Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama

Chapter 24 – Crisis of Countdown

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (September 12th)

(Just the way I remember it.)

Gongaga hadn't changed at all in the years since he'd left home. Zack nudged his sunglasses back up after sweeping a glance around the little town. Brick houses, stovepipe chimneys, and the smell of damp jungle earth tinged with an electric mako scent. Yeah, good ol' Gongaga. At the far side of town he could see the reactor looming, cut off by tall fences and a brief stand of trees.

"How's it feel to be home?"

Zack glanced over at Cissnei. Even after spending a month in Costa del Sol with her, it was weird seeing her out of the usual suit and in something so...un-Turk-like. Today she'd thrown on a shirt and a pair of shorts over her bathing suit, the shirt tied in a neat knot at her chest. She'd put her hair up in a bun in deference to Gongaga's humid heat. He grinned at her. "Weird," he said, propping his hands on his hips and looking around again, "You didn't have to come, you know?"

It would have been nicer if he'd had Cloud or Aerith with him when he came back. Zack liked Cissnei, she was a good friend in her way, but it had been obvious since she'd approached him on the ship from Junon that she wasn't here on vacation. He wasn't stupid, and he figured Cissnei knew that. If he hadn't realized something funny was going on way before, the fact that she hadn't left would have clued him in.

"I was curious about where you came from," Cissnei said lightly.

Zack took a few steps forward and turned around to face her. "Well, there's not much to see in a little backwater place like this. It's not as exciting as Costa del Sol." Not that Costa del Sol was all that exciting anyway. All there was to do was drink, talk to locals and other vacationers, fish, and hope that a few rogue monsters washed up on the beach. Zack was pretty sure he was well on his way to becoming a local hero. He'd learned a lot during his trip so far. Including that beach umbrellas made terrible replacements for real swords, he couldn't lay in the sun for more than two hours without growing restless, and that fishing still wasn't his thing.

Cissnei crossed her arms and stepped forward with one of her cool little smiles. "I'm good at entertaining myself." She glanced around as Zack turned on his heel to walk into the town with her. "Which house is yours?"

"That one," Zack said pointing along one of the dirt paths leading off toward the edge of the jungle. "Riiight there." His parents weren't outside, or maybe they were off doing something. Maybe his mom was out behind the house tending their little edge of the jungle garden. Maybe his dad was off fishing or talking with the neighbors. A lot of the townsfolk would be about their business at this time of day, helping maintain the reactor, or minding Gongaga's small shops.

A few kids ran by, kicking a ball, and Zack grinned. He recognized a few as some of the little squirts that had been around when he left home. They'd grown up pretty good. Still, as he walked slowly toward the place he'd called home for the first thirteen years of his life...Zack realized it was just that. Gongaga didn't feel like home anymore. Home was a massive sword with more meaning in it than weight. Home was a Church with beautiful flowers and an even prettier girl. Home was a phone beep announcing a text with too much information, or a comfortable evening spent with too few words shared but a wealth of understanding between them.

Home was half the world away and he still had no idea when he'd be allowed to go back. He had no idea if he'd ever see it again before everything shattered and he would have to make sure his home, his precious people, stayed safe.

Zack stopped beside the tilted, decaying fence that surrounded his childhood home and rested his hand on the nearest post. His dad had said he was going to fix it or build a new one, but he never had. Turning back toward Cissnei, he asked, "You want to come in and say hi?"

She flicked a glance toward the door, then waved him off. "I think I'll have a look around. You go enjoy some time with your parents, and maybe you can introduce us later, okay?"

"Sure." He returned the wave, and stood watching as Cissnei wandered in further toward the center of town. Gongaga wasn't that big, though the number of people there had swelled after the reactor had been built—workers to maintain it, and people who wanted to take advantage of the electricity it offered. Zack was pretty sure there were a few houses there that hadn't been before. It was nice to see his hometown thriving. He'd have to take a look around at all his old haunts before he left again. First though….

Zack looked back at the house, at the overfull rain barrel under the downspout, and an overflowing window box of herbs. He could hear the sound of laundry flapping out behind the small, ramshackle building. With a faint smile, he hopped the fence rather than open the creaky gate and made his way up to the front door. The steps were just slabs of stone, worn smooth from time, Gongaga's rain, and various feet tramping in and out over the years.

As he stood before the door, he hesitated. It wasn't that he didn't want to see his parents, because he did. It was more that he felt out of place, awkward and uncertain how to proceed. Should he knock? That seemed ridiculous. This was his parents house after all, and it was kind of his too...but he wasn't sure if he should just walk in either. It had been so long since he ran off without so much as a word to pursue his dream.

He needed to do this, though. Zack needed to see his parents before he went haring off to Nibelheim. The idea that he could die without ever seeing them again, that they might never know what became of him, haunted him. It had been a niggling little thought at the back of his mind since he'd spoken about it with Cloud. As much as Zack disliked his enforced vacation, a part of him was glad he'd gotten this chance.

Giving himself a shake, Zack shoved the door open and stepped inside. Throwing his arms out he announced, "Mom! Dad! I'm home!"

His mom's head jerked up, and she nearly dropped the plate she was drying. For a second she stared at him, wide eyed, her hair up in a fly-away bun, then said, "Where's your uniform?"

"You got fired, didn't you?" his dad asked, staring at him with a half made fishing lure held between thumb and forefinger.

Zack looked between his parents, then down at his clothes. Black swim trunks with the golden sunflower emblem, and a bright pink and yellow flower patterned shirt. "Is that any way to greet your son?"

His mom put down her washrag and the plate and came at him with her arms spread. Before he knew it she'd wrapped him in a tight hug, her face pressed into his shoulder. She'd always seemed so big when he was younger. He scooped her up, returning the tight hug and lifting her right off the ground.

"You've gotten so big," she said, laughing in delight. "My little boy, all grown up." Back on her feet she stepped back and smiled up at him. There were gray hairs and lines in places they hadn't been before he'd left. He could tell she'd been worrying and Zack felt a little pang of guilt. "Just look at you."

Rubbing at the back of his neck, he grinned sheepishly until his dad pulled him into a hug of his own. He was, he noticed, a little taller than his dad. It was...strange to realize that.

"You look good." His dad smiled at him, pulling back to put some space between them. His hands squeezed Zack's shoulders, and Zack took in the laugh lines around his mouth and eyes, the gray at his temples.

"Thanks," Zack said, which didn't seem like enough in the face of the pride he could almost feel in his dad's words. He grinned, unabashed. Something in the way his dad said that sounded like it meant 'You did good' too. A sudden sniff had Zack jerking his head around to look at his mom again. "Aw man. Mom, don't cry!" He stepped past his dad to hover over her, hands extended but not touching. Zack was never good with the crying. Should he hug her again, or say something? Maybe start apologizing for not contacting them more often? "Why are you crying?"

"Because you're here." She hiccuped through a watery smile, reached up to hook her fingers under his sunglasses, and pulled them off. "Look at your eyes." Then her fingers touched the scar on his cheek, and she gave another soft inhale. "And where did you get this?"

"It's a long story."

"I'm sure it is." She handed his sunglasses back, neatly folded, and wiped her eyes with her hands. "Come on, sit down and tell us about how you've been."

His dad thumped his back before draping his arm around Zack's shoulders and directing him toward the familiar scrubbed wooden table. Zack dropped into one of the three seats, fond memories of mornings and nights spent here, eating his mother's home cooking, and chattering about what adventure he'd been up to or was going to get up to. Ruffling Zack's hair roughly, his dad sat down in his usual seat, and his mom leaned against the counter near the sink.

Zack relaxed against the table, soaking up the warm feeling of just being with his parents. It only hit him now how much he'd really missed them. "I made it all the way to First class," he said grinning. Even if the memory was tainted by Angeal's disappearance, he was still proud of his achievement. "Things have been really busy ever since then. Life's a bit of a blur, but I've got this really great buddy now. His name's Cloud."

An outpouring of words left him, his parents laughing at his stories about Cloud, missions, SOLDIER, and Midgar. His mother stepped around the table when he softly related Angeal and his death. Somehow, the kiss she pressed to his forehead and his dad's hand on his shoulder seemed to do more to chase away the sorrow and ache than an entire year had.

He kept many of the dangers to himself, both for their safety and their peace of mind. ShinRa had a non-disclosure policy, but Zack hadn't cared about that for awhile. What he did care about was making sure his parents didn't get into any trouble on his account. With Cissnei lurking around he wasn't taking any chances. He trusted her in a way, but he also knew he couldn't trust her.

Zack wasn't sure how much time passed as he regaled his parents with stories about life in Midgar, but by the time he'd wound down his throat felt sore and his voice was hoarse. Zack watched his mom bustle around, the smell of her spice bread filled the house soon. He smiled up at her when she sat a cup of his favorite fruit juice in front of him. "Thanks."

Right after he'd taken a large swallow—man, he hadn't had this stuff in years, it was criminal—his mom asked, "So, how's your girlfriend? Your letter didn't say much." Zack choked and sputtered. This really wasn't a conversation he'd been wanting to have with them, though he knew he should have expected it.

Dryly, his dad said, "It didn't really say anything."

On reflection, Zack knew where he'd gotten his sense of timing from. How did people deal with him? Coughing again to clear his throat, Zack set the glass down. "She's good. Better now. We...had a fight."

"All couples have fights, dear," his mother said. He smiled slightly as she used her moogle oven mitt to check on the bread. "It will be fine."

"Yeah, we talked it out… I guess I'm still a little worried about it. I kept a big secret from her." Zack looked down at his hands, clenched atop the table. He'd worried it would have a lasting effect on the trust between them, that maybe he'd misstepped so badly that their relationship would come to an end. Aerith had quickly put that worry to rest, of course. Still, he, her and Cloud needed to sit down and talk about it, and now they probably wouldn't have the chance.

Pulling off her oven mitt, his mom leveled a frank look at him. "Did you cheat on her?"

Zack flailed so hard he shoved back from the table. It was pure luck he didn't topple, chair and all. His dad hooted with laughter, while Zack yelped, "Mom! No!"

"Then it will work out," she said matter-of-factly, "The real question is, when are you going to propose?"


Zack stared at her aghast, and was met with raised brows and a frank expression. Beside him, his dad had pretty much collapsed against the table in laughter. "An even more important question," she said primly, "is when are you going to bring her to meet us?"

"I—" Zack choked out, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door. All three of them swiveled to look at it, before his mother crossed to it and pulled the door open.

A brief pause hung in the air, and then she asked, "Zack, is this her?" His mother stepped aside to reveal Cissnei standing in the doorway.

"Hi, Zack," Cissnei said with a wave. "I thought I'd come and see if you were planning to head back to Corel tonight."

It took several minutes for Zack's brain to catch up with the situation, but once he did he practically exploded out of his chair. "No! No, no. No no no. Cissnei is just a friend."

His mother frowned and touched her fingertips to her lips with a thoughtful look. She darted a glance between Zack and Cissnei, then asked, "Are you certain you aren't cheating on your girlfriend?"

"Mom!" Zack yelped yet again while Cissnei laughed softly.

"Your son is really nice, but he's not my type."

He could be insulted by that, but right now? Right now he was just really grateful. "Thank you," Zack said, waving his hands at Cissnei. "Finally some back up here."

"Why don't you come in?" his dad called, waving Cissnei across the doorstep. "We can put the two of you up for the night, have a little cook out, and you can tell us more about life in Midgar and this girlfriend of yours."

"I'll need to put together a package for you to take home too," his mother mused, closing the door once Cissnei stepped inside. "Recipes of your favorite foods, some of your baby pictures…" With a groan, Zack flopped into his chair again and put his head in his hands. "Oh, stop that. I have no idea when I'll get a chance to show them to her, so you're going to have to do it for me."

Ignoring that, Zack perked up a little. "Hey, that's an idea. Cissnei do you still have that camera?"

"I left it in the car."

"Later, do you think you could get a picture of me and my parents to take back?"

Cissnei's smile as she slid into the chair Zack's dad offered her was quiet and small. "Of course."

Later that night—after the four of them had sat around the fire pit out back, roasting fish and eating his mom's special spice bread—Zack would spend the night in the hammock strung between the trees closest to their house. Just the way he'd done on many summer nights when he was a little boy.

The next morning he'd throw an arm around each of his parents shoulders and Cissnei would snap a picture before they left, and his mother cried her goodbyes, and Zack told her that was why he'd left without a word so she wouldn't cry.

Then the two of them would be on their way back to Corel, and then Costa del Sol, and the feeling of being a prisoner would close in on him again, the peace he'd found with his parents fading away to the tense worry over what could be.

If Cissnei noticed the way he checked his phone more often than ever, she didn't comment on it.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (September 13th)

Cloud was just exiting the SOLDIER compound, Viri in tow to take him out to the unused roads for some exercise, when he was intercepted by a nervous looking Connally. Pausing, Cloud absently pushed Viri's head away when the eager chocobo butted at him, impatient for what he considered a fun game. "Are you alright?" he asked, glancing around to see if there was anything immediately obvious to cause Connally's hesitation.

Shrugging his hunched shoulders, Connally said, "I was just hoping we could talk, maybe. If you're not busy."

Cloud's reply was interrupted as Viri shoved at him again. He eyed the chocobo for a moment, his mouth tugging in a frown as he looked consideringly between the eager chocobo, the nervous trooper, and the moderately busy streets. It was later in the evening, the sun not quite set yet, and the rush of people getting off work and heading home had died off somewhat.

With an internal shrug, Cloud heaved himself up on Viri's back, then held out a hand to Connally to help pull him up. "Let's get out of here," he said quietly.

Connally looked startled at the sudden move, and eyed Viri warily. He did take Cloud's hand, though, and let himself be hauled into place behind him. "I'm surprised it's still alive," Connally mumbled, grabbing Cloud as he settled awkwardly on the bare saddle of Viri's back. He knew enough in how to place his legs, at least, so as not to interfere with Viri's wings.

With a soft snort of amusement, Cloud nudged Viri into a swift trot. "I think he enjoys how much Viri bothers other people." Connally's hands tightened convulsively on Cloud's waist, but he kept his seat. Cloud still reached down to tug the grip into a more comfortable position. "Just relax. Viri won't let you fall." He was, after all, an excellent riding chocobo, and had only improved with Cloud's attentions.

"You sure? He's got this look…"

That got a smile out of him. Viri was rumbling happily under him, ignoring the startled cries of the few pedestrians that were in the streets as they ran by. He shook his head, twisting a bit so he could speak over his shoulder. "I can't promise when you're off his back." He hadn't quite forgiven Viri for kicking him off the road that one time.

"Comforting," Connally grumbled. "This is the General's chocobo. I don't want to know what he can do."

Humming noncommittally, Cloud refrained from giving Viri permission to run, even as they entered the less populated outskirts of the sector. Even at the reduced speed it didn't take them long to arrive at the twisting maze of highway. Viri perked up, trying to speed up his pace in anticipation of a good run, but Cloud pulled him to a reluctant stop instead. He slid off, patting Viri's beak soothingly as the chocobo warbled his discontent.

As he watched Connally slide less gracefully to the ground, Cloud wondered how to ask him what was bothering him. Then he gave an internal shrug. He'd never bothered with subtlety before.

"What's wrong?"

Connally stumbled a step away from Viri, catching himself before giving Cloud a disgruntled look. "My weirdly secretive best friend decided to drag me onto a chocobo and kidnap me to the outskirts of civilization without explaining, is what's wrong."


"No you're not," Connally said with a laugh.

"No," Cloud had to agree. Doggedly, he gave Connally an expectant look.

That made Connally deflate, shoulders hunching in on himself. "I'm...not any good at this."

Cloud stared, then pointedly looked down at himself and back up. He finished by raising an eyebrow.

"Okay, good point," Connally muttered. He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair, and looked anywhere but at Cloud's face. "So, I've heard? Some things?" It definitely came out more of a question than a statement.

When he didn't continue immediately, Cloud settled back on his heels to wait it out. He could play the waiting game much longer than Connally could.

Seeming to realize this, Connally heaved a deep sigh. "Right. So I heard you and Zack at the Chocobo Ranch."

That...didn't actually explain anything. Cloud was blank for a few heartbeats as he tried to make sense of the statement.

"But you don't even remember that, do you?" Connally said wryly. "It was last year, just after your accident. Your, uh, probably why you don't remember it much." He fidgeted, pulling a couple of feathers off from where they'd clung to his pants. "You and Zack were talking about a lot of things, actually. About Genesis and Angeal...about the General...and saving the world?"

That was beginning to ring an alarm bell in Cloud's memory. He and Zack had talked about a lot of things back then. Things no one in this timeline was supposed to know. Things they really shouldn't have been discussing with Sephiroth anywhere near them. The hairs on his arms stood up at the chill that thought produced. At least it had been Connally who'd heard.

"There were other things too. I listen, you know? I don't...I wouldn't say anything," Connally was quick to reassure. "I mean, we were still partners. I'll watch your back Cloud. But, uh, back on that mission in Icicle? It was kind of obvious something was up too. What with, with the Turk and all." Connally was looking determinedly at his feet as he spoke. "And the AVALANCHE intruder." He glanced up, catching Cloud's eye. "Um."

Cloud wasn't sure what expression he had, honestly. He wasn't sure what to feel, knowing Connally had been sitting on information that potentially could have ruined his and Zack's plans.

"Um," Connally said again. "And when we went down to the slums? I heard a bit of what you were talking to Mis—uh, Aerith about. So…." He trailed off, swallowing nervously.

"Why are you telling me now?" Cloud asked, honestly curious. As far as he could tell, nothing had triggered this sudden outpouring of honesty.

Taking another deep breath, Connally straightened his shoulders. "Look, I was worried, okay? I just...get the feeling you're worried about something right now. And I was thinking about all the...the things you'd said, that I don't think other people know. Honestly I wouldn't have said anything, but I felt like I was going mad. No one else is acting any differently. And Zack.

"So I went to Kunsel. You said you trusted him. That...was that…well, Kunsel told me to talk to you directly," he finished, gesturing wide with one hand. "So, here I am."

Here they both were. Cloud ran a hand through his hair distractedly. He hadn't really had any contingency plans for this kind of situation. He'd figured if anyone figured him and Zack out, they'd have to make a quick escape. Most people in ShinRa would want them dead if they had any concrete proof of their insurrection.

But this was Connally, who'd stuck with Cloud through a lot of shitty situations. And maybe that was loyalty to the person Cloud had been before, that he couldn't remember being. He felt muddled now with all the conflicting thoughts swirling through his head.

He didn't really know what to say until he opened his mouth. "What kind of trouble do you think I'm in?"

Connally started, then looked down at his hands. He twisted them together, the leather of his gloves creaking at the nervous movement. "I...I don't really know."

"Put it together," Cloud insisted. "What do you think?"

The only sound was the loose gravel of the highway crunched lightly under Viri's feet as he paced around nearby. Finally, Connally reached behind his back. It was telling that Cloud didn't once consider that he might be reaching for a weapon. What he did bring around was a little box, wires sticking out of it as it made a low humming noise.

"Uh, it's a scrambler. Jesse helped me find the parts I needed," Connally said, pride and sheepishness warring in his voice. "Just in case someone is listening, you know?"

"Out here?" Cloud asked skeptically.

"Yes out here. You come here a lot, right?"

"Not a lot," he protested, frowning at the innocuous looking bit of technology. His gaze flicked back up to Connally's face, taking in the serious set of his mouth. "...You're that worried about this."

"I think you should be more worried. Honestly Cloud, it's like you want to be caught?"

"Hm," Cloud shifted his gaze to the glowing tower of ShinRa, rising high above the plates. "No. It's just the best thing I've found to do is not worry about it. If I start acting suspicious, they'll have a lot more to work with."

"That's...really irresponsible," Connally said with a weak chuckle.

"Would you also believe 'dumb luck'?" he countered.

"That! Yes, that I would believe." It was mildly insulting how quickly Connally agreed.

The wind tugged at their clothes, puffing up small swirls of dust that danced through the air. Connally continued to look at him, chin tilted stubbornly, but his eyes were soft and pleading with Cloud not to turn him away. The space between them felt like a bottomless gulf, though in reality it was only a few feet.

Finally, Cloud broke the silence. "So?"


"Were there any bugs?"

"Oh!" Connally said, sweating lightly as he glanced down at the device. He fiddled with it for a moment, then looked back up. "Um, well, no. Still, it doesn't hurt to be careful…."

Cloud watched as Connally tucked the device back into the pouch at his back. "What do you think about Shinra?" he asked quietly. Viri decided this was the perfect time to come trotting up and attempt to groom Cloud's hair. Rolling his eyes, Cloud shoved his head away. Viri warbled unhappily, giving him as soulful a look as Connally had just done. Cloud was unmoved. "Go play, but don't go too far."

Viri turned and trotted off again, chuckling his discontent lowly as he went.

Connally shook his head, an amused grin tugging at his mouth even as he answered. "Well, they give people electricity, and that's good. They provide jobs, and innovations, and safety to the citizens…." He trailed off, staring off into space. "But...they also leave good people like Jessie and Poppy to try and make ends meet down there. They don't help. People down there don't trust ShinRas, and there has to be a reason for that. There's talk about...people going missing."

Cloud hadn't realized how affected Connally had been by his visit to the slums. Or even how oblivious the general army was of the conditions below the plates. Gibbs came from down there, so he and Edge frequented the place and knew what it was like. But they were the exceptions. With everything available cleaner and of better quality up here, no one bothered venturing down.

That was how it started, though, wasn't it? Barrett and Tifa were extreme examples of people whose lives had been immediately touched by ShinRa's cruelty. It had taken Reeve venturing forth into the world through Cait Sith to realize the safe bubble he lived in was only a small portion of how the world really was. He'd known something was rotten, but hadn't acted in earnest until he'd witnessed it first hand.

If Connally was starting to feel the weight of ShinRa bearing down on him, then maybe it would be better if he started to see just how big of a threat they were. More than that, Cloud wanted Connally to be free of ShinRa. Eventually, things would come to a head between him and the company again. He didn't want to have to face down Connally on opposite sides.

Connally straightened his shoulders, facing Cloud squarely "And then there's you too. You don't...act like you like ShinRa very much, even though you finally made it to SOLDIER. It used to be your—our dream. Right? I trust you Cloud." That felt like a sharp punch to the gut. What had Cloud done to deserve this loyalty? "So I think...there's something rotten here."

Letting out a huff of breath, Cloud motioned Connally to the side of the road. He hopped up to sit on the barrier, uncaring of the dust and grease that smeared off on his pants. If he had to order a new uniform, Sephiroth would have to sign off on it, and the minor annoyance was almost worth the scathing official notice that would follow. Sephiroth had remained true to his campaign to smear Cloud's reputation any and every way he could.

After a moment, Connally joined him, opting instead to lean against the barrier. Well, the yawning drop behind Cloud might have been unnerving to some, so he didn't blame him.

"Did you ever think about where Mako energy comes from?" Cloud asked. Almost on queue, the giant Mako reactors fired up into the night, lighting up the sky with their green glow. From here, closer to the edge of the plate, it was almost a physical 'thump' in his chest.

Connally shook his head. "I mean, yes? But there's not a lot of information on where it comes from. It's just something they refine, right?"

Cloud shrugged a bit. "Did you ever wonder why the land around Midgar is the way it is?" Edge had been built on the outskirts of Midgar in his ruined future, just where the land wasn't completely lost to the rot ShinRa had caused.

Hesitating, Connally replied slowly, "No...but I'm guessing it's connected."

"Mhmm," he hummed in reply. "ShinRa is poison. To the land, and to the people. I can't let it continue."

The expression on Connally's face was full of incredulity. " that what this is about?" He waved a hand out, encompassing all of the plates they could see. "That ShinRa is destroying the planet?"

Cloud's mouth quirked up wryly. "No." Because it was about Sephiroth, really. Cloud let his eyes track back across the expanse of the plate laid out before them. "It's because ShinRa is destroying the people. Did you ever wonder what's really involved in making SOLDIERs as powerful as they are?"

"I get the feeling I'm really not going to like the answer," Connally said flatly.

"Probably not. And that's the publicly accepted experiments."

Connally looked a little green at that. "Uh, I can guess that's why you're not a fan of the scientists then. Even though," and here he shot Cloud an apologetic but knowing look, "you haven't been to them in all the time I've known you." He held up a hand to forstall Cloud's response. "I'm not going to ask, Cloud. I don't...think I want to know. Yet. Maybe one day though?"

"Yeah," Cloud said. "One day."

Telling Kunsel had been partially strategic, as he was a fount of information and advice. Connally, however…. Well, Cloud wanted him to know. It was a strange feeling. Connally was probably Cloud's best friend in this time, outside of Zack and Aerith. And whatever Sephiroth was. The others in the Unit were great, but Connally had stuck through the changes in Cloud, much like Zack had. That was a kind of loyalty Cloud appreciated. He wanted to give back in kind. Of everyone, perhaps Connally deserved it most of all. He'd lost a partner to Cloud's arrival, and a friend.

"I don't want anyone to get hurt over this," Cloud said, letting his gaze drift out over to ShinRa Tower's bulk, lit up against the darkening sky. "It's too dangerous. There's more than just ShinRa at stake, too. It's better to stay out of it. I can help you stay safe, when the time comes." He looked back at Connally, frowning again.

"Cloud, I've been getting into trouble with you since you joined our squad. I'm not going to stop now." He cracked a smile as he said it. "I'm just a normal guy, and not that strong, but I can handle myself. I just don't know what you're trying to do, I guess."

Tilting his head, Cloud considered that for a long moment. Finally, he settled on a partial explanation. "Sephiroth is unstable. We need to fix that." Admitting that much, at least, would prepare Connally for the worst of it. He hoped.

Connally jerked as if struck, his eyes widening comically. "How do you know that? How can we fix that?"

"The easiest way to explain is when I fell in the Lifestream, I learned some things."

Still staring, though his expression had become more confused, Connally asked, "Lifestream? I thought you fell in mako?"

Cloud pressed one hand to his forehead. He'd forgotten that most people didn't know of the Lifestream and how it connects to the Planet. They didn't know the consequences. "I'll take you to Cosmo Canyon sometime. They can explain it." It wasn't funny, but Cloud still felt like laughing over the absurdity.

"Wait," Connally said, eye darting rapidly around as his thoughts churned. "Is that why you attacked Sephiroth back then? Because of what you...learned? Or…?"

That did make Cloud laugh, a short burst of hilarity. "Yeah, that's pretty much why." Not exactly, but close enough.

"Huh." Connally rocked up onto his feet, pacing a few steps away in nervous movement. He turned on his heel. "So, what's the plan?"

Cloud closed his eyes. He'd never really put it into words. Zack had understood well enough, because he'd seen enough of ShinRa's darks side to fill in the blanks Cloud couldn't or wouldn't. Now that he had to explain it to someone with no context, it was difficult. "Keep Sephiroth from isolating himself," he said finally. "He is...not receptive, of course, so it's not simple. Zack and I have been doing what we can, and now Zack is...away. I may be the only one who can. But we have to try. It's...important." The most important.

"Yeah," Connally said with a swallow. "If he's against us...well I know you can handle yourself against him, and Zack's pretty strong too but." A little fear showed on his face, making him look absurdly young, before the troubled frown closed back in. "The General is something else."

"The problem is, he believes that too," Cloud murmured, more to himself. How could he alter an opinion that Sephiroth had been developing all his life, when no one would tell him otherwise? "He is strong, but he is still human." For now, at least.

Connally wet his lips and rubbed his hands over his arms as if chasing off a chill despite the heat still lingering in the air. "Is there anything I can do to help with any of this?"

It was a loaded question, one Cloud wasn't sure how to answer. Nibelheim was so close. (Too close…) That was still the most likely place all of this would come to a head. Where they would have the chance to convince Sephiroth to leave ShinRa, so long as they could get to him before Jenova and Hojo's mackinations did. It hinged upon Cloud being chosen to go on the mission with Sephiroth, only this time he wasn't a Trooper to be chosen as support.

Connally was a Trooper.

The thought made Cloud freeze. Cloud had been chosen last time, he and another Trooper, who'd died at the mountain pass when the bridge had broken. It was such a minor incident in the whole tragedy of Nibelheim, and he'd never given it much thought, but….

But now he knew who that face had to have been. As partners, he and Connally would have been assigned to the mission together. Even if it wasn't this Connally, even if Cloud couldn't remember the other, it sent a bolt of horror through Cloud that he couldn't quite contain. It was a physical stab of pain, and he couldn't help the wince as he brought one hand up to his head again, pressing against the images that flashed through his mind. He hated the surges of memory, the sudden emotions they provoked, the reminders of how much he'd lost.

"You okay?" Connally asked hesitantly. " something with your memory acting up again?"

Taking a deep breath, Cloud let his hand drop to his side, pushing back the continued throb of pain. "Something like that…" He could feel a swelling of panic rise in him, and he pushed that back too. There was no time for it right now. "Just...don't…." He grit his teeth as indecision burned at him, and he had to say something. "If you get selected for a mission to Nibelheim, let me know." If there was some way he could prevent it, at least Cloud could try.

Connally frowned at him, looked on the verge of asking, but then he just sighed and nodded. "Okay."

Jerking his head, aware that he was leaving Connally more confused than before but not being able to explain, Cloud left it at that. Instead, he turned, whistling to catch Viri's attention. He saw the chocobo pop his head up from an overpassing road, and with a cheerful warble he disappeared again, only the faint sound of claws against pavement heralding his descent. Cloud remained quiet, waiting patiently until Viri appeared again, having circled back to the road they were on.

Viri immediately nudged his head against Cloud the moment he got close enough, and Cloud rocked back slightly against the bird's momentum. He pet at Viri's head for a few moments, grounding himself back in the present. With a sigh, he turned back to Connally.

"I don't...know what else to tell you," he said honestly. Not without telling him everything. He'd respect Connally's request and wait until asked.

Edging over slowly, carefully, Connally reached out and offered his hand to Viri. "You didn't have to tell me anything. But you did. I'll keep your secrets for you, I just want to help out if I can. I know there isn't a whole lot I can do." He looked up at Cloud with a wry grin.

"That's not true," Cloud said mildly. "Just...keep your head down for now. Things will change, soon. Until then, decide on what you think is most important. What you can give up. And if you hear anything, let me know right away this time." He held a hand out to Connally. "I'm your friend too, right?"

The grin widened, turned more genuine. "Right," Connally replied, clasping his hand and knocking their forearms together.

Nodding, Cloud released the grip and turned to Viri. Tilting the collar up, he tugged it around to see what materia Sephiroth had him equipped with now. "I don't know if there will be time later for me to tell you everything," he warned softly, keeping his attention on Viri as he spoke. "But you can always ask."

"Right," Connally repeated just as softly. He understood.

Straightening, Cloud turned on his heel and let a mischievous smirk cross his face. "Ever ridden a chocobo who can shoot lightning?" he asked, tilted his head toward Viri's back.

Connally's wide-eyed look of borderline horror was answer enough. "Does what?"

Later, after Cloud had dropped a wind-blown Connally off at the Trooper barracks, he and Viri made their way back through the dark, nearly deserted streets for the SOLDIER compound. Cloud felt both like he had too many thoughts in his head, and that his mind was distressingly blank. The exercise had helped ease the tension that had built during their conversation, but it still nagged at the back of his mind. It was good to have other allies he could count on. It worried him. Nothing about the future seemed sure anymore, and yet it still marched toward the inevitable conclusion at Nibelheim.

He tried not to think about it. Right now, he had to worry about returning Viri to his enigmatic owner. Sephiroth had called Cloud out to pick up Viri that day because he had a mission to perform, and Cloud hadn't argued the unnecessary summons. That was a good sign, right? That Sephiroth was willing to reach out to another person. On the other hand, Cloud had put himself into a position where it was almost expected of him to be Viri's caretaker in Sephiroth's absence. How much was choice, and how much was convenience?

The older apartment building was dark and silent, the few residents either retired already or still out. SOLDIERs kept strange hours, and were more apt to stay out late even if they didn't have a mission. Viri cooed wearily as he boarded the elevator with Cloud, twitching his tail feathers out of the way of the doors as they slid closed. He'd been fascinated by his new passenger, and had worn himself out in his excitement.

Cloud only paused briefly outside Sephiroth's door, digging in his pocket for the spare key card Sephiroth had given him for access. It had been better for both of them, rather than leaving Viri to wait outside the apartment, or for Sephiroth to have to track Cloud down when he wanted the return of his pet. Viri shoved at the door as it slid open as if to hurry it along, before trotting inside. The interior was dark, so Sephiroth was still out on his mission.

There was a crashing sound from inside the apartment, coupled with a surprised wark from Viri, and Cloud frowned as he stepped inside. Flipping on the switch, he frowned further when he saw a guilty looking Viri standing next to a toppled potted plant. With a sigh, he shooed Viri back as he crouched to right it, scooping the dirt as best he could back into the pot. It seemed like such a strange thing for Sephiroth to own, but it had been here even the first time Cloud had been in Sephiroth's apartment, so he had to be taking care of it.

Viri was settling in his nest of blankets in the corner by the time Cloud finished cleaning up, and Cloud straightened with another soft sigh. A glint out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, one of the materia on Sephiroth's display wall had caught the light just right. Absently brushing his hand against his pant leg, he wandered over for a closer look, casting a guilty look at the door. He should just leave, honestly, but he'd never had a chance to study Sephiroth's extensive collection before. The time with Zack he'd spent keeping to himself, unable to relax in Sephiroth's presence, and every time afterward had only been a brief stop to pick up or drop off Viri.

There were dozens of materia lined up and categorized neatly in their little niches, and Cloud knew from what Sephiroth had told him that all were different, natural materia. It was impressive, even for Sephiroth, to have collected this many. Here and there there was an empty slot, the lightning and all materia currently in Viri's collar, and others that presumably Sephiroth had with him right now. As he was lifting onto his toes to get a better look at one of the higher rows, Cloud realized too late that the buzz in his head had gotten more insistently loud until he heard the door slide open behind him. He jerked around, trying not to look as guilty as he felt for being caught in Sephiroth's apartment without reason.

Sephiroth paused just inside the door and looked across the room at Cloud for several seconds. Without a word, he crossed the distance, Masamune's bare blade angled behind him. When he drew near to Cloud, he brought the sword hilt up and deftly popped one of the materia from the slot, before depositing it into its niche on the shelf without even looking. His gaze, instead, had stayed trained down to look at Cloud. As he continued to remove the materia from the slots in Masamune Sephiroth's head tilted questioningly.

Ducking his head to the side, Cloud took a belated step to the side and out of Sephiroth's immediate vicinity. "Viri knocked over the plant," he said as explanation. He wasn't sure how to justify his own curiosity, and instead just said nothing, pressing his lips together uncomfortably.

"Again?" Sephiroth said as he freed the last materia from Masamune and set it into place. He turned away to cross to another wall, where he lifted the long blade up to place it on the carved hooks for it. He stood there for a moment, pulling off his gloves and bracer before heading back toward the materia shelves. "Angeal would be displeased."

Blinking, Cloud asked, "He gave it to you?" It didn't quite fit with the image of the stern instructor Zack had admired.

Sephiroth continued prying the materia from his bracer, almost single mindedly. "Yes. He would be thrilled that I have a pet now."

Cloud glanced over at Viri, who had his head tucked under one wing to block out the light, asleep already.

"...Why did you keep him?" he asked absently, echoing Connally's question from earlier. There had been pressure from Zack, sure, but Sephiroth was not one to cave into that sort of behavior. Cloud had never wondered about it specifically before. Now that the thought was in his head, he couldn't let it go. It was as strange as the thought of Sephiroth taking care of a bedraggled house plant.

Looking up, Sephiroth rolled one of his materia on his palm. His eyes tracked from Cloud over to Viri. "It passed the time."

"Ah," Cloud said. What more had he really expected? Leaning toward him, Sephiroth reached past to deposit the last materia in a slot near Cloud. Cloud followed the movement unconsciously, raising an eyebrow as he recognized the familiar tang of magic coming from the materia.

"Is that a comet materia?" he asked, resisting the urge to reach out and pick it up. The feeling from it was strong, so it was well used.

Sephiroth's gaze snapped over to Cloud. "I'm surprised you noticed."

With a negligent shrug, Cloud stepped back and turned toward the door. "You favor it," he said simply.

As he passed through the doorway, Cloud gave one last look over his shoulder. Sephiroth stood there, utterly still, and stared after Cloud with his head half bowed. His eyes were narrowed behind the fall of his bangs, the brighter light of the hall gleaming off them like a Nibel Wolf's in the dimmer interior of the apartment. It was an unsettling look, and with it came a brief spike in the buzz in Cloud's head, ratcheting up at the focused attention. The door slid closed between them, cutting off the connection, but it left Cloud wondering what was going through Sephiroth's mind just then.

Only two more weeks….

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (September 15th)

The SOLDIER mission board was deserted when Cloud entered the lounge. He paid no mind to the few people who populated the area as he made a straight line for it. While he could have accessed the list from his phone, this was a good enough excuse to waste some time when he didn't have anything in particular to do. He hadn't actually been on the SOLDIER floor in over a week. The forced routine of missions and reports was grating, but Cloud had little choice but to dance to ShinRa's tune. At least when Zack had been around he provided welcome companionship and distraction from the feeling that time was slipping away.

Scrolling through the list, he had a hard time focusing on the words on the screen. So far, Sephiroth's smear campaign had succeeded in keeping Cloud from being flash promoted again. It was both appreciated, and annoying. As predicted, Cloud had received a formal admonishment for the state of his uniform and a charge against his pay for a new one. He hadn't even realized Sephiroth had noticed, what with the other distractions their brief interaction had merited.

Whatever his motivation, Sephiroth was deriving far too much pleasure from aggravating Cloud. And while he knew he shouldn't let such a minor thing get to him, especially when it was Sephiroth, Cloud couldn't ignore the tiny barbs at his own competency and had to constantly fight down to urge to prove he was capable.

Realizing he'd been staring blankly at the bottom of the list for the last few minutes, Cloud blinked and sighed, scrolling back to the top to read through some of the descriptions. It didn't matter which mission he took; it was all equally pointless, merely a time waster to keep the higher ups off his back.

The shuffle of footsteps was the only warning he had before two heavy hands fell on his shoulders. A glance to either side showed Gibbs and Edge framing him.

"And here I thought you might have gotten in trouble," Edge drawled, eyeing Cloud's SOLDIER 2nd uniform sardonically. "Now I see you were just too busy again for the likes of us."

Gibbs sighed dramatically. "Now I have to drag you to see Gran and Jen again. If this is going to be a monthly occurrence, I'll just schedule you in for family dinners with me."

Raising an eyebrow at the pair, Cloud didn't have a chance to answer before Edge was leaning forward to flip through the missions on screen. "See, you left us to take care of that Second class mission all on our lonesome last time, so I figure you owe us for that."

"We might have been a little lenient," Gibbs continued, tugging Cloud away as Edge finished selecting the mission without Cloud being able to see which he chose, "what with it being Sephiroth and all, but then you show up all newly promoted and don't even bother telling your buddies about it?" He looked down at Cloud with a mock forlorn look. "Show a little consideration."

Edge caught up with them, then faked wiping a tear away from one eye. "I thought you liked us more than that."

Shoving Gibb's arm off him, Cloud shoved his trepidation down as he focused on the here and now. There would be time later to dwell on what he couldn't change. It seemed to be all he could manage lately. "Why should I bother when the gossip mongers can do it faster?" he muttered, not really upset at the two SOLDIERs. Their presence was at least distracting, and he enjoyed time spent with them anyway. It had been a while since he'd seen them, after all.

"That's not the point," Gibbs said, "the point is that we had to find out from Sparo."

"And that we lost a bet on when you'd get promoted again," Edge put in.

Cloud groaned. "When?" He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but if the rest of ShinRa was aware of his promotion status, then there would be less worry about breaking rules from the higher ups and Sephiroth's efforts to keep him from SOLDIER 1st would be wasted. Especially since everyone but him seemed happy with his promotions.

"When what? When did we say you'd get promoted?" Gibbs asked airily. "I had my money set on half a year. They really want you, don't they Cloud?"

"You couldn't have just held out until next month, could you?" Edge griped.

"Since when does anyone listen to what I have to say," Cloud shot back, gesturing at them and their dramatic 'escort' of Cloud on this mission. "Where are we going?" They'd made their way to the helicarrier field by now, the helicopters used to transport SOLDIERs to distant missions standing at the ready.

Edge's phone beeped, and he flipped it open. "That's Charles, our ride's ready to go." Cloud couldn't tell if he was ignoring him on purpose or just antsy to get a move on. Gibbs clapped him sharply on the back, following after Edge without a word as well as they made their way across the field toward one of the helicopters. There was a man waiting by the doors, waving them over when he caught sight of them.

Resigning himself to their fun, Cloud trailed after them a little slower, in no hurry to leave. It would be nice to get out of Midgar, but at the same time he felt like he was failing in what he needed to do. Not that there was anything else he could do right now. Sephiroth was frustrating hard to get a hold of. Without the excuse of Viri, Cloud wouldn't have seen him near as often, and each of those interactions were brief.

He'd been looking for an opportunity to ask Sephiroth to spar again, but there was never a good moment for it. When Cloud did see Sephiroth in a professional setting, it was always about some exaggerated failure on Cloud's part. Honestly, Sephiroth would probably have taken the invitation to spar as 'insubordination' again.

There were too many distractions, and ShinRa was too good at absorbing people into their own pace. Maybe Zack would have been able to figure out a way. Cloud just felt...lost.

Once they lifted off, it was only a few minutes before Edge started looking green around the gills, his lips thin and tight. He'd set his helmet on the bench next to him, so Cloud was able to see his expression clearly. Humming under his breath, Cloud raised an eyebrow at him, raising his voice to be heard over the loud machinery and howling wind. "Why did you pick it if you still hate flying?"

"Shut it."

Gibbs' input was droll. "If you throw up on either of us I'm going to murder you."

"Shut. It."

Cloud hid his own grin behind his fist as he rested his chin on it, peering out the window as they passed quickly over the land. By the direction they were going, he could tell they were heading out near the Junon area. One of the missions had been out that way, but he hadn't paid it enough attention to remember the details. Just that it had been unusual in some way.

The rest of the ride was silent, in deference to the fact that it was too difficult to be heard over all the noise, and none of them seemed inclined to put on the headsets that would have allowed conversation. It gave Cloud plenty of time to study his two companions. There was something decidedly shifty in the complete nonchalance Gibbs was affecting. Edge's air-sickness was genuine, at least. It was obvious that there was some alternative goal for his 'kidnapping' other than petty revenge for being left with the high class mission before.

Why now? Cloud had experience with liars and deceivers; Yuffie and Cait Sith had taught him a lot about how such people acted. Gibbs and Edge didn't have that same edge to their actions. If anything, Cloud was the liar in this situation. Was it Connally? Not that Cloud thought Connally had said anything. But the others in his small group of friends paid attention to each other almost as much as they did to Cloud. Connally had been acting strange beforehand, so maybe they'd picked up on it.

That, or maybe Cloud wasn't being as subtle as he thought he was. For all the effort they'd put into keeping their motives secret, there were other people watching. Cloud knew that on a superficial level, but had only focused about those who mattered; the Turks, President Shinra, Hojo, people who could prevent him from the outcome he wanted.

Still, he couldn't bring himself to bring up his guard with the two SOLDIERs. They were now companions to Cloud, like he'd had before. There was a bond that he had to acknowledge, had to trust in, and knew he could. From the kind of people they were, Cloud knew they'd put him and their friends over ShinRa's politics, but only if they were given the option. They couldn't act on it if they didn't know the choice was there.

It was another thing Cloud needed to keep in mind, even as Nibelheim loomed closer.

A shudder through the helicopter shook Cloud from his thoughts as they hit a patch of turbulence, and he glanced over at Gibbs and Edge. Gibbs had his chin against his chest and appeared to be dozing, though it was hard to tell with the SOLDIER helmet covering his eyes. That was, Cloud reflected, the part of the uniform he loathed. He ignored the hypocrisy of the fact that he'd all but lived in his Trooper helmet when he'd arrived. That had been a different time, when he'd been more focused on his own anonymity, and keeping out of Sephiroth's sight.

It gave all the SOLDIERs a faceless quality, and more irritatingly it restricted his vision in ways he didn't like. He'd conveniently 'forgot' his own helmet for this mission, as he did most of his missions. The blatant refusal to conform hopefully irritated the higher ups enough to delay their promoting him again. If he wouldn't follow their rules at this point, what made them think putting him as a First would be any better? He was pretty sure that was how Sephiroth had worded it on his last mission's report.

Edge was staring at the opposite wall with eyes that were a touch too wide, his hands gripping white on the edge of the seat. It was almost silly for a SOLDIER Third to be so uncomfortable with heights, especially since flights such as these were so routine, but Cloud could sympathize. At this point and with so many missions under his belt, Edge was probably just reacting to the memory of his own fear.

The two Thirds had been solid support. After Zack had left, they filled in a lot of the achingly empty gap that separation had left. Cloud hadn't realized, hadn't wanted to acknowledge how lonely he'd been, but the hours of isolation did grate. Gibbs and Edge had begun to take up a lot of his free time, waylaying him every time he stepped out of his room. They'd kept him distracted from his dark thoughts, and if he had to guess, they'd been doing it deliberately. There was no reason for them to include him in missions; most of them were for SOLDIER partners, not larger groups. So it was overkill for all three of them to go. Yet without fail, Gibbs and Edge would drag Cloud along.

With the promotion to Second, Cloud had isolated himself again. He hadn't meant to. Just, the last week he had allowed himself to get swept up in ShinRa and Sephiroth's tug-of-war game. When he wasn't breaking ShinRa rules, he was getting reprimanded by Sephiroth about the rules he broke. He wondered if Sephiroth was also the reason he hadn't been 'assigned' a partner yet, or if that was more ShinRa anticipating his promotion to First class. He let out an aggravated sigh, running his hands through his head and pressing his palms against his eyes. He tried not to think on that further.

After working so closely and fighting alongside Gibbs and Edge for so long, Cloud could say with certainty that he trusted them far more than he'd expected to. It was nice to feel that again. With Zack, he'd never had a doubt of trust, having known what he was like long before they'd become as close as they were. Aerith was the same, even when she'd not known exactly what was going on. She had no love of ShinRa at all, none of the conflicting loyalties that even Zack had.

Gibbs and Edge had less reason than either of them to put their trust in Cloud, but for some reason they'd thrown their lot in with him. Perhaps they'd decided it as far back as Mideel, or maybe it had taken the forced march through the marshes. Whatever it was, they'd seen something in Cloud that they trusted enough to put themselves at risk for.

Maybe he wasn't worthy of their loyalty or their friendship. Not theirs, not Connally's. There was always going to be the tiny voice in Cloud's head, telling him he wasn't worth consideration, wasn't worth fighting for. But he had learned to push past that, thanks to his Tifa and old friends and the trials they'd suffered together. He had learned to put his trust in people, then had forgotten and been forced to relearn those lessons. Now he was once again put to the test to trust that there were people in the world he could count on.

There was a crackle of static as the intercom kicked in, though the pilot pushed his mouthpiece away in favor of just shouting over his shoulder. "We're approaching the drop point!"

The other two stirred, Gibbs sitting up and stretching his arms over his head, bringing them down to roll his shoulders and loosen up. Edge didn't move much, though he did give the back of the pilot's head a dirty look. He did scoop up his helmet and slip it on though. Shifting against the hard seat, Cloud glanced out the window, trying to gauge their position better as they waited for the all clear. A minute later, there was a loud beep, and the light above the door glowed green in readiness for it to be opened.

Gibbs was the first up, hitting the button and sliding the door out of the way. Immediately the wind whipped inside, pulling at their clothes and sending strands of Cloud's hair lashing in his face. Edge edged toward the door, stopping too far back and pointedly looking in the other direction from the long drop.

"Commencing SOLDIER drop in three, Have fun boys!" the pilot called back.

"Fuck you too, Charles," Edge snarled, as Gibbs made the jump. "I'm telling your girl why you really can't make that date friday night!" Rolling his eyes, Cloud shoved Edge out, and winced at the surprisingly high pitched scream that came floating back.

With one last droll glance at the pilot, who appeared to have doubled up laughing over his controls, Cloud stepped out into the air, letting gravity pull him toward the ground. He saw Gibbs and Edge land a few seconds before he hit himself, rolling to soften the blow that would have crippled or killed a normal person. Hooray for SOLDIERs.

Once he'd straightened up, Cloud watched as the helicopter puttered away, only turning to his companions once the sound had faded to a faint hum. Edge was sitting with his forearms resting on his knees, his head bowed between them as he recovered from his recent ordeal. He'd taken his helmet off again, and it rested by his hip. Next to him, Gibbs was thumbing through his phone.

"I no longer regret that I'm going to make you do all the work on this mission, you ass," Edge muttered darkly, raising his head enough to give Cloud a baleful glare.

"You have to get over it eventually," Gibbs said idly. He flipped his phone shut, and reached a hand down to help heave Edge up. "Besides, it's your own fault for picking this mission, isn't it? Did you look at the description at all or just pick the first one you came across?"

"And you need to get over your face," Edge griped, swatting the hand away and shoving himself up. He scooped his helmet up and shoved it back on with a graceless grunt.

"Sore much? How old are you? Jeeze Cloud, why do I put up with this guy anyway?" Gibbs asked sardonically, jabbing his thumb at the other SOLDIER.

"Stupidity, probably," Cloud said. Gibbs barked out a laugh, not denying it. "What are the details?" he continued in an attempt to interrupt the bickering.

While Edge continued to sulk, Gibbs huffed a sigh. "A number of Cactuar have cropped up in the area. They want us to have a look around and take them out if possible, since this is a pretty vital route between Fort Condor, Junon, and the Mines. There's some nonsense about an escaped pet Cactuar of an exec, with stolen paperwork too, but I think one of the dispatchers was having a laugh."

Cloud wrinkled his nose, a frown pulling at his mouth. "Who would have a pet Cactuar?"

"Yeah, that's why I figure it's just someone pulling our leg," Gibbs said glibly. "Still, an infestation of the critters isn't all that fun to deal with. Good luck with it, right?" He finished by giving Cloud a cheeky grin and thumbs up.

"And I expect you two are planning on waiting here?" Cloud retorted dryly.

"And miss out on you getting turned into a pincushion?" Edge cried out, hands on his hips in mock outrage. "Nah, Strife, we'll be your cheerleaders as you show us what a SOLDIER Second can do." The emphasis on the title made Cloud cringe at the reminder.

Gibbs elbowed Edge sharply. Cloud ignored that, as well as the contrite look Edge shot him. Instead, he turned and took stock of their surroundings again. They were somewhere between Junon and Fort Condor, and the road between the two settlements lay to the west. It was unlikely the Cactuar would congregate anywhere near human habitation; they were more the type to immobilize their enemies with their needle attack and run away.

Choosing a direction to the east and a bit north where he'd seen the Cactuar signs, he gestured peremptorily. "That way."

With a nod, Gibbs hooked his thumbs under the strap of his harness and pulled it to adjust it. "Lead on then. We've got gardening to do."

Starting off at a ground-covering trot, Cloud wondered out loud, "How would a Cactuar steal paperwork anyway?"

"Roll on it?" Edge suggested dryly. "It'd get stuck to their needles."

A thought occurred to Cloud, and he pulled his phone out, thumbing to his contacts and typing out a quick message.

Rumors of an executive with a Cactuar? Missing paperwork?

He kept his phone tucked into his palm as he waited for an answer, sure it would come soon. Sure enough, a minute later his phone beeped, and he checked the response quietly.

The first bit is true, but the second is probably a cover up.

The Cactuar did take off though, not that I can blame it.

Cloud gave his phone a faint grin. As fast as the response had been, it seemed like Kunsel hadn't even batted an eyelash at the strange questions. Tucking his phone away, he glanced sideways at Gibb's expectant look. "Pet's legit," he offered with a half shrug.

"No shit?" Edge asked, "Well, I guess it's no stranger than a pet Chocobo."

"A Chocobo isn't a strange pet," Gibbs countered.

"It is when you consider its owner!"

Snorting softly, Gibbs waved a hand in irritation. "Doesn't matter, because if the papers are a decoy then we're already going to fail half this mission. Seriously Edge, you need to pick better jobs for us, or we're going to be mucking up after monsters forever."

"Yeah, whatever. What do you remember about fighting Cactuar?"

"Pretty sure the guys who trained me said 'Don't do it'."

"Why are they here?" Cloud interrupted, frowning as they passed the decomposing body of an unfortunate Zemzelette pinned to the ground by so many needles the body was hardly visible. Had that all come from a single Cactuar?

"What?" Edge asked, confused.

Slowing to a stop, Cloud gestured at a pair of Cappawires that had met the same fate. "Cactuars don't usually use their needle attack much, and they aren't native to this continent. So, why are they here?"

Gibbs scratched at the back of his head, tilting his helmet down to do so. "Dunno. Does it matter? I suppose that's why we were sent to clean them up though. They're causing a lot of trouble around here." Gibbs paused a moment to pull his helmet off completely, then focused a knowing look on him and said, "Speaking of trouble, it sounds like you're in a lot of it." It wasn't a question, but a statement.

Cloud turned on his heel to face them fully, eyebrows raised in surprise at the bluntness. Edge stripped his helmet off with a snort of laughter, clacking it lightly against Gibb's with a satisfied grin. "Nice, Richards. You scared an actual emotion outta him!"

Gibbs gave his partner a returning grin, before the expression melted off his face into a more serious countenance. "Seriously though, Cloud, what's up? We're in the middle of nowhere, so you don't have to worry about," he waved one hand vaguely in the air, "other parties, or whatever it is people like you stress over."

"What makes you think," Cloud said crossing his arms, amused at the sense of deja vu he was getting, "I'm in some sort of trouble?"

"You've had Turks sniffing around you for ages, kid," Edge said, waving a hand to indicate the area around them. "Secret training with Zack that apparently requires going in at night. What is it? You being special groomed to be a First?" He reached over and gave Cloud's 2nd class shirt a tug. "'Cause I got to say, purple looks awful on you."

"Connally and Kunsel are in on it too somehow," Gibbs offered.

Edge grimaced at his partner, sounding offended as he demanded, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Nevermind," Gibbs said negligently. "The point is, Connally got my number from you Cloud, and Connally asked me for Kunsel's number. That's weird enough, but why didn't he just ask you in the first place?"

"Ah, unless it was about Cloud," Edge nodded.

"Right. I'd like to think we can trust the kid, but if he's going around behind your back, Cloud, you might want to take care."

"No," Cloud said immediately. "Connally came to me a couple days ago." He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he stared distractedly into space. From the sound of it, those were only reasons that had cemented their suspicions, not caused them.

Still, how long had they known about the Turks? Kunsel wouldn't have spread any rumors about that, so perhaps they were referring to Reno and Rude's appearance during his promotion, or Katana's sparring session? And how had they found out about his and Zack's night training? He and Zack had been cautious not to be followed, and the recording equipment in the room had been turned off, so no one should know what they'd been up to.

Not, he realized, that it would have been that difficult to infer as much as Edge had said. He and Zack would come back from their training against the simulation of Sephiroth scuffed and weary, so unless they'd been on assignment—which anyone could check the system to see—the only reasonable explanation was training.

(We thought we were so clever, huh Zack?)

After a few moments of silence, Edge rolled his eyes and stepped forward, knocking his knuckles against Cloud's forehead to draw his attention. "Good to hear. Don't tell me after all that, that's all you're going to say?" He shifted his grip to ruffle Cloud's hair harshly, until Cloud batted him away in irritation.

"If it's so obvious," Cloud said, heaving a quiet sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose, "then why one done anything about it?" Why hadn't the Turks acted on their suspicions? Why hadn't ShinRa executives, Heidegger or Lazard when he'd been around, why hadn't they acted against him and Zack more than banishing Zack for an indefinite amount of time? Why hadn't Sephiroth done anything?

Gibbs gave another helpless shrug. "It's obvious there's funny business around you. Anyone with eyes can see that. But beyond that?"

With a grunt, Edge nodded his agreement. "You guys talk a lot, but you don't say shit." He huffed, and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. "Look," he said, a dark emotion crossing his face. "I just don't want anything to happen to you, okay? You're like an annoying little brother I'm sorry to clean up after, but it'd kill me if you weren't there."

"Yeah," Gibbs said, "We've been watching your back for, what? Going on a year now? You're one of us."

Cloud stared at the two's earnest expressions, his eyes lingering on Edge. Edge, who'd had a younger brother attempt a position in SOLDIER only to die from the treatments. Edge who had followed his younger brother's footsteps and succeeded in joining the company and program that had, in the end, killed his brother. Had he an ulterior motive when he'd joined? Was that why he was so ready to side with Cloud when it was, in his own words, obvious Cloud was up to something shady? That didn't explain Gibbs, except that Gibbs was a slum kid who knew both how ShinRa could crush people, or raise them above the masses. He'd seen both sides; had he then picked a side against ShinRa?

Did they understand enough to recognize that Cloud was against ShinRa?

Abruptly, Cloud realized he didn't care what their motives were. He trusted them, and that was enough for him.


"Uhhh?" Edge stared at him like he wasn't sure if he ought to shake Cloud or just walk off. "That's nice, but you want to add a little more to that?"

Smiling thinly but without humor, Cloud nodded at him. "Nibelheim is when everything will change. But...I don't know what will happen." (Not anymore.)

"When what will change?" Gibbs asked, always the more patient. "Who's changing what?"

"I can't tell you everything," Cloud said slowly, weighing his words carefully. "Not yet. But what I can tell you is dangerous."

Gibbs and Edge exchanged a look, Gibbs frowning deeply as Edge gave a half shrug with one shoulder. Sighing, Gibbs ran a hand across his face, looking suddenly tired. "We've kept quiet this long, Cloud. But how can we know, if you don't tell us? We're saying we want you to tell us, so it's up to you if you trust us."

Edge didn't have the same restraint. "What's going to happen in Nibelheim?" he demanded, ignoring it when Gibbs elbowed him harshly in his side.

Nibelheim was the goal, wasn't it? It was the turning point that had been the starting place of Sephiroth's downward spiral. Except that wasn't the truth. There had been so much happening before Nibelheim, that Cloud hadn't been aware of, hadn't remembered. Sephiroth had been alone and isolated after his only close companions—Cloud hesitated to call them friends, because would Sephiroth have made that distinction? Was he capable of it?—had died. Sephiroth had been shaken, that day of their death's anniversary, but Cloud had been there to rile his emotions, to cause him to slip from his iron control.

Were Cloud's efforts derailing that spiral, or were they pushing Sephiroth further into madness?

Cloud looked down at his hands, feeling a wave of helpless uncertainty wash over him. What was going to happen in Nibelheim? "Maybe...I'll die," he murmured quietly, finally voicing the possibility that had been plaguing him. Maybe it wasn't enough, maybe he wasn't good enough. Or maybe the price of every else's happiness meant that he couldn't be a part of it. But he had to try. If he could save his precious people, it would be worth any price.

"None of that talk!" Edge hissed.

"Edge. Shut it." Gibbs looked at Cloud for a long moment. "In our line of business, people die. But what's got you so certain—"

"It's Sephiroth, isn't it?" Edge spat. "Who else could it be? The man's more powerful than anyone else, except maybe—"

"Except you," Gibbs finished, cutting Edge off the way his partner had cut him off.

A thick silence stretched between them, the two SOLDIERs looking at him hopefully, wanting him to refute the claim, and Cloud standing unable to do so.

Finally, Gibbs gave a sort of full body shudder, looking spooked as he ran his free hand along his upper arm, as if to ward off a chill. "Well," he said, voice forcefully light. "You're the one who wanted to push for answers."

"Didn't think I'd actually get 'em," Edge replied, still giving Cloud a disbelieving look.

A faint sound encroached on the edge of his hearing, an almost incessant hum that made Cloud's hair stand on end. Without consciously recognizing what the source of the danger was, he threw himself forward to tackle the other two down just as a swarm of needles whistled through the space they'd vacated.

Edge swore violently, the needles hitting the dirt around them with audible thwicks. "Fuck it! We're finishing this later, Cloud!"

Shaking off the disorientation the sudden attack caused, Cloud rolled to his feet and drew his sword in one smooth motion. He felt disjointed having to move so quickly from his dark thoughts to the high of battle, yet he was also relieved at the interruption. Edge was right though; they would have to finish this conversation later. They hadn't given Cloud much to go on past their initial shock. However their resolution was clear in the way they formed a blockade in front of him, blocking him from the worst of the needles as they trusted in him to start a counter attack against the band of monsters that had taken them by surprise.

As they had always trusted in him, from the first moment he'd thrown himself into the path of the Hippogriffs despite their warnings against it, despite them not knowing at the time that they could count on his strength.

Turning his attention fully on their enemies, Cloud was only mildly surprised to find that it was a group of Cactuar they were up against. Despite them being mostly a solitary species, here they were working together against a common enemy. The corpses they'd passed earlier had suggested it, though it was hard to think of a reason for them to be going against their nature. Even as he cast a quick earth spell to break up the monster's formation, he wondered what could have caused their change in behavior.

He had his answer a moment later when an eerie rattle filled the air. Since his earth materia was still glowing active in his bracer, he swiftly cast two walls of dirt up on either side of him and the other two SOLDIERs. He winced in concentration as thousands upon thousands of needles struck the surface of the walls at high velocity. It seemed to go on forever, until finally the rattling deluge came to a stop.

Some of the needles had managed to pierce the earth part-way, though none had made it all the way through. Cloud released the spells with a little gasp of relief, lifting his sword from where the point had been resting in the dirt as Gibbs and Edge pushed back close to him.

As the earth walls crumbled, two much larger cactuar specimens were revealed, of a size and shape that Cloud had never seen before—Kactaars, he would later discover. They seemed to be directing the attacks of the Cactuars.

Even as he turned his attention to the larger threat, movement in the corner of his vision caught his attention. Cloud spared only a moment to notice the single Cactuar fleeing from the confrontation, a stack of white papers stuck among the spines on its back, before he was forced back into the heat of battle.

(Looks like Kunsel was wrong for once.)

"Medical charges, Uniform replacements, Mission objective failed." Looking up from the clipboard, Sephiroth brought his gaze to bear on the sorry looking trio. To a one, they were covered in neat bandages. Needle pricks, after all, were not life threatening enough for materia use, even if they had caused SOLDIER Richards skin to break out in swells and hives. The medical staff had made a note about the newfound allergy. "Your performance here was abysmal."

"Half," Cloud said cryptically, not taking his angry gaze off some point to Sephiroth's left. The small room in the medical area of the SOLDIER barracks was not terribly interesting. If he looked, Sephiroth was aware he'd see nothing but a blank wall. It reminded him all too much of the rare times he'd seen children out in Midgar, tossing tantrums over a toy they could not have.

If he were a lesser man, the smirk tugging at his mouth would have shown. As it was, he kept his expression blank, smooth, business-like. There was no need to come up with Cloud's failings here, they were all laid bare, and a part of him delighted in it. Cloud Strife was not as like him as he'd feared.

"The important half," Sephiroth retorted smoothly. They had managed to kill the infestation of Cactuars, as well as the two Kactaars, but the one toting around sensitive ShinRa paperwork had escaped. He finally allowed the corners of his mouth to tilt upward as the two Thirds winced. The small twitch from Cloud only added to the, dare he say it, amusement. "SOLDIER Richards, it has been requested that you remain in the Med Bay until they ascertain your allergy will cause no issues." He slid a glance over the other two. "The two of you are...dismissed."

Turning, Sephiroth made to leave himself, then paused. "And Cloud?" he drawled, glancing back. "As the ranking SOLDIER on this mission, I will be reporting your failure and marking it in your file."

He had once heard a phrase about satisfied cats. Sephiroth could identify with it right then. Once the door was shushing closed behind him, he allowed the smirk to curl full blown across his mouth.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (September 16th)

The door to the apartment slid closed behind him, and Cloud leaned wearily against it. It was late; he hadn't wanted to return to the empty rooms, devoid of anything but the barest memory of Zack's presence. Muffled through the thick door, he could just make out the faint sound of another SOLDIER talking somewhere on the floor. It was the same as it always was. Perfectly normal.

Cloud wanted to scream.

In a burst of nervous energy he pushed off and paced further into the room, running a hand raggedly through his hair. His sword was discarded carelessly as he walked, the damnable helmet bouncing as he tossed it aside, and his gloves made a soft 'flut' sound as they hit the back of the couch and slid off onto the floor. He couldn't stop moving, taking a few abortive steps toward his room before turning on his heel and pacing back across to stand in front of the couch.

The silence pressed in, and with a jerk he snapped up the remote to switch the TV on. He tossed the remote onto the couch cushions, staring blankly at the faceless reporter on the screen for a few seconds. Then with a growl he whirled again, fumbling for the remote to cut it off abruptly. Pressing his palms against his eyes, Cloud breathed in deeply, holding it as he listened to his pulse pounding in his ears.

It was as if he could feel time running out, slipping through his grasping fingers as Nibelheim marched ever closer, as the end of this peaceful existence loomed. Somehow talking about it with Connally, then with Gibbs and Edge, had made it seem more real. More impending. Pressing harder, he breathed out sharply and sucked in a quick gasp, then another. In the back of his mind the connection buzzed, a constant irritant he couldn't ignore when he was alone in the silence of the apartment.

Was it stronger, now, than when he'd first arrived? Had his efforts only brought them closer, allowing him too much access to Cloud's mind? Or was it that he was getting stronger, falling further out of Cloud's reach toward an inevitable end? Maybe the fault was in Cloud, that he just hadn't paid enough attention until the connection had been forced with the rise of his emotions. Now Cloud couldn't remember what it was like without the insistent mental noise, the restless feeling of wanting...something, he couldn't name.

He had sought out Sephiroth more and more since Zack left. He'd had to; Zack agreed, it was up to Cloud now to reach out and try to stop Sephiroth's decline, to prevent the outcome of Nibelheim. Sometimes Cloud wondered, though. Was it simply that, that duty that made it important for him to seek out Sephiroth? Or was it the pull of the Reunion?

Letting his hands drop to his sides, the remote slipping out of limp fingers to thump against the carpet, Cloud stared blankly at the ceiling. He hadn't let himself think that before. The infection of the Jenova cells, the innate control Sephiroth could command... How much of that was aided by Jenova itself? If Sephiroth never came under the influence of that alien presence, would he ever master the connection to the clones Hojo had—or will—create? Would he master the connection to Cloud? Were they putting everything at risk by letting things continue on this course, or should they have tried harder to keep Sephiroth away from Nibelheim?

Cloud's personal stake in his hometown aside, it was grating knowing they were walking in to a veritable trap, and the only safety would be if he and Zack could disable it before it closed around them. It was still their best bet, the only known time they could isolate Sephiroth from ShinRa. They were so close. And Cloud was afraid now, because this time...he had more to lose.

He'd never anticipated, when they began this venture, that he would become so closely tied to the people in ShinRa.

He'd had the promised talk with Gibbs and Edge once they'd taken care of the Cactuars. Sore and tired they'd sat in the waning dusk as Cloud haltingly explained, without telling them the full truth. It had been hard but necessary, he felt, to turn his unbelievable tale into a more acceptable fake conspiracy. No need to bring his time-lost knowledge into it. In the end they'd agreed; Sephiroth was Cloud's to handle, but they would back him all the way against ShinRa. Edge had a manic gleam in his eyes as he grinned, promising Cloud they'd make plans.

He hadn't known how much their unwavering support would bolster him. How much it would scare him. Them, Connally, Kunsel...he was giving all of them his trust, but he couldn't trust they'd be safe. He couldn't even promise he could stay safe.

He hadn't know that Zack would become his anchor, his best friend, or that he'd get the chance all over again to be charmed by Aerith's welcoming presence.

He hadn't known how much of his long lost admiration for Sephiroth would surface, or how much he'd cherish the small glimpses of the man underneath the stoic facade.

He didn't want to lose any of that. He'd already given up too much.

The restless buzz built up in his chest again, and Cloud jerked into motion. There was nothing in this empty apartment to distract him from these thoughts, but...

He pushed open Zack's door, pausing on the threshold as he took in the disordered bed, still wrinkled from the haphazard way Zack had tossed the covers straight. There were materia scattered across the desk, a copy of Loveless with its pages thick with pressed flowers and a few magazines stacked under it, their pages ragged from being flipped through so often. A few random doodles were shoved to one side, a legacy of when Zack had built the flower cart for Aerith. There were rags and polishing clothes, well-used thanks to Zack's attentive care for Buster sword.

Zack's presence was everywhere in here, and Cloud felt the tight panic in his chest loosen a little. It wasn't the same, but here Cloud felt a little less adrift, a little less alone. Releasing the doorknob, he stepped further into the room, his quiet shuffle disturbing the silence. With a sigh, he sank down on the edge of the bed and just sat for a moment, staring unfocused at his boots as his mind slowly calmed down from his racing thoughts.

Since Zack had left, Cloud had been too caught up in the day to day life that was the ShinRa military. He'd tried not to make ripples, to follow protocol as was expected, and yet he still found himself dancing to the executive's tune as they flash promoted him to Second class. He strongly suspected that if they hadn't thought he'd walk out, they would have insisted on First class this time too. Sephiroth's efforts, as aggravating as they were, would hopefully be enough to keep them at bay.

If only he knew what was going on in Sephiroth's mind. Nothing he did was for Cloud's benefit, even if it did help him. But why he was going so far was still a mystery. He'd undermined Hojo, faced down President Shinra, and according to Zack even as far back as a year ago he'd been assisting to keep Cloud from being noticed. In turns he seemed fascinated by and confused by Cloud, and then he would spend weeks, even months without ever showing his face to anyone.

The uncertainty did nothing to ease the tension in Cloud. Even the small relief of Zack's room wasn't enough, not with Nibelheim creeping ever closer. Cloud flopped back onto the mattress, covering his eyes with one arm while he fumbled in his pocket for his phone. He knew the motions by heart, and without looking dialed in Zack's number, bringing the phone to his ear as he listened to it ring.

After a moment, the line picked up. "Hello!" Zack chorused immediately, though his voice was a bit slurred and muffled as if he were talking through a mouthful. "Cloud, how you doing?"

"Crappy," he answered honestly. He ran his hand down his face wearily, opening his eyes to stare at Zack's ceiling. His gaze drifted to the side and out the open door, as if he could see the little electronic contraption Connally had left for him. It hadn't beeped, so they were still clear.

"I should see if I can send you some of my mom's spice bread. It's impossible to feel bad while you're eating it." Cloud groaned softly, not terribly appreciative of Zack's sense of humor just then. Though the offer had probably been sincere. There was a faint rustle and clatter that heralded Zack moving his phone around. "You want to tell me about it?"

More of the tension was leaving him, now that he could hear the reassuring tones of Zack's voice. He hadn't had time, lately, to do more than send a brief text in response to whatever message Zack had thought vital to tell him. Mostly about how bored he was.

He blew out a quiet breath as he realized Zack was going to wait him out this time. He didn't really have a point to the call, except that he felt like he was going slowly insane without being able to act. Zack too was suffering from the restlessness. "Time is almost up, isn't it?"

He heard Zack shift again, and then sigh. "Do me a favor, and if I don't make it back see that some of my things wind up with Aerith."

Cloud hummed acknowledgement, casting his gaze around the room as he mentally catalogued what he'd need to take care of. "I'm worried that it's changed too much," he said. Not just Zack's current absence, which they weren't sure would end in time, but also Cloud's new rank and role in ShinRa's structure, and the worrying attention they were both receiving because of it. It occurred to him, suddenly, that he hadn't yet had a chance to tell Zack the latest 'good' news. "I was promoted. Again."

"What?" Zack's tone was sharp and incredulous. "You're kidding. Can they even do that?"

"Apparently," Cloud said bitterly. "Hojo also wants to get a hold of me. Sephiroth has been...frustrating him." And warning Cloud ahead of time about the promotion. Much like Zack had, but with far less grace behind the action. Then there was Sephiroth's odd look from the other night. Cloud hadn't been able to read anything in that intense gaze, and it worried him far more than whatever political games were afoot.

Zack groaned, and Cloud heard a faint thump. He suspected Zack had just hit his head on something. "I wish I was there to help. This sucks."

It really did. "Do you know...have you heard when you can come back?" How long could the forced vacation go? ShinRa wouldn't keep Zack on 'leave' indefinitely. Some small, quiet part of Cloud thought that if they kept Zack away long enough, then Cloud would be the SOLDIER assigned to go to Nibelheim with Sephiroth.

"No, nothing yet. At least I'm still allowed to wander around. I'm sort of waiting for them to announce they're putting me under house arrest or something."

Cloud was, honestly, more worried that ShinRa would send someone to eliminate Zack, if they felt he was no longer useful. They had Cloud, after all, rising swiftly through the ranks, and if Zack were to meet an unfortunate death….

He wouldn't let it happen. Zack wouldn't let it happen, not when he was prepared for it. Without Cloud's dead weight holding him back, no force of ShinRa's short of Sephiroth himself would be able to take him out. And Sephiroth was Cloud's problem now.

Cloud sat up, holding the phone against his ear with his shoulder as he pulled his boots off. Sliding up the bed, he lay back on it again. Zack wouldn't mind, and right now, surrounded by little reminders of Zack's presence, with Zack's voice over the phone, was the most comfortable he'd been in a while. "Connally talked with Kunsel," he said once he'd settled.

"Huh. I didn't even know they knew each other. I'm sensing there's more to the story there."

Cloud hummed quietly. "Did you know Connally overheard us? At the Chocobo Farm?"

There was a lengthy pause before Zack gave a quiet, "Oh. ...Oh! Well, we should have seen that one coming now that I think about it."

"Probably," Cloud agreed. He took a deep breath, then figured it would be better to get it over with. "I told him a lot of it. Gibbs and Edge too. They cornered me a couple of days after Connally."

"Jeeze," Zack said, worry thick in his voice. "Bet that went over like a train wreck. Not all of it?" he pressed.

"Just the important bits," Cloud confirmed. "I trust them."

There was a sharp, staticy noise as Zack blew out a breath. "Glad you have some backup, buddy."

"Me too," Cloud said, eyes unfocused as he tried not to think about what was coming.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (September 18th)

The apartment that Reno shared with Rude could be described as small, cozy, and lived in. It had a nice view, in Reno's opinion, of ShinRa tower and the Midgar Skyline. From where he lay sprawled out on their sofa he could see right out the window. The sofa was leather; Reno had demanded a big, squishy leather couch. Rude prowled nearby, a shadow in the dim room. Neither of them had bothered to turn the lights on when they'd gotten back from a routine spin around Sector 8. Reno tossed his arm over his eyes and crossed his socked feet at the ankle on the far arm of the sofa.

He could make out the measured pace of Rude's steps and used them to track his progression across the small apartment from living room to kitchenette and back again. Cold glass touched Reno's hand, and he slit one eye open to see a bottle dangling near his fingertips. "Thanks," he drawled, reaching out to take it. The label was familiar—Midgar Brew. Not as good as some, but it was alcohol. Reno fished in his pocket for his keyring with its bottle opener, and popped the cap off. Rude dropped into the armchair and put his feet up on the low coffee table. "Still no news?"

"On what?"

"Any of it." There was a lot going down, a lot to keep track of, and with Tseng heading out and Veld already off somewhere...that left Reno more or less in charge. The power would be nice if it didn't mean so much work.

"Not on my end," Rude said. "You?"

Reno rolled his shoulder idly, head lolling back against the couch's arm. "Tseng and Shotgun went to check out the reactor."

"No report yet?" Rude asked.

Reno sat up enough that he wouldn't spill all over himself like a slavering idiot, and took a swig from the bottle. "They say no news is good news, yeah?"

"Not when you're a Turk."

"...Yeah." Information was their game after all. If they didn't know what was going on? It was bad, real bad. It gave Reno a bad feeling. "You think it's trouble?"

Rude's silence stretched on for a long time, and Reno chased condensation across the mellow brown of his bottle. Finally, Rude rumbled, "Could be." Which meant 'most likely' and 'isn't it always?'

That was the truth of it though. One way or another they were in for some trouble. They'd mitigate it where they could, and put it down hard when it showed its smug face just like they always did. The big question was where would it come from, and what shape would it take?

"So, Nibelheim, huh?" Reno mused. "I don't envy those two having to head up into those mountains at this time of the year."

"Cissnei's got it better."

That made Reno laugh, sharp and barking. "You mean laying around on the beach watching all the half naked tourists have a good time?"

Looking over at Rude, Reno saw him tilt his head. What little light lit the room glanced off the plastic lenses of his shades. "Yeah. And she gets to watch Zack." Reno grinned at that pronouncement. Zack Fair was an easy enough target for observation. The SOLDIER wouldn't have known stealth if it bit him on the ass.

"And then there's us," Reno said mournfully. "Stuck here in Midgar. On one hand, no frigid mountain. On the sunny beach, babes, and Costa del Sol booze." Out of the corner of his eye, Reno saw Rude give a 'what can you do?' kind of shrug. "'Least we get the latest gossip, fresh off the rumor mill," he drawled.

Rude's silence was obviously a plea for Reno to continue, so he did.

"Latest and greatest is that our oh-so unflappable General is worried about the rising upstart," Reno said, smirking at the thought of Sephiroth beating down Strife's ego a bit. Rude gave him a look that screamed disbelief. As much as sunglasses could, at least. "Of course, there's the other rumors that he's mentoring the little shit, but I doubt it. I took a gander at some of those reports, and man! No one does petty like Sephiroth, let me tell you." Oh, Reno had read every single one of those reports. It was like it was his birthday, gifts and all.

Recrossing his ankles, Reno took another swig of his brew and closed his eyes. He was about ready to just turn in at this point. Who knew hanging around the Control Room and fielding reports was so tiring. At least he'd had Rude to help him...and to bring him a cup of joe every few hours. "Turn the TV on would you?"

Rude gave a sound of acknowledgement but didn't move, and Reno wasn't terribly surprised. Rare was the day that Rude would give into a demand like that. The silence dragged on, only disturbed by the sounds of Reno's exaggerated groans of weariness and faint slosh of booze in their bottle. It was broken by the shrill tone of Reno's phone ringing. With a real groan this time, he yanked the thing out.

Flipping the phone open, he lazily slotted it between his ear and shoulder. "Yo. What do you want?"

"I was supposed to have a meeting with Tseng to make my report, but I've heard he's left."

Reno swore, and at Rude's look mouthed 'Katana'. "Yeah, he's on special assignment right now. Can't this wait until tomorrow?"

"Only if I can give my report in Wutai. I'm being assigned there for a short term mission."

With a groan, Reno rolled over and pulled his phone from his ear. A few button presses switched it to speaker, and he held his hand out to Rude. While Rude twisted, turned, and finally got up in his search to get a pen and paper, Reno asked, "Okay, fine. What's this about?"

There was a long pause, and Reno set the phone down on the table. "Over the phone?"

"It's safe," Reno sniped. "Who would tap our phones but us?"


Rude dropped the pad of paper and a pencil into Reno's hands. "If you're that bothered then come on over," he drawled. "No skin off my no—" A knock on the door interrupted him, and Reno swung his head around toward it. "That son of a bi—"

"Reno," Rude said flatly, striding toward the door. It swung open as Reno's phone clicked with the sound of the other person hanging up. Standing in the doorway, Katana pushed his glasses up and smiled winsomely.

"I thought if Tseng was absent you two would be the next best to stake out."

"Cute," Reno groused, swinging his legs off the couch and sitting up. "Get in here." Katana strode into the room, his sheathed sword clutched under one arm like some men carried briefcases. Reno liked that about his fellow Turks. They knew how to make casual look menacing. He was a master of the art himself. The door clicked shut, dipping the room back into near blackness again. By the door, Reno could see Rude put his back to it. The green glow of Midgar filtering in past the blinds tinted his shades, and Reno gave him a brief thumbs up before slouching back onto the sofa. Fishing in an inner pocket of his coat, Reno pulled a pack of cigarettes out. If they were going to be talking about his least favorite mystery he was going to indulge in all of his vices.

"You'd think you would be happier, Reno," Katana murmured. His tone was good natured as he slipped over to the window and peered out at the cityscape beyond. Reno put a cig between his lips, fished out his lighter, and cupped his hand around the two to light it.

Rather than rising to the bait, Reno asked, "What've you got?"

Katana's glasses flashed as he looked over his shoulder at Reno. "A variety of things… Very, very interesting things."

Reno took a drag from his cig, puffed out the smoke, then reached for his bottle of booze. "Yeah? Do tell." He ignored the noise Rude made. The guy never did like it when he got all snide and pissy to their co-workers. He'd get over it. It wasn't like Katana cared anyway.

"He knows an unsettling amount about how Sephiroth fights."

Slanting a look toward Katana through the smoke haze, Reno snorted. "We know they've been having a go at each other like bosom buddies."

"He knows how you fight as well. Not as well, but he obviously does." That shut Reno up, and he narrowed his eyes at Katana when he turned to face him. Katana reclined against the side of the window, one suit arm limned in blue-green light. Reno shoved his cig back between his lips. "He"

"So, we have a savant," Reno grumbled around his cig, turning the bottle between his palms. "Big deal. ShinRa's got more of those than we know what to do with."

"It's more than that." Katana slid his glasses off, polishing the lenses on the edge of his suit cuff. "He shouldn't know what he does. He shouldn't be as good as he is." Reno gnawed on the butt of his cig as he listened, then transferred it to his fingers to take a swig of his booze. "By all accounts, Cloud Strife best taught haphazardly. At worst? Self taught, and clumsily so. Yet, somehow, he still manages to perform beautifully at swordsmanship. He is a sight to behold."

"Keep it PG," Reno groused. "You been spying on him? Bugged the training room?"

"No," Katana said demurely. "Sadly, I can't say I'm the one to win that pool."

"Pity," Reno snorted. "We know all sorts of good shit goes on in there, but can't get the approval to monitor it." Damn scientists and their 'proprietary data'. If one of the Turks managed to bug the place without the ever vigilant scientists finding it, they were in for a fair bit of coin.

"I'm surprised you didn't hear about it already, what with your tendency to be in everyone's business. I took the opportunity to spar against him, a couple of weeks back," Katana continued.

"And it took you this long to report on it? You must be slipping."

"On the contrary," Katana countered, unbothered, "I was busy with other duties. Also, you haven't called a meeting to consolidate our findings recently, so I haven't had the opportunity." He grimaced slightly, perking Reno's attention. Not much ruffled Katana visibly, so whatever it was must be good. "I also found myself pulled into a spar with him and Sephiroth."

That pulled a loud laugh out of Reno. "Holy hell! Wish I'd seen it. How'd you get the shit luck on that one?"

Katana hummed. "I would actually say it was more of a boon, though I was quite sore afterwards. It is impossible to keep up at the speed and power those two were using. That said…." He hesitated, pushing his glasses up again as he looked from Reno to Rude and back. When he continued, it was slowly, as if he were picking his words carefully. "I believe Cloud's biggest handicap in a fight is that he holds back. I can't quite put my finger on it, whether it's conscious or unconscious, from a lack of training or to hide something. Something in the way he holds back makes him appear much less powerful than he is."

"I'm sensing a but here." Reno let the bottle fall to hang near his knee and licked the mingled tastes of alcohol and tobacco from his lips.

"All things told," Katana said quietly, "it is my estimate that he is...better than Sephiroth."

Reno sat bolt upright, lip curling up. "You're shitting me…." There was no way, no how, that gangly little brat could be better than Sephiroth. Sure, he could go toe to toe with him for some reason, but better? No way. Not an ice cubes chance in the Corel desert.

"I very much believe that our little anomaly could, in fact, defeat him."

The pronouncement sent a chill down Reno's spine, and soured his temperament further. Huffing out a billow of acrid smoke through his nostrils, Reno swung his legs back up onto the sofa and settled back into his comfortable recline. "Right. And Chocobos will be the next great warmachine to grace the skies."

Katana sighed, and Reno ignored him. As far as he was concerned, there was just no way. Reno just couldn't wrap his mind around the idea. Sephiroth wasn't surmountable. He'd been ShinRa's greatest powerhouse and greatest secret for as long as Reno had been around, probably longer. Even he, with all the clearance afforded the number three Turk didn't know the whole of it. There probably weren't many people who did, but Reno's ears were keen enough to pick up a whisper and a rumor here and there. If nothing else, just looking at the guy was enough to tell you he was as inhuman as he was strong.

Cloud Strife? That little shit looked nothing short of a country boy who just happened to get lucky. He might keep up, but Reno was certain he was going to trip up eventually. "Look," Reno said after several seconds. "Why don't you head out, get a nap, and write the report. We'll go over it when Tseng gets back."

"I've been observing them for some time," Katana said, and there was a chill quality in his voice that Reno didn't care for.

What could he say though? Not even Genesis and Angeal had been up to snuff when it came to Sephiroth. Sure, they'd kept pace and they'd been seen as more or less the same as him...but everyone had known they weren't. There was no one like ShinRa's precious star. Nothing compared, and if ShinRa had their way about it nothing ever would.

"Reno." Rude's voice broke through the tension and Reno let out a hiss before swinging up off the sofa. "I'll see him out."

Waving one hand at the glint of Rude's shades, Reno stalked through the dark apartment and into their small kitchen. Snapping the light on, he slouched over to lean on the tiny counter and snubbed his cig out on the top. Rude would kill him if he noticed. Man, but he was ready to start wringing necks. If Tseng didn't get back soon….

Reno fished the crumpled pack of cigarettes out again and stuck one between his teeth though he didn't light it. Instead he listened to Rude's low rumble and Katana's lighter voice go back and forth. He only caught snippets, a mention of Zack Fair, something about Cloud's promotions, and Katana assuring Rude that he'd have a report for them by daybreak tomorrow. The door clicked closed a few seconds later, and Reno ignored the tap of Rude's polished shoes on the tile.

For all his certainty, a niggling thought itched at the back of his mind. Katana was the one Turk among all of them who knew the most about swordsmanship. If anyone could gauge how good Strife was him, wasn't it?

But there was no way, no how…

"Hey," Reno drawled, twisting around to look at Rude, "what do you say, partner? Should we call for greasy take-out?"

Rude held up the phone clasped loosely in his hand. "Already on it."

Grinning wide, Reno lifted his beer bottle at Rude in a cheeky salute. "Knew I could count on you."

Next time on Counter Crisis it's a Crisis of Copies!