he might run into in the future, bosses and such. Not that any of it was particularly useful to Cloud who couldn't really play the game normally thanks to the bounty and all, but it was pretty nice regardless.

As they talked and walked, Cloud stared up at the buildings all around them. They were pretty much all of them really fancy. They were mostly stone, though there were a couple which looked wooden and one a bit tacky one that looked like it was built of iron. There were varying colours – though no one had built anything in neon colours, thank god. Around the Alexandria central square most everything was four, five stories tall, but the further away they got, the less stories buildings had.

"And these are all player owned buildings?" Cloud asked thoughtfully.

"Most of them are guild houses," Wolfhound said. "Big plots like these are a bit too expensive for single person to get, and each expansion costs twice as much as the first one."

"I heard the Overseers own most of the estates here?"

"They do. They rent them out to guilds and so on. That's why a lot of these are kind of uniform – the Overseers have rules about how you build on their plots. If you see a house that's made of something other than stone and grandeur, then that's definitely not an Overseer plot," Wolfhound grinned, tilting his head and opening a menu in the air in front of him. "Though most people build from stone anyway, because it's just nicer looking."

"Yeah, I guess…" Cloud hummed, and soon after that they were at the steps of the castle. "And this is an NPC plot?" he asked.

"The only one in Alexandria," Wolfhound said, and typed something on the screen in front of him. "Listen, I've got to go – can you manage from here on out? I'd love to show you around, but a friend of mine wants a duel at the arena."

"Yeah, we can manage. Thanks for showing us this far," Cloud nodded.

"No prob. Hope you enjoy Alexandria. Maybe I'll see you guys sometime," Wolfhound said with a grin and took something out of his inventory. "Gotta go. Byee!" With a flash, he was gone, leaving Cloud staring surprised at the spot where he'd been.

"Teleport item," Flower explained from nowhere. "He probably teleported to his guild house."

"So that's possible, huh?" Cloud mused and folded his arms. "I bet they're high level and I couldn't use one."

"You could, but you're right about them being high level – you have to craft them yourself, and you need a level twenty guild for it, I think," Flower said thoughtfully.

"Damn," Cloud said with a sigh. "Still. Something for the future," he said and then looked at Vincent, who was looking around them thoughtfully. "You alright?" he asked. He was still holding Vincent's hand and judging by the looks of things, Vincent didn't seem to mind or be in any hurry to let go.

"I'm fine," the gunman said and frowned under his hood. "There's…. there's a lot of people here."

"Busiest zone on the server," Flower said. "And the square is always jam packed full of people."

"Yeah, I bet," Cloud said and squeezed Vincent's hand. Then he turned to look at the empty air where Flower was. "If I buy the land now, will people know? Does it go into listings or something?"

"Not before you've build a guild house, then it goes onto the map. And maybe some lists and leader boards – and of course it will show on our guild page. That's it, though," Flower said. "I think buying it now would be safe. Then you need to buy the materials for the guild house and either build it yourself or hire a construction crew."

"NPCs?"

"Yeah. Depending on how big you make it, it will take from one to I think twenty hours to build it," Flower said, and a screen appeared into the empty air again. "How big are you thinking?"

"Depends," Cloud said, smiling. "How much stuff do you need for making posters and how much space does the stuff take?"

Chapter Text

Aerith hung behind Rainstorm while the guild leader went through the motions of buying a plot of land. He chose the smallest one you could build a guild house on – the one that cost a flat 2000 Gold – and while he haggled over the construction crew for a basic style small guild house, Aerith let her mind wander.

Rainstorm, whatever he was, was definitely not stupid. Or shy for that matter. Of course printing press made sense, everyone got it as their first production. It was the easiest and quickest production to get – you could buy all the materials cheaply from the guild auction house and the production was easy to start and get going. Once it was set up, one could have products inside a minute, mass produced in the hundreds, in the thousands in the first hour. But Rainstorm already had a plan of what to sell. He had the perfect product. Himself.

Or, well, posters of himself.

With his infamy – the social one – there wouldn't be that many people wouldn't want to grab one of them. The guy had fans, yeah, but he had lot more enemies, and those would get posters just to destroy them, probably. In any case, there'd be buyers. And, since this whole thing was to counteract Rainstorm's infamy, he'd be basically handing them out on the auction house…

Even if he got only a single point of fame for each poster, he could probably counteract his infamy at least partially pretty quickly. It wouldn't be free – guild house, printing press, paper, inks… and there was a fee for putting things on the auction house too. It would take at least 3000 gold in total, if not more. But considering how much money Rainstorm got from his wholesale player killing, well. It probably wasn't that much for him.

"Geez," Aerith said, shaking her head. "This is not how you establish a guild production."

"Isn't it?" Vincent asked, watching Rainstorm interact with the npcs.

"You start a guild, then you and your guild spend weeks on end accumulating funds, then you maybe get a plot of land and then you spend some more time getting the money to get everything ready for the guild production and then, maybe, you get some products done," Aerith sighed. "And even then there is no guarantee the thing you make will sell. This is a bit like cheating."

"I was under the impression there were no rules to this… game."

"Well… that's true too, I guess," she mused and folded her arms as Rainstorm turned, look of annoyed satisfaction on his face. "So?"

"So the construction will start in ten minutes and take about an hour," Rainstorm said and tugged at the dancer-scarf around his head, hiding his ears and hair. "I guess there's no way to do it faster?"

"If you build it yourself, maybe," Aerith shrugged. "But you need to know what you're doing and us two doing it alone would just take longer – you need a big group for fast building, at least thirty people. So even if the whole guild was here, we probably couldn't do it any faster."

"Hmmm," Rainstorm said and shook his head. "Well, I guess we're waiting then," he said and opened his menu, checking his funds. "Hmm. I don't have much left on me. RedXIII has the rest of my moneys."

"Do you have enough for the printing press?"

"I doubt it," Rainstorm sighed and scratched at his neck, turning to her. He had an unerring ability to look right at her even though she was invisible – it would've been creepy if she didn't know he worked for Terra Online. "Mind lending me some?"

"Yes, of course – I won't even need to lend it. It's my guild too," she said and shrugged. He might've actually even seen it. "Besides, there are things I want to print and sell too."

"Alright, then," Rainstorm nodded and closed the inventory. "Soo… what shall we do while waiting?"

They ended up wandering around the city – mostly in the less populated sections where there was less chance of accidentally running into someone's scan. It was surprisingly fun, even though Aerith knew Alexandria pretty well. There were parts she hadn't seen that closely because the Overseers had thought that they were beneath her notice or something like that. The under-developed parts of the city were basically slums, and the NPCs there reflected that. There were even beggars there.

"The city changes as it's build," she explained to Rainstorm. "I wasn't there when it started out, of course, but I hear the city centre was basically just a village in the beginning. Then people started building, and the city spread – the outskirts expand as lots are bought, and the outskirts are always a slum – until someone buys a lot and builds something. Um. Where did you buy our place?"

Rainstorm opened his map of the city and pointed. "There."

It was smack in middle of slum territory.

"Right, okay," Aerith said and narrowed her eyes. "I guess that works."

"Not good?"

"No, just – no one owns the houses around it," she said and pointed her invisible finger at them. "Which probably means Overseers will buy every lot around it when they find out."

"And that's a bad thing?" Rainstorm asked, scratching his neck thoughtfully.

"It'll mean we can't expand in the future, not unless they sell to us or we rent from them," Aerith said and considered it. Knowing Tseng, he wouldn't let them expand in any case. "Well, I guess in the future we can just buy another house elsewhere and expand that way."

"Gotta say, this whole business of people being able to buy lots they don't use and then forcing people who want them pay rent is bullshit," Rainstorm said. "It basically means that the superior guilds always stay superior, and no guild just starting out can get big."

"Yeah," Aerith agreed with a sigh. "It's one of the things I don't really like about Alexandria."

They continued on, going around the city and looking at the other guild houses, Aerith naming those she knew, and speculating on what their guild productions were. Most had several – as far as she knew there was only one so called big guild house in Alexandria with just the one.

"Seventh Heaven," she explained, motioning at the bar. "It's bit of a odd one out in Alexandria – it's run by guild with just the one member, Sonata, and the only guild production is a green house."

"Greenhouse?" Rainstorm asked, folding his arms and eying the guild house. "The place looks pretty popular with just the one member."

"Sonata runs it like a bar – or like a restaurant, I guess. She sells food items," Aerith explained. "Which people eat at the guild house, like it was a restaurant. And since only guild members can player kill inside their guild houses, it's kind of safe place for people to meet, Seventh Heaven. Only Sonata can kill people inside. So if someone, say, Overseers want to meet people in neutral ground…"

"Huh," Rainstorm said, considering the bar. "Food items," he then said, glancing at her.

"Yeah. Her hot chocolate is so good," Aerith said, gushing just a little bit. "She's the only one with the recipe – it was a special reward from a seasonal quest, I think, and she's the only one who got it."

"Well that's a endorsement and a half," Rainstorm said and opened his menu. "There's still forty five minutes to go," he mused and glanced as Vincent thoughtfully. Then he grinned. "Let's go have some hot chocolate."

Chapter Text

"Oh my god, can you see that?"

"That can't be him, right? It's an outfit or something, has to be, right?"

"If there was an outfit like that, everyone would have it, don't you think?"

"Oh em gee, his hair!"

Sephiroth is already regretting his decision of joining the civilisation – not that this little outpost can really even be called civilisation. There are only three npcs, a seller, and a handful of players, recent logins getting ready for the night's questing judging by the looks of it – all of whom are now staring at him. Usually this place is empty, though, being so remote and right in middle of several high level mob spawning areas. It's where Sephiroth usually empties out his inventory once it's been filled with useless monster bits.

One of the players frames him with her fingers, mouthing "snap" as she takes the picture and Sephiroth smothers a sigh.

Maybe he should've just deleted all of the useless junk after all – he isn't exactly short on currency, and he doesn't even really need any, these days. At his level, he doesn't need consumables, his weapons and gear are all the highest level he could find... and there aren't monsters left in the game that can really even scratch him, aside from select few bosses.

Terra Online is starting to be a bit boring, really. In the higher levels, there just isn't that much to do.

"Excuse me, sir?"

Sephiroth looks up from the shop screen – and then down at the white mage. Early forties levelwise, judging by her gear.

"I was wondering if – if I could have an autograph?" she asks and then holds out a gold adorned book and a fiery red quill – both pretty high craft items. "I – if that isn't any bother. If it is, please, just... just ignore me."

Sephiroth usually would just walk away from situations like this. Fans are more Genesis' and Angeal's business, really, and he's never bothered with them... But it's been a particularly slow start for night and no has spotted the Wastes Demon in couple of days now – even the Glitch Hunter threads are quiet. It just doesn't look like there will be much entertainment to be had, that night.

So, Sephiroth accepts the book, ignoring the mage's gasp and how her party ooh and aah in background. "You made this?" he asks, flipping the book open. "Do you mind?"

"No, no, please, go right ahead," she says, her eyes wide. "I mean it's not much anything really, just some pictures I've captured of us while we've been playing, but... g-go right ahead, if you want."

Ignoring her nervous babbling and the mortified looks thrown around by her party, Sephiroth flips through the book. It's mostly pictures of the zones and terrains, particularly interesting looking sceneries – and her party members in their early levels.

Like most everyone, it looks like they'd started in Albrook and worked their up, zone by zone, quest by quest. Leafing through the book is like step by step progress report of their advancement – speckled with personality, triumphs over particularly interesting bosses, and the work they'd put into levelling up in the mean while.

There's a picture of them posing with a dead dragon, all of them flashing peace signs regardless of the many wounds they're all sporting.

It looks like... fun.

There are other pictures in the book as well – mostly of famous players. There's the old picture they'd used for marketing the game early in – Sephiroth, Genesis and Angeal in their early gear, against the backdrop of Alexandria. The old version of Terra Online logo hovers above them, gleaming golden. 

Sephiroth stares at it for a while, thinking back to when it was taken. It wasn't that long ago, all things considered – but it feels like a lifetime. Back then the game has still been interesting. The game had just been launched to the general population and it had been all so new and different, suddenly so full of people and things to do when before it had been just SOLDIER, running simulations.

It had gone so fast from just a thing they did to practice every night to something they genuinely enjoyed, something where they could both let loose and safely compete. It had been exciting, back then, and every level had been a triumph and an achievement… until they'd pretty much plateaued around seventies when the exp requirements for next level rose up to millions.

Before that, though, the game had been a constant race, a fight to see who would get the highest level, who'd get there fastest. They'd partied together, egging each other on – or trash talking, in Genesis case. That had been fun too. Now... now Angeal and Genesis only fight in the Arena and even Genesis has given up trying to make levels.

Now it's just Sephiroth, still running in a race everyone else had already forfeited.

"Sir?" the white mage asks nervously.

"Hmm," Sephiroth answers and moves on from the picture. There are other pictures of them, taken from various advertisements, still captures from events. There's even the Fanpocalypse picture that Genesis had made posters out of.

Then there is something Sephiroth didn't expect.

A picture he'd taken.

"Where did you get this?" he asks, turning the book around and showing the screen capture he'd taken of Rainstorm in mid leap, when he'd gone to save his stunned party member from fall damage.

"Uh – LOVELESS makes posters of it," the White mage says, now looking a little bit confused. "I took a screen capture one of them."

"Ah. I see." Well of course Genesis would make posters, what is he even thinking.

Shaking his head, Sephiroth leafs through the pages to the last one, which has now the most recent picture of him, standing against the backdrop of the Wastes outpost they're in. It's not the best picture of him ever taken – but he knows from experience that sometimes that only makes it more valuable.

Finally he accepts the quill and signs his name on the picture. "There," he says and hands the book and the quill back.

"Thank you very much!" The mage says. "Do you mind if I give copies to my friends?"

"Do as you like," Sephiroth says, turning back to the merchant npc to finish emptying his inventory.

It sticks to his mind, though. That picture – or rather, the two pictures. They'd been so new to the game when the promotional pictures were taken, and beyond annoyed to be wasting their time with it when they could be been questing or grinding...

Wastes had just been implemented and they'd been looking forward to getting enough levels to get there.

And Rainstorm had been, what, level 12 when they'd met there? Level 12 and already at the Wastes. The man is a lunatic.

Dragging the last of his overflow – [Behemoth Horns x 54] – into the shop window, Sephiroth ends the trade with the merchant and turns to leave, his business at the camp now done, and with additional 265 gold in his inventory. Gold with which he will inevitably do nothing with.

While heading away – on foot without using a mount or equipping wings because walking just kills more time – Sephiroth wonders idly why he still plays this game at all. Aside from the drive to be the best, which he already is, there just isn't much there to entertain him anymore. For the last several months all there was were the rumours about the Demon and he still hasn't seen a hint of the thing. And there is no corner of the Wastes left where he hasn't checked.

The longer he thinks about it, the worse it all seems. So, Sephiroth finally gives up and opens a message window. 

[From: Sephiroth]
[To: Cait Sith]
[Subject: the Wastes Demon]

[Fact or fiction?]

It takes no time at all for answer to pop up. 

[From: Cait Sith]
[To: Sephiroth]
[Subject: Fiction]

[Technically. The Wastes Demon was a glitch in the Terra Online base code that appeared as a mob type character – it has been dealt with now, however. Apologies for any inconveniences it might have caused.]

Damn. There goes that.

Sighing, Sephiroth takes a seat on a pile of stone and for a moment just stares up at the artificial sky. In the distance he can hear the cries of wyrms and somewhere the hyenas are howling. Aside from that it's quiet. It's just him.

Just sleeping and having some regular old nightmares again might actually be more interesting than this.

"Starting to get bored?"

Sephiroth looks down to the AI, now sitting in the air in front of him.

"I've been kind of expecting it, actually," Cait Sith says and points a gloved paw at him. "You've beaten every zone and every boss – and unlike BELOVED and Noble, you don't enjoy the Arena battles, do you? Why is that, by the way? From what I hear you enjoy duels in real life."

"Duelling someone here is pale imitation of the real thing," Sephiroth says with shake of his head. "It doesn't have the same weight or grit – weapons don't have the same impact. You don't feel the strain or the wear. It's hollow and pointless exercise except for learning the motions."

"Hmm," Cait Sith answers. "That is very interesting."

"Is it," Sephiroth answers flatly.

"It is," the AI says. "I recently met some very interesting people who made some of those same points and then flipped them around. But I suppose that doesn't matter – I'm here to give you some insider information and once in a playtime opportunity."

"Oh?"

"We've been planning a server update for a while, and we've got some interesting code data lately which will push the update into a complete system overhaul," Cait Sith tells him. "Terra Online will changing very soon. There will be new zones, new bosses, new quests, all the works – but the base system is going to get the biggest change. We're going to add a whole lot of realism into the system."

Sephiroth narrows his eyes. "When?"

"Soon," Cait Sith promises and then tilts his head. "Out of curiosity, did you ever wonder why we put in such a strict penalty for dying?"

Sephiroth blinks at that sudden change of topic. "Can't say I've ever thought about it."

"It's never been an issue for you, has it?"

Sephiroth shrugs. Even early on he'd maintained a life or death mindset when it came to the game. Death on real battlefield is irreversible – it wouldn't do to get used to thinking death as mere cheap setback. There were already signs of Terra Online giving some people in the ShinRa Infantry a false sense of invulnerability, which they then carried with then to real situations and ultimately to their deaths.

"We set the system like this so that people can, if they want to, reset their character down to level one and start all over. There are no actual re-dos in the system, after all, its only one character per player," the AI explains. "A death penalty like loss of level also adds some risk, a real sense of danger and a threat of concrete loss without actively dicking people over like permanent character death would."

Sephiroth blinks at that with surprise and leans back a little. He's never died in the game, so he's never thought about it much, and certainly not in that light. As a soft, if somewhat cruel, reset.

"Of course," Cait Sith sighs, "people mainly just abuse it to grief other players, but that's pretty much given with people."

"Hmm," Sephiroth answers, thinking. A reset... "What's the opportunity you're here to offer me?"

"You've been pretty much uncontested as the top ranking player of this game since its conception," Cait Sith says. "As such, myself and the Admin have a present for you. An opportunity it to make a whole new character from ground up. Character creation and everything."

Sephiroth's eyes narrow. "I can almost hear the conditions," he says. "What do you want?"

The cat doesn't even bother to look sheepish. "We need someone who is familiar with the game mechanics to test a... new game method, shall we say," Cait Sith admits. "And you know more about this game than just about any other player."

"A... game method," Sephiroth repeats.

"A player has discovered means of in a sense abusing the system to it's limits and in so doing he's actually helped develop it further," Cait Sith shrugs. "But his gimmick is that he doesn't play by the rules simply because he doesn't know them – the guy is a complete newbie. You, on other hand, are a seasoned veteran. You two have similarities, though – you play with very similar styles, approach the game in similar ways. Which would make you a prime study case for his methods."

"Hmm," Sephiroth answers. He is not exactly trilled about the idea of being study case for anything. And a new character, starting from ground up... "If you're adding more bosses, more zones, more quests, why on earth would I just start over now?"

"That's the thing – you don't have to. You can keep this character as he is – you simply start a new one on the side," Cait Sith offers. "An exclusive second character. Once in a playtime opportunity, Sephiroth. What do you say?"

Chapter Text

Tifa hums idly to herself while shifting the tables and chairs around. There's no actual cleaning needed on order to maintain a guild house – it isn't as if things really get dirty in Terra Online, after all, no one really tracks mud on her floors here. But it all feels a bit more real, to clean up a bit at the start of the day, to set the tables and chairs, maybe switch the decorations around a bit and just to make everything ready for the days customers.

Little tricks of immersion – not that immersing herself in Terra Online is exactly hard. Her role as restaurant owner is more make belief than anything, though, and going through the motions just makes it feel more concrete.

Otherwise it's just her alone in empty guild, doing one item trades for pittance of money, which according to so many people "isn't how you're supposed to play the game". To this day people urge her to sell her plot of land, so that they can use it for what it's meant for, rather than waste it on one person mini guild.

Tifa gets why it keeps happening – her place is smack in middle of Alexandria, in the busiest, wealthiest district of the city, of the entire game even. LOVELESS, Heroes, Overseers and pretty much all the other high end guilds are all within walking distance. That makes her little plot of land very valuable – and much contested, because by all appearances it's just her, alone with only the occasional hired help... she and her little guild of one should be weak.

"Come on, everything has a price," says the latest hopeful buyer, a Viera woman in a perfectly matching set of white lingerie, full with garter belt and stockings, which vaguely identifies her as a mage of some sort. "You just name yours and I'm sure my guild can get it together in no time."

"Overseers once offered me two million gold," Tifa says conversationally while pushing a chair closer to a table to clear a path between two tables.

The Viera hesitates at that. "Must have been joking," she says then, sounding a little dubious.

"No, Loyal showed me his inventory – he had more than enough," Tifa says and turns to look at the Viera. "Obviously I didn't take him up on that, and I doubt your guild can do better than the Overseers. So can you maybe give it a rest? I am not selling Seventh Heaven."

The Viera makes a face and thinks about it for a moment. Like all Vieras she is beautiful and shapely to the point of looking completely fake, and she wears the Viera signature gear without a hint of shame, which Tifa knows tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way. It's easy to brand Vieras as attention whores – because that's how the whole damn race is designed, and that's why people choose it.

With this woman, though, it's intentional to the point of being weaponized. With her lacy lingerie armour, her dainty jewellery, the lacy choker on her throat, she looks like she just walked out of a porn shoot. There is something dangerous about that, Tifa thinks, a little unnerved that she can't on first glance tell what level this woman even is.

"How about platinum?" the Viera asks, giving her a serious look.

Tifa shakes her head and adjusts the table cloth. "Seventh Heaven is not for sale."

The Viera steps closer. "Name your price," she says seriously. "Ten thousand? Twenty?"

That makes Tifa pause and look at the woman. Is she really… "You – are you actually offering me twenty thousand actual gil for a virtual bar?" she asks incredulously. "Are you serious?"

For a small brief moment, it's... actually tempting. Twenty thousand would be enough to get out of Nibelheim, to get her own place somewhere – maybe even start working on establishing an actual, real life, bar. It wouldn't be enough to actually get her all the way – but it would be a start.

The Viera hesitates and Tifa sighs. No of course she's not serious. Though there is a not-exactly-legal Platinum Market for items and gear in Terra Online where people pay with actual gil, no one pays that kind of money for something virtual, not even plot of prime real estate. No one has the money to waste on something like that.

The Viera sighs too. "Listen," she says imploringly. "I'm sure we can come into some sort of arrangement here. If you're not going to sell the place, then, how about you join our guild? You're human, but I'm sure no one would mind – and our girls can work as waitresses here, it's bound to bring in more customers -"

She's thankfully interrupted by the arrival of more customers, their entrance signalled by the clatter of the bell above the door. Tifa is more than happy to turn her back in the Viera woman to greet them with a smile. "Welcome," she bids them cheerfully. "We're not quite open yet but if you're not in a hurry you can sit down and I'll be with you on just a moment."

She turns back to the Viera woman. "If you aren't going to buy anything I'm actually selling, then please excuse me, I have work to do," she says very firmly. "I appreciate the offer, but really – Seventh Heaven is not for sale."

With that said, she heads for the counter, hoping the Viera will count her losses and just leave – but she doesn't. They never give up so easily – which is normally a mindset she can appreciate. She just appreciates it a lot more when it is not aimed at things she has no intention of doing.

The Viera follows her. "Listen – just think about it, I'm sure we can figure some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement here," she says, cajoling, and opens a window. "Here's my ID – just shoot me a message when you've had some time to think about it, OK?"

Sighing, Tifa looks at the window.

 

[Head Bitch in Command]
[Ravager]
[Victoria]
[Level 65 Viera]
[Class: Assassin LV. 67]
[Job: Alchemist LV. 64]
[Guildmaster of Vieravengers Guild]
[Credits: 397]
[Bounty: 955 Gold]
[Status: Online]

Oh, Tifa thinks.

"It was nice talking to you. I'm sure I'll be seeing you around," Victoria says with a brief, sharp smile and then turns to leave. She swings as she goes, her high heels snapping briskly against the wood floor, and she doesn't look back.

Shaking her head, Tifa watches her leave until the door closes on her heels and then Tifa turns to her customers – a dancer with a scarf wrapped around her and a gloomy looking mage. "I'll be with you in just a sec – there are menus on the side table over there if you want to have a look at what's available."

The dancer startles a bit and then tugs the scarf even tighter around her face, hiding in it. The mage looks at his companion and then lifts his head slightly in Tifa's general direction. "...thank you," he says awkwardly.

Tifa smiles at them, turning to finish her chores.

So, that's the Guildmaster of the Vieravengers. Tifa's seen some of the guild members when she'd been out and about in the city, but she's never seen the Guildmaster, hadn't even heard about her before she'd started the guild – guild which is now rising fast in both popularity and power. It already has over hundred members, from what Tifa knows – it had gone from level one guild to level 10 in record speed.

Well it explains why the woman had been so adamant. Quickly rising guilds are always the worst when it comes to stuff like this. Victoria, though impressive she was in all of her Vieraness, wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last.

Shaking her head again, Tifa puts it off her mind. It doesn't matter how powerful the guild was or how powerful the guildmaster was – Tifa has gone against the strongest guilds and their masters and she'd kept her place. It would be no different with the Vieravengers.

As she continues cleaning up, in the corner of her eye Tifa can see the gloomy looking mage standing up and picking up a pair of menus before handing one of them to his shy dancer companion. She hesitates before accepting it, and keeps one hand on her scarf, keeping it in place nervously. First date maybe?

Tifa loves it when people come to have romantic outings in her place. It doesn't happen often, because Seventh Heaven tends to attract a pretty rowdy crowd, it's not the most romantic of places for a quiet nice out. But occasionally couples come in to share a meal, like in real life, and it's just... nice to see it. Just people being people, liking other people.

It's several levels above the usual status of people being assholes, as it tends to be more often than not in her guild house.

Maybe she should get couple a candle. It's of course a perpetual noon outside but thanks to the heavy curtains the lighting is always a bit dim in Seventh Heaven – it gives the place more closed up atmosphere, like a real bar in evening would have. Adding a candle would make it more romantic.

Finishing her chores and checking the chest to see that they have a full inventory, Tifa glances at the awkward couple to see if they've managed to break the ice yet.

No, is the answer, they've only managed to somehow get more awkward. The dancer is all but folding in on herself with near terminal case of first date jitters and the hooded mage is completely useless, just looking between her and the menu like he's not sure what has even doing there, never mind with her. It's in equal parts adorable and embarrassing to watch.

Better go in and give them a hand then.

Tifa grabs a candle from the chest and heads over – smiling a bit at how the dancer tries her best to not look like she's trying to sink under the table. "Hello there, sorry about the wait," Tifa says, setting the candle on the table between them. "Have you picked what you want to order then?"

The hooded mage – who, despite being apparently useless at dates, has managed to reach high enough level for wings – looks at his companion for a while. Then, when the dancer can't muster up the will to even look up, the mage looks at Tifa. "... I hear you can get... hot chocolate here?"

"Best in all of Terra Online," Tifa promises cheerfully, grinning a little wider at how hapless he sounds. Nice deep voice – and so out of his depth. Cute. "So that's Deluxe Hot Chocolates for both of you?"

The mage looks at the dancer – the dancer looks at the window. "Yes," he says finally, sounding uncertain.

Tifa smiles at him encouragingly. "Alright, two Deluxe Hot Chocolates it is. I'll be right back," she says and turns for the counter.

Behind her, the mage murmurs something, his voice dibbing even lower – and the dancer hisses something back, sounding utterly mortified.

Hmm. Maybe the date is a dare or a blind date gone wrong or something. Still pretty cute in an opposites attract sort of way – but if they're neither of them having fun, maybe Tifa should try and entertain them a bit. Dare or bad blind date or not, she doesn't want them to have a bad time in her restaurant – they might not want come back again.

"Here you go," she says, serving out the Deluxe Hot Chocolates to the couple. "That'll be 80 silver," she says, opening a trade window.

The mage looks at her and then at the dancer. He clears his throat.

Oh, Tifa thinks. Interesting. He's expecting the girl to pay? Out of funds, even at level well above forty, is he? Or maybe they'd just made a deal that she'd pay the first date, something like that. It's interesting that he doesn't seem a bit embarrassed by it, though. Having your girl pay for you… Tifa doesn't know many males with firm enough masculinity to take a blow like that.

The dancer squirms a moment longer and then reaches out one tanned, slender hand, and accepts the trade.

 

[Sonata] to [Rainstorm]
[Deluxe Hot Chocolate x 2] for [80 SP]

Tifa stares at the window for a moment. Then she looks down at the dancer. The dancer squirms a bit. Tifa looks back at the window, just in case she didn't misread the name. Maybe one or two letters are different – nope. It definitely says Rainstorm.

"Hmm," she hums and confirms the trade. Then, arms folded, she looks at the couple in a whole new light.

As the manager, owner and usually the bartender of the only truly neutral establishment in Alexandria, it's pretty much part of Tifa's job to keep up with rumours – and though she hasn't exactly looked into the whole business of OVERKILL and Rainstorm himself in any sort of detail, she knows enough. And of course, the destruction of the Elder Tree was game wide news, everyone had heard about it. That was what made Rainstorm's guild almost as famous as the man himself.

It's well known that the man has a sex-change item and bad case of the easily recognised – hence the disguise. Maybe even the constant squirming too – the man is wearing a dress after all.

"An elf summoner named Flower joined your guild, right?" Tifa asks. "Where is she?"

Rainstorm, in his surprisingly effective disguise, says nothing – but then a familiar voice pipes up, seemingly from nowhere, "Right here – hi, Sonata," Flower says. "Sorry – invisibility item. I can't exactly go out normally, with Overseers looking for me after all."

"Huh," Tifa answers and looks at the disguised player killer. Player massacrer, really. "Are you here to cause trouble? Because if so, I'd prefer if you didn't do it in my restaurant."

"We're here just to have a drink while we wait for our guild house being built," Flower promises, again from nowhere. "Speaking of which, could I gave a drink too, please?"

Tifa hesitates. She really probably should just throw them out, before they make a mess of her guild house. They have bit of a reputation after all. But instead she gets two more Deluxe Hot Chocolates.

Setting them down with a bang, she sits gown with them. Rainstorm is still squirming in his seat, but Tifa ignores him in favour of invisible Flower. "I didn't think you'd ever want to come back to Alexandria."

"We need to set up guild house," Flower says and lets out a little laugh. "And these two don't know how to do it, so here I am. Besides... it's much more fun to be in Alexandria, when I can go anywhere I like and all without an escort."

"Yeah, I bet," Tifa says, watching the invisible elf lift the hot chocolate glass and sip it through the straw. Then she looks at Rainstorm – still squirming – and state mage – still awkward. What a pair. Probably not a couple though, just pretending to be one.

Pity. Tifa had already grown weirdly fond of the weird couple, and it turns out they're not a couple after all – just couple very awkward guys in disguise. How disappointing.

"So, what was that about?" Flower asks.

"Hm?" Tifa asks, sipping her drink.

"The Viera before. It looked like she wanted something."

"Yeah – the land under our feet," Tifa sighs and glances around them, at her restaurant. "Another up and coming Guild that thinks they have the right to set up shop in city centre – where as I with my itty bitty level one guild don't, obviously."

"Ah, right, one of those," Flower says knowingly.

"Mmhmm," Tifa agrees and looks at Rainstorm. The guy is still squirming – what is up with that? "You're a Viera too, right? You know, I expected you to be a lot more... shamelessly naked."

Rainstorm doesn't answer, just shifts a little where he's sitting, and when Tifa ducks her head down to see past the scarf he's covered his face with, but he looks away – and away again when she cranes her neck the other way. Its kind obvious by now that the most hated player killer in the history of Terra Online isn't just embarrassed – he is actively trying to hide his face from her.

Tifa narrows her eyes, suspicion rising. "Do I know you?" she demands. "You know me, you recognise me, don't you? You know me in real life."

Rainstorm doesn't answer, but the hand he's holding his scarf up with twitches a little. He totally knows who she is. It's not that big of a surprise – Tifa had gone into Terra Online with every intention of living out the life she wanted, and she wanted to live it as herself, so unlike most other players, she'd done little to no changes to her player avatar. Only thing that differenced her from her character were the set of gear and, of course, the fact that Sonata was a bar owner – Tifa wasn't.

Those few people in Nibelheim who played Terra Online all recognized her when they met. Thing is, Tifa knows every single person in Nibelheim who plays Terra Online – and she knows their characters by name and sight. VRDC is expensive, the grid connection is even more expensive to get in Nibelheim, and she doubts very much anyone could've just up and gotten all of it in secret – when a house in Nibelheim got connected to the grid, everyone knew about it.

Someone not in Nibelheim, then, who knows her and might reasonably be expected to end up playing Terra Online. And it can't be Johnny because Tifa knows for sure he can't be playing, he doesn't have the money for it.

Rainstorm, Tifa thinks slowly, and it clicks, it practically dawns on her like morning sun through the clouds, with actual rays of light and everything. Suddenly, it all becomes so clear. Rain and storm.

"Oh my god," she says, the realisation knocking her off her ass so well that she can't even muster a laugh, even though she feels like she should be rolling on the floor right about now, crying with laughter. But all she can get out is a flat sort of, huh. "Your name."

Rainstorm all but confirms it by wincing a bit and peeking past the scarf at her. And it's him, it's definitely him, no one else can do that sort of defiant beaten puppy dog look. Even with the dark skin and white hair it's obvious – except it's worse because here he has white lashes, he has them for miles and –

"Oh shit, you're a girl," Tifa realises and bounces off her seat, reaching for the scarf. "Lemme see, lemme see, oh god, lemme see your face."

The mage – who definitely isn't a mage – clears his throat sharply and then there is a gun barrel on Tifa's temple. "Stop," he says and Tifa stills, her heart skipping a beat.

"Vincent – it's fine," Rainstorm says and sighs and lets the scarf drop. "And you," he says, pointing a finger Tifa. "Don't."

Tifa stared at him – her! – for a moment, her mouth falling open a little. It's definitely Cloud Strife, except with Viera dark skin, Viera white hair, Viera bunny ears peeking past the scarf he's trying to hide in – and a girl. He's definitely a girl. He is a very pretty girl at that. Around his throat, he has white lace choker with a blue gem – and past the scarf she can see the chains of what looks very much like bikini armour.

Cloud Strife, the gloomiest, grumpiest little asshole Nibelheim has ever produced, is sitting in front of Tifa, in woman's skin, in woman's clothes, wearing bikini armour. Cloud sighs, running his long nailed, jewellery adorned Viera hand over his female Viera-pretty face and Tifa bursts into helpless peals of laughter.

"And your name!" she laughs. "Oh my god, your name!"

"Don't," Cloud mutters, looking awkward and embarrassed.

"What's so funny about his name?" Flower asks in confusion while the gunner-disguised-as-mage finally puts his gun away, looking at her funnily,

"Rainstorm!" Tifa wheezes breathlessly and almost falls off her chair.

And that's of course when group of Overseers walk into her restaurant.

Chapter Text

Vincent is starting to sense a pattern. Granted he hadn't been there in the early days when Rainstorm had just started out, but he'd heard about it enough enough.

There'd be a relatively calm period, followed by Rainstorm attempting to enter a city. An inciting incident would occur and then, in the words of OVERKILL, all hell would break loose. In hindsight Vincent himself was the inciting incident of the destruction of the Elder Tree – had he not taken a shot at a player, prompting a death message with Rainstorm's name on it, there was a chance, a minute chance, that Rainstorm could have handled the harassment without starting a town wide massacre. Not that Rainstorm had seemed to truly mind.

Looking between the newcomers and Rainstorm who is eying them consideringly, Vincent smothers a sigh and takes the elaborate crystal glass of brown and white fluff in his hand. He has no idea what hot chocolate is, but Rainstorm had paid for it – better not let the little time he has left to enjoy it go to waste.

"Heyy," one of the newcomers, a Miqo'te with red hair, says slowly, watching them with sharp eyes. "Looks like you guys are having fun. What's up?"

"Hello, Zoto," Sonata says, trying to put on a serious face, with mixed results. "Here for your daily dose of virtual sugar and carbs?" she asks, and giggle breaks through.

"You know me so well, lady Sonata," the Miqo'te says and rests a hand on his hip, eying Rainstorm. "I like my hits straight from the source."

Hot chocolate, Vincent finds, is good. It has that same hollow echo of unreality to it – he knows it will never affect his real body – but he can still taste it. It's warm, sweet and creamy, and he isn't sure he even knew what sweet and creamy was, before nice.

He hums idly and sets the drinking straw down to taste the white foam – cream? It's speckled with crumbs of something dark that melts on his tongue – chocolate?

It's delicious.

"Nice costume," the Miqo'te comments, nodding at Rainstorm. "Dancer, huh?"

"Mmhmm," Rainstorm answers, fiddling with the scarf still hanging around his head like he's contemplating pulling it back over his face.

"How about you give us a little whirl?"

"Zoto," Sonata says warningly, some of her mirth fading. "You know better than to start harassing my customers."

"It's not harassment – she's a dancer, look. Shouldn't she like to dance?" Zoto asks and then looks at his companion. "Whaddya think, Civil?"

The human at his side doesn't answer, just folds his arms and looks them down his nose in a pose that is designed to look intimidating.

"I mean why else would you put on a dancer costume, if you didn't like to dance. It's made for dancing, all those whirly scarves and all," Zoto says very reasonably as he steps closer. "It'll be like dinner and a show – unless, of course, you can't dance. Can you dance?"

Rainstorm arches his eyebrows at that and then looks at Vincent. Vincent shrugs and pokes at the cream on top of the brown liquid. It's cold, where the liquid is warm. The contrast is interesting, he decides, and takes another sip, trying to get a taste of both at the same time.

"Zoto, you're being a creep," Sonata says, now frowning a little at the Miqo'te. "Get your act together or leave."

The red head arches an eyebrow at Rainstorm, tilting his head little as he all but looks down Rainstorm's shirt. "That's a real cute necklace you got there. Transformation item, right?"

Rainstorm sighs and runs a hand over his face. "For once I'd like my disguises last for longer than like half an hour," he mutters and then smiles at Vincent, leaning in and looking amused. "You have a little something on your lip there, Vincent."

Vincent blinks and then licks at his lips. He has cream coating his upper lip. "It's good," he says, as an explanation.

Ignoring the looks the Miqo'te is giving him, Rainstorm laughs and reaches to swipe his thumb across Vincent's upper lip. He comes away with a smear of white. "Well, that's awesome, I guess," he says licks his thumb clean. Then he pauses. "Wait – you could taste that?"

"Man, you really are a newbie aren't you?" thee Miqo'te asks, while giving them a strange look.

"Yes," Vincent answers Rainstorm, ignoring the audience. "It's sweet," he adds, wondering if he had liked drinks like this before he'd lost his memories.

Rainstorm searches his face for a moment, while Vincent takes the spoon from the glass and licks it clean. Then Rainstorm pushes his own as of yet untouched Deluxe Hot Chocolate across the table at Vincent before turning to Sonata. "Can I please have everything you sell?" he asks seriously.

"One per customer," she says, leaning one elbow around the backrest of her chair and looking between them interestedly.

"Then could I please have one of everything?" Rainstorm asks while Vincent considers the second glass of hot chocolate and then pulls it closer.

"Well," Sonata says, looking at Rainstorm, then at Vincent, then at Rainstorm. She tilts her head in interest and then gets up. "Alright, just this once – but, this, this is interesting," she says, waving a gloved hand between them. "I wanna hear all about this."

"Stop ignoring us, you bastard," the Miqo'te standing over the table finally snaps impatiently. "We know it's you, you asshole, you could at least act the part."

"You," Sonata says, turning to him. "Behave and order something or leave. You know the rules of my bar – more of this and I'll beat your ass to the ground."

"But that's Rainstorm and you know it – you know him! How do you know him?" the redhead asks with a frown. "Lady Sonata, if it turns out you've known the asshole all this time I'm –"

"You're what?" she asks dangerously and he hesitates. Satisfied, she flicks her hair back over her shoulder and turns towards the counter. "They are paying customers in my bar, and my bar is safe for polite customers. Which you are not being, at all," she adds. "That's all you need to know."

That said, she walks off and he follows her, whining – "Come oon, Lady Sonata…!" – leaving behind his two party members, the bald Human named Civil, and a female Fairy with brown hair and dark purple wings.

"Where's Flower?" The Fairy asks, looking between them with a frown.

"Dunno, try outside – bunch of flowers out there," Rainstorm says, and leans his chin on his palm, watching Vincent with a smile. "You can taste stuff, you can taste food. That's awesome."

Vincent hums in agreement, and takes another sip. In the background, Sonata and Zoto bicker.

The Human and the Fairy standing over them watch them for a moment in silence before the Human shakes his head and lifts his hands. He frames them and the table with his fingers and mutters, "Snap," before stepping back. "I'm informing Loyal," he says and turns away, opening a screen and typing in it.

"Loyal," Rainstorm repeats and looks at the remaining stranger, the Fairy woman. "You're Overseers, huh? Here to take the reward – which, if I recall, you guys put on my head?"

"I'm Shuriken of the Overseers, and these are Zoto and Civil, also of Overseers," she agrees, motioning to her fellows. "We'll have Seventh Heaven surrounded within minutes," she adds, shifting her weight a little and resting a hand at her hip. A challenge pose. "You won't be able to escape. You might as well give up and surrender now."

Rainstorm considers her for a moment. "Give up and surrender so you guys can corpse camp me?" he asks idly. "That's what you do to people you don't like, right?"

"You corpse-camp people too," she points out.

"No, I give them what they deserve in battle when they come after me and mine," Rainstorm says, narrowing his eyes. "And if they happen to resurrect in mid battle then they're going down again. What I don't do is stand over a thirteen year old girl and systematically kill her forty five fucking times in a row."

"Nine," Vincent says.

"What?" Rainstorm asks with surprise, turning to him.

Vincent idly pokes the cream with the drinking straw. "Treasure Princess – she's approximately nine, perhaps ten years old, not thirteen."

He thinks he can hear Flower gasp and judging by the way Rainstorm's shoulder dips, she is leaning in on him. Rainstorm himself stares at Vincent silently for a moment, his face stony. Then looks up at the Fairy woman. She looks a little uneasy as she looks away, towards the counter where Zoto is pestering Sonata.

"It was him?" Rainstorm asks flatly.

"It doesn't matter who did it," the Fairy says quickly. "It's already done and there is no reversing -"

"Hey, asshole!" Rainstorm shouts at the Miqo'te. "Are you the asshole who went and killed a fucking nine year old little girl fucking forty five times in a row, in a fucking full immersion game where you can actually feel pain?!"

Zoto looks up, his ears perking and then slanting backwards. "Er," he answers while the Fairy woman quickly signals him with her hand to falsify his report. "Nah, man, wasn't me," he says, pretty convincingly. "Nasty business, that."

Vincent frowns a little at the Fairy, at her hand – the motion had been so brief, and yet – while Sonata lifts her head sharply. "Wait – you told me it was you," she says to the Miqo'te and then adds, sharper, "She was nine?"

"Er," the Miqo'te says and lifts his hands in surrender, backing up a little. "Well if she was nine she shouldn't even be playing, right, the age limit is like thirteen or something and –"

Rainstorm stands up, making the chair he was sitting in scrape heavily against the wooden floor. Vincent looks at him, then at his hot chocolate and then takes it with him as he too stands up, reaching for a gun.

"Hey, hey, whoa man," Zoto says quickly. "You don't want to fight in Lady Sonata's bar and trust me, you don't want to fight me either – I'm level 59. So just chill and sit your ass down, alright, there's no need to get all huffy."

"You can't fight here at all – this is my bar," Sonata adds sharply, glaring between Rainstorm and Zoto. "Only I can kill here – and if you two idiots even try something, I'll kill you both."

Vincent unholsters his gun, keeping it aimed at the floor for now. He looks at Rainstorm who hesitates and for a long tense moment no one does anything – everyone just stares at Rainstorm, waiting to see if he'd try it. For the first time, though, he seems to actually consider the risks of launching into action.

Before he could make up his mind, however, the door to the restaurant opens. Vincent turns to face it and it's only thanks to the fact that he's holding his gun at the ready that he makes the shot before the Elf does – and Vincent's bullet finds his forehead before elf's bullet gets the chance to find Rainstorm's.

The murder notice pops up immediately after.

[Loyal has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 561!]

Vincent watches with some satisfaction as the elf in a high collared black coat falls onto the floor, the sniper rifle dropping beside him with a clatter. Then, as Shuriken lets out a choked noise, Vincent turns his gun on the rest – while keeping a side eye on the dead man now blocking the doorway.

Loyal of Overseers, he recalls, is one of the top ranking players. Level 69, wasn't it?

Better not let him resurrect.

"How the...?" Sonata asks, looking between Vincent and Rainstorm and the dead man by the door. "That's not – that's not possible, you can't just one-shot someone at Loyal's level! And how the hell did you do that – this is my guild house – you can't just – !"

"She's here," Zoto says with sharp realisation, his whole body going tense. "Isn't she?"

And then, before Rainstorm can answer, everyone seems to launch into motion. The Fairy, Shuriken, flings out a large star shaped throwing weapon at Rainstorm and the Human, Civil, launches at him with his fists. Rainstorm tries to parry out of the way with his usual nimbleness – and fails, horribly.

Both attacks miss him as he tangles in the scarves of his skirt falls flat on his face on the restaurant floor.

"Are you kidding me?!" Rainstorm growls and then rolls out of the way of Civil's quick kick, as the throwing star whirls across the bar and arches back towards to the Fairy – and then Zoto too jumps in.

Vincent aims a shot, but before he can take any of the three out to help Rainstorm, the elf by the door resurrects.

And Vincent promptly shoots him again.

[Loyal has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 562!]

"Alright, that is it!" Sonata shouts. In the corner of his eye Vincent can see her glowing faintly as she takes a stance – and then, easy as anything, grabs Zoto mid air and just launches him across the entire restaurant. "No fighting in – my – bar!"

The look of surprise on her face as he goes right through a wall is almost comical.

[Zoto has been killed by Sonata!]
[Sonata's Murder Count is now 197!]

On the floor Rainstorm flings himself away from Civil, cursing as he grabs a sword out of nowhere and opens a window with one hand. Still tangled in his skirts and scarf, he ends up falling on his knees as he ducks to avoid a powerful kick from Civil – but then he hits the right button on his character window.

The dancer outfit rips into shreds around Rainstorm as he returns to his original male form and for a split of a second Vincent is very distracted.

Then Loyal resurrects again, immediately going for his sniper rifle – and Vincent takes him out again, prompting a yet another murder notice.

[Loyal has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 563!]

"What the hell is going on here?!" Sonata shouts, staring in horror at the hole she'd made to the wall with Zoto body. "My bar!"

"Sorry, sorry, it's my fault!" Flower says, becoming visible. She too looks horrified. "Oh Gaia, Sonata, I'm so sorry!"

"Miss Flower," Civil starts to turn towards her, looking like he's between grabbing her and making a run for it – and going down on one knee and swearing fealty. Then he comes into contact with several inches of metal, and stops.

Rainstorm doesn't even hesitate – he just wrenches the sword up and across the man's neck and then kicks him away, turning his sword at the female Fairy. She quickly lifts her hands in surrender, as the murder notice pops up again.

[Civil has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 564!]

"Vincent," Rainstorm says, glancing at him.

"He was going to shoot you," Vincent says, not feeling particularly apologetic, and sips his hot chocolate.

"You just killed Loyal in one-shot," Sonata says, sounding confused. "How did you do that?"

"Why do his kills count as yours?" Shuriken asks, eying Rainstorm with look of sharp calculation on her pointed Fairy face. "Is that how Elder Tree happened? Only way for a player to claim another entity's kills would be if they were a pet – how do you have a human being as your pet? How did you accomplish that?"

"Bullshit and good luck," Rainstorm shrugs.

"Sonata, you killed me!" Zoto then shouts from the hole made into the wall. "Come on, I thought we were friends!"

"Friends! Starting a fight in my bar, and you call us friends – you, you made a hole through my wall!" Sonata growls, turning to him with her fists up. "I'm going to murder you!"

"Hey – hey – wait a minute, that was you, you're the one who threw me – Sonata, wait –!"

"It might be a good time to go," Vincent comments, keeping a wary eye on Loyal on the floor, while Rainstorm keeps an eye on Civil and sword on Shuriken.

"I think you might be right," Flower says, looking terribly guilty as she glances at the hole in Sonata's bar.

"Miss Flower, please," Shuriken implores her, holding her hands up. "This whole thing is silly – all it is doing is causing everyone a world of trouble. It's getting you in trouble. You should come back with us – Overseers can keep you safe." While she talks, she's moving her fingers. Distraction, she's signing. Intervention.

"She's going to try and keep us talking and distracted until back up arrives," Vincent says, looking at her and making the Fairy woman snap her eyes to him.

"Sounds like Overseers," Flower says nervously and looks at Rainstorm. "Rainstorm, can we please go?"

"Honestly," Rainstorm says. "I'm not sure we can."

"What, why not?" Flower asks, whirling to look at him.

"Murder notices," he explains and nods to a nearby window.

Vincent looks. Outside, a crowd is already starting to form. It's just a handful of people, milling about, looking alert and wary – they don't know where the notice came from. And, as Seventh Heaven was supposed to be a safe no-kill zone for players other than its owner… they weren't looking into it. Not yet. But they are holding arms, obviously meaning business.

Any moment they'd either notice the hole Sonata had accidentally made on her own establishment – or the arrival of more Overseers would give their location away.

"Flower, my dear, my darling, my second favourite," Rainstorm says, turning to look at her. "Could we please, please have a summon?"

"What, summon – no!" she says, horrified. "I can't summon here – if I summon Bahamut here, I'll destroy the building! I'll destroy the whole block!"

"We're going to be very surrounded very soon," Rainstorm points out. "And probably very dead very soon after that. So, if you got any other suggestions about how to get out of here alive, I'm all ears."

"Uh," Flower says, nervously.

Sonata comes back then, dragging Zoto by the lapels of his waist coat. She looks rather annoyed. "You," she says, pointing a finger at Rainstorm. "Why didn't I throw you out on your ass when I realised who you were – this always happens with you!"

"This isn't my fault, and what do you mean, this always happens?" Rainstorm demands. "This has never happened before!"

"Bridge!" she snaps back, accusing.

"Okay, first of all, that was your idea," Rainstorm starts. "Second of all, that was nothing like this –"

"Don't you even," Sonata growls and throws Zoto at them. He nearly ends up knocking Shuriken off her feet, and when he goes for a weapon, Sonata stomps her foot. "Now, I want all of you out of my bar," Sonata says severely. "You have one minute. Starting now."

"But – assholes," Rainstorm says imploringly, pointing outside.

"Yes – assholes," she agrees – pointing at him and the Overseers.

"Rude," Rainstorm mutters.

"Sonata," Flower cuts in. "Is there a way to get to the roof from here? We could maybe get out that way without being noticed – "

And then they're out of time.

It happens almost as if in slow motion – someone throws in a clear bottle full of something dark through the door held open by Loyal's corpse. Vincent watches the bottle arch through the air, too far to reach – and then it hits the floor and shatters on impact

Immediately, the bar is full of thick, dark smoke that hides everyone and everything inside.

Vincent grits his teeth before draining his hot chocolate and setting the glass on near by table. Then he aims his gun at the smoke, picturing where the body had been and squeezing the trigger one last time.

[Loyal has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 565!]

Chapter Text

[SPECIAL RANKINGS / Rainstorm's Duels]
[Challenger – Class – Time – Duration – Winner]

[Loyal LV. 69 – Sniper – 10.34, Jan 8 – 0.02 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 68 – Sniper – 10.34, Jan 8 – 0.01 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 67 – Sniper – 10.35, Jan 8 – 0.01 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 66 – Sniper – 10.38, Jan 8 – 0.05 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Civil LV. 54 – Martial Artist – 10.36, Jan 8 – 0.45 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
...

"Out of my way," Genesis calls, descending from the sky with flutter of feathers, surrounded by intangible windows. Aside from the special rankings, he has numerous chat windows open, tracking the events in Alexandria – and of course, Rainstorm's profile.

[Rabbit of Caerbannog]
[Rainstorm
[Level 14, Viera]
[Class: Swordsman LV. 3]
[Job: Blacksmith LV. 11]
[Guildmaster of OVERKILL guild]
[Credits: 0]
[Bounty: 2825 Gold]
[Status: Online]

Somehow, after killing the fourth highest level player in the game four times in a row, the guy is still alive with bounty still intact. Though, of course, Loyal being level 65 now isn't the fourth highest level player anymore. He is now tied to the position with about dozen level 65 players. One more death and he'll be out of the race entirely.

"Move it!" Genesis snaps again, and the crowd in front of the smoke filled bar disperses. Genesis lands gracefully, wings spread out to slow his fall – but his guild comes down like bombs around him, crashing down with resounding cracks against the cobblestone. Down and straight to one knee, all around him.

Maximum dramatic effect, in all things.

Overseers have the Seventh Heaven surrounded already, of course – but like the authority adoring peons they are, they dither and hesitate without someone telling them what to do, not daring to act one way or the other with their Guildmaster and all the highest level members in such a terrible bind.

Time to take charge of the situation.

"Scram you lot," Genesis tells them and waves a dismissive hand. "LOVELESS can handle this."

"With all due respect, sir, our Guildmaster is in there," one of the Overseers answers, tick under her eye. "We won't be going anywhere until he's out of danger."

"And with your Guildmaster being currently corpse camped, how do you mean to accomplish that?" Genesis asks, amused. "You guys aren't even level 60 and Loyal lasted – " Genesis makes a show of checking the windows, "– oh, all of two seconds before he got taken out at level 69. How do you think you guys will measure up, hm?"

That makes them hesitate – bit of course Loyal has to then ruin his speech by rolling out of the smoke, all but back flipping out of harms way with the glow of high level haste on his body and look of absolute fury on his face. Genesis wants to mock him – he absolutely will mock him, later – but there are more important things to consider.

"Killed by a level 14 in two seconds," he says, and maybe he is a little bit mocking. "Now how did that happen?"

Loyal throws him a glare and then the dark haired elf stands up straight, smoothing a hand down the front of his coat, easing out wrinkles. Priorities. "Rainstorm has hacked the game," Loyal says with absolute confidence. "He's in possession of a game breaking pet that can kill you in one hit, regardless of level."

Genesis narrows his eyes. Loyal says it too loud and too clear – and instantly the ever growing crowd starts to mutter, someone shouting, "I fucking knew it! That son of a bitch!" with lot of people agreeing with it, and muttering louder.

"Oh really," Genesis murmurs and folds his arms, eying Loyal. His he trying to excuse his admittedly abysmal showing force there, or what is he doing? Because that wasn't even subtle.

Then there's another murder notice. 

[Shuriken has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 566!]

It's followed almost immediately by another notice. 

[Zoto has been killed by Sonata!]
[Sonata's Murder Count is now 198!]

Genesis looks between the notices, momentarily distracted. Sonata the Neutral, hmm. "Are those two working together?" he wonders interestedly.

The Guildmaster of Overseers ignores him. "Quick – I want eyes on the roofs," Loyal says and turns away, motioning at the Overseers. "Snipers, get to high advantage point. If you get a clear shot at the winged, mage looking individual with Rainstorm – take it."

He turns to leave but Genesis grabs the man by the arm before he can get away. "Not so fast Loyal," he says under his breath, ignoring how the Overseers around them all go for their weapons. "What precisely happened in there? And how exactly did Rainstorm kill you in a no-kill area?"

Around them members of LOVELESS also go for their weapons, answering the challenge the Overseers presented. Genesis nods at them approvingly and then looks at Loyal seriously. "Well?"

Loyal hesitates and then motions at his Overseers to stand down and they begrudgingly do, glaring a the members of LOVELESS. Then the other Elf looks to Genesis. "As I said, somehow he's hacked in a high level, humanoid pet which negates levels and kill restrictions."

"You didn't actually say all of that, and all of that sounds all together very convenient, doesn't it?" Genesis says quietly, narrowing his eyes. "Except I know a Turk distraction when I hear it. There's more to this. Tell me the truth – Rainstorm's a Turk, isn't he?"

He throws it out almost at random – and the way Loyal blinks at him with surprise proves the theory wrong. Not only does Loyal know Rainstorm is no such thing – but he has no idea who Rainstorm is.

Genesis releases the other Elf, feeling vaguely satisfied. Having that particular theory proven false is infinitely more interesting and having it proven correct would have been. Rainstorm really is an unknown entity then – not even on Turk watch lists.

Marvellous.

Still Overseers' interest in the guy is something else. Loyal had put a hit on him after all – that was some special grudge he had and Genesis wants to know why. There has to be a reason and he finds it pretty unlikely that Loyal would go to such lengths just because his sweetheart had switched sides.

Loyal gives him a wary look, waiting for him to continue – but Genesis got what he wanted out of him already. At his dismissive wave, Loyal scowls and then looks around at the other players. "Who smoke bombed the Seventh Heaven?"

"I did," a female voice answers and Genesis cranes his head to the side to see a very stereotypically mostly naked Viera walking towards them with a slender blade in each hand. She has an unholy glow in her blue eyes and look of bloody minded resolve on her face. "Out of my way. I'm going to take his head."

"... Lady Victoria," Loyal says, straightening up sharply. "I was under the impression you were in the Great Forest of Moore."

"Vieravengers need a guild house – I was in business of procuring one," the Viera answers and points her sword at them. "Out of my way, Loyal. I – we – have a score to settle with Rainstorm."

And then there are Vieras, more Vieras than Genesis has ever seen in one place – and there is a regular, and very popular, show at the LOVELESS guild house with full Viera cast.

These ladies aren't playing around, though. In full gear and weapons out, they just appear seemingly from nowhere, and though their gear makes them all look like they're getting ready for some wild bachelor parties, their expressions are determined and furious and their weapons are very serious.

Genesis has never been one for type-guilds, where everyone was of same race, or same glass – but you had to say, there was something to be said about an all Viera guild. They made for some exciting – and probably lethal – eye candy, if nothing else.

"No!" someone shouts and then some lunatic berserker steps in front of the Guildmaster of Vieravengers. "We, the members of WhenItRains, will be the ones to take Rainstorm's head -"

"Are you serious?" Victoria asks dangerously while Genesis looks at the man interestedly, wondering if he is actually serious. He looks serious. He also looks like an idiot.

"WhenItRains is the first and biggest of all Rainstorm fan guilds," the berserker says even louder and prouder, as what looks like members of his guild start joining in with what, for them, passes for war shouts. "We have the right -"

And then his head flies off.

[OneTrueLawl has been killed by Victoria!]
[Victoria's Murder Count is now 192!]

Victoria swings one of her slender swords at the crowd around them. "Anyone else?!" she challenges, sounding annoyed.

That's when all hell breaks loose.

A member of WhenItRains shouts in outrage and attacks a near by Vieravengers white mage. Another Vieravenger – a red mage – puts a rapier in his gut for it. He turns out to be a berserker too and the injury puts him in a Rage, and then he starts attacking everyone and everything near by with an enormous sword – not unlike the ones favoured by Rainstorm. One of those he's attacking is an innocent bystander who then attacks back – another is a member of Overseers.

And then it's a full on all-for-all riot and murder notices start popping up in everyone's faces. Everyone is going at it and everyone is going at everyone. It's not just LOVELESS, Overseers, Vieravengers and WhenItRains – bunch of other guilds are joining in now, called in by the notices, and Genesis can identify numerous Army members and Heroes, jumping into the fray with glee.

Genesis own dear LOVELESS members going for near by members of the Overseers – actually lot of people are going for the Overseers, probably taking out long time resentment towards the Biggest and Baddest guild of them all. Karma in action, right there.

Genesis himself takes out some idiot who tries their chance with him with a quick slash of his rapier and then jumps up and into the air to watch all the melee take place.

This, he thinks, this is what he wants. Excitement and chaos.

Loyal is buffing his Overseers with time spells and Victoria is calling, "To me, ladies, to me!" while the WhenItRains members are being killed one by one. The Army guild is already automatically falling into formation like the good infantry troopers they are and SOLDIERs from Heroes are having whale of a time breaking right through their ranks – and all the while more people are streaming in, weapons at the ready, throwing themselves right into the middle of things.

Grinning maniacally, Genesis hovers over the battlefield the central square of Alexandria is fast becoming, and opens his inventory. There he grabs something he's been saving for a special occasion.

A Megaphone. Possibly even the very last Megaphone in the entire game.

They'd taken them off the game after Fanpocalypse of Alexandria – the last one had gone for 10599 gold in the Auction House and Loyal had wasted it for some meaningless nonsense, probably thinking that would be the end of it. And Genesis so does like proving him wrong.

So he activates the last Megaphone – and it dissolves into a window opening up in front of him with a keyboard under it. While the noise below him grows louder, Genesis writes a short line and then hits enter gleefully. Immediately a notice pops up in front of him, and in front of everyone else currently active in Terra Online. Below him the activity stalls just a moment as everyone stops to read. 

[R A I N S T O R M     I S     I N     A L E X A N D R I A]

All but cackling, Genesis perches up on a corner of some guild house's roof and watches as realisation dawns. Loyal glances up at him with a scowl and Genesis waves cheerfully, while the Guildmaster of Vieravengers turns to the Seventh Heaven guild houses, pointing her sword at it and shouting, "Burn it, smoke him out!"

The many mages in her guild turn to comply and then, very interestingly, Loyal turns to attack her. Sniper rifle in hand he takes an awkward, close range shot at the Viera assassin and she's hit neatly in the middle of her forehead.

The blow knocks her head back for a moment and then she looks at Loyal, his face void of emotion as blood trickles down her pretty dark skinned face. Loyal looks disappointed and if Genesis isn't completely mistake... Victoria looks a little bit betrayed.

Do they know each other in real life, he wonders curiously as the fighting resumes around the pair – and the drama unfolds in between. While multiple fireballs are launched at Seventh Heaven and the place quickly catches aflame, Victoria turns to Loyal with swords at ready and Loyal quickly starts buffing himself up with time spells, throwing hastes around like candy.

And then she does the same, as the area around them opens up.

"Oh my," Genesis murmurs, leaning his chin in his palm. Victoria's a time mage. They're two juiced up, level 65 glass cannons – a sniper time mage and an assassin time mage, and they're getting ready to just go at it. And they're doing it front of a burning building housing the one man they both seem to have especial grudge for.

They even stare at each other, facing against each other like it's a scene in a movie, the final showdown between old friends, or something of the sort.

It's all so gloriously dramatic. Genesis takes a screen capture of it, just because the near perfect theatrical staging of it just hits him all the right ways. This really calls for snacks, the Guildmaster of Loveless then decides, and quickly grabs some from his inventory.

For a moment there is a buff race as Vieravengers and Overseers buff their respective Guildmaster. Then, as Victoria just rushes forward without warning, Loyal jumps back trying to get range while aiming for a shot. And it begins, just like that.

"Tch," Genesis says, and ducks mental points for execution – they cut the build up of the stare down too short. Well, there is something to be said about breaking expectations too, he muses, and crunches on virtual popcorn.

The first shot from Loyal clips against a shield around Victoria – and Victoria's first slash cuts across a shield around Loyal. Then, quick as anything, Loyal switches to a smaller gun – one better suited for a gunner – and shoots her in the face multiple times in quick succession while she whales against his shield with her swords, each trying to wear the shields out with quick attack combos. And all the while, people around them try buff then higher, throwing in attack and defence buffs as quick as their cool down times allow.

The buff race ends when an Overseer decides to take one of the Vieravenger shamans out of the competition – and then the semi peaceful period between the two guilds around their Guildmasters ends, and they're back at it trying to kill each other. And by all reason Overseers have every advantage against the Vieravengers – theirs is the biggest guild in the game, after all.

Except everyone has it out for the Overseers and, it turns out, Vieravengers have ace in up their sleeve. Several, even.

Vieravengers have a lot of summoners. And they are just about done casting their first summons.

"Oh, brava, ladies," Genesis breathes, as the cobblestone lights up with the first summon.

Summoner is such a bullshit class. They have one main ability that takes too much time to use, and usually isn't even that strong – and it's pretty much completely useless in one-on-one duels. A summon's strength depends on the summoner too, so basically it's like summoning a special monster that isn't even that much stronger than you are. And the summons are assigned at completely random to each summoner – which just adds to the sheer uselessness of the class.

Except then you had summoners above level 40 and 60, with three or four summons, and special summon abilities, and dozens of levels worth of power to their name… and suddenly summoner became one of the most powerful classes of the game.

Which is why it's Genesis' second class and why seeing it in action makes him all but giggle in childish glee.

The first summon alone explodes the street as Ifrit tears it's way out of hell – then Ixion rams through the people in its lightning lunge into existence. The last summon is Shiva and it's the most devastating of them all – it comes into existence while freezing just about everyone in the street, giving everyone who just got burned and zapped the [Cold] status ailment.

For one glorious second, Vieravengers absolutely demolish the competition, flooding the area in murder notices, and it's all crowned when Victoria wears down Loyal's shield and launches at him in a flurry of attacks, and now that his support base is gone thanks to the summons… Loyal can't recover fast enough.

Speed versus ranged class when the ranged can't get the distance... it isn't even a competition. 

[Loyal has been killed by Victoria!]
[Victoria's Murder Count is now 193!]

And so Loyal of Overseers has been knocked well and truly off his high horse, Genesis thinks with immense satisfaction. All rejoice.

In the meanwhile, the fighting is spreading out into the streets between guild houses, as more people stream in from other zones to join the fray, called in by Genesis' gamewide Shout. Soon the whole city would be over run by chaos and it would be glorious.

Genesis getting another snack from his inventory, when he finally spots movement on top of the burning a guild house. There, a furious looking human fighter – Sonata of Seventh Heaven who all but tears her way out of her own burning restaurant. She's followed by another woman, this one a long haired elf – the Overseers' Princess. Then a hooded figure with wings, a black mage probably. And, lastly, a Viera.

A male Viera.

Genesis launches immediately into air. He doesn't even go for a weapon, doesn't think about it – he just rushes in with glee. It isn't until the black mage looking one turns on him with a gun in hand that he remembers what Loyal says, about Rainstorm's pet – the one can one-shot you regardless of level.

For a second Genesis stares right at Rainstorm, who stands there with serious look in his blue eyes, his spiky white hair tousled, with an enormous sword in hand and wearing only pieces of jewellery. Light catches the Viera just so, casting shadows on his face while eyes glow and the jewellery shines and Genesis thinks, oh no.

He's hot.

"Oi, Skimpy! Consider this my guild application!" someone suddenly shouts from above him.

And then Genesis dies.

Chapter Text

[BELOVED has been killed by Naut!]
[Naut's Murder Count is now 1!]

Cloud stares at the... red person who just got slammed into the cracked roof tiles by a goddamn winged Moogle, with the said Moogle's lance right through his back. Naut stands on top of the lance's handle like a freaking ninja, grinning at them with his smug little Moogle face. Cloud looks at the Moogle, and then at the dead person on the ground.

"You're hired," Cloud decides. "But also, what kind of Murder Count is that?"

"You know, it's usually actually not that fucking strange for people to not be killing other people," Naut says pointedly and folds his little arms. "So I'm in the guild then? And my friend, too, Longsuffering. She's a miserable drag but occasionally she comes up with like, actually intelligent thoughts."

"You know him?" Flower asks, as she peers over the roof edge worriedly. The noise coming from below on the street is incredible.

"Yeah, he helped us from the bind. And he gave me the sex change choker," Cloud says.

"Okay, this is really great and I'm really happy for you – but my bar is burning and all of the guilds are out there," Tifa says beside him, fixed look of bitter anger on her face. "So could we please get the hell out of there so that I can safely murder your ass?"

Cloud also looks down at the street below them – and woah, things are getting really heated down there, aren't they? It's like a scene from one of those ShinRa war propaganda movies where they have vaguely dark actors playing Wutaians and then play out mock battles – except here, people are dying by droves. There's berserkers madly swinging at everyone, there's spell casts throwing fire and lighting and death at people – there are huge monsters just breaking people left and right. The air is saturated by pop up notices of murder and death.

"There he is!" someone below shouts and points up wards. "He's on the roof top! He's on the roof top!"

Cloud grins and waves below, unable to help himself, as a lot of people turn their gazes up wards. "Hi-!" he calls down. It's a little bit terrifying but, also... it's freaking hilarious.

In the corner of his eye, his message icon flashes with new message.

"Get him!" someone bellows, and then someone else throws a fireball in Cloud's face, making him duck backwards and out of the way.

"We're going now," Tifa growls, already equipping a set of pure white wings. While Cloud is marvelling one Viera, who is now trying to scale the side of the building and doing a terrifyingly good job of it, Tifa grabs Flower into her arms, swinging her up into a bridal carry, and then she's off. Next thing Cloud knows, Vincent has him up and in his arms – and then, just like that, they're off into the sky, with Naut jumping after them.

"Hi," Cloud says.

"Hello Rainstorm," Vincent says, sighing. "Where to?"

Flower giggles in embarrassed delight in Tifa's hold while Tifa glares at them. "The portals will be swamped by now," she says. "I say we go to the castle and hide on the rooftop."

"Er," Flower says, casting a look at Cloud. "I'm not entirely sure that's the best idea –"

Tifa is already turning in mid air, carrying the God of Terra Online with her. Cloud tilts his head after them, wondering, and then shrugs at Vincent.

"I guess we're going to destroy the NPC castle then," he says, and grins. "Wanna bet we end up killing the king?"

"You're a bad person sometimes," Vincent comments, and turns to follow them while Cloud laughs.

"Anyone want to explain what the hell is going on?" Naut asks, swinging to fly beside them on his little Moogle wings, long ass lance held in his tiny Moogle hands. "Because A, I just killed the third strongest player in the game and how the hell did I actually do that, and B," he points downwards.

One of the huge ass monsters from before has just been blown into a building – some poor sod's guild house – and it has then proceeded to tear right through the house.

"B, that shouldn't be possible, and I'm thinking it has something to do with you lot," Naut says and grins. "So what the fuck, skimpy? You hacking after all?"

"You know, sometimes I wonder," Cloud answers and winds an arm around Vincent's shoulders. "But for once, I swear this is not my fault."

He is maybe getting a little bit worried about the downfall of this, though. Alexandria is taunted as The Most Important Place in Terra Online after all, and he did get the impression that it was something of a precious baby for Cait Sith, and it is getting demolished under them.

From their vantage point, it's easy to see that the fighting is spreading fast through the entire city. And, judging by the looks of it, there are people following them. A lot of people. And that seems to include most of the summoned monsters.

They are making a trail of destruction right through Alexandria, tearing into the sides of buildings and demolishing the player stalls on the streets, just trampling their way after them in the wake of Flower's influence.

It's not just on the streets either – lot of people are getting aloft now, coming after them in air.

"Well, this looks like fun," Cloud muses, leaning his chin on Vincent's shoulder. "Do you suppose we can fight in air?"

Vincent glances backwards. "Do you suppose you can fire my gun?" he then asks.

Cloud grins.

It takes some work and wiggling for Cloud to reach Vincent's holster where he is, held in the man's arms – he ends up having to arch backwards in display of nimbleness he's pretty sure he's not capable in real life. He almost ends up falling off Vincent's arms but then he has the gun and can safely straighten up.

With his left arm around Vincent's shoulders, he rests his right against the other shoulder and takes an aim. In real life he's shit aim with fire arms, here's hoping he's bit better in Terra Online.

He isn't. He really isn't.

Vincent glances backwards and then sighs. Moment later, Cloud is held flush against him, with one of Vincent's arms wrapped around his waist – and the gun is gone from his hand.

Vincent turns as Cloud wraps his arms around his neck to keep himself from falling, and then he takes aim.

There are no murder notices. The hits land with Vincent's usual, pinpoint accuracy – but the players merely falter for a moment, they don't die.

"We're out of Flower's influence," Cloud realizes and glances backwards. Tifa and Flower are far ahead of them.

"Hm," Vincent answers and then swings Cloud up and into a bridal carry again – and then they're off again, following the girls towards the NPC castle. "So I can't one shot players outside her range," the man mutters. "Pity."

"How bloodthirsty of you," Cloud grins.

"Bad influence," Vincent answers dryly.

Tifa has already landed on the highest point on top of the NPC castle and Vincent soon lands beside her, letting Cloud down as he does. Already people are storming the castle – there are people rushing the gates in the streets, and more people are recalling that wings and flying are a thing and getting into the air.

"Now what?" Naut asks, swinging down but staying in air. He rests the lance against his shoulder and grins in a way that's entirely too blood thirsty for such a cute little face. "What's the plan, oh Guildmaster?"

"Wait until they get within fifty meters, and then try and go for kill shots," Cloud says. "Once they're within fifty meters, you can one-shot them."

"Oh, so it's something you're doing," Naut says and then lands – on Cloud's head. Cloud makes a face but, well, he's a Moogle – he doesn't exactly weight much. "That's interesting."

"Is that why my bar got set on fire?!" Tifa asks furiously, rounding up on Cloud.

"No, no, it's because of me – I'm doing it," Flower says, wringing her hands miserably. "When people get close to me, they become... breakable."

"Flower?" Tifa asks, sounding a little betrayed. "You? How?"

"It's – it's complicated," Flower says awkwardly.

Cloud laughs and then looks up as his message icon flashes. Oh, right, he had a PM. Two now, judging by the looks of it. 

[From: REDXIII]
[To: Rainstorm]
[Subject: Again]

[Why? Just... why?]
[Well I suppose I can't exactly blame you if someone else Shouts something about you, as I hardly think you'd intentionally do something like that yourself, never mind having the ability to do it... but why go to Alexandria at all? I thought we covered it yesterday, I thought we all agreed it was a Bad Idea For You To Go To Alexandria. Or at least it should have been implied?]
[Did you at least manage to buy us a guild house before you got discovered? Not that it makes difference now, I suppose, as soon as people find out you did and where it is, we will never be able to safely use it...]

Cloud chuckles a little at that. Poor Red, he's so close to giving up on him. Wonder why he hasn't already. 

[From: Rainstorm]
[To: REDXIII]
[Subject: Sorry]

[I don't suppose you'd believe me if I told you this is not my fault? I mean I did go to Alexandria, that much is true, but I was being sneaky about it. I would've gotten away with it too, but I ran into someone who knows me irl and, well. It kinda went down hill from there.]

With that sent, he turns to the second message he has. 

[From: Bigshot]
[To: Rainstorm]
[Subject: you son of a bitch]

[What the fuck are you doing now? Did you really fucking go to Alexandria, without the rest of us – just what the hell is up with you? Why the hell can you ever wait before doing some crazy shit! The Wife and me can't even get in because the freaking portals are all swamped, just what the fuck?!]

Cloud grins a little. "Oops, sorry man," he says and turns to type back, but before he can, Flower shouts.

"Watch out!"

There's a flying mage above them – and he's casting something that looks like a floating boulder. Cloud arches his eyebrows in interest -and then Vincent grabs him out of the way as the mage launches the boulder at them.

It crashes into the castle roof top – and then right through it, and through the support beams under it, and then the floor, and a wall, and just about everything else, bowling it's way right into the castle.

"Welp," Cloud says, as the dainty fairy tale castle tower they're standing on starts to wobble under the double dose of Flower's realism, and demolished supports.

Then there's a Viera archer above them, with a bow bigger than she is – and the arrow on her bow string glows as she fires it. Cloud flips out of the way just in time to avoid being hit, and the arrow breaks the ceiling tiles where he stood – and then the whole rooftop explodes under them.

Lot of things happen all at once. Tifa saves Flower from falling to her death by swinging her over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and jumping them both up to safety. Naut summons a horde or little flying robots from nowhere, and they swarm the people now bombarding the castle – and them – from aloft. Cloud all but skates down the destruction to a nearest piece of still standing rooftop – and Vincent kills the archer. 

[InsertWittyName here has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Murder Count is now 567!]

Cloud comes to land with a crack as his heels break the ceiling tiles – and then there's someone in his face, a winged swordsman, coming right at him.

A Viera, familiar one – the one they'd seen, briefly, in Tifa's bar.

"You!" She growls, as Cloud swings his sword in the way of her attack.

"You," Cloud answers and blinks with confusion at her. "Who are you?"

She's all Viera probably should be, he thinks. All her gear – which looks like really expensive and really sexy lingerie, naturally – match perfectly. All white lace and satin and stuff, every piece matching perfectly, including the pretty stiletto sandals she's wearing. Even her accessories matches, the silver mixing perfectly with the white underwear, and the blue gems matching her blue eyes.

It's kind of interesting, seeing a Viera who is actually, sort of, embracing the whole thing – because it's pretty obvious everything she's wearing has been picked up with intent.

"I'm going to kill you!" the Viera snarls and swings at him with another sword – because she's holding two, one in each hand.

Cloud jumps back, awkwardly parrying the blow and almost falling over in his attempt top land on shaky piece of still miraculously standing wall. "Now, now, what did I ever do you?" Cloud asks, and tilts his head at her. Two swords. Hmm.

"You exist!" the Viera growls and flies after her.

Cloud considers the situation. She has literal high ground with her flying ability, and he has increasingly bad footing in the increasingly destroyed castle wall. And it is being destroyed more every moment, with more people joining in on the happy demolition by lobbing spells and exploding arrows at them – someone is also throwing bombs, judging by the explosions.

It's easy to tell the moment Tifa gets Flower out of range – the destruction stops having an effect around Cloud. But the castle is still blown wide open.

"Rainstorm!" Vincent calls.

"Skimpy, you need any help there?" Naut asks.

"Go help the girls!" Cloud shouts and then jumps down, down through the hole torn into the rooftops and into the corridors below – and snarling, the Viera follows. And so does Vincent, who apparently doesn't have a chivalrous bone in his body.

"Ever since you joined this game," the Viera growls as comes after him. "It's ruined the gaming experience for the rest of us. Just who do you think you are?"

"The whipping boy of the game, to be honest," Cloud says and then skips backwards, away from the open ceiling, to where the corridor is still whole and closed up. She follows, forfeiting her upper hand without a second thought, and Cloud grins, opening his inventory quickly.

"If you think for a moment this actually helps you, you're mistaken," the Viera says with a scoff. "I'm level 65, you bitch."

"And I don't give a shit," Cloud says and grabs another sword from his inventory.

"Are you kidding me?" the Viera asks, looking at him. "You're a Swordsman. You can't double wield."

Cloud looks down and then shrugs his shoulders. "Seems to be working for me," he says and a death notice pops up. 

[Ragnarak has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's Muder Count is now 568!]

Vincent, keeping more players from getting into the corridor.

The Viera glances back at Vincent and then at Cloud. Cloud grins. "Come on," he says and lifts his two swords, both of them relatively low quality, but about ten times bigger than her slender blades. "Come at me."

The Viera glows, the vaguely familiar shimmer of Haste – but she doesn't come at him.

She goes for Vincent instead. Vincent, who is facing away from them and at the players trying to get in – Vincent who doesn't notice.

Cloud watches, for a second too surprised by the sudden turn to do anything. Then he shouts in outrage, too late, as the Viera sinks her sword in Vincent's back, and then the other one too, the swing too fast to see, turning into a series of swings and swipes as she chains her attacks, one by one, into a terrible flurry of slashes.

In the corner of his vision, Cloud sees Vincent's HP dropping. [7954/9999] and [5567/9999] to [3345/9999]

Cloud launches into a run, trying to reach her before she can finish, trying to get there on time. Vincent cant even do anything, he's caught in the damage animation – he's cut and knocked back, cut and knocked back, cut and knocked back too fast to even move, never mind retaliate, attacked and attacked and attacked so fast it has him all but stunned.

He's down to [2456/9999] by the time Cloud reaches the Viera woman, and swings his sword at her. She takes the blow, and it barely does any damage at all – and Cloud's next swing at her neck she parries with ease. A blink and she's gone, jumped out of range.

Vincent falls to the floor on his knees and Cloud stands over him, defending him for once.

"Low blow," Cloud snarls.

"Hmph," the Viera answers. "I'll take your broken pet out, and then taking you out will be easy. That's how you've been doing all of this crap, isn't it? By cheating."

Cloud bares his teeth at her and then looks down at Vincent. He's in a bad shape, worse shape than a player would've been. With players wounds are mainly just cosmetic – they don't actually cause physical damage aside from the feeling of pain. Being wounded doesn't weaken people.

Vincent isn't a player though.

"Get out of here," Cloud says. "Vincent, get out of here."

Vincent looks up, and his face is pale, bloody and... strangely resigned.

The Viera doesn't give them the chance to say anything else. And there the difference a level above 60 makes becomes obvious – because where as before Cloud has a sort of edge on human players, it doesn't even seem to exist anymore. She's so incredibly fast, and beyond ruthless, as she goes right at Vincent and –

[946/9999]

[0/9999]

As Cloud stands there, too damn slow to do anything, Vincent shatters. He just breaks, as if he was made of glass this whole time, he shatters into pieces that flicker in the air and then fade away and then he's just gone.

He's gone.

And Cloud is fucking furious.

"Right," he says to the woman, his tone frosty. "I'm going to kill you now."

"No, I think you'll find it will be rather the opposite," the Viera grins at him ferociously and then launches at him.

Chapter Text

Okay, Zack thinks as he looks on the action unfolding pretty much all around it. So this is what it's like to see one of these events happening.

There's fighting in the streets – and though it's kind of exciting, it also reminds him a lot of Wutai. Of course, in Terra Online no one can really die, all injuries are just temporary and the pain experienced by injured players was nothing like the real thing – and yet, people fight lot in the same ways. Thing about Terra Online, the first thing Angeal taught him about it, was that it was so immersive that it could really get to you in unexpected ways.

In battle, Terra Online could very easily give you battle fever, and it would give you a very real sense of danger from time to time. Let the game's realism carry you off and then suddenly you are face to face with your own mortality – and in a battle, when you are fighting superior opponent... it catches you. Suddenly you feel like you're in actual danger, like you're going to die, like you're going to be killed.

"Problem with that," Angeal told him. "Is that the opposite isn't true. Terra Online doesn't give you the visceral feeling of killing someone. There are no death screams, no blood, no tears, your weapons never gets dirty, no one's guts get spilled on the ground and no one urinates themselves. So, you can feel the terror of dying in close to a very real way – but never the horror of killing."

So, in Terra online people could kill without any real moral quandary, never feeling the consequences of their actions beyond the in-game punishment of Bounty and Infamy – but you could feel the horror of dying.

Though Zack had been in big battles in game, he'd taken part in skirmishes and raids and ever had a guild battle or two – this is something else. This melee, everyone going at each other, everyone killing each other without remorse, it's kind of terrible. There are groups ganging up on single individuals – Overseer members are being slaughtered by smaller guilds going after any stranded member they see. It's a massacre, basically, and it's not pretty.

It's just a game – but still.

Not pretty.

Frowning, Zack open his hud and then selects his guild screen. There he selects the announcement feature, and opens a message window.

[Guild Announcement]
[Every Hero who kills in Alexandria Skirmish will face Guild Punishment.]

He sends it off like that, short and sweet, and then stands up. There are Heroes out there – he's seen few with the guild tabard and few guild shields in the mess of things, and knows they won't be happy with punishment. But thing is they're SOLDIER – and for them it's never supposed to be a game. Lot of the things they can do in game they can do in real life, after all. And there are few things more dangerous than a SOLDIER who thinks war is a game.

Equipping his wings, Zack launches off the roof top to have a look at the battle field – because that's what Alexandria now is, a battle field. And terrible or not, it is kind of interesting too.

It's already being divided into conquered sections. Army is in control of the Craft District, with their members on the rooftops and people blocking off access to the streets. Overseers are trying to fall back to their guild house, but they're being blocked off by a lot of guilds which seem to have banded together against them. Some smaller guilds have created sort of fortification knots here and there, bolstering their defences with pets and by mages throwing up shields.

And there are dead people.

There are lot of dead people.

Some resurrect as Zack watches, either trying to immediately join back in the melee, or run away – few summon mounts and try to flee, only to be sniped from the rooftops by ranged players. Others just lie there as their bodies are robbed of everything valuable, or they've already been robbed and people just ignore them.

It would be kind of interesting, in a morbid way, to know just how many people would die. The combined loss of levels would be just amazing and that included one of the highest level players to boot.

Icon flashes in the corner of his vision and Zack opens the message.

[From: Noble]
[To: Wolfhound]
[Subject: Peacekeeping in Alexandria]

[Consider it a training exercise.]

And nothing else. Zack makes a face at the message – couldn't give anything more than that, could he? And how the hell did he suppose anyone could keep the peace in this?

Zack looks down, just as group of ninjas flash by, running on roof tops – followed by a wave of explosions. They're gleefully lobbing bombs down to the streets below, and though it doesn't look like the bombs are strong enough to either cause damage or kill people, it definitely caused some more chaos, as the streets filled with fire and smoke and confusion.

Peacekeeping in Alexandria. Right.

Shaking his head, Zack opens the guild window again and then considers the city below. It's all a mess and all the streets are absolutely swarmed by people; it would be hard to meet up anywhere, really. Heroes guild house was right next to the central square too, it would be impossible to get there without getting caught in the fighting...

After moment of thought, Zack types the announcement.

[Heroes, meet up at the Alexandria Castle – it's time to earn our name.]

With that send, he spreads out his wings and heads for the castle. There are people congregating there, surrounding the castle – and the castle itself, it's...

It's being bombarded with spells. And it's taking damage. There are towers and walls with holes in them, a section of the place is on fire – and there is a huge spider tank robot... thing on one of the rooftops, which is making holes in the said rooftop with every step it takes.

"Well, that's... something," Zack murmurs, hovering over the castle and just staring at the thing. The Alexandria castle has never been exactly... historically accurate. It's – or it was – more like something out a fairy tale picture book, with high slender towers and banners everywhere, no real fortifications to speak off. But, like all buildings in Terra Online, it was supposed to be impenetrable.

It's being absolutely wrecked now. And, judging by the looks of one player carrying off what looks like a treasure chest, it's being ransacked too... somehow

Zack looks between the spider tank, which is taking a lot of fire from some winged assailants, and then another section of the castle which seems to be getting a lot of action. A lot of players are hovering by a section of the castle with a huge hole in its roof, few of them throwing spells in through the windows.

Mostly thought, the players seem to be just watching something going on inside.

Zack hesitates, but in the end curiosity wins and he ducks down to see what is going on.

There is a duel going on inside the castle.

Not that it can really be called a duel. It kind of looks like bullying to Zack.

A female Viera is kicking around a male Viera – literally kicking him across a corridor, and into walls, just knocking him about. Every time he's knocked down he tries to get back to his feet, almost managing it before being kicked again, even further.

Zack frowns, looking at the windows where players – lot of them Vieras – cheer the so called fight on. "Come on, kill him, kill him, kick his ass!" they shout and whoop at every blow the male Viera takes – and he takes a lot of them. They're laughing and whistling, like it's a spectator sport.

The male Viera – is that the infamous Rainstorm, then? – gets up again, glaring at the female Viera. "You might as well give up," she says, walking towards him now at theatrically casual pace. "You can't beat me – you can't even fight me. So just lay down like a good boy and just give up."

"Fuck you," Rainstorm answers, opening a menu. He manages to grab a sword there – a low level looking long sword – before she's at him again, knocking the weapon from his hands and kicking him into a wall again.

"Yeah!" the audience cheers. "Fucking kick his ass!"

Again the male Viera tries to get up, and again he tries to grab a sword. There are a lot of swords scattered around the hall, now that Zack looks – low level swords all of them, lot of them strangely big. Apparently the guy has been disarmed a lot.

It's a little… it's a lot disgusting, actually. She's just toying with the guy, playing it up for the audience, all but torturing him. Giving him just enough time to get to his feet before being knocked down again.

Reaching for his weapons, Zack gets ready to jump in.

"Give up," the female Viera orders. "Just lay down and die like the trash you are."

"Fuck you," Rainstorm says, again, gritting his teeth and getting up, glaring furiously at the Viera. "I'm not fucking giving up, I am not fucking rolling over for you. You can just fuck off."

And Zack... can't jump in.

"Heya there, Guildmaster," voice says behind him and Zack looks up to see Light coming down on his own set of wings. "Wonderful day in Alexandria, isn't it?"

"Mmhm, absolutely lovely," Zack agrees and looks into the corridor again. The female Viera is glaring at Rainstorm now, obviously annoyed – and maybe that's why she hasn't just killed him yet. Because she wants to humiliate him, and he's not being humbled.

"What's up?" Light says and peeks in through another window.

"Well," Zack says. "It kind of looks like the worst fight I've ever seen."

Guide is coming down too, swooping down and landing close to perfectly on another window sill. He's followed by a horde of Rotor Critters, which hover and jerk about him, waiting for orders.

"What's up, Guildmaster?"

Zack leans away from the window a bit reluctantly. "Hero assignment," he says and looks down. Below them, couple of smaller guilds are going at it in the street. "Peacekeeping."

"You're kidding me," Light says incredulously. "You want us to keep peace, here?"

"Well," Zack says. "Noble suggested it as a training assignment, really. And I guess it would be good training. If we can bring order here, any Wutai riot should be a piece of cake, yeah?"

"Yeah, if we can bring order here," Guide says, considering the city. "Hmm. Right, I'm going to round up Heroes," he then says. "Better think of a rousing speech, Guildmaster. We'll meet you on the castle lawn."

"Ugh," Zack answers. "Speeches. Ergh."

"That's what you get for being Guildmaster," Light grins and peers into the corridor.

The male Viera has been knocked down again, and the female is almost literally standing on him now, one foot on the back of his neck, slowly pressing him downwards.

"Should we start with this one?" Light asks a little uncertainly.

"Well..."

As they watch the male Viera closes his eyes, grimacing with his teeth gritted so hard Zack almost expects to hear his teeth grinding. Then he does something... interesting.

The male suddenly dibs his head down, pressing his forehead momentarily against the floor. It puts the Viera woman stepping on him suddenly off balance, as she'd been pressing down on something that suddenly gave away. As she looses her balance momentarily, the male Viera shifts under her, ducking out from under her foot – and then he grabs a hold of the heel that had just been grinding on his neck.

He stands, wrenches his hand up – and the female Viera goes down, her leg coming up with him and her face meeting the floor.

"Oh," Light says with interest.

"You bitch!" the audience shouts and one of them jumps in through the window, obviously trying to get into it.

Zack jumps in first and steps in her way. "Hello, ma'am," he says and grins. "You know it's bit rude to get into other people's duels?"

"Out of my way, bastards," she says and flings out a throwing knife.

It clatters against Light's shield, as the paladin steps in way. Zack grins and grabs a sword – it catches on fire in his hand. "How about no?" he says and spins the flaming sword in his hand.

Immediately the other spectators start jumping in and Zack and Light fall into their usual formation. Usually it's them and Guide fighting together of course – Zack doing the bulk of the damage while Light tanked and Guide ran control, but they'd fought with just the two of them together enough to have the formation down to pat.

Behind them, the female Viera curses up a storm and the male Viera grabs one of his many scattered swords. "Right, okay, right," the male Viera says, his voice shaking with anger. "Right, okay, yeah. I think I got it now," he mutters, and he sounds half mad, like actually insane, mad. "Mind over matter. Right."

What he does or how the hell he does it, Zack isn't sure. It kind of looks like a skill, really, but not really like any skill he's ever seen. While the Viera woman swings to her feet, Rainstorm thrusts the sword into her gut – and then leaves it there, going for another sword on the floor and thrusting it into her as well.

Zack only glimpses what happens between his own fight against the duel's predominately female audience – and hey, isn't that pretty awesome, fighting a horde of awesome girls. They're not half bad fighters either, buffing each other and just going at them and at the fight like women possessed. It's pretty damn cool, really.

It would've been an awesome Arena battle – in crowded messy place like this, it's just kind of hard to appreciate the little details. Like the fact that most of them are in their lingerie.

Behind them the female Viera curses and goes to remove the swords – only to have another one thrust in from the back. The weapons are slowing her down, disorienting her even though they're not doing much damage – they're making her slow and clumsy. And lot of them are just too big and too long for her to easily remove them.

"Aargh, you son of a bitch, stop -!" she growls, and gets another sword to her side for her trouble.

It's kind of bizarre and not like any fighting method Zack has ever seen. It would never work in real life – the first hit would've been lethal, and the pain alone would've been unbearable. But in Terra Online you can just do stuff like that, stick a person full of swords and have them standing by the end of it.

Well, not standing, not really.

The female Viera goes down, not due to the injuries, but more due to the weight of the weapons piled on her – in her, really. They really are some big ass swords, easily bigger than the SOLDIER great swords Zack uses in real life – rivalling Angeal's Buster Sword, even.

"How the fuck –?" the female Viera growls.

"Game Physics, bitch," Rainstorm says, standing over her, breathing hard. His voice is still shaking with fury, and he's all but babbling. "You're all DEX and AGI, right? Speed over actual strength. I make my swords as heavy as I can – too heavy for you. Plus, at speeds like that, you get too fast for yourself. Up here," he motions at his head and laughs a shaky, manic laugh. "You can't keep up with your character. You stumble a bit when you're really going at it. You're too light. You probably don't even notice it anymore, you're so used to it. Also," he leans in, grinning bloodily. "I know the setbacks of that necklace you got. It throws your centre of weight off, you know?"

Her eyes widen at that. "Shut up," she then hisses and tries to get up – but can't. She doesn't have the STR.

Rainstorm scoffs at her and then winds his sword back, all the way back. "And another thing," he says. "You don't fucking touch – my – pet."

He swings the sword with what looks like all of his weight, throwing his entire Viera height into it – and yet he's only working as a ballast for the sheer weight of his massive sword. Zack watches the whole thing with strange fascination – kind of wishing he was recording it.

Angeal fights like that, the few times he uses the Buster Sword – literally throwing its weight around. It's crude and awkward, according to the man – but very effective.

"That's the point of a sword like this," he told Zack. "It doesn't even matter if it's dull. It's so heavy that there's not much that can stop it. You just need a proper wind up... and it goes through anything."

[Victoria has been killed by Rainstorm!]
[Rainstorm's murder count is now 569]

"You son of a bitch!" one of the Vieras Zack is fighting shouts and jumps over him, going at Rainstorm with a set of daggers in hand. Victoria's head is still rolling away and Rainstorm is still in the wake of his swing, more being led by his own massive sword than leading it, there is no way he can duck. Before the second Viera can hit him, however...

The guy disappears.

"What?" one of the Vieras demands.

"Where did he go?!"

"What the heck?" Light says while they all stop to look. But no, the guy didn't just move out of sight. There are no particle effects of teleport, no wave or ripple of invisibility and he definitely isn't fast enough to just run off faster than eye can see. No, he's just... disappeared.

"The son of a bitch is hacking again!" one of the Vieras snarls.

"Victoria!" another calls and rushes to the now headless body. The swords have disappeared from her, and by all appearances she isn't even injured – except for the fact that she seems to be missing her head. As Zack and Light find themselves completely ignored all of the sudden, the former audience go and get the female Viera's head, looking a little at loss what to do with it.

Apparently they too have never seen a player beheaded.

"Well," Zack says and scratches at the back of his head. "That happened."

Chapter Text

Last time Sephiroth had created a character for a VRDC game, it couldn't really have been called character creation at all. All he had done back then was look over his avatar – exact replica of himself – and decided that it would do.

It had made sense of course. VRDC had started out as a training tool. and that was how Sephiroth had been using it up until then, same as any other SOLDIER who had been using it to run battle simulations before the implementation of the general gaming aspects. Back then, his plan had been basically to continue along the same lines – except this time with little bit of entertainment thrown in.

He's never precisely regretted not changing his avatar. In the beginning they'd all been so busy exploring the suddenly vastly expanded game world that it hadn't really mattered – later, he was alone in the game most of the time that again, it didn't really matter one way or the other.

Except maybe it did. Looking at it in hindsight, Sephiroth can see the clear reason why he ended up preferring to stay alone in the game, rather than frequenting the more popular areas, why he had never joined any of the Guilds, never made his own like Angeal and Genesis had, why he had never gotten a house or anything else in Alexandria.

It's exhausting, going anywhere, seeing anyone, doing anything with people, it's exhausting. It's worse in the game because in Terra Online people are protected from humiliation and embarrassment – and in lot of cases, consequences – by their own anonymity. People are bolder. They dare to get up your face more easily.

Sephiroth is not much of a people person, never have been. So in the end it had simply been easier all around to not bother with it at all. Easier... and yet not necessarily better.

"Well?" Cait Sith asks, sitting in mid air with tail flicking left to right, while Sephiroth considers his avatar – well, his avatars, really. His original one stands to the side, full with the end game gear and weaponry, face relaxed to expressionless and body stock still. Beside him is the second avatar – which Sephiroth is idly flicking through races, trying to decide.

"I'm thinking," Sephiroth answers, frowning he considers the Burmecian version of him. As a rat-person he definitely doesn't look like himself, and the stats are interesting, but... he isn't sure he could take himself seriously, like that.

And yet, he wants something new. Burmecian would be very new.

"You could throw a wrench into the works and play a Viera too," Cait Sith suggests with a grin.

"Tempting," Sephiroth answers dryly and, just for the hell of it, selects Viera in the race screen.

He makes a... rather striking Viera, actually. Dark skin, long white hair, the ears – it's all very Viera-like. As a Viera he'd be even taller than he actually is – and on top of that, Vieras stand on the balls of their feet, so they're seem even taller. It could've actually made him the tallest character in the game, or at least close to it.

But no, that's a can of worms he doesn't want to crack open, not with what has been going in the game. And judging by what he's heard about Rainstorm, the guy has it all pretty much covered.

And height...

Sephiroth folds his arms and flicks through the races again. That's one thing that tempts him, just a bit, to a Moogle. The height difference.

He knows how to be tall, he knows how to use height to his advantage – there is nothing new for him there.

"How short can you make me?"

"Depends on a race," Cait Sith answers distractedly and waves a paw at the second character. It shrinks down in height, squashed downwards by invisible force, until it is the shortest it can be.

Short human is about 150 centimetres, definitely shorter than he actually is – though of course, he isn't going to play a human, he'd just end up playing as himself. Short Moogle is... ridiculously small. Viera doesn't shrink at all, neither does Ronso or Bangaa, their height seem to be race-locked.

Fairy version of him with blank silver wings shrinks a lot, unsurprisingly, down to around 130 centimetres. Sadly, Fairy stats are geared more towards support roles, perfect for healers and buffers, and he doubts he'd enjoy playing that way. In all likelihood he'll end up playing alone again, same as he's always played – he needs a solid solo build.

Sighing, Sephiroth frowns and flicks through the races again. He makes a ridiculous looking Ronso, and though Werewolf is tempting, he knows the race too well – it wouldn't exactly be new. Elf is basically human with added agility and dexterity, not very exciting...

"Do you have any suggestions?" Sephiroth finally asks, pressing races at random and smothering the urge to make faces at his character.

"Well, I don't know what kind of play style you're thinking," Cait Sith asks, though his attention is on a screen he's watching, not on Sephiroth. "Not a swordsman, I suppose."

"Hmm, no," Sephiroth agrees. "I want to try another play style. One I don't know that well."

"Something new then, alright," the cat said. "There's summoner. Or machinist, if you want to play solo."

Sephiroth considers that. Machinist is... tempting. You essentially work as your own party, summoning lesser minions into the fight. "Hmm," he answers noncommittally.

"Black mage?" Cait Sith offers.

"Too close to a red mage, and I'm too familiar with that one too," Sephiroth answers and opens a class selection list. "No magic, I think – there's a reason I didn't go for it originally."

"Hm?"

"Too close to the real world equivalent," Sephiroth shrugs. "And unlike Genesis I don't want to acclimate myself into thinking of it as cheap." Real world magic was just too dangerous – in real world, over use of magic was no small thing, after all.

"Right, so, that's all the magic classes out, then, and summoner classes too, I suppose?" Cait Sith says. "So it's basically down to melee classes and -" he stops.

Sephiroth looks his way, arching an eyebrow. The cat is completely distracted by the screen he's staring at, frowning at it. "Hmm?"

Cait Sith doesn't answer, and with a frown Sephiroth cranes his neck a little to see. It looks like a view of Alexandria. If Alexandria was on fire. "What's that?"

Again the cat doesn't answer – it takes Sephiroth a moment to realise that Cait Sith is completely frozen to the point of being lifeless. Curious Sephiroth goes closer and then waves a hand over the cat's face – he doesn't even budge. Lights are on, but nobody's home.

On the screen Cait Sith had been watching, it looks like Alexandria is in throes of war. The screen is showing a birds eye view on the streets, where crowds of people mill about in full blown conflict, while the houses all around them are either burning, or in ruins.

Frowning, Sephiroth tries to turn the screen his way, zoom it in a bit – but of course it doesn't answer his commands, he's not a moderator after all. He's forced to crouch down a little to look at the screen more fully, squinting a bit to try and see the details. It really looks like some of the houses are on fire – and they look like guild houses. He even recognizes one of them – the LOVELESS guild house with its garishly dark purple rooftop. Rooftop which, judging by the looks of it, has a hole in it.

As Sephiroth watches, a summon rams through the one of the streets while another is washed with waves of flames – in a third, there is a wall of what looks like knights and paladins, pushing into the throng of people, forcing them back like soldiers in full riot gear. Army, or maybe Heroes guild, either trying to claim ground or establish order.

Curiously, there is one corner of a street where it kind of looks like someone has established a first aid area. Even at the distanced view, Sephiroth can recognize the white mage zone heals, white rune circles with sparks flying from them. Number of players, tanks and mages mostly, have established a perimeter around the first aid area, keeping it separate from the general melee.

It's fascinating. Sephiroth has been studying and learning and often times inventing battle tactics for real war zones for most of his life. It's interesting to see hints of it here and there in the more or less fictional battle going on in Alexandria. The attempts of ground control, the established perimeters here and there, the claimed bits of land. Some groups here and there are even trying to put up fortifications, to barricade sections of streets off. And of course, the people with wings, the people o the roof, have the advantage on those below, sniping them from above.

The best managed sections are the ones with people down in the streets and up in the air, covering their high and low ground and keeping eye on the situation – judging by the looks of it, Army is doing the best, but then, they have one of the most military-tactic heavy guilds. Even Heroes consists mainly of solo players doing solo things – army guild, though, is full of established parties who lot of the times work in real life military regiments together.

Cait Sith comes back to life with a jolt and then jumps down from the air. Sephiroth looks after him curiously. "What's going on?"

"A lot, turns out," Cait Sith says and then waves a paw – and good half dozen code screens open all around him. "Sorry, Sephiroth, I'm going to hijack your character creation screen for a moment. It's just the easiest way to do this right now."

Too curious to really mind, Sephiroth stands up to watch, keeping half an eye on the Alexandria screen. What Cait Sith does with the code, he has no idea – programming and coding has never held any sort of interest to Sephiroth – but it looks serious. Possibly trying to bring order to whatever is going on in Alexandria?

It would probably take a full server roll back to do that, judging by the looks of the damage done to the city. How it was done, Sephiroth doesn't know, but at a glance he can count at least two dozen damaged guild houses, and somehow the fires are spreading from guild house to guild house. He didn't even know that was something that could happen in the game. New feature maybe?

Whatever Cait Sith is doing, it takes a while and he looks fairly serious doing it – serious in a way Sephiroth hadn't been aware the moderator could be, really. The AI seemed to find humour in anything, really, even the most gruesome situations – to see him so grim was rather strange.

Sephiroth settles down to wait, deciding to not bother him with inane questions and instead save it for when the cat isn't so obviously busy. Instead he looks at the Alexandria screen, watching the action, wondering if he could somehow get a real world recording of it later on.

It would make interesting study case for battle tactics. Lot of the people down there wouldn't have any military training, after all – but they did have fully fledged in-game battle capabilities. It would be interesting to know how they reacted to this sort of situation, and how they acted in it.

The minutes pass, the fires down in Alexandria spread and then the air just beyond Cait Sith's programming screens rips open, and something... materialises from it.

That's the only way to put it. The thing that appears seems to pull itself together piece by torn piece, shreds pulling themselves into unified whole until it has a vaguely humanoid shape – until it starts looking familiar.

Red wings, head full of jagged, sharp horns, pale face with glowing eyes, clawed hands. Blurry and strangely pixelated at first, it comes together into a unified whole like a broken puzzle and then it growls at them with mouth full of fangs.

"Vincent," Cait Sith says. "Vincent, calm down, please – I pulled your code back together but you –"

The thing, Vincent – the Wastes Demon, because it's exactly like the few screenshots Sephiroth has seen of the thing – snarls and then lunges forward, reaching for Cait Sith with hands full of sharp talons, eyes wide and mad and glowing with light that looks eerily like mako glow.

Sephiroth moves forth a step as Cait Sith disappears, teleporting few feet back – only to have the Wastes Demon chasing after him, snarling and hissing like a beast.

"Vincent, please, calm down – you're not in any danger –" and again the demon attacks the moderator, jumping after him with red wings splayed out and talons reaching for the cat to tear it apart.

Sephiroth steps in the way, and takes the blow to his arm, blocking the slash. It's a surprise to take damage from it – the talons rip through his sleeve and into the meat of his arm and it actually hurts. Then the demon goes for another attack, and quickly Sephiroth blocks it again, this time knocking the demon's wrist to the side to keep it from cutting into him – and he feels the blow.

Even here, in the character creation, game physics are in effect. Interesting.

"Can you hold him back for a moment?" Cait Sith asks.

"I could do it better if I had a sword," Sephiroth admits, making a face as the demon pretty much spits at his face, snarling madly at him as it goes for another talon swipe. This one Sephiroth ducks under.

"Don't hurt him," Cait Sith says severely as he opens another screen little further away. "He feels pain ten times clearer than you do."

Sephiroth takes that information in with interest and goes to grab the demon's wrists – and then the damn thing bites him. Furiously struggling against his grip, the thing goes to gnaw on his knuckles – they're cut open and bleeding in an instant.

There's little sense to the demon's actions, though – it still has his legs free but it doesn't even try kicking. Senseless struggling, no tactics, Sephiroth thinks – and then he crouches down and sweeps his leg across the demon's ankles, knocking the thing off its feet.

It writhes and snarls and growls at him, tries to hit him with its elbows, but Sephiroth has it pinned down easily enough. It's... rather disappointing, really. If this thing really is the Demon of the Wastes, it's not living up to its reputation as the wily fighter he's read so much about.

"Cait Sith," Sephiroth says, looking up from the wriggling, struggling demon. "What the hell is going on?"

"Too much all at once – there we go," Cait Sith says, and suddenly another figure pops in – a player, a familiar one at that.

Breathing heavily and with a frankly insane look in his eyes Rainstorm whirls around with a massive sword in hand and then stops at the sight of Cait Sith. "What the fuck?" he asks, and then he sees Sephiroth.

Next thing Sephiroth knows, the lunatic is swinging a sword at him.

"Get off him!" Rainstorm shouts even as Sephiroth jumps back and off the demon. Rainstorm throws the sword after him; forcing Sephiroth to duck below the madly spinning blade – and then the insane Viera completely ignores him, turning to the Wastes Demon instead.

"Vincent?" he asks, falling to his knees. "Vincent, hey, Vincent?"

The demon snarls, twisting to hands and feet and then it launches itself at Rainstorm, going immediately for the Viera's open throat. And the Viera doesn't even try to parry the blow, he just takes it, and not only takes it – he pushes into it, past it. Ignoring the snarling and growling at the fact that his neck is now sliced to ribbons, the idiot throws his arms around the demon.

Sephiroth stares, incredulous, as Rainstorm latches into the snarling demon like a leech, wrapping his arms and soon his legs around the thing, sending them both to the floor.

"Cait Sith," Sephiroth says, watching the demon struggle and the Viera tighten his grip. "What the fuck?"

The moderator sighs, running a paw over his face and shakes his head. He doesn't answer, and on the floor the demon's struggles start slowing down, his snarling starts to quiet -and Sephiroth can hear Rainstorm, talking to him.

"It's alright, hey, shh, it's alright, it's okay, you're safe, it's alright," the Viera is saying. "Shh, it's alright, it's okay, no one's going to hurt you, shh…"

Standing up, Sephiroth glances at the moderator who, after a moment, turns to his code screens again. Then he looks down at Rainstorm and the Demon, whose struggles are petering off entirely. The demon is making terrible hitching noises now, like hyperventilating except – except it's a game, it's not real. You can't hyperventilate in virtual reality.

"Hey," Rainstorm murmurs, stroking the demon's horns as the thing presses its face against his mostly bare chest. "There you are, there you go. I killed her, I killed the damn bitch that hurt you, it's okay..."

Running a hand over his neck and feeling entirely out of his depth, Sephiroth looks away. It just... looks very intimate, all of sudden.

"What happened?" Rainstorm asks finally, first from the demon and then turning to look over his bare shoulder at moderator. "Cait Sith, what happened?"

"As soon as Vincent disconnected, I backtracked his code," the moderator answers. "I couldn't quite pin down the location, but I know the exact made up of the gear he's hooked into now. It let me pull him back in bit faster than he usually reconnects, but the quicker connection apparently has its issues."

"I'd say," Rainstorm says and looks down at the demon, Vincent, whichever it is. Then he looks up and at Sephiroth. "Oh.... hello, sir?" he says, sounding confused, and then looks around.

"Hmm," Sephiroth answers and folds his arms. "What the hell is going on here?"

"Like said, too many things all at once," Cait Sith says and then turns to Rainstorm and Vincent. "I... suppose we can wait a bit to shift Vincent back into a pet," he then says, making a face.

Rainstorm looks down at the demon. "Yeah, I think we better," he says, stroking the demon's shuddering, heaving back.

"Had to go to Alexandria, did you?" Cait Sith says wryly, resting a paw at his waist.

"If I'd know this would happen, believe me, I wouldn't have," Rainstorm says darkly and slowly sits up, pulling the demon with him as he goes. The clinging is pretty much two sided now – the demon is pretty much clawing at Rainstorm's back in urge to get closer to the man. "I didn't expect Vincent to die like that."

The moderator shakes his head. "You should have. He's the most powerful pet in the game, but players at higher levels are still stronger," he says and then steps closer. "You need to get rid of the bounty, Rainstorm."

Rainstorm frowns darkly and then sighs. "Yeah, yeah I do," he admits and then looks up. "So what is this place?" he asks, even as he hauls the still shuddering demon pretty much into his lap.

"Character creation," Sephiroth says and arches his eyebrow. "My character creation, which begs the question, again; what the hell is going on here?"

Cait Sith hesitates and looks at Rainstorm. Rainstorm makes a face and looks down at the demon. The demon just shudders. "Well," the Viera says and the frowns and doesn't continue.

"That's the Wastes Demon," Sephiroth points out. "The supposed glitch, right?"

"The definite glitch," Cait Sith says and shakes his head, opening more code screens.

"He's a person," Rainstorm says, wrapping his arm around the demon's shoulders, just above his wings. "He's been hooked into VR for decades and he's been stuck in this game for as long as it's existed. After all that he's... not well."

Sephiroth arches his other eyebrow and then looks down at the Wastes Demon. "Ah," he says.

"Yeah," Rainstorm agrees and looks down at the demon, Vincent. "So, we're just going to sit here for a while, okay? Hope you don't mind. I mean, I don't care if you do mind, but, you know... "

Sephiroth considers them for a moment and then sighs and sits down as well, ankles crossed, watching them. Rainstorm gives him an uneasy look and then looks down at Vincent, stroking his hair.

"Character creation?" the Viera then asks and looks up. He turns his eyes to where Sephiroth's two character stand – and then lets out a snort of amusement. "Oh my god, that's adorable."

Sephiroth looks. There stands his first avatar – and beside it, a much, much smaller second avatar. So small, in fact, that his hair is trailing the floor. He tilts his head. "Hmm," he says thoughtfully. Now how did that happen?

"Are you going to play that?" Rainstorm asks, looking a bit gleeful. "Please tell me you're going to play that, it would be the best thing."

"Hmm," Sephiroth answers thoughtfully and opens the stat screen for the second character. It's not half bad. Different from his human character, definitely. "Just need to choose a class and job now."

"I'd suggest you wait a bit," Cait Sith says from where he stands, now absolutely surrounded by code screens.

"Why?"

"People have been complaining about being stuck with a first class and job they don't like, so... I'm implementing job and class selection in Albrook," the Moderator says and glances their way, smiling wryly at Rainstorm. "Since you went and pretty much destroyed Alexandria... I figure might as well do this now. It's time for a system update."

Chapter Text

Well, it is interesting, if nothing else.

Alexandria is a wreck all around them. Buildings burning, crumbled to ruin, toppled over – there are holes on rooftops and collapses walls by the dozen and everywhere in between the chaos of the half destroyed city, people are still fighting. Guilds are going at it, meeting each other in grand melee that mostly seems to have no rhyme or reason – people are going at it because... other people are going at it.

It's gotten to the point where the death notices have probably just flat out glitched out. People are still dying by the dozens – if not by the hundreds – but no one is getting notices anymore. It's more of a relief, really. At least without them, you can actually see the devastation.

Cid cackles to himself. "What a mess," he laughs and then looks away, towards the girls Rainstorm had asked him to cover.

Not that they really need much covering, really, one of them being Sonata of Seventh Heaven after all. They're not even being attacked anymore, actually, after what she'd done to the attackers who did come after them. And god damn, did level 65 know how to fucking bring it. Cid, at 59, is up there with the cream of the crop of Terra Online, but the people who go over 60, who keep at it even after getting the highest gear, highest skills, highest goddamn everything, they're something else.

It takes a lunatic to keep at it once the game stops giving you concrete goodies for playing, after all, and judging by how long it took Cid to go from 58 to 59, and how fucking impossible it seems to hop over that last couple hundred thousand EXP gap to finally make it to 60... Yeah. 65s are nuts.

And Sonata might've been chilling out in Alexandria for months now, playing the bar keeper, but that hurt her level none, judging by the looks of it.

Cid folds his arms and watches her wind one of her back. The punch she delivers on an unlucky 50-something is fucking mighty, and so is the flight he takes immediately after, just fucking blown away by the seemingly simple him.

Shit. Rainstorm knew the coolest people.

"Okay," Sonata says from where she and the Elf girl are balancing on top of Cid's spider tank, hanging off a half broken wall of the main building of Alexandria Castle. "Run that by me again, will you?"

"Well," the elf says. "I don't really understand it myself, I only found out about it this morning, when Rainstorm killed me – because of my bounty – and the Moderator talked to me in the wraith space. Well, Rainstorm was really the one who explained to me, because, I don't know. He's just good with these sorts of things -"

"I don't care about what that idiot is good at," Sonata scoffs. "Explain the effect again."

The elf girl gives her something of a helpless look. "It's just – happens. Things become fragile around me. Rainstorm said – um," she leans a back a bit at Sonata's glare. "I assert real world physics to the game around me? Because I subconsciously think they should be there, they... are. I don't know how to control it yet, it just... it's just a thing that happens."

"You've been playing this game for months, how did you only find out about it now?" Sonata asks with disbelief.

"Well... Overseers," the elf girl shrugs.

"... oh."

Cid swoops down, considering fort a moment on landing on Sonata's head – but she'd probably kill him. He lands on the highest point on the tank instead. "Wanna share with the fucking class?" he asks.

"Who are you anyway?" Sonata asks.

"Guild hopeful," Cid answers with a grin full of teeth and then looks at the elf girl. "How does Overseers explain you not knowing this shit?"

"Um," the elf says, looking awkward. "Well. My name is Flower and the leader of Overseers, he's..." she trails away, making a face. "I was Overseers... guest for a while."

"They kept her locked up in a tower like fantasy princess, basically," Sonata answers for her. "I always figured out it was because Loyal was a creep and really liked her, but I guess this kind of makes more sense."

"I left them yesterday – made invisibility Cloak to get away and everything," Flower says and sighs. "I went to Great Forest of Moore and ran into Rainstorm and some of his party members at the Elder Tree."

Sonata is quiet for a moment. "Holy shit," she then says, her tone flat.

Cid cackles. "Oh my god that skimpy asshole is the best thing that's happened to this game," he laughs and wipes at his eyes. "Man I should've stuck around when we first met."

"How do you know Rainstorm?" Flower asks them curiously, looking between Sonata and Cid.

"I know him irl. Grew up in the same town," Sonata says and sighs, scratching at her hair. "He's changed a lot since the last I saw him. Still an idiot though."

"I helped him out of Albrook zone after the Newbie Massacre," Cid cackles. "It was the best fucking entertainment I'd had in this fucking game in months."

"Tch," Sonata answers and looks at the City of Alexandria. In the distance, something blows up. "So, now what?" she asks, turning to Flower. "The idiot is offline, isn't he?"

"He's... not, but," Flower waves a hand over air and opens up a menu. "It says he's busy but I don't know what that means. Vincent's HP dropped down to zero, though, so..."

"He's not been killed – Rainstorm, I mean," Cid says, and motions to a window he has open on the side. Rainstorm's duel rankings.

[SPECIAL RANKINGS / Rainstorm's Duels]
[Challenger – Class – Time – Duration – Winner]

[Loyal LV. 69 – Sniper – 10.34, Jan 8 – 0.02 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 68 – Sniper – 10.34, Jan 8 – 0.01 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 67 – Sniper – 10.35, Jan 8 – 0.01 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Loyal LV. 66 – Sniper – 10.38, Jan 8 – 0.05 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Victoria LV. 65 – Assassin – 10.56, Jan 8 – 3.46 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
[Civil LV. 54 – Martial Artist – 10.36, Jan 8 – 0.45 min – Rainstorm LV. 14]
...

Clicking the [Winner] tag doesn't change a bit. Of the nearly 60o supposed duels Rainstorm has had, he's won each and every one.

"His bounty is still intact, too," Cid adds. "And high."

"Some of our other guild members are online now, though – Bigshot, Mena and REDXIII are online," Flower says. "But they can't get into Alexandria because the zone is full."

"Hmm," Sonata says and makes a face. "And the portals will be well covered, no way to get out of here. And I suppose we need to wait to see what happens to the idiot," she adds, reluctantly. "Why'd you make him your guild leader anyway? Why him?"

"Majority consensus was that no one wanted to be responsible for him," Flower admits with a sigh and Cid bursts laughing.

Sonata sighs and runs a hand over her face. "He's probably going to get banned for this," she comments. "Or you are," she amends, looking at Flower.

The elf girl laughs at that. "I doubt it," she says and shakes her head. "Maybe we should – "

There's a rumble.

Cid looks up – and then down sharply. At first it looks like the wall they're precariously balancing on might be coming down, the multiple blows it's taken finally being too much for it – but no, it's not just the wall. The entire castle is subtly shuddering under them, rumbling as everything shakes.

Not just the castle – the whole city of Alexandria itself is shivering.

An earthquake.

"System update," Cid and Sonata say in unison while Flower looks a little alarmed.

"Now?" Sonata asks with disbelief, while crouching down to take support on the spider tank's many convenient grooves. "They're really updating the system now, in middle of all of this?"

"Maybe they're rolling the server back," Cid suggests. "I mean – look at it," he motions at the city.

And then the wall starts crumbling down under them. It's just a couple of bricks coming loose at first and flying past them to their ultimate doom down in the ground, but then what little support the wall still haves seems to just give away under the damage combined with the shaking of the mild earthquake. It just starts crumbling under them.

"Hold on!" Cid snaps and opens a command menu – which comes with a handy dandy joystick. Quickly he takes over the command of the spider tank and goes to manoeuvre it off the collapsing wall -only to find that the wall he is manoeuvring it to is also about to collapse.

"Get us down!" Sonata shouts over the noise of things falling and breaking. "Get us down and to open ground!"

The noise is incredible. It's not just the castle collapsing – some other buildings are coming down too, the ones they'd passed over, which had felt the double blow of damage and realistic physics and been somehow infected by them. People are shouting over the rumbling and the sound of buildings coming down, running – and judging by the sound of it, dying under buildings coming down on them.

Cid ignores the noise, concentrating onto the task at hand. The Spider Tank isn't the fastest thing ever, though, and although it can easily take the beating of falling bricks and roof tiles, it's not exactly the best escape vehicle ever.

"Forget it," he says, after a piece of rooftop falls almost right on them and he only barely manages to stop the tank in time. "This isn't working – into the air!"

"Right," Sonata says, and then grabs Flower into her arms. Cid is in air only split of a second faster than she is, and together they race the falling rubble coming right at them from higher up in the castle, while the Spider Tank falls to it's sad doom on the ground, buried in rubble.

In the city, other people are taking to the air too – everyone with wings, judging by the looks of it. At a distance it looks like flock of very weird birds being spooked. It's kind of hilarious, except then Cid almost gets brained by a falling stone and he doesn't have the time to appreciate the sheer absurdity of the situation.

They clear the collapsing Alexandria castle just in time to watch the thing just crumble. Towers come down with enormous rumbling noises and the main buildings first list down and then just fall into themselves, ceiling caving in and walls collapsing. At the end of it, only bits and pieces of walls remain, standing up like spikes from the rubble.

"Fuck," Cid laughs with impressed disbelief. Biggest building in the entire game is now biggest pile of rubble. It's kind of awesome.

"Yeah," Sonata agrees, sounding half horrified and half awed.

"Oh no," Flower says with a wince.

They just watch the devastation for a while, same as everyone else in the air. The ground below keeps on shaking, and there are clouds of dust and smoke here and there as other buildings give under the vibrations and are shaken into piles of rubble.

"What happens now?" Flower asks.

"You've never been online during system update?" Sonata asks.

"Loyal always made me log out as soon as the shaking started," Flower admits.

Cid looks down. In the streets below the fighting is coming to a panicked halt as people realize that the city is coming down around them and, judging by the looks of it, killing them in the process. There is a mad scramble for open streets – the biggest battle zone becomes the biggest safe space, as everyone flocks to the Central Square and away from the buildings.

"Well," Sonata says, also watching people try and squirm their way into safety. "There's half an hour tremor, which is going on right now," she nods down. "It's like warning to the players that the system update is coming."

"And after half hour the Big Quake hits, and the system actually starts updating," Cid says, folding his arms. "During which everything goes to hell in a hand basket. Stuff stops working, mobs go all weird, game mechanics and physics gets all fucked up and usually the menu fritzes out too. It's generally bad time for everyone."

Under them, another building breaks under the shaking, it's ceiling collapsing inwards.

"How long does it last?" Flower asks.

"Anywhere from couple of hours to couple of days – you can still log in and out of the game during system update, but that's pretty much all you can do. The game just... doesn't work right for a while," Sonata explains and looks down at the collapsing building – some shitty guild house. "Usually it doesn't actually destroy stuff, though."

"I should log out, shouldn't I?" Flower says guiltily.

"Hmm... you think it's just Alexandria?" Sonata asks, glancing at him. "It would make sense if they just rolled back the Alexandria server."

"Great Forest of Moore is probably getting a server rollback too," Cid muses and opens a chat window. It's been less than couple of minutes, but already there are new chat rooms on the server rollback. "Hmmm no, apparently it's everywhere."

[GENERAL CHAT – Jan. 8 System Update]

<Zuzyzu> can confirm, Albrook is shaking too
<Butterflew> so MRRR is apparently getting updated, even though nothing even happened here
<pantser> it's the whole fucking system
<pantser> they're updating the whole system
<Pallyden> Not just Alex then, huh.
<Butterflew> it's still probably BECAUSE of Alexandria
<Setser> anyone in Wastes?
<Kain> reporting in from the wastes – we got an earthquake, people
<Setser> damn, Wastes hasn't been updated in months.

"I'm running out of Flight," Sonata says. "I need to land."

"But if you land -" Flower says, hanging onto her neck.

"Nothing I can do about that," Sonata says, as she starts going down. "Flying isn't infinite."

"I'll log out," Flower says, sounding a bit scared. "Will you look after my body if I log out?"

Sonata hesitates and glances at Cid.

"You know, girlie, I don't think it even matters at this point," Cid admits, shaking his head at Flower. "Whatever that shit you do is, it's already done on Alexandria – I mean, look at it," he points down. "The damage is pretty much done. And if they're rolling the server back..."

"Yeah. All things considered, you should wait until we can find a safe place to log out," Sonata says and then makes a face. "I'd invited you to Seventh Heaven, buut..." she casts a look at the central square of Alexandria, towards where her guild house is – or rather, was.

It's a pile of smoking rubble now.

"That effect you have is pretty fucking impressive," Cid comments. "And terrifying."

"Yeah," Flower says with a sigh. "I'm hoping Rainstorm can teach me how to rein it in, somehow, because I don't even know how I'm doing it, really."

"Why would he be able to teach you?" Sonata asks suspiciously, while aiming to land on the roof top of a still miraculously standing near by guild house.

"Well, uh... um. He's good at stuff like that," Flower says awkwardly and coughs.

Sonata looks like she buys that about as well as Cid does, but there's no time to really look into it – the city is still rumbling. In the streets below other players are either running for safety or, hilariously, pitching up tents right then and there, on the rubble filled cobblestone streets of the city.

As they watch, one of the tents falls over as a brick falls on it.

"Around you tents aren't safe, are they?" Cid laughs a bit.

"Well," Flower says, sounding guilty and then almost jumps out of Sonata's arms in surprise as someone suddenly lands on the rooftop with them.

It's a Werewolf, wearing Heroes tabard, looking a bit ruffled.

"Hey," he says and flashes them a toothy grin while Flower stares at him with surprise. "Hi, hello, Wolfhound of Heroes here, looking to recruit some volunteers – and you two got wings and aren't apparently panicking, so could you help out maybe?"

"What?" Sonata asks, letting Flower down from her hold. "Right now? We're kind of busy, what with the server update and all!"

"There's a lot of players trapped in collapsed buildings," the Heroes Werewolf says, pointing. "And bunch of people who've gotten stranded, stuff like that, and with more buildings falling over all the time, we need all the hands – and wings – we can get to help people out."

Cid snorts and Sonata shakes her head. "What's the point?" she asks, even while Flower all but squirms with guilt. "They're going to roll the server back anyway."

"And then people might end up stuck in buildings and walls and stuff, because of rollback glitches," the Werewolf says very reasonably. "Come on, do your civic duty and stuff, show some charity, be a better person and just help people in need."

Sonata just stares at him with a sort of weary disbelief.

"Maybe we should help out," Flower says, making a face. "I mean… this is all my… we should help."

"That's the spirit!" the Wolfhound the Werewolf says and looks at her. "Er, you're not above 40, are you?"

"No… but I can summon something that flies," Flower offers, hesitantly.

"Flower, seriously," Sonata says and shakes her head with some exasperation. "Would your guild help? Would they? Really?"

Cid smothers a laugh at that, while Flower makes a face. "You know," she says and lifts her chin. "I think they would." With a harrumph, she turns to the Werewolf. "I can summon Bahamut, would that be any help?"

The same Bahamut that destroyed the Elder tree, Cid thinks. "Yeah that's a great idea," he says with a chortle. "Summon Bahamut right here, in middle of this disaster and in midst of fucking system update too, that's just awesome!"

The Werewolf blinks with surprise and then grins toothily at Flower. "Hell yeah it is," he says and holds out a furry paw. "Come on, I'll give you a lift and then we can use Bahamut to clear out some rubble, yeah?"

"Yeah," Flower says and then lets out a little shriek as the Werewolf swings her up to his arms and takes off, just like that.

Sonata and Cid stare after them with surprise as they just take off. "Oh for…!" Sonata then sighs and takes off after them, Cid following quickly behind her, cackling all the way.

Below them, another building goes tumbling down.