Chapter 4.  "The End of the Beginning of the End"
Track 4: "Black Hole Sun", by Soundgarden

It was a very long year, and then AVALANCHE began their campaign in Midgar. I was recalled briefly to Shinra HQ, which was in a flurry over the reactor bombings.  I barely had time to catch up with Reno and Rude before Rufus sent me out again, but the three of us got a chance to go to Lenny’s and drink ourselves under the table.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about the nightmares, but I told them about how boring Nibelheim was, and they laughingly sympathized.  They told me about Elena, the rather ineffective girl that had been promoted into my old place in the Turks.  She sounded like a twit, from their descriptions, and I was irritated to have been replaced by someone so ridiculous.  Or maybe the guys were trying to make me feel better – they were like that.

After I left Nibelheim, I no longer had the nightmares.  At first, it was an honest relief, but after a while, I began to feel…lonely.  The ghost had been a nightly companion in Nibelheim, and now I didn’t even have that.

I had lost my schoolgirl crush on Reno somewhere between Hojo’s experiments and my exile in Nibelheim.  While I still considered him and Rude to be my best friends, there was a divide between us now, caused by both my dismissal from the Turks, and by the things I had gone through.  Things had happened to me that I honestly hoped the guys would never have to endure, and it changed some of my attitude and outlook.  I wasn’t “one of the guys” anymore.

Rufus sent me off to Mideel, which, quite frankly, pissed me off.  There was nothing to be done there, and it seemed either Rufus was trying to keep me out of the way, or Shinra was up to no good in the South, and I was supposed to be their “cover”.  This, on top of everything else, put me out into the world completely alone – no ghost, no Turks, no one, and I hated it.

The Turks called this period of time “the War”, even though Shinra’s opposition was a handful of people.  Reno kept me posted as well as he could, and after a few months, I realized that the leader of the rebels had to have been Cloud Strife – carrying my brother’s sword!  I asked Reno to try to find their location or itinerary for me, but they moved around much too fast for Shinra to keep track of, let alone a factor abandoned in the Southern Islands with no resources.

In the earliest part of the war, the impossible happened.  Old President Shinra was assassinated – by the Masamune blade, which everyone in Shinra recognized as Sephiroth’s.  Rufus took over with no hesitation, demanding that Sephiroth be found.  Reno sounded a bit out of his depth when I talked to him; the very idea that Sephiroth was still alive, with a major mad-on for Shinra, was chilling.  I wondered if he might join up with Cloud and the rebels.  And after learning that Sephiroth and Cloud were alive… I started to wonder about the fate of my brother.  Hojo had never explained how Cloud and Zack were supposed to have been killed; if Cloud survived it, why couldn’t Zack?

Later, more disturbing news about Sephiroth came in.  He had killed Tseng!  That put Reno in charge of the Turks, and he and the others were most often too busy to give much time to keep me updated.  And then… the Meteor came.  When I learned that Sephiroth had called the horrific fireball in the sky with a spell, I was absolutely dumbfounded.  I had never heard of the Black Materia, and the power of such a thing was too much to believe.  Apparently, Sephiroth was trying to destroy the planet.  Why, I was not able to find out until the end of the war.

One day, the Mideel villagers found someone washed up on the beach.  It was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man who seemed to be mentally retarded or somehow…damaged.  He could only move his body in sharp, convulsive jerks, and he could not speak coherently.  His eyes were glazed over, and the only sounds he made were little groans.

It only took me one double take to realize that this was my brother’s friend Cloud Strife.  I got one of the stronger villagers to help me carry him to the small hospital, where the doctor diagnosed him with an extreme case of makou poisoning.

I felt a chill, as I wondered what had happened to him to put him into that condition and separate him from his allies.  I knew what he was going through, and I wondered if he knew, as I had, exactly what was going on around him and just couldn’t respond.  It was a disturbing thought.

Meanwhile, none of this information was reported back to Shinra.  I had, effectively, changed sides, or at least, left Shinra’s side.  After everything Hojo had done to Zack, Cloud and I, added to Shinra’s slow destruction of the natural world, I realized that I wanted nothing more to do with the Corporation.  The things Reno and Rude said and did reflected that their feelings were beginning to run the same way.  At one point, the guys even worked with the rebels to save Elena and one of the rebel girls from a kidnapper.  The only reason the Turks continued to clash with the rebels was because it was, very simply, their job.  So I would cover my tracks by staying on Shinra’s payroll, for the time being.

I “persuaded” the doctor to let me work in his office.  I figured with any hair bound up under a nurse’s cap, my face wasn’t distinctive enough for Cloud to recognize me.  Sometimes he seemed more lucid than others.  He would look around with his blue “makou eyes” clear, but he still could not control his body or speak.  I always felt chilled when he stared at me – I never knew if he was staring simply because he couldn’t not stare, or because he recognized me.

After a few weeks, his friends came into town: a girl about my age with long, brown hair and killer curves; a gruff older man who was dressed like an old time fighter pilot; what appeared to be a sentient, talking wolf; and a huge, imposing man with a gun grafted onto his left arm.  I stared at this last man for a long moment, but realized that he was nothing like my ghost.

They were overjoyed to find Cloud alive, but were struck by his current disability.  The girl, especially, seemed distraught – it was easy enough to guess why.  She chose to stay in Mideel with Cloud when the others decided that they had to continue their mission.  From what I could weasel out of them (and it was hard for me, as a nurse, to ask very detailed questions), their primary concern was stopping the Meteor, and then stopping Sephiroth, if it were possible.  Shinra was suffering from internal strife (and I knew all about that), and the rebels’ original goal of toppling Shinra had fallen into the background.

I wished I had the wherewithal to help them more, but I was too uninformed and too handicapped by circumstances.  Before Cloud had recovered, Rufus recalled me to Midgar, now locked down and in a shambles.

Rufus had changed for the worse since he had taken over Shinra.  He was in the grasp of power hunger, and reaching for straws as his empire crumbled around him.  There was none of his boyish light-heartedness any more, but in the way he dominated the Corporation, I could still see the shadow of a spoiled child.  If I had resented him before, I hated him now, not for personal reasons but for his conduct in regards to the world at large.

He called me into his office only briefly, to give me my reassignment.  By then, I realized that he had positioned me as his personal Turk, if that made any sense – I had the same kind of basic work as I did in the Turks, but I was under Rufus’ command instead of Heidegger’s.  Why he chose to give me so much non-work, however, I didn’t know.

When I entered his office, he presented me with a bundle of iris, their stems still wet, bound with a purple ribbon.  I wondered who had finally told him of my flower preferences.  “Thank you,” I murmured, not really sure how to treat this new Rufus.

He shrugged and smiled, but the expression was empty.  “It’s nothing.  How have you been?  Your reports have been very curt.”

“I’ve been all right,” I said with an answering shrug.  “It’s pretty slow in Mideel, there isn’t much to report.”

He raised an eyebrow at my voice.  “Bored, hmm?  Well, your next posting is Junon.  There’s plenty going on there.”

I wasn’t sure whether that was good or not.  Yeah – there was a lot going on at Junon Port, especially after the nightmarish attack of the Weapon, but would I be able to help Cloud’s gang at all?  Maybe I could disrupt things, except that there were a lot of people in Junon higher in the Shinra ranks than little old me.  Any attempts I would make to subvert Shinra’s work would be met with suspicion, no matter whose authority I claimed.  Worried, I kept my face expressionless.

“Certainly, sir,” I agreed with a nod of my head.

“’Sir’ sounds odd coming from you, Mara,” Rufus said mockingly.

“You’re the President now, sir,” I replied, keeping my voice neutral.

“That’s true, that’s true.”  He sounded vaguely disappointed.  Was he expecting me to find him more attractive now because he was the President?  I was offended, and I couldn’t wait to get out of that office.  “Welladay,” he finally continued, “I suppose I should let you be off.  Heidegger will give you more info.”

“Yes, sir.”  I stood and left the office, restraining my urge to slam the door.

There were several surprises waiting for me in the port city, including Reno.  He was supervising the loading of the Huge Materia, and the execs were expecting either Sephiroth or the rebels, who had already stolen two of the things, to come after it.  While I was happy to be able to work with him again, I fretted that I would have to work around him if, indeed, the rebels came for the materia.  If they were going to use it for anything, I figured that they would use it to try to defeat the Meteor.

Unfortunately, however, Reno had paid careful attention to the questions I had asked him about the rebels, and while he didn’t formally accuse me of collusion, he knew where my sympathies lay.  When we heard that the rebels had broken into the complex, Reno did something to me that I still can’t name as either a humiliation or a favor.  On our way down to the submarine docks, he suddenly halted and opened a side door in the hall.  Without a word of explanation, he snatched my gun and pushed me into the dark room, then closed – and locked – the door.  I pounded on the door for a few minutes, outraged, but then I realized that if someone else besides Reno found me there, they would start asking uncomfortable questions that neither of us wanted to answer.  Sullenly, I sat down in the supply closet until Reno, looking thoroughly irritated, came back a few hours later.

“I’ll tell you what, kid, that’s a determined bunch of punks,” he said grimly as he gave me a hand to stand up.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I snapped, taking my gun back.

“All right then – I’ll tell you that that blonde kid’s up and kickin’ again,” he drawled.  Before I could reply, he threw an arm over my shoulder and leaned in to whisper to me.  “And don’t be coppin’ that ‘tude with me, Mara, I just saved your rebel-lovin’ ass.”

“You locked me in a friggin’ broom closet!” I growled, also whispering.

A guard was approaching in the hallway.  “You did okay, kid, you did okay,” Reno said in his normal voice, patting me on the back.  I took his cue and put a dejected expression on my face.  The guard passed us by without a glance.

“How else was I gonna keep you out of the fight without ordering you out?” Reno resumed whispering.  “That’d be a dead giveaway that there’s a problem!”

I tried to stay angry, but I couldn’t.  He had done it to cover for me, and I was grateful, but…it was so embarrassing!

The rebels moved on, capturing the Huge Materia in the Junon submarine, and, unbelievably, the one in Rocket Town’s namesake, the rocket that had been launched to intercept the Meteor.  Unfortunately, the rocket had no helpful effect on the magical Meteor.

Then more impossible things happened.  The Turks went back to Midgar, escorting the Sister Ray, the cannon of Junon Port.  Another Weapon – apparently this one was designated as the Diamond Weapon – attacked Midgar then, as if the presence of the cannon offended it.  The rebels, amazingly, fought off the incredible monster, and it was hit by the Sister Ray, but not before it blew up wide parts of Midgar, including the top floors of the Shinra HQ Building – killing Rufus in the process.  In the same day, the rebels killed Hojo, ending his madness once and for all.

Reno’s report from Midgar hit me very hard.  The pair who had tortured me and taken away a year of my life were dead and gone.  I could have no revenge against Hojo, could not demand answers from him, could not force him to help those he had harmed.  I was not upset at his death; I was upset at all of the knowledge that had been lost with his death.  He had been mad, but he had also been a genius.  And as for Rufus…  I couldn’t help but be a little sad hearing of his end.  It was a rotten way to die, and not even he, with the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, on his hands, deserved to be killed that way.  I was also a little sad, I have to admit, for what could have been.  I wondered for many days if, in another time and place, Rufus and I could have had something together.  But that was just futile maundering.  The spooked Turks returned to Junon, not wanting to remain in the decaying gloom of Midgar.  We knew that Cloud and his group had gone to finish things with Sephiroth, and we waited anxiously for either the Meteor to miraculously disappear, or for it to hit the planet, as it seemed more and more likely to do every day.

Finally, the last day came.  I was sitting in a bar with the Turks – Elena was part of their group now as the guys gradually rubbed the overly shiny polish off of her – when I felt a horrible, searing pain in my head, reminiscent of the touches of the ghost, but much more violent.  I fell backwards out of my chair, hardly aware of my surroundings as waves of hate, anger, triumph, and despair, all stirred together, surged through my mind.  I felt a tugging, as if someone were summoning me, a desperate pull for me to go to… whoever it was.  When I could not answer that call, a very real, physical pain burned through my body.  I screamed, although I didn’t know that until the Turks told me later.  My body seemed consumed with someone else’s rage, and the assault on my mind changed to desperate pleading.  I realized, somehow, that this force could only be Sephiroth, and as always, my thoughts of the fallen general were accompanied by memories of my brother.  The attack on my mind seemed to flinch away, and I got an impression of angry and betrayed denial, and then a renewed plea.  It was incredibly hard to understand, like listening to a foreign-language radio broadcast with heavy static.  Another fiery surge tore through my body, and then the mental assault died away to a whisper, then to silence.

I focused my eyes on Reno, who was looking at me with grave concern.  He and Rude were holding me down on the ground, and Elena kneeled near them, looking at me with a horrified expression.  My head felt odd; I pulled my arm free of Rude’s grasp and felt the top of my head.  Oddly, my ponytail seemed to have fallen out.

“It snapped,” Reno said hoarsely, looking at me like I had just woken from a coma.  “Your hair started standin’ up and wavin’ around and stuff, and the band snapped clear off.”

I frowned and glared at Elena, who flinched out of her stare.  “What’re you lookin’ at?”

The sound of chairs scraping along the floor came loudly as the bar’s other patrons went back to minding their own business, and nervous chatter filled the silence.  I continued to glare at Elena, who actually looked afraid of me.

“She was starin’ at your makou eyes,” Reno hissed.  “They started glowin’ like … well, like makou eyes.”

“M-makou eyes?!”  I rubbed at my eyes, as if to wipe away the evidence of Hojo’s experiments.

”They stopped,” Rude said in his usual laconic fashion.  “What happened?”

I rubbed my temples, my head still ringing from the mental onslaught.  “I really don’t know.  But I think something big is happening, guys.”  We all looked out of a nearby window at the Meteor as it tore through Midgar, but I struggled to stand and get outside.  Something was giving me a bad case of goosebumps.

“I think this is it,” I said quietly as Reno and the others came up to stand beside me.   Before our eyes, a wide beam of the purest white light came from the north and shot toward the Meteor.  We all flinched away from it, and when we looked again, we could see the beam trying to push the Meteor away from the surface of the planet.  The ensuing pressures, however, leveled Midgar, and it looked as if the white beam was going to fail.  I shivered, thinking of the crater that the impact of the Meteor would leave, but then I saw something coming out of the ground.

“What’s that?” Elena asked, sounding as scared as I felt.  Greenish ribbons of energy wafted out of the earth, streaming towards the Meteor.  They joined a large flow of the green, like tributaries of a river, as it flowed along in the air.

“Makou?” Reno guessed.

I shook my head.  “Lifestream.  The planet is fighting back.”

We watched the river of energy flow to Midgar, wondering if it would be enough.  Then, suddenly, there was an incredibly bright flash.  We all looked away, but in the next few heartbeats, we knew the white magic and the Lifestream had been successful.  The Meteor was gone, taking with it the corruption that was the upper city of Midgar.

Poor Mara.  She doesn't get paid enough to put up with this shit. =D

Okay, so I was kidding about the Super Saiyajin thing.  Alex, my dear reviewer-guinea pig, pointed it out; I hadn't thought about it when I was writing it.  I just felt that there should be some physical manifestation of what was happening in her mind, and hair's pretty innocuous, isn't it?  It reflects the fact that the experiments hadn't had much of an effect on her at all.  I can hear Hojo now:  "Her hair moves?  This is the best I can do?" *frustrated sigh*

Next episode:  It's story time!  The Turks have a guest?  Mara takes a vacation!

Chapter 3