Eva and I are having hyphen wars, I swear.

Koni

•••

Squall sat in his office, brooding and waiting for Zell to come in and tell him to stop brooding. He might've been expecting Rinoa, but she'd chosen a most inconvenient time to disappear off the face of Garden – everyone else had seen her, but Squall was denied even the distraction of an argument with his ex-girlfriend. Not that he wanted to argue with her, but…it would be a sight more pleasant than trying to untangle this knot in his mind.

Strife was, in plain and simple terms, a lunatic. Then again, Squall had dealt with lunatics before. Hell, his own tendency to view the world through the eyes of a mercenary had gotten him labeled crazy more than a few times. The real question was whether or not Cloud was a lunatic they could trust – no, they obviously couldn't trust him. It was whether or not Cloud could be used to Garden's advantage and continued well-being. Sephiroth taking over the world would benefit no one, but neither could Squall see how Strife's fool's mission would help Garden.

"We take down Sephiroth," Squall murmured to himself, doodling idly on a post-it note that informed him he was due to call Laguna. "We pretend to go along with Strife's plan, but we kill Sephiroth. Strife ends up pissed and vengeful." Not something he wanted to deal with. "We kill them both…"

That would work perfectly, if Strife hadn't come along with his three companions as luggage. Five deaths wasn't beyond Squall's conscience, but he had a feeling it would upset people that he didn't feel like talking down (Laguna's moral tirades could rival Rinoa's).

He tapped his pen against his lips. "We go along with Strife's plan, and let both him and Sephiroth live if it works."

It was a bit of SeeD wisdom that sometimes the easiest way was the best. If Cloud's plan did go awry, he himself would deal with Sephiroth, taking any blame for the man's death away from Squall and Garden. That, of course, left the matter of what exactly one did with two high-powered, mentally unstable superhumans.

Maybe it was time to give Laguna a call. After Squall had a talk with Strife.

•••

Rinoa had moved her things into Selphie's room; Selphie had cheerfully volunteered it, considering most of her things had migrated to Irvine's room and she slept there nine nights out of ten. Why they hadn't just made it official and moved to one of the slightly larger couple's dorms, Rinoa hadn't a clue. She'd been ecstatic to move in with Squall, even if it meant staying in Garden. Irvine and Selphie were obviously better off as a couple, and it made no sense to Rinoa that they seemed so utterly terrified of commitment.

Perhaps, she reflected as she folded a sweater to fit in her suitcase, it was a SeeD thing.

All of the little 'SeeD things' had gotten to her, wearing her down until she just couldn't take it. Suddenly the things that had seemed dreadfully romantic about Squall – his brooding nature, his fighting ability, his determination – had become tainted and twisted by what he was. It was, she'd realized with dawning horror, all about the ends for him, for everyone here in Garden. The means were absolutely justified by the happy customers, the paycheck. She couldn't even be sure anymore that he would have stepped in to save the world if he hadn't had a personal investment in the conflict with the sorceress.

She couldn't have a partner who came home stained with the blood of others, no matter how much she loved him. Rinoa wanted a normal life someday, a family, and she knew, without a doubt, that Squall was not the sort of man you settled down and started a family with. His children were here; the SeeDs, the students.

But she still loved him.

Her leaving right now was the only way either of them was going to come out of this whole, though she hated abandoning her friends in the middle of a crisis. (A small, bitter part of her noticed that they'd been leaving her out of it anyway, not thinking to include her because she wasn't One of Them in a way that would never go away.)

The knock on her door startled her abruptly out of her reverie.

"It's open," she called, expecting Selphie or Quistis, or maybe even Tifa.

Zell lingered in the open doorway, his smile softer and more hesitant than what Rinoa was used to. On the other hand, it was a smile, which was more than Rinoa had been receiving from him since she'd broken up with Squall. Zell had a protective streak a mile wide coupled with the complete inability to censor his feelings, so Rinoa knew how close he'd been to screaming at her.

"Hey," he greeted. "Look, Rin…"

Being that he was Zell and thus molecularly incapable of standing still for more than five minutes, he was fidgeting, shadowboxing for something invisible to kill. If she was going to be honest with herself and lay bare all of the problems she had with Garden, Zell sometimes sort of made her…very uneasy. It could have been that he'd taken much longer than any of the others to warm up to her, excluding Squall; Zell had taken one look at her tendency toward pink and ruffles and, yes, planning grandiose schemes in a rather off-the-cuff manner, and immediately declared her useless.

He'd muttered as much to Selphie, when he'd thought Rinoa was out of hearing range.

Still, he'd come to love her and she'd come to love him, but she knew she'd never click into Zell's world, would never be good enough or SeeD enough for him to fully accept her standing beside Squall.

He was getting his wish, subconscious as it might be.

"Hiya, Zell," she greeted, smiling at him because it was the comforting thing to do. "How's your mom?"

"She's good. I'll tell her you asked, she'll bake you cookies or somethin'." Zell scuffed his sneakers against the tile, then finally addressed the metaphorical gorilla in the room. "You going somewhere, Rin?"

"Back to Timber," she said, telling him the truth. "Somebody needs to take leadership there, and the Timber Owls are already helping with the rebuilding, so I thought I'd go see what I can do."

"Does Squall know?"

Her fingers bit into the jeans she'd picked up. Not 'why?' or even 'I'll miss you', but something that really wasn't even his business. Why couldn't her relationship ever just be her relationship? Squall was surrounded by walls of his own devising already, and his friends – their friends – had erected another barrier.

Everyone was so, so very worried about how much this was breaking Squall, but all Squall had shown her was that he didn't care. Of course he did – he had to – but pretending he didn't had cut her to the quick, hurt her deeply, and nobody asked 'but what about Rinoa?'

She was being selfish; she knew it and hated herself for it.

"I'm going to tell him after the ticket order goes through." She put down the jeans and turned to face him, barely having to look up to meet his eyes. "I know this is a bad time to leave, but I think it'd be worse on us if I stayed, and…"

She wanted to do the right thing, she really, really did.

He shrugged, the motion loose but still visibly uneasy. "You gotta do what you gotta do, right? Just remember to tell everyone, and don't let Selphie throw you some sort of wacky going away party."

"Take care of Squall for me," she managed through the tears suddenly choking her throat and burning her eyes. "He needs a lot of baby sitting."

His smile was too contained to be true. "Don't I know it."

•••

Cloud stood just inside the security gate of the Training Center, scraping grat gook off the bottom of his boots with the back of his knife. As a fashion statement he didn't particularly mind being coated with monster insides, but squishing with each step rather eliminated any element of stealth. He'd come here to relax and, surprisingly enough, it had worked. He had a plan of action, a solid way to carry out that plan, and he'd just eviscerated enough plant-bug-things to fill a grat zoo in the sky.

Doing things spur of the moment had always made Cloud uneasy, because there was too much room for error – too much room for weakness. Maybe everything wouldn't be perfect, but a sort of preternatural calm had settled over him, a determination that everything would be, at least, okay. Or he'd be dead, but it all came around to the same thing in the end.

Can we just cut the dying option out of this entirely? Zack asked.

Cloud wiped his knife on the grass struggling to grow near the chain link. "I'll try."

But given a choice between 'live, and Sephiroth destroys this world and has a happy loony kingdom' and 'die, and Sephiroth goes down with me', Cloud knew what he'd take. He'd rather have 'none of the above', of course, but good plans always came with contingency measures.

He'd proved that the deep mind-link that connected him to Sephiroth went two ways, and he was prepared to take advantage of that. Short-circuiting Sephiroth from the inside out would be messy, painful and deadly, but brutally effective and hopefully a complete destruction.

I'm telling you, Zack said stubbornly. There is no dying option. We'd be very upset with you, young man.

"…stop sounding like my mother."

Nice woman, your mother. Head full of common sense. Unlike some people I could name. Like you. You've never had any common sense. You? Created a common sense black hole, it was terrifying.

"You're babbling," Cloud told him, ignoring the tightness in his chest at the mention of the past.

I'm worried about you, Spike.

"Everyone always is."

You're easy to worry about, kid.

Cloud hated it when Zack sounded like that; soft and sad and regretful, like he'd somehow failed Cloud. It didn't bother Cloud, so much, when Zack treated him like he needed gentle handling. Zack had seen him at his worst, at his most helpless, and he knew when Cloud needed support, even from a dead man. What Cloud couldn't stand was Zack acting like that support and knowledge wasn't good enough.

It isn't.

"Zack, you're technically not supposed to exist. I don't even know if you're not just a hallucination. You're doing more than enough."

I let them turn you into this.

Cloud sagged against the chain-link fence, closing his eyes and leaning his head back. Zack was allowed to care, but he chose the damndest moments to get all serious, for once in his life (afterlife?).

"You've been there for me," Cloud whispered, "more than anyone else, even Sephiroth, what little I remember of that. You died for me. Zack, you were there for me when I needed you to be me. There's nothing more you could have done."

Nothing more he could ask for, and that was still leaving so many things left unsaid. Somehow, though, he knew Zack heard the completely silent I'd bring you back, any way I could.

You're a good guy, Cloud. The soft brush of mental affection, the memory of a Zack Smile. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

"Strife."

Not even him.

Cloud cracked one eye open to peer sideways at Squall, and wondered how he'd managed to get that close without Cloud noticing. He really was getting off his game, with his world topsy-turvy like this.

"What?"

Leonhart looked agitated, as far as Leonhart's recognizable facial expressions went. Two days ago, three hours ago, Cloud would have been agitated right along with him, but now he was too focused (and, just perhaps, a little too tired).

"This plan of yours. Talk."

Cloud turned his full attention to Leonhart, noting for the first time how worn down the other looked. Circles smudged a telling of tiredness under his eyes, his shoulders slouched and the entirety of him looked dearly in need of a shower.

Though he was well versed in the art of being an asshole, Cloud was finding it harder and harder to act as if he just didn't care about people.

"Are you o-"

"Shut up," Leonhart cut him off, punctuating his words with an abrupt hand gesture. "Just…tell me what you need to be out of my hair. I'm sick of playing games with you."

Somebody's in a snit, Zack observed, almost gleefully.

And if that was the way Leonhart wanted the conversation to go, Cloud could give just as good as he got in the grumpiness and sarcasm department. This, he knew suddenly in the back of his mind, came of spending too much time around Sephiroth, who couldn't go two hours without saying something acerbic and contrary.

Cloud glared the glare he usually reserved for Reno and Rude when they were being idiots. "I'm not playing games."

"Fine. Then I'm just sick of you."

"Don't worry, a lot of people feel that way." Cloud sheathed his knife and stood up straight, not allowing Leonhart to push the height advantage. "I need a Summon – a guardian force, whatever you've named them – a holy spell, and your gracious permission to carry my sword into battle."

"Guardian Forces are a valuable resource. Why should I risk one to you?" Leonhart sounded different somehow, and Cloud realized that he was being treated not as an enemy, but as a soldier. Leonhart was being a commander, and Cloud knew how to deal with those.

Zack had told him in the first days of their friendship to treat tough superior officers like wolves; be honest, straightforward, look them in the eyes at all times, and be prepared for them to go for the throat.

"It's the only way for me to use a Holy spell. If I don't have one of your guardian forces, I can't do anything." Something annoying in Cloud urged him to salute, albeit sarcastically. "That is, if you'd like me out of your hair."

"And afterward?"

That threw Cloud for a loop. "What?"

"Afterward," Leonhart said, scowling. "After your grandiose rescue plan clicks into place, and you've saved the day. What are you going to do?"

The plan had seemed so simple at first conception. After a brief talk with a very eager-to-inform Selphie, Cloud had known enough about their summons and magic system to guess at what he needed to be able to cast Holy. Attack Sephiroth, weaken him, use Holy to cast Jenova out of his system – or fail, and use Holy and their connection to end things on a slightly more brutal note.

'Afterward' had never come into consideration at all.

"We don't know a way home," Cloud admitted.

"You can't stay here."

"I'm not asking to!" Cloud snapped. "We'll find our own way, if we have to. Anyone relying on your charity would starve to death."

"My… father is the president of Esthar, one of the more stable countries in this world."

Cloud felt rather jarred by the shift in conversation. "So?"

"I'm not leaving you unwatched," Leonhart told him. "Laguna has an irritating habit of taking in strays, and I'm sure he could find an appropriate place for you if nothing else turns up."

"You call your father by his first name?" Cloud asked, unable to stop the question from tumbling out of his mouth.

Leonhart narrowed his eyes. "It's none of your business what I call Laguna."

Quite frankly, it baffled Cloud how many people managed to develop deep-seated issues with their parents, but he'd long ago learned that it wasn't his place to comment on it. It especially wasn't his place here, considering he barely knew and certainly didn't like Squall Leonhart.

"The others?" Cloud prompted. "Where are they supposed to go?"

"Wherever they wish. It's not my problem."

"Then why can't I go where I want? You're going to keep tabs on me."

Leonhart didn't seem to care that Cloud had seen right through his plan. "Wouldn't you?"

Cloud was horribly bad at keeping tabs on himself, as he had a tendency to wander off without telling…himself. There was no telling where he'd end up when he wasn't paying attention.

"I see your point," he conceded.

"A guardian force, a holy spell, your sword, transportation. Nothing else. And I'm sending SeeD back up with you; you're not going to get free reign."

Leonhart would never, ever trust him.

•••

Fuujin liked very few people. Seifer, yes; Raijin, maybe – on his good days. Anyone else she tolerated or simply ignored, which had worked for her so far. All in all, though, she was not entirely sure what she was supposed to think of Tifa Lockheart. Lockheart was strong, and Fuujin respected that, but Lockheart was also emotional, caring and optimistic, which were character traits that Fuujin traditionally reacted to by kicking that person in the shin.

Not that Tifa had earned the respect that would warrant Fuujin paying enough attention to her to get something as personal as a shin-kicking. Raijin would be all wibbly and hurt if she had.

A wibbly Raijin was an annoying Raijin, so Fuujin had no intention of kicking Tifa in the shins. Today.

This wouldn't have been a problem at all if Tifa hadn't insisted on showing up and being around Seifer quite a bit, and if Seifer hadn't gotten attached to her in his usual Seifer pattern. At least this one could take care of herself, and Fuujin was fairly sure Tifa wasn't harboring any psychotic evil tendencies, so brain washing was thankfully out of the equation.

But, still – Seifer was theirsHers and Raijin's; they'd stood by him when nobody else had, when they'd been crazy to. Seifer was arrogant and stubborn and overly fond of theatrics, but damned if he wasn't their stubborn, arrogant, theatrical idiot. If Tifa thought she was worthy of Seifer, she was going to have to prove it: she was going to have to stand up and look past all of the annoying things that made Seifer Seifer; she was going to have to deal with the fact that she was handling damaged goods.

And if she couldn't - if she left Seifer hanging and hurt again - Fuujin was going to hunt her down and break her into slow, painful pieces.

"Fuu?" Raijin asked, peering at her with puppy dog eyes. "You okay? You're not eating, and that's not healthy, y'know. You can't get sick."

She didn't know if that was supposed to be a plea or a statement of absolute fact.

"Fine," she muttered.

"You're lookin' a little pale."

"Always pale," she pointed out, picking the tomatoes off of her sandwich.

"You should get some sun." He took the tomatoes from her tray and added them to his own, casting about for a salt shaker. "Vitamin D and stuff, y'know."

"I know."

"As long as you're taking care of yourself." He nodded, as if he'd just affirmed something very important to himself. "We have to take care of each other, 'cause Seifer ain't gonna be around forever, I don't think."

She cocked her head curiously. As thick as Raijin could be, he was amazingly adept at reading the signs in events and people (and occasionally weather).

"Gone?"

He shrugged. "Maybe."

"Stand by Seifer." She slammed a hand down on the table, startling a few others in the cafeteria. "Always!"

"I know! Me too! But..but…you can't be around forever, y'know? And Seifer – I don't think – I mean, he can't stay here forever. 'Cause everyone stares at him funny and he hates that and Miss Lockheart treats him good and I don't want to leave him but I don't think he'll leave her." He finally inhaled again, and then ended with a meek, almost confused, "Y'know?"

And she did know.

"Support Seifer," Fuujin said. "Always. Wherever he is." She tapped Raijin on the knuckles, her version of a supportive gesture. "And us. Always us."

"Fuujin and Raijin!" He exclaimed happily, raising his glass of milk in a toast. "Together forever! Both of us'll find a pretty girl to bring to the posse!"

She ate her sandwich to hide her affectionate grin.

•••

Of all the things Vincent had been 'gifted' with, premonitions and visions had not been among them. Still, something animal in him insisted that the air had changed, the tide had shifted and the shit was about to hit the fan.

Or it could be that Cloud had been allowed to come reclaim his sword and attack materia; that was solid enough proof that things were about to take a dramatic turn – for better or for worse. The experiment, as Hojo would say, had been set in motion.

Vincent growled restlessly, and Cid sleepily dragged his fingers through dark hair in response.

"Don't give yourself a coronary, Vin."

It had always been in Vincent's nature to worry, though he'd gotten better at ignoring the deep, paranoid stirrings in his stomach. Worry had driven him to Lucrecia's aid; worry had gotten him a bullet and a new arm and monsters in his head. Hopefully, this would turn out to be a slightly more pleasant experience.

"I can't have a coronary," Vincent said. "At least not that I'm aware of."

"The sunset was red."

Vincent blinked down at Cid. "What?"

"Red sky at night, a sailor's delight." Cid grinned, slightly more awake now. "Or pilot's, I guess. Mean's tomorrow's going to be a damn good day, so don't you go fucking it up with your brooding, you got me?"

Vincent couldn't help but wonder – what if the sunrise was red, as well?