The plot is beginning to rear its ugly head; abandon hope all ye who enter here. Also, I am not being hyperbolic when I say that every single hyphen in this chapter was put in there by my beta. Evidently, I have a hyphen aversion. Love to the Eva for putting up with it!

I never thank my reviewers enough, it seems, so here's a general burst of love and affection for everyone who takes the time to write nice things (and concrit, which I live off of). You make the fanfic world go round, you do!

Koni

•••

Wandering into the Training Center to watch strange people decimate the 'local wildlife' was becoming something of an unhealthy habit for Seifer. What could he say? The outsiders seemed to be drawn toward the place, just as SeeDs were. In truth, Seifer didn't really like it, the smell was all wrong and everything reminded him of monsters and death and things he wasn't allowed to have; it was, unfortunately, the last place Leonhart would think to look for him, and thus the only place he could get some privacy. Unless, of course, he did some dip-shit thing like provoke Cloud Strife and ended up on the wrong end of what seemed to be a hair-trigger temper.

Seifer held no illusions as to the levels of stupidity he could sometimes aspire to – he just held that knowledge away from other people. So what if in his head he was yelling things like 'oh holy fuck we're all going to die', as long as other people thought he was calm, collected, and utterly arrogant. And most of the time he was, really; there was just something mildly disconcerting about glowing eyes and small frames with way too much speed and strength. Something that triggered a deep, instinctual response that consisted mainly of the urge to flee shrilling in his brain.

Then again, Seifer's 'maybe we should back away slowly' senses had always been a little addled. Case in point: evil sorceress.

In any case, it wasn't Strife cutting a swath through the Training Center today, it was Tifa, and Tifa had wormed her way into Seifer's higher estimation, which granted her some measure of worry over the fact that she was really, really pissed. Pissed in the apocalyptic way that Seifer was sure had the grats convinced, in their tiny little monster brains, that some god was kind of ticked at them. He wanted to approach her, honestly, to say something to calm her down, but he just didn't know…how.

Seifer was well acquainted with very few easily angered women, and standard operating procedure with Fuu was 'duck and cover' – her idea of accepting comfort ran along the lines of not biting his head off for hugging her. Not that he got the inclination to hug her, much. Hugging just wasn't his style, more something for the screechy yellow one or Chicken Wuss, what with all that touchy feely crap.

It occurred to Seifer that he really was a teenage male.

He didn't have long to contemplate his seemingly instinctual shortcomings before it become extremely evident that Tifa needed help. No shame in that, as most anyone would have needed help against the damn rexes popping out of the bushes like fucking jack in the boxes with teeth the length of your forearm. Fortunately, the things had something of a built in safety net, or else they'd go through SeeD cadets faster than Zell could wet himself.

"Don't freeze," he called to her, keeping his voice low enough that the pitch didn't draw the rex's attention to him. She tensed a little in surprise, but listened to his advice, following through with her natural motion and swinging the forward movement into a backward one. "Keep your arms at your side and go slow. If you've got an ice spell junctioned, get it ready to cast just in case."

The great thing about rexes was that they were just plain dumb. If you didn't present a natural threat to their 'territory' by drawing weapon or holding your ground, and if you didn't show yourself prey by fleeing outright, they just lost interest and wandered away. This one kept its eyes trained on Tifa for a minute longer as she backed slowly toward the security gate, then sniffed in complete indifference and turned to walk away.

Seifer smiled – smirked, actually, since that had become his default expression - at her as she passed through the security gate and he shut it behind her. "You don't want to fight one of those."

She glared at him, and the expression looked odd on her features. "You don't think I can?"

He snorted. "I don't think anyone can," he told her, "not alone and not if they're not your psychotic boyfriend. Rexes are tough shit."

"Cloud's not my boyfriend," she said, eyes flashing.

"Oh." Oh. "Is that why you're on a homicidal rampage?"

"I'm not mad." She thought about this for a moment, and then corrected herself, "I shouldn't be mad."

"What happened?"

He found himself caring and that was just a little alarming.

"It's…" Tifa sighed. "Very strange."

"He's gay, isn't he?"

She stared at him for a long moment, expression caught somewhere between tears and anger…then burst out laughing. It bubbled up desperately from her as she put out a hand to cling to Seifer's shoulder, seeking support. He put a hand on the small of her back, blinking and wondering why it had been that hilarious. Finally, she wiped her eyes with her free hand, though he wasn't sure if the tears were those of joy and the hiccups the aftereffects of the laughter.

"I don't even know," she admitted. "I guess being in love with Sephiroth makes him at least a little bit?"

"In love with…" He let that sink in. "Like, as in sex with? That's fucked up…but I empathize."

"Empathize?" She looked up at him, eyebrows raised in disbelief. "You didn't – with the sorceress?"

"No. But I kind of wanted to." He thought of something that might make her laugh, self-deprecating as it was. A minute ago he had decided that he liked the sound of Tifa's laughter. "I'm eighteen, she had boobs."

It did, in fact, set her off again.

Seifer smiled.

•••

It was too early to be awake, really, but Cloud was too jittery to sleep and needed someone to talk to. Tifa wasn't in her room, but if he was honest with himself he hadn't really been looking for her, anyway. If he gave her any time to think about what he would ask of them, any indication of what his plans actually were, she'd probably come to her senses. Emotions did lead Tifa a long way, but eventually her higher thinking kicked in. Vincent was the one he needed to find, needed to convince to support him in this. If he had Vincent (and usually by extension, Cid) backing him up, maybe he'd look a little less psychotic.

Didn't you decide you don't care what a bunch of teenagers think? Zack asked, sounding tired himself - as if the voices in one's head had any right to fatigue.

"Those teenagers," Cloud muttered sourly, "have the resources I need to do this."

Vincent was usually up by this time; he slept very little and even that was at the insistence of others. Cloud wasn't sure if he didn't need it because of the Mako enhancements or if it was just carry-over training from the Turks; Reno and Rude had once stayed awake for thirty-six hours helping Cloud clear out a particularly infested part of Midgar, but they'd promptly passed out on each other once in a helicopter. In any case, it wouldn't do any good to go knocking at dorm rooms and pissing off Cid.

Following Vincent's usual habits (the few of them that there were), he'd be in a place that was open and close to the outdoors, but not vulnerable or prone to student inhabitation. By process of elimination, that would be the second floor balcony. It had become a favorite smoking spot for Cid and a place for Vincent to shake off any lingering claustrophobia. When Cloud pushed the door open, Vincent was there as predicted, perched on the railing in a crouch that would have sent anyone else tumbling to their death.

"You should be sleeping," Vincent murmured softly, knowing it would reach Cloud's ears.

Cloud leaned forward, resting his elbows on the railing and his chin on his palms. "I don't need to."

"It's good for your mind. You should."

"That's the pot calling the kettle black, you know," Cloud told him.

Vincent smiled wryly. "Dreams are no longer the refuge they once were."

If Cloud set Vincent to brooding, Cid was going to kill him.

"Can I talk to you?" Cloud asked.

"You are talking to me."

Vincent's sense of humor chose the most inconvenient times to flare up. Cloud sighed and shut his eyes, blocking out the glare of the rising sun on the gentle ocean water.

"Can I talk to you about something serious?" He corrected, eyes still shut. "And you have to promise you won't bite my head off for it."

He sounded like an awkward teenager apologizing to Zack and Sephiroth for stealing the car keys.

"You honestly think you can make me that angry?" Vincent sounded amused.

Truth be told, it was rather hard to piss the man off. Excepting the manifestations of the monsters, which were usually the result of intense physical pain as opposed to any emotional trigger, Vincent generally faced aggravating situations with sardonic humor. The only time Cloud had seen him really lose it and stay human was right before the man had emptied two clips and five shotgun rounds into a mutated evil scientist.

Cloud shrugged. "I can make you slightly annoyed."

"Then you might as well do it quickly."

I like the way this man thinks, Zack added.

Taking a deep breath, Cloud opened his eyes to the sunrise and outlined his plans. He knew he was talking too quickly, leaving the details too sketchy, but felt that if he paused for breath he'd lose his momentum. Common sense couldn't be allowed to catch up with him, doubts couldn't be harbored, conviction had to be absolute. He forced his voice to remain steady through the whole thing, not stuttering out or even tapering off at the end.

"I thi – I know it will work," he concluded.

Vincent moved before even Cloud's eyes could catch him, off the railing and yanking the younger man around to meet his eyes, hands an unshakable grip on Cloud's shoulders. Cloud was afraid of very few things and Vincent certainly wasn't one of them, but having the full focus of those old eyes was disconcerting.

"It may work," he allowed. "But are you sure you want it to?"

"Yes."

"Cloud." Vincent's face lost its usual apathy, expression hovering somewhere between annoyance and sorrow. "I can't recommend this. I know the past has always been with you, even when you don't desire it, but chasing after it - sometimes…it is more pain than can be justified."

"If Lucrecia were alive and suffering, wouldn't you want to help?" A mistake to mention that, and a low blow besides; Cloud was somewhere beyond caring.

"I did try to help." Vincent's voice picked up the backdrop of Chaos's growl, and Cloud suspected he'd done it voluntarily. "Look what happened to me."

"Well, I've already got the scientific experiment thing covered!" Cloud shot back, almost angry now; he'd thought he could come here and trust Vincent, rely on him. "What else can they do to me?"

"Jenova could turn you into what Sephiroth is."

Cloud straightened to his full height and set his chin stubbornly, beginning to feel more and more like a disobedient child, with all the petulance to match. "If you had the choice to do what you did over again, you'd do it, right? If Cid was in danger and you could save him in exchange for your suffering, would you?"

A level stare. "Most people don't appreciate being manipulated, Cloud. Especially not because of love."

Cloud stood his ground. "I'm only telling the truth."

Vincent dropped his arms from Cloud's shoulders, stared at the blond for a long, tense moment. "I'll go where you lead."

"Thank you."

The dark man nodded, backed away and opened the door. His footsteps paused a moment, and he glanced over his shoulder, red eyes dark.

"And if you ever try to use Lucrecia – or Cid – as emotional blackmail ever again," he said quietly, dangerously, "we're going to see how long it takes for your spleen to grow back." And then he was gone.

Cloud had discovered how to really piss off Vincent Valentine.

And you totally win the award for most mature person on any planet, Mr. I Argue Like a Fourteen Year Old Girl.

"Oh, shut up," Cloud muttered to Zack. He hugged himself loosely, hoping he hadn't just harmed a friendship in his determination to yank the world back around to something resembling normal.

•••

Vincent took a few deep cleansing breaths before opening the door to his room. Cloud hadn't meant to be malicious, probably hadn't even meant to be hurtful, but his tendency to not understand the delicacy of emotions… socially awkward, Vincent suspected, didn't even begin to describe it. It was no use being angry at the boy – who wasn't actually a boy, but all of Cid's 'kid' comments were rubbing off on him.

Cloud had to do what he thought he must, and if he truly believed that this would make things right, balance a few more sins, then Vincent would follow him. It made sense, after all, to have someone along who would not follow those orders blindly. Not that he even suspected the SeeDs would have that problem, and Cid would be louder in his objections, besides.

Speaking of Cid; Vincent looked over at the bed and rolled his eyes, eternally amazed at how much space he could occupy at once. It was like sleeping with a cat, if cats smelled like nicotine.

"Highwind," he said, grabbing the standard issue pencil holder off of his desk. "Wake up."

Maybe a pencil holder to the forehead wasn't the most ideal or romantic way to wake someone up, but they rarely ever held with that sort of nonsense. Besides, trying to have an up close and personal with Cid Highwind before six in the morning was just begging to get something bitten.

Cid didn't even open his eyes to grab the pencil holder and fling it back at Vincent's head, aim sloppy enough that he missed his target and only hit a shoulder. "What?"

"Cloud thinks he knows a way to cure Sephiroth of Jenova, and feels he is morally obligated to do so because they were lovers."

Ah, that woke him up. Cid shot up into a sitting position, all traces of sleep gone from eyes and demeanor.

"Fucking what the fuck?"

Much, much louder in his objections.

•••

Squall wished his SeeDs had gathered together some semblance of dignity for this meeting. Unfortunately, dear friends or no, they all seemed to have united on a common front of 'we're exhausted, this is supposed to be our day off, and we are sick of listening to these people babble'. Irvine's sloppy braid, ripped blue jeans, and faded black t-shirt set the dress standard, and things didn't improve much from there; Squall was as close as he'd ever been to hugging Quistis, simply because she'd managed a business-like skirt and dress shirt.

Any aura of calm control they might have projected to the 'visitors' was replaced with bored contempt, and Squall could only stifle that so far. On most levels, he didn't even want to. He was thoroughly sick of Strife, sick of his allies, sick of secrets and – most of all – sick of the eternal cycle of bullshit they were so hopelessly mired in. Contempt pretty much described Squall's feelings on the matter. He wasn't even sure whey he'd agreed to let Strife talk.

Still, the sparkly purple butterfly that clipped off Irvine's braid (hopefully that had been stolen from Selphie and wasn't actually part of Irvine's accessory line-up) didn't exactly boldly declare 'we can handle what you throw at us'; it more or less declared 'what the fuck am I doing up this early and who the hell are you?'

Rinoa was…he didn't even know where the hell Rinoa was, and that stung. Selphie had told him that Rinoa had said to wish him good morning, but her things had been mostly gone from their shared room and he didn't even know if she'd spent the night there. Maybe it was easier this way, skirting around each other for the time being and avoiding any awkward silences, hurt feelings or general atmospheres of uneasy tension – it didn't mean he had to like it, and it didn't make keeping his mind on task any simpler.

If Strife so much as twitched in a crazy way, Squall had the strong suspicion he wouldn't be able to contain the urge to leap across the table and stick his gunblade in the blond. Strife being what he was, it might not kill him, but it would at least result in some extremely satisfied maiming and deter any further psychotic twitching.

Some might say Squall was becoming a little high strung; he was inclined to agree with them.

It helped that Strife's companions didn't look altogether too professional or cheerful, either. Valentine's cape and brooding expression had made reappearances, and Highwind looked about ready to murder somebody; Lockheart just kept casting quick, worried looks at Strife that she probably imagined nobody else noticed. Perhaps they'd just realized that their so-called leader was crazy six ways from the end of the week – not that the startling revelation would help things any.

Strife stood up, and Squall noticed with slightly malicious amusement that he obviously wasn't used to or comfortable with public speaking. Considering Squall's own shortcomings in the area (the loudspeakers broadcasted most of his Garden orders, so he wouldn't have to look at people), he noticed the constant nervous flutter of hands, the shifting of weight and the slightly nauseous expression.

"I told you about Sephiroth and Jenova," Strife began, his voice just the slightest pitch higher than usual, eyes darting. "I told you we defeated them, but I didn't go…into detail. You know we use materia for our magic, but the thing is that materia is –" He halted for a moment, stuttered around some word as he fumbled for what he wanted to say. "- I guess the simplest explanation is that it's the lifeblood of the world pressed into a magical diamond."

"What does this have to do with anything?" Zell complained, loudly. Squall glared at him and he promptly shut up.

"There was a special materia, only one of them existed." Strife's voice sounded stronger now that he had annoyance at Zell to back him up. "It was Holy. Holy is everything that is opposite to what would harm the world – Jenova and her virus, Meteor."

"Sephiroth?" Quistis asked, her head canted to the side in curiosity.

"No. Well, yes. I mean…" Strife took a sharp breath. "Kind of. Sephiroth was…was…created to be a vessel. He's filled with Jenova's cells and lifestream, but he's still human. He was born to human parents." There was a note of fierce conviction in Strife's voice that was utterly out of place. "He's only Jenova's host, and I don't think Holy would really harm him."

"You don't think?" Quistis repeated.

Strife braced his shoulders, glared across the table at the SeeDs. "It didn't try to harm me when it was summoned against Meteor, and I have a significant level of Jenova cells in my system."

They all just stared at him. The 'scientific' explanation he'd offered about Jenova, Sephiroth and mad scientists at the beginning of all of this had been one part utterly impossible and two parts bone chilling, but he'd never mentioned himself as part of it. It explained his connection to Sephiroth, certainly, but that was less than a comfort. They didn't just have a brainwashed maybe-flunky sitting in Garden; they had bits of evil alien wandering around disguised as a grumpy blond man.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Squall ground out.

Lockheart looked like she wanted to say something, and Highwind fidgeted, but they both held their peace. Either they'd agreed to let Cloud take the wheel completely, or they were so completely aggravated with him that they were letting him fend for himself out of annoyance and spite. Having seen the bond they shared, Squall inexplicably found himself hoping it was the former.

"It wasn't important," Strife snapped. "I told you what was going on, it didn't matter why."

"You've already crossed a line once, Strife, how do I know you aren't on their side?"

If this was all an elaborate set up, Squall was going to rip Cloud Strife limb from limb.

Snarling, Strife slammed his hands down on the table – his fists left dents in the polished metal. He looked more pissed than Squall had ever seen him, blue eyes flashing with sparks of green; it took every ounce of SeeD training not to lean away from the obvious threat, or at least draw his gun blade.

"Because spending five fucking years in screaming agony doesn't exactly endear you to the cause of it!" He'd also reached new and interesting decibel levels. "Asshole," he hissed, quite certainly not amused.

Squall heard the quiet little click of a gun's safety going off, but Valentine's hands were still folded on the table. Irvine, on the other hand, had a handgun – unusual choice, for him, far more subtle than he generally liked to be – prominently displayed, pointed at the ceiling but still a clear warning.

"Why don't we all just calm down a little?" he asked, using that soothing tone Squall recognized as Matron's We Are Not Killing Each Other Today, Children voice.

Irvine being the voice of reason was a bit disconcerting, especially since Quistis usually would have stepped in before him. It seemed, however, that he was the only one really handling the situation well – or at all.

Strife sat back down, his hands visibly trembling now; he took one look at them and shoved his fists under the table. Squall almost felt bad. Honestly, he hadn't expected to hit such a nerve with Strife, had wanted to prod the man into truth, not trigger screaming. It was always good to know his social skills were alive and well, truly.

Irvine holstered his gun, but none of the tension left the room. It drifted around like a tangible thing, tensing postures and putting their minds on high alert. The SeeDs, especially, looked like someone was dripping water onto a cat. They weren't used to inviting threats in and giving them tea, they were used to killing. If Strife didn't have the curiously easy to trust dual nature, he'd have been dead ages ago, even without Squall's order.

Squall exhaled slowly. "I…have to think on this."