A/N: I must say that I am sorry. It seems that summer and fall has done away with me and now I know not where my body lies. (sigh) Nor my mind. (I have been lagging as of late.)

I feel severely disappointed in myself, letting down all those who have awaited my work, but I just haven't been able to find a motivator. Yes, it saddens me to say but I am unsure whether the time between each chapter will increase throughout or stop entirely.

Well, for now, I've spurred myself to try and get the next chapter going. Hopefully people will be satisfied with that. Though, I have absolutely no idea where I am going with this.

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy will always be better off where it is. It is not mine but all of the other extra characters are. (Including Rayleigh's personality ^~^! I only borrowed the name and the situation.)

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Chapter 16

Rufus thrummed his fingers on the table impatiently, wondering if the Turks had found Hojo's whereabouts yet as he looked to the clock. It was six p.m. and getting late. Cloud hadn't woken up yet. He sighed, wondering if he should have let off letting Cloud know about his feelings but…he didn't want to lose to Sephiroth, of all people. Any fool who saw the General would know just how infatuated he was with Cloud. Otherwise, as Reeve had embarrassingly mentioned in his self mutterings, people would soon know by word. Frowning, he leaned back against his seat and crossed his arms. To compete with the General in a field other than war was going to be…interesting.

"It seems your mind is occupied." Rufus looked up to find Lazard seating himself beside him. He had a tray of bagels and was currently slathering one with cream cheese. An amused smile made its way onto his mouth. "This is the first time I've seen you look so determined, Rufus."

Rufus scowled and leaned a little forward. "What do you think of Sephiroth?"

Lazard blinked. "Is that what you are going for?" he asked surprised before laughing. "I never knew!"

"No!" Rufus burst, "Of course not!"

Lazard shrugged in good humor and took a bite out of his bagel. "Then what is bothering you?"

Rufus looked at him reluctantly, "Sephiroth is infatuated with Cloud!" he answered hotly.

"…As are you…"

"But I feel I don't have much of a chance." He continued strongly, "Sephiroth has…occupied his mind for ages."

Lazard took the time to finish his bagel before answering. "But you are now President and the most influential being on the planet."

"And Sephiroth is its face!" He grimaced, taking a deep breath. He settled down a little and rubbed his forehead. "I am not a fighter, nor could I ever hope to be superior to Sephiroth, but…"

"Hm…you have your charms, Rufus." Lazard simply stated. "You have smarts. You can use those to your advantage." He chuckled. "Let me point out that, while you have confidence in your abilities, Sephiroth is still but a novice in this field. He has had no previous experience in pursuing a love interest. Rather, he has had the greater experience in denying it."

"You mean, he has never agreed to go out with one of those fans of his?" Rufus raised his eyebrow skeptically, "I find that hard to believe."

"Whatever you may think, Sephiroth does not find much in just a pretty face and a box of chocolates." He finished off his last bagel and pushed the plate away. Then he sat up and sighed in content. "No matter how unlimited his little…group may be."

He sighed again, doubting whether his charms would be able to help him out on this one, and fell back in his seat. He didn't know what else to say. All was fair in love and war, it seemed. "…We'll see…" he finally replied.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Sephiroth paced restlessly back and forth in his room. He couldn't allow Rufus to get any closer to Cloud. But, what could he do? Kill his President? He shook his head. No, that wasn't an option. He sighed. He had no experience in the least in things like romance or courting someone. How was he supposed to go about doing this when there was no one else to help him either? This was becoming very hopeless, fast.

He sat on the bed and put his head in his hands. Maybe there was someone he could consult…but, no. The last time he had tried, Zack had definitely been given the wrong impression. It looked like he was going to be tackling this on his own this time. Or perhaps, Scarlet? Now that would be the second most regretful action he could take. They would never allow him to live it down if he were to be seen asking a woman for guidance in the field of love…

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Genesis shot up from his bed when the sound of an explosion started ringing in his ears. There was no way anyone would act that quickly, especially given that most people would take the time to think their battle strategy through. He growled in frustration. Whoever was attacking them would regret it soon enough.

He stood quickly and headed out the door, grabbing his coat and swinging it on, on his way out. He strapped his sword to his belt and rounded the corner at the end of the hall, where he was met up with a very sleepy looking Zack, whose hair stuck up in odd angles and frazzled ends, and Sephiroth, who looked exactly like he had the day before. "What happened?" he asked them both, irritated. "Who in their right mind would attack us this early in the morning?"

Zack's hand reached over his shoulder and readjusted the sword strapped to his back, "Who knows." He grumbled, mussing up his hair and shaking his head. The spikes straightened themselves out into proper order. "I just had the strangest dream of getting shot down by a firing squad and suddenly, a bomb explosion goes off right outside my window!"

"Damn it." Genesis cursed, "Just when I thought we would see a bit of rest." He glanced around. "Where's Cloud?"

"I think he's still sleeping."

Genesis turned to Sephiroth and noted the tense muscles and stiff jaw. Even his eyes seemed particularly hard today. "Has something happened, Sephiroth? It seems you have not seen a good night's rest."

He stared down at him with a frown. "I will once I see this is all over."

He left it at that with a shrug as they turned the corner to see the front doors before them. One of the double doors was open and swinging lightly from the blast. They rushed outside. What they saw made them pause. There was a huge crater in front of the steps, a dancing Hollander right in the center of it, singing and twisting this way and that with a crazed look in his eyes.

"I found him, I found him~" he sang.

"Hollander!" Genesis yelled, infuriated. "You dare oppose us here?"

Sephiroth held him back from charging with a hand to his chest. "Wait." He said silently, never taking his eyes off of the lost scientist.

"Why?" he glared, "This man has done us more harm than good. He is to blame!"

Sephiroth ignored him and stepped a bit closer. "Why are you here, Hollander?" he asked.

Hollander stopped dancing and the smile dripped off from his features. He stared at Sephiroth as though he were some incomprehensible bug and cocked his head to one side, a thumb to his lips. "Why?" he asked, "Why?" he repeated, over and over and over.

"Enough of this, Sephiroth." Genesis hissed, "He no longer understands reason. Let us finish him off before this becomes more troublesome."

"Wait a second." Zack distracted them both by pointing a finger towards Hollander with a look of horror on his face. "W-What's happening to him?"

Both Sephiroth and Genesis looked back at Hollander and saw him grow in shape. It was repulsive, his muscles bubbled unequally, masses of form simply surging up on one side then the next, all the while with him continuing his 'why' chant. Hollander was becoming a monster, one that was a good two times bigger than they were.

"So it was too late." Genesis took a step back and braced his hand on the hilt of his sword. It was uncomfortable even looking up at the thing. It was straining his neck. "He's lost himself completely."

Both Zack and Sephiroth drew their swords as well and positioned themselves from battle. "Protect the house," Sephiroth ordered. "If we lose it, there is nowhere for us to go."

They both nodded.

"Why?" Hollander growled, his voice came from the muzzle of a deformed beast with purple skin and sickening orange eyes. "Why?" he repeated, his forearms gaining muscles beyond possible and claws curling at the end of his hands. "Why." He howled, the sickening pop of his spine as it shifted into a curve and a tail that grew to thump angrily on the floor. "Why!" he roared as he took the form of a beast and forgot the form of a man. Little black wings sprouted behind his all too huge back.

"Watch out!" Zack yelled as the claws of who was once known as professor Hollander struck out at them.

All three of them jumped out of the way, only to skid backwards to dodge the tail that swung after them. Sephiroth was the first to regain his footing and jumped onto the tail that had swung to strike him. He took its momentum to run up the base of the spine and stab his sword down in an arc. The monster reared out in a roar, claw reaching back on its pivotal joints to claw at him. He deflected it with the sharp side of his sword and the claw receded with its newfound wound.

"Sephiroth!" Genesis yelled from dodging the claw again. "Aim for its neck!"

He nodded, racing up its spine and slashed at its back on the way. This time, though, the beast was prepared and he fell to his side onto a roll, effectively forcing Sephiroth off its back. Sephiroth hit the ground and charged, driving his sword through the ribcage of the beast as it attempted to stand.

"I got it!" Zack yelled from under the beast's neck ad swung down as hard as he could. The beast paused, as if frozen for just a second, and gave Zack the time to look back at the cut he made. But, there was no cut at all, not even a bruise. "What?" he looked at the beast in disbelief, "I could've sworn I cut it."

"Move it, puppy! He's changing shape again!" Genesis butted him out of the way as the beast fell to the floor in a whoosh of dust.

True enough, they watched as the purple skin shifted to orange and the orange eyes gave way to white pupils. Then the sickening pops of bones shifting was heard and the beast thrashed this way and that, forming spikes at the base of its skull while the snout became longer and covered itself with scales. Its teeth elongated into fine sharp points and its claws grew exceedingly as the fur around his legs gave way to white feathers. All in all, it seemed their battle had just become more difficult.

"Ugh," Zack gagged. "What is that smell?"

"Better get used to it, puppy." Genesis covered his nose with the sleeve of his coat. "I just hope that stench won't rub off on me."

Sephiroth looked towards Genesis as the beast attempted to stand, drool dribbling to splash acid onto the floor. "Cast long range magic." He said calmly, apparently unfazed by the horrific beast before them, "Use Fire and Lightning, if you carry it."

Genesis scoffed, "Who do you take me for, my friend? I specialize in materia." He pulled his arm back and a red flame started glowing around his hand. "All that awaits you is a somber morrow, no matter where the winds may blow!" He yelled as he hurled the fireballs at Hollander. They swerved in every which direction and exploded once they came within contact of the beast's skin.

They jumped back from the heat wave of the attack and covered their faces from the smoke. The smell of burnt flesh came up to meet them as they tried to determine the status of the beast. "It's not dead." Zack grimaced, glaring at the bulk of the beast move from under the assault.

"We'll just have to hit it with a stronger move. Stand aside," he sheathed his sword and stepped out onto the clearing. There he drew back both his arms and doubled the amount of fires aimed at the beast.

The beast roared, shooting its head out through the smoke to snap his jaws at Genesis. He quickly stepped back and fired a couple more rounds into its maw. But he kept coming, swiping his claws as he went as well, and Sephiroth saw that they too dripped poison. "Keep outside its range, Genesis." Sephiroth grimaced.

"I hear you." Genesis nodded, jumping out of the way and landing right beside Sephiroth again. He huffed, "But we'll need to use something more powerful to bring it down."

"What about those summons?" Zack ran up to them from trying to scar the hind legs, unsuccessfully. He wiped the sweat on his brow and said in short erratic pants, "You know…those things Cloud had."

"Summons? Cloud has?" he quirked a brow, "Fascinating."

"What, don't you two carry any?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I do not carry summons."

Genesis smirked. "He has no need. But I do have some," he reached into his coat and pulled a red sphere from within. "This one is Phoenix."

He drew his hand into the air until a brilliant red light surrounded them. With a burst of fire, Phoenix flew from his hand and into the air. Sephiroth shook his head. "Always playing with fire…"

Genesis chuckled. "Of course."

Zack watched as the bird of fire soared through the sky right above the beast's head. The beast had gone on a rampage, no longer in control of Hollander's thoughts and empty of reason. It simply went on instinct. "Well, if you're going to do something you'd better do it fast." He took an involuntary step back. "I think he wants to eat us…"

Sure enough, when Genesis looked back, the beast was reared on hind legs. It dropped to a crouch, hard enough to shake the floor, before snarling softly and charging with a loud roar. "Phoenix!" Genesis indicated towards the beast with a wave of his hand. At that, Phoenix screeched from the high sky and dove down towards the great massive hulk of orange. Just before reaching it, Phoenix reared backwards and spewed out a roll of fire, completely engulfing the beast until the smell of decaying flesh smelt burnt to a crisp.

"Well, that's…highly unpleasant." Genesis coughed, waving the smoke around his eyes.

"You over exaggerate." Sephiroth deadpanned, walking to the charred flesh and tapping parts of the beast with the end of his sword. It lay unmoving in the dirt, eyes open and jaw slack. It was dead.

Zack came over dusting his pants of the dirt he had gathered when he had fallen backwards with the aftershock of the blast. "Now, how are we going to clean this up?" he coughed and choked. "I'd hate to be the one hauling that thing around."

"What happened?" There was a silence until all three of them turned to the sound of the voice coming from the doorway.

"Cloud!" Zack bounded up to him. "Did you sleep well?"

Cloud shook his head and rubbed his hair, "Who could sleep with all this noise?" he glanced at the other two. "Morning exercise?"

Genesis laughed and Sephiroth smiled but they shook their heads. "No." Sephiroth simply said.

"Well, it did clear the sleep out of our heads." Genesis nodded.

"Hey, Cloud, listen." Zack piped up. "You won't believe this but that thing used to be Hollander." He said cheerily, "That's one less person we have to worry about."

"What?" Cloud looked towards the beast with incomprehensible eyes and frowned.

Sephiroth watched as the emotions shifted behind Cloud's eyes and couldn't help but notice how pale Cloud seemed in the light morning sunlight. Was Cloud still tired? Or was there something else that was bothering him? And, when had he eaten? It didn't really bother Genesis or him whether they ate for a couple days or not but Cloud? If the past was any indication, Cloud ate a lot more than the average person. If that was so, and he was too pale because he hadn't eaten, when had been the last time he had?

"We should tell the others." Cloud suddenly spoke up, breaking him from his thoughts. "Reeve will want to know. He should be able to create a machine to fix everything up."

"Have you had breakfast, Cloud?" Sephiroth looked beside him to see that Genesis had mirrored his thoughts. And when Cloud shook his head, Genesis grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to where Sephiroth knew the dining room to be. He simply followed along.

-.-.-.-.-.-

Rufus had ordered everybody to meet in a large empty room right beside the dining room, where they had situated breakfast. So, here they all sat, with eggs, bacon, or bagels in their hands, all waiting for the last of the people to grab their food and come in. Cloud sat on the floor with his legs crossed and munched on a cinnamon raison bagel with quite a lot of cream cheese while Genesis pulled up and stool and sat behind him, draping himself over Cloud like he was a table.

Sephiroth was having a hard time accepting this and glared daggers at Genesis, who merely smirked back in reply before petting the top of Cloud's head like he would do to a kitten. It made him even angrier and made him want Cloud to be his, and his alone, even more. Then, nobody would dare touch him.

Zack had loaded his plate with everything above and beyond the normal breakfast, and Sephiroth had to reconsider Cloud being the only one with a big appetite. He pulled up a chair and sat nearby, chewing happily on bacon strips. "So," he said between chews, "where's Scarlet, Rufus, Rayleigh, and Reeve?"

Lazard came in and pulled up a chair as well with a cup of coffee in one hand. He looked tired. "They should be here shortly. A matter came up as to where they were going to set up a communications center between here and the demolition site." He sipped lightly at his steaming cup.

"Communications?"

"Yes, there is a necessity in relaying messages from one base to the other, in case a severity makes itself known."

"Hm…" Zack started eating his eggs like he was drinking them down. "So, they already started demolishing the Shinra Inc. building?"

"Yes…"

"This is where you might say that we have a chance at a new beginning." Genesis intervened helpfully. "It seems, this time, we'll be able to do something better for ourselves.

It was during this time that a sudden blur of red swirled into the room in such a flurry, everyone brandished their weapons towards it and braced for attack. "I forgot to mention." Cloud, the only one who remained seated, said calmly without looking up, "But I invited some friends over to help." He stuffed another bagel into his mouth and chewed slowly.

"Friends?" Genesis was the first to break the silence as he glanced at Cloud then back at the red until it settled into the crouching form of a man. His hair was midnight black and his eyes reflected crimson.

"Vincent." Cloud greeted with a soft smile. "It's been a while."

"Cloud." He nodded back. Sephiroth and Zack relaxed as soon as they saw who it was, dropping their swords and resuming their seats with a sigh. Genesis stayed standing.

"Hello~"

They all turned towards the door to find a girl with soft brown hair and green eyes peeking inside with a smile. Zack sputtered and fell backwards. "Aerith? What are you doing here?"

"Hi, Zack." She waved with a smile.

Beside her, a red lion with scars over his eye glanced in curiously, "Did Cloud not mention?" he said.

Genesis and Lazard looked down at the lion that came in with something akin to horror. "The lion talked." Genesis fell back into his chair.

"'Course he talks." Cid breathed a plume of smoke and grinned. "Whadya take him fer?"

"Yo, Spike!" a big gruff man with a machine for an arm came charging in full, "Ya never told me this weren't a dream!" he fumed in front of Cloud.

Cloud looked down at his arm with slight puzzlement more than the fact that he was actually here. "Barret. I thought you'd still have your arm."

He snorted and laughed, patting the machine affectionately, "Missed the old baby. Couldn't live without 'er." He shrugged. "But, Marlene ain't mine no more. I'm 'er uncle, now." He rubbed the back of his head. "Can't believe this is real though but, hell, if I've gone through it once, I can go through it again."

"Hey, Cloud! The ultimate ninja master is here!" Yuffie bounced in holding a materia in each hand. "Lookie what I found!"

Cloud frowned at the two materia. They were blue and green in color. "Where…did you steal those from?"

Yuffie, at least, had the decency to look sheepish. "Um….well…"

"It's fine, isn't it, Cloud?"

Cloud looked up and found himself staring wide-eyed at the next person who walked through that door. "Tifa."

"Hey, Cloud." She greeted, waving a nervous hand towards him. "Didn't expect to see me here, huh?"

No, he had not. After what happened in Nibelheim, he hadn't been sure if Tifa would come to accept the way things were now. She had been one to hold a harder grudge than even he himself, one of the reasons she had fought alongside him with such ferocity. But, well, if there was one thing about Tifa, it was that you could count on her. Of course, after Nibelheim, he wasn't sure Tifa would be able to accept being brought into the past, more or less become involved in trying to change it. And it wasn't as if she had known they were back in the past. Someone must have talked to her after everything happened.

He looked at what she was wearing, something similar to the black outfit she had become so fond of, and realized that she really did want to become part of their team again. She had even lost the cowboy hat. "It's good to see you again, Tifa." He smiled.

"I thought that's what you might say." She crossed her arms as if she had been expecting some argument against her part.

It was then that Rufus, Rayleigh, Tseng, Scarlet, and Reeve made their entrance, voices slowly raising in argument enough so that they took a while to notice the extra guests. "Well," Reeve spoke up with a delighted smile, "if it isn't Avalanche all over again."

"Reeve!" they all greeted.

"It's good to see you." Red nodded, seeming for a moment like he expected Cait Sith to jump around on his head.

"Well it certainly is a pleasant surprise to see you all here." He greeted back.

"Feels like we're livin' through the good ol' days." Cid chuckled, scratching his head. "The whole gang's here, along with our enemies." He gave a not so subtle stare at Sephiroth.

"Yeah, 'cept without the whole Meteor thing and the end of the Planet as we know it." Barret said gruffly. He pulled up a chair and dropped on it. "Yo, Spike, got any soda or somethin'?"

Cloud shrugged. "It isn't my house."

He glanced around. "'Course it ain't. Place smells like Shinra."

Zack blinked…Spike? How cool. He could get used to calling Cloud something along those lines. It was true that Cloud's head was a little…spiky.

"Well, now that the whole gang is here, I propose we get down to business." Reeve interjected.

Genesis shrugged before heading back to his seat and draping over Cloud again in a bored fashion. "So, tell me." He said, "With Hollander dead, what else is there but to go after Hojo?"

"That's the problem." Rufus waved off, dropping down into a chair that he pulled up from the corner of the room. Everybody else who wasn't already seated did the same. So they all sat in a wide circle in the room. "Reaching Hojo isn't going to be as easy as I'd hoped."

"Did something happen?" Zack folded his arms across his chest.

Rufus nodded. "We've detected a number of soldiers marching in from the west of here. They don't seem to understand reason, nor are they led by any one man, like how regular armies would be."

"Yes," Scarlet continued, pulling up a contraption from her bag and placing it on the floor. A hologram of static images filtered through in blue lights. "From here," she pointed to a cliff face on one image, "we can see parts of the army heading our way. I had time enough to repair some of the video pods to scan the surrounding areas. It seems my judgment was a good one." She frowned.

"Are they Hojo's troops?" Sephiroth asked quietly.

Nobody answered and all of them shared a frown.

"Most likely." Tseng nodded, exchanging a glance with Rayleigh. "The remaining Turks have been following the group closely and we've found some interesting things."

"Yes." Rayleigh readjusted her glasses and directed their gaze to the new picture on the screen. All wearing Soldier like uniforms, they did not seem any different from regular troopers. "If you see here, there is nothing worth noting about their form. However, upon closer examination of these…soldiers, we have found that they lack something very important compared to the rest of us."

"And what might that be?" Tifa asked.

She shook her head and shrugged, clearly confused. "I don't know how they manage to maintain their bodies but they do not eat, sleep, think, or even converse to one another. The only explanation is that Hojo might have altered their physical biology to gain energy from a natural source."

Sephiroth sighed. "Such as the lifestream."

"Unfortunately." She agreed.

"That means we can't kill them normally…" Cloud shook his head, "since they'll keep replenishing their souls." He glanced besides Zack and at Aerith. "Aerith?"

She shook her head. "Sorry, Cloud. I can't feel them."

He nodded.

Zack shifted in his seat. "Wait." He said, "Time out. I don't really get what's going on."

They all looked at him strangely. "Of course it's the puppy." Genesis smirked.

"Hey! The name's Zack Fair, not 'puppy'."

Cloud shrunk when Tifa gave one look at him and grinned. "Oh, so that's the Zack Fair."

"Tifa, don't…"

She gave the most sinister laugh Cloud had ever heard. He groaned, now that Tifa remembered everything, he realized that things were going to become a lot more troublesome. If anyone else found out about the time that he had thought he was Zack…that was going to be one hell of a nightmare. He was even reconsidering if it might have been a good thing that Tifa had gotten her emotions and memories sorted out.

"Hi, Zack." Tifa held out a hand. "I know we met back in Nibelheim but, this time I'm saying hi with new insight."

"Oh, yeah!" he took her hand in his and shook it rapidly a couple of times. "The mountain guide, right?"

"Yeah!"

He rubbed the back of his neck, "But, uh, what's this new insight thing about?"

She glanced at Cloud with that wicked grin, and it made her look oh so evil. "It's a secret…for now." She punctuated, never looking away.

"Huh?"

She let go of his hand, "Come to think of it, you don't really know the others, do you?" she glanced at Genesis, Lazard, Rayleigh… "And we don't know the rest of you."

"I suppose it was bad manners continuing without introductions first." Lazard smiled, still sipping his coffee.

"Well, I guess we'll start first, then." Tifa smiled. "Cloud?"

He frowned then shook his head.

"Fine, I guess I'll be the one doing the talking." She sighed and shrugged. "I'm Tifa Lockhart, Nibelheim resident and childhood friend of Cloud's. I used to run a bar but I guess that doesn't really count this time around."

Zack went bug-eyed. "A bar? But you're so young!"

She grinned. "Bet ya I can get you seriously drunk."

"I'm a Soldier."

"So is Cloud."

The two of them started whispering and mumbling to each other.

"Might as well go 'round." Cid blew out a smoke and ground the butt in the ashtray beside him. "Name's Cid Highwind. Used to work for Shinra's space program. Now I'm a simple air pilot, and a darn good one."

"Yuffie Kisaragi, the greatest ninja treasure hunter in the world, at your service." She grinned. "Hiya." She punched the air a couple times.

"Don' forget ta mention the important stuff, kid."

"Uh, like what?" she jumped up onto the chair and fisted the air. "I'm the best of the best. That's the most important thing!"

Reeve laughed. "Haven't changed, have you?"

"Nope, and I never will."

"Red XIII, the last of my tribe." Red glanced beside him towards Yuffie who was still punching through the air. "I will go on to say that she is the princess of Wutai and is prone to motion sickness."

"Hey!"

"I am also called Nanaki, a resident of Cosmo Canyon."

Barret sighed. "Looks like it's my turn. The name's Barret Wallace. I used to hate Shinra with my guts. Now I ain't so sure, what with all the change that's goin' around."

"Vincent Valentine…ex-Turk."

Aerith giggled at the short introduction. "I'm Aerith Gainsborough. I don't think there's much else to tell besides that I'm a Cetra."

"Well, that's all of us besides Cloud." Tifa gave a satisfied huff. "And we all know Reeve on both sides." She grinned at them all. "We're the ex-members of Avalanche. Nice to meet you."

"Uh, wow. You guys all come from around the planet." Zack looked lightened. "Well, I'm Zack Fair, Soldier 1st and best friend to Cloud. Hi."

Tseng shifted. "Avalanche? The rebellion group?" he looked at them all with sharp eyes. "Please, explain."

Genesis chuckled, "So the puppy wasn't the only one without a clue."

"Come to think of it, where did you go, Tseng? Last night when we had the meeting. I realize you came into the room but as soon as the others arrived, you were no longer present." Reeve asked.

Tseng looked at Reeve. "I was called away on an important mission with some of the other Turks. I was sorry I could not be present but the situation could not be avoided."

"What don't I know?" Zack cocked his head to one side, "And when did I miss it?"

"…You went to the restroom, Zack." Cloud sighed.

"Ah, we'll get to that later. First," Tifa scanned the Shinra members present, "we should finish intros." She turned towards Rufus then glanced warily at Sephiroth. "This isn't my ideal situation…" she murmured, "but since the things that have happened no longer apply, we're all willing to put the past behind us."

Sephiroth tipped his head in acknowledgment.

"Well it's finally nice to see who you really are, General."

Sephiroth didn't know how to answer. How could he? This was becoming a life where his past was not quite coming back to haunt him, his future was. All these people remembered every crime and every pain he had ever inflicted. He could not so easily ask for forgiveness.

Lazard raised a brow. He knew they had all come from the future but that didn't mean he had all the details of the past. "I believe we should continue." He suggested, turning to Rayleigh. "Lady's first." He smiled charmingly, to which she took to annoyance.

"Of course. I am Professor Rayleigh, a scientist that used to work for Shinra's Soldier program. Needless to say, I found that my life was…very expendable, so I had defected from the company. However, Strife had saved my life once by putting his life on the line. I owed it to him to help and return…now, since things have become so interesting, I intend to stay."

"Bravo, Rayleigh. That was quite the introduction." Lazard clapped. "Powerful."

"Best me, Lazard. Show me you are not simply a man of the office." She smiled deviously.

"Then, if you'll excuse me, I shall." He sat a bit straighter. "I am Lazard Deusericus, the bastard child of Shinra's ex-head and half-brother of Rufus Shinra. I am the director of Soldier, a position I have fought for terribly, but my intentions do not lie in taking over the company. Rufus may look after that. I do, however, owe my current life to Strife as well, as I hear I have perished dishonorably in my past."

"I'm impressed, Lazard. You seem to have a bit of a past."

He smiled at Rayleigh. "Of course."

"Moving on, I am Genesis Rhapsodos." Genesis smiled languidly from draped atop Cloud's fluffy head. "A Soldier 1st, General. I am a materia specialist and I don't quite feel like revealing my past to a bunch of strangers on the first day."

"Very well. I am Tseng, the leader of the Turks. I believe that is all I can say."

"Scarlet." She nodded. "Head of Shinra's Weapons Development Department. Recently, I have realized that my actions and behavior were reasons things have always seemed to…fall apart. Now, I am changing that."

Everyone remained silent.

"I think that's everybody you guys don't know." Zack spoke silently.

"Yes, now if someone would be so kind as to explain everything else." Tseng said.

Cid laughed. "Where t' start?"

"Let's simplify it." Yuffie suggested. "Like, like, how we fought Sephiroth to stop Meteor from falling and how Shinra fell because of everything, how a lot of people died, and how we were spun back into the past! Now, we're all here together!"

Zack gawked and Tseng was too dignified to but his eyes said the equivalent. "What?" Zack choked. "Y-You just made that up, didn't you?"

"Unfortunately, Zack, she's telling the truth." Cloud sighed, staring down at his empty plate. He was still a bit hungry.

Sephiroth stared at Cloud, surprised. Unfortunate? Did he really not like coming back? Coming back to him?

"So…you're all from the future?" Zack fell backwards. "Impossible!"

"Indeed." Tseng frowned. "It is certainly not probable. Do you all believe this to be true?"

They all nodded, except the two of them.

"For some of us, there are flashes in our head of memories we had never before experienced." Reeve clarified. "For others, like Cloud apparently, they have retained all of their memories."

"Flashes?" Tseng looked perplexed. While it was true that he had been having these dreams of a life he couldn't remember, it didn't mean that they had actually happened.

Zack shook his head. "I don't have any memory flashes."

"…" Cloud looked at Zack blankly. "Did you have any weird dreams that you remembered really clearly?"

Zack scratched his head, and then lit up. "Oh, last night I had the strangest dream." He grinned. "There was a firing squad and they kept on shooting at me until I went down. It was the weirdest thing 'cause I remembered every feeling of it." He shivered. "Thought I was going to die."

"…You did, Zack. They shot you down and you died…" he looked away, "Sorry. I didn't want to tell you but I felt so useless at your side. I couldn't do anything."

Zack stared at Cloud with his mouth opening and closing, like a fish would. "What…?"

"It happened…and I was so weak." He looked at his hands. "My first sword was the Buster Blade." He whispered.

Genesis rubbed Cloud's crown of a head affectionately, earning a reproachful glare from Sephiroth but ignoring it all the same. It seemed to alleviate some of the pressure that Cloud was feeling, like a cat would who liked being petted.

"I-Its okay, Cloud." He patted down his chest, and then his head. "See, I'm alive."

"Yeah…"

Zack sank down into his chair where Aerith patted his arm reassuringly. "I can't believe this."

"Do you need any more proof, Tseng?" Rufus asked him. "Or can we continue?" he didn't want to leave Cloud wallowing in his misery if he could do anything about it.

Tseng pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a slow breath. "I would like proof." He finally said. "Perhaps something I had not told anyone but that it still holds true today."

Cloud blinked at him with the most impassive face. "You like Aerith."

Tseng blushed, caught unawares. "How…!"

"You and she are childhood friends."

Aerith giggled. She'd already known.

"You look up to Veld, you also like Elena, and Rude and Reno are a constant in your life…"

"…" he was speechless. Not only had Cloud mentioned all the little things, he even mentioned the new Turk Elena. Outrageous, time travel should not be possible in the least.

Cloud shook his head. "I didn't choose to come back." He said as though he had read what was on his mind.

"Oops. That would be my fault." Aerith smiled and raised a small hand. "But only because she asked."

This was the first time Cloud was hearing about this. "She? Not the Planet?"

Aerith shook her head. "No, silly, the Goddess."

"The Goddess' will." Genesis said.

Cloud frowned. "I don't understand. Why would the goddess want to send me back?"

"Second chances are never freely given. They have to be asked for."

Cloud glanced up at Genesis. "Then who asked?"

He shrugged, or as much as he was able to considering his position. He had his head on his crossed arms, which were balancing on Cloud's head. "Who knows?"

He looked at the others of his group and they too shook their heads. "Things were rather peaceful." Red sighed, lying himself on the ground.

"Edge was actually doing well too." Tifa said.

"We hadn't had trouble in two years." Cloud agreed.

"An' everyone was startin' t' calm down." Cid leaned back in memory. "Though I can't say I didn't miss th' action."

"It might have been someone from Shinra." Rufus said casually, "Or someone from the lifestream."

"But who could the goddess like so much to listen to them, much less grant them a second chance?" Zack asked.

Aerith gave a soft laugh. "I know who it is, actually."

They all looked at her strangely.

"Then why did you not say so? Instead of making us guess for so long?" Genesis asked.

"I thought you would find out." She smiled and clapped her hands together.

Cloud was genuinely curious now. "Who?" he asked, eyes bright and brimming with pure curiosity.

Sephiroth couldn't say anything in the face of such a pure inquiry. Rather, it was the first time he had seen Cloud so genuinely expressive and it made him smile. A wholly unintentional thing. Though, he was quite curious who had been the one to ask the Goddess' favor as well…and also wondering if he could have possibly been the one… Aerith looked at him as though she had read his mind and smiled, a secretive giggle, if you will, and he nearly groaned into his hands. Now, the question was why he had asked for them to start all over, but he felt he knew the answer to that too. He had always wished for a life anew with someone to share it with. He figured he'd found it in his future in the form of a blond haired being that he was too undeserving of, and someone that he couldn't have at the time. He'd known it for quite a while, ever since he'd had those dreams and memories dancing right before his very eyes, and the moment he saw and found out that Cloud had been from the future, he'd known he had loved him and wanted to come back to try again. Those many fights with Cloud, why he kept on coming back, it had been because he hadn't wanted to leave him, hadn't wanted Cloud to forget him even if it was through his hate. Sephiroth loved Cloud like he could no other and he would fight and die before he gave that up.

"So, Aerith." Zack grinned. "Are ya going to tell us? Or can we guess?"

"You can guess, Zack." She waved.

"Alright!" he clapped and rubbed his hands together, looking at each and every person in the room. "So, it's someone in the room right now, right?"

She nodded.

"Then…how about…," he scrutinized all the ex-Avalanche members. "I guess none of you guys count." He glanced at all the Shinra members. He looked back at Aerith. "It isn't me, is it?"

"No, Zack, it wasn't you." She laughed.

He frowned and pointed a finger at Genesis, "Then, could it be Genesis? He's always talking about the Goddess."

"Nope."

Genesis snorted.

He scratched his head. "Rufus?"

Rufus shrugged. "There is a chance that I would have asked for us all to start over if I wished to set things straight sooner. However, seeing as how everything was at peace…I just don't see how it could be me."

"So, it's not?" he sounded disappointed.

"Sorry, Zack." She confirmed.

Sephiroth couldn't take this any longer. He didn't know how long he managed to stay silent even in the few minutes that had gone by but if it eventually came to him and they found out that he had known all along…they would start questioning why he hadn't spoken up earlier. But, if he spoke now, they would still question why and it wasn't as if he could simply proclaim his love for Cloud in front of everybody…could he? "Zack," he said hesitantly, "it was me." He glanced down at his hands, almost embarrassed at the confession. "I was the one who asked." It would have been equally as embarrassing, if not more, if the girl had announced it anyhow.

"Wha…! Sephiroth?" Zack jumped up, happily surprised. "Why?" he grinned, eager to know.

"…I," Now what was he supposed to say. He knew the question would come but he hadn't expected it so quickly…

"Settle down, puppy." Genesis interrupted, saving Sephiroth from an explanation. He grinned knowingly back at him. "I would have done the same if I were in a similar position."

Sephiroth noticed Rufus frown from the corner of his eye. "I would not have changed anything." Rufus declared, immediately telling Sephiroth that since he'd already had Cloud in the future, in a world without Sephiroth no less, he would have been content to stay where he was.

This time, Cloud was the one who frowned. "Why?" he asked, looking at him directly, "Why would you want to come back?"

For you, was what he wanted to reply but he very well couldn't since they had quite the audience. So, instead, he simply said, "To try and change things for the better."

His frown didn't diminish. "And that was a strong enough reason for you to come back?"

Well, at least it wasn't entirely a lie. He did want to change things between them for the better. "It was enough." He said.

Cloud's brow loosened. "Well, I guess, since things are working out better…I should be thankful." He sighed. "At least everyone's well and happy here." Sephiroth felt his heart swell. It was strange how such a simple organ could produce such particular feelings.

"Well, now that everything's been satisfied," Rufus said with a clear bit of annoyance, "perhaps we should get back to discussing the main issue at hand."

"But the future…" Zack muttered, looking a little more lost as each second passed. Then he blinked in surprise. "Oh, wait! I know!" he slid forward in his seat, "I've been thinking—"

"A very dangerous pastime, indeed." Genesis butted in.

Zack glared, though not quite with enough malice. "But, I've been thinking," He continued, "if everyone's from the future then something like this must have happened before! You guys should know how to fight it."

Cloud shook his head. "No, nothing like this has happened." Not even when the clones were created, he thought. "This is the first time Hojo's actually thought of creating an army for himself instead of just creating the perfect monster."

"Oh…" he looked disappointed.

Cloud quickly spoke up, "But maybe you're on the right track, Zack. What if we could use the things we've known before here? We should be able to fight Hojo effectively."

Zack brightened. "Yeah! I was thinking that there might be like an advanced weapon or something from the future, you know?" when he dreamed, Zack dreamed big.

The only thing that came to Cloud's mind that was similar to an advanced weapon from the future was the sister ray, the large cannon that Rufus and the others had used to try and destroy the Weapons from killing them all. However, since rebuilding the thing wasn't an option at the moment, especially with the army closing in as quickly, he doubted they had much technology left to try and fit together something even remotely similar.

"Why don't we first find how Hojo managed to create these mindless soldiers?" Reeve suggested.

"And where he got the bodies." Rayleigh supplied. "He couldn't have taken that many Soldiers to begin with which means he must have been steadily collecting them over time."

"What are the precise calculations to when the army reaches Midgar?" Rufus asked.

Tseng frowned, "Precisely within three days."

"So we have three days to prepare an army of our own…"

"…Or to abandon the city and its inhabitants." Genesis added.

"That's not possible. There are too many people living in Midgar." Reeve checked his computer for the statistics.

"In a war, casualties are always a consequence. We could at least try and save half of the populace."

Cloud looked grimly down at the table. "No. We can't just leave the others to die. Not this time." He looked up with determination brimming within those bright blue orbs. "We'll regroup, gather all the Soldiers we have left, and prepare for battle. There's more than enough of us here with more experience than those fake soldiers, and materia enough to overpower them. Half of the group should travel on the Highwind and collect all the materia to bring them here. Hopefully that will be enough."

They all looked glum. So, a battle was inevitable, otherwise the army might travel from one city to the next, eradicating the lives of the people everywhere until Hojo's control was imminent. Cloud glanced at Cid and they shared a silent communication with Cid nodding at the end of it in understanding. Tifa tugged on her gloves, Vincent checked his gun, Yuffie played with her shuriken, and Red shook his fur. This was the team that would go hunting for the materia. Cloud nodded and turned towards the others. Barret would take charge of reinforcing the buildings and Rayleigh would start with the weapons and equipment with Scarlet and Reeve. That left Sephiroth, Genesis, Lazard, and Rufus to gather the rest of the army. It seemed they all understood what Cloud wanted of them and what role they would play when he looked them in the eyes and asked silent questions. It already seemed like the eve of war was upon them.

They all stood and headed out the door.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Cloud walked down the hall and towards his room. It was disconcerting taking charge of such a large group, let alone Shinra, but it had to be done. They would be getting nowhere if all they discussed were the statistics of battle. He sighed and opened the door to step inside, immediately walking up to the bed and falling on it in fatigue. There were so many things happening now, he just didn't know where to start. Another war was brewing, Hojo was undoubtedly up to something once again, and he didn't know where he stood with Rufus or with Sephiroth. He rubbed his forehead to see if he had the headache he felt he was developing. No, he didn't know where he stood. Things were getting so complicated and he was feeling more lost than ever before.

Before, in their right timeline, the path had been set before him without him questioning what he had to do or where he had to go next. He simply had to defeat Sephiroth and stop Meteor and, to do so; he had gathered the best of the best and the most trusted of companions. Avalanche had given him a purpose, made him who he was, though he supposed Zack was also to thank for that as well, most of his confidence had come from him after all.

He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, which was much higher than he was used to, and flexed his fingers in front of him. Now that they had a plan set in motion—Cid and the others had departed immediately knowing that time was of the essence and Genesis and Lazard had gone to collect the troops they could—he had time enough to think about other things, like Rufus and Sephiroth. He frowned at that, knowing that he had never felt anything towards Rufus besides minor annoyances. The man was, first and foremost, a spoiled rich kid, though he could no longer call him spoiled or even a kid. Rufus didn't really understand the way he had grown up, poor and weak and how he had struggled to become who he had become. The only moment of suffering that he remembered Rufus facing was when the geostigma had plagued Edge. It was true Rufus was proving to be surprisingly smart and resourceful; he was even taking charge of the situation without any hesitation. Cloud had to give him credit for that. Now that he thought about it, he couldn't say Rufus had many faults that he could disapprove of. Rufus was smart, intelligent and definitely not the worst looking of people. He could easily imagine himself enjoying his company every once in awhile, but he couldn't really see himself in a relationship other than that of friendship with him. Besides, what did Rufus see in him that he didn't see in anyone else? He shook his head. Rufus deserved better than what he could give. At best, he was an emotionless cripple, his experiences made certain of that, but on the other hand, Rufus seemed more like he should care for a woman. He didn't think Rufus could find any happiness with a guy like him.

He sighed. There was also Sephiroth. His feelings towards the man had changed over the time he had been in his presence. It was…disconcerting, to say the least. Sephiroth had been the reason for why his fate had been written for him. Yet, when he saw him now, Cloud couldn't say he hated him at all. In fact, Sephiroth had become a companion he looked forward to seeing, being next to. But that didn't mean anything had really changed. He was sure he would have liked Sephiroth before as well, if only Jenova didn't happen. But then again, it was because of Jenova's cells that Sephiroth was the man he was, and Cloud couldn't fault her for that, even if he couldn't understand why she still existed. Such a lonely existence would have tired him out a long time ago. He supposed Jenova deserved some credit for fighting all this time, continuous and all alone, and even in her death. It was a sad thought, now that he thought about what they had done. It was true that they couldn't risk her on the Planet but was it really the right thing to do to send her drifting in space alone for all of eternity? It just wasn't fair and it pained Cloud to think so. He had been the one to suggest it.

He rubbed his spiky hair and sighed once more. Why couldn't the world be a bit simpler and allow him to sleep it all off like Vincent had tried to, once upon a time. Of course it wasn't that easy. It wasn't as if a lone plant could flourish without the aid of the winds and waters, and a little helping hand from Aerith always helped as well. He couldn't help but give a small smile at the thought. Everyone was alive and well and the situation was turning. He supposed he couldn't hope for a better life than the one he had, nor the one he'd had. It had, after all, made him who he was today.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Sephiroth had watched Cloud leave down the corridor and out of his sights with a frown feeling the inexplicable urge to get up and follow, to claim Cloud as his so that Rufus would no longer pursue him. He tore his gaze away and clenched his jaw. These urges were getting harder and harder to quell and deny. His hands balled into tight fists as he gripped the table as an extra precaution so that he wouldn't just get up and go. It was…painful. No other word could fit the feeling that was warring within him. He couldn't stop it, couldn't stop himself, and he feared it would overcome him. This was madness. He wanted to find Cloud.

He couldn't remember how it got this way, this drug-like addiction running through his veins. He couldn't even remember when it had started. All he knew was that he never wanted Cloud out of his sight for long, possibly ever. He couldn't explain it, his need to have Cloud as his own. It was festering in him a dangerous desire which only got worse as time went along. Soon he felt he would go mad from the strain.

He unclenched the table and sighed when Genesis entered through the far doorway to his right, immediately making a beeline straight for him. He couldn't look up to Genesis for fear that his eyes might betray the madness that was clouding his sense of self. Genesis would pick it up immediately; they knew each other too well for that.

"Something bothers you, Sephiroth." Genesis pulled up a chair beside him and propped his feet up on the table, taking the poise of relaxation. "I take it Cloud's on your mind." He reached his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out an apple, a white one with purple shadows.

"My face betrays me." He grimaced.

Genesis snorted. "No, I just know you too well." He took a bite out of the apple. "So, tell me, where have your thoughts gone? For you are beloved by the goddess."

Sephiroth rubbed his face and looked away. How could he let Genesis see him with such a weakness? "I…"

Genesis shook his head. "You never were one for words." He took another bite. "But then again, neither was I. This should have been Angeal's duty, not mine. Socializing was never my strong point." He sighed and set his feet down, throwing the pit of the apple into a nearby trash bin. "You shouldn't worry so much, Sephiroth, Cloud isn't going anywhere." With that, he stood and left.

Sephiroth watched him leave with a detached sort of attention. It was the first time Genesis had considered 'cheering him up' and he felt gratified. Usually, Genesis had chased him for his dream of becoming a hero. Now, he was starting to understand that Sephiroth too was human and had complicated feelings and emotions this time around. It was turning out to be a new experience for the both of them.

Of course, Cloud was still his main problem. He appreciated that Genesis was trying to reassure him but that didn't quite mean anything if Cloud didn't reassure him in the same way. If only Cloud did alleviate some of his worries by showing a bit of an interest. Sephiroth sighed. If only… Now, how to proceed in charming Cloud…

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Vincent shot the next several Bandersnatch that jumped at him with detached concentration. He thought back on the times he had seen Sephiroth with Cloud and found their actions…amusing, to say the least. Who knew Sephiroth, the man who had become a monster, could have heartfelt affection towards Cloud, the one who had killed him on multiple occasions? He couldn't help but let out a chuckle at the thought. How strange fate was to bring the most unlikely people together.

Cid paused in the downward stroke of his spear and stared at Vincent in horror. "Eeh gads, Vincent jus' laughed. Mus' be the end o' the world as we know it!"

Tifa smiled while throwing a deadly punch towards another of the beasts. "I don't know," she said with a laugh, "I can probably guess what he's thinking about."

"Like what?" Yuffie bounded.

"Likely about Cloud's mate." Red jumped up beside her and dodged the swipe of claws.

"What?" she yelled, completely forgetting about the monster she was going to go after. "Cloud has a MATE?"

"Don't think he means exactly in those terms, girly." Cid snorted. "The kid don' even realize yet."

"Who?" she blurted, "Who is it?"

"Ah," Cid rubbed the back of his head and drawled. Only Yuffie would be so blind to not see it. Then again, it was a thing that might not even happen. Cloud could also be a hard-headed ignoramus sometimes. He sighed. There was Barret too. Sometimes, he wondered how he came to follow these people around for so long. He pulled out his cigarette pack from his pocket and took the time to light one up. Sometimes, he supposed there was no helping who you liked in life. "Might as well wait 'n find out." He blew out.

"Aw, c'mon, tell me." Yuffie pouted. "C'mon, c'mon, I wanna know!" she stomped her foot into the ground and marched around in circles as though she were in a protest. "Tell me, tell me! I wanna know!"

Cid picked up his spear and hefted it onto his shoulders. There were no more monsters jumping out at them anymore and the way was clear. He started walking deeper into the forest. In any case, all he could do was watch and wait as the drama unfolded. For now though, he was in charge of collecting the materia and that was what he would do. He blew out a breath of smoke and looked to the sky. What he wouldn't give for some peace and quiet right about now.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Reeve observed the surrounding areas with interest. Scarlet had been true to her word, abandoning her rash behavior and taking charge of the things that were important. It made him wonder if something else had happened to make her change so drastically. He shrugged, instantly feeling sore muscles, and reached over to massage some of the tension away. These past few days had been rough and hectic, and didn't allow for the time to sit down and relax. Now they were heading straight into a war with Hojo who had conjured an army of mass destruction from out of nowhere. It was ridiculous. Where had he collected so many bodies and how had he hidden them from Shinra? Even more, how had he utilized such knowledge to create the soldiers in such a quick time? It was not possible, Hojo must have had assistance, but from who? It couldn't have been Hollander; the man had lost his mind from the very beginning and left little else to work with. Who else, then? There weren't many people left that the professor could ask assistance of, unless he had built machines… But, no, that couldn't be. The scientist would have required help to build those too. He was a scientist, not an engineer. If anything of the sort had been made then he would have been the first to know. It just didn't make sense.

He shrugged his shoulders again to test the stiffness before turning around and looking at the works in progress. Scarlet was doing a wonderful job, her makeshift machinery mass producing weapons, armor, and the necessities in little time. It made him respect her position as the head of the weapons development. Her skill had not been overestimated. He glanced over to Professor Rayleigh, the woman who had defected a long while ago and who was now working with them in a war that had nothing to do with her. It amazed him how often Cloud could bring people together with just his simple acts of kindness, even without him realizing, and Reeve knew that it was what made him a formidable opponent. It took quite a lot of respect for someone to have gained unending devotion and trust to follow a man to their possible deaths. Reeve smiled at the thought. How many times they had rushed into harm's way under the leadership of Cloud who they had all known and trusted would bring them out whole. It was amazing what circumstances made a man or woman. Cloud and Scarlet were just two examples of many.

Now, regarding Cloud, he had another strange thought. Now, what did that boy do to have the great Sephiroth act that way? He grinned and blushed at the memory, a chuckle working its way up his throat. It was just so…unbelievable. How… He simply had no words to describe such a thing. It was such an unexpected outcome that Reeve at first thought he was the one going mad. Fortunately, that had not been the case, since he had not been the only one who had been witness to such a thing. However, circumstances and fate sure were strange where it concerned the boy named Cloud Strife. Strife was, indeed, the root cause of strife. How else would he have had a past enemy, the worst the Planet had ever seen, and transformed him into a lovesick fool? Reeve shook his head and sighed. An enigma was what he would deem him. There simply were no other words to describe him.

"Reeve." Reeve looked up to see that Rayleigh had been the one to call him. She beckoned to him with a wave of her hand.

He walked up to her and looked down at what she had been working on, a machine of strange contraptions that had a beltline hooked to it. "What is it?"

She smiled, "A rather ingenious contraption. It produces fresh delicious coffee at the single press of a button."

Reeve blinked. "Is that any different than a regular coffee machine?"

"Yes, I thought you'd ask." She flipped the device around in her hands and showed him where there was a clear tube attached to it. It seemed to be filled with a brown powder. "It adds a dose of stimuli for stamina. With this, we could go on for weeks without too much fatigue."

Reeve blinked again, but this time in surprise, and looked carefully at Rayleigh. She looked tired, yes, but not fatigued. "How long have you been drinking this?" he asked carefully.

She chuckled. "For four days now with no sleep. It was something I invented when some of my research took me outside the field for extended periods of time. It also works for those enhanced by mako. Soldiers."

"Dear Gaia," he said as the realization sunk in. "No sleep and no fatigue…"

She nodded. "With this, we may very well win the war." She sighed and looked away. "Of course, there are some side effects."

"Serious?"

She shook her head. "Only more bouts of thirst and hunger. We'll need to stock up on a lot of rations if we are to use this. Especially if the Soldiers are going to use this."

This was a double edged sword. While it was true some of the firsts, like Sephiroth, didn't need to eat as much as the others, some of them really needed to eat, like Cloud. Having an extra stimulus when the body was already working overdrive was not something they could use recklessly. "We'll have to inform everyone who uses it of the consequences."

She nodded.

Reeve now just realized something and smiled. "I noticed you've been eating little things here and there nonstop. I assume now that this is the reason why?"

She smiled. "Sharp." She complimented, "Indeed you are correct."

He chuckled. "Well, won't this be fun news to break out to people."

"Of course."

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Rufus had watched as Genesis and Lazard, Sephiroth had been indisposed apparently, attempted to contact and round up any Soldiers left in the vicinity. Most of them no longer had any place to go so they'd had to camp around the Shinra ruin site. However, now that they had been brought up to the current situation, they were camping behind the house instead of the building. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose to try and erase the headache forming. Just trying to deal with Hojo was bad enough, but Sephiroth. He dropped his fisted hand onto the surface of the table with restrained violence. The man was a necessity, he kept reminding himself that. He couldn't afford to let emotions to cloud his judgment, no matter how tempting it was to want to lash out at the man. But it was just too impossible.

Who would have ever thought that the Sephiroth would fall in love with his murderer? No one, not even he had considered the possibility, not even when the General had kept coming back, over and over. But this was getting out of hand. He knew Cloud felt nothing for him, besides that of camaraderie, but he still didn't want him to have any feelings for Sephiroth. Yes, it was true that Cloud really didn't realize whether he loved Sephiroth or not but Sephiroth knew how he felt. It was…unacceptable. Cloud should have been his, not the man's who had come to stab the one he loved.

But, that wasn't his main concern, yet. It was his realization and the battle within him that hurt him deeply. He knew how people saw him, how shallow he must have seemed before, and it tore him up in the inside to know he couldn't share his feelings with any confidant. Except Cloud. He had known, from before, that Cloud had seen right through him and knew with absolute certainty that what he had tried to hide behind his facade had been completely transparent before him. It had been strange to him, at first, being so bare to another person, but as time went along it had become a comfort, a longing, to be known by another without exposing oneself. Of course, there had also been those times when he had thought he had deluded himself into believing that another knew him, so he had tested it. He'd said things, done things that the name Rufus Shinra wouldn't have usually done, but Cloud had known and accepted what he'd done without question. Then, he'd starting loving him, Cloud. It was slow, at first, he hadn't really realized what he had felt towards the other blond was anything other than trust and friendship. But it slowly became an obsession, watching him wherever he went, hearing him when he was near, and waiting for him to look at him when near. It had almost driven him to the extremes when he had realized that he was weak and unworthy for someone like Cloud. How agonizing that had been.

Now, even though he had initiated a confession, and a war with Sephiroth, he was at a loss at how to proceed. Why had he confessed to begin with when he knew so well that any form of intimate relationship with Cloud could not happen? He knew they could remain close but nothing past that would happen. He supposed it was only fair that Sephiroth suffer as he did over the years, though he knew Sephiroth already had, at least the man still had a chance at winning Cloud. Surely a bit more suffering on Sephiroth's part could be allowed him.

Rufus shook his head and rubbed his face of his tiredness. These thoughts were getting him nowhere and only served to make him even more bitter about it in the end. Sephiroth may be winning Cloud's heart but he would have to struggle for it all the way to the end. He would at least make sure of that. At least one thing was amusing in all of this; Cloud wasn't making it any easier for the man either. How fun this would be.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

Scarlet wiped the sweat off her brow, leaving behind a smear of grime in its place as she continued to put together the pieces of her newest creation. It had been a long time since she had gotten her own hands dirty with all the work and labor; she hadn't realized how much she'd miss it. It was a tiring and refreshing experience, though there were extra hands helping her out here and there. All of them seemed to gain a new respect for her and she realized that this must be how being appreciated felt. It was…nice.

She finished screwing in the last bit before standing and dusting herself off of the debris. It was time to go finish working on the new weapons she had been developing for the Soldiers. She wondered if maybe she should design new weapons for the 1sts. She shook her head. No, they worked better with what weapons they had but…Strife. She wondered if there was a weapon of his preference that he'd want commissioned. She smiled; she would ask him about it later.

Now that the thought of Strife came into her head, she thought about the General, the man she had come to love and admire from afar. It had broken her heart, yes, when she had seen how much love the General had for Strife but she couldn't fault Strife for taking his attention away from her. She knew, no, she now understood what it was that everybody saw in Strife, how absolutely dependable he was…and how alone. It was strange of her to notice when before she had cared for naught but herself but his eyes had seemed…lackluster, despite his actions. He had the eyes of a guarded man, someone who had fought and been alone for ages and she knew that he deserved someone worth caring for him.

But that didn't mean her love of Sephiroth had simply dispersed into the winds. No, she still loved the great General Sephiroth, that cold demeanor and that beautifully sculpted face. It would have been a sin not to love the man, more so since most everyone outside adored him just the same. Sephiroth was a man of power, of grace, and of beauty. He was like the forbidden fruit of the planet, the perfect creation that everyone was denied. He was polite, charming, yet shared no emotions with you on the best of days. He was what a lot of people looked up to as their role model, their guide to greatness. She had felt no different, until she had seen him with the look of a lost man staring aimlessly into the wonder that was Cloud Strife. Then she had realized that Sephiroth was also nothing but a man.

She wiped her forehead and it came away smeared with a streak of grease. This time for sure, for the General, the one she loved, and for everybody else, she would work hard and fight for their survival. She was decided and determined to see this through to the end, to its success. She hadn't known before how pleasant such reassuring company could be, she had always thought people were all unworthy of such respect before, but now, seeing everybody work together for a common goal, through their own will, she couldn't say she wasn't gratified. It was…startling, how happy she felt at their willing dependence on her, and she was determined not to fail.

Hiking up her sleeve, she got to work on the other machines, a smile subconsciously sliding onto her features.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-

"Gyahaha, I told you I'd become powerful." He scratched his beard with a clawed hand and stood off the metal table. "Now they'll regret kicking me out of the company."

"Yes~…no doubt…" the scientist took off his glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his coat. Putting them back on, he said, "An unfortunate success. You may have retained your mind but I doubt that will serve you any better than before."

He walked over to one of the glass panels on the wall and stared at his reflection in admiration. His stout body had given way to a greatly muscled form, built for strength and power. With this, there was no doubt he would even be able to best most of the Soldiers. He flexed both of his clawed hands in anticipation. "I'll show them. They'll think twice before messing with me again."

Hojo clasped his hands behind his back, took one bored glance at the newly changed man before him then exited the room without another word. No point in talking to fools.

"Gya ha ha ha…" Within his reflection, his eyes gleamed. Heidegger grinned.

-.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.- -.-.-.-.-