Writer's Note: I've said this before but I'll say it again: I've never played Crisis Core or Before Crisis. Those events are very muddled and confusing to me, so rather than attempt to figure them out from the Wikipedia (esp. since I've already fucked with Cloud and Reno's timelines) I'm just going to cherry-pick events and shift them around in time so that they work with the story, but the prequel events to FFVII are still roughly the same.

Thank you to Chisuto for beta-reading this chapter! Your help was much appreciated!

Green Dreams

Chapter Thirty-Six: Impatience is a Virtue

Youta, the co-captain of the squad, was waiting at the meeting point Monday morning with three of the other members of their squadron there already. He had a pile of weapons beside him, and Cloud accepted the broadsword offered to him. Only First and Second class SOLDIERs were allowed to keep their weapons in their own rooms, so their captain or co-captain had to distribute them before every practice session and mission.

"Mornin'," Youta said, looking only slightly more awake than the rest of the guys. He gave Cloud a troubled look nonetheless when he noticed the grim cast to the blond's features. "Captain's getting a transport right now."

Cloud nodded stiffly and buckled the sword sheath to his hip, measuring the slight imbalance in his weight. The buster sword was always worn on his back for obvious reasons, so it felt odd to be carrying a sword another way. He wondered how long it would take him to convince Zack he could use the buster sword outside practice—and then grimaced as he realized he likely wouldn't be able to unless he got promoted.

The rest of the guys drifted over within the next ten minutes, and by 0800 all eight were assembled when Harke drove up in a standard military truck.

"Form up!" he called, and everyone stood a little straighter in line. "Good. We've got a pretty standard mission on the outskirts. A pack of fiends are bothering people out there. We're to take them all out, clean up, and head home. If you're lucky you'll make the burger dinner in the canteen."

Cloud saw Hyler's lips twitch a bit as he fought to smile at the promise of burgers tonight. Hyler had the most impressive appetite out of the whole squad, and whenever they ate at the canteen he consistently ate portions that would have filled Zack. Mako injection side effects manifested in a number of ways and that was the most harmless.

They piled into the truck, with Cloud careful to get in last so he'd be closest to the open back. He had no way of knowing how many mako injections it would take to be rid of his motion sickness, and he also had no desire to talk to anyone. Sitting on two benches facing each other, the guys sleepily regarded one another as Harke hopped into the front seat beside Youta.

"So was that you yowlin' last night, Aran?" joked one of the guys, nudging Aran with his boot as the truck started to move. Shinra Tower steadily shrank behind them through the gap in the canvas flaps.

"Shut your face, Mansel," Aran said, kicking him back harder. The lighthearted ribbing was typical between the two, as Cloud had learned over the last two weeks he'd worked with the group. Unlike Hyler, Aran was afflicted with a high libido after mako injections and was easily embarrassed by it, which meant he was teased as often as he was propositioned. The other man who had the same issue, Llyr, just liked to remind everyone that he was routinely getting laid when they weren't.

Cloud resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably as talk moved to whoever Aran and Llyr had found last night after their injections, sending Cloud's own thoughts back to dreams he'd been adamant about forgetting. Mako in general increased libido, though not always to the extent of Aran and Llyr, but… nocturnal emissions weren't uncommon among SOLDIERs who were abstaining. When Cloud wasn't reliving nightmares of experiments and fighting, his dreams were always of Sephiroth, and he was…

He shook his head, angry and slightly aroused just at the thought of the General. Sunday night's dinner hung like a pall over any thought of Sephiroth, but apparently it didn't extend to his dreams. It was thoughts like these that had let him get talked into that dinner and that were stopping him from doing what was necessary. Cloud had almost not shown up for the mission today simply because it did nothing for any of his goals. Too bad Harke had seen him in the hallway, and any punishment would be more bothersome.

Cloud had been aggravated since last night and hadn't slept well—and what little sleep he did get had been haunted by Sephiroth—so he was not in the mood for conversation when Xolis leaned over and poked him. "You alright?" Cloud turned his head farther away instead of answering. "I met your buddy Aaron this weekend, by the way." Xolis paused for a reaction, but there was none. "He's a pretty cool guy. He told me about what you did in the exam, and I'd swear he was exaggerating until his captain confirmed it—he was in the security room or something." The Third whistled in awe, drawing the attention of Llyr next to him. "I can see why the Lieutenant General's got an eye on you."

Cloud ignored their curious noises and questions to him until Xolis told the story. Thankfully the squad had gotten used to Cloud's surliness. In another life the blond might have been upset at the image he presented, but frankly he had a lot of other things to worry about. Sephiroth and Zack had reminded him last night that he'd somehow strayed again from his promise to remain focused on what really mattered, and Reno had contacted him late last night to say he was back in Midgar. He had a lot of questions for the redhead, and it sounded like Reno had the same.

The truck eventually escaped the confines of the city and within an hour had made it into the desert to the north. When they finally stopped, everyone was quick to jump out and stretch their legs. Midgar stood in the distance like a looming mountain with a cloud of smog circling it.

"Alright! Two teams!" Harke yelled, and the group automatically split into their pre-assigned cells. Cloud was grouped with Youta, Xolis, and another quiet Third, Brandon, while Harke joined the other group. "You've got grids extending two miles in each direction," Harke continued, pulling out maps and handing them to the squad leaders. "You're looking for a pack of Kalm Fangs—abnormally large and aggressive. Estimates are between five to eight hounds."

Directions given and maps distributed, Harke dismissed them. Cloud's troop set out to the east. For the first two hours as the sun blazed its way across the sky they marched through the desert, sometimes stopping to check for signs of the Fangs or deal with various monsters that came their way. Cloud remained second to last in line, and as the day wore on he began to regret not ditching. All this marching left him too much time to ruminate on last night's dinner and how he managed to muck up everything he did.

Thus it was a relief when Xolis eventually called out "I think I found something!" He was crouched down on a small ridge of sand and weathered rock, looking at the ground.

The others gathered around to see the tracks he'd found. It was definitely the paw print of some beast, but no one was sure if they were the right ones. As Youta backed up a moment to check the map, Cloud leaned over Xolis to get a quick look.

"It's a wolf print."

"What?" Xolis asked, shielding his eyes as he looked up at Cloud.

"It's too wide and short to be a Kalm Fang. Probably one of the desert wolves that scavenge around." There was quite possibly no one more familiar with Midgar-area beasts than Cloud, who had lived out there long enough to deal with practically anything in the area. He also wasn't about to let his squad chase a false lead and waste more time in the desert.

"You sure?" Xolis asked, giving Cloud a squinty look, though it might have been the unforgiving sun that explained it.

"Yeah," Cloud said flatly, and turned and marched farther up the incline, finding more of the same prints scattered about like the animal had jumped from rock to rock to reach the vantage point.

There was a flurry of conversation behind the blond, and then the men opted to move out, following his lead. As Cloud turned away from the rocky ledge he thought he saw a lone wolf cutting across the desert in the distance.

It was another hour of scouring before finally the group stumbled on the Kalm Fangs. The beasts had burrowed in a hillside to escape the sun and remained hidden right as the Thirds walked by on top of the hill. Cloud was preoccupied with thoughts of the story of Gilgamesh and trying not to remember the look he and Sephiroth had shared, but he was still the first to feel the fiend's intent, moments before it lunged. Cloud jerked to the side and grabbed the hilt of his sword, but Brandon behind him wasn't so lucky.

The Fang bit the Third deeply in the shoulder and dragged him into the dirt. Brandon went down thrashing, unable to dislodge the Fang's jaws. Cloud pulled his sword free of the scabbard—another reason he didn't care for broadswords—just as the rest of the squad reacted.

"Get that thing off him!" Youta yelled, and before Cloud could move Xolis jumped forward and stabbed down with his dirk, driving the blade into the meaty shoulders of the beast. It howled and let go, and Cloud grabbed Brandon's good arm to drag him clear.

The Fang that had attacked was built like a wolf, but leaner, harder, and much bigger, with tufts of matted hair and jowls that didn't hide the full set of sharp teeth it sported. Its legs were thin and spry, and it seemed to shake off Xolis' attack like it was a fleabite.

"It's not alone!" hollered Xolis as two more of the Fangs rushed up the hill. They were growling fiercely and yellow saliva dripped from their mouths. Definitely more aggressive than normal; Cloud had seen their type around Midgar after Meteor, though some of those dwarfed even these oversized ones.

"Tight formation!" Youta called, but Cloud and Brandon were too far to the side to step into the group. Xolis was already drawing on his Cure materia to heal the injured Third, so Cloud stepped in front of Brandon, drawing the attention of a flanking creature. While intimidating and quick, Fangs weren't particularly smart and very susceptible to fire. None of those were things Cloud ought to know at this point though, so he let Youta take the lead in the attack.

Youta swung for the muzzle, sending the Fang snarling to the side as the other beasts dashed in to take Youta down. Xolis was already there though, interrupting the attack with a short slash to another hound's foreleg, crippling it for the moment. Behind him Cloud could hear Brandon groaning as the flesh knit itself together, and there were the sounds of teeth meeting steel and the howls and whines of the fiends.

The first three Fangs backed up as they realized their prey wasn't defenseless, but it was foolish to think the first scouts would be the strongest ones. The fourth and fifth Fangs that joined the fray were larger, their teeth were bloodier, and they were not afraid to lunge at the Thirds.

"Radio in!" yelled Youta to Brandon, who had the radio to reach Harke, as he dashed at the nearest Fang, aiming for the head and missing by inches as the thing twitched to the side and swiped with its claw. Youta took a bloody slash down his thigh as he rolled clear.

The Fangs were bigger and more coordinated than anticipated, but it wasn't beyond the abilities of the four Thirds. The nearest one to Cloud stalked toward him and he held his blade ready. Next to him, Brandon had finished the radio call and picked up his weapon, stepping in tandem with him. He was still moving gingerly with his shoulder, fearful of being injured again—an amateur's mistake.

Cloud darted forward when the Fang in front of him moved to attack, hitting the striking paw with the flat of his blade and knocking it to the side. The Fang rolled back on to all fours but Cloud was already moving, following up with a two-handed lunge that struck the side of the beast before it could complete its turn. The blade wasn't sharp enough to kill though, leaving a bloody gash in its side rather than spearing it through. Angry and desperate now, the Fang leaped at the blond. Cloud had fought hundreds of these Kalm Fangs before though, and easily sidestepped and swung down, burying the sword deep in the back of the neck.

He lifted his broadsword free with a disgusted heave. That attack would have guaranteed a beheading with any other sword he'd used before.

"Another!" Brandon yelled from behind, where he was struggling with his own beast. A sixth Fang had appeared, called by the baying and howling of the first attackers. With a swift glance Cloud took in the situation, seeing that only two creatures had been killed and the others were struggling to take down the rest. As he watched, Youta tried to stab the belly of one that jumped at him, but the Third didn't dart fast enough to the side and his bicep was clawed on the pass even as he dragged a shallow red line across the shoulder of the Fang. It was clear in just that handful of seconds Cloud watched that none of the other men had ever fought a fast, four-legged beast like this before.

He could watch all his squad mates get clawed as they wore down the beasts with nicks, he could take on all of them with his blunt sword, or he could resort to materia. It was an easy choice to make. Cloud calmly slotted the fire materia into the sole spot on the sword. Another Fang charged him and he swung his sword twice at it, making it back up into the one attacking Xolis.

"Fire!" Cloud called, trying to use as little energy as possible to hit the two Fangs now fighting beside each other.

A flare of light was momentarily blinding as the beasts' coats caught fire, but they both rolled and the flames went out almost as fast they'd been formed. Cloud must have been getting better at controlling the power of his supercharged magic because that had done almost no damage at all. Nonetheless, Kalm Fangs hated fire, and both fiends backed up from Xolis and Cloud looking wary.

"They're weak to fire!" Xolis was yelling as Cloud charged up another attack with more power. He'd never been good at precise measurements with MP though, so the second attack didn't do much damage either.

"Use Fire2, Cloud!" Xolis yelled, pulling out his Cure materia. Cloud looked around, realizing that he was the only one with a Fire materia.

Summoning more energy than he had anticipated needing, Cloud launched another wave of fire at the Fangs, this time catching four in total. The attack drained the strength from one and killed another outright. Xolis and Brandon jumped in to finish off the one he'd drained, and soon enough Cloud had hit all the Fangs with Fire magic. He took out another with a direct hit, and softened up the rest for his squad to kill.

Everyone but Cloud was panting in the end. That didn't stop any of the men from coming right over and congratulating him on his magic. Youta almost looked like he would pound Cloud on the back and then rethought it, instead laughing between breaths. "You gotta be out of MP by now, but damn Cloud. I'm glad you're not in the materia corps."

Brandon handed him an Ether, which Cloud took automatically even though he didn't really need it. While the rest went to secure the area and count the dead Fangs, the blond stared down with consternation at the slotted Fire materia glowing dully in the sunshine.

He'd killed two. Two out of six with magic. He, who had made a snowstorm with a pinky's worth of power, had only killed two fire-weak beasts with fire. It made him angry to think that he had either crippled himself by becoming accustomed to using so little MP for magic, or… or he was losing the ability .

Cloud wasn't sure which was worse.


There was a timid knock on the door that without enhanced hearing Sephiroth wouldn't have even heard.

"Come in."

The door cracked open and then widened, and his new secretary stepped in with a folder in her hands. She held it to her chest like a shield. "The file you requested, sir."

Sephiroth waved at his desk and she carefully deposited it without touching anything else, and then slipped back out the door like a ghost. He may have been a little sharp with her on her first few days, but if she couldn't deal with his sour moods then she wasn't climbing any higher up the corporate ladder. At least he didn't yell or throw things like Heidegger. He was just… blunt.

Or as Zack might put it: "callously eloquent of another's faults".

Putting aside thoughts of the new secretary, Sephiroth abandoned the droning report from Wutai—no notable protests or activity, one idiot Third who'd injured himself after discovering another Third wearing women's underwear, the usual rubbish—in favor of the new folder.

"Confidential Medical Report: Authorized Eyes Only" the cover announced in bright red. It had taken a lot of pushing and some unorthodox scaring of the science trainees on Monday before Sephiroth had been able to get this medical report. As the General it was well within his rights to request copies of the medical evaluations of his SOLDIERs, but that didn't mean the Science Department always wanted to comply.

Sephiroth flipped open the folder to a new official photo of Cloud Strife, this time sporting the blue fatigues of a Third Class. Instead of the rebellious, defensive look of his cadet photograph, Cloud stared down the camera bored. His hair was a bit longer, some of the spikes leaning dangerously towards floppy, but his eyes were still that startling blue—at least they would be until they started to glow.

In fact, that's why Sephiroth had requested this report. He was quite sure Sunday night he'd seen a bit of a mako shine in Cloud's eyes, which shouldn't have occurred after only two mako injections.

The first pages were standard medical evaluations, detailing blood type, blood pressure, family history—blank—and height and weight charts. There was an almost amusing note indicating Cloud suffered from white coat syndrome, which was no surprise to Sephiroth. Interestingly, at his second injection he'd grown an inch. SOLDIERs did tend to gain height and musculature with mako, not to mention Cloud was only seventeen and therefore still growing. That difference wasn't odd alone, not until Sephiroth flipped the page.

The results from the first mako examination had been on the high end, but nothing crazy. Sephiroth read through the charts and the bland comments from the administering nurse, trying not to draw conclusions until he'd read it all. Cloud absorbed mako at a high rate; the estimated mako rejection-to-assimilation ratio was low on his follow-up blood and urine tests. Low enough that the physician had noted it for closer monitoring.

The second injection also went smoothly and his numbers were just as high, which meant with strong levels of adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol his eyes could reflect mako. Mako count in the bloodstream was also near the top percentile as were his muscle response, skin affectation, and sensory impulses. The follow-up again showed an exceptionally low mako-rejection rate. It wasn't a pattern to the scientists until the third test, but they didn't have the benefit of Cloud's background—or well, some of it.

A high absorption rate wasn't common, especially from a person who grew up in the area of a reactor. However, Zack was a similar outlier, and if Cloud maintained rates like this he'd be at First Class levels easily within a year —and his swordsmanship was already nudging well into Second Class.

What bothered Sephiroth was exactly how much of an exception Cloud was. Not only was he an above-average swordsman, but he'd also been experimented on by Shinra, possibly knew the three dangerous men on the western continent, had demonstrated familiarity and impressive adeptness with materia in his squad mission yesterday, and now absorbed mako at an astonishingly high rate as well. It was, in Sephiroth's opinion, a little too much to swallow.

I'm missing a piece, he thought, looking down at the medical report; another file to add to the growing pile that all connected back to Cloud.

"You might wanna pull back on the whole magic thing," Reno drawled as sauntered into the empty conference room. He'd already activated the jamming device in his pocket that should keep any prying ears or wires from picking up their conversation. Sometimes it was awesome to be a Turk.

Cloud just shrugged, not even looking up. "It was taking too long."

Reno rolled his eyes before he could help himself, but he stopped halfway through. He hadn't seen Cloud in a few weeks because of the mission to Junon, but something in his countenance had changed… or maybe the blond had just spent too long brooding while waiting for Reno. "Yeah, and your Second and teammate both wrote glowing reports. You realize that shit gets recorded forever."

Cloud shrugged again, staring off into a corner. Sephiroth and Zack were already on to him; it wasn't like his materia ability was the key to any secrets. "Tell me what happened in Junon."

Reno hopped onto the conference table as Cloud leaned against the wall. He stalled, recounting all the sordid details of his boredom with patrols and annoyance with Heidegger and Tseng until Cloud lost some of that maddening stoicism to irritation, before finally getting into the fight itself. "There were about fifty total of those clones, all creepily pale with black wings. Didn't care one bit about their lives either."

"Did you see Genesis?"

"Naw, but Hollander got airlifted onto the damn cannon, and after that, who knows. All I heard was a bunch of guys got their asses kicked and he flew away. Reports on the clones don't specify how they were made, but there were no weird mutations or anything. Nothing about Jenova either." Reno picked at the buttons on his shirt. "Anyway, saw one suspicious guy running around Junon in a dark red cape. Had these weird gold boots too, but Dan said something about 'Carnelian' red—" Reno sneered contemptuously as he said it—"So it couldn't have been Genesis."

Cloud was still staring into that corner hard enough that maybe he thought Jenova would pop out. "Dark red cape and gold boots?" he finally murmured.

"Yup." He popped the 'p' on the end.

"That must have been Vincent." Cloud still looked bothered by something else, so he didn't see the incredulous look on Reno's face.

"Who the hell is Vincent?"

Cloud just glanced over for a second, but Reno wasn't going to be swayed that easily into a non-answer. The blond relented when Reno kept staring him down. "I told you about him," he sighed. "Former Turk experimented on by Hojo. I pulled him out of the Shinra Mansion. He used to be in AVALANCHE with me."

Reno gave a half-second's thought to asking more about this Vincent character if he was wandering around, but he had better things to talk about and Cloud's emotionless attitude was getting to him. "Speaking of the Shinra Mansion… a little birdie named Dan might have mentioned you, you know, blowing it up?"

"The Lost Number blew it up."

"And who let whatever-the-hell-the-Lost-Number-is out?" he shot back.

Cloud did that stupid shoulder shrug again. "I had to get rid of the books in the basement where Hojo kept his research. It was easier to let the beast out."

"And the sledgehammer to the reactor? Yeah, Dan told me about finding those remains too. You didn't tell me you went a little crazy redecorating your hometown!"

Cloud's distant gaze sharpened on him, almost as piercing as some of the General's looks. "How did Dan find that?"

Reno narrowed his eyes. "I'm not talking until you tell me what the hell you were thinking destroying a reactor and then hiding that shit from me. You realize that is the farthest from undercover you could go, short of leveling Shinra HQ?"

Cloud turned that burning gaze up about five hundred degrees until Reno looked away. He was a bit worried his jacket might be smoking .

"Jenova was supposed to be there."

"So what, she wasn't and you got pissed and tore it apart? And you said that bitch took you and a small army of the best to kill, and you just went and tried to fight it by yourself?" Reno thought for sure he was the sanest person in their whole cadet class, what with Dan chasing after strange men in forests and now Cloud throwing temper tantrums and picking fights. "You're good Cloud, but not that good."

The blond's fiery stare quickly turned inward with contempt. Reno had just stomped on a touchy subject.

"She wasn't there," he repeated, voice flat and cold. It was a frightening tone Cloud only ever adopted when talking about that she-beast. "I thought Hojo moved her but—"

"I know, jeez," Reno muttered. He'd heard enough variations of this topic to last him the rest of his life and well into the afterlife. "I dug through every goddamn transport file and record I could find going back four months and got a big pile o' nothing." Reno did his best impression of his careless voice, but it never failed to unnerve him seeing Cloud go as cold as Sephiroth. Sometimes it was hard to reconcile the ridiculous chocobo-head cadet with this hardened warrior.

"She shouldn't have been moved," Cloud repeated again, like somehow saying it a hundred times would explain why he'd temporarily hallucinated the monster's disappearance in Nibelheim. "I can't think of why unless Lazard knew and told Hollander."

"Hollander was locked up," Reno reminded him warily.

"Genesis then."

Reno rolled his shoulders. "Well you might be right, but Genesis didn't move that Jenova thing then. Dan followed the ex-First like an idiot right up to the reactor you had destroyed." Cloud didn't ask for an explanation, but his gaze on Reno was glowing a tiny bit now, which was frankly kind of freaky. "Yeah, Dan told me he ran into Genesis in the forest, apparently after he tried to follow you and got lost. Ended up following him to the reactor where Genesis threw a bitch-fit or something before running off. Said it was his mission and asked about Sephiroth and the exam."

Cloud's eyes narrowed but thankfully the heat of his gaze was toned down. It was a kind of menacingly thoughtful look as Cloud ran through a dozen ideas to explain Genesis' behavior.

"So Hollander doesn't have Jenova," Reno said leadingly.

"No, but he's looking," Cloud conceded.

"You said before he never found it," the redhead pointed out.

"That was before. If the timeline matched, then Jenova wouldn't have been moved and Genesis would never have checked the reactor. Someone told him where to look."

"And you're betting it's this Lazard dude." Reno could see the connection. Tuesti had said Lazard had run off after the investigation into the Science Department, so if he'd been fiddling around there he might have stumbled on to something. "What's his motive?"

Cloud's head cocked the barest bit to the side.

"Guy's gotta have a motive. Money? Power? Revenge?"

The blond somehow managed to frown without twitching any facial muscles. "I don't know," he finally said.

"Well you're not gonna get far finding him if you don't know that. I'll see what I can dig up." What Reno meant was he was going to see how much he could twist out of Reeve. He might have to knuckle down and ask the executive about Jenova, especially since Cloud was starting to look edgy enough to do something dangerous and stupid. "Any other news you wanna share with me? Besides making the General and his sidekick even more suspicious?"

Cloud sent him a slightly frosty glare for the jibe, but it lacked the strength of his previous looks. "They know I destroyed the mansion and reactor."

Reno jerked hard enough to slide off the table and had to right himself with the back of a chair. "What? I was kidding, yo! If there's one thing you've been sayin' this whole time it's 'never tell the General' and 'Sephiroth'll snap and destroy the world if he hears a word,' so what the hell? O' course he's gonna be poking 'round the science department now that you pointed him straight there!"

Cloud pushed off the wall, clearly angry, but it was directed at himself and not at Reno. Cloud had cornered the market on self-loathing. "They've put too much of it together. I know I have to cut them off, but their positions are making it difficult."

Reno snorted derisively. "Yeah, it's not their positions. It's your love o' them—and not just your buddy Zack. I'm not an idiot; I've seen you making eyes at the General." Cloud actually colored a bit; just the barest blush high on his cheeks. Reno snickered, inwardly glad to see some of the human come back to the blond. "For the record, I told Dan if he got caught and thrown in jail you'd blow the General to get him out. I gotta keep my promises."

Cloud punched Reno fast enough to catch him off guard and topple him back on to the table. He swore loudly and cradled his stomach even though the blow hadn't hurt that much. It had just knocked the breath out of him. "If that bruises, I'm totally spiking your juice at breakfast," he gasped. "Have fun practicing with your First when you're so high Wonderland seems normal."

Cloud ignored his whining with practiced ease. "If Vincent was in Junon he might be coming this way."

"Isn't that a stupid thing to do if he's a former Turk? Won't someone recognize him?" Reno asked as he massaged his stomach.

"He was a Turk about twenty years ago."

"So was Veld. He's back by the way." Cloud didn't react to the information though; he'd predicted Veld's return. "Well what now? Junon's been attacked and Hollander got away."

"Hollander and Genesis were both taken care of by Zack and Sephiroth."

"So we just magically wait for them to drop dead and then do something?" That didn't sound like a plan at all, and while Cloud had been fine waiting for things to happen before, Reno was getting the sense the blond was growing impatient. Whatever conversation had resulted in the General and Lieutenant General learning about the mansion and reactor looked to have been the last straw and had driven Cloud out of passivity.

"No. Jenova is priority and we need to find her now. If Hollander and Genesis are looking for her too we might be at a disadvantage."

"And here I thought you could predict the future," Reno remarked sarcastically, and then automatically curled up a bit to protect his stomach at Cloud's look. "Okay, okay. I'll check out Lazard and keep my ears sharp. You keep… doing whatever the hell it is you're doing."

"I have to get stronger." Cloud grimaced as he said it because they both knew what the fastest method was. Reno had to get a handful of mako injections himself as a Turk, mostly for speed and resistance to damage, and those hadn't been fun in the least. He'd only gotten a tiny bit of mako compared to what SOLDIERs got. "I can't—" Cloud actually hesitated, starting and stopping for just a moment before his features settled into a grim look. "I can't let Zack and Sephiroth hold me back."

Yup, Zack and Sephiroth had danced on Cloud's tail for too long. Reno was tempted to find out what happened, but given how Cloud's eyes had glowed for a second there Reno didn't feel like trying. "You just better not steal some mako and ask me to give you injections," he joked more lightheartedly.

Cloud blinked slowly at Reno's offhand comment. His reflexive aversion to mako and labs had meant he hadn't even considered procuring mako outside the official injections. Those appointments were spaced roughly every two weeks so that the SOLDIER could become accustomed to the changes in his physique, but Cloud was in fact compensating for the lack of mako. More frequent injections would speed up the process so long as he didn't poison himself…

The venture was incredibly risky, assuming he even got a hold of mako and syringes, but Cloud couldn't help turning it over in his mind, even as he recoiled from the idea of injecting himself with mako.

Only if it truly becomes necessary, he decided.

Reno watched Cloud as the blond's mind spun and felt something in his gut sink. "Okay, try not to do anything too stupid, and call me if you do," Reno said as he hopped off the table. He'd have to keep an eye on the blond if he could; maybe he'd underestimated the lengths Cloud would go—after all, the last time Cloud went on his own he blew up two buildings. "Oh yeah, one last thing." Cloud looked up from his moody contemplation of the floor. Reno rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. "Rude saw me talkin' with Dan, and you know the guy won't say anything, but he's a Turk…"

"Don't tell him."

"Aw man, I wasn't gonna tell him everything. Just a little pokin' and proddin'…" Cloud was still giving him that unmoved look that said with utter certainly he would happily stab Reno if he spilled too much. Better to just get it all out then. "Look, Rude's been a Turk for a long time, and he's discreet. I give him enough to chew on and he might even help. I give him nothing to chew on, and he'll probably figure some of it out for himself and make it worse." Reno paused for a moment, and then just figured what the hell and said it: "Like how you gave the General nothing and now he's pulling teeth without anesthesia."

Cloud's look turned rather icy for a beat before the frost cracked. "Fine, but give as little as you can."

"Yes, sir," Reno mock-saluted, pleased. Cloud rolled his eyes, the most human he'd been the whole meeting.

"I gave Sephiroth and Zack something to bite on, by the way," he said casually. "Since they got the mansion and reactor figured out."

"See, you can learn," Reno shot back as he waltzed out the door.


Cloud was careful the rest of the week to maintain distance from Zack. They had training together on Wednesday that was both unavoidable and painful for Cloud. Zack hadn't said anything about Sunday's dinner, but he did ask some pointed questions about Monday's mission so Cloud knew he'd read the report. He also assigned a few exercises that tested resistance strength and endurance specifically. Cloud didn't let himself read into it, and just did his best to remain blank-faced. Zack didn't hide how it hurt his feelings, but he knew better than to address it directly.

It wasn't how Cloud wanted things to be with his friend, but he'd dilly-dallied enough.

The last two days at least meant training with the squad, and Cloud pushed himself hard enough to make breathing almost an exhausting exercise. The rest of the guys had gone out for drinks tonight, but even on a Friday Cloud was training. All his work didn't save him from a dream about Sephiroth last night though, his silvery hair pooled around Cloud's thighs and his mouth—

Brring. Brring.

Cloud lowered the buster sword he was practicing with and resisting jamming it into the floor when he realized where his thoughts had strayed. Instead he roughly grabbed his PHS out of his bag. He glanced at the screen, prepared to ignore it if it was Zack, but instead it read "BLOCKED NUMBER".

The blond hesitated as he stared at the screen. A blocked number could be anyone, including Sephiroth, which made his hand clench tight enough on the phone that if he'd had a little more mako he would have broken it. It could be Reno though too, calling from a Turk line.

Not liking his own indecision, Cloud answered.

"It's me."

Cloud's grip on the sword relaxed for the first time in days it seemed. He glanced around the empty training room and spied a small camera in the upper left corner. No guarantee his PHS wasn't tapped either.

"Heard you were nearby."

"Regrouping," Vincent replied, being deliberately vague. Then he hung up as abruptly as he'd called. Vincent had never quite gotten the hang of phone etiquette. Not that Cloud made a good teacher either.

The blond trained until midnight with new vigor, mind on a loop of what Vincent had found that prompted him to come to Midgar. Had he found Jenova? Cloud flexed his hands and hoped so, even if he wasn't sure he had the strength to deal with her if she woke. Maybe he'd just steal a mastered Fire materia and burn her for as long and hot as he could stand? That is, if his magic ability remained as far above average as it had been…

Come Saturday, Cloud woke to catch the first train out in the morning so he could avoid everyone but the last, sleepiest, nightshift. At this point the other three Thirds he bunked with were used to his long hours, so none of them stirred when he dressed in the most casual uniform he had, tucked the dagger he'd gotten with Reno months ago into his boot, and left.

When he arrived at Aeris' church it was still covered in morning shadow, the stained glass windows dull without sunlight. The air in the slums was icy this early on a January morning, but at least one benefit of winter was how much less the garbage stank.

Cloud knew not even Aeris would be here this early. Vincent didn't sleep much though—he was as haunted as Cloud, if not more so, so it was no surprise to see the ex-Turk waiting quietly inside. He sat at the end of a pew in the shadow of one of the columns. With his dark hair and clothes he would have been easy to miss if he hadn't turned just a hint at the sound of the wooden door opening. Cloud crossed the creaking floor and joined him.

"You'll want to watch this," Vincent said without preamble. He handed over a small flash drive without explanation.

Cloud flipped open his PHS and connected the drive in the universal port. It took a few seconds to load, but then the black screen cleared to a fuzzy, grey security video of the main entrance of the Golden Saucer.

He hadn't known what to expect, but the moment Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo crossed the screen Cloud felt a chill descend on him that stopped even the shudder up his spine. He watched as Kadaj confronted a guard and then became aggravated enough to lash out. His mako-enhanced strength was no match for a regular human, and the resulting clash was brutally short.

When the video cut out, Cloud just stared at the black screen.

Another obstacle, she'd said.

Your destiny is to be a hero, she'd predicted.

She'd said the very words in this church. Called him the one thing he wasn't and no longer wished to be.

Cloud gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. So be it.


"It's been too long," Reeve said warmly as Reno kicked open the rooftop door.

"Yeah, I wouldn't recommend a holiday to Junon anytime soon."

Reeve smiled back disarmingly. He was wrapped in a thick wool coat with an austere green scarf that made him look startlingly sophisticated next to Reno's rumpled outfit and a slightly too-large jacket. He'd stolen it off a regulation soldier who had pissed him off one too many times as a cadet.

"You've gotten the official report from Junon, right?" Reno asked, moving to the railing to look down at the dark city. Midgar had a lot of lights, but the black steel it was made out of seemed to suck them all in.

"Of course," Reeve replied.

"Then you'll know half of it's bullshit."

"Most Turk operations seem to require… artful additions and omissions to any report."

"Well Hollander got out, and he had the help of an army of Genesis clones." Reno thought it was a fair to assume Tuesti already knew that.

"So they really were clones?" he asked mildly, like that kind of bizarre experimentation was an everyday thing for him. He had been at Shinra for a long time though.

"No, just fifty identical copies of Genesis with wings." Reno replied sarcastically.

"I see…"

"The bigger question is why now?" Reno continued on, stuffing his hands into his sleeves. He hadn't thought to steal gloves. Maybe he'd swipe Tseng's the next time the man left his office. "Hollander's been there awhile."

"It could be a reason as mundane as lack of manpower or inside information," Reeve offered. Reno couldn't be sure if he'd said the last option on purpose of it was just a lucky break, but that was exactly the opening Reno was hoping for.

"Inside information like Lazard's? Ex-director of SOLDIER would know a lot of things." Reno maintained a casual voice even though they both knew that was anything but a casual remark.

"His information would be several months old," Reeve reminded him mildly.

"And how fast does the Science Department move?" Reno commented, and Reeve shifted in place and played it off like the wind has slipped into his jacket.

"Science takes time, as results have to be confirmed and duplicated before any policy or initiative can be implemented." It was a company line, which Reeve and Reno both knew. The redhead could have left it at that, but Reeve was obviously testing to see what he wanted to know.

"What about finished projects? Shinra got warehouses full of those?"

Reeve turned fully away from the railing to really look at Reno. "This isn't a normal line of inquiry for you. The Turks aren't usually involved in anything that isn't ongoing and sensitive."

"Well Lazard's desertion is ongoing and sensitive," Reno diverted, glad he'd opened with that and not Jenova. He was still feeling out how far he could push about Hojo. Tuesti wasn't a bad guy for an executive, and he sure as hell beat Scarlet or Heidegger, but Reno had few doubts that stirring up Jenova would be like stirring up a hornet's nest—only the hornets had Hojo's needles.

"Ah," Reeve said knowingly, but Reno couldn't be sure if he'd bought the excuse. "So Lazard and Hollander? There were suspicions he was funneling information to the other scientist, but I was doubtful."

"Yeah?"

"Lazard was… a free-thinker. I admired him for his beliefs, even as he hid them to rise up the ranks."

"And what kind of free-thinking was he doing?" Reno asked, sensing Lazard's motive would be related to whatever Reeve said next.

Tuesti's gaze focused downward on the plate. "Tseng was perfectly aware of course, as most of us were in some way or another, that Lazard sympathized with the lower class people. He was also… not fond of the reactors."

Company grudge. That was the motive: revenge or a desire to destroy Shinra Co. Why Lazard would go through Hollander to do it was the unanswered question.

"I should think that would not be news," Reeve added in the silence that followed. He'd deliberately mentioned Tseng, indicating he knew perfectly well Reno wasn't officially in charge of the investigation.

Reno tried anyway. "He stole scientific info and then deserted. If he isn't with Dr. Hollander then where is he? Sittin' on a beach in Costa del Sol?" It wasn't a great diversion from Reeve's unasked question, and the executive looked nonplussed at the redhead.

"That would be the question to ask the Turks."

Reno shot him an un-amused look.

"The real question, Reno, is why you ask to begin with. I happen to know the two Turks assigned to Lazard's missing status and they are not you and your partner, Rude." Reeve's look turned a bit more piercing, but he had nothing on Cloud. "So what is it you're really asking about?"

Reno groaned at losing the game and leaned over the railing to spit. Here's to hoping it landed on Tseng's head.

"Nothing I think I can pay for," he admitted.

"Shouldn't I determine that?"

"Not if payment starts with the first word." Reno had to think a moment about how to approach this. "Alright, how about this? You tell me what you really want from these talks, and I'll get down to what I really want." Reeve paused, then calmly rested his elbow on the railing and leaned to the side so he could look at Reno more directly, but otherwise remained silent. "I know you don't agree with Shinra and I think these chats are your way of keeping tabs. And 'cuz you're bored."

"You aren't wrong," Reeve replied, and this time his ease was a little tenser than normal.

"But how far are you pushing to de-stabilize the company? Lazard just the tip of your iceberg?"

"Lazard, for all of his intelligence and acumen, was also one for bold measures. Most believe he wants to tear the company down starting from the top. He is the illegitimate son of the President after all."

Reno digested that anecdote—no doubt given free of charge because Reeve wanted to win him over a little—but that didn't answer the question. "So what? You want to remake Shinra? Without the Shinras and the sketchy activities? On the straight and narrow?"

Reeve looked Reno in the eye and straightened a bit. Reno's loyalties (mostly to himself) were easy to understand, and he had distaste for the company, but the redhead also had questionable ethics, along with ambition and cleverness that made him ideal for the Turks. But they also made him a difficult ally. However, Reno had already guessed most of Reeve's motives anyway and was still coming to these conversations, which meant Reeve still had leverage in terms of information. The Turks might hoard most information, but they didn't share it lightly even amongst themselves.

"Essentially yes. Shinra could only be changed from outside by the most extreme of events, but other than the people who benefit most, many insiders in Shinra are not much happier. We may have electricity and technologies only dreamed of a decade ago, but people signed away their freedom to a corporation they can't control. AVALANCHE represents the visible and extreme side of these feelings, specifically because of Shinra's propaganda machine, but there are plenty of grassroots groups that would see the company ended or accountable to the people."

It was a speech Reeve had never tested on anyone before, but there wasn't any incredulousness or skepticism on Reno's face.

"Anyone in the slums could tell you the same," Reno shrugged. "Everyone's got a gripe with Shinra, but with SOLDIER around no one's picking fights except AVALANCHE."

Reeve tucked that tidbit about SOLDIER away. He'd known on a logical level that SOLDIER frightened most would-be rebels away, but Reno had confirmed the importance of splitting the military branch from the company to win public support. No private group should ever own an army to begin with.

"So all those questions about Turk activities, SOLDIER stuff, and 'specially the slums you were just, what, feeling out the crowd? Your side and Shinra's side?" Reno sounded genuinely curious.

"I have insights as a member of the executive board within Shinra and have garnered a lot of sympathy and respect for being somewhat of an outlier among my peers. However SOLDIER, the Turks, and especially the working people are much harder to see," Reeve admitted. Reno had been invaluable in that regard, cutting through the illusions. He'd been the one to confirm what Reeve had suspected for years about Sephiroth's divided loyalties, though how he'd known some details about the General, Reeve was probably better off not knowing. "So I believe you have your answer. As for you, Reno, I know you are insatiably curious, and you've freely admitted more than once that knowledge is power. So tell me Reno, what secret do I know that you want?"

There were a dozen different things that came to mind when Reeve considered some of Shinra's most buried secrets. Shinra's entire company history was pretty much a lie on its face, and there were a hundred scientific, military, and energy projects that were shrouded under a hundred layers of confidentiality. He knew intimacies about board members and other major citizens of the world, and a lot of dark secrets that even he hadn't known about until he'd started asking the right questions recently.

"It's related to the Science Department."

Reeve nodded, not surprised. "They are the halls of many of Shinra's secrets."

"If I wanna get in there without being detected, how do I do it?" Reno asked frankly. He'd stopped looking angrily down at Midgar and switched to an arrogant stance.

"Would you be looking for some thing," Reeve said slowly, because Reno had been clear about knowledge being power.

"Well I am looking for some thing," Reno replied surly. "But I'm pretty damn sure it'll be on a closed server."

Reeve didn't really need to consider much. The chances of Reno's actions bolstering the Science Department were slim, so whether it hurt it or didn't affect it at all, Reeve could still benefit from helping the redhead.

"Well… the upper science floors are mostly empty now. That's where Lazard breached a computer according to the Turk report, so there's nothing there. If you were thinking of accessing Hojo's files I couldn't help you with that, but the underground laboratory levels are reached by an elevator." Reeve watched the play of emotions across Reno's face. Some made sense and some didn't. "It would help if I knew what you were looking for," Reeve coaxed. He was curious now, more than he had been in a long time.

"An' I got a feeling if I'm gonna have to hack Hojo's own damn computer to find it, then I'd have to kill you before I could pay you," Reno replied, very obviously unwilling to tell.

Reeve had to seriously consider what he said next, because he'd had an idea. However, it would make him a much more direct player in all of this if he acted on it. There was risk to be sure, but the Science Department was the second biggest department of the company, with the military being the largest. Cutting that necrotic arm off the corporation one day was going to be difficult enough without some groundwork.

Reno was already starting to walk back to the rooftop access door when Reeve stopped him. "I may be able to help you, Reno, but you'll have to help me too."


A week after the dinner with Sephiroth and Zack, Cloud could say he felt both accomplished and somewhat miserable.

He'd successfully avoided the General and Zack for most of the week, even if he was currently reduced to hiding out in the pool changing rooms after one of his bunkmates had mentioned Zack swinging by asking for him. Cloud didn't trust himself to turn down an invitation to hang out with Zack or Sephiroth. He'd found it hard enough to put his foot down when it came to Tifa's requests.

He and Vincent had talked about a lot of things when he'd visited the day before, but once the topic of Hollander, Jenova, and the remnants had been exhausted, Cloud found himself unloading a few of his other worries on the ex-Turk. Vincent made an excellent listener, even if he almost never offered any comments or advice—at least until Cloud told him about that last practice with Zack.

"I'm… distancing myself from them. I have to until Jenova is gone."

Vincent didn't respond, just leaning against the wall and staring down at the floor like he had for most of the conversation. Cloud found it easy to half-ignore him and speak; this way he didn't feel like he was going mad talking to himself.

"I see… motives in everything they do. Zack asked me about the magic I did on the Monday mission. He tested me on reflexes, high-activity endurance, and raw strength. Before… I wouldn't have second-guessed him."

Vincent stirred for just a moment, drawing Cloud's eye to the tatters of his red cape. Yuffie had always thought Vincent had let rats nibble on it while he'd been sleeping under the mansion, but Cloud thought the cape looked more like it had been clawed by Galian Beast.

"…Sounds like mako acclimation testing," Vincent murmured. "Have you checked your results?"

Cloud stared out across the pews to the front of the church thinking with dread of what that meant. He hadn't checked a single result of his mako tests, just assumed that no direct response meant nothing special. If something did come up though, then the experimentation he'd told them about would undoubtedly make them worry. Not enough to seriously call him before Sephiroth—one official order to see the General would have Harke dragging him there—but enough that they would want to keep a tighter leash on him.

"Your eyes have a hint," Vincent said into his cowl. He wasn't looking at Cloud, but there was no doubt what he'd meant. This body may not have been the one Cloud had in the future, but it somehow hadn't forgotten mako either.

Cloud shrugged away the mess of emotions all those thoughts dredged up. He knew Zack and Sephiroth were worried about him, and both were hyper-attuned to any mako related deviations from the norm, but that meant he had to stay away all the more. They might try to get him to agree to more tests, or to be there at the actual injection, or worst… bar him from getting the injections to begin with.

The blond rocked to his feet from the slightly wet bench he'd been sitting on. He wasn't normally prone to pacing, but this time his boots splashed in the shallow puddles of the pool's changing rooms. He feared the terrible idea he'd had before was going to be necessary.

He wasn't strong enough to deal with Jenova alone if she wasn't totally comatose, and now he had the three remnants to contend with too. His magic ability wasn't as reliable as before, and Zack and Sephiroth were on to him anyway.

This idea was… incredibly dangerous, but he'd sworn to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to destroy Jenova before she destroyed half the world and all of Cloud's important people. Even if that sacrifice was injecting himself with his own nightmares.

Cloud pulled out his PHS and dialed Reno's number. It was Sunday night so that meant Reno probably wasn't at a bar, but he wouldn't be surprised if the redhead had found his way there anyway.

"Yo, Department of Administrative Research. Thank you for joining our hit list, how may I help you?"

Cloud sighed. Reno spent much of his free time coming up with as many creative ways to answer the phone as he could—and did it twice as loudly in the office when he knew Tseng was around. How Reno and Tseng worked smoothly together in Cloud's future the blond didn't know, but in some of his darker moments he wondered if he'd unintentionally sabotaged their relationship.

"Yo, Cloud? I can feel the glare from here so you can stop now."

"I need to get into the labs."

Cloud could hear Reno groan on the other end. Then there was the sound of springs and two boots dragging on the floor. "Well at least you called me before you did somethin' stupid," Reno muttered to himself. "It's your lucky day, because I gotta go there anyway and I've got some help."

"Help?" Cloud repeated skeptically.

"Yeah, and didn't have to sleep with him either. Just promise to drop a virus in the science accounting computers—by the way, I got Rude to teach me how to scramble all my phone calls and I did your PHS too. And no, I didn't have to spill your whole life story. You're welcome."

Cloud didn't bother to verbalize his gratitude, but it did make him wonder for just a second what might have happened if he'd been smarter about handling Sephiroth and Zack. Then he promptly remembered that Reno had zero history with Rude yet, and Cloud knew too much of Zack and Sephiroth's history to ever treat them with equanimity.

"Meet me on the bottom of the exterior stairwell," Reno continued after waiting an inappropriately long amount of time for the thanks he wasn't going to get. "You know the one."

Cloud hung up and immediately headed to the training hall where the weapons were stored and grabbed his buster sword. One of his squad mates tried to flag him down, but Cloud ignored him and briskly left before anyone else could see him. He headed the long way around the cadet bunker so he didn't take a direct path to the side of Shinra Headquarters, arriving five minutes later at the very same staircase he and AVALANCHE had climbed fifty-nine floors before. Somehow the thing had lasted another five years before Cloud had raced up it with AVALANCHE, but it looked as rickety as ever.

The last thing Cloud expected to see as he rounded the front of the staircase was Cait Sith sitting patiently on his stuffed moogle. It jumped to life when Cloud came into view.

"Hello there! You're lookin' down! How 'bout I read your fortune! A happy fortune!"

Cloud stared at Cait Sith—no wait, Reeve Tuesti—as the robotic cat jumped eagerly around on top of the moogle waving its megaphone. He felt bizarrely nostalgic at first glance at the whole animatronic, especially at the offer of a fortune, and then almost as soon as he registered the nostalgia he realized how bad this might be. Reeve had been spying on AVALANCHE in the beginning after all.

Cloud glanced at the ground hoping to see cigarette butts or something to indicate anyone else came around here, but there wasn't even much in the way of garbage. It was too late to walk away clearly.

"Aw come on! I've got a great fortune-telling machine, and while I can't promise good predictions it'll be fun! Whaddya say?"

"No thanks," he muttered, hoping Reno wouldn't take too long. Was this the help he was talking about? Was Reeve Tuesti getting involved directly this early on?

"Lemme be nice and give you one anyway!" Cait Sith declared, and before Cloud could even refuse the robotic cat was shoving a slip of paper into his hand. "Well, go ahead!"

Cloud sighed as he unfolded the paper. "Be careful of… forgetfulness. Your lucky color is green." The irony of the words was almost too strong. Cloud eyed the cat distrustfully, as though he could see Reeve through it. If Reno was working with Reeve this closely, then how much had the redhead told him?

"No, no, let me try again! That wasn't a good one. You'll see!" Cait Sith repeated the procedure under Cloud's harsh gaze and pulled out a second piece of paper. "Okay! Try this one!"

Cloud read this one reluctantly too. "What you pursue will be yours. But you will lose something dear."

He pinched the paper so tight it was liable to rip. This was the same fortune he'd gotten before when he'd first met Cait Sith, there was no doubt. Last time… no. Aeris won't be involved at all. It must mean AVALANCHE. I have to give up AVALANCHE so there's never a reason to form it.

"Bad fortune?" Reno asked, openly snickering as he approached. Of course he would find it funny that Cloud, who knew the future, was getting offered his own fortune.

"No surprises," Cloud bit off. He couldn't help feeling unsettled though, since Reeve had told him years later Cait Sith's fortunes were randomly generated. To get the same two fortunes years apart… and two eerily correct ones made him very wary.

"So this is Tuesti's… uh, buddy." Reno introduced, waving at Cait Sith on the moogle. "Some kinda A.I. I think. He showed me before and my fortune told me to avoid raw fish. Guess I'm not stealing Tseng's lunch tomorrow. Anyway, I got a little help with the cameras—" Reno winked, so it was probably Rude. How he'd managed to convince the stoic Turk, Cloud didn't bother to ask—"And Reeve swears that as long as I scratch his back he'll make sure we can get in no problem. But we'll only have about five minutes, ten max, before someone gets suspicious."

That was plenty of time for Cloud, but he didn't say that. Reno eyed him warily nonetheless. "You gonna tell me what you're going down to the labs for or am I gonna have to guess?"

Cloud grimaced. "I think you can guess well enough."

"You're crazy," Reno swore, shaking his head. "You're gonna kill yourself or worse. They'll send your SOLDIER buddy after you."

Reno was striking too close to home. It was a huge risk what he was doing, and Cloud didn't even know if he would be able to inject himself with mako. He might have flashbacks or a seizure at just holding the syringe. Angry and frustrated and unable to kill anything with his sword, he turned his searing look on Cait Sith.

"Don't look at me!" the cat yelped, waving it's hands in the air. "I gotta plead ignorance to the judge!"

"And what are you looking for?" Cloud asked, jerking his head at the cat. He hoped Reeve was watching on the other side and feeling suitably uncomfortable.

"Same thing you're hoping: to play Jenga with Shinra," Reno interrupted. "Look, Tuesti doesn't know what you or me are lookin' for so stop interrogating a machine. We got a minute 'til the cameras start their loop, and we don't wanna miss that."

Things really were accelerating, Cloud thought as they started walking, the moogle doing its strange hop. First Lazard's disappearance and now Reeve's morality rearing its head. Cloud couldn't be sure how all of those factors would react after Jenova was gone—if they did at all.

Cait Sith led the way through the fire door—which Reno had dismantled the alarm on—and through a side corridor to a small elevator. "There's two elevators, but this one's the slow one. Most employees don't use it because it's so slow," Cait Sith was saying. Reno was looking over the whole corridor.

"Funny, this is part of the exterior wall on the blueprints," he said drolly.

"You don't actually believe those do you?" Cloud replied, still eyeing the cat and moogle. There was likely more to the virus Reeve wanted Reno to insert into the computer system, which Cloud would be sure to ask Reno about afterwards. If Reeve was aiming to remake the WHO out of Shinra, then Cloud wasn't going to get in his way. The Science Department would have to come down anyway.

The elevator dinged forlornly as it arrived, and the light inside flickered ominously before it finally decided on staying lit.

"SOLDIERs first," Reno said with a nudge, and Cloud stepped in before the other two crowded after. Cloud stood at the front just in case anything came through the door, and the overhead light sputtered as the elevator started to descend.

Cloud watched the numbers on the cracked glass count down:

Ground Floor

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.

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Basement Level One

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.

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Basement Level Two

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Basement Level Three

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U1