A/N: I know some of you have played the Remake. Just FYI, Reeve's work area in this story is NOT like what's in the Remake. You could think of this as what it may have been in the CC era.

xXx

All cadets had a morning workout and then rotating chores to do before class started each day. Morning workouts tended to be simple but intense, involving activities like running several laps, push-ups and sit-ups, which led to very tired bodies when doing chores like minor groundskeeping, some janitorial stuff, and non-classified data entry (which Cloud thought somewhat silly, as tired people tended to make more mistakes). Today, he was delivering files from one ShinRa department to another.

Cloud tended to do these chores in a sort of half-daze that barely had him avoiding running into people. He blamed that state of mind entirely when he plowed head-long into the six-foot SOLDIER that morning.

"Sorry," he muttered.

The figure turned around. "It's no… oh, my gosh, it's you! Oh, you're tiny! And adorable! With that spikey chocobo hair… wow, it really does look like a chocobo!"

The blond blinked and looked up at a face he'd never seen before grinning down at him, surrounded by dark spikes. It looked far too bright this early in the morning. Did this person eat sunshine or something?

All his brain could come up with to say at that point was: "Huh?"

The man blinked and then broke into something half-way between a giggle and a chuckle. Then he opened his mouth, but before he could say anything another voice broke in.

"Zack! There you are. We need to get going if we're going to be on time to that meetin—"An even larger man with a giant sword on his back (who did look familiar, but Cloud's mind still didn't want to work and tell him who said man was) walked up behind the first SOLDIER, but cut off when he saw the blond.

"Angeal! Look who I found!"

Wait… Angeal? As in Angeal Hewley? As in First Class Angeal Hewley? That meant the SOLDIER Third was his trainee, Zack Fair. Who seemed… happy to see him?

What?

This… had to be a dream. Yeah. That made a lot more sense right now than him actually running into two SOLDIERS this early in the morning who seemed to know him. He was sleep-walking. Or something.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Cadet Strife," the newcomer said in a surprisingly soft voice.

Cloud blinked again. "Yes, sir." He saluted, because, even if it was a dream, it was still the right thing to do.

He really should wake up.

"At ease," The man said with a smile. And maybe a hint of laughter? Cloud didn't dare follow that… suggestion? He really hoped it was a suggestion. "Well, Zack, we need to leave. Say goodbye to your new friend."

"But Angeal, we just met him! Come on! He's-"

"Zack…" the larger's warning voice broke in.

An exaggerated sigh. "Fine." Then he turned back to Cloud. "I'll see you later–oh! If you ever need anything ever," the maybe-a-hallucination produced a scrap of paper and scribbled on it then shoved it into the free hand Cloud was still saluting with. "Call or text. Okay, Spiky? Bye!"

Cloud blinked. "Spiky?"

But the other didn't seem to hear him, running off after the supposed First Class…

Cloud just stood there staring after them thinking that he really needed to get more sleep if he was hallucinating this badly…

"Did… that just happen?" he asked himself.

An elderly secretary passing in the opposite direction looked over at him, amused. "Yes. And you can put your arm down."

Cloud blinked at her, then lowered the hand from the salute to pinch his arm. It hurt. And the slip of paper was real. And it had a phone number.

His eyes widened and he looked back down the hall as the two turned a corner. "Ehhhh?!"

The secretary chuckled from where she paused at the other corner of the hall, and called back. "Yeah, that's a common reaction to Zack Fair, especially this early in the morning."

xXx

"Better?" Angeal asked once they'd passed out of sight and hearing of the tiny blond. Because, even if the bleary-eyed cadet had missed it, Angeal had seen the repressed trepidation in Zack's demeanor.

"I'm good," the boy replied, smiling.

It was a good facade, but he couldn't fool Angeal, who easily picked up on the lingering hint of his student's (slightly) less-than-usual energy. He doubted anyone else but the boy's parents would notice.

"Yeah," Zack nodded firmly to his mentor's questioning look, then repeated, "I'm good." His voice had gained a protective determination that Angeal couldn't help but be proud of.

"Alright." The First didn't push him, but he would keep a closer-than-usual eye on his mentee for a while.

"So, what are our reasons for coming here again?" Zack very obviously plowed on as he followed his mentor onto the Urban Development floor. It sounded emptier than the other floors and Angeal could see lights at the end of some of the hallways hadn't been turned on, likely unused. He'd heard the department's budget had been cut recently… again, but was it really that bad?

The First-Class didn't sigh, but when he answered, he couldn't help but sound a bit tired. He didn't entirely blame the Third's usual lack of focus this time; it had been late last night when he'd asked. He suspected the younger man knew the reason, and was actually asking about their cover. "To get schematics of any reactors within a week's drive of Rocket Town for our scouting and reconnaissance mission."

"But you really just want to meet him," Zack finished, proving he'd only been confused about some details. "Because he did some… uncool things in the game, right?"

The older SOLDIER chuckled, amused that that had been what the boy remembered. "Something like that. Genesis lent me his jammer, so I'll try to give you more details later this morning."

"Okay. What'll we do if he really is a jerk like Hojo, though?" the SOLDIER Third asked, more subdued.

Angeal's stride slowed and then halted as he contemplated that. Zack matched his pace, coming to a stop right behind him and watching his mentor worriedly.

"I don't know, Pup."

The Third didn't seem to know what to say to that, and so, after several seconds of silence, Angeal walked on.

xXx

They found Reeve Tuesti's office behind the first door on the left on the hallway across the rather large room from the elevator. Zack glanced around a small reception room that looked like it hadn't been updated in years (which didn't make sense, because the tower wasn't that old to begin with, so maybe it'd just been styled that way?) sat just inside the door. Brown chairs that looked well worn lined the short walls and the beige, shag carpet obviously hadn't been replaced in years. Hadn't the entire building been remodeled recently? Had someone missed the memo for this floor? Was this where all the old stuff from the remodel ended up?

A middle-aged woman with her hair in a bun sat behind a small desk in the corner that took up a good quarter of the room. She looked up in surprise when they walked in.

"Good morning?" she said unsurely. "This is the Urban Development department."

Angeal, who had also been surprised at their reception if Zack had read his body language right, recovered quickly.

"Yes. We're here to see Reeve Tuesti?"

The woman blinked, then turned to the old desktop computer (the yellowing plastic a harsh contrast to the white papers in the in/out trays) and hit a few keystrokes. "Oh, yes. You're right here. Of course." She stood and walked over to the door near her desk. "Let me just let him know you're here."

They didn't even have an intercom? Or maybe it was broken? Couldn't they just use their phones?

She rapped on the door with three staccato knocks, then opened it and peeked inside. "Director Tuesti, your appointment is here to see you."

"If it's Hojo again, you can tell him no," a man responded, voice raised, words enunciated, and clear enough to be picked up by even an unenhanced if they were listening. Intentionally so by the tone. "I don't care how many fund cuts, or what 'clever budgeting' he suggests for the President that results in handing me lemons to work with, I'm not going to design anything for those kinds of experiments! They're inhuman at best! And—"

"Director Tuesti," the woman – likely the secretary – cut him off, sounding a little nervous. "It isn't Professor Hojo. It's your eight o' clock with Commander Hewley, sir."

A long pause. "Oh. But…" Another pause, and then a clearing of his throat. Then his voice dropped to a more normal volume. "Right. Of course. Sorry for snapping at you, Megan. I must have lost track of time again." Wait… how long had he been working already? "Show them in…"

The woman shook her head and sighed. Then she turned around and smiled at the guests. It was a little forced.

"Right this way. And… please excuse the mess."

They stepped past her and into a fairly large office with a similar color scheme and age as the room outside. The first thing Zack noticed were the piles of… stuff around the office. In corners, on chairs, on boxes, on the counter that lined one side of the room and especially on his desk.

This skipped right past disorganized and went well into chaos territory in his opinion. There were so many different things. He could see schematics, piles of paper, small objects of all kinds and… Zack's eyes widened as he saw, in one corner of the counter, a half-completed robot cat with a crown on its head.

Oh.

"Hello," the man who had spoken earlier stood from behind his desk and came around it, holding his hand out to shake. He had a warm smile on his face and looked younger than Zack had expected. "Forgive me for that. I'm Reeve Tuesti. What can I do for you today?"

Angeal nodded and took the hand, shaking it firmly. "I'm Angeal Hewley and this is Zachary Fair," he introduced.

"Zack," the SOLDIER Third said automatically.

His mentor just smirked down at him, the traitor. If people started calling him Zachary – or worse, Puppy like in the game – he'd find a way to get back at the man.

Still, despite wanting to protest, when he met Angeal's eyes, he pointedly looked over towards the corner and back instead. The larger man followed his gaze and his eyebrows rose for a moment before he turned his attention back to Director Tuesti.

Zack took that moment to study the man. He looked to be in his late 20's or so, dressed smartly in a business suit. He had longish hair swept back from his face and a gotee beard.

(The Third would put money on him not having been wearing that jacket before they'd come in, though. He had no proof, but it just seemed like something the man in front of them would do.)

"Sorry to barge in on you," Angeal said with a smile of his own, despite them having had an appointment. "We're going to be heading out to the site of the Rocket Build for reconnaissance. It's so close to Wutai and some of the scientists there are worried.

"I don't know if you know my reputation, but I tend to be… thorough in my duties and when someone brought up the idea that any sightings may have been a distraction while spies looked at some of the local reactors, I thought it might be a good idea to check all of them as well."

Tuesti nodded along in all the right places, attention fully on Angeal. That… seemed a little unusual. Zack had never met any of the directors in person, but they had pretty well-known reputations (that his game hadn't refuted), and he'd seen them all interact at one point or another from afar (except for the Director, and that was strange, now that he thought about it).

Hollander always had this annoying superiority, like he was too good for whoever was speaking to him. Scarlett and Hojo were always so distracted whenever someone came to them – like whoever it was wasn't worth their time. President ShinRa would either stare stonily or smile indulgently, depending on who had come to him… and why. Lazard, from what little he'd seen of the young director, always seemed so… cynical. He paid attention, but Zack felt as if the man's gaze constantly asked, 'Why are you even bothering?' Something the game had also supported. And Veld… well, the less attention anyone drew from Turks, the better.

Maybe that wasn't a fair assessment though.

However, Tuesti seemed warm and open and pretty much on the up-and-up if what they'd heard when they came in was anything to go by.

"It's not barging in when you have an appointment, and it's my own fault for losing track of time when I know I have one. And I do have copies of all the reactors schematics in that area," Tuesti finally said, drawing Zack out of his observations. The man stood and walked over to a large file cabinet, took some keys out of his pocket and unlocked it before opening the third drawer down. It didn't squeak, like Zack had half-expected, but it did look like the drawer jammed a bit about halfway out. The director didn't seem to mind. He rifled through the folders Zack could see inside as the man spoke absently.

"Some of the reactors over there were built long before I came on board to the project. Before I came into the company even." He looked up and over at them, grinning. "Before I was even in elementary school in one case. My designs upgraded the reactors in Midgar, making them more efficient and easier to build, but I was certainly not the mastermind behind the idea to begin with."

He withdrew a very thick folder and brought it over to the table, laying it open across whatever he'd been working on before (that had looked like a lot of math… Zack shuddered) to reveal multiple folders inside. He opened each one and examined them before handing one of the copies of the blueprints they held over to Angeal. Angeal examined them a bit as he was handed them, but mostly to sort them.

Zack took the opportunity to look around the room a bit more, including the workbench and found the crowned cat maybe more complete than he'd first guessed. Maybe. He didn't exactly know much of anything about programming, and that probably held more importance to the robot's level of completion.

Eventually, the SOLDIER First had a small stack of papers in his hand.

"It doesn't look like there's much up there. Some of those aren't within a week's walk of the Rocket Launch Site, but I understand wanting to be thorough."

Angeal looked up from the papers and studied Tuesti for several seconds.

The man seemed a little taken aback by the SOLDIER's heavy stare, but in response, he merely closed the folder and took it back over to the filing cabinet.

"Is there anything else I can do for you today?" he asked, shutting and locking the drawer again before turning back to his guests with a smile.

"What's that over there?" Zack asked, pointing towards the robot in the corner.

"Zack," Angeal said, sounding exasperated.

"What? It's cute."

Tuesti turned and spotted the robot before looking back at them with a wistful, almost bittersweet smile on his lips. "It's just a side project. One I doubt will ever really be done, but everyone has their hobbies, I suppose."

"Oh," Zack said. "Well, I hope you can get it done soon!"

It took him a moment to realize that Angeal was staring at him with a 'we'll talk later' stare.

What? They were there to gather information, right?

"Thank you, Mr. Fair," Tuesti said with a soft smile.

"'Zack' is fine," Zack grinned widely at him. He was definitely leaning towards liking this guy. "If it's alright, I do have one question that came up yesterday when I was hanging out with some people. Why is the Junon reactor underwater?"

Tuesti looked amused by Zack's enthusiasm. "I'm... not sure. The Junon reactor isn't one of mine. If I had to guess, though, a combination of three main factors: the president's general unpredictable whims; feasibility trials based on rumor of his midgar/neo midgar project; and even a bit of the previous director seeing an interesting challenge and wanting to see if it could be done."

"Huh. How was it built?"

"Ah," The Director chuckled. "Most of the answer to that is tied up in years of engineering and physics schooling, but the short-simple answer involves dewatering: temporarily moving the water out of the way."

"Whoa~!" Zack looked awed. "You moved the water?"

"Zack, we do have a mission we need to prepare for." Angeal reminded his student with a smile and a slight sigh. He shook his head and tucked the small stack of papers under his arm before turning with a bright smile to Tuesti and holding out his hand. "Thank you for the blueprints. These will be immensely helpful."

Tuesti shook Angeal's hand. He seemed far more relaxed than when they'd first entered the office. "No problem. Happy to be of help."

"We'll get out of your hair now," the SOLDIER said as he turned to leave.

Zack went to follow him, but before he did, another something caught his eye… a patch of bright red that had been uncovered when Tuesti picked up a small stack of papers from his desk. But this something was far, far more concerning. "Angeal!" he hissed.

His mentor looked back at him, frowning both in concern and probably censure, but Zack didn't care at the moment. He knew he wasn't being subtle as he jerked his head back towards Tuesti several times.

"On the desk," he whispered, lowly enough that only a SOLDIER would hear it.

Angeal's frown deepened but he looked back at the desk and at Tuesti, who had looked up from his handful of papers to them at Zack's harsh whisper.

"Is there something wrong, Gentlemen?" he asked, puzzlement clear in his tone.

That was when the larger SOLDIER saw it, Zack could tell. His frown melted into a look of wide-eyed surprise and worry.

"Sorry, it's just… this," Angeal said, taking a stride back over and poking at the object in question. It was a video game case reading: Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus. It had a picture of a pale-skinned man on the front, with long, black hair and a red collar covering the bottom of his mouth as fire burned in the background.

That was most definitely Vincent.

"Oh, yes," Tuesti said, his concern fading into a thoughtful frown. "I received that a day or two ago in the mail. I don't know why anyone would send me anything like that, though," he said, then laughed self-deprecatingly. "I really don't have the time to play it."

Angeal and Zack exchanged glances.

"Would you mind if we took it?" Angeal asked.

"Yeah, I love video games!" Zack chimed in hoping he didn't sound too fake.

Tuesti frowned and looked down at it. "I don't know. The note that came with it begged me to play it first and take notes… I just don't know when I'll be able to."

His game came with a note? Zack looked worriedly up at Angeal, silently asking what they should do. Should they just take it? Or should they persuade him to play it? He must have gotten it for a reason…

"Is there a problem with it?" Tuesti asked cautiously.

Yes. Yes there was. There most definitely was.

"Wait," the businessman said suddenly, his expression one of realization, "were you the people the note mentioned? Whom it would be a good idea to play with?" He sounded both hopeful and skeptical.

This time Zack couldn't withhold his panic at the man's words. What were they supposed to do now? General Sephiroth had basically ordered them to not say anything! Sure, he hadn't used those exact words… But now there was another one! They were multiplying! And the four of them had been mentioned!

"Do you still have the note? Could we see it?" Angeal asked, face set in that determined expression he tended to get when he was worried but focused.

"Yes, of course. I have it right…" Tuesti set down the papers he held on his chair and began to search through the piles on his desk. And then the immediate piles around it. After shuffling through two more stacks on the workbench counter, he let out a small 'oh', then sighed, a tinge of embarrassment showing on his face. "Right, I forgot. I spilled a drink on the stack I put it in. I think my secretary is still sorting through what's salvageable and what needs to be reprinted. I'm sorry that I don't have it right now after all. I guess all we can do is hope it's still readable once it's found."

Zack couldn't help but be a little dejected. He'd been so curious. Angeal looked resigned and a little frustrated too.

The larger SOLDIER finally nodded and let out a long sigh of his own. "Any information we have on the situation is… sensitive. I shouldn't say anything without specific permission from the parties involved, and I doubt we could explain everything relevant in the time we have anyway. However," Angeal paused, considering his words carefully, "I… believe we can, and should, make another appointment to discuss this further. Soon. That game," the SOLDIER said, nodding to the case, "is more important than you realize."

The older man blinked at them, then looked down at the game, then back up again. "How? It's just a video game."

"Yeah, that's what we thought," Zack muttered, trying not to remember fighting against an entire battalion (or more) of infantry.

Angeal shot a glare at Zack, but he must have noticed something on his student's face because his expression immediately softened and he sighed. Then he looked back at the Urban Development Head. "Let me speak with my colleagues and we will arrange a time for one of us to play this game with you. We will… explain then."

It was Tuesti's turn to study them for several seconds, and then he turned his expression back to the game on the desk.

"Yeah…" he finally said with a nod. "I'll… keep in touch."

"Please do," Angeal said with a sigh. "My apologies for worrying you, and I'm sorry I can't elaborate right now. It was a pleasure to meet you, Director Tuesti."

"Yeah," the man said, sounding distracted. He absently reached into his pocket and pulled out a small greeting card case. Then he looked up and offered them a simple business card, with his personal email and PHS number. He wasn't smiling, but he didn't sound insincere when he said, "Me too. I'll look forward to hearing from you."

It wasn't a threat, just a sincere FYI. Even Zack could tell that.

With that, Angeal nodded and accepted the card.

"Have a good day." He offered his hand.

"You too," Tuesti replied cordially, taking the offered appendage and shaking it firmly.

Then he offered the same to Zack, which stacked more points in his favor, since he was usually ignored by the other higher ups. Hence why he hadn't 'officially' met them. Pleasantly surprised, the Third accepted the proffered hand as firmly as his mentor had.

With that, Angeal turned and exited the room, Zack following behind him worriedly.

xXx

Cloud… didn't know what to make of this.

Yet another infantry man had come into yet another one of his classes with yet another note excusing him from said class. For the second time in a week. The first time, he'd been sent to see General Sephiroth for an interview that was due to some top-secret investigation. Odd, but understandable in hind-sight, even though what it had shifted into was decidedly odder...

Now, though, he had no idea why he'd been called out. To be fair, he hadn't known the other time either, but still. This was just… weird.

Cloud repressed a sigh as he nodded at the infantry man, still wearing his helmet, and followed the man outside. There, he just handed the blond a note and waited. Cloud, unsure of what else to do, read said note and then felt his face pale. He had an emergency call from Nibelheim.

Had something happened to his mother?! Like what? Oh, Fenrir…

He pushed down his panic as best he could and looked up at the infantry man.

"Where do I go?" he asked.

"Follow me," the infantry man said, then turned and stalked down the hall. One very tense elevator ride to a floor he didn't even register later, Cloud followed the man into a large room. ShinRa's communications room, apparently. He was taken over to a booth that wasn't entirely private, but it did have its own separate space and a metal stool at least.

The infantry man gestured to one of said areas. "Hang up when you're finished and you can find your way back to your class. Speak to your Unit Captain if you need to make arrangements."

Cloud nodded. "Yessir," he said, hating how shaky his voice sounded. "Thank you, sir," he added on.

The man in the helmet nodded, turned and left.

The blond swallowed, looked at the phone receiver and took a deep breath. Then he picked it up and put it to his ear. "Hello?"

"Cloud?" The voice that came across the phone line with an undertone of static wasn't any he'd really been expecting.

"Tifa?"

A pause, then, "Yeah. It's me."

The blond swallowed. "Is something wrong? What about my mom? Is she okay?"

"She's fine, Cloud. I… I'm sorry, I… sort of… um… lied?" He blinked. She… what? "I'm sorry! I just didn't know how else to get a hold of you! I waited until it would be day where you are, at least, but I don't know your schedule because you never write to me and I had to tell you this so I told them it was an emergency and I really hope I didn't make things hard for you because I know we aren't super close but I really had to tell you something and it freaked me out so much, you have no idea—"

"Tifa!" the blond interrupted, feeling somewhere between relieved, annoyed, frustrated, and still very worried because this wasn't like her. At least not from what he remembered. When he didn't hear anything but heavy, shaky breathing on the other side, he put his fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Take a deep breath, okay?"

"Okay," she said weakly, then breathed in and out deliberately and consistently. It struck him that she probably practiced breathing like that a lot. Was that part of her training with Master Zangan? Probably. She breathed a couple more times before her voice came back, sounding far calmer. "Sorry, Cloud."

He didn't say it was okay, he wasn't entirely sure if it was, yet. But he also didn't want to offend her or freak her out more.

"I know how hard it is to stop yourself from panicking," he muttered truthfully, but then shook his head. The static fluctuated for a bit before settling back into its low hum.

"Yeah," she said in a similar tone.

"So," he decided to take charge and sat straight despite the fact that she couldn't see him. "Why did you call me?"

"Well… Cloud… Um… I got these books… Well, they were really a bunch of small books arranged into one larger book, but… Cloud… it was about me."

Cloud… wasn't quite sure what to make of that.

"Um… congrats?" he said, unsurely.

"About me from the future," she said, not sounding happy or pleased at all. "And you were in them too!"

That did take him aback. "Um… what?"

"I doubted it at first, and thought it was just a case of the characters weirdly having the same names, but there were too many little things that were right even though we were so different. We were… um…" she paused and coughed, "living together, and we started a bar and you had a delivery service and a motor bike but… Cloud, it wasn't right! We'd lost a friend – someone I don't think I've ever met before – and you felt guilty about it and I felt guilty about it and then the book was talking about something called 'Meteor' destroying Midgar! And then the Lifestream was called on to stop it from destroying the planet altogether! But because of something called Jenova, there was this thing called Geostigma. A disease that turned people's skin black and killed them because they thought – at some point in their life – that they would die or they were depressed! It was awful, Cloud!"

Wait… Lost a friend? What did she mean by that? And Midgar destroyed? Lifestream? Did the Lifestream really exist? And Meteor? Just… what was going on?!

But the word Jenova sparked a memory. He recalled General Sephiroth saying something about that – it being one of the words that Cloud had been asked if he knew anything about. He wasn't sure exactly what it meant that Tifa – and these books she spoke of – seemed to know more about it.

"Are you… sure it's not just a prank?" he finally asked slowly (but also respectfully, because he didn't want her to panic again or lash out), really hoping he was right.

"That's what I thought at first, but then it went into other people I've never even heard of before! A sapient animal named Nanaki and this big guy named Barrett and the princess of Wutai!" More names from the General's list. "The Vice President of the ShinRa company but he was the president… and it was like they were all separate people, not written by just one person! If this is a prank, it's… it's really well done. And absolutely not funny. I don't know anyone who would do something like this! Let alone why! Or with this much effort!"

This… really had her freaked out. Any annoyance Cloud felt at being pulled out of class melted away completely and he focused on calming down his… friend? Acquaintance? (Crush?)

"I don't want to believe it, but I don't dare to not believe it. I don't know what to do." Came a whisper that was nothing like the strong girl he'd watched growing up. That, almost more than anything she'd said so far (and even more than that she'd called him, and lied to get to talk to him), impressed on him just how much she felt out of her depth.

"Okay, Tifa. Calm down. I… um… I don't exactly know what to do either, but I think I can actually take this to someone I trust. I may even be able to ask General Sephiroth—"

NO!" Her sudden shriek had him jumping back and jolting the phone away from his ear. He stared at it for a couple of seconds before slowly bringing it back in time to hear her nearly beg him not to. "Don't. Please, don't."

"Tifa?" he asked slowly.

"He was part of the problem! He… he'd died! Somehow, you killed him – twice, although I don't get that – and he hurt you so bad that your memory of him kept bringing him back from the dead! He was with Jenova and wanted to destroy everyone on the planet!"

Cloud didn't know what to make of that either (and he was beginning to get very frustrated with that feeling). He wanted to protest because General Sephiroth had been, well, colder than he'd imagined, more standoffish, but he'd also been encouraging and knowledgeable and thoughtful… and he'd believed in Cloud. Why, the blond didn't know, but it had literally been a dream come true! He desperately wanted to defend that dream…

But he could practically hear the large, fat tears rolling down Tifa's cheeks as she sobbed on the other end. Tifa who had only ever cried when her mother had died and not a drop since. Tifa who had always seemed so utterly strong and put-together. Tifa, whose spine of steel he'd always admired, because she never let anyone push her around. Pretty, intelligent, strong Tifa… who now seemed as if she were falling apart…

Because of a book.

No, he couldn't bring himself to push her any further. So he withheld a sigh and thought through the other authority figures in his life. His various commanding and senior officers weren't… well, they didn't seem to like him much. His teachers had been indifferent at best. Only Sephiroth and… wait…

"Um, I met a guy named Zack, and he was super friendly and nice. He gave me his number, said I could come to him for anything," he finally said, starting slowly and gaining momentum as he went on, talking rather quickly at the end. She didn't have to know that meeting the guy had literally been that morning while he'd stumbled around the building in a workout-induced haze… and for all of maybe thirty seconds. "He's a SOLDIER Third… I could take this to him… maybe?"

A shuddering breath, and then a tentative, "Zack… Fair? I think he was mentioned in the book. I think he was your friend."

"Yeah, Zack Fair." He felt a shiver go up his spine. It was possible she'd known that, but… it wasn't easy to get information all the way out there in Nibelheim. And how would books she'd read days ago know he'd meet the SOLDIER Third only a few hours ago? Okay, now he was beginning to see why this book thing had gotten to her so badly. And they were only teens, what did anyone expect them to do about this? He was fourteen. She was younger than him!

"Okay. T-take this to him," Tifa finally said softly. "See what he says because… Cloud… we have to stop this future from happening. So many people die… I think all of Nibelheim was dead, but it was confusing…"

They sat in an awkward silence for several seconds before Cloud cleared his throat.

"So… um… how is Nibelheim, um… right now?" May as well catch up, right?

"Oh, we're good, I suppose. My father finally gave me his blessing to train with Master Zangan, so I told him I'd been training already."

Cloud felt a smile come to his lips (ha! He knew she had training, she'd just never actually admitted it aloud before). "Finally wore him down, huh?"

A shaky laugh but it sounded closer to what he remembered. "He never stood a chance. It was a bit messy for a while there, but things have calmed down about it now."

More awkward silence, then Cloud sighed. "Look, I… have to get back to class, but I'll definitely talk to Zack, maybe today even. You're calling from the inn, right?" The only reliable phone he remembered about in town, though there was supposedly one up at the reactor and there were rumors of a line in the ShinRa mansion. Cloud wouldn't put it past her to try one of those, so as to be sure the conversation was as private on her end as possible.

"Oh! No! I'm actually calling from my home! My dad just got a phone installed last year, right after you left. He's… um… probably going to kill me for the charge on this, but I had to warn you. And get help. You're the only one I could turn to."

He felt a warmth bubble in his chest at her thoughtfulness and faith in him. "Thank you, Tifa," he said, sincerely.

"What are friends for?" she asked brightly.

He chuckled, grinning like a fool because she said they were friends! "So… can I get that number?"

"Oh! Right! Let me double check, I don't have it memorized yet."

He wrote the number she gave on the palm of his hand with a pen he'd taken from his book bag. That way he wouldn't lose it. "Okay, I'll talk to Zack and let you know what's happening. I don't know how soon though. Is there a good time to call?"

"Good thought. I'd rather not have my dad listening in. He's almost always out after supper for about an hour.

"After supper, got it." He'd have to convert it from Nibelheim time, but that wouldn't be too difficult. "And I'll see if I can cover the cost on this end, I think that's possible. Until then, train hard, okay, Tifa?"

"Okay. Thanks, Cloud. You, too. "

"I've got to go, so I'll talk to you later?"

"Yeah," she said, voice softer and far more relieved. Then, before he could hang up, she spoke up one more time. "Cloud?"

"Yeah?"

"Please be careful of General Sephiroth. I know you look up to him, that you have for a long time, but… there's something wrong with him. I mean really, really wrong."

Cloud felt that defensiveness rise within him, but he also appreciated that Tifa wanted to look out for him, so he decided to humor her.

"I will," he said. "Thanks again, Tifa."

"You're welcome, Cloud. And thank you again! Bye!"

And she hung up. Cloud just looked down at the phone in his hands for several seconds before he sighed and hung his end up. He sat there, going over the conversation for a little while before he realized he needed to get back to class, and figure out what to say was an emergency enough for such a long distance call that wouldn't need him to make arrangements. Plus, someone else might need the phone. Standing up, he put his bag over his shoulder and started to go through what he'd say to Zack later today. He stepped out of the little enclosed area that wasn't quite a booth, mind so distracted that he didn't see the two figures standing there… and ran right into them.

"Oh! Sorry!" he said immediately.

"Hey, hey, hey!" a tenor voice had him looking up… and paling again because he'd just run into two Turks. Oh, this was not good. "You know, you should watch where you're goin'," the red-head said with a smile that was entirely too sharp to be welcoming… or forgiving.

"Y-yeah. I didn't mean to," Cloud stuttered.

"Eh, it's fine," the red-head said again, although his tone (and smile) hadn't changed. His fellow Turk, a bald man with sunglasses, just looked on, stoically. "But how about we ask you a couple of questions, eh?"

"Um… sure?" He couldn't exactly say no…

"So how about let's start with a couple of things. Your name is Cloud Strife, right? Cadet? Fourteen? From Nibelheim?"

He felt his face pale more because if they knew that much, this wasn't a coincidental meeting.

"Um… yes?" he couldn't help that it came out as more of a question than anything.

"Great! Now, tell me: Have you unlocked your first limit break yet?"

Cloud blinked. That… had not been what he'd been expecting.

"Um… what?"

xXx

AN: Thanks again to Quathis and Imagination7413 for their help on this! A lot of help...

Discord: discord. gg/xDDz3gqWfy (no spaces)