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Counter Crisis

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Fandom: Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (FFVII, Advent Children, Crisis Core, Before Crisis, Dirge of Cerberus)
Pairing:
Established Zack/Aerith, Eventual Sephiroth/Cloud (Subject to possible additions)
Rating:
Teen (Subject to change)
Warnings:
Violence, Language, Pretty much what you'd expect from FFVII. (Subject to additions)
Genre:
Time Travel, AU, Action/Adventure, Drama, Friendship, Romance.
Words:
15,745

Special Thanks To: Our darling, amazing beta/guinea pig reader leasspell_dael for all of your help, Nightpounce for helping inspire the summary, and the rest of the peanut gallery.

 


 Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


Chapter 01 – Crisis of Circumstance

[ μ ] – εуλ 0009 (May 4th)


 

The air was bitingly cold when Fenrir purred to a halt. Cloud couldn't feel the icy chill, his skin forever mako warm thanks to the good doctor. This was a familiar cold, one that was ingrained into his very soul; one that not even his spotty memory could forget. Above him, Mt. Nibel loomed amongst its lesser companions, dark and jagged. A violent monolith perched over the minuscule town nestled at its feet.

Cloud sighed, his breath puffing out in a cloud of white in front of him. He leaned on the handlebars of his faithful bike, taking comfort in its low rumble as it idled. For a while he just sat there staring blankly further up the road that would eventually take him to the site of his birth.

The town that rested there now wasn't his town, but the people there had adapted to the harsh climate and hard living. They had taken their orders from ShinRa literally, adopting their new names and histories with single-minded enthusiasm. A few good winters had tempered them further, and now he doubted any of them even remembered their lives from before. Cloud felt that maybe the tough people of Nibelheim would have approved of the new tenants.

In the distance, he heard a nibel wolf send up a baleful howl. Cloud recognized it as a rallying call, a pack readying itself for the hunt. Slowly each individual voice faded away as the wolves ended their hunting chorus and moved off into the mountains. Cloud shook himself out of his lethargy. He needed to finish his long journey and find a room at the inn for the night.

He was reluctant to continue on. In some ways, the peaceful village was more painful than even the Ancient's Forest, more than Midgar or Aerith's Church. It was the place he was born, the place where simple 'Cloud Strife' had died, and this new 'Cloud' had been born again. It was where Sephiroth had been created, and where the great General fell from his pedestal into madness.

It held so many bitter memories, and if he were honest with himself, he couldn't remember a time he'd been happy here. As a child he'd been selfish and arrogant, unable to let go of the hurt caused by the other children, the ostracization forced upon him by the adults. When he had returned as a failure, he'd been sunk in misery and dread at being discovered by Tifa, pretty Tifa to whom he'd promised the stars.

A harsh ringing sound from one of his side pockets broke Cloud's reverie again. He extracted his cell phone gingerly, and pushed back the old urge to let it ring through to the voice mail. He'd promised to be better. This time he knew he could keep that promise. Cloud pressed the connect button carefully, as he often felt he'd crush the delicate looking thing by accident.

"Hello?" It came out quieter than Cloud expected, and he cleared his throat hastily. "Hello?" he repeated a little stronger. He heard a warm laugh over the phone, and flushed a little as his friend's mirth died away.

"Hey Cloud," Tifa's voice crackled over the line. The mountains were nearly out of range of even the newest phones.

"Hi Tifa," he said as he felt a wave of contentment twisted with guilt wash over him. It was an odd combination, but he was used to having more violent emotions dragging him down. The contentment came from just hearing his old friend's voice, knowing that she was happy that he had picked up the phone, and hadn't returned to his seclusion. The guilt stemmed from the fact that he had still left Edge such a short time after the battle with the Remnants.

His time with the spirits of Aerith and Zack had healed him of his wounds from his battles, and he'd stayed long enough to be sure that the children were well once more. Denzel's smile and Marlene's laughter had been soothing, though their adoration of him still made Cloud twitch nervously. That, combined with the warmth of forgiveness and happiness he'd found at the end of the hard battle, had made him restless. When Reeve had mentioned strange readings coming from the old reactor above Nibelheim, Cloud had leapt on the excuse, and volunteered to investigate. Cloud had expected Tifa to protest. She had surprised him by shoving a package at him with a delivery slip, then gave him her brightest grin as she told him that he couldn't get out of his job that easily.

"Planet to Cloud, are you there sleepy-head?" Tifa's voice cut through his thoughts, and he hastily brought his mind back to business.

"Ah, sorry Tifa. What did you need?" he said hastily, while switching the phone to his other ear so he could rummage in his side pocket.

"Nothing serious, so don't frown," she teased. He scrunched his nose up to get rid of the frown that had been forming on his face. "I just thought you'd have arrived by about now, and wanted to make sure you were okay."

"It's only Nibelheim," he protested mildly. Cloud pulled out the delivery slip for the package secured on the back of his bike. He glanced over it absently as Tifa continued to talk.

"Don’t give me that. You know exactly what I meant," she chided. "And I can hear the wind whistling.  You're not even there yet, are you? Honestly Cloud, your delivery business is going to suffer if you keep making your customers wait like this!" Her tone was light, but he knew that she was sincerely concerned. Nibelheim wasn't an easy topic for her either.

Cloud didn't really have a response for her teasing, and still found himself unsure deep down when it came to her. He knew she had feelings for him, which had grown, ebbed, and changed over the years and trials they'd been through. He had loved her when he was young, with all the bright enthusiasm and blindness of youth. Now she was a dear companion, but he didn't know if he could ever live a normal life, ever settle down. His past still haunted his thoughts, even if he was learning to let it go.

Her worry was more than just his physical safety, and even more than his mental well being. She was afraid that he would leave her behind again, leave all his friends behind. He'd spiraled into isolation after Meteor, unable to fight the encroaching depression as he'd come to term with all his lost memories.

There'd been no time during the long fight against Jenova and Sephiroth for the friend he'd lost and forgotten about. Except he hadn't really forgotten Zack. He'd wrapped his memories into a protective shield, crawled inside it, and let Zack be his protection against the world when he was no longer able to function in it. Those delusions had been stripped from him, leaving him bare again to the harshness of the world. He'd fallen apart and plunged deep into his own mind. It had taken the very one who'd let his charade continue for so long to pull him out of his own Lifestream induced madness.

Tifa had taken away his illusion of greatness, the lie that allowed him to move forward, but she'd given him back more than the parody of a life he'd been living. She'd given him back himself, and more importantly, she'd given him back Zack. The memories he'd taken as his own had been returned to their rightful place, shining like a diamond among the mire of his own being.

Early after the Planet had rescued Midgar from Meteor, he'd gone to the bluff above Midgar. There'd been no sign of the remains of his friend. He liked to pretend that Aerith had pulled Zack's body into the earth, returned it to the Planet as the hero he was. Logic always asserted itself, insisting that monsters had ripped apart any trace, long before even Aerith's death. With no body to bury, it had seemed pointless to create a grave. The unforgiving weather that surrounded Midgar would have ensured that no monument would last long in the baking heat and harsh winds, but he hadn't been able to leave nothing behind.

In the end he'd left the Buster Sword on the site of Zack's death, had stuck it into the dirt as securely as he could with his enhanced strength. It had been then, standing next to the cold steel, feeling the bitter wind ruffle his hair, that it had become too much. Guilt had driven him to his knees and his breath caught in his throat, choking on dust and bile and the bitter taste of failure. If he'd been faster, if he'd been stronger, smarter, if he'd been a better person

The memories were hazy with the green of the mako poisoning, but he could still pick out fragments of their flight. Cloud had been a dead weight, too messed up from Hojo's games and experiments, and it had been up to Zack to break both of them out, to fight every step for their freedom. They'd arrived at the bluff, salvation just in sight. Midgar was so full of places to hide, where you could buy anonymity and safety, and where ShinRa was a hated enemy. Zack had kept up a litany of promises, some empty, some realistic, some so beautiful that even filtered through the poisonous haze it made Cloud's heart ache.

Then Zack had been gunned down.

It had been sudden; one moment Zack had been there, ruffling his hair, and the next he'd walked off to face his death. Even cornered, Zack had done everything he could to protect Cloud. Cloud knew now that if Zack had been unburdened he probably could have escaped, even by leaping from the cliff's edge.  His tough SOLDIER body would have been able to take the punishment if he used a little cunning to break his fall. Instead, Zack had stood his ground, unwilling to abandon Cloud to the soldier's mercy. It was almost laughable that they hadn't considered Cloud even worth wasting bullets on. Cloud was still unsure if that was laziness, part of Hojo's convoluted and insane plot to bring Sephiroth back, or if they just hadn't noticed him.

The clouds had wept icy rain drops, washing away the blood before it could soak into the parched ground. Cloud had come into a moment of lucidity then, had pulled himself out of the green haze to crawl to Zack's side. He'd hoped that at least he could have a moment, just a second to tell Zack how grateful he was, to protest at the unfairness, and, selfishly, for Zack to lie and tell him everything would be okay.

He hadn't been able to say a word, tongue too tied from shock, grief, and the continued effects of the mako. All Cloud had been able to do was uselessly parrot Zack's words back to him while inside he raged against the unfairness of his friend being stolen from him. Until Zack had entrusted his hopes and dreams to him before going still, and Cloud had managed to scream his anguish to the cloudy sky.

Even now Cloud thought he could vaguely remember the feel of Zack's blood on his face from that last embrace, from the bullet holes riddling Zack's chest. The worst had been the wounds from after Zack had fallen, when the soldier's had maliciously emptied another round into him just to make sure he stayed down. It had been unnecessary and cruel, and so very ShinRa.

Cloud hadn't been able to cry, when he'd set Zack's sword in remembrance to his fallen friend. For all the remorse and painful memories that had filled him, the tears wouldn't come. He hadn't felt that he deserved the release, for living instead of Zack that rainy day.

He'd withdrawn from his friends, the guilt eating away at every waking moment, and nightmares plaguing his dreams at night. He'd tried to fight it, tried finding ways to distract himself. His delivery service turned out to be more harmful to that goal since it gave him more excuses to avoid interacting with anyone. For a while, it seemed as if helping out the orphans would be enough. Their smiles helped heal his heart, bit by bit. Then the geostigma hit, and that had also become a painful reminder of how badly he'd failed.

When Aerith's rain had fallen, healing the rotting flesh from geostigma's taint, Cloud had begun to hope again. The Remnants were tough enemies, but he'd already been through so much, and surely he could stop mere copies of Sephiroth.

Then Kadaj had gotten a hold of the piece of Jenova, and Cloud's world had nearly ended again.  Sephiroth was a formidable opponent in life, death, and everywhere in between. His words that came out almost lovingly were filled with venom that cut right to Cloud's heart and soul. All those dark feelings; failure, unwanted child, puppet… They were always magnified when those cat-like green eyes stared down at him, amused at his futile struggles.

He'd triumphed again, with the help of all his friends. Just knowing they were there supporting him, that Aerith's hand was still outstretched to pull him up when he fell, had given Cloud the strength needed to defeat the phantom of his enemy.

Sephiroth's parting words had rung in his ears as a threat and a promise, but Cloud knew the truth behind them. Sephiroth would never be a mere memory. His presence was forever carved into Cloud, into the very Planet.  Maybe in future generations the name would mean nothing, but the greatness, the terrible horror, would still have its echoes in stories, warnings, feelings… The Planet didn't forget the Calamity from the sky, nor would it ever forget Calamity's favorite son.

Waking up in the church had been like waking up after a long nightmare. Cloud's body had felt light, and the very air sparkled with the joy of the children, the relief of the adults, and the peaceful aura that had always been present in Aerith's church. Then he'd looked up to see her behind the crowd, still beautiful and smiling and forgiving. And in the doorway was Zack. Over the years, Cloud had seen Aerith's image occasionally. In waking dreams, in memories, always just out of sight, out of reach, but still there. Though he’d sensed his friend’s presence during these last battles, never once had he seen Zack, not since the day of his death.

Zack hadn't said anything, had merely cracked the barest grin, and Cloud had been able to read a thousand words in his dearest friend's face. Pride, forgiveness, and that quirky humor that had defined his life and hadn't been lost in death.

Cloud had been so distracted by the overwhelming happiness that had swelled in his chest, that his hand had half raised to respond to Zack's wave of farewell. He'd only stopped because one of the children had grabbed his arm, tearing his attention away from the pair in the doorway for the split second needed for them to vanish back into the Lifestream.

He'd visited Zack's memorial that night. With the stars twinkling brightly overhead and the lights from Edge glowing on the horizon, he'd knelt there, forehead pressed against the cool blade where it once again rested as a testament to his friend's sacrifice. Tears of relief had streamed down his face, as he was finally able to release the pent up emotions that had haunted him for so long.

He'd taken the sword back with him, because this place was no longer a place of death and bitter sorrow, but a place where his journey had begun; a place where Zack had given him a new life.  He'd cleaned Buster Sword of the rust, dirt, and grime it had acquired on the bluff and set it in the church as a real memorial to his departed savior.

A familiar tune slowly brought him out of his memories, and he realized he was still sitting astride Fenrir, with his cell phone held loosely against his ear. Tifa's voice was coming through the speaker, humming the tune he remembered from his childhood. She'd loved playing the simple song on her piano, and it had stuck with him, even when his identity had been lost.

"…Sorry Tifa, I'm here," he said quietly over her humming.

"That's good to hear," she replied, voice warm. "You won't go off where we can't follow, right Cloud?"

"There's nowhere in this world that you won't chase after me." Tifa wouldn't even let that stop her.  She'd braved his broken mind and the poison of the Lifestream to get him back, and Cloud had no doubt she'd do the same and more in the future.

"Damn right," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "Just keep yourself out of trouble, okay? Reeve said the readings were strange, even for a mako reactor."

"Some monster probably broke in. Might be suffering from a case of mako poisoning, depending on how strong it was," Cloud said. "But I'll be careful," he added, when he heard her draw breath to rebuke him.

"Hm… You'd better. Denzel and Marlene send their love. You'll be back soon?" she asked, hope shining in her voice.

"Just as soon as I clean up here. It might take a few days, I don't want to miss anything," he replied.

"Alright. Take care."

He waited until he heard the phone click as she hung up, before taking it away from his ear and ending the call from his side. Talking with Tifa had been easier than he'd anticipated, though that might just have been because he was still reluctant to continue on up the mountain path.

Cloud knew that he'd rather face Sephiroth ten times over, than spend a few days up at Nibelheim. He'd already planned for most of his time to be spent up in Mt. Nibel, but he did need to take a little time to talk to the locals. They would know if anything had changed recently, and might be able to give him enough information to go on.

"Let's mosey," he mumbled under his breath, allowing a faint grin as he remembered his companions' reaction the first time he'd said it. Underneath him, Fenrir roared back to life, and he sped up the mountain path once again.


Cloud swore under his breath, pressing his back hard against the freezing boulder he was crouched behind. The air shook with another enraged roar, and he braced himself, waiting for his moment.

The villagers had been helpful. Oh yes, they said, the monsters had all been acting up. The nibel wolves were nervous, they said. A dragon had been seen up Mt. Nibel, obviously insane with mako poisoning. No, it hadn't made it to the village, but they were all worried the ferocious beast would target them next. What they had failed to mention was that the mako poisoned dragon was a mother dragon, and her nestlings were suffering from a dose of insanity like their dam. What was it about Nibelheim that seemed to drive everything to madness?

He heard the scrape of claws, felt the vibration through the rock, and dove away as one of the nestlings launched itself over the top of his hiding spot, green foam dripping from its jaws and maddened eyes locked on him as he scrambled away. Cloud didn't want to kill the dragons. Yes, they were monsters, and yes they were extremely dangerous, even in normal circumstance, but they normally lived high up in the mountains and didn't bother the villagers. It was an existence of 'I'll ignore you if you ignore me', and it had worked out for hundreds of years. Only fools who wandered too far into the mountains, who didn't know when and how to avoid the large beasts, met a grisly end. He'd grown up knowing to respect, and more importantly avoid, the local wildlife.

These dragons would have to die, no matter how he felt about it. Cloud knew it, knew the mako poisoning had claimed too much of their minds. They'd probably nested too close to the old reactor, which still leaked foulness and death.

Cloud had already tripped over the remains of the father. The carcass had shown signs of degeneration from the mako as well. What was left of it, at least. The mother and nestlings had obviously eaten it, which explained their accelerated and violent madness.

He twisted abruptly to the side as another of the nestlings tried to disembowel him, and kicked away its tail before the barbs could take a chunk out of his arm. His biggest problem at the moment was the fact that the mother seemed to have disappeared.

The fledglings were fast, vicious, and relentless. Cloud had not yet been able to do more than wound one of them; he had scored a lucky shot with his sword as he was flung one way and the dragon charged the other. There had already been a few too many close encounters with the ground thanks to the big one, but now she'd just vanished, and he knew that maddened mind still had a shred of cunning. She was likely planning something that would leave him bruised at best, dead if he made any mistake.

He stood, sword at the ready, as the nestlings flanked him on three sides. It was impossible to keep them all in sight, so he relied on his other senses to tell him when the one behind him would leap.  Despite their madness, they still possessed the tactical intelligence that made them such deadly adversaries in the first place.

Cloud saw the two dragons to either side tense, heard the whistle of air behind him, and abruptly had no more time to worry about anything other than surviving with his skin mostly intact. He dove for the ground, flattening himself against it and felt claw tips ruffle his hair as the nestling sailed overhead. He rolled immediately to his left, only to hiss when the tail nicked his cheek despite his attempt to dodge.

There was another flash of scales, and Cloud curled in on himself to flip over backward. The ground was hard under his gloves, one hand still gripping his sword even as the chill from the frozen rock seeped through the thick leather. The constant high wind had stripped much of the ground bare of snow, though it did nothing about the ice left behind. It made the fight more hazardous as he went from the slippery rock to the unstable snow. Cloud compensated for it as best he could, flexed his arms, and sprang away from the further swipes of the nestlings. The resultant landing was anything but graceful.  Cloud's foot slid a few inches before he could get himself under control. His moment of inattention was all that was needed for a nestling to nearly gut him. He blocked the claws with First Tsurugi, but the blow lifted him off his feet and sent him tumbling across the frozen ground.

The air wheezed from his chest as he came to an abrupt halt against something solid, his back stinging from the impact. From the hollow, metallic sound he knew it was man-made. Cloud used it as a brace to send the next attacker flying, and felt a flash of vindictive humor at the enraged warble as it cart-wheeled away. It tried to use its wings and claws to stop its flight, which only served to send it further out of control. The other two dragons shrieked as their brethren tumbled past, before they turned to charge him again.

A quick survey of his surroundings confirmed that he'd been driven all the way to the abandoned mako reactor. At his back was one of the metal support struts, jutting out of the snow as a dark reminder of ShinRa's mark. He dove out of the way of his two attackers. One collided with the strut and dented it with a shriek of tortured metal. Cloud dashed toward the building, not wanting to remain cornered any longer than necessary.

Getting inside the reactor was a good idea. It was designed to withstand both the weather and general monster incursions, though it probably wouldn't stand up against the determined efforts these monsters would put it through. It would, at least, give him a bit of time to recuperate before the dragons broke in. He was winded enough to need the breather.

The snow next to him exploded suddenly, blinding him despite his hastily raised hand. He desperately tried to blink his vision clear, and caught sight of a dark, blurry shape rushing him. Cloud barely had time to swear as the mother dragon's jaws closed around him. Instinctively he brought his sword up to defend himself in an attempt to angle the point up high enough before the jaws finished snapping shut.

He was only partially successful.

Cloud let out a cut off yell of pain as teeth pierced his shoulder, the strong jaws bringing him to his knees, head bowed against his chest. With his unharmed arm, Cloud thrust his sword awkwardly into the soft tissue at the back of the monster's throat in an attempt to wound her enough to release him. He was jostled painfully around as the mother's momentum drove them forward across the frozen ground.

Then everything stopped. The suddenness of it jarred her teeth out of his shoulder and knocked Cloud flat. The monster's tongue was disgustingly slimy under him, and her upper jaw pressed uncomfortably against his back. Cloud struggled desperately against the pressure, sure at any moment that he'd have the unfortunate experience of learning exactly what the inside of a dragon was like. There was no further movement, except for the final gust of breath expelled from the dragon's corpse. His blade had struck home.

Cloud managed to get a knee under him so that he could lever himself up and push the upper jaw higher until he was able to sit up. His shoulder was burning, and he was covered in the dragon's saliva from head to toe. It was one of the more disgusting ends to a fight Cloud had experienced in a long time. Tifa would laugh at him, he was sure.

A survey of his surroundings made him blink in surprise. Instead of the snow covered mountain terrain full of starving mad fledgling dragons he expected, he was staring at the inside of the mako reactor. Cloud stepped out of his temporary accommodation, the dragon's mouth falling closed with a squelch and clack of teeth. The mother dragon had ambushed him at exactly the right angle for her momentum to carry them right up to the mako reactor's door. Her head and some of her neck had broken through the door before her body had hit against the side of the building. The wall was indented, but had held under the impact.

Cloud stared for another moment as he listened to the shrieks of the fledglings outside, before sending a word of thanks to Aerith. Whether she'd had any hand at the lucky break he didn't know, but he still liked to believe she could touch his life in small ways. He also sent a mild curse at Zack. The terrible humor of nearly being a dragon's appetizer felt like something his friend would laugh himself sick over.

Outside, the shrieks of the fledglings cut off, replaced by the sound of tearing flesh interspersed with squabbling warbles. Cloud closed his eyes against the sound of the cannibalism, sickened anew at the mindlessness mako had driven the creatures to. Such actions weren't unheard of among the monsters, but it was rare among the normally solitary dragons that lived up here.

A dripping sound caught his attention, and he grimaced at his arm. Blood was dripping off his sleeve from the bite wound on his shoulder. He needed to tend to that. Dragon saliva probably wasn't good for it, despite his mako enhanced immune system. He gave First Tsurugi a cursory cleaning before he slipped it into the straps of the harness on his back, promising to do a better job once he'd tended to his own wounds.

He turned, his feet making a hollow sound against the metallic walkway. Cloud had no desire to continue listening to the dragons' current meal. He began to regret his decision almost immediately.  Climbing down the ladder one-handed provided no obstacle, but the memories of this place were already pressing down on him.

This place was his grave, Sephiroth's grave, and even Zack's grave. The years of experimentation, the escape and flight to Midgar's bluff could hardly be called living. And what Sephiroth had become...  Cloud brought one foot in front of the other, as he slowly proceeded toward a doorway that held so many painful experiences. Tifa's broken body, mad green eyes, the alien creature suspended in its glass prison, the pain-filled, betrayed expression on Zack's face...

He paused at the closed door, breathing shallowly as his heart pounded in his ears. Cloud slid his phone out of its pocket, mildly surprised it had survived his many tumbles and impacts. He needed the support of his friend, the only one still alive who'd been there that day. Tifa would understand, and would probably be delighted he reached out to her when he needed the support. He was trying to be better.

Disappointment filled him bitterly as he found there was no signal. It should have been no surprise; he was much farther in the mountains than Nibelheim, which already had bad reception. On top of that was inside a metal structure, underground, near a large source of mako. Cloud pressed his forehead against the cool surface of the door, hand clenched gently around the useless device.

He could have stayed there, kept the barrier of the door between him and the worst moments of his life. He was far enough from the entrance that the outside noises were barely perceptible. But in some way it felt inevitable from the moment he'd decided to come to Nibelheim. He'd known he would have to face his past sometime, face more than the broken memories he'd regained over the years.

Slipping his phone back into his pocket, Cloud rocked back on his heels. Before he could think further, he pressed the keypad on the side of the door to trigger its opening mechanism. It slid open silently, ShinRa's meticulous maintenance still evident after years of disuse. The lights had long since burned out despite the unlimited power the reactor produced for such a small need. Since ShinRa was no longer sucking the Planet dry, the reactor was on a self-sufficient standby mode.

Cloud shuddered as he stepped into the gloom, his mako eyes already adjusted to the darkness from the previous room. In front of him were the tiers of machinery, the pods broken and empty of their pitiful experiments. Another step forward allowed the door to automatically slide shut behind him with an electronic beep as the lock reasserted itself. The room was filled with the metallic, chemical, and indefinable smell of the mako that Hojo had used to play god. Even the thought of him made Cloud's jaw clench.

When he'd met the scientist on his quest to stop Sephiroth, he hadn't remembered what the madman had done to him and his. If he could go back in time, Cloud would have made sure that the bastard died in the most painful way possible. Such wishes were futile, and Hojo had gotten what he deserved in the end. Cloud dismissed the notion as he made his way further into the room and began climbing the long stairway. He would visit the room where Jenova had been housed, to finish this painful chore as fast as possible.

A sound, a hint of movement in the murk, made him freeze. There shouldn't be anything alive in the building. The doors had all been closed, and none of the indigenous monsters had the size or appendages to manipulate the keypads, even accidentally. Another movement had Cloud spinning, drawing his sword, and adopting a defensive stance. A pair of glowing eyes emerged from behind an overturned pod. Cloud watched it warily as the shape shambled closer with a bestial grunting sound. It was only humanoid in the vaguest sense, in that it had two arms and legs, one head, and shuffled along in a bipedal manner. Everything else was twisted and bloated, skin bulging along limbs that were too thin in places, and too thick in others. The eyes were filled with the glow of mako and madness.

Cloud abruptly realized what he was seeing. Hojo had experimented on humans in the room, always trying to find the perfect formula of mako and Jenova to create a god, one that would even surpass his greatest success; Sephiroth. The pods had all been in use when Sephiroth had gone on his rampage. Years later when Cloud had revisited the reactor, they'd still been occupied, though apparently lifeless.

Perhaps, he thought as more shapes clambered over the wreckage of the room, they'd merely been dormant. The secret of their survival despite being isolated for so many years was obvious in every shuddering gasp, every jerky movement, in the bright mako-filled gazes. The chemical that had twisted them beyond humanity also kept them alive, sustained by the proximity of the mako.

Cloud’s stance on the stairs was not optimal for fighting, and he didn’t want to be trapped in the building with so many opponents. He took a single step back down the stairs, his eyes tracking the creatures' movement. It turned out to be a bad choice as they immediately sprang forward, fast compared to their initial shamble. Their bodies looked like they could barely hold themselves together, but their agility and strength belied the deceptive appearance.

He was forced to dive to the side, sword clicking against the metal floor as he rolled between two empty and broken pods. His attackers’ momentum sent them crashing against another of the pods, where they pushed and fought each other to turn around for another charge. The ones closest scrambled forward, deformed arms stretching toward Cloud almost plaintively. The wound in his shoulder was screaming in pain, but Cloud forced himself to his feet and retreated as fast as he could while continuing to face the approaching creatures. They quickly gained momentum again, and threw themselves upon him. He blocked awkwardly with First Tsurugi, then brought one booted foot up to kick them away. The move gained him a moment of breathing room before they were on him again.

First Tsurugi responded to his touch as he triggered one of the short blades to release, allowing him more blocking power with a blade to each hand. Cloud was immediately forced to use both as the creatures attempted to surround him and attack from all directions. The blows from their blocky arms that made it through his guard were like sledgehammers. Their clawed hands ripped into his flesh until blood was running down his arms and sides like ribbons.

Cloud knew he was in trouble. The creatures were much stronger than the average monster, testing even his mako enhanced body to the limits, and fighting on the sloping stairs and amidst the broken machinery made footing treacherous. If there had only been a few of the creatures they would have been no problem, but he was already tired from his fight with the dragons. The wound in his shoulder was giving him problems, and he could feel exhaustion setting into his muscles. Cloud had managed to kill three of the monsters, but there were still over a dozen more. He could feel himself slowing down.

He quickly recombined First Tsurugi, using the momentum of the coupling to swing his sword in a wide arc. The monsters were forced back, but one managed to slip under his guards. It seized Cloud’s arm, lifting him off his feet with ease. Cloud kicked out hard, since its grip meant he was unable to bring his sword into play, and hit the monster on the side of its head. It howled in pain before it flung him spinning away.

Cloud’s head struck the wall with a painful crack. Through the ringing in his ears, Cloud noticed he’d hit the door at the top of the stairs. Already the monsters were swarming up the stairs toward him, and he knew he couldn’t afford to be cornered here. One gloved hand reached for the keypad as he sliced down an enterprising monster mid-leap. When he heard the whoosh of the door, Cloud wasted no time diving through it. As soon as his boots hit the floor he leveled First Tsurugi at them.

The reflected green glow from the mako pooled below broke through his battle focus. He’d been expecting it, but it still struck Cloud hard as realized he was now in the chamber that had been Jenova's prison. His heart leaped into his throat as he fought back the memories, trying to stay focused on the task at hand. The doorway hadn't had a chance to close behind him before the creatures pushed through, so he only had a small window to take them out while their numbers weren't overwhelming.

He gathered himself, and swung his sword in a practiced move that sent a shock wave into the first monster. It shrieked an abruptly cut-off death scream as it collapsed, severed nearly in half. Two others immediately took its place, with more pouring out behind them. Cloud's vision was getting blurry as fatigue and blood-loss took their toll.

The omnipresent pulse of the Lifestream pushed at his back. Even without looking, Cloud knew he had backed up to the edge of the pipe that stretched above the green glow. This room, despite his delusions and patchy recollection, was now etched into his memories in white-hot relief. He didn't want to turn around, knowing the empty, broken glass tube would be looming hauntingly above him. Even if Jenova was no longer present physically, there always seemed to be an echo of her malevolence in this place. Perhaps it was because of the bad memories associated with it, but the unease was driving shudders of dread down Cloud's back. Despite being so close to the Lifestream, he couldn't feel the reassuring warmth of Aerith's presence.

He stepped backward onto the precarious pipe, drawing the monsters in. His position forced his enemies to funnel to him one at a time. He didn't bother with finesse, and instead used the blunt side of the sword to bat the creatures off the pipe. If the long fall didn't kill them, the Lifestream certainly would. A monster was pushed off the edge of the platform by its enthusiastic brethren, its shriek of defiance joining the other's dying screams.

Sweat ran down the side of Cloud's face as he fought mechanically. The monsters were tenacious, clinging to the side of the pipe, climbing over each other in their fervor to reach him. One grabbed his boot, and he stomped down hard on the arm. He could feel the bone shatter beneath the blow. He was confident in his own balance, sure that if he kept this up he would be able to exterminate them all. His mind threw up the thought that others had survived a dip in the Lifestream, but he shoved the feeling aside. These mindless things were nothing compared to Sephiroth.

As if his mere thoughts had conjured it, Cloud swore he could feel a presence at his back, malicious and heavy. Swore he heard a low, dangerous voice that was an insubstantial purr in his ear.

"Cloud." Then, softly mocking, "Watch out."

He whirled around, heart pounding in his ears. (Not again.) He'd just been through this hell, just fought his demons from the past. He'd defeated Sephiroth! He couldn't—

There was nothing behind him but the gaping empty container that had housed Jenova. Cloud didn't even have time to curse as a creature tackled him from behind. First Tsurugi slipped from his hand as Cloud's knee hit the ground, while a further blow from a misshapen arm sent the blade flying up into the air. The extra weight on his back caused Cloud to slip and pitch forward off the side of the pipe. He scrambled desperately for a handhold, anything to stay his descent. Two more monsters piled against him, and wrenched him further away from his only safety. He heard First Tsurugi hit with a crunching shriek of metal, but couldn’t see where it had landed. With a final cry he dropped, unable to prevent his tumble into the heart of the reactor.

The wind of his passage began whistling in Cloud's ear as he picked up speed. Teeth and claws tore at him from his attackers, their tenacious drive to kill apparent even as they fell to their deaths. He reached a hand over his shoulder to wrench one of the monsters off him, and tossed it savagely into the side of the pit. It hit with a wet sound of flesh striking metal, before dropping lifelessly away. The glowing Lifestream was approaching rapidly, even as Cloud shook off his other two attackers similarly.

There was no more time. Cloud hit with an almighty splash before he disappeared under the surface. The burning of the pure life ate into his flesh. He screamed, voice muffled by the liquid quality of the mako. His world filled with green as his consciousness faded, and Cloud hoped Aerith could forgive him for intruding on her afterlife again.

For a while he floated in the endless expanse of green. The pain had faded away, leaving Cloud feeling detached. It was a familiar feeling, both comforting and terrifying. Had he really died this time? He hadn't meant to. The irony of dying just when he'd begun to live again was not lost on him. Perhaps he had more of Zack in him than he thought.

"Hang on Cloud, just hang in there!"

A memory? Cloud's recollection of that time after escaping the Nibelheim labs was a broken stream of green-tinged fragments. Zack's warm voice had filled his world, mostly unintelligible in his delirium.  Sometimes the words came through. Zack's unceasing determination had saved Cloud.

"He's slipping…"

It felt like it; Cloud could feel movement, though all he could see was the endless green. Even his body was absent, increasing the detached sensation of the moment.

"Cloud, don't get lost again... okay?"

He stirred uneasily at the quiet plea. Zack had sounded worried and sad, something Cloud never wanted to hear again. In death, Zack had always sounded at peace.

"I won't." His voice came out nearly inaudible, hoarse and muffled.

"Don't worry, he's strong." It was Aerith's voice, growing fainter with every word. It confused Cloud more than anything. His mind churned as he desperately tried to separate memory and hallucination from reality.

"I can't help but worry with all the trouble he gets into..." came Zack's voice again, on the barest edge of perception.

Cloud sat up, abruptly finding himself with a body again. No air filled his lungs, nor did his heart beat.  He still felt unreal in the featureless landscape, but now he had a sense of self. He strained his senses, trying to catch his friends' voices again. He prayed that they were here to greet him, guide him, help him in any way.

A sound caught his attention, and he turned around, or felt like he turned around. With no landmarks, where even up and down looked fathomless and indistinguishable, the only way he knew he was moving was when a slumped figure came into his line of sight. Cloud moved his legs in an attempt to walk the short distance between them. He seemed to make no progress, and wondered absently if it was him that wasn't moving, or the other person who was sliding away at the same pace. In the next heartbeat he was standing over the figure, uncertain of exactly when the change had been made.

He took in the full horror of the slumped body. It was severely burned, covered in blackened skin where there was any skin at all. White bone showed up starkly against red tissue, while scraps of clothing still clung futilely to the ravaged flesh. Cloud realized the figure was trembling, and in this odd place he knew that it wasn't from pain. There seemed to be no pain here.

Silent sobs wracked the broken frame, and Cloud was overcome with a sense of guilt, grief, and regret that emanated from the form. He squatted down awkwardly, not having much practice but knowing he had to provide some comfort. As his arm went around the scarred shoulders, the person jerked violently and twisted their head up. They regarded Cloud with wide, familiar eyes. It was like looking into a distorted mirror. Cloud knew they were his eyes, that this wreck of a creature was somehow himself, but they lacked the mako glow that haunted his own blue eyes. It was like that time he'd been lost in his mind, and Tifa had to come rescue him from his own distorted perceptions.

He must be still broken, if the Lifestream provided him with this shattered vision of himself. Something in his head needed healing, and this time there was no Tifa to tell him who he was, no Zack to give him an identity to hide behind. There was only Cloud, and what he had become.

"It's okay," he murmured at the trembling body.

He noted absently that the words were flat, not even the barest echo to reverberate in the air. They did reach the other despite that. Their blackened skin took on a lighter hue, and the shaking limbs steadied gradually.

"Who…?" came a cracked voice, as flat in this place as his own.

"Who else could I be, but myself?" Cloud countered softly. He ran a hand over the other's head in a familiar, comforting gesture. The wild blond locks were absent, but even as his hand passed over the bared skin it took on a healthier look. Haunted blue eyes turned away from Cloud's, and the other curled in on himself again.

"I…I failed…I made a mis—" the hoarse voice choked off in a throaty wheeze. It was a familiar sentiment to Cloud, who'd had years and years of heavy guilt hanging off his shoulders like lead weights. He found it…odd, to see his own despair from the outside.

"A mistake doesn't make you a bad person," he offered quietly. A hard lesson to learn, Cloud knew. Under his glove, the burns were melting away, leaving pink, healthy skin behind. In response to his awkward reassurances, they were somehow healing this broken part of him that was still clinging to guilt.

"…I will never make my dream…" came the soft, plaintive whisper. It was full of disappointment, longing, and despair.

"I will make new dreams for us."

The other shuddered, uncurling from the tight ball they had tucked into. Blue met blue again, and Cloud had a moment of vertigo as he took in the healthy form of a much younger self. The Lifestream didn't necessarily show you as you were on the outside, instead showing a reflection of your soul. Was he still this young and innocent inside?

"Then…I think it will be okay," the other said, then reached a hand out and pressed it over Cloud's heart.  Cloud noticed the other's shape was blurring, taking on the green hue of their surroundings.

"…Yeah," he agreed quietly, as he watched his other self fade into the Lifestream.

He knelt there in the unchanging green, for an eternity and no time at all. Slowly he became aware of a feeling of placement; that there was suddenly an up above him, down below him, and space to all sides. He was no longer kneeling, but floating, and he could feel liquid rushing around him, tugging at his clothes and trying to pull him down even as he was buoyed up. Pain was creeping in on him again. It started out as a mild itching that was quickly increasing to the burning agony of when he'd first hit the mako. His clothing shifted against him oddly, and something was suddenly obscuring his vision. He flailed a hand wildly to try to dislodge it, the disorientation making him clumsy.

This was no longer the peaceful green sea that was Aerith's domain; this was the real burning sensation of mako. If he wanted to survive, he'd have to start working his aching limbs into some semblance of service. The poison was setting in, and Cloud was finding it hard to think, let alone move through the dizziness and pain.

Above him, he could see light shining through the surface of the Lifestream. In his mind's eye, a familiar hand stretched toward him, and with a last desperate lunge he reached out.


Tifa shivered as the wind gusted by, cutting through her jacket with depressing ease. It had been so long since she'd lived in the harsh climate of Nibelheim, and to her disgust she found she no longer could brave the mountains in her preferred short sleeves. Still, the weather wasn't what was filling her with a cold dread.

Cloud seemed to be missing. Considering his normal habits, this shouldn't have been so worrying, but he had promised Tifa that he would call her as soon as he got back down from the mountains. Days had gone by without a word, and she had decided to take matters into her own hands.

With a mixture of anger, determination, and dread, she'd 'recruited' a guardian for the orphans—Denzel had been happy enough to spend time with Johnny—then 'requested' a lift from Cid's airship. The fact that she wouldn't have taken no for an answer was somewhat moot, since Johnny had been overjoyed at being able to do her a favor, and Cid—once he'd heard that Cloud was MIA again—had only spent a few minutes swearing before giving in.

Leaving Denzel and Marlene with promises that she'd drag Cloud back one way or another, she and Cid had taken the Shera straight across to Nibelheim. Cid's crew was exemplary as always, and they arrived hours sooner than expected. Tifa had left the captain to his landing procedures—most of which consisted of swearing at each and every member of the crew for minutes at a time—and headed straight into town.

The people had been nice enough, at least by the standards of Nibelheim people. Tifa had still felt the dark horror at every encounter, every building visited, even just by being in the town itself. It was worse than a ghost town for her; it was as if her past had never existed in the first place. How much worse it must be for Cloud, who can't remember half of his past at all?

Everyone she spoke to had told her the same thing; Cloud had arrived, delivered the package to the store, and then immediately headed up the mountain four days ago. There had been no further contact, no further sign of him, and the villagers were too frightened of the monsters to venture very far up the mountain. The knot of worry had tightened in Tifa's stomach. Surely there was no monster that Cloud couldn't handle, but what if he was too hurt to move?

She'd been halfway up the mountain, following the old, familiar trail, before her phone had gone off. The reception had been terrible, but she heard enough to realize that Cid was not happy with her impulsive decision. It hadn't stopped her from continuing on. The further up she hiked, the more disturbed she became. There were signs of dragons, which should not have been present in this part of the mountain. For a while Tifa had been unsure that Cloud had actually come up here at all. Then she began to see signs of a fight, and knew that he must have run into more trouble than anyone had expected.

Now she was here at the reactor, wind chilling her face and unease making her queasy. It was obvious this was where the fight had ended. The giant corpse of a dragon lay half-eaten and exposed, blocking the doorway into the reactor. Around it, three smaller dragons lay dead. They'd been killed by gunshot, she noticed, so it was obvious that they'd still been alive when Cloud had…stopped fighting. She refused to think he could be dead. Not after everything he'd gone through. The Planet wouldn't be that cruel.

Next to the dead dragon's neck, which had filled up the entryway, something had wrenched a hole into the side of the reactor. Tifa gingerly stepped through the opening, careful of the jagged edges of metal that stuck out haphazardly. What had broken in had not been worried about neatness.

Inside was as she remembered, if darker. The utilitarian metal walkway rang ominously under her feet as she made her way deeper into the gloom. When it became too hard to even walk in the darkness, she sent a lick of power into the materia in her armband to light a small fire that danced in her palm.  Around her, mutilated…bodies lay strewn about, the cause of their demise obvious in the deep cuts.  Cloud had been here.

Tifa swallowed hard. She didn't want to move on, fearing what she would find at the end of the path. This was too much like that day from long ago, where she'd lost everything important to her. Fate wouldn't be so unkind to do it to her again, not here.

She stepped through the doorway that lead to Jenova's old resting spot, the door held open by another corpse. That one had been killed by gunshot wound, and she could see the other bodies strewn around had been dispatched similarly. She didn't look at the figure standing silently to one side, unable to take her gaze off the sword that was stuck into the floor like a grave marker.

"…He's gone away again, hasn't he?" she whispered quietly, tears coming to her eyes. She knew, despite being able to see what had obviously happened, that Cloud was not dead. Aerith wouldn't have let him die in this place, Tifa was sure.

Beside her, Vincent said nothing, merely moved forward in his long, fluid stride. He stopped next to the sword, then reached out and pulled it free of the metal with an earsplitting shriek. Tifa hugged herself, not feeling brave enough to tempt fate and approach over the narrow metal pipe with how shaky her legs were.

Vincent returned to her side, proffering the sword without a sound. Even his footsteps had made no sound, she noted enviously. The sentiment was quashed as she remembered just what he'd had to lose to gain such inhuman stealth. She reached out and took the cool metal, arm tensing against the full weight of the weapon.

"I should return this to his bike," she said lightly. She pasted a tremulous smile onto her face. "He'll be wanting it when he returns."

"If he doesn't?" Vincent's soft, deep voice insinuated itself through the air as smoothly as he moved. Tifa closed her eyes, and imagined she could hear another voice, lighter, sweeter, calling out to her.

"Then," she said, turning around and heading for the doorway, "We'll just have to follow him and bring him back."

Tifa had braved death more times than she cared to remember, all for those gentle blue eyes and rare smile. Behind her, she heard the faintest swish of a cloak moving, and she felt a swelling of renewed determination. Cloud would never have to face his problems alone.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 10 th)


The heavy thump of helicopter rotors cut through the high blue of the sky, as far below the ocean skimmed by.  The surface glittered like threads of silver, while to the south and east dark lines of land smudged the horizon, and in the distant west flickers of an oceanic squall could be seen. The complement of helicopters was flying in a vague v-shaped formation as they skimmed the coastline, headed east-southeast from Junon where they'd stopped briefly for refueling. Each heavy bellied personnel transporter was full with either rookie SOLDIER 3rds or infantryman. Among those in the lead helicopter was a single SOLDIER 1st class: Zack Fair. He would have been enjoying the ride more if he hadn't been vaguely worried he'd endure his second crash landing in far too soon. Modeoheim was still stark in his mind.

Absently, he tried to pass his hand through his fringe, only to touch bare forehead. He covered his own mishap by smoothing his gloved hand back over the top of his head and ruffled the wild mess of his hair, an easy grin on his face. The SOLDIER 3rd next to him was shaking in his brand new SOLDIER issue boots. Zack reached over and slapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, don't worry. We'll be fine so long as our pilot is better than Tseng.” The Third gave a strangled laugh as if he wasn't sure whether he was allowed to find amusement in that or not. Zack got that a lot lately.

“I heard that,” a low voice announced through the crackling of Zack's earpiece, and going by the fact that the visible lower half of the Third's face had paled, so had everyone else.

“Smooth as ever, Zack,” a lighter, feminine voice commented.

Zack gave a quick grin, and cheerfully crowed, “Tseng! Cissnei! I had no idea you were joining us on this little operation. What brings you Turks to the SOLDIER's neck of the woods?”

“The President wants a preliminary report as soon as possible. It will be my job to survey the area and take it back to him,” Tseng replied calmly.

“He's really that eager, huh?” Zack mused, aloud. Inwardly, however, he couldn't help but dryly think that someone just wanted to keep an eye on him. There was no way the Turks would sink to the level of messenger boy without a good reason, no matter who was giving the orders.  No answer was forthcoming, and he hadn't been expecting one. It still felt like an acknowledgment, that maybe they knew he knew. It was possible he was just over thinking things again. Everything that had happened with Genesis and Angeal was making him paranoid, making him see conspiracies everywhere.

Zack's eyes drifted to the side and looked past the SOLDIER 3rd to the small window and the horizon beyond. He could make out the vague shape of mountains rising above the rest of their surrounding landscape in the distance. Zack passed his hand over his hair again before his hands found the hilt of his—Angeal’s—Buster Sword and tightened around it with the faint creak of supple leather. He wasn't altogether sure what had driven the change in hair style. Maybe he felt it was finally time to grow up, or maybe he just wanted a reminder, or maybe he just wanted to show off the really cool scar he'd gotten. He had heard all kinds of rumors about the sudden change that had followed his acquisition of the Buster Sword. Zack couldn't say what was true himself; he was too conflicted on too many things.

He fought down the urge to fidget as restless energy sizzled through him. Waiting had never been Zack's strong point, and even being en route was no guarantee of getting him to behave. It was only tough lessons that had brought about some hard-earned control on his part, and even then he was still the same old Zack.

Outside the window, the scenery gave way to a final spit of land before it was nothing but glittery, deep blue ocean for miles in either direction. Zack listened to the static swathed comments shot over the airwaves as the pilots coordinated themselves, and the occasional spate of conversation that would break out among the rookies with him as they tried to soothe their nerves. He offered nothing, merely grinned at the familiar sentiments that echoed some of his own from years gone by.

It was as the sun was making the final leg of its ascent toward the middle of the sky that Tseng spoke up again. “We have fifteen minutes before we reach the Mideel Area. All units prepare for landing and disembarking.”

Zack, unable to contain himself, pumped a fist, though he missed the nearby Third's flinch as he nearly caught the rookie in the ribs. His earpiece gave a faint crack at his joyous whoop, and judging by the  winces around him, it had done the same to theirs. Next to him, the Third attempted to edge away as far as the cramped confines would allow without looking like that was what he was doing.

“Finally! I thought we'd never get there. You sure you can set this tin can down alright, Tseng?”

Tseng didn't dignify that with a response. Zack took to watching the approaching shoreline as best he could. He jiggled his leg restlessly, and tightened his fingers on the red wrapped hilt of the Buster Sword again. He listened to the radio chatter more intently, carefully following the thread of conversation as they coordinated the landing. To all sides a mixture of grass and dirt spread out in a relatively flat plain while a thick tangle of forests and cliffs darkened the horizon lines in almost every direction.

In a second, Zack had his harness unstrapped and had shimmied closer to the door as the helicopter came in low and evened out in preparation to land. With a fluid movement, he settled his Buster Sword on his back, then keyed the door open before anyone could protest. He turned his head enough to grin over his shoulder as wind and sound howled into the cabin and whipped his shaggy black hair into a frenzy. Zack lifted his free hand to his forehead in a jaunty salute. Over the noise, he yelled, “I'll go secure the perimeter. Try not to kill my troops!” With a final wink, he jumped.

As air rushed up to meet him, Zack spread his arms as if to welcome it and the spike of adrenaline it drilled through his system. The black fabric of his fatigues was plastered to the front of his body, the wind tearing over his bare arms, and it probably should have hurt but he couldn't feel a thing besides the thrill. It was a matter of timing, knowing what his body could handle, and how he could handle it.

At the right moment he twisted, swung his legs forward and hit the ground at a speed that would probably have shattered the legs on a normal human being. He used his momentum to keep moving forward, tucked, rolled, and came back to his feet with one gloved hand braced on the dirt and the other gripping the hilt of the Buster Sword. Dirt swirled around him, kicked up from his landing and the rotors of the choppers as they came in lower. Zack propelled himself forward in a crouched sprint to get clear of the landing zone before he turned around, danced back a few more steps, then lifted a hand to shield his eyes.

He made a show of looking around the area. As expected, there wasn't a monster or insurgent out to attack them for miles. Lifting both arms, Zack waved to the helicopters and jogged backwards even further to watch them set down. Dust and bits of plant matter swirled through the air in a choking cloud, though not enough to obscure the gleaming metal of the machines.

With low, mechanic churning sounds the doors on the choppers were thrust open and his troops began to disembark. Infantrymen with rifles slung over their shoulders scuttled out from under the still spinning rotors with light cases, and rookie SOLDIER 3rds followed with larger supply crates. They hadn't brought much with them, but it was enough to be self sufficient during the time designated for the mission.

Over the heavy tread of standard issue boots, the rotors of the helicopters began to whine as they picked up speed again and all but one took to the air. They'd be back in around a week to pick them up again if things went well. The mission wasn't one that they were expecting to give them trouble, a fact that made Zack think he ought to be worried. He shrugged it off as a burgeoning sense of paranoia, and turned to grin as Tseng and Cissnei approached from the lone helicopter that had remained on the ground and was now shut down and quiet.

Tseng regarded him with cool dark eyes before he simply said, “Is the perimeter secure?”

Zack never knew whether or not Tseng was joking when he said stuff like that with such a straight face, but his inherent optimism preferred to believe that, yes, Tseng had a sense of humor. Zack cracked a grin in response, arms swinging loosely at his side. “All safe and secure as far as I can see.” He switched his bright gaze to Cissnei and cheerfully asked, “So what do you think?”

Cissnei gave that little thoughtful hum of hers, then looked at Tseng. “Next time, we should let Rude and Reno deal with him.”

Tseng gave a low, quiet chuckle and began to walk away with a gesture for Cissnei to follow. Zack, left slightly speechless, found his tongue in time to call ineffectively after them, “Wha—? Hey!” Zack subsided back onto his heels with a slight laugh, and rubbed the back of his neck. “There's no dealing with Turks....” he muttered to himself.

“Don't you have something you need to do? I'll join you after I have a word with Cissnei,” Tseng called over his shoulder, and it was only then that Zack realized he'd been heard. He manfully resisted making a face at Tseng's back while he watched the two Turks carefully place themselves out of hearing range, then turned on his heel to observe the loitering troops.

As if they were personally attuned to the gaze of a commanding officer—maybe they were—the red scarf wearing officers immediately gave a bark of command that sent the troopers scuttling to line up and come to attention. Just the way ShinRa liked it, he supposed. The rookie SOLDIERS were a little slower on the get go, probably still high off their new ranks, but they too fell in line. It was still a little odd to be deferred to like this, but he was getting used to it. Zack clapped his hands and gave a sharp nod, more to himself than anything.

“I've already briefed you on why we're here. This isn't supposed to be a tough mission, but don't get careless. One mistake could end up in you or one of your comrades hurt or killed. Watch your backs out there, and watch the backs of your comrades.”

A chorus of 'Sir's' was the only response Zack got as he looked over them, faintly troubled by the fact that he was in charge of this many lives for the first time in his career. It had always been Angeal looking after him, but now that was no longer possible. It was his turn to step up, but was he ready for it? He'd never been one to doubt himself in the past but now he was starting to wonder.... He hadn't been able to save Angeal.

“Alright, let's get moving. Scout teams two and four, I want you to head south west. Scout teams one and three head south east. The rest of you spread out and proceed due south in parties. If you find any monsters take them out. We don't want anything nasty at our backs!”

The reaction was immediate, and the thud of military boots on the dirt soon filled the air alongside shouts of command as they got ordered and began to mobilize. Zack stood still among it all, watching and wondering. He was about to follow after the main detachment of troops when his phone beeped to signal a new mail. He paused, one foot extended mid step, then relaxed back into a stationary position. He fumbled his phone out and flipped it open with hardly a glance at the sleek if not slightly scuffed black casing, then thumbed open his mail folder's Inbox. Zack wasn't terribly surprised to see it was from Kunsel.

I heard you're on your first mission as a big time CO?
At least it's just checking out some reports of a new mako spring and some monster elimination, right?
Don't worry, we all know you'll do fine, Zack.
Just remember to use your brain instead of your sword for the thinking.


The last line surprised a laugh out of Zack even as he glanced over another mail that had arrived. This one proved to be from Luxiere, praising him for his speech to the rookies. He snorted faintly; all he'd done was parrot the words Angeal had drilled into him. Pride, dreams, and honor... Right.  Zack closed his phone with a snap and tucked it away. He couldn't help but wonder what those things meant to him now, in a world where your comrades could be fighting at your side one moment, and then you'd be forced to kill them the next. As always, he shoved the lingering doubts away and lifted his head to gaze after his troops. If nothing else he had a duty to make sure they all got back safe and sound, so he'd focus on that goal for now.

“Zack,” Tseng's solemn voice spoke up from over his shoulder. Zack glanced back at him, neither surprised or bothered by the Turk's quiet arrival. Tseng might be a Turk, but he was also a friend.

“Yeah, Tseng?” he asked curiously. The Turk's passive expression gave nothing away.

“There seems to be a problem.”

“Huh?” Zack turned just in time to see Tseng flick the smallest of glances back toward the helicopter. When he looked, Zack discovered a few infantrymen and a couple of SOLDIER 3rds clustered around a fourth trooper who was sitting in the dirt, his helmeted head in his hands. “I'll take care of it, hold on.”  Tseng gave a sparse nod, and Zack strode toward the little group. He waved at Cissnei as he passed her, though she gave no indication of noticing, then came to a halt beside one of the SOLDIER 3rds. “Is something wrong with him?”

“Apparently he's airsick, sir.”

One of the troopers stood up from where he'd been talking to his buddy and turned to face Zack. “It's nothing unusual. It seems he gets motion sick, but he'll be fine in awhile, sir. Always is.”

Zack stepped around the trooper and crouched down beside the sick man, clapped a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Hey, take all the time you need.” All he got in response was a half hearted groan, that he couldn't help but think sounded familiar. Giving a faint laugh, Zack gave the trooper's shoulder a squeeze before he stood. “You lot stay here with him, and catch up once he's feeling better. I don't want you to push him or yourselves; it could end in disaster, so take your time. The trail should be easy enough to follow.”

“Sir!”

Another groan, one that sounded faintly like agreement came from the miserable trooper. That was good enough for Zack. “Get his helmet off him so he can breathe,” he said breezily as he returned to Tseng's side. “Ready to go then?” To Zack's disappointment, if Tseng was bothered by the fact that he was being forced to trek through the countryside again he didn't show it. Tseng gestured for him to proceed him, and Zack strode off after the retreating backs of his troops.

An uneasy feeling nagged at him, as if something very wrong was going to happen. As Zack crested a low hillock, he paused to look in the direction he recalled Banora being. Zack tried to push the unease aside as a result of bad memories, but he'd never been one to ignore his gut instinct and didn't really want to start now.

“Is something the matter?” Tseng asked as he came up alongside him. Zack had no idea if he actually cared, or was just asking because it was expected. Turks were hard to read when they were relaxed, let alone while on the job. For a moment, Zack considered telling Tseng that he had a bad feeling, but the moment passed as quickly as it came.

“Nah, just admiring the scenery.”

Tseng gave a noncommittal hum, then remarked, “You should admire it a little more closely then.”

“What?”

Tseng didn't need to answer, because Zack found out swiftly enough when he had to skip back to keep an green colored, sickle shaped claw from taking out his kneecap. The insect like monster skittered after him, and propelled itself into the air to take another swipe. Zack yanked the Buster Sword off his back and smacked it aside with the flat of the huge blade. Beside him, Tseng pulled his pistol and, as calmly as if he were skeet shooting rather than gunning a monster out of the air, the Turk fired off a single shot. The Head Hunter hit the ground, already dead, and curled into itself with a crackle of its exoskeleton. Zack flicked it casually out of the way with Buster Sword's tip then set off again.

Zack's heavier footfalls nearly covered Tseng's quiet tread as they continued onward, picking their way between gathering scrub and rock. The sounds of occasional gunfire and shouts floated to them.  Monster encounters were few and far between for the pair, whether because the rookies were enjoying their freedom a little too much, or because they'd fled the area from all the racket was hard to tell.

The terrain faded into patchy areas of grass as they followed a slight incline alongside a shadowed cliff. It was mid-afternoon when Zack stopped to use the edge of a rock to scrape bug guts off his boot while he waited for Tseng to catch up. A trooper came running toward him, pulled up, and saluted. Zack waved at him to hold on without even bothering to look up. In fact he went so far as to reach down, grasp his ankle, and haul his foot up. He leaned forward, balancing, and tried to peer at the bottom of his boot. Zack wrinkled his nose at the bits of slime and gunk still caught in the grooves and let go. Once he straightened, he turned toward the trooper. Something about the man's posture seemed to radiate incredulity, but Zack just gave him a grin. “Was there something you needed?”

“Uh, Sir!” he snapped, coming to attention again. “We've found the spring.”

Zack perked up. “Good job. Where is it?”

The trooper pointed, and Zack gazed off in that direction as if he could see it. “It's about two miles southwest along the cliff. There's a little wood down that way, and it's in there, nestled right up against the cliff face, sir. You can't miss it.”

“Hear that, Tseng?” Zack called as he noticed the Turk finally catching up. “We're almost there!”

Although Tseng wasn't visibly ruffled in any way, Zack liked to think he could detect some discomfort in him as he said, “So I heard.”

“You need a break first?” Zack wheedled.

“It would be best,” Tseng opined as he continued on, walking past Zack and the trooper, “if we arrive as quickly as possible so I can report back to the President.”

Zack followed after him, rocks crunching under his boots as he picked his way among them with ease. “You just want to get back to Midgar, and out of the boonies. I always thought you Turks were tougher.” Behind him, the infantryman followed in uncomfortable silence. Zack wondered if he was worried the infamous Turk would decide to take him out for his cheek. Blithely, Zack carried on, eyes locked on the back of Tseng's head in the hopes of some sort of reaction, “You need to get out more, Tseng. Take a hike, go camping, something...”

“Camping. In the monster infested wilderness,” Tseng responded dryly, his pace never wavering. Zack braced a gloved hand on a rock, and scrambled up the pile to walk along the jagged ridge they provided.

“Sure,” Zack said. He spread his arms slightly to keep his balance as he put one foot before the other like he was walking a balance beam. “Builds character.”

“And this is something they subscribed to in your hometown?” Tseng asked, finally deigning to give Zack his attention when the SOLDIER jumped from the rocks to land a few feet in front of him, Buster Sword in hand. Zack neatly bludgeoned another green bug into a spatter against the cliff face, and shook the resulting muck off.

“Absolutely,” Zack replied cheerfully, even as he twirled Buster Sword over his head in a brief victory pose and put it back in place on his back. He turned to face Tseng, and propped his fists on his narrow hips. “Look how I turned out!”

Tseng stared at him for several long seconds, then murmured, “... I believe that's more of a warning against the practice than a compliment to it.” Beyond the Turk, the lone trooper that had been gamely trooping after them seemed to be at a loss even through the helmet he wore.

Zack took pity on the poor guy, and, deciding Tseng didn't require a response, dragged him into the conversation. “What do you think?”

The trooper startled, helmet glancing to either side briefly. “Uh, about what, sir?”

“Camping! Nature!” Zack enthused, arms lifting in a quick gesture of emphasis that took in their surroundings.

The trooper straightened up as if suddenly losing his bafflement. Zack kind of felt bad as he realized he might be putting the guy on the spot, but it was kind of amusing watching him sweat it out like his attempt to involve him in the conversation was a life or death, career deciding test. “It's part of army life, sir! I mean, uh,” he stuttered, then more calmly, as if afraid he'd be reprimanded for asking, added, “Did they really do that in your hometown? Send you out to the monsters, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah,” Zack said, face carefully modulated into a serious expression. “When I was being particularly bad my parents would toss me out with nothing more than a rock and a crust of bread.”

Zack had to turn and continue on to keep from laughing when the trooper gaped at him in surprise. “No wonder you got into SOLDIER, sir. If you were able to survive out there with just a rock for a weapon, I mean!”

“Nah, I ate the rock and used the bread for a weapon!”

“That, uh, doesn't sound healthy, sir,” the trooper opined carefully.

He couldn't keep a straight face any longer, it just wasn't possible. Tseng walked past him with a little sigh, after Zack stalled out on the path from his laughter. Zack turned and grinned at the infantryman. “You're alright.”

“Uh, thank you, sir,” the trooper said. It sounded as if he wasn't sure if he ought to be thankful or not.

Onward the three walked in silence, Tseng in the lead. Apparently the Turk had caught a second wind. Zack's pace was far more leisurely than either of them. He soon grew bored of moving so slow, overtook Tseng, and continued on ahead. After skirting an eighty degree grade of scree, Zack found himself confronted by a small tuft of tough little wildflowers with tiny purple petals. They were situated in such a way that they got the most sun in the day that they could.

Zack couldn't help but crouch down for a closer look, and his mind superimposed the image of Aerith happily cradling the blossoms of her small church garden momentarily over the scenery. He didn't reach out and touch. Aerith had scolded him often enough about his inability to properly handle the delicate little things that he was a bit wary of it. Zack couldn't help but think that Aerith would like these hardy blossoms. They were a lot like the ones she babied in Midgar which seemed to embody the people of the slums; tough, but hiding something that was worth paying attention to.

The faint scuff of a boot sole on rock alerted him to his company catching up again, and Zack pushed himself upright. “Just there,” the trooper was saying. He pointed down the hill before them which consisted mostly of rock falls, scree, and shale. Near the base, a tattered row of trees eventually thickened into a small forest, longer than it was wide. Zack could see a splotch of blue loitering on the edge of the trees. “Sparo's waiting for us, see.” He lifted his hand and waved. The trooper by the trees returned the gesture.

Zack sent a look toward Tseng, who was standing as nonchalantly as possible with one hand braced against the sheer cliff face beside him. “And just think, once you have a look around you can hike back and get out of here, Tseng!” He thought he got a glare for that one, but it was there and gone so quick it might have just been a trick of the light. Their trooper 'guide' started down the decline, sliding and slipping on the loose rock as he went. He was obviously trying to keep his gun from being jostled and keep his balance at the same time; it was an interesting process to watch.

Tseng started down next, and Zack was even more amused to watch the Turk pick his way among the rock in his nicely polished shoes. With a final glance back at the flowers, Zack made a silent promise. If he had time before they went back to Midgar, he'd stop here again and dig one of the plants up to take back to Aerith. Then he too started down the slope.

His boots slipped over loose gravel until his ears were filled with the scrape, slither, and clatter of moving rock. Zack leaned back in an attempt to keep his center of gravity from going completely AWOL until he was about five feet from the bottom. With what he considered to a philosophical shrug, he slid the rest of the way down, nearly toppled from the weight of Buster Sword and his own momentum, and stumbled onto even ground again amongst a veritable miniature landslide.

They covered the rest of the distance in a matter of minutes, and were greeted by a vivid white smile against dark skin, and a cheerful, “Welcome back, Jac! I see you managed to find the CO without getting too lost.”

“I didn't get lost,” their guide, apparently named Jac, muttered sulkily. “Just because you have an uncanny sense of direction and can navigate your way anywhere without so much as a map doesn't mean we're all freaks of nature, Sparo.”

“You found the spring?” Zack broke in, and was immediately graced with a salute from Sparo, as if the trooper was just noticing the SOLDIER 1st was there.

“Yessir! It's back that way in the forest, and if I do say so myself it doesn't look good, sir.”

Zack was instantly on alert, and if the quiet, listening sort of vacuum that seemed to gape open at his side where Tseng stood was anything to go by, so was the Turk. “What do you mean?” Tseng asked, voice low.

“Well....” Sparo said, rocking on his heels. He turned to look back into the forest, then seemed to come to a conclusion. “I think you ought to come and see for yourself, sir. It's fairly obvious.”

Sparo turned and lead the way into the woods with the other three following. As they walked, Zack could feel the hair on the back of his neck and along his arms prickling. The woods were dead silent. Not a single bird sung out, not a single animal rustled through the undergrowth or the tree branches, and he had the creeping feeling that he was being watched. It made his skin crawl uncomfortably, and Zack found himself reflexively gripping the hilt of his Buster Sword as they crept through the undergrowth.

Tseng was a silent shadow a few paces behind him. The two troopers seemed to have lost any of the buoyant attitude they had displayed before. He slowed his breathing until it was the merest of whispers through his nose, and strained to hear anything in the silence. Zack knew from growing up in Gongaga that a quiet forest usually meant the presence of a threat that had scared everything into hiding. It was possible that they were just hiding from the troops, but there was also the very real possibility of something else in the area causing them to flee. Zack had just opened his mouth to ask Jac and Sparo if they'd swept the area for monsters, when, with a sound like a gunshot in the quiet, a twig cracked somewhere ahead of them. The troopers immediately brought their rifles up.

Zack held his hand up to hold them off and edged forward. The last thing they needed was a friendly fire incident because they'd all gotten too hyped up from the atmosphere. He shoved aside a tangle of vegetation and continued forward. Each step he took was carefully placed with all the silent premeditated ease of a stalking wolf. Then, through the brush came another sound. Zack held his hand up to signal his companions to freeze, and listened.

“What if there are mako crazed monsters out here?” a voice floated to them, accompanied by the slightest jangle and the scuff of a boot. Another twig snapped. Zack felt all the tension drain out of his shoulders and began to shove his way through the brush with less stealth.

“Don't be an idiot. If there were mako crazed monsters they'd have sent a First or some Seconds. Not a bunch of troopers and rookies like us,” another voice replied to the first.

“But they did send a First. I was sitting next to him on the way.”

“...Really? What was he like?”

Ahead of him Zack could see the blue uniforms of two rookie SOLDIER 3rds loitering in a relatively open area. Behind them the sheer rock wall of the cliff loomed. Zack whistled slightly as he meandered out into the clearing himself. The cliff was split jaggedly by a vertical fissure, from which glowing green mako flowed like some sort of fountain. It looked like the ground itself had been scored with a gaping wound. At the base of the cliff it had formed a pool from which a luminescent aurora wavered upward and colored the air with an eerie sheen. He barely noticed the two Thirds jumping to startled attention at his presence.

“Hmm.”

Zack tore his gaze away from the natural beauty of the spring, in favor of looking toward Tseng who was kneeling in the grass to the left of the main pool. The Turk was keeping a careful distance. “That didn't sound like a good hmm,” he noted.

“It's not,” Tseng murmured as he stood. He brushed grass from his knee with a few economical swipes of his hand, then turned to spear Zack with a dark eyed, serious look. “This wasn't a natural mako pool.”

Behind him, Zack heard someone mutter that it sure looked natural to them. Zack thought it looked pretty natural too, but he walked over to join Tseng and see what he'd seen. What Zack found made his nerves stand on end again. “Oh yeah, that's not good,” he muttered, low enough not to be heard.

The troopers and Thirds shifted nervously in the ensuing quiet. Zack squatted down and peered down at the clear mountain stream that was meandering off further southwest, creating a series of little pools and waterfalls as it went. Even as he watched some of the thick mako slid over the surface of the water and was carried downstream. It was obvious that the pool had once been the headwaters for this stream, still was to a degree, but now it was tainted with mako. If he had to guess, Zack would bet that there had been an earthquake in the area that had cracked the cliff open like an egg. From there...he looked back to the oozing waterfall of mako. The walls of the crack through which it flowed already had some small crystal formations beginning, as did the edges of the pool. He couldn't help but wonder how long this had been here.

That uneasy feeling was back again.

Zack settled back on his heels. “Hey, you two,” he called, gesturing to the rookie SOLDIERs.

“Gibbs Richards, sir,” one of them said. “And he's Edge Mueller.”

Zack nodded absently. “Where's the rest of your team?”

“They went off to scout the area further, sir,” Edge said carefully. “Should we go look for them?”

“No,” Zack said. “It would be best if you stayed here.”

“Sir?” There was a wariness to Gibbs’ tone. Zack stood at last and turned to them with an easy grin.

“I'm going to start calling the rest of the company here so we can do a proper sweep of the area, so there's no need.” Except for the fact that they might already be dead if there really were mako mad monsters in the area. He hoped that the water had diluted the run off mako enough to keep them from ingesting an amount that would have an effect, but he wasn't willing to stake anymore lives on it. After he'd sent out the call for the troops to gather, he'd go look for them himself.


The sky had darkened with the onset of twilight until it was a faded mass of pinks, purples, and bruised blacks and blues. Zack couldn't help but feel jittery. His check of the area hadn't turned up either of the two missing troopers, nor had any of the incoming teams seen them. Tseng had left shortly after he'd seen Zack had things well in hand, and Zack could only hope that his report would bring some sort of resolution to the steadily growing mess.

With the green glow of the mako around him, the clearing was well lit even with the fading daylight. Those troops that he hadn't sent back out in reinforced groups to watch the edges of the forest or to scout, lingered around the clearing, clearly at a loss. Zack, for his part, had set aside Buster Sword and decided to burn off energy by partaking in his favorite exercise routine and left most of the menial running of things to the lower ranked officers. His mind was more focused on the probability that this mission had gone from simple and easy, to possibly life threatening.

“Sir!”

Zack did a few more squats, then stood and stretched his arms out. The trooper that had approached him was carrying another helmet in his hands, and Zack felt a trill of unease skate down his spine. “What did you find?”

The trooper pressed his lips together, looking pale. “It was found up a tree, sir. We found a rifle stuck in another.”

If Zack had been prone to it, he would have started swearing. “Alright, where did you—” He was interrupted by a shout off to the side, and looked up to see another group joining the clearing. One of the troopers was lagging behind his buddies. Zack couldn't help but think that, with his hunched shoulders and bowed head, he looked rather miserable. It took only a second to make the connection with the group that had been left behind at the landing zone. He dismissed them from his mind for the moment, but as he was turning back to the trooper he'd been speaking to, movement and a flash of color caught his attention.

Zack jerked back around just in time to see the small group skirting the mako pool, and a hippogriff, eyes wide and mako bright in its vividly feathered face, come tearing out of the shadowy forest with a shriek.

“Whoa—Watch out!” Zack yelled, already taking a half step toward the little group. The rest threw themselves out of the way, but the sick trooper, still obviously not feeling well, reacted too slow. Zack could only watch as the hippogriff collided with him and sent him careening to the edge of the pool. The trooper brought his rifle up as the monster grasped for him with its talons, and squeezed the trigger. The beast screamed in pain and backed off with harsh flaps of its dark wings that overbalanced the trooper.

By the time Zack crossed the clearing, the trooper had already disappeared under the surface of the glowing mako.


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

 

Counter Crisis Logo 

Chapter Text

 


Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama



Chapter 02 – Crisis of Confusion

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 10th)


 

Zack didn't stop to think about the consequences of his actions, or what it would mean to himself. If he were perfectly honest, he'd say he didn't think at all. One moment he was all the way across the clearing watching the infantryman fall back into the pool of mako, and the next he was right beside it scouring it for any sign of the guy. The spring must have been deeper than it looked to have swallowed him up the way it had, or maybe it had done just that: Swallowed him up. Then Zack swore he saw the eerie surface of the pool shift, just a little. It was enough for him, and he stepped out into the shallows of the pool. It sizzled against the thick soles of his boots, and then lapped around his ankles. He'd never been more glad for the thick sturdiness of the military issue footwear before. One mako bath in his life time was more than enough for him.

“Come on,” he muttered to himself. Then, just there, he saw it. A sliver of shadow and color. Zack leaned forward and reached out until his gloved hand slid beneath the thick surface of the mako. Almost immediately he felt a responding hand grasp his. He barely noticed the searing burn of mako on his forearm as he yanked the unresisting body toward him and hauled the trooper out of the pool as quickly as he could. A film of green slime sluiced after them, and droplets of mako rained from the trooper's clothing as he scrambled woozily. Zack released his hand to grab him under the arms and drag him the rest of the way free of the pool. He didn't care that he was getting mako all over his bare arms, or his shirt, or even the bit burning oddly cold yet hot against his cheek. He was a SOLDIER; he could deal with a little mako.

Zack fumbled slightly as he yanked off the troopers helmet to reveal a head of wild blond hair and a pair of hazy blue eyes. Even as his mind noted the blond's pupils looked unfocused—something that probably wasn't good—Zack recognized the kid. “Wha—? Cloud! …I didn't even know you were with us.” The last part was muttered half to himself. He couldn't help but think the trooper was giving him an odd look, though that was probably just from his recent mako dousing. In an attempt to keep him from panicking, as well as keep his attention, Zack said, “Is it my hair? I know it's a little weird. My girlfriend laughed at me, you know. How are you feeling?”

If he could get some sort of response... It would probably be a good idea to get him out of those mako soaked clothes and... Cloud's only response was a, “Ngh...” Zack thought it was better than nothing, and gave his shoulder an encouraging squeeze.

“That's the spirit, just—” Zack was interrupted by a sudden terrified scream that cut off abruptly in a death gurgle, followed by a round of gunfire. Something feral shrieked, then was echoed by another. It sounded like there was more than one hippogriff in these woods. He glanced toward where he'd left Buster Sword, and gripped Cloud's upper arm. “You hang on for me, okay? This is going to get rough...”

Zack was once more interrupted as Cloud suddenly jerked in his hold. Cloud's hands scrabbled frantically against his chest and arms, his body twisting as he fought to get himself to his feet. Zack surged up with him, afraid that Cloud would injure himself, and slid his hand under Cloud's arm to steady him. “Whoa! Take it easy.” His head was spinning, and he knew he had to get things under control as quickly as possible. For a moment he was back in Wutai having nearly been flattened by one of their ogres. Angeal had just saved his neck and was standing over him. He'd used the Buster Sword and...

You're a little more important than my sword. ...Just a little…

It was like a physical ache to dismiss his sword in favor of hauling one of Cloud's arms over his shoulders to steady the trooper. “Fall back!” Zack roared. “You lot form up and cover our retreat with gun fire. I want you rookie SOLDIERs up front to cut us a safe passage. Move it!” More quietly, he angled his head down to speak to Cloud, “Just hang on. We'll get you out of those clothes as soon as we're somewhere safe.” He hoped if they retreated they'd find some defensible place.

Around him the scramble and shuffle of personnel following the orders filled the air. They were probably just glad that someone was in control of the situation, or even the illusion of it. Zack just concentrated on directing Cloud to walk northeast along the cliff. In Zack's mind all he could think was that they needed to make their way back toward the rendezvous point and get out a mayday call.

The ratchet of rifle fire exploded into a thunderous roar behind them, and Zack looked over his shoulder in time to see the infantrymen shuffling back. A few of the hippogriffs made an enraged dive for them, but were forced to back off as another hail of bullets tore through their feathers. All of them had the mad glow of mako in their eyes. Zack could see numerous glowing eyes in the shadowy trees, and even peering down from the cliffs. This place, he guessed, had been home to their aerie, and they'd unfortunately gotten into the mako.

“Sir,” a gasping voice called. He recognized it was the gregarious Sparo. “Sir,” he panted out again. “When we were checking the area we found a small canyon in the cliff face. Just over there in the woods.” Zack followed the trooper's gesture, and sure enough he could see the dark scar of an opening in the rock face. “If we...”

Zack nodded sharply. He could already see where this was heading. “Contact the rest of your team and tell them to guide the troops there . The rest will just have to hide where they can.” As soon as he made sure Cloud was alright, he'd make sure the rest of his troops were too. “Come on, Cloud. Let's get over there,” he muttered. All he got was a faint groan in response.

He tightened his grip on Cloud's arm and waist as he hurried them forward. The trees pressed in close, and the underbrush dragged at his clothes and Cloud's as if trying to pull him out of Zack's grasp. Every now and then he could see the flash of materia or rifle fire through the close growing trees. It was darker here among them than it had been in the clearing, though it proved nothing for a SOLDIER's enhanced senses, and even less so since the gathering gloom of oncoming night had given Zack's eyes plenty of time to adjust. Zack kept half turning to catch glimpses of Cloud's lolling head. The trooper's breaths were coming shorter and faster, and he couldn't help but worry.

Cloud seemed to gather himself when Zack paused to reorient, the tangle of trees having blotted out their destination. Though he still seemed weak, he managed to lift his head, and Zack was caught by surprise as Cloud stared at him. He still looked lost and confused and Zack's worry for his condition only doubled when Cloud's eyes tracked off to the side to stare over Zack's shoulder before his head tipped forward again. Zack winced in sympathy as Cloud's chin bounced off his chest, and watched helplessly as Cloud lifted his hand. It only made it to chest height before falling limply again. Zack thought he heard him make a disgruntled little sound.

“It's okay,” Zack murmured, readjusting his grip around Cloud's waist. “It's just the mako making you weak. You're still doing better than a lot of people, though. Hopefully it won't take too long and we can get you some treatment.” When Zack started them moving again, Cloud seemed to wrestle his body under his control and managed a few steps on his own through what Zack guessed was sheer, stubborn determination. Cloud's side bumped against Zack's as he staggered over the rock strewn, uneven ground. The only thing Zack could do was keep up a litany of murmured encouragements as he tried to keep them going in the right direction.

Zack stumbled as a hippogriff flew low over their heads, rustling branches and sending leaves falling around them. He watched it warily and held them both still in the hopes that it hadn't seen them. For a moment he thought it had passed out of range, then it was back, clearly having circled around. A second later it dropped heavily to the ground a few feet ahead of them, beak parted on a raspy hiss, and mad eyes staring straight through them. Zack pressed his lips into a thin line, and stared at the bird. He didn't dare try to make a run for it with Cloud weighing him down. The best solution was to take the hippogriff out. He could deal with this. Just because he didn't have a sword on him didn't leave him helpless. Angeal had made sure of that. Zack backed them up enough that he could guide Cloud to use a tree for support, then slid out from under his arm.

“Wait here,” Zack murmured as he helped Cloud slide to the ground, never taking his attention off the monster. The hippogriff was ripping at the ground with its talons. It seemed almost confused by his behavior. Cloud's head lolled to the side, and he groaned again. Zack chanced a glance toward him to see Cloud's hand lifting, reaching, before it dropped futilely back to the ground. In an attempt to reassure him, Zack added, “I'll take care of this.”

Zack edged slowly away from Cloud, eyes locked on the hippogriff. The sound of his boots as the ground against the rough soil loud in his ears. The beast watched him, its brightly colored feathers trembling. These monsters were known for being able to entrap and bewitch their prey, something about their feathers, maybe. Zack hadn’t really paid the imparted information much mind beyond understanding the effect. So long as he could avoid that, then he’d be fine. He couldn’t help but worry for the other men, though. If they'd been cut off similarly... Well, no time to worry about that. Zack brought his hands up, shook them out, and clenched them into fists so tight the leather of his gloves creaked. “That's right,” Zack said. “Just keep your eyes on me.”

It bristled further as if the sound of his voice was an irritant, and the next thing Zack knew the beast was leaping at him. Its front talons slashed through the air, reaching and clawing for him. He swayed back, boots scraping against the dirt as the hippogriff's claws whistled through the air inches in front of his nose. Zack's wide eyes met the wild gaze of the monster for a second, before he lashed out. His boot slammed into the hippogriff's keel bone and sent it skidding backward with a startled squawk. He snorted out a pent up breath. (Too close, way too close.) There was no Angeal or Sephiroth here to save him if he lost focus this time. His traitorous heart, the part that still hurt now nearly a year after Angeal's death, whispered that his mentor would never be there to help him again.

Zack shoved the ache down and swung his arm up, materia glowing, and unleashed a torrent of electricity just as the hippogriff shook off the pain of his kick. The bird screamed as the thick bolts flowed over and around it, cracking and scoring across the ground and the nearby trees. Zack jerked his hand back, closed his fist, and ended the spell. It left him tingling with the residue of both magic use and the electric charge in the air that was accompanied by the stink of singed feathers.

From where it had collapsed into a twitching heap the hippogriff released shrill little keening sounds. Zack grimaced and walked cautiously toward the downed beast. He leaned over it, face twisted faintly with distaste. He hated not having Buster Sword with him on principle, but this just added another layer to it. If he'd had the sword he would have been able to put the beast out of its misery easily. Just as he started to back away, the hippogriff he'd thought too far gone to pose a threat gathered itself and snapped at his shin. By the time Zack had halted his quick backward stumble it had staggered to its feet.

The hippogriff screamed a shrill, cracked sound that was nothing but rage, pain, and madness, then lunged at him furiously. He was knocked off balance as its claws scraped noisily over the curve of one shoulder guard. It had just missed slicing into the side of his neck. Even now he could feel the warm sensation of a bead of blood sliding down his throat. He was too busy to worry about it as the hippogriff's neck snapped out in an attempt to gouge his eyes with its beak. Zack jerked his head back, just a fraction too slow and felt the tip of the hippogriff's beak clip his hairline.

Quickly, before the blood could have a chance to obscure his vision, or the bird manage a more lethal attack, Zack brought his arm up and socked it in the side of the head hard enough for his knuckles to ache. He heard something crack, but couldn't be sure what it was as the force had spun the bird to the side. Zack didn't give himself a chance to think, or the hippogriff a chance to retaliate; he charged forward and unleashed a flurry of blows on the monster, then finished it off with an abrupt kick to its neck. He heard—felt—the bones crunch under the force of the blow which sent the hippogriff into the dirt again. This time it twitched spasmodically for a few seconds, its neck bent at an obviously broken angle, then lay still.

Zack backed away, then turned his back on the cooling corpse and strode back to Cloud's side. He knelt down beside Cloud, and reached out to grip his shoulder. The trooper's head lolled back until Cloud could look at him dazedly. Zack watched him blink for a moment, and thought he saw some focus, some recognition come back into Cloud's glazed expression. He grinned. “See? What'd I tell you?“ Zack said as he dashed the back of his forearm across his forehead to keep a dribble of blood from getting into his eye. All he really seemed to accomplish was smearing it across his forehead. In the next second, Zack paid for his moment of inattention when he found himself tackled by another of the beasts.

Zack hit the ground on his shoulder, his breath rushing out of him. His ears buzzed, and silence filled his head. He could see Cloud lurch forward, eyes wide, could see him lift his hand and reach out, heard the slurred, rough, “Za...” in what seemed like endless hours as he struggled to catch his breath. It all rushed back as Cloud's supporting arm went out from under him, pitching him forward, and the hippogriff's talons flashed down obscuring Zack's line of sight.

Zack twisted onto his back and brought his hands up just in time to grab the hippogriff's throat with one hand and its beak with the other. His glove slid over the monster's sleek feathers as it strained against his hold. Zack's faced twisted with concentration, muscles bunching and tensing against its power and against the pain of its beak clamped down on his thumb. It almost felt as if it were grinding against the very bone. He decided he was probably just lucky it hadn't taken his thumb clean off.

His breath was stolen from him in a gasp of pain as the monster yanked its head to the side, jerking on his arm. In retaliation Zack dug his fingers into the feathers more firmly, and brought his knee up to slam into the hippogriff's tender belly. The monster grunted, and gave him another wrenching shake. Zack drove his knee up again, and this time the hippogriff released his thumb with an enraged shriek and reared back as far as it could. He could feel the clump of feathers in his fist beginning to tear.

With his now free hand, Zack reached up to grab the other side of the beast's neck, and hauled himself up. He freed up one hand to reach further around the monster's neck for a better hold, even as he dug one boot heel into the ground for leverage and kicked one of the monster's hind legs. The hippogriff staggered, screeching and tossing its head in confusion before Zack kicked its leg again. This time the bones in the beast's hind leg snapped with an audible crack, and the hippogriff screamed in pain as it toppled.

Zack released his hold to scramble out of the way, and came quickly to his knees. Already the hippogriff had managed to get back up, though the broken leg dangled uselessly where it was held a few inches off the ground. The hippogriff had compensated easily enough with its wings spread for balance. It hissed at him, eyes rolling madly, then shoved off the ground in a flurry of powerful wing beats. It drove its wings down again to propel itself higher, and Zack brought himself to his feet, every muscle tense for the next attack.

Before either Zack or the hippogriff could make a move, a sharp whirring filled the air, and a second later a flash of red and silver arced out of the shadows to score a deep wound across the hippogriff's exposed underbelly. The monster screamed and fell heavily to the ground while the weapon arced back into the shadows. Zack lifted his hand as the sharp sound of quick footfalls fast approached, and grimly called up the power of his materia to unleash another torrent of lightning. The hippogriff squealed, body twisting and arching, before it slumped onto the blood soaked ground.

Zack just stood there, staring at the corpse for several seconds until the sound of the footsteps stopped close by. When he lifted his head it was to nod in acknowledgment to Cissnei, though he didn't know whether to be shocked or relieved that she was there. “Hey, Cissnei,” he greeted with a wry grin. “Thanks for having my back.”

“No problem, Zack,” the Turk said softly. She flashed him a fleeting smile then sent a troubled look off to Zack's left. “Is your friend okay?”

Zack turned and made his way back to Cloud's side where the fallen trooper had managed to brace himself up on his forearms again. The hazy expression on his face looked an odd mixture of disgruntled and determined to Zack. Zack glanced over his shoulder at Cissnei as he crouched down beside Cloud. “He will be,” he said easily. As he turned his attention back to Cloud, Zack decided that he would make sure of it. “What are you still doing here, Cissnei?”

“I had an assignment in the area, and heard all the ruckus.” Cissnei's response was just as quiet as her previous words, but somehow they unsettled Zack. It just made Zack's paranoid thoughts about the Turks swim back up. Determinedly, he pushed the matters of Turks to the back of his mind. Right now he needed to focus on Cloud, the rest of his troops, and how to get them out of this situation mostly intact.

Reaching down he gripped Cloud's shoulder, pulled him up enough to slide his arm under him, and hauled the trooper up into a sitting position. Cloud gave a startled cry and looked up at him dazedly. “Whoa, hey, take it easy Cloud. It's just me,” Zack soothed. ”You okay?” Cloud's face relaxed and, after what looked like a momentary struggle with himself, managed a semblance of a nod. Zack's own expression relaxed into a relieved grin. He'd take that as a good sign if there ever was one. The fact that Cloud seemed to understand him and even respond probably meant the mako poisoning he was suffering from wasn't too bad.

Zack looked up from his silent, internal celebration at the faint scuff of a shoe just behind him. Cissnei leaned forward, coppery hair tumbling over her shoulder, and asked, “What about you?” When her eyes flicked up to his hairline, Zack automatically reached up and rubbed his forearm over the still bleeding cut on his forehead. He doubted it'd be bleeding much longer, but head wounds always did bleed more persistently than most other varieties. He shrugged, readjusted his grip on Cloud, then got them both to their feet with minimal staggering.

“I'm fine. That was nothing,” he assured her breezily. He didn't want to mention that he was feeling a bit nauseous himself. “So, Cloud, you think you can make it a little further?” He didn't really wait for an answer, nor did he really expect one. Zack just tightened his grip and began walking with the hope that Cloud could hang on for a little longer. Cissnei followed near soundlessly after them. Their progress was accompanied only by the rustle of trees and the sudden shocking silence that had fallen.

It was into this silence, that Cissnei's next words fell. “I already put a call in to Tseng, so there should be back up on the way as soon as possible.” Relief, the likes of which Zack hadn't felt since Angeal had seemed to be coming around, swept through him. It felt like a great deal of weight had been lifted off his shoulders

“Thanks, Cissnei,” Zack said softly. He took a moment to check their course, and realized he couldn't see the opening in the cliff face they'd been heading for anymore. The woods all looked the same, with it being well and truly night. The cliff face looked like it was made of shallow niches and openings even to his SOLDIER eyes. In the end he decided it didn't matter, so long as they put some distance between themselves and the hippogriffs. “Do you know how my men are doing?”

“Most of them seem to have gone to ground,” Cissnei replied immediately. “I saw a few on my way and advised them to take cover.”

“Good.” That was good. As long as they stayed hidden until dawn they could regroup.

Before he knew it, the forest opened up and spilled them back out onto the open dirt and rock. He recognized the slope ahead of them as the one he'd come down to reach the little wooded area earlier in the day. There was no way he could get Cloud to climb that in his condition. A rustle to their left alerted him to movement, even as Cissnei brought Rekka up.

“Sir, is that you?” The voice was familiar again.

Hurriedly, Zack asked, “Jac?”

“Yes, sir,” the trooper murmured as he emerged from the brush. “I thought I saw someone so... Uh, me and a few others found a thicket that we're using for cover, so, uh... I mean, if you want to come with me, sir?”

“By all means, lead the way.”

It only took a minute or two before they joined a small, rather ruffled looking group of troopers and a couple rookie SOLDIERs. As Zack eased Cloud to sit down against the thick base of a tree he glanced around at them. “Do any of you have your supplies with you? A spare uniform, or spare clothes?” He couldn't imagine those mako soaked clothes were doing anything for the poor guy.

“I do, sir,” one of the troopers muttered. “You can use them for Cloud... I was with his team, so...” Which meant that he'd arrived late and still had all his equipment on him, unlike most of the others who had left theirs in the clearing with the mako pool and hadn't been able to retrieve them in the mad scramble to retreat.

Zack accepted the pack from the man, then crouched down beside Cloud. “Hey, Cloud? You still with me, buddy?” He reached out and tilted Cloud's head back. He looked feverish. Zack's smile took on a worried edge while Cloud's eyes roamed restlessly. He seemed to be tracking movement over Zack's shoulders, and Zack could only wonder if it were the other men in the area, or mako dreams. Then Cloud seemed to pull himself together again and focused on Zack. For a second he merely blinked at Zack with his brows furrowed and a faint frown pulling at his lips. A moment later Zack felt the weight of a hand gripping his arm. It was a surprisingly strong grip.

“Z…a?” Cloud slurred, still apparently unable to form the sharper ‘ck’ sound. Zack forced his smile to be more genuine, more reassuring, and rested his hand on Cloud's head.

“Hey,” he greeted quietly, then to lighten the mood added, “At least you remember me, or am I just getting that famous already?” That got no further response. Zack wasn't really surprised. He reached up to swipe a hand over his hair, only to stop as he caught sight of the green film of mako on his gloves. Zack grimaced, pulled them off, and tossed them carelessly aside.

When he turned back to Cloud, he could see the stuff gleaming faintly on him as well. It was no question what needed to be done. “I'm going to get those clothes off of you, and see if we can get as much of the mako off as possible.” He was no medic, but he knew a bit about mako poisoning and mako addiction. As far as he could tell Cloud didn't seem too badly off. Weak and a bit unresponsive, yes, but he was responsive. Maybe he'd gotten lucky and that mako really had been nicely diluted by the water.

It was easy enough to get Cloud's harness and shoulder armor off. The general infantryman's variety wasn't that different from a SOLDIER's, decoration aside. All of the clasps were in the same place at least. It was after he'd pulled off Cloud's gloves and was starting to help him get his shirt off that Cloud gave a hiss, his muscles convulsing and his back arching. Zack winced as well. “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered under his breath, even as he waited the fit out. When he continued, he did so even more carefully. It didn't take much work, and Zack tossed that aside as well, pulled off Cloud's boots, then leaned over the dazed trooper to start working his belt off.

The others hiding with them were quiet, probably listening for the sounds of an attack, or maybe just trying to give the poor guy as much privacy as could be afforded. It was hard to say. Zack for his part didn't really care what they did, and decided to see if he could get more responses out of Cloud who seemed to be moving better. At least he was able to move his arms and legs enough to facilitate Zack's removal of his clothing. “We didn't get a chance to talk again after Modeoheim. How has Midgar been treating you? I don't think you were stationed there before, because I'm sure I'd have noticed someone like you wandering around the ShinRa building.” Not that he'd really noticed Cloud now either, Zack thought ruefully as he tossed Cloud's pants aside. He spent all of his time these days either loitering around the SOLDIER floor, out on missions, or down in the slums with Aerith.

“Here, sir,” a soft voice muttered. A canteen was thrust over his shoulder, and Zack gladly accepted it. “To help get the mako off.”

Zack offered the trooper a brief smile of gratitude before turning back to Cloud. “You're lucky your underwear don't seem too have gotten it too bad so you won't have to worry about chafing.” Reaching up he pulled Cloud forward so he could pour the lukewarm water over his head, and briefly whisked his hand through Cloud's wild blond hair to work out as much of the clinging mako as possible. He shifted a little more, then let Cloud's head rest against his shoulder so he could see his back and get the mako from there with the aid of more water. From there he moved on to Cloud's arms, chest, and finally his legs. “That ought to do it. You'll dry fine in this weather so we'll go ahead and get you dressed,” he mused, rinsing off his own hands, then reached for the spare uniform the trooper had given him. It took a bit more work getting Cloud back into the clothes, but it was doable. They were a bit big on him, but at least they were clothes and they weren't saturated in mako. When he was done, Zack shifted around to collapse by Cloud's side and lean up against the tree too. “Well, I guess all that's left is to wait for dawn.”

He could see Cissnei lurking silently in the shadows, watching them, and he flashed her a brief grin. Her only response was, “You should make sure to get it off of you as well, Zack.” Zack shrugged negligently. He'd worry about it in a bit, for now he was more interested in keeping an eye on Cloud.

Zack felt Cloud shift until he was slumped a little more against his side, followed by the feel of Cloud's hand fumbling along his leg and arm. Cloud's fingers wrapped around his wrist, surprisingly firm for his apparently disoriented state. Worried that Cloud was trying to get his attention for some reason, Zack leaned in closer as Cloud's grip shifted to his hand. “You okay?” The words had barely left him when Cloud's grip tightened and he made a strange little sound.

“Zack?” Cloud breathed. To Zack it sounded wondering and painful, though he couldn't fathom what would make Cloud say his name like that. Before he could even think on it, Cloud stumbled, haltingly, through more words. “Are... are you... real?”

Zack's heart went out to him, even as his skin prickled with unease. It was worrying, Zack couldn't help but think, if Cloud was having trouble telling reality from mako induced hallucinations. Cloud was obviously seeking some sort of anchor in reality, and Zack would provide him that. They didn't really know each other, but Zack still considered him a friend. Some people told him he made friends too easily. Cloud was his fellow country boy, and they had to stick together, friends or not.

He carefully squeezed Cloud's hand in response to his clutching, and, voice low, replied, “Yeah, I'm real. Just as real as you are.” He glanced down toward Cloud's blond head, then scooted closer to him. Zack had no idea if he was cold, or if the he had a fever, or even how to really deal with him in this condition. He kind of wished they'd wound up somewhere with one of the medically trained personnel, but he could manage. He had enough know how to do it. He had to.

“Say, Cloud...” Zack murmured, “Try to stay awake as long as possible okay?” He was half afraid that if Cloud fell asleep they'd lose him to a coma that he might not wake up from. He was getting all too used to the bitter tang of failing to save someone, and he wasn't going to let another friend fall to his track record. He tossed around for something to talk about, something to keep Cloud's attention focused on, and let the weak blond grasp his hand. If that helped keep Cloud grounded, then Zack was all for it. “The weather is pretty nice here for this time of year isn't it?” It was a terrible attempt at conversation, but it wasn't the topic that mattered, not really.

It was eerily quiet, just as it had been all day. There were no night predators creeping about. Zack suspected that the hippogriffs had run everything and anything off, now. There was barely any light at all, though that hardly affected him. He supposed he'd grown used to the constant glow of Midgar and ShinRa's other cities. It reminded him a bit of Gongaga when he was younger. When night meant a world of pitch black mystery and thrill, where the sky was full of stars and not blocked out by the ambient electric lighting so much.

“You said you were from Nibelheim, right? I bet it's real cold up there this time of year, or any time of year for that matter. But I bet the stars are really nice. They were always blocked out in Gongaga unless you knew where to look.” Because of the dense forest, unlike Midgar. Zack had known this one little cliff though...

Zack could almost feel that he was being listened to, and not just by Cloud, but by the bedraggled group in the shadows around him. Occasionally he could hear someone shift, noted their position from the rustle of fabric and the jangle of metal, but mostly he kept his head tilted back against the tree behind him and watched the breeze rustle the leaves. Sometimes he even caught a glimpse of a star filled sky. From the corner of his eyes he watched Cloud, and across from him he could see Cissnei leaning against another tree. She glanced his way and nodded slightly. He didn't know if she could see him as well as he could see her, but he took the motion for what it was. All was well on her end. Zack lifted his hand in a return gesture. So far so good, but the pale light of dawn never felt so far away.

"Nibelheim…it's kinda nice," Cloud said at last, as though he'd had to gather his scattered thoughts—he sounded hoarse. "The monsters went mad because of the reactor. Too much mako. One of the dragons nearly ate me, though. You would have laughed." Cloud's voice dropped off in a hiss of pain, and Zack mulled what he'd said over.

(Dragons, huh?) He'd heard about Nibel's dragons, and he couldn't help but give Cloud's blond head a slightly incredulous look. He'd nearly been eaten by dragons. How, Zack couldn't help but wonder, did he manage to get out of that one. Then and there Zack decided that if he was ever forced to go to Nibelheim, he'd take Cloud with him. That way the dragon issue would be less of an issue. Maybe. He had no idea how fearsome the beasts really were, but he'd heard stories. There were a lot of scare stories floating around Midgar. Why, he'd heard a funny one involving Gongaga once that had had him laughing for weeks.

He wanted to say he wasn't sure dragons were a funny issue, but on the other hand the mental image of a tiny Cloud managing to best one of the beasts was rather hilarious. Which, for whatever reason, just lead him to wondering what Cloud had looked like as a kid. Cloud, who already stuck out like a sore thumb among the rank and file.

He thought about offering Cloud a Cure, or something. Zack always made sure he had that mastered Cure materia on him—He was a bit put off that he hadn't yet managed to find a Cura—but he was unsure how it would react to Cloud's recent dip in the mako. It would probably be best to wait. Cloud seemed to be pretty lucid for his recent brush with the mako, and he seemed to be getting better by the moment. If he was still in pain come morning, then Zack would worry about it then. Hopefully that would be enough time for the mako exposure to blow over as well. The last thing he wanted was to—

It took Zack a moment to realize Cloud was talking again. Angeal always had scolded him for his lack of focus. "The experiments got loose too. I hope one of the others goes up there first. They're completely gone, now.” (Whoa, wait, back up. Experiments?!) What in the world was Cloud on about now? Across from him, Zack could see Cissnei look up sharply, and he was abruptly worried that Cloud had gotten into something deep that would attract the Wrong Kind of Turk Attention. If any Turk attention could ever be considered good, anyway. Were there experiments up in Nibelheim, and if so, why were they there and why were they somewhere a civilian kid could find them? Or was he...

Zack gave his head a slight shake. What was he thinking? Cloud's mutterings were broken and disjointed. It was more probable that he'd just skipped from the topic of monsters gone mad in Nibelheim from the reactor, straight into a memory of one of the break outs from Hojo's lab that seemed to happen a little too often and conveniently. It was obvious that he and his squad had been dispatched during one break out and had to deal with some of the nasty beasts, right? Right. It was the only logical conclusion, and the only one that didn't send Zack into a fit of worry.

“Aerith…you're happy with her, right? I couldn't save.... But I watch her flowers. The kids like the church, too." Zack's mind scrambled to make sense of Cloud's confusing words even as Cloud fell silent with a faint cough and his head lolled to rest against Zack's shoulder. Aerith? How did Cloud know Aerith? More than that, how did he know about Zack and Aerith? It wasn't exactly like Zack didn't talk about her, but no one really knew who she was. Cloud had mentioned specifics that...were more than a little baffling. Zack could almost feel the tension coming off of Cissnei, which, he guessed, meant they hadn't known Cloud knew Aerith either. Turks didn't like not knowing. Aerith had never mentioned knowing anyone else from ShinRa to Zack, either.

He wanted, badly, to ask Cloud how he knew Aerith, but Zack decided to err on the side of caution. The last thing Cloud needed was the Turks poking around his business, or worse, deeming him a threat that needed to be terminated. Best case, he wound up dead and no one ever saw him again.... Worst case? Zack wasn't even sure what the worst case was anymore after Angeal and Genesis....

“You know Aerith, too, huh? She's great, isn't she? Real nice,” Zack said breezily as if this wasn't something unusual. “You into gardening too? Does she actually let you help with the flowers because, heh, she won't let me help. She says that they only want to be tended by her, but I guess she'd know best. I saw some pretty little wild flowers on the way here and was thinking of taking some back to her. You think she'd like that, or would I just get a lecture about leaving them alone?”

"I'm sure…anything you give her…she'll love," Cloud offered tentatively. Zack didn't say anything as Cloud slumped further, his eyes drooping closed as he drifted off to an obviously exhausted sleep. He didn't let it show, but Zack could swear his heart rate had tripled. He was scared that, come morning, Cloud wouldn't wake up.

 

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 11th)

 

Zack hadn't slept the entire night, too hyped up to bother, and it didn't really matter anyway. He wasn't feeling it, yet, but he probably would be if he didn't get something to eat before too long. Zack knew his limits well enough, knew how far he could push, and he was in no risk of crashing just yet. The night had been spent in a vigilant haze, his attention torn between keeping an eye on Cloud and watching for threats. Both external and internal. He didn't want to think about Cissnei like that, but he had been having creeping doubts ever since Angeal.... Something he didn't want to think about right now. He had to focus on Cloud, and getting as many people out of this mission in one piece as possible.

Zack was honestly surprised at how strong a grip Cloud had. It had been both relieving and baffling the way Cloud continued to cling to him, even in his sleep. Relieving because it probably meant Cloud wasn't gone or lost in his head, and baffling because, really, they barely knew each other. Zack suspected it was that anchor thing he'd been thinking about earlier. Something to hang on to metaphorically leading to physical clutching... It all kind of made his head hurt. He usually let Kunsel do the deep thinking; Zack was more reactionary.

Zack's mind seemed content to skip from one subject to another in his inaction, so he let it. He was sitting with one arm half pinned by Cloud, the other draped over his upraised knee, and listening to the quiet rise in activity as the others woke up. There was still no birdsong, and Cissnei was the only one still really awake. Zack figured he should have scolded some of the troopers and rookies for dozing off, but he couldn't blame them. This entire mission had gone way, way out of control.

Cissnei met his gaze, then looked away again. They had barely said three words to each other all night. Some would say that was a record for Zack, but Zack knew he'd just been too busy tying himself up in knots. Could he trust her? Could he not? Could he trust anyone anymore?

It was times like this that he really, really wished Angeal were still around.

(What should I do, Angeal?)

Then Cloud stirred beside him, and Zack straightened his spine from his slouch. A heartbeat later his phone trilled in his pocket. Zack blinked, momentarily baffled, before trying to tug his hand free to search for the device. Cloud, however, didn't seem to want to let go, and had actually lifted both his free hand and the one clutching Zack's up. He appeared to be giving Zack's hand a rather bewildered look. In the end, Zack let him keep the hand for the moment. After all, he had another in perfect working order which he used to dig his phone from his pocket.

As Zack pulled his phone out at last, Cloud's tentative voice reached him, "…Good morning?" Zack thought he sounded more than a little lost.

“Good morning yourself, sunshine. Feeling any better?” Even as the words left him, Zack flipped his phone open and answered, “What can I do for you?”

His answer was a soft, curious, “Hello?” that made the grin on Zack's face go from distracted to genuine.

“Aerith!”

A quiet laugh answered him, before she asked, “Is now a bad time? You sound distracted.

“No, now isn't a bad time, not really,” he said, then paused as an idea occurred to him. “But hold on. Do me a favor and talk to my friend while I make sure he's doing alright, okay?”

Your friend? Is he... hurt?”

Zack blinked. “What? No, he's just a little ill right now.”

Hmm, okay.” He could imagine her nodding in firm agreement with her decision. “I'll talk to him. You just make sure he's alright.”

“Thanks!” Zack chirped, then he shoved the phone into Cloud's hand, and freed the one Cloud was still gripping. “I'll need my hand, if you don't mind,” he added, scratching at the dried blood on his temple. “Do me a favor and talk to Aerith while I make sure everything is okay this morning, would you?”

Cloud was staring at the phone in his hand as if he'd never seen it before, and even as Zack watched he gave a sudden twitch. Zack reached out for his bowed head, slightly worried that Cloud's seemingly improved condition had taken a rapid fall, only to have his hand batted away. He let himself smile, and listened to Aerith's curious voice as it emerged, tinny and small, from the phone. When Aerith gave a particularly pointed 'Hel-looo', Zack had to stifle a laugh. Cloud hastily brought the phone to his ear.

"…Hello?" Cloud asked softly. Careful not to draw too much attention to himself, Zack leaned forward and captured Cloud's other wrist to check his pulse. It didn't feel thready, nor too slow or too fast. He guessed that was a good thing. "I know," he heard Cloud mumble. Zack glanced up to see his head was still bowed, his attention seemingly focused on the ground between his boots. "It's Cloud." It was hard not to act like he was actively eaves dropping, but he was undeniably curious. Zack only wished he could hear what Aerith was saying as Cloud nodded in response to whatever she'd said.

Suspicions aside, Zack couldn't help but grin like an idiot. He could only take all of this as a good sign. Cloud certainly seemed more animated than he'd been last night. He was still a bit on the quiet side, but he hadn't been all that talkative during the Modeoheim mission either. Maybe he was just naturally quiet, though he hadn't seemed quite this downtrodden when Zack had met him. But, then, Zack couldn't blame him for feeling like crap. He reached out again once he was sure Cloud was momentarily distracted, gripped Cloud's chin, and pulled his face up so he could peer into his eyes. Cloud's pupils were still dilated, and his eyes.... They had that obvious glow, and, if Zack wasn't mistaken, might even be a little brighter than your average SOLDIER. That probably wasn't a good sign.

“Hey, Cloud,” he said to draw attention to himself. He lifted his other hand and waved three fingers in front of the blond's nose. “How many fingers am I holding up?” He'd kind of always wanted to do that.

Behind him, he heard Cissnei murmur, “You make quite the nursemaid, Zack.”

Grinning, eyes never leaving Cloud, Zack blithely said, “Maybe once we get back to Midgar I'll give up my SOLDIER ways and apply to the medical staff.”

Cloud's eyes nearly crossed as he attempted to focus on Zack's fingers. It took everything Zack had to keep from bursting out laughing then and there. It was just too silly an image after the stress of the night before. "…Aerith?" Cloud said at last, clearly having given up on Zack. He paused oddly, which caught Zack's attention. His next words nearly shattered Zack's resolve to keep from laughing. "Zack is touching me.” It was all in the way he'd said it, a sort of dumbstruck confusion.

A few guffaws broke out behind him, and Zack forcibly swallowed his own laughs. He allowed his friendly grin to slide into something like a playful leer and scolded, “Aw, Cloud, you're not supposed to go snitching to my girlfriend!”

Overall, Cloud seemed to be alright. His eyes were still unfocused and he still seemed to be a little, okay, a lot lost and confused, but... Zack was pleased with the prognosis, and that was just fine. Reaching out he ruffled Cloud's hair again, before snatching the phone from him. “I'm going to step over here and patch things up. You lot hang on to your bootstraps.” With a gregarious wink, Zack sidled off far enough that he wouldn't be heard if he kept his voice low. The playful grin slid off his face like water running off rock, and by the time he came to a stop, he once more wore a serious mien. “Hey, Aerith?” Her curious hum prompted him to continue, and he felt a bit silly for asking but... “Before today have you ever talked to Cloud?”

Aerith went quiet and Zack waited, one heart beat, two. “No, I don't think so. Should I know him?

That's what he thought. Something fishy was going on around here. “Oh, no, I was just curious. I must have mentioned you when I met him and forgot about it. Don't worry. He seems interested in flowers, so I promise I'll introduce you once we're back in Midgar, okay?”

I'll look forward to it,” she said. There was an underlying, deeper happiness to her voice that Zack couldn't really find a meaning for. After another pause, she added, “You look after him, okay?” She always sounded like she knew more, sounded so wise. It was definitely one of her charms.

“Sure,” he said pleasantly. “So, how is everything in Midgar?”

With that Aerith was telling him about her flowers and the people of the slums, and Zack let it wash over him and ease away more of the remaining tension that had been eating at him. He should be getting back soon; he had troops to round up and a retreat to organize. So, once a lull in the conversation opened up he said, “I need to go, Aerith. Get the troops up and all, but, hey, I'll be visiting again sooner than I thought. We ought to be back in Midgar early.”

That's good. Maybe you can finally get started on that flower wagon you promised me!

She was teasing. He knew it, and it made him grin. “Is that all I'm good for? Free labor?”

Why else would I keep you around?” Zack could easily imagine the slightly shy, but still present, impish smile of her face. Could see the light that seeped under the plate make her seem to glow in her favorite white sundress.

“Oh, I don't know. I kind of hoped you enjoyed my company,” he teased.

You're sweet,” she replied without missing a beat, “but we both know my flowers are the important thing here.”

“Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. “So you go look after them, and I'll talk to you later.”

Bye!” she sang.

Zack waited for the line to go dead before he pulled his phone from his ear and snapped it closed. It wasn't far to get back to Cloud and the troops, and then... Time to get them all home. He'd worry about mysteries after that.

 

 

Cloud could only watch helplessly as Zack disappeared into the vegetation around them, unable to muster his lethargic and aching body to even call out to him. He hadn't had enough time to comprehend all that was happening, and Zack was barreling around him like a hyperactive dog, unable to sit still and stop making him dizzy. When Zack was out of sight, Cloud fought down his unease, determined to take a moment to observe his surroundings and get his bearings.

In the wan light of dawn everything looked real, normal. It was nothing but a forest with leafy trees above him, thick growth between the trunks, and a dirt and debris strewn ground. While this should have been comforting and reassuring, it only further served to drive the disquieting feeling in his stomach deeper, only made him question what was real and what wasn't even more.

It felt all too surreal to Cloud. His body ached fiercely, and he still felt like his head was only attached marginally to his shoulders, like any move would either make it float away or implode from pain. Yet the memory of the warm, living body of his friend sitting right next to him, not lying dying and broken in the rain, not a mirage from the life stream, remained with him. Or was it? Perhaps all of this was just the last few seconds of his life stretching into an eternity of regrets, and his body was still dissolving in the green of the Lifestream.

And talking to Aerith on a…phone? Zack—Was it even really Zack, or was it just some amalgamation his spotty memories had conjured?—had to be insane. Maybe the afterlife had good service? The thought, this entire train of thought, was ridiculous. If he needed any further proof of his own madness, Cloud figured that had to be it.

Cloud looked up as he was driven roughly from his muddled thoughts by the sound of people pressing in. ShinRa grunts, he noted from their uniforms. Why were there people dressed in the old outfits that had all but been abandoned after the destruction of Midgar? Rufus had been too busy with the construction of Edge and the worry of Geostigma to bother with rebuilding the depleted army. That knowledge didn't make seeing ShinRa uniforms any easier, and Cloud shifted against the tree uncomfortably as he was surrounded. He really was in no condition to defend himself against them, if they decided to turn hostile in Zack's absence. Why did his mind refuse to let that go? It wasn't possible. (Stop hoping, wishing, you're deluded....)

"Hey, are you okay?" one of the troopers asked, squatting down in front of him. His helmet was off, though his mousy brown hair was still plastered to his skull the way only prolonged usage of headgear could cause. "I mean, obviously you're not okay, but damn man! You just took a headfirst dive into that mako! It's amazing you're even alive," he continued enthusiastically.

"SOLDIER Fair was right behind you, too," another trooper said, tilting his own helmet back so his eyes could be seen. "I thought he was going to dive right in. SOLDIERs are amazing; he covered a hundred yards in just seconds!"

"Is that what happened?" a third trooper asked in astonishment. Cloud could barely keep up, head turning mechanically to each new speaker as they filled the air with a hushed, excited jabber. None of which was really making sense. It didn't help that his head was still pounding, and he could still sense a calculating stare burrowing into him. He focused on a figure still lounging against a tree nearby, meeting the intense gaze of the young woman.

Where the ShinRa uniforms had made Cloud uncomfortable, the woman's outfit made him downright paranoid. She was dressed like a Turk, but not one that he'd seen before. The only Turks left should have been Reno, Rude, Elena, and Tseng. Vincent too if you wanted to get technical. If Rufus was recruiting, Cloud wanted to know why.

"You're from Nibelheim, then?" she asked when their gazes met, voice soft but cutting through the trooper's babbling. They immediately hushed, like naughty school children realizing the teacher was standing behind them. Cloud tensed; he did not want to be in this vulnerable position at the mercy of a perceived Turk.

"Hey, uh, miss, leave the guy alone. He's not really all there yet," the first trooper protested weakly. Cloud hated feeling grateful to anything associated with ShinRa, but he appreciated the young man's effort. He looked faint at his own daring, anyway.

Cloud braced himself, feeling his muscles scream in pain at each movement as he used the tree to steady himself. He slowly slid up it until he regained his feet. It was hardly any better than sitting slumped against it, but at least he felt a little better at the minor display of defiance. The burning pain of mako had all but vanished by now, though Cloud's body still ached. He was struck again by the abnormal symptom. Mako left you feeling dizzy and ill, restless and useless at the same time, all of which Cloud was indeed experiencing. But it was almost as if he'd over exerted himself as well, which was a rare occurrence thanks to his enhancements. He flinched when one of the troopers surrounding him tried to reach out a hand to steady him, and knocked it aside with a jerky movement of his arm.

"Don't…touch," he wheezed, a bit taken aback at the hurt expression on the trooper's face. Surely most people still associated with ShinRa knew who he was, and to avoid contact with him if at all possible. Unless that life was the dream, and then they shouldn't care about his feelings and just be trying to kill him. Cloud was confusing himself again, and dismissed the thoughts to concentrate on the bigger threat. Where was Zack, or whoever, or whatever it was that seemed to be wearing his face?

It was then that Zack emerged from the vegetation, bare hands shoving aside branches heavy with leaves. He moved seamlessly to stand between Cloud and the ShinRa troopers. Cloud hadn't heard the man approach, another occurrence that hadn't happened to him in quite a while. The presence of his friend was reassuring since Cloud's knees were already weakening from the strain of keeping him upright, even if it wasn't real.

“Jac's right, Cissnei. Leave Cloud alone.” Though Cloud couldn't see his face, he didn't doubt that he (Zack. Zack. Zack. Couldn't be but was but...) was smiling. His stance was lazy and easy going, but the meaning behind where he stood was obvious. It had been very deliberate, and Cloud could tell that the Turk knew it. Cloud didn't recognize her name; an imposter? For real? He didn't know anymore.... Cloud was starting to wonder if he was trapped in his head again, or maybe he'd never gotten out. Maybe nothing had been real.

Cloud could just see the woman around Zack, could just see the searching look she gave his friend. Zack who merely let her, as if awaiting judgment. Cloud could only feel bewildered as the two stared at each, until after several seconds she looked away and inquired, “He fell into some mako?”

“It was heavily diluted by water, but yes. You saw the condition he was in last night.” The words drew Cloud's attention back to Zack. What was he talking about? He'd fallen into the heart of a reactor...or he was suffering from the effects of the experimentation Hojo had subjected him to…

“I did hear him talking a lot of nonsense last night,” the Turk said. “I'll see if I can find some of the others while you take care of things here.” The bewilderment grew as the Turk turned away and disappeared into the underbrush. The words had been full of underlying meanings that Cloud couldn't even begin to understand. All he knew was that Zack had managed to get her to back off, so he allowed himself to relax slightly.

“Thanks, Cissnei,” Zack said softly before he turned back toward Cloud and the troopers and clapped his hands together. It seemed as though as soon as he set eyes on Cloud his face fell. Cloud ducked his head, feeling unaccountably embarrassed. He didn't even realize Zack had moved toward him until he felt a hand on his shoulder, and Zack ducked down to get a look at his face. The smile he wore was sincere and apologetic. “Ah, man, I'm sorry Cloud. I completely forgot. Hold on and I'll see what I can do, alright?”

Cloud watched numbly as Zack patted down his pockets, unsure what to say. He was saved from having to come up with anything when Zack gave a triumphant 'Ah-ha!' and produced a gleaming, green materia. A second later the cool, tingling feeling of a cure spell washing over him, and made Cloud sag further in relief as some of the bone-deep ache vanished. The magic had an odd tang to it, more mechanical than he remembered the spells feeling before, but any relief from the constant pain he'd been in was welcomed.

When he looked up, he found himself to be the center of surprisingly intense scrutiny from not only Zack, but the rest of the men in the area. Cloud shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond, or whether or not he should even try to say something.

He was saved the effort when Zack said, “What about the rest of you? Anyone else need a Cure?”

“Uh, not that I know of, sir,” one trooper answered promptly. Cloud recognized him as the one who'd stood up to the Turk woman for him earlier. The trooper scratched at his hair for a second then turned toward Zack himself. “What about you, sir? I mean, you've got some....” To make his point the trooper tapped gesture toward his forehead. Cloud followed the gesture in time to see Zack's bare hand scrub ruefully at the crust of dried blood decorating his hairline. When had he gotten that? A hazy memory drifted up, of Zack leaving him behind, being attacked. The terror of losing Zack all over again, and the overwhelming need to help him, to make sure nothing killed him again, and the uselessness of his mako sick body that hadn't responded to his commands to save Zack.

The thought, memory, dream, or whatever it was made Cloud stare at Zack, mind spinning in confusion. Zack looked so much like Cloud remembered, with his wild black locks spilling down around his shoulders, the SOLDIER's dark uniform, and the easy grin that was almost a constant ornament on his face. There was still something off, and it took him a minute to realize what it was. The Buster Sword was nowhere to be seen; not on Zack's back, and Cloud couldn't see it anywhere in the small area they were situated in. Zack had treasured that sword—Cloud tried to forget the hazy memory of his own acquisition of the blade—and he couldn't remember the other man ever being without it.

He was distracted from that when he noticed his own clothes. The ShinRa trooper outfit was too big on him, and he recalled being changed into it sometime last night. The last time he'd worn the blue uniform had been during the undercover mission in Junon, when even Nanaki had masqueraded as one of ShinRa's soldiers. That...probably said a lot for ShinRa's efficiency.

“Nah, it's already healed. I'm fine. SOLDIERs heal fast!” Zack's loud boast brought his wandering attention back to the present, and Cloud gave a soft snort of agreement. Hopefully Cloud's own pseudo SOLDIER body would finally kick in and get rid of the last of the aching in his body. He still felt unsteady, despite the Cure spell Zack had cast.

A sudden, sharp scream cut through the eerily silent forest, followed by the sharp staccato of gunfire and monster shrieks. Cloud immediately tensed, suddenly aware that he was essentially in enemy territory. Zack's presence, and the fact that he didn't seem worried about the ShinRa goons, had lulled him into a sense of security.

Before Cloud could react further, Zack was already leaping into motion while barking orders, “Jac, Sparo, You said you found a defensible little niche in the cliff wall last night? See if you can rendezvous with anyone who made it there then get out of the woods. Take Cloud with you, would you?”

The two troopers Zack had addressed straightened up and gave a sharp salute, and one said, “Sir! I'll do my best!”

Zack flashed him a distracted grin, and nodded toward the wary looking rookie Thirds who had, until now, mostly been quiet. “You lot go with them and provide cover for the regular soldiers.”

There was a chorus of 'Yes, Sir's' and then Zack was gone. It had all happened too quickly for Cloud's still sluggish mind to really process.It had seemed like between one blink and the next Zack was there, then the world exploded into hostile sounds of gunfire and shrieks and his dark hair was vanishing into the undergrowth. Cloud tried not to panic, but it was hard when all his senses were telling him that he was still deep in enemy territory, and that Zack was in danger. To hell with Zack's orders, Cloud intended to stick to the other man's side like glue if it meant the tight knot of worry in his chest would go away.

Without another pause, Cloud lurched forward, secretly glad when his legs didn't collapse under him. The Cure spell had helped a lot more than he thought. He ignored the shouts of the troopers at his sudden movement, easily dodging out of the way of any outstretched arms trying to catch hold of him. Despite feeling like he'd gone a round with a WEAPON and lost, he was still fast enough that a normal human had no chance of stopping him if he didn't want to be stopped. The problem came in the fact that not all of the soldiers there were normal humans, as Cloud realized when an arm caught him around the waist to halt his movement. He lashed out wildly, and caught the man upside the head with an elbow.

"Shit!" the man howled, his grip loosening enough for Cloud to wriggle out of it. He didn't wait to make sure the SOLDIER was okay; he hadn't hit him that hard, and Cloud knew from experience that it took more than a blow to the head to take one out. The surprise at the hit and the strength behind it had given Cloud his opportunity, and he didn't waste it.

Behind him, he could hear the shouts of the troopers mix with the sounds of bodies crashing though the undergrowth. Well, it wasn't Cloud's problem if they decided to follow him. He turned his attention ahead, focusing on finding where Zack had disappeared to. Branches whipped at his cheeks, and he kept a hand in front of his face to deflect the worst of the blows. He heard clothing tear, felt a sharp burn across one leg as a bush ripped though his pants. Cloud's blind charge, whether by luck or a subconscious remembrance of last night journey, spilled him out into the site of the mako pool. He paused, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath–and that was disgusting for a workout as short as that. He ignored the burning in his legs and took a few more steps into the clearing. There was a snap of twigs behind him. Cloud didn't waste a moment before diving to the ground. The slashing talons of a hippogriff narrowly missed him.

If he were the type to swear, Cloud would have turned the air blue at this point. He was friends with Cid Highwind; he knew more ways to describe the improbable origins of a person than most people could even dream of. Instead, he leapt up and darted forward, eyes scanning the landscape for a branch, or if he were lucky, a discarded sword. Any weapon would do at this point, since Cloud was unsure he could keep his skin whole in close combat with one of the monsters. Behind him, the hippogriff shrieked angrily, its claws tearing into the dirt as it scrambled after him.

He knew the monster was getting close, that he only had a few more seconds before it overtook him and he'd be forced to defend himself as best he could barehanded. Tifa would have been a big help about now, he reflected. In a jumbled moment, he heard a distant shout from a human, just as he saw a glint of metal on the ground.

"Holy fucking—Cloud!" There was a heaving feeling behind him in the air, and Cloud knew the hippogriff had lunged. He dove for the discarded weapon, unsure of its exact properties but hoping it was at least vaguely sword shaped. Gun fire ripped through the air as his hands closed on the handle, and Cloud rolled when he hit the ground. He brought the sword up quickly, having déjà vu flashes to his fight with the dragon. At least the smaller monster couldn't swallow him whole.

The weight of the creature as it landed on him drove the breath from him and caused the sword's pommel to strike the ground next to his side, his hands trapped awkwardly around it. The monster's talons drove into the ground next to his head, missing him by inches. The sword very nearly cut the creature in two where Cloud had managed to skewer it. Its back was also riddled with bullet wounds, and it was most certainly dead.

It took a bit to heave the corpse to one side so he could roll out from under it, but Cloud managed. As he pulled the sword free, he heard boots pounding up behind him, a handful of the troopers from before having managed to catch up to him. He ignored them for a moment, eyes taking in the weapon in his hands. At least he knew where Zack's sword had gone.

"Geeze, Cloud," a trooper breathed, wide eyed and pale faced in the sunlight. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Doesn't matter what he thought, it's what we should do now that's the problem," another trooper said tightly, indicating with a jerky movement of his head across the clearing. A dozen more of the hippogriffs were creeping toward them, more emerging from the cliff face in a wave of mad eyes and ruffling feathers. They hissed, beaks clacking ominously as they postured.

"Troopers, line up and provide us some cover," one of the SOLDIERs ordered, as his counterpart tugged his long sword from its sheath and readied himself for battle. Their faces were grim, as if they already knew the outcome of the fight. "Try to retreat back into the woods, if you can, and make sure that idiot goes with you this time."

"No," Cloud said, voice quiet but cutting.

"The fuck are you on about, trooper! You're ill, and in no condition to fight," the SOLDIER snapped. He was scared, Cloud could see it in his stiff posture. And it was Cloud's fault they were in this situation at all, he realized. Instead of letting him run off like the madman he was and get himself killed, these soldiers had taken Zack's orders to heart, following him into what appeared to be certain death. He owed it to Zack, at least, to make sure they didn't die here.

"I said no," he repeated, louder and more forcefully. He swung the sword sharply through the air, the flicking movement getting most of the monster gore off the blade. It wouldn't matter in a moment. He stood up as tall as his stature would allow, and gave them a hard look, well versed from his travels with hard-headed and egotistical companions. "All of you, fall back to the woods now. This is my fight. I'll provide you cover," he said, keeping his voice even and methodical.

"Cloud, look, you're still messed up from the mako," the first trooper said. "I mean, you're not a SOLDIER, you know that, right?"

"I know that," Cloud said quietly, ignoring the pang at the thoughtless reminder. The trooper looked relieved for a moment, though the expression was quickly wiped off his face when Cloud continued, "But I can beat them, where you would die."

"Just knock him over the head and get him out of here," the second SOLDIER barked. Across the clearing, the monsters started their charge, shrieking and warbling as they tore across the ground. "Shit! Fall back! Get him out of here. He's a danger to all of us like this!"

There was no more time to argue. Cloud darted forward, bringing the sword around in a familiar arc he'd practiced many times before. He nearly lost it, and it was more than he'd forgotten the balance of Zack's old sword. His body didn't feel like his, despite the aches and pains. Still, he was too good of a swordsman to falter. The sword glowed briefly as it resonated with his life force, then he sent out a shock wave at the advancing hoard in time with the follow through of his swing.

The ground was ripped up, pebbles and loose dirt flying everywhere, until the shock wave hit the first of the hippogriffs.. They were thrown back with angry cries into the monsters behind them, halting the charge in one blow.

"…Holy shit," a trooper breathed, breaking the momentary lull.

"That only stalled them. Now get out of here," Cloud said, then charged forward without waiting to see if they followed his instruction.

Ahead of him, the hippogriffs were fighting amongst themselves as they tried to regain their feet, beaks snapping as they hissed and rolled. Cloud didn't give them the chance to regroup, leaping up and coming down with an overhand blow with the sword that neatly severed the head of one of the monsters. His back screamed in pain as he then swung his sword to the left, sinking the blade deep into the side of another creature. It wasn't a fatal blow, unfortunately, but it should keep it out of Cloud's way for a bit. He darted forward between two more lurching bodies. They collided behind him in a tangle of wings and shrieks. Another swing of his sword took care of a third attacker, before Cloud was forced to move again, unable to remain still without being overwhelmed by attackers. Gunshot cracked through the air, just as two more bodies arrived nearby. Cloud gave the two SOLDIERs a wide-eyed look of surprise, unable to believe they hadn't left while they'd had the chance. A glance over his shoulder allowed Cloud to see the regular troopers firing their rifles into the fray, the barrels smoking from the constant use. The fools were going to get themselves killed.

"Eyes front!" a voice yelled in his ear, and Cloud had time to keep a slashing pair of talons from gutting him. A plain sword flashed by him, striking the creature between the eyes as it was driven into the monster's brain. "If you're gonna fight, do it! Otherwise fall back like you should!" the SOLDIER snarled, pulling his sword free. Cloud responded by swinging the sword at the man's head, causing him to duck the large blade. The hippogriff that had been about to close its jaws on his skull was lifted clean off the ground as Cloud used the sword to lever it up and over, throwing it into another monster. The SOLDIER straightened and scowled at him before they were again swept into the fervor of the battle.

Cloud ignored the burning and aching of his body, falling into a trance of hacking and slashing, dodging and running. When the frightened yell from one of the troopers caught his attention, he leapt high out of the fray to land in between the monster and its attempted victim. One swing knocked the hippogriff onto its flank, and a second swing took care of it before it could rise. Cloud stumbled, sticking Zack's sword into the ground to catch himself as a wave of vertigo overtook him. This wasn't going to last much longer. More of the creatures were joining the battle every second, and Cloud was tiring too fast. He could save himself if he fled, but the troopers and the SOLDIERs would be overwhelmed in short order. Even if he stayed and fought, it was unlikely Cloud would be able to protect them and keep his own skin whole. He could only pray that Zack somehow learned of their predicament, and made it here in time to save the others.

Overhead, a steady thumping noise had been getting louder, and he saw out of the corner of his eye a helicopter clear the top of the cliff wall. Something electric lanced through him, dragged at him, and made him gasp. Cloud's hand clutched convulsively at the sword holding him up, even as a thrill of terror screamed through him. As if a mine had been triggered, the ground exploded. Dirt, debris, and blood from destroyed hippogriffs spurted into the air like a geyser lengthwise across the clearing. In another part of the clearing it happened again, this time felling several trees. A third strike, and water sprayed into the air as the stream was bisected and a part of the cliff wall sent crashing down. As the dust fell, Cloud could see deep rifts scored into the ground, decorated with bits of monster and rubble.

Like something out of his nightmares, Sephiroth alighted but a few feet away, his coat swaying around him and his hair floating down as if he were weightless. It felt as if all the air had left Cloud's lungs as the man turned toward him. Green eyes flickered over him, then in the next second Masamune's eerie song filled Cloud's ears. He couldn't react in time as the blade sped toward him, too paralyzed by shock and fear and...

Light glinted off several feet of cold steel over his shoulder, but Cloud's mind had gone blank with horror. He couldn't believe it was happening, didn't want to recognize the tall figure standing imposingly in front of him, sword held with the careless grace that exuded from every inch of the man. Time seemed to slow, enhancing every sound from the liquid squelch of the wounded beast behind him, to the whistle of wind that stirred the silver locks of his enemy's hair, to the beating of the air from the helicopter rotaries above. Cloud felt like he'd lost his mind again, that he was stuck reliving the worst moments of his life in a twisted fun house recollection; distorted from reality, but recognizable enough to be twice as terrifying.

I will never be a memory, and it was true, a hysterical part of Cloud's mind gibbered. Not even a handful of months after he'd been defeated.... What right did Sephiroth have to show up here, now? Didn't Cloud get at least a few years grace before he was forced to sacrifice another chunk of his soul to the monster in front of him?

Adrenaline poured into Cloud, making the Buster Sword in his hand suddenly feel as light as a cardboard tube. Sephiroth's sword was momentarily burdened with the hippogriff corpse, and Cloud needed every microsecond he could get if he were to defeat him once again. There was little finesse in the swing as Cloud drove the blade for Sephiroth's side, praying that luck would be on his side just this once.

Sephiroth whirled out of the way and brought Masamune up automatically to catch the sword, and for a moment they were locked together. Cloud glared desperately, wildly, over the locked blades at the man he'd spent so much time fighting. Then the deadly sword Sephiroth wielded snaked out from under the Buster Sword, and Cloud had to move quickly to block the swift series of strikes that came his way. The entire time, Masamune seemed to croon mockingly in his ears, but the ringing of swords was a familiar song to Cloud. Masamune was as deadly as ever, the blows coming in almost too fast for Cloud to keep up. Almost. The Buster Sword reacted to his commands, blocking the deadly length from reaching him. Sephiroth was driving him back, keeping Cloud on the defense for as long as he could. He always did, never waiting for Cloud to make the first move, only stopping to taunt when Cloud was unable to retaliate.

Cloud vowed not to give Sephiroth the chance this time. While the sword dance was familiar, Sephiroth wasn't attacking at full power. He probably wanted to toy with Cloud for a while. Cloud abruptly shifted his grip on the sword, changing a defensive block into an offensive push to knock Sephiroth back. In the moment of space, he brought the blade in an underhand sweep that caused the ground to explode in a shower of rubble. Sephiroth would dodge the shock wave one way or another. While his attention was divided, Cloud leapt over and through the concealing dust cloud, bringing the Buster Sword down in an overhand blow where he could still sense Sephiroth's presence.

Cloud's sword, Zack's sword, gave a harsh metallic screech as it connected with another blade, but it wasn't the familiar ringing tones of the Masamune, a sound that had become ingrained into his memory long ago. Something shattered in the dust, and Masamune sung again as a small shard of metal flew past Cloud's face, nicking it just enough to draw a line of blood. He barely felt the sting, too busy staring in stunned amazement as Zack was suddenly between him and Sephiroth.

This wasn't supposed to happen, just like Zack wasn't supposed to be alive, and neither was Sephiroth, damnit. So much was wrong, and Cloud's head was pounding in time to his heart beat as he had nowhere to release the battle rush that had abruptly been cut short. Zack bent his knees under the pressure of the Buster Sword which he was holding off with one of the standard long swords the SOLDIERs wielded. A second one, shattered in two by Masamune no doubt, was in his other hand. Cloud stumbled slightly as Zack shoved back hard to get the pressure off, before he turned to him.

“Oh, hey, Cloud! You found my sword!”

“Zack,” Sephiroth stated flatly.

Across from him, Sephiroth lowered Masamune, though Cloud refused to let his guard down. Zack's cheerful comment was so incongruous to the seriousness of the moment, ignoring the very life-or-death balance. But what really made Cloud freeze in surprise was Sephiroth's response. There was no mocking lilt to his voice, no trace of madness or the god-complex that had driven the man's final moments. It was too…human to be Sephiroth, and yet Cloud could see with his own eyes the truth of it.

“Sorry about that, Sephiroth. Cloud took a spill into the mako over there and he's been a little disoriented ever since. You know how it is. I know he's kind of intimidating, Cloud, but you don't need to attack the guy....”

He didn't resist when Zack wrestled the sword out of his hands. Several puzzle pieces were finally clicking together, as the confused recollection of the last twelve hours or so resolved themselves in his mind. Zack was alive and well, and strangely unfamiliar with Cloud. ShinRa troops were still active, and there were even SOLDIERs here, their differently colored uniforms standing out among the regular troopers. Even Aerith hadn't been right, sounding more alive than he'd ever heard her before. Sephiroth was here before him, not with a killing intent focused solely on Cloud, as if the rest of the world didn't matter, as if Cloud was the only one he wanted to see suffer. Instead he was sane, quieter than Cloud expected, and standing with a powerful aloofness that not even the madness had erased completely. And now he was…toeing one of the hippogriff corpses, and Cloud could barely believe he was seeing the great General doing something so mundane.

Cloud shook his head, aware that Zack's hand was a steady weight on his shoulder, and that he had probably been trying to get his attention. Cloud could sense the stares from the few men around them, mirroring the expression he could see spread across one SOLDIER's face. Awe, incredulity, quite a bit of terror, and his gaze was resting solely on Cloud, as if Cloud had done something inhumanly insane. Laughter bubbled up in Cloud's throat, and he was helpless to prevent the wheezing chuckles from escaping his throat. He felt raw, exposed, yet a bubble of pure hope and happiness rose up in his chest. There was only one explanation for this; he had been given a second chance for redemption.

"Zack," he rasped, his throat sore from his exertions and overwhelming emotion, "You're real!" He collapsed forward, laughter still escaping his mouth. Zack's arms were quickly around him before he could hit the ground, though if he said anything Cloud couldn't hear it over the roaring in his own ears. Surrounded by his friend's warmth, he relaxed in the knowledge that for now, everything was going to be okay.

 


 

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

Chapter Text

 


Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 03 – Crisis of Confession

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 11th) 


 

 

Junon, Zack thought, was all burnished bronze and golden brown, unlike Midgar.  The warm colors of the city could make you forget it was essentially a giant weapon and fortress.  ShinRa's Junon Branch office wasn't much different from the main headquarters in Midgar, though.  Smaller, of course, much smaller, but not exactly different.  There was still a lot of pretension.  Zack eyeballed the huge desk at the far end of the room, before letting his attention wander to the large space's sole occupant, the very man he'd come looking for.  In a space of warm tones that not even industrial steel could destroy, Sephiroth stood out like a bandersnatch among a group of jumpings.  He was leaning against one of the rectangular steel desks, his back to the large screens taking up the left wall.  The glow reflected off his hair, dying it patchy colors of pink and gold as information flickered across them.

Zack headed toward him, stopping only to grab a chair from another desk and drag it across the floor so he could position it near Sephiroth.  He spun it around, then straddled it and crossed his arms over the back.  Sephiroth didn't even look up from the sheet of paper his attention was apparently devoted to.  Zack wondered if Sephiroth did that to look busy so people would leave him alone.  The silence held, accented only by the occasional grinding of a computer, or the hiss of its cooling fans as Zack waited for Sephiroth to acknowledge him.  When it became clear he wasn't going to, he locked his boots around the legs of his chair and said, “Soooo....”  Sephiroth didn't even glance up.  “We haven't spoken in awhile so I thought I'd come and see how you were doing, maybe have a chat....”

Sephiroth looked up at last, and Zack put on a hopeful smile.   Maybe his lead in had worked.  His smile turned wry when Sephiroth glanced back to the paper, though he did speak.  “Don't you have things to do?”

Zack wilted slightly under the faint reprimand and ran his hand over his hair.  He paused and brought it back around to look at his bare palm.  He hadn't even replaced his gloves yet.  “Nah, I already took care of everything that I can.”  To demonstrate he held his hand up and began to tick points off on his fingers.  “Got the injured men into the hands of the medical staff, made sure everyone else was assigned rooms for the night, called Lazard to give him a preliminary report and was ordered to report to him as soon as I get back to Midgar, tried to get one stubborn idiot to go with the medics and failed spectacularly, gave up, and came to find you.”

Sephiroth was actually watching him over the top of that paper he was holding now.  “The one who attacked me?”

Zack did a double take at the question, and dragged his attention away from the rather nice view of the ocean out the massive windows.  The sun reflecting off of it was rather dazzling.  “Oh, yeah, that's the one.  I'm not sure why, but he adamantly refused to get seen.  I figure it might be the mako still making him jittery, so I laid off.  Hopefully he'll calm down and I can get him to get a check up.”  Sephiroth's intense scrutiny was weird, and Zack held his hands up as if to ward off further reprimand.  “I made sure the guys who bunked down with him will keep an eye on him.  A couple of them are SOLDIERs so they'll know what to watch for.”

Their conversation, if you could call it that, was interrupted by the quiet tap-tap of shoes on the floor.  Zack glanced over at the same time Sephiroth did to see Tseng walking toward them.  The Turk looked as impassive as ever, his suit not even the least bit rumpled.  Zack kind of envied him that for a moment, until his phone beeped.  When it was obvious that Tseng was there to talk to Sephiroth, he fished his phone out, one ear tuned in to the conversation beside him.  It wasn't eavesdropping if they were talking right in front of him and knew he was there, after all.

“You'll be able to return to Midgar soon.”  Tseng's conversational tone made Zack glance up from his phone in curiosity.   Sephiroth, it seemed, had gone back to studying that paper in his hands.  Zack took a moment to wonder where it had come from, and what it was even about.

“Is that so?”  Sephiroth's voice startled Zack out of his contemplations, and he looked back down at his phone.  The time caught his attention, and only made him feel more tired.  Zack barely contained a groan.

(Only around fifteen hundred hours Midgar Standard and Junon's an hour behind....)  To distract himself, he opened his inbox to check out the message he had received.  Zack wasn't surprised to find it was from Kunsel.

“Yes, the arrival of the scientists is imminent,” Tseng said.  His shoes scuffed ever so slightly against the floor as he turned to go, then he paused.  Zack looked up again at the uncharacteristic hesitation.  “I hear that this account has caught a great deal of attention.”

“Hmm, I see,” Sephiroth murmured.  Zack turned his attention back to him just as Sephiroth turned and set the paper he'd been holding down on the desk.  As Sephiroth swept past Tseng, he added, “Inform Director Lazard that I'll take some of the men to deal with the infestation at the Mythril Mines. It will do them good after such a...demoralizing affair.  Zack, come with me.”  Startled at the order, Zack knocked the chair over in his hurry to follow Sephiroth.

“What?  Why?”  Zack asked.  He hurriedly set the chair back up, scrambled after the man, and left behind a very bemused Tseng.  “What's going on, Sephiroth?”  Sephiroth didn't respond, merely cut across the room and out the door onto the landing beyond.  Zack followed after him, feeling a bit sulky, and turned his attention to the phone still in his hand.  Sephiroth would probably tell him in due time.  His boots clanged heavily on the metal stairwell as he followed Sephiroth down it, and Zack was mildly envious of the way Sephiroth's steps didn't seem quite as heavy.  Then again, Sephiroth wasn't carrying a sword that probably weighed as much, if not more than he did.  In fact, he didn't appear to have the Masamune on him at all.  Zack finally opened the mail as they hit the landing on the first floor.

A bunch of scientists just left in several helicopters. 

I heard that Hojo was among them.

I wonder what's so interesting to get that guy out of his lab?

Zack frowned at the news, then thought back on the conversation he'd just heard.  Tseng had mentioned scientists arriving, and then Sephiroth had flown into motion.  He paused on the last stair of the second staircase to stick his phone back into his pocket.  Sephiroth didn't pause to wait for him as he cut across the room, and past the statue at its center.  Zack jogged after him even as he made a mental note to tell Kunsel he needed to get a date.  His friend was really too involved in his gossip collecting.

There were people loitering down here, unlike the branch office's second floor, and several of them were stopping to gawk at Sephiroth as he prowled past them in a swirl of silver hair and black leather.  Zack dodged them until he fell into step with the man.  “Sephiroth?  Where are we going?”  He wanted to ask if this had anything to do with Hojo.  Angeal had said that Sephiroth didn't like the man when Genesis had attacked the ShinRa building earlier in the year.  But wasn't this a bit much?

“To collect our team,” Sephiroth replied.  Zack just felt more bewildered, but decided to follow along regardless.  Obviously the man was up to something, even if Zack couldn't tell what.

Lying on the stiff, military issue bunk in the dark, Cloud listened to the rustle of cloth as someone rolled over on their own bed.  The soldiers from the aborted mission had all been instructed to retire and recover, despite the relatively early hour.  Not that Cloud was sleeping.  He stared sightlessly at the ceiling as he let his mind wander and his body recover.  It was odd; despite being dumped summarily into the past, Cloud didn't feel much different.  He'd seen his face in a passing mirror; younger, his hair a wild frizz on his head from the grime and slime it had been subjected to, but still with the familiar mako glow to his eyes. Surreptitious observation led him to believe that he was depressingly even shorter now than he'd been in the future, though only by an inch or two.  Other than that, he felt perfectly normal. 

Even his strength was the same as before, and he knew that, logically, that shouldn't be so.  Either he should have looked older, which would have brought a wealth of questions Cloud did not want to answer, or he should have been as he was years ago, a normal trooper.  His body still twinged occasionally, leading him to believe the aching and muscle pains he'd experienced were connected to the amalgam of his younger and older self.

Cloud pulled his mind away from those disorientating thoughts and considered what had happened after he'd realized that Zack was real and not some sort of mako-dream.  While he hadn't quite blacked out on the battlefield, he had been pretty much useless after he'd managed to stop his hysterical laughter.  The adrenaline that had kept him upright up until then had run out, and his body had paid the toll.  He'd been a shaky mess, unable to even walk on his own, but at least his head had finally cleared from the confusion it had suffered from his impromptu mako bath.

The helicopter ride back to Junon had been torture, however.  Zack had insisted he ride with him in the smaller chopper, while the rest of the surviving troops had bundled into the larger vehicles designed to transport them and their equipment.  The worst part was that Cloud was stuck in close confinement with not only a hyperactively worried Zack, but also Sephiroth, Tseng, and a much younger Reno as pilot.  Cloud wondered if his ghosts had to haunt him, if they couldn't find better company next time.

As they left the area, they had passed an incoming helicopter, which Tseng had informed them–or Zack and Sephiroth, presumably, and him just by circumstance –that it was full of SOLDIER 2nds, who would take care of the cleanup of the battlefield.  Cloud spent the next few hours bemusedly responding to Zack's queries about his health, mostly with a monosyllabic 'Fine'. It was slightly amusing how many times Zack had asked him if he was feeling airsick, though.  The badgering had stopped when Reno lost his temper and threatened to crash the helicopter if Zack didn't shut up for five minutes.  Tseng hadn't reprimanded the outburst, leading Cloud to believe that he was also tired of Zack's unending energy.  It was surreal for Cloud to observe the patience Sephiroth had, and he'd been sure he saw just the hint of an amused smile at one point.

The nerve-wracking flight had finally ended when they'd landed in Junon, and Sephiroth and Tseng had taken off almost immediately.  Zack stuck with Cloud, seeming to be intent on dragging him to the nearest medical facility.  Cloud had resisted, not wanting to have anything to do with doctors ever again.  He'd won the argument, mostly because he did seem to be fine on his feet now, having had time to recover on the trip over.  Zack had trailed after him when he rejoined the troops, swiftly taking command and ordering the lot of them into the local barracks to rest and recover.

Cloud had been bunked with five others, three regular troopers and two of the SOLDIERs, who he learned were rookie Thirds.  In all the confusion no one was worried about rank or division, just at finding a place to crash for a few hours as the higher-ups regrouped.   It had been a surprise when the five had immediately volunteered to watch over him in response to Zack's query.  He recognized a couple of the faces from the last fight among the monsters, so it was odd that they were so eager to be in his presence still.  Cloud would have thought they'd have been scared off.

"Uh…. Hey Cloud, you awake?" a quiet voice drifted through the dim room from the bunk above him, and interrupted his musings abruptly.  Cloud raised an eyebrow in the darkness as, around him, a sudden concentration of attention focused in his direction.  Obviously his bunk mate wasn't the only one still awake.

"…Yeah," he finally answered, equally quiet.  It had been a long time since strangers had attempted to talk to him.  The only human contact he really had was his friends, and sometimes the orphans.  Other people were just incidentals who were forgotten the moment they were out of sight.

"You, uh, doing okay?" his bunkmate asked tremulously.  He sounded unsure of what to say, and Cloud didn’t blame him.  To their view, Cloud must have seemed to have gone completely insane; not an uncommon occurrence due to mako poisoning.  Cloud pondered for a moment if he should even bother answering the question.  The opportunity was lost when another voice piped up from across the room.

"You must have been insane!" came a low, excited voice.  "You went toe to toe with the General!  I mean, has anyone ever seen him up close like that before?"

"I have," came a third voice.  "He was there during our advancement.  Damned impressive to look at, but hell if anyone can tell what he's thinking."

"I think he looked bored," came yet another voice.  Cloud absently ticked off numbers in his head, trying to match the voices to the half-remembered faces of his companions.  "All he had to do was stand around looking official.  It was Director Lazard that did all the talking.  The guy could inspire rocks to get up and march, I swear."

"Is SOLDIER all that different?" the second voice asked, eagerness lacing his tone.  "It's hard enough to get into, but...um, is it worth all the hype it gets?"

"If you survive the mako, you mean?" the first SOLDIER asked, bitingly.  Cloud noted the hostility there, wondering if maybe the man had had to deal with Hojo up close and personal.  He wouldn't blame anyone for hating that poor excuse of a human being.

"Stop scaring the grunts, Edge," the other SOLDIER reprimanded.  "SOLDIER isn't too much different.  You get sent out on the harder assignments, have more responsibility, and are expected to bring back perfect results.  The rumor is that if you don't fulfill your missions to the exact order, you get sent to the General to explain exactly what went wrong."

"Now who's scaring the grunts?" the first SOLDIER muttered.

"I think I'd rather stick with the regular army," Cloud's bunkmate said wistfully.  "I mean, you have everything you need, and if things go wrong, it's the officer's problem to take care of it.  Well, except when things like today happen, I guess."

"Do you think you're going to come back to our squad, Cloud?  Or do you think the scientists are going to want to check you out, make sure the mako didn't do any damage?" Cloud started when he realized the comment was directed at him.  He frowned in the dark.

"I won't go to the scientists," he said, voice quiet and firm.  That, at least, he was sure of.  He didn't answer the question completely, unsure at the moment what he planned to do.  If he stayed in the regular army, he would eventually be assigned to the Nibelheim mission, and from there he could attempt to destroy Jenova before she had a chance to get her claws into Sephiroth's mind.

On the other hand, there was no guarantee that such a plan would work.  Cloud couldn't say for sure when Sephiroth had stepped over the edge of madness, and waiting that long would be a dangerous move.  If he left now, deserted the army and returned to Nibelheim first, there was a chance he could get to her before Sephiroth even came near.   That was assuming that Sephiroth wouldn’t go mad anyway.  And Cloud would have to leave Zack behind, unaware of the danger he was in.

The uncomfortable silence his statement had left was broken when the room was suddenly flooded with light, spilling in from the open door way.  Two figures were silhouetted, but Cloud didn't even have to look to recognize that at least one of them was Sephiroth.  The Jenova cells in him resonated still.  He climbed out of the bed a bit more slowly than the others, who had scrambled madly to attention the second they realized an officer was present.

Cloud tried not to crack a smile at how they tried to look dignified and at attention in their undershirts, faces tight when they realized exactly who had come to call.  He turned his own gaze on his long time enemy, and current enigma in his life.  It was times like this that he missed First Tsurugi the most.

Sephiroth paced into the room, leaving a rather bewildered looking Zack lurking in the doorway.  “The six of you are going to accompany SOLDIER Fair and I to deal with an infestation in the Mythril Mines,” he said shortly, voice precise and to the point. “Be ready and at the airport's lift in twenty minutes.”

“What?” Zack yelped.  “But, Sephiroth, you just...shouldn't we at least wait until morning and—”

“Make sure they have all their gear,” Sephiroth said, cutting him off, then swept out as quickly as he'd come.  The barrack was frozen, no one willing to even breathe after the whirlwind of chaos that had just swept through.  Cloud certainly felt unbalanced.  It was beyond disturbing, but he found he was missing Sephiroth's attention, too thrown when the man all but ignored him.  Too many years had passed where Cloud was the sole focus of that insane, cat-like green gaze, and now there was nothing.  He didn't even think Sephiroth had said a single word to him directly.

The Thirds were the first to move, efficiently collecting their gear and beginning to dress.  That sent the troopers to scrambling around as well.  When the General gave an order, you don't question it, after all.  Cloud felt more out of place than ever, standing there half dressed and alone.  He probably should pull on the over-sized uniform he'd tossed in a corner of the bed, but Zack was still standing there in the doorway, gaze fixed on the empty hallway Sephiroth had disappeared down.

He took a hesitant step toward his friend, just in time to hear Zack mutter, “What's up with that guy?"  Then Zack snorted, and laughed. “Maybe he's running away?”  Cloud wasn't sure how it was supposed to be funny.  Running away and Sephiroth didn't mesh in his mind.  Maybe it was irony?  Cloud's atrophied sense of humor couldn't keep up with Zack's mind.

Cloud hadn't voluntarily talked to someone in quite a while, but he was determined to spend every moment he could talking with his friend, or at least listening.  It was too good, too unbelievable still, that he could speak to Zack, that he was alive and well.  So instead of turning around and joining the others, most of whom were already nearly ready in their military efficiency, Cloud took another step toward Zack, unsure how to even begin…chatting.

"Er…hi Zack?"  He felt his face heat up a bit at the awkwardness, and hoped that the flush wasn't obvious on his face.  Forget being inconspicuous; Cloud already knew he'd never be able to blend in with the troopers anymore.  He couldn't remember a fraction of military rules and regulations, and didn't think he'd be able to show proper military deference to Zack, let alone other superior ranked officers.  He doubted he could even recognize a superior officer.  If he hadn't already, Zack was sure to catch on to Cloud's odd behavior.  Now all Cloud had to do was decide how to handle that.

Zack turned, crooked grin in place, and raised a hand in a strange, aborted motion toward his hair. Instead he rubbed at the back of his neck. “Hey, Cloud,” he greeted. “You still feeling okay this morning?” Zack leaned in toward him, eyes roaming his face as if to see if he was looking at all ill. Before Cloud could say a word, he breezed on, “Well, no matter. You look alright, I guess. You better get dressed so we can get over to the equipment lockers and get you a uniform that's closer to your size, and find you some gear. If we don't get to the lift right on time, Sephiroth will probably leave us here and hoof it to Midgar on his own.”  He clapped Cloud on the shoulder, gave a little wave and quit the room.

Once again Cloud was struck by the disjointed sensation that the entire world hand gone insane.   Zack had breezed out of the room without so much as a seconds pause, leaving Cloud feeling slightly snubbed again.  He mentally kicked himself for the selfish thought.  No matter how much he wished it, Zack had other things to worry about than one messed up trooper, and he wasn't acting unkind, just pre-occupied.  Cloud had to remember that he was a nobody at this point, just an ordinary, low-class military grunt.

“Can you believe this? A mission. With the General," one of the troopers breathed in an awestruck tone.  Cloud absently made a mental note to learn their names at least, since he was stuck with them for the unforeseeable future.  He did finally turn around and stride back to his bunk, where he dressed mechanically and listened with one ear to the gossiping troopers.  They seemed content to wait for him to finish.

"Fucking hell," one of the Thirds said, running a nervous hand through his hair.  "I don't know if we're just lucky, or if we should start writing out our wills now.  The General.  Fuck."

"Just think of it as a promotion opportunity, Gibbs," the other Third said, grinning as he lounged against the bed post.  Cloud thought he recalled the man's name was Edge.

"But then why were we picked?" Cloud's bunkmate asked worriedly.  "I mean, we're not even SOLDIERs."

"Don't be stupid, why do you think we were picked?" one of the troopers said scathingly, giving Cloud a pointed look.  "I bet the General is just as curious as everyone else about the trooper who had the balls to go sword to sword with him." Cloud raised a non-committal eyebrow, not apologetic in the least for his actions.  While they probably would turn into trouble further along the line, Cloud would rather attack a completely innocent—a thought his mind choked on—Sephiroth by mistake then let the insane one have a moment to wreak havoc on the world again.

"That was just the mako," another trooper said.  "Cloud's been in my team for a several months, and we'd have noticed something odd before now.  Right Cloud?"

"Uh…yeah," he responded, uncomfortably aware that his younger self would have known the other man's name, and that he had no clue how he was supposed to act.  Was he friends with the guy?  More likely they rarely talked.  Cloud didn't remember much of his ShinRa grunt days, but he remembered he'd been focused single-mindedly on getting into SOLDIER, or his failure to.  "Shouldn't we get going?  Se—the, uh, General gave us twenty minutes?" he said, hoping the distraction would get their attention off of him and any oddities he was exuding.

"Ah shit, yeah.  Move it, Jac!" the third trooper said, shoving the nearest man in the shoulder toward the door.  "I'm not going to miss out on this opportunity because you wanted to gossip like an old washer woman!"

"So what does that make us?" Edge asked caustically, mako eyes narrowing at the trooper.  There seemed to be no menace behind the action, something the trooper also picked up on.

"That makes you head washer woman, sir!" the trooper said, saluting with a cocky grin.  The poor joke was met with more laughter than it probably deserved, nerves running tight through everyone and making them giddy and reckless.  Cloud fell in silently behind Edge and the trooper Jac, the other three marching out the door behind him.

To everyone’s surprise, judging by the cut off exclamation from Jac, Zack was leaning against the wall right outside the door.  Cloud's attention was immediately captured again by his old friend.   Zack's expression was serious and thoughtful as if he were deep in thought. The company pulled together in a salute, and Cloud hastily copied the action.

"Sir!" Edge said, standing at attention. "We were just on our way to the rendezvous point."

The serious look that had been on Zack's face moments ago disappeared as he cracked a grin and pushed away from the wall. “At ease, men,” he quipped, in what sounded to Cloud as a poor, joking imitation of Sephiroth's sharper tones. Zack looked them over in a brief inspection, pacing back and forth before them and clearly not too concerned.  When he stopped in the middle of the hall he propped his hands on his hips.  “Well, everything looks good to me. If you need anything, go get it, if not go rendezvous and you can gossip to your heart's content. For example, I heard that the scientists are arriving already. Apparently the rookies this year made a big first impression.” Then his attention was on Cloud.  Cloud felt oddly breathless as he met Zack's eyes, somehow worried it would all fade away.  The moment, no longer than a second, was broken as Zack said, “Cloud, you're with me.”

There were a few flushes of embarrassment among the men, even as they saluted and headed off. Zack reached out and grabbed hold of Cloud's upper arm and began to tug him after them, down the short flight of stairs in the multistory building, until they emerged out onto Junon's streets.  The other men were already well ahead of them in their rush, a few scattering off in other directions; most likely in search of things they were missing from their gear.  Zack was a whirlwind of energy, not giving Cloud time to gather his thoughts as he was swept up in his wake.  Zack didn't let him go even as they turned a corner, leaving the other men to proceed to the airport themselves.  Not that Cloud wanted to go anywhere else.

“It was a good thing Sephiroth reminded me that you didn't have any equipment, or it might've gotten lost in the shuffle. By the way, I've been wondering....” Zack cut off as an officer rounded the corner, and Cloud could only watch in bemusement as he shifted closer to him until the man was gone.  Was there a reason he was mistrustful of ShinRa?  Cloud knew there was every reason for that, but what had set Zack off?  Cloud had no desire to stand out anyway.  At least, once he decided what he was supposed to do with this second chance.  'Stop Sephiroth and don't let Zack and Aerith die' was all well and good, but not much of a plan, he had to admit.  “Anyway, I was wondering...where did you learn to use a sword like that? That wasn't regular infantry skills.”

Cloud barely controlled a flinch.  (I stole your memories and copied your sword technique.)  "I…learned the basics from a friend," he managed to mumble out.

Before he could get too mired in bitter thoughts, Zack drew him out again.  “Ah, here we are!”  Cloud allowed himself to be manhandled into the supply room where Zack immediately began banging around the lockers and lobbing equipment at him.  He frowned, unhappy that he was once again forced to work for ShinRa, even in a minor capacity.  He changed quickly, knowing their time here was limited and not wanting to do anything to get Zack in trouble with Sephiroth.

“That work?” Zack asked after a brief moment.  Cloud gave a noncommittal grunt of acknowledgment.  The clothes did fit, so much as regulation clothes could.  Movement made him glance up to see Zack step to the wall that bore a rack of rifles. Once Zack had selected one, he turned and straddled one of the benches set in the middle of the room and began checking it over. Cloud went back to staring distastefully at the helmet in his hands.  He very nearly stopped breathing when Zack spoke again, “Hey, Cloud? I know we haven't known each other very long but.... You know if you need help you can talk to me. We're friends, right?”  The helmet slipped from Cloud's suddenly numb fingers.  The hollow 'thunk' of it hitting the floor rang loudly in the empty room.

(“We're friends, right?”)

Of all the things Cloud wished he could both remember and forget, that line cut straight into his heart.  Zack, who had sacrificed so much for him, yet still was able to call him 'friend'.  Now he was right there, staring with earnest blue eyes at Cloud, as if the statement was a simple fact.  Cloud ducked his head, unable to speak past the lump in his throat.  He quickly scooped up his fallen helmet, using the motion to compose himself.  He had a terrible urge to run away, just take off into the wilderness where he could be alone and not have to worry about disappointing his loved ones.  Cloud gave himself a mental shake and slipped the helmet on over his head to hide his expression.  If he kept this up nothing would change.

"I like to think so," he said, voice muffled by his scarf.  "If it's a bother, I can…stop."  He didn't think that was what Zack had meant, but with his non-existent social skills he didn't want to miss a cue that was obvious to everyone else.

Zack looked down at the rifle he held and switched the safety on before standing and holding it out to Cloud. The look Zack was giving him was serious, until he cracked an easy smile.  “Good. That means we watch each other's backs, alright? You had mine in Modeoheim with Hollander, and I've got yours now.” Cloud took the rifle absently, more focused on Zack's words and the emotions plainly displayed on his face.  There was no doubt that Zack knew something was up.  Cloud just had no idea what to say to reassure him, or alternatively if he should just tell Zack everything now and get it over with.  Logically, there was no reason not to tell him.  Except that he might brand Cloud as clinically insane, that is.

He was relieved that Zack had dismissed Cloud's hesitancy without comment, instead reassuring him that despite it all, Zack was Zack and still considered him a friend.  Cloud wasn't exactly sure what Modeoheim had to do with anything, but he did vaguely remember an old town of that name.  The holes in his memories were becoming worrisome; he'd always known they were there, but until now hadn't realized just how prolific they were.  Zack's words dispelled some of the doubt and worry, and Cloud knew that even if he did screw something up, he would still be there to support him.  It was a nice feeling, familiar in that it was what Tifa had been trying to pound through his skull for years.

Cloud started slightly as Zack's hand plunked down on top of his helmeted head, and his friend leaned in closer.  “And do me a favor and keep that on unless you're sure of your privacy, and who you're with.”  The blatant worry Zack expressed set Cloud’s nerves on end.  There was some reason his friend didn't want Cloud's face to be seen, or possibly recognized.  Perhaps his inadvertent fight with Sephiroth was already causing shock waves throughout ShinRa.  The man had been untouchable before his fall, and Cloud doubted Hojo would take kindly to anyone challenging that pedestal.  A chill ran down his back at the thought of being subject to Hojo's curiosity.  (Never again.)

Zack stepped back, and clenched one hand into a fist.  “Alright, so, you ready to go face Sephiroth? Excited? Nervous?” Zack's laugh was bright and easy. “I don't think you'll have to worry too much so long as you don't attack him again. I was so surprised when I saw that! I mean, Cloud, you were handling yourself really well out there!”  Zack's sudden switch from seriousness to humor was jarring, and Cloud welcomed the change of pace.  Not so much the subject he chose, though Cloud was willing to tell Zack anything he wanted to know.  Even if it got him in trouble later.  There was no way he could bring himself to lie to his friend, when he knew Zack could and would sacrifice anything for Cloud.

"Kind of…nervous, I guess," he said hesitantly.  "I…didn't realize Se—uh, the General was there to help.   Sorry for the trouble…" he trailed off.  How to address his sudden ability to take on Sephiroth one on one, though?  Maybe if he didn't say anything, Zack would fill in his own explanation.  That would have to do for now.

Zack waved a hand absently through the air as he led Cloud out of the room with an amused look.  “I wouldn't worry about it too much. You were in the middle of a pretty nasty fight and had just had a close encounter with some mako.  That's enough to make anyone lose their head.”  Cloud blinked at the reminder.  It was odd, but with everything else running through his head clamoring for attention, he had nearly forgotten his recent mako bath.  With some luck, that would explain away many of the oddities he'd 'acquired', at least long enough for Cloud to figure out how to fit in better.  Trust Zack to come up with a solution to Cloud's problems, even if he wasn't aware he was doing so.

“On the bright side,” Zack carried on blithely, “It got Sephiroth out of the ShinRa building. I haven't seen him since before Modeoheim.... Nearly a year, come to think of it.”  That sent a foreboding chill down went Cloud's spine.  It was quickly becoming a familiar sensation, and one he didn't like at all.  If Sephiroth was already withdrawing into himself, that was dangerous.  It had only taken a few days in Nibelheim for Sephiroth to completely lose it.  Who knew what he was reading, whether Hojo was planting false or adjusted information, and what sort of conclusions Sephiroth was coming to.  Perhaps preventing his collapse into madness was as simple as removing Hojo from the equation.  It was a pleasant thought.  Cloud vowed to test the validity of that hypothesis.

Zack didn't seem to require any input from Cloud as they strode down the hallways, and sent him a crooked grin, his head tilted in vague self mockery.  “Apparently I'm just not good enough company.” The comment did make Cloud give the barest grin; he couldn't see anyone not appreciating Zack's company, when put like that.  As Zack fell silent, Cloud didn’t bother trying to start up another conversation.  He had no idea where to start, and there wasn't anything to say right now.  They were short on time anyway, having already missed the twenty minute deadline, and hurrying through ShinRa-infested halls was hardly the place for any heartfelt talks.

They soon emerged into the bright afternoon sunlight of Junon's airport.  Sephiroth was waiting with the other soldiers beside the large lift, a sheathed Masamune held in one hand.  Cloud couldn't help a nervous jerk as his hand reached for a sword that wasn't there.  Or rather, was strapped to Zack's back at the moment.  He tightened his grip on the strap of the gun hanging over his shoulder, wishing that he'd been allowed any sort of blade instead.

Beside him, Zack piped up, “Sorry we're late, Sephiroth, but I did as you told me to and made sure Cloud here was fully outfitted.” He held a hand out as if to present him to Sephiroth, a thought that made Cloud feel faintly ill. “I'm sure you're eager to get at those monsters.  Me?  I’d rather just get back to Midgar as soon as possible.”

Sephiroth turned away from them, his long silver hair swishing with the motion and strode onto the lift.  His voice floated back to them, “Be careful or someone might get the idea that you botched the mission on purpose.”  Cloud nearly dropped his rifle entirely, eyes wide behind the concealing visor, when he realized that Sephiroth, the great General and planetary nemesis, was teasing Zack.  Cloud knew that Sephiroth couldn't have been a monster from birth, and he didn't go around skewering random people on the Masamune...much.  It didn't stop the shock of seeing it in person.

Strangely, Cloud felt ashamed for his thoughts.  Despite the psychological and physical torture he'd suffered from the man in the past, Sephiroth had not yet done anything to deserve his ire.  Wasn't the whole point of a second chance that everyone could be saved?  Was it possible that even Sephiroth had a future other than madness?

A hand tugged at his sleeve, and he jerked his arm loose before common sense reasserted itself.  It was just one of the troopers, the one who had supposedly been on Cloud's team before. He didn't seem offended by Cloud's brush off, just jerking his head for Cloud to fall in with the rest of the troops. Shaken, Cloud did so, sliding into place between Gibbs and another still nameless trooper in line where a gap had been left for him.  Cloud nearly crawled right out of his skin when Sephiroth's feral green gaze swept over them.

Sephiroth's words weren't any more calming than his gaze. “If you're all prepared.” It was obvious that it was not a question so much as a demand, an order, that they had better be prepared, or they'd live to regret it.

“Some little monsters in the mines aren't going to overwhelm us,” Zack said cheerfully. “Let's go get them!”

The nameless trooper beside him muttered, “Speak for yourself, sir.”

Under Zack's hands on the lift controls they were born upward to get a glimpse of the helicopter idling nearby.  Afternoon sunlight glittered off its sleek, dark metal curves, and the heavy belly.  The side door already stood open showing the interior, though the pilot and co-pilot were already ensconced behind the controls.  Cloud suspected that this was where Sephiroth had disappeared to.  There was no way they'd have been ready and waiting otherwise.

“I hate flying,” he heard an acidic voice mutter.  A glance over showed that one of the Thirds, Edge, was looking a little pale under his helmet.  The other Third, Gibbs, clapped him roughly on the shoulder and made for the helicopter, ducking low to pass under the slowly spinning rotors.

A heavy feeling of trepidation settled in Cloud's stomach as he trotted over with the other troopers.  He wasn't looking forward to being cramped inside of another helicopter with Sephiroth so close by, and it was cramped.  The helicopter might have been one of ShinRa's models made specifically for transporting squadrons, but with the addition of Masamune and Buster Sword it was a near thing.  No one complained, though.  In fact no one said a word.  Even Zack was quiet as they left Junon behind.  Cloud wondered if Zack had gotten any sleep last night, though he looked fresh enough.  That could just be the mako talking, as Cloud well knew.  The other troopers looked like they wanted to nod off, but appeared to be too hyped up and uneasy to fall asleep in the Sephiroth's presence.

Cloud kept his gaze on his knees, aware that Sephiroth would probably feel it if he looked directly at him.  It was hard to contain his curiosity at the enigma the man presented.  There was still Cloud's knee-jerk reaction of reaching for a weapon every time Sephiroth made a more sudden than usual movement.  Other than that, it was as if Cloud's presence was of no consequence at all to the man.  Sephiroth acted quite normally, as far as Cloud could tell.  If he was abrasive when he spoke, it was because he was giving orders to his subordinates.  When he spoke to Zack, Cloud could hear something in his voice, not exactly humor, but a vibrancy that Cloud had no memory of.  The sheer absurdity of it all made Cloud want to stare.

He had to wonder what Sephiroth was thinking.  Now that there were no other distractions, Cloud could feel the hum and buzz of the Jenova cells in him reacting to the presence of the man.  Cloud had been designed to serve Sephiroth, and take his place if ever something happened to the original.  Hojo called him a failure, but there was still a connection that Cloud loathed every time he came face to face with his nemesis.  The connection still hummed under his skin, yet wasn't the overwhelming sensation he was used to.  Despite his racing thoughts, the silence and his fatigue slowly lulled Cloud's mind into a blissful state of blankness.  The only noise seemed to be the white noise buzz of the Jenova cells in the back of his mind.

By the time he roused himself from his mind-numbed state to try and stretch the kinks out of his stiff arms, a few hours had gone by.  A sudden lurch made his stomach flip uncomfortably in what might have been a residual effect of motion sickness that he hadn't really dealt with in years, or could have been a reaction to Sephiroth's sudden movement.  Cloud couldn't help but focus on him, and was relieved and baffled when the man yanked the helicopter’s door open even as it bumped down on the ground.  A second later, Sephiroth had vanished out the open door in a swirl of silver hair.   Zack was out next, followed closely by Edge who shoved his way to the front of the scramble to exit.  Cloud followed more slowly, his muscles more stiff and sore than he expected.

The other three troopers had stopped once they were out from under the rotors to stretch tired and cramped muscles.  Sephiroth and Zack weren't much farther off.  In fact, they were close enough for the wind from the rotor blades to buffet Sephiroth's hair and long coat.  Cloud jerked his attention elsewhere as Sephiroth's gaze traveled briefly in his direction.  A surreptitious glance back a second later showed that the man had been distracted by something Zack was saying.

Relieved, though he knew it had nothing to do with him, Cloud took in their surroundings.  They were situated at a relatively flat expanse of grass near where the rough incline up to the mines began.  Not too far off a fairly disused looking dirt road was visible.   Behind him, the helicopter's engine whined as it lifted off again to head back to Junon.

“You're looking a little peaky,” a coy voice crooned.  Cloud glanced over to see one of the troopers flashing one of the Thirds a toothy grin that was stark and bright against the dark color of his skin.

“I think you've got your helmet on backward, grunt,” Edge growled.  “It's not covering that gaping noise maker you call a mouth.”

Before the trooper could respond, Zack's voice cut clearly through the air, “Hey, it could be worse.  We could have made you jump out of the chopper.”  Edge immediately paled a shade further, one that looked an ashen, sickly hue.  Zack thumped his back as he walked past him.  “Better get used to it, man, it's one of the things you'll be expected to do as a SOLDIER.  Without a parachute.”  Cloud didn’t know if that was true or not, though judging by Edge’s expression it probably was.  A second later Zack's eyes were on Cloud, and his friend was walking right toward him.  Before he knew it, Zack was right in his face again as he attempted to peer through Cloud's visor.  “How you holding up, Cloud?  You're looking a little shaky.... I should have insisted you stay behind.”

The clear worry made something warm in his chest, though the cold feeling of fear that came with the thought of being left behind quickly snuffed it out.  In his mind all he could see was the green tinged memory of Zack walking away and never coming back.  “No it's.... I'm fine.  I'd rather be here.”  He'd have driven himself insane with worry knowing Zack was out here with Sephiroth anyway, though a part of him wondered if it would have been better if he stayed.  It was a part of him that was wondering what he should do now, what he should do about being in the past.

“If you're sure,” Zack said after a long pause.

“I...”  Was he sure of anything anymore?  He had no idea.  Zack seemed to be asking all the hard questions today, he noted wryly.  Even though he had no idea he was doing so.

“That's just Cloud for you,” a voice piped up from nearby.  Cloud shot a glance at the slouched figure of one of the troopers he had no name for yet.  “He's always like that about missions.  Well, the one's I've been on with him anyway.”  Cloud was struck once again by the uneasy feeling of not knowing someone who so obviously knew him.

Zack held his hands up in surrender with a lazy grin.  “Alright then, just don't push yourself too hard.”  Before he could say more, or Cloud could come up with another fumbled attempt to reassure him, Sephiroth called Zack's name.  “Ah, well, it appears duty calls.  Just remember, Cloud.  Speak up if you're starting to feel tired or something.”

Cloud watched him trot back to Sephiroth's side numbly, wanted nothing more than to hurry after him, or call out for him to stay.  The confusing mix of emotions brought up from last night was still choking him.  Instead he could only watch as Sephiroth turned on his heel and set off up the path behind him and Zack fell into step with him.  Zack turned back around, walking backwards, and motioned for them to follow.

The fingers he hadn't even realized he'd clenched on his rifle were beginning to ache.  Cloud was half worried he'd damaged the weapon. He forced himself to relax his grip and check it over.  Thankfully, it wasn't damaged.  He might not have cared for the weapon, but it was better than having nothing.  Cloud's head jerked up as someone called his name, and despite his unease he forced his anxiety stiff legs forward to fall into step beside another of the troopers.  It seemed they already had a marching order: a rookie Third at the front of their line and the other taking up the rear, with the four troopers paired in between, and Sephiroth and Zack in the lead.

Cloud looked ahead of him to where Sephiroth had crested a rise, Zack at his side.  The sun was descending toward the horizon behind them at just the right angle to glance off the man's silver hair and leave him in a disconcerting halo of light before he moved on.  Cloud turned his attention back to where his feet were being placed and tried to keep his worries and fears from overwhelming him.

He soon lost himself in the physical exertion of scrambling up the odd rock falls, and steep slopes.  He stopped for a moment to readjust his grip on his rifle, and looked back over his shoulder.  The clouds in the distance were edged with yellow-gold sunlight from the slowly setting sun.  The Third who had been traveling behind him had stopped as well, and a look forward showed that the other troopers were staggered out along the rocky path.  There still wasn't much, if any, chatter going on, the only sound the trooper's harsh breathing as they paced themselves. The SOLDIER 3rds were having less problems, but still looked red-faced. Ahead of them, Zack appeared to be lost in thought again, and Cloud had no idea at all what Sephiroth was thinking.

He hadn't really been paying enough attention to have a clear idea of how long they'd been on the move.  It was obvious, though, that the regulars were in need of a break.  Cloud gathered himself and said hesitantly, "Uh…sirs?  How long are we going to be marching?"  He wasn't sure what the military protocol for the situation was, but Zack wouldn't let Sephiroth run the troopers into the ground if there were monsters at the end of the march.  At least, he hoped Zack could do something about it.  He had said if he was feeling tired....  He couldn't help but feel guiltily like he was using his friend, though he knew that wasn't the case.  But like with the orphans, Cloud was surprised to find a certain fondness for the group around him.  Maybe it was just because he'd already defended them against monsters, or because they were the people he'd had the most contact with aside from Zack.

"Cloud's right," Gibbs said brusquely, voice rough from the exercise.  He turned his head around to give Cloud a brief nod of acknowledgment.  "Sorry sirs, but the troopers won't be able to keep this pace up for too much longer."

Zack came to a halt, perched on top of a boulder, and waved his arms briefly to regain his balance before he turned around to look at them.  Even from this distance, Cloud could make out the sheepish look on his face as Zack ruffled his hair.  “Whoa. Sorry about that guys, I guess we're all a little off today, aren't we?” Zack asked.  He swung around to look toward Sephiroth who had stopped a few paces further on. “We should probably stop for awhile, Sephiroth.”

Cloud tensed as Sephiroth turned and swept his gaze over them.  The fact that he did not linger on Cloud was both aggravating and a relief.  It was more baffling still when Sephiroth merely inclined his head in agreement, then turned and walked further away where he stood, his back to them.

Zack gave a faint snort, drawing Cloud's attention back to him as he hopped down from his perch.  “Go ahead sit down, try not to let your legs cramp up, because that really hurts. I hope some of you thought to grab some rations for the rest of us poor souls.”

As the men threw themselves down in the dirt or plopped down on various rocks, Cloud couldn't help but think it startling how quickly his hesitant comment brought about this result. Jac was spread on his back, chest heaving as he gulped in air, his pack discarded carelessly at his side.  Even Zack had made himself comfortable on the ground.  Cloud felt foolish standing there.

"Take a load off your feet, Cloud," one of the troopers Cloud still didn’t have a name for piped up, gesturing with one hand for Cloud to sit down.  "That pack must be killing you."  It had been part of the equipment Zack had shoved at him, though it had been such an insignificant weight that Cloud had barely noticed.  He hastily swung it off his shoulder and let it hit the dirt with a dusty thud.  He wasn't sure of its contents, but neither he nor Zack had added anything to it, so he doubted there was anything edible in the general equipment.  "Geeze, take off that helmet, too," the trooper continued with a laugh, knocking his hand against his own helmet at his side.  "You're making me hot just watching.  You always do tend to wear that thing when you don't have to."  He was obviously the one Cloud should know, but the dark hair and tan skin didn't jog anything in his memory no matter how hard he tried.

"I hate these things," the other nameless trooper said disgustedly, kicking his until it rolled into Jac's side.  The prone trooper gave a grunt at the contact, but seemed content to leave it where it lay.  "They're uncomfortable, hot, itchy, block your vision, and are a nuisance to keep track of.  Plus they make you look like a twit."

"They also keep your head in one piece, if a monster decides to chow down on your ass," Edge said, tossing a ration bar across to Zack who caught it with a cheerful word of thanks.

"That only happens if it mistakes your ass for your face, which is possible with you, eh Sparo?" Jac taunted, sitting up and grinning at the disgruntled trooper.  Cloud made a mental note of the name, nearly up to date on his current companions.

Zack paused in tearing open his food to remark, "My buddy Kunsel would swear by his helmet.  I don't think he's ever taken the thing off."

"At least the SOLDIER helmets look cool," the still nameless trooper said wistfully.  "Do they allow you to burn your old uniform when you join?"  He passed a canteen to Gibbs with an expectant look.

"Don't get your hopes up, Connally," Gibbs replied, taking a swig from the bottle and passing it to Cloud.  He blinked at it, taking a hesitant sip before passing it on to Jac.  He didn't feel dehydrated at all, nor even remotely tired, though it was probably best to seem as normal as possible.  Even though the grunts had apparently forgotten or were disregarding Sephiroth's presence, Cloud had not been able to relax with the man so near.  It was getting frustrating, being so on edge yet being almost completely ignored.

As the company settled in, Cloud listened with mild interest to their interactions.  His rag-tag group of friends weren't the most functional of teams, Cloud among the worst of them with Vincent taking the prize, but even the more talkative of them never spent too much time teasing or chatting.  Their mission had been too dire, their pasts too dark.  The only time it had been really light hearted was when Aerith had been alive.  After her death, the spirit of the team had been sucked out.

Shaking his head at the gloomy thoughts, Cloud glanced over at Zack to distract himself just in time to see him crane around to look toward Sephiroth.  “Hey, Sephiroth?  Are you just going to stand there or what?”  When Sephiroth failed to acknowledge him, Zack muttered, “I take that as a yes.”  Cloud thought he heard Zack say something about Sephiroth being very good at holding up walls under his breath, and decided his friend's sense of humor was something he'd never quite understand.

It wasn't long after that that the troopers were rested enough to get moving again.  Cloud had just finished shouldering his pack when he heard Zack calling Sephiroth's name again.  For several seconds it didn't seem as if Sephiroth was going to acknowledge Zack at all, and then he turned and swept his gaze over them again.  Cloud tensed, every nerve standing on end while the others seemed torn between jumping to attention and remaining as they were.  Then Sephiroth turned that heavy gaze on him.  It was piercing, even through Cloud's helmet, which he had failed to remove.  It was a symbolic barrier between him and the silver-haired man, one he was loath to give up.  Much like his time in Nibelheim, it was easier to hide behind the feature-concealing gear, to watch the world through the tinted shade of the visor.

After several breathless seconds, Zack's voice broke through the rising cacophony of emotion and the pounding of blood in Cloud's ears.  “We're ready to go when you are, Sephiroth.”  Sephiroth inclined his head slightly, and turned away without further word or acknowledgment.  Cloud felt like he'd been struck in the chest by a behemoth, and he tried to hide his unease as they set off.

The pace was less grueling than the previous workout, while still a ground covering march.  Cloud let his mind wander as the climb rolled past.  To his surprise, no monsters attacked the group.  When on foot especially, he'd been ambushed all the time back in the future, even on the relatively tame eastern continent they were on now.  Perhaps with Jenova and Sephiroth's rise in power, the monsters had also multiplied, mutating out of the Lifestream.  Or, he thought as the buzz from the Jenova cells peaked again when his gaze brushed over Sephiroth, perhaps they could sense the greater predator.  Cloud tried to block the sensation again, even as he found himself hypersensitive to it.  Usually it was his only warning for when Sephiroth was near.

The sky was resplendent in deep oranges and golds by the time they reached the Mythril Mines, having stopped only one other time along the way.  As they had the last two times, the troopers immediately found spots on the ground to rest.  The Thirds waited for a nod from Zack before they joined the tired grunts, though none of them seemed to have the energy to strike up another conversation.  Cloud sat down without prompting this time, sitting quietly among them, yet not really a part of them at the same time.

He hadn't had a chance to talk to Zack, too nervous with the conflicting presence of the overly-curious soldiers and the overpowering intimidating aura that came from Sephiroth.  Cloud was beginning to despair.  At this rate, they'd make it back to Midgar where Zack would leave for his own duties.  After that, there was no telling when Cloud would be able to see his friend again, unless he waited for the ill-fated Nibelheim mission.  That was if his meddling hadn't already irrevocably changed even that.

Would it be better to let Zack continue on with his life, unaware of the upcoming dangers?  Would Cloud's presence in the army make any real difference, even if he managed to influence Sephiroth in any way?  It was smarter, better, if Cloud left now, made his way to Nibelheim to at least eliminate Jenova from the equation.  But there were too many risks.  Hojo was still oozing around, and for all Cloud knew Jenova might not be in the reactor at the moment.  Hojo had moved the remains of her body to the facility in Midgar at one point, after all.  Cloud resisted the urge to put his head in his hands.  Life was never simple, even when you'd already lived it once before.

“I will proceed,” Sephiroth said, voice breaking the silence, “and deal with the infestation. Continue on when you're ready.”  Cloud's fingers ached from where he'd unconsciously clenched them in reaction to that smooth tone.

Zack who was currently looking at the rather haggard group, fists propped on his hips, nodded. Before Sephiroth could leave, though, he piped up, “About the swamps?”

Sephiroth was silent for a moment, before he nodded slightly. “I'll have chocobos waiting.” And, just like that, Sephiroth stepped forward and disappeared into the gathering dim of the cave mouth.

Cloud watched, feeling oddly numb, as Zack pulled Buster Sword off his back and rolled his shoulders. A second later he looked toward Cloud, set Buster Sword down propped against the rocks, and ambled toward him. His hand made an almost hollow thunk as it landed on Cloud's head.  Cloud grimaced as the uncomfortable helmet was forced against his skull.  Zack gave him a little shake, almost as if ruffling the hair he couldn't reach. “Hey, how are you holding up, Cloud?”

Now that the high tension of Sephiroth's presence and the hum of Jenova was fading, he realized his shoulders were hunched and knotted up from the stress.  Releasing a breath, he forced himself to relax at least a little bit, now that the biggest danger had left.  He swiped Zack's hand off the top of the helmet, and hooked his other hand underneath to slide it off in one smooth movement.  He let it go to drop carelessly to the ground as he ran a hand through his hair to spike it back into its normal style.  Only then did he turn his gaze up to meet Zack's, hoping that the eye contact would reassure his friend where his words seemed to be lacking.

"I'm fine Zack," he said, attempting a reassuring smile.  It probably came out as more of a grimace than anything, since there had been so little for Cloud to smile at in the past few years.  "What are we going to do while we wait?" he added, hoping that would distract Zack from asking too many awkward questions.

Now might be his only chance to sneak away, if he wanted to head off to Nibelheim on his own.  He had no idea how long it would be before they moved on, and there was still the problem of the presence of the other soldiers.  He could evade Zack, as much as the thought hurt.  While he knew his friend was as persistent as a dog, Zack still had the others to worry about, and Cloud doubted he'd abandon them just to chase down one AWOL trooper.  If Cloud waited until they reached Midgar, there were too many possibilities of being caught.  Between SOLDIERs and Turks, and even the eyes and ears of the slums, Cloud would have a very hard time getting away.

It would probably be best, he decided, to try to take out Jenova now, and leave his friends behind in relative safety.  After that, he could return to Midgar to keep an eye on Sephiroth, even if it was at a distance.  That would be the safest choice for everyone involved; only Cloud would be at risk.

Zack searched Cloud's face intently for several seconds, then nodded and gave Cloud a quick smile. The expression made something achy and guilty clench in Cloud's chest.  Zack nodded again, as if reassuring himself as much as agreeing, and said, “Alright, I was just a little worried. You look a little pale.” He reached out suddenly and laid the back of his hand against Cloud's forehead with an expression of mocking concern. “If I don't take good care of my first patient the medical unit will never accept me!”

There was a snorting laugh from one of the SOLIDER 3rds, and then, “Sir, I don't think Lazard or any of the SOLDIERs would let you retire to join the medics.”

“Yeah, no one cares about your sudden desire to be a nurse,” the other Third said glibly.

“...I didn't need that mental image, Edge.”  A sudden silence fell, during which Zack rocked back on his heels and landed in the dirt on his rear as he laughed. The awkwardness lasted a few seconds longer before Edge offered up an awkward sort of choke-laugh.

“I'd make a terrible nurse anyway,” Zack said at last. Cloud felt a bubble of bitter-sweet happiness in his stomach as he watched Zack’s carefree mirth.  It was amazing, having the opportunity to see his friend so lively and cheerful.  That only made the pain of his decision all the more prominent.  He’d have to leave now, or he’d chicken out and hide in Zack’s protective personality again.  This time from the outside, instead of stealing it for his own broken mind.

Zack propelled himself smoothly back to his feet and stepped a few paces away, then turned on his heel and looked back down at Cloud with his hands propped on his hips. “Anyway, what we're going to do while we wait? Why, wait of course!” At the sound of a snore somewhere behind him, Zack's grin became more crooked.

“And nap,” Sparo said sweetly, “in the case of sleeping beauty here.” He nudged Jac with the toe of his boot.

Zack turned again and wandered back to where he'd left Buster Sword. “Let him sleep. I'd suggest you get some rest as well. We SOLDIERs can go pretty well, but you troopers are probably getting run ragged.” He paused and ran a hand over the back of his head. “Once we meet up with Sephiroth again, the rest of the way will be smoother.”

Cloud remained silent as he sat and watched the others.  Zack’s orders were met with relief from the troopers, who didn’t hesitate to join their fellow on the ground for the much needed rest.  Zack took up a position a little away from them with a half hearted mutter about watch duty, for which Cloud was grateful.  What he had planned was stupid, and would be sure to bring attention to him immediately, but there was no other way to get away from the group.  Even the rookies didn’t look like they were going to do more than relax, rather than drop into sleep like the troopers.

Cloud’s delivery service took him all over the world, in the future.  In a bid to remain gone as long as possible, he would wander, take longer routes, or sometimes pursue the occasional monster that had gotten too close to civilization.  That meant he knew more local terrain better than anyone, and the cliffs by the Mythril Mines were no exception.

The moment Cloud sensed Zack’s attention turn away from them completely, he acted.  With a sideways glance to make sure Gibbs and Edge were not looking in his direction, he gathered himself.  There was a trick to moving faster than the senses could follow, one that Vincent was a master of.  Possibly due to his Turk background, or just the natural grace his monsters provided him.  There was only a puff of disturbed air left behind as Cloud leapt straight up.  It only provided him a few seconds of grace time, Cloud knew.  The rookie Thirds might have noticed the power surge so near to them, but it would take them time before they thought to look up.  Zack, however, was another thing altogether.  Cloud didn’t waste any time; as he came to the apex of his jump, he kicked one foot lightly against the bulging side of the cliff wall, propelling himself further out of sight and away from the group.

He landed amongst boulders and shrubbery in another puff of displaced dust.  His legs burned from the sudden movement he’d just forced them through.  It seemed he wasn’t as recovered as he thought from the overdose of mako.  No matter.  There was no time to rest.  Cloud took off running, sticking close to the cliff wall and the covering debris it provided.  Once he was far enough away, he’d make his way back out away from the cliffs, and head back for Junon.  He’d have to stow away on a ship again, or if he could pick up another helmet, maybe he could take the place of another trooper on one of ShinRa’s cargo runs to Costa del Sol.

Cloud was so focused on getting away, that he almost ran straight into a fresh landslide.  He cursed himself for having forgotten the very important fact that his knowledge of the terrain came from the future.  Nature changed so radically in such a short time, that he should have expected something like this to go wrong.

Rather than risk slipping on the scree of the slide, or disturbing it further by attempting to pass over it, Cloud cut sharply to the right.  There was a steep downward slope here, and he had to be careful not to turn an ankle or hit any of the boulders strewn about in his reckless charge.   He divided his attention between his footing, and listening for sounds of pursuit.  Hopefully Zack was having a harder time traversing the obstacles of the rock face since he’d have to keep an eye out for Cloud.

The terrain ahead of him was flattening out, and from there on Cloud would have a long sprint to get out of range of his friend’s pursuit.  Then like a bolt out of the blue, Zack hit the ground dead ahead of him.  Zack used a hand to catch his balance and turned around to face Cloud. His other hand was already on Buster Sword's hilt.  In the next second he had the sword in front of him.  Cloud slid to a stop, kicking up a cloud of dust as his boots skidded on the ground in an attempt to stop his forward momentum. He gulped in some air, out of breath more from the stressful situation than the exercise.  Somehow Zack’s expression was far more threatening than staring at Buster Sword from the wrong end.  Cloud had never, even when his friend had known he was going to his death, seen such a grim expression on Zack’s face.

He straightened slowly, taking a single step back as Zack spoke, “I don't know what's going on, but you're not going anywhere until I do.  I thought we were friends, Cloud. If that's even who you are!”  Even his voice was different; low and dangerous, and lacking any humor at all.  His words caused a lump to form in Cloud’s throat.  They echoed another time, another fight with a dangerous madman.  Cloud had parroted those words, stolen them as his own for a time.  (Friend….)

Cloud had no weapon on him.  The standard issue gun had been left behind, being more of a hindrance to him than anything.  Even if he’d had First Tsurugi at his side, Cloud wouldn’t have made a move to draw it.  Fighting against Sephiroth, despite the admiration Cloud had once held for the man, had been hard enough.  He'd had the dubious bonus of being the victim to Sephiroth's madness and hatred before he'd ever had to raise his sword against him.  With Zack, Cloud wouldn’t be able to defend himself, even if the world went to hell because of it.  It would be too much for Cloud to sacrifice, to fight his friend.

"Zack..." he said, trailing off since he had no idea where to start.  Could he convince Zack to let him go, to forget about Cloud and just go back to his men?  The thought was ridiculous.  Zack didn't back down once he had a goal set in his mind.  

Maybe the mako was still affecting his senses.  That could be the only reason he tried to turn tail and run.  All Cloud could think about now was trying to get away, find some way to leave his friend behind without having to put Zack at risk.  From Sephiroth or himself, he didn't know.  He barely registered the sound of Buster Sword hitting the ground behind him.

Zack hit his back before he'd taken more than a handful of steps.  Cloud couldn't even cough as dust clogged his throat, his breath having been driven right out of him when Zack had tackled him down.  In seconds Zack used his knees to pin Cloud's legs, straddled his back, and pinned his arms to the rocky ground with his hands.  He should have expected something like that; Zack was a SOLDIER 1st, a real one, unlike Cloud.  Now he was well and truly trapped under his possibly former friend.  It was only a small mercy that Zack hadn't brought the Buster Sword against him.

“You're not,” Zack rasped, “going anywhere, Cloud.” His breath was heavy above Cloud, almost panting from exertion and maybe emotion.  He bucked futilely against Zack's grip, not in a real attempt to get away, but more as an effort to get some air back in his lungs.  “We're going to have a little chat.” Zack's voice in his ear was harsh and too close, and Cloud couldn't get away from the accusing tone of it.  “Are you a Wutai spy? How about working for Genesis?  Did Angeal do something to you?  Or is there something else going on, Cloud? Are you in some sort of trouble, because I'm not stupid no matter what they say. You stood up to Sephiroth, and those moves just now.... Even I can put two and two together and get four. Who are you, and what are you trying to accomplish?!” The barrage of questions only baffled him; names he couldn't remember flying through the air without meaning.  The heart of it, however, was that Zack thought he wasn't Cloud, or that something horrible had happened to him.

"Zack, please, let me go," he wheezed, mind panicking at being restrained.  It reminded him too much of being under Sephiroth's control, where he had no control over his limbs.  He'd nearly killed Aerith with his own hands because of that.  Now Zack was here, confusing the issue, thinking that Cloud was a danger that needed to be subdued.  He probably was, he couldn't help but think bitterly.  "Just…forget about me.  Please…." he whispered, closing his eyes tightly as his memories threatened to overwhelm him.  It was at times like this that Aerith would appear next to him, always just out of sight but with a word of comfort and strength.  There was nothing, now.  Cloud was alone, pinned to the dusty ground by a man he would have given up the world to see again, and there was nowhere else to run.

“Cloud,” Zack said.  He sounded tired. “I can't do that.  You've made yourself pretty unforgettable.”  The joke was weak at best, but still made Cloud feel uncomfortable and desolate.  “Cloud...talk to me, buddy.” It was too much.  Zack's final plea, nearly unheard in the dry, empty air, drove right into Cloud's heart.  What good was he to his friends, if he was causing them this much pain?  Tears of frustration pricked at the corners of his eyes.  Why was he balking so much now?

"I…can't…." he said, the words sounding pitiful even in his own ears.  Cloud hadn't learned anything; he still tried to run away from people who only wanted to help him.  Tifa would have been disappointed, if she knew how much of a coward he was being.  He swallowed hard, gathering every scrap of willpower in him, pulling up even the straggling remnants of Zack's personality that had been such a shield to him when his memories only caused him pain.  "If I promise not to run, can I at least stop eating sand?" He knew that was more of a Zack voice than his own.  But there was no way 'Cloud' would be able to handle this situation.

There was a long pause, and then Zack said, “Alright, I'll let you up, but if you try to make a run for it again I'll find a way to tie you down if I have to. When I let you up, we're going to sit down and talk this out. I told you already that I have your back, and I meant it, Cloud. You can trust me, whatever it is. Whatever trouble you're in, I'll help anyway I can. Promise.”

It said a lot that Cloud wasn't surprised when Zack let him up without protest.  He ignored the threat as useless, since he'd already decided he wouldn't run anymore.  It didn't matter if the promise had yet to be made in this time; he'd promised Tifa he'd try to be better, and if Cloud could find a way to do that with anyone, it would be Zack.  He pushed himself to a sitting position, legs splayed underneath him as he rubbed his wrists distractedly.  Zack hadn't been gentle, but it was a minor ache that was already going away.  Zack would help him, could help him.  He had to keep telling himself that even with his friend's promises ringing in his ears.  Zack would believe him, if Cloud told him everything.  Right?

"Aerith…her flowers are beautiful, don't you think?" he said quietly, breaking the tense silence.  He couldn't bring himself to look at Zack as he kept his gaze firmly on the ground, though his eyes were unfocused, not seeing anything here or now.  "They're like sunshine growing from the ground.  And they're tough.  I fell on them, once.  Right through the roof.  A couple got bent, but…they were okay.  Aerith told me that I reminded her of someone.  Someone who could only have been you, Zack." Cloud took a deep breath, knowing that this would be the hardest part of all.  He looked up, catching Zack's gaze with his own, and prayed his friend would believe in him.  "But you were…already dead by then."

Cloud couldn't control a flinch as Zack let out an explosive breath and let himself fall back into the dirt, arms spread and legs stretched out. After a long time Zack slowly said, as if testing the words, “What are you trying to say, Cloud? Take pity on me and be a little clearer, would you?”  Cloud let out a shaky breath, made up partly of relief and lingering fear.  At least Zack hadn't tackled him again, intent on bundling Cloud off to the nearest medical center for a clear case of insanity.  That was positive, right?  Best to pick a spot and start somewhere, before he lost his nerve.

"…It's…hard to explain," he began, then gave a half hearted self-deprecating laugh.  "Well, obviously it is."  That sounded dangerously like Cloud-as-Zack, and he had to pause again to get his thoughts under control.  All he needed was to be even more confusing with mood swings.  "I…as far as I can tell, I was sent back to the past."  He looked up quickly, holding up a hand to forestall any comment from Zack, who had indeed opened his mouth to comment, but politely held it back. He appeared to be regaining some of his usual energy, and had an expression of impatient waiting on his face.  "I know that sounds…odd, and I'm not really sure myself.  The…I fell in the mako, in the reactor in Nibelheim.  And then came up here.  With you.…"  He trailed off again, shaking his head in frustration.  "I don't know Zack.  How do I even start explaining?"

Almost as soon as Cloud stopped talking, Zack picked up the slack. “Okay,” he said, drawing out the word. “Time travel, alright, let's go with that.  How far in the future did you come back from?” Cloud began to laugh.  It was really too much, but Zack hadn't even hesitated before firing off his question, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.

"I…I don't know…" he gasped between chuckles, bending over as his breath came shorter.  He knew it was a hysterical reaction to the stress, and fought for control.  "I don't know," he repeated, inhaling deeply and choking back further laughter.  "I can't remember much before….  At least eight years, I think."

Zack nodded, and Cloud could hear his hair grating against the dirt below his head.  A moment later Zack gave a slight chuckle as well. They probably looked like a couple of beat up loons. Then Zack reached over and yanked Cloud's arm out from under him.  Cloud allowed the momentum to roll him over so he was on his back as well, head close to Zack's.

Zack murmured, “There, that's better.”  Then he said, “Eight years is a long time.” There was a pause, and Zack seemed unsure about what he was going to say next, but said it anyway, “You don't remember much?”  Cloud's mirth disappeared entirely at the innocent-sounding query, but he knew that he'd have to explain all of it at some point.  From the moment Zack had caught up to him, perhaps even the moment Cloud had arrived in the past, it had been inevitable.

"It's…probably best to start at Nibelheim.  It's the last place…the earliest I can remember…sort of.”  He stared sightlessly into the empty sky above.  "I…was a trooper assigned to accompany you and Sephiroth on a routine check of the Nibelheim reactor.  Something…went very wrong, there.  The town, my hometown, was burned to the ground, everyone slaughtered…" he said hollowly.

The first time he'd told the story of that day, he'd still thought he was Zack, or at least the SOLDIER first persona he’d created using his friend’s memories.  The buffer had allowed him to be angry more than hurt by the recollection.  Now, though, with Zack's breathing in his ears it was so much harder to relate.  "It was Sephiroth.  He'd…gone mad.  Due to Jenova, I think, but we never did find out.  Not really.  He…thought she was his mother, and that Jenova was an Ancient.   That humanity was a blight on the planet he needed to exterminate…."

Zack frowned, face thoughtful and serious.  “Jenova...?” he murmured.  Then repeated the name a few more times.  “I don’t know why, but that name sounds familiar.  I swear I heard it somewhere before.”  He gave a little wry smile, apparently giving up on the thought.  “I don’t....” He turned his head to look more fully at Cloud again.  “What do do mean ‘earliest’ you can remember?  Like, amnesia or something?”  It was an odd thing to focus on, though Cloud couldn’t blame him from shying away from the darker issue.

Still, he shook his head to the query.  “Not...not amnesia.  I.... This wasn’t the first time I was...exposed to mako.”  Cloud swallowed roughly.  He’d fallen victim to the Planet’s Lifestream too many times.  Even when he’d given in to the green-driven madness, his memories had never been fully recovered.  Tifa had done what she could, but there was a time after he’d left her behind in Nibelheim and before the train station in Midgar that Cloud had pushed aside in favor of his stolen memories from Zack.  What he couldn’t explain away with his false claim as First he blocked thoroughly, and never in his delusion thought to question the gaps in his life. 

Zack grimaced.  “You got hit with the rough side effects?  How much do you...?”

“Its...” Cloud winced, then let out a humorless laugh.  “Which time?  I...forgot myself, for a long time.  After...” After he betrayed his friends and the world, begged a madman for a number and a purpose, after he didn’t deserve to be rescued from the prison of his broken mind...  “There’s a few memories, but mostly...I only remember Nibelheim, and after.”

“I meant...” Zack’s face screwed up in obvious bafflement. “You mean you don’t remember Modeoheim? Genesis? Angeal? Hollander? None of that? It doesn't ring a bell?”

Cloud made an aggravated sound in the back of his throat.  "Modeo—I don't remember any of that.  It's frustrating, but…after Nibelheim…Hojo…" He choked on the bile rising in his throat.  It was amazing how much Zack's personality had buffered him all that time.  It was like all his memories had been seen through a window, instead of happening to himself.  Which, he supposed, had been the point.  But now, he could remember all the pain, all the terror, all the helplessness…and all the hatred he had for the scientist.

"After Sephiroth was…defeated in Nibelheim, Professor Hojo captured you and me…" he said, fumbling a hand over to where he knew Zack's arm was.  He needed the reassurance that his friend was still alive and well.  Recounting the past like this was making it seem all too real, and the idea of his friend fading away like a dream was terrifying.  "He did a lot of mako experiments…among others.  A lot of what I remember before that is just…gone, or second hand."

Zack sat up suddenly, and a second later his fist slammed into the dirt. “Damn it,” he snarled. “Damn it! And I bet ShinRa just reported us all as killed in action, too.”  Cloud jumped at Zack's sudden movement and loud exclamation.  It didn't fit with his memories of a smooth voice and always-smiling face, but Cloud couldn't really blame Zack for the outburst.  All things considered, it was amazing he was being as calm and rational as he was.

“Genesis Rhapsodos and Angeal Hewley,” Zack said slowly, voice smooth and toneless, “were Sephiroth's best friends. Only friends, really, I guess.  During the mission to Modeoheim about a year ago I met you. We joked about being country boy's together...you were the only one capable of keeping up with me.” Zack tilted his head back, looked up to the deepening hues of the sky. “We found Genesis hiding out there, and I fought him, he plummeted to his death...then I went after you. You'd chased after Hollander, but Angeal took you and Tseng out before he followed Hollander himself. I followed them.”

Cloud sat up slowly, listening as Zack explained in a clipped voice about things he'd forgotten.  As the words washed over him, glimpses of memories flashed by.  A dark-haired man with the Buster Sword, who Cloud would have assumed was Zack but for the feeling that it wasn't.  Another man in a long, red coat, with a cat's paw expression on his face.  The explanation didn't suddenly unlock a hidden part of him, but Cloud felt better just with the small knowledge he gained.  Especially of when it was he'd met Zack.

It had bothered him, on occasion, that all he remembered of Zack was their time in Nibelheim and afterward.  The attachment he'd felt for the man who'd sacrificed his existence for Cloud's was so deep, that Cloud felt he must have known him long before then.  The fact that Zack had only known him a presumably short period of time made the sacrifice all the more poignant and heartbreaking, though.  Zack could have, should have just gone back to Aerith, and left Cloud behind but he hadn't.

“Angeal made me fight him,” Zack said slowly. “I won, and he gave me his sword.” There was a sort of self-loathing in his voice right then that Cloud had heard often enough in others; in Vincent's, in Barret's, and most often in his own.  The man had been the original owner of the sword Cloud had set up as a memorial for Zack.  Now Cloud knew that it was a symbol for two great men who'd died too soon.  Anyone Zack cherished so much would have been a good person. “I don't know anything about your past before that, I'm sorry.”

Cloud barely heard those last words as he silently watched Zack heft himself to his feet and wander over to gather the large blade from where it had been abandoned.  Zack lifted it up, gripped in his hands, then bowed his head to rest against the flat of the blade as if in prayer for a long moment. Then with a sudden, jarring motion Zack put the sword in place on his back and turned to look at Cloud.

“So,” Zack said.  “What do you plan to do about all this?  Being here...having to face your past again.”

Sucking in an unsteady breath, Cloud rubbed a hand across his eyes wearily.  The worn leather of his gloves pulled at his hair, but he payed the minor discomfort no mind.  Dropping his hands in his lap, he stared at them as he considered the question.  What was he planning on doing?  There was no plan.  He hadn’t wanted to be here, never asked for—dreamed a chance like this was possible.  Forgiveness had been hard enough for Cloud to find, in himself most of all. 

Now everything he’d fought for was gone.  His friends, the meager family he had brought together, the peace he had suffered so much for were all gone, and there was no way he could ever get them back.  No matter how much he wished for what he’d lost, Cloud couldn’t allow history to repeat itself, not when the cost was so high.  He looked up at Zack, just tracing over the familiar features on his friend’s face.  This wasn’t something he could lose.  Not again.

“I have to stop...Sephiroth.  Somehow....” He trailed off and turned away, unable to hold Zack’s gaze.  That was the key.  Maybe it hadn’t started out that way, but Cloud knew that the silver-haired man was the biggest threat to the future he wanted to see unfold, one that would be better for everyone.

Zack crossed his arms over his chest, head bowed  “If it’s possible,” he said, forming ever word carefully.  “If there’s any possibility...”  He shook his head, and looked back up at Cloud, expression slightly fierce.  “We have to save him.  Maybe that’s not the right word for it, I don’t know.  But I can’t just stand by and let another person I care about turn into a...a monster, and not....”  Zack choked, and the fierce look melted away into a self-depreciating smile.  “I.... Look, my track record with helping people isn't too great, so maybe if we work together we can manage it. What do you think?”  Cloud stared up at him blankly as he turned the request around in his head.  Save Sephiroth?  He'd had the thought already, but to hear it out loud made it real in a way that terrified him.  What if Sephiroth couldn't be saved, and Zack died again because of it?

"I…" he said, mouth dry.  He swallowed, working up some moisture to sooth the parched tissue.  "I…can't say for sure…if it's even possible.  Sephiroth…" he trailed off, staring at his own hands blankly as if they could provide him with a solution.  "I can't remember ever seeing Sephiroth so…human, as he is now.  But he must have been.  I…admired him, wanted to be in SOLDIER to be like him.…  To save him would be…beyond belief."  He ran a hand into his hair, clutching hard as the memories of cat-like green eyes and a taunting mouth tried to overwhelm him.  "But I hate him, Zack.  I really, really do.  He…I was just a puppet to him.  A plaything.  And…I was forced to betray my friends, the world…I nearly killed Aerith with my own hands because of him!"  His voice was rising in hysteria, and he could do nothing to stop it.  "I had to watch as he killed Aerith!"  The words rang harshly in the sudden silence, and Cloud wished he could take them back. 

Zack reeled back a step as if the words had hit him like a physical blow. He reached up, fingers finding his own hair in an odd mirror of Cloud's own motion. “He...Aerith...” The betrayed, strained look on Zack's face morphed immediately into a stony look.  “If it comes to it, I'll fight Sephiroth to the bitter end, and kill him if I have to.  But until there's no going back, I'm not giving up.”

"You don't think you tried?" Cloud asked numbly.  This was all wrong.  Zack wasn't supposed to look as haunted as he did.  Zack was supposed to be happy; he was a SOLDIER, respected and strong, he had Aerith to return to.  He wasn't supposed to sound broken.   But the strength of will, the burning determination to finish it one way or another; that was pure Zack.  That was what had carried them both across two continents, despite being hunted like animals.  The words were said in ignorance, though, of what Sephiroth was really capable of.

"You did fight Sephiroth, at Nibelheim.  You…lost.  I…he'd cut down Tifa, but she was alive, and I was by her side.  You asked…me to stop Sephiroth.  I did it.  I managed to drop him into the mako.  But I was…Sephiroth had got me with his sword," he trailed off, shaking his head.  "Do you know how many times I've been struck through by it?"  He waved a hand, dismissing the arbitrary comment.  "I don't know if I can do it again, go through all of that again, if we fail to stop him first."

Zack waved it all off with a motion of his hands. “Yeah, but I wasn't forewarned then, was I? This time I know that I need to be ready, so I can work even harder to be ready. And, I don't know if you've realized this Cloud,” he said, and now that amused smile was back, “but you're no regular trooper this time.” Zack strode forward and crouched down in front of him, reached out, and placed his hand on Cloud's shoulder. He squeezed lightly. “You and me? We're going to change things. I just know it, so no looking so down and disheartened. We can do this, between us.  I know we can. After all, I'm going to be a hero someday.  You won't have to go through that again,” he said, conviction heavy in his voice as he reiterated, as if it would make it more true and make fate play like he wanted. “We'll make sure of it.  But, we have to try, Cloud. Sephiroth...I don't know if he'll turn out the way you remember or not, but right now he isn't that person.”

Cloud clasped one hand over Zack's, holding it tight against his shoulder.  There was one thing he had to make plain to his friend, above everything else.  Even if the world went to hell again, Zack couldn't let himself think he was a failure, not like Cloud.  "You were a hero, Zack," he said earnestly.  "You saved me, and…even after you were gone, you protected me when I couldn't go on.  It…should have been you who lived."

Zack would have done a better job.  He wouldn't have had to hide behind false memories, not being able to see the truth until it was too late.  Sephiroth would have had no hold over Zack, and Cloud knew his friend would have done everything he could to save Aerith, where Cloud had been helpless to act.

“What happened to me, Cloud?” 

It felt like Zack had slapped him.  If there was anything Cloud didn't want to tell Zack, it was that.  But, Zack had a right to know. He had believed Cloud's wild tale without a moment's pause, and had already decided that he'd stick by Cloud despite the possible future that awaited him.  Wouldn't it be better if he were prepared for everything?  It didn't make it much easier, but in another way, it was a relief to actually speak the words out loud to someone.

"You…" he started softly, forcing himself to speak, "died defending me.  I…."  He stopped, taking a deep breath, gathering himself. Zack had asked it, so Cloud would tell him.  He kept his gaze locked with Zack's, drawing in strength from the other man, and continued in a nearly emotionless voice, "After Sephiroth was defeated in Nibelheim, you and I were badly injured.  Professor Hojo found us there. He was…upset that I had managed to defeat his perfect creation.  And also curious.  He took both of us away.  It was years before you managed to break us out of there.  I was too out of it from mako poisoning…it was thought I wouldn't recover.  You tried to get us to Midgar.  I remember…you said it then too.  That we were friends?  Then…"  Cloud's voice was shaking now.

He'd never had to recount the story out loud, never had to re-live it as more than a half-forgotten memory in his mind.  Now he was able to recall the hazy, green-tinged images, the smell of blood and dirt, the feeling of the cold rain biting through his delirium and pain….  "Sometimes, I could hear things, and I knew where I was even if I couldn't move my body.  And one time…I heard so much fighting, and gunshots.… When it was over, I waited…but you didn't come back.  I…found you…dying… There were so many bodies…you'd taken down an entire army before they'd managed to get you… I…you gave me the sword.  I remember that, just before…"  He couldn't continue, aware that he had tears trailing down his face.

And then he'd forgotten his friend, wrapped himself so deeply in Zack's memories that he'd taken his place.  How could he have repaid his friend like that?  Zack should hate him, and yet…and yet Zack had come when Cloud was on the verge of defeat.  Offered himself again, affirmed their friendship and Cloud’s place as his living legacy.  Cloud could remember Zack's expression, and the gesture as he turned away to follow Aerith back into the Lifestream.  Zack hadn't hated him, Cloud was sure of it.  Now all he could hope for was that Zack would forgive him here and now as well.

Zack moved his arm from Cloud's shoulder to grip the back of his neck and pulled Cloud toward him.  The embrace was awkward and wonderful; Cloud was not used to affectionate gestures, but he'd rather live branded a weakling than end the contact with Zack.  The memories were still raw on his nerves, yet Cloud felt oddly relieved.  Finally, he was able to let go just a little bit, relate a bit of the pain with someone who would understand the feelings behind the actions.

“I'd do it again,” Zack said roughly. “It sounds like I—he was a real hero. I hope I can live up to that.”

"I'm glad you're here, Zack," he said hoarsely into the other man's shoulder.  Even if he didn't have his other friend's by his side he still had Zack who had sacrificed himself to save a nobody he barely knew.  Zack gave even Cloud's hopeless quest a new hope, one that Cloud could believe in.

“I told you that I've got your back,” Zack repeated. He carefully held Cloud away from him, a hand on either shoulder, and searched his face. “I'll do my best to keep myself in one piece, so long as you promise to work with me and let me help so I can. I don't really want to die, I've got promises to keep.”  He grinned crookedly, but there was obvious exhaustion in the gesture. “So, what do you say, Cloud? Partners?” Zack stood up, sunlight glinting off his shoulder armor and Buster Sword where the hilt peeked over his shoulder, then extended his hand to Cloud.  Silhouetted in the golden light of sunset, Zack looked both ethereal and more human than ever and Cloud couldn’t help but stare. It might have seemed like nothing but an offer to help him up, but Cloud couldn’t help but think of it as so much more.  As he reached up and clasped Zack’s hand, all he could remember were the outstretched hands of his friends, of Aerith, and even Zack as he pulled him free of the mako.  There was so much in that single gesture.

“...Yeah,” he said, voice rough from his breakdown, and from the emotion settled in his chest right then.  A simple offer to help him stand in more ways than one. But, Zack’s smile was warm and jubilant even if Cloud was avoiding looking at him directly. It was embarrassing having broken down in front of his friend, even if Zack didn’t think any less of him for it.

“Then it’s agreed,” Zack said, and Cloud nodded, finally looking up to meet his gaze.  After another beat or two where Zack considered him quietly, he slowly asked, “About Sephiroth...? I realize you probably don't want to hear this, but he's my friend too, so.... Could you at least try? For me...?” Cloud freed his hand from Zack’s grip, and scrubbed at his face to remove the traces of tears as he considered Zack's plea.  There wasn't really a choice here either.  Cloud had decided that he would do anything he could for Zack, in appreciation for the life he was allowed to live.  If that meant risking it all over again to save the life of a friend, then it was the least Cloud could do.

"I'll do it," he said simply.  There would be no more chances after this.  Either the world would be saved, and Sephiroth along with it, or Cloud would die and take the madman down with him.

Zack grinned, thankful and bright. “Let's get back then. We still have a ways to go to get back to Midgar.”  Cloud gladly accepted the offer, and followed after his friend without a word, too spent and emotionally exhausted to respond.

The hike back up the slope was a little slower, as both of them were feeling the exertion and emotional toll of the last day or so.  Zack kept up a quiet line of inane chatter which helped keep Cloud's mind off the painful things they'd talked about. Though he couldn't help but wonder at the fact that Zack had seemed to accept everything so easily.  A part of him worried that Zack was just humoring him.

When they crested the last rise toward the entrance to the mines, a voice called, “There they are! Finally!”

Zack lifted his hand to wave to the trooper who was hailing them in the last, fading vestiges of daylight. “Hey guys. Sorry that took so long. Cloud was still a bit restless from that mako bath he inadvertently took, so we worked it off on some monsters in the area.”  Once they were back on solid ground, Cloud ducked his head and hurriedly went to collect his gear.  Behind him, he heard Zack say, “Let's not tell Sephiroth about this. Ever.  And...maybe we could try and keep quiet about Cloud attacking Sephiroth?  I don't think Cloud needs that kind of attention right now.  Right, buddy?”

The company chorused a round of 'Yes sirs!' in response, and Cloud wondered if any of them thought the request odd.  Zack clapped his hands in a businesslike manner.  “Alright then.  Let's see if we can't get through the mines before we decide to bed down for the night.”

Looking at his friend, and thinking over the situation, Cloud couldn't help but feel just a little bit lighter.


 

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

Chapter Text


 Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

 Chapter 04 – Crisis of Chocobos

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 12th)


 

 

(You're in over your head again, Zack.)

The thought had sounded oddly like Angeal, and in the state between waking and dreaming Zack wasn't completely sure it wasn't. He wriggled around, a hand coming up to scuff at his nose, and mumbled, “Sorry, 'Ngeal.” It was only as he slid, uncontrolled, to the side and hit the ground that Zack remembered he'd fallen asleep leaning against a solid rock wall. He gave a choked gasp, and blinked his way through the blurriness that came with waking after having exhausted yourself. At the opening of the cavern he was sprawled in, Zack could see the low glow of embers in a fire that needed more fuel. There was a hunched figure against the far wall; a darker image superimposed over a still inky sky beyond. The firelight glimmered off their shoulder armor and helmet.

It hurt more than he'd have liked to remember that it wasn't Angeal sitting there as he guided Zack through a tough mission.

As Zack shoved himself back upright, his eyes wandering to where Buster Sword was propped up against the wall to his left, a rough voice asked, “You alright, sir?”

“Yeah, just startled myself,” he admitted wryly. There was a faint snapping and popping as Gibbs stirred the fire in a hopeless attempt to keep it from dying. It wasn't like it was really necessary, but not everyone here was gifted with SOLDIER eyes.

Zack twisted to the right to find Cloud where he'd settled in hours ago. The only difference was that at some point in the night Cloud had curled in on himself; his arms locked around his legs, and his head buried against his knees. Cloud's helmet rested by his hip, and the wild spikes of his blond hair looked almost bleached white-gold in the faint light. Zack looked away from him to focus on the dirt between his boots. It was marked with tiny pits and rises—the pattern from the soles.

(In over my head, huh? You're probably right....)

Angeal probably would have called him all kinds of naïve and foolish if he were here right now. He wasn't though, so Zack had to muddle along on his own virtues and instincts. He picked absently at his pants, more gray-brown than black even in the poor lighting, and watched a puff of dust come loose. Maybe he was just a gullible idiot who was going to wind up dead someday because he couldn't leave a friend to his own devices. (Don't think about what Cloud said.) Maybe he'd started our humoring Cloud, expecting to unravel the story and eventually Cloud would laugh it off, and it'd all just be a mako dream that his friend had had.

At first that had been what he wanted, all he’d wanted.  He’d been half out of his mind in a mixture of adrenaline, worry, and fear.  “Another friend gone mad,” he’d thought.  “It’s going to be just like Angeal all over again.”  Zack had been terrified that he was going to have to take Cloud out, that he’d run off and end up a danger to ShinRa and Zack would have to go out and kill him.  A part of him had wondered if he could just get him to talk, get him to admit what was wrong.... Then he’d watched Cloud fall apart, practically sobbing into the dirt, and he’d been scared for a different reason.

Zack had never dealt with someone having the kind of psychotic break that Cloud had seemed to be having.  Well, unless he counted that time Angeal and been raving about being a monster.  He hadn’t been able to do much then either, just protest and try to get Angeal to listen, to stop, to come back

(“Then what should an angel fight for, Zack?  What do angels dream of?!”

“Angeal....”)

Angeal’s frustration and confusion had nothing on the desperation that had been in Cloud’s voice.  Zack hadn’t been able to bring himself to interrogate Cloud, had done his best to keep calm in an effort to get Cloud to calm down, to get him to talk to him.  Cloud’s story had been crazy, and wild, and maybe it was a mako hallucination—Zack didn’t know.  He’d wanted it to just stop, wanted Cloud to suddenly wake up and tell him he was okay now, that it had just been a dream and they should get back.

He hadn't, and by the time Zack had heard himself rambling about Modeoheim, he'd realized he was going to side with Cloud even if it was a blind leap of faith. It was probably stupid, but it was a choice between ignoring it and hoping Cloud would ‘get better’, or believing him and sticking by his friend. It was a choice of Cloud’s possible delirium, of faith in Cloud, or continuing to cling staunchly to a corporation that he’d been learning was rotten since Angeal had gone missing.  It had been a painful road of broken dreams and idealism, and Zack had paid with it via a price that was far too high.  Somehow, putting a little trust in Cloud didn’t seem so bad, and Zack didn't think anyone could fabricate that sort of broken, shaking, absolutely destroyed emotion. In the end, he’d already given his word, and even if Cloud was just hallucinating, was just crazy, Zack was going to stick with him.  He’d failed to save Gillian Hewley, Angeal, and Genesis....  He didn’t want to fail Cloud too, even if it came down to saving the kid from himself.

And, maybe, just maybe there was a part of Zack that wanted to believe, desperately. He didn't know if he could take it if he had to face down another friend, had to go through Angeal again. Well, that was a lie. He could do it, had been prepared to do it when he chased after Cloud, but...he didn't want to. Zack wanted to believe, because even though most of what Cloud had said had left him feeling faintly horrified, in the short run the other options were much, much worse.

On the one hand, if he decided to betray Cloud’s trust and turn him over to ShinRa as a possible danger, or even just to get him some help, there was the chance that terrible things could happen to him.  Genesis and Angeal terrible, particularly if Cloud was telling him the truth and wasn’t just crazy.  Zack had to ask himself if he was willing to lay that on chance, on his conscience, and the answer had been a resounding no.  Zack would just have to live with the consequences of his choice both short term and long term.  At least Cloud's possible future was a long way off and Zack might not even live to see it if Cloud was right.

(I wasn't going to think about that....) It was no good now, he was already thinking about it. The thought of his own death made something swoop low in his stomach. For all the danger and close calls Zack had been through, hearing Cloud's description, and the emotion thick behind the words, had thrown his own mortality into his face far more efficiently. Just thinking about it made him feel claustrophobic and twitchy.

Zack shoved himself to his feet and crept toward the dying fire. He had to navigate the limbs of sprawled troopers to get there. Jac was snoring loud enough to cover his footfalls. The wide mouth of the entrance to the mines spilled straight out into the funnel shaped canyon in which an immense, dead tree stood like a sentinel. There was a thick fog hanging over the marshes and blocking his view as it wreathed about the dead tree like a twisted veil. Zack squatted down, balanced on the precipice of open ground. Beside him the fire popped and guttered lower.

“If you want to get a bit more sleep, I'll take over for you.” He wasn't going to get anymore sleep now anyway.

“That's alright,” Gibbs grumbled. “It'll be dawn soon and I think I'd like to watch the sunrise. You don't really get that kind of chance in Midgar.”

Zack made an agreeable noise. It was one of the things he missed about Gongaga. It didn't have that great a view most of the time, down among the trees as they were, but sometimes his dad would get him up real early to go to the waterfall pool that was a short hike outside the town. They'd take fishing poles, dip their lines in, and just sit there. Well, Zack's dad would. Zack always got bored and ended up wading in and looking for pretty rocks to take back to his mom. “One of the perks of being SOLDIER,” he said at last. “Getting to see so many different skies.” Just like he'd told Aerith, and one day he'd make sure she saw it. Just another promise to keep before he died. (Not like that. I'm going to live a long life, right?)

“The pay's not half bad either,” Gibb's said drolly. Zack gave an amused cough.

“There's always that.”

The pair of them fell quiet again, Zack allowing himself to be drawn back into his own thoughts. Unsurprisingly, he was pulled right back into the puzzle Cloud presented. He still had nagging doubts about the whole thing, as any sane person would, but he couldn't deny that it could make sense. He'd noticed the oddities already. If only he had some way to check the information Cloud had given him without the Turk's deciding he'd just made himself too dangerous. Good people tended to disappear that way.

In the end it all came down to who he'd rather trust. ShinRa and the dirty underbelly he'd been starting to uncover ever since Angeal had gone missing in Wutai, or Cloud, a kid he barely knew, and his crazy story. Zack's gut instincts were telling him to go with Cloud, though that might have had more to do with his growing disillusionment as much as anything else. He'd already said he'd help Cloud in all his impulsiveness, so there was probably no going back now. Zack just hoped that his instincts had led him right this time, and his rather hit-and-miss luck was on target. He was going to need both if he was going to keep Cloud out of trouble.

At least he had a sinking suspicion where Cloud's near violent aversion to the medical and science staff came from. Which was a whole other drum of land worms that was going to have to be dealt with at some point.

Zack swiped his hand over his hair. (You always were good at running roughshod into messes, weren't you?) That had sounded like Angeal too, and it made Zack smile, albeit sadly. Yeah, that sounded like him alright. No use for it, Zack had given his word and he wasn't taking it back. Besides, if Cloud was telling the truth, he had to save Sephiroth. It felt like he owed it to Angeal, and maybe even Genesis, to try. He was the only one left to do it, and that was no one's fault but his own.

There was a faint rustle and scuff of movement behind them, and Zack looked over his shoulder at the same time Gibbs turned to look. The other Third, Edge, was picking his way toward them from the deeper gloom of the cavern where he'd been providing watch against any monsters that decided to creep out of the bowels of the mine. Not that they'd been too worried of that. The path of destruction and monster carcasses they'd passed on their way had told them all they needed to know. If Zack were a member of the monster community in here, he'd lay low for a few days post-Sephiroth destruction too.

“Just let it die,” Edge grumbled, and scuffed a bit of dirt toward the embers burning themselves out on the dirt and stone floor. “By the time these jokers wake up it'll be sun up.” There came a suspiciously snicker-like snort from behind them, and Edge growled, “Go back to sleep, grunt.”

“Sir, yes sir,” Sparo's voice floated to them. Zack chuckled at the mocking lilt.

It was quiet again, the three of them watching the swirl of mist over the swamp. Zack only moved to settle himself into a more comfortable sitting position as the time slipped by. Slowly but surely the sun began to creep up over the horizon and turn the sky from the pale grays of predawn to pastel shades of pink, purple, yellow, and orange. The serenity of the view was broken as a voice mumbled, “I have to go to the bathroom.” The laughter was immediate. Zack and the two Thirds turned to look at the troopers, now obviously awake.

“Well, you have two options, Jac,” Sparo drawled. “You can either go down to the edge of the swamp and brave the monsters, or you can venture back into the caves. You might need an escort though.”

“Aw, shut up, Sparo,” Jac whined.

“We don't want you to get lost again,” Sparo simpered. “Then we'd have to send Cloud to rescue you.”

There were more snorts of laughter. Even Gibbs was chuckling as he stood up and began to stomp out the ashy remains of the night's fire. Zack craned his neck around to get a look at his blond friend. Cloud was watching the byplay with a dazed look of bemusement on his face.

“You should go with him and hold his hand, Sparo,” Edge remarked acidly.

“Just like when we were growing up, eh, Jac?”

With a shake of his head, Zack shoved himself to his feet, attempted to dust his pants off, gave up, and ambled over to crouch down beside Cloud. When he reached out to ruffle Cloud's hair, his hand was immediately batted away. Zack merely grinned impudently at Cloud's faintly disgruntled expression. “How're you doing this morning, Cloud?”

“I'm fine, Zack. Really.”

They both went quiet for a second as Jac and Sparo walked past them into the deeper gloom of the cave. The latter was saying, “And you better make sure you don't miss and get your helmet all dirty.”

“Spaaarooo.”

Zack coughed into his fist to hide a laugh, then looked back at Cloud who was shaking his head. He still looked a bit confused. Quietly, Zack said, “I just wanted to make sure. Last night couldn't have been easy on you.”

Cloud squeezed his knees, eyes lowering and shrugged his shoulders slightly. Zack wasn't sure if that was a dismissal, or not. A moment later Cloud murmured, “It was...kind of nice. To talk about it.”

There were a hundred things Zack wanted to say right then, a hundred questions he wanted to ask. The most pertinent being one being 'Did you keep all of that bottled up all this time?', but he didn't ask. Now wasn't really the time for this sort of conversation. Instead he said, “Come on, let's go outside in the sun. You look like you could use some.”

Zack ignored Cloud's faint mutter, since as he walked off he heard Cloud get up and shuffle after him. He stopped long enough to grab Buster Sword, then headed out onto the faint dirt trail that was all that remained of a workable path. It was mostly grown over with grass. Connally and the two Thirds were already out in the sun, though they hadn't gone far enough to cross the invisible line they'd established as a safe zone. The swamp itself was slowly beginning to unveil itself as the sun burned away the mist. Even now Zack could see jagged, dark trees draped with swamp moss poking out above the remaining low lying cover.

With a tremendous yawn and a spine popping stretch, Zack plopped himself down on a convenient rock, laid Buster Sword over his knees, and began to check for any damage. Internally, he cringed over a mental lecture from Angeal. Oh man, if his mentor wasn't dead, he'd kill him! Zack was just lucky that all it really needed was a thorough cleaning, as there was blood and monster gore stuck in the crevices. Rust, wear, and tear...oh boy....

It was about then that Jac and Sparo returned and went over to stand by the other men. Cloud, Zack noted, was standing apart from them. A little closer to Zack's own position, but not really standing with him either. It was like he wasn't exactly sure how to integrate, but thought he should. It reminded Zack more than a little of Sephiroth, only Cloud wasn't nearly as unreachable or intimidating. The rest of the group appeared to be regarding the swamp with wary expressions, as if they expected something to come flying out of it at any second.

“Are...zoloms real?” Connally asked suddenly, breaking the quiet.

“Oh yeah,” that was Sparo. “They're as real as any other monster.”

“I heard a story about a man who got bit by one, walked nine more paces, and just fell down dead,” Jac muttered in a stage-whisper.

“They're really dangerous,” Sparo noted glibly, “I've heard even an entire squad of SOLDIER 2nds will avoid them.”

“That's nothing,” Zack broke in, sensing a moment for mischief. Almost as one they turned to look at him. “There was this one time where a buddy of mine and I decided to do a little fishing, you know, just for something to do. So we came out this way to get away from Midgar and all the hustle and bustle. Guy came up with the smart idea to go fishing in the swamp, and I went along with it. I mean, what was the worst that could happen?” He had their attention riveted, and Zack allowed a grin and a secretive look to draw them in further. “So there we were, just dipped our lines in, and the guy gets a bite, right?” He watched them shuffle closer, and held his hands up to imitate reeling. “He's heaving on the fishing pole, reeling in what must be a monstrous catch and the next thing I know...this huge snaky head breaks the surface.”

Someone muttered a “Holy shit.”

Zack laughed in delight. “It had poison and blood dribbling off its mouth from the hook and looked as mean as a ruffled chocobo. I swear I nearly wet myself, but my friend just looked determined to haul the thing in. There was no way I wanted to face it, of course, so I used my sword to cut the line.... Man, he was not happy, let me tell you. Nor was the zolom. I don't think I've ever run that fast in my life.” They stared at him for several seconds, before the babble started in and Zack caught speculations about who his 'friend' had been.

“I heard he was really close to SOLDIER Hewley before he died. Maybe it was him?”

“No way.  I bet it was the General!”

“...I can't really see the General fishing even if it is for Midgar zoloms....”

Cloud was giving him a look that told Zack he was well on to him and his silly story. Zack simply grinned, unabashed.

"How about you, Cloud? What sort of nasties do they have where you come from?" Connally asked, suddenly turning to include Cloud in the current discussion. Cloud blinked owlishly for a moment.

"Um…mostly just wolves and dragons, really," he said. "The more dangerous thing is the weather. The winters up there are deadly, if you don't know how to handle them."

"You have dragons up there, and all you're worried about is a little cold? No wonder a mako bath didn't do more than piss you off!" Sparo said, incredulous humor in his voice. The words caused a ripple of laughter from the others. Zack had to agree with him though, remembering Cloud's broken tale of nearly being eaten by one of the beasts.

Cloud, however, merely looked a bit bemused at the sentiment. When he looked at Zack as if hoping he could explain the joke to him, Zack merely gave him an encouraging grin and didn't bother to interfere as the men descended on Cloud with more questions about Nibel's dragons. Time passed slowly out here, rolling by in the way of fluffy white clouds and changing shadow lengths. Conversation ebbed and flowed, Zack pouncing in when he felt it prudent, but a lot of his time was spent laughing over the horrible jokes they told while he picked at the grime on Buster Sword. By the time it was nearing noon, they'd shared around some travel rations and a canteen. It was peaceful and easy-going, and Zack couldn't help but wonder when Sephiroth was going to show up.

"…Chocobos?" a quiet voice murmured from nearby. Zack shot a puzzled look at Cloud, who looked as baffled by what he'd said as Zack did.

“What's that?” Zack asked

“I...” Cloud's response cut off as he tensed slightly. Zack followed his gaze down toward the swamp.

Most of the mist had been burned away by now, leaving only bare threads of it curling along the edges of standing water and about the bases of trees. Zack could even make out the faint remnants of the old road that had once existed to allow the people of Kalm access to the mines. Most of it had been reclaimed by time and lack of maintenance to the waterlogged soil, but here and there it was obvious. The most visible part of the road was closer to harder ground. But it wasn't this that caught Zack's attention. Further out he could see movement, and almost as soon as he focused on it, Sephiroth was at the edge of the swamp in a flash of black and silver. He pushed off the ground with one leg in a leap that brought him even with the tree, and upon landing took several more crisp strides to stop before Jac.

Sephiroth extended the hand not clenched around Masamune toward the trooper who, after a belated moment of shock, held his own hand out. Into it, Sephiroth dropped a gleaming, purple materia. Zack stood, even as Sephiroth smoothly said, “I suggest you step back.” He turned on his heel with an impressive sweep of his hair and coat, and took a couple of steps back toward the swamp. A second later, a warbling, terrified mass of chocobos came tearing up toward them and right by Sephiroth fast enough to ruffle the man's hair. Zack could only stare in shock as they huddled around Jac, so close that he could no longer see the trooper, and cooed in distress.

Before he had a chance to worry about the birds' behavior, what had set them into such a state exploded from the swamp in a shower of murky, stagnant water and trailing swamp grass. The zolom's body slid over the grass with the sound of dragging, rustling scales, and its large, lidless eyes focused on them with obvious predatory intent. As Zack brought Buster Sword up, prepared to run forward and defend the men should he need to, he noticed Cloud take a couple of steps forward.

“Cloud, don't—” he started to say, his words drowned under the alarmed shouts of the other men. It seemed a useless warning anyway as Sephiroth jumped to meet the zolom when it glided past the dead tree. Zack could see him bring Masamune up and clip it on the chin with the hilt of the sword.  The blow was hard enough to knock the serpent's head back. Smoothly, Sephiroth flipped over, twisted midair, grabbed hold of the zolom's snout, and let gravity help him yank it backwards and down to impale it through its hood on the sharp top of the tree. It had all happened so fast that none of them had a chance to get out of the way before splintered wood rained down around them. Along with a good deal of blood. Zack thought Sephiroth might have managed to sever an artery.

Sephiroth landed neatly just out of range of the gory shower, hair shimmering lightly in the sun as it settled around him, and turned to blink lazily up at his handiwork. Zack could only sputter, and turned to look at Cloud. The blond looked back at him, lips pressed into a thin, pale line. Zack, shook his head, slung Buster Sword into position on his back, and strode forward to push past the still chirruping chocobos in an effort to reach Sephiroth.

“You're such a show off,” he said glibly, as if he hadn't just been spattered by zolom blood. “Was that at all necessary?” Sephiroth looked toward him, the slight furrowing of his brows and small downward curl of his lips the only sign of his annoyance, before they smoothed away as though something had lifted his mood. Zack would put bets on the zolom, rather than his attempts at humor.

“If I were more prone to dramatics, I would have put more effort into my arrival,” Sephiroth said, and turned away again to step down toward the edge of the swamp. “I did as you asked and provided chocobos for the men. You never stipulated how I should go about it.”

Zack snorted faintly, and muttered to himself about how Sephiroth wouldn't have listened anyway. “Yeah, well, I just wasn't expecting a zolom, too. But, hey Sephiroth?” No response. Still, Zack soldiered on. “You do know that this one is, uh, too small to ride right?” Sephiroth gave no immediate indication he'd heard. Zack suspected he was too busy pretending that there wasn't a tiny beak latched onto the back of his long, black coat. Zack crouched down to get a better look at the chocobo chick.

The chick stumbled forward on legs that were still unsure, and leaned adoringly against Sephiroth's mud spattered boots. Zack stared at it, amused, while it gazed lovingly up at Sephiroth. From above him, Sephiroth said, “It followed me.” Zack just about laughed at the nearly undetectable air of bemusement underlying Sephiroth's calm voice, and looked up at him. The way the man was eying the chick and fingering Masamune was mildly disconcerting.

“It followed you here all the way from the ranch?” Zack asked quickly. Mostly he was just trying to distract Sephiroth from attempting to bat the poor thing out into the swamps. “But it's just a little thing!” A little thing that was doing its best to nibble on Sephiroth's boot affectionately. As if that wasn't weird enough, Sephiroth stepped away from it. The bird wobbled after him, obviously intent on sticking as close as possible.

“It's a black,” Sephiroth said flatly, as if that explained everything, and he clearly expected Zack to accept this statement and leave it alone.

Zack, of course, chose to ignore the subtext and gestured at the chick. “It's just a baby!” He said, then reached out, slid his hands under the chocobo's plump little body, and lifted it off the ground. It warked in displeasure and scrabbled at the air, tiny wings flapping as it tried to get out of his grip. When it didn't manage to succeed, it looked disdainfully back at him. Zack let it go and it bobbled over to Sephiroth's heels again like a faithful puppy. Sephiroth took another few steps away as if he were merely impatient to be leaving and not trying to avoid the chocobo. Zack found this hilarious and had to stifle his abrupt laughter.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed slightly at Zack's obvious merriment. “Perhaps it would be best to be rid of it. I doubt it can survive on its own.” The statement was followed by a faint snick as Sephiroth used his thumb to flick Masamune loose. The sunlight glanced off the blade while the chocobo warbled, unaware of its danger as it returned to picking at one of Sephiroth's boots again. Zack stood, holding his hands up in an effort to calm the man's irritation.

“Now, now, let's not be so hasty. Sure, it's just a baby chocobo, but it's a black chocobo like you said. It's obvious someone worked hard to breed this little thing, so why don't we just take it back to the ranch and get it out of your hair.”

Sephiroth twisted Masamune slightly, his attention apparently focused on the way light glistened on the deadly steel, then gave a faint sound of agreement. Masamune clicked back into place and he started to walk away, obviously more than ready to get the chocobo away from him. He was brought up short as the chick grabbed the back of his coat again.  Zack decided to pretend he hadn't noticed Sephiroth's predicament and headed back toward the others. It seemed no one had recovered enough from the shock yet to rescue Jac from the chocobos, but apparently they were getting to the gibbering part of recovery.

"That…was…so…cool!" Connally said hoarsely, keeping his voice low so as not to draw attention from the subject of his comment. "Did you see that?" he continued, turning wide eyes on the person next to him. Gibbs looked no less impressed, eyes sparkling with more than just the mako glow.

"That was also so disgusting," Sparo said, mouth twisted in a grimace as he wiped blood out of his eyes. "When I get back to Midgar I'm not coming out of the shower for a week! Ugh…."

Edge seemed to be more immune to the spectacle, and instead waded through the pack of chocobos to Jac's side to rescue the poor trooper from the mob of curious beaks. The glow from what Zack supposed must be a Chocobo Lure materia faded as Edge closed his hand around it and deactivated the spell. The pack broke apart but didn't flee the area, just milled nearby warking softly amongst themselves as they waited for the humans to approach them again. Zack turned to consider them as he listened to the continued chatter.

"Man…I hate chocobos.” That was Jac, voice petulant alongside the sound of gloves brushing over clothing. "I mean, I didn't become a military man to ride around like a pillock on display."

"They're not that bad.…" And that quiet voice was Cloud. "They're fun to race, at least.”

"You race chocobos? A mountain kid like you?" The surprised question was from Connally. Zack could echo that sentiment.

"…Just a bit," Cloud replied.

"I wouldn't have thought they'd have chocobos up in the cold like that,” the rough voice he recognized as Gibbs said. "Though I can see why you'd be good at it. Small frame, light weight…."

"You should become a jockey!" Jac butted in enthusiastically. "I mean, you'd make a ton of money, if you're any good." As ShinRa had risen to power, chocobos had become less and less sought after, though Zack had heard talk of people setting up out in the fields and racing them. A lot of the men liked to go out near Kalm and see if they could catch some of the action. Apparently the betting pools were pretty good. Zack had never been interested himself.

"I don't really…." Cloud mumbled. It was then that Zack realized something that had been, quite literally, staring him in the face.

“Hey, there's only six here!” he yelped, and turned toward Sephiroth “You didn't get me one?” The man in question slanted him a look, and Zack swore he heard a low chuckle.

“I believe you are capable of crossing under your own power, Zack.”

“Oh, that's just cruel. Just because you enjoy running around the marshes doesn't mean you need to subject me to your new hobby too!” Sephiroth merely smiled faintly, so Zack went looking for his new favorite ally. “Cloud! Help me out here!” Unfortunately Cloud wasn't looking at him, but rather passed him. If Zack wasn't mistaken he was staring a little too low to be looking at Sephiroth, so.... Zack chanced a glance over his shoulder to see a disgruntled Sephiroth trying to get away from the chocobo chick again, and repressed a snort. When he looked back at Cloud, there was something decidedly off. It was just a subtle shift in his stance, and the way he reached up and ran a hand through his hair.

"I don't know, Zack. It seems to me that if the General gives an order, I shouldn't disobey a superior officer," Cloud said, crossing his arms and resting his weight on one leg. A teasing smirk tugged at his lips as he tilted his head at Zack. There was something off in all of that too. It was nothing like the quiet guy he'd come to know over the last day or so, and not even like the slightly more animated kid he'd met in Modeoheim.

“Huh?” Zack tilted his head to one side, giving Cloud an absolutely baffled look. Whatever had just changed, it meant one thing at least.... Cloud wasn't going to save him. Zack slumped, arms dangling uselessly, and groaned. “Oh, man, you're something else, Cloud. I mean it.” The sound of rustling leather behind him made Zack jerk around in time to see Sephiroth striding off. The chocobo chick was scuttling after him determinedly, and Zack grinned wryly. “I guess that's our cue. If you gossiping gals want to grab a chocobo, let's go!” Despite the comment he hung back to make sure they got on their chocobos alright, but it seemed Cloud had that well in hand.

"You heard the man. Mount up, and let's mosey," Cloud said, striding over to the milling birds after scooping up his helmet. Zack watched in bemusement as he looked the birds over. He could only wonder about the abrupt personality shift, and whether or not he ought to be worried about it. There was something oddly...familiar...about it, though he couldn't put a finger on it. "Come on, you take this one. It should be a gentle enough ride for you, since you seem to have such a problem with them,” Zack heard Cloud explain. Jac didn't move, mouth slightly agape as he just stared at Cloud. Cloud stared back patiently. There was a choked sound as Gibbs fought back a bitten off chuckle, his hand over his eyes.

"Mosey? Cloud, that has got to be the lamest thing I've ever heard," Sparo said, shaking his head sadly. Cloud shrugged merely shrugged at him, not at all apologetic.

"If you guys would move, then I wouldn't have to say it," he pointed out, giving Jac another blunt look. The trooper shook himself out of his stupor, and grinned at Cloud as he took the chocobo's reins from his hand.

"Geeze, were you dropped on your head as a kid?" Jac asked, punching Cloud's shoulder jokingly. Cloud rolled his eyes, donned his helmet, then turned on his heel to mount his own chocobo. The others mounted their birds in swift order, and brought them to line up in front of the swamp where they waited for the order to move out.

Zack had watched the entire exchange silently, a smile on his face that didn't really fit there considering the concerned turn his thoughts had taken. He knew Cloud hadn't told him everything, and certainly was willing to wait until he was comfortable to ask for more information, but now Zack was wondering if he didn't need to push a little more. Something was very wrong here. The problem was that there was no way he could approach Cloud about the issue for now.

He breathed out, let it go for the moment, but made a mental note to speak to Cloud as soon as was feasible. “Choice of words aside, Cloud's right. We need to get moving,” he echoed. Holding up his hand he waved them forward. “Get straight across, don't linger. If you get in trouble Sephiroth or I will take care of it.”

With that, Zack started off himself. His boots sunk into slick swamp mud almost immediately. He had to shift his balance, but he caught himself before he slid and fell into the muck. It didn't stop it from spattering up his already filthy pants unfortunately. How Sephiroth managed to stay so pristine he had no idea. Zack raced forward to catch up with Sephiroth who was still walking along like this was a stroll in the park. “Hey, Sephiroth, you alright?” He seemed kind of down. Well, if someone like Sephiroth could be considered down. It was a bit heartbreaking to realize that Sephiroth had no one to talk to in the wake of Angeal and Genesis' demises, and Zack felt awful for not trying harder to track the man down in his own upset.

Sephiroth didn't even look at him as he continued to stride forward. “There's no reason I shouldn't be.”

Zack stopped dead, then hopped forward with a faint squawk when his boots started to sink into the mire. “Don't give me that Sephiroth. You have as much right as I do—more even!—to be upset right now. Angeal...and Genesis are both dead. You can't expect me to believe that you aren't affected by this!”

“Genesis fancied himself as my rival. Nothing more.”

This was like pulling teeth from a behemoth! “Sephiroth!” Zack bit out sharply. “You told me yourself that the three of you were friends, and yeah, maybe Genesis was your rival too, but that doesn't mean you weren't friends. And even then what about Angeal? Doesn't he matter?”

Sephiroth finally looked at him, eyes narrowed faintly in irritation. “They chose to leave ShinRa. Their fate was sealed the moment they took that course.”

Zack stopped again, flabbergasted. “You can't mean that!” he shouted, hardly aware he was yelling. “I know you don't Sephiroth, or you'd never have tried to help them back at reactor number five!” Sephiroth ignored him and kept walking, posture stiff and unrelenting.

A weary peep sounded near Zack's ankles, and he looked down at the tiny black chocobo. It looked wilted, all covered in slime and wet until its down was nearly plastered flat. Its eyes were half closed in tiredness, but still it struggled gamely on to keep up with Sephiroth. “Aw, man...” Zack said with a sigh. He reached down to scoop the rather pathetic looking bird up, paying no heed to the mud and water that soaked immediately into his skin and clothes. “These two are going to turn me wrinkled and gray before the year is out,” he confided in the bird.

From not too far behind him he heard Cloud's voice float through the murk. "Gibbs, Edge, you two take the front. Keep an eye out for the zoloms, and call out for Zack or Sephiroth if you see anything suspicious. Jac, Sparo, Connally, you three stick together in the middle. I'll bring up the rear.”

"Who died and made you General?" Edge's sharp voice asked.

"What would you suggest, then?" Cloud asked. "And the longer we argue, the more chance we have of being attacked.”

"Cloud, I know you suddenly think you can take on anything that comes your way, but you're not trained for this.” Connally seemed to be a peacemaker.

"Enough of the chatter," Gibbs cut in roughly. "Trooper or no, Cloud's right. SOLDIER Zack trusted him enough to take out monsters on his own, so we'll go with his plan. And you holler out the minute you think you see anything wrong too. There's no need for any of us to take unnecessary risks when we have two of the best SOLDIERs on our team. Now form up, everyone!"  At the sound of chocobo claws pattering through the swamp muck, Zack sighed and started off after Sephiroth again. He'd be lucky if he didn't wind up losing a boot somewhere along the way.

It only took a bit of effort for Zack to hit his stride, and soon he was moving through the sticky mud with only the barest of problems. The chocobo chick he'd tucked under his arm didn't seem to mind the free ride, at least. “You know,” he remarked to the little black, “If you were bigger you'd be carrying me.” The chick gave him a tired look, then tucked its head between his side and its fluffy body, clearly intent on a nap. Zack envied it.

By the time he'd been on the move for awhile, Zack had come to the conclusion that he was lucky the only thing he'd had to worry about were biting insects. If he'd been forced to fight something big and nasty out here, one handed, and with his boots sinking into the sludge.... Well, they'd probably be picking Zack Fair out of monsters' teeth for weeks. It was possible that he was just irritated with having to stop and yank his boot out of the mud for the billionth time. Sephiroth was going to pay for this, somehow. He didn't know how, but he was sure there was some sort of luck out there that would agree with him and inflict suffering on Sephiroth for him.

His next staggering lunge had him stumbling through what had a second ago looked like solid ground, but was actually a pool of knee deep, foul smelling water. It took several seconds after he'd gotten out of there to realize he appeared to be walking on what was mostly solid ground. Zack warily glanced around himself, expecting to find he'd stumbled onto one of the little islands that spotted the marshes, but no. He was surrounded by clusters of peat moss that eventually gave way to straggling grass growth. Further on the ground turned pretty and green as it smoothed into the rolling plains.

Zack was, in a word, deliriously happy. The entire run across the swamps had left him spattered from head to toe in stinking sludge. He breathed deep, hoping for the smell of fresh air, and wound up coughing because it was like the stink was stuck in his nose. With a groan he rubbed the back of his forearm against his forehead. Between the blood from the zolom and swamp muck all over him, Zack didn't know if he'd ever be clean again. A part of him drearily thought he'd never get the smell of the place off his skin.

As he staggered onward toward the growing stretch of greenery, he could see Sephiroth already there. In fact, he appeared to be scraping mud off the bottom of his boots with the help of the grass. Sephiroth, Zack noticed, as he finally came up even with the man, seemed to have managed to make it across three times without getting anything above his knees dirty. Zack contemplated telling him he hated him, but decided he didn't have the energy, and anyway Sephiroth was strolling off already.

The heavy thud of chocobo feet interrupted his momentary malaise. "Thank the Planet that's over with," Connally said brightly as the men slowed their mounts to a walk. "Though it's too bad we couldn't see the General in action again."

"I could forgo the pleasure. I still have bits zolom in places I really don't want to mention right now," Sparo groused, rolling his shoulders to demonstrate his discomfort. Cloud, the only one of the troopers with his helmet still on, slipped off the head gear to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Upon noticing him, Cloud tossed Zack a jaunty wave that he returned with a little less enthusiasm. He wasn't quite feeling his usual energy at the moment.

"Just so long as we stop soon. We're not trained for riding these things for so long," Jac complained, slumped in his own saddle.

"Listen to the ladies chatter!" Edge drawled. "At least one of you doesn't look like something I'd rather feed to the chocobos."

Jac sat up straight despite his obvious discomfort. "That's because he looks more like a chocobo himself," he remarked. He had a bit of a point, Zack noted. Despite the filth that had been kicked up by the birds, Cloud's hair still spiked out dramatically. The sunny yellow nearly matched the color of his mount.All the same, Zack personally thought the comparison was too easy.

"Tell me one I haven't heard a thousand times before," Cloud said shot back. Despite the sweat still clinging to him he was already securing his helmet back on. "You know, if you move with the chocobo's stride rather than let it bounce you around, it will be a much smoother ride for you."

"Ah, that's right. We have a veritable racing expert in our midst!" Edge cut in.

"Cool it, Edge," Gibbs warned, kicking his bird so he was between Cloud and the other Third.

"I'm just playing," Edge complained, scowling at his fellow SOLDIER. "I'm not hurting your feelings, right sunshine?" He addressed the comment over Gibbs' head to Cloud.

"I suppose the only way to shut you up is to prove I can outrace you, is that it?" Cloud challenged. In the next second Cloud had already sent his chocobo running forward to the surprised shouts of the men who followed after them. Zack stared after them feeling oddly detached. He supposed it was just exhaustion catching up with him, but he felt a bit like an old man trying to keep up with a bunch of toddlers. It wasn't a sensation he was used to.

“Is this the way I make people feel normally?” he mused aloud. The little black chocobo lifted its head and peered around blearily, then peeped in what Zack thought was a questioning manner. “You're almost home,” Zack informed it. “Just hold on.” As he started to jog after the group, he glanced down at it and found it staring intently around as if searching for something. With a sigh, Zack picked up his pace, lengthened his stride, and put a burst of speed behind it. “Maybe if we're lucky the rancher will be feeling charitable enough to give us something to eat.”

And Zack would have a chance to talk to Cloud, because something weird was still going on. That whole scene had just been way too surreal, not to mention completely against what he was coming to expect from Cloud. Zack could admit he was worried. It might not be anything, but considering how absolutely insane everything had been lately he figured he had a right to be a little bit twitchy.

After another short break, Zack picked his jog up to a run in an effort to catch up with them. Sephiroth, he noticed as he passed the man, appeared to be in no hurry and was walking sedately. At least that meant he'd have a bit longer to interrogate Cloud.

Upon reaching the ranch, Zack's eyes immediately caught sight of the chocobos where they'd been released into the large, fenced in pasture out front of the barn. He followed the fence line to where the men were waiting by the house. When the fence terminated at a corner he turned to face it. The top railing dug into his stomach through his shirt and harness as he leaned over it far enough to plop the chocobo chick in the pen. “Go find your mom,” he told it. As he walked away, he ignored the irate wark.

Dusting his hands off as he went, and feeling dried mud making his cheek itch, Zack ambled toward the men with a light grin on his face. A pair of men, one of which he recognized as Chocobo Bill, were leaning against the fence and watching the group with bewildered expressions. Zack ignored them as he walked by, other than to give them a faint wave. He waded into the cluster of SOLDIERs and troopers without so much as a how-do-you do, and found Cloud's arm in the mess. “Excuse me, but I need to borrow Cloud for a moment. Shove off. Go walk off the ride. See if you can get some grub for us. Sephiroth ought to arrive soon, since he decided to walk the rest of the way like a chump.” Then again, Zack couldn't imagine how Sephiroth was still going strong at this point; the man was positively inhuman.

Zack dragged Cloud out of the group, not giving him a chance to protest. With a forced air of cheer that was positively painful, Zack maneuvered them between the house and the grain silo, and then out back behind the barn. Upon reaching the relative privacy, he let Cloud go and faced him, arms crossed and weight resting on one leg. Zack frowned, possibly for show but also out of concern. Then he lifted hand up and ran it through his sweat and mud stiffened hair. He probably looked like something a marlboro spat out.

“Okay, Cloud, what's going on now? I know you have a problem with Sephiroth, and if you'd rather I take care of things on that end just say so now and I'll do it,” he looked at him earnestly. “If you want we can make sure you never have to go near him, let alone try and help me with him.” He really didn't know how to articulate what was worrying him, because it wasn't really something solid. It was just a strangeness, a...wrongness...about how Cloud was acting. Slowly, Cloud pulled his helmet off, and cast it to the grassy ground carelessly.

"What do you mean Zack? I'm fine," Cloud said, his expression mildly incredulous as he looked Zack up and down. "If anything, you look worse than I feel." He shifted his weight and put a hand on his hip, before shaking his head sharply. "As for Sephiroth, didn't we already agree to work together on it? Anyway, he's my problem. If it comes down to it, I already know I can fight him." Cloud's expression was blandly confident, and it almost felt like he was looking right through him.

Zack looked at him, just looked for several long seconds, before he turned away. There was still a sense of wrongness and strange familiarity that Zack just couldn't place. It wasn't just the actions, or the choice of words, or the levity, or the strange shift in intonation.... It was all of them put together. Maybe Cloud had done some acting or something?

“I don't know Cloud, you're acting kind of weird,” he said at last, feeling at a loss. He kind of wished Aerith was there right now. She always seemed to know how to handle weird situations, even if she was a bit shy sometimes. That was Aerith for you; she was brilliant with people, so long as they didn't scare her off first. Aerith who, apparently, was supposed to die in who knows how long because Zack hadn't been there to protect her. The smile faded off his face as he took a few paces away from the barn and sat down on the ground roughly. Zack kicked off his boots and gave a disgusted moue at the state of his socks. “I haven't been this filthy since Gongaga,” he complained.

He upturned one boot and watched some water and slime slide out of it with a bit of fascinated disgust. Zack had no idea how that even got in there. “Maybe next time I'll take the chocobo, and you can run across the swamp with a dirty chocobo chick under one arm and we'll see how you fair.” Zack's voice was just this side of prim. “I don't think I'll ever get this stink off me.... What will Aerith think?

“Is that...that is the biggest leech I have ever seen!” Zack yelped. He realized he was rambling, and jumping topics too fast for any sane person to really keep up with. Call it a defense strategy, or a cover up. It was hard to say, but as he yanked the slimy thing off his ankle he didn't really care. He felt he was owed a coping strategy at this point.

"I doubt Aerith will mind, so long as you don't bring your new friend back with you," Cloud said, when Zack paused to flick the parasite away from him. Zack could hear grass rustling as Cloud crushed it beneath his boots when he took a few steps toward him. "We should probably get back to the others. Sephiroth is here, and it wouldn't do to give him more reason to be suspicious that something is up."

Zack gave a snort and set aside Buster Sword so he could roll his shoulders and let the tension in them relax. “If Sephiroth wants to go on alone he's perfectly capable of it and we can get the troops back just fine.” Zack flopped back into the grass, pulled his grimy arms up and pillowed them behind his head. “Sit down, take a load off. We're not going anywhere for awhile yet.” The sunlight was warm, and Zack allowed it to soothe him momentarily. “So, tell me about your life Cloud. From the future, I mean. What kind of friends did you have? What were they like? Did you ever make SOLDIER? You seemed pretty interested in it during Modeoheim." Then, blithely, he added, "It can't have all been depressing.  There's a happy ending in this somewhere, right?”

He was asking as much out of curiosity and a want to know about this stranger in a faintly familiar form, as a way to fill the space until he could figure out what to do. Freeing one hand, he reached around to his jawline and rubbed lightly at the scar that had formed there. He had no idea where this would lead them, where they would end up, but he hoped that maybe there were some happy endings on the horizon.

"There's not much to tell," Cloud said. His voice sounded oddly distant. Zack thought it didn't line up with the emotions he'd displayed yesterday. "I obviously didn't make SOLDIER, since I was just a trooper when Nibelheim happened. My friends…” There was a pause, before Cloud went on, "I met up with my childhood friend shortly after I made it to Midgar. She was a part of AVALANCHE, and I kind of fell in with them for a while. Most of them had a grudge against ShinRa, and when Sephiroth came back, well…they couldn't just let that go."

And that surreal feeling was back. The one that said all of this was weirdly familiar. Zack still couldn't quite place why it gave him that dreamy déjà vu feeling. He was also pretty sure Cloud shouldn't be acting so flippant about the situation. Last night he'd been so, so torn up and now this? It didn't make any sense. Zack was about to give up and force the issue, when there came the sound of a body hitting the ground. He rolled over onto his knees immediately and stared wide eyed at Cloud. Cloud, who was on the ground on his knees clutching his head like he thought it was going to crack open like an egg.

He reached out, wanted to grab Cloud, wanted to do something to help his friend who was obviously in distress. Zack's brows furrowed in worry, lips down turned in a sharp frown. “Cloud? Hey, Cloud, what's wrong?” he asked, though his words didn't seem to get through. Worry and fear rattled around his ribs, distracting him completely from anything that had been said moments before and driving it right out of his mind. It didn't matter, even if there had been some momentary alarm at the mention of AVALANCHE. Zack leaned forward to try and get a look at Cloud's face, but before he could, everything just seemed to stop and Cloud lurched back to his feet. Zack remained kneeling there, hand still reaching out, before it fell back to rest on his thigh.

"I'm okay," Cloud said, blinking dazedly. "Sorry…. It happens sometimes. I'm okay.”

“No,” Zack said after a second’s pause. “No, you're not Cloud. Sit down.” There was force and command behind the words even as Zack pushed himself to his feet, intent on bodily making Cloud sit down if he had to. He didn't have to, as Cloud slumped to the ground without a fuss. Zack gave him another searching look and said, “You stay put, and I'll be right back.”

Zack paused a moment to pull off his sodden and rather disgustingly dirty socks and dropped them next to his abandoned boots before disappearing back between the barn and the house. As he rounded the house Zack caught sight of the men sitting about under a tree. They'd been joined by Chocobo Bill and the other man.

Zack walked up to them as the unknown man was saying, “Hyperion's my best chocobo yet.” He made a gesture toward the corral, and Zack glanced over to see a big black chocobo preening its chest feathers smugly. “I'm trying to breed the next generation now.”

(So that's where the little black came from.) Zack had to admit that the little fuzzball had nothing on its parent yet. “Excuse me, guys. Can I borrow a canteen?” Zack interrupted.

They all jumped.  Zack wondered if he had been walking that quietly, or if he just looked that terrible. Gibbs immediately tossed him one of said canteens, and Zack took note that someone had been kind enough to provide them with a plate of sandwiches. They were simple from the looks of it; just bread, meat, and cheese, but the troops looked blissfully happy to have actual food. Zack would have been too if his stomach hadn't been in knots.

“Is Cloud okay, sir?” Connally asked earnestly. “He seemed in a better mood, but I don't think I've ever seen him act like that.” Zack took a moment to wonder at the group's apparent fondness for Cloud. He had no idea what Cloud had done to earn their loyalty, but apparently he’d done something. He could only figure it a good thing since Zack wouldn't always be around to watch Cloud's back. (Not like that, of course, and besides I can't think about that now. I need to make sure Cloud's alright.)

“The stress is just getting to him,” Zack said smoothly. “He's had it rougher than us the past few days.”

“That's true,” Connally agreed, and shared a glance with the rest of them. “Tell him to take it easy, sir.”

“Yeah, we're not incapable,” Edge grunted.

“Sure thing,” Zack said, then he turned to go. He was brought up short by the image of a dark figure haunting the edge of the pasture. There was something off in the way Sephiroth was standing, his shoulders slightly hunched and tenser than Zack had ever seen before. After a moment's hesitation, he turned back, neatly stole a couple of the sandwiches off the plate—much to the melodramatic moaning of the men—and strode toward Sephiroth.

Sephiroth was leaning against the ragged, beak scarred wooden fence, with his arms crossed over his chest, and Masamune resting against the post beside him. There was a pinched look to his expression that reminded Zack of someone with a hell of a migraine. As he approached, the chubby black body of a familiar chocobo chick popped out from under the fence and pecked at the corner of Sephiroth's coat as it flapped in the breeze. Zack choked back a fit of laughter at the image; laughter that might have been just a bit overdrawn and hysterical had he let it out. Looking down at the chocobo he said, “I thought I told you to go find your mom. I know Sephiroth is dark and broody looking with all that black leather, but he's no black chocobo.”

The chocobo kwehed disinterestedly at him and pecked curiously at a tiny wild flower, which it promptly pulled up. Zack noted to never let it near Aerith's flower garden, then turned to look at Sephiroth who seemed intent on ignoring him. Zack leaned down and looked up into his face. “When was the last time you ate?”

“Before I rescued your mission,” Sephiroth replied promptly.

“Ouch, that's harsh. Well, you need to eat. I know you're ShinRa's prized SOLDIER but you're just as human as the rest of us Sephiroth,” Zack breezed on pleasantly, and offered the food to him. “It's not five star cuisine, but it might as well be after the last few days.”

Sephiroth accepted the offered food with something that Zack would have called hesitancy on anyone else, but on Sephiroth it just seemed like slow deliberation and an odd sort of bemusement. As he walked back toward the barn, Zack could feel Sephiroth's gaze drilling into the back of his neck the whole way. Once he was out of sight of the group up front but not quite back with Cloud, Zack gave himself a moment to let his shoulders slump and lean against the side of the chocobo barn. He could hear the faint shifting and soft warbles of the birds that were still inside, and smell hay and other animal smells. It was oddly comforting. He breathed slowly, pulled himself back together, and as always soldiered on.

(Am I doing the right thing, Angeal?)

When he turned the corner, he found Cloud right where he left him, though he'd curled in on himself again; just like this morning, with his knees tucked up to his chest and his arm around them. It really did make Zack wonder about him. “I got you something to drink. They had food too, but I doubt you're feeling hungry right now. You don't look like it anyway,” Zack said, keeping his voice cheerful. He flopped back down and held the canteen out to Cloud. “So, let's talk.” He left it open, hoping that if he gave Cloud the freedom to lead them into conversation he'd feel a little better about it, and maybe, just maybe decide to freely talk to him. He didn't expect Cloud to tell him all his secrets, but Zack still held hope that if Cloud had problems that he'd come to him and let him help. What were friends, partners in heroics, for after all?

Zack waited out the silence, and found his patience paid off when Cloud hesitantly said, "I wasn't in good shape, after you…" He trailed off, and Zack controlled a flinch. It was going to take some getting used to, that. "I was still suffering from the mako, and could barely walk or think. It was amazing I was able to get to Midgar at all. Hojo predicted I would never come out of it…. I'd made a promise with a friend, before I left my hometown. Tifa, was her name. Even after everything, I think I still remembered it…. She found me, and…I just…I pretended to be you. Sort of. I thought I was SOLDIER 1st, and…" Cloud paused, his discomfort almost palpable. "I'm sorry. I couldn't take it anymore. This…is too much."

Zack stared up into the sky, didn't look at Cloud. He was half afraid if he did that Cloud would clam up again. He gave a little half smile, and lightly joked, “I can't say I blame you. I mean, who wouldn't want to be me?” The sky above them was a wide open and pristine blue again. There wasn't a cloud in sight. It almost seemed to glow like mako eyes itself. Zack could remember when he'd met Aerith...she'd been afraid of SOLDIERs, but she'd thought his eyes were pretty. He'd compared them to the sky then as well.

He sighed, and dredged up the issue again when it was clear that Cloud wasn't going to say anything more. “I think you have a gift for understatement, Cloud. That was...surreal.” And now that he thought about it he could definitely see some parallels between himself and the way Cloud had been acting, even if it wasn't a direct copy. “You're not telling me everything about this, are you? I.... What happened after I died? You never did say...just that Sephiroth eventually killed Aerith.” The very thought made his throat feel tight. Even if Zack died, something that was a very real possibility in his line of work, he'd always hoped that Aerith would go on to be happy and keep smiling. She was like a light, and the idea of that going out was a horrible one. “Was she happy at least? Before she died?” That wasn't the Aerith he knew here and now, but it was still Aerith. Zack would do everything he could to prevent that fate from happening to her.

"Aerith…was smiling when she died," Cloud said softly. "She saved the world, Zack. When everyone else failed, she…" Zack glanced over and watched Cloud drag a hand through the grass. "Even after she was gone, she was still there, helping me. I…saw you both, once. You were content, I think."

“That sounds about right,” Zack said, with a fond grin. “I knew she could go places if she wanted to.” He wanted to ask what had ever become of his and Aerith's plan to fill Midgar with flowers, and if she'd ever managed to get out of Midgar and see the sky, but he couldn't bring himself to yet. A part of him was still dreading all the answers. While he knew that it was possible none of this would ever come to pass now that Cloud was here, it was still overwhelming and distressing to realize how close his world was to shattering completely and horrifically.

“Speaking of...I don't know if you realize this, but you said a lot of funny things when the mako was affecting you. You even mentioned Aerith by name, so I asked her when she called if she knew you. She told me she didn't.” That had been Zack's first real clue, as well as one of the major things that let him believe Cloud without much fuss. The thought made him laugh lightly. “What do you know? Maybe she's still looking out for you even if she doesn't know it!”

Cloud's soft grin was well worth the joke, though his face fell a second later when he mournfully asked, "Did I already mess things up?"

“I wouldn't say you messed up,” Zack said slowly, brows furrowed. “It was pretty obvious that you were a little screwed up from the mako, so everyone just assumed you were confusing events and talking nonsense. Most of it was easily explainable.” Zack smiled wryly and looked over at Cloud. “It's only because I spoke to Aerith that I really had a clue, and even then I was able to logic most of it away nice and neat.”  That had been the biggest anomaly, alongside Cloud’s apparent skill jump.  If Cloud hadn’t spilled, Zack probably would have been able to ignore it all.  It wasn’t a conclusion he’d have reached on his own, and even now it was still a little hard to swallow, but he was willing to believe. Cloud still seemed worried about it, so Zack reached over and patted his knee absently. “Don't worry about it. It'll be fine.” Then, hoping the news would cheer Cloud up, he added, “I already promised Aerith I'd introduce you to her.”

"I wouldn't mind seeing her again," Cloud said. There was something wistful in his voice that made Zack feel sad for him. "But I don't want to put her in any danger. She already has the Turks watching her, and wasn't there one of them on the mission earlier? I think I said something I shouldn't have, about Nibelheim."

Zack folded his hands, letting them rest on his stomach and listened to the sound of leaves swaying in the breeze and rustling through the grass. The not so distant warks of chocobos floated to them, accompanied by a round of laughter. Closer still, a songbird twittered gaily. “I wouldn't worry too much about Cissnei. And I know the Turks are watching Aerith, though I don't know why. Tseng told me if I really wanted to know, I should ask her myself.” Which was a bit frustrating, since Zack hadn't really had the time nor a proper chance to bring it up. “Do you have something against the Turks? I mean, yeah, they're Turks but they aren't that bad.”

"Aerith is an Ancient, or at least descended from the last of them," Cloud said absently, his eyes once again focused on his clasped hands where they rested on his knees. It honestly made no more sense to Zack than some of the other things Cloud had told him, though the term was faintly familiar. Sometimes it felt like Cloud was speaking a completely different language. "The Turks, at least the ones I know, aren't bad. Obnoxious, but…. They will follow any order they're given. Any order. That makes them dangerous. They bombed the support on the plate above Sector 7 to get rid of AVALANCHE's hideout. On the president's order. He knew where we were, and wanted to make sure no one survived." There was that mention of AVALANCHE again that made Zack wonder, but he didn't get a chance to comment. Cloud was still talking, and Zack was still loath to interrupt him when he got going. "They also took Aerith to Hojo. We…had to break into ShinRa tower to get her back. He was trying to breed her with another, long-lived species, to continue his research on the Ancients."

Zack sat up like a shot and turned to gape at Cloud. “He what?!” he yelped. He dropped his head in his hands and groaned. “I'm suddenly wishing I hadn't saved his life when Genesis was trying to kill him.” Why had he saved Hojo again? He knew the guy was freaking creepy not to mention downright weird, and sometimes Zack swore he was flirting with him and that was enough to give him nightmares, but what? “Breed? I don't...” Zack shook his head hard. “Okay, I'm not going to think about that. And I know the Turks are a bit amoral but...” But it was hard to believe they'd go that far, damn it. Now he was going to have to be even more wary of them. “Man, is there anyone in ShinRa who isn't a complete amoral nutjob?”

"Um…Reeve is probably the only one I'd put any trust in," Cloud said, scratching the back of his head as he thought. Then he amended, "Though, maybe not yet.” Zack just stared at him for several seconds, and refrained from asking because he honestly felt like the entire world was falling apart around him. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what Reeve Tuesti had done, considering that last bomb shell.

Zack slumped back into the grass, arms spread wide, and sighed heavily. “I've had this suspicion that things weren't right.... Things have been going on for awhile now that have made me think. At first I didn't want to believe it but...” Zack was aware he probably wasn't making sense. A little desperately, he asked, “Cloud, what is an Ancient exactly?” A part of him wanted to wait, to see if Aerith would talk to him about it but...what if it was important? What if him understanding was the difference between failure and success?

"I don't know much about the Ancients," Cloud said slowly, and his gaze took on a less focused look as he thought. "They had a connection to the Planet, long ago. The Cetra, is what they called themselves. One day, Jenova fell from the sky, and nearly wiped them all out. Somehow they were able to seal it away, but as a result, they nearly went extinct." There was that mention of Jenova again. Ruefully, Zack decided that Cloud was terrible at telling stories. "Hojo and another scientist, Gast, found the remains of Jenova. They…thought it was an Ancient, and began using it in experiments, trying to regain the wisdom lost and find the Promised Land. Ifalna, Aerith's birth mother, was mixed up in it too, but…

"Sephiroth was injected with cells from Jenova before birth." Cloud's voice had taken on an even more monotone quality than it normally had, and his eyes were still lost and unfocused as he regarded his past. "That was why, in Nibelheim…" he trailed off, and then gave his head a sharp shake. His next words had a bite to them. "Hojo set it up, somehow. He was trying to create the perfect being, something greater than a human. Hojo left some sort of research behind that explained what had been done to Sephiroth. When Sephiroth found that…. Jenova was kept in the reactor at Nibelheim. The moment he got close to her, Sephiroth began acting stranger than normal. You noticed, but…" There was a pause as Cloud glanced sideways at Zack, though he continued after a moment. "…weren't able to stop him before it was too late."

“...and this Jenova...Sephiroth thinks she’s his mother?” Zack asked, feeling completely baffled. He'd just spent some time telling Sephiroth that he was just as human as them, and he...wasn't?

"Sephiroth's mother is not Jenova," Cloud said flatly. "That was a lie Hojo came up with. Or maybe he believes it himself." There was another awkward pause, but Zack was becoming well used to those. "Sephiroth's birth mother was a scientist named Lucrecia. Hojo implanted Jenova cells into her and her baby…Sephiroth. Lucrecia was cut out of the picture completely once Sephiroth was actually born. Hojo's god complex may have even deluded his own mind into believing that Sephiroth was born from Jenova, who he believed was an Ancient."

Zack lifted his hand to rest it over his eyes in silent contemplation. “What a mess,” he mumbled, though there was a smile on his face even as he said it. This, at least, made some sense to him. “It sounds like Project G.” And behind the darkness of his hand and closed eyelids he could imagine Genesis and Angeal denouncing themselves as monsters, mutations, dying slow or fast in their own choosing. He could imagine Gillian Hewley sitting quietly at her table worried for her son, and then lying dead on the floor as Angeal lingered terrifyingly nearby. He could remember as Banora burned, razed to the ground by a Turk airstrike.

"I've never heard of Project G. Only…" Cloud cut himself off abruptly. Zack didn't ask.

“Project G was the project of a man named Hollander that resulted in Angeal and Genesis.” Zack frowned, uncovering his eyes again and looked toward Cloud. “I don't know all the details myself, but apparently Hollander was competing with Hojo for the seat at the head of the Science Department. After Hojo got the place, Hollander was angry. Genesis suffered a wound that wouldn't heal, and then...during the Wutai War he deserted, taking with him an entire company of SOLDIERs.”

Zack lifted his hand and looked at his palm, followed the lines on it, then looked between his fingers at the sky. “It was because of the Degradation. Genesis was dying slowly, and he found out the truth about himself and Angeal. It made him furious, so he sided with Hollander in an attempt to have a cure made. Then...Angeal began to degrade too. It made them mutate.” He could see Genesis' twisted black wing in his mind's eye, as well as the white wing Angeal had grown, and the smaller, almost deformed version that stuck out beneath it.

“It sounds like they were all trying to create the same thing. Hojo either got lucky, or he was willing to take it a step farther. Probably both,” Cloud said quietly. Zack barely heard him, too caught up in his own thoughts.

After a moment Zack said, “They called themselves monsters, said that SOLDIERs were monsters. Monsters made by monsters.” His eyes drifted closed. Though there was still a faint smile on his dirty face, it had a faintly bitter tinge to it. “SOLDIER is a den of monsters. You're lucky you never made it in, Cloud.” Even if he'd suffered a great deal, there was always that.

There was a part of Zack that wished, rather painfully, that he could have been able to keep up that naïve hope. He'd spoken so recently about SOLDIER pride, but he didn't even know what that was anymore. Who was he now that he knew the truth? What pride did he have as a SOLDIER when this was their true face? What honor did he embrace? What were his dreams now?  How could he reach something so...unattainable? His eyes slit open, the sky blue and far above him.

(Angeal...what of my honor, pride, and dreams now?)

Angeal had been calm and accepting at the end, wanted nothing more than to be put down before he could cause any harm, and he had forced Zack to be the one to bring him down. The familiar ache in his heart throbbed again at the thought, though Zack didn't let his expression or breathing betray him. He was still trying to make his mentor proud, but it was hard when he had no idea what path to take when the road was so splintered. And now, so much rested on so few. He desperately wished that Angeal were there again, if only to give him direction. He hated how adrift he felt, how lost and unsure. It wasn't something Zack had ever really experienced before.

"SOLDIERs…are not monsters, though,” Cloud all but whispered. Zack felt his smile soften into something more genuine.

“Yeah...I said something similar to Genesis once. I certainly don't think Angeal was a monster, and I don't think Sephiroth is one either.” Not yet at least, according to what Cloud had said. But the possibility there, and that was worrying. They were going to stop it. Zack wouldn't let himself believe anything less. Zack breathed out in a rush, making the bit of hair that fell into his face shift. “This just gets crazier and crazier,” he said slowly. “To be honest, I'm kind of overwhelmed here.” Had been since yesterday when Cloud had first let him in on this insane adventure. He was getting used to it though. “Just promise me that if there are any issues you'll talk to me first if it's possible, alright? I can't help if you don't keep me up to date on the status of Operation Save the World, Get the Happy Ending.”

He couldn't help but wonder what sort of time frame they were working on. How long did they have before Nibelheim? He was just about to bring this up when he heard the sound a boot falling nearby. He immediately looked over in time to see a surprisingly pale Connally peek around the edge of the building. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but the...the General is asking after you.”

Zack blinked. “It's alright, we were just chatting about what a nice view it is,” he quipped. “Right, Cloud? I suppose Sephiroth wants to get moving. You guys did save us some food right?”

Connally finally smiled slightly. “Of course we did, sir, though Edge and Sparo weren't too happy about it.”

“Well, we better not keep them waiting.” With a nimble shove, Zack rolled to his feet. He took a moment to find Buster Sword where he'd left it laying in the grass, slung it onto his back, then picked his boots up in one hand, and offered the other to Cloud. He looked patiently at Cloud, the question obvious but unasked.

Are you going to be okay facing Him?

Cloud grasped Zack's hand with a look that told him the answer loud and clear.

I can do this.

Zack grinned and hauled Cloud to his feet, and after Cloud scooped up his helmet they followed Connally back around to the front of the barn. Jac greeted them enthusiastically as they approached, his good humor having returned. "There you are! You guys were gone a long time. Everything alright?" he asked, giving Cloud a worried grin. Cloud raised a hand in silent reassurance. Edge was looking them up and down, a grin spreading across his face.

"Yeah, you guys were gone a long time. Took a tumble in the hay?" he leered at them, gesturing a hand to Zack's hair. Zack reached up to find that it did indeed have a few strands of hay stuck in the mess his hair had become from where he'd been lying in the grass behind the barn.

"Seriously, while on duty?" Sparo chimed in. "Man, you got guts!"

Cloud stared between the two blankly as the rest of the group broke out in varying degrees of laughter, then after a moment Zack could almost see the comprehension dawn as he went red in the face. Zack laughed riotously. “What? Like this?” he asked, gesturing at himself to indicate his mud and blood spattered person. “No way. I always try to look nicer for my dates!”

Edge nudged his shoulder. “Don't you have a girlfriend anyway? What will she think! First he tells her you're touching him over the phone while you play Naughty Nurse, and now this!”

“That's no way to treat a lady!” Sparo scolded.

“Oh, I'm sure she'd just love him,” Zack said breezily, even as he hopped about pulling his grimy socks and boots back on. When at last he straightened he brushed the hay out of his hair with a few swipes of his hands. “She's just such a nice girl,” he gushed, “just wants me to be happy.” Then he leaned in close to Cloud and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. With an unapologetic grin, he trotted a few steps away and raised one hand to cup alongside his mouth. “Sephiroth! What do you want?” When Sephiroth looked toward him, Zack raised his other hand and waved merrily.

Behind him, he heard Cloud's strangled voice grind out, "Don't. Say another word. Otherwise, I will borrow a chocobo and do my best to trample you into the ground." Zack also thought he caught something that sounded suspiciously like 'I'm telling Aerith', but he couldn't be sure.

Sephiroth was striding toward him, calm, cool, and collected as ever. The intimidating picture he presented was completely ruined by the little black chocobo chick scuttling along at his heels. In fact, it was so close that Sephiroth would have been tripping over it if he were anyone else. Zack was immensely impressed that he hadn't managed to either trod on the thing, or stumble. And he did it all while acting like it didn't exist. It was, in a word, hilarious. Zack grinned. Sephiroth narrowed his eyes in what he considered a glare. Zack looked down at the little bird. “I think it likes you Sephiroth,” he said pleasantly.

Sephiroth stared at him. “We depart in five minutes.”

“Yeah, okay. Let me put this guy back in the fence or something,” Zack muttered. He scooped the chocobo up and headed back toward the corral. It narrowed its dark eyes at him in a way that oddly reminded him of the glare he'd just been receiving from Sephiroth. “Don't look at me like that. You're a chocobo, he's Sephiroth. You need to go back with the others of your kind. Be free, grow up to be a strong bird, and then have more little black chocobos.”

This did not appear to impress the chocobo chick in the least.

“Sephiroth really doesn't seem to be a chocobo kind of guy,” Zack went on. “In fact you're really lucky he hasn't just stuck you on his sword like a giant shish kebab and fried you up to feed the troops. Now,” here he paused to deposit the chocobo back inside the fence, “you stay here. It really is for your own safety and well being.” Zack patted it on the head, and got his finger nipped hard enough to bleed for his pains. As he walked back toward the group Zack examined the bloody little split on the side of his smallest finger. “Feisty little thing...” There was a sudden shrill wark, and the next thing Zack knew a tiny black body sped past his boots and right to Sephiroth. He watched in befuddlement as the chick ducked behind Sephiroth's legs before peeking back out at him. “What the...?”

That faint furrowing of brows and tiny frown that Zack was beginning to think indicated irritation—and possibly confusion—was back on Sephiroth's face.

“You won't be getting that'un to stay,” a voice drawled. “That chick's imprinted on him.”

Oh no. Zack hoped that didn't mean what he thought it meant. He pasted his best 'You're joking, right?' smile on his face, and turned to face the owner of the ranch and the man who apparently was breeding the blacks. “Come again?”

"Hey, Cloud's pretty good with chocobos!" Jac's enthusiastic claim had even Zack turning to stare in their direction, though he couldn't see Cloud any longer. At least until Gibbs and Edge moved aside. Zack had the funniest feeling he'd been trying to hide from Sephiroth. Jac's expression was nervous already, having just been subjected to Sephiroth's intense scrutiny. It only got worse when Cloud sent him a small frown, displeasure evident. "Uh, I mean...maybe you can...?" the trooper stuttered out.

Sephiroth canted his head ever so slightly to the side in a move that was both demand and inquiry despite how small it was. “Is that so? Perhaps you would grace us with your knowledge on the matter...Cloud, was it?” Sephiroth took a few steps back to dislodge the little black chocobo from where it had perched on his boot. It peeped indignantly. “Be my guest.”

Zack propped a fist on his hip and gave Cloud an encouraging smile as he waited to see what he'd do. Though a part of him wondered if he ought to interfere before this exploded in everyones face.

"Well, sir, I do know about the proper care of a baby chocobo," Cloud said, voice clipped.

"You?" the owner cut in, giving Cloud a scathing once over. "Yer just a kid! Doubt you've even seen a black before now. They're not like the regular birds, ya know?"

"I'm aware," Cloud replied simply as he frowned at the man. "I just wonder how the chick managed to imprint on the General. Surely you keep better watch over your breeders than that?"

The man's face twisted in anger at that. "Well, boy, then I guess I can leave you to advise yer General yourself," he sneered. "I had best get back to my birds and cut my losses here." All eyes watched the man stalk off back to the stables, before turning back to the black fluff ball. It was watching the proceedings with alert eyes, one clawed foot on top of the black leather boot next to it.

"Edge? Do you still have that materia?" Cloud asked. The Third started at being addressed so abruptly, but dug out the shiny sphere and tossed it over. Cloud caught it absently, clearly focused on the chocobo. Zack watched, morbidly curious as to how this would play out. "Jac…go in the stables and bring me a some greens."

After Jac walked off, looking like he was about to suffer a firing squad, Cloud squatted down, setting his helmet to one side as he activated the materia with a flick of energy. As he began to toss the materia back and forth between his hands the baby chocobo's attention was instantly riveted, beady eyes following the shining ball as it moved back and forth.

“Hey, Cloud?” Zack called. “Does this imprinting thing mean what I think it does?” Zack gave a slight chuckle that teetered between nervousness and falling into full blown laughter. “That chocobo chick thinks Sephiroth is its mom?” There was definite amusement bubbling in his voice now, and Sephiroth finally pulled his gaze away from Cloud to narrow his eyes at Zack. Zack merely regarded him with a wide grin. “I thought that glare was familiar earlier,” Zack breezed on, then elaborated. “It definitely has your glare!” Maybe he was getting that revenge he'd hoped for after all?

"It does mean that we're stuck with it," Cloud said distractedly. The chocobo chick had crept forward, bowed low with its tiny wing outstretched as it stalked the materia. When it lunged, Cloud had already tossed the materia to his other hand, causing the chick to let out a challenging warble.

“What are you going to name it?” Zack asked, looking at Sephiroth earnestly. Sephiroth returned the question with a flat stare.

“Name it?” he asked sounding bemused at the very idea. It was possibly the most emotive Zack had heard him be in awhile.

“It has to have a name!” he yelped exasperatedly. “We can't just call it the black fuzzball. Well, we could, but that's not a very interesting name.”

Sephiroth blinked at him again before his brows furrowed minutely and he parroted, “Fuzzball?” incredulously. Zack was just pleased that Sephiroth wasn't acting like that cold, stony, statue of a man for the moment. In fact, he was looking at Zack as if he'd joined Genesis and Angeal in the frequent fliers club. It was sort of eerie.

“Exactly! You can't have a pet named something like that,” Zack enthused. “It needs a name that's really catching!”

From where he'd been standing, watching the proceedings with interest, Bill offered, “Joe was going to call'em Teioh.”

Zack scoffed. “That's a terrible name. What kind of name is Teioh?” He edged over to where Cloud was and crouched down beside him to watch the chocobo make another try for the materia. “He doesn't look like a Teioh to me.”

"It is Teioh," Cloud mumbled under his breath. Zack shot him a surprised look, but he couldn't ask now.

At last, Sephiroth gave a low chuckle. “What does it look like?” Zack thought that the obvious unasked question was 'Other than an annoying bird?', but maybe he was imagining things.

“What if it's a she?” Sparo stage whispered.

"It is a he," Cloud said for the wit in the group. In front of him, the chick had made a daring leap. Its clawed feet dug into the cloth of his arm as it futilely tried to gnaw the materia out of his fingers, beak clacking against the smooth surface.

“How do you know?” Edge half demanded as he crouched down to squint at the little bird as well. “How can you tell it's male?”

Zack ignored them and cast around, looking for inspiration. Green grass, blue sky, a tree, chocobos ambling about and pecking at aforementioned grass.... “Uh.... How about...Featherbrain? Featherduster? Coal?” he offered, racking his brain for more name suggestions. Sephiroth was staring at him again, head tilted in that odd, bewildered fashion. He almost seemed fascinated by Zack's continued strangeness. “Killer? Long Legs? Clawfoot?”

“How about supper,” Sparo suggested slyly.

Zack frowned at him, then chose to be an adult and ignore the suggestion. “Choco? Chicobo? Baaro? Bobo? Boco? Bobby Corwin? Blacky?” He realized he was getting increasingly ridiculous but he was on a roll now. “Oh, oh, how about Sephiroth Jr! Or Mini-Sephiroth! Or Seph!” What was that burning sensation making his skin crawl like a million suns dying? Zack wilted a bit. “Okay, maybe not. Viridian? Sky?” This was harder than he thought. He ignored the mutter from someone saying that viridian was a green color.

"…Zack," Cloud cut in, a pained expression on his face. "You’re really bad at naming things." Zack shot him a hurt look, and turned to watch the chick while he attempt to come up with more names. The baby chocobo was still clinging gamely to Cloud's arm, though he turned his head on occasion to nip at Edge's curious fingers when they got too close. Zack had just opened his mouth to start suggesting more names when Cloud quickly cut in with, "…Why not Viri?"

Zack gave him another look, this time sulky, and Cloud immediately looked down again and deactivated the materia in his hand. The bird gave a shocked warble as it lost its grip on his sleeve. Cloud's other hand was already underneath it, and he caught it mid-fall. He shifted his grip until he had the wriggling bundle of feathers securely under its chest, then stood up. He held it close to keep it from escaping his grasp, despite the bird's efforts. Cloud brought one hand up to stroke absently at the chick's downy head.

Fun thoroughly derailed, Zack considered the name for several long seconds before nodding at last. “I like the sound of it,” he decided. “And not just because you got the idea from me.” The teasing was gentle but there, and Zack couldn't help but grin. This entire thing was amazingly surreal, but he was enjoying himself immensely. Everyone seemed relaxed and at least partially amused by the entire affair. Zack looked up to Sephiroth, awaiting his judgment on the name.

Sephiroth frowned for a moment, then looked to Cloud. He didn't seem entirely certain on why his input mattered, but after a moment he nodded his head. Zack had no idea how he could make such a simple movement look positively regal. “It’s an acceptable name,” he said

With a cough, Zack hid a chuckle. He had a feeling that Sephiroth didn't even have a clue where all of this was going, and was under the vague impression that now that Cloud had the bird he wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. He almost felt sorry for him. Almost. The chick hung quietly from Cloud's arms, giving out tiny peeps of pleasure as Cloud continued to caress the soft head, though the chick's eyes remained locked on Sephiroth the entire time.

"I got the greens," Jac said, jogging back up to the group. The trooper was sporting a fresh scratch on his cheek. Cloud took the proffered plants out of the outstretched hand without a word, and began pulling apart a small piece to feed to the bird in his arms. It gobbled it up eagerly, cheeping imperiously for more almost before it had swallowed.

Sephiroth observed the proceedings for a moment longer, eyes locked on Cloud with a hint of curiosity in his expression. Then, as if dismissing both the bird and the absurd situation entirely, he turned and began walking toward the nearby cluster of chocobos. They'd been rested, fed, and re-saddled at some point, Zack noted, and there were two more. Sephiroth didn't seem particularly happy about the mode of transportation.

Zack glanced at Cloud, and dropped a hand heavily on his shoulder. “You've got your work cut out for you, you realize? You just became Sephiroth's Official Chocobo Babysitter.” He grinned impishly. This might just make his life a little easier. Sephiroth had acknowledged Cloud's existence, and Zack had a feeling that it was beyond impossible to get Sephiroth to bother with anyone he didn't want to deal with. Maybe there was hope for this crazy plan after all. “Alright, let's get moving.” Not that he needed to say anything; the men were already scrambling to grab their gear.

Gibbs handed Cloud his pack, and gave him a half-way apologetic smile, and Edge even went so far as to clout him on the back as he went by. "Looks like you got your foot in the door, eh Cloud?" Edge said, smirking over his shoulder.

"More like he got his foot slammed in the door," Sparo joked.

Before Cloud could follow them, Zack quietly asked, “So, is this imprinting thing really...?”

“Yes,” Cloud said flatly. “Normally they imprint on the mother, or their owner, but...I've heard a story of one imprinting on a levicron. You still see them winding up with monsters in the wild sometimes.”

“Huh...”

The chocobo gave a loud wark, and Cloud was suddenly too busy trying to keep the now frantic bird from falling. Zack took a moment to grab Cloud’s forgotten helmet off the ground, before he followed him as he hurried forward.  With every step Cloud took closer to Sephiroth and the cluster of chocobos, the chick seemed to calm. Cloud sent a look comprised of misery and discomfort at Zack over his shoulder.

As Zack watched Sephiroth warily try to stare down one of the large yellow birds, he had a sudden premonition that the rest of the trip to Midgar was going to be either a headache or hilarious.


 

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

Chapter Text


 

Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama

 


 

Chapter 05 – Crisis of Churches

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 16th)


 

Midgar looked both the same and different from how Cloud remembered it. It was neither the destroyed ruins he'd left behind so recently, nor was it quite the same as the bustling metropolis he'd seen during his brief days as an eco-terrorist. This Midgar was an unfinished monolith with scaffolding everywhere, and entire sections of the plates still missing. Even the very heart of the city, the ShinRa building itself, didn't seem as if it were quite finished, quite as refined, as he recalled it. He stared up at it now and was struck again by a sense of déjà vu. He could only remember being here once, ready to storm the heavily guarded building to rescue Aerith. Now Cloud was going to march in like he belonged, and in a way he did.

Cloud let out a minute sigh as he glanced sideways at Zack who was a few feet away, and tried not to think that he was nearly within arm's distance of a certain silver-haired man. What were they going to do now? Cloud certainly couldn't return to his squadron with Connally; it would be obvious that he had no clue where to go, who his teammates were, or what needed to be done. On the other hand, he couldn't exactly go with Zack anymore. He wasn't a SOLDIER, and they had separate duties from the regular troopers.

All he could do at this point was trust that Zack had things in hand. At least now he could wash his hands of the whole chocobo fiasco.

The last few days had been some of the most stress filled ones in Cloud's life, bar the seven days he and the rest of AVALANCHE had waited for the world to end. Thanks to the chick's near frantic desire to remain close to Sephiroth, Cloud had been forced to keep the chocobo he was riding close behind Sephiroth's during the trip. There had been no real question about Sephiroth carrying the chick himself. Cloud hadn't minded keeping the chick on hand, but he had minded the forced close proximity to the one man he wanted to be as far away from as possible.

At least Sephiroth had seemed as uncomfortable with the whole affair as Cloud had been, though Cloud didn't know if that was more from being forced to ride a chocobo than anything. Despite Sephiroth's generally unruffled appearance, Cloud had seen a faint crease in his brow more than once, and each day when they'd mounted up he'd become engendered in a stare down with his bird. It had only served to heighten the absurdity of the entire trip.

And then there was Zack. Zack who was never more than a few chocobo lengths away, riding beside Sephiroth and who Cloud couldn't even bring himself to talk to over his own discomfort. He'd watched Zack though, through most of the ride. He'd been a helpful distraction of the buzzing, heavy presence of Sephiroth.

If Cloud weren't so attuned to the birds, hadn't known how to work with them so well, he might have been jealous of Zack's quick and easy adaptation to their mode of transport. Zack seemed to take to it like a natural, though he certainly wouldn't have made a good jockey. He was too heavily built, too tall. But Zack rode the bird, one hand on the reigns, the other loose and ready to grab his sword if he needed to, and his legs bent to absorb the jouncing shock of the bird's stride. His head had generally been tilted toward Sephiroth, and Cloud had a feeling they'd been conversing, or Zack had been nattering. He'd never quite gotten close enough to hear if he could help it.

Whenever Viri had fallen asleep in Cloud's arms, he'd dropped back as much as he dared to put some much needed distance between himself and Sephiroth. He hadn't fallen back onto the crutch of Zack's personality again, though he dearly wished he could. It was too risky with Sephiroth now obviously aware of him, and the entire team being on edge from all the stress.

They'd been forced to camp at night, and though it had been mostly uneventful, Cloud had been subjected once again to the surreal picture of Sephiroth interacting with the baby chocobo. During their first night, as soon as Cloud had released him Viri had immediately taken off across the camp to where Sephiroth was sitting, separate from the rest of them and talking with Zack. Zack had been alerted by Cloud's surprised cry and had nearly burst a lung laughing at the sight of the little grubby ball of fluff chirping happily in Sephiroth's lap. For his part Sephiroth looked downright startled and unsure what to do with his new companion.

There had been an awkward interlude as Cloud tried to retrieve the errant chick. Viri had stubbornly refused to be separated from Sephiroth again. Sephiroth had finally waved Cloud off when the chick had used his beak and claws to scale his coat where he had taken to sitting proprietorially on Sephiroth's shoulder, partially hidden under the man’s silver hair. Cloud had dearly wanted to kick Zack as he stalked past the recumbent man. Wasn't his friend supposed to help him in situations like this?

The rest of the soldiers had watched their antics mostly silently, and with varying degrees of humor and disbelief. Connally had looked like he'd been smacked upside the head, actually, though Sparo and Edge appeared to have bonded in their mutual amusement at the ridiculousness of the situation. Cloud had waved off any further conversation from them, too exhausted mentally to do more than curl up with his head pillowed on his pack and try to block out the sounds from the camp. After that he hadn't bothered to try and keep the bird from an increasingly bemused Sephiroth when they stopped for the evening, though each day Cloud had been forced to use the Chocobo Lure materia to get Viri to leave Sephiroth's side.

They'd made good time over the next few days, and finally arrived tired, extremely filthy, but triumphantly at Midgar's southern gate, where they'd released the tired chocobos to return to the ranch. Viri had been happy enough to be carried by Cloud again. So long as he'd stayed within a few feet of Sephiroth, at least.

The train up to the top of the plate had brought back a slew of memories that Cloud had nearly forgotten; of his time with AVALANCHE, and the close calls they'd had. After Meteor had destroyed most of ShinRa tower the trains had never run again between what was left of the plates and the slums below. It was a slice of nostalgia that Cloud was surprised to have missed.

The thought made him look again to the building looming over them. Few people were about now, though the glow of Midgar was exceedingly bright after the darker stretches of uninhabited countryside they had traversed. Cloud suspected that meant it was late. It was hard to tell in Midgar given the omnipresent gloom and the glow of the mako reactors.

Cloud glanced at Sephiroth and Zack's backs once more. Though Sephiroth wasn't anywhere as dirty as the rest of them, even he hadn't managed to make the entire trip without getting rumpled. His silver hair was disordered and Cloud could make out small, claw shaped muddy prints on the silver of his shoulder guards and the black of his coat. Next to Zack who looked like some sort of rescued wild man, Sephiroth still looked impeccable.

Zack clapped his hands, turned to face the troops with a little shower of dry mud falling loose from his clothes, and said, “I'm sure you’re all glad to be home, so off you go. Oh, but Cloud? You're with us.” Cloud could only feel relief at his words, though it was chased away when Sephiroth turned to regard them, and more importantly him.

A slightly stunned silence had descended over the bedraggled crew until Gibbs reached forward and slapped Cloud on the shoulder as he headed off. Edge dropped his hand on Cloud’s helmet and gave him a little shake as he followed. As the troopers filed past Jac patted his shoulder, saying, “Uh, Good luck, Cloud....”

Connally stopped just before walking out of sight and called, “I guess I'll see you soon, Cloud?” and then he was gone.

Cloud stared after them, all of his tension and relief subsumed by the shock he felt at the encouraging farewell. He would have thought they'd have been glad to be out of his presence and the weirdness that had attached itself to him. Cloud didn't have much time to dwell on their strange behavior as Zack moved toward him. Ahead of them Sephiroth strode away toward the glassy front doors of the ShinRa building.

Zack hovered for a moment, then smiled crookedly at Cloud. “Come on, we're taking you to meet Director Lazard.” Leaning in closer he whispered, “He's the head of SOLDIER right now.” A head of SOLDIER? Somehow Cloud had always felt it was either the President or Heidegger, or maybe even Sephiroth, who'd been in charge. It made sense, though, to have a dedicated position for it. He couldn't quite wrap his mind around anyone giving Sephiroth orders, however.

Viri wriggled in his arms, anxious to keep up with his desired human, so Cloud quickly started forward and brought his other hand up to prevent the chick from flipping out of his grasp. "What…what do I need to do?" he asked lowly to Zack. It was more of a question of if he might miss something due to his missing memories than what would be expected of the meeting. If all Cloud had to do was play the clueless trooper, he could manage that much. Anything more and Zack would see just how poor Cloud's acting skills were.

“Just be polite and let Sephiroth and me handle it,” Zack said in an undertone, even as he sent a cheeky wave at the receptionist stuck working the night shift before they followed Sephiroth up the nearby stairs. Zack had only gotten a shocked, distracted raise of a hand in return, Cloud noted. “Don't worry about it too much. Just keep your head down and Sephiroth will take care of everything. Lazard might be the head of SOLDIER, but, well.... This is Sephiroth we're talking about, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news—though most people consider this good news—but he's taken an interest in you.” He gave Cloud an incredulous look, and laughed lightly as if to lighten the impact of the news. “I can't say I blame him considering you introduced yourself with a sword.”

Cloud wondered if Zack knew how unhelpful he was being. Cloud himself didn't have much practice in the art of politeness, tending toward blunt speech that many would regard as insensitive. He really didn't need the reminder of his enormous blunder with attracting Sephiroth's attention, either. It was a normal reaction to seeing your worst enemy, surely. Cloud wasn't quite sure what that sentiment said about him, and dismissed it with a mental shake.

Around them a few people sitting at the streamlined glass and metal tables gawked at Sephiroth as he prowled by to stand near the bay of elevators, obviously waiting for them. They arrived just as the door pinged open. A woman stepped out only to immediately gasp in shock and drop the armful of folders she was carrying as she was met with Sephiroth's cat-slit green stare. Sephiroth dismissed her as quickly as he'd noticed her, head tilted just enough that he appeared to be contemplating whether or not he should wait for her to move or make use of the other elevator instead. Cloud watched the effect Sephiroth had on the employees with sympathy. Sardonically, he couldn’t help but think they should be more used to his presence.

Zack hurried forward and scooped up the woman's scattered papers. “Sorry about that, miss,” he said smoothly. “We're in a bit of a hurry. Is this everything?”

“Y-y-y....” She couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from the intimidating man looming over the proceedings with an air of detached indifference even as she accepted the pile of folders back from Zack. With a faint grin, Zack gently pushed her to the side. As if he'd been waiting for that to happen, Sephiroth walked forward and into the elevator. Cloud found himself once again struck at the ease with which Zack integrated himself with people, even in just the few seconds he interacted with them. The woman's complete disregard of him didn't faze Zack for a moment. The contrast to Sephiroth's standoffishness was nearly tangible.

Cloud hesitated for just a moment before stepping into the elevator in front of Zack. He definitely did not like this at all. A feeling of claustrophobia struck him, making him wish he could at least take off his helmet so he could breathe easier. Sephiroth's presence was almost overwhelming in the tight quarters, and Cloud pressed himself against the wall. He had to fight against the urge to clutch his head at the over-loud buzz of reaction from the Jenova cells.

The combination of stresses and discomfort was making Cloud nauseous. He fought down the anxiety as best he could, and brought his free hand up to caress the chocobo chick's head in his nervousness. Viri chirped happily at the attention. When the elevator finally dinged, Cloud looked up with relief. It was short-lived, as apparently they were not to their desired destination.

Cloud tried very hard not to react as Rude stepped into the elevator. He nearly had the full set now, he mused. All he really needed was to run into a bright-eyed and loose-tongued Elena.

If Rude was at all perturbed at sharing an elevator with Sephiroth, he hid his reaction completely. The man had a killer poker face, and the fact he wore sunglasses even inside the building did not help. He merely nodded to both Sephiroth and Zack, raised an eyebrow at Cloud—or possibly the happy chocobo in his arms, it was hard to tell—then turned to silently wait for his floor.

It really wasn't fair that the Turks could still set his teeth on edge. Next to the crisp black suit, Cloud felt especially filthy, and his skin crawled with the desire to get clean. Not only that, but Rude's implacable silence made the absence of the boisterous Reno all the more dramatic. Cloud rarely saw the two Turks separately, so he felt as if the red-head was about to pop up with his damn electric sticks at any moment.

The next time the elevator stopped, Sephiroth moved forward, and Cloud wanted to sag with relief. He followed hot on the man's heels, telling himself it was just so Viri wouldn't complain. Why had he thought it was a good idea to follow one of Zack's plans? He was going to die before the day was out.

Zack and Sephiroth led the way down a short hall to an office they entered via an open, wide doorway between glassy walls covered in etched writing Cloud didn't bother to read. To their left a small, angular desk covered with a few neat stacks of documents took up space, while on the right the wall was filled with shelves of books. The Director of SOLDIER sat behind his large desk, head bent and blond hair spilling around his face, but upon their entrance he looked up. Cloud didn't know what he'd been expecting, but the man sitting uneasily in the pristine office was certainly not someone he'd envision as the head of SOLDIER.

Lazard adjusted his glasses and swept a look over the three of them. His gaze came to rest on Sephiroth. “Sephiroth.”

“Lazard,” Sephiroth said calmly. “I need to speak with you on an important matter.” Cloud was immediately on guard, aware that the air was full of a tension and silent conversation he was not privy to. Politics had never been his strong point; blowing up a reactor with AVALANCHE had been about the pinnacle of his political career.

“I see...” Lazard said slowly, and clasped his hands before him. “How can I be of assistance?”

“There was an incident during SOLDIER 1st Class Zack Fair's mission to Mideel,” Sephiroth intoned flatly, “Involving one of the troopers.” Lazard glanced immediately at Cloud and frowned. “He was exposed to mako.” It was, Cloud had to admit, baffling when Sephiroth's curt words actually seemed to lessen the tension in Lazard. An accident with a trooper on a simple mission was obviously not the first thing on the man's mind, and Cloud wondered what sort of trouble ShinRa was in now. A coverup? Or more accurately, another one? He shook himself mentally. It wasn't his problem. Cloud needed to focus on what he knew was coming and what he could change.

Lazard's frown was even more pronounced. Before he could say anything, Zack did what he did best and bowled into the conversation. “We discovered the reported mako pool, and Cloud was knocked into it,” he said earnestly, eyes wide and guileless. “Luckily it seems to have been heavily diluted by water so there weren't many ill effects. It probably wasn’t anything worse than what new recruits get, if that.”

Zack's fervent explanation was to be expected, and it both explained the situation and made it seem less of a disaster than it really was. It hadn't occurred to Cloud until now, but he did wonder about the Mideel mission. He obviously had no real recollection of it. Surely there was no way he'd fallen into a mako pool and survived. Despite what Zack said, the mako had been barely diluted by the small stream, burning into Cloud's skin like fire. He gave a small shudder at the memory. He really hated mako.

Lazard sat back, and it was easy to see that he was holding himself cautiously. There was also a calculating, thoughtful look to him that Cloud didn't like at all. “You want to make an exception and induct him into the SOLDIER program?” Lazard's query cut through Cloud's mental fog of thoughts. Had he just heard….

"You want to what?" he asked sharply, unable to contain himself. In his agitation, Cloud let the chick drop out of his arms. Zack hadn't said anything about this. If it was the last thing Cloud wanted, it was to be even more closely affiliated into ShinRa. He turned a stunned expression on Zack– though it was mostly lost thanks to the helmet–silently pleading for his friend to refute the statement.

SOLDIER had once been his greatest desire. It had meant he succeeded, that he was a somebody, and that people would look up to him. Cloud had found all of that and more with his group of rag-tag friends, without having to pay ShinRa's heavy price. Somehow he felt that if he were forced to wear the SOLDIER name, he would once again be hiding behind Zack's life, not living as himself but as a marionette of what other people expected. He didn't want to be a puppet again….

Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud became aware of something black moving across the floor. He turned his head just slightly, and saw Viri sitting with his legs curled under him, happily cooing from atop Sephiroth's boot. Cloud had to try very hard not to turn and march out of the room to get away from both kinds of madness.

Zack held his hands up, smiled disarmingly at Cloud, and gestured at him to be quiet and wait. Sephiroth had in the same space pulled his attention away from Lazard long enough to frown down at the chocobo chick. He did not, however, make any move to dislodge it. Cloud saw him look back at Lazard and narrow his eyes. Lazard looked a little more strained than he had before.

“No,” Sephiroth said. “While he has displayed an aptitude for the sword, I have not seen any other SOLDIER appropriate qualities in him.” Sephiroth's words were still full of honey and poison, even if he wasn't a psychotic madman. Backhanded compliments, underlying threats, and an infuriatingly superior attitude that Cloud longed to wipe off his face. He figured he was allowed to at least have less-than-friendly thoughts about the man. Though his agitation was obviously getting to him, because Cloud had a clear mental image of Lazard slumped dead over his desk, blood pooling on the smooth surface. Lazard gave Sephiroth a puzzled look, and the man continued, “The fact remains that he will require specialized training in his new abilities. There is a very real possibility that he could injure someone, or himself, if he's allowed to flounder.”

“He has displayed enhanced abilities?” Lazard asked. At Sephiroth's nod, he sigh faintly. “I see. And this, of course, falls only under the area of the SOLDIER program.”

“I suggest,” Sephiroth offered at a purr, “that to minimize fuss we assign him to Zack.” Cloud had to clench his fists to keep himself under control as his fate was decided over his head. It was logical, and it made sense just to stay quiet and let Zack and…Sephiroth take care of the politics and regulations. That didn't stop the feeling of impetuous helplessness. Cloud was too used to doing things on his own, being forced to handle his problems himself. Yes, he had his friends to back him up, but he was still the leader.

Lazard smiled a polite, political smile. “Yes, I can see why that would be necessary. And you are willing to take on this assignment, correct?” There was something familiar about the head of SOLDIER. Cloud couldn't put his finger on, but the man reminded him of someone else. Perhaps it was the blond hair, which wasn't a common hair color anywhere really. Possibly it was that his attitude reminded Cloud a bit of Reeve. Neither a greedy, corrupt politician like Heidegger or Palmer, nor a ruthless power-grubber like Scarlet.

Zack straightened from his slight slouch. “Yes, sir.”

“Hmm.” Lazard steepled his fingers together and regarded Zack for a moment. “You are aware that we can't allow this to interfere with the rest of your work. Perhaps it would be best if a 2nd Class SOLDIER was assigned to him? Surely it doesn't require the attention of a First.”

“He has shown some signs of aggression,” Sephiroth said, his gaze lifted aloft toward a point above Lazard's head rather than at the man himself. “And Zack is on friendly terms with him. It would be best to allow someone who is an acquaintance with him to watch him in case there are deviations from his normal personality. These are things someone who has never met him would not notice.”

Sharply, Lazard shot back, “You said he was mostly unaffected by the mako?”

Sephiroth didn't deign to answer and after a few seconds of silence Zack spoke up again, “He had a minor case of mako poisoning that lasted for bordering on forty-eight hours, but was otherwise healthy. He was able to endure the march here from Junon just fine.”

“Has his state of health been cleared by one of the scientists or medical staff?”

“He was allowed to leave Junon,” Sephiroth said shortly, tone clipped.

Lazard frowned at him, obviously unmoved by the non-answer, but seemed to realize he'd get nothing more. “I will speak with Heidegger on the matter tomorrow. Be aware that this could take a while.... We've never had a situation such as this, but I can see the necessity of it. I will let you know when the paperwork is done. It should be assumed that he falls under our jurisdiction starting now, however.” He paused a moment, his gaze sliding over the three of them from behind his glasses before he nodded. “I'll let the matter of his health slide for the moment, but once he’s officially a part of the SOLDIER program I will require a full work up.” The mention of the possibility of having to get checked out made Cloud's blood run cold. He wouldn't get any nearer to the science division than he had to, unless he was armed with his sword and allowed to take whatever precautions he found necessary. Beheading Hojo was his favorite.

“Sure thing!” Zack said cheerfully. Sephiroth merely inclined his head and turned to leave without waiting for a dismissal which disrupted the chocobo chick on his boot. It warked in indignation and began to scuttle after him, causing Sephiroth to stop and frown down at it.

Lazard turned a faint smile on Cloud. “I expect we'll be seeing more of each other in the future. Even though you are not a SOLDIER, you will be a proxy of the program until such time you are released back to the regular army. However, if you do well I expect it to be put forward as reason to recruit you into the SOLDIER program proper. Think of this as an...opportunity.” Lazard turned his attention to Zack. “Report in tomorrow morning so we can discuss your last mission in more detail.”

Cloud gave a belated salute as he realized they were dismissed, before turning on his heel to follow Sephiroth out the door, Zack behind him. He crouched down abruptly and sensed Zack nearly trip over him. Cloud ignored that as he activated the Chocobo Lure materia he still had on him to the most powerful lure the sphere had available. The little black chick zipped over to him instantly, warking with delight. He scooped it up peremptorily, rising again in the same movement. He just wanted to get out of this den of wolves, and knew he was sentenced to spend the unforeseeable future trapped among ghosts and demons.

A sideways glance at Zack made him amend the horror of that thought; not all ghosts were bad, at least.

Sephiroth halted before the elevator and pressed the button to call it. When the doors pinged open, he merely looked at Zack for a moment, flicked a glance at Cloud, then stepped inside a second before they closed. Zack sighed and pushed the call button on the other elevator as a strange sort of silence descended on them. When the doors opened he ushered Cloud inside and hit the button for the ground floor. Inside the elevator Cloud shifted the chick to a more secure position. He felt a little bad since the chick was so singularly focused on the materia it looked nearly drugged, but he didn't want to handle its despondence at Sephiroth's absence. Cloud felt a lot better now the that immediate cause of most of his stress was gone.

“I'm not sure what all Sephiroth is planning, but I trust him,” Zack said, pressing a hand over his eyes tiredly. His words made him wonder what Zack did know Sephiroth was planning. Zack had been speaking to Sephiroth privately quite often on their way back to Midgar, though Cloud hadn’t thought much of it. The idea that Sephiroth had plans relating to him was vaguely disturbing. Zack’s continued musings drew him from the thought, for which Cloud was glad. “We have a few more things to do before we can bed down and get some sleep. Like finding your stuff.” He didn't bother answering Zack; within ShinRa walls, Cloud didn't feel safe enough to even hint at his discomfort. Zack didn't seem to mind, almost as if he were thinking aloud. A moment later Zack brought his hand down from his eyes and seemed to have some sort of epiphany. “That's it! Connally, the guy who was with us said he'd been in your squad for awhile. All we have to do is ask after Connally and we should be able to find out where you were bunked.” Cloud was glad someone had a plan.

The elevator opened again, spilling them out into ShinRa's massive entrance hall. There were even fewer people than before. As they hurried through the main floor, Cloud noted people were still staring in their direction. Seeing two filthy people and a chocobo in the pristine walls of the ShinRa building probably wasn't a common occurrence, and Zack was a SOLDIER. He shook his head slightly, glad again for the concealing helmet. All Cloud needed would be for the wrong executive to remember what he looked like, and then not even Sephiroth would be able to save him from Hojo's curiosity. Cloud would put that moment off for as long as he could.

There was a metallic tang to the breeze as they stepped out of the building. Even on top of the plate, nothing would make a dent in the heavy, polluted air that surrounded Midgar in a smog. Cloud wrinkled his nose slightly, and resigned himself to the smell. He was struck by a sudden thought that if Meteor never destroyed Midgar, then maybe this polluted city would continue to spread. Was he really doing the right thing? Hadn't some good come of the future?

It was a moot point now. Cloud was here, and he'd already changed so much with his mere presence. Even if he could go back, did he want to give up what he'd lost all over again? Staring at Zack’s profile as they walked along, Cloud already knew the answer. He had to try. He'd promised himself he'd try to make things better, and if he failed, well, he knew how to end things again. Cloud would never let Sephiroth destroy the world.

"I know you trust him," Cloud said softly, picking up the thread of conversation that he'd let drop earlier. Zack lead them out of the area directly around the ShinRa building and into the brown and gray shadows of Midgar. Cloud kept his gaze on the ground in front of him. He wasn't sure how to express his unease, since Zack's unending optimism couldn't seem to understand that it wasn't easy for Cloud to give Sephiroth another chance. "I…He's your friend, and I can't ask you to just…throw that away because I said it might happen." That was the last thing in the world Cloud wanted. Zack's loyalty to his friends was…it probably meant more to Cloud than it did even to Zack. It was the single reason Cloud was alive, and in the end had probably been Zack’s downfall.

"It's just…I…" Cloud shook his head in frustration, unable to express his reluctance to Zack. "I've had to fight him more times than I can remember. It was…it was only a couple months ago that I had to face him. He's…he never stops, and I’m always afraid of the next time he'll come back. What if I can't stop him again? What if I…fail again?" He shut his mouth, teeth clicking together uncomfortably. Cloud hadn't wanted to turn this into another emotionally charged sob story.

Zack shoved his hands deep into his pockets, features serious, but still wearing a slight smile. “I know Cloud,” he said, “I don't expect you to trust him. I don't even expect you to like him. And don't get me wrong, when I say I trust him I mean I trust him to handle things here and now and take care of all the paper shuffling. I also trust him to act like Sephiroth. I'm not trusting him blindly anymore. The thing is, if I start treating him like a pariah that's only going to push him out of reach. I'm wary, Cloud, I admit that and.... But I'm not going to let that stop me. Whatever may happen he isn't the Sephiroth you knew, and he might never be. He isn't your enemy.

“I don't expect you to get over what you've been through, possibly not ever.” Zack had stopped walking now. They were tucked out of sight in the gray brown, faintly green tinged shadows of the street. The golden orange glow of a street light pooled at the end of the barren causeway they were following. He reached out and placed a hand on Cloud's head, leaned down toward him and grinned. “All I want is for you to remember that he isn't the same man you fought, killed, and from what I'm getting, killed again—which, by the way, you're going to explain to me someday soon. Just like,” here he paused, and seemed to debate with himself for a moment, looking oddly uncomfortable, “I'm not the person you remember.”

Zack fumbled for a moment, brows furrowed with worry above the vibrant blue of his eyes. He pulled his hand back and ran it over his forehead before smoothing over the wild spikes of his hair. He turned away, gesturing expressively with his hands as he went, and said, “Anyway, if nothing else you can trust Sephiroth to stick to the patterns you've already set him to. Until something sets him off there's nothing to worry about. We just have to keep an eye on him.” There was something sardonic in Zack's voice there, as if he were thinking of something particular that Cloud had no notion of. “Besides, it's hard to be intimidated by a man who has a tiny black fuzzball laying claim to his boots.”

Cloud let out a strangled laugh comprised of mingled relief and disbelief. "How can you just…you make everything sound so easy, Zack." He shook his head, Zack's words reverberating in his mind. It was as if Zack had no demands of him, no expectations that Cloud sacrifice himself for the good of the world. The concept was almost too alien to Cloud. For so long, his existence had been tangled up in his sacrifices. To be told it was okay to be selfish was liberating, but didn't stop the welling of guilt at the thought. "I can see that…there's more to him than is apparent." He glanced down at the enraptured bird in his arms, smiling softly. "If I spend more time near him…. I can't guarantee it will get easier. There's…a reaction when I'm near him, that's hard to block out. Part of how he…. But I suppose I should get used to it, right?"

A frown stole the smile off Cloud's face, but it was a frown of thoughtfulness. "I don't know what to do now, though. Now that we have an excuse for me not to attend normal duties…. What will I be expected to do?" He reached his free hand up to tap at his helmet. "I can't continue wearing this, and you know people will begin to recognize me. But I don't want to hide out anywhere, either. There's...there's got to be something I can do now."

“I don't know what we're going to do,” Zack said. “I'm not the tactical genius Sephiroth is, and we can't exactly bring him in on this. Though I'm sure if we did tell him all of our problems with a certain scientist, he would be terminated immediately. He dislikes the man about as much as we do at this point.”

"I took out Hojo once," Cloud mumbled, ducking his chin behind his scarf, "but I'd be happy to do so again." It was a surprise that Sephiroth had such a high antagonism for the scientist, though perhaps it shouldn't have been.

Zack started walking again, hands eventually finding their way back into his pockets. The thud of his boots echoed in the silence around them. “And, you know Cloud...I realize you're worried about all this and want to get moving straight out, but have you ever considered just taking some time to get used to all of this? Letting yourself relax a bit, take it all in.... You know, like a grace period? You're free to do that now, and I'm sure opportunities will present themselves. Until then we can plan until we've got headaches through the mako, and it could all shatter in a few seconds. I'll take you to the SOLDIER floor eventually. I've got some friends there who are good about information. I'm sure if there's anything we can use they'll have heard it long before us.”

Cloud glanced up at Zack's face to be met by a reassuring smile. It had never occurred to him to just…let things happen. He always seemed to be racing two steps behind everything, and now that he was ahead of the proverbial game, Cloud couldn't remember what it was like to just…relax.

The fact that there were other SOLDIERs was another thing that came as a surprise to Cloud. By the time Sephiroth had risen again, they were already almost completely wiped out, only the people's memories of mako-glowing eyes and terror being their legacy. Cloud wasn't sure how much they could be trusted considering that fact, but if Zack thought it was a good idea to use them as resources, then it was probably safe enough.

"I…guess," he said, still unsure that waiting for any time at all was a good plan. "It's…. How long do we have? Nibelheim…it happens at the start of October...." The air currently had a winter chill, but it was possible that the Nibelheim mission was sooner rather than later. Cloud grit his teeth. If it was soon, perhaps the ripples he'd caused would change things so Zack and he wouldn't even be sent along. The thought that Sephiroth wouldn't still be deployed was laughable. Hojo had planned too well for it to fall apart, even when something unexpected came up.

Ahead of them a fence divided one set of this particular sector from another. A gated off entryway stood over the road, with both a foot entrance and one through which vehicles could be driven. Beyond the fence, long, dark, and identical buildings stood in neat, orderly rows, their entrances lit from above by solitary lamps. Closer to them a light glowed from the small, glass booth in which a figure was hunched. From this distance Cloud could hear the faint sound of a static filled radio station reporting something he couldn't make out.

As they came upon the booth, Zack raised his hand to rap on the glass. The guard behind it jerked, and nearly overbalanced from the chair he was settled in and proceeded to gawk at the SOLDIER on the other side. “Hey,” Zack said amiably. “Night shift, I feel for you man. I can't wait to get to bed.” The guard muttered something unintelligible in response. Zack didn't seem to care, and merely carried on, “Look we need to get in, my buddy here has to get his stuff. He's moving to new quarters.” Then, as if he'd only just remembered something. “Oh, yeah, and I need to find a guy named Connally. You think you can point me in the right direction?”

The startled guard fumbled among the mess of glossy magazines on his desk, before turning to the console built nearby. The clack of keys filled the half-darkness and a moment later he muttered, “He, er, appears to be in building 7-B, sir. Room 1-5.”

“Thanks, you're a real help,” Zack said cheerfully. The guard saluted sloppily and nearly fell over again before he managed to hit the button that opened the gate to let them in. Zack strode through and kept walking a ways, his head tilted up to take in the large, blocky numbers and letters painted on the front of the buildings. Once they were out of earshot he waved Cloud closer. “It was December 10th when we shipped out for Mideel, and it's been several days since then. So if things go down next year, and we've got about.... What? Ten, eleven months?”

Cloud gave a soft hum of agreement. There was still time, at least. He almost wasn't sure what he was going to do with that time. Throughout all the time spent battling Sephiroth, Jenova, or just to save the Planet, he and his friends had merely reacted to events. Never had they spent the time to really plan things out, at least not without their plans falling apart to outside forces.

Now he had months to fill up, waiting for the inevitable to happen. It was grating, since Cloud was worried that if he did nothing now, nothing would change then either. Thinking about it, about failing again, sent a chill down his spine. Physically, he'd be able to do it, stop Sephiroth before the madman could begin his schemes again, but mentally…. Cloud would break. Worse than he had from the mako, worse than after Zack's first death, there would be nothing left but a puppet, a body whose only purpose was to follow where the strings pulled. If he wasn’t able to make things right, to save the people he loved, when he had this much advantage...then he was worse than a failure. He wasn’t sure he could survive the guilt a second time.

Cloud blinked as he realized they were no longer walking, and were instead standing in front of a door. Cloud glanced over to find Zack waiting patiently with a bemused smile on his face. He hadn't realized he'd been so distracted. Cloud hoped, belatedly, that Zack hadn't been trying to talk to him. He was too used to being on his own with only his thoughts as company.

Zack would have to take the lead here. Cloud had no idea what sort of things he even owned in this time, so it was better if someone who was honestly ignorant of it asked Connally about it. The inside of the building was just as utilitarian as the outside, though it was slightly brighter; a more gray metallic shade than the gray-brown of the outside. The lights were low runner lights at the base of the walls, giving it an odd greenish glow in the gloom. Each door had block-like numbers on them, large and pale against the dark metal. It wasn't hard to find the fifth door on the first floor.

Zack thumped his fist against the metal. They didn't have to wait long as there was a thump and some curses from beyond the door before it opened and the beleaguered features of the very man they were looking for appeared before them. Whatever Connally had been meaning to say froze on his tongue as he gaped at them. “Cloud? ...S-SOLDIER Fair!”

“Hey, take it easy,” Zack said glibly. “You weren't sleeping yet were you?”

“I'd just started to doze off, but it's alright. Is something the matter, sir?” Connally asked, looking like he would genuinely give up his much wanted sleep if he was needed again.

“Well, Cloud's got to move to new quarters so we came to collect his stuff. If you could just direct me toward it, I'll grab it since he has his hands full,” Zack said with a wave toward the chocobo chick in Cloud's arms, “and get out of your hair so you can sleep.”

Before Connally could say anything else, a gruff voice in the darkness said, “I'll help you, sir,” as a large form jumped down out of one of the bunks. Zack followed the beckoning shadow into the room, leaving Cloud and Connally by the door.

Connally turned to Cloud, wide eyed, and asked in hushed whisper, “D-did they promote you or something?”

Cloud considered the question silently, internally scrambling for what he should say. What would Zack do? …No, that was a dangerous line of thought. Still, Connally was looking at him with genuine worry, and Zack would be back in a minute, so it was up to Cloud what sort of rumors began at this point. The military was the worst gossip he knew of.

"I…am not being promoted, exactly," he said lowly, keeping his voice from carrying any farther than the other trooper. Zack might be able to hear, but there was no problem there. "It's just…my reaction to the mako. They want to make sure I can handle the changes." Hopefully that would be enough to assuage the general curiosity about Cloud's sudden absence. Connally nodded slowly, but still looked worried.

Zack came back out, a duffel bag over one shoulder. Cloud nodded awkwardly to Connally, preparing to follow Zack down the hall again.

"Um…" Connally blurted out, causing Cloud to stop and stare in surprise. "You…take care Cloud. If you need a break, or…yeah. Just…" The trooper shuffled his feet in embarrassment. "We've got your back, alright?"

"…Yeah," Cloud said, unsure where the display of camaraderie stemmed from. He couldn't imagine that loyalty among grunts was all that common, though maybe he was just too biased against ShinRa to realize that it was composed of real people. "Thanks," he added after another moment's pause. It somehow felt inadequate a word, but Cloud had nothing more to offer.

The walk back through the military compound was mostly silent, punctuated only by the muffled sounds of sleepless Midgar and the odd coo from Viri. Zack lead the way, detouring back toward the ShinRa building before heading back into the weave of city streets and around to the entrance to another compound. They passed through a more highly, secured entrance where a 3rd Class SOLDIER on guard duty eagerly greeted Zack—calling him 'Boss'—and let them through. The buildings here looked more like apartment buildings. There were three of them situated at the corners of a vaguely triangular square at the center of which was a monument of the same SOLDIER symbol that was stamped on the front of Zack's harness. They were made of the same dull brown-gray stonework as the rest of the buildings on the plate.

Zack headed straight across the square for the building sitting at the pinnacle of the triangle, and opened the pristine glass door. He ushered Cloud ahead of him, through another set of glass doors which required a key card to open, then lead him to the single elevator waiting beyond. “With all these security measures you'd think we couldn't take care of ourselves,” he muttered to Cloud as he jammed one of the buttons with his thumb. “I mean it's not like the entire building is half full of SOLDIERs or anything.” After he said it, Zack yawned widely and stretched. He nearly dropped the bag of Cloud's things when he waved cheekily at the security camera pointedly watching them from a corner.

Cloud agreed silently with Zack; for a building full of the most enhanced human beings on the Planet, the SOLDIER barracks were far too heavily guarded. He supposed that it was partially that ShinRa valued its lucrative projects more than the gil-a-dozen regular troopers, and also because they did not want the secrets associated with SOLDIER to be accessible to just anyone. SOLDIERs had access to sensitive documents, and not all of them stayed in ShinRa's main building.

The elevator stopped, and Zack lead Cloud out into a hallway that was just about as drab as the one in the rank and file's barracks, though the doors were spaced further along it. The door Zack made his way to looked the same as the rest in the hall, though it didn't have a number on it like the doors in the trooper barracks. Instead it had a small name plate next to it which announced that 1st Class Zack Fair was in residence. There was space beneath Zack's name for another, which was currently empty.

With another swipe of his key card, Zack opened the door to reveal a spartan little room. There were obvious signs of Zack's personality; a television tucked into one corner, a rather comfortable looking couch with a blanket draped haphazardly across it which suggested Zack had a tendency to sleep out here rather than in his room. The low table between the two was covered in a scattering of magazines—a dated copy of Famous Gardens Monthly side by side with a dog eared Craftsman Monthly—loose papers, and a copy of LOVELESS, the cover still bright and glossy and obviously unread. On the far wall a rack for weapons was present, a standard issue SOLDIER long sword taking up one of the spaces. Three doors lead off the tiny room, all three in various states of standing open as if just waiting for the owner of the space to return and take up his daily routine.

The apartment came as a surprise to Cloud. He'd never really sat down and imagined where Zack had lived back in Midgar. Even if he had, he doubted he would have imagined the rather cramped, militaristic accommodations. There were touches of his friend's personality scattered everywhere, though, leaving what normally would have been a cold, plain room that much brighter and lived in.

"Make yourself at home," Zack said as he breezed in. He dropped the duffel bag on the sofa, and proceeded to drop the key card and the contents of his pockets, his cell phone and a few softly glowing materia, onto the surface of the table. Then he turned to face Cloud with a grin somewhere between challenging and teasing. “So, who gets the shower first?”

Zack's injunction for Cloud to 'make himself at home' made him squirm uncomfortably. Tifa had said that, about her 7th Heaven bar. She'd set aside a room just for him, assuring him that it was his home, that he was always welcome. Cloud had tried to make the room his own. Photos from his travels, souvenirs, mechanical junk for Fenrir or his sword used to litter the area, but eventually he hadn't been able to feel comfortable there. The guilt that ate at him made things far too tense, until it became too much. Eventually he'd stripped the room bare, and gone to live in Aerith's church. He'd been unable to find his redemption there, either.

Zack's flippant question was another matter, however. Cloud didn't think he'd ever felt quite so filthy in his life even after dropping into the sewers under Don Corneo's mansion. He glanced around the room again, and spotted an open door that lead to a tiled room, obviously the bathing area. Cloud turned his attention back to his friend, and gave a small smile.

"Flip you for it?" he offered, gesturing to a couple coins Zack had spilled from his pockets onto the table. Zack's grin only widened as he turned to collect one of the coins. Cloud took the opportunity to cross the room swiftly, closing the door to the bathroom just as he heard an outraged cry from Zack. Oh well.

He glanced down at the chick that was still snuggled happily in his arms. The Chocobo Lure was still glowing softly, and Cloud figured this was probably the best place to end the spell. Viri wouldn't be able to escape the room, and the little chick was also covered in grime from the journey over. Marsh mud caked the fluffy down, and it couldn't be comfortable.

With a lick of thought the materia went dark, and Viri shook his head in confusion. Cloud set the chick down, taking a moment to strip off his filthy uniform, anxious to get clean of the road and other unidentifiable grime. Sensing another's gaze on him, Cloud paused in the act of pulling a boot off to look down again at Viri. He found himself caught in the saddest gaze he'd yet experienced; everything about the chick was drooping and pathetic. The chocobo's eyes fixed pleadingly on his own.

"…You have to get clean first. You'll feel better," he mumbled, turning back to his task. He knew that the baby probably didn't understand much human speech, but chocobos were highly intelligent. Both Tifa and Cid had talked to the chocobos as if they understood, and Cloud hadn't seen any indication that they didn't.

A few moments study allowed Cloud to get the shower going, and the immediate relief of warm water made him sigh. Another glance at the bundle of misery still standing disconsolately by the door had him sighing for a different reason, and he padded back over to scoop the chick up. Viri squabbled at the sudden movement, but his irritation subsided as Cloud set him under the running water. The chirps took on a delighted quality, and soon the little bird was splashing happily at his feet.

Over the sound of the running water, Cloud heard the door open and Zack's voice floated to him, “Hey Cloud, I'm putting your bag in here. I figured you might like to have some clothes.” He ignored it all for now, and focused on getting blessedly clean.

Using one hand to towel off his hair, Cloud stepped out of the shower, significantly cleaner and much more relaxed. He felt a splattering of water on his legs, and looked down to see Viri fluffed up as he shook out the water from himself. The little bird's black fluff settled down, but still stood out and made the chick look rounder than normal. Cloud grinned slightly at the sight, nudging the chick out of the way as he strode to the bag by the door.

He'd half expected Zack to withhold his clothes completely, but apparently his friend was more mature than to retaliate to Cloud's trick. Cloud let the towel drape over his shoulder as he rummaged through the duffel bag for something to wear. Eventually he pulled out some cotton pants and a t-shirt. Once dressed, he hefted the bag to his shoulder, checked to be sure his feet were clear of the hyperactive fluffball, then exited the bathroom.

Zack had sprawled out on the couch, Buster Sword across his lap and cleaning equipment in hand. Cloud hesitated, feeling suddenly extremely childish for his actions. His friend had covered for him, gave him a safe place to stay, and Cloud was being ungrateful for that.

"Sorry," he said, glancing down and away from the couch. "The…I'm finished, if you want to go in." He felt foolish for stating the obvious, but he didn't know how to handle Zack in such a normal situation. There was no one to fight, no one to hide from. For a moment he feared that Zack too would see Cloud for the failure he was, now that there was nothing else to hide behind. He shoved the feeling aside, but worry settled in his stomach like a lead ball.

Zack gave a last swipe of the cloth he was using to clean the enormous sword, a look of satisfaction on his face before he looked up at Cloud and beamed. “Don't worry about it. I would have done the same thing to you if I'd thought about it,” he teased.

He stood up and walked over to the wall where the longsword hung. Almost reverently, Zack settled Buster Sword onto the hooks obviously meant for it, then stepped back. For a moment he merely stood there, looking at the sword with an odd, wistful, half smile on his face and a shadow in his expression. His fingers lingered, just barely touching the blade while his gaze flickered over it, examining it. When Zack stepped away his expression immediately shifted to one of reflecting his usual boundless energy, though tinged by the dark smudges of exhaustion.

“You'd think that water would make your hair less crazy,” Zack noted, amusement underlying his tone thickly. Zack glanced down at the puffed up chick that leaned dourly against Cloud's legs. “Well, anyway, I got that room,” he gestured toward the open door, “ready for you while you were showering.” Zack disappeared into his own room for a moment. When he reappeared he made a bee-line for the bathroom. He paused just at the door, and looked back at Cloud with an easy, friendly smile. “I'll see you in the morning. Night, Cloud.”

Cloud lingered for another minute, staring blankly at the door Zack had disappeared behind. Then he shook his head slightly, shaking further sullen thoughts out of his mind, and padded over to the door Zack had indicated as where he'd be staying. The room was bare, and he wondered for a moment why no one else had been assigned here since the facility was obviously intended for two. The bed was built right into the wall, a couple of drawers for storage in the space underneath it. Another set of drawers lined the head board area, a storage locker above them, and a niche with a bare desk had been built across from the bed, a chair sitting tucked up against it.

The bag made a dull thump against the floor as Cloud set it down next to the bed. Possibly he should unpack it to the drawers intended for that purpose, but suddenly he was struck by the fatigue of the last few days. He ran a hand tiredly through his hair before giving up and flopping face down into the pillow on the bed. It was a hard, mass-produced fare, but Cloud had slept on much worse over the years.

An imperious wark from the floor made him stir, and he propped himself on an elbow to peer over the edge of the bed. Viri warked again at him, flapping his tiny wings in a demand for attention. Cloud gave the chick a small frown even as he reached over to scoop it onto the bed with him. He dropped onto his side again, watching Viri stumble on the yielding surface of the mattress.

"What am I supposed to do with you, anyway?" he asked the bird quietly. Viri ignored him, traipsing to Cloud's side before sitting down, tucking his legs under himself and snuggling against Cloud's ribs. Cloud ignored the ticklish feeling on his stomach, bringing a hand over to pet at the soft down, still damp from the shower, again. He never even felt himself fall asleep.

 

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 17th)

 

It only took a single little bleep to drag Zack kicking and screaming from the realms of sleep. Sometimes he hated that his vocation meant he needed to be aware enough at all times to wake quickly when summoned. Now that he was awake he'd never manage to fall back asleep again! He rolled out of bed and staggered over to grab his cell phone off his desk where he'd left it, flipped it open, thumbed over to his mail, and found a reminder from Lazard. Zack sulked a moment and considered sending a rather angry reply. It wasn't worth it in the end.

Zack brightened immediately as a thought occurred to him. He was taking Cloud to meet Aerith today whether Cloud liked it or not. Zack sent a sidelong look at the clothes he'd left lying in a pile half in and half out of his room. His mud caked pair of boots were with them. He turned around, pulled a spare pair out, and dropped them on the floor then began pulling out the rest of the various parts of his usual black uniform and dumping them on the edge of his mussed bed. He'd ask Cloud later if he wanted to take some Fire materia and see how well Zolom and swamp encrusted clothes burned.

Once dressed and his bed neatly made, Zack grabbed his boots and meandered out into the little main room. He paused long enough to pull his boots on, then looked toward the still open door of the other room. Speaking of Cloud...Zack sidled over and peered inside. He had to immediately stifle a laugh at the sight of the blond curled up with the chocobo chick. Viri had his head resting on Cloud's neck, beak nestled into the bright strands of his hair. Zack considered waking him up, but decided to let him be for the moment. Instead he finished getting ready, grabbed his Buster Sword, and left the apartment. He still had to go see Lazard to make his report, after all. Guiltily, he knew it would give him a chance to be away from Cloud's half worshipful stare. No matter how much it bothered him, Zack could understand and didn't blame him. He still wouldn't sneeze at a chance to escape for a little bit. It just...made him uneasy.

He didn't really want to think anymore on why that look was there. Today, Zack had decided, was going to be a happy day. He'd told Cloud to relax and get used to life, and Zack was going to make sure he did one way or another. First things first, duty called, and he could pick a few things up for Cloud to make his adjustment to his new life easier. With that in mind any guilty feelings were buried under his sense of mischief and enjoyment in life. Zack fairly hummed the entire way to the ShinRa building and right through the front doors.

As soon as Zack stepped into the main lobby a voice called, “Hey, Zack!” He paused mid step, head swiveling toward his caller, and grinned widely at the receptionist at the desk across the room. Lazard could wait a few seconds longer, and if anyone asked he'd had a bit of a lie in after getting his new roommate settled.

“Layla! Nice to see that pretty smile greeting me again,” Zack caroled as he made his way over to the desk. The other woman working the desk with her shot him a friendly grin as well, and Zack winked at her. “I've just spent about a week with nothing to look at but helmets and Sephiroth. Neither of those things smile.”

“At least you don't look like something they pulled out of a sewer anymore,” Layla shot back slyly. Zack's face fell, and he rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

“You saw that did you?”

“Mmm, no, but Lanie was working that shift last night. I only just replaced her, and you know how we like to trade gossip.”

Zack laid a hand over his heart looking hurt. “That's just cruel. She didn't even say hi!”

To his right the other receptionist, he was pretty sure her name was Catherine, snorted. “I wish I'd worked last night if only to get a chance to catch a view of Sephiroth. Shame Jake had a stomach bug....”

“Well, I'm sure your kid is more important than any glimpse of Sephiroth,” Zack drawled. “He wasn't even pretty last night. He had mud on his boots and everything.”

Layla covered a choked laugh. “I doubt his fans will believe that and—” Her awkward cut off made Zack blink, though the sound of a throat being cleared behind his back made him cringe a bit. Always ruining his day....

“Hey, Tseng. I didn't know you liked to chat up receptionists,” Zack said as he turned to meet the Turk's flat stare. Tseng watched him for a moment longer, and Zack did his best to keep from jumping guiltily. He wasn't supposed to meet Tseng for something was he? He was pretty sure the only person he was keeping waiting was Lazard who was a lot more tolerant, and the message hadn't demanded he put in a direct appearance anyway.

“I merely wanted to ask about the mission to the mines,” Tseng said.

“Huh? Why? It wasn't anything exciting....” The way Tseng looked at him told Zack that he wasn't getting out of the escort and conversation so easily. He half wondered if Lazard had arranged it, but that seemed a little too bastardy for the man. “Alright, well, I need to go talk to Lazard anyway, I suppose I can regale you with the sordid tale. Bye you two!”

Tseng inclined his head toward the receptionists while Zack waved, and said, “Ladies.”

“Smooth,” Zack said as they backtracked, leaving the pair laughing, and headed up the stairs. “See, I knew you were really just there to talk to the girls. Cathy's taken though. I think she's been seeing the chick that gives out those experimental potions ever since her kid's dad hauled off out of town.”

“Why am I not surprised you know so much about their dating pool?” Tseng asked. Zack would have taken it for an insult—still might just to be contrary—if he hadn't seen the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of Tseng's mouth.

“Hey,” Zack said placidly, “I'm not the gossipy one. That's Kunsel.” They were quiet until they entered the elevator, and Zack punched the button for the fifty-first floor. “I still don't know why you want to know about the mission to the mines. It really wasn't anything special.”

Tseng gave a quiet chuckle, eyes on the rising numbers as he waited. “I don't. I merely wanted to ruin your day.” Zack turned and gaped at him, unable to help himself as he sputtered. Tseng merely gave him a dark-eyed look of what Zack decided to classify as pure, malevolent amusement and said, “I believe this is your stop.”

“That's just cruel,” Zack noted morosely. He stepped off into the hall, and glanced back at Tseng sadly. “Here I thought we were friends.”

“It's a Turks job to strike most cruelly,” Tseng said indifferently, hands clasped behind his back. “And most subtly. SOLDIERs are the ones who provide the distractions.”

Zack was still laughing quietly to himself as the door closed, and the elevator bore the Turk away. Zack couldn't say that Tseng didn't have a sense of humor buried under that perfectly pressed suit and business-like air. He still couldn't help but wonder if he ought to be wary of the encounter though. Zack's expression darkened for a moment before he shook it off and made his way toward Lazard's office. He had better things to do with his day than brew up conspiracy theories about Turks. They created conspiracy enough for anyone on a good day just by making a person wonder where they got their suits cleaned.

Like he always did, Zack walked into Lazard's office like he belonged there. He had almost been expecting to run into Sephiroth lurking around, but it seemed he had disappeared into the depths of the ShinRa building again. A shame, really; he needed to be socialized. It was probably for the best though. Zack was pretty sure Cloud was destined for an aneurysm if he had to deal with Sephiroth constantly for much longer.

“Hey, sorry if you wanted me here earlier. It was a rough week, so I sort of crashed hard,” he said, only to realize the only thing facing him was an empty chair. The large metal shutters on the windows behind Lazard's desk had been retracted giving a panoramic view of an unfinished Midgar. Zack had all of a second to wonder if Lazard was out, before he spotted the man standing off to the left of his desk. Lazard finished sliding a book back into its place on the shelf, and turned toward him with a welcoming smile.

“It isn't a problem,” he said easily. “My morning is relatively free for a change. It seems whatever happened in Mideel has the Science Department well and truly distracted. Normally they're so much more interested in you SOLDIERs.”

Zack shrugged and watched Lazard walk back to his desk and take a seat. “I don't really see what's so interesting.” As far as he knew the truly interesting specimen wasn't even going to go near their labs if things went to plan. Even if Zack was willing to hand Cloud over for whatever purposes, he was pretty sure Cloud would take most of them down with him before letting it happen. “It was just a bunch of angry birds with claws.”

Lazard chuckled and clasped his hands atop his ink blotter. “You have a talent for understatement.” He paused for a moment, gaze trained downward toward his knuckles. “Now about this mission....”

Down to business it seemed, and Zack just barely controlled a flinch. This mission really could have only gone worse if there had been more fatalities. Resigning himself to it, he began, “We arrived on time, and just fine. It was only after we located the site that things started going wrong.” As he went over it, each word seemed to leave him feeling cold, and if he embellished certain things and left out others, well, no one would ever really know. He felt overwhelmed all over again, and all he could think of was Cloud's trusting gaze as he looked at him like Zack could make the entire world right just by being there. It was a pressure he wasn't totally sure he was ready for. Zack wondered if Angeal had ever felt like that, and found himself once again wishing his mentor were there. He could do with sitting down on the bench seats on the SOLDIER floor, Angeal with a copy of his favorite Famous Gardens Monthly—he'd have adored Aerith—and Zack gulping back some sort of sports drink after a training session.

He finished his little tale with a, “And that's all that happened. We arrived back in Junon, and Sephiroth up and decided to do the mine thing and here we are. I think we brought half of the swamps back with us, too.”

Lazard sat back in his chair at last, a little frown on his face. “This won't go on your record. You seem to have handled the situation admirably after it went downhill,” he said. There was no sense of happiness like Zack expected should accompany those words. He just felt kind of tired, and more than a little drained. It reminded him a little too much of his fateful promotion to 1st Class. He summoned up a grin anyway.

“That's good to hear.”

“Yes,” Lazard noted, returning his smile politely. “I believe it's one more step toward your dream.” And if that wasn't a shot where it hurt....

“Well,” Zack said blithely, “you did say the impossible dreams are the best right?”

Lazard chuckled and nodded, his eyes drifting toward the computer on his desk. “Ah, that reminds me. Before you go...I need the name of the infantryman from last night.”

“It's Cloud...Uh, I...don't know what his last name is, actually.” His mind was a total blank on that, and, come to think of it, he was pretty sure he'd never asked. It just wasn't all that important.

“That's fine. It's quite the unique name, so it should suffice. You're free to use the rest of the day as a personal day.” The way Lazard turned to his computer was obviously a dismissal, so Zack let out a breath and turned on his heel to leave. He'd just stepped by the short walls that cut off Lazard's office from the hall when he remembered the question that had been burning in him since he woke up.

“Oh, hey, I had a question?” Lazard's typing stopped, and he turned toward Zack again, clearly waiting, so Zack hurried on, “I was wondering since Cloud's technically a sort of honorary SOLDIER now.... Can I get him a sword?”

Lazard frowned for a moment, his hands fiddling with his glasses. “I don't see why not. It certainly isn't against any regulation. However, it may be inadvisable to give him one from the stores. He isn't technically on the SOLDIER budget.” And the SOLDIERs broke enough of those on their own for them to be kind of expensive, Zack was sure.

Zack nodded, thoughtful, and then brightened as an idea occurred to him. “That's fine, I know what I can do about getting him one, but he's going to need an addition for his harness to hold it. Like one of the SOLDIER harnesses if it's possible?”

“That should be fine. I'll send a note, and you can check supply pod six within the hour.”

“Thanks!”

Feeling good about his morning despite the odd downsides, Zack hurried back to the elevator. He had some time to kill, but that was fine. He could get some breakfast while he waited. Inside the elevator he punched the button for the fiftieth floor. The trip was short, taking him just one floor down, and a couple of seconds later Zack stepped out onto the rather open floor plan. The room had plenty of counters and tables, a few vending machines nearby, and was filled with early bird SOLDIERs.

In the ShinRa building there were two cafeterias for the staff. The one on the thirtieth floor wasn't half as fancy as this one, the so called Executive Cafeteria. Most of the big wigs preferred to have their meals in their offices, though Lazard was apt to appear everyday for lunch on the dot. The rest of them weren't so keen on mingling, so in reality the Executive Cafeteria was more of a SOLDIER and Occasional Turk Cafeteria. Nobody really seemed to mind, though he'd heard a Second complain once that he wished it had a bar, too. Zack was pretty sure it was for the best that it didn't.

It was a nice set up regardless. Something like a mixture between a restaurant and a self-serve sort of deal with a kitchen through a set of swinging doors at the far end, and the wall near them taken up with a variety of slots containing pre-made meals. At this time there were already several Seconds and Thirds lounging around at the tables, eating breakfast. Zack could hear voices from the kitchen as the SOLDIERs invaded the space to make use of the appliances. Breakfast was the busiest time as they all knew better than to be loitering around when the President’s personal chef blew in to make him lunch.

Zack had unfortunate personal experience with that one. He'd been unlucky enough to be hanging around once and had been a spectator to the blow up that had occurred. Someone had stolen the man's knife and he'd insisted it was a Tonberry. Zack still wasn't sure how he'd gotten roped into going to look for it, but the day spent in a cave filled with the little green beasts was enough to make sure he didn't want to see another Tonberry in his life. He never did find the guy's knife, though a bunch of knives found Zack's shins. Zack made sure he was never around when the chef was from there on out.

(Crazy bastard.)

The thought was oddly amused even in Zack's own head. He used his ShinRa Employee Gil Card to pay for a few fresh bagels, an orange—apples, Banora White or not, still made him flinch a little—and a bottle of water. He'd have to remember to grab something for Cloud before he left as well. Zack had just made his way over to his favorite table by the wide windows overlooking Midgar when his phone rang. Quickly he swung Buster Sword off and leaned it against the nearby wall then set his breakfast down.

As soon as he fished his phone out and answered it, Aerith's cheerful chimed in his ear, “Hel-lo!

“Hey,” Zack said, his phone trapped between one shoulder and his ear as he yanked out a chair and sat down. “I was hoping you were awake already.”

Of course I am, silly,” she said. “The flowers won't take care of themselves.”

“Of course not,” he said cheerfully and reached for the little clear plastic container his bagels were in. As he fumbled to get it open he ended up knocking an arm against his water. He had to lunge and grab it as it attempted to roll away. “Whoa! Get back here.”

Zack.... What are you doing?” Aerith asked, sounding slightly suspicious and a bit concerned.

“Getting ready to come see you, of course,” he chirped. He set the bottle back down before he selected a bagel. “We got back to Midgar late last night. Oh, and I hope you don't mind if I bring company. Remember my friend you talked to? I promised I'd introduce you.”

I don't mind at all,” she said, and her tone of voice left Zack no doubt that she meant it. “Ah, I have to go. It's time for breakfast. I'll be in the church right after I finish.”

Zack grinned widely. “I have to get a few things done and get my new roommate up, then we'll be down. See you soon.” He snapped the phone closed after Aerith's cheerful goodbye, and set into his own breakfast.

After he'd worked his way through the bagels and had begun to work on his orange company arrived. “Hey, Zack. I heard you were back, but I didn't think you'd be here this early.” Zack grinned up at Kunsel around the slice of orange he'd just popped in his mouth.

“I had a meeting with Lazard this morning, and now I'm killing time for a bit.” Zack deflected Kunsel's hand as his friend reached for a piece of his orange, and quickly shoved that piece in his own mouth. Kunsel settled for frowning at him in a disgruntled manner.

“What I can't figure out,” Kunsel said slowly. His hand was creeping toward Zack's food again, Zack noted. Cheapskate. Just because Zack had a slightly better paycheck.... “Is what you want with a chocobo. Even a Black. Well, unless you're vain enough to want one to match your hair.”

“Nah, it isn't mine,” Zack said happily. Kunsel went still and frowned.

“Sephiroth...?”

“You bet. He makes a terrible mama chocobo though, so we're babysitting.” The look on what Zack could see of Kunsel's face was priceless. He was gaping. Sadly, it passed pretty fast.

“Wait, we?” Kunsel asked, clearly bewildered. Zack suddenly grinned in fiendish delight.

“Oh, that's great. You don't know do you? Do I know something before you for once?” Given, that was sort of cheating since Zack was directly involved, but that had never stopped Kunsel in the past. Even when Zack was knee deep in ShinRa cover-ups his buddy always seemed to know first. He leaned back in his chair, and just drank in the feeling of knowing what was going on first. It was an awesome feeling, though the fact that Kunsel would probably never figure some of it put a bit of a damper on it. It wasn't quite as fun when you could never rub it the other guy's face.

Kunsel stole the rest of his breakfast, and Zack let him. Let it be a sop to his pride. “At least I know there's something to find out,” he said at last. “Don't look so smug. I'll probably know more about it than you by lunch.”

“Sure,” Zack said breezily, and knew his compliance only made Kunsel more curious. There was no way he'd be able to pick apart this insane, sordid little tale. Even if he did manage to find out a great deal, well, there's no one else Zack would trust more with the information. “Anything interesting happen while I was otherwise occupied?” He got a frown for the topic change, but merely grinned. Zack wasn't giving Kunsel a chance to try and pry more information out of him if he could help it.

“You know that Third that idolizes you? The one you helped out way back?”

“Yeah? What about him?” Zack dearly hoped he hadn't gone and gotten himself killed, or held hostage again or whatever. The last thing Zack needed right now was chasing after an errant 3rd Class SOLDIER who'd gotten in over his head.

“Apparently he managed to get through his latest mission almost perfectly.”

Kunsel's wellspring of information carried the conversation easily enough, though they were occasionally interrupted by SOLDIERs stopping by to say hello to the resident 1st Class with an actual personality. Before he knew it, Zack had glanced at the clock to find his hour wait was over, and heading toward an hour and a half. His chair squeaked against the tile as he jerked upright from his comfortable slouch. “I need to get going.”

“Busy day planned?” Kunsel asked, his voice perfectly conversational. Zack recognized the tone, and stood hurriedly. Buster Sword was on his back in seconds and he grabbed his trash.

“I'm on standby for the rest of the day, so I'm going to go enjoy myself. Later!”

Trash in the trashcan, and another container of bagels and bottle of water in hand, Zack headed for the elevator. He had no idea what sort of food Cloud liked, but the bagels had been delicious earlier, so if he didn't eat all of them Zack would. He'd had a pretty fast metabolism even before some joker decided to introduce mako to his system.

Floor forty-nine proved quiet, though Zack could hear voices floating from further along the wide hallways. He strode over to the nearby door with its golden glowing lines and text declaring itself the Briefing Room, and keyed it open. As he stepped inside the murmur of a pair of voices cut off abruptly. Zack glanced toward the end of the room to find a pair of Thirds loitering near the mission board. The familiar red-head leaning against the frosted glass that cut the smaller foyer off from the Briefing Room proper was easily recognizable. It wasn't hard to guess who his dark haired companion was.

As Zack strode along the supply pods toward the pair he lifted a hand in greeting. “Edge, Gibbs.”

“Fair.”

“Hey, Zack.”

He sent them a sidelong glance as, balancing the food he was carrying in one hand, he hit the button to open pod number six. The gears whirred quietly. “You two aren't jumping straight back into work are you?”

Edge snorted, and ran a hand through his short cropped hair. “Hardly. We were just...” he waved a hand vaguely.

“Talking about the last mission,” Gibbs drawled. “And lamenting that we'll never get to do anything that exciting again.”

“I'd almost say you should count yourself lucky,” Zack replied. Sometimes he wished he wasn't involved in so much excitement, but then he'd be bored, and a bored Zack was no one's friend. “Oh, good....” Lazard had pulled through for him, he noted, retrieving the harness sheath. It'd allow Cloud to carry one of the SOLDIER long swords easily.

“What'd you get?” Edge asked, stepping closer to get a look. “What do you need that for?”

“I was hoping it was a Cura in disguise,” Zack said blithely. “I really need a Cura, you know. It's pretty bad that I'm a First and still using an old Cure.”

“What's going to happen with Cloud, anyway?” Gibbs asked.

“That would be telling,” Zack answered, tucking the contraption of magnets and straps into his pocket. “But I'm charged with looking after him for now. He's pretty keen with a sword, and Lazard says it's fine if he carries one around.”

“Keen, he says,” Edge grumbled.

Zack turned as the pod hissed closed and gave them a grin. “Yeah, keen, real natural talent. Anyway, I need to go kick him out of bed since I was nice enough to get him breakfast and a present.”

“Really, Fair?” Edge said, freckled nose wrinkled in wry humor. “Do you listen to a word you say?” Gibbs elbowed him hard, and rolled his eyes.

Turning on his heel, Zack marched for the door without a backwards glance. “If I stopped being entertaining you'd off yourselves from boredom.” The grin on Zack's face remained even as the door hissed closed behind him, and he headed for the elevator. It stayed the entire way back to the apartments.

Zack's good mood hadn't abated in the least when he sauntered in. It was quiet in the apartment, and quite obvious that Cloud was still sleeping. At least one of them had gotten to catch up on some shut eye. Zack figured that Cloud probably deserved it the most. This whole thing couldn't be easy on the guy. With havoc in mind, Zack wandered into Cloud’s room. Setting his offering of food on the empty desk, Zack leaned over Cloud and gave his shoulder a light shake. Viri warked at him in dissatisfaction as the move upset his comfortable position. “Hey, Sunshine, the chocobo is crowing; time to rise and shine.”

Cloud stirred awake slowly, and when he focused on Zack he didn't seem to quite understand what he saw. Zack watched in amusement as Cloud proceeded to stare blankly for another moment, before understanding kicked in. He jerked upright a second later and froze at the startled wark the action caused. The chocobo chick struggled to his feet where he had been knocked over as his pillow moved away. Cloud glanced wide-eyed up through his bangs at Zack.

"...G-good morning?" Cloud asked after another moment of silence. On the bed, Viri trilled in a tone that nearly matched Cloud's hesitant words.

“Good morning,” Zack crowed, completely unperturbed by Cloud's hesitancy. Reaching back he groped around and snatched up the food he'd brought. He waved it in Cloud's face as he leaned down toward the blond with a wide grin. “I brought breakfast!” Zack cast a glance down at Viri as the chocobo wobbled uncertainly toward the edge of the bed and stretched up to peer at the container. He reached out just in time to keep the chick from toppling to the floor. “I hope you still have some greens left. You think we can find more around Midgar, or will we need to make a trip back to the ranch soon?” He didn't wait for a reply, merely dropped the container into Cloud's lap and made for the door. He was half out, when he stopped, leaned back. “Oh, and Cloud? Get dressed. We have places to go!” Cloud looked almost traumatized sitting there.

As Zack stood in the middle of the living room he could hear Viri's imperious warks followed shortly by Cloud's voice. "If you keep making so much noise, I can't see that guy ever taking to you.” There was a pause, some more warking, and the sound of Cloud fumbling around. "Greedy…."

The quiet tread of his new roommate, along with the warble of a frustrated chocobo chick, had Zack turning around to grin at Cloud. “Lazard said I'm on standby for today, no missions. Isn't it great? And you don't have anything to do either.” In a few strides he stood beside Cloud, and Zack dropped a gloved hand heavily on his head to ruffle his sleep mussed blond hair. “That means we've got an entire day to ourselves, and we're going to make the most of it. And I've got a bit of a surprise I think you'll like.” He pulled the harness sheath from his pocket and tossed it to Cloud, who caught it with a perplexed expression. Zack turned away and made his way over to the weapon's rack on the wall.

“I remembered that you seemed to prefer swords, and that made me think. Hey, I said to myself, if I'm supposed to be teaching Cloud to handle his new mako enhanced abilities then doesn't that mean I should be teaching him like a SOLDIER? This seemed logical to me, so when I went to see Lazard I asked him and he agreed. It'll make a nice cover up for your sword skills. Of course I couldn't just appropriate SOLDIER equipment, but....” Zack reached up and carefully lifted his old longsword off its pegs. Turning around he twirled it neatly in his hand so he held the hilt toward Cloud. Zack scratched the back of his neck, feeling faintly abashed. “It's just my old longsword from before Angeal gave me the Buster Sword, but it's better than nothing. I didn't think you would want to go unarmed.”

That sword had served him well, gotten him through a bunch of things he'd never expected to face. It was the only reason he'd really hung on to it, and now he hoped it could be put to further good use.

Cloud took an involuntary step back, face paling. Zack waited it out, couldn't help but wonder what ghost Cloud was seeing to put that look on his face. He didn't take the reaction to heart, couldn't bring himself to when he had the barest inkling of what Cloud was going through. It might make him more than a little uncomfortable to have Cloud alternatively looking at him like a ghost and an idol, but Zack refused to blame him or make a fuss about it. Some things just reached a little too deep.

The stilted moment was punctured as Cloud jerked in pain, and turned to scowl down at the chocobo chick. Viri was rearing back for another peck. Cloud jerked his leg out of the way just in time, sending the little chick staggering and warbling in frustration. "Damnit…" Cloud hissed under his breath, frowning unhappily at the bird. Then he reached out a hand, hesitance apparently gone, and hefted the sword easily out of Zack's grasp. "Yeah, thanks Zack. I need to feed this guy before he decides to try eating me again."

Squatting down, Zack reached out, grabbed the bundle of down in both hands and pulled him away from Cloud. “Why don't you go finish getting dressed first then—Ow!” Viri had nipped his fingers, then did it again when Zack refused to let go of him. “Hey, take it easy,” Zack scolded the bird, wiggling a finger his face. Viri grabbed hold of Zack's finger and clamped down. Luckily, his gloves kept the tiny bird from doing any real damage. Zack sat back hard on the floor and pulled the chick closer, tugging lightly. Viri tugged back, momentarily distracted from his search for food by the new game. Cloud's quiet footfalls retreated toward his room.

Zack got his hand free and clamped his fingers firmly, but gently, around the bird’s beak to keep him from nipping again. He could swear Viri was glaring at him for the absolute indignity Zack was subjecting him to. “Are we sure that Sephiroth doesn't have a thing for chocobos, because I swear this bird has his glare.” He winced after he said the words. Zack could almost hear Angeal's scolding tone for saying such a thing even as he looked faintly amused with the verbal diarrhea that often came with Zack's more hyperactive moments. Sometimes Zack wondered how Angeal had ever put up with him. “You know what? Forget I said that,” Zack said with a grimace. “At least I know you won't ever snitch on me to Sephiroth, Cloud.”

"I get the feeling you do that often enough yourself," Cloud's rueful voice floated back to him. “Do I need to wear a full uniform again?"

“Nah, you should be fine where we're going. Any sign of ShinRa on you is likely to get you nasty looks as it is, but since you'll be with me it'll be alright,” Zack said distractedly. Viri had managed to wriggle free and resume the game of tug-of-war with his glove, and it was work to keep the chick from pulling them right off. “Just keep your head down while we're on the plate, and if we go in the ShinRa building itself. With this cover we can explain away the mako glow in your eyes well enough. Though we still better be careful about it.” The bird gave an aggravated little sound when Zack pulled back again, and Zack frowned at him speculatively. “Say, Cloud, how did you get so knowledgeable about chocobos?”

"I raced chocobos back then. We needed an alternate transportation, and…well, I bred a few when things were calm." Cloud returned on the tail end of his explanation, and crouched down next to Zack. He offered the few greens he had left. "Here, just strip off a small piece…like this, and feed him slowly. It will hopefully tide him over until we can get a supply of them.” Zack did as he was told, nearly getting his fingers gobbled right along with the greens as Viri attacked them eagerly. Cloud stood then, though he continued to look down at them as he brushed his hands off on his pants. "Golds are more biddable than Blacks, so we'll probably have our hands full with this guy.”

Zack grinned lopsidedly as he chucked Viri under the chin. The chick was less voracious now that the edge had been taken off his hunger, and willing to wait longer as Zack carefully shredded more of the greens. “That's pretty cool. I never really had a chance to do much with chocobos, though I've had a couple of missions that put me out there by the ranch. I had to kill some monsters around there once and I got to see some of the birds. I bet we can find someone willing to supply us with stuff for the little guy today.” It would just be inconvenient to have to go to the ranch every time they needed stuff for Viri. Zack would bet that there was someone down in the slums, or even on the plate, that was willing to keep them supplied for a little gil.

“Don't worry,” Zack said to the happily cooing chocobo as Viri gaped his beak open in obvious demand. “Uncle Zack will make sure you get what you need.” He gave a choked laugh. “Hey, Cloud? Would this make you Viri's babysitter, or do you think it's like you've entered unplanned parenthood with Sephiroth?”

Cloud made an odd choking sound that had Zack glancing up in time to see him fumble the boots he'd just picked up. Zack had the strangest feeling that Cloud was contemplating chucking one of the grimy things at his head. Instead, Cloud focused on securing the longsword onto his back a little awkwardly. "There's…I know of a place in the slums that keeps chocobos…or kept them at least," Cloud said at last, his expression carefully blank. He was obviously avoiding Zack's question. "If not, there's other things that can be substituted. Not as good, but…"

“It's a good thing we're heading down there then!” Zack said happily, then dropped the remaining greens on the table as Viri turned up his beak to his next offering. He snatched up the container of bagels that Cloud had left on the table earlier, briefly rubbed his gloves against his pants, then pulled a couple out. He held one out to Cloud, and bit into the other himself. It was just as delicious as the ones he'd had earlier. “You ready to go?”

Cloud took the bagel with a sort of resigned look. Zack got the feeling that Cloud was one of those waif-like types that barely ate. That just wasn't good for someone as active as they were, mako or not. A moment later Cloud glanced down, and Zack followed his gaze to find that Viri had taken up position on one of Cloud's boots. With a faint smirk, Cloud hefted his boot up and Viri gave an affronted wark as he was launched into the air. Cloud caught him in his free hand easily.

"I'm ready," he said, nodding at Zack.

“Good. Now eat your breakfast,” Zack said cheerfully, and lead the way out.

The walk through Sector 8 to the train station in Sector 1 went well enough. For the most part they were ignored by the people out in the early morning Midgar gloom. A few people called greetings to Zack, or sent odd looks toward the chocobo Cloud was carrying. Zack occasionally pointed out something to Cloud, and expanded on his thoughts with much gesticulating that sometimes required the use of his entire body to get the point across, but otherwise they had a quiet stroll through the sleepless city. Zack sprawled out comfortably in one of the seats once they were ensconced on the train. Cloud sat down next to him.

“Morning, Zack. Going down to see your girlfriend again?”

Zack glanced up to see one of the ShinRa hired conductors coming toward them, and sat forward with a grin. “Absolutely.” He chanced a glance at Cloud from the corner of his eye, and saw him pale, eyes going wide. Zack might have felt bad, but he just didn't. Somehow, Aerith had a way of making everything seem a little lighter, just a little better. And she'd been someone in Cloud's life that he'd lost. It would probably do some good for him to see her. Not to mention he'd promised. Maybe he should have given Cloud some warning, but...then again, maybe it was revenge for last night.

The conductor laughed lightly. “Well, you have fun. I've got work to do.”

“Hey, I worked all week and it involved things a lot worse than wandering up and down a train,” Zack called after the man's retreating back. Beside him, Viri gave an odd little warble. Cloud apparently hadn't quite roused himself from his stupor. He had slumped half forward in his seat, Viri slipping from his loosened grip and now pressing his beak against Cloud's cheek in worry. “Stop worrying about it,” Zack said lightly. “Nothing's going to go wrong.”

Cloud sent him a slightly miserable look and said nothing. Zack didn't mind that the rest of the trip was in silence. He was looking forward to seeing Aerith again. Besides, he could use the time to think about what he needed to say to Cloud before he let them meet. Given the circumstances, Zack thought he had a right to be a bit uneasy about the upcoming 'introduction'.

A short time later as they wound their way through the slums, Zack's earlier speculation proved true. While Cloud was directed a number of wary, mistrustful glances nothing particularly hostile came their way. A few people even greeted Zack. They were used to him now, after months of his frequent visits to Sector 5, and some even seemed to like him, or at least he hoped so. When Cloud's footsteps dragged the nearer they came to the church, Zack didn't comment on it. However, when the church did loom out of the gloom, pale, but oddly warm and welcoming for a stone building, Zack slowed his steps as well. He came to a complete stop at the base of the wide steps up to the front entrance, turned, and grabbed Cloud to drag him back several paces to the side.

Around them the piles of rubbish were tinted gray and brown in the lack of direct light. The plate above them created an intense claustrophobic atmosphere that still often left Zack uneasy. A few people were picking through the junk not far away. Still gripping Cloud's arm, Zack brought himself on eye level with his friend and, after casting another furtive glance to make sure they were ignored murmured, “Look, I don't know what Aerith was like when you knew her but she's not...” Zack cut his words off with a strangled sound of frustration. He released Cloud and ran his hand up over his forehead roughly. He turned, paced away a few steps with hands swinging at his sides before he turned back.

“She doesn't know a lot about what I do, okay? Aerith was...she...” Zack for once, was at a complete loss for words. No matter how much thought he'd given this, it was just...impossible to form into words easily. “I don't want her to worry too much, and...” Zack's mouth twisted into a frown, and he crossed his arms over his chest, gazing off toward the pallid, almost glowing line where the dark monolith of the plate finally gave way. Being too serious wasn't working for him. “You know, when I first met her she didn't realize I was a SOLDIER. She told me that she thought SOLDIERs were scary; brutes who just liked to fight and kill.” He was sort of afraid he was going to prove her right one day, but this wasn't about underestimating Aerith's ability at kindness, or even her strength. She'd certainly gotten used to him.

“She's kind of sheltered, and I don't want to rush her into things. So...” He turned to look at Cloud again. “I'd prefer if she doesn't find out about what's going on for now. She's strong, I know she is. Aerith is...” Inexplicable, so he just let it fall. He had a feeling Cloud understood. “But she's not...” She's not that woman you talk about, not yet, and Zack still had no idea how to explain this to Cloud who seemed to be having trouble separating even Zack from his ghosts. “Anyway, we should keep it on the down low. You're just my friend who's getting introduced to her as far as she knows, which is true enough.”

Cloud didn't look quite like he was following everything Zack said, but after a moment he nodded, lips settling into a line of grim agreement. Zack remained there looking at him, and had a brief pause to wonder if he was making a mistake. He shrugged the thought aside after a moment. There was no way this was going to be a mistake, because he wouldn't let it. Neither would Aerith. Zack turned on his heel and strode toward the sweeping front steps of the church, Cloud following silently behind him.

Cloud's steps paused at the doorway, while Zack walked between the old wooden pews, pretending there wasn't a certain hurry and eagerness to his steps. He couldn't help but breathe in the scent of old wood, dust, and that light, floral scent that came from Aerith's carefully tended patch of flowers. She looked just as she always did. She seemed to glow as the light hit her white sundress, and haloed the fall of her hair and ribbon. Zack returned her welcoming smile with a slightly foolish one of his own.

“Still saving the world one monster at a time?” Aerith asked as he stopped a few feet away from her. Zack could tell she was teasing him.

“Oh, yeah, of course. Took out an entire herd of Hippogriffs, saw a Zolom skewered.... You know, the usual,” he said airily, waving his hand as if it wasn't a big deal. It probably was, but it didn't feel like it anymore. None of it seemed too terribly impossible now. Just another day’s work as Zack Fair, One Day Hero.

She laughed, light and soft and sweet, and Zack's grin grew. She took a few swaying steps toward him, then leaned to the side to peer toward the door. “Don't be shy,” she called. “You can come on in. I don't bite.”

Zack felt foolish, because he'd pretty much forgotten that Cloud was there. Coughing uncomfortably, he turned and, feeling for all the world like a little boy who'd been caught out, waved Cloud forward. “Aerith, this is Cloud.”

“Hello, Cloud,” she said, almost as though it was automatic and she were laughing at some secret joke about the two of them. “He's been behaving himself, hasn't he?”

“I'm standing right here,” Zack groused mockingly.

"Hello Aerith," Cloud said softly. A small smile quirked the corner of his mouth. In his arms, Viri squirmed a bit, warbling out a high pitched greeting of his own.

Aerith gave a little hum and stepped around Zack. He watched her, amused as she paced slowly down the aisle toward Cloud, only to stop less than a foot away. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “You were ill the last time we spoke.”

Zack crossed his arms, rested his weight on one leg, and watched the two with a fond smile. He was curious to see how Cloud would react to Aerith's careful extension of kindness, and hoped that in some way she could clear away some of the cloying shadows that clung to his friend. Cloud, he noted, looked supremely uncomfortable, yet at the same time so very happy. It was almost painful, and Zack was glad he'd brought him here so soon, was glad he hadn't decided to tell Cloud he didn't have to come. Right now he felt like he'd made the right choice, and that settled something nagging and uneasy inside him.

Cloud ducked his head, his reply slightly muffled, "I'm fine. Zack has been taking care of me.”

"I just bet he has," she said, tsking as she sent a teasing grin over her shoulder at Zack. He gave a little, encouraging, shooing motion to her that made her give him one of her secretive little smiles. Aerith reached a hand out and tugged Cloud further into the church. "Come on, don't just stand there. Oh!" She jerked back in surprise. Viri had snapped at her, not quite coming in contact, but his displeasure was obvious.

"Viri, stop that," Cloud snapped gently, frowning down at the bird.

"Oh, it's adorable!" Aerith gasped, bending over to get a better look at the chocobo. "Hello there! It's Viri, right?" she cooed, offering her hand again to the petulant bird. Cloud looked absolutely worried, Zack noted with faint amusement. Viri considered the offered appendage for a minute, before chirping imperiously and butting his head against her fingers. Zack wasn't surprised. Who didn't take to Aerith, after all? "The poor thing looks a little sad, though," Aerith said, gently stroking the soft, downy head. "Here, put it down. I bet it would like to see my flowers close up. How on earth did you get such a small chick to follow you?" Together, the two of them set the chocobo on the floor. Viri looked up at Cloud for a moment, before trotting off further into the church where Aerith's garden lay.

"He's not mine," Cloud mumbled. "I'm just taking care of him for…for now, at least."

"That would explain it. You should take him back to his mother soon, Cloud," Aerith said, straightening up and brushing off her dress. Cloud closed his eyes, looking chagrined. Zack couldn't stop a peculiar little wheezing sound that had Aerith sending him a curious and slightly confused look.

“Sorry,” he choked, holding up a hand. His eyes were watering with an effort to contain his hilarity. “Just thought of something funny.” His eyes met Cloud's over Aerith's shoulder, and it was everything Zack could do not to collapse into a fit of laughter.

“Did he knock himself sillier on the way back?” Zack heard Aerith ask.

"I didn't see him hit his head, but he marched through quite a bit of swamp. He might have caught some sort of brain worm there," Cloud replied. Zack sent him a hurt look that wasn't very effective through his amusement.

“Don't worry, Aerith,” Zack said once he had himself under control. “We'll be sure he gets back to his mom soon enough, right, Cloud? We just have to look after him for a bit until things are settled. The whole trip back was pretty hectic.” Then, noticing the ball of black fluff out of the corner of his eye, Zack nudged the chick with his boot. “And don't you go tearing up Aerith's flowers.”

Viri tilted his head, looking at him imperiously out of one eye, then stretched his neck forward to nudge one heavy bloom with his beak. In a flash the little bird had darted back down the aisle, tiny clawed feet pattering against the hardwood, and hid behind Cloud's legs. A second later he popped his head back out and began to creep back toward the garden, round little body low, tiny wings spread, and neck stretched out in an obvious stalking posture. Aerith's laughter was muffled by her hands.

Zack backed up slowly and collapsed on the nearest pew with a faint thump. A slow sort of smile, content and easy, spread across his face as he watched the bird edge curiously around the garden. Viri occasionally poked a flower with his beak and sent what seemed like a sly glance toward him as if he were testing his limits. Zack occasionally made a face at Viri, which sent the chick skipping backwards, and wondered if he ought to feel silly. Then the chocobo seemed to give him a look, opened his beak and went to chomp down on one flower. Zack jumped up with a sharp sound in his throat that sent the bird skittering off.

Zack had the oddest feeling he'd just been played by a bird. In an effort to express this concern, he half turned toward Aerith and Cloud only to catch sight of Viri sneaking back and trying it again. Zack took a few steps toward him and the chick darted off and ducked under a pew. Before Zack knew it, he was embroiled in a furious game of keep away with the chick who was giving odd little chuckling sounds in delight.

“Get back here you!” Zack yelped, trying to grab the chick only for Viri to escape under another pew.

He barely noticed Aerith's increasingly amused laughter. "Zack," he heard her say. "This is just like when you got your wallet stolen."

Zack sat back on his heels, his hand braced on the seat of the pew and grinned wildly at her. "You mean our first date?"

She nodded, eyes bright from her laughter. "Maybe I should help?"

He never got the chance to respond as he made another lunge for the chocobo when he darted for the flowers again. Zack's boots skidded on the floor as he tried to keep from overbalancing into the plants himself. "Aw, man, this is embarrassing. Here I am a 1st Class SOLDIER and I'm getting beat by a little tiny chocobo."

Zack paused, glaring at the bird across the patch of flowers. Viri watched him with eager, yet wary eyes. Behind him he heard Aerith murmur, "You'll have to tell me all about how you found the little guy. He's just precious!" He could hear the laughter in her voice as she stumbled over her words in an effort to get them out around her amusement.

"You found him first," Cloud said. Zack would have turned to gawk in surprise at his teasing if he hadn't been trying to get around to Viri before he ripped up one of Aerith's plants.

"Oh you!" Aerith cried. A moment later she was crouched beside Zack, and attempting to coax the little bird out from among the plants. There was still a faint, rosy flush on her cheeks.

"Viri," Cloud called, voice soft but carrying in the still air of the church. A black head popped out from the middle of the garden, bright eyes turned in his direction. Zack used the distraction to try to nab the chick, but had to concern himself too much with not stepping on the brightly blooming flowers. Viri darted back onto the floor boards, claws scrabbling noisily as he trotted happily up to Cloud, chirping proudly and ruffling his fluff in satisfaction. Zack turned in time to see Cloud scoop the bird up, while Aerith fell to a fit of soft laughter again. Even Cloud was wearing a little smile.

Gratefully, Zack dropped onto the floor, removed his sword, then let himself fall back to sprawl out beside the flower patch. He wasn't breathing hard, though he was certainly putting on a show of being tired out by it all. “I'm glad I could entertain you both,” he drawled. “That bird is evil. Maybe you were right about his owner. Clearly he exudes so much evil that it's corrupted the little fuzzball.”

“Oh, be nice,” Aerith chided. “I'm sure the poor thing is learning all his bad habits from you.” Zack lifted his hand dramatically and let it fall on his heart as he cringed, wounded.

“Aw, Aerith,” Zack said, drawing her name out in a near whine. He let it go a second later. “We need to get the stuff to take care of Viri so I figured down here might be a good place to start. Well, that and I did promise to introduce you.” Zack grinned up at her from his position on the floor. “You want to come with?”

Aerith put her hand to her chin in a great show of thinking. After a moment she said, “I suppose I should. It wouldn't be fair to make Cloud look after you and the baby.” She held up a hand to forestall a reply. “But first I need to finish tending the flowers.”

“Oh, don't let us get in the way,” Zack said easily. “I'd never get between you and your flowers.” She was shaking her head at him even as she crouched in the dirt on the other side of the little garden from him. Zack's smile slid from bright and teasing into something softer as he watched her through the forest of nodding white and yellow petals and green, leafy stems. Not far away he could hear Cloud moving to sit down on one of the front row pews.

As the silence encompassed him, Zack could feel the remaining tension of the last week or so drain away as it always did when he was here. Being in Aerith's presence just had that effect on him.


 

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

 

Chapter Text



Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama

 


 

Chapter 06 – Crisis of Commerce

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 17th)


 

The dust kicked up by the trio’s shoes dispersed slowly in the gloomy streets of the slums. Cloud, Zack, and Aerith had left the church soon after Zack and Viri’s impromptu game of chase/keep away. Cloud had tucked the little chick securely in his arms again as they headed for Sector 6 and the vivacious Wall Market. Cloud breathed a silent sigh, trying to sooth the continued feeling of being too far out of his depth that was mixed with the pure joy of his two greatest regrets being alive and well.

Before now, he hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that in this time Aerith was still alive. Oh, he’d known it, on a subconscious level, but he hadn’t acknowledged that fact until Zack had dropped his bombshell announcement on the train. Unable to prepare himself, he’d nearly given in to the black despair that had his feet itching to run the other way, but...he couldn’t disappoint Zack like that. Instead, Cloud had followed his friend reluctantly through the slum streets. An icy feeling of guilty anticipation had grown the closer they got to the church, and Cloud found himself both terrified and longing to see Aerith again. Would she know him? There was no way, of course, but somehow with Aerith it seemed possible.

His worries had been unfounded, and Cloud remembered how his breath had caught in his throat at the first sight of her. She was wearing a white sundress, so unlike the more sturdy pink dress he’d met her in, and it had shone in the sparse sunlight of the church. Her welcome had been as warm as her smile, and it had been easy for Cloud to forget for a little bit the horror of the last time he’d seen her alive.

Now that the reality of Aerith's presence, her living presence, had settled in Cloud found it easy to just hang back and watch Zack and Aerith. It was a strange picture with sections of broken concrete looming above them and shattered highway beneath their feet—Aerith with her head tilted up as she listened to Zack relate some animated tale. Her smile lit up her green eyes as she laughed. A lump formed in Cloud’s throat at the sight. He wasn’t sure who to thank, but just having the opportunity to see them together and happy was worth all the suffering he’d been through.

He told himself later that he should have known such a light-hearted situation wouldn't last, that he should have been more prepared, but the truth was that Cloud had forgotten about the monster-infested streets in the slums. The Remnants had called their shadow monsters, and then Bahamut SIN, and that had been the first major case of a monster attack on the city since Meteor. Since the creation of Edge at the epicenter of where the Lifestream had converged, it had been rare for monsters to set foot in the city. Between Reeves' WRO and Rufus they'd managed to set up safe areas around mot of the more heavily populated areas. It was in between these cities that remained dangerous, as Cloud well knew from his travels for his delivery service.

It happened as they crossed through the old park, eerily silent and barren. From all corners, violently red and purple spiked, a good dozen Hedgehog Pies came at them. Aerith gave a little gasp of surprise and jerked back a few steps. Cloud didn't even pause to consider how balefully weak they were; all he knew was that his friends were in danger, and he needed to protect them.

“Don't worry, we got this,” Zack said, voice ringing out. He lunged forward immediately, Buster Sword in hand, and used the blunt edge to sweep several of the monsters back, before he used it again to bludgeon another in the stomach.

"Viri, stay!" Cloud said, shoving the chick into Aerith's startled arms even as he turned and drew the sword on his back. He was thrown for a moment at the unusual balance–so unlike First Tsurugi–before old habits kicked in and he laid into the nearest monster with vehemence. The Hedgehog Pie didn't even have time to squeal before it was cleaved in two, another being caught on the follow through of the swing and sent tumbling across the park.

Cloud was aware of Zack fighting nearby, and could feel the hum as a spell was cast. It made him painfully aware of his own under-equipped stock, despite the fact that these monsters were hardly worth the effort of wasted energy. He saw Zack bat another of the creatures with the flat of his blade out of the corner of his eye, before finishing it with a well placed ice spell. Cloud was baffled at that; why didn't Zack just use his sword?

One monster tried to slip past Cloud's feet. He turned and took out some of his frustration as he kicked the creature as hard as he could. It made a satisfying crunch before it flew out of view. He looked up to see Aerith standing pale and frightened, her hands clasped to her chest as she craned her head warily around. Viri was at her feet, though how the bird had got loose from her Cloud didn't know, and had his wings extended, head down as he hissed angrily. He didn't move from Aerith's side, but kept snapping at the air in the direction of the monsters.

It only took another minute or so for Cloud and Zack to finish off the small herd, and soon silence fell again on the playground. Cloud turned, one hand delving into a pocket to pull out a cloth and wipe his blade clean. Dismissing the encounter, he went back to collect his agitated charge. Aerith still looked pale. It surprised Cloud to see her trembling a little.

"Are…you okay?" he asked softly, thrown as he realized this Aerith had never once fought a monster before. Cloud had been able to forget, for a while, when he'd talked with her about the parts of the slums he knew, careful not to be too specific lest his future knowledge prove to be false now. Before Aerith could answer Cloud heard Zack's footsteps approaching, and he turned toward his friend, face blank, as he tried to figure out how he should act now. Had he made a mistake? Zack hadn't wanted Aerith to be involved, but what did he consider involvement?

Zack gave Cloud two thumbs up. “Nice job, Cloud. Good to know you've got my back.” Then he turned to Aerith and winked at her. “See? No problem. I said before I'd protect you, right? And Cloud's here too. These guys are nothing for a SOLDIER and....” He looked at Cloud with a crooked grin. “What are you now anyway? SOLDIER-lite? An Ultima Trooper? I can't decide what we're supposed to refer to you as.”

“I don't see how I can feel unsafe with you two and Viri protecting me,” Aerith said, her voice wavering just slightly.

“Exactly!” Zack said cheerfully, and slung an arm around Cloud's neck to pull him into a loose headlock. “Cloud's not a SOLDIER, but he's still real handy to have around. In fact I bet he's almost as cool as I am. Fuzzy is just an additional security.” Zack's ability to turn a tense situation into almost absurdity was miraculous, Cloud decided. He didn't appreciate the head lock—it sent a brief pang of sadness to his heart as he remembered a time where Cid would do the same, when Cloud was being particularly gloomy or the pilot was in an agitated mood over his precious airship—but he forgave Zack the indignity when it caused Aerith to relax.

Aerith laughed in earnest as she watched them, then reached over to shove at Zack's shoulder. “Let him go, silly, you're going to suffocate him.”

“He's made of tougher stuff than that, aren't you Cloud?” Zack asked, and ruffled Cloud's wild hair. Cloud could only scowl and shove at his side. “Nobody else I'd trust to have my back!”

Once he was released from Zack's grip, Cloud knelt down to inspect Viri. He carefully checked the chick over to make sure no damage had come to him in the small scuffle. The bird was still chirping to himself, his chest puffed out as if he'd single-handedly defeated all the monsters. Cloud let out a breath of exasperated amusement. Aerith was probably right; the bird did seem to be learning a lot from Zack. He could hear the grind of gravel and dirt under Zack's boots as he moved away from him.

Cloud straightened back up with Viri in his arms again, and Aerith's hand touched his arm lightly. “Thank you,” she said softly. With a faint smile she turned to look after Zack. It was clear that she wasn't quite thanking Cloud for killing the monsters. “I'm glad he's so happy again.” She looked back to Cloud, green eyes bright and happy. “He didn't have quite the same energy after.... Well, you're a good friend for him.” Zack came darting back, waving for them to hurry up and, laughing, Aerith started after him, carefully picking her way between the monster corpses. “Coming, coming!”

Her words confused him, and brought a new apprehension to light. Apparently Zack had been worried or depressed, and Cloud hadn't noticed in lieu of his own problems. While there hadn't been much time in the hectic events that followed his intrusion into the past, not once had Cloud stopped to consider how Zack was handling everything. The SOLDIER always seemed so sure of himself that Cloud had followed blindly, trusting that Zack had everything worked out.

Cloud stood for a moment, watching Aerith follow Zack out of the playground, and considered again leaving all of this behind. He was still selfishly thinking only of himself, though. Zack wouldn't want him to run, didn't want him to leave at all, even if it made life a thousand times harder.

Viri's head bumped into his chest as the bird craned to see Cloud's face and gave an inquiring chirp. Cloud began walking, ignoring the corpses of the monsters. Keep moving forward. It was all he could do, and hopefully it would turn out okay in the end. Cloud could believe that as he watched Zack's cheerful expression and Aerith's beautiful smile when they paused to wait for him to catch up.

Wall Market was both the same and different than Cloud remembered. The bustle, the lights, the people were all familiar, with the fervor of commerce and underhanded dealings buzzing through the air. The difference could be found in the stares of the people, which had always been mistrustful, and were now openly hostile when they came to rest on him or Zack, though his friend drew most of the attention. When Cloud had frequented the sector in his own SOLDIER uniform, he'd only gotten mistrustful stares because he was a stranger rather than for any ties to ShinRa.

He cast a wary eye around the area, mentally noting which people seemed most interested in them, before glancing sideways at Zack. His friend seemed to be ignoring the danger signs, so Cloud pushed his own paranoia back. If Zack wasn't worried then Cloud was probably just being overly sensitive.

“I had no idea this was even down here!” Zack wandered out a few steps, turning and looking around with eager, bright eyes, before he brought his gaze back to Cloud and Aerith. With his fists held level his head, Zack seemed at a loss for a words. He almost seemed to tremble with his own eagerness to explore, and took them in with wide eyes. “This is great,” he said, hands moving into an encompassing gesture. “Where should we go first?”

What Zack lacked in wariness, he made up for, in excess, with enthusiasm. It was amusing, and reminded Cloud oddly of an over-excited Yuffie in a materia store. Zack's eyes shone brighter than mako alone could account for, and he seemed near to bursting with restless excitement. Cloud gave a slight, lop-sided grin and absently readjusted his hold on Viri to prevent the bird's escape or an inquisitive passerby from 'getting a closer look'. Just like that, Zack had managed not only to dismiss the aftermath of the fight completely, but bring the mood up to pure enjoyment.

Zack turned around again, leaning forward to look down the trodden dirt path that ran between the shops. People walking by had to circle around him. He didn't seem to even notice them. “Come on, come on,” Zack hissed. Cloud exchanged a look with Aerith, noting her own bemused expression at Zack's glee at something that was almost ordinary for her. He gamely paced closer when his friend beckoned, though he was nearly deafened as Zack all but hollered in his ear. “I heard you saying you've been here before? And didn't you mention something about knowing where we might get stuff for Viri?”

“You'd better watch your wallet,” Aerith piped up innocently. “Wouldn't want to catch another thief, would we?”

Zack looked away from the sight before him for a moment to give Aerith a wink. “We could catch him. We make a good team, and we have Cloud to help too. I'm sure he and his attack chocobo can corner any thief for us.” Cloud could only look on as Aerith and Zack had another of their almost coded exchanges, hinting at adventures the pair of them had shared. While it should have made Cloud feel left out, he was again filled with a quiet joy at seeing them together and so happy.

It did, however, raise on oddly impish impulse in him. Perhaps it was because Yuffie had just been on his mind, but Cloud had picked up a thing or two from the energetic thief, and he could almost hear her gleeful voice egging him on. He let the sway of the crowd bump him lightly into Zack's side, having seen his friend's unconscious movement as he'd spoken of his wallet.

"Sorry," Cloud said as Zack reached a hand out to steady him. "It might have changed a bit since I was here, but I think there's a chocobo stable further down that way." Cloud pointed up the crowded street.

Cloud moved away from Zack again, the weight of his friend's wallet safe in his own pocket. While he'd learned everything he knew about pickpocketing from being on the receiving end of Yuffie, Cloud felt he must have had some skill at it since neither Zack nor Aerith appeared to have noticed. They were both still looking in the direction he'd indicated. The money would be safer with him anyway, if it was that easy to get one up on Zack. In his arms, Viri shook his head and chirped in protest at the noise and jostling around him.

“Don't worry about it,” Zack said. “Alright! We have our destination picked out then.”

Cloud stuck close to Aerith's side since Zack was completely immersed in his first experience with Wall Market. It was amusing to watch his friend be sucked into every shop they passed, yet walk away completely unburdened and leaving the shop keepers scratching their heads in bewilderment. Neither Cloud nor Aerith were bothered much by the hawkers, Cloud putting on a well-practiced air of indifferent menace that kept all but the most zealous sellers at bay. The rest were swept up in Zack's enthusiastic bubble, then left far behind before they had a chance to regroup.

"It's a good thing I have such a reliable bodyguard," Aerith commented dryly, eyes following Zack as he bent over a table shining with some sort of scrap metal. The owner of the stall was expounding on all the uses the various pieces could be put to, Zack nodding at every other word. Cloud gave a ghost of a smile, remembering another time when she had put that trust in him.

"It's…strange to see him so excited." (alive)"He's like a little kid, not…like I expected."

While Zack was everything Cloud remembered—kind, friendly, loyal to a fault—he was also a stranger in a familiar guise. Cloud had selfishly built up an image of his friend, of someone who was better, stronger, more of a hero than Cloud could ever be. The thought that Zack was a mere human being was almost disturbing after that, leaving Cloud feeling more than a little guilty. He knew what it was like to be dehumanized, whether from those who would treat them as little more than animals or those who would try to raise them above the gods. Either way, it was a lonely existence.

The need to learn more about his friend was stronger than Cloud's need of a hero, though. With every new interaction, he was seeing more and more of the man who'd been willing to lay down his life for a friend, and somehow it was infinitely more satisfying than the patchy memories of a desperate escape. To really be friends, rather than have it merely proclaimed that they were, was worth more to Cloud than all the heroes in the world.

"Hm? You must have only met him, then," Aerith said, laughing lightly. "He's always like this. Trying to keep him in one place is like trying to nail jelly to the wall." Cloud glanced sideways at her, raising a sardonic eyebrow. She flushed lightly and shrugged one shoulder, unapologetic.

"…It feels like I've known him longer," Cloud said after a moment. He began to walk again as Zack rushed away from the stall to another further down, already engaging the seller there in animated conversation.

When Cloud came close enough to see the face of the seller, he felt his own face go blank in an effort to contain his reaction. The memories of the torture suffered at the hands of that person assailed him mercilessly, and Cloud would never be more thankful that he'd be unrecognizable to them now.

"He…he does know that's a man, right?" Cloud asked Aerith, hoping the note of panic wasn't as obvious in his voice as it sounded to him. The future gym owner was much the same as Cloud remembered; slim, loud and forthright, and wearing a simple yet nice dress. Cloud felt a chill go down his spine and pushed the memories back again. In his arms, Viri warbled a curious query, butting his head soothingly against Cloud's arm.

The future gym owner was leaning over the table, obviously trying to seduce Zack into either buying wares off the table or behind it, but Zack seemed oblivious to the advances. Next to him, Aerith pouted at the scene.

"I doubt it. I'm surprised you noticed, though." She turned to grin up at him. "Have a lot of practice?" He knew he went red, and Aerith's laughter rang out gaily over the babble of the shopping area. The sound, presumably, caused Zack look up and abandon the disappointed seller as he gravitated back to them. Cloud bit down the reaction of telling Aerith it was her fault in the first place, only refraining in light of it being an effort in futility.

Zack didn't stay with them long, the lure of bright and shiny things inevitably dragging him back into the crowds. Cloud noticed several potential pickpocketers eying the distracted SOLDIER, and reassured himself that despite his personal satisfaction, it was probably safer that he was keeping Zack's money on him instead. He did wonder if the Turks were lurking around as well. He wasn't sure exactly how long or how close they'd been watching Aerith, but unless something went completely wrong, they wouldn't bother her seriously for a few years yet.

Ahead of them, Zack stopped suddenly arm thrown out to halt them. “Materia shop.” It was enough to cause Cloud to perk up slightly. Wall Market wouldn't have anything more than the most basic materia, but occasionally he'd found something worth while amid their duller companions.

“I get most of my materia from the research department on the SOLDIER floor, or finding it while on missions, or from phone orders to shops, but hey, it never hurts to look around right?” Zack said as he lead the way into the shop. “Oh, hey, Cloud, remind me when we get back home to let you go through my materia. I've got plenty, so I'm sure there's a few you can use until we can get you more.”

Cloud gave an approving hum to the offer as he looked over the materia stock with a practiced eye. Viri had been compliant the whole trip, quieter than Cloud would have expected. Now the bird glanced up as Cloud leaned over, then leaned forward himself to examine the shining gems with beady eyes. Cloud gave the bird's head a scratch, wondering if Aerith wasn't more right that the chick needed to be returned to Sephiroth soon. His listlessness was a bit worrying compared to his earlier endless energy.

None of the materia caught Cloud's eye, and he came to a decision. As much as he didn't want to be in the man's presence personally, the chick could and would become ill if kept away from Sephiroth for too long. Cloud hadn't raised a half dozen of the birds without becoming rather fond of them.

"We should go," he said, turning back to his friends. "Viri needs to get back. We can come back later…?" He glanced uncertainly at Zack, wondering how long he would be 'off duty'. Leaving here would also mean leaving Aerith behind, but Cloud took comfort in the knowledge that she'd be there whenever they got a chance to visit again.

Zack glanced up from where he was examining the stock. “Huh? Oh, right, sorry.” He rubbed at the back of his head in obvious embarrassment. “I guess we better get moving. We still need to see if we can find those people to get the stuff for Viri, though. Then we can get him back to his, heh, mama.”

Cloud found himself leading the way through Wall Market's crowds, Zack and Aerith trailing behind by a few feet. He didn't mind giving them more time together. Zack had invited him along, but Cloud knew that his friend wanted to spend time alone with Aerith too. He contemplated for a moment offering to find Viri's supplies on his own and leaving the pair to their own devices. It wasn't like he didn't know how to get back to the plate and ShinRa, after all.

A selfish part of him didn't want to end this outing just yet. The raw emotions he'd experienced over the past few days leaving him anxious and stressed, and Cloud had dreaded seeing Aerith again. Now, though, between Zack's cheerful enthusiasm and Aerith's peaceful presence, Cloud found he'd been quite enjoying himself. He was finally able to relax, Sephiroth's presence an insubstantial buzz on the edge of perception.

“Weapon Shop!” At the shout Cloud's boot heel ground against a piece of broken glass as he stopped and half turned in Zack's direction. He followed the direction of Zack's gaze and raised eyebrow at the brightly lit shop entrance that proudly declaimed its wares. “I know we need to get moving but can we please stop there? Please. Please. Please. Just to have a look? Please?” Why Zack wanted to peruse a weapons shop when he already had a serviceable, and unique, weapon, he didn't know, but both Zack and Aerith were looking at him for a decision. Zack visibly pleading with his hands clasped together in front of him.

"It's fine," Cloud said, smiling slightly at Zack's immediate cheer. "So long as you hold Viri." He immediately dumped the chick into Zack's arms and he strode inside. The affronted wark and subsequent yelp made him grin just a bit wider. Cloud had been getting tired of carrying the bird around all over, but didn't feel comfortable enough to let Viri run on his own. This way, both of his babysitting problems were taken care of in one go.

The walls were piled with masses and mounds of scrap and junk, a much smaller section of the store laid out with the actual weapons the shop was supposedly selling. Cloud browsed idly, eyes taking in details and differences that surrounded him. The shop owner was a great collector of junk, which even now cluttered his store in every corner. Almost all of it would prove completely useless, and the pile would spread outside his shop into the mountainous heap Cloud remembered.

“Hey, Aerith?” Zack said, voice light and a little too innocent. “Have you ever considered arming yourself? I mean there are a lot of monsters in Midgar these days.”

“Oh, no...I don't think I could possibly....”

“You should listen to the man. Midgar's no place to go unarmed.” The low grumble of the owner's voice made Cloud turn. He could see the way the man's suspicious and greedy eyes homed in on Aerith and Zack. He wasn't the worst of the scum that inhabited the slums, but Cloud knew the man was stingy at best, over priced at worst, and would always look to scam a sucker. Cloud narrowed his eyes slightly. Just so long as he kept the scam monetary, he'd let things be. If the owner tried to summon any sort of bullies to intimidate the ShinRas, he'd get a very short lesson which Cloud would make sure he took to heart.

“Just take a look,” Zack said. “If you don't see anything you like that's fine. You don't have to make a decision now, but I think it's a good idea. At the very least if anyone tries to tumble through your flowers again you can give them a proper hello.”

Aerith stifled a laugh, and Zack's own grin turned a little more soft at the obvious memory he'd invoked. “I guess you're right. Maybe, I'll just...look a little." Zack stepped back, absently scratching Viri's tiny crest feathers as Aerith surveyed her surroundings with a pointer finger pressed against her chin and a thoughtful look on her face. The old man who ran the shop continued to eye them with a sort of wary resignation.

“I think,” she said, “if I were to get one it would have to be something like that.”

Cloud drifted back over to stand behind Zack and Aerith, boots thumping softly on the dirt floor of the shop. The weapon Aerith had indicated was a familiar sight; it was the same rod that she had wielded when Cloud had first met her. He closed his eyes, struck at how things were still following the same path, despite his interference. Was this whole effort futile, if even minor things remain the same? Shaking his head to clear it, Cloud dismissed the thought. It was too soon to worry about that. For now, he had other business to take care of.

“Why am I not surprised that you would favor some blunt object to smack people with?” Zack said.

Aerith turned a playful glare on him and smacked his shoulder. “Don't be silly.”

Apparently intent on getting them out of his shop, the old man grunted, “Well? You want it or not?”

Zack looked at Aerith, brows raised in question though he didn't say anything. Aerith frowned, obviously uncertain and looked back at him. “I...guess it couldn't hurt. You'll be there to protect me, but....”

Zack smiled fondly at her, and reached up with his free hand to lightly touch the pink ribbon that decorated her hair. “I'm always running all over the place,” he said. “This way you can protect people too.”

That made her smile brighten up even more. “Yes, alright. I don't know if I'll be any good at it though.”

“You'll do fine. Now where did my wallet...go.... Aw, man, don't tell me.”

“Oh, Zack....” Aerith said with a sigh. Cloud kept his face carefully blank as he stepped closer to Zack, watching his friend's face fall as he patted down all his pockets. It had taken him long enough to notice.

"I should charge you my normal delivery fee." Cloud pulled Zack's procured wallet from his own pocket. He tossed it at Zack, and said, in a perfectly deadpan voice, "Viri took it." To Cloud's amusement, Viri took the opportunity to snap his beak at the wallet, snagging a corner and attempting to tug it out of Zack's grasp.

He turned to Aerith, whose eyes were full of mirth, as she held a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. Cloud shrugged a shoulder, unapologetic. "It's a good weapon for you, Aerith. You should definitely get it."

"Well then," she said brightly, hands clasped behind her back. "Since I have the glowing endorsement from two experienced warriors, I think I shall."

“Hey! Give that back!” Zack yelped as he tried to wrestle his wallet out of Viri's grip. Finally he managed to wrench it free, a little more tattered at one corner than it used to be, and held it up triumphantly. A second later he let out a yelp as Viri pecked the arm that was holding him. Zack let go more out of surprise than anything. The chick immediately darted around behind Cloud's legs and regarded Zack with something like regal disdain.

Zack inspected the little beak mark on his arm from which a thin line of blood had escaped. He sent Viri a hurt look. “Don't you know you're not supposed to bite the hand that feeds you? Man...that thing is just like his mother.” Zack dabbed at the mark on his arm with a gloved thumb then wiped the blood off on his shirt negligently. He gave a last dirty look at the bird, which turned his beak up at him then started nibbling on Cloud's pants. Zack turned away and approached the old man.

Cloud shifted slightly, freeing his pant leg from Viri's inquisitive beak. It amused him that Zack was so insistent that the chick was like Sephiroth in any way. Cloud had had no trouble at all with the chocobo, aside from his insistence at keeping close to Sephiroth, or as it seemed now, himself. The only thing that reminded Cloud of Sephiroth was the way Viri would strut around sometimes. Otherwise he was just a fluffball of pleading eyes and boundless energy. It reminded him more of Zack, actually. He made a note to find out how deeply affected young chocobos were by those other than the one they imprint on.

As Zack settled in to haggle the price of the weapon down, Cloud crouched down, one hand drawing out the Chocobo Lure materia he'd kept on him. He activated it with a small lick of power, just enough to entice Viri to play. The chick was probably getting restless, having been carried around for the past hour or so. Viri immediately trotted around Cloud's side, eyes fixed on the dimly glowing materia.

Aerith wandered over to crouch down nearby. Cloud play an impromptu game of keep away with Viri. Cloud tossed the materia back and forth a few times, watching her out of the corner of his eye, before he tossed it gently in her direction. She caught it with a look of surprise, but smiled again as Viri hopped over, wings fanning the air impatiently.

"You'll have to tell my why his mother is such a big issue with Zack," Aerith said, rolling the materia between Viri's legs and back to Cloud. Viri tried to follow it. He ended up overbalancing to sprawl on his back. His legs scrambled in the dirt as he got to his feet and charged after his prey. "Did she do something to him? I can't imagine what would make it so funny, though." The look she gave Cloud was expectant. He sighed, not wanting to explain, yet unable to refuse when Aerith asked so plaintively. It's not like it was a big secret, just…embarrassing. Cloud had no idea why Zack was so insistent on using the term 'mother'.

"When…chocobos hatch, they attach themselves to the first creature they see, which is usually another chocobo," he said, eyes focused on the little chick to distract himself from what he was saying. "In this case…."

"Oh dear," she gasped, letting out a soft laugh. "I think I see where this is going. But who…?"

"The General," Cloud bit out.

Aerith missed his next toss and Viri ran into her leg when the materia bounced off it. Cloud glanced up at her face. He was surprised to see she had buried it in her hands, shoulders shaking with muffled mirth. He sighed, leaning out on his hands to retrieve the errant materia. Viri shook himself, preening one of his wings to sooth his wounded pride, before trotting back to Cloud's side. Apparently he was done playing.

"Zack hasn't said that to him yet?" Aerith asked, her voice trembling from suppressed laughter.

"He doesn't have a Masamune shaped hole in him yet."

Aerith sat back on her heels, wiping tears from her eyes as she grinned at him. "Do keep him in one piece for me. I'm rather fond of him, after all."

"No promises," he said, picking Viri up as he got to his feet again. He extended a hand to help Aerith to her feet, struck again, as her warm palm slid against his, how very alive she felt. They waited in companionable silence as Zack concluded the transaction and came toward them, staff in hand.

“I should have a lot of free time now,” Zack said as he passed the weapon off to Aerith. “So I should be able to drop by again, maybe even tomorrow. I can show you how to keep it in top condition. Angeal really drove weapon care home.” He lowered his voice in obvious imitation, “Use brings about wear, tear, and rust.”

Aerith laughed softly, hands cradling the staff in an unsure grip. “He'd be glad you're taking that seriously.”

Zack gave her a soft smile. “I'm just doing what he would have.”

The fondness in Zack's voice as he spoke of Angeal made Cloud regret that he could remember nothing of the SOLDIER since Zack seemed to hold him in such high regard. He wondered if he could ask Zack what had happened to the man. His friend had seemed reluctant to speak of it before, so Cloud doubted he would bother asking. He was all too aware of how much even a question could hurt the heart.

Cloud took the lead again when they exited the store, weaving through the crowd with barely a thought. They didn't part as readily for him as they had for Zack, his partial trooper uniform less conspicuous than the SOLDIER 1st Class outfit, but it didn't take too long for the trio to travel the length of the street. He knew they were close when Viri perked up in his arms. A distant chocobo warble came to them, audible even above the crowd's noise.

It was easy enough to pick out the building where they kept the chocobos. Not only was it bigger than most buildings in the slums, though certainly not so much as the one near it, or Aerith's church, but even over the smell that hung about the slums itself there was a smell of animals. The wide doors stood open, the sound of shuffling, cooing, and the occasional wark echoed out of the dim interior. From nearby, obviously guarding the rather ornate doors, a man watched them. The so-called stable was as ramshackle as the rest of the slums, though perhaps a bit better in quality. It was nothing like the lofty impressive building out near the swamps.

Zack made his way over and rapped lightly on the open door. It swung slightly, creaking as it did. “Excuse me?” he called. Though it was not as loud here, the din of the nearby market still could be heard as a soft, constant layer of murmuring sound. A chocobo answered his call with a warbling trill. “Anyone here?” Aerith stepped in close enough that she bumped lightly against Zack's side.

From the dim interior of the stable a figure emerged, wiping his hands on a rag and looking at them with an air of boredom. “Can I help you?”

“Hey, sorry to intrude,” Zack said breezily, “but a friend of mine recently acquired a chocobo and we're trying to find a way to get all the necessary items for his care.”

The man glanced them over, face tightening slightly at the obvious rank Zack portrayed. His gazed lingered momentarily on Aerith before turning toward Cloud. He seemed to mostly ignore Cloud, but Viri certainly caught his attention. “Is that so...?”

Zack kept his smile up and light, though Cloud noticed a certain sort of wariness creep into the edges of his expression. “You lot obviously have some chocobos, so maybe you could give us a hand or direct us to your supplier?”

Cloud could see already that this was not going to end well. Zack had charm and charisma, but in the slums that counted a lot less than in other places, especially in the economic black hole of Wall Market. While most of the sellers Zack had encountered so far were more bemused at his bright attitude, as well as hoping to take advantage of what they perceived to be weakness, these men were nowhere near as tolerant.

The only owner of chocobos in the slums had been Don Corneo. He kept a few to pull his gaudy carriage around, but otherwise they were mostly to show how rich and powerful he was. No one would dare to go after the Don's property, unless they wanted to be found lying dead in a gutter the next day. While it pleased Cloud to find that there were still chocobo stables even now, he knew the Don's men wouldn't be easy to deal with.

These were not merchants, looking for a sale at exorbitant prices; these were thugs, bullies, cutthroats who were more inclined to kill you outright and learn later from your corpse what your business was. They obviously wanted nothing to do with ShinRa, expressions mulishly unhelpful in the face of Zack's SOLDIER uniform. That, and Cloud did not like how the man was eying Viri. He'd knife Cloud and book it away with the valuable bird given the chance, which Cloud was not inclined to provide.

Cloud stepped forward deliberately, putting himself between the man and Zack, and forcing the handler to take notice of him instead. Cloud had noticed how easily he'd been dismissed, and intended to make it a mistake the man would regret for a while. He caught the handler's eye, then deliberately let Viri drop to the ground with a quiet, "Stay." While the bird was too young to understand, his breed was intelligent enough to recognize a dangerous situation and stick close to his protector. It was an intimidating move, and already Cloud could see the wariness enter the man's eyes. Why would Cloud have let go of such a valuable bird in this situation, unless he was sure that any move against him would end in his favor?

Out of the corner of his eyes, Cloud could see the other handlers taking a much closer interest in the engagement. If Cloud or Zack tried anything they'd quickly find themselves at a disadvantage. Nothing they couldn't handle, but the men didn't know that, and Cloud really didn't want to start his career in the slums as a murderer.

"We require a supply of food for a growing chick, as well as grooming supplies. Stabling will not be an issue, as his master lives up on the plate," Cloud said quietly, shifting his weight to one leg as he crossed his arms. At his feet, Viri had puffed out his chest, striking a regal pose as he glared up at the other man.

A sneer crossed the handler's face, and he shifted into a more hostile stance, one hand resting obviously on a knife at his side. "We don't do business with ShinRa scum," he said, spitting at Cloud's feet in deliberate insult. Viri flapped his wings and warbled in alarm, but didn’t stray from the relative safety of Cloud’s side. "These are the Don's birds, and everything about them belongs to him. Not even your ShinRa bigwig would want to tangle with the boss. Why don't you turn around and crawl back to your master's feet."

Cloud felt a flare of anger at those word, even though he'd been expecting it. He would die before he'd ever call Sephiroth 'master', and the insult almost broke his tight control. His temple throbbed with Jenova's buzz for just a second, before Cloud forced himself to calm down. The man had taken a step back when Cloud's eyes had sparked with rage.

"I see," Cloud drawled slowly. He turned on his heel and saluted Zack crisply. "Permission to return and report to the General that his personal attention is needed to procure supplies for his chocobo, sir."

"Fuck—What did you say, boy?" the handler demanded before Zack could respond. Cloud turned back, face blank as he regarded the man silently. He could see the other men around him looking worried, and at least one had ducked away. Whether for reinforcements or to report to his boss, Cloud didn't know, but it wouldn't matter either way.

"General Sephiroth has acquired a new chocobo," he explained slowly, his voice even and monotone. At his feet, Viri warbled at the sound of his owner's name. "Currently there are no such facilities to support the bird in ShinRa, so supplies must be acquired elsewhere. You are the closest supplier. If your boss has a problem with this, I'm sure the General would come down to discuss it with him."

The handler's face was a picture, eyes narrowed in hatred and mouth twisted in an ugly scowl. Cloud didn't feel any particular amusement at the sight, though. All he wanted to do was get the supplies for Viri and leave, and this was the easiest way. These men were the type to sell under the table to make a bit of extra profit, but they'd never do it for ShinRa.

"You shit eating little bitch," the man spat furiously, tossing his rag onto the ground in his aggravation and causing Viri to jump backwards onto Cloud's boot, warking at the discarded cloth. Cloud paid the insult no mind. The opinion of a frustrated grunt was hardly his concern. "Fine." Cloud could practically hear his teeth grinding as he gritted them. "What do you need?"

"For now, we need a supply of food to be delivered to the train station, on a weekly basis would be best," Cloud said crisply, inwardly hoping that what he wasn’t taking it too far. Zack would step in if he needed to, hopefully.

"Since the chocobo is a black, he will need about half again as much as your normal chick. I don't know who you do business with, nor do I care, but if you can get mimett greens, you will be compensated for your trouble." And if Sephiroth had to pay through the nose for his pet, Cloud didn't see a downside to it. Plus, Cloud had worked his ass off to make sure his own chocobos had been fed only the best food. "We will inspect the supplies before paying." The man's face went redder with every demand. "I don't trust you not to try to skimp us 'ShinRa scum', after all."

"You think you can just come down here and order us around like—" the handler burst out, shaking a fist in Cloud's face. Cloud didn't even flinch as he caught the fist in his hand, forcing the man back a step as he twisted it. Viri darted forward to peck at the man's leg, then darted back before he could kick out at the sharp stab of pain.

"I'm not ordering you to do anything," Cloud said levelly, still holding the man's fist. "I am doing things your way. Your boss makes a profit, and he gets a good word in with ShinRa. That might not mean as little to him as you think." The last part was a guess, but Cloud knew that at some point Corneo would provide information to ShinRa. It was one of the reasons he'd.… So it was a safe enough bet that the Don wouldn't be adverse to the arrangement.

"Why don't you let Stewart go, friend," another man cut in smoothly, walking up to the pair. "Then we can talk business."

Cloud regarded the newcomer silently for a moment before releasing the swearing handler. The handler stormed away, massaging his wrist and calling Cloud everything but a child of the Planet. Turning to the new comer Cloud noted that he dressed a bit sharper than the general cut of the men hanging around the stables. Cloud said nothing, merely waited for the other man to make the first move.

"I'm Danny. I take care of orderin' our supplies from the Chocobo Farm out east. You know the place?" the man rumbled as he took out a pad of paper from a pocket and pulled a pencil from behind his ear.

"Yes. They're good men there, and have quality materials."

"Right," Danny grunted, then made a few notes on the pad. "Here's what I think we can provide, for now. Fancy stuff like mimett greens takes a lot of getting, you know." He passed the pad over to Cloud.

Cloud spent the next few minutes haggling, aware of Zack and Aerith's silent presence behind him, and kept half an eye out on Viri. The little chick had no intentions of straying any farther than a few inches from Cloud's boots, and with the threat of the General's wrath over them, none of the men still hanging around seemed inclined to make an attempt at the bird. Finally satisfied with the arrangements, Danny straightened up from where he'd been hunched over Cloud. The man was considerably taller than Cloud, and had had to bend over some to keep the notepad evenly between them.

"Hey Rusty!" Danny called, waving a piece of paper at another passing handler. Rusty trotted over, taking the sheet from the other man's hand. "Special order. Run it by the boss, and explain the situation…carefully."

"Don't get your knickers in a twist," Rusty said, sneering at Cloud even as he answered his coworker. "I know how to handle it."

Danny turned back to Cloud again, nodding his head neutrally. "We don't have anything on hand that's up to your standards. These chocobos don't need to win races, just look pretty, after all. But we'll have a box of greens waiting at the train station before the last train tonight, and that should last until your first order comes in."

"Fine," Cloud said shortly. He was already tired of this place. His delivery service skills had given him confidence that he'd gotten the best price he could for the best supplies they could provide. That was enough for now. Bending to collect Viri without another word, he turned back to his friends.

"Come on," he said lowly, putting a hand on Zack's arm to hurry his friend along before either could say anything. "We're not welcome here anymore." When they'd gotten far enough away that the noise and bustle of Wall Market had stolen even the smell of chocobos away, Cloud turned a worried look to Zack. "Was that okay?" He hoped he hadn't gotten Zack into trouble, by taking over and ordering the supplies, but Cloud knew chocobos better than Zack, so it only made sense that he do the actual bartering.

“Okay?” Zack parroted. “You were awesome, Cloud!” Laughter laced every word before Zack pretty much tackled him, arms going around his neck and giving him a squeeze. “The look on that guy's face was priceless!” Cloud would never admit to the startled squeak—cry of surprise—when he suddenly found a couple hundred pounds of Zack hanging off of him. His friend continued to rejoice loudly in Cloud's ear, as if Cloud had done something amazing. Through his bafflement and embarrassment at all the jostling, Cloud gave Aerith a wide-eyed look of near panic, unsure what to do with the clearly ecstatic Zack. Her grin did nothing to reassure him. “Oh, man...I almost wish I'd had a camera. It would've been nice to keep that forever.”

"Zack, stop—!" His feeble protest at the man-handling went unheard, even as Cloud tried to pry Zack's arm from around his neck with his free hand. Viri complained loudly in his other arm, clawed feet digging mercilessly into Cloud's side.

“You're both terrible,” Aerith said, though there was nothing in her voice that said she felt it was true.

“I might be a 1st Class, and that means I'm a warmongering SOLDIER, but Cloud's the one mean enough to threaten people with Sephiroth. That's just cruel and unusual,” Zack crowed, cheerfully ruffling Cloud's hair.

As quickly as the attack had started, suddenly Cloud found himself staggering as he was released. He felt completely confused at what had just happened. He ran a hand through his hair to straighten it from Zack's tender attentions, and tried to keep the traumatized look off his face. Zack was clearly insane. Why hadn't he remembered how unpredictable his friend was? Underneath the embarrassment, however, Cloud could admit a guilty feeling of pleasure at Zack's praise. It felt good to do something right.

“We'll have to let Sephiroth know about the costs, but that won't be too bad. I doubt he'd even notice if we just tagged it onto the budget...though Lazard might have something to say to us about that,” Zack said.

Aerith swatted his arm lightly. “Zack!”

“What? It's still not as bad as sicing Sephiroth on someone!”

"I wouldn't have set Sephiroth on them," Cloud mumbled, running a hand over Viri's ruffled feathers to settle the chick. "What makes you think he'd even do it if asked?" He ducked his chin behind his scarf and kept his gaze on the ground at his feet, knowing by the hot feeling that his face was still flushed with embarrassment. Cloud felt as if all eyes were on him now, which made him squirm uncomfortably. He dreaded the rumors that would float around the market about the two of them now.

“You kidding?” Zack asked breezily. “Like Sephiroth would turn down a chance to come down and terrorize someone. It's better than being bored up there in ShinRa's lofty tower.” Zack wiggled his fingers up at the plate as if they could just look up and see the building itself. “Well, if you could drag him away from his books long enough, but I bet if you set your case right he wouldn't mind. Might just do it to make the execs sweat and wonder what he's up to now. Catch him when one of the execs are talking to him and he might even say thank you.”

Cloud listened to Zack's teasing incredulously, unable to picture the image of Sephiroth Zack was presenting. His friend had to be exaggerating for humor, but Cloud had trouble even envisioning Sephiroth speaking civilly to anyone, let alone staying still long enough for people who annoyed him.

Around them, Wall Market's glitter and lights faded away, people becoming scarce as they made their way through to the monster infested areas between sectors. To their luck, their earlier journey seemed to have cleared out all of the nearby monsters, and they passed through unmolested.

“I guess we should probably be heading back up. We need to hunt down Sephiroth, and that could take the rest of the afternoon.” Zack's comment made Cloud look up, realizing with a pang that they were near the large doors leading to Sector 5’s market, and it was time to say goodbye. “Why don't you wait here Cloud, and I'll walk Aerith back the rest of the way?”

"Ah…yeah," he replied, glancing sideways at Aerith. It was the least he could do, to allow the pair at least a few minutes alone. Cloud had monopolized too much of their time together as it was. "I…bye, Aerith." He nodded awkwardly at her. Now that the high of seeing her again was wearing off, Cloud had no idea how friendly he was supposed to act with her.

Aerith seemed to sense his hesitancy, and stepped forward to wrap her arms around him in a soft hug. Cloud's breath caught as her scent washed over him, smelling of her flowers and purity. He raised his free hand hesitantly, resting it gently on her back and applying a little pressure in return of the hug. Between them, Viri chirped a protest at being trapped between two bodies again, and Aerith stepped back with a smile.

"It was nice meeting you, Cloud. You have to come visit me sometime on your own as well," A bright smile accompanied her words, and she clasped her hands behind her back. Cloud nodded hesitantly back, eyes unfocused as memories of other times with Aerith floated up in his mind. She didn't deem this satisfactory, reaching out to clasp his hand in hers. "Promise?" she asked firmly, her green eyes staring up into his.

"…Yeah, I promise," he replied softly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. Aerith laughed, and nodded cheerfully before releasing his hand.

"Good. Now, I think you said something about walking me back?" Aerith turned to Zack with an expectant look. Side by side, they strolled away.

“Absolutely. I'd be remiss in my duties as a wonderful boyfriend if I made you walk back to your beloved flowers alone. I'll be right back."

 

 

Zack stayed quiet, just staring upward and ambling along in no real hurry. He was content to bask in the experience of spending a good time with two of the people he cared about. Above him the underside of the plate was dark and forbidding, but somehow it seemed a little brighter than usual.

“He's a good kid,” he said at length, once he was sure they were far off enough that Cloud couldn't overhear them. It occurred to Zack that he had no real idea how old Cloud was physically or mentally, though he didn't really think it mattered. After what he'd learned, Zack couldn't ignore the urge he had to look after him and make sure he didn't fall to pieces, and that maybe, just maybe, the guy got a little piece of happiness. Zack felt happy with his life, and he was the kind of man who wanted to spread that happiness around to everyone. Cloud, like Sephiroth, definitely seemed like he deserved a little of that happiness. “A little weird, but good."

"Zack," Aerith admonished gently, though she couldn't seem to help but give a small smile in response to his own impish grin. "He's not weird at all. If anything, next to you, he's quite normal!" She swayed into his side, and slid her arms around one of his. "But he is quite sad. I think...I made him a little bit sadder, too."

How could he explain to Aerith that it was because she was special to Cloud? That he'd known her in another time, far away, and lost her, apparently so violently that he'd never quite recovered. He couldn't, and not only because he didn't want to upset her. Zack knew Aerith was a wonderful, strong young woman even if she was a bit shy, and maybe unsure about the world still. He could see the promise of strength in her, had seen it since he'd met her. It was probably part of what had drawn him to her. He smiled faintly as he remembered their first meeting again. The expression dropped after a second. Zack looked down into Aerith's face, taking in the small frown and the insecurity and worry she wore openly, and moved his hand to clasp hers hand in his. He gave it a gentle squeeze, well aware of how his strength could hurt her if he wasn't careful.

“He lost someone,” Zack said carefully, “a lot like you, from the way he described her. I think you remind him a bit of her, but not in a bad way.” He'd never directly lie to her if he could avoid it. A lot of his life Zack had to keep secret from her because it was ShinRa business, and you couldn't go spilling ShinRa business. Just like she apparently didn't want to tell him she was an Ancient yet, though he still wasn't sure what that really meant. It was apparently something special. Zack didn't need anyone to tell him Aerith was special, and he certainly didn't think she was that way for something so material. She was special just because she was Aerith. “I think being friends with you will do him some good.” He smiled at her as they came up short before the church.

Zack studied her face, thinking about all the things Cloud had told him. About how Tseng had kidnapped her—something that still made betrayal fizzle in him—about how Hojo had caged her and tried to do horrible things to her, and about how Sephiroth had killed her. Some part of him wondered how Cloud looked at her, how he felt about her, but Zack wasn't particularly worried about that. He wasn't really the type to get worked up over that sort of thing, and he trusted Aerith. Just like she trusted him to be a bit of an idiot and a flirt and nothing more. More than that, he trusted Cloud, even if he hadn't known him that long. Somehow, it felt like he'd known him all his life. Zack suspected it came from sharing a similar sadness and burden, even if Cloud didn't realize it.

In the future that might never be, Cloud had become his living legacy; had accepted the burden of Zack's pride, honor, and dreams. In the here and now Zack was Angeal's legacy, had accepted the burden of Angeal's pride, honor, and dreams. It wasn't the sort of burden that was carried easily, but it was the sort that was carried proudly and sadly.

His heart remained heavy with the things he knew. He wanted to confide in her, but at the same time he didn't feel comfortable dragging her into this mess just yet. It might be a little selfish but he wanted, needed, someone there who could be genuinely happy when things became too much. Aerith had been that for him since he'd met her. Lifting his hand, Zack lightly touched her hair with his gloved fingertips and pressed a careful kiss against her temple. “Be careful, okay?” he murmured. She smelled of flowers and something like he imagined sunlight and happiness might smell like; a certain indefinable sweetness and warmth. “If I get the chance I'll come visit again tomorrow.”

Aerith closed her eyes as Zack's lips met her forehead, and looked for a moment like she was about to cry. "Of course I will," she whispered, opening her eyes to give him a fond grin. She raised a hand to grasp Zack's gloved one in hers, and drew it away from her hair to lace their fingers together. Stepping back, Aerith let their hands stretch out between them. "I look forward to seeing you then. Maybe you'll have some time to teach me how to use this?" She gave him a coquettish look, tapping her new staff with a nail. It made a dull, metallic rapping noise, and she wrinkled her nose slightly.

“Absolutely!” Zack said, some of that old cheer returning. “I've never been that great with staffs the few time I used them, but I think I can man—” His words stuttered to a halt as she stepped forward, cutting off him off when she rose on tiptoes to press a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. A moment later she stepped back, face flushed in embarrassment at the bold move.

"Thank you for the wonderful time." She still smiled up at him through her blush. "You'd better get back to Cloud before he thinks he's been forgotten."

Zack gaped, brows flirting with his hairline. His expression melted into what he expected was a rather stupid smile. He couldn't help but reach out and gather her to him in a swift embrace, couldn't help but press another kiss to her forehead. “Alright, I know when I'm no longer wanted,” he teased, happy as a chocobo in a field of greens. “I'll go look after the rather sad looking cat I found and see if I can't get him happy, sassy, and purring.” He pulled back, forehead resting against hers for a moment, eyes crinkled at the edges from the width of his smile, then released her at last. “I'll see you soon.”

Somehow, Zack was starting to think that goodbyes were just too final for him. With a last wave and look, he turned and headed back. He felt a little like he could take on the whole world right now.

 

 

No one bothered Cloud as he stood waiting for Zack's return. There weren't many people about anyway, but his ShinRa uniform made them take a wide berth around him. Perhaps rumors of the ShinRas had already spread, and the toughs had decided to leave things be for now. Cloud was glad for that, even if he wouldn't have had any trouble dealing with them. He was not in the mood to deal with more thick headed bullies. When Zack did return, Cloud didn't comment on the wide grin. He was merely happy that his friends were happy. The return trip through the slums and on the train occured mostly in silence, Zack distracted and lost in his thoughts. Cloud didn't mind the silence; he was used to it. It was when people started talking to him that he got lost and bewildered.

They exited the train, Zack whistling a tune Cloud didn't recognize and Viri cooing along, and began making their way back toward the ShinRa building. Cloud knew they'd have to track down Sephiroth now, a task he was not looking forward to, but it looked like Zack had forgotten all about their job. Just as he opened his mouth to break into Zack's happy haze, a voice rang out across the courtyard they were in.

"Zack! Hey Zack!" A SOLDIER jogged toward them, one hand waving in the air to catch Zack's attention. Cloud stopped as his friend did, curious as to what the other SOLDIER wanted. When he got close enough, the man lowered his hand. His mouth, visible under the helmet, was stretched in a grin. "There you are, man! I've been looking everywhere for you."

“Hey, Kunsel!”

The SOLDIER’s head tilted toward Cloud then. “Is this the mysterious 'we'?” the SOLDIER 2nd muttered, then shook his head. “That's not important I needed to tell you—”

Zack, obviously choosing to ignore him, had turned to Cloud and said, “Cloud, this is my buddy I mentioned, Kunsel. Kunsel, this is Cloud.”

Kunsel lifted his hand in greeting. “Nice to meet you, Cloud,” he said, then turned back to Zack. “Are you even listening to me?” Cloud nodded in greeting to the other man, though he needn't have bothered with acknowledging the introduction at all as Kunsel's attention had already returned to Zack in full.

“What?” Zack asked.

“I've been trying to get a hold of you for awhile now!”

Zack blinked, then blinked again. His brows furrowed, lips parting and head tilting in a rather puppyish look of confusion. “...Phone?”

The other SOLDIER muttered something about not expecting Zack to be hard to find, then bulled on. “The construction zone in Sector 3 is under attack by a flock of Ahriman. Lazard sent in a Second and a couple Thirds to take care of it. Unfortunately they just found out there are several griffins nesting in the area too.”

“And they're not pleased about the ruckus."

“Lazard wants you to go give them a hand, and sends apologies for bothering you on your time off. He said he couldn't get hold of you.”

Zack pulled his phone out and grimaced at what he found. “Alright, I'll take care of it.” He glanced at Cloud and frowned. “Hey, Kunsel, do you know where Sephiroth is?”

Kunsel shook his head. “I know he's in the building. The receptionists were talking about him earlier.”

Zack cast a helpless look toward Cloud. “You don't need to find him, we can do it later. If you want I can just give you the access cards to get back home.”

For a moment Cloud had thought Zack would bring him along before the brief hope was dashed. Of course Zack didn't need him tagging along. It was ShinRa business, and Cloud was not an official part of SOLDIER even if he'd wanted to help out. That left him with the daunting task of tracking down Sephiroth by himself. It was nice of Zack to give him an out, but Cloud knew he'd have to learn to face the man sooner or later. He might as well do it now. Without Zack there, at least Cloud wouldn't have to worry about his friend as well.

"I can find him," Cloud said, turning his head to gaze unseeingly at the building Kunsel had indicated. The Jenova buzz had returned, though it was nowhere near as intense as it had been the previous day.

Zack frowned at Cloud for a second, then nodded. “You sure?” he asked.

"You'd better hurry, before you get into more trouble." His friend still looked worried, so Cloud tried to sound reassuring as he said, "I'll be fine." He hoped he would be. Facing Sephiroth in battle was intimidating and painful, yet somehow facing him over the matter of the chocobo seemed infinitely worse. Cloud had no idea how Sephiroth would react, or even how he himself would.

Kunsel hadn't looked away from Cloud, curiosity apparent despite his impatient stance. Cloud wasn’t sure what to make of Zack's friend, other than wondering what had happened to the man in his own time. Was he still alive, wondering what had become of Zack? Or had he been killed in the disasters that had encompassed the world? While he would never know the answer, Cloud did hope that Kunsel was still around, still remembered Zack as the friend he'd been.

“Alright, alright. But I want you to take these.” Here Zack paused to pat down his pockets again and produced the access cards necessary for traversing the ShinRa building. “If I need to get around, they know me and I can get someone to spring for me, but you....” Zack grinned, then turned toward Kunsel. “Let's go then, you can give me more details as we go.”

“Aw, Zack...you know this isn't really my thing,” Kunsel grumbled even as he trotted after Zack, and the pair headed off.

“You're a Turk in SOLDIER clothing, I'm telling you,” Zack shot back.

Cloud watched Zack walk away, a leaden feeling in his stomach. Just because he knew it had to be done didn't make it any easier to turn around and walk toward the towering ShinRa building. He let Viri down, the little bird's claws tapping against the concrete with two little snicks, before the chick trotted gamely along at his side. Cloud closed his eyes as the faint breeze caressed his face, and gathered himself to face his worst enemy.

He glanced down at the cards in his hand, and recognized one from the previous night that Zack had used to access the apartments. The other was glossy, the ShinRa logo emblazoned in the corner, and looked similar to the floor access cards Cloud remembered from his own adventures in the headquarters. He wondered what Tifa would do, if she were here. Would she have supported him, matching his stubbornness to make sure Cloud didn't falter?

The cool air from outside turned static and temperature controlled as Cloud stepped through the sliding doors of ShinRa tower. When the doors closed with a whoosh of pressured air, Viri warked, nearly tripping over his feet as he whirled around to glare and posture at them. Cloud paused, then used a boot to push the chick further into the building and break the staring contest. Viri complained loudly as he ruffled his down and strutted away with his wounded dignity wrapped around him.

A receptionist looked up at the unusual sound, her eyes first locking on Cloud before inevitably trailing down to the floor and the little chocobo. Cloud expected her to try to stop them, but obviously the rumors had spread this far as well. Instead of demands to leave, Cloud found himself on the receiving end of a smile as she leaned forward for a better look at the chick.

"Oh, it's adorable! I'd heard that one of the SOLDIERs came in with a baby chocobo. Are you new, perhaps?" she asked, gesturing with one hand at his trooper uniform. "I know the paperwork takes forever, even for the simplest requests." Around Cloud, other people were taking an interest at the commotion at the entryway, curious glances focusing on him from all sides. He had wanted to just slip in, drop Viri off with his owner, and leave as fast as possible, but it didn't look like he'd be able to get away. He frowned slightly, deciding it would be best to continue with the cover story to try and keep the rumors at bay.

"No, I'm…not SOLDIER. But I need to return him," here he gestured with a hand at Viri, "to his owner. Zack…SOLDIER 1st Fair gave me clearance…" Cloud raised the keycard as proof, wishing he'd just taken the endless stairs to bypass all of this.

"Oh, SOLDIER Fair!" the secretary exclaimed, beaming at him again. "He's in and out of here all the time, isn't he? Is he on duty?"

"Uh…" He hadn't expected his first obstacle to be a gossip-happy secretary. She appeared to already be chattering on, not giving him time to think up an answer.

"No, never mind, ShinRa security and all. I know you can't say. Do tell Zack that Layla said hello! Oh, I never did catch your name?"

"…Cloud," he replied, bewildered at the overly-friendly attitude. His last memories of ShinRa headquarters were of fleeing civilians and gun-happy soldiers, so this experience was unique for him. She smiled, an action he noticed she did often, and waved him by.

"Nice to meet you Cloud! I'm sure we'll see each other again."

He nodded uncertainly, then quickly cut over to the glass elevators. The buzz of low conversation around floated after him, and he even thought he saw someone pointing down at him from the upper balcony. He couldn't be more grateful when the elevators dinged, indicating the arrival of one of the cars. Viri hopped back onto his boot when the door slid open, but Cloud merely walked into the elevator. The momentum made the bird run forward a few steps.

Zack seemed to think that Sephiroth would be hard to find, and if Cloud had had to search the entirety of ShinRa headquarters and risk running into Turks, the President's lackies, or worst of all Hojo, that might have been the case. But Cloud always knew where Sephiroth was these days. He pressed the button for one of the highest floors, his face impassive even as his mind began to race.

All he had to do was deliver Viri and leave. Cloud kept telling himself that, as the elevator rose higher and higher. When the elevators stopped on the sixty-second floor, Cloud spared a moment to be grateful that there hadn't been interruptions. If the elevator had stopped anywhere else, he might have chickened out and gone back to wait for Zack. Now that he was here, though, Cloud stepped forward into the smell of books and ink, mixed with the metallic smell that permeated all parts of the tower.

Sephiroth was in the ShinRa library, and that sent a shiver down Cloud's spine. The last time Sephiroth had been found in such a place.… Viri shot straight across the hall toward the nearest door. The door toward which the insistent tugging at the back of Cloud's mind directed him. Cloud followed after the little black body, his head buzzing unpleasantly as he tried to quell the nauseous feeling in his stomach. He paused for a moment outside the doorway Viri had disappeared through, gathering himself for the confrontation. The peace he'd gathered from his visit with Aerith and Zack buoyed him, and helped Cloud make the final step into the room.

Sephiroth stood near a bookshelf, book in hand, looking as pristine and powerful as he always did. His fall of silver hair shone in the harsh electric lighting, and shifted as the man turned slightly. Green eyes that had been focused on the ecstatic chocobo at his feet turned toward Cloud, and he was caught in the familiar hold of Sephiroth's gaze.

"…Sir," Cloud managed to choke out. Now he really did wish he'd waited for Zack. "…I brought.…" He didn't finish, just gestured obviously at Viri. All he needed was for Sephiroth to dismiss him, and then he could escape and hide himself in Zack's quarters again.

Slowly, Sephiroth looked back to the chocobo chick and frowned faintly. “I was under the impression that you were properly equipped to care for it,” he said, even as he stepped aside to escape the affectionate chocobo.

Cloud frowned and glanced down at Viri as Sephiroth took another step away from the happy chick. Obviously Sephiroth had expected to wash his hands of the chocobo, an idea that made Cloud scoff to himself. Cloud, with his experience with the creatures, knew that not even Sephiroth's cold attitude would do more than inconvenience Viri in the long run.

"…It's not a matter of care, sir," he said quietly, forcing himself to take a further step into the room. "Viri has imprinted himself on you." Almost against his will, Cloud found himself amused at the sight of a tiny ball of fluff lovingly rubbing up against Sephiroth's leather boots. To distract himself, Cloud let his eyes trail up to the book still held loosely in the man's hands. He couldn't see most of the title, and Cloud wondered how long Sephiroth had been researching about his past before he'd stumbled upon Hojo's trap.

Sephiroth's frown deepened, brows furrowing slightly before he turned away. With a black gloved hand Sephiroth gestured for the Cloud to come further into the room. “Come here.”

Cloud felt an icy ball of dread drop into his stomach at those words. It was hard enough just being in the man's presence, why did Sephiroth seem insistent on prolonging the uncomfortable meeting? He took another few hesitant steps forward, coming to a stop again in the middle of the room. Sephiroth had turned his attention back to the bookshelves. Cloud felt the weight of Zack's sword on his back, the burning desire to at least draw the weapon in the presence of this man nearly overwhelming. He kept his hands at his side, unwilling to give Sephiroth more reason to be interested in him.

"…The chocobo's provisions have been taken care of. Zack is coordinating with Director Lazard for the continued support," he said in lieu of following Sephiroth's order completely. Cloud hoped, rather futilely he knew, that Sephiroth would lose interest and just let him go.

Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder at him again, then turned back to the bookshelf and began to pull a selection down. “I expect Lazard will inform me of it,” he said, and turned expectantly toward Cloud. “Your name was Cloud, correct?”

"…Yes sir," he mumbled in response to the query. Sephiroth barely waited for acknowledgment before he held out the books to him, obviously expecting Cloud to hold them for him.

Having no other choice but to move closer, the implicit order clear, Cloud reluctantly crossed the rest of the room. Sephiroth barely gave him time to take hold of the books before he released them and turned back to the shelves. Cloud had to lurch forward to keep the topmost book from sliding to the floor. That brought him closer than he liked to the man. The smell of leather and something floral invaded Cloud's senses. He froze, eyes focused desperately on a small patch of Sephiroth's coat he could see through the curtain of silver hair. Cloud wasn't sure what would draw more attention to himself; staying still, or stepping away. Unable to stand the hair-raising feeling of being so close, he took a few quick steps back, the books clutched to his chest protectively.

Sephiroth finished collecting several more books before turning. “Bring those with you,” he said and strode out of the room.

Cloud followed silently after the intimidating form, keeping his gaze locked on the ground at his feet. The entire floor was remarkably empty, and he put it down to Sephiroth's presence. No one would want to hang around and risk incurring the wrath of the legendary General. Cloud was struck by a sudden pang of sympathy for the man. It couldn't be easy, he knew, to be so isolated. As far as Cloud knew, Sephiroth did not have any close friends anymore, aside from possibly Zack who was friends with everyone.

They entered the empty mayor's office. There were stacks of books strewn on the desk indicating Sephiroth had been at his research for a time. Cloud glanced down at the books in his arms. The subject matter appeared to be as he feared—biogenetics and similar subjects. So Sephiroth really was already heading down the path that would lead to his madness. Was there anything Cloud could do, then?

Sephiroth deposited the books in his hands on the desk among other stacks. “Put them here." He turned and leaned back against the desk, arms crossed over his chest. The books made a soft thump as Cloud set them on the desk. He was hyper aware of the man leaning against it only a few inches away. He backed up again, unwilling to turn his back to Sephiroth even though there had been no hostility yet, even when Cloud had all but disobeyed an order. He doubted it was something Sephiroth encountered often. And, Cloud thought with self-deprecation, had probably piqued the Sephiroth's interest again.

“Explain this to me,” Sephiroth said, gesturing at the chick that was tugging insistently at his coat.

"…Chocobos become attached to the first creature they see, upon hatching," Cloud explained slowly, and let his gaze focus on Viri again. Anything to avoid the cat-like green eyes that still bore into his soul. "I assume…you were it for Viri. They…chocobos have to stay with their…parents, for a while." It was probably good that Zack was not here. He wouldn’t have been able to resist addressing the issue with his new favorite term for Sephiroth. "He'll…get sick, if he doesn’t stay with you." Cloud brought a hand to rub at the back of his neck. The Jenova buzz was giving him a headache, not something he experienced often with his mako enhancements.

“And this chocobo views me as its parent?” Sephiroth said, a hint of bafflement creeping into his voice. He stared down at Viri, and the chick stared back with adoring, dark eyes. Sephiroth frowned. Viri merely cooed up at him, and nibbled the hem of his coat. Almost unbidden, Cloud found his gaze rising up to study Sephiroth's face. It took him a moment to decipher the expression on Sephiroth's face, but Cloud realized the man was actually uncertain about the little chick. Viri seemed happier than he'd ever been, and that small act of adoration had clearly disturbed Sephiroth.

"I…" he found himself saying, before he stopped and clamped his teeth together. All Cloud had wanted to do was drop the bird off and leave, but somehow he felt he couldn't just leave things like this. For Viri's sake, at least, he'd have to somehow help Sephiroth long enough for the chocobo to grow up. "…Zack will probably help…and…I can too," he said unwillingly, letting his gaze travel off to the side so he didn't have to see Sephiroth's reaction.

The heavy tread of boots and a faint sigh jerked Cloud into motion. He turned sharply as Heidegger walked in. “Sephiroth,” Heidegger grumbled.

“Heidegger,” Sephiroth responded flatly.

Cloud backed up a few steps to get out from between the two men when it became clear they were going to ignore him. Cloud wasn't sure which was more surprising; Sephiroth's visible exasperation, or the appearance of Heidegger.

“What's this I hear about you taking one of my soldiers?” Heidegger's dark eyes were narrow beneath his thick, angled brows. The head of the army looked as Cloud remembered; large, loud, and offensive.

“The papers are on your desk then?”

“I saw them, but I haven't signed them yet. You've never taken much interest in the regular personnel before.”

“It's not a matter of interest, but of necessity. We can not have someone that may be enhanced running around unleashed. If he proves himself worthy he would be integrated into the SOLDIER program regardless, and thus out of your hands entirely.”

Cloud was a bit affronted that they were talking about him while he was still in the room. Heidegger was doing it unknowingly, of course, since Cloud doubted the man had done more than take a cursory glance at the report on Cloud's accident. Viri had left Sephiroth’s side to edge forward, tiny feathers ruffled up and beak open to hiss angrily.

“I'm sure it's got nothing to do with Fair taking an interest either,” Heidegger muttered snidely. The insinuation that Sephiroth had done Zack a favor set Cloud's hackles up. The statement itself wasn't particularly condemning; in any other situation, the special treatment of a normal trooper would lead to questions. But it was Sephiroth, which right away should have told anyone that cheating the ranks was the last thing on his mind. Heidegger was a slimy bureaucrat through and through, and couldn’t understand Sephiroth's complete disinterest in such petty games.

Sephiroth merely stared Heidegger down for a second longer, until Heidegger turned to leave, obviously aware that he was in a battle he'd already lost. Cloud remembered too late Heidegger's bad habit of taking out his frustrations on others, and only had time to take a single step forward when the man's boot raised to kick Viri. Sephiroth moved faster, and after a blur of movement Cloud found his sword in his hand, bewildered as his brain tried to catch up with what just happened. The attack hadn't been directed at him, and the sight of the Masamune buried in the carpet in front of Heidegger had Cloud bringing his sword to a less provocative position. He would have to work on the reaction of fight or die when it came to Sephiroth.

Narrow green eyes landed on Heidegger, whose face had gone a pasty shade of greenish gray. Sephiroth didn't bother to say anything, just yanked Masamune free with a metal grating sound. As Heidegger all but stumbled hastily out of the room, Cloud turned his attention back to Sephiroth. With no way to hide the sword in his hand, Cloud pretended he hadn't overreacted to the sudden attack, and that it was completely normal for him to have the weapon out. He met Sephiroth's eyes challengingly as he sheathed the blade without a word.

“You said supplies for Viri were taken care of?” Sephiroth asked, voice perfectly calm as if he hadn't just threatened one of ShinRa's top executives.

"Yes. There's a supplier in the slums, who has contacts with the Chocobo Ranch," Cloud said evenly. "They won't short us. I made sure of that."

A movement at Sephiroth's feet drew his gaze down again, and Cloud could see Viri huddled against Sephiroth's boot, looking droopy in reaction to the scare he'd had. Glancing up at Sephiroth briefly, Cloud knelt on the floor, holding out a hand to the little chick. Viri perked his head up, but didn't move from Sephiroth's side. Cloud frowned, closing and opening his hand again invitingly. It took another moment, but finally Viri trotted over, accepting Cloud's caress with a disconsolate coo.

Cloud straightened again, Viri in his arms, and regarded Sephiroth coolly. "Caring for a young chocobo isn't complicated. The only issue I see is how much time Viri will demand."

Sephiroth turned his back on him and set Masamune aside as he rounded the desk. “If your assistance is further required, I will find you,” Sephiroth said. He sat and pulled one of the books toward himself. “Have someone tell maintenance that the floor will require repairing.”

The curt dismissal grated on Cloud's nerves. He knew he was supposed to be a simple trooper, but it was too ingrained in him to not bow to Sephiroth in any way. Despite his better judgment, Cloud found his boots moving across the floor toward Sephiroth rather than away. Without ceremony, he dumped Viri into Sephiroth's lap, ignoring the startled squawk from the bird at the abrupt movement.

"Of course, sir," Cloud said shortly, already turning on his heel and striding for the door. "I'll just leave Viri to you, then."

As he passed out the door, Cloud couldn't help but glance behind him through the cover of his bangs. Sephiroth looked down at the chick in his lap, a hand hesitantly raised over Viri's head, before it descended in a tentative pat. The sight disappeared behind the door frame as Cloud's momentum carried him out of the room. His steps slowed to a stop a few feet away. The vindictive pleasure of leaving the chick in Sephiroth's care so abruptly melted away in the face of that awkward exchange. Cloud had never thought to see Sephiroth so gentle, and it squeezed his heart to see what Zack had preached so fervently. Sephiroth was just a man. The madness of Jenova hadn't yet touched him. He was cold, and aloof, but it was to be expected considering how he was raised and how his life had turned out.

With silent steps, Cloud continued down the hallway toward the elevator. He didn’t know what he'd expected of this meeting, but this twisting feeling of guilt and hope was not it. What he needed now was Zack's comforting presence. With that in mind, Cloud pressed the button to call the elevator back. While his friend probably had not returned from his duties yet, Zack's apartment was still open to Cloud. He could collect himself there, and maybe figure out this enigma Sephiroth had presented.

When the elevator reached the bottom floor, Cloud exited swiftly with the two other ShinRa personal who'd shared his journey down. He kept his head down, raising a hand to acknowledge Layla's cheerful greeting as he passed through, but managed to make it outside without being stopped by the energetic woman again. When the doors slid shut behind him, Cloud straightened up, tilting his head back to stare sightlessly into the cloudy sky above.

He already felt completely exhausted, and it was only mid-afternoon. Cloud wasn't used to spending so much time in close contact with people. Months of solitude and avoidance were catching up to him all at once. His promise to Tifa, to do better, to remember his friends were there to support him, weighed heavily on his mind. This probably wasn't what she'd meant, yet Cloud found it so much easier to rely on Zack, and even Aerith. Zack had never needed Cloud to be a hero, or a leader. All he'd ever asked of Cloud was his friendship, without ever asking Cloud to be who he wasn't. As dear as Tifa was to him, she had built up a vision of Cloud as her knight in shining armor, and it hurt every time he failed to live up to her vision.

"Speak of the devil, and he appears before us in all his poofy-haired glory!" a boisterous voice cried, making Cloud's head snap around. A group of men were turned in his direction, and Cloud recognized the caller as the trooper named Sparo. Around him were the other members of the impromptu group that had accompanied him, Zack, and Sephiroth back to Midgar. Jac was waving enthusiastically at Cloud, grinning widely and gesturing him to come closer. The hesitation was more out of confusion than anything, but after a moment Cloud made his way over to the little group.

"I see you managed to scrape most of that slime out of your hair," Edge said in greeting, reaching out a hand to ruffle said locks. Cloud batted the hand away in annoyance, wondering where the fascination with his hair was coming from.

"…What did you need?" he asked quietly. Sparo grinned at Connally, whose shoulder he had his arm thrown over. Connally looked uncomfortable, though Cloud wasn’t sure if it was from the proximity of the other trooper or something else. He almost seemed guilty when his gaze locked on Cloud.

"We found out Connally here has some interesting gossip. We were going to head down to LOVELESS Avenue for some good old fashion recreation and relaxation," Sparo said smoothly. "A reunion, maybe?"

"We only met a couple of days ago," Gibbs rumbled, though there was a faint smile on his face.

"Details," Sparo scoffed, brushing it away with his free hand. He released Connally and put his hands on his hips as he regarded Cloud critically. "You," he said, jabbing a finger into Cloud's sternum, "are going to accompany us."

Cloud raised an incredulous eyebrow at the man's audacity. "Why would I do that?" he asked levelly, batting the hand away from his chest.

"Oh come on, Cloud! It'll be fun," Jac said, mouth still spread in a wide grin. Though it dropped a bit a second later. "Unless you gotta go somewhere? We all were given leave, but no one's heard what's going on with you."

"I…don't have to be anywhere, but—" Cloud began, shifting uncomfortably in the face of the group's unanimous desire to have him accompany them. As Gibbs had pointed out, they'd only met a few days ago. Cloud had no idea why they were so eager to continue associating with him.

"Great! If our esteemed superiors would accompany us, then, let's go get smashed," Sparo said before Cloud could muster further protests.

"You underestimate the effect of mako and alcohol," Gibbs sighed, then gestured the group to begin walking.

Sparo gave the Third a challenging smile. "What, can't hold your drink then?"

"Now you're asking for it. I'll drink you under the table, and we'll see if you like where you wake up tomorrow," Edge said with a rough laugh. He pounded Sparo on the back and sent the trooper staggering a step.

"That's what I'm talking about!" Sparo crowed.

"You doing okay, Cloud?" Connally asked, scratching the back of his head nervously. Cloud had been swept up into their group without a chance to protest, and found himself walking between him and Jac.

"'Course he is," Jac said, nudging Cloud in the side with his elbow. "He was just as awesome as SOLDIER Fair and the General, after all."

"Hey, he did get covered in mako," Connally said. "Who knows what that stuff does to a person, right?'

From behind them, Gibb's low voice said, "We do know what it can do to a person. Why do you think the SOLDIER selection is so rigorous?"

"I've heard a bit about it," Connally said, his face brightening as he seemed to come to life. He craned around to get a look at the Third. "What was it like? I mean, if you can say."

Cloud's input wasn't apparently required as the group chattered on, leading him into the brightly lit streets. With no idea what else to do, Cloud followed, and mildly hoped that Zack wouldn't worry when he didn't turn up until late. He had the feeling they wouldn't let him go until they succumbed to their own vices. He sighed softly. At least he'd managed to get rid of Viri. He could imagine all the trouble the chick would have cause in a group of drunken soldiers. 


 

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

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 07 – Crisis of Carousing

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 17th)


 The Goblins Bar was in the middle of LOVELESS Avenue, in a part of Sector 8 that Cloud had rarely visited. The street was fairly crowded, ShinRa personnel mixed with normal civilians going about their daily lives. Above them, the clouds darkened as the sun went down behind them, throwing the world into twilight broken by the neon glow of the shop signs and street lamps. The bar itself was almost empty. There were a few patrons in various shadowy corners nursing drinks, and one table holding some sort of card game. The low murmur of the players reached Cloud's ears as he was all but forced into a seat by Edge. The Third sprawled into the chair next to him gracelessly.

"So, what'll you have, eh Cloud?" he asked, leaning back in his chair to signal a waitress. Connally sat down on Cloud's other side, effectively boxing the blond against the wall. Cloud fought down a moment of claustrophobia, frowning in consternation at the situation he found himself in.

"What's this, you buying the first round?" Sparo leaned forward on the table and leered at the Third.

"In your dreams, trooper." Edge sneered. The legs of his chair thumped down again as he rested his weight forward.

"Aw come on," Jac whined, nose buried in a drinks menu. "You guys must get paid ten times what we do!"

"I think I found the real reason we were invited along," Gibbs said sardonically, snagging the menu from Jac's hand.

"Hey!"

"Can't blame a guy for trying," Sparo said, unapologetic. The waitress appeared at his side, notepad and smile at the ready. "Ah, good. Let's start off with something nice and easy, eh Edge? I still need to show you that your fancy mako crap won't do you much good against a real drinker."

"I'll remember that when you're heaving your sissy guts in the nearest toilet."

"I'd like a Dumbapple Cider," Connally said, voice raised.

"Chocobo Warbler here!" Jac said, raising a finger and winking up at her.

"I'll have a Junon Brand Whiskey, please," Gibbs said, folding the menu and tossing it onto the table carelessly.

Edge and Sparo were still bent over a second menu, arguing heatedly over the list of drinks, so the waitress turned her smile on Cloud.

"What'll you have then, sugar?" she asked, country accent thick in her voice. Cloud stared back blankly for a long moment, then sighed in resignation. There was no getting out of it, not with the others' expectant gazes on him. He didn't have the heart to tell them why Tifa would often use him to test out new cocktails to make sure of their flavor before she inflicted them on her customers.

"…Materia Martini," he said finally.

"Summons, Magic, Command, Support, or Independent?" The waitress' eyes never left him as she ribbled on her note pad.

"Support." Across from Cloud Jac whistled, and Cloud raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

"Dunno," the trooper said with an unrepentant grin. "I'm just surprised it was that easy. I thought you were going to be forced kicking and screaming."

"…I have a friend who runs a bar."

"What's this? You telling me that aside from your ridiculous skills with a sword, unexpected prowess on a chocobo, you also think you can handle your drinks?" Edge growled next to him. "He wants a Summons, and make it three." The waitress jumped when Edge slammed his hand down on the table. His challenging glare was directed across the table at Sparo.

"We're going to have to drag them all back to the barracks, aren't we?" Connally said sotto voce to Gibbs. The Third just sighed, resting his head against his fist as he leaned on the table. “So,” Connally continued in an obvious attempt to get everyone's minds away from the obvious drinking competition that was brewing on the horizon. “What are the SOLDIER apartments like, Cloud?”

Just like that, everyone's attention was on Cloud and Connally. Gibbs nodded at the blond. “I see you've got a SOLDIER sword now too. They promoting you or something?”

“We're neighbors now?” Edge asked as he eyed Cloud critically. “Well, so long as you aren't the type to play loud music I don't care. You remember Leo, Gibbs?”

Gibbs snorted loudly. “Idiot got reprimanded by the Director and relegated to escort missions and overseeing supplies for the foreseeable future. He seemed to think that just because he made it into SOLDIER he was free to do as he wanted. Pissed off all the Thirds is all he did.”

“I heard about that,” Sparo said. “He wasn't allowed on the Mideel mission either, was he?”

“Nah,” Edge replied, amused. “It's a shame. If he had been he might've gotten some sense pecked into him with the rest of our sorry asses.”

Jac glanced over as the waitress came back, hips swaying, and a tray of drinks balanced a precariously. “Here we are, boys. One Dumbapple Cider,” a mug placed before Connally, “Chocobo Warbler,” a tall glass containing a vivid yellow drink before Jac, “Junon Brand Whiskey,” a bottle before Gibbs, “and three Summons.” The last three glasses, narrow necked with a wide bowl that contained a bright red liquid and a single cherry, stem still attached, were placed before Edge, Sparo, and Cloud. “If you need anything else....”

Jac watched her sashay away with a grin then turned back to the others. “So, uh, Cloud...what's the story on you moving up in the world?"

Cloud sipped at his drink, sighing at the strong aftertaste the Summons always left behind. He preferred the smoother taste of the Support, but obviously Edge and Sparo were determined to get him to join their masculine posturing. "I'm not being promoted. It's more of a…special case."

"Hey, don't wimp out on us, Cloud!" Sparo complained, his empty glass already sitting before him accusingly. "Drink that down so we can move on. Bottle of Icicle Freezerburn and three shot glasses!" he roared over his shoulder. Cloud saw their waitress wave in acknowledgment before disappearing behind the bar again.

"If it ain't a promotion, what is it?" Edge demanded, thumping his own empty glass in front of him and eying Cloud's drink. Cloud took the hint, and tossed the rest of his drink down, humming at the alcoholic burn in the back of his throat.

"I'm staying with Zack for now. They…don't know what happened with the mako, yet," he said softly, trying to keep his voice from the rest of the patrons. It was probably a futile effort, with the way Edge and Sparo were already carrying on. The waitress stopped briefly by the table to drop off the frosted white bottle and shot glasses next to Edge's elbow.

"But you are okay, right?" Jac asked worriedly. He leaned over as if he could tell just by looking at Cloud. Even Edge paused from where he was pouring out the three shots, and waited for Cloud's response. Why they were so interested in Cloud's health when it should have been obvious, he didn't know. He supposed he had to remember that they were expecting his old, weak, trooper self.

"There were side effects," he replied shortly. Even though this time had been a more natural accident, Cloud didn't like talking about his mako encounters. It didn’t help that he was forced to basically lie, something he did more often than he liked, however necessary it was. "Nothing harmful, but it was decided I would remain under Zack's supervision for now."

“You're so lucky,” Connally said, though there was a small grin on his face to show he wasn't bothered by it. “Ever since SOLDIER 1st Class Hewley died, SOLDIER Fair is the one everyone really looks up to.”

“That's nothing,” Edge said after he downed his first shot. Sparo was already reaching for the bottle to pour them each another. “Did you hear about what he did in Wutai?”

Sparo snorted. “Who hasn't? I mean, that's pretty terrifying. Not just any man can do that....”

“Well,” Gibbs said. “Most people only focus on what Sephiroth did after he arrived in Wutai. They forget about what Fair did.”

Jac leaned forward looking interested. “What'd he do?”

“Wiped out an entire fortress on his own,” Edge replied, voice low as if this was something to be kept between them. “Everyone in it.”

Connally gave a low whistle, eyes wide. “That's something else.”

“He was only a Second at the time, too,” Sparo said cheerfully. He held the little shot glass with its clear liquid up in a silent sort of salute. Edge clanked his own glass against Sparo's. “To SOLDIER?”

“To SOLDIER.”

That Zack was capable of taking out an entire fortress of enemies did not surprise Cloud. It was the fact that Zack had actually done so that came as a shock. The always smiling, easy going attitude his friend had made it easy to forget that he was a SOLDIER 1st Class, and had earned that rank. Even so, Cloud couldn't bring himself to join in the toast, burdened with the knowledge of how far ShinRa's rot permeated in the program.

Cloud listened silently as the others gossiped, absently keeping up with the competing duo as they drank. It felt like he was hearing about a whole other world, or a slice out of history. In many ways it was exactly that. The only difference was that he was supposed to remember these events having happened, rather than constantly being surprised by the new information. Most of the pre-meteor history had been lost or deliberately forgotten. No one had wanted to remember how their once celebrated hero had nearly destroyed the world.

"Tell me about…SOLDIER Hewley," Cloud asked during a lull in the conversation. He was honestly curious about the man Zack spoke so highly of. "He was…important to Zack?"

"You're not telling me you never heard the rumors about that?" Jac asked, spilling some of his drink as he rocked forward in his chair.

"Maybe some of us don't credit unreliable gossip," Connally said firmly, taking a deep draught from his mug.

"There's believing it, then there's missing it entirely," Edge pointed out. He leaned forward, resting one arm on the table as he eyed Cloud up and down. "Got your head in the clouds or something, Cloud?" The table erupted into roars of laughter as Cloud rubbed his forehead at the tired joke. He had a feeling if they were already acting this out of control, it would only get worse as the night progressed.

“Hewley was Fair's mentor, his teacher.” Gibbs voice, low and gruff, cut into the quiet in the wake of the laughter. “Taught him most of what he knows, I guess. And Fair... Well, he never stopped believing in Hewley, did he?”

Sparo shook his head and toyed absently with his empty shot glass. “SOLDIER Hewley went missing during the mission that took Fort Tamblin. Just disappeared. All the rumors said he went to join Rhapsodos who'd deserted sometime earlier and taken an entire company of SOLDIER 2nds and 3rds with him.”

“ShinRa put out a bulletin that they were K.I.A,” Edge grumbled and made a grab for the bottle near Sparo's elbow. “But there were sightings all over the place. No one believed the bullshit about them being dead. They were traitors, but Fair apparently wouldn't hear any of it.”

“Stood by Hewley the entire time, preaching that he'd never turn his back on SOLDIER and his friends. I don't really think he would have either....Word is that he was all about his honor as a SOLDIER and as himself,” Gibbs added. “Most of the SOLDIERs talk of him pretty fondly. The General and Rhapsodos could inspire awe, but it's guys like Fair and Hewley that inspire loyalty.”

“And now the student has become the teacher,” Jac joked cheerfully. He tipped a cheeky grin in Cloud's direction.

“Let's just hope history doesn't repeat itself,” Gibbs grumbled. “I don't know what SOLDIER would do if it lost Fair too. The Director's a real good leader, but Fair's who everyone wants to be like these days. Fair and the General.”

“No one wants to be like ol' Genesis Rhapsodos though,” Edge said with fake sweetness in his voice.

Sparo snickered. “You mean you don't wanna prance around reciting LOVELESS all the time?”

“No thanks,” Edge said fervently, hand to his chest. “I'll leave the epic poetry to someone else.”

Cloud digested both the information and the drink, wishing he could feel the alcoholic buzz that was affecting his companions. It was really no wonder Zack hadn't wanted to talk about his mentor. The only parallel Cloud could compare the situation to was when he was forced to kill Sephiroth that first time, but Sephiroth had never been close to Cloud. He could only imagine how hard it had been for Zack to deal with the betrayal of the one who had taught him so much.

In many ways, Zack was still so much stronger than Cloud could ever hope to be. He was unsure if he'd be able to bring his sword against…against Zack, or Tifa, or any of his friends, if they were to take the same path as Sephiroth. He downed another shot, trying to push back the feeling of guilt that welled up at the thought of his failures. Others may want to be like Zack, but Cloud had gone even further, doing his friend a disservice in his attempt to carry on his legacy.

"Who's up for another round?" Edge rumbled, tipping the last few drops of the bottle into his shot glass. "I need something a bit stronger than this if we're going to get into fanboy rants about their favorite SOLDIER."

"You're just jealous because you don't have your own fanclub yet," Sparo said pointedly. He swiped the glass and downed the contents in one go. He smacked his lips, smirking at Edge's annoyed frown. "Come on, SOLDIER boy, I thought you were going to show me what you got."

“I'm surprised Fair doesn't have a fanclub yet,” Edge grumbled, then held up a hand. “Hey, three Junon Bombs over here!”

“It's only a matter of time,” Sparo said. “I'm willing to start taking bets.”

“Fifty gil on June,” Jac said immediately.

“I'll put thirty on September,” Connally said. The others chipped in with their own bets while Sparo wrote them down, having pulled a small notepad from a pocket.

“Wonder how long it'll take for Blondie here to get a fanclub,” Sparo drawled, his teeth bright against his dark skin as he grinned at Cloud.

“With you girls around he already has one,” Edge shot back as a rather violently red, yellow, and orange drink topped off with actual flames was set in front of him.

The flaming Junon Bomb tasted sweeter than Cloud had expected, which was countered by the violent alcoholic burn. It was much stronger than the shots he'd had, though with all the mako in his blood he might as well have been drinking water. Mako wasn't able to completely cancel out the affects of alcohol normally, but Cloud had touched the Lifestream itself. Tifa herself had lamented the numbing effect, though she didn't have the complete insensitivity to it that Cloud had. As Nibelheim kids they'd already had a high tolerance. The people there all brought up on the 'good brew', and no kid could resist the lure of the adult drink. Even so, Edge and Sparo kept ordering more and more colorful drinks, and Cloud was impressed with how well the trooper was keeping up with the Third. Soon enough, even Connally's face was flushed, and Edge and Sparo were only staying in their seats through what had to be pure stubbornness.

"Lesse…what haven't they had yet?" Jac asked, squinting blearily at the menu in front of him. Sparo swayed back and forth in his seat, a rather cross eyed glare focused in Edge's direction.

"I think they've had enough," Gibbs said, reaching out and plucking the menu from the trooper's hand. "And so have you. I am going to take great pleasure in knowing how much you all are going to be suffering tomorrow morning."

"Heeeey," Jac whined, trying to recover the stolen menu.

"I'm sorry about this, Cloud," Connally said, looking from the army of empty glasses on the table to Cloud. "I should have stopped them before it got out of hand. Are you okay?"

Cloud raised an eyebrow sardonically, and said, "I could have refused."

"You're okay, for a girly looking kid," Edge roared, pounding Cloud's back in drunken abandon. Cloud grunted, then sighed when the Third's hand went up to flag down the waitress yet again. "Let's go ahead and end this night, all or nothing. Cactaur Kickers all round!"

"Edge, I don't think—" Gibbs began, but was cut off by Jac's whoop of delight. The trooper pinwheeled his arms around, narrowly missing Gibbs' ear.

"Uh, I don't really drink the hard stuff," Connally protested, as Gibbs was distracted with keeping Jac in his seat.

"Don't be such a wimp. Don'tcha want to get into SOLDIER?" Sparo challenged, grin taking on a sharper edge. He'd stopped swaying, and was looking much more alert than he had a moment ago. Cloud wondered how much of it had been an act, or if the sobriety was the act itself.

He let his gaze wander around the bar, leaning back as the group argued loudly over the last drink, their patient waitress looking much more tired than she had at the beginning of the night. The bar had filled up as the evening crowd started trickling in, though Cloud noticed that some of the groups that had been in before them were still at their tables. The card game had grown to include half a dozen new players, and the two men were still hunched over their drinks at the next table over.

Now that he'd leaned back and Edge's bulk was out of his line of sight, Cloud had a good view of the two drinkers. All it took was a glance, and Cloud let out a heartfelt, yet quiet groan of dismay. The color was less visible in the bar's poor lighting, but the combination of the red head and the bald man across from him, both dressed in dark suits, could only mean that Reno and Rude were partaking in their favorite off-and-on duty activity.

At the table, the waitress had just finished putting six small glasses down, each filled with a clear liquid, and garnished with a leaf of mint. Cloud paid it no mind, just grabbed the glass and knocked all of its contents to the back of this throat, deeply wishing that the alcohol could affect him so he could forget, for a moment, about the Turks. He set the glass on the table, before becoming aware of all eyes on him. Even their waitress was looking at him, eyebrows at her hair line as she looked from the empty glass to his face.

"…What?" Cloud asked, thrown at the sudden interest.

"…Dude…you just….Cloud, you are the coolest!" Jac crowed, half throwing himself across the table to grab one of Cloud's hands in both of his. "You just downed a Kicker, a Kicker! In one gulp. And you're upright!" The drunken trooper laughed breathlessly.

"Watch it, fool," Sparo said, having rescued his own drink from Jac's sprawl. Cloud just stared in consternation at his trapped hand, unsure if he should try prying the Jac's grip off before he started kissing it.

"Uh…damn, Cloud. Are you sure you're okay?" Connally asked at his side.

"…Why do you keep asking that?" Cloud asked, frowning as Jac released his hand and was hauled back into his seat by a disgruntled Gibbs.

"That sobered me up something good," Edge said, laughing as he picked up his own drink. The Third took a small sip of his glass, slamming it down after a moment as his face contorted in reaction to the strong drink. "Damn! You must have a stomach lining of steel, Cloud! And no taste buds at all," he cried, pounding one hand against his chest as his face flushed bright red. "That's a real man's drink."

“Budge over,” a new voice said brightly, cutting in over the general murmur of the bar.

Connally looked up and nearly fell out of his seat in surprise. “SOLDIER Fair!” The sound of Zack's name had Cloud looking up in surprise to see his friend edging around Connally, followed by another man in a 2nd Class uniform who bore two chairs snatched from nearby tables. Zack's hair was more wild than usual, and even through the scent of alcohol and cigarette smoke in the atmosphere Cloud could smell the ozone taint of thunder magic. Grabbing the chair offered by the Second, Zack spun it around and straddled it.

“Just Zack is fine. Nice to see you all again,” he said breezily, then turned to Cloud with a put upon frown. “I see how it is. I'm off saving people from horrible feathery doom and you go out to party without even leaving me an invitation!”

Across the table Jac laughed even as they shifted around so the Second could join them. “Don't be too hard on him, sir—uh, Zack.... We might have kidnapped him.”

“Just a little,” Edge grunted.

Zack reached over and snagged the drink that Connally had left abandoned, considered it for a moment, then knocked it back. A slight coughing fit had him leaning forward against the back of his chair. “Holy...” Zack wheezed. Connally thumped him on the back, and Edge and Sparo broke into guffaws. “Cactuar Kicker? Almost as bad as that moonshine the crazy old man back in Gongaga used to make.”

“Yeah?” Sparo asked leaning forward, eyes bright and glassy with intoxication and curiosity.

Zack winked cheekily. “Tasted like old socks, smelled like a Marlboro, and could lay you out like a Behemoth.”

"Why is it that the best spirits all taste like crap?" Edge asked, taking another ginger sip of his own drink. "Keh! Course, this stuff burns your taste buds right off anyway, so I suppose it doesn't matter."

"You're the one who ordered it," Gibbs said snidely, taking Jac's drink and moving it across to the Second who touched his forehead in a brief, good natured salute. "Here. We don't really need a case of alcohol poisoning on our hands."

"You know, I'm not a kid," Jac complained, staring after the drink longingly, though he didn't make a grab for it.

"Um…Cloud might have had a bit too much to drink too, uh, Zack," Connally said hesitantly. "They kind of conned him into a drinking contest."

"…I'm still sitting right here, you know," Cloud mumbled under his breath, wondering at the trooper's odd desire to mother Cloud over every little thing. It wasn't that he minded, too used to Tifa's own brand of worry, but it was bizarre for a near stranger to be so concerned over him. Perhaps it was because Cloud had been in Connally's troop.

"Geeze, we have two mother hens now," Edge complained, sneering across at Connally. "I thought Gibbs was bad. Let the kid have a good time for once! Don't you think he deserves it?"

“He looks fine to me,” Zack said after giving Cloud a critical look. “Either he can hold his liquor real well, is good at not showing it, or he's been tricking the lot of you the entire time.”

“He's not even swaying,” the Second pointed out, “and they were already going at it pretty well when I got here.”

Zack grinned and reached over to rest a hand on top of Cloud's head before he lifted it to signal for a drink. “I'll have a bottle of Midgar Brew!” While he waited, he turned back to Cloud. “That reminds me...Cloud, this is my buddy Luxiere. Luxiere, this is Cloud. He's sort of an honorary SOLDIER.”

Luxiere extended his hand across the table to shake Cloud's, while Gibbs chuckled. “Honorary SOLDIER, huh? I just hope the desperate ones don't get wind of this and start tossing themselves in vats of mako.”

“I doubt they'd survive,” Edge scoffed. “Cloud's just got so much bad luck it came out good.”

Zack accepted his drink from the waitress with a grin and wink that made her flush, though he didn't appear to notice. He had already turned back to Cloud. Jac leaned back to watch her walk away and sighed. “You think she'd give me her number if I asked?” the trooper asked wistfully.

“With Zack here she's probably forgotten you exist,” Sparo said. His words tumbled together a little more than usual.

Jac sent Zack a soulful look. “You've already got a girl, too. It's just not fair.”

“Sure it is,” Zack said glibly, taking a swig of his drink.

“Zack...your sense of humor is terrible,” Luxiere groaned.

“That reminds me,” Zack carried on, ignoring the disbelieving looks he was getting for that one. “I see you're no longer playing babysitter, Cloud. How did Sephiroth take the news?” All attention was instantly riveted on Cloud, and he sighed inwardly at Zack's lack of tact. Connally had leaned forward so suddenly he'd knocked the table, spilling a few of the remaining drinks as their owners cursed and tried to save them.

"Wait wait wait, you got to talk to the General? Like…one on one?" Connally demanded, giving Cloud a look of such admiration that he shifted in his seat in embarrassment.

"So fucking awesome," Jac muttered in the background.

"It was only to drop off Viri. Not…whatever you're thinking," Cloud protested, holding his hands up harmlessly. He couldn't help but remember his last glimpse of the silver-haired man, and the gentle yet awkward way he'd held the chick. It had been so incongruous with Cloud's vision of Sephiroth, that it was nearly impossible for him to accept that it had really happened. Cloud ducked his chin behind his scarf to hide his frown of confusion.

"No…wait, no fucking way!" Sparo yelped, sitting back in his seat so suddenly the chair legs scraped loudly against the floor.

"What crawled up your ass?" Edge snapped, eying the boggling trooper.

"Cloud…and the General. Look at him!" Sparo spluttered, pointing a shaking finger at Cloud, who couldn't help but feel completely lost at the sudden turn of the conversation. Him and the General…what?

"You are drunk, and an idiot," Gibbs stated calmly, reaching around Jac to whack Sparo none-too-gently upside the head. The trooper yelped, but his shoulders were still shaking with his own private mirth. Cloud looked in confusion between the two, sending Zack a desperate, puzzled look and hoping his friend had a better idea what was going on than he did.

Zack blinked over the top of his bottle at Sparo, then sent a sidelong look at Cloud. He stared for a second, then choked, nearly spitting his drink over the table. Cloud could only watch as Zack wheezed in an obvious attempt to cough up a lung, choke, and laugh all at once. When Zacklooked back up at Cloud , who only felt more bewildered, Zack's laughter just redoubled. “Cloud...” Zack choked, “and...and...” He coughed again, took a deep breath. After a few more choked, near silent laughs, he managed to compose his face into a look of solemnity. It made Cloud inexplicably wary. Zack looked gravely at him, eyes soulful, and asked, “You're cheating on me?”

For a moment all Cloud could do was look at Zack in incomprehension, before he finally caught on to what Sparo had implied. His face flushed in complete mortification, before he paled just as quickly, leaving him light headed and ashamed. The impossibility of that maddened gaze and taunting smile was over laid by the more recent image of Sephiroth protecting the chick from Heidegger's petty attack, and again that awkward moment that Cloud wished he could unsee, just so it would stop haunting his memories. Cloud couldn't separate the madman of his past with this enigma of his present.

Sparo lost it first, collapsing forward against the table in a fit of laughter while the rest of them seemed torn between laughing and just hauling the clearly drunk trooper off. “Sir,” Edge said sharply. “You're hardly one to talk.”

Zack sniffed. “That's a completely different matter. Aerith thinks he's cute too.”

Jac gave a snorting laugh. “I thought it was a secret from your girlfriend?”

“Oh, I introduced them today,” Zack said happily.

He was glad that Zack had drawn the center of attention to himself, giving Cloud a moment to recover from the shock of Sparo's not-so-innocent joke. It shouldn't have hit him so hard, but romance was another of the things that always seemed to go completely wrong in Cloud's life.

Tifa's sad brown eyes seemed to even follow him here, and it hurt that he couldn't give her what she wanted. Cloud swallowed down the lump at the memory of his childhood friend. It was only striking him now, that he would never see her again, not the same strong, gentle woman he'd left behind, who understood why Cloud could never settle down.

He could use her quiet perceptive presence now.

Zack's elbow caught Cloud's arm, drawing Cloud's attention to his friend again, and it struck him, suddenly, how young Zack really looked. He felt lost again, and the almost warm feeling of acceptance he'd felt hanging out with the other soldiers had vanished completely. All he wanted to do was run away.

Beside him Zack straightened from his slouched position straddling the chair and lifted his hands over his head with a groan. “Well, you gossiping girls have fun. I think Cloud and I will go find something to eat, then get home. Man...we totally forgot to get lunch today,” Zack said sorrowfully. Standing up he fished out a random amount of gil and tossed it down on the table to help pay for the drinks.

“Will you be up tomorrow, Zack?” Luxiere asked.

“Yeah, I think I'll be up to check out the mission board and then Cloud and I can go out and see just how well he handles that sword."

Cloud couldn't have been more glad that Zack had made their excuses. He wasn't up for humoring the odd crew anymore, however nice they had been. The fatigue from earlier had returned, leaving his head buzzing and his eyes burning. He stood up to follow Zack around the table only to be stopped by Edge's hand clapping on his wrist.

"Hey, you weren't thinking of running away and making us hard working SOLDIERs pay for your drinks, were you Cloud?" the Third demanded, though he had a half drunken smile on his face and didn't seem particularly annoyed. Cloud freed his arm with a tug, frowning down at the SOLDIER.

"The only drink I ordered never came. I don't see what I have to pay for," he said simply. To his surprise, it was Gibbs that burst out laughing, pounding the table with his fist.

"That's right Cloud! You run along with Fair, and I'll make sure these louts pay up!" Gibbs waved them off, and Cloud was only too happy to follow Zack out.

The cool night air was soothing on Cloud's face after the claustrophobic press of people and tables. He kept his gaze on his feet, until Zack's hand tilted his head up, and then stared into his friend's blue eyes. The mako glow made them shine in the gloom. That glow was imperceptible unless only a few inches away. “You okay?” Zack asked after a moment. “You look a little pale. Sephiroth really wasn't that bad to deal with was he?”

"…I'm fine," Cloud said quietly, looking away as he uttered the half lie. "Nothing bad happened with Sephiroth." That was the point, though. Cloud was still expecting the man to fix him with that maddened gaze, expected his voice to turn into the seductive purr of menace he was so used to. Instead, he was forced to face the harsh truth that this time really was nothing like the future he'd left. He blinked, mulling that thought over again. It was so very different, that it was hard to conceive that the future Cloud knew would stem from it. Maybe…maybe it wasn't such a hopeless quest, to think that Cloud would be able to change things for the better.

Cloud looked back into Zack's eyes a little more confidently. "I'm fine Zack. Really. Thanks…" he trailed off, unsure how to express this gratitude for everything Zack had done for him up until now.

Zack slung an arm over Cloud's shoulders and started tugging him off down the street. “You don't have to thank me for anything,” Zack said. “You just trying to help Sephiroth when.... Well, anyway, that's thanks enough for me, and I almost feel like I should be thanking you.” He stopped to look down at Cloud again, smile bright and eyes alight with amusement. “You're a great guy, Cloud. I don't know about how things went in your past, or anything, and I might not be the same person who saved your life that time, but...I'm glad we're friends.”

Cloud couldn't hold Zack's gaze for long, his words feeling both heavy as lead and light as air. It was nice, so very nice to hear such praise from Zack, to know that those flashes of memory and half deluded fantasy were real. That Zack could still forgive him and call him friend, even when he knew that Cloud had been the death of him. Cloud had believed it, when he'd seen Zack vanish with Aerith back into the Lifestream, but hearing it from the living, breathing man made all the difference.

“Now,” Zack said, voice mockingly serious. “The big question is...what do you want for supper?” The thought of food wasn't particularly appealing to Cloud. His eating habits had never been very good, and were nearly non-existent once he'd spent so much time on his own without Tifa guilting him into a meal or two. Since Nibelheim, in fact, Cloud had really only eaten regularly when others were around to force him to. One look at Zack's face told him that this was another such case.

"…It doesn't matter to me," he said, the weight and warmth of Zack's arm across his shoulder both comforting and unnerving.

Things were so different now. The guilt and longing Cloud associated with Zack and Aerith was being alleviated by their presence, yet at the same time the strangeness of the situation left Cloud feeling more lost than ever. He was not used to prolonged exposure to people, but he wanted to stay close to Zack, to reassure himself that this was real and not another hallucination brought on by fatigue, guilt, and his own mind's delusions. Slowly, though, Cloud was coming to accept that this wasn't a trick of the mind. It was easy to recognize that he'd been sent to the past, but another thing to accept and believe it. Cloud's mind was not the most reliable of places, after all.

The most confusing part of this whole fiasco was Sephiroth. It always came back to the silver-haired man in the end. Cloud could deal with the little incongruities of Zack, who was so much more than the man who had sacrificed so much for him, and he could understand the differences in Aerith, who still had so many years to grow into the self-confident woman he remembered. What made him cringe with both shame and defiance was how unbelievable the differences in Sephiroth were. The man had been the chief instigator of the torment Cloud had suffered for many years, and Cloud didn't want to try to forgive him. But despite Zack's request, he could see that there was something there, something that was both great and sad in a powerful, lonely man. Those long ago feelings of admiration for the General had stirred, and Cloud was more confused than he'd ever been before.

“Alright then,” Zack said, pumping a fist in the air as if they were off to conquer the world rather than just getting something to eat. “I know this great little Wutai place.... Well it's not authentic Wutai, you know, but the food is really good. I never got to eat the real stuff when I was in Wutai during the war. Things were too crazy. First there was storming Fort Tamblin, then I nearly got killed by their big ol' Anti-SOLDIER beasts, and then I nearly got killed by Ifrit, and Angeal disappeared....” Zack fell abruptly silent, jovial expression melting away into a seriously thoughtful one. “You know, it's crazy, isn't it? I left home, determined to be a SOLDIER, and I made it...and all I wanted was to be First Class, be a hero...” There was a long pause, and Cloud didn't think he was ever going to continue.

“Well,” Zack said at last, voice jovial but with an odd note. “I can honestly say I never expected for things to turn out like this.” Ahead of them a little place tucked in among the buildings came into view. A bright lit neon sign announced the name. The door stood open, inviting, and carrying the faint scent of food from within that changed the metallic taint of Midgar's air to something a little nicer. Zack released Cloud and strode toward the little restaurant, Cloud following a few steps behind.

"But…you made it. You did succeed," Cloud said quietly. He knew his awkward reassurances probably didn't mean much, but he felt responsible in a way for Zack's dreams. It had been his fault in the future that Zack wasn't alive to follow them himself, and Cloud had failed in trying to fulfill them on his own. As if realizing that wasn't enough, he added hesitantly, "And I'm sure Aerith thinks you're a hero."

Things had not turned out like Cloud had expected either. When he'd thought of the future at all, he'd imagined a world where things were better, more peaceful. The reality of the years after Meteor had been that forgiveness was hard to find, and Geostigma ate away at people's hope. Then at the moment of redemption, where the future seemed less dark and once again held possibilities, Cloud found himself at the start of it all instead. In some ways, it was hard to swallow, that all of the suffering Cloud went through meant nothing now, but if it was possible to prevent that sadness then Cloud would give himself over as many times as it took.

"Do you ever regret it?" The question was out of Cloud's mouth before he could censor it, but he barely noticed, caught up in his own memories. The chance to do things right was a heavy burden. He was used to the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it was in some ways worse, knowing what could happen if he failed again.

Zack paused in the little recessed niche by the open door. From inside there came the sound of conversation. The smell of food was strong enough here that the stench of pollution was overridden. Zack hovered there, looking at Cloud and obviously contemplating the question. His face no longer wore his usual smile, though it didn't have a frown either. It was completely neutral. A couple of people ran by, one calling after the other about how they were going to be late, and a pair of ShinRa's security force on the distant corner turned to look their way briefly. Finally, Zack said, “You know, regret is a funny thing.

“Do I regret the friends I made, the people I've met? Absolutely not.” Zack looked toward the distant, omnipresent building that loomed over the plate even in its half complete state. “Do I regret some of the things I've done? The people I've lost? Yeah, I guess I do. But...I can't really regret it all, you know? If things hadn't happened the way they did, what if I wasn't here? What if I never met Aerith, or you, or Angeal, even Tseng, Sephiroth...all of my friends. I regret...” he stopped, for a moment, looking just a little pained. “We all have our regrets, but I'm not going to let them rule my life, and you shouldn't either, Cloud. This is our chance.... Second chance, first chance, a million chances over...it's a chance to make things right, and I'm not going to regret that. Not ever.”

Zack had a way of putting things into perspective that Cloud had lost. Even his friends had never been able to express it so eloquently. There was always talk about how those lost would never blame those who survived, and how things were in the past and it was time to move on. Being thankful of the people you met, and the experiences good and bad, was almost an alien concept to Cloud. It was the 'what ifs' he contemplated in a more positive light.

What made Cloud flush in embarrassed pleasure was how easily Zack included himself into the whole mess. It wasn't in Zack's nature to leave things be, yet somehow it was still surprising that he was willing to go so far for an almost stranger, however fondly Cloud thought of him. It reminded him of how good a soul Zack had, and what was at stake. There was no way he'd ever be able to put into words how grateful he was in that moment for Zack's support, and Cloud knew his friend would brush it off as if it was the obvious thing to do. He wished he could think of something eloquent to say in response to Zack's heartfelt words, but his throat felt tight and his mouth was too dry to form words. In some ways it hurt to see Zack so serious, with that unexpected sadness lurking behind his eyes, yet it also reassured Cloud that this was real.

"I can't forget, but…I don't regret it either," he finally said, and realized he really meant it. Cloud couldn't change what had happened to him, but he could try to make sure that his loved ones didn't have to suffer this time around.

Zack gave him a brilliant smile that made Cloud flush again, somehow knowing his friend approved of his words. He couldn't help but give a small smile back. Before anything else could be said the quiet moment was broken as Zack's stomach gave an audible growl. “I'm starving,” Zack groaned in between merry laughs. “Those Griffins had me chasing them all over the construction zone of Sector 3. I think I nearly toppled off the plate again to get the last one, and I don't think I'm lucky enough to find another lovely girl to save my life.”

Cloud followed Zack into the restaurant, listening as his friend ordered a wide variety of dishes from Razor Weed stir fry, to Adamantaimai soup, to the Behemoth bowl. Some were dishes that Cloud recognized, from the infrequent visits to Wutai on Yuffie's behest, but others sounded even more exotic than the usual Wutai fare. Bizarre Bug on noodles? He hoped it was merely fanciful description, and not indicative of what was actually in the meal.

The pair left the diner laden with more food than Cloud thought either of them would be able to finish, despite Zack's cheerful assurances. The night had well and truly set in by then, and the walk back to Zack's apartment was lit only with the buzzing orange street lamps that cast circles of illumination under their metal perches and Midgar's mako-tinted ambiance. Once inside, Cloud stood awkwardly in the entrance way for a moment, feeling like he was trespassing on his friend's territory despite knowing better.

The chill of the night air was mitigated in the apartment, though the heating wasn't on particularly high despite the winter month. Zack sauntered into the room and dropped the bag he was carrying on the messy table, then headed toward the weapon's rack on the wall. Just as with the night before, he pulled the Buster Sword from his back and set it reverently in the space clearly meant for it, lingering. Cloud set his own bag of food on the table, before detouring to his room to drop his sword off, stripping off his boots and scarf as well.

When he re-entered the living room, Zack immediately began talking, though he didn't appear to require any response from Cloud. Cloud had noticed Zack's habit of filling the silences with chatter about whatever came to mind. He didn't mind, as far too often when he was left to his own thoughts they would take a darker turn. “You can sit down you know.” Zack pointed out at the space next to him on the couch. “No one is going to care you if you sit down, relax, and eat. I'm certainly not.”

Zack leaned forward and began pulling containers out of one bag and placing them at random. Occasionally he'd stop to move some papers out of the way so they wouldn't get ruined. Then he pulled the drinks they'd stopped to get; the brightly colored cans had an image of a Moogle mid pirouette balancing three stars of varying size and color on one paw. Above it was emblazoned the name MogCola.

“I've been thinking,” Zack said slowly. “That tomorrow you and I ought to see if there are any missions just outside of Midgar that way we can go out and let you test your skills on. So you can get a feel for things, make sure you're not tripping over yourself. Oh, good, she remembered I'm terrible with chopsticks!” The last bit was clearly not directed at Cloud as Zack triumphantly brandished a couple plastic forks along with a set of simple wooden chopsticks.

Getting out from Midgar for a while sounded nice. The city was still foul with pollution in this past time, a circumstance Cloud had not missed. Edge had survived on the outskirts of the desolate soil of Midgar, but it would take hundreds of years for the place to recover from ShinRa's raping of the Lifestream. He wondered what would happen this time, when Meteor did not destroy the industrial monolith's headquarters. Would ShinRa continue sucking the Planet dry, until Midgar was the center of even more desolation? Or would AVALANCHE succeed in its self-proclaimed mission to save the Planet?

Cloud was poking unenthusiastically at a box of Razor Weed stir fry when Zack's phone distracted the other man, but he only looked up when Zack started laughing out loud.

“Uh oh." Setting aside the utensils he was still holding, Zack sunk back into the sofa. “One of our sources has reported that the Sephiroth has recently acquired a pet. What sort of creature would the enigmatic Sephiroth have? It appears he would choose, of all things, a chocobo! Other reports indicate that Sephiroth was seen around the ShinRa building and the Sector 1 train station with a tiny chocobo chick at his heels. It comes as no surprise that someone like Sephiroth would have such a striking and rare black chocobo for a pet! For a fanclub, the Silver Elite are pretty fast, aren't they?"

Cloud knew his face must have been a picture of disbelief as he listened to the contents of the message. Though the other guys had mentioned fanclubs earlier in the bar, Cloud hadn't taken it seriously.

“I wonder,” Zack mused, “how long it will take for little stuffed Viri's to show up on the market. Maybe I'll get one for Aerith. She seemed really taken with him...” Shaking his head, Zack turned to Cloud, eyes wide with mischief. "I bet the looks on the faces of your new buddies from the slums were great when Sephiroth showed up to oversee the delivery himself."

"Sephiroth went…" he trailed off, surprised again that the silver-haired man appeared to be taking such an interest in his newly acquired shadow. "I thought Lazard was supposed to take care of it?" Not that it mattered much. At least they'd be assured that the slum gang would never cheat them out of a single green after the personal visit from the General. Cloud felt his mouth quirk in a reluctant grin at the image. He could admit that Sephiroth was a very intimidating presence.

“Lazard probably told him that pets aren't part of the SOLDIER budget and he'd have to take care of it himself if Sephiroth even bothered to see him about it.” Zack was silent for a while as he dug into his meal with gusto, and Cloud did likewise.

“Speaking of mothers,” Zack said, and it took a moment for Cloud to make any sort of connection with the previous topic. “I should probably write mine soon. I can't remember the last time I sent her a letter, and she's always complaining that I don't contact them enough.” He reached for his drink, and paused with it halfway to his mouth to send Cloud a curious stare. “I remember you said you were from Nibelheim before...er, before Mideel. And you said that Nibelheim was destroyed in the future but.... What about your family? They're okay now, aren't they?”

Cloud froze with his fork in his mouth, staring at Zack in bewilderment. That was true, wasn't it? Nibelheim was still standing, and his mother was alive and well. He swallowed down his mouthful with difficulty, throat tight and his heart beating faster than normal. It had hurt when he'd lost her to Sephiroth, but there had been so many other things that caused him pain that day that her loss had been absorbed into the black terror that Nibelheim's memory inspired.

Zack grimaced slightly and hurried on asking, “What's Nibelheim like? Other than being just a backwater town with nothing but a reactor around?”

"Nibelheim…is not something I like talking about," Cloud said, not looking at Zack. He knew Zack had meant what his town had been like growing up, but there was too many bad memories surrounding that place for Cloud to ever think fondly of it. His childhood hadn't been particularly pleasant, and was hardly worth mentioning. "But…you're right. My mother…is alive…" he trailed off, trying to wrap his mind around that simple fact.

Seeing Zack and Aerith alive and well had almost been expected. Cloud had agonized over their deaths for so long, had glimpses of Aerith from the Lifestream, that it always seemed like they were right there with him. But his mother…it had been so long since he'd allowed himself to think of her.

He'd been a spoiled child, allowed to run around freely and resentful of any interference she tried to impose on him. When Cloud had run off to join the army, he hadn't considered her feelings past informing her of his plans. Despite all that had happened, Cloud could still remember her moment of shocked silence when he'd told her, before his mother had wiped her hands calmly on her apron as wished him luck. She was a comforting presence, but even alive she'd almost been like a ghost to him, visible but not close.

Cloud regretted that now. How much he must have hurt her, leaving her alone like he had to pursue a selfish, and ultimately tragic, dream. But what could he say to her? He was not her child any longer, too changed with the trials he'd faced. Would she even recognize him? Cloud hardly felt anything like the teenager he was supposed to be right now, even though he knew logically he still looked like himself.

“Maybe you should contact her,” Zack offered softly.

"What…I don't know what I'd say to her. I'm not…not really her son, after all. Not like she thinks." Cloud could only stare at the food in his lap, his appetite completely gone.

A knock at the door startled Cloud, and he snapped his head around as he realized the buzzing in his head was not a reaction to his racing thoughts. For a moment he entertained the impulse to tell Zack not to answer the door, knowing who was on the other side. Cloud squashed that feeling as soon as he thought it, aware it was petty. Before he could make a break for the relative safety of his room, Zack had opened the door, and Sephiroth stepped into the room. His eyes immediately locked on Cloud, who tried desperately to avoid that gaze by focusing on the chick in the man's hands. Viri was a ball of misery, fluff drooping and soulful eyes focused on Cloud much like his owner's were.

“Uh, hey, Sephiroth. Did you need something?” Zack asked, sounding completely baffled.

“I admit that I am not entirely sure what to do with him,” Sephiroth said after a lengthy pause. “I found relatively few books on the subject of chocobos, and almost none of them had information on caring for the young other than what Cloud imparted himself. The fact that the chocobo must stay with its parents, and more importantly, the one it perceives as its mother.” Cloud frowned slightly at Sephiroth's words, knowing there would be no getting away from him until Viri was taken care of.

"Have you fed him, sir?" he asked quietly, setting his own food aside as he stood up. Every step forward felt like there was a lead weight tied to each leg, but Cloud managed to remain calm as he approached Sephiroth, holding out his hands for the chick.

"I put out food for him, but he didn't eat it."

The moment his hands brushed Sephiroth's, Cloud realized he'd made a mistake. The cells inside Cloud reacted to the contact, making every hair stand on end as the familiar pull of the Reunion teased at his mind. He felt like he was drowning, his senses suddenly completely overtaken by the sheer presence of the man in front of him. Cloud jerked back, one hand clutching his head as he clenched his teeth against a cry. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth when he bit his cheek.

Viri had let out a terrified warble, falling from the pair's hands and diving under the nearest piece of furniture. His down poofed out, he sat there trembling under the chair in a huddle.

Cloud's heart was pounding in his ears, so loudly that he was unable to hear Zack's worried voice. He stood, half frozen with terror and adrenaline as the rush of the connection tingled against his skin. He was aware of Sephiroth still standing over him, and a wash of emotions he could not name left him feeling lightheaded. It was unlike the previous possession Cloud had experienced, where Sephiroth drove him to commit unforgivable acts.

“You...what....” Sephiroth's voice caused Cloud to snap his head up, caught again in the cat-like green eyes as the silver-haired man failed to articulate his thoughts. He tried to pull himself together; Sephiroth wasn't about to attack him…except that there was a frightening possibility he was. Cloud hadn't thought of the possible ramifications his presence as a failed clone would have on Sephiroth. What if it drove him over the edge, the same way Jenova's honeyed lies had?

“Cloud! Sephiroth? Are you two alright?” Zack's agitated voice filtered in as if through water. Sephiroth broke eye contact first, stepping away to be intercepted by Zack. “Sephiroth–”

“I apologize for my intrusion, I should get back to–”

“Oh no you don't,” Zack snapped. “You both look like you just saw a ghost, and I don't need someone coming up with the story that I'm trying to assassinate ShinRa's star SOLDIER if you collapse in the middle of the court yard. Both of you need to sit down.”

Cloud gasped in a short, quick breath, and shivered at the sudden loss of the overpowering sensation. It was always so hard to fight Sephiroth's control. The man seemed to know how to slip through Cloud's defenses, rip his weaknesses apart and throw him into despair. Despite the fact that nothing of the sort had happened in the minor contact, Cloud was more terrified than ever of this new-old world. Would this Sephiroth, too, try to destroy everything he held dear?

In the moments of distraction as Zack tried to settle them both, Cloud brought himself back under control, unwilling to give away anything more while in Sephiroth's presence. He wracked his brain for an explanation that would satisfy—anything to keep Sephiroth's curiosity from focusing on Cloud's oddities. The irony that contact with Sephiroth nearly eradicated Jenova's mental buzz wasn't lost on Cloud, though, as the annoying feeling had all but vanished. That at least was reassuring; Cloud had been worried that Jenova, supposedly still halfway across the world in Nibelheim, had that much influence here. Somewhere behind him, he could hear Zack instructing Sephiroth on how to feed Viri.

“Cloud? You okay, buddy?” Cloud nearly startled at the sound of Zack's voice so close. He hadn't noticed Zack move toward him in his distraction.

Keeping his face carefully blank, Cloud said, "I'm okay, Zack. It…was probably a leftover reaction from the mako."

He didn't dare look over to the couch where Sephiroth sat, Viri's chirps of complaint settling down into contented coos as the man worked his way through the greens. All Cloud wanted to do was get as far away from Sephiroth as he could, but that would only lead to more questions. The best solution was to get Sephiroth what he needed to care for Viri and get him out of there as soon as possible.

"The…Viri needs…I'll write down some…instructions or something," he mumbled, then turned and strode into his room. It was the best Cloud could do for now, to put some distance between him and Sephiroth. He lingered as long as he dared, staring down at his neat handwriting with empty eyes. Cloud's delivery service had forced him to develop the skill, Tifa watching over him like a hawk at first. 'It reflects badly on your service if your presentation is poor' she'd told him.

What happened? It had been so long since Cloud felt such a strong pull toward Sephiroth. He'd thought he'd brought that under control, that defeating Sephiroth had weakened the man's hold over Cloud's mind. He shuddered again at the memory of that overwhelming feeling. The last time Cloud had let Sephiroth in too deeply, Aerith had….

Swallowing a lump in his throat, Cloud ripped the pages out of the notepad he'd found in the desk drawer. He steeled himself, and promised that next time he wouldn't be caught so unaware by the man. Cloud had let his guard down, because of how sane Sephiroth seemed. He couldn't let that happen, no matter what Zack thought. Reluctantly, Cloud returned to the living room where the two SOLDIERs waited.

They both looked up at Cloud's return, and Sephiroth stood immediately. Cloud helpd out the slip of paper, and Sephiroth took it almost, then inclined his head to Cloud. That cool gaze raked over him once more both curious and distant. “Thank you.”

Without another word, Sephiroth showed himself out as quickly as he'd come. The following silence was broken only by Zack's sigh. Cloud wanted to sigh in relief too, but somehow felt that would be unkind despite the situation. It really wasn't Sephiroth's fault there was such a strong reaction between them. If Cloud should blame anyone, it would be Hojo.

It didn't stop Cloud from looking down at his hand, from rubbing his fingers together in memory of the sensation. He'd been braced for a repeat, but Sephiroth had been as careful as Cloud. Nothing had come of it, not even a return of Jenova's thrum against his mind. The emptiness was almost as jarring as the initial contact.

“Well,” Zack said. “That was interesting. I don't think I've ever seen him so expressive. He looked at you like you were both his saving grace and the most terrifying thing he'd ever seen. I think you spooked him real good....” Zack looked as spooked as Cloud felt, though Cloud had no idea why. Zack's words sunk into Cloud's mind, but he hardly had the energy to respond. Sephiroth's saving grace? Perhaps, but Cloud's goal was and would always be to protect his friends. If that meant saving Sephiroth too, he would do it, but he would never put the silver-haired man first.

Zack moved back to the sofa, slumped down, and fished the remote from the cushions. The flickering glow of the television lit up the walls, and Cloud contemplated retreating to his room and locking the world out for a while. He could tell Zack was worried even if his friend refused to pry any deeper than he already had. After a moment, Cloud walked hesitantly back to the couch, picked up his abandoned food as an excuse, and busied himself with eating it to avoid his friend's gaze.

He had, after all, promised Tifa that he would stop running away.


 

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

 

Chapter Text


Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 08 – Crisis of Celebration

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 22nd)


 

The day had been spent clearing out a minor infestation of Grashtrikes in the slums of Sector 7.  Zack had born witness to the mildly amusing scene of Cloud stopping to stare, baffled, at an empty lot until Zack had coaxed him back into the hunt for the annoying little insects. Zack hadn't pried into why Cloud had looked so lost in Sector 7.  He was doing his best not to let his less than tactful questions slip out in difference to his friend, particularly after that time he'd mentioned Nibelheim.  Zack wasn't sure how well he was doing on that front, but hoped he was passing muster.

The mission wasn't difficult, but the Grashtrikes along with several Hedgehog Pies were enough to be a bother to the public and wind up on the mission board. There had even been a couple of Kalm Fangs that had come in all the way from the grasslands looking, no doubt, for easy pickings among the poor of Midgar. The wolf-like creatures had had some poor soul cornered, but between Zack and Cloud they'd been brought down without any real fuss.

Other than that, Zack had been happy to spend the mission letting Cloud stretch his proverbial legs while he stood back to watch. It was simple missions like this that were good enough to keep people from getting curious about Cloud. Zack knew it would only lead to trouble for both of them if people thought Zack was taking Cloud out on things that were too far beyond his new student's supposed skill level. Zack just figured he had the easiest teaching job ever, and hoped he didn't get rusty. 

Now, the pair were loitering just at the base of the train platform, and Zack wasn't quite ready to head back up. He shifted restlessly in place, his boots scuffing against the ground. Cloud didn't seem too eager to return to the rather festive city yet, either.

They hadn't seen nor heard from Sephiroth since That Incident. A part of Zack wanted to hunt the man down and make sure something weird hadn't happened.  There was also a part of Zack, the fussy worrywort part, that wanted to ask Sephiroth how the plans they'd made on the way back to Midgar from Junon were progressing.  Plans that, if all went well, would keep Cloud out of the hands of nosy types.  For now, at least.  He was still surprised that Sephiroth had been willing to entertain the idea at all, but Zack wasn't the type to question good luck, even if he did question motive.  For all Zack knew, Sephiroth's motive could be as simple as the fact that he didn't like scientist's anymore than Cloud did and wanted to spite them.  Solidarity in dislike of medical procedures?  Zack had seen weirder things!

Zack supposed he should just bet on the No News Is Good News saying and try to keep his mind off things. Sephiroth could take care of himself and handle what needed to be done.  Word from Kunsel was that Sephiroth had locked himself up in research again, but was seen more frequently than before with a rather content, if not slightly demanding, chocobo chick at his heels. It was a thought that made Zack smile. At least Sephiroth wasn't completely alone up there, even if he wasn't sure what good Viri could do for the man.

Turning on his heel Zack moved toward where Cloud sat on the steps of the platform.  Cloud looked an odd mixture of lost and sulky with his hands dangling between his knees, and his eyes down turned. Zack dropped down beside him on the steps, legs stretched out before him. The cold of the concrete bit at his skin through his pants, but Zack wasn't bothered enough to move.

“Hey, Cloud?”  Zack lolled his head to the side to look at Cloud, and crossed his ankles one over the other. “I've been doing a lot of thinking lately....” He paused, not quite sure how to broach the subject. How did one bring up the terrifying certainty of their own mortality? Zack didn't doubt the fact that Cloud had faced situations where he could die, but there was a difference between that and learning that you could very well be dead in the near future because it had happened before. It certainly brought home the fact that he could die a great deal faster than any near death situation in a battle ever had. Zack sort of missed the feeling of invincibility he'd had in the past. “This sounds kind of silly,” he said, almost apologetically, “but I made this promise to Aerith when we first met.... You see, Aerith told me that she's afraid of the sky, and I promised that one day I'd go with her to see it so she wouldn't have to be afraid.”

Zack let his voice trail off, and crossed his arms over his chest self consciously. He didn't want to admit that he was afraid that he'd die before he got to keep that promise, that he would leave her to face that fear alone. Sitting up he turned to Cloud and clapped his hands together pleadingly. “Look, I was hoping...you think you could come with me and see if we can get her to come up to the plate with us? You'd help out a friend in need, wouldn't you, Cloud?”

He made sure to give Cloud his best puppy eyes, and you-can't-say-no-smile just in case Cloud could say no to a friend in need. “Please? I mean, I'm sure I could do just fine on my own with her, but maybe she'd feel better if we were both there for her, you know? Just in case something happens?” And, okay, so maybe he kind of wanted the moral support too. He'd never forgive himself it Aerith's first trip up to the plate wound up in disaster.

"It's fine Zack.  I…would like to come," Cloud said, turning his gaze back down to stare at his hands.  Without giving Cloud a chance to escape, Zack lunged across the small distance between them and threw his arms around Cloud's shoulders, careful to avoid the longsword his friend was carrying. One hand squeezed Cloud's nearest shoulder, while Zack hugged him with the other.

“I love you, man! You're the best! Almost as awesome as Angeal, who I'm pretty sure would tell me that he wasn't interested in helping me with my love life.” Thinking of Angeal was hurting less and less all the time, though he still felt a cloying pang when he said it. Cloud helped just by being here. Zack had a lot of friends, and tended to claim people as a friend easily and without compunction, but Cloud was somehow different. Sometimes Zack felt like Cloud was the one they ought to be calling the teacher, though at other times Cloud looked like such a lost little boy that Zack just wanted to ask him what he could do to help, anything at all. He was such a conundrum, but Zack liked to think it was part of Cloud's weird little charm.

Letting Cloud go, Zack bounced to his feet and held a fist up triumphantly. “This will be great. It's the perfect time too with the Festival in full swing. I think Aerith will really like it, and we can take some of her flowers along to give selling them a shot. When she sees how well they do I know she'll be real happy.” Zack turned on his heel and beamed down at Cloud. “What are we waiting for? Let's go see if she's busy!”  Zack held out his hand to Cloud to help him up.  Cloud hesitated briefly before accepting, and Zack hauled him up easily.  “Thanks, Cloud.”

Cloud waited silently while Zack collected Buster Sword from where he'd left it, resting against the steps nearby.

Zack didn't say that this meant a lot to him, but the sentiment was there.  Even if Cloud might not understand why something so simple would mean so much to Zack. In the end, Zack didn't care if he understood or not, all that mattered to him was that Cloud was willing to help him. Not many people would in this sort of situation, which, Zack realized, probably had the possibility to be awkward for Cloud. They were, after all, something like ghosts for him, and dating ghosts on top of that. He sincerely hoped he never made Cloud feel like a third wheel.  It wasn't Zack's intention, and he enjoyed having him around. He knew Aerith liked having Cloud visit as well, and if he and Aerith wanted a date to themselves they were all mature enough to make it clear, and probably have no hurt feelings over it.

Together, the two of them turned and began to meander in the direction of the Sector 5 slums.

"Is it okay if we don't report in first?" Cloud asked quietly, tugging at his trooper scarf. 

Zack blinked, face morphing slowly into an expression of profound confusion; brows furrowed and lips parted in question. “Huh? Oh! Heh....” He rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. “I forgot about that.” With one hand he fished out his phone and flipped it open. All of ShinRa's SOLDIERs had phones that were equipped with a program that linked up to the Mission System.  It was this that Zack opened now and selected the Mission Complete option. It was easier than having to run back to the Mission Board on the forty-ninth floor all the time. “That should take care of it. It's not like this was a big mission anyway.”  Big missions required personal reports to someone most of the time.

As Zack pocketed his phone he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and glanced over.  Cloud was fingering his ear, face a pensive mask.  Curious, and mildly worried something had happened, Zack asked, “What's the matter? Did you get hit back there?” He hadn't noticed Cloud taking any hits, but that didn't mean it hadn't happened. Reaching over, Zack invaded Cloud's personal space without a care.

"Ah, no, I didn't…" Cloud trailed off as Zack tilted his head around to see, face slightly flushed.

“Hey! I hadn't realized you had your ear pierced too. And we have the same one!” Zack reached up to finger his own piercing. He'd never bothered to get anything fancy like he'd seen some men and women wear. In Zack's opinion, it was best for someone who got into as many fights as most military personnel did to stick to close fitting earrings like the silver stud they both sported. Having an earring ripped out probably hurt, and Zack wasn't keen on the experience.

"I…it's just different, that's all,"  Cloud muttered, and tilted his head away from Zack's hand.  He started forward again, leaving Zack blinking after him.

“Different?” Zack echoed. He stared at the blond for a few seconds, his hand ruffling his wild mane of hair before he hurried after him. Once he caught up with Cloud, Zack leaned forward slightly, hands perched on his hips, and peered up at Cloud. “Different how? An earring is an earring, isn't it?”

"I had one made.  Just…I found a design of a wolf's head that was nice.  It's heavier than this one," Cloud said, thumbing the earring again and raising an eyebrow at Zack.  "It's not a big deal."

They'd reached the park, their stride covering the ground between the sectors in short order.  A street gang of local teens huddled around one end of the playground, their suspicious glares focusing on the obvious pair of ShinRa uniforms, before they turned back to their disinterested huddle.  Possibly they recognized Zack, and maybe even Cloud by now.

“A wolf, huh?" Zack mused. “You look more like a stray cat half the time, though.” He was privately amused by the little joke, and it reminded him in an oddly embarrassing but warm way of what Gillian Hewley had told him. About how Angeal had called Zack a puppy. Maybe Cloud was Zack's stray cat then. He certainly reminded Zack of a stray cat more often than not—had that doleful, street wise personality and a nasty set of claws.  It made Zack wonder, momentarily self-conscious, if that meant he really did act like a puppy.

Cloud snorted softly at the tease.  "The other half is spent making sure you do your job."  He ran a hand through his hair, whether to make a point or unconsciously Zack didn't know.
Rather than comment Zack lifted a hand to wave at a familiar young boy that was jogging by on his way toward Wall Market. The kid stopped and grinned at him. “Hey, Zack! Going to see Aerith?”

“You bet! You keeping your promise?” Zack called back, pausing his lazy stride  momentarily.

“Haven't picked a pocket since yours,” the kid said. “It's good to see you around more. It makes Aerith happy.” With that he headed off again, and Zack shook his head before hurrying after Cloud.  Side by side, the two of them exited the park and continued on into Sector 5.

There were no further interruptions until they reached the path to the church, and Cloud fell back a pace to let Zack lead the way in. Aerith looked up from her flowers as they entered.  "Zack!  And is that Cloud too?  What are you two doing here?" She stood up, carefully brushing her hands free of clinging soil.

Zack grinned easily as he strode toward Aerith, and held his arms up in indication of himself. “Who me?” he asked. “A guy can't just come see his lovely girlfriend without needing a reason?” Zack's smile widened at the pleased flush that colored Aerith's cheeks and the amused, but slightly shy smile she gave him as he stopped beside her. He flicked a glance at the flowers, then half turned toward Cloud. “I don't know about him though. I think he just likes the flowers.”

Aerith's laugh followed Zack as he circled around the little garden. “And the flowers like him more than they like you,” she retorted. “At least he hasn't tried to stomp on them!”

“That happened once!” Zack yelped, scandalized. “Surely they can't hold a grudge that long!” He sent a frown down at the plants in question, then squatted down near them and braced his forearms on his knees. There was a patch of bright red flowers growing among the usual yellow and white blossoms. They made for a rather eye catching image.

“Plants have long memories,” Aerith said in knowing sing-song. It was one of those moments where Zack wasn't sure if she was kidding or not, and recalling something of what Cloud had mentioned about Aerith, that she was an Ancient, maybe she really did know. Maybe Zack really ought to take a leaf out of Sephiroth's books, literally, and lock himself up for some research someday. Somehow he doubted ShinRa kept information like that anywhere accessible.

Instead of considering it further, Zack extended his hand to point out the cluster of red flowers, and said, “These are new.”

Aerith smiled as she walked around to stand partially behind him, her hand finding a resting place on Zack's shoulder between his shoulder guard and neck. She leaned over him, reaching out to delicately touch a faintly curled red petal. Zack could see her coppery hair out of the corner of his eye. “I thought adding a little color would be nice.”

Zack looked up at her, all smiles. “I think it's wonderful.”

He stood up then and stepped away from her again, skirting the edge of the flowers. Now...how to get to what he wanted to ask her? Zack paced back and forth, restless and nervous despite himself, arms swinging. He could feel Aerith's curious stare, and sent a glance toward Cloud. The sight of his stoic blond friend standing there was reassuring, and as Zack turned back toward Aerith he caught sight of a woven basket laying near where Aerith had been before. Already a few carefully clipped flowers, like one she'd given him some time ago, lay within the basket. Feeling more confident, Zack allowed his easygoing grin to reign again. “Hey, Aerith? You remember the plan, right?”

She clasped her hands behind her back, and peered over at him. “Of course,” she said, “Midgar Full of Flowers, Wallet Full of Money, right?”

Zack nodded eagerly. “And you remember my promise right?”

Aerith wrinkled her nose slightly at him. “Which one?”

Woefully, Zack placed a hand over his heart. “Ouch! Remember, I promised that one day you could sell your flowers on the plate?” She nodded again, looking just a bit more confused and unsure.

“Yes?”

“And, I was thinking.... With the ShinRa Lights Festival going on right now it'd be the perfect chance to see how the flowers sell, right? Then we can get an idea for how to price them.”

Aerith lifted her hand and placed a finger against her lips for a moment then asked, “You want to try selling them...on the plate?”

Zack nodded stepping closer to her. “Midgar's sky isn't the beautiful ones I told you about, but it's still got its own charms.” He sent another glance toward Cloud to bolster his nerves again, worried about Aerith's reaction. She turned away from him, her dress swaying around her legs.

“I don't know...” she whispered. Zack reached out and touched her arm lightly.

“I'll be there,” Zack told her, voice soft, and as he looked to Cloud again he added, “And Cloud will too. Right, Cloud?”

Cloud took a few steps forward, coming to the edge of the flower garden across from the pair, and squatted down.  One hand reached out, cupping one of the blossoms gently as Cloud began to speak, keeping his gaze on the flower. "I knew a man, once, who dreamed of reaching the stars."  Cloud's voice was quiet, but carrying in the church.  "The sky, however infinite it seemed, was not enough, couldn't hold this man's dreams.  One day, it seemed he would finally be able to reach his goal, be able to fly beyond our skies and discover what else was out there."  He paused for a moment, expression a thoughtful, distant frown.  "But he failed," he continued, finally looking up.  Looking at Aerith.  She was still, listening quietly and openly to the story.  Cloud looked back down, running a hand through the dirt and letting the particles sift through his gloves as he went on.  "To save a life, he gave it all up; the sky, the stars, and his dreams.  He nearly destroyed his own soul in bitterness and anger."

"And what happened to him?" Aerith's quiet voice floated over to him.  Cloud looked up at her, a faint, wistful smile on his face.

"He made it.  He finally made it to his stars, even when the rest of the world had given up on it.”  Cloud stood up, brushing his hand on his pants. “Come on Aerith.  I promise you'll love the sky too," he said gently.

Zack turned away, took a few slow steps to the side and looked upward through the hole that was still in the church's roof from his tumble. He could see a sliver of the sky at the edge of the plate from his position. Crossing his arms over his chest he tipped his head down and toed aside a few splinters of wood more out of restlessness than any real purpose. The story Cloud told had brought up memories that Zack was both fond of, and which brought about a distorted sort of melancholy. “Dreams, huh...?” he mused quietly to himself. He looked up again taking in the bit of sky, the plate above them, and the dim omnipresent gloom of Midgar. He'd known people who would happily have given up their wings. Angeal and Genesis...who looked at wings and saw monsters, and then there were people like Cissnei who looked at them and saw something beautiful.

“Wings symbolize freedom for those who have none,” he quoted aloud, recalling what Cissnei had said to him on LOVELESS Avenue all that time ago. “They don't symbolize monsters.”

He believed her still, because no matter what happened Zack could never believe that Angeal was a monster, though he wasn't totally sure on Genesis. Genesis was...something else entirely. He didn't know exactly why Cloud's story reminded him of all of this.  Maybe because he spoke of flying, and to Zack flying was now irrevocably part of freedom and wings and an odd combination of sadness and happiness, maybe it was the talk of dreams, maybe it was the strange nostalgia and melancholy that seemed to lace Cloud's story.

Zack turned back around, hands on his hips and wandered back toward the two. He said nothing, merely waited for Aerith to make the decision on her own. If she wanted to then they would, if not.... Well, then Zack would just have to try hard to stick around and keep his promise another time.

Aerith turned her back on the both of them again and paced away, head bowed. Silence filled the church with a sense of serenity that soothed away the pain that Zack's thoughts had brought back up. Then, at long last, Aerith turned toward them, and nodded. There was an oddly determined set to her mouth that Zack hadn't quite seen before, but it made something stir in his chest, an odd combination of pride and fondness. “Okay,” she said. “I'll do it. It'll be fine because I'll have the both of you with me, I know it.”

Zack's face split into an uncontrollable grin, and he gave a little whoop. Before he could celebrate more, however, Aerith had shoved her previously discarded basket into his hands. "I suppose I'll need some more flowers then. Be a dear and hold that for me?" she asked, smiling up at him.  Her dress flared around her knees as she turned again, returning to kneel at her flower garden. "Come help me choose the flowers, Cloud."  She beckoned him over with a smile.

Cloud stepped hesitantly around the garden, squatting down next to her after giving Zack an anxious glance.  "I don't think I'll be much help."

"Just do as I do," Aerith said, gesturing Zack closer so she could reach into the basket.  She pulled out a small knife, obviously used to cut the flowers.  One hand carefully held the stem as the other used the knife to cut it, and Aerith sat back on her heels, twirling the flower as she smiled at Cloud.  "See?  It's not hard."  She pressed the hilt of the small knife into his hand, then before Cloud could do anything, tucked the bloom behind his ear.  The white flower contrasted brightly against his blond hair.  Cloud blinked owlishly, raising one hand in belated protest to the move, but stopped as Aerith laughed.  "There!  You'll be my walking advertisement, right Cloud?"

"Aerith…" he protested, frowning at her petulantly.

Zack crouched down on Aerith's other side, obediently holding the flower basket. He could only imagine the picture they made; Aerith, pretty, sweet, a gentle smile on her face with Cloud and himself as her odd bookends—both of them clearly military and armed to the teeth. Yet, both of them easily fell to her sway, letting her command them like she was some sort of General, and never ever contemplating doing anything to hurt her. Zack was half sure he could take her into ShinRa, give her the army, and she'd have them all eating out of the palm of her hand by the end of the day. Possibly even Sephiroth. The thought alone was almost enough to convince Zack to introduce them, but he had a feeling that if he tried now Cloud might have an aneurysm, and he rather liked Cloud alive.

“It's a good look on you, Cloud,” Zack said with feigned seriousness. “It's not like you were particularly intimidating anyway....” Which was a boldfaced lie; Cloud was an oddity like that. Sephiroth was intimidating all the time and without even trying, something Zack had grown used to and barely noticed anymore. Cloud, on the other hand, was someone you didn't expect to be intimidating. There were times though, when he had that same air as Sephiroth; the air of something beyond powerful, something that was awe-inspiring and terrifying all at once.

Aerith swatted his arm, nearly making him overbalance in surprise. “Neither of you are intimidating,” Aerith said. “You're both big softies.”

Zack couldn't help but grin. It was only around a year ago that Aerith had been telling him she was scared of SOLDIERs, that they seemed strange to her. “Make sure to get some of the red ones. I think they'll do well," he offered.

Cloud reached out to the patch of red flowers, carefully cutting one and presenting it to Aerith.  She took it with a smile, setting it into her basket among the other yellow and white flowers.  "Hmm…. You're right Zack.  The red is very distinguished.  And," she said, taking back her knife from Cloud and standing up, "it's the color of love.  Perfect for a holiday evening.  Right?"  Aerith stepped into the garden, bending over every couple of steps to cut another blossom until she'd collected a few.  Cloud sat back beside him, tucking one leg under him and resting his arm on his other knee.

"It will…probably be cold up there," Cloud commented idly.

“It's always colder plateside,” Zack said as he leaned over to allow Aerith to place a handful of flowers in the basket.  The days were getting pretty chilly lately, and the news reports even called for some snow.

Aerith glanced at them, obviously noting that they weren't wearing anything other than their usual uniforms. “You two don't seem bothered by the chill.”

“I can't say I enjoy it,” Zack remarked wryly. He was more of a fan of warm weather, having spent his childhood growing up in a warm climate. Gongaga didn't get this cold. Ever. “I'd never even seen snow before my first year in Midgar, and it isn't nearly as bad as Modeoheim was last April. That was on the Northern continent....” He shivered at the memory. “Now that is cold. As for Cloud....” Zack leaned forward, hand cupping along his mouth and stage whispered, “He's from Nibelheim.” As far as he was concerned that explained everything about the entire situation.

Cloud nodded slightly.  "Nibelheim weather…it never really gets warm up there.  But the real cold weather is on Mt. Nibel.  Most of the natives won't even go up there during winter time.  It's…too dangerous."  Cloud shifted, bracing one hand against the wooden floor.  "The Great Glacier area gets that cold, though," he added, almost as an afterthought. "But Midgar never gets that cold.  Just…" Cloud trailed off, gesturing with one hand to indicate his own clothes.  "Mako…it generates a higher body temperature.  So we don't get cold as easily." 

Aerith stared at him, one hand on her hip and an amused smile on her face.  Cloud, looking baffled, looked to Zack.  Zack pressed a hand over his mouth to keep himself from laughing. It was just too amusing how seriously Cloud treated everything, not to mention.... Zack reached over and draped his arm around Cloud's shoulders and said, “You are terrible at explaining things. But that's okay, we're learning Cloud-speak.”

“Oh, stop teasing him,” Aerith scolded. Zack could see the smile on her face as she turned back to her flowers.

“I can't help it,” Zack said, putting a bit of a whine into his voice. “He just gets this lost look on his face...”

“You're terrible,” Aerith shot back.

A frown marred Cloud's face before he let out a little tsk of sound and grabbed Zack's arm.  Zack gave a yelp as he was pulled over and hit the floor with a thump, Cloud rescuing the flower basket as he went down.  “Ow! Cloud!”  Above him, Cloud spun on his heel to stare down impassively at Zack for a moment.  It hadn't hurt that much, but that wasn't the point!

"He's nothing I can't handle," Cloud said, turning back to Aerith. 

Aerith feigned indignation, though the look melted off her face into a smile quickly. "It's like watching over a bunch of children.  I wasn't aware I'd opened a baby-sitting service." She deposited the last armful of flowers into the basket, then slipped it off of Cloud's arm.  "I think that's enough for now."

Zack stared up at Cloud, letting himself pout a bit while he rubbed the back of his head. Buster Sword dug awkwardly into his spine and shoulders. Then he let a wicked grin curl his lips. A bunch of children were they?  As soon as the flowers were safely passed off, Zack reached out and grabbed hold of Cloud's nearest leg at the joint of the knee then yanked with enough force to overbalance the blond and bring him crashing down.  The hilt of Cloud's sword knocked into Zack's shoulder guard, giving off a dull metallic ringing sound.  Zack's breath came out in a rush as Cloud landed on him, but he didn't let it stop him.  Zack wrapped his other arm around Cloud's neck even as he wheezed, “You...can...handle me...huh, Cloud?” Zack dug the knuckles of his free hand into the mess of Cloud's hair and against his scalp. “We'll just see about that!”

“Oh, you two!” he heard Aerith say, both amused and exasperated. “Just don't get your horseplay in my flowers.” Zack glanced up, expression mischievous, as he watched her pick her way across the flowers toward the pews. “I'm going to go tell my mother I'll be later getting back today. You two better be waiting for me when I get back.” She set the flower basket on one of the pews, clearly meaning to fetch it when she returned, and headed for the exit.

“Don't forget to grab a coat!” Zack hollered after her.

"Zack!  Let go—" Cloud yelped, unable to get enough leverage with Zack squirming unhelpfully under him.  It took a bit more twisting, and an elbow in Zack's gut, but Cloud managed to brace his hands against the floor and shoved up, using the leverage of the Buster Sword strapped to Zack's back keeping him down to break the hold on him.  He sat back, half straddling Zack's hips, shifted absently so his sword didn't gouge uncomfortably, and scowled down at him.  Zack grinned right back.

"I think you need to get out more," Cloud said, a bit petulantly.  He glanced over to the doorway Aerith had disappeared through and his scowl transformed into a worried frown.  "It should be okay, right?  I mean…I met Aerith up there selling flowers," he added, turning to stare down at Zack again.

Zack blinked at him, then shrugged. “I don't know, should be. We'll be there after all.” He had no idea how Aerith had wound up on the plate in the past Cloud remembered, and almost wanted to say as much, but instead he just bit it back, shook his head, and gave a faint smile. “And I get out plenty!” he huffed, then reached up to jab Cloud in the stomach, “You need to relax more!”

Twisting slightly, which was difficult with Cloud's weight on him not to mention Buster Sword holding him down, Zack shoved a booted foot against the floor and bucked up to dump Cloud off of him.   There was a stifled yelp from Cloud as he was forced to tuck and roll away, but Zack paid it no mind.  He curled his arms up over his head, braced his palms against the floor then drew his legs up toward his torso. Then, with a shove,  Zack sprung nimbly to his feet. It was a move he performed all the time, even in battle when he got knocked back, so it was easy here when there was nothing trying to rip his throat out. He threw his arms out as he nearly pitched face first into the flowers when Buster Sword scraped against the floor and just about tripped him up.

“Whoa! I need to practice more with Buster Sword,” he said as he flailed and hopped back a few steps. He craned his head around to make sure he wasn't going to trample Cloud. “I'm used to doing that when the sword's in my hand....” Finally coming to a balanced stance he propped his hands on his hips in an attempt to look as if he'd meant for things to turn out like that.

"Like I said.  You need to get out more.  You're already rusty," Cloud commented.  Zack huffed and decided that didn't warrant an actual response.  Rusty?  Yeah, right!
As he started around the flowers and thus toward the door, Zack called back to Cloud, “You want to grab the flowers or should I?”

"I'll get them," Cloud said, detouring to scoop the discarded basket up carefully so as not to spill the delicate-looking blossoms.  The wooden floor boards creaked slightly under his boots as he followed Zack out the doorway, turning to pull the open leaf of the double door closed behind them.  The meager light that trickled down to the slums was already fading, indicating the late hour of the day.  Even down in the relatively insulated space under the plates, the winter chill nipped at their exposed skin.

"Why don't you go catch up with Aerith?" Cloud offered, looking to catch Zack's eyes.

“She'll be alright on her own,” Zack said breezily. “She walks this path everyday after all.”

"That wasn't what I meant," he heard Cloud mutter.  Zack didn't look at him, but he did make a face.  He had a feeling that Cloud felt like he was intruding and was trying to give the two of them more time alone.  Rolling his eyes, Zack reached back and snagged Cloud's arm.

“Come on.  We'll go meet her by the gate in the market.”

They didn't have to wait long for Aerith to show, and when she did she was bundled up in a rather lovely plum colored coat.  Her cheeks were rosy from the faint chill and how fast she'd returned to them. “Mom told me to warn you both to have me home at a decent time,” she said, smile wide and nose wrinkled with amusement. “And to keep me safe.” Zack winked at her cheerily.

“Like we would do anything less,” he said, “Right, Cloud? No place safer.”

"Your mother is doing well?" Cloud asked Aerith, offering the basket of flowers to her.  She accepted it with a warm smile and a word of thanks.

"Yes.  She was a bit worried at first, with me dating a SOLDIER and all, but I think she knows that neither of you would ever let me be harmed." 

Zack remained still for a moment as the pair started off in the direction of the train station. He glanced  back toward the church wondering if Tseng or one of the other Turks was watching them even now. “Yeah... No one else will keep her as safe as I will,” he muttered lowly to himself. It was a promise and maybe a warning, he didn't know, but there was no way he was ever going to let any of the stuff Cloud had told him about happen to Aerith. They'd have to kill him first, and if he could help it he'd make sure Cloud was alright too.  Zack narrowed his eyes, a grimace of a frown twisting his lips. He was going to get stronger, he decided, and nothing was going to stop him. He'd make sure he was ready and capable of defeating whatever came his way.

“Zack!” Aerith's cry dragged him out of the downward spiral of increasingly dark and dangerous thoughts, and Zack jerked his head up to look toward her and Cloud. The dark expression immediately disappeared from his face to be replaced with a grin.

“Sorry! I was too busy thinking about how pretty you are,” Zack teased. Jogging over to take his place at Aerith's side, he grinned at Cloud. “You look wonderful with that flower, too.” Aerith's laughter seemed to wash away all of his worries.  The way Cloud's hand flew up to his hair as if he'd forgotten the flower was there was almost as good.

"Leave it Cloud!  Just ignore Zack, he has no manners," Aerith protested, catching Cloud's hand with her free one as he made to remove it.  "Please?  Consider it a gift from me!"  Cloud relented with a soft sigh.

“You heard the lady,” Zack said jovially. “It's rude to turn down such a freely given gift.”

Aerith gave a little hum, carefully selecting a sunny yellow flower from her basket. “I think he sounds jealous,” she said. Abruptly she turned on Zack, reached up, and tucked it behind his ear. Zack was sure it was ridiculously bright against the dark shade of his hair, but he just grinned. “There, now you both get to advertise for me.”

Zack put on a thoughtful look, his hand clasping his chin, and said, “That's hardly fair. I think maybe.... Ah, yes!” He reached out and selected one of the red flowers from her basket, and slid the carefully cut stem neatly through the knot of Aerith's pink ribbon. “There, now we have representation for each color!”

Aerith beamed at him, her cheeks gone rosy again and nodded. “Let's go then!” Carefully moving her basket, she laced an arm through his and the other through Cloud's and began to tow them along. Zack grinned and flashed Cloud an amused look behind her head.

“You seem awfully excited now,” Zack noted.

“...It's still scary, but being with you two makes it kind of exciting. Like an adventure,” she said. Zack's smile softened slightly.

In the distance, the train whistle echoed across the slums.  It was impossible to tell if the signal was for an arriving or departing train.  Either way, the wait between trains wasn't too long.  When they did turn the corner in Sector 7 that lead to the station the crowds of departing people seemed to indicate it had just arrived. 

Zack slipped out of Aerith's hold as they reached the top of the steps and held his hands up. “Wait for me here, would you?” He flashed them an easy grin and a slightly outrageous wink, then turned on his heel and strode off toward the ticket booth off to the side of the platform. The man working the sales was a familiar face to Zack by now, and he greeted Zack with a slightly gap toothed grin.  Like all the workers for ShinRa's train system he wore the familiar red uniform.

“Hey, Zack, you have a good day?”

“Great day, and it'd be even better if you could do me a favor, Dwain...” Zack said. He leaned lightly against the small ledge in front of him, and spoke in a conspiratorial tone of voice, “You see that lovely young lady back there?” Dwain leaned to the side and squinted toward where Cloud and Aerith stood. Zack turned to look as well to see that a pair of young girls, not quite the same age as them, had wandered over and were giggling over Cloud's hair adornment.

“The brunette?” Dwain asked, and Zack nodded. “Sure. That the girl you keep comin' down here t'visit?”

“That's her.” Aerith chose that moment to look toward him, and he could tell she was just barely keeping her laughter at Cloud's discomfort and exasperation at bay. Even as Zack watched she distracted the girl's by calling attention to the flowers she had with her. “I promised to take her up to the plate, you see.” When he glanced back at Dwain, Zack could see the frown and watched understanding dawn.

“She don't have a ID to pass though does she?”

“Not yet,” Zack agreed ruefully, “and you know how long the papers can take to go through. I was hoping you could spring me for a day pass for her.” They were usually heavily restricted, and it took having a good voucher to get one, but Zack was betting on his status as a 1st Class SOLDIER, and being well known to work to his advantage. “Just this once?”

“How can I say no t'you, Zack?” Dwain said. “I'm sure if she's with you there won't be no problems. But let's not mention it t'anyone, 'kay?”

Zack placed a hand over his heart, face serious. “Absolutely, if anyone asks it was all completely above board and I applied through proper channels on her behalf days ago.”

Dwain shook his head in amusement, and turned away to take care of things. “I'll take care of it, no problem.”

“Thanks man.”

As Zack wandered back over he heard Aerith apologetically say, "Now girls, no stealing my helper from me just yet.  He's promised to help me sell my flowers. Besides, I think you're scaring him.  He's as touchy as a cat!"

"Aerith…" Cloud murmured, flushing as even she let out a small giggle.

Zack cut in presenting his acquisition to Aerith with a flourish while the young girls looked at him in wide eyed surprise. He could see their nervous gazes flit from the large sword he had on his back and then land on the flower he wore. The smaller of them choked back a sudden titter and Zack winked at her, pulled the flower free and offered it. “A free sample for you, so long as you promise to spread the word, okay? We're going to start selling these. Think you can do that?”  Cloud made use of the distraction, head ducked, and hurried past him
Wide eyed, she nodded slowly and carefully accepted the flower.  The red head beside her looked a little put out, but Zack didn't think it was because of the flower.  Her eyes were trained on Cloud's retreating form.   Aerith tugged lightly on his arm, and together they headed after Cloud.  From behind them, a voice called, "You gotta come visit us sometime, pretty cat!"

Zack couldn't stop the veritable ear-to-ear grin that found its way onto his face as Cloud flinched and ducked his head further.  It wasn't until they were settled on the train that Cloud even managed to look at him.  "Shut.  Up," he growled, then looked determinedly out the window.  Zack swallowed his laughter, and his comments, and instead turned to Aerith who was fiddling nervously with a button on her coat.  It was easy enough to draw her into conversation and distract her from her anxiety for the duration of the ride.

The air on the plate was indeed colder than it had been in the slums. A nippy breeze snaked along the platform of the train station in Sector 1 as the three of them disembarked. Zack jumped off first, literally, his boots hitting the platform with a thump before he turned and held out a gloved hand for Aerith. Her smaller hand slid almost timidly into his before she stepped out onto the platform with him, her eyes gravitating upward before she locked them on Zack's face. He grinned at her, tugging her closer. She gave a little gasp at the sudden change in balance and nearly collided with his chest. He got a smack to the shoulder for his efforts, but at least she wasn't over thinking things. Zack gave her a quick wink  at the exasperated look he'd warranted and glanced over her shoulder at Cloud who looked much less put out and a great deal more abashed.

He looked back down at Aerith as she fussed with her flower basket. “Not so bad, is it?” he murmured, low in her ear. She blushed, and gave him a shove. Zack obligingly stumbled away.

She shook her finger at him. “You,” she huffed.

“Me?” Zack asked, eyes widening in a look of sheer confused innocence.

Aerith tossed her free hand in the air, obviously giving him up as a lost cause, let out a loud sigh, and turned to Cloud. “Come on, Cloud. Let's leave this big idiot to goof off. You can show me around like a real gentleman, right?”

“Aw, Aerith....” Zack scuttled around in front of her, and she turned away again, nose in the air. Zack could see she was trying hard not to smile. “You don't mean that! I can be a perfect gentleman.”

She turned and regarded him seriously, a finger on her lip. “I'll give you a chance then,” she decided brightly. “Just like you said when we first met.”

Zack's smile went confused for a moment before he held up a single finger, and asked, “One date for saving my life?”

Aerith mirrored the move. “One chance.”

With a wide grin, Zack reached out and caught her hand again. “If you'd wanted to get rid of me that easily you would have told me to get lost rather than declaring our first date a date.” His grin only widened at her blush.

“Hmm, maybe,” she said, “but I didn't.”

“You didn't, so I'll do my best to live up to your expectations.” Expression grave, he offered his arm in a rather outrageous manner. “Shall we go, my lady?”

Aerith smothered a laugh before resting her hand lightly on his forearm. “We shall.”

Zack looked back to Cloud, and, unable to stop himself, offered, “So, I've got another arm if you need it.” Zack decided that having Aerith elbow him in the ribs was absolutely worth it. As they set off along the platform, Zack carefully kept Aerith between him and Cloud like some sort of shield.  If she noticed, she didn't comment on it.  She did snatch Cloud's hand and began to tug them both along. When Zack was sure Aerith wasn't paying attention to him, he winked at Cloud, then subtly took the lead as they emerged into Sector 8.

A few people called out greetings to them, and Zack could see the familiar dark suits of a few Turks pausing for a moment to watch them before they disappeared down a side street. He didn't comment on it, merely let Aerith press close to his side as they made their way, and she never once released Cloud's hand. Midgar was more festive looking at this time of year with more lights, and color, and life than it generally had. The acrid taint of mako in the air was still very much present, and the sky still glowed an eerie metallic green as it always did, but there was something a little less daunting about it when it was dressed in a more cheerful atmosphere. They stopped briefly in Fountain Square where Zack pointed out the direction to LOVELESS Avenue, and ignored the looming ShinRa Building.

Eventually their wandering brought them to Zack's main destination: The West Park Plaza of Sector 8 where the large brightly lit tree, shipped in from Icicle itself, was set up. Aerith's face lit up at the sight of it, and she finally released her tight grip on their hands to wander toward it. When she turned back to them, back lit by the multicolored glow of the dozens of twinkling lights decorating it, Zack couldn't help but think that she looked prettier than ever.

“I didn't realize they had things like this up here,” she said softly. Zack smiled, content to watch her happiness and awe.  He was just glad that he got the chance to be here. A future where Aerith had to face this sort of thing alone seemed bleak indeed. Zack wondered if Cloud even realized how much he owed him, how grateful he was, right then. Glancing at the blond from the corner of his eye, Zack had a feeling he didn't.

An inordinate amount of fondness for the both of them warmed his chest, so Zack reached over and ruffled Cloud's hair roughly. “C'mon, let's all go get a closer look.”  Cloud started slightly, and scowled at him.  It seemed more reflexive and anything, though.

"Yeah," Cloud agreed after a beat, blowing his bangs up with a gust of a sigh.

Zack stopped a moment to give Cloud a long look, then shook his head slightly. “You think too much, Cloud.  You know,” Zack said, attention on the glittering tree looming above them, “my buddy Kunsel gave me some really good advice back before I made First.” It had been before Banora had been destroyed, when Zack had been wound tight even if not many people could tell. After all, Angeal had been missing for around a month...everyone was calling him a traitor, and Zack.... He shook away the painful line of thoughts and turned to smile at Cloud. “Anyway, Kunsel brought me ought to Sector 8 and told me to enjoy every bit of down time I had.” That was paraphrasing it a bit, but that was the gist of it. “He's right you know? Got to learn to take the chances as they come so you don't have to regret it later.” Because you'd never know when you didn't have another chance, or if you'd never have one again.

With a last, slightly nostalgic smile, Zack stepped forward to stand beside Aerith who was admiring the tree again. “ShinRa sponsors this whole affair,” Zack said quietly, though his voice carried a bit. It was relatively quiet around them. “I heard from some of the gossips around the building that this year's theme is Undying Love.” Even as he said it, Zack carefully schooled his expression. It was a bit of a laugh, coming from ShinRa considering what he knew now.... “A light to represent someone's love for someone else on the planet. Sounds kind of....”

“Corny,” Aerith quipped. “But it's nice, don't you think?” Zack looked at her, at the play of light on her upturned, smiling face.

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

Aerith turned to look up at him, soft smile still in place. There was a whirl of emotions in him from the need to draw her close and protect her from the world, to the need to see her spread her wings and fly, to a want to touch her face and kiss her, and a deep seated worry that had been building since Mideel. He wanted nothing more than for her to keep this happiness, and there was a plaguing feeling of guilt at the notion that it wouldn't last forever. No matter what he and Cloud did, they were fighting an uphill battle. Aerith's quiet voice drew him abruptly from the downward spiral of his darkening thoughts once more,

“It...doesn't seem to be enough, though, does it?”

She looked sad for a moment, and Zack had a feeling that his expression had betrayed him. He shook his head, backing up a step, and swung his arms as if to shake off the heavy mood. “I don't think anyone could manage that many lights on one tree.” Joking was easier than dealing with the darkening turn his world was taking right now, and he supposed Aerith understood that. He cast a glance at Cloud, then whirled away. “Okay, flowers! Hey! You there!” The poor man he'd just yelled at froze in shock, and Zack took a few quick steps over to him. “Why don't you come over and have a look?”

“A-at what..?”

Zack grinned widely. He hadn't said no....

As time wore on the crowds grew thicker as people came off work.  Cloud seemed content to linger at Aerith's side as Zack coaxed in the customers.  Most people came cheerfully, enjoying the bright blossoms as they chatted briefly with them over the sale, and the night grew colder.  The celebratory air only increased, people clearly enjoying themselves with family and friends.  Zack loved it.  It was everything Zack could have hoped Aerith's first visit plateside would be.

Soon enough, Aerith's basket was over half empty, the pile of coins collected safe in Cloud's keeping.  Aerith had insisted, much to Zack's mock outrage, that Zack was incapable of keeping his own wallet safe, let alone her hard-won earnings.  A gust of wind blew past, sending Aerith's coat whipping lightly about her legs, and causing her to shiver slightly.  Cloud cast Zack a glance.

Zack sidled up behind Aerith after their most recent customer left and settled his hands on her upper arms. Leaning down slightly, he asked, “Cold?” Aerith leaned back into him, and Zack obligingly slid his arms more firmly around her, a content little smile quirking the corners of his lips.

“Maybe just a little,” she allowed. “But I'm...having so much fun that I don't mind.” Zack gave her a slight squeeze and lifted his head to lock gazes with Cloud.

“Well, we can't have that. Tell you what, you stay here with Cloud and I'll go get us something to eat that will warm us all up. Sound good?” From where they were standing he could see a little bakery, still open, and likely selling a late night round of fresh produced goods.

Aerith nodded. “Okay. We'll be fine here.”

“I know you will,” Zack murmured, and pressed a kiss to the side of her head. He stepped around her and stopped beside Cloud.  He squeezed his shoulder, and gave him a quick smile. “Cloud's here if anything happens. I'll be back in a few seconds.”

Zack jogged across the thoroughfare to the little bakery, then ducked inside. The temperature difference was immediately apparent and hit him almost as swiftly as the smell of baked goods. Zack gave an appreciative groan and wandered over to the glass display cases and shelves without even glancing toward the pair at the counter. “...That smells real good....”

“Fair!” Zack looked up at the sound of his name, the voice familiar. “If you're about then I expect your tag-along is. Where's Cloud?”

“Gibbs! And out of the helmet again.  I'm going to get used to seeing Thirds running around without their helmets soon.”

Gibbs gave him a broad, friendly grin. “Jen doesn't like it when I wear it to meet her.”

Zack looked past the man to the woman behind the counter who gave him a pleasant smile. “Hullo, I'm Jen, owner of this little bakery.” Zack took her hand as she extended it over the counter. She was a pleasant faced woman, her hair up in a bun, and a bit on the plump side.

“Nice to meet you. Name's Zack.”

“So I've heard,” Jen said. “Gibbs has mentioned you a fair few times.”

“Nothing too bad I hope...” Zack said, eying the Third who scoffed.

“Like there's much bad to be said about you, other than the fact that you've got no brains,” Gibbs grumbled. “So how is Cloud doing?”

“He's fine,” Zack caroled happily, pitching his voice a certain way to badly imitate Cloud's intonation and accent as he gave his usual reply. “Same old, same old. He's actually out there across the street.” He motioned vaguely toward the front windows as he went back to perusing the delicious looking pastries on offer. Nearby, Gibbs craned his neck, obviously looking for the flash of bright blond hair.

“Who's that he's with?”

Zack didn't spare a glance up. “Aerith. We're up here selling some flowers.”

There was no immediate response, then, “Isn't that a Turk?”

A sharp spike of cold fear and worry jolted right through Zack.  He immediately whipped around. Sure enough, the familiar dark suit was visible. Zack could easily recognized Rude even from here.  Zack lunged across the shop and was out the door before he'd even given it a thought.  He wasn't even sure who he was more worried about, Aerith or Cloud.  They were both just as likely as the other to be in trouble with the Turks at this point.

Heart thudding somewhere near his throat, Zack shoved his way across the road, face pinched with worry.  Even as he approached he could see Rude was already turning to walk away, a bouquet of red flowers clutched in one hand. Zack didn't slow his steps though, even when Cloud lifted a hand to signal that all was well.  He did manage to force a slightly strained grin onto his face as he drew nearer.

"Well, I can see I have nothing to worry about, with such an intimidating body guard at my side," Aerith was saying as he joined them.  Zack almost missed Cloud's groan and another aborted motion toward the flower still in his hair.

“Everything okay?” he asked as his hands came to rest lightly on Aerith's shoulders.  He probably wasn't hiding his worry well at all. Aerith tilted her head back to look at him, a small smile on her face, and nodded.

“He bought the last of the red ones,” she said. Zack smiled slightly, relieved.  If she could be so calm about the encounter then all was truly well.

“Except for the one you're wearing,” he noted softly. She laughed slightly, and stepped back to rest against him. Zack could feel that she was still shivering, and obligingly slid an arm around her waist. His mind raced around as he tried to figure out a way to explain his abrupt return sans purchases without giving away too much of his concerns about the Turks.  He was saved by a voice calling his name. Zack turned his head to look back over his shoulder. He was surprised to see Gibbs sauntering toward them. Zack lifted a hand in greeting. “Hey, Gibbs. Sorry about that....”

“I thought you were friends with the Turks?” Gibbs asked. “Why would one spook you like that?”

“I am,” Zack replied. He rubbed absently at the back of his head. “It's nothing, really, I just—”

“Well, anyway,” Gibbs broke in gruffly, “You forgot this.”

Zack stared at the white bag that Gibbs dangled in front of him. “But I didn't—”

Loudly, Gibbs said, “Jen said she'll add the total to your store tab and you can pay it later.”

With a blank look, Zack took the bag. Baffled, he pointed out, “But I don't have—” Gibbs hand roughly slapped his shoulder.

“You do now, Fair. Just let it go.”

Zack was about to protest further, but Aerith's stifled laughter was enough to make him give in. “Alright, then,” he said dubiously. Aerith reached up and pulled the bag from his hand and opened it to peer inside, curiously. “What did I get us?”

“Mmmm,” she hummed in appreciation. “These smell wonderful!”

“They're Jen's holiday special this year,” Gibbs said. “Chocolate Cream Chocobos.”

With the bag held in the arm that was also strung through the handle of her basket, Aerith reached in and selected one of the pastries and pulled it free. The white plastic paper she held it by was decorated with cheerful little chocobo images.  The pastry itself was the shape of a sitting chocobo. It was baked a lovely golden brown, and smelled fresh with a chocolate undertone. Zack heartily agreed that it smelled wonderful. He took the bag back from her so that she could enjoy the treat while it was still warm.

While Aeirth carefully pulled a bit off, Zack shot Gibbs a grateful look. “Thanks, man. I owe you.”

Gibbs snorted. “If you owe anyone, it's Jen. But I'll take the thanks anyway.”

“I'll get back to pay her soon,” Zack promised.

Just then Aerith's happily murmured, “Oooh! This is really good.” Amused, Zack turned his attention back to her, and peered down at the pastry she'd been tearing bits off of. She looked up at him, a gleeful expression on her face that made her green eyes seem brighter than usual. “You ought to try some.”

Zack glanced down at her, then the bag in his other hand, then back at Aerith, then gave a prosaic shrug and a pleading look.  Woefully, he asked, “Share?”

Aerith narrowed her eyes, in amusement. “Hmm.... Do I want to share my delicious chocobo...?” she mused. Zack let himself wilt and look even more pitiful. He barely noticed when Gibbs stole the bag from his hand and wandered over to stand by Cloud. Zack clasped his freed hand with the other over Aerith's stomach. “Oh, alright...stop looking at me like that.”

With a gleeful smile Zack opened his mouth. Aerith rolled her eyes, tore off the chocobo's head, and popped it in. Zack closed his eyes and chewed thoughtfully. Deliciously baked and sweet, with some sort of chocolate filling. “These are good!”

“See!”

Zack leaned forward trying to get at the chocobo again, while Aerith twisted away within his grasp. “Hey! Give me another bite.”

“Nope. This one is mine, go get your own,” Aerith sang. A mischievous look crossed her face, just before she took a big bite.

Zack laughed in delight, and unlaced his fingers to bring a hand up and point toward her cheek. “You've got chocolate all over your face.”

A sudden shout broke into the little gathering, and both Zack and Aerith looked up from their attempts to get at and protect the pastry respectively. “Oi! I'd know that bright mop anywhere! If it isn't Cloud...and what is that on your head?” Sparo had joined them.

"Did you need something?" Cloud asked curtly, and frowned at the amused look Gibbs and Sparo exchanged.

"I leave the kid in your hands, Sparo," Gibbs called back.  "Don't let the love birds infect his winning personality."  Sparo gave the Third a mock salute.

"I am naturally immune to sappy romance," the trooper drawled, flashing a smirk at Zack and Aerith.

While Aerith was distracted, Zack made another go at her pastry only for her to land a hand on his chest to keep him at bay.  He let her. “Aw, come on Aerith. Don't be stingy!” She wrinkled her nose at him, then stuck her tongue out and emphatically shook her head. “Fine, you win.”  Zack backed off and shuffled over to join Cloud and Sparo where he sulked. Aerith's laughing gaze followed him the entire way. With a sniff, Zack snatched the bag from Cloud and fished out his own pastry. “How cruel is it for a girl to deny her boyfriend a bite of delicious edible chocobo?” he lamented.
Sparo sent him a sidelong glance. “I think she's a very smart girl. You don't need anything that's going to make you more of an idiot.”

“Hey!” Before Zack could protest further the sound of quick, sharp steps approaching broke through the crowd.  When he glanced over he immediately tensed. Another Turk was coming toward them. He didn't really recognize her, so he'd either never seen her or she was new. Zack was good at remembering people, after all, but he didn't remember any Turks with long blonde hair and a shotgun slung over their shoulders by its strap.

“Hey! Excuse me!” The Turk called as she spotted them. She made her way over quickly and came to a stop in front of Aerith. “I heard there was someone selling flowers around here? That must be you right?”

Aerith nodded slightly, and moved back to Zack's side. He grinned at the Turk and gave her an amiable wink. “That's us alright. You want a few?” He could see her take in the uniform and sword.

“Sorry, no,” she answered. “I'm just looking for information. Have you seen a bald man in a dark suit and glasses?”

Zack blinked. “You're looking for Rude?”  What in the world were these Turks up to?  Sometimes he thought they just got crazier and crazier....

“He was here a little bit ago,” Aerith offered. “He bought a bunch of red flowers and left. I'm afraid you just missed him.”

The Turk frowned faintly, then asked, “You don't happen to know where he went, do you?”

Zack exchanged a glance with Aerith, then shrugged. “Why don't you just give him a call?” For some reason the question seemed to make the Turk uncomfortable.

“Well....”

“I think I know where he went,” Sparo said suddenly. The three of them looked over to where he was still standing near Cloud. However, before he got a chance to say anything, the Turk blurted Cloud's name. Zack shot her a surprised glance as she headed toward the two.

“I remember you! Still showing off too much, kid?”  Apparently she knew Cloud. Zack had a sudden vision of all the ways this could go terribly wrong. He could almost feel the weird look Aerith was giving him when he clapped a gloved hand over his eyes.

"…I don't show off," He heard Cloud say flatly.  Cloud frowned in honest puzzlement.  Beside him, Sparo's teeth gleamed white in a broad grin.  The warning look Cloud shot him was ignored.

"Except that everything you do is over the top," the trooper drawled, crossing his arms over his chest.  "Though with a role model like Fair here, I suppose it's only to be expected."

“I've seen it in action,” the Turk said with a faint snort. “He refused to back down despite orders and terrible odds.” She sent Cloud a slight smile. “The way he stands by his decisions is rather admirable, though I think my superiors might disagree.” She took in the sword strapped to Cloud's back, then, and let out a huff of amusement. “And now you've got your own sword that's bigger than you are. I'm still surprised you can even lift those things. If I hadn't seen you handle a sword myself....”

Sparo let out a bark of laughter. “Yeah, that's our Cloud,” he drawled, and reached over to rest an arm on Cloud's shoulder. “He's all small and doesn't look dangerous, but he's a lot stronger than he looks.”

The Turk shook her head, ponytail swaying, then sighed. “Well, as much fun as this is I've got prey to hunt. You said you knew where Rude had gone?”

Sparo straightened again, before relaxing into a lazier posture with a sharp grin. “Oh, yeah. I've seen him heading toward that little bar on Coeurl Way. It's a nice place, small, cozy, not a very big patronage. I go there now and again myself. You know the place?”

The Turk frowned again, and shook her head. “I haven't. It's not one any of the other Turks have mentioned to me.”

His grin getting wider, Sparo said, “It's easy to miss since it's a no name place. Only word of mouth gets you to it, generally. I'll save you some time and show you the way if you'd like, Miss?”

“Shotgun,” she said with a shrug. It was obviously a codename.

“Name's Sparo Kinnley.” Sparo turned toward the three of them and lifted his hand in a wave. “I'll see you all later.”

Shotgun gave them another glance over, nodded to Zack and Aerith, then smiled faintly at Cloud. “It looks like you were right, and we did run into each other again. What was it you said...? Oh, yes, Cloud let's meet again, okay?”

Zack watched the pair head off in the general direction of LOVELESS Avenue with a faintly exasperated look on his face. “Geeze, I know the Turks patrol Sector 8 as some sort of training thing, but normally you don't see them crawling out of the woodwork like this. Crazy, the lot of them....”  Cloud looked after them, face blank and expression a little lost.  Zack would bet he felt just as off-kilter as he did.

"I think…we should probably go now," Cloud said, turning back to Zack and Aerith. 

"I've sold most of my flowers," Aerith nodded in agreement.  "Besides, didn't you promise my mother to get me home early?"  She shot them both a coquettish smile, though there was a trace of stress at the corners of her eyes.

“Yeah,” Zack breathed, running a hand over his forehead.  “I think we've all had enough excitement for one trip.”  With Aerith at his side, and Cloud leading the way, looking deep in thought, they headed off.  Zack, content to amble along in their company, kept a wary eye out for more crazed Turks mucking about.

The train ride was quiet, even more so than the ride up had been. The car was empty but for them and a lone conductor who sat at the far end and read a paper spattered with pictures of President ShinRa presenting this year's tree in the square. Aerith sat beside Zack, and hummed a little song as she sifted through the money she'd made from the flowers. Zack stared pensively into space, and watched Cloud from the corner of his eye as his blond friend sat hunched in his seat, face as inscrutable as ever.

It had been an overall good day, and Zack was glad he'd done it. These were the sorts of memories, as odd as this one had turned out to be, that were worth holding on to when things went wrong. They were the sorts of things that made the world make sense again.

Once they reached the slums and disembarked at the Sector 7 station they headed toward Sector 5. There were more people about down here than had been on the train. Beggars and thieves, and the like. Aerith stopped a few times to give away some of the money she'd so recently made, something that didn't surprise Zack.  It was so like her.  All the same, the run-ins with the Turks kept Zack at her side closer than usual, and before he knew it they'd passed through the Sector 5 market where Zack got his first glimpse of Aerith's home. For all that he'd been dating her for nearly a year, he'd never ventured near her home.
It fit her, he decided as he took in the sprawling flower garden that even now was clearly still being added to and arranged. The house looked like a cozy little thing that didn't seem to belong  in the slums, like it would be more at home in Kalm, maybe. It suited Aerith, though, and he could easily envision her among the flowers, happily tilling the soil to make room for more.

Aerith touched his arm to draw his attention, and leaned up to lightly kiss his cheek. Zack gave her a warm smile. “Thank you for the wonderful day,” she murmured, voice soft.

“Anytime,” Zack replied, just as soft. And he meant it; anything, anytime if he could manage it.

Aerith put her basket down and turned away to give Cloud a sudden hug. “I had so much fun. Thank you, Cloud.”

She retrieved her basket again, and gave them a beaming grin, then trotted up the path toward the door which had opened to spill warm golden light.

Zack turned to Cloud. “Well, looks like we have one more train ride....” Cloud nodded in agreement, and Zack turned to start heading back when Cloud's hand caught his elbow.  Zack sent him a curious glance, only for Cloud to nod back toward Aerith's house.  Zack turned on his heel to see her hurrying back toward them, an anxious smile on her face.

"Wait you two," Aerith said as she got close enough to be heard.  She stopped a few steps away, twisting her hands fretfully in her coat pockets.  "Mother has asked you two to come to dinner tomorrow night.  I know you're probably busy, but…." she trailed off, looking hopefully from Cloud to Zack, where her gaze lingered. 

As soon as the initial rush of emotion that threatened to make him break out into a silly grin wore off at the invitation, Zack could almost see the gears turning in Cloud's head. His face had that pinched little expression, and the slight hunch to his shoulders and...Zack reached over and clapped a hand over Cloud's mouth before he could say anything. Aerith gave him a look, which Zack blithely ignored.  He ignored Cloud's muffled sound of protest too. “We'd love to, Aerith. I'd much rather spend a lovely evening with you and your mom than off in some dark part of Midgar stomping a few errant monsters.”

Aerith beamed at him. “I'll see you both at seven, then?”

Zack gave her a thumbs up, his other hand still occupied, and flashed a grin. “You betcha. See you tomorrow!” Once he was sure she was on her way back, Zack released Cloud and turned to head off again.

"Zack, I don't—"  Cloud began.  Zack decided to ignore that too, grabbed Cloud's collar and began to haul his short blond pal back towards the market. Once they were nearly there, Zack let him go and gave Cloud an amused if not slightly exasperated look.

Zack crossed his arms, weight resting on his right leg, and quirked a brow at Cloud.  “I don't know what sort of martyr-complex drives you to try and rescue every little thing, buddy, but you don't need to protect my relationship too."

Moving forward before Cloud could use this as an excuse to sulk and pout, Zack grabbed Cloud around the neck and drew him close as if imparting a great secret. “Look, I'm sure it hasn't entered that thick skull, it's probably still fighting through this amusingly spiky hair of yours, but Aerith likes you. She wants to be your friend. And you're my friend too. You know what that means?” Here Zack paused and rapped his knuckles sharply against Cloud's forehead. “It means we like to spend time with you. If Aerith wants you to meet her mom too, then that's cool. Aerith and I are old enough that we can spend time together whenever we want, and if we don't want you around we'll tell you.” Zack shoved Cloud lightly away as if to illustrate his point.

"…I didn't mean—"  Cloud began again, looking slightly wilted.

“Don't give me that look,” Zack said, giving him a look of his own, “and don't start mentally talking down on yourself. You're coming tomorrow or I'll carry you there over my shoulder like a bratty kid. If it makes you feel better I'll take her out on a date, just the two of us, the day after that.”  He'd been planning to anyway, so it wasn't like it was any hardship.

"Don't expect me to save you when you make a fool of yourself in front of Elmyra," Cloud said finally, turning on his heel and striding down the road.  Zack simply gave a short bark of laughter and set off after him.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 23rd)

Walking down the streets in the early evening air, Cloud listened with half an ear to Zack's nervous chatter.  Zack seemed to be trying to get out as many words as he could without breathing, and Cloud absently wondered when he'd pass out from lack of oxygen.  Sadly, that didn't appear to be soon.

“Can you believe Sparo, yesterday? He was all harping about sappy romance or something—I don't even know why–and then he was rushing off to help that Turk like knight in shining trooper gear on a white chocobo!” Zack babbled.  “I mean that certainly looked like some sort of sappy romance or something, though maybe I'm just wrong? He does seem pretty interested in the Turks so maybe he was hoping to make a good impression. That seems like a very Turk thing to do, doesn't it? What do you think of Sparo as a Turk, Cloud? You think the uniform would suit him? ...It just might; he does have that sort of vaguely untrustworthy and dangerous air Turks seem to have. Except Tseng and Cissnei.”

(Trooper gear doesn't shine.) Cloud's thoughts were vague and absentminded as he walked calmly along in front of Zack while the man worked himself into more and more complex knots.  The First had been talking almost constantly since he woke Cloud up.  In fact, he'd already been asking rhetorical questions as he'd flopped down gracelessly on Cloud's bed, dislodging the blond from slumber, before he bounced up again and paced around the room.  At first it had been amusing, seeing Zack so flustered over the simple matter of dinner at Aerith's, but as the morning progressed, amusement turned to amazement that Zack could still find new things to babble about.  Amazement dwindled into a sort of numb exasperation, when it was clear that Zack showed no sign of stopping his verbal deluge.

Throughout the day, Cloud had been subjected to more manhandling than he had in the past year, as Zack would grab him, tug him, shake him, lean on him, and in general invade Cloud's personal space.  Around the fifth time, in an act of mild desperation, Cloud had tried hitting Zack fairly hard to get him to stop, but his nervous friend had barely noticed, and indeed had only let out a belated 'Ow' a few minutes after he'd been struck.  It was at that point that Cloud had given in, and listened resignedly with half an ear to Zack's babbling as he went about the day, occasionally having to tug the First along when he froze in a moment of panic.

“Tseng has this air of control, you know? He's all cool, calm, and slick, while Cissnei is really quiet and kind of nice. She's a bit like Aerith too, I think. Got that 'I care about everyone' vibe. Kind of like you, only it's more like you've got this weight pressing down on you, like it's a burden and a duty instead of a joy.”

(I can't help if my duty left a mark on me.)

When Zack paused in his diatribe to send Cloud a woebegone look, Cloud braced himself, knowing what was coming.  Sure enough, Zack whirled, hands clamped onto Cloud's shoulders, and he sent the most pitiful look at the blond.  It would have been more effective if it hadn't been about the tenth time he had done it today.

“You don't think this is a terrible idea do you? I mean isn't this supposed to be...I don't now important? I'm not sure how all this is supposed to work, exactly. And it's Aerith, and and and her ma. And...Cloud, do you think I should have left Buster Sword behind? I mean it's one thing to show up, but is it a bad idea to show up armed? It seems like a bad idea, maybe I should take it back? No, no, we'll be late if I go all the way back and...” Slouching, Zack let go of Cloud and staggered, in a slightly over dramatic manner, the rest of the way up the stairs. At the top Zack slumped against the railing and let his head fall to rest on his forearms. “Do you have some Phoenix Downs with you Cloud?” he asked, mournful voice muffled. “We might need'em.”

Cloud merely began walking again, and grabbed the back of Zack's shirt as he passed so he could haul his friend from his pose of absolute woe.  As with the puppy-dog look, it had lost its effectiveness long ago.  Zack's melodrama aside, Cloud felt a pang of apprehension himself, if only because he wasn't sure how to act in front of Elmyra.  With Aerith, it was easy to fall into a comfortable companionship, and Zack was simply too friendly for his own good, but other people were still a frightening unknown for Cloud.

Zack regained his feet after a few steps and began walking under his own power again.  Cloud did wish he knew how to reassure his friend that it would be fine, that of course Elmyra would love him, but not only was Zack not giving him a moment to get a word in edgewise, but Cloud knew his own words would be completely inadequate.  It was probably better if Zack learned himself that Aerith's mother was just as warm and friendly as her daughter.

It was as they entered Sector 1 that things went wrong, and everything seemed to happen too fast to process. One minute Cloud was watching Zack balk in insecurity, the next they were moving as the sound of screams erupted over the previous silence. They both turned in time to see a woman trip as she crested the stairs, her hands immediately clutched her head protectively as several immense insects scrambled into view. One came flying up, wings buzzing, over the railing Zack had been leaning on not long ago. Two more came skittering up the stairs.

“Hey! Stop that!” Zack yelled. His boots thudded against the ground as he darted over just in time to slam a fist into one monster's head and send it reeling as it made to grab hold of the woman's ankle. A second later he brought his hand up and blasted the flying one with a fireball. The third insect backed off, clicking and trilling.

Cloud backed up and drew his sword to take care of a couple of the monsters that had flown over the roof tops, out of Zack's line of sight.  A side step to avoid a hastily spat web, and with a few quick sword swings the invading monsters were taken care of.

“Ah, man...Kimara Bugs,” Zack spat nearby, “I thought I left these things back in Gongaga...” Cloud glanced over to see him haul the woman to her feet. “You okay?”

“Y-yes, I think so,” she replied shakily.

Zack looked up toward him then, face set and grim. “Hey, Cloud? Do me a favor and let Aerith know I'm going to be late, would you? Ma'am, you should probably find somewhere to duck into and get out of the way.”

Cloud shot him a dark look.  "Don't be stupid," he said sharply.  "I'll stay and help you."  Around them, more cries of alarm and distress were ringing out as people ran around fleeing from the influx of the insects.  If this kept up, someone was bound to get hurt.  What these particular monsters were doing so far from their natural habitat Cloud had no idea.  They weren't even native to this continent.

Cloud shifted his grip on his sword, preparing to leap down to the courtyard.  While he had a Blizzard materia on him from Zack's stash, he didn't really trust his own accuracy with the magic.  The stone was of a much lower quality than he was used to from his own travels, and he hadn't had much time to practice with it yet.

“No way, man. If you stay then Aerith will be left waiting for the both of us. Do you want her to worry?  Just get going!”

Without giving Cloud a chance to argue, Zack ran toward the railing.  Just before it, he pushed off the ground as green-gold energy suffused his body.  His boots hit the railing, and Zack propelled off into the air. He seemed to be suspended for a long, stretched out moment above the square as he swirled Buster Sword over his head.  Glowing energy coalesced along the blade, and at the top of its arc it shown molten gold.  Zack brought it down in a vicious slash that unleashed the pent up power in a shower of blazing spheres. As the fire and smoke cleared, Zack dropped heavily to land amidst the dead bugs and cracked concrete he'd wrought. Even the fountain was leaking.

Leaning over the railing Cloud raised his eyebrow at the destruction his friend had caused.  Zack was already disappearing down another street, obviously talking into his phone.  He had half a mind to follow after regardless, but resisted the juvenile urge.  Zack could obviously handle it, and was smart enough to request back up since he couldn't be everywhere at once.  Which meant…Cloud had to face Aerith and Elmyra by himself.  Was it too late to chase after Zack again?

Sighing resignedly, Cloud turned and made his way to the train, flashing his ID to the station employee.  Most likely the train would leave faster than normal, the conductor hoping to escape the monster infestation in case it spilled over from Sector 8.  Sure enough, Cloud felt the train shudder under him as the whistle blew.  Out the window he could see the station employee hop on as it started moving down the tracks.

Cloud settled himself on an empty bench. Around him the air was filled with a frightened buzz as people whispered about the sudden attack.  It seemed monster infestations were becoming more of a problem in this time.  Before Midgar's fall, the monsters had mostly occupied the spaces between living sectors in the slums, and monster attacks on top of the plate were nearly unheard of.  Cloud closed his eyes and tuned out the ambient sounds, relaxing as the train made its familiar journey around the support pillar to the slum level. 

It seemed the train had left in time, and was not harassed by any of the rogue monsters.  Once it arrived in the lower station, Cloud pushed through the press of anxious people as they disembarked, eager to get away from the perceived danger on the other end of the tracks. He hoped Zack would finish soon, and not succumb to his nerves all by himself.  If he didn’t arrive at Aerith's house within the hour, Cloud would go back up and make sure he hadn't chickened out.  Maybe Zack's nerves would be settled by the battle high.

The walk across the sectors to Aerith's home passed quickly, one or two of the slum dwellers actually nodded in greeting to him.  Cloud acknowledged the gestures, surprised at the implied geniality directed at him without Zack's friendly presence.  Finally, he was in front of the familiar white cottage, its color dulled in the filtered light that reached under the plates.  Before he could second guess himself, Cloud raised his hand and knocked, waiting nervously for Aerith or her mother to respond.  Hopefully they wouldn't be upset he hadn't managed to stop Zack from running off.

The door opened, and Cloud was greeted with Aerith's smiling face.  Her eyes immediately darted over his shoulder, before coming back to rest on him. “Cloud! I'm so glad you came, I wasn't sure...” she paused, shook her head, and stepped aside. “You can come in if you want. Is Zack running late again?”
As Aerith's warm welcome enveloped Cloud, he was struck by a sudden case of nervousness.  This was the first time he'd been with Aerith without Zack nearby. The First's absence made Cloud feel like his support had been kicked out from under him.  Since his accident that had brought him here, Cloud had not been separate from Zack for more than a few hours.  Zack was the only one who knew, even if he couldn't really understand all the things that had happened, could happen again.

While Cloud couldn't quite manage a smile for Aerith, he did step inside when prompted.  "Something…came up just before we got to the train.  Zack should take care of it quickly, and be here soon," he said quietly, careful not to bump into a nearby plant as he cleared the doorway so Aerith could close the door behind him.  The inside of the house looked the same as he remembered, covered in worn but well cared for decorations and furniture.  On a small table, a single photograph stood showing a much younger, smiling Aerith with an armful of flowers.  Cloud stared at it, taken in by how happy Aerith looked in it.  He wondered, guiltily, if the Elmyra of his time looked at her copy of it with regret.  "He…wanted me to come ahead," Cloud said, tearing his attention back to Aerith.  "So you wouldn't worry."

Aerith stared silently at her hand resting on the doorknob for several seconds before looking up to Cloud. “Zack's good at thinking of other people,” she agreed quietly, “but not so good at looking after himself.” She moved over to stand beside him, her hands behind her back and leaned forward slightly. “But, at least you're here to keep us company, and I'm kind of glad that I get to talk to you alone for a moment. We haven't really had a chance to talk,” She paused, and turned away from him. When she spoke again, she picked her words carefully. “Cloud...Zack's been acting very strange lately, don't you think? Almost as if he's rushing toward something he isn't sure of. And you do too, I think, but...I'm not going to ask what's going on.” She turned to face him, and smiled. “Just, promise me that if you ever need help you'll come to me alright? I'll help if I can. Promise.”

Of course Aerith would notice something was wrong.  Cloud should have expected her to question him sooner, but perhaps like Zack, Aerith didn't want to worry the First unduly.  Cloud's promise to Zack weighed heavily on his mind, though he didn't want to drag Aerith into his messed up life, not yet.  She needed to be happy, he needed her to be happy.  Otherwise he would succumb to the guilt and despair as he had not too long ago.  He regarded Aerith for a moment, staring into her earnest expression.

"Zack wants to protect you."  (I wanted to protect you.) "But…" Cloud paused, unsure how to express the deep feeling of comfort that Aerith instilled in him.  Her death had hurt so much, yet her presence had never truly left Cloud.  Always she would appear, trying in her gentle way to pull him out of his despair, never pushing or accusing him of not being good enough.  Her hand was always outstretched to help him to his feet when he stumbled.  "You help, just by being here," he said finally, helpless in his inability to find the words.

“I know,” she said simply. “But you and Zack can't always be around. That's why he bought me the staff and is helping me learn to use it. I'll be able to protect myself, and others in turn, just like Zack protects me, and even you.” She stepped closer to Cloud and reached out lightly to touch his arm. “That's sweet of you,” she told him lightly, “and I'm glad. Just don't forget what I said. If you need help, come calling, and I'll help any way I can. I want to help. Until then I'll be here, being me, for both of you. So you'd best come visit me often.”

"Aerith?" Elmyra's voice called, drifting in from the other room.  Cloud's gaze drifted over to the door, both relieved and disappointed at the interruption.  "Are your friends here?  Don't dawdle, come in and introduce us.  I can't leave the food just yet."

Aerith laughed, and turned a sparkling grin on Cloud. “Sorry, Mom, we were just talking.” She took hold of Cloud's hand and led him through to the kitchen. “Mom, this is Cloud. Zack's going to be a little late. Apparently there's a problem.”

"Hello Mrs. Gainsborough," Cloud greeted the woman.  Elmyra turned, one hand still occupied with stirring a pot as she smiled over her shoulder at him.

"My!  Aerith wasn't lying when she said you were good looking," Elmyra said brightly, smiling teasingly at both of them.  "Sit down!   It's a pity that SOLDIER Zack isn't here yet.   I did so want to meet the man who managed to drag my daughter's attention from her garden for more than five minutes at a time.  I hope you're hungry, though.  I'm so used to cooking for just the two of us that I might have gone a little overboard."  She cast a rueful look at her overflowing stove, where all burners were occupied with some saucepan or another.

"Mako affects the metabolism, so I'm sure the amount will be fine," Cloud said uncomfortably, wishing now that he really had decided to follow Zack after all.  Elmyra sent a sardonic look at her daughter, pushing a strand of hair that had escaped her bun out of her eyes.

"And you weren't lying about that either, were you dear?  Oh, don't worry about it, Cloud, isn't it?" Elmyra said, turning back to her cooking.  "I was just teasing.  I think…yes, that should do.  We can just set these on warm, and wait for SOLDIER Zack to arrive."

“It's probably for the best,” Aerith said solemnly, in response to her mother. “Zack's loud enough for the both of them, I think. You know you don't have to call him that. I doubt Zack would mind if you called him by name.”

“I just want to be polite,” Elmyra said. “So I'll call him that for now. Why don't you seat your guest and set the table?”
Shaking her head in fond amusement, Aerith gathered up a stack of plates and bid Cloud to follow her. “So, Cloud, why don't you tell me what you and Zack have been up to recently?”

The next hour or so passed quickly, as Cloud chatted with Aerith and Elmyra.  'Chat' was perhaps the wrong word, as Cloud didn't do all that much talking, but Aerith had the same talent as Zack in knowing when to urge him on or when to leave things be.  Elmyra was much more energetic than Cloud expected, remembering the tired, sad woman he'd met all those years ago.  Between the two, they kept Cloud too distracted to remember his own worries, though he caught Aerith sending the door a worried look once or twice.

"I was surprised when Aerith told me she was going up on the plate," Elmyra said, taking a sip from her tea cup.  "This child has such strange ideas sometimes, I just didn't know what to do with her."

"Mother," Aerith protested, shaking her head slightly. 

"Oh, don't fuss dear.  I'm just glad you found such reliable friends to take care of you," the woman replied, patting Aerith's hand with her own and sending Cloud a grateful smile.  "I'm sure you'll take her beyond Midgar's walls one day," she added, nodding at Cloud.  "Aerith needs to learn what a wonderful world it is out there."

"I'm perfectly happy with my garden here," Aerith said lightly, making a small tsking sound.  "But it would be amazing, to see just how much is out there."  She would see the world, Cloud knew.  Even if everything else changed—and he would ensure that it did—Aerith was too full of life to squander it in Midgar's slums.  Zack would help, and indeed would probably be the first to bring her into the open sunlight. 

A knock interrupted further conversation, and Aerith leapt to her feet with an excited smile.  Cloud's gaze followed her as she hurried to the other room, before drifting back to Elmyra.  The woman had stood up herself, giving her hair a nervous pat.  She sent Cloud a sheepish smile.

"I suppose I shouldn't be so worried.  Aerith has been so happy recently, thanks to SOLIDER Zack," she said quietly.  Cloud tilted his head slightly as he regarded her, wondering if it was his place to reassure Elmyra that she had nothing to worry about with Zack.  There probably wasn't a friendlier person alive, at least not within Midgar's borders.

"Zack is a good man," Cloud said, staring at his hands as he rubbed them together absently.  "He makes Aerith smile."  There was really nothing else that needed to be added.  He glanced up through his bangs, catching Elmyra's gentle smile at his response.

"As do you," she said warmly, coming around the table to lay a hand on his shoulder.

Cloud could hear Aerith's surprised laughter from the other room, followed by her asking, “What are you doing?”

Zack's voice answered her, sounding sheepish,  “Trying to keep from tracking bug slime all over your floor...? Watch out. See? That way, no bug guts!”  Cloud blinked, lowering his eyes to his hands.  He could only imagine what sort of mess Zack had managed to make of himself.

“A little bug slime isn't going to do any damage,” Aerith said. “I track dirt and mud in all the time, but it's sweet of you to think about it.”

“I wouldn't call that a little bug slime.” Zack groaned. “I was practically sliding in it.”

“Is that...?”

“Bit of bug, yeah.... Like I said...more than a bit of slime, these things.”

“It looks like it was exploded all over you.  And you've got web in your hair. Come on, we're in here.”

Cloud gave the doorway a sardonic look, which quickly changed to amused when Zack walked in.  He hadn't been going to say anything, but upon seeing the slime covered SOLDIER, he did have an urge to rub it in Zack's face.  Cloud refrained, if only to allow his friend to meet Elmyra in peace.

“I got cornered by a big mob of them. They were trying to wrap me up like a cocoon. Don't give me that look, Cloud,” Zack said, picking at a bit of webbing in his hair. After a second he gave Elmyra an abashed smile. “You must be Aerith's mom.”

Elmyra's lips gave a suspicious twitch. “Yes, I'm Elmyra Gainsborough, and you must be that young SOLDIER Zack I've heard about."

“Just call me Zack, ma'am. It's a pleasure to meet you,” Zack said. “I'm sorry I'm late, but there was a small monster outbreak on the plate....”

“It's alright, I know how you military types see your duty.”

Zack made a face at the sticky web stuck determinedly to his gloves, spreading it between thumb and forefinger. “Your daughter would never forgive me if I didn't help them anyway.”

"Come now, Aerith, why don't you take Zack to the bathroom and help him clean up.  Cloud here can help me get this food served up, right?" Elmyra shooed a hand at the pair, turning and bustling back to the stove.  Cloud obediently got to his feet, catching Zack's eye for a moment before giving an amused snort.  Only Zack could make being covered in monster guts endearing.

He endured Elmyra's instructions on where to put what, and in short order they had the table filled with steaming dishes of all sorts.  The domestic activity made Cloud squirm a bit uncomfortably.  Before his trip back it had been rare he actually sat down to eat a meal, unless Tifa or the children managed to corner him into a promise.  It wasn't that Cloud didn't enjoy their company, but more that he hadn't felt he deserved their kindness, that he no longer knew how to deal with people.  The restless feeling that there was something more he should be doing never really left.

Here at least, with Elmyra's happy humming and the distant murmur of Zack and Aerith's voices, Cloud felt at rest, if not entirely comfortable.  For a moment he wished that Tifa, Marlene, and Denzel were there as well, and the regret startled him in its intensity.  Cloud hadn't let himself think overly long on the people he'd left behind, if only because he wanted to use this chance to make their futures happier.  But he did miss Tifa's cheerful voice, Marlene's sweet smiles, and Denzel's quiet presence.  They had been his family, even if it had been rather dysfunctional. 

Zack backed into the room, his harness and shoulder armor slung over one shoulder. “It might have gotten worse than it was but a Turk friend of mine showed up.” Zack glanced over his shoulder at Cloud and nodded to him, “Cloud might remember her. Quiet little redhead who was giving him the evil eye in Mideel.... Anyway, she popped up while those bugs were trying to cocoon me, and managed to take out the one right over me, which is where most of the slime came from. Luckily I was mostly covered in web at the time so I didn't get doused. The thing kind of looked like it exploded....”

Cloud raised an eyebrow at the mention of the Turks.  He didn't really remember what the one who'd been in Mideel looked like, as he'd been almost completely out of his head at the time, not to mention she'd left at daybreak and he'd only seen her in the dark.  It would figure that Zack had friends everywhere, even with the Turks.  It did cause him to pause, though.  If the Turks had been so close at hand, it was probably just as well that he'd come down when he had.  All Cloud needed was to aggravate their suspicions by fighting in front of them.  He was doing a fine job of that just by existing as it was.

“You got all of them though?” Aerith asked as she followed after Zack.

“Well, we got the ones causing trouble between the Turks, the security staff, and a few dispatched SOLDIERs, but apparently they've got a nest in between the plate. Cissnei got a call from her boss after we finished mopping them up.  They're sending the Turks in to hunt up the nest. Normally that's what they have us SOLDIERs around for, but I'm pretty happy to leave this one to the Turks.” Zack turned on his heel and took a deep breath. “This smells wonderful. The last time I had a home-cooked meal was before I left home.”

“Oh?” Elmyra asked. “Where is it you're from?”

“Little nowhere town on the West Continent called Gongaga,” Zack said with a quick grin. “Not as nowhere as where Cloud's from, but real close.”

Zack fit in smoothly with the family, and Cloud noted with amusement that his anxiety from earlier was completely gone.  At least he knew what to do next time Zack decided to talk his ear off in nervousness.  Would he get in trouble for chucking his friend into a pit of monsters?  Well, if anyone complained, he'd just set Zack on them instead.  Cloud was sure his actions would be applauded then.

They settled into the meal, and as Cloud had predicted, Zack proved that 'too much' was not in his vocabulary.  It was nice, just to relax among friends.  Cloud didn't expect nor want them to replace those he left behind, and instead enjoyed their own brand of warmth and companionship.

[ μ ] – εуλ 0001 (December 24th)

“Hey, Cloud? I'm heading off now, and you've got some visitors!”  Cloud stepped out of his room at Zack's call, blinking in surprise at the sight of the two Thirds standing in the doorway. 

"Zack…what?" he said, pushing past them in time to see Zack vanish behind the elevator doors at the end of the hall.  A hand on his shoulder hauled him unceremoniously back into the apartment, and Cloud found himself confronted by the twin walls of Gibbs and Edge.

"Alright, Blondie," Edge said as he grinned down at Cloud.  "Get your panties on tight, 'cause you're hanging with us today."

"There's a sentiment to fill you with dread," Gibbs muttered, shoving Cloud forward a few steps in an attempt to get him moving.  "Not to mention how hard it is to find women's underwear in the army."

"Wanna bet Fair has got a stash of them somewhere?" Edge leered, peering around the room as if he expected to see a pile in a corner.  "He seems like enough of a flirt." 

"I'd be more worried he had a stash of Cloud's underwear, with how much he was hitting on the little guy," Gibbs said seriously, and the two Thirds dissolved into laughter.

Cloud stared warily at the pair, completely nonplussed at the sudden invasion of what was supposed to have been a quiet day for him.  The teasing seemingly done with for the moment, both SOLDIERS were looking at him expectantly, Edge making a shooing motion with one hand.

"Get your boots on.  I want a rematch for the other day," the Third growled.  "It was gutsy of you to stick us with the bill.

"Like hell," Gibbs countered.  "You can drink yourself into a stupor on your own time.  I want to see Cloud in action.  The training rooms should be free on a day like this."
"Is training all you think about?   It's a day off, Gibbs," came the plaintive complaint. Edge turned back to Cloud, who had yet to move from his spot where he was staring blankly at the two.  "You don't want to be stuck in ShinRa all day, right kid?"

"…I'm—"

"Not a kid," Edge cut him off, waving his hand again dismissively.  "Damn you're predictable.  And if you don't get predictably moving, I will predictably come over there and shove your boots down your throat until they make it to your feet in good order."

Cloud snorted softly, amused at the lengths the pair were going to get him out of the cramped apartment.  With little choice, because he was quite sure Edge would at the very least carry him bodily out of there if he refused, Cloud slipped into his room and pulled his boots on before gathering the few other paraphernalia he needed for the day.  He exited the room, nearly bumping into Edge who had been lurking just outside the doorway.

"Hurmph.  Wanted to make sure you weren't going to lock yourself in or something equally pissy," the Third grumbled, jerking his head for Cloud to lead the way.  With only a little reluctance on Cloud's part, the trio exited the apartment complex, heading for the gate that led out of the SOLDIER compound.  There was some sort of commotion going on there, and Cloud had to wonder at his luck as he recognized the trio harassing the gate guard.

"Come on!  I'm telling you, I know this guy—" Jac could be heard whining.  Sparo and a reluctant looking Connally stood behind him.  The guard blocking their path wasn't having any of it, though.

"Doesn't matter, trooper.  No ID, no access.  Give your buddy a call if you want to see him that bad."
"Dude doesn't even have a phone."
"Uh huh."  Obviously the guard didn't believe Jac's story, and the trooper's shoulders slumped in defeat.  Sparo spotted the trio approaching, and his face split into a grin as he raised a hand in greeting. 

"Well, looks like we're not the only ones out for a stroll.  How are the little troopies today?" Edge drawled as they approached, causing Jac to bound up on his toes in an effort to see over the guard's shoulder.

“Hey Cloud! Edge, Gibbs!” Jac hollered, making the guard wince. “Sparo heard from one of his, uh, sources that Zack wasn't going to be monopolizing Cloud's time today.... I mean, we were hoping to get to hang out with him, you know?”

Before Edge could respond, the Third on guard duty acidly asked, “You know these three idiots?”

“Unfortunately,” Edge grumbled. “We'll take them off your hands, Jasper.”

“Well, so long as you lot get out of here I don't care.”

As soon as the three had crossed out of the compound, Jac and Sparo immediately fell into step with Edge and Cloud while Connally trailed back a little with Gibbs. “So what're we up to today?” Sparo asked glibly. “There's not really that much to do around here unless we all want to go see what version of LOVELESS is playing.”

Edge scoffed. “There's plenty to do if you know where to look. I was planning on dragging his scrawny ass to—”

“The training rooms,” Gibbs cut in. “We all know Cloud's pretty good with a sword, and Fair's been teaching him for a week now. Might as well see how good he is and get some practice in ourselves.”

“It'll be just like one of those cross department skirmishes,” Edge said, voice wickedly sweet. The troopers blanched.

“I don't think that's a good idea.... I mean, the last time they set up one of those...” Connally mumbled, ducking his head.

“Was that the one where Fair trounced the Security Force and a bunch of the battle machines?” Jac asked, craning his head back.

“Yeah... It was just after Cloud was assigned to our squad, when the rest of his team got taken out during the mission that brought him here, so we didn't participate. I'm pretty glad about that, actually....”

“In that case,” Sparo said, a devilish look on his face. “Cloud can be on our team. He's not technically a SOLDIER after all.”

Somehow, Cloud thought with dismay, this was going to go horribly wrong. 

Gibbs had gotten his way, leading the odd-ball group up through ShinRa's security to the SOLDIER Training Room.  Layla had once again been one of the receptionists on duty, and her enthusiastic attention had only been diverted from Cloud when Jac had begun not so subtly flirting with her.  It had been Edge who lost patience first, snatching the temporary clearance cards from Layla and bodily hauling Jac away.  Neither Jac nor Layla had seemed particularly perturbed by it, setting up a date at the top of their lungs before the group was out of sight.

Now Cloud stood in this so-called Training Room, waiting uncertainly off to one side as Gibbs fiddled with a monitor on the other side of the glass.  Connally's nerves seemed to have disappeared, as the trooper was all but hanging off of Gibbs' shoulder as he typed industriously.  Jac shifted  nervously from foot to foot at Sparo's side, the latter tried to look bored at it all.  Across from the pair, Edge succeeded at looking bored, or at least impatient at the wait.  How was Cloud supposed to fight these men?  It wasn't like he'd had much practice in friendly battle. 

The training room itself wasn't particularly impressive.  In fact, it was downright plain, so far as Cloud had imagined a training room to be like.  The glowing flooring was disconcerting, and the lighting was odd, but there was no cover, no obstacles, no ring for two people to fight in.  It hardly seemed worth the effort of coming all the way up here.  Not to mention Cloud had been expecting his bad luck to strike, and to run into Sephiroth.  Luckily they hadn't, though they had received odd stares from the occasional SOLDIER they passed on their way to the Training Room.

Suddenly the room went dark, and Cloud was instantly on edge.  Before he could do more than bring his hand up to his sword hilt, wondering if there had been some sort of power outage, the room lit up again.  It was no longer the plain white room of before, now appearing to be some sort of storage house.  Boxes and crates were stacked high and randomly, cutting Cloud off from the rest of the team.  The ceiling even higher, was lined with heavy industrial steel beams.  There was even a faint green glow leaking in through small, dusty windows that suggested Midgar lay just outside.

"Wow!  This is so cool!" he heard Jac's voice float over the stacks. 

"Get off, you idiot."  That was Sparo, exasperation thick in his voice.  Cloud reached out a cautious hand, surprised when it connected solidly with the crate in front of him.  It wasn't just an illusion to trick the eye, then.

"Why don't we give the troopies five minutes grace, before we whip their skinny asses," called Edge, mockingly.

"The hell you will!  We still have Cloud on our team!" Jac shot back.  Cloud let out a sigh of amusement, hopping tentatively up on the stack of crates.  It held, so he continued up and over to where Jac and Sparo were still standing. Connally turned the corner just as Cloud dropped down.

"The gang's all here," Sparo said, teeth glinting in the dim warehouse lighting.  He slung his gun down from his shoulder, cocking it with a simple, efficient movement.  "Looks like you get to use that tin can opener, but the rest of us will see if we can't keep those Thirds on their toes." He nodded amiably at Cloud.  "'Course, if you don't keep them off us, this game will be over right quick."

"Gibbs will probably focus on Cloud," Connally put in quietly.  "It's Edge you have to watch out for.  He's likely to pick us off first."

"Ah man...I didn't want to get my ass kicked today," Jac whined, clutching his gun in both hands.

"Then, why don't I go after Edge first?" Cloud asked, smirking slightly as the excitement caught hold of him.  If they wanted to see what he could do, well, he'd be careful, but it shouldn't hurt to have a bit of fun.  Zack would approve, at least.

"That's the spirit," Sparo said, slapping Cloud on the back.  "Alright you two, let's spread out and see if we can't provide some undercover assistance."  Sparo tipped them a wink, and trotted off into the maze, boots tapping a light staccato against the floor.  Jac and a grinning Connally melted away a heartbeat later, leaving Cloud alone in the maze of crates.  Would it be worth finding cover, or just waiting for the Thirds to make themselves known?  If Sparo was right, Edge would avoid Cloud, and that was something he wanted to prevent.

Decided, Cloud stealthily slipped through the stacks, keeping an ear out for any sign of either Third.  His time sense told him the five minutes were up, but since there was no immediate outcry, Cloud figured the others had managed to find cover in time.  He pressed his back against a crate as he heard the scrape of boots on concrete from just around the corner.  There was the silence of someone trying not to make any noise, which was subtly different from no one being there at all. 

Cloud shifted his grip slightly on the long sword, sparing just a moment to wish it was his trusted First Tsurugi, before whirling around the corner with a two handed swing.  Another sword met his in a ringing clash of metal on metal, and Cloud was met with Edge's razor smirk across the crossed blades.

"Well well, looks like the kitten has claws," Edge rumbled, shoving hard and sending Cloud back a step.  The SOLDIER followed up almost immediately with another swing, which Cloud blocked to lock their swords together again.  Cloud didn't rise to the verbal bait, instead he kicked out with a booted foot to connect solidly in the man's side.   Edge cursed, breaking from the standstill and hopping backward, one hand on his bruised side.

A displacement of air warned Cloud enough to spin, driven down to one knee as Gibbs came in from above.  Cloud rocked backward, sending Gibbs' sword inches into the ground above his head, before kicking the Third at the hovering Edge.  Forced to release his weapon, Gibbs controlled his fall and landed beside his partner, bringing his fists up in a defensive posture.  Cloud regained his feet, taking a few steps back and settling himself defensively as well.  He tilted his head, smirking slightly at the pair as he silently dared Gibbs to collect his fallen blade.

The same moment Gibbs made a dive for the blade, Edge swarming in just ahead of him to cut off any retaliation from Cloud, gunshots cracked through the air, causing the Thirds to abort their advance and take cover in the stacks.  Craning his head around, Cloud saw Connally duck back behind his cover, but not before sending Cloud a companionable thumbs up.  Cloud just hoped the trooper had the sense not to stick around now that his position had been given away.

Without giving the Thirds time to regroup, Cloud followed after their retreat.  Gibbs was nowhere to be seen, but Edge was standing, sword at the ready and blocking Cloud's path.  They were obviously hoping to delay Cloud long enough for Gibbs to regain his weapon.

"Now, Cloud, let's see—shit!"  Edge was cut off mid-taunt as Cloud charged with a series of lightning quick swings, forcing the Third to retreat.  When his back hit the crate behind him, Edge swore again, leaping over an attack to land on top of the box.  Cloud ducked the kick at his head, pursuing Edge further up the stacks.  "Fucking hell, Gibbs, get back here already!" Edge snarled, face a twisted mask of concentration. 

The moment their swords locked again, Cloud sensed the attack from behind.  Loosening his grip, he allowed Edge to take both their sword points to the ground, splinters of wood flying as the metal bit into the crates.  He retained just enough control to keep a hold of the sword, though Edge was pulled forward as the pressure on his weapon suddenly gave.  Twisting in mid-air, Cloud brought his palm against the flat of Gibbs' sword, using the man's momentum to deflect him past Cloud's position.  Wrenching his sword free of the broken wood, Cloud finished his spin with a slash at Gibbs' back.  The Third managed to get his own sword around, but had no traction against the blow.  He went flying through the stack of crates, which at least appeared to be empty.

"…That was so cool!"  Once again, the tone of admiration and glee had come from Jac.  Edge smirked at Cloud, leaping high overhead in the direction the voice had come from.  "Shit!" came the muffled yelp, the sound of the trooper scrambling down the crates audible even from a distance.  Cloud made to follow, but had to make an awkward leap as Gibbs came bursting back through the ruin of crates.

By the time Cloud managed to free himself from Gibbs' attack, the yells and curses of the other troopers had been going on for a while, amidst the sound of gunfire.  Pausing for a moment under the cover of a pair of crates, Cloud waited patiently for Gibbs to pass by, still searching for him.  Once he was sure the coast was clear, Cloud slipped out of his hiding spot, making his way on ground level for the sounds of fighting.

Later, Cloud couldn't pinpoint what it had been that had tipped him off.  There was none of the usual pull, no sense of the overpowering aura, just one second Cloud had been creeping along a wall of crates, the next he was flying through them, having barely blocked a swing from the familiar shape of the Masamune.  Immediately the pleasant high spirits twisted into a desperate adrenaline rush, as Cloud was buried in a mountain of debris.  What was he doing here?  Why was he attacking?  Hadn't Zack promised…? 

There was no time to think further, to wonder what had gone wrong, if his cover might have been blown, if Sephiroth was just indulging in some sort of experiment or if he had just gone insane.  Cloud exploded from his involuntary cover, and was immediately met by another swing from the deadly blade.  For a moment their blades locked, the combatants hovering mid-air, and Cloud stared into those cat-like green eyes.  What he saw was startling; there was no madness, like he feared, but there was also no life, nothing behind eyes that were like glass.  It seemed impossible, but had something happened to Sephiroth?  Some further plot of Hojo's that had gotten out of hand?

His distraction cost him, as Sephiroth once again batted him away like an insect.  This time Cloud managed to land on the ground, bringing his sword up to catch his nemesis’ next attack.  The metal groaned in protest, and Cloud hoped the inadequate blade would hold against the more powerful weapon.

"What the hell Gibbs?  Why did you use that program!" Edge's voice broke through the rushing sound that clogged Cloud's ears.  Program?  That should have meant something, but Cloud was too busy fighting for his life to make sense of it, sidestepping a stab that would have gone straight through his heart. 

"I didn't!  Shit, hang on Cloud!"

Cloud ignored the sounds of the other's panic, grateful that at least Sephiroth was focusing on him.  All he needed was for one of them to be killed because he wasn't able to stop the madman.  Still, there was something wrong with Sephiroth's attacks.  They were powerful, but nowhere near what Cloud had been expecting.  His attacks were just as sharp, just as cunning, but missing something.  Where Cloud expected Sephiroth to push an opening, the man would ignore it for another head on, but useless attack.

Gunshots cracked through the air, one deflecting harmlessly off of Sephiroth's shoulder guard, another grazing the silver-haired man's cheek as he leaned to one side.  A black gloved hand raised to trace the line of blood, as Sephiroth focused his gaze across the room to where Connally and Sparo were perched, readying their weapons for another round.  Connally's face was a picture of terror, though Sparo's was tight with controlled concentration. 

Sephiroth took a single step in their direction, before Cloud snapped, attacking in a flurry of moves.  He would not let Sephiroth take anyone else from him!  The attack did the trick, as once again all of Sephiroth's attention was on Cloud.  The smirk was the same, Cloud noted absently, as Sephiroth deflected every swing.  But Cloud was driving the General back, Sephiroth somehow unable to keep up with Cloud's moves.

Abruptly the room went dark, and Cloud's eyes went wide in panic.  It was just for a second, but he knew a second was all Sephiroth needed, that the attack could come from anywhere now.  When the lights came back on, there was no sign of Sephiroth, no sign of the crates or the warehouse, just the white room from earlier.  Cloud swiveled around wildly, trying to find where Sephiroth had gone, who he'd attack first, who he'd kill….

"Cloud!  Cloud, it's okay!" Connally shouted, hurrying toward Cloud.  "It was just a hologram! It's not real! Hey…are you okay?"  The trooper had stopped a few feet away, uncertain if it was safe to approach Cloud who had yet to lower his sword.  Cloud stared unseeingly at Connally for a moment, senses straining to find Sephiroth, and felt a faint, very faint response.  It was too far to be a threat, too far for the man to have disappeared to so quickly, and Cloud finally was able to comprehend what Connally had been saying.

"He's not…" Cloud said hoarsely, then brought himself roughly under control.  He relaxed, lowering the blade as he tried to blank his expression.  His hands shook a little at the unused adrenaline, and Cloud clenched his fists around his sword hilt to hide them.  Straightening, he re-sheathed his sword, managing a glare at Gibbs even though his stomach was in knots.  "What was that?" he asked quietly, taking in Gibbs' contrite expression.

"Look, I'm sorry about that Cloud.  I don't know how that program got in here," Gibbs said, running a hand distractedly through his hair.  "Shit, I mean, that's not supposed to—"

"Cloud that was AWESOME!" Jac caroled, and Cloud abruptly found himself with a hundred and fifty pounds of trooper hanging off his neck, slightly deafened in one ear.  "I mean, we knew you could do it, because you already did it, but to see you do it again—ack!"  The babble cut off as Edge grabbed Jac's scarf, half choking the trooper as he was peeled off of Cloud's side.  "No!  Cloud is my hero!  Wait!"

The absurdity of the moment passed, and Cloud let out a self deprecating bark of laughter.  Every time, every single time without fail it was a false alarm of some sort, when it came to Sephiroth.  Since his arrival, Cloud had been on edge, just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Sephiroth to break out into madness again.  With all these freak encounters happening, was it any wonder Cloud kept reacting as he did?   He put a hand to his face, trying to stifle his choked mirth, knowing it was just adrenaline and mental stress taking its toll.

"Hey…Cloud?" Connally asked hesitantly.  Out of the corner of his eye Cloud could see the trooper send a worried look at his companions.  "You okay?"

Cloud bit the inside of his cheek, swallowing back another hysterical sound.  Was he okay?  Hardly.  But it would get better.  He would get better.  He'd promised, both Tifa and Zack, and those were two promises Cloud refused to break.  Even if it meant facing Sephiroth every day of the rest of his life, Cloud would do better, this time.

"Yeah…" he replied, voice rough but tone firm.  "I'm fine."

After that, none of them felt like risking the Training Room simulators again.  Edge easily bullied them all into a nearby bar, and not even Connally protested the first round of hard drinks.  Still, the holiday air, and the un-inhibiting effect of the drinks, meant that soon enough most of their group were once again in good humor, boasting Cloud's battle prowess as if it were their own.

Eventually, Cloud slipped away from his…well, he supposed they were friends, somehow.  The Thirds' interest in him wasn't too much of a surprise; it was important to know who was moving up in the ranks, after all.  But the troopers' insistence on hunting down Cloud in their spare time was unusual.  Connally could be explained away as being worried about a former squad mate, and Jac was…insane, Cloud concluded, remembering the mousey-haired man's exuberant attitude.  Sparo was an enigma, and Cloud couldn't help but think he would probably make it into the Turks like he wanted, and be damn good at it. 

The winter chill felt good on Cloud's face.  The streets were mostly empty, the occasional hurrying pedestrian or strolling couple passing under the soft glow of the street lamps.  There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, mostly gone due to the traffic of the day, but the sky was low with clouds, threatening further flurries.  Cloud watched his breath form plumes of white in front of him, in no hurry to make it back to the apartment yet. 

A glow of multi-colored lights caught his attention, and Cloud turned his head to peer down a street.  A block over, the street widened into a familiar plaza, one with a decorative tree presiding majestically in the center.  That was right, the festival was still ongoing.  No wonder the bar earlier had been exceptionally lively.  A moment later, Cloud found his feet wandering down the street toward the decoration.

The plaza was empty, most people indoors celebrating their holiday meals by now, or out with friends in the more interesting parts of town.  The tree shivered slightly in a mild breeze, the lights dancing among the ornaments and sparkling in the night air.  It was pretty, and Cloud imagined Marlene would have enjoyed the merry sight it made.  In his mind's eye, he could see her bright smile, coaxing the more reserved Denzel into a game she invented on the spot.  Tifa would be ever watchful, her happiness at the children's joy chasing away some of her own shadows.

The image faded, leaving Cloud standing alone, slightly chilled in the middle of the plaza.  He sighed, breath obscuring his vision for a moment, and walked quietly toward the tree.  The lowest branches were high enough that he could stand under them unbowed. He stared blankly up through the branches.  A sound that wasn't really a sound made him look down, and it was only then that Cloud realized he wasn't alone.

He could only see part of the man's body, but Rude's figure was unmistakable, leaning against the other side of the trunk.  The Turk's face was chapped red from the cold, and he'd obviously been standing there for quite awhile.  Cloud glanced down at the man's visible hand, where a bunch of red flowers were held loosely, still vibrant but drooping from their long exposure.  It looked like half the bunch he'd bought from Aerith two days ago.  Rude must have felt his gaze, because the sunglasses turned slightly in Cloud's direction in acknowledgment.

Cloud didn't say anything, able to read more than words could express in the simple exchange.  Instead, he leaned against the opposite side of the trunk from Rude, relaxing in the melancholic silence.  The air took on a muffled quality, as it began snowing gently. 

Through the soft silence the sound of footfalls approaching could be heard.  Cloud glanced up to see another dark, vaguely familiar figure approaching through the snowfall, her dirty blonde ponytail trailing over her shoulders. As Shotgun came to a halt before the tree, breath forming a misty halo around her head, Rude stepped away from the tree and out, silent and imposing as the night chill. “Shotgun...” he acknowledged. Shotgun bobbed her head faintly, never once appearing to notice Cloud's presence as she focused on Rude. “What is it?”

Shotgun straightened her back, her face an odd mixture of expressions. “I have a message,” she said, baldly. “It's from Chelsea.” She paused and looked aside. “She...she won't be coming today.”
Cloud tuned the conversation out for the most part, though he listened with half an ear.  It wasn't any of his business.  He did, however, look up briefly when Reno slouched onto the scene.  From what he gathered, Rude had been waiting for a woman named Chelsea and she wasn't coming.  Cloud snorted softly.  Leave it to these two to make a serious show of romantic entanglements.  He could still recall stumbling upon them outside of Gongaga, gossiping about who liked who.  He didn't know whether to be amused that, out of all the things that had changed, this small detail had remained so much the same.  Leave it to a pair of Turks to be an oddity in an already strange situation.

The conversation wound down until Reno made a comment about the cold.  Cloud watched them through his lashes as they prepared to leave.  A part of him was just glad that the Turk calling herself Shotgun hadn't noticed, or, at least, hadn't decided to approach him.  Cloud wasn't quite sure how he'd handle the situation if she had.  The meeting the other day, brief as was, had been confusing enough.  At least Connally's apparent knowledge of him wasn't particularly dangerous.  Not like a Turk's knowledge could be.

Before they started off, another, heavier, tread of footsteps broke through the muted snowfall, and Cloud glanced over to see Zack striding toward the group.  He looked in good humor, smile bright, and a few clumps of snowflakes melting on his shirt.  “Whoa, is this some sort of Turks only party?” Zack's asked.

“Oh, it's you,” Reno drawled. “And this ain't no Turk party. We were just leaving.”

“...Zack,” Rude said. He nodded toward the tree, and Cloud. Zack did a sharp double take.

“Cloud! Buddy, what are you doing out still? Sheesh, are you trying to freeze to death or something?” Before Cloud could even process the words, Zack closed the distance between them in a few quick strides and grabbed Cloud's face between his gloved hands. “Your nose is all red. Aerith will kill me if she thinks I abandoned you out in the frigid winter.” Then he frowned and tilted Cloud's head this way and that. “And you're looking a little down. C'mon, cheer up, Cloud, now's not a time for being down you know!” Zack dug his thumbs into the corners of Cloud's mouth and forced them up in a smile. “See isn't that better?”

Behind them, Shotgun's curious voice murmured, “Is...is that really a SOLDIER?”

“You better believe it,” Reno grumbled. "C'mon, let's get out of here before Rude freezes to death.  I swear he's turning blue."

The quiet, almost unnoticeable sound of the Turks' steps faded away as they left.  Zack pulled back when Cloud finally came out of his embarrassed stupor to grimace at him and try to shove him away, but Zack paid him no mind.  He was too busy looking back over his shoulders at the retreating Turks, expression oddly serious. 

"Zack?" Cloud asked quietly.  Even his voice sounded diluted in the uncanny silence around them.  For once, it seemed as if Midgar were sleeping, or perhaps merely napping while the residents stayed inside where it was warm and they could enjoy the company and festive mood.

Once the trio had faded into the snowfall and shadow of Midgar, Zack shook his head and turned back to Cloud. One of Zack's hands rose to ruffle Cloud's hair before his arm fell around his shoulder.  Laughing quietly, Zack said, "Let's get you home."

Cloud frowned, but let Zack begin to haul him off toward one of the nearby streets.  "How...how was Aerith?" he ventured after a few minutes of silence.

"Happy!" Zack said.  "I brought her up to the plate again and we had dinner in this classy place over on LOVELESS Avenue called Les Marroniers...I'm going to be feeling that one in my wallet for awhile! Completely worth it though...."  Zack's face relaxed into a fond smile and faraway eyes. Cloud ducked his chin behind his scarf.  It was...good to see him looking so happy.  It was good that both of them seemed to be happy.  "It's just a shame that she didn't get to see the snow, but that's fine!  Maybe next time...."

Zack turned his grin, full of infectious good cheer, on Cloud again. "What about you?  How'd your day go?"  Almost in spite of himself, Cloud found himself imparting the story of the incident in the Training Room into Zack's listening silence and the quiet of the winter night.

Forgotten under the tree, a bouquet of flowers lay against its trunk the petals slowly curling in the cold.


 

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

Chapter Text



Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 0 9 – Crisis of Condor

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (January 15th)


 

The sea glittered, stretching on into an effervescent horizon that seemed to promise that the weather would remain good for the rest of the day. High above the sun crested its arc, and, below, its reflection coalesced on incoming wave heads in a darting silvery burst. Troubled, Sephiroth frowned out over the open ocean, his back to the chaos of the landing troops which he ignored with ease. His silver hair whipped around him, caught in the mixing sea breeze and the tumult of helicopter rotors, while near his feet Viri attempted to capture the fluttering corner of his coat, or tugged gaily at Masamune's sheathed tip. The little black chocobo had grown larger, now reaching mid-calf to Sephiroth, and was beginning to get small black feathers at the edges of his wings rather than the soft, fluffy down.

He was also growing to be more of a handful, but Sephiroth had refused, since that day, to seek aid from the blond trooper. His frown deepened momentarily before smoothing away. (Cloud Strife....) Sephiroth had pulled the trooper's files almost immediately after the incident on December 17th. What he had found had been both disappointing and intriguing. Cloud Strife, was, for all intents and purposes, completely unremarkable. He was a boy from a small hamlet on the western continent called Nibelheim, a reactor town, of no real notice or worth. The only thing of note was that it was home to one of ShinRa's first reactors, and to a manor that belonged to ShinRa as well. There had been, otherwise, very little information. What, then, did that say about Cloud Strife himself?

All of fifteen years old, had enlisted when he was fourteen, had been shunted into the regular forces as a private, a grunt, and attempted, and failed, to make SOLDIER. No name, nothing special, of no interest to anyone. He was apparently a boy with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove if the reports his C.O. had given were anything to go by. It was baffling, and it irked Sephiroth that none of it added up, or fell into place.

How had this meager, uninteresting child transformed into the warrior who had met him blade for blade, even if only over a short span of time, a child who, when Sephiroth had been in his presence, had been silent and almost as detached from those around him as Sephiroth himself? This stranger who had brought about that strange buzzing awareness, and something so much stranger?

Sephiroth would have brushed it off as mere coincidence, a trick of a mind deprived of rest, and overtaken by stress and irritation at his own failings, perceived or otherwise, but he could not brush off the feeling of sameness. Unconsciously, Sephiroth rubbed his thumb and fingers together, the leather of his glove rasping slightly, and brought his hand up to his gaze. There was nothing different about himself, though he had noticed sometime after the encounter that the irritating mental noise had ceased, so the only explanation was that Cloud Strife was somehow special. Just like Sephiroth was. Not even Genesis and Angeal had been able to be that, no matter how Genesis had striven for it.

It had been that mental buzz that had driven Sephiroth in all of his interactions with the boy from the beginning. When first he had landed on Mideel it had been there, so strange and prevalent, like a thunder spell running over his very nerves. It was what had driven him to draw the boy away, out of Junon, and back to Midgar to avoid Hojo's presence. Alongside Sephiroth's own distaste for the miserable man, there had been a healthy dose of paranoia. At that time he had yet to pinpoint the cause, had yet to figure out where this mental, and perhaps, physiological reaction was coming from. Sephiroth had refused to let anyone find out before him on the off chance that it could be used against him. It was something that nagged at him still, and drove him to play a somewhat surreptitious guardian for the boy. He counted himself lucky that Zack took on the overt role. Sephiroth doubted even his paranoia and curiosity would have stood up otherwise. More likely he would have just killed the boy and been done with it.

Still, there was an urge, a drive to seek the blond out, to wrest the answers Sephiroth craved from him by any means necessary, by word, by hand, by blade point... The mental image of Strife sprawled out, Masamune's glittering blade pressing into his chest clouded his mind for a moment before Sephiroth shook the image away with a slight wave of his hand. His fingers clenched around Masamune's sheath until the leather of his glove creaked. Viri gave a warble behind him, and Sephiroth felt an eager tug on Masamune again. He ignored the little bird, and Viri was content to amuse himself.

The other part of himself, wanted nothing more to do with Cloud Strife. There had been a disturbing feeling that day, that moment, that Sephiroth had never experienced; a thrilling, terrible, feeling of true fear. He was not sure what had engendered the reaction, but it had been born, and he could not forget it. He had wished for a fleeting time afterward that Angeal were still alive so he could seek his counsel on the matter, and from that had been born a rage unlike any he had felt—a burning seething anger directed toward his deceased friend and Zack Fair. It had been a bitter anger that had wanted to destroy and rend until it could set everything back to rights, or leave everything in ashes. It had seemed only fair, but it had passed, leaving him feeling nothing more than confused and irritated with his own failings, his own inability to do anything, and a chocobo chick keening softly in distress from a hiding place.

Viri's excited wark drew Sephiroth from the morass of his thoughts, and he turned to watch the black chick dart off among the troops, swerving nimbly to avoid being kicked or stepped on. Through them, coming toward him, Sephiroth could see the familiar figure of Zack, trailed by a trooper with a SOLDIER sword. Zack saw him, and raised his hand in greeting. Sephiroth could hear his voice floating over the noise of men and machines as he called out to him, but did not give any other outward form of response. He merely waited and watched as Viri barreled into the trooper's boots enthusiastically. The boy tried, and failed, to shoo him away.

“Zack,” Sephiroth greeted, as the pair came to a stop nearby.

“Hey, Sephiroth, it's been awhile. You been hiding in that library this whole time?” Zack teased jovially. Sephiroth blinked once and sent him a sidelong look.

“I have duties that take up my time,” he said simply. From beneath his lashes he observed the trooper who stood slightly behind Zack as if to use the First as a human shield. Outwardly, though, he acted as if Cloud didn't exist and swept past Zack. He paused a few steps beyond the pair. “Viri.” The Chocobo looked up from his affectionate nibbling of Cloud's boots at the quiet, but firm command. With a warble that sounded a bit put upon the chocobo obediently trotted over to Sephiroth and began to follow him as he strode back along the helipad. After a moment Viri reached out and snagged a beak full of Sephiroth's trailing coat. Sephiroth stopped once more, and frowned over his shoulder at the young bird. “Viri,” he said, “Climb.” With a happy chirp, Viri jumped up, undersized wings fluttering and used his beak and claws to scale Sephiroth's coat until he was perched firmly on his shoulder.

“Well, I'll be,” Sephiroth heard Zack mutter. “I don't know if I'm more surprised about who taught who what....”

Sephiroth chose to ignore him and made his way to a case of narrow industrial stairs that lead down to a second platform off of the landing pad. It was here that everything was gathered, being further removed to lifts to be transferred down and loaded into the trucks that would take them to Fort Condor. The troops accompanying the mission were lined up and at attention. In his peripheral vision he could see a few heads turning, whether just to catch a glimpse of him or because of the chocobo perched proprietorially on his shoulder armor he didn't know. Both were as likely as the other, and neither particularly mattered to him.

Behind him he could hear the sound of footfalls as Zack and the trooper followed after him. Sephiroth strode past the front line of the troops and came to a stop, gazing out over them, though he didn't say a word. Zack halted a few feet away, and Sephiroth gave him a faint nod.

“Guess I'm taking care of things then?” Zack mused aloud. “I think I can manage that.” More quietly he added, “I hope.” As Zack turned to address the troops his phone began to ring. Zack took a moment to flash Sephiroth a sheepish grin. Sephiroth gazed back impassively as Zack pulled his phone out and flipped it open. “Hello? Lazard?” Zack listened face still wearing a bemused half smile, then, at last, said, “Yes, sir!” The phone closed with a harsh snap, and Zack turned toward Sephiroth. “Sephiroth, Lazard wants me to report to the Junon Branch Office. I've got another mission that takes priority. The president himself demanded I get moved onto this one since he couldn't get you reassigned...but uh....”

Sephiroth waited idly as Zack fumbled with whatever he wanted to impart, watched as he scratched the back of his neck, head bowed. When Zack spoke again he wasn't even addressing Sephiroth, but his quiet little shadow. “Bad news is, it's a sensitive mission, and Lazard specifically said that you have to stay here, Cloud.” His gaze bounced back over to Sephiroth, and Zack smiled wryly. “He has the clearance for this, but....” Sephiroth swept his gaze over the pair and nodded sharply.

“It isn't an issue,” Sephiroth said. “This mission is nothing but routine.”

Zack nodded in agreement, though there was still something off, something uneasy in his expression that set Sephiroth's hackles on edge. Zack reached out and clasped the trooper's shoulder in a tight grip. Sephiroth couldn't help but wonder what Zack knew. Was he hiding whatever secrets Cloud Strife had? Sephiroth narrowed his eyes slightly, gaze flicking between the two, before he drove it from his mind and prowled past them to address the men. Almost tauntingly, Zack's words followed after him, “You going to be okay, Cloud?”

Arranged before him were several lines of regular infantrymen, at the front of which were a number of 3rd Class SOLDIERs. They stood at stiff attention, eyes hidden behind the visors of their helmets, but attention quite obviously focused on him. Sephiroth swept his gaze over the assembled men, and let his hand rest lightly on Masamune's hilt. From the corner of one eye he watched as Zack's protégé moved down the lines with quick efficiency to position himself among the infantrymen at the back of the assembly.

“This will be a routine mission,” Sephiroth said. “We're here to provide an escort.” Speeches, inspirational or otherwise, had never been his forte. Genesis had been the kind to grandstand, the one with the dramatic flare, and Angeal had been able to engender adoration and loyalty without much effort—his words had never been fancy, but the genuine sincerity in them had still managed to convey, and capture, the men. It had never been a capability that Sephiroth had attempted to foster in himself. He had never cared enough for the position, nor the company to bother.

He could remember a time when Genesis had asked if he was scared of public speaking. No doubt seeking a weakness in him. Sephiroth had informed him that he saw no point in it, and had endured a lecture from Angeal on the importance of morale, the belief in a superior officer, and how Sephiroth was someone that they looked up to—that he had the capability to move men to great efforts merely by his words. Sephiroth hadn't cared then, and he didn't care now. If he ever had need of the skill, Sephiroth had little doubt in his own capacity. He would do what was necessary as he saw fit.

There was a faint shift in weight on his shoulder guard, and Viri gave a quiet little warble. A second later the bird propelled himself off of Sephiroth's shoulder in a flutter of underdeveloped wings. He hit the ground hard, unable to keep his balance, but bounced back to his claws within a few seconds and scampered off between the legs of the men.

“The main objective is the safe delivery of ShinRa's technicians and technology to Fort Condor,” Sephiroth continued, content to ignore his pets antics. “Seek out your Captains for your assignments. SOLDIERs should divide themselves evenly among our transport.” Sephiroth swept his gaze over the men once more, pausing only when he noticed movement toward the back. A few seconds later Viri finished scrambling up one of the trooper's bodies and clambered to perch atop his helmet. Sephiroth had no doubts about who that particular trooper was, even hidden among his taller peers as he was. He withheld a sigh, and called, “Viri.” The chocobo warked at him, one claw sliding down the trooper's helmet before Viri readjusted his position. For a moment he considered just leaving the bird and hoping he'd stay in the boy's care this time, but Sephiroth knew it wouldn't last. He turned away dismissively. “Strife, bring the bird.”

Behind him there was an immediate bustle as the men broke ranks and went about preparing for their departure. Sephiroth strode toward the lift without looking back, though he did pause upon reaching it. A group of infantrymen were clustered on it, one of their number hovering over the controls. They waited, staring at him as if trying to decide whether or not they should go down or not. Sephiroth lifted his gaze skyward and ignored them, his fingers tightening momentarily around Masamune's hilt before he released it.

He could not say that he was pleased to keep company with the boy. Sephiroth was undeniably curious about him, he had been since that first meeting in Mideel. However, he was unable to shake the wariness that their final—until now—meeting had caused. The rush of feeling that had lanced through him had been staggering. The familiarity, possessiveness, the sense of belonging.... It had rattled him more than Sephiroth could ever care to admit, and yet drawn him just as much. He had wanted to flee at the same moment he'd wanted to reach out and sink into the pull. It had been a Siren's song, and it wasn't until he'd left them long behind that the crazed feeling had left him. He'd stayed as far from Cloud Strife as he could since then. It was cowardly, and Sephiroth hated it, but he had not been able to bring himself to go near the boy again.

Now, here he was forced back into close contact, and he could not deny it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. No matter how much he wished to avoid facing the oddity—one more among many—Sephiroth knew that the drive, the curiosity, and an almost obsessive want to know would not leave him. Cloud Strife might just have answers he'd been seeking for many a year, and now was his chance to try and discover what secrets the boy hid. He was not quite sure how he would manage it, but, for now, he would take the chance to approach the boy. Sephiroth could do nothing less than to try to satisfy his own thirst for knowledge.

"Sir.” The quiet word came from a few feet behind him, and Sephiroth glanced fleetingly over his shoulder at the boy.

With a slight nod of acknowledgment he said, “You will ride in the first vehicle to avoid further mishaps.” There was no time to go chasing after the chocobo, let alone deal with whatever chaos Viri managed to cause. Sephiroth pivoted on his heel and took the few short steps necessary to reach the edge where the lift had been. He jumped lightly off the edge, and landed among the surprised troopers with the barest rustle of leather. Without a word he held his left arm out, looked back over his shoulder, and waited. 

Viri's head poked over the edge of the landing, and the little bird gave a chuckle of delight. The chocobo puffed out his down, spread his little wings and crouched. A moment later he jumped off, tiny wings working as if he could fly, and reached out with his claws. He landed on Sephiroth's arm, nearly overbalancing, but caught himself with a few more flailing flaps. Viri shuffled awkwardly up Sephiroth's arm to clamber onto his shoulder guard. Sephiroth took a moment to caress the chocobo's fluffy head in approval. Viri cooed, pleased.

Taking no notice of the men around him, Sephiroth strode off. The ebb and flow of troops moved unabated, always aware of him in their midst, though seemingly completely cut off from him. Sephiroth paid them no mind, ignoring them as if they weren't there at all. Viri, on the other had was alert and watched with interest, occasionally warking when someone shouted, as if imitating or replying.

When he reached the awaiting transport trucks, Sephiroth settled Masamune against the side of the first one in line then turned and leaned back against it. Idly he crossed his arms over his chest and watched the controlled military chaos as the men moved about the area. Many of them were transferring supplies to various areas to be shipped out to different missions currently in progress. Beyond them all, was the lift. He watched, out of vague curiosity as Zack's protégé leapt off as he himself had done moments before. He landed as lightly as Sephiroth had, startling a couple of nearby troopers to start and one to drop the pack they'd been carrying. A Third bawled at the errant trooper, who scrambled to regain his things and fall back into position. The boy ignored the commotion, walking calmly as it swirled around him.

No one stopped him, recognizing the disparity of the trooper uniform and the SOLDIER sword. Though there were many surreptitious looks, and the hiss of whispers as rumor spread among the men. A white coated woman was making no effort to hide her interest as the boy approached the truck Sephiroth reclined against.

Viri warbled a greeting, seeming to be overjoyed at seeing someone he'd seen all of a minute ago. The boy hesitated a moment, standing there warily, before he released a faint puff of air and crouched down, one hand held out invitingly. Viri jumped happily down from his perch on Sephiroth's shoulder and trotted over before attempting to scramble up the limb as he nipped playfully at Cloud's helmet. The boy's faint smile was easy to see despite the downward incline of his head.

Sephiroth stood silent. For all appearances his gaze remained focused on the swarm of men as they moved a large piece of equipment to one of the trucks, a few white coated scientists fluttering around them. Beneath his apparently focused facade his mind, and attention, wandered. From under the cover of his lashes, he watched the infantryman and Viri. He wondered, did they have chocobos in Nibelheim, the blond's hometown? ShinRa did not actually employ the use of the birds unless necessary, as they had access to efficient and viable technology. He hadn't even ever seen one until a mission where one of the birds had crossed his path, seen him, and quickly dashed away. He had read about them before then, seen pictures of them, even, but that had been all.

Sephiroth was not the kind of man interested in other people's history, or in pursuing conversation with them at all. Cloud Strife, however, was a frustrating enigma the likes of which he could not leave be no matter how much he may have wanted to. He had spent too much of his life wondering about his differences to let a possible lead go now. It seemed the best way to do that would be to approach the subject from its foundation. Sephiroth was certain Angeal would have been better at this.

“You do seem to be familiar with them,” Sephiroth ventured after a moment. “Are they common in your hometown?” It was infinitely interesting the way the boy froze at the simple question, and Sephiroth surreptitiously continued to watch him as he waited for a response.

If he could learn about this Nibelheim, about Cloud Strife's past, then perhaps he could uncover why the boy seemed to be like him, why Sephiroth felt as if they were the same, why he intrigued him, ensnared him, and called his attention. A brief pang of envy, and the sour note of loneliness hit him as he thought about it. Like Genesis and Angeal, Cloud and Zack had families, hometowns, a world all their own: a place that they belonged to. They had all left those places behind, intent on becoming heroes, most of them, on being someone. Sephiroth had that vaunted title, but it was something he found little use in. In the past it had been something to taunt Genesis with, now it was merely something to be viewed as useless, petty, and foolish. He was not sure if he qualified as a hero, when his closest comrades did not care to turn to him and instead betrayed him. A bitter anger settled into place, chasing away the momentary melancholy. It was a better way to feel about it, he thought. Better to be angry than to hurt over such foolishness. Better to forget. They were dead, and this was what Sephiroth had left, his title, his sword, and his own detached greatness.

A quieter, buried part of him noted that he would have gladly given it for the mere power to help Angeal and Genesis. For all his great power, he often seemed much more helpless.

It wasn't until Viri clambered onto the boy's back and scrambled up his shirt to hop back onto his helmet that the trooper finally moved again. The helmet was knocked forward at an odd angle, and he raised a hasty hand to steady it as Viri warbled triumphantly. With an efficient move the boy plucked the bird off his perch, and released Viri to once again dodge his grasp and attempt to scale back up. His distraction in trying to fend off the chocobo seemed to help him relax, and he answered slowly, never looking up, "They're not common, no. It's too cold…and most chocobos don't do well in the mountains. I….” The boy trailed off and paused, his hesitation clear. It could have been anything from creating a lie to the skittishness he displayed in Sephiroth's presence. “After I left home, I ran into someone who called themselves the Chocobo Sage. He…was difficult to talk to, but he knew everything about chocobos."

Sephiroth stared blankly at Cloud for several seconds before he repeated the words, “Chocobo...Sage?” Someone actually...? It seemed absolutely absurd that someone, anyone, would devote that much time and energy to the birds when it wasn't absolutely necessary, but Sephiroth supposed it was much like devoting oneself to their fighting art. He frowned slightly. “I see.”

He was bad at this, Sephiroth decided as he struggled for something more to say. It was a discomfiting situation to say the least, but there was no other way. All he'd gotten was an answer that provided the barest essentials of an answer. “Nibelheim is quite distant,” he said at last. “It must have been a difficult journey to make.” Particularly for a fourteen year old boy with barely anything to his name but the home he was leaving behind. Zack had done similarly, a year younger and with Gongaga nearly as distant, and Genesis and Angeal had come from Banora, near Mideel. It made Sephiroth wonder what it must be like to give up everything that was comfortable, and known, to move on so completely.

The reply came a little more quickly this time. "I wanted to be a SOLDIER more than anything. It was foolish." Sephiroth slanted a glance down at the admission in time to see the boy duck his head. He could only wonder why. Did he regret the admission? Perhaps he hadn't meant to do so, or perhaps he was worried that Sephiroth would take him to task for it. Perhaps he just hadn't wanted to let something so personal slip.

“Foolish? Perhaps,” Sephiroth said. He watched the boy, calculating how much he needed to say. While he would not bother to lie and pander to him just to get answers, Sephiroth was well aware that at times one must give something to get information in return. “Dreams...are meant to be a little foolish, I think.” In his mind he could just imagine the horror Angeal and Zack would express at anyone giving up any of their dreams. Sephiroth gave a low chuckle, lips turning upward just slightly at the memory of his friend and his constant mantra. “Angeal would say that's what makes them worth it.” But what did he think about dreams? Sephiroth was hardly an idealist. He could think of nothing he wanted so badly to call it a dream.

A loud curse caused the trooper to look up from where Viri tugged at one of his gloves, as a box was placed heavily onto the truck behind the one Sephiroth was leaning against. The scientist berated the troopers who'd placed it there, looking harassed and out of patience. The boy's head turned just enough that he seemed to be glancing at Sephiroth again before he looked down to try and wrest his glove free from Viri's beak. Quietly, his voice floated up, "Is it…normal for you to be sent on these missions?"

Sephiroth frowned faintly at the question. It was an odd one, and so completely unexpected. What use was that sort of information to this boy? “No. Normally my power is reserved for when it's needed. With anti-ShinRa groups so active,” and interested in both SOLDIER and ShinRa's mako technology, “it should come as no surprise that I should be deployed in problem areas.” And Junon had already been of interest due to the Mako Cannon.

The trooper's helmeted head tilted up, and for the first time he seemed to really be looking at him. Sephiroth made no movement to indicate he noticed. The stare remained, oddly weighty, and with it came an unfamiliar feeling. It was as if he were being weighed and judged. Sephiroth could remember very few times in his life that he'd come up against such a stare, against someone who would give him such a treatment. The first was Hojo, unsurprisingly, followed by President Shinra himself—their blatant interest was no surprise. To them he was a quantity that must be measured. Genesis was another, always checking and challenging his worth. The last had been the girl leader of AVALANCHE with her pointed question and strange strength. Now, there was this boy with his damning stare. Sephiroth did not think he'd ever found himself feeling as subhuman as he did right then.

The boy looked away sharply, and Sephiroth was left feeling as if he'd been found wanting—another unfamiliar feeling. He was not used to feeling as if he were something pitiable and pathetic. He didn't know which he preferred: the condemnation or the pity. Neither sat right with him.

"I wonder what would happen if you refused.” The words were faint, a barely there mumble that Sephiroth suspected wasn't really directed at him at all. 

Sephiroth gave a faint, thoughtful sound and lifted his head. His silvery bangs brushed against his jawline as he contemplated the sky. After a moment he stepped away from the truck, fingers catching on Masamune as he pulled the sword with him, and focused on the quick approach of a pair of red scarfed officers. Though he didn't look to Zack's protégé, he did respond to his quiet words, “I have refused.”

Zack had paid for his weakness in his stead when Sephiroth refused to pursue Genesis and Angeal, to have to face them in true battle, to face the choice of killing them as he was bid. He'd let Zack face that choice for him with a cold hope in his heart that Zack would be able to talk them into returning, because if anyone could, it would be Zack Fair.

He hadn't.

Sephiroth had resented him for it, but he hated himself for it more.

With a thump of boots the pair came to a halt before him, immediately at attention. “General, sir!” one barked, snapping off a quick salute. Sephiroth inclined his head in acknowledgment and he reported, “We're ready to depart, sir!”

“Get the men situated and we'll leave immediately,” Sephiroth said smoothly and turned on his heel to stride the few paces to the back of the truck. In short order a group of Thirds and two troopers had joined them, clearly deciding that Cloud Strife counted among their numbers. Sephiroth let them board first before turning to do so himself, he paused to turn his gaze back to the boy. “I merely saw no reason to refuse this.” Even if it was farcical and probably would not require his attention, it certainly got him away from Midgar, and if things went well there would be some monsters roaming close enough to require destruction.

His eyes flickered down to the chocobo chick still happily occupying himself with Cloud's presence. “Viri,” he called. The chick's head immediately swiveled around to him. “Climb.”

The chick immediately scrambled over eagerly, and scaled Sephiroth's coat in a matter of moments before, after a chirp, he jumped into the bed of the truck. Sephiroth followed, stepping up lightly into the vehicle, and scanning the group of men already occupying the benches that lined either side of their transport. He situated himself on the near end of the right bench, preferring to stay close to the open back end of the truck. It was both a strategically sound position, in that it allowed him a view of what was going on behind them, and it kept the vague feeling of claustrophobia such accommodations often left him with at bay. He was caged enough by the thin leash that tethered him to the metal monstrosity that was Midgar and ShinRa's power base without adding to the sensation.

Genesis and Angeal had slipped their leads, left him behind, and gone off together. Sephiroth had been left with nothing but the bitter taste of betrayal and the sour accompaniment of loneliness. If they had asked him, he might have left ShinRa too, he thought, the only thing that kept him tied down was the fact that there was nothing else out there for him. This was everything he had ever known.

Silently, Sephiroth settled Masamune into a position where the sword was both out of the way, and within easy reach should he need it. There was a metallic thump as the last of their group, Cloud Strife himself, stepped up into the vehicle. He took the only seat left, directly across from Sephiroth, without complaint. The Third next to Sephiroth had managed an impressive amount of space between them considering their cramped conditions. There was an almost palpable air of tension among the men, though Sephiroth paid it very little heed. He had no doubt that the men were uncomfortable in his presence.

As the vehicle rumbled to life the trooper looked down where he met Viri's beady black gaze as the small chocobo perched upon his boot. The chick let out a plaintive warble. There was little to no room, but the boy obligingly dangled a gloved hand down, playing a tame game of tug-of-war. He kept his head down, gaze focused on the bird.

Sephiroth's gaze drifted away and upward to take in Junon's buildings as they passed. Angeal was more suited for these sorts of missions, he couldn't help but think. Angeal who, out of the three of them, had been best suited for dealing with people on an even level. Genesis, while certainly more extroverted than himself, and something of an accomplished leader and SOLDIER, would have viewed such a menial chore as beneath himself. Angeal had always thrived on the simple things, had enjoyed plants and cooking, and generally been an easy going man. It was often times hard to believe that Angeal and Genesis could be successful friends from early childhood, and yet he'd seen proof of it, been accepted by the both of them to some degree. The thought brought with it a great deal of pain and bitterness that Sephiroth didn't want to examine.

He directed his thoughts elsewhere, filling his mind with the current mission. It was simple, routine, nothing interesting, boring. There really wasn't even a need for him beyond pure intimidation factor. Even the threat of possible monster attacks could have been dealt with by a Second in this area. The only plausible reason for him to be here was AVALANCHE, and even then the Turks had managed to deal with them thus far bar a few minor difficulties.

Sephiroth played his fingers over Masamune's sheath, his glove scraping against the casing softly. If he was lucky there would be something to put his blade against, perhaps even something strong enough to be worth his attention for a span. The thought brought his gaze drifting slowly toward the trooper sitting across from him, and Sephiroth gave a slow blink of contemplation. Certainly, the boy had displayed a level of skill in Mideel, but the question was whether or not that skill had been real, or a fluke. How much had he grown under Zack's tutelage as compared to what he already had? Sephiroth tapped a finger against Masamune in thought. It would be impossible to tell given the span of time since they'd last crossed blades, but Sephiroth could admit he was curious to see if he were truly able to keep up with him as he had in Mideel. The fight had lasted such an insubstantial amount of time before Zack had intervened.

(Just like Angeal.) Zack's intervention had been so similar, and the snapping of one of the longswords he'd wielded at the time.... It had been so much like that fight with Genesis, and Sephiroth had simply reacted, snaked Masamune out, and flicked the broken half of the sword aside far enough that it wouldn't hit any of them. Perhaps it had been residual guilt over being unable to help Genesis. His grip tightened on Masamune for a moment, annoyed with the turn his thoughts had taken. There was no reason for a sense of guilt over the incident. They had chosen their path.

"Viri is growing up well.” The quiet voice broke through the silence sharply, and Sephiroth slanted a look toward the boy. He could not help but feel bewildered that he was willingly speaking to him. All of his observations thus far had shown that Strife was rather devoted to staying away from him. Still, there was a set to the boy's jaw that spoke of determination, though Sephiroth could not fathom his reasoning. After a moment Strife added, "It's not usual for a chick to be able to follow orders at such a young age."

Sephiroth glanced down at the chick who was now bracing both of his claws against the trooper's boot for more leverage. For a moment he considered ignoring the comment, but supposed that if he were to gain further information it would be for the best to at least make an attempt. “I returned to the Chocobo Ranch for more information, though what they offered was inadequate. After observing him for some time I recalled how Angeal managed Zack. Zack's problems with focus are similar to Viri's attention span.” By making things fun, as much as Sephiroth tried not to think of it that way, and playing to the bird's, or in Angeal's case, Zack's, innate nature they seemed to react far better than trying to force them into doing something they weren't interested in. “It appears to be working.” Which said something about Angeal's ability as a teacher. Or possibly just the quick nature of the individual, he wasn't sure.

The climb command had been the most necessary, so as to keep Viri out from under his boots during battle, though there would be an issue with changing the workings of the command when the chocobo got older. He'd also have to teach him to stay out of the way again, but he would overcome that obstacle when it presented itself. For now he had to work with the attention span the chick presented him with. Just like Angeal had had to work with Zack's poor focus when he'd first become the mentor of the young SOLDIER. Sephiroth sighed faintly through his nose, attention drifting to the side again. He had no idea where Angeal had come by his patience.

The boy studied Viri for a long moment then gave a faint chuckle. Sephiroth couldn't help but send a shuttered glance toward him, feeling bemused. It wasn't often that someone treated him without deference. Even President Shinra offered him a certain amount of deferential treatment due to Sephiroth's advantageous position. Most certainly the troops and other SOLDIERs didn't bother to treat him as anything but the shining Hero and General he was supposed to be. There were only a few people that treated him as little more than another human being, and that was Angeal, Genesis, and Zack.

Genesis had often treated him as an obstacle to overcome, but that was part of their...friendship...and Sephiroth had never minded. It was refreshing, having someone who wanted to test their skill against him, though he'd never found true challenge in Genesis' endeavor. Angeal, though...Angeal hadn't wanted anything from him except for camaraderie and friendship, had not asked anything of him. Nor did Zack, the little amount of time they spent in each other's company. They were brought together more through the circumstances of knowing Angeal than anything else, but it was still Zack's persistence, his drive to call Sephiroth friend, that made them something similar. He was much like Angeal.

He wasn't sure how to classify Cloud Strife, who was nothing like the other three. He did not pursue Sephiroth's favor for friendship, or even gain like most would in his position, nor did he seem intent on challenging him as Genesis had. Sephiroth didn't know what to do with him, truth be told.

Movement caught his attention, and he turned to watch the boy in question scoop Viri up and into his lap, freeing his hand before using it to cover the chocobo's eyes. Viri warbled in confusion, perched stiffly where he'd been dropped, clearly unsure what to do at his sudden loss of both his playmate and his sight. He tried to shake the hand off, but the trooper patiently kept his grip, and soon enough Viri settled down, tucking his legs underneath him. Within a few minutes, the chick appeared to fall asleep. The ease and experience with which he handled the bird belied his tale about gaining theoretical knowledge. If there was anything Sephiroth had learned through his years of swordsmanship, years of being around weaponry and the army, it was that practical knowledge was begot only through experience. He doubted handling chocobos, or any animal, was any different. It certainly was proving so for him.

His attention drifted away once more to focus on the skyline. The plumes of thick, curling dust kicked up by their little caravan made intriguing shapes against the vault of the sky. Sephiroth let his mind wander idly—through thoughts of sword moves, stances, and different attack sequences, and through ways to deal with certain monster types, and situations. Eventually, his mind came back to the Mideel mission, to how Cloud had come at him with Angeal's—Zack's—sword.

He wanted to test that skill, he realized sharply. He wanted to see if the spark of challenge that had been there could live up to itself. It wasn't something he'd felt since Genesis had first come at him with his challenge. He'd outstripped Genesis, and even when working with Angeal the pair couldn't defeat him. It wouldn't hurt to test Cloud Strife's sword-skill, and a part of him missed those little sessions with his deceased friends though he did not acknowledge the fact. Slowly, he turned his attention back to Cloud and took him in, considering. The only question was, how would he go about putting forth the challenge? It had always been Genesis who had approached him, and there was no Training Room out here to invite the boy into, much as he'd slipped away while the Seconds and Thirds were away and spent the afternoon with Angeal and Genesis.

He let his mind wander in silent contemplation. His gaze wandered with his thoughts straying toward the trucks behind them, but more often remaining focused on the sky. The hours passed in silence, terrain passing; mountainsides passing by in the distance with the darker clots of forests spotty against their slopes, and eventually the day slipped away in the dusty passing of travel. The distance between Junon and Fort Condor, while not insurmountable was certainly less while in flight. Going by land was longer, but simpler. Perhaps they'd thought to test and see if it was bait enough to lure AVALANCHE out. It mattered little in the end, and Sephiroth settled back to watch as twilight faded into night, and stars spangled the sky. The men in the vehicle dozed restlessly, and Viri settled even deeper into sleep with the passing of the sun. The vehicles following them were visible only by the glow of their headlights. His hand lightly gripped Masamune, and though he didn't let himself drift he did allow himself to relax slightly, hooded eyes trained on the unconcealed sky.

 

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (January 16th)

 

Cloud was struck by a sense of déjà vu, as he followed Sephiroth up the slope toward Fort Condor's entrance. The presence of the two troopers and their journey to a reactor mixed with his muddled memories, and for a moment he was sure he felt the biting cold of Nibelheim's wind. The phantom chill passed, and Cloud shook his head slightly to dismiss the fanciful daydream. The presence of the white-coated doctors was putting him more on edge than even Sephiroth, at this point.

The fact that they were going to a reactor did worry Cloud. It was a lot like the Nibelheim mission, without the threat of Jenova at the end. Or hopefully no Jenova. Surely Cloud's pseudo promotion wasn't enough to change things that badly, that Hojo would move her from her long-time prison of Nibelheim. It was odd, however, that the General had been dispatched to a routine escort mission although if Sephiroth's words were anything to go by not that abnormal. Cloud couldn't help but remember how the man explained so simply how the situation stood. His power? Deployed? Sephiroth had made it sound as if he were merely a weapon, used when necessary and forgotten until then. It was…sad, in a way. Sephiroth didn't have anyone who was willing, or brave enough, to keep him from getting lost. By Nibelheim, even Zack's efforts to get through proved worthless, as Sephiroth had believed himself to be better than everyone, relying only on himself and Jenova's lies.

He could feel his own dark feelings abate slightly in the near universal avoidance the rest of the army had for Sephiroth. Was Zack really the only one to reach out to Sephiroth? Even now he could remember the tension and space between the infamous General and the troops beneath him during the ride out. He'd tried to keep his mind on the mission, on the threat Sephiroth represented, but all Cloud had been able to focus on was those damnable inches of space that separated Sephiroth from the Third that had been beside him. Cloud's own side had been warm from the body he was forced to press against, the nearness an uncomfortable necessity. While he couldn't be expected to know, Cloud had wondered if the trooper had known what Cloud was, if he too would have left a gap between them.

It had hurt, in a way, and still did. Here in front of him was the man Cloud had dreamed of, had aspired to become like, and yet because of the history that he didn't even know about, Sephiroth was further than ever from Cloud. There was no way for Cloud to offer any comfort, not when the man's mocking laugh and mad eyes still haunted his thoughts. Even if he could find the words, was there anything in him that wanted to give them?

Cloud shook off the cloying, thoughts and the nausea they brought with them. One of the scientists—a woman who had introduced herself to Sephiroth as Doctor Penning—was hiking the trail at a determined march just ahead of Cloud and behind Sephiroth. She had sensibly not worn heels, but her shoes were certainly not meant for this sort of terrain as she slipped on a loose patch of dirt. Sephiroth didn't pause, but one of the other troopers stopped to help her catch her balance, receiving a curt nod in thanks. Cloud sighed softly, then had to catch himself as well when Viri darted under his boots.

The little chick had been more than ready to stretch his legs when the vehicle had stopped, and not even Cloud could coax him back into obedience. Now he was running all over the place, darting from Sephiroth's heels to examine a bush with great interest, then trotting off as an insect caught his attention, to racing around everyone's feet and trying to trip them up. Cloud wondered mildly if Sephiroth wasn't allowing this out of some sort of petty revenge for being dragged all the way out here.

At the base of Fort Condor a man stood, arms crossed over his chest and looking less than inviting. Sephiroth came to a halt a few feet away from him and said, “You will show them up.” He turned toward them and Cloud tensed as usual, his stomach twisting under Sephiroth's overwhelming stare. “Escort Doctor Penning and her colleague through Fort Condor to the reactor.”

Masamune's tip hit the ground, the sheath making a sharp sound at the connection, and Viri skidded to a halt to keep from running into the sword. Sephiroth reached down and slipped his hand under the chocobo, scooped him up, then fetched Masamune up. Viri finished clambering up into position on Sephiroth's shoulder as the man strode away toward the steep slope at the side of the promontory. With little effort he jumped off the ground and propelled himself up to one of the rocky protrusions jutting out of the slope, then jumped to the next, making his way easily up toward the reactor.

"Well," Doctor Penning said in a huff, as Sephiroth vanished up the slope. "General that man may be, but he's extremely inconsiderate of his charges. Come on Steward. We have to complete the diagnostics as soon as possible so we can get out of this shit-house of a reactor." The woman didn't bother addressing even a look to the troopers as she strode imperiously toward the guard at the entrance. The other scientist followed silently, obviously used to the woman's brash nature.

"I'd rather follow the General up that," one of the troopers said under his breath, grunting as his partner elbowed him sharply in the ribs. The helmeted head turned toward Cloud, the pair unsure how to address him as he wasn't a trooper, and yet not a SOLDIER either. Cloud didn't give them the chance to decide, as he followed silently after the departing scientists. It wouldn't have mattered to him if the scientists were full of charm and smiles; he still didn’t trust them not to report anything back to Hojo.

The guard at the entrance stopped each of them to examine their IDs, his frown never faltering. Cloud could sense his displeasure at the invasion of ShinRa personnel, and noted that it wasn't just the imminent hatching of the egg in the future that caused these people to rebel against the company. There was already an air of quiet unease among the residents, who watched the scientists and troopers pass with suspicious eyes.

There was a lift inside the Fort, which lead up to the reactor high above. Cloud remembered the run-down hole from the future; it made sense to cut off all access to the heights, as it was what the men had been protecting. The lift wasn't big enough for all of them, so Cloud waved the pair of troopers to remain behind, which they did with thinly veiled relief.

As the machine chugged slowly up the shaft, Cloud was aware of eyes on him, and saw Doctor Penning examining him closely. She'd been the same one who'd been watching him before they'd boarded the vehicles back in Junon, and her interest was beginning to grate on Cloud's fraying nerves.

"You…what rank are you?" Penning asked abruptly, tapping her foot a couple times in impatience. Cloud turned to face her, his helmet as always obscuring her from seeing his narrowing eyes.

"I am under special assignment with SOLDIER 1st Class Fair," he said after a pause that was just long enough to be uncomfortable.

"I don't see him here. Skipping out on his assignments? How unprofessional. What if we were to be attacked, I'd like to know," Penning scoffed, displeased at his attitude.

"SOLDIER Fair was called away by his superiors. You have the General guarding you. Should any threats arise, he is more than capable of handling them," Cloud said monotonously. While her words had the potential to be biting, he couldn't bring himself to care what an opinionated scientist thought. The elevator ride seemed interminably long, though, with the silent company of the other scientist and Penning's abrasive attitude.

"Yes…the General. You can be sure I will report his negligence when we return," she said, turning abruptly as the lift came to a stop at the top of the shaft. Cloud scoffed internally. As if ShinRa would reprimand their idol over an employee's disgruntlement.

The woman came to a halt with a startled gasp as she found Sephiroth standing directly in her path. Sephiroth stared down at Penning, face unreadable. Cloud was sure he saw the faintest grin on the other scientist's face, and had to admire the timing himself. It was surely unintentional, but Sephiroth could make even an accident seem impressive and threatening. Cloud thought Sephiroth looked completely disinterested, though.

(If you want to fall prey to an ambush, do it on your own time.) The thought was there and gone in a flash, and Cloud could only put it down to his own dislike of the woman's attitude and too much time spent with Zack though it had sounded far too catty even for his friend.

Sephiroth's gaze slipped away from Penning a second later and focused on him. “Strife, remain here and wait for the others to join you. Have one remain here on guard by the lift. You and the other should proceed to stand guard at the entrance to the reactor.” Sephiroth made to turn, then paused. He stepped around Penning as if she were merely an inconvenient piece of furniture . “I trust you'll be able to keep him occupied.” Cloud was startled at Viri being shoved so abruptly in his arms, but compensated as the chick's clawed feet scrabbled at his sudden displacement. Sephiroth performed an abrupt turn on his heel and stalked off, coat and hair flaring behind him and obviously expecting the scientists to follow him.

Viri let out a sad warble as Sephiroth walked away, and Cloud absently pet him soothingly on the head, settling himself to wait as the lift rattled downward. Penning shot one last scathing look over her shoulder as if to warn him never to mention this again, before scuttling after Sephiroth with Steward close behind. The wait as the lift returned with the two troopers was peaceful, Viri cooing and chirping in his arms, and Cloud let his attention wander over the landscape he could see.

The reactor loomed above, a foreboding presence that screamed everything ShinRa used to stand for, did stand for now. Power, control over nature, wealth…and death. It was a relief for Cloud to not have to brave the inside of the reactor, as he had no desire to experience the cloying scent of mako again, but he did wish he could have gone in with Sephiroth. While it was unlikely anything had changed drastically, Cloud couldn't help but worry. All he'd need was for a maddened Sephiroth to come out of the reactor, blood on his sword and fire in his eyes.

The lift arrived, and the two troopers stepped out, helmets turning as they tried to spot the missing scientists. Cloud straightened from his spot on the wall, and gestured with one hand at the nearest one. He didn't even know their names, he realized, yet couldn't bring himself to care right now.

"Come with me to guard the entrance. You, stay and guard the lift. Sephiroth has escorted the scientists to the core," he explained, turning and walking away before either could reply. Viri began to wriggle in his arms, and after a quick survey of the area, Cloud let the chick drop to dodge at his heels. One pair of footsteps followed him, so they must have accepted that he was supposedly in charge. Cloud blinked to himself, wondering exactly when that had happened.

The trooper remained silent, and Cloud did not offer any opening for conversation. Once they reached the entrance, they stationed themselves to either side of the stairs that led up to the doorway, and Cloud tuned his senses to the reactor. The only thing that could be a threat wouldn't come from the outside. Viri, realizing Cloud wasn't going to either move or play, began running around the area. Luckily, not too far to make Cloud worry for his safety as the sure footing his color was known for made the potentially dangerous area a wonderful playground for the small bird. Occasionally Viri would look back up at the reactor's entrance, but would then turn to explore again.

After a few minutes, Cloud noticed the surreptitious glances the trooper was giving him. The helmeted head would turn just enough that the trooper could look at him out of the corner of his eyes, then snap back to attention if it looked like Cloud was about to notice. It was rather comical, though slightly depressing in that he had no idea what had caused the estrangement.

A shift in the air caused Cloud to bring his attention back to the reactor, though he didn't bother turning around. He could hear boot steps clanging against the metal of the stairs. There was no blood lust in the air, so obviously nothing had happened despite Cloud's paranoia. “Report to the reactor. I want you to join Doctor Penning in the core,” Sephiroth's voice cut through the air, audible even over the constant wind that plagued the heights of the Fort, and Cloud turned to see him addressing the remark to his phone. The snap as the device closed made Cloud's hand twitch at his side, indicating how on edge he really was.

It had all seemed to happen so fast, and yet felt like it had lasted for ages; Zack's abrupt departure, Sephiroth's confusingly sane behavior, all the fears and expectations that were falling flat in the reality Cloud was forced to face. Now Sephiroth's attention was once more on him, and Cloud felt more confused than ever. His mind screamed that this was his enemy, had been screaming it for weeks now, and yet there had been no real antagonism from Sephiroth.

Cloud silently prayed for Sephiroth to move on, to leave him alone so they could finish this mission quickly and with no issues. At least if Zack had been there, he would have been able to buffer Cloud and Sephiroth's interactions. Without his friend, Cloud felt stripped bare in the focus of that cat-like gaze. He pushed the feeling down as best he could, knowing it was just his own paranoia making him tense. Cloud regarded Sephiroth silently as he waited for the man to make the next move.

A sharp click sounded in the air, making the tension in him kick up another notch. “Strife,” Sephiroth said smoothly. Then, without flourish he drew Masamune from its sheath, which hit the ground with a clatter, and brought the blade up, poised for a millisecond before he lashed downward in a sudden, swift attack.

Cloud's heart pounded in his ears, the adrenaline kick making him feel lighter than air, and yet somehow the normal terror that came with Sephiroth's assaults was not there. It was such a small thing, but amidst the confusion the sudden attack had caused, the fact that Sephiroth had used 'Strife' instead of the ever mocking 'Cloud' came as an enormous relief. Whatever had caused Sephiroth's attack, there was no madness behind the actions.

All of that passed through Cloud's mind in an instant, as his body reacted and his sword met the swing of the Masamune. If Sephiroth expected Cloud to be thrown back, he was disappointed as Cloud adjusted his stance to absorb the blow, then pushed back. The surprised yelp of the trooper was an insubstantial background noise, though Viri's anxious warble caused Cloud to pause.

In the moment of respite, Cloud leapt up and back, landing on the steep slope that lead to the Condor heights. His feet slid under him due to the decline, sending him backward until his back leg came up against a rock and gave him leverage. There was no more time to think as Sephiroth was suddenly there eyes narrowed with calculating guile. Masamune whipped through the air as Sephiroth brought it down toward Cloud, using his own momentum to put more speed and power behind it. “I wonder if the skill you showed before was a nothing more than desperation.”

Cloud pressed his lips tightly together against the retort that he longed to express. He couldn't let anything slip despite the poisonous words that filled Cloud's mouth with bile. It was hard to remember, with the voice a familiar purr, the Masamune's sharp edge threatening his life once again. If Cloud made a mistake here, it could jeopardize the future. His skill could now be explained away by Zack's tutelage, the boost in strength from the mako pool, but Cloud's words could be the downfall of the delicate web of lies he was living now.

Instead Cloud relaxed his grip, letting the Masamune push forward as he twisted around the blow and aimed a knee at Sephiroth's gut. After he was driven to madness, Sephiroth had never initiated any hand to hand combat, preferring the long reach and deadly skill of his blade. Cloud had never been able to determine if it was because he chose not to, or if he had less skill in that area. It was insane, but Cloud wanted to find something, anything that he could cling to that was different about this Sephiroth, and since he knew the man best through combat, this seemed to be the best way to learn. While he couldn't comprehend the human reactions, the lack of malevolence, Cloud knew he could read Sephiroth's battle stance with his eyes closed.

Sephiroth's boots hit the uneven ground and he crouched slightly, taking the blow of Cloud's knee against a forearm. The contact was bone jarring, and a second later Sephiroth shoved forward sending Cloud further down the steep slope.

Sephiroth kicked off the incline after Cloud and reached out. His hand grabbed the smooth curve of Cloud's helmet. Sephiroth shoved and propelled himself into the air, dragging Cloud with him for a moment before he let go. The helmet dug into Cloud's skull, throwing him off balance even as Sephiroth's weight left him. His vision was partially obscured, and he hastily pulled the headgear off and tossed it to one side. It would only hinder him, and he needed all his senses when it came to battling the silver-haired man.

The hum of magic in the air had Cloud twisting, one boot pushing off awkwardly against the ground as he tried to regain his center and avoid the fireballs Sephiroth had sent at him. A few were deflected by the sturdy blade, and Cloud bit back the ache as he wished for his trusty First Tsurugi again. The ability of the blade to break into pieces would have been invaluable against the magic.

Somehow he managed to dodge the rest of the fireballs, but immediately had to contend with Sephiroth's attack again. As always, the man was on a constant offense, not leaving Cloud a moment to breathe. Cloud frowned slightly, even as he deflected the blow, the momentum lifting him off his feet and sending him back up the slope further. He used the brief seconds to regain his balance, landing much more sure footed before leaping forward again. Cloud knew Sephiroth's patterns, and while they were not exact to his memory, Cloud did have the advantage that Sephiroth had never fought him.

With a burst of power, Cloud swung his sword hard a few feet from Sephiroth, causing the ground in front of him to explode in an expanding rip. He'd used it before on this Sephiroth, but instead of attacking in the concealment it provided, Cloud landed just in front of the dust, one of Zack's borrowed materia already glowing in the sword's slot.

He let out a rapid fire of thunder spells, attempting to encircle Sephiroth and force him up into the air. That done, Cloud leapt up, sword high over his head as he prepared another powerful swing. The two blades slammed together for a second, locked midair as Sephiroth rose to meet him. Then the stalemate snapped as Sephiroth twisted and whipped Masamune through a series of lashing slices. He broke off his final swing and kicked out in midair. His boot heel hit the cross tree of Cloud's longsword.

The blow knocked Cloud back up the slope again, and to his advantage that meant he didn't fly very far before he could get his feet back under him. Cloud noted that Sephiroth had yet to land, and initiated a rush before the the man had time to collect himself. He braced one hand on the flat of the blade as he collided with the Masamune again, his downward momentum causing Sephiroth to slide backward. Cloud used the brief seconds to dart to the side, coming in for another blow that was also blocked.

For once the terrain was to Cloud's advantage for the moment. Sephiroth didn't seem to be able to stop his downward slide, leaving him mostly on the defensive as Cloud broke off and darted in for another blow. With the ease of long practice, Cloud let off a series of swings, chest heaving from both exertion and excitement as he realized this was very different from all his previous battles with Sephiroth.

Knocked back again by a defensive blow, Cloud let loose an earth spell just to the side of Sephiroth's path, causing the ground to explode. He used the distraction for another attack, sword coming around in a blur of metal. For a moment the world stilled, a glint of silver caught the air as a few pieces of Sephiroth's hair drifted past Cloud's face. Cloud stared, slightly dumbstruck, at the line of red across Sephiroth's cheek. He hadn't really expected to hit the man, and from the narrowing of those green eyes, neither had Sephiroth.

Sephiroth kicked off the ground to put some distance between himself and Cloud. He landed lightly atop a rocky protrusion around which a thick pipe half wrapped, humming with energy from the mako reactor above them. Slowly, he lifted his right hand upward and touched his gloved fingers to his cheek. For a moment he stared at his fingertips before lifting his gaze back to Cloud. “Hmm...” Sephiroth gave a faint chuckle, and slashed Masamune through the air challengingly. “I see.”

He jumped off the rock and darted up the slope to bring Masamune swishing through the air. The eerie song of blade rang around them. Cloud's legs burned as he was forced backward up the hill, and his arms were humming from the heavy blows from Sephiroth's blade. The silver-haired man's chuckle echoed mockingly in his ears, and Cloud was unprepared for the blast of energy that sent him slamming into the ground, breath knocked out of him. A shadow passed over, and Cloud looked up to see the Masamune descending rapidly.

He twisted just enough so the blade struck the ground instead, and sent a pulse of power into his materia at the same time. The dirt exploded at the earth attack, winding Cloud again as he was knocked away, but he hoped the blast had sent some nasty vibrations into Sephiroth.

There was no time to catch his breath as he flipped to his feet, sending a few thunder spells at the last place he'd seen Sephiroth in the hopes of distracting him. A further back flip had Cloud landing on a boulder, sword at the ready as he wheezed in a desperate breath of air.

The air sparked with electrical discharge as Sephiroth landed lightly on a rocky outcrop directly across from Cloud. The ground between them was torn asunder from spells and blades, the air thick with dust. He stood lightly poised, an errant breeze swirling his bangs and the edges of his coat. Sephiroth had just lifted Masamune back into position over his shoulder, knees bent slightly to renew his assault when the air was rent by the shrill ring of a phone. He straightened slowly, then fished the phone from his pocket and flipped it open. Sephiroth said nothing, simply listened to whoever was on the other end of the line.

Sephiroth frowned. “I'm not a messenger, Zack.” Cloud could only stare across the intervening space in bewilderment. Sephiroth was quiet for another moment, clearly listening to whatever Zack was saying to him. “As he's under your command you should have rectified that.”

With a faint sigh, Sephiroth looked back toward Cloud then tossed the phone across the gap to him. Cloud freed a hand from his sword to catch the phone, staring blankly at Sephiroth's relaxed form. His breath was slowing, but his head felt fuzzy from the sudden end to the adrenaline charged battle. Shaking his head slightly, Cloud slid his sword back into its holder on his back, and brought the phone up to his ear.

"SEPHIROTH! ANSWER ME!" Zack's voice hollered in Cloud's ear, accompanied with a static pop as the phone protested the volume. Cloud winced and brought the device away, frowning down at it in annoyance and consternation. Zack yelled at Sephiroth? It didn’t help his ringing ears or his muddled thoughts.

"Zack," he said flatly, keeping the earpiece a distance away until he was sure his friend had calmed down.

"Cloud!" came the immediate response, Zack's voice infused with surprise. "Wait...you're actually hanging around close enough to Sephiroth that he gave you the phone. ...Is everything okay?"

"…Fine," Cloud said after a moment's pause. Was everything okay? The slope was a pitted mess, there was at least one witness to the General attacking the not-SOLDIER, Cloud's mind was racing as he tried to figure out what exactly Sephiroth had been thinking, and Zack was asking if everything was okay? Still, there was nothing his friend could do from a distance, and Cloud didn't want him to fret unnecessarily. If it became necessary, Cloud would tell Zack about it later.

"Yeah, okay. Fine. I hope you're enjoying the nice southern weather, because I'm freezing up here," came the petulant response, and Cloud could just imagine the pout on Zack's face.

"It's just a bit of cold," Cloud said mildly, mouth quirking slightly since he'd already heard Zack complain at length about his more chilly assignments. His eyes drifted back to the silver-haired man, aware he was not only talking in front of Sephiroth, but on the man's own phone at that. "Do you need something?" It was as close to a reprimand Cloud could manage at the moment.

He wasn't sure if he was thankful or not that Zack's timely phone call had halted the fight. Cloud had never done anything like that before, just fought against another person in a test of skill. That seemed to have been Sephiroth's goal, as far as Cloud could tell. It had been frightening in a different way than Cloud's other battles, but it had also been oddly exhilarating. The only sour note was that it had been against Sephiroth, whom Cloud still held so many conflicting emotions for.

"Bit of cold...? Cloud it's the north continent in January, there's nothing diminutive about it," Zack sniffed. "Nah, I was just wanting to check in on you and see how you were managing. If everything's fine I should probably go. Might take a nap.... It's pretty boring waiting for things to get moving up here." Cloud let out a silent sigh. Zack was unbelievable; out of boredom, he called up Sephiroth to bug Cloud. It was so ridiculous, and yet something Cloud had no trouble believing Zack could and would do often.

"Zack…you know what, never mind. I'll talk to you later," Cloud said shortly, pressing the button to end the call without giving Zack a chance to respond. He blinked as the screen cleared, and the background picture displayed before the display went dark in power save mode. "Loveless…?" he mumbled under his breath.

“Genesis,” Sephiroth said, voice smooth and faintly amused. He jumped lightly down from his perch and began to close the distance between them to, no doubt, retrieve the phone. “He constantly quoted that poem, and was insistent that I needed to expand my horizons.” He paused, head tilted back to look upward at Cloud as he extended his hand for the device. “He changed it before–” Sephiroth cut his words off abruptly, face going stony. He frowned down at the phone in the palm of his hand, and snapped it closed with a little more force than was probably necessary before sliding it back into a pocket.

Cloud felt an odd pang of regret. He felt there was something he should say or do, some way to bring back the more relaxed expression the man had been wearing earlier, and the feeling surprised him. He was used to feeling inadequate when it came to reassuring or comforting his friends, but somehow Cloud found he didn't want to be shut out again from Sephiroth's attentions. It was infuriating; Cloud didn't want to be near Sephiroth, but hated it more when he was ignored. He dreaded being alone with him, yet always found his mind wandering back to the silver-haired enigma.

Sighing, Cloud looked around the torn up landscape, wondering if the redecoration would affect ShinRa's efforts later when they tried to take the Fort back from its defenders. Another scan didn't turn up what he was searching for, and Cloud ran a hand tiredly through his hair. "I think…my helmet's gone," he said quietly. There was no way Cloud could ask further about Genesis, not when his own relationship with Sephiroth was made up of a handful of interactions, half of them fights. Cloud did wonder what Sephiroth had been like, when he was with his friends.

A tiny warble made Cloud look further up the slope, where Viri was determinedly hopping and sliding down the steep incline, warbling and flapping his tiny wings for balance. In short order the bird had come to a sliding stop against Sephiroth's boot, chirping in complaint as he regained his feet on the new surface and shook his feathers out.

“It can be replaced,” Sephiroth said dismissively. His gaze dropped to the chocobo chick as Viri peered up at him, looking oddly wounded at being left behind. The two stared at each other for awhile before Sephiroth sighed, and reached down to pick the bird up. He sent another glance toward the top of the slope. Setting Viri against his side, Sephiroth began the ascent, stepping carefully around cracks, gouges, and loose soil as he went.

The wind ruffled Cloud's hair, still full of the scent of the dust they had disturbed. The only other sound was Viri's faint complaints, and the snapping of Sephiroth's coat. Closing his eyes, Cloud made an effort to relax his tense muscles, trying to tell his protesting body that the fight was over already. The attack had come out of the blue, but in a way Cloud had been expecting it all this time. It hadn't turned out the way he had expected, but he was getting used to even that.

He still didn't know why Sephiroth had decided to attack so suddenly. The man hadn't really demanded any information, his questions more of a taunt than a dig for answers. He hadn't fought seriously, his blows only becoming heavier after Cloud had managed to get through his guard. It made no sense to Cloud that Sephiroth would need to test himself against Cloud at all.

“Strife.”

Cloud glanced up at the sound of his name, then carefully picked his way up until he could see what had caught Sephiroth's attention. The other man didn't wait for him to catch up, continuing up the hill with effortless grace in counterpoint to Cloud's stumbling progress. His lost helmet was wedged tight in between a pipe and a rock, and as Cloud tugged it free he wondered how it had managed that when he'd discarded it much further up the hill. There was a large dent in one side, making it completely unwearable unless Cloud went through extensive cranial trauma. He tucked it under one arm in resignation as he began picking his way up the slope again.

 

 

Fort Condor after dusk wasn't much different than Fort Condor at noon. With the majority of the town located inside the warren-like system of caves and tunnels that threaded up the rocky promontory little to no natural illumination could be found within. It was instead lit completely by artificial means. The lamps were a warm yellow that created deep pockets of shadow outside of the glow they cast, and with the more rounded and natural quality of the stone rooms created a comfortable sort of atmosphere. The caves given over to a sort of inn were situated below what served as the local bar and restaurant. The 'inn', a former barracks when Fort Condor had been an actual fort, was run by the barman and his wife, who had been agreeable to housing the troops for the quantifiable sum of ShinRa money. It was made up, simply, of a single central common area off which tunnels sprouted to a number of rooms.

Cloud swayed slightly as the lift rattled to a halt on the 'ground' floor of the Fort. 'Basement' would be a more accurate description as it was underground, but since that was true for almost all of it, it was a meaningless detail. He stepped out into the warm glow, eyes slitting a bit against the comparatively bright light.

After returning from their fight, Cloud had immediately gone back to standing guard at the reactor entrance. Sephiroth had already left the area, to Cloud's relief. He recognized he was just trying to avoid Sephiroth and all the confusion he brought, but stubbornly pushed the thought back. He was certain he had the right to feel off balance. He wasn't the only one shook up by the recent event either. The other trooper hadn't even bothered to hide his gawking, though Cloud hardly noticed the constant staring as he was too lost in his own thoughts and trying to figure out Sephiroth's motives.

Despite the long, dull hours, the trooper had only braved conversation once, breaking the silence with an awestruck query. "Did that...really happen? You just took on the General."

Cloud had looked at the Trooper, at a loss as to how to answer the question. Of course it had happened, though even Cloud was having trouble wrapping his mind around it. In the end, he hadn't said anything at all, and the Trooper hadn't tried to push the issue.

When one of the Thirds had come to relieve them of their watch duties, Cloud had gone straight for the elevator, filled with an exhaustion that only came from mental stress. He vaguely heard the trooper say something to the Third, but the words were lost in the wind as the elevator doors closed behind Cloud. Now he was back in the common room, empty at this time of night as most of the residents had retired to bed. Almost empty, he amended as he spotted the silver hair on the other side of the room.

Cloud paused in the doorway, staring blankly at Sephiroth for a moment. The man looked relaxed, a book held open in one hand while the other rested in his lap. Once again the confusion welled up inside Cloud as his mind fought against what he knew to be true—that this man was his hated enemy, and would cause him endless grief—and what his eyes were telling him. It was not a madman sitting there, a barely discernible lump of feathers at his side indicating Viri's sleeping presence. It was just a man, the one Cloud had once looked up to as a hero, someone who, despite all odds, was sparking Cloud's interest to learn more, to find out what had driven Sephiroth so far from humanity that there was no hope of redemption.

He found his feet moving across the floor without conscious thought, stopping at the edge of the couch opposite from where Sephiroth sat. Cloud gingerly sat down, more out of a desire not to disturb Viri than out of deference to Sephiroth. A cursory glance confirmed that the chick hadn't even twitched, and Cloud raised his gaze to look at the silver-haired man. Sephiroth wasn't looking at him directly, his attention seemingly devoted to the book in his hand.

For a moment Cloud sat silently, wondering what he was trying to accomplish here. There was no Zack encouraging him, so it was just his own feelings that had brought him voluntarily into Sephiroth's presence. The confusion drove Cloud on, and he finally spoke, voice quiet even in the stillness of the room. "Why…did you…?" There was no need to explain what he was asking about. Cloud wasn't really expecting an answer, but somehow couldn't just leave things as they were.

The book tilted downward slightly, and Sephiroth lifted his head. He didn't look at Cloud, and instead appeared to consider the far wall. “A test,” he said simply. “You attacked me in Mideel. I was...curious.”

Cloud looked down at his tightly clasped hands, considering the answer. It shouldn't have been surprising, but Cloud was still taken aback at the simple explanation. Curious…like a child pulling an insect's wings off. There was cruelty through ignorance, the simple desire to understand no matter the cost to the subject, and somehow Cloud was unable to begrudge Sephiroth the opportunity to try to find out more.

It sent all sorts of warning bells through his mind, that Sephiroth might discover exactly why Cloud was so different, but on the other hand if he was so distracted with Cloud, maybe it would be enough to keep him from going over the edge. If Sephiroth knew there was someone willing to stand up against him, at the very least it would bring him straight to Cloud each time. As difficult as he knew it would be, Cloud would make sure history did not repeat itself.

"…Ah," he breathed in response, loosening his grasp as he relaxed his shoulders. Closing his eyes, Cloud's attention wandered to the faint pull between him and Sephiroth. After their explosive contact, most of the buzz of the connection between them had died, the slimy feel of Jenova vanishing almost completely. Now there was just the faintest of tugs that was a familiar feeling to Cloud. He was always drawn back to Sephiroth, even across time.

He worried about the connection, sometimes. There should be no logical reason for Cloud to still be feeling the pull toward Sephiroth, since the experiments had never happened to this body. Not yet, at least. The Lifestream worked in mysterious ways, and Cloud knew he had no hope of understanding the complexities of his situation.

There was also a chance that this Sephiroth could still force his control over Cloud, bending him into becoming a puppet once again. That thought sent chills through Cloud, as he remembered the overpowering presence, the helplessness as his body moved against his will. Cloud had learned to fight it to some degree, and Sephiroth's hold over him had weakened when he was returned to the Lifestream. Was that still true here, or was it possible for Sephiroth to exert that sort of control over him again?

Realizing his attention had wandered, Cloud blinked slowly, coming back to the quiet glow of the common area. It was late enough for him to retire, though he doubted he would sleep with how much his thoughts were jumbled.

There was a faint sound as Sephiroth closed the book he held. “I won't underestimate you again,” he said. “The next time our swords cross we'll test each others skills without reservation.”

Sephiroth glanced down at the chocobo chick sleeping at his side then lowered his hand to undo the single clasp holding his coat shut. With practiced ease he was able to slide the coat off without disturbing the chick. He stood carefully, draped his coat on the cushions alongside the armor he must have removed earlier. The book he'd been reading was placed on a nearby end table before he plucked Masamune from where it rested. He slid the blade from its sheath with a light hiss of metal. He tilted his head in the barest amount of acknowledgment to Cloud, set Masamune's sheath back against the wall, then turned away.

Cloud followed Sephiroth's movement as the man exited the room, staring unseeingly at the doorway. Sephiroth's words rang ominously in Cloud's mind, the promise sending tendrils of disquiet through him. Of course Sephiroth had been underestimating him; that had always been his downfall, that he could not believe Cloud an equal to him, able to defeat him.

Cloud knew he was not the man's equal. He'd relied on his friends, on luck, and on his own stubborn determination in the past, and it had been just enough to overcome. Would Sephiroth be able to keep his own determination, to treat Cloud seriously? The thought was both frightening, and sent a thrill through Cloud. He wasn't sure he wouldn't disappoint even those expectations, wasn't sure he wanted the chance. Hadn't Cloud wanted to avoid fighting Sephiroth? To somehow change things so that he never had to cross swords with the man again? Here, he'd already done so three times, though once was by accident, and another a mere copy.

Sinking against the cushions, Cloud closed his eyes in fatigue. "I don't…want…to fight him," he whispered to himself, willing himself to believe it. Sleep would be a long time in coming, and for now the couch seemed too comfortable to leave. Viri's quiet breathing from the depths of the discarded coat was comforting, and Cloud relaxed as the lamps continued to burn through the night.


 

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

 

Chapter Text



Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 10 – Crisis of Composure

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (January 19th)


 

He didn't know how long he'd been sitting here. Midgar's light quality relied heavily on artificial illumination, and Zack hadn't bothered to turn any of the lights on when he'd gotten home. A part of him was glad that Cloud didn't seem to be back yet, or perhaps he just wasn't in. A part of him wanted to go down to the slums, to seek out Aerith's presence. The rest of him didn't have the energy. His room was dark, the small living room beyond it silent and empty. Zack sat slumped on the floor, his back resting against the bed one leg drawn up to balance the Buster Sword. He pressed his forehead against the cold metal. With one hand he cradled the hilt, and with the other he gripped the blunt edge of the sword. His fingers gripped it so tightly that they hurt.

There were no tears, though his face was twisted in an expression of mixed guilt and anguish. Perhaps he'd have cried if he'd gone to see Aerith, perhaps not. Maybe he just didn't have the energy right then, or maybe he hadn't quite let go of his composure yet. He'd held it together all the way back, gotten himself and the Turk out of the AVALANCHE base before it exploded. His clothes still smelled like the ice and snow, he noted absently, and clenched his teeth together. No matter how he tried to force his expression to relax, he couldn't manage it. The backs of his eyelids were branded with the image of crossed swords jutting from a snowy cliff, and all he could hear was the warped laughing of his mind controlled friends.

“Damn it,” he swore quietly, breath misting against Buster Sword's blade. “Angeal... Sebastian... Essai...”

He'd done it again. He had failed to save more of his friends. How was he supposed to help Cloud when he couldn't seem to help anyone else? How was he going to make sure the world didn't fall into the burning ruin Cloud had predicted--told him about--when he couldn't even stop AVALANCHE from turning two of his friends into mindless puppets?

Zack had no idea, and suddenly it felt as if there was no way he could manage it, for all his bravado. It seemed an impossible task, and even though Cloud had told him about the things he had done for him, would possibly have done, might never do now, hadn't really done because it hadn't been him.... He felt like a pale shadow against those comparisons. Zack clenched his hands tighter, his gloves creaking ominously. “Pull it together, Fair,” he rasped. “Where's your pride as a SOLDIER?”

Where was his pride as a SOLDIER? He didn't think he had it anymore. What did it mean when he failed to be the hero he'd always wanted to be? What did pride as a SOLDIER mean when he was nothing but the arm of a group of people with no morality, no honor, no anything. What did his dreams mean when being a hero meant dirtying himself with ShinRa's wishes? What did his honor mean when he had to compromise it for something that no longer meant anything?

“Angeal...”

He wished his mentor were here, but that was his fault. He hadn't been able to stop Angeal from sacrificing himself, hadn't been able to keep him from dying. He missed Angeal's constant mantra, and no matter how hard he tried to cling to it, it seemed to be slipping away from him right then. He just didn't have the emotional or physical energy to muster his usual optimism.

The room seemed too full of his own doubts, and Zack felt mired in them.

"Zack?"

His throat felt too thick and tight. Zack had never been the sort of man afraid of showing emotion. He kept it together until he could let go, true, but he didn't hide what he felt. He'd cried over Angeal, and felt the hurt of his mentor's loss for months, felt it even now after nearly a year. He hadn't known Essai and Sebastian that well, but they'd still been friends.

"…Zack? Are you okay?" Cloud's voice finally broke through the haze of his spinning thoughts. He hissed slightly when he cracked his forehead against Buster Sword as he jerked his head up, and squinted toward where Cloud stood in the darkness; a deeper shadow against the room beyond his door.

“Cloud?” Zack asked, his voice came out thicker than he'd have liked it, and he winced. Was he okay? No, he wasn't but...Zack gave a rueful bark of laughter. It took more effort than he'd have thought to get his clenched fingers to relax their hold on Buster Sword, but eventually he let go of the blade. It sagged more fully against his thigh, and Zack lifted his hand to press his palm over his eyes. “I...yeah, I'm...” Zack fumbled for words, not wanting to lie, but neither wanting to drag Cloud into his own doubts. He knew how Cloud viewed him, and there was something brittle in him right then that wasn't sure if he could deal with that idealized version of himself. “It...it was just a tough mission. We,” his voice cracked. It might have been embarrassing if Zack had been someone else. “We lost some good men.”

Not just Essai and Sebastian either, they'd lost a lot of men to AVALANCHE. Men that had been under Zack's command. His second mission gone to hell. He was a SOLDIER, this was a military mission and he shouldn't be so bothered by it, but he was. He should expect some losses, even the loss of friends and yet.... His other hand released Buster Sword's hilt, and the sword clanged against the floor as it slid away from him. Zack brought his hand up, tilted his head back, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. He couldn't be the monster that killed things for pleasure and didn't care what got in its way that some people expected SOLDIERs to be.

"It…wasn’t your fault," Cloud said, voice hesitant and quiet. There was a rustle of fabric as he knelt on the floor next to Zack. Zack heard another shift, though nothing came of it and Cloud breathed out slowly. It was loud in the silence. When he spoke again his voice was a little more strong, a little more sure, “You did…everything you could."

“Did I? I know it's not my fault. It's just....” Zack pulled his hands away from his face, expression twisted in one of black anger and grief. He slammed his fist down, hard, on the floor next to him, drew his knees up, and rocked forward to drape his arms around them. “If there's anyone to blame it's them. They're the ones who did this to Essai and Sebastian but....” Zack lifted his hands again, unable to stay still, and tangled his fingers in his hair. The words came pouring out in a rushing, unstoppable torrent, “But I still...I should have been able to do more. If I hadn't taken so long to get there, if I'd tried harder to talk Angeal out of it, been faster in reaching the base after we got separated. If I hadn't attacked them....” It was all so muddled together, so close and aching, that it was almost inseparable. Like it was all one big mass of things that had gone wrong, and Zack's explanation ran together, overlapping, and meshing. He breathed deep, trying to ignore the heaviness behind his eyes. “I told you before that I'm not very good at saving people, Cloud.”

Zack closed his eyes again, seeing Angeal sprawled on the floor, dying from degradation and their fight. Angeal as he entrusted his dreams and honor to him. Essai and Sebastian, their armor stained black like those weird AVALANCHE soldiers', falling to the floor as the fight went out of them alongside the strange control they'd been under. Essai and Sebastian as they told him they were happy to have had a chance to talk to him one more time. 

He didn't know if the strikes he'd dealt to any of them had been the killing blows, or if he'd just ushered them along faster to their inevitable demises. It didn't really matter, because he knew he'd had a hand in it. That he hadn't managed to bring them back, and that was enough. If he'd been a better SOLDIER, a better friend, a better student, he'd have managed somehow. A hero would have managed it. It might not be his fault, but...he'd still failed the people he cared about, and that was almost as bad.

"You saved me," Cloud said, voice thick. "You don't…you aren't a failure. Zack, I…"

Zack flinched. He'd been afraid of that, been afraid of Cloud saying something just like that, and right now...right now he just couldn't take it. He couldn't stand being compared and feeling ferociously inadequate against himself of all things. Not when his emotions were raw, and his anger simmering against the loss of more friends, and the part he had played in their deaths. It was something that had been at the back of his mind, hanging over the friendship he shared with Cloud like a grim shadow. “No, I didn't,” he said, voice sounding more harsh than he meant. He lifted his head and glared at Cloud. Maybe he'd saved Cloud during the Mideel mission, maybe it'd be okay if that's what Cloud was talking about but Zack knew it wasn't. “Maybe I would have, maybe I could have, but I didn't, Cloud.”

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe the Zack that Cloud had known before was just better somehow, or maybe something had happened between now and then that had changed things. Zack didn't know, and he probably never would. That was fine, Zack was fine with being himself, doubts, inadequacies and all. He'd learned something of a new respect for just being himself lately, and there were a thousand vitriolic things pressing against the back of his teeth that he wanted to say. Venomous, hurtful things about whether Cloud saw him at all, or just a ghost. Whether Cloud was friends with him, or a memory.

For a moment it looked as if Cloud was going to say something, but he didn't, and Zack made an impotent sound, forcing back his own words. As upset as he was, as much as it hurt, as much as everything hurt right then, he refused to take it out on Cloud because he understood how haunted he was. Zack knew that he couldn't help it, that it would take time for Cloud to heal, to accept, and that that couldn't be forced. That maybe he'd never be fully recovered, Zack understood that, but...

But it hurt, feeling like he could never live up to what Cloud wanted him to be...like he wasn't enough for his friend.

I'm not him!” the words exploded from him before he could choke them back. He hadn't realized he'd shoved himself to his feet until he nearly tripped over Buster Sword. Zack reached up pressing a hand to his forehead. “I can't....”

He couldn't deal with this right now on top of everything else.

“I'm going to go out, I'll....” He headed for the door, leaving Buster Sword where it lay. Not even thinking about it. His mind was too scattered, and he had no idea what he wanted, or where to go right then. He had nothing but the burning urge to get away before he said something to make it worse, had nothing but the need for some time to be alone with his hurt, to work through it and.... He suddenly just wanted to see Aerith. “Yeah...I'll see you later Cloud, I'm...just, yeah.” He tossed a little wave over his shoulder, and was out of the room before he could look back and see what his words had done to Cloud, or hear what Cloud would say.

He just...couldn't.

The trip down to the Sector 5 slums seemed to take forever, yet only a few seconds with his inner turmoil. By the time he walked through the scuffed dirt and detritus of the path that lead to the church the rush of anger and hurt had left him. Zack felt drained, and exhausted, and he knew from the time that Aerith wouldn't likely be at the church, but it was still a place to go, a respite. He could go there for awhile and enjoy the calm serenity that always filled it.

He walked heavily up the wide stone steps and gently eased open the doors. It was as empty as he'd known it would be, and while he expected Aerith wouldn't begrudge him if he darkened her doorstep, no matter the hour, he couldn't bring himself to bother her. Zack couldn't help but feel he'd worried the people he cared about enough for one night.

The inside of the church lacked the golden quality it normally had, instead it seemed to be bathed in blue-gray shadows. The flowers at the center were still just as pretty as ever, the yellow and white petals glowing softly in the faint tracery of light that came in through the hole in the roof. Zack walked slowly up the aisle between the aged pews, his boots scuffing against the wooden floor.

“I feel terrible,” he said aloud as if that would somehow make it better or confirm it. All it did was tell him how wobbly his voice was, and when he sniffed next and the tears started flowing he was less surprised. He dashed the back of his arm over his eyes and blinked until he could see straight again. Zack stepped around the pew in the front row and sank down to sit on it, then slumped forward and braced his forearms on his knees. The faint light played off his gloves, highlighting them lightly around the edges of his fingers and palm. It wasn't until a choked sob caught in his throat that he realized the tears were back, and this time he didn't try to stop them, just hunched his shoulders and let them fall.

He never heard the soft creak of the door, nor the hurried footsteps. The first time he noticed Aerith's presence was as she sat down beside him and slid her arms around him. “Zack...” she breathed, then didn't say a word more. She just let him cry as she had done before, and Zack was grateful for it, grateful for the contact, and her warm presence, for her silent support, and the way she simply understood. Grateful that she was there for him somehow, for the light touch of her hand against his back, and her arm around his waist, and when his tears slowed to nothing more than quiet, hitching breaths, he was grateful for the continued silence as she let him compose himself.

When at last he lifted his head and looked up at her, Aerith smiled at him sadly. He noted that her hair was out of its usual braid and fell around her in loose auburn waves though she still wore the pink ribbon he'd bought for her on their first date. Her hand came up to brush against his cheek, and Zack reached up to catch it in his. “I had a feeling,” she said softly, “that...something was wrong. So I came.”

He summoned up a reflection of his usual smile for her, and sunk back against the pew. She slid with him, resting against his side. Her hair tickled his arm. Silence pressed around them, and exhaustion dragged at Zack, his eyes gritty and sore, and his throat raw. “Two of my friends...” he said, then trailed off into a soft little sound.

“They'll be okay,” she said softly. He believed her.

“And Cloud...” he added. “I shouldn't have said that to him.” The guilt hit him hard. He'd been terrible to Cloud, said horrible things to his friend.

He heard her exhale, could imagine her slight smile. “That will be okay too, whatever it is.” He believed that too, he always believed her.

“I'm exhausted,” he added. He lifted his hand and smoothed it over his face. He still needed to talk to Cloud, to tell him he was sorry for snapping at him. To tell him he hadn't meant to be an ass, and... and make sure he hadn't hurt him too badly. He needed to....

Aerith straightened at his side and tugged at his arm. “Then go to sleep, silly.”

“Simple as that?” he asked, letting her tug him over, letting her direct him to rest his head on her thighs, and letting himself relax as she threaded her fingers into his hair, then traced them over his brow and along his jawline.

“Simple as that. Before you know it, it'll be morning, and everything will look brighter.”

Zack chuckled, her other hand still held captive in his, and closed his eyes a smile lingering on his lips. “It already is.”

She tugged on his ear in slight reprimand, then combed her fingers through his hair again. Yeah, he would need to fix things in the morning, maybe talk to Cloud right, and explain some things to him. Maybe he'd tell him more about Angeal tomorrow, and maybe even about Sebastian and Essai. He didn't have to listen to confidentiality where Cloud was concerned, didn't need to care about ShinRa's bullshit. He would build his own reason to be proud of being a SOLDIER, find his own way of honor, and he already had a new dream.

And speaking of that new dream.... “Aerith,” he said quietly. She hummed a soft query. “I can't tell you right now, it's...most of it isn't mine to tell but.... One day things are going to get real bad and I'm going to tell you what's going on. That way if things turn out wrong you'll be prepared.”

Her fingers paused on his temple for a second before resuming. “I understand.”

Just in case his dream didn't work out; his dream of all of them being happy together, and alive.

Cloud had given that to him.

As he drifted off into an exhausted sleep under Aerith's gentle touch, Zack drowsily decided that he'd thank Cloud for that in the morning.

 

 

Zack's words had been like a physical blow, had been enough to make him flinch. Guilt, heavy and dark and familiar, clawed through Cloud's mind as he sat alone in the dark. Where before the lack of light had seemed out of place for the normally upbeat Zack, now it seemed suitable with his friend's absence. Even though he knew it was his fault, knew his words had hurt something inside Zack, Cloud still strained his ears, hoping, wishing he would hear Zack come back. He felt lost, and had no idea what to do to fix the situation. Normally he would look to Zack for guidance, but that wasn't possible now.

Somehow, everything had gone wrong in the matter of a few days. Cloud should have known better, had experienced it often enough to know that when things were looking up, that was when everything fell apart. He should have been prepared, should have expected it…but he'd never expected it to come from Zack. Zack was Cloud's constant, the protection he fell back on even when his friend had been dead and gone and all Cloud had were fractured recollections from a mako addled delirium. Even then there had been others—Aerith, Tifa, all of his friends—now there was no one Cloud could turn to.

A vision of Sephiroth flitted across his mind, and Cloud snarled in anger. There was no reason for him to look to that man for anything. The recent encounter had merely been a passing fancy for Sephiroth and Cloud was as always reading too much into things.

He didn't know how long he knelt there in the dark, abandoned room, eyes staring sightlessly at the discarded Buster Sword. Eventually, he stood slowly, muscles protesting the movement after so long in one position. He picked up the sword carefully, hefting the familiar weight, remembering a time he had called it his. It had never really been his, though. Cloud hadn't remembered, had never known the depth of memories behind the blade. He couldn’t cherish it the way Zack could…did.

He brought it out to the living room, setting it in its holder on the wall. Zack would be upset, if he thought it had just been left carelessly on the floor. Numbly, Cloud walked into his own room…the spare room, looking at the meager pile of stuff that belonged to him. Not to him, though. To the old him who Cloud didn't remember and could never be again. He turned, leaving it all behind. It never belonged to him. This life had never belonged to him.

Cloud shouldn't have stayed. He had fallen prey to his own broken dreams, of a Zack who was alive, of Aerith, of Sephiroth who was once again the hero Cloud had admired. There was no place for him here. What he should have done from the beginning was destroy the source, find Jenova, Hojo, get rid of them all even if it turned him into a fugitive from ShinRa. That wasn't anything new, after all.

He paused in the doorway to the apartment, one hand resting lightly on the doorjamb though he didn't look back inside. He knew what he had to do now, but even if it hurt, even if Zack didn't want to see him, or couldn’t forgive Cloud for trying to force him to be someone he wasn't, Cloud had to apologize to Zack. It wasn't anything he was good at, the words always seemed inadequate, but once again his promise to Tifa drove him on. He'd promised to do better. Without further thought, he set out to find his friend.

The church was still and quiet in the pre-dawn air, the world colored a washed-out gray that wasn't darkness but wasn't illumination either. Cloud hesitated at the foot of the path up to the old building. There had been no doubt for him, not really, at where Zack would go at a time like this. The church was a place of respite, of comfort, and had served that purpose for Cloud in the past…future. The difference was that Zack didn't just have ghosts to return to, the empty pews full of fading memories and broken promises.

The trip down into the slums had been a blur. Cloud had walked in that daze that had always bordered on the surreal, like the times when Aerith would appear in his exhausted mind, always just out of sight, just out of reach, but still warmly there to offer her comfort. He had wished, for one selfish moment, that she would come to him and tell him not to leave. Cloud didn't want to leave, not really, but he didn't want to keep causing grief for Zack like this.

She hadn't appeared of course. Aerith wasn't dead in this time, didn't even really know Cloud at all. Loneliness had crept in on Cloud, though he pushed the feeling back as much as he could. His self-imposed isolation had been painful, the desire to see his friends always counteracted by the heavy guilt and grief that had consumed him. Cloud had hurt his friends because of that, which only added to his regrets. Now, at least, his absence might cause some relief for his friends. He tried to make himself believe that, ignoring the mocking thoughts that told him he wasn't needed here.

The wooden doors of the church creaked slightly as Cloud pushed open one leaf, slipping silently into the vaulted interior. Shadows clung to the walls and ceiling, but down the center of the aisle, Aerith's flowers glowed silvery in the meager light. The sight was familiar to Cloud, one he'd seen after many sleepless nights spent in the church. He walked forward slowly, boots scraping lightly on the wooden floor as he tried to fortify himself for the confrontation he knew lay ahead.

Zack wasn't immediately visible, but Cloud could see the familiar pink ribbon in Aerith's hair where she sat in the front row of pews. As he got closer, she turned her head. Her eyes caught his as she offered a welcoming smile. Cloud tried to stop the warm feeling that gave him. If he lingered too long here, he knew he would lose his nerve, be unable to leave even if the world went to hell again because of it. When the reclined form on the bench next to Aerith came into view Cloud paused. He was intruding once again.

Aerith smiled at him as if telling him she'd understand if he chose to sit down or if he turned and left without another word. There was nothing accusing in the expression; there never was, Cloud knew. Not in hers, and not in Zack's either. He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting against the urge to turn and run away again, to not face Zack's angry, hurt expression.

A vision of Tifa's warm, worried eyes filled his mind, a memory of her hopeful tone as she asked one more promise from him, not pushing, not expecting, and he knew he couldn't fail her again, couldn't break another promise he'd made for her. Cloud opened his eyes and stepped forward, sitting gingerly on the bench next to Aerith. Zack appeared to be asleep, completely unaware of his presence.

They sat in silence for a while. Cloud stared sightlessly at the field of flowers in front of him. He was loathe to break the peace, wished the problems would just vanish in dawn's light like the clinging shadows. He knew better, but wished it all the same.

Aerith let out a faint breath that might have been a sigh, or maybe something else entirely. She brought a hand up from where it covered Zack's, resting lightly over her knee, and touched Cloud's arm lightly. “How are you doing, Cloud?” she asked softly. The question was incongruously normal for how horrible Cloud felt.

He blinked as he pulled himself out of his daze. It hadn't been obvious, but Cloud was now realizing how tired he really was. He hadn't slept at all, and had just returned from that confusing and exhilarating mission. He'd been looking forward to talking to Zack, to try and figure out what Sephiroth's actions had meant, what it might mean for the future. Walking in on a miserable Zack hadn't been part of the plan and Cloud had failed at that too. But Aerith wasn't judging him or accusing him. If she even thought he had anything to do with Zack's current upset, she obviously didn’t condemn him for that. Cloud was thrown once again by Aerith's understanding nature and patience. It felt like something he didn't deserve when he couldn't even be truthful as to who he was and why she meant so much to him. Once again he was hiding behind a mask of someone else, only this time he was aware of the lie.

"I…made a mistake," Cloud said finally. His voice sounded muffled, lost in the high ceiling and still air. He risked a small, sideways look at Zack who hadn't stirred. Zack's face was relaxed in sleep, though Cloud could see the faint trace of tears. Guilt swelled in him again, all too aware of his inability to offer comfort when his friend had needed it.

“We all make mistakes sometimes,” she said with a small warm smile. “You just have to try and fix the ones that are fixable, and learn from them.” She paused, hand stilling where it was smoothing over Zack's hair and looked more directly at Cloud. Aerith ducked her head down, auburn hair slithering loosely over her shoulder. “Do you...want to talk about it?”

Cloud clenched his hands together in his lap and the leather creaked softly in protest. He turned his head slightly, almost afraid she would vanish like his visions of her always had. Aerith remained solid, her green gaze catching his easily. The reassurance that she was still here helped him relax, though his emotions were still in turmoil.

"What if…what if you can't fix them? What if they…hurt others?" Cloud asked. He wasn't sure anymore if he was talking about his slip up with Zack, or if he meant when he'd failed to save her, or even if he meant when he'd failed to stop Sephiroth. There were so many times in his life that his failures had hurt others. Learn from his mistakes? He learned every time how much they hurt, but it seemed he was unable to prevent further tragedies from happening anyway. "How…how do you accept another chance?" Cloud dropped his gaze back to his tightly clenched hands, his voice a hoarse whisper.

“Then you just pick yourself up and keep on trying,” Zack mumbled, voice rough with sleep. “And second chances don't come along that often, so you better grab them when you can, and make the best of it.” Cloud nearly choked at the unexpected interruption, and he flinched slightly as he realized Zack had finally woken up. Even before Zack's optimistic words reached him, Cloud knew it was too late for him to run away. It had been an impulsive reaction, one he knew Zack would never have stood for if Cloud had tried to go through with it. Unlike Tifa's unobtrusive attention that prevented her from following him when he chose to vanish, Zack would probably have dropped everything to hunt him down. “Hey... Cloud?” Zack said after a moment longer. “I'm really sorry for what I said, I.... Well, I didn't mean to snap at you. And, Cloud? Thanks.”

Cloud had no idea what to do with the apology. There was no reason for Zack to be sorry. All Cloud had done was make the situation worse, after all. Even more baffling was the thanks. Cloud was left bewildered even as the weak dawn light broke through the underside of the plate's constant gloom. He tried to formulate some sort of response, but found himself unable to as the confusion and guilt swirled into a leaden feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"I don't…understand," Cloud said finally, looking at Zack helplessly. "I didn't mean to compare…" he trailed off as his gaze trailed to Aerith guiltily. "I'm...sorry…."

Cloud frowned down at his hands again, aware he was messing this up too. He wanted to deny Zack's accusations of earlier, that he'd been comparing his friend to the Zack that had died for him. It hadn't occurred to Cloud to try to differentiate the two; they were both Zack, both his friend, both people he owed a great deal to. But it was true that they were very different people, even for being the same person.

Cloud's patchy memory had created a persona from the scraps of Zack that he could remember, but that wasn't the same as spending the day doing missions together, relaxing over a meal in their apartment, visiting the slums to see Aerith, or just to find something to pass the time. The sacrifice the other Zack had made would always be Cloud's burden to bear, one he was both thankful for and resigned to never being able to repay. He had thought he was doing so here and now, that by ensuring this Zack was happy and alive that it would somehow make up for the stolen years lost to the future.

In doing so Cloud had dishonored both the memory of his fallen friend and hurt his new friend without realizing it. Cloud had tried to paint Zack as a hero and push that image onto him without considering the pressure and expectations that had put on Zack. It made him feel slightly ill that he'd done that to Zack when Cloud himself had suffered from trying to live up to other's expectations.

"I'm sorry…" he repeated more quietly still, his voice barely a whisper. It was an apology to his friend's memory, which he had foolishly forgotten in his own selfishness.

With a heavy sigh Zack swung his legs off the pew, sat up, and twisted toward Cloud and Aerith. He rested one arm on the back of the pew, and reached around Aerith toward Cloud with the other. “C'mere.” Zack ignored Aerith's muffled sound of surprise as he tugged Cloud closer to the both of them, trapping her between them. “Now stop making that face, Cloud. I'm sorry that I snapped at you because I know what you're going through. Don't look at me like that, it's true, and I'll tell you all about it later. I shouldn't have let my emotions get the better of me either.”

Cloud succumbed to the sudden embrace with only a slight widening of the eyes. He'd rather expected the tactile response from Zack, already used to his friend's clingy nature. That was, he supposed, the entire point. He knew this Zack, knew his quirks, his likes, his dislikes, whereas before Zack had been a savior, an ideal, an untouchable dream. No matter what happened in this life it would never change the sacrifice that Zack had died for, but that didn't mean Cloud couldn't find new happiness with this Zack.

Aerith wrapped an arm around each of them, apparently surrendering to the group hug with good humor. Aerith's arm around him was also a new comfort. Cloud had known Aerith, could remember the time spent with her clearly despite his own identity issues at the time. Now that he'd met this younger Aerith, not touched by as much tragedy, he could see the differences in them. The future Aerith had acted a lot like Zack in a way. Perhaps that was her way of keeping his memory alive after he'd gone missing from her life.

Even so there had still been a distance between them. Cloud's own twisted perceptions had seen a possible life together with her, for a while at least. Those same delusions had been perceptible to Aerith on some level, he knew. She could see the ghost of her first love in him, because in a very real way that's exactly what had happened. But she couldn’t touch Cloud, because he wasn't there at all.

Here, her arm was warm, real, and there for him. There was a connection between the three of them that Cloud wasn't sure he'd ever experienced before, and certainly hadn't since Nibelheim. With Tifa, even though she'd wished for more his own guilt had forced him to keep his distance from her offered warmth. The closest he'd come to this acceptance was from Marlene and Denzel. The orphan in particular had touched Cloud's heart, seeming to be a gift from Aerith to help him heal. Cloud relaxed into Aerith's side, her hair tickling his face as he closed his eyes. The cold fear that had plagued him since Zack had walked out the door was fading and Cloud marveled at the warmth that took its place.

“You can't help it, and I understand that. It's why I didn't bring it up. I'm not going to be mad at you for that.” Zack leaned back and ruffled Cloud's hair. Normally he found it annoying, but this time it was a welcome comfort. “And I don't think you realize how much you've helped me just by being friends with me, Cloud. You're my second chance, buddy, and don't you forget that, okay? For what it's worth apology accepted. Full forgiveness given, even. So long as you give us a smile then we can move on. Is that a deal?"

Even if he'd wanted to, Cloud couldn't help the quiet chuckle at Zack's characteristically flippant dismissal of Cloud's guilt. It was something he would probably never win at when it came to his friend, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Aerith glanced between the two of them, then nodded. “Good,” she said. “I'm not sure what I'd have done if you two decided to be immature about this.”

Zack winked at her. “Probably have banned us from visiting until we made up.” She shook her head at him then extracted herself from between them. As soon as she stood up she wobbled and gave a little gasp of surprise. Zack snatched her before she could fall, eyes wide with surprised dismay. “Aerith, are you okay?”

Aerith winced and rubbed at her leg. “My leg must have fallen asleep from you laying on it,” she admitted. “Oooh, ow.”

As she sank back to sit between them again, Zack's expression transformed into one of utter sheepishness. “Aerith! Why didn't you wake me up. Or just shove me off!” Zack only looked more dismayed when she took one look at him and descended into a fit of girlish giggles. By the time she got herself back under control, Zack looked resigned and amused.

“It's okay,” Aerith gasped. She wiped tears of mirth from her cheeks. “I didn't mind, but don't you have somewhere you need to go? And I need to see to the flowers....”

Zack sighed faintly and rolled his eyes, then tugged her close to drop a kiss on her head. “Yeah, I...” he glanced by her to Cloud and gave him a wry smile. “I didn't bother to report when I got back last night, so I need to go and talk to Lazard, Veld, and Tseng.” He cleared his throat and gave Cloud an uneasy look, which cleared away into determination. “After I take care of work for the day, we'll talk, okay Cloud? There's some things I want to tell you about.” He paused, looking between the two, then stood up and propped his fists on his hips. “I'm the only one who got any sleep last night, aren't I?” His shoulders slumped, hands sliding off his hips to dangle before he lifted one to brush through his wild hair. “Aw, geeze, now I just feel even worse...”

"Oh, you probably needed it the most," Aerith said, tutting as she ran a hand through her mussed hair. "Cloud and I look this pretty naturally. You need all the help you can get." She stood up, rubbing her leg for a moment before straightening completely. Cloud rose too, ready to give her a helping hand if she needed it. Though from Zack's hovering he doubted he would get the chance. Her green eyes focused on him and she reached out a hand to touch him lightly on the shoulder. "You are okay, right Cloud? Just remember he's a big puppy; all bark, no bite, but lots of slobber," She tapped Zack lightly on the chest with her fist. Cloud gave her a wan smile, his exhaustion shining through as the emotional crisis passed.

"I will be," he affirmed, nodding at Zack.

“I don't slobber!” Zack yelped, then huffed. “Man, not you too. It was bad enough that apparently Angeal used to call me a puppy.” Shaking his head, he sidled around her and tossed an arm over Cloud's shoulders. “You make sure you get some sleep Aerith and I'll take Cloud back home.” As he tugged Cloud off with him Aerith's merry laughter chased after them. Zack muttered, “C'mon, let's go. I need to get cleaned up before I go visit the Turks.”

Cloud nodded, giving a half shrug to dislodge Zack's arm and make walking easier. Idly, he remembered how he'd expected the night to end in nothing more challenging than bed, possibly food if he was feeling ambitious. A look at Zack's face reassured him that his friend was feeling much better, and not just putting up a front. Whatever had caused Zack's grief, Cloud would listen to his friend and offer what comfort he could. If that wasn't enough, Cloud would just have to do more until it was enough.

"I think," he said, stifling a yawn, "I'll wait at the apartment. If that's okay?" The query was rhetorical, since Zack didn't need him for checking in with his commander. While Zack was gone, Cloud would try to catch a little bit of sleep and then they would talk. Somehow, it would all turn out alright, and even now, looking back on it under the light of the morning sun and in the face of Zack's acceptance...the idea of running away seemed utterly absurd.

 

 

The heavy clomp of boots was the only warning the two Turks had before the SOLDIER 1st came rushing down the hall. The two took a single step aside just before imminent collision and turned to watch him disappear. “Whoa! Watch it you maniac!” Reno hollered. He cast a glance at Rude out of the corner of one eye and tilted his chin up to indicate the corner the SOLDIER had disappeared around. “You think getting run over by a SOLDIER is better or worse than a getting stepped on by a behemoth?”

“...Wasn't that Fair?”

Reno reached up and scratched under the strap of his goggles. “It looked like his sword,” he agreed, then waved the armful of manila folders under his arm at the end of the hall in dismissal. “Eh, who cares. We got something to do.”

Reno was in a bad mood so at least he took pleasure in the fact that Fair had looked as harried as he felt. None of the Turks were in a particularly good mood after Veld had been dismissed and Heidegger of all people put in control. Heidegger didn't care about anything but his army, and he sure as shit didn't have a clue how to handle the Turks. At least they had Tseng to run some damage control, but it just wasn't the same without the director. Reno shoved his hands back in his pockets and proceeded to slouch down the hallway again.

The door to central command opened just as the pair reached it and Reno found himself face to face with another pair of Turks. He recognized the man who'd opened the door as Guns, and the brunette standing behind him with her arms crossed and a frown on her face had to be one of the new recruits. Reno stared at Guns who stared back at him for several seconds. “Reno,” he greeted after a moment, backing down and stepping aside enough to let them through. “Rude.”

“Guns,” Reno drawled. “Rookie.” Rude gave the pair a nod as he followed him in. The brunette frowned at him, but didn't say anything as she followed Guns out. Before the door closed completely, a quiet set of footsteps announced another arrival. Reno didn't bother to look back as she came in. “So, who're you today?”

There was a pause from Cissnei as she considered Reno's snide question then answered with a quiet, “Shuriken.”

Tseng stood at the head of the room near a bank of computer terminals. The large screens that filled up three of the four walls cast everything into a flickering blue green glow. The ShinRa logo was displayed on each and every one. There was one more Turk there, standing near the right side screens. She had her long dirty blonde hair in its usual high ponytail. Shotgun nodded in acknowledgment a second before Tseng turned away from her to look at the three of them curiously.

“Reno, Rude...Shuriken,” Tseng greeted. Reno thought he looked tired and a little drawn. Having to cow-tow to that oaf Heidegger probably wasn't easy. Reno didn't envy Tseng's higher position on the food chain right then. “What can I do for you?”

Reno sauntered forward and tossed the folders down on one of the terminals. A slew of printed, awkward photographs spilled out. A few drifted to the floor. “I was wondering if you took the time to hear the latest rumors,” Reno said, then smirked. It was sharp and wolfish. He watched Tseng look down, frown, and pick up one of the images. They weren't the best quality, clearly taken from a phone, blurry and tilted as they were, but the image they displayed was still the same.

Cloud Strife locked in battle with Sephiroth himself, and clearly keeping up.

Tseng stared contemplatively at the photo in his hand then let his eyes roam over the spread of partially displayed images scattered across the terminal. "These are reliable?" Tseng asked, flicking the photo back onto the pile of its brethren.

Reno's smirk transformed into a full on wicked grin. “Oh you can bet your ass these are reliable. Most of these photos come from different sources. We have around...what was it, Rude? Twenty witnesses? Infantrymen, SOLDIERS, and some scientists." He reached down and pulled out several of the long distance shots, clearly taken from the base of Fort Condor. "And all of them are saying the same thing. They didn't know the kid's name, but they all saw some blond in a trooper uniform going toe-to-toe with Sephiroth.”

He stepped forward and reached out to flip open the folder. Reno shoved aside the collection of photos to reveal the paperwork underneath. “I took the liberty of pulling Strife's files and having a nose around. There's not much there. Average kid, got a bit of a track record for getting into fights. We have a file on him ourselves courtesy of Shotgun,” he nodded to the woman, “from the mission to escort Doctor Rayleigh awhile back.” It was interesting that Cloud had been involved in that, a mission that involved AVALANCHE and their mysterious black armored soldiers out to steal a disc full of highly confidential research about the SOLDIER program. Really, other than his enrollment in the Army and a few flags in his files that was the first incident that he'd pinged the Turks radar. Reno picked up a particular sheet of paper, and leaned forward, smirk firmly in place. “But, see, that's not the most interesting part....”

The silence lingered as Reno gave in to the need for a little dramatic effect. No one seemed willing to play up to it, no one leaned in, no intent attention. Nothing. Man, what a bunch of killjoys. He wasn't willing to give it up though, so it stayed there until it just became awkward. Finally, Rude cleared his throat. “...Reno....”

“Yeah, yeah,” Reno huffed. “I'm getting to it.” Reno brandished the print out. “According to Strife's medical files he was examined by one of Hojo's lab assistants after he got back to Midgar in December.”

Tseng gave him a blasé look. “I fail to see how that is interesting.”

“Oh, but it is,” Reno crowed. “See, this particular assistant was suddenly transferred to the space program and headed west two days after examining Strife.” Reno straightened up and looked at the paper, practically preening where he stood. “Name of Ellis Briant...sounds kinda familiar, like that guy that was under suspicion for letting some of Hojo's specimens loose. Not to mention he was a geneticist, didn't have any interest or know-how in rocket science until then.”

"You were also on that mission," Tseng said, looking to Cissnei. "You were able to observe Strife after his accident? Your report mentioned he suffered from obvious signs of mako poisoning. Yet a medical staff cleared him a few days later, and then was reassigned immediately after."

Tseng frowned at the obvious sign of tampering, and Reno grinned slyly. He could almost see Tseng's train of thought. After all it was one thing to learn that someone in ShinRa wanted to cover up information about the trooper, but it was another to leave an obvious trail. Normally such procedures were handled by the Turks who ensured that any trail left behind would lead to dead ends. Who had ordered it, then? The most likely candidate was Lazard, but why? What was his purpose? A trooper fell into contact with diluted mako and is suddenly able to keep up with Sephiroth. Perhaps the medical exam had come up with an anomaly the SOLDIERs were trying to exploit. Each branch of ShinRa liked to keep their cards close to their chest, so if Lazard had discovered a potential asset he could exploit, it made sense that he would rush to cover up the evidence.

"Who has had contact with Strife? Before and after the Mideel mission," Tseng asked abruptly, fixing his subordinates with a sharp look. Their first order of business was to collect as much information as possible, and if there was one thing Turks were good at, it was finding out other people's business.

Reno shrugged. “I've seen him twice since the Mideel mission. When we went in to save their asses, and again in mid December, but I wouldn't really call it contact. Rude's had more contact with him than I have.”

Rude nodded. “Once as they reported in right after their return from the mission. He was with Fair and Sephiroth when they reported to Lazard.”

Tseng raised an eyebrow at that. "He looked well?" Reno looked too. The kid had to be made of some tough stuff to be up and about after the kind of treatment the report gave. It wasn't everyday someone took a nose dive into some mako, and the SOLDIERs didn't seem to think too highly of their little showers.

“...A little uncomfortable but otherwise healthy.”

“Man,” Reno griped, “you never told me about this!”

“...It didn't seem important.”

"And?" Tseng interrupted before Reno could lament on his partner's failure to communicate.

Rude lifted his shoulders in a faint shrug. “That's all.”

“What about the 24th?” Reno demanded. “Strife was there.”

“We didn't say anything.”

“When was the Mideel mission?” Shotgun interrupted before things could take a further tangent.

Tseng flipped through some of the papers Reno had brought in, clearly double checking his information. “They were dispatched on the 10th of December 01, and had to be pulled out the next day.”

“Once before, and once after, then,” she said thoughtfully. “With the Rayleigh Mission and during the Festival.”

"Good. Did you notice an obvious change in appearance or behavior?" Tseng asked, not looking up as he wrote a quick note in the margin of the report. Reno leaned forward to peer at the notation thoughtfully. A change in behavior could be caused by mako, but would more likely be caused by whatever the Director was up to with Strife. While not as extreme as the ShinRa scientists, even Lazard fell prey to using his SOLDIERs in experiments. If Shotgun could give them a baseline....

Shotgun remained quiet for several seconds, gaze turned upward in contemplation. “While I didn't have much time to observe him he did seem a little more...reserved than before. The Cloud Strife I met was a little brash and idealistic. He refused to back down and flee the scene when AVALANCHE showed up, and instead insisted on aiding in combat and protecting his comrades and charge to the end. He also refused to let Doctor Rayleigh be harmed to protect the disc she was carrying.” She paused again, lips parted as she wavered over a bit of information, then frowned. “He did display a surprising ability with a sword for a trooper and managed to wield one of the large SOLDIER-type swords the black AVALANCHE soldiers wield.” She smiled wryly and shrugged, ponytail bouncing. “He said he was desperate.”

Tseng's gaze turned back to the photos still scattered haphazardly and Reno gave a low whistle. Now that same random trooper was exchanging blows with ShinRa's best.

"The mystery deepens," Reno muttered to Rude out of the side of his mouth. Rude elbowed him in the side, but Reno ignored it.

While it wasn't entirely unusual for Infantrymen to be familiar with swords, and some even did pretty damn well—they were usually the ones looked at for SOLDIER recruitment—and it wasn't unusual for a desperate man to be able to pull off feats he never could normally.... It could also work as a cover up for something else. Something shadier. Was he an AVALANCHE spy? It was a possibility, however unlikely. If something had changed in their plans for Strife to stop being subtle.... It almost made sense.

Where Zack came into this was another piece of the puzzle. The SOLDIER was overly friendly, as they well knew, so it was possible it was merely a coincidence that Strife was suddenly closely involved with him. Turks didn't tend to believe in coincidences, though, and with that thought Reno gave a self-satisfied grin. When Tseng looked up at him, Reno didn't bother to hide it or make an effort to look relaxed or bored, as was his usual style. For once he couldn't contain the restless energy. This was going to be good.

Before Reno had a chance to interject, Cissnei's quiet voice piped up, “I'd never met him before Mideel, but...he said some rather strange things. I disregarded them because of the obvious mako poisoning.” There was a faintly apologetic tone to her voice, Reno noted.

Tseng shot her a stern look. "There seems to be a great deal of 'disregarding' going on lately." They all recognized the rebuke for what is was. "Explain, please," he ordered, flicking through the papers again. He stopped on what Reno recognized as Cissnei's report for the aforementioned mission. It had been a standard report considering the disaster that mission had been. That alone should have been suspicious.

Cissnei crossed her arms over her breasts and gripped her upper arms. “Well... Zack got him talking about his hometown, Nibelheim, and Cloud said that...he'd nearly been eaten by a dragon?” She frowned slightly, then looked up. “And that the experiments were loose. He seemed to know the Ancient, too. Now that I think about it Zack seemed surprised about that. I'd thought maybe Zack had just mentioned her to him or something, and the rest just seemed to be easily explained away that he was rambling about separate instances under the poisoning.” Well, that explained some of it. Cissnei did have quite a soft spot for Fair, but the rest.... Reno shot a look at Tseng to find him staring hard at the papers.

Nibelheim was strictly confidential. There should have been no way for Strife to know about what was inside the reactor if that's what he had been talking about. Fair shouldn't know about what was inside the reactor even. It was impossible for Strife to have found out through ShinRa. Though, if Strife had grown up there and was capable enough to escape one of the fierce dragons that made their home on Mt. Nibel, he might have explored the reactor long before he entered ShinRa's military. On a dare, perhaps, or simple curiosity.

It didn't add up even if that were the case. Somehow Strife had come across too much confidential information to be considered a coincidence. That, and the anomalies that surrounded him, meant that he was potentially dangerous and needed to be watched. It wouldn't be an issue, since Strife spent most of his time with Fair anyway, and they could easily work out a procedure for when the two were not together. They needed to know who Strife came in contact with when he wasn't with the SOLDIER as well.

“If that's everything?” Tseng said finally.

“Well,” Reno drawled, seizing his chance. “There are those rumors going around that Strife is either sleeping with Fair, or Sephiroth.”

Tseng sighed and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That isn't useful information Reno.”

Reno shrugged flippantly. “I thought it was funny, and you gotta admit it's a cute picture,” he cooed, even as he reached out and tugged one of the photos out from under the stack. Tseng took a moment to stare at it in obvious surprise, lips parted, then shook his head and turned away. Reno grinned wickedly at his back.

With a slight shake of his head, Tseng straightened his shoulders. “Shotgun, I want you to go to Nibelheim and do some discreet inquiries regarding Strife. Reno, Rude, do a little digging and see if Lazard is up to anything, and see if you can find more information on Briant. See if he ever arrived, or if he's just vanished. And Shuriken?” Cissnei looked up at him. “I want you to start keeping an eye on Cloud Strife as well.”

“You think we got trouble, then?” Reno asked curiously. The answer was obvious, they always had trouble, but it was nice to see what Tseng thought of the issue anyway. Reno always did like conspiracies a little too much.

“I hope that all we have is an up and coming new SOLDIER that, with Fair, will finish replacing Genesis and Angeal,” Tseng said carefully. “We can't be too cautious.”

Reno gave him a jaunty salute and turned to leave while Tseng gathered up the scattered documents and photos. “Sure thing. You leave it to us.” As the door hushed shut behind him, Reno remarked, “See this is more interesting than looking for AVALANCHE's hide-y holes.”

Beside him, Rude sighed.

 

 

Cloud stirred as an insistent and near constant banging sound broke into his dreamless sleep. He blinked open his eyes groggily, aware of the sheets making an impressive attempt to suffocate him from where they had twisted around his chest and arm, and tried to figure out what it was that had roused him. The pounding noise resolved itself into knocking, the hollow thunks echoing through the quiet apartment.

Cloud sat up, wincing at the disorienting feeling as the blood rushed from his head at the sudden move. He'd only meant to rest for a little bit while Zack reported in, but a glance at the clock indicated it had been a few hours since his friend had left. Perhaps Zack had lingered, to give Cloud a chance to sleep before they met up again. Whatever the reason, that didn't change the fact that someone was pounding on the apartment door, and didn't seem to be going away.

What greeted him when he opened the door should have surprised him, but somehow Cloud found the sight of Gibbs and Edge, the latter with his fist still upraised to bang on the door, completely inevitable. Without a word of greeting or acknowledgment, Cloud let the door slide closed as he turned to retreat back to his room. If Zack wasn't back yet, then Cloud would just have to go hunt him down. Cloud would even put up with facing the frightfully perky receptionist if he could find some way to dodge his unwanted shadows.

That plan was quickly spoiled as the door jammed against Edge's boot, where the man had stuck it in to prevent being shut out.

"Don't be like that, Cloud!" the Third rumbled callously, pushing the door open. The heat of Cloud's glare passed right through him as he and Gibbs invaded the living room. "We heard your team got in last night and here you are still lazing around." He looked Cloud's rumpled form up and down.

"You look whipped enough for the rumors to be true," Gibbs said, also eying Cloud critically. Cloud raised a non-committal eyebrow, though he couldn't bring himself to care what sort of rumors were circulating already. He should have known his fight with Sephiroth couldn't help but become a spectacle. In the light of his problems with Zack, however, all he wished was that his friend wouldn't hear about them before Cloud got a chance to talk to him first.

Ignoring his unasked for companions for the time being, Cloud made his way back to his room. He hadn't bothered to remove his boots earlier, just lying on top of his sheets fully clothed. That meant all he had to do was collect his sword from where it had been haphazardly leaned against the wall. Cloud eyed his dented helmet for a moment, before dismissing the wreck. There was nothing to be done about it for now.

Returning to the living room Cloud found Gibbs and Edge much as he left them, the former stood patiently with his arms crossed, though the other Third had flopped into an arm chair. Cloud didn't bother acknowledging them this time either. He wasn't sure what they wanted, but neither SOLDIER seemed to be in a rush to let him know why they'd invaded the apartment. It was probably something to do with the rumors, he thought acidly. Even when he wasn't present, Sephiroth still managed to make Cloud's life more difficult.

"Where are we off to?" Edge asked gruffly, unfolding himself from the chair to follow Cloud out the door. Gibbs had stepped out in front of Cloud, though he stood respectfully to one side to let Cloud pass him on the way to the elevator.

"Why are you here?" Cloud asked quietly, in lieu of answering Edge's question.

"Can't a fellow come visit his friend when he gets a hankering?" Edge retorted, his teeth bared in a mocking smile. Neither SOLDIER wore their helmets, indicating their off-duty status.

"We wanted to make sure you were okay, of course," Gibbs said, as if his partner hadn't spoken at all. "It seems you can't even go on a simple escort mission without getting your ass in the fire."

Cloud shook his head, but didn't remark further on either man's presence. He wasn't about to elaborate on what had transpired. First he had to find Zack so they could straighten things out from earlier. Then he'd worry about the fight with Sephiroth and its repercussions.

His two silent shadows dogged his steps as Cloud exited the apartment building. The most likely place Zack would be was the ShinRa building. If his friend wasn't there, then it was likely that someone there would know where Zack was, at least. As Cloud passed the guard booth on his way out of the SOLDIER complex, he caught the double-take the SOLDIER on duty gave him as he walked by. The reminder caused Cloud to regret his damaged helmet. At least that would have prevented him from being gawked at by anyone who'd heard whatever rumor was floating around.

"Hey! Look, there he is!" a familiar voice rang out clearly across the street. "Hey! Cloud! Hang on!"

Cloud shot Edge a look when the Third let out a poorly stifled chuckle, but did stop and turn to face an eagerly waving Jac. Behind the trooper, Cloud recognized Sparo's dark figure, but the two troopers were in the middle of a crowd of other soldiers he didn't know. Frowning, Cloud contemplated just moving on, but didn't have a chance to choose as Jac trotted over.

"We just heard the news!" Jac said as he stopped a few feet away, shifting from foot to foot in an inability to stay still.

"It's just a rumor, Trooper," Gibbs cut in, stepping forward and shoving the other's helmet roughly. "You should know better than to go spreading things around like that."

"Hey!" Jac yelped in protest, both hands going to straighten his head gear out. "I didn't spread any rumors! I just heard about it from Terrence!"

A flailing hand indicated one of the other troopers, who started guiltily from where he'd been staring at Cloud. All of the troopers were staring at him, Cloud noted uncomfortably. Even Sparo was giving him a calculating look, his mouth pulled into a half grimace, half smirk as if he couldn't quite believe it was Cloud standing there.

There was a sudden jostle in the crowd as several troopers were shoved aside and Zack came stumbling into their midst. “Cloud!” he yelped. “There you are! I was just coming to find you.” Reaching out, Zack gripped Cloud's shoulders. Cloud frowned as he noted that his friend's shirt was sliced open in a few neat lines that showed the blood stained flesh beneath. There was oil smeared across Zack's cheek, and metal shavings stuck to his hair and clothes. Before he could ask, Zack rambled on, “I can't believe you did that with Sephiroth. In public no less! Where everyone could see you. What were you thinking?” He ducked down to look into Cloud's face, mouth parted in a confused expression, brows drawn together, and head tilted questioningly. “I heard about it from Kunsel just now, after I reported to Lazard and he's always up to date on the latest rumors. ...Please tell me this is just a rumor. It is right? You seriously didn't....”

Cloud's brows drew together as he frowned in mild consternation at Zack's assault. He was aware of their audience, but from Zack's panicked expression, he'd need to calm down his friend first. Surely the situation wasn't that bad that Zack needed to blow it out of proportion so badly. "Zack, calm down. It's not what…. It wasn't as bad as it looked," Cloud fumbled over his words, shifting against the tight grip his friend had on his shoulders. Sparo had doubled over slightly with his mouth caught in a grimace of a smile, shoulders shaking as he stifled his laughter. Even Gibbs was standing there with one hand over his face to hide his expression.

Cloud wasn't sure if his words even registered as Zack's phone interrupted, beeping twice in quick succession, and his friend swiftly reviewed the messages sent. For several seconds Zack stared at his phone as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing, then, slowly, said, “...Words fail me.” The tone of his voice, as well as the words, made Cloud wince in guilt. Had he really messed up that badly? But what was he supposed to have done, with Sephiroth attacking him out of the blue like that?

"Sephiroth came after me," he protested quietly. There really was no way for him to prevent their spectators from hearing, but at least Cloud didn't have to shout his mistake to the roof-tops. "I didn't mean for it to go that far." Judging by the expression on Zack's face, Cloud's response had not only been unexpected, but did not explain things sufficiently for the baffled man. Unsure what exactly was causing his friend's distress, Cloud wracked his brain to think up an explanation for what had happened on the mission. This wasn't supposed to happen like this; he and Zack still needed to talk out their own issues before dealing with the Sephiroth problem.

There was a susurration of voices and shifting in the outer edge of the crowd. He should have realized it sooner, but it was only when the man's silver hair came into view that Cloud noticed Sephiroth's presence. Sephiroth prowled toward them, a gap opening in the crowd, and came to a stop before Cloud. After a moment Sephiroth extended his hand, and Cloud glanced down to find a sleek black phone emblazoned with ShinRa's logo resting on his palm. “It seems Zack forgot again,” Sephiroth said plainly. “I took care of it when Lazard finished reminding me that leisure activities belong outside of missions.” His tone left no doubt what he thought about Lazard's polite 'reminder'.

Cloud's eyebrows rose, bemused and lost at the meaning behind the gesture. He hesitated for a moment before reaching out, wary of the sharp reaction that contact with the man had displayed in the past. Nothing happened as his glove brushed Sephiroth's, and Cloud brought the phone back to his chest numbly, staring down at the innocent looking device. This was not going to help the rumors of their fight die down, if Sephiroth kept aggravating them by seeking out Cloud like this.

“Hey! I didn't forget. I was just...busy,” Zack yelped from beside him.

“Is that so...?” Sephiroth murmured softly. He sounded amused, and that only served to remind Cloud of his confusion where the man was involved. There was a rustle of heavy leather as Sephiroth turned and strode back the way he'd come. It was only then that Cloud looked up again.

Zack crossed his arms over his chest, frowned after Sephiroth, and muttered, “That guy....”

“Well,” Gibbs said after several seconds of silence. Then because that apparently wasn't enough he said it again, “Well.”

Edge said, “That was surreal.”

Jac from where he stood was looking back and forth between Cloud and Sephiroth's retreating back, an expression of surprised confusion on his face. Sparo appeared to be unable to move beyond his paroxysms of silent laughter. Finally Zack, just looked back at the phone in Cloud hand, closed his eyes, touched his other hand to his forehead, and let out a sigh. When he opened his eyes again to look at Cloud there was a crooked, bemused smile on his face. “Boy oh boy...what am I going to do with you, Cloud?” Zack wondered aloud. Cloud could only shrug uncomfortably. It wasn't his fault that Sephiroth was acting so strangely. Zack shook his head at him, and Cloud ducked his chin behind his scarf as his friend turned to their audience. “Alright you lot, show's over. Go on, get. Leave the poor kid alone, he knows less about the latest product of the gossip mill than any of you chuckleheads.” Most of them dispersed rather easily. Edge, Gibbs, Jac, and Sparo, however, didn't seem keen on leaving. “You lot too.”

“Aw, but Zack,” Sparo broke in, finally having himself under control. “You always get Cloud!”

“Yeah,” Jac said with a wide grin. “Didn't your mom ever teach you to, uh, share?”

“That's cruel, invoking my mom like that,” Zack said blithely, even as he grabbed Cloud's upper arm and began towing him back toward the SOLDIER apartments. “And totally unnecessary. Besides, I called dibs early this morning. You can have him tomorrow after we're off duty.” Glancing at Cloud, he amended, “If you can catch him, and no, I'm not helping you hunt him down.”

Ignoring further protests, Zack waited until they were a little further from the small group, then let go of Cloud. “Well, Cloud,” he said after a moment. “You just sort of attract trouble don't you? And Angeal thought I was difficult, sheesh.” He was grinning as he said it, and reached over to snatch Cloud's new phone. Cloud relinquished it with a twinge of relief, only for it to be replaced with mild confusion as Zack handed over his own phone. “Whoa, hey, he got you one of the SOLDIER access ones...” Zack muttered after a second of fiddling with the device. “Take a look at the message on my phone, Cloud. You might be, eh, interested in it.”

Obediently, Cloud glanced down at the message displayed, noting the sender was the Silver Elite. If Cloud hadn't known better, he almost would have thought Zack had re-named Sephiroth's contact information to that name. It sounded like something his friend would do, at least. Shaking himself mentally to clear away his distracting thoughts, Cloud let his eyes skim over the message, his face going blank as the words sunk in. 'Potential attraction'? 'Revealing photo'? Almost reluctantly, Cloud thumbed down through the message, until he finally reached the picture that had been attached.

It was of Cloud asleep on the couch in Fort Condor's common room. Across his lap was Sephiroth's coat, which Cloud distinctly remembered the man leaving on the other side of the couch when he'd left. Looking closer, and only because Cloud was looking for it, he saw a tuft of black feathers peeking out from under the coat in his lap. Viri had obviously wanted company sometime in the night and had decided Cloud was the perfect candidate.

Sighing, Cloud snapped the phone closed, glancing sideways at Zack. "It's still not my fault," he mumbled. He wondered idly if Zack would be angry if Cloud chucked his phone over the rooftops. It would certainly make Cloud feel better. It was almost physically painful, but he was deliberately not thinking about what that email was implying. The last of his sanity would surely crack if Cloud even contemplated him and….

"Why are you a part of the Sephiroth fan club?" he asked abruptly to distract himself. It was a legitimate question, however. From what Cloud had observed, Zack wasn't the type to fawn over Sephiroth's every move, and this club seemed rather…stalkerish, to him.

Zack reached over and snatched his phone out of Cloud's hand even as he said, “Oh, I'm sure it isn't. But let's face it, pretty much everyone is sure you're either sleeping with me or Sephiroth by now. I'm guessing this latest batch of rumors will have everyone leaning toward the latter.” The way he spoke made it obvious he was distracted by the phones in his hands. He paused for a moment to snap Cloud's new phone closed then held it out to him.

“As for the Silver Elite? I joined accidentally. I was down in the slums and wandered into the park in Sector 6—you know the one, right? Well, I was there, ran into a lady just standing around and the next thing I know she's giving me this weird quiz about Sephiroth and then she wanted my contact info for the fan club. If figured 'why not?'. I'd already joined Angeal's and both of Genesis'. The emails are entertaining if nothing else.” They were walking across the center courtyard now, having already passed back into the sectioned off compound. The building loomed before them. Zack scratched the back of his head, and went on, “They apparently know what shampoo Sephiroth uses. I'd really like to know who their source of information is, because they must be better than a Turk to have pulled that off.”

Bringing up a hand to massage the bridge of his nose, Cloud closed his eyes in resignation. "Zack, I really…can we just drop this? I don't think I can handle it right now…."

His traitorous mind was also wondering what other information the group had managed to dig up, and Cloud did not need the mental images to go with that. He stomped heavily on the memory of bared, pale skin as Sephiroth shed his coat, uncomfortably aware that despite their animosity—or Cloud's, at least—the man was one of the most good-looking people Cloud had ever seen.

Dropping his hand again, Cloud took a moment to observe his friend more closely. He'd noticed Zack's battered appearance before, but had been too distracted by the chaos to comment on it. Now he took in the ripped and blood-stained clothing. At least Zack looked more animated than he had last night, or even this morning. That didn't mean there was nothing wrong anymore. Just that Zack was handling his problems in his normal, optimistic way. Cloud envied him that ability.

"We should head back. You probably want to get out of that…" Cloud gestured to Zack's ripped shirt with one hand. Right now, retreating to the relative privacy of the apartment seemed like the best thing in the world to Cloud. Even Tifa wouldn't begrudge him this minor retreat.

“Geeze, Cloud! I'm taken, you know,” Zack huffed. “And, fine, we'll stop talking about how your plans to turn all the best looking SOLDIERs into your personal harem is going.”

This time Cloud couldn't help the flush of embarrassment at Zack's teasing. He could have helped the not-so-gentle punch he gave his friend's arm, but reveled in the surprised yelp that produced. Stalking ahead of Zack, he dearly wished ShinRa didn't have so many electronic sliding doors. It would have allowed for the admittedly petty move of slamming the door in Zack's face.

He settled for not saying anything further until the pair entered their apartment to allow his roiling emotions to cool. Cloud had been so caught up in the heat of the moment, that he'd both barely registered Sephiroth's presence earlier, and had nearly forgotten the upset of this morning. The former was becoming easier to handle, and with Cloud's new awareness of how easy it was to mix up the people from his memories with the people they were now. It wasn't only Zack he'd been guilty of doing that to, after all. The latter was harder to swallow. From the emotional stress of thinking he'd ruined his friendship with Zack and dishonored his memory all at once, to the sweet relief and comfort he'd experienced in the church, it shouldn't have been so easy for Cloud to fall back into normalcy. Or at least as normal as things were in this time. Never would Cloud have anticipated a second chance quite like this.

In a move that was now unconscious, Cloud slipped his sword from his back to lean it against the wall, before sitting down on the couch. He sank back into the cushions, the weariness from before making him sigh softly. These days it seemed half the time he was either lost and confused, or completely exhausted from the mental stimulation.

“You sound like you need a vacation,” Zack said as he wrestled with his harness for a second before managing to get it off. He dropped it over the back of the couch as he was wont to do. His gloves landed on the low coffee table in a heap. “Can't say I blame you, really. You've only had around a month to get used to things.” Zack yanked his shirt off over his head, tossed it vaguely in the direction of his room then disappeared into the bathroom. The tap on the sink squeaked as he turned it on. When Zack reappeared, making for his room, he announced, “And think about what you want to eat later so I don't have to try and pry it out of you. I think that little diner in Sector 8 is still serving that Icicle style stew.”

The couch moved under Cloud as Zack returned and flopped down. Cloud sat up, aware of a shift in the mood. In his hands Zack had brought a small box which he opened. Zack dug around in it, then pulled out a photograph from among the various bits of paper and other photos. He took a moment to stare at it. Zack's face had a bittersweet expression as he looked down at the photo which he held out for Cloud to take. “Here.”

Cloud reached out and took it hesitantly. When he looked down it was into the face of a smiling man and a younger Zack. This could only be Angeal, he knew, and his first thought was that now Cloud knew where a lot of Zack's strength came from.

Even in the still medium of the picture, Angeal looked confident, strong, and reliable. The Buster Sword rested on his back, which looked odd in Cloud's eyes when Zack was standing right next to him. Cloud had always thought, could never remember more than the sword belonging to his friend. Yet he could easily see that it was Angeal's sword. Where Cloud had wielded it as freely given memento, he'd not understood the sword's history as more than pertained to him personally. Zack carried the sword as a reminder, treating it as an immensely precious thing rather than a tool to use.

"…You look…young," Cloud said quietly, running a thumb over Zack's sulking face. His hair was shorter, the bangs falling across his forehead made Zack look so much younger. "What…was he like?" he asked after a moment, looking out of the corner of his eye at Zack's face. While he'd like to hear more about this man who Zack held so dear, he didn't want to make another mistake like this morning.

“He was...” Zack paused, his face was serious and thoughtful, but after a moment he gave Cloud a quick grin. “Honorable. Understanding, I guess. He was the kind of guy who would never stab you in the back, and never leave a friend in need no matter what. He wasn't like other SOLDIERs who brag about being strong even though he was 1st Class. He wasn't like that.... Angeal took real pride in his strength and his duty as a SOLDIER. He always told me to...embrace my dreams.” He glanced down at the photo in Cloud's hand, and one hand lifted automatically to rub a thumb across the scar on the side of his jaw. “But he liked to give lectures if you messed up.” Zack winced sheepishly. “I think some of them I could repeat word for word still.” Zack leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees, and quoted, “Pay attention to your enemy, Zack. Focus, Zack. Be serious, Zack.”

Cloud listened quietly as Zack spoke. He tried to envision the scene Zack was painting, of the stern but caring man he described. It was impossible; even if Cloud had met the man, he'd long since been unable to remember how to dream about anything other than regrets and memories. But it was nice hearing about it from Zack.

Cloud didn't remember much about the five years they'd been held captive by Hojo. Between the pain and his muddled memories, as well as his forced amnesia afterward, most of it was thankfully gone from Cloud's mind. He could remember Zack's warm voice on occasion, however. When the rush and sting of mako wasn't burning Cloud's senses, there was always his friend there to keep him from getting completely lost to the green haze.

To pull himself out of his own dark memories, as well as to prompt his friend to continue, Cloud asked, "How did you meet him? I heard…he was your mentor?" He'd also heard that Angeal was one of Sephiroth's friends, but Cloud was nowhere near brave enough to ask about it here and now.

“Yeah, I'm not sure why he decided to take me under his wing,” Zack said. He gave a smile that was more than half grimace. “I was like most youngsters coming to ShinRa with their hopes and dreams. And when I made it into the program I heard all kinds of things about the top three, ShinRa's best SOLDIERs.... I don't really think there was a defining moment when I met him, not one that I can remember anyway. Just one day he was there giving me tips and correcting me, and it just was after that.” Zack was quiet for a moment as he fiddled with several newspaper clippings before selecting one. “I never met Genesis or Sephiroth until after Genesis went AWOL. I wasn't all that interested in them, honestly. I just wanted to work on getting to 1st Class myself.”

The picture in Zack's hand was black and white, though it might as well have been a neon flashing light for how much it caught Cloud's attention. In the picture was Angeal again, and another man who was probably the Genesis Zack was talking about, but what Cloud couldn't help but focus on was Sephiroth's smiling face. It was one thing to see the expression flit fleetingly across the man's face, but here was a captured moment where the silver-haired man was happy, or at least content, between his two best and only friends.

Cloud felt a pang of empathy, for both Zack and Sephiroth. He might not be able to understand everything that had happened, how it had all fallen apart, but both of them had lost people precious to them. Was it any wonder, then, that things had turned out for the worst? In a life controlled by and subject to ShinRa's whims, Sephiroth didn't have any choices as to who he could associate with. When his only confidants had not only vanished, but died, how crushing that must have been for anyone, even the supposedly untouchable General.

Even Zack, who made friends as easily as he breathed, had heavy ties to ShinRa which prevented the kind of trust necessary for any close, true friendships to emerge. Cloud's ties to his friends had been forged through necessity and mutual strife which made theirs a bond that was not easily broken, even when all hope seemed lost. He knew that, even in his darkest moments, he would have dropped everything to help out any one of them if they'd been in trouble.

That was the kind of personality Zack had, too. Like Cloud, when he failed to be able to save his friends it wounded Zack deeply. Unlike Cloud, however, Zack was strong enough to reach out and accept help when he needed. He could be strong on his own, yet believed in himself enough to know when he needed the support of others.

"It's just you and…Sephiroth. As Firsts?" Cloud asked. He winced slightly, not having meant for that to come out as bluntly as it had. After Sephiroth's fall from grace the SOLDIER program had all but shut down, though. The remaining SOLDIERs had stayed in the army for the most part, and Cloud had fought against several of them in his various clashes against ShinRa. But there had never been one on the same level as Cloud had observed in Zack. If Firsts were this rare now, it would explain the lack in the future as well.

Zack nodded. “Yeah, there's been some talks here and there about changing the requirements and promoting some of the more promising Seconds, but no one's really been too bothered about it.” He shrugged noncommittally. “Kunsel would make a good First. He doesn't really enjoy fighting so much, but he's a good head with tactics," Zack said thoughtfully, "There aren't even that many Seconds or Thirds anymore. When Genesis defected he took a bunch of them with him, and started turning them into clones of himself. There's no way to get them back. ShinRa did some...."

Zack's mouth twisted, his expression faintly sour. “They sent the Turks out to do some recruiting last year to fill in the slots and buffer against AVALANCHE. Of course, you know it's not easy getting into SOLDIER, so many of them never made it. Some of the ones that did...they're the monsters Angeal and Genesis claimed they were. They're the ones that make SOLDIER the den of monsters that it is. Angeal always told me to protect my honor as a SOLDIER, but I'm not even sure what that is anymore. What honor is there in killing your own friend? What honor is there in being expected to be nothing but a battle loving monster, a glorified weapon? What honor is there in anything that ShinRa's tainted with its touch?”

Cloud sat in silence for a moment, just turning the photo over and over in his hands in an absent movement. It wasn't anything he hadn't heard before. Barrett had often ranted about the evils of ShinRa, even when the company turned into only a shell of its former self. In a way it was true that everything ShinRa had a hand in had some underlying horror, some terrible secret that had destroyed lives. But Cloud hadn't realized just how shaken Zack's own faith was.

"ShinRa will fall," he said. "Even if…even if things happen differently, it's too…" Sighing, Cloud gathered his thoughts, trying to voice what he knew in his heart. "Those at the top are too…blind to their own faults, and the people are too unhappy with how things are changing. Someone will finish things, either from the inside or the outside." He turned to look at Zack, shrugging helplessly as he finished, "It just depends on what sort of people are there to pick up the pieces.

"Perhaps ShinRa harmed everything it's touched, but…there's no reason for you to believe that's the end. So long as you are alive, there's still hope for a better future." It had taken Cloud years to learn that, and he was still trying to come to terms with it. For a while, he'd thought it would all be okay, that he could finally move on…until this had happened. It was sometimes hard to remember, when everything he'd fought for was once again taken from him. All he could do was take comfort in the fact that he had a chance to fix his greatest regrets.

“I know,” Zack said quietly, shoulders hunched. “And I don't think you realize what you've done for me Cloud. You've given me a new goal. You've shown me a way to keep my honor, and...and you've given me a new dream. Your crazy story.... You know, at first I wasn't sure what to think. It just seemed so crazy and unbelievable, but you'd done some things, said some things, that didn't add up. I tried to logic it all away, and some of it worked but it never fit the whole puzzle. Other people would probably call me too trusting, too naïve, but.... Cloud, I trust you, and no matter what I won't turn my back on you. Like I said before, we're in this together. To the end.”

Cloud looked down at his hands again, touched and embarrassed by Zack's praise. He hadn't done anything to deserve it, merely done his best to deal with his own crazy situation with as little collateral damage as possible. Yet somehow that had been enough to help Zack, when his friend had been hurt and confused himself. It still caused a feeling of warmth to build in Cloud's chest, to know that Zack had so much faith in him. Maybe he didn't deserve it, and maybe things would go wrong in the end, but Zack wouldn't condemn him for it, would instead stand by his side and keep him from falling. And Cloud would do the same for him.

“I've lost enough friends. Angeal...” Zack said softly. He paused and rubbed at his scar again, it was almost like a tick. “I killed him myself, and I killed Genesis. I even helped kill Essai and Sebastian. I'm looking forward to the day when no more of my friends have to thank me for killing them.” He could only listen in empathy to Zack's confession. Cloud had lost many loved ones, had nearly killed them with his own hands, but he couldn't begin to imagine the inner strength it would take to do so, even if it ended their pain and suffering. There was nothing he could say that wouldn't sound trite to the sacrifice Zack had made for his friends.

There was still one thing Cloud had to fix, however. Even if Zack had forgiven him, dismissed the problem as a minor hurt in the heat of the moment, Cloud had not forgotten Zack's pained denial over Cloud's constant comparison of him and his other self.

"I know…I know you're not the same person who…" Cloud trailed off uncertainly. He ran a finger again over the young Zack in the picture, noting suddenly that the familiar cross shaped scar was missing as well. "Even so, I still know what…lengths you're willing to go. Maybe it's not the same, or won't be…. But now I can see how similar you are," he looked up at Zack, hoping his sincerity would get through, "And how different you are. I never…knew that Zack like I do you. This," he held the photo up, "is all new. And…thanks…for trusting me."

Zack ran his hand over his hair, then snorted out a slight laugh. “I met you when I still had my hair like that,” he said, nodding at the picture in Cloud's hands. “I'd just been promoted to First, just met Aerith, and Angeal...Angeal seemed to be coming around, and I was dispatched to Modeoheim to deal with Genesis. And I met you. Or, well, the you that you were before.... And then, Angeal...” he shook his head, and looked toward Buster Sword. “I understand, because...I was like your Angeal, in a way, wasn't I?” He shook his head again, looked at Cloud, and smiled. “I'm pretty sure I would go that far if I had to, for you, or one of my other friends, even before Mideel and getting to know you better.” He shrugged. “It only takes one meeting to become friends with someone, and....”

Zack looked back at his hands, voice becoming softer, “If I had to die for someone I cared about, I think I'd be okay with that. It was just...unnerving, having you look at me sometimes. Like I was a ghost, and I guess I sort of am for you, and like I was the hero I didn't feel like I was. And last night, I just...I couldn't take that. I think though, if I had the chance to get to know Angeal better, if I were in your situation with him, I'd probably have done the same thing so I can't blame you.” His fingers curled into a fist and he nodded sharply. “It hurts, not being able to save people you care about, so we're going to work hard to make sure we can protect them in the future. I'm going to fight hard to stay alive, and keep everyone else alive too.”

"This time, you won't have to fight alone either," Cloud promised quietly. However strong Zack was, or even Cloud and Sephiroth, they all had fallen when they were alone. Maybe not right away, but the support of others was what had carried Cloud through all the hardships he'd faced. Zack might have promised him that they'd do this together, but Cloud had promised himself that he would be there for Zack. "I think…we should probably start preparing, though," he added thoughtfully. Zack had brought up a good point; Cloud had been in the past for a month, and they'd done nothing to prepare for the upcoming disaster in Nibelheim. Even now he could almost feel time slipping away from him, as he stood still and did nothing. "Sephiroth is…very different from what he could become. But that doesn't mean…he was still the General in my time, after all."

Zack nodded in agreement. “Yeah. I was thinking that when we get word that we're heading for Nibelheim, we should clear out anything we want to keep. Maybe take it to Aerith and if we haven't decided to bring her in on this already, do it then so she's ready. Whatever happens in Nibelheim, I don't think there's going to be a choice to whether we come back to ShinRa or not.” And explicitly in that statement was Zack's thought that he didn't want to come back. He was only biding his time, now, and waiting.

There wasn't anything Cloud cared to save. He'd rifled through his other self's things, the detached nature of the search more because it hadn't felt like Cloud's belongings at all. Aside from clothes and a few useless knickknacks, the only thing of note had been a few letters addressed to him in his mother's old, familiar handwriting. Cloud hadn't been able to bring himself to read them, and even if he had, the words and meanings would have long since been forgotten to him.

Zack's low voice broke the thoughtful silence, “I've been thinking about something for awhile now. You remember how you told me last month about fighting Sephiroth in the training room? The simulation? And I told you how I'd had that happen to me as well? Do you think we should make use of that, to train against him? There's no way it's the same, but it's probably the closest we can get.” Zack's face twisted into an amused smirk. “That is, unless you can talk Sephiroth into training with us frequently. You want to tell me something about that, Cloud?”

Cloud flinched at the reminder. He hadn't really forgotten about the baffling and thrilling fight, despite everything else that had happened. The only reason he could think of for Sephiroth's sudden attack, was that the man was suspicious about the intense reaction he'd had to Cloud's touch. Come to think of it, during the fight there had been no reaction at all despite both of them coming in contact with each other several times during the brawl. Suddenly restless, Cloud pushed himself to his feet to pace a few steps forward, turning and frowning down at Zack.

"He just attacked me," Cloud said slowly, remembering the sudden spike of adrenaline when he realized the man was coming at him, and that he was prepared to meet Sephiroth's first swing. "But…but it wasn't…" Cloud ran a hand through his hair distractedly. "It wasn't serious. Even then…he said he wouldn't underestimate me again. What was I supposed to do, Zack?" he burst out in agitation. "I thought it might have been Jenova again, and then it was too late…" Putting a hand over his eyes, Cloud tried to relax his shoulders from the knots they'd formed over the past few days. He took a sharp breath, and continued in a more calm tone, "I asked him afterward. He said…it was a test. That he was curious. I don't know…."

“I don't know, Cloud. That sort of sounds like it might be Sephiroth's way of saying 'Hi, my name is Sephiroth. It's a pleasure to meet you', you know?” Zack quipped. He leaned forward again, and scratched the back of his neck, ruffling the thick mane of his dark hair. “To be serious about the matter...I'm sure you know that man is terrifyingly intelligent, Cloud. Of course he's suspicious and curious of you, he has been ever since you made him notice you existed. I'm not that close to him really but...but he doesn't notice people, not like he does you. I don't know if it's because you tried to kill him, and made a good try at it, or if it's because of all the other weird stuff that happens around you.”

Zack shrugged helplessly. “I don't think he can figure you out, there's no way he can. He doesn't have the information, and while this certainly brings you into everyone's attention it might be a good thing.” Now Zack looked directly at Cloud and flatly said, “You just became important. Anyone who can keep up with Sephiroth like that just became important in ShinRa's books. The president is going to want you as a 1st Class as soon as possible. The only thing keeping you where you are is that Lazard doesn't like to bend rules for anyone.”

"I don't want to be noticed. Not by him," Cloud protested, a hint of desperation threading into his voice. He let his hand drop back to his side, staring helplessly at Zack. "I don't want to be in SOLDIER. I just want…." To be left alone. For his loved ones to live a full and happy life. For the hell he'd experienced to never happen again. There was so much he wanted, but he couldn't voice his desires in case they were taken away from him. Even though he knew better, he'd just gotten back so much that he'd lost. Cloud feared if he reached out, it would all vanish again, whether from Sephiroth's blade or some other means.

He pressed his lips together to bite back further protests. Cloud knew he was being petty now, but most of all he didn't want to admit to Zack, or even to himself, that what was bothering him the most was that he'd…enjoyed the fight against Sephiroth. After it had become clear that Sephiroth hadn't lost his mind, something in Cloud had responded to the challenge in those green eyes. Sephiroth was looking at Cloud for a challenge, not to hurt or mock him.

Cloud knew, knew if things continued in this manner, he'd do more than try to save Sephiroth for Zack's sake; he'd do it for his own, too. There was so much that could happen between now and Nibelheim, when so much had changed already. Cloud was forcing himself to recognize the people of this time as individuals in their own rights. He could see how easily it would be for him to empathize with Sephiroth, for the man to become one of Cloud's precious people. And that scared him.

"I…You're right," Cloud said, breaking eye contact with Zack and backing up a step. "We should…should train against the simulation." His words came out in a jumble as he tried to force them out as quickly as possible. He couldn't take any more of Zack's earnest gaze when his insides were twisting in guilt. It felt like a betrayal to him, to the other Zack, as well as Aerith, and Tifa…. What would Tifa think, if she knew how he was acting right now? But Tifa wasn't here with her straightforward wisdom and patience.

Turning on his heel, Cloud headed for the door in long, swift steps. The apartment felt like it was closing in on him; he needed some fresh air before he broke.

“Cloud!” The shout didn't surprise him nearly as much as Zack suddenly being there, between him and the door. After a second in which Zack simply looked at him, his friend reached out and pulled him against his chest. “Take it easy, buddy.” Cloud allowed the embrace, his hand sliding against the bare skin of Zack's back as he tried not to just clutch at his friend. Instead, he pressed his forehead against Zack's shoulder, trying to shake off the sudden panic that had come over him. He felt as fragile as spun glass, despite the constant support Zack offered. That was the problem, though, wasn't it? The moment that support had faltered, Cloud had also faltered in his own self. He was relying too heavily on Zack, which had caused distress for his friend as well as for Cloud. “Alright,” Zack said, slowly, “let me get a shirt on and then we'll go out and get something to eat, but you're not getting out of this one. Something's obviously got you worked up real bad about this, more than usual.”

The immediate desire to flee had passed, though Cloud kept his gaze down when Zack pushed him gently back to go retrieve his shirt. Closing his eyes Cloud focused on breathing slowly, just listening to the sounds of Zack rustling in the other room. By the time his friend had returned, some of the tension had left Cloud, replaced by a numb acceptance of what was coming.

Silently he watched as Zack grabbed his gloves and pulled them on. After a moment Zack seemed to decide to leave the harness and Buster Sword where they were. He turned to Cloud one fist propped on his hip. “Together, right?” he said with a crooked smile. “And believe it or not you're not the only one that has Sephiroth shaped problems.” A little more lowly, Zack muttered, “After all you're not the one who killed his best friends and might have helped contribute to the problem.” Before Cloud could comment, Zack shrugged it off and clapped his hands, then ushered Cloud out the door. “Take all the time you need, but I think it's about time we seriously discussed the issue of Sephiroth here.”

Despite the reassuring reaffirmation from Zack that they were together in this, the next words brought no comfort at all. Cloud to frowned up at Zack. As little as he wanted to discuss this, right now he was walking around blindly from not knowing enough about how things were in this time. Maybe things had worked out in the future when his small rag-tag group of friends had blundered their way across the planet, but there was no guarantee that such a relaxed attitude wouldn't end up in an even larger disaster this time.

Stepping out the door, Cloud allowed Zack to take the lead and trailed after his friend's broad back down the hallway. Cloud paused when they reached the elevator, causing Zack to reach a hand out to stop the door and raise a questioning eyebrow. There were still the rumors running rampant through the army right now. He'd nearly forgotten about that altogether, with all the issues they already had to deal with. Shaking his head wordlessly, Cloud stepped forward into the elevator as Zack released the door. It was far too late to do any damage control over the rumors. The weight of the phone in his pocket burned against his thigh, another reminder of how frustratingly baffling Sephiroth could be at times. Somehow, Cloud found himself preferring the time when all he had to worry about was figuring out where the next blow from the Masamune would come from.

They were silent as they made their way through Midgar's streets. Zack with the air of a person who'd walked them so many times he didn't need to pay attention, just follow his feet. Despite his apparently wandering mind, he still lead them through less populated routes in deference to the fact that Cloud didn't want to be bothered. In short order he'd brought them to a rather nice diner. Inside showed that it was a popular little place, full of people, though none of them gave the pair a second glance, too wrapped up in their own conversations and meals. There was enough ambient chatter that if they kept their voices low, no one would be able to overhear them.

Zack lead the way to a table tucked into a corner and settled himself with his back to the room. A petite waitress came to them with a smile that was slightly harried from the workload, took their orders and headed off. Silence settled around them as they waited, and Zack tapped his fingers against the tabletop in what Cloud assumed was restless energy. His friend gave the waitress a distracted smile when she returned with their food. The smell of food was anything but appetizing to Cloud, but because he knew Zack would insist if he didn't, he forced himself to take a few bites of the meal. Zack's uncharacteristic silence had been welcome on the walk over, since it gave Cloud time to calm his own racing thoughts. Despite how comfortable he'd become, it really had been only a month since Cloud had been dropped out of his old life and into this one. In all that time, he'd done his best to avoid anything to do with Sephiroth, except when the man himself made that impossible.

“Right, so, Sephiroth,” Zack said suddenly, and Cloud looked up from his food. His friend's smooth voice was audible but not carrying over the babble of sound around them. “He told you it was a test? What's got you so twisted up about that?” Frowning in consideration, Cloud pushed his mostly full plate away and rested his arms on the edge of the table.

"I'm worried…about what he was testing," Cloud said at last. "Jenova…when I first arrived, I could...sense her when I was near him. After…that time in the apartment, the feeling went away." The thread of guilt that he hadn't told Zack about that sooner wormed its way into Cloud's gut, but he ignored it. "I wonder if he felt it too."

Zack looked down at his own food, his hand moving up to rub at the side of his neck, just above the high collar of his shirt. “Sephiroth obviously has a vested interest in you, and has had one since Mideel. I don't know what his motives are, but if he didn't then there's nothing I could say or do that would have convinced him to help out with this.” Zack went quiet for a second, fingers fiddling with his spoon. It clinked lightly against the side of his bowl, a sound that was nearly lost under the ambient chatter. “I don't know if you remember, but Lazard insisted you get checked out when we returned, and according to everyone involved you were.” Except, of course, Cloud had never been seen by anyone. “All of your paperwork says that you checked out with perfect health but a SOLDIER level enhancement from the mako you fell into. Nothing special.” Which, of course, was a bit special in and of itself, but not that big of a deal.

Finally he looked up at Cloud, mouth twisted wryly. “Sephiroth and I had to do some underhanded things to get you through, but it worked out in the end. Even before that, when we were in Junon, I think there was probably more to Sephiroth leaving early and taking all of us with him than there seemed. I'm not too worried about it, because I don't expect Sephiroth to do much at this point, but he is curious. Understandably so! But, I don't think he had any ulterior motives, Cloud. It was probably just that, a test. After that incident...well, you probably confuse him and he's trying to figure you out. What I don't understand is what do you mean when you say you could sense Jenova?”

Cloud could feel his eyebrows raise as Zack talked, baffled and impressed that his friend had thought so far ahead. The political side of ShinRa wasn't something Cloud had experience with before; he was more of the 'sneak in and blow stuff up' school of thought. Hearing how far back Sephiroth's interest went was not reassuring, though. There was nothing Cloud could have, would have done differently, when he'd first seen Sephiroth. Shaking his head, Cloud brought his hands up to rest his chin on them, elbows braced against the table as he thought. He still didn’t like the idea of Sephiroth being so interested in him, especially since Cloud was actively working against the man in a way. Whatever Sephiroth learned from his games could tip the balance either way, and leave Cloud completely unprepared for when things went wrong. It was the fear of knowing but not knowing if or when that information might become useless that was so stressful.

Zack's question sank heavily into Cloud's mind. The simple answer would have been easy to give, but wouldn't really tell Zack how bad the problem really was. Sitting back in his chair and allowing his hands to drop into his lap, Cloud focused his eyes on them to avoid Zack's gaze as he began to explain. "I was created to be Sephiroth's clone," he said quietly. "After Nibelheim? But…I was a failure, in Hojo's eyes." That feeling still haunted him, that Cloud wasn't good enough, could never be good enough for Sephiroth or anyone. When he'd discovered, remembered what he was, he'd wanted so badly for Hojo, Sephiroth, anyone to tell him he was needed…and his selfishness had nearly destroyed everything.

Taking a slow breath, he continued, "That still meant I'd been injected with Jenova cells. And…S-cells, as Hojo called them. It was some mad plan of his, for the Reunion, he called it. Sephiroth…was able to use the connection, sometimes." Use it to nearly make Cloud kill Aerith. Cloud had fought so hard to stop that, had even managed to break the hold…but it hadn't mattered. "Because Sephiroth had somehow overpowered Jenova, could use her instead of the other way around…. I could feel her, still. It's like a buzzing in the back of your head. Not quite a headache, but…impossible to ignore.

"The last time I felt it was when…" When Kadaj had sacrificed himself to allow Sephiroth back into the world. The terror Cloud had experienced when he'd realized it was no longer the Remnant he was facing, that it was him, had nearly been enough to destroy Cloud. "When a piece of Jenova was used to bring him back," he said, absently pressing a hand into his shoulder in remembrance of the Masamune's biting touch. "When I arrived here, I could feel her again. It was…different. Not the shadow behind Sephiroth. I think she was calling…." Cloud's eyes unfocused slightly as he tried to recall exactly what the sensation had been like. "It was worse when I was close to Sephiroth. She was trying to reach him through me…" he trailed off, blinking to break himself out of the memory of the seductive pull.

“Created,” Zack said, voice flat and toneless. “I'm going to kill him.” It was said almost like an epiphany, perfectly calm, perfectly cool. Just a statement of fact, and almost a promise. Zack grimaced, face twisting in a mixture of fury and something a little more violent. “Son of a bitch.” Then he took a deep breath, released it through his nose and calmly started eating again. He picked his way through his meal, a sharp frown in place of his usual easy going smile while he attempted to glare the dregs of his stew into submission. Zack sighed out the tension as best he could. “You said you 'could' feel her? Does that mean it stopped?”

Cloud watched his friend work through the anger, feeling detached from the emotional upheaval Zack was experiencing. It was horrible, always would be a nightmare that haunted his memories, but Cloud was so tired of hurting over the past. Even now, when most of those things hadn't even happened, wouldn't happen if Cloud could help it, he was still unable to break free from his memories.

"It did stop," he confirmed. "When…in the apartment, when Sephiroth first visited. I don't know what happened, but when we…touched…something snapped, and I couldn't feel her anymore." Even now Cloud had no idea what had caused the intense reaction. It was nothing he'd ever experienced before, not with Sephiroth or anything else. The closest he could come were the times he'd been overwhelmed by the mako and repressed memories trying to break through his carefully constructed persona. The conflicting emotions often drove him to his knees in pain as he struggled to suppress any reminder of his old life.

"I don't know if that was the only time that...that would happen," Cloud continued. "When we were fighting, I didn't feel anything strange at all." Aside from a battle high he'd never quite experienced before. Cloud had never enjoyed fighting. He knew he was good at it, one of the best at winning, even if his technique was unorthodox and self-taught for the most part. All his battles had been necessary, aside from a few games at the Gold Saucer which had been challenging for their handicaps, not their difficulty.

Zack's frown deepened again, and he rubbed absently at one shoulder as he thought. “You said that Sephiroth managed to overpower Jenova before right? Maybe it had something to do with that. Maybe he's stronger than she is and when you touched she tried to reach out and was...I don't know, repelled somehow?” Shaking his head, Zack asked, “How did that...fight go otherwise? and how in the name of the Planet did you end up like....with the coat.” He made a little noise in the back of his throat, and waved one hand in a vague gesture.

Wrinkling his nose faintly in annoyance, Cloud just said, "Viri." Sighing, he leaned forward against the table again, bringing a hand up to rub tiredly at his eyes. "And aside from…that, there were no problems." Cloud paused mid-motion as he remembered the lady scientist and her searching looks. "Though…I think one of the scientists was a bit too…curious." If she was one of Hojo's underlings, then that could lead to trouble.

“Ah, figures,” Zack muttered. “That bird loves you almost as much as he does his mom.” He passed a hand over his face, looking as worn and tired as Cloud felt. “We'll deal with it if a problem comes up. For now we've got a vague plan to get us started and that's better than nothing. It's still a waiting game.” Then he pointed his spoon at Cloud. “Now get eating or I'll come over there and hand feed you.”


 

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

 

 

Chapter Text


Counter Crisis

by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


 

Chapter 11 – Crisis of Countermeasures

[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (January 23rd)


 

 

There was no such thing as 'after hours' at ShinRa Electric.  When the office workers went home there was always a skeleton crew working in the building.  The lights were dimmed, and the interior took on a more looming, claustrophobic air, but there was still life to be found in corners and crannies.  There was a quiet though, that wasn't there during the rest of the day.  A silence with an echoing quality to it;  a sort of hollowed out emptiness.

Zack knew that most of the SOLDIERs wouldn't be loitering around at this hour.  The night crew had a tendency to take up space in the cafeteria to be closer to a source of constant caffeine.  Despite that, the dim hallways seemed more ominous than usual.  Zack had to resist the urge to put his back against the wall and slink along stealthily.  It wasn't like the hallways provided much cover from prying eyes anyway, and he had as much a right to be there as any other SOLDIER.  The fact that the only sound came from the faint scuff of Cloud's boots as his friend followed him served to heighten the atmosphere.  It was just the nature of their venture that had him on edge.  The idea that they were going to go out of their way to fight against ShinRa's star SOLDIER, even if it was a simulation….

Zack had no idea what kind of trouble this could land them in, but he was willing to bet it wouldn't be anything good.

(Yeah, right.  More like a trip with the Turks and a permanent vacation. Sheesh.)

"Hey Zack?" Cloud's voice seemed louder than normal in the quiet.  Zack craned his neck so he could catch Cloud's eye and hummed in response.  Cloud held his gaze for a moment, before his eyes flicked to the side.  That was definitely one of Cloud's 'thinking too much' twitches.  "Are you sure...this is going to work?"

"What do you mean?"

"Just...you said yourself that the...that you only fought it on accident.  What if it...breaks again?"

Zack stopped walking.  The door to the Training Room was only a few more paces away, but he rounded toward Cloud instead.  Squinting at him, Zack palmed the back of his neck. "...Huh?"

Cloud looked uncomfortably aware he wasn't being clear.  The leather of his gloves rasped as he rubbed the fingers of one hand together absently.  "Well..." he said, expelling a sharp breath that stirred his bangs, "You told me that you fought Sephi...the simulation on accident, right?" 

"Weeell….  Is that how I put it?" Accident was kind of an understatement when he thought about it.  Zack laughed briefly.  "Because it was more like he came out of nowhere and I suddenly found myself getting a really great view of a simulated Midgar sky."

"Right..." Cloud said, a grimace flickering across his face.  Zack added another mental tally to his 'Zack involuntarily puts his foot in it' scoreboard.  It was becoming distressingly cluttered.  "That was.... The same thing happened to me."  Cloud paused, though Zack could tell he was gearing up for another of his incomprehensible 'questions'—air quotes included—that always held more meaning than was apparent up front.  "If it is already so unreliable...how do you know it's not going to go wrong?"

Zack rubbed his gloved hands together, shifting restlessly on his feet.  This whole sneaking around business had him feeling as antsy as he usually did on big missions.  Not to mention the thought of putting in a good hard training session was really appealing!  He hadn't realized how much he'd missed having a training buddy.  Cloud would probably give him such a look if he knew that was the part Zack was focusing on but he really couldn't help it!

Finally, Zack breathed out sharply and gave Cloud a crooked grin.  "You worry too much!  It's just a simulation.  The worst it can do is leave you aching for a few days because you lost focus." And oh, how it could.  Angeal never had let Zack live down some of those training incidents. 

Cloud stared at him,  mouth pressed thin.  Zack had the feeling he was missing some fact that was obvious to his friend, but chalked it up to more of Cloud's understandable paranoia.  There honestly was nothing to worry about, save maybe some unwitting SOLDIER walking in on them and spreading rumors.  Though more likely they would tease Zack for voluntarily getting his ass handed to him.

Instead of letting Cloud dwell on it further, Zack leaned over to sling his arm around Cloud's shoulders and dragged him the last few feet to the Training Room.  "Seriously Cloud, this is a great idea!  Not sure why I didn't think of it before to be honest.  I mean...." He freed his arm so he could tick off on his fingers. "It's a great way to relax and take our mind off things, it's good for me, ah, 'teaching' you how to deal with your mako bath, and it's a perfect way to keep in shape!"  He tilted his head down to look at Cloud, putting a guileless smile on his face.  "Aside from the inevitable bruises, I'm seeing no downside."

The raised eyebrow he got in return was enough to pull another slow grin from Zack.  Cloud obviously could think of a downside, or several.  Zack wondered if he'd bother voicing them now, or if he'd just keep them bottled inside until he was a bundle of blond nerves.  Silly question, of course.  "If worst comes to worst, I'll just kick out the power cord on the whole thing.  It can't be too hard to break...."  Zack frowned at the memory of just how easy it was to accidentally wreck expensive equipment.  Why didn't they make them with SOLDIER strength in mind? 

Cloud stepped forward to key open the door to the Training Room.  "It's one of your ideas, Zack.  Great is the last word I'd use to describe it," he said as he stepped inside.  Zack followed with a chuckle, glad Cloud felt okay enough to joke, even if it was at his own expense.  "Maybe...foolhardy."

With an exaggerated move, Zack clutched at his shirt over his heart trying, and failing, to put on a wounded expression through his mirth.  "Wow Cloud, that hurts right here, you know?  Who even says 'foolhardy'!  We seriously need to work on your retorts, because that's just embarrassing."

His own jokes were so at odds with the dark, silent nature of the control room that it seemed to fall flat even to his own ears.  Personally, Zack tended to think he was witty.  Other people just failed to find the humor in him, and that so wasn't his fault.  Here, without the programs usual cadre of monitoring scientists hovering over their screens and fiddling with consoles it seemed so oddly abandoned.

At least Hojo wasn't oozing around, the weirdo.  Considering what he'd learned about Hojo from Cloud recently he wasn't entirely sure if he could keep from clocking him.  Man, now he understood why Cloud had such trouble keeping Past and Future separate.  It was hard!

Did Hojo count?  Zack wanted to say no, but was that fair?  It was giving him such a headache to think about.  This was why he stuck to beating things up.

"Okay then!" Zack said, his voice a little louder than it needed to strictly be.  He clapped his hands together and nodded sharply.  "Let's get this carnival act on the road."

The monitor screens were on standby mode, the ShinRa logo hovering on a black background and casting an eerie green mako colored glow across the room.  Zack headed for the small panel beside the door into the Training Room floor, Cloud trailing obediently behind him.   Zack had often joked about how Cloud was his little blond shadow, but sometimes he wondered about that.  Cloud had seemed perfectly willing to strike out on his own until Zack talked reason into him.  For all the independence he'd shown then, Cloud had certainly seemed willing to fall in with whatever hair brained scheme Zack cooked up.

Like now.

It was pretty at odds with the Cloud he'd briefly known during Modeoheim too, but he'd always put it down to personality differences, and the fact that the Cloud he knew now was an older more subdued version.

Sometimes he wondered though....

As he typed in his passcodes, slowly to make sure he didn't screw up the number sequence, he asked, "How are you doing with...the whole thing?" He made a vague wave with his free hand, not entirely sure how to encompass the situation they were in.   They'd have to be careful about what they said too, given where they were.  Didn't want to get overheard or recorded somewhere!  "Now that you've had more time to adjust, and all.  It can't be easy getting used to all the changes in your life, obviously!  And then you have to deal with having me shepherd you around like a lost Elfadunk." 

There was a soft, quick exhalation behind him.  "...You only ask me that when you have something else on your mind," Cloud said.  When Zack glanced at him, Cloud didn't look bothered by the comment at least.

"A lot has happened lately, buddy.  You can't blame a guy for asking now can you?"

Cloud gave him a look that was becoming very familiar to Zack.  It was a combination of bemusement and acceptance.  Or was it resignation?  Rather than answer Zack's last, mostly rhetorical, question, Cloud said, "Things are going...better...than I expected.  Different, but better."

Zack nodded absently, as he scrolled through the program settings to turn off several of the features. No need for recordings here, no siree!  The tricky part was going to be getting the program they needed active.   Now if he could just figure that out....  "That's something at least.  I just wonder.... It can't be easy only having me around to help you out."

Cloud looked surprised at that.  "I don't.... There are plenty of people who have helped me...no, us out.  Whether they realize..."  He gave a shrug of one shoulder, running his other hand through his hair in a nervous twitch.   "But having you here...it's more than enough."

Zack scratched at his hairline.  "It's not really that, but uh...."  He lost his train of thought, distracted by the display before him.  Man, he had no idea what he was even looking for in the enemy list.  It wasn't like this was a popular choice or something, unless Sephiroth used it to fight himself?  Would he even do that?  Maybe if he just checked everything under the highest difficulty setting.

Cloud shuffled up to the control panel next to Zack.  After a moment he reached out and pressed a few of the buttons, keying in Sephiroth's name into the general search bar.  Before Zack could comment on how it couldn't be that easy, the results popped up on screen.

"Oh..." Zack mumbled.  Of course it would be that easy. What?  Nothing like the Super Secret Project Program of Doom?  No Hojo's All Powerful Program?  Yeesh, what a let down. "Seriously?"  Cloud shrugged again, stepping to the side to let Zack continue setting things up.

"It seemed like a good idea," Cloud said.  "But Zack...."

"You'd think it'd be named something harder to find...." Zack shook his head and nudged Cloud's shoulder toward the nearby door as he keyed in the last few parameters and unlocked it.  More loudly, he said, "But what?"

"...You're still avoiding the question." 

Zack huffed and slipped around Cloud to reach the door, with a press of the button it swished open. "What question?"

"Zack."  If he wasn't mistaken, Zack could detect the faintest notes of a petulant whine in his name.  Really, Cloud might as well still be the teenager he resembled sometimes.  "What are you really getting at?" Cloud asked, stepping quickly to catch up to Zack.

"Oh, that."  The small antechamber off the Training Room proper was well lit unlike the room they'd just left behind.  The bright light gleamed off the shiny black plastic of the VR headsets.  Zack plucked two off the racks and detached them from their charger cords.  "You were pretty gung ho with doing things on your own at first, but now you basically have me acting as your ShinRa appointed keeper."

"I wouldn't put it like that..." Cloud said sullenly. 

"Self appointed, ShinRa appointed, you know what I mean."

Cloud looked down at his feet, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.  Zack waited patiently, or as patiently as he could manage, as his friend sorted through his thoughts.  Getting used to the long pauses that conversing with Cloud brought hadn't been easy when all he wanted to do was fill the silence.  After a moment Cloud looked up at him again. 

"Back then... I decided to stop running," Cloud began, rubbing the fingers of his glove into his palm.  The soft sound filled the silence between his words.  "It's...something that I have had to learn, that my friends have taught me, over the years.  Sometimes I forget...." 

Zack looked down at the pair of headsets he held.  He tilted one, watching the way the lights flashed in the dim bluish ambiance of the room.  "I think I get what you're saying."  He'd had to stop running in his own way, had to learn to face things he didn't want to deal with or acknowledge.  Genesis came to mind...and Angeal.  Even Sephiroth and Cloud, and most importantly ShinRa itself.

"No, not....  Your plan is a good one.  There is nothing...nothing really that we can do right now, if we are to make the sort of future we want.  So, for now, this is enough."

"I'll take that as Cloud-speak for, yeah, Zack, you're right.  We need to just take this one day at a time."  Zack laughed lightly, and shook his head.  "Anyway, just let me know if I'm being too pushy.  I might be your direct superior officer but I'm your friend first."  Even if that probably went against regulations someway, somewhere.

Cloud's brows drew down in bewilderment, before his expression cleared into a rueful grin.  "...Oh,  I forgot about that. You really...don't act like an officer."  Shaking his head, he continued, "You have always been my friend.  I'm not...talking about before.  But since the...accident.  I never doubted that."  His tone was quiet and earnest.  "You're right, but...Zack?"  Cloud's brows knitted further before he looked straight at Zack again.  "...why an Elfadunk?"

Mood lightened by the sudden question, Zack laughed outright.  He tossed one of the headsets to Cloud who caught it with ease. "Because they're adorable, and I know a guy out near the Chocobo Farm who found one that had gotten separated from its herd as a baby.  He raised it like a pet."

Zack wasn't entirely sure if Cloud was really picking up on what he meant, but in his own way he'd managed to alleviate the vague thoughts that had been churning in Zack's mind.  Thoughts about pushing Cloud into things he didn't necessarily want to do. He did feel better now, though.  Zack looked down at the small headset held in his hands, shrugged, then flipped it around the right way and lifted it.  After a moment's hesitation, Cloud followed suit.  It was obvious by the way he fumbled with the headset that he wasn't used to the equipment.  Zack had thought Cloud's little gang had dragged him in here once before.

He lowered his own headset.  "Need a hand there?"

"No," Cloud replied with a grunt.  The stubborn way he was studying it, brow furled in concentration, made Zack fight against a snicker. 

Lifting his headset once more he settled it into place, sliding his fingers out from under it and checking that it was snug.  "Make sure it's tight over your ears."  Cloud didn't reply, but through the green tinged display, Zack could see him settling the headset properly.  Grinning, he gave him a quick double thumbs up before turning on his heel and heading out into the Training Room.  It only took them a few easy strides to center themselves in the room.

Zack thumbed the buttons on his phone to select the Start Mission option on the VR menu. With the push of a button, the lights dimmed for a second and when they returned to full brightness again he was there.  All seven feet of gleaming sword, dark inky leather, and a long shower of platinum hair.  Even though it was just a computer program, Zack could admit he looked intimidating.  Those slanted green eyes, the way he just stood there, waiting for them to initiate....  He had a moment to feel out of his depth, a moment where he remembered triumph, and then shocked surprise before Angeal had gotten between him and the program. 

"You ready, buddy?" he asked, sparing a glance toward Cloud as he yanked the Buster Sword off his back.  What he saw distracted him momentarily even from the imminent threat the program posed.  Cloud looked as intense and serious as Zack had expected, but it was different than other fights Zack had been in with him. 

Cloud had his sword ready in front of him, the stance a bit wrong for the light blade.  Zack could see his own style reflected in the way Cloud held himself, if he were to allow a bit of vanity into his observations.  Yeah, maybe it had been learned from another version of him, yet Zack felt a little better about that after his talk with Cloud.  It was still very disconcerting to think about, but Cloud saw him now, and not just a shade.  In the end, that was all Zack had really wanted.  The rest would come with time.

It was Cloud's face, however, that caught Zack's attention, more exactly it was his eyes.  Cloud often took fights way too seriously, in Zack's opinion, which was part of his charm.  Everything was a 'Big Deal' in Cloud's eyes, reflecting his big heart.  Zack had never seen Cloud look actually angry.  Irritated, yes.  Exasperated, well, most of the time it wasn't Zack's fault!  He'd only seen Cloud in action against Sephiroth once, and there had been way too much going on at the time for him to have made any mental notes.  So despite how often Cloud expressed his understandable dislike over Sephiroth, Zack hadn't really seen Cloud ready to go toe to toe with him yet.  It was kind of eerie, and definitely unlike anything Zack had seen from him before.

He paid for his distraction a few seconds later when he just barely managed to catch a swipe from the simulation's Masamune.  The blow rang across Buster Sword and right into Zack's bones as he let out a surprised, "Whoa!"

"Zack!"  Cloud's voice sounded strangled, but Zack had no time to pay any attention to him as he fended off a rain of blows.

Nearly a perfect copy of the real deal, Sephiroth's voice came from the simulation,  "To ignore a threat like that.... I can't tell if it's overconfidence or foolishness."  Zack snorted, that was just about the same thing he'd heard from it the last time.

"Aw, put a sock in it!" he hollered.  Shoving forward with the Buster Sword, he ducked down and rolled past Sephiroth to escape the simulation's heavy offensive.  There was a blur of movement beside him as Cloud rushed the simulation, sword screaming as it clashed and locked against Masamune briefly.   Cloud strained against the blades before pushing away to gain a second's grace to attack again.  The simulation leapt back out of range, and Zack tightened his grip on Buster Sword's hilt before charging in to take his place.  Masamune caught Buster Sword's blunt edge at his first swing, and in a blazing swirl of eerie ringing tones and flashing blade the simulation sent him right back across the room.

Zack felt his breath be forced out of his lungs as his back hit the Training Room's wall.  Gasping, he slumped to the floor.  Buster Sword clanged down somewhere nearby.  Oh man, that had hurt!  A rapid fire ringing of swords clashing indicated Cloud had engaged the simulation again.  As Zack staggered upright, he could see the two exchanging blows in a flurry, Cloud bending and jumping to dodge the relentless offense from Sephiroth's image.  The duel ended abruptly when Cloud was knocked backward, much like Zack had been.  To Zack's envy, instead of meeting the wall back first, Cloud twisted so he landed on it and pushed off to pursue the attack again.

While Cloud kept the simulation occupied, Zack took his chance to get back in the fray. He darted forward and scooped up Buster Sword as he picked up speed.  The burn of muscles and adrenaline egged him on and Zack whipped his sword into a striking position only to have to duck out of the way as Cloud misjudged a swing and nearly clipped a hank of hair off.

"Hey! Watch it!" Zack yelped. "Who taught you to work with a team?  One of those nasty wolves you've got up north?"  Cloud sent him a look that seemed both surprised and irritated; all big eyes and petulant frown.  Out of the corner of his eye Zack could see the simulation batting aside Cloud's strike, long sword scraping along the ground in a shower of sparks, before coming toward Zack.  He had a moment to note the simulated sparks didn't leave behind any marks on the floor where they should be before he was forced on the defensive again. 

If this was anything like Sephiroth's actual combat style, Zack could see why the guy was considered untouchable.  It was a blow to his ego that Zack found he had a very hard time keeping up with the speed of it, though really he should have expected that.  He'd fought it before.  Somehow, though, he'd imagined that he'd improved more than it felt like.

Although it kind of looked like Sephiroth was dancing what with the way he twirled around so much.  Zack supposed it was necessary to maneuver the Masamune like that.  And that was his concentration slipping again, he realized, as Masamune grated down Buster Sword's blade and Zack grunted.  He dropped the sword down, then dropped himself before tumbling out of the way.  If Angeal were here he'd be hearing it.

Then again, if Angeal were here they probably wouldn't be doing this at all.

Cloud was back in close to Sephiroth, stepping in with the bracer on his wrist already glowing.  Thunder crackled through the air, sending the small hairs on Zack's arms and the back of his neck to dancing reaction. 

 (Too much! Way too much!)

Jerking himself into motion, Zack ducked back around the Sephiroth simulation and grabbed Cloud's forearm.  He yanked down to break his concentration.  "Watch the power levels!"  A second after the words left his mouth as he was sent reeling.  The simulation had clipped him in the temple with Masamune's hilt.  Zack staggered, vision wavering and dancing with bright spots.  Cloud's hand wrapped around his bicep, and Zack let himself get tugged back out of the range of the simulation.  Reaching up, Zack gripped his head, gave it a shake and laughed.  "Whoa! I'm going to have to take this more seriously!" 

Cloud gave Zack's arm a shake. "Zack!" he hissed, looking scandalized.

"How can you hope to defeat me with such distraction?" Masamune sliced down between them, just about catching Cloud's wrist.  The two of them managed to get out of the way by a slim margin. "A SOLDIER does not have the luxury of letting his attention wander in battle."

Zack choked and looked at Cloud beyond the simulation.  "What?  It's hard to take it seriously when he's saying stuff like that!"  (Who programmed this crap anyway?)

Cloud didn't respond verbally, but the look he gave Zack said a thousand words.  Zack knew that Cloud was probably having a hard time, what with the whole 'mortal enemies forever and always' thing he had going on inside his head, but really!  The day Sephiroth lectured his opponents in the middle of a fight would be a day to remember.  Chuckling a bit, Zack set Buster Sword ready again, preparing for another attack against the simulation.  Mustering his energy, he leapt forward with as much speed as he could.  His boots thumped against the floor, the rhythm picking up as he sped up.

Just as he reached the spot he wanted to begin his strike, he saw a blur of color at his side that indicated Cloud's presence.  He was going in for a low blow, and the next thing Zack knew his leading foot had been knocked out from under him as Cloud's leg sweep tangled with him.  He curled in on himself, Buster Sword held just right, and was able to turn the fall into another easy tumble.  Shoulders first, then pop back up, and....  Zack fumbled his phone out as he came to his feet and brought up the menu.  He could hear the skitter of locked blades behind him for a second before he found the option to pause the simulation.  Cloud made a surprised noise, and Zack turned to see his longsword's blade sweep through Sephiroth's frozen image.

Zack held the hand with his phone up, the other just keeping the Buster Sword off the floor.  "Hold up a second!"

Cloud took a few steps back from where the simulation stood, Sephiroth's image still frozen mid-attack.  His eyes flicked restlessly between Zack and the simulation, never really stopping even as he lowered his sword and addressed Zack.  "Why did you do..."  He waved a hand pointedly.  Zack could see, even from his position across the room, how tense Cloud's shoulders were.  He was nearly hunched in on himself.

Reaching up, Zack shoved his headset up to get a look at Cloud without the eerie facsimile of Sephiroth hovering over them.  "Take a deep breath," he advised.  "You look like you're about to fall all to pieces."

Cloud could feel sweat dripping down his back, more from the adrenaline that was still rushing through him than any strain the short-lived fight had produced.  He was on edge from his last swing that had gone through Sephiroth like a...well, like a ghost.  It wasn't the first time he'd seen Sephiroth, the other Sephiroth, possess such qualities.  Still, Cloud had been expecting the meeting of swords, had seen the direction Sephiroth was countering from, and instead had nearly cut into his own foot. 

He couldn't deny the heavy irritation that was building at how clumsy he was being.  If this had been a real fight with Sephiroth, both Zack and Cloud would have been struck down at their first mistake.  This was very unlike the smooth camaraderie he'd had with his friends in his other life.  It also wasn't like the simple skirmishes he'd fought with Zack in.  Those hadn't been anything serious, and most of the time it was either one or the other fighting, or they were separated enough to not interfere with each other.  It was...depressing to realize how out of tune he was with Zack's fighting style, if not ironic.

Realizing Zack was still waiting for him to respond, Cloud hesitated for a moment before reaching up to push his own headset off.  He didn't take his eyes off Sephiroth as he did, and sucked in a breath as the man seemed to vanish right before his eyes, leaving the training room empty.  It was disconcerting, and Cloud couldn't help but feel like Sephiroth was going to reappear at any moment, helmet or not.  Only when he felt a sharp ache in his jaw did Cloud realize he was clenching it tight enough to creak.  His whole body vibrated with tension and energy.  Zack was right, he was far too wound up to fight coherently.

The visor balanced easily enough on his head, so he left it there as he rubbed his free hand across his eyes.  Taking a breath, he settled himself more loosely.  Focusing on each muscle, he forced himself to relax them from their tense positions, rolling his shoulders and shaking his arms to assist. 

Once he felt less on edge, though he couldn't admit to being completely relaxed, Cloud turned to face Zack fully.  "I..."  Even before he could form the apology, he knew Zack would dismiss it out of hand.  "I'm better now," he said instead.

Zack grinned at him, quick and easy. "Right!  Good.  I think it's fair to say we don't have the slightest clue what we're doing!"  Zack looked entirely too pleased with himself at that pronouncement.

Cloud's lips twitched in a grin despite himself.  There was no point in arguing that he was probably the only person alive, in either lifetime, who could consider themselves an expert on fighting Sephiroth.  Cloud was usually too busy trying to keep his skin in one piece to take conscious notes Sephiroth's fighting style.  He left it mostly up to instinct and stubbornness, which seemed to work okay. 

That was one of the key differences he'd noticed after his fight with Sephiroth at Fort Condor.  He hadn't noticed at the time, despite his desire to see the differences in the man, but later when he allowed himself to dwell on it, Cloud had been able to admit to himself that fighting Sephiroth sane was nothing like fighting the other worldly monster.  Not...easier, but less overwhelming.  "It took me a while...to be able to fight with my friends too," he murmured in response to Zack's bright condemnation of their attempt.

"In hindsight it was pretty dumb to just charge in like that.... We haven't had any chance to really fight together, let alone figure out how to work as a team."  Zack rubbed at his chin thoughtfully.  Several seconds went by before his face lit up in epiphany.  "Alright, here's the plan!" A fist pumped in emphasis as Zack leaned forward eagerly. "Since we're too busy tripping over each other to go after him properly the only thing to do is take turns.   That way we can each get a good look at how the other fights, and then work like a proper team.  I'll go first since I've had more of a chance to observe you.  Sound good?"

It was hard to hold back the wince that suggestion induced, and Cloud hoped Zack couldn't read how very much he didn't like the idea.  "...Fine," he answered shortly.  If he could manage to keep his reaction from seeing Zack going toe to toe with Sephiroth to a minimum, then maybe they'd have a better chance of not tripping over themselves for the rest of the training.  It stirred up the dark memories in a way Sephiroth alone could not, of half remembered visions of Zack's beaten form falling under Masamune's blade, of hopeless promises, of what he was trying so hard to erase from history. 

The entire point of this training was so that there would never be a Nibelheim. Right now Cloud was the biggest liability, because he still could not separate past from present, illusion from reality.  If Zack thought he could handle Sephiroth on his own, then Cloud would just have to trust his friend knew what he was doing.

Zack moved over to his side and clouted him on the shoulder.  "I'm glad we're in agreement."  He went to put his headset back on but stopped halfway.  "Oh!  Just a quick reminder: Watch the power levels of your materia.  Watch the power levels of everything actually.  The Training Room simulates most of your attacks for you, so just don't forget that you only need enough power for it to get a read on what you want."  Shaking his head, Zack mumbled, "I'm going to end up sleeping in the trooper barracks from the never ending hole in my wallet if we break the equipment in here too bad.  Now budge over so I can give this a go."

Cloud obligingly moved off to the side, though he did puzzle briefly over Zack's warning.  He wasn't completely clear on how this room worked, except that it did seem to be in excellent condition for a SOLDIER training area.  He'd just try to keep his attacks to a minimum until he could learn exactly what Zack was talking about.

Once he was near the far wall, Cloud pulled his headset down over his eyes again.  Sephiroth jumped into his vision, causing Cloud's heart to give a little leap of reaction.  Sephiroth was still frozen in the half completed swing, hair flaring where his momentum had whipped it out.  It was surreal to see the man so still outside of a photo, to see what amounted to a halted moment in time.  Cloud wasn't sure he liked that aspect of the program.

Upon closer study, Cloud took note of the dull green eyes.  Just as last time, they captured Cloud's attention by how off they were.  There was no spark of life, though even the mako glow in them was imitated accurately by the machines.  It distracted Cloud more than he'd admit and was part of the reason he'd been tripping all over Zack.  He kept watching the eyes for recognition, for the slight telegraph of the next move, to see them look at Cloud, rather than through him. 

None of that was present.  Instead there was just a flawless caricature of the man.  This was the perfect weapon ShinRa wanted. This was what Sephiroth saw himself as. This lifeless, unfeeling creature. Even the mad, world-destroying nightmare was preferable to this.

Zack finished fiddling with his phone with a merry, "There!"  His finger hovered over the keypad as he turned to Cloud.  "Ready?"  Cloud gave a brief thumbs up, which Zack returned before he hit the button.  Sephiroth flickered for a moment, going from his frozen position to standing without the in between movement.  Cloud swallowed hard as he saw Sephiroth's eyes flick briefly in his direction, before Sephiroth faced Zack.

"I hope you came prepared, rather than wasting my valuable time."

"Now that one almost sounded like Sephiroth!"

It took every ounce of Cloud's will to clench his jaw against the desire to call Zack an idiot.  His friend definitely deserved it, but Cloud didn't want to distract Zack from his fight even if he wasn't taking it as seriously as he should.  It was true, though.  Sephiroth here was nothing like the real thing, even in his words.  The voice was perfect in intonation and delivery, but the difference was as stark as the one between the man Cloud was beginning to see, and the insane monster that haunted his past.

It wasn't that what the program's Sephiroth was saying was as unbelievable as Zack made it out to be; the Sephiroth of Cloud's past was positively chatty compared to the one he was coming to understand here and now.  The taunts were a part of their interaction, how Sephiroth would dig and dig into Cloud's hurts and insecurities, trying to pull him apart.  It felt wrong, though, for Sephiroth to be so focused on anyone other than Cloud.
Before, the other Sephiroth had possessed a single-minded attention for Cloud and Cloud alone.  Those around him were the afterthoughts, despite Sephiroth's accusation of Cloud being  a mere puppet.  Maybe that had been the allure too, that Sephiroth treated Cloud as a favored toy.  The only other one who had held his attention had been Aerith and the threat she possessed as a true descendant of the Cetra.  That had ended with her murder, or so Sephiroth had thought.  It was...satisfying, to remember how she had won over Sephiroth's dark power even in death.  Those feelings were slowly overshadowing the sharp pain of losing her as Cloud let the memories of her triumph clean away the sorrow.

Across from him, Zack squared off against Sephiroth, the Buster Sword held out in front of him in a two handed grip.  The fight began abruptly, causing Cloud to jerk involuntarily.  It was hard to resist the urge to leap in and try to deflect Sephiroth's attention away from Zack.  Cloud managed, clenching his free hand until his glove creaked but keeping his sword hand loose and ready to be used.  The Masamune lashed out, and Zack used his sword to bat it aside, immediately diving into a tumble that let him duck under the long blade's return sweep and brought him up at Sephiroth's back.  He turned on his heels, Buster Sword sweeping in hard, but Sephiroth was faster.  Sephiroth twirled in a flurry of black leather and caught the large sword against Masamune easily.

The rhythm of the battle was brutal, Zack remaining on the defensive against Sephiroth's relentless assault.  Cloud did his best to study Zack's movements, to try and remember for when they could try again at fighting side by side.  Sephiroth was distractingly graceful and deadly, though, so he didn't think he was doing a very good job of it.  Still, it was fascinating to watch Zack in action.  It was nothing like the half-hearted monster fights they'd been in before. 

There was a lot that Zack didn't get yet, though, in a fight against Sephiroth.  More than once Cloud had to bite his tongue against the desire to say something when Zack missed what seemed to him to be an obvious cue.  The program wasn't as multifaceted as the real man, but it made an impressively accurate representation.  It seemed Zack's idea had some merit, considering all the work they had to do to have a chance against Sephiroth.  If, Cloud amended to himself, it became necessary.

The way Zack used the Buster Sword was odd.  He'd noticed it before now, but hadn't thought anything of it.  Even now Zack was attacking with the blunt edge and low level spells instead of using the blade.  He had a solid defensive style, and when he did manage to get an attack in they were powerful.  Zack's stance was strong, and though he moved around a lot his technique wasn't as agile as Cloud's was.

The fight continued, and Cloud hissed in a stuttered breath.  There it was again, Zack missing a clue that seemed obvious in the angle of Masamune, and Cloud realized Zack wasn't even watching that hand, he was too busy giving a triumphant 'Ha!' over some scheme he'd thought he'd pulled off.

Sephiroth batted aside his attempt like it was nothing, and Cloud wasn't surprised.

Maybe if he got poked a few times with the Masamune Zack would pay more attention.  That thought caused Cloud to pause.  He didn't know what would happen if Sephiroth did get a hit on them.  Was it possible for them to feel it?  The program solidified Sephiroth in some way, so did that mean they were in serious danger of being injured?  Zack had mentioned they could be hurt, so how far did that go?

A cold sweat broke out on his brow at the thought that Zack was in mortal danger right now.  Even if the programed Sephiroth wasn't supposed to strike killing blows, who was to say he wouldn't?  He'd already appeared several times when he shouldn't have, was there any reason to believe that didn't extend to other things?  Cloud  bit his lip as Zack again narrowly avoided a strike from the Masamune.  He tried to tell himself that there couldn't be real danger here, that they wouldn't put their precious SOLDIERs at risk like that...except that it was ShinRa, and Cloud wouldn't put anything past them. 

He saw it coming before Zack did; the falter in the swing of the Buster Sword, the way the Masamune changed angles.  In the next moment, Zack was flat on his back Buster Sword feet away from where it had been wrenched from his grip by the maneuver.  Masamune flashed forward, aimed perfectly at Zack's heart.  Cloud tasted blood as he moved.  He wouldn't make it in time.

This wasn't so bad.  Alright, so Zack wasn't doing as well as he wanted to be, but he wasn't doing terrible either.  He caught another blow from the sword, and winced at the sound of metal grating together.  Zack shoved his hand against Buster Sword's side and pushed the blow away in an attempt to over balance the simulation.

It worked for a split second, and Zack made a triumphant noise in the back of his throat.  He had this, if he could just press the advantage here he could really show Cloud what he was made of.  He moved forward, Buster Sword loose in his grip for a good swing and—

(Aw shit.)

He hadn't seen the way the simulation had angled the Masamune, but he sure felt the way it caught his sword near the hilt and wrenched it out of his hands.  He definitely felt the way he got clocked by Masamune's hilt too.

Even when it was just a program it left him flat out with his head spinning and his vision dancing with black spots.  Again. That one was going to hurt later for sure.  He reached up toward his head as a wordless yell met his ears.  (Cloud?)  He blinked hard, and the next thing he knew a cold sweat was breaking out across his skin as he caught sight of the simulated Masamune buried in the floor a few inches from his head.  Cloud's longsword wasn't too far from his chest either and, simulation or no, both of those things were pretty worrying.

Cloud wrenched up on the Masamune, and the simulation whirled away to face him.  Zack shoved himself into a sitting position as Cloud drove it back in a spectacular flurry of attacks.  He could see Cloud's face, lips set in a grim line, and brows furrowed in concentration.  More worrying was the wavering glow building around Cloud's body.  Zack had reminded him to mind his strength, hadn't he?

It looked like Cloud had forgotten that. 

Cloud jumped back a short distance from the simulation, drawing his sword back.  A golden glow coalesced around the blade for a moment, before he whipped it forward.  A shockwave tore into the training room floor, leaving behind a destroyed path in the metal plates as it smashed into the simulation.  Zack had a moment to appreciate the view of Sephiroth's face wiped free of its normally smug look as the simulation was engulfed in the explosion of power.  From there, more shockwaves rippled outward, metal screaming in protest and sparks beginning to shower down from the popping lighting.

The room went dark, the simulation shattering into blue and green digitized shards.  A few seconds elapsed before the red warning lights began to flash, a small alarm sounding from the control room. The view in his headset switched to the green tinged stand by mode and Zack yanked it off.  "Aw, man, I am so reporting this as completely your fault.  In fact, I'm going to put in the report that I was teaching you how to use the Training Room and you went absolutely overboard, and that isn't even a lie.  The door is gone.  I am not paying for this!"

Cloud panted hard. He reached up to his own headset, ripping it off and tossing it roughly to the ground.  His eyes hadn't cleared from their manic look of dismay and panic.  One hand clutched visibly around the hilt of his sword as he ran the other through his hair, before he turned a glare on Zack.  "Shut up Zack."  Without waiting for Zack's reply, he turned and paced a few steps away in a restless move.  Zack held up both hands placatingly, but did as told and held his silence.  He touched the fingers of one hand lightly against the side of his head where a headache was starting to blossom. 

After a few more paces, Cloud seemed to be able to gather himself again.  He stomped right up to loom over Zack, and Zack half expected him to wag a finger in his face and everything.  "What was I supposed to do?" Cloud asked, voice tight and strained.

"Hey," Zack said.  He kept his tone low and as soothing as he could make it.  "Take it easy. It's just a simulation."

"He would have killed you with that strike!" Cloud snarled.

Zack grimaced, running his hand over the back of his neck.  "Probably not."  How was he supposed to get Cloud to calm down, anyway? He couldn't remember a time when he'd seen him this worked up.  Maybe way back in Mideel, but even then…. Nothing like this.

(You've put your foot in it this time, Zack.)

"Probably…" Cloud echoed, gloves creaking around the hilt of his sword as he gripped it convulsively.  It looked like he was at a loss for words, still glaring down at Zack with emotions fighting for space on his usually calm countenance.  It was a rather striking effect, actually.

Zack pressed his palms together, doing his best to look contrite and feeling a bit like a Third who'd stepped out of line.  The last person to make him feel like that was Angeal.  Man, he missed him a lot right now.  Angeal would definitely know what to do.  "Heh, well, it's only the really crazy simulations that can do that kind of damage."

Cloud took a deep breath, then another, the silence stretching after Zack's pronouncement.  Finally he said, "And what isn't crazy about Sephiroth in battle?"  It was said almost matter of factly, and Zack wondered how many times Cloud had fought Sephiroth in his other life.

"The simulation," he said, refusing to think of that thing as the actual Sephiroth.  It wasn't, really.  "And besides, I don't think Hojo fiddled with that one."

Cloud's face blanked.  "...What do you mean?"

Puffing out his cheeks, Zack expelled a rough breath and glanced around the dark training room.  He half expected the weirdo to be lurking in one of the corners, hidden by the shadows and sparks and alarms.  "One time I got suckered into helping him combat test...something," he still had no idea what, "and he challenged me to take on one of his extra special programs.  The researchers were all no way man, don't do it.  You could get killed."  Zack held his hands up, miming exaggerated panic, then grinned wildly and proudly proclaimed, "I kicked it's tail in." 

(Focus, Zack.)

Clearing his throat, Zack gave Cloud a sheepish look as he muttered, "But, uh, I don't think most of the programs are like that.  That one was...Hojo's special project or something."  He hadn't exactly been given an explanation.

"Hojo has a lot of interest in Sephiroth," Cloud spoke sharply. His jaw worked for a moment, and he continued through gritted teeth, "I would think he had a part in this too."

He needed to get a handle on this, Zack realized.  Cloud was worked up, and Zack wasn't helping.  The more he thought on it, the more he wished he knew what Angeal would—That was it!  Angeal would have been calm, talked him through things, explained things.  Zack dropped his hands to his lap and met Cloud's wild stare calmly, his back straightening.  He could remember the way Angeal had done the same to him in the past, kept his cool when he'd been all riled up until Zack felt like an idiot for being so emotional.  It made him miss him all over again, but right now he had to focus on Cloud.  He probably should have known Cloud would take it too seriously, and Zack himself should have been more serious.  He'd let himself get carried away in the idea of enjoying a training session.

Guiltily, he knew he had hoped it'd be just a little bit like those times with Angeal, that maybe he could share that with Cloud.  Angeal had always been better at this kind of thing than Zack was and Zack had no idea what he was doing, but he was trying to figure it out.

Quietly, firmly, he said, "Yeah, you're right. I didn't think this through."  He didn't let himself look guilty, just met Cloud's stare head on.  Cloud shifted, raising his chin in challenge to the look.  "I should have made sure you were prepared and knew what we were walking into."  It was hard not to look away from that stare.  Cloud looked so much older than him right then, and...well, in a way he was wasn't he?  Cloud had more experience, even if Zack was supposed to be the one teaching him.  "I just got a little caught up in the idea of training with someone again.  I'm sorry."

Cloud finally broke their staring contest, eyes moving to focus on Zack's boots.  The anger was still there, but Zack could tell his words had had some effect in calming him down.  "...I don't know what you want me to do Zack…  I'm not—" he cut himself off, teeth clacking together softly as he clenched his jaw shut.  He ran his free hand through his hair and shook his head, unable to continue.

"Nothing? I don't really know either."  He hadn't for a long time, though he wasn't sure if that's what Cloud meant.  Zack hadn't known what to do since Angeal had disappeared.  Reaching up he scuffed a gloved hand through his hair and let out an explosive breath. "We're figuring things out though, right?  One little bit at a time."

"Then start with this!" Cloud blurted out, gesturing expansively to encompass the destroyed training area.  "Why did you bring us here when…when it could have turned out..."  He made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat.

It was hard not to react to the show of temper from his normally calm friend, but Zack kept himself focused.  "Hey," Zack said, "Don't be like that.  I didn't make it to 1st Class without having a clue what I'm doing you know."  It looked like Cloud wanted to say something in response, but he pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head.  Zack sighed, then pointed at the floor.  "Cloud, sit down."

For a moment, Zack thought Cloud would refuse the command, until he finally sank reluctantly to the ground.  He did not, Zack noticed, sheath his sword.  Cloud stared at Zack expectantly, looking for all the world like the petulant teenager he really wasn't.  Sometimes, when he acted like such a brat, it was hard to remember that.  A brat with the ability to completely trash the Training Room, of course.

Zack could see Cloud's jaw clench before he let out a harsh breath.  Blood had left a thin trail down Cloud's chin, leaving Zack to wonder when exactly he'd been hit.  Cloud seemed like he was calming himself down further, so Zack didn't worry too much that he'd get his hand bitten when he reached out to wipe away the blood.  Looked like Cloud had busted his lip.  They'd look a merry pair later when the swelling set in.  Cloud batted his hand away, swiping his arm across his face to further remove the stain. 

"That's better," Zack said amiably.  He leaned forward and let his forearms rest on his knees.  "I just don't think Lazard would allow that sort of thing.  Not in a program that's accessible through the Training Room's enemy list."  Even if it was only accessible with Zack's 1st Class passcodes. 

He just didn't want to believe that Lazard would let it happen.  Even if ShinRa might, even if Hojo would, Lazard would never allow it.  Still, he felt a nagging worry, because what if Lazard would?  The paranoia, the distrust, the always wondering made him sick to the stomach, but he couldn't just keep his head in the sand.  Cloud wouldn't let him, and Zack would never forgive himself anyway.  That would tread on the honor he was trying to uphold way more than anything else he could ever do.  He was sure of it.

"Allow what sort of thing?" Cloud demanded. 

"A program that could seriously injure or kill."

"If...If he can fight us...he felt real Zack.  How...you couldn't get him to pull his strikes, so how is it not dangerous?"  If Cloud had been cat, all the fur on his back would have been sticking up for how ruffled he sounded.  In fact, he sounded almost affronted at the thought the simulation wouldn't hurt them.

"It's just a training simulation," Zack pointed out.  "It's not Sephiroth."  Cloud looked taken aback at that. "Seriously, it doesn't even sound anything like him."

"...It sounds like him…"  Cloud had barely whispered that, but Zack heard it all the same.

"Wait, you mean when he went crazy he started giving boring lectures?"

Cloud reared up on his knees and his fist shot out to punch Zack square across the jaw.  Zack's head snapped to the side, and it took him a moment to realize what Cloud had done. It was hard to say if Cloud looked more shocked than Zack felt.

"Ow?" Zack hazarded after a moment.

Cloud collapsed backward, his sword ringing as he finally released it.  Instead, he drew his legs up to his chest, his fists gripping his pants tightly.  "I...I shouldn't have done—"

"No, no, I think I deserved that one."  Ruefully, Zack rubbed at his jaw.  "That was my bad."

There was a minute of silence while Zack nursed his injury, until Cloud let out a strangled chuckle and asked, "...Now what?"

It was a good question, and Zack let his hand fall while he thought about it.  "We'll be more careful next time," he said finally.  There would be a next time, they didn't really have a choice.  "And I'll take things more seriously."  Zack looked over at Cloud earnestly.  "I appreciate you jumping in when you did.  If this had been the real deal I'd be appreciating it even more.  No one wants to be skewered, and it's really great knowing you've got my back like that."  He noticed Cloud flinch at the wording.  Oops.  "What I don't appreciate is this."  Zack waved a hand at the mess around them, the torn metal, the sparking wires, and the flashing red alarm lights.  "I think you need to work on your control a little, or maybe just the emotional aspect and reactions.  If we're going to do this you have to rein yourself in."

Cloud had slowly relaxed from his tight ball into a more loose position as Zack talked.  He didn't look upset anymore, but thoughtful.  That was an improvement.  "I...I do understand what you're saying," Cloud said carefully, "It's...there is no reining in with Sephiroth.  But–"

"But, this isn't the real deal, and if we do have to fight the real deal I'd really like to get him back in one piece since that's the goal here."

Cloud shot him an irritated look at the interruption.  Well, it looked like not all of his anger had dissipated yet.  Zack held his hands up again with a sheepish smile.  "Then why don't you start explaining the difference between the real deal and this?" Cloud snapped.  "If the...the simulation isn't as good as Sephiroth, then we are wasting our time here."

"I don't know how it measures up, honestly," Zack said. "I've never fought him."  He'd only rarely seen Sephiroth fight until lately.  It wasn't like they were buddies who went everywhere together after all. "So, I guess you'd be a better judge of that than I would, but even supposing it isn't as good as he is now that doesn't mean it's a waste of time.  It'll give me a chance to learn his technique, at least."

Cloud looked perturbed at having his question turned back on him.  "He...the simulation is...good," he admitted.  "Not as good as...as the one I fought.  But…" he paused, eyes flicking to the side and back to Zack's face as he thought.  "How are we supposed to train, if we can't fight at full strength?  We would lose every time."

Zack picked at his loose pants idly.  "I take it Gibbs, Edge, and the rest of them didn't think to explain the Training Room to you, huh?"  Not that it was a big surprise, the question was mostly rhetorical since by all rights they'd assume ShinRa personnel knew how to use the systems.

"They probably thought I already knew…" Cloud mumbled.

"Yeah…"  Zack scratched at the back of his head.  "So did I," he admitted with a wince.  It just brought to light how little Cloud remembered, and Zack didn't pretend to think that wasn't dangerous.  He didn't know what Cloud did and did not know about this era.  Here he was, supposed to be making sure Cloud fit in, that he wouldn't get discovered.  Thinking about it, Zack felt like he was doing a pretty poor job of guiding him.  

(Some mentor….  Time to start making up for it.)

"The technology is…"  Zack frowned, crossing his arms over his chest.  He wasn't really sure how it worked himself, just the basics, so that was all he could offer, but it was a start.  "It tricks your mind and body, I guess.  You think you're moving further than you are, or that things are happening when they aren't.  It picks up on little cues and displays what you're aiming for.  If I want to cast a full power Thunder spell, I can put a little power to the materia and the system picks up on...on I guess some sort of cue and it displays it."  Zack shrugged helplessly.  "You'd have to talk to the researchers if you want a good explanation."

Letting out a gust of a sigh, Cloud furrowed his brows in thought.  "...So when you said hold back, you meant don't complete the attacks, because the room would do it for us?"

"Yeah, or at least it will feel like you did...and it will project that you have."  He waved a hand at the walls around them.  "Most normal sessions are recorded to more accurately predict and show a fighters capabilities so that the simulation can portray their attacks."  He'd have to remember to put Cloud through his paces in here a few times on low level stuff so that there'd be some data for him.

"I wonder," Cloud mumbled, picking at the band of one of his knee pads.  He looked up at Zack.  "It sounds...something like Battle Square?  Do you have that...uh, yet?"

Zack met his gaze blankly.  "...I have no idea what that is."

Cloud frowned, frustrated.  "It's...a fighting game...at the Gold Saucer.  I guess they might have used similar technology…  It would break your items or equipment as a handicap, but it wouldn't really do it.…"

"The Gold what?" Zack asked, continuing to stare.

"...N...Nevermind," Cloud said slowly, a bemused expression on his face.  "I think...I understand it a bit better."

Zack was glad that one of them did, at least.  Maybe he'd ask him about that later, too.  Looking around the room again, he winced at the damage.  "I gotta admit that was pretty impressive.  I don't know if the poor thing stood a chance against you at all."

"Zack!" Cloud yelped, looking scandalized. Again.  As Zack laughed, Cloud kicked him solidly in the chest.  That was enough to overbalance Zack and he tumbled backwards onto the floor.  "I can't believe you..." he muttered, then looked around sheepishly.  "I'm sorry for...blowing up the room..."

Zack smacked Cloud's knee and rolled back into a sitting position.  "No worries, I really am going to report it as your fault though."

Cloud leaned forward to rest his weight on his hands absently.  "I'm not sure what good that will do you."

"I'm already paying out for the repairs for Fountain Square, and that freaky machine of Hojo's I broke, and you don't have a girlfriend!  A girlfriend who has a birthday next month, by the way, which you're going to help me with."

"What?"

"Don't worry about it for now, I'll tell you later.  Right now we were supposed to be training, but...."  Once more he surveyed the mess around them.   There was probably no way the equipment was still functional.  Zack plucked his phone out again and checked.  The menu display read Offline.  Turning the phone toward Cloud he shrugged. 

Leaning back, Cloud's brow furrowed as he focused on the phone's screen, before his gaze flicked back to Zack's face.  "...Is there even anyone around to report...this to?"  Cloud gestured vaguely around the room again.

Zack snapped his phone closed and pocketed it.  "Not right now, I mean I could hunt up some of the night staff, but who wants to do that?  Someone will come looking soon enough anyway.   I'll have to turn in a proper incident report in the morning...."  The last was said more to himself as Zack stared thoughtfully toward the control room.  Cloud pushed himself to his feet, brushing briefly at his pants before he held a hand out to Zack expectantly.  Zack waved him away, and braced his hands on the floor before propelling himself nimbly back to his feet.  He dusted his hands off, and nodded to himself.  The adrenaline from the aborted training session was still thrumming through him.  "The question," Zack said, as he threw himself into a few squats, "is what are we going to do about our training session?"

"There's no way we can continue," Cloud said, shaking his head.  "I...that wasn't supposed to do much damage to...him, at least." 

Zack went through the motions a few more times, enjoying the burn and stretch of muscles.  It felt nice getting in some real exercise again.  Straightening a final time, he turned to Cloud.  "We'll work on that," he said.  "I think the best thing we can do right now is head back to the apartments and take over one of the training grounds there.  You feeling up to that?"

He got a raised eyebrow and a shrug in return.  "I don't mind seeing how much more damage I can do," Cloud said, a sarcastic edge to his tone.

"Alright!  That's not exactly the best answer, but I'll take it."  Shaking his head, Zack grinned down at Cloud.  More damage, indeed.  Oh boy.  "You have any other questions about all this?" he asked, gesturing to the Training Room at large.  Eying the damage, Cloud bit his lip and shook his head. With a nod, Zack turned in a circle, searching the room for his fallen sword.  He spotted it, gleaming faintly where it lay discarded in a corner of the room and strode over to pick it up.  Holding it, Zack looked the blade over for any damage, gloved fingertips running along the grooves in the blade.  It didn't seem to have incurred any real damage, which was a relief.

"...Hey Zack?" Cloud's voice was hesitant, and Zack glanced up at him distractedly.

"Yeah?" (Is that a nick on the edge there?)

"...I...You didn't use your sword very much in the fight..." 

"Yeah, you know what they say; use brings about—"  Zack stopped, thumb brushing against the faintest nick scoring the blunt edge of the blade and kept his eyes trained on it.  It occurred to him, right then, how familiar those words were.  Only it had been him saying them, not exactly like that but.... He'd said the same thing to Angeal, Angeal who'd given ju