Sephiroth frowned at the screen. Nothing in these records made the slightest bit of sense considering the current information regarding the present situation.

Strife, Cloud

Age: 16

Weight: 125 lbs

Residential History: Nibelheim native, departed city of origin at age 13, resident of Junon at age 14, transferred to Midgar at 16, departed Midgar at 16, no further history available.

Military Record: Failed to meet requirements for Soldier, enlisted in Shinra Infantry in Junon, transferred to Midgar, failed Soldier entrance exam to transfer military branches, resigned from Infantry.

Medical History: No illnesses or injuries of note prior to Shinra enlistment. No illnesses or injuries requiring medical leave during Infantry participation.


Physical: Subject shows no physical prowess beyond below-average Infantryman. Build does not give him advantage in any particular discipline.

Mental: Subject exhibits low self-esteem, asocial behavior, and a passive aggressive dislike for authority. Shows signs of short temper and jealousy. Behavior potentially unstable. Re-evaluate every three months.

Weapons Proficiency: Passed firearm safety certification by one percent. Only basic firearm use allowed. Unable to pass blade safety certification. Prohibited from using blades during missions. May only be used for practice.

Academic: Meets mathematics proficiency for age group. Composition skill inadequate. Science skill inadequate. Historical knowledge inadequate. Most recent examination results to be retained. If subject exceeds expectations at next evaluation, psychological profile suggests cheating. Evaluate with due care.

Recommendations: Subject is poorly suited for life in the Shinra Company Military. Though he is adequately proficient in the physical application of mission execution, his mental capabilities, particularly problem solving, strategic theory, history, and diplomacy, are lacking. He does not socialize with other recruits, exhibiting underdeveloped social skills. He has attitude problems with his commanding officers, short of being outright insubordinate. His unstable behavior indicates he would become more unstable if subjected to Mako treatments. Considering his problems with so many aspects of his current career, and apparent dislike of standard procedures, I cannot determine a reason that he has remained with Shinra Company for this long. As he has no particular physical or mental aptitudes that set him apart from other recruits, do not consider him for rank advancement or transfer to other departments.

Sephiroth's frown deepened to a scowl as he opened the attachment containing the most recent batch of Strife's examinations and scrolled down to the section assessing strategic theory.

Question Posed: Hypothetically speaking, a terrorist cell has established itself and its dogma in three sectors beneath the plate. What measures must be taken to eliminate the propaganda this terrorist cell circulates among the proletarian populace that is most likely to sympathize with them?

Respondent's Answer: The terrorists need to be taken out by arresting them or banishing them. Terrorists might kill innocent people.

Question Posed: Hypothetically speaking, a terrorist cell has stolen sensitive information from Shinra Company. What measures should be taken to minimize the damage done to the company's reputation by the release of this information and what preparations should be made to compensate for potential public retaliation that occurs in response to release of said information?

Respondent's Answer: Shinra Company should work to take the information back and arrest the terrorists that stole it.

It didn't make sense. Strife didn't even address the actual questions. The answers sounded like those of a child who didn't understand the words he was being asked, like Strife picked out a few words and strung them together in a new question. With as meticulous and observant Strife seemed, Sephiroth found it difficult to believe that Strife had poor focus and little attention span. Strife was also resoundingly articulate. It was like the person who answered the questions posted in Strife's file was not the person Sephiroth had met that evening.

The file showed an adolescent of average physical capabilities, below average physical potential, and dismal intelligence. Yet Strife now appeared to be above average physically and on par intelligence-wise with the some of the most brilliant people Sephiroth had ever known.

It might make more sense if Strife actually was a completely different person, such as if whoever CS Delivery was had actually replaced Strife. But Zack still asserted that Strife was Strife, despite some differences that seemed to perturb even the ever-optimistic Zack.

Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, pulling a rarely used notebook out from its usual place in the bottom of a drawer. He didn't want his theories available on the company network, but he felt he needed to get the words in front of him so he could examine them altogether and perhaps see some kind of pattern.

Under a column labeled "Strife Prior to Power Disruption Incident", Sephiroth listed out:

-Low intelligence

-Poor social skills

-Average physical abilities

-Poor physical potential

-Repeated failed attempts to join Soldier

-16 years old

-No contact with Shinra Company pre-enlistment

-No prior exposure to mako

-No criminal record

-Kept as friend by Zack

Under a column labeled "Strife Post Power-Disruption-Incident", he listed out:

-S-Project level exposure to mako

-Potentially physically on par with Soldier

-Physical development at early adult levels

-Stole Shinra weapon

-Extensive travel across Planet

-Skilled chocobo handler

-Business associate of known entrepreneur

-Highly intelligent with regards to strategy and psychological analysis

-Identity verified by Zack

He wasn't sure it wouldn't bias his formulations, but he wrote out a third column for "CS Delivery", listing:

-Appeared post power-disruption-incident

-Mako levels unverified

-Soldier strength, physical abilities, and possibly training

-Thief, bomber, aggravated assaulter

-Averse to murder

-Enjoys playing psychological games with victims

-Apparently non-psychotic

-Identity unknown

-Physically comparable to Strife post incident

-Allies keep company with Strife post incident

-Has never been seen in Strife's company

-Currently gone to ground, possibly waiting for something

Sephiroth set the notebook down and scanned his lists again, hoping if he did so, something would pop out. Unfortunately, all he saw were contradictions.

Strife was unintelligent, but the person Sephiroth spoke to not an hour ago was extremely intelligent and insightful. Strife was sixteen, yet appeared to be the physical age of a young adult. Strife had no mako exposure, but his eyes indicated infusions over the course of years, possibly equaling Sephiroth's own enhancements. Strife never exhibited criminal behavior, yet showed no apparent hesitation in stealing a sword.

Perhaps the only thing that Strife kept before and after the power disruption incident was his willingness to travel. An adolescent leaving his mountain village by himself with only an ambition and no guarantees to keep him showed a certain amount of recklessness and confidence that wasn't reflected in Strife's records. But as soon as Strife had left the company, he'd started traveling all over Gaia, that recklessness appearing again. He'd also somehow found business contacts and had time to catch, tame, and hide an entire flock of chocobos. While the rest was explainable, Sephiroth still couldn't figure out what Strife would be doing with a flock of chocobos.

Still, Strife was very actively doing something, and he'd not shown this same initiative to his commanding officers or trainers. Had there been something about the company that stifled Strife's core personality? Was Strife's behavior more erratic and restless, and the company had given him the stability to function safely? Was Strife now unhinged? Had he developed some kind of split personality? Had Strife been somehow purposely oppressed by someone within the company?

Sephiroth hated not having evidence regarding CS Delivery's identity. It would be easiest if he were Strife. There was already a documented, unusual event that could be traced and used to determine what happened to Strife to create CS Delivery. The idea of some ridiculously enhanced terrorist coming out of nowhere was unnerving to say the least.

Equally perplexing was that there was also no evidence that Strife wasn't CS Delivery. Sephiroth had to admit that if Strife was CS Delivery, this was the reason why they hadn't been able to confirm CS Delivery's identity. If there was evidence either way, it would give Reeve and the Turks something to trace, something to investigate. But CS Delivery was little better than a ghost. There were no records of him. He left no trace of himself behind at the scenes of his crimes. He didn't even leave any demands for Sephiroth to try and use to puzzle out bits of his psyche or as clues to track him down with.

One thing he hadn't yet done was formulate hypotheses to explain how Strife could be CS Delivery. He had to admit that this was at least partially because Zack was so resistant to the idea. That was not something he should have done.

Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. Hypothetically, if Strife was CS Delivery, what other assumptions and hypotheses could be made?

Assumption one: Strife did not want Shinra Company or Zack in particular to know his identity.

Assumption two: Strife did not want information from Zack, but did appear to want his friendship.

Assumption three: Strife suddenly gained intimate knowledge of people he had never met before.

Assumption four: Strife had mako enhancements possibly equal to Sephiroth's own and had no qualms using them.

Assumption five: Strife knew where all the stolen Huge Materia and advanced weaponry was.

Assumption six: Strife was somehow managing a business venture, terrorizing Shinra Company, and socializing with Zack in coordinated tandem across numerous locations all over the world.

Assumption seven: Somehow, a giant flock of chocobos was related to terrorist actions against Shinra Company.

Sephiroth scowled at the thought of his final assumption. The utter ridiculousness might as well be downright offensive. He didn't want to consider it, but couldn't ignore it if Strife was in fact CS Delivery.

He sighed, reminding himself that this was an exercise. He couldn't ignore improbable possibilities just because he didn't like them.

Shaking his head, he put himself back on task. Assuming all these assumptions were true, he now needed to formulate hypotheses on how they could be true.

Assumption one was simple. Strife didn't want anyone to know his identity because action could be taken against him that way. CS Delivery didn't have friends or family that could be used as leverage, but Strife did. Assumption two was nearly as simple, though still slightly confusing. Strife was genuinely friends with Zack before and didn't want that to change. Though why Strife would choose to keep such an exploitable weakness as a friend among his enemies, Sephiroth didn't think he had enough information to hazard a guess on yet.

Assumption three was where things got tricky. Strife could have an informant within Shinra who was feeding him information, though that person would need to be high enough ranked to have psychological profiles intricate enough to allow for extrapolation of thought processes, as evidenced by the earlier letters to Sephiroth and the vice president. That would have to be someone on the executive board, the Turks, or someone within the science department.

Scarlet and Heidegger were out of the question. They'd both been stolen from. Palmer wouldn't have the reason or gumption to try anything that might jeopardize his own department. Reeve was a possibility considering his carefully veiled dislike of the way the others ran their departments. He was also on par with the Turks for information gathering skills. The President didn't make much sense because this whole thing seemed to be destabilizing his hold on the company without his knowing it. The Vice President was likely out of the question. While he'd openly admitted to feeding confidential information to Avalanche, one of the bargains struck with CS Delivery was the cessation of this. CS Delivery seemed too smart to trust someone he'd only just stopped being outright enemies with. The Turks also seemed too frazzled to be in collusion with Strife.

The Science Department was both likely and not. Strife had an obvious, and likely genuine, if Zack was to be believed, fear of ending up there. Hojo and his experiments had been outright attacked. If Strife ended up there, the scientist would pick him apart. Perhaps literally. However, it was not unlikely that someone was trying to discredit and usurp Hojo's seniority.

Barring insider information, Sephiroth couldn't discount the possibility that Strife was reading people's minds, as loathe as he was to even admit that was possible. The Subject P experiments that he'd seen reports on was proof enough that at least clairvoyance was possible. Since different materia could induce all kinds of effects forcing people to act a certain way or lose certain mental capabilities, the possibility that one could hear another's thoughts was not beyond the realm of consideration. Given the episode that Zack described Strife as having at their first reunion after Strife withdrew from Shinra, the telepathic scenario was certainly plausible.

Assumption four was both more and less confusing than the previous assumption. Strife was enhanced, that much had already been confirmed, and skilled, as demonstrated if he was CS Delivery. Enhanced was understandable. Secret experiments took place all the time. Skilled was less understandable because Strife had been publicly visible since he'd joined the company. Even if the Science Department had experimented on him, it would have had to have been years ago. And Strife would have had to purposely hide his skills. Sephiroth knew that if he pretended incompetence and didn't practice for years, he would not be in his prime condition. While someone having skills similar to his own was understandable, he just couldn't suspend his disbelief enough to think that someone whose skills were rusty dropped down to his level.

Assumption five was troubling. If Strife was as unstable as his personnel file indicated was possible, leaving advanced weapons and highly destructive materia in his possession was idiotic to say the least. However, Zack liked to expound on how trustworthy his friend was, so Sephiroth was more inclined to think the personnel file was incorrect.

Assumption six showed impressive organizational skills. Strife would have to have his attention pulled in numerous directions and would need the ability to keep it all straight right along with the ability to keep it all hidden. Turks especially were excellent at figuring things out, but even they couldn't determine what Strife was doing.

Sephiroth didn't even know what to do with assumption seven. His best guess was that somehow, Strife was planning to train a small, marauding force on hit and run tactics and have them mounted on chocobos. This seemed at odds with his apparent intelligence, but there it was.

Looking at all the assumptions together, Sephiroth was left with the notion that a mind reading Strife was hoarding weapons of mass destruction while setting up some kind of entertainment business and training a chocobo-riding army. Or, it could be that a mentally unstable spy created by the science department was sabotaging other departments and setting up businesses outside the company to produce more funding without the executive officers of Shinra Company being able to siphon off their cut. Or perhaps Reeve had liberated Strife from some carefully concealed experiment and was using him to set up a business to serve as a front for an anti-Shinra organization that would root out the unethical practices the current executives allowed to happen.

Sephiroth pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. This was ridiculous. There had to be something more logical than these farfetched theories. Perhaps an accident with Time materia trapped Strife, allowing him to age as he did, allowing dormant psychic abilities to give him access to others' minds, then the materia absorbed straight into his bloodstream, giving him an enhancement boost in an unusual way that resulted in more abnormalities.

He paused. That actually made more sense than his other theories. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough knowledge of materia theory to know whether it was truly possible. But he knew someone who might.

He pulled his PHS from a pants pocket and flipped it open to scroll through the contacts. Selecting one, he put the device to his ear and listened to it ring.

"Sephiroth?" came the mumbled query from the other end.

Sephiroth quirked a brow, but ignored the tone. "I have a question regarding materia theory as it relates to all forms of time materia." Considering how Reeve sounded, he added, "Are you busy?"

"No," Reeve said, "it's just late. I fell asleep in my lab. What's your question?"

"Is it possible to accelerate someone's aging while keeping them in unmoving stasis?"

"Is this about—" then he cut himself short. Sounding more alert, he said, "No. If someone were to be held in stasis while their body rapidly aged, their physical requirements would remain. If someone were aged beyond a few days, they would starve to death. Even if they had some kind of intravenous source of nutrition, the body would degrade under the stress and the organs would fail. Not even mako enhancements would help, in fact, they would accelerate fatality because they increase energy demands on the body." Reeve paused. "Why are you asking?"

"I'm trying to fit the pieces of the investigation together," he said with a frown.

"And a Time materia accident is your best theory?"

Sephiroth ignored the trace of amusement in the man's tone. "Even with the impossibilities you've given me, something to do with time still seems the most probable. Other theories involve some rather unrealistic sounding scenarios."

"So time is what you're looking at?"

Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose. He said, "The simplest explanation is that a number of years passed while the subject was free to communicate in some fashion. However, evidence also suggests that these several years did not happen in actuality. If the years did happen, this ties almost all the pieces together. Logic dictates the scenario must be investigated."

"Have you considered that it was the rest of the world, and not the subject, that was affected by Time materia?"

He blinked. "You mean perhaps everyone else was under a magnified version of Slow while the subject remained immune? Would it even be possible to put the entire planet under Slow? Or Stop? It couldn't have changed the planet's rotational or orbital speeds or we all would have died. How precisely would it need to be timed to line the seasons up so no one noticed? Is it even possible to have such a powerful status effect that years could pass in only a moment?"

"I suppose it's possible, if somehow the magic were channeled through the entirety of the Lifestream. Geological surveys indicate the mako reserves of the planet are large enough that something of this scale could be feasible." He paused. "Anyone not affected by the status effect would have had years to accomplish anything without interference, which doesn't appear to have happened in this case. Have you also considered time travel for one person rather than a planet-wide status effect?"

Sephiroth thought for a moment. "If the subject was taken to the past, kept isolated, and fed confidential information as time passed, then returned to the place they were taken from originally, it fits logistically and doesn't appear to induce some kind of paradox."

"You think being from the future would?"

"Logic dictates one cannot change the past and prevent their own existence or reason for returning to the past. Therefore, someone from the past could have removed him from this time, kept him isolated, provided him with information, then put him back in the place he was taken from when the time caught up. This removes the possibility of a paradox because nothing that lead to the time displacement would be changed."

Even as he said it, he realized it made the most sense. With enough perseverance, anyone with the right resources could have tracked down the intelligence and given it all to Strife. He could have been amassing knowledge for a decade and preparing everything down to the last second. It would explain how all of his attacks had gone off without a hitch.

"Perhaps I should come to your office in the morning, and we can discuss more particulars," he said into the PHS.

"I'll be available," Reeve said. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Good night," Sephiroth said before hanging up.

Sephiroth frowned pensively at both his computer and his notes. While the time theory still made the most sense, it didn't make complete sense. Perhaps the largest hole was how this supposed trip through from the past caused the strange phenomenon Zack observed of Strife seeming to copy his memories in that first meeting after Strife had left the company. Sephiroth could fall back on the psychic explanation as the company already had one, but so far as he knew, that particular experiment didn't involve mako enhancements. And Zack had clearly stated that when it happened, Strife's eyes had shown increased mako reactions.

He mulled over the possibilities of some different Soldier enhancement program. Hollander had tried it with Project G. Genesis had grown a wing and begun degrading on a cellular level. Angeal had begun absorbing monsters until he became so mentally unstable that he contrived to use all his metamorphic abilities at once and force Zack to kill him.

There was no denying that Strife may have developed some previously unseen ability. Assuming he was CS Delivery, that led into the connection with the strange sensation of being observed that the terrorist seemed to intentionally induce when he'd come to speak with Sephiroth. However, that led to more troubling questions. If Strife could control this ability to touch someone else's mind, then what went wrong when he accidentally started picking up Zack's memories? The instability could hardly be safe.

He pocketed his PHS and pushed away from his desk. He tidied up a bit, burned his lists about Strife and CS Delivery with a bit of Fire materia, and headed for the door. He wouldn't figure anything else out tonight so he would simply wait until speaking with Reeve in the morning.

He felt he was close though. If Strife was CS Delivery, then the situation was beginning to make itself clearer. Motivations were completely obscured, but at least the state of things was less confusing. Slightly.

Perhaps Strife would make a mistake. Even if no one else saw it, Sephiroth would, and everyone gave themselves away at some point.

"I'll let Dio know you said hello," the man said to Cloud with a half grin, before he turned around and headed back into the crowd. Cloud lost track of the nondescript, dark-haired man fairly quickly, but Cloud figured that was intentional. Dio seemed to like his dealings kept secret before the big reveal.

Cloud shook his head and started toward Wall Market's exit back to the rest of the slums. It was getting pretty late, and it wasn't like Cloud needed to do any follow-up with Dio's questions, via the messenger, about chocobos. Apparently, the man was having trouble finding qualified handlers willing to leave their own farms or ranches.

He'd just slipped into the small market near the Gainsborough home when his PHS buzzed. He flipped the PHS open, and his eyes widened a bit when he saw the email was from Vincent. He immediately opened it.

She agreed after reading your letter.

Cloud released a breath along with a bit of tension he didn't realize he was holding. One less thing he had to worry about.

He slipped the PHS back into his pocket as he came in sight of the house. A moment later, he cringed. He could hear the racket from here. He didn't even have to get to the door to tell that Yuffie was having a shouting match with someone. He amended the thought to two someones when another voice joined the mix.

Cloud opened the door and simply stood in the entrance to stare.

"I am the Treasure Princess White Rose of Wutai and I say no!" Yuffie punctuated the declaration with a rather violent foot stomp. The girl was covered in mud, her face and clothes smeared with it.

"It's unhygienic!" Hazuki shouted right back.

Before the child could retort, Aerith's mother added, "No child in my home will walk around like a dirty mud monster!" Her voice was loud and resonating, even though it didn't feel like she was really yelling.

Gaia. Were they really fighting about Yuffie getting cleaned up. He tried to tune the shouting out and eyed Tseng, who was standing near the front door, holding a cup of tea. He stared pointedly at the man.

After a moment, Tseng said, "I slipped away when the others were arguing about what to do with the remaining Avalanche members." He paused. "I believe Shears helped Elfé do the same when the others noticed I was gone." Tseng nodded toward the shouting match. "I found them with Nanaki coming out of the swamp. We arrived an hour ago and they've been like this ever since."

Tseng gave him a sidelong glance. "I hear you met with the General."

Cloud nodded. "It was interesting." Frowning, he asked, "Why hasn't anyone ever explained to him why his fans are so crazy?"

Tseng's eyebrows rose. "I thought he knew."

Cloud huffed half a laugh and headed across the room to the stairs. The women and child didn't even notice him. The second floor proved to be only marginally quieter than downstairs. He opened the door to the room he'd left Aerith and Genesis in earlier to find them in much the same position. Aerith had only moved her chair closer to the wall opposite the bed and was reading a book, which she closed on his entrance.

"How did it go?" she asked with a smile.

"Good," he said, slipping in and closing the door behind him. It dulled the noise a bit better. "The play was better than I expected. And Sephiroth can be like a little kid with his questions"

Aerith covered her mouth to apparently stifle her laughter. "What did he ask?" Her tone was both amused and curious.

Cloud shook his head. "First question was about why those stupid women carry around those little mu monsters in their purses. Problem was he only looked like he was going to ask, didn't actually ask the question. I'm still too used to Marlene, Denzel, and Yuffie. I answered on reflex so I wouldn't get pestered. He and Zack both looked at me like I'd gone insane, but then Sephiroth didn't stop asking me questions the rest of dinner. I think he'd have followed me home if I hadn't made it clear I was going alone."

Aerith grinned. "I'm sure he appreciates your honest and insightful answers, Cloud. He's been very isolated his whole life. First in the lab, and then by his abilities, and now by his rank. He could use a friend. Maybe it will keep him clear-headed."

Cloud scoffed. "I'm a terrorist attacking the organization he stands for. I don't think that makes us friends."

"You're still friends with Zack," she countered.

"That's different."

She arched a brow at him, her grin turning more sly. "Because Zack is only second in command and not the general himself?"

He opened his mouth to say he'd been through more with Zack, but bit his tongue. He'd only been friends with this Zack, not lived through hell for four years in a lab. So perhaps Aerith was right, and he simply didn't want to really be friends with the man who had killed her in a non-existent future and tried to destroy the planet. But if he said that, she would just point out that this Sephiroth hadn't done anything yet.

At his long silence, the girl's grin intensified, but she didn't say anything. Deciding not to give her any more ammunition, he changed the subject. "Where's Nanaki?"

"Sleeping in the other room. He came back with the girls." Her smile took on a sympathetic tilt. "I've never seen him so exhausted."

"Tseng said he found them coming out of the swamp."

"Yuffie insisted they had to throw the Turks off by going the wrong direction. Nanaki didn't say so, but I think he suspects she was hoping for treasure."

Cloud shook his head. "Wouldn't surprise me." He gave the unconscious Genesis a look over. "He's looking better."

Aerith nodded, gaze moving to the former commander. "All the gray is gone now. I don't think he's in pain anymore. The transfusion did the trick. We've just got to wait for him to wake up."

"The others that are degrading, the ones that aren't too far gone, do they all have to get a transfusion from me, or can Genesis provide the blood now, too?"

"I don't know. We could try it," she said a bit dubiously. "But I think it would be better to use your blood. Since the healing water is in there, your body probably makes it now. It's less likely that Genesis' will, even if you've reversed his degradation."

"It still might work, though," he said.

"We'll try it," was all she said.

A crash broke Cloud's focus on the conversation. A new round of shouting indicated the likely cause. Cloud sighed. "I'm going to sleep at the church tonight."

Aerith chuckled. "I'll see you tomorrow then."

Cloud slipped back out into the hall. He could probably get back out without Yuffie even noticing he was there.

Zack stole into the church without a sound. He knew it was early, but he had to try, especially after he'd woken up with the idea at five in the morning. He'd only been able to make himself wait half an hour before setting out for the slums. He'd snagged a mission though and finished that before heading for the church.

It was eerily quiet in the whole sector this early. Only merchants seemed to be about, getting things ready or even just heading for their shops.

"Spike?" he called through the church. His voice sounded a bit unnatural in the stillness.

The door swung closed behind him on barely audible hinges. He hadn't made it more than a quarter of the way into the church before he spied Cloud lying down on a mat between a couple pillars near the flowerbed.

He let out a relieved breath and made his way across the chapel. "Spike?" he asked again as he rounded in front of the benches.

"I hear you, Zack." Cloud shifted on his back, folding an arm behind his head. "What are you doing here?" He was still wearing those ridiculous goggles and the bandana.

Zack pulled the Buster Sword from the harness on his back and set it on the ground next to him when he sat cross legged. "I'm here to talk."

Cloud sighed and pushed up. He pulled the bandana off and ran a hand through his hair. "About what?"

"Just like that?" Zack asked. "You spend weeks off who knows where, not telling me anything, sometimes avoiding my calls, and now you're just fine with talking? Aren't you even wondering how I knew to look for you here?"

"Really, Zack?" Cloud asked, brows lifting. "We met in the church before. You had to think I had somewhere to stay when I was in Midgar. You knew where I'd slept once. It's not like Aerith is going to refuse to let me stay here again. And yes. Just like that. What do you want to talk about?"

Zack huffed a laugh to himself. It wasn't exactly weird for him to think Cloud might be in the church when Cloud put it that way. "I want to talk for real," he said. "Not the dumb casual stuff we talk about when there're other people around."

Cloud's brow furrowed slightly even though he didn't appear to actually frown.

"Take off the goggles, Spike." He was tired of not being able to read anything in Cloud's mood because his eyes were hidden.

Cloud dutifully reached up and pulled the goggles down so they hung around his neck. Zack didn't like the hint of anxiety in his friend's eyes. He didn't like that Cloud had anything to be nervous about around him.

"Tell me about the other people you've been around." When Cloud's expression started to blank in what Zack recognized as a defensive direction, Zack said, "No names, descriptions, nothing like that. I know they're helping you hide from Shinra. I know you said you're fine, but I don't like not knowing what kind of people they are for myself. Just tell me about them. Personalities and stuff."

Cloud expression lost the stiffness almost as soon as Zack had started talking, and he didn't look terribly upset about the idea. "You want to figure out their personalities by what I have to say about them?"

"You're a pretty perceptive guy, Spike," Zack said with a shrug. "And I figure you're a good judge of character." He grinned. "You decided I was an awesome guy after all."

Cloud cracked a smile and huffed a laugh. Taking a more casual pose, Cloud propped his chin on a hand, his elbow on one knee and held up one finger on the opposite hand. "First one, I trust almost as much as I trust you and Aerith. Just a hair's breadth behind you, and probably only because I know you two better. Great eye for details. Not a big talker. Keeps secrets. Issues over the past but working through them as a sort of penance."

Finger number two joined the first. "Second one, wise beyond years. Loyal beyond reasoning. Kind of naive but well meaning and unintentionally kind of funny. Overestimates abilities at blending in. Great listener. Surprisingly insightful at times. Has my trust almost as much as the first, but comes in after only because of prior loyalties that I think should definitely be kept." Finger number three. "Third one, calculating and methodical. I'm pretty sure thinks I'm generally delusional, but rational enough to work with me just in case I'm right. Reserved, but a pretty wicked sarcasm."

Fourth finger. "Annoying brat. But keeps the conversation going without my input so that's pretty nice. Resourceful." Then the thumb. "Babysitter. Don't know that one very well. Follows the annoying brat's lead though."

Cloud dropped his hand. "Last one…," he trailed off before shrugging one shoulder, the side of his mouth kicking up again. "Melodramatic drama addict. Honest to a fault though. Pissy beyond reason. Obsessive about making things right. Now anyway."

Cloud just watched him when he stopped talking, as though he were holding his breath for a certain kind of reaction. Zack figured he'd be fine trying to digest what he'd been told. He wasn't sure if Cloud realized how telling his statements were. The first two were friends. Third one not so much, but an ally still. Cloud seemed to like the fourth, but didn't want to admit it, and he clearly didn't even know the fifth. And the sixth was someone Cloud seemed to think he could be friends with.

One thing was abundantly clear though. Cloud was into covert ops and quite possibly some fighting. One didn't talk about trusting people with their life if they weren't talking about life and death scenarios. And no one talked about those with the casual seriousness and vague disregard unless they were no stranger to battles. Though, he was surprisingly touched by hearing Cloud so openly admit to trusting him. He knew the kid trusted him, but hadn't really realized how much.

But he didn't want Cloud guessing the direction of his thoughts so he changed the subject. "So you gonna try getting a job?"

Cloud gave him a flat, exasperated look. "Seriously Zack? You probably already know about me meeting Dio. He said the Turks brought him in for questioning."

"Okay," Zack said sheepishly. "Caught me. I know you're probably investing in some kind of business. And changing the subject is because I'm a little spun, alright. I still don't get why you just up and left without telling me. And now there are all these other people that you're going to for help instead of me."

Cloud's chin dropped slightly, a bit of guilt flickering through his eyes. That at least reassured Zack that even if Cloud had hid things on purpose, he didn't like doing it.

"We're building a resort," Cloud said.

Apparently, Cloud wasn't quite ready to address that yet. Then Zack's brain caught up with what his friend had said. "A resort?" he repeated with a grin. "What kind of resort? And do I get a discount for being your friend and all?"

"Everything," Cloud said, a half smile creeping onto his face. "And I was planning on getting you a lifetime pass. Just keep all of it to yourself. Dio wants to make a big deal out of it."

Zack reached forward and smacked Cloud on the arm in a brotherly way. "Awesome, Spiky! I'll be there every time I take leave." He huffed a laugh. "At least when I'm not visiting my parents."

Cloud's expression froze at that, making Zack pause. Then he put two and two together. "Shit, Spike! You and Dio are my parents' new bosses? How much are you paying them that they left the reactor? Those were good jobs you know. And why didn't you say anything? And why on Gaia did you empty out Gongaga? I know we harass each other about being from small towns, but you didn't have to go and turn mine into a ghost town."

Cloud relaxed a bit, and that made Zack feel better. Apparently, he'd not done whatever negative reaction Cloud thought he might get.

"Their pay is good. Everyone's is," Cloud said. "And I'm going to keep hiring everyone I can out of Gongaga until Shinra Company fixes what's wrong with the reactor there. It's an accident waiting to happen."

That caught Zack's attention. "There's something wrong with the reactor?" he asked sharply.

Cloud shrugged. "I don't have details. I just know that it won't take much for a meltdown. I figure if I can't fix the reactor, seeing as I don't know how, I can just get all the people out of there. Everyone is working on construction of the new place now. Afterward is when everyone gets their normal jobs. Your dad got something in maintenance and your mom in hospitality. And I'm not the one who did job placement, so I didn't favor them. I didn't even ask about them until they'd moved to the site. The lifetime pass is your friend bonus, not the jobs. In case you were wondering."

The thought had crossed his mind, but Cloud was decent enough at guessing what Zack was thinking anyway.

"Hot damn, Spike!" Zack burst out excitedly. "I just realized that's what all the chocobos are for." He shook his head. "You've got everyone beating their heads against a wall trying to figure out what you were doing with all those birds."

Cloud nodded, slight smile getting a bit bigger. "We'll use them in the race track to start with, but we figure after a while the jockeys will start to bring their own. Then we can open up a pay-to-ride thing where anyone can ride the docile ones."

"How'd you find all those chocobos, Spike. I've never seen that many in one place before. And you had all the colors."

"I'm a good racer and a good breeder. I just kind of have an affinity for the birds." Cloud pointed at him with a faux glare. "And no hair jokes about chocobos. They do not think I'm one of them."

Zack frowned. There was something he could call Cloud on. "A good breeder and racer? Since when?"

Cloud shrugged. "It's just something I picked up."

Giving Cloud a disbelieving look, he said, "Cloud, you only left Shinra forty-five days ago. Since when is that enough time to just pick up chocobo breeding or racing?"

Cloud frowned at him. "Really, Zack? Don't you have anything better to do that count the days I've been gone? You're worse than my mom."

Zack scoffed. "Considering the things you run around doing, I pity the woman."

"Shut up," Cloud groused, rolling his eyes.

"Cloud," Zack said more sternly, "I am using your actual name here for a reason. This is serious. How can you have just picked up breeding and racing?"

Cloud shifted a bit, looking like he was thinking. Zack just hoped he wasn't coming up with a story to make this new talent believable.

"I've been gone awhile, Zack."

"Forty-five days is not long enough for that." He pointed at Cloud. "And no cracks about your mom. Knowing how long you've been gone is a friend thing. You scared the shit outta me and I spend half my time wondering if you're throwing a party without me or have been sold into slavery."

At the odd expression that got from Cloud, Zack debated on whether or not he should have mentioned his sold into slavery theory. But then Cloud gave him a wry, half smile. "It wouldn't be a party without you."

Zack grinned before remembering what the current point of this conversation was. "Flattery won't distract me. Just answer the question, Spike. Or at least give me a hint as to why you won't."

Cloud sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. He kept his gaze on Zack though, and that was promising. The kid looked like he was debating with himself. Then Cloud sighed again and said, "I wasn't lying when I said I've been gone awhile."

"We've already hashed this part out, Spike," Zack said dryly. "Forty-five days, remember?"

Very deliberately, Cloud said, "It's been longer for me."

Frowning, Zack asked, "You mean like it's seemed longer or something? Like when I have to sit through one of the President's really boring meetings and an hour feels like it turns into ten?"

"No, Zack." Cloud gave him this really intense look, like he was expecting Zack to read his mind or something. "It was literally longer for me since I was actually part of Shinra."

Zack huffed a confused laugh. "You sound like you're talking about time going wonky or something. Even I know that's ridiculous, Spiky."

Cloud opened his mouth, but a rush of wind and feathers coming down through the hole in the roof diverted their attention. A moment later, Genesis dropped in, no signs of degradation. So a new copy then. Zack didn't think there were any more of those being made.

Then Cloud breathed out, "Damn."