Actions

Work Header

Company

Work Text:

com·pa·ny/ˈkəmpənē/

 

Noun: A commercial business.

Verb: Associate with; keep company with

Synonyms: society - association - firm - party - corporation

 

1.

 

It had been Cloud's original plan to join ShinRa and try for SOLDIER. It was all he had ever wanted ever since he had decided what heroes were – big and strong and invincible – and ever since his young mind had associated the concept of a hero with ShinRa’s big and strong and invincible super SOLDIERs. If he had known what the real definition of a hero was – someone who selflessly helps and rescues others regardless of his own safety – he would've never wanted it. All he had really wanted was to be strong – strong enough to never be hurt again, strong enough to never be bullied again.

But he had been a kid and in the end he had never joined ShinRa or tried for SOLDIER. And although his life never did gain the rosy gleam he had always dreamed of and things never got easy – they only got harder, really – maybe that was for the best.

The reason why he didn't pack his bags at fourteen like he planned to was simple. That was the summer his mother got ill. It was such a simple looking thing at first – just a cough, nothing more than that – but he hadn't been able to just leave her. He had reasoned that there'd be time – it wasn't like there was an age limit to try for the SOLDIER program, not really – and he could go later. So instead, he had stayed to nurse his mother to health, only to find that… she wouldn't get better.

Two months of coughing and hacking and getting paler by the minute, he finally managed to put together just enough money to take her to the hospital to see what was really wrong with her, hoping that they could just give her some antibiotics and everything would be alright again. Except, of course, nothing was so easy, especially not for a family named Strife. She had a blip in her x-rays. A blip, which was about the size of a golf ball. A blip, which after it nearly shorted the x-ray machine, could only mean one thing. A crystal tumour.

"It must be all the time she spent around engines, breathing Mako fumes. I'm so sorry," said the doctor, and it didn't help much.

 Mako tumours could be operated on, sure, but they couldn't really be healed outside ShinRa's most high tech laboratories. You took one out and another one popped in its place almost instantly – when you got enough Mako in you, like some people did, and when that Mako decided to be an asshole, that was that. In a backwater place like Nibelheim, for a family like theirs that barely had enough money to feed themselves? There was no way.

It could've been worse, of course. She still had time and if anything, she was lucky that it was just one and just in her lung – most people started to grow them in their brains or skulls, and the tumours ended up crushing their brains. It didn't change the fact that she was dying, that soon the tumour would grow so big that her lung would collapse around it and after that it would start putting pressure on her other lung, on her heart, until her body would give in. And that was if, of course, no other tumours started to form.

"A year, maybe two at most," the doctor said when Cloud asked, and with a nod Cloud put aside all his plans for joining ShinRa. Instead, he took his mother home, ignoring the knowing looks of their neighbours, and started to look for a job. Faced with two years of a sick mother, a lot of hospital bills, and also a house he had to now maintain himself, there was no choice – what little his mother had made at the garage she worked at wouldn't last them more than a couple of weeks. They needed a source of income – and so, he needed a job and fast.

"You don't need to do this, honey," his mother whispered with a cough ravaged voice, barely audible. "Weren't you going to leave, go after your dreams? Go, I'll be fine."

Cloud didn't even have to answer that – they both knew that if he went, she'd die a lot sooner, and probably of starvation if not hypothermia once she wasn't able to pay the bills anymore and got kicked out of the house. Nibelheim wasn't a kind town and it wouldn't give the sick or the poor any sympathy at all – it would eat her alive now if he let it. But he wouldn't.

If his mother had to die, she'd do it while tucked in her own warm bed, comfortable and happy.

And so, he got his first job – in the same garage she had worked in, mostly running errands for the mechanics and engineers, cleaning and arranging the place and picking up after the men. It was a lousy job with a lousy pay, but it kept them going past the eventual point when their savings ran out. Almost. After the first week of that life, Cloud knew that he would have to sacrifice a lot of things to make it work – the money would be enough for some things they had, but not everything.

And so started the rigorous money managing in the Strife household. The main things which got paid were the bills, of course, plus his mother's medicine. All the curiosities and shiny new gadgets that had the other town kids quivering with excitement were ignored from then on. New clothing was instantly struck out of potential things to buy as well – instead, Cloud learned to sew. Food was a necessity, but one he could compromise on – and maybe the meals from then on were cheap and simple, but they could still eat. He eventually started to figure out ways to shrink the bills a bit – and maybe Cloud had to start taking cold showers to bring the heating bill down a bit and maybe the television was off the hook constantly, but the money held and they managed. That was all he cared about.

For a while, he considered selling his mother's only money worthy possession – the Hardy Daytona, her motorcycle that was older than Cloud and in mint condition thanks to the fact that she had spent all those years maintaining it religiously. It was what had given her the job at the garage in the first place – the accumulated expertise she had from working on the bike. Now, it was a potential ten thousand gil in their pockets, maybe more.

"No, honey, not the Hardy," his mother begged, reaching out to grasp his hand with feeble fingers. "It was a gift from your father and it's going to be your inheritance, once I'm gone. You can't sell it."

"My father?" Cloud murmured, frowning, but she didn't answer.

In the end, he didn't, couldn't, with her looking at him like that – they weren't at that point of their finances, not yet. It was still out of necessity that he started pushing for a better job at the garage, however. Managing now didn't mean that they'd manage always and there wasn't an inch of give in his lists of what could be paid – should something break, should the drains get clogged, should anything a little unusual happen, and they'd be screwed. So they needed better income and for that, he needed a better job.

So, with determination and desperation powering his every move and word, he began pushing himself forward in the garage, and begged the mechanics to teach him, to show him a few tricks, to help him be more useful – to help him eventually do a better job and get better pay for it.

They didn't like it much at first – he was still that Strife Bastard and his mother's illness would never change the fact. But he was tenacious and headstrong and wouldn't let himself be cowed anymore, not when his own lifestyle and his mother's comfort was on the line, and so he kept at it until one of them relented and showed him how to change oil in a car, until another one gave in and explained how Mako cells were replaced in an engine, until the rest started giving in too and let him watch and help as they changed tires and replaced crushed hoods and bumpers and doors on this or that car.

"You're filthy," his mother commented tiredly at the sight of him, coming home with ever increasing oil stains. Cloud just smiled and washed it all away in a cold, cold shower before heading to the kitchen to make the cheapest, blandest mush one could make, and calling it food. In the evenings, he often retreated to the back yard, where his mother's Hardy stood and put his newly learned skills into practice on the motorcycle, cleaning it and twiddling around with the engine until he began to understand it, until the bike became as familiar to him as it was to her.

He didn't get an engineer's spot in the garage – knowing the tricks didn't give him an engineer's degree no matter how he tried – but he did get another sort of new job. In the midst of haphazard lessons, driving lessons were included somewhere along the way – the vehicles the garage fixed had to be tested, after all – and it turned out that he had a knack for driving and figuring out what was wrong with this or that engine just by the way it reacted to his controls, the way it sounded. It wasn't something the other guys at the garage liked to do much anyway. Problems with Mako engines tended to end up with explosions, so the testing part never had many eager takers – not before Cloud, who got the job without contest, and who got the appropriate pay rise for taking it.

And so, warm baths and vegetables were included into the list of things they could afford.

For nearly a year it worked like that, still tight but manageable – and Cloud could even put a bit of money aside, little by little, to be used in case things went awry around the house. And they did – he had to fix the roof after a winter storm and replace a bit of piping that had burst in the cold, and though it made things cheaper that he now had the hang of doing these things by himself, it didn't make the replacements any less expensive. But the money held, with Cloud stretching every gil to its absolute limits and dragging every possible use out of every single number on his paycheck.

Then his mother’s illness got worse – two more tumours were found in her latest x-ray, one in her other lung, and another in her stomach. In a single day, their expenses nearly doubled with the price of her new medicine, and suddenly, his pay was nowhere near enough. So there went the warm baths and vegetables and the savings jar emptied in one afternoon, and all his lists had glaring minuses on them.

"All the spots are filled, kid. You're doing a great job as the tester, but…" his boss shrugged his shoulders in the perfect picture of sympathetic understanding, not giving an inch. Cloud knew as much – it wasn't like the garage was that big or wealthy a business; it could only barely support its workers as it was – but he had to try.

After that, it was back to the papers, to finding another job – either a better one, or one he could work on while staying at the garage. He didn't find a job like that, and was on the point of considering selling the Hardy again – maybe he could do it without his mother noticing? – when another ad, one he had previously ignored, caught his attention. It was from one of the villagers, offering a reward to anyone who could deliver a package from her to CosmoCanyon. A hefty reward.

It made sense, though. The only way to really deliver anything in the west was to either use ShinRa's couriers – who only got the job done about half the time, and most of the stuff they managed to deliver got to its destination broken – or to take the thing yourself. Unlike in the east, there were no trains in the west and no proper roads – mostly it was just narrow monster tracks and whatever flat, smooth ground one could find. Plus, there was the monster problem too – monsters tended to attack anything that moved, and vehicles were always prime targets. The lack of proper roads with a lot of monsters translates to the high number of wrecked vehicles stopping by the garage.

Plus a good amount of money to the person who did get the delivery made.

"Mom, what would you think if I took the Hardy out?" Cloud asked thoughtfully, considering the ad. With that money, they wouldn't have to worry about much of anything for two, maybe three weeks. The trip would probably take him a couple of days with the Hardy, maybe less. Granted that he find CosmoCanyon of course; the word was that the canyons were like a maze and easy to get lost in. But he had always been good at navigating…

"That would be wonderful, honey," she assured him sadly, probably regretting the fact that she couldn’t drive it anymore herself, not without considerable risk. "Just be careful."

"I will," Cloud answered, taking out his cheap PHS and making the call.

When his mother finally slipped away – killed more by the medicine than the illness, really – Cloud was knee deep in the more or less accidentally established and rather unofficial Strife Delivery Service. He wasn't too surprised when it happened; she had been worn into a ghost of herself by the drugs she had been taking, and he had known for a while that it was only a matter of time. Plus, for weeks before that, she hadn't been able to breathe without mechanical help, so there had certainly been enough warning signs.

"I just wish you were happy, honey," were her last, half coughed words – and Cloud hadn't managed to assure her that he was, not really.

At the age of sixteen, the last of what had already been the very small Strife family used almost half of his savings to pay for her cremation and released her ashes to the Nibel Mountain. It wasn't as sad of an occasion as he had expected and he didn't cry much at all. He only felt hollow and alone, wrung out and dried up and completely spent. Directionless. Empty. And the home he had spent so much time away from since starting to deliver packages felt emptier still.

"Now what?" he wanted to ask, but there was no one there to answer – so instead he picked through his lists for his next delivery, and kicked the Hardy into gear.

Running a delivery business was pretty much like running a household, except brought to a higher level and with a different meaning. Gil was still stretched, of course – even though the payments he could demand were high, so were the costs. After most deliveries he had to take a break to do the maintenance on the Hardy, to fix this or that that had been broken somewhere along the way, either by the weather or the terrain or by some monster that had gotten too close. There was also the fact that he himself needed gear – he got his first sword immediately after his first delivery, not willing to go out again without a weapon; and after that he had added protective gear and eventually Materia to his repertoire – and those occasionally needed replacing, or adding to.

He didn't mind the budgeting, though. He was used to it by now, to the give and take of finances, to squeezing every use out of every bit he got. It was still balancing on the edge of bankruptcy; it wasn't just his own gear and the Hardy's maintenance he had to look out for, but also the empty house in Nibelheim, which he still owned despite how rarely he stayed there. It would've been easier if he had just given the house up, sold it to someone who could better use it, but… it was his home. It was where his mother had died, where he had grown up. He couldn't just give it up. He wouldn't.

So he managed his money as keenly as he ever had, adding time management to it – a necessity due to the fact that some deliveries could take days – plus business managing. He planned routes that would let him make most deliveries at one time; he planned stops along the way; he made contingency plans for possible equipment failures; and when he had the time, he practiced swordsmanship from the saddle of the Hardy, to make sure that the next time he ran into this or that flying beast, it wouldn't be able to take him down.

It wasn't the best sort of business around – there was only so much he could do and so much he was willing to do; a lot of the deliveries people wanted to make were way above the weight limits he had set – the Hardy could only carry so much and he had no interest in becoming a trucker. It was also a pretty thankless job – the prices he set were high for a reason but the people didn't like to pay them much, and most times tried to wheedle their way out of the high costs. Especially so since he was never what they expected, and who wanted to do business with a kid?

But he kept at it. If anyone had cared to ask – and no one did after his mother's death – he couldn't have said that he loved this life. It was too desperate, too hard, too… flimsy. Most days, everything seemed to depend on whether or not he could make this or that delivery on time – the house, the Hardy, his next meal – and even though he liked riding the bike and travelling was as close as he had gotten to something he truly enjoyed, the stress was a constant, nagging companion.

But he liked some aspects of the business. He liked how the papers and notes, shipping forms and signature sheets filled his empty house and made it seem like it had a purpose. He liked the intricacy of the business side of the thing, how it all distracted him from the fact that he was alone and that others of his age still lived with their parents, were still going to school, and still had something like security. He liked that in the midst of it all, he could forget that he had grown so far apart from the village of his birth that he might as well have been a stranger.

Even his old co-workers from the garage no longer waved hello when he came back from another delivery with windswept hair and a new sword on his back, bought from RocketTown because the previous one hadn't had a good enough reach. None of the kids whom he had gone to school with paid much attention to him, though at least no one tried to bully him anymore. Wouldn't dare, with him nowadays walking around with an arsenal of blades and Materia and protective gear on him – all necessary for his job, and intimidating for the onlooker.

The only ones who talked to him at all in Nibelheim were his customers, and Tifa. And it was always with a note of disappointment. "Weren't you going to become a SOLDIER?" she asked him while he was unloading the Materia delivery from Corel to Nibelheim's general store. "You stayed because of your mom, right? But she's not…"

Cloud didn't answer. His mother wasn't there anymore and he could go to Midgar to have a try, sure. Except, he didn't much want to anymore. In the intervening years, he had learned what the word hero really meant and he was no hero, nor did he want to be one. He wasn't entirely sure what he wanted from life – what he wanted to be when he grew up like everyone said – but that… that wasn't it.

For all his tries and hard work, his mother had still died in pain, coughing and bleeding from her lungs, unable to breathe, unable to eat, unable to live. Tifa still held onto the hope that someone would save her from the boring normal life she was leading, that maybe Cloud would hold up his end of the stupid bargain they had made and bring her out of the redundancy of Nibelheim. He didn't. Unlike her, he had seen too much of life to believe that anybody ever saved anyone.

"Plans change," he answered and carried the box of Materia inside, to get the signature, planning to then ignore her and head home for some quick maintenance before continuing on his way to Rocket Town with the rest of the deliveries from Corel. That was his life and maybe it wasn't the best one a guy could have, maybe it wasn't his dream, maybe it wasn't his shining future… but it worked for him.

 

2.

 

It was around that time, that the news from Midgar reached the west – about the incident that had happened at the ShinRa Electric Power Company. Cloud didn't much care for news coming from outside the west one way or the other and mostly ignored them, but this caught even his attention in the midst of a delivery run. Things that happened to ShinRa tended to affect everybody, after all. So, he glanced at the news while everyone else whispered and talked.

Apparently, the President, his son and some of ShinRa's Department Heads had been killed in some accident or something – the news was pretty vague on what had actually happened, whether it had been an accident or some sort of assassination. It was enough to send Nibelheim and most of the other small towns of the west buzzing with rumours – and for days it was all anyone would talk about. Eventually, Cloud grew bored of it – so ShinRa was going to get a new President and a whole lot of new administrative staff, whatever. He had deliveries to make and a lot of ground to cover – and no matter what happened to ShinRa's ruling elite, nothing would really change. They'd still have reactors, there'd still be Mako everywhere and he would still have deliveries to make.

He figured he'd hear about whoever had become the new President soon enough, and decided to ignore it all. And when he didn't hear anyone saying much about any new President or even new Department Heads to replace the lost ones, he figured the changeover had just happened quietly, and went about his business as usual.

Then what little control ShinRa had over the west began to fall apart. It didn't really matter to him at first, not until ShinRa's couriers stopped running and suddenly his was pretty much the only delivery business still running in the west. When the calls doubled, tripled, and multiplied beyond his ability to manage them, he started to take notice. And when the little military presence on the roads trickled into nothingness and the monsters began to multiply explosively, he started to get worried.

When he glanced at the news more closely, just to see if ShinRa had any intention of doing anything about it, he only found that it would probably get worse. For some reason, even though it had been weeks now, ShinRa neither had a new President, nor did anyone seem to have any idea of who would be the new President. The few Department Heads still left had all vehemently declined the position – one of them had even resigned from the company entirely. And according to the news, ShinRa was reacting badly to the lack of proper command – hence the withdrawal of the road patrols, hence the disintegration of the courier system, hence a sudden withdrawal from Wutai as well, something that had shocked pretty much everyone on every continent.

A headless ShinRa was surprisingly inefficient, Cloud mused. He, much like everyone else, had always thought that ShinRa was like a machine, always working and always in motion, unstoppable by anything but the end of the world. But all it seemed to take was the cutting off of its head, and it fell apart. He couldn't really understand why no one had so much as volunteered to become the company's President, though. Surely everyone would've loved the position – as ShinRa's President you were essentially the overlord of the entire Planet. But no, apparently not.

"Maybe the job is tougher than people think," he mused. If running a one man business was as difficult as his was, then it wouldn't surprise him much if being the President of ShinRa was actually the most exhausting job on the planet. But a big company like ShinRa had departments and Department Heads just so that the President wouldn't have to run the whole thing, right? At least that was what he had thought.

Well, it wasn't his business, he thought, and turned away to do some sword maintenance. After that he had packages to take to their recipients, signatures to get, and then it was back to Corel with him. While running the whetstone across the blade's edge, he wondered if he ought to try and start hiring people – he could make about a quarter of the deliveries people needed made nowadays.

That was when the knock came. What he found at his doorstep wasn't another delivery request, though, nor a neighbour hoping that maybe he could take this letter to their family member free of charge, since they were neighbours and all. Instead it was a long haired man in a black suit, tilaka on his forehead and briefcase in his hand. "Mr. Cloud Strife?" the man asked.

"That's me," Cloud agreed cautiously. "What can I do for you, Mr…?"

The man smiled grimly. "My name is Tseng of the Turks. I have some business I would like to discuss with you. It concerns your father. May I come inside?"

"My father?" Cloud frowned before remembering – the Turks were from ShinRa, weren't they? They were ShinRa's spies and assassins. One of them at his door, intending to talk about business that had something to do with the father he had never met… that couldn't be good. "Sure," he said, opening the door wider. "Come on in."

Even though Tseng gave his house a not so covert glance, Cloud didn't bother to feel embarrassed. The house was more or less a large office to him, a place to stop at in the middle of deliveries and a place to stash all the paperwork, with a corner for him to sleep in, and nothing more. If he would've bothered to be embarrassed about anything, it would've been the state of his clothing, the sleeveless jacket he wore and the stitched up cargo pants which had seen entirely too many monster encounters. But he didn't.

If his business had taught him anything, it was to not get embarrassed. Delivery boys got a lot of jeering in certain places – it was apparently a common way to open porn, to have a delivery boy enter the scene.

"I don't have much to offer, in way of drinks," Cloud said while clearing some of the clutter from his kitchen table – office table – so that Tseng could sit.

"I am here only on business, Mr. Strife, not pleasantries," Tseng answered, setting his briefcase on the table and opening it. From it he took out a sheet of paper and handed it over to him.

A birth certificate – Cloud's own.

Cloud had never been all that curious about his father. The man had been a nonentity his whole life and for all the troubles he and his mother had, he had been happy until her death, happy and somewhat comfortable – they hadn't needed a man around the house. He had known that his father had been wealthy – the Hardy Daytona had been a courting gift from the man, after all – and he had known that part of his family's shame was the fact that his mother had been nothing but a conquest to the man, someone to catch, use and leave with a bastard child and nothing but shame – and the trinkets he had given – to her name. The villagers had certainly jeered enough about his mother's naivety and simplicity concerning the matter, back when she had been alive.

He wasn't surprised that his father had been the recently killed President ShinRa. If anything, it made sense. There was the ShinRa mansion, sitting just on the outskirts of Nibelheim, and from what he had heard they used to throw some wild parties there. And his mother had been a handsome woman even when the tumours and medicine had turned her into skin and bones – she had been the beauty of the town in her youth. Easily a worthy conquest to a wealthy, successful man. The situation, the timing and of course the after effects all fit. And the jeering too – Nibelheim wasn't that backwater, and Cloud wasn't the only bastard there. He was the most hated one, though, and this made it clear why. Hated by association – ShinRa had never been that popular in Nibelheim.

"You don't seem surprised. Were you aware of your father's identity?" Tseng asked, coolly curious.

"Not really, but it's not that big of a shock," Cloud answered.

What he was surprised about was what Tseng told him afterwards, delicately circling around the subject for a while before getting to the point and handing him the contract. Surprised and suspicious as hell.

"I am sure you are aware of the situation at ShinRa?" the Turk asked.

"Heard of it, yeah."

"Due to the recent incident at ShinRa, we have been hard pressed to find a suitable candidate to take over the company," Tseng said calmly, like he was talking about any old business rather than the one that ran the world. "None of the surviving Department Heads feel equipped to do the task, and there is also the fact that ShinRa is, at heart, a family company. It is believed that the people would feel most secure having a blood relation of the former President at the helm."

Cloud narrowed his eyes at the words before turning to read the contract. The man couldn't be saying what he thought he was saying. Could he? It seemed just too ridiculous, so he was trying to find the flaw that would mark the whole thing as a fake, as a joke. After all, it wasn't like anyone would ask a country boy like him to run a company like that, no way in a million years. Maybe someone in town had hired Tseng to play this elaborate ruse, somehow?

Either that or Tseng was a con-artist, trying to get what little gil he had in the Strife Delivery Service's bank accounts. Except Cloud doubted very much that any proper con-artist would resort to stuff like this, it was just too fantastical to work on anyone but complete simpletons. He could buy being ShinRa's bastard, easily enough. This, though, not so much. Him being ShinRa’s bastard probably wasn't true either – even though the birth certificate certainly seemed real, people could make very convincing fakes given the incentive.

"Surely the President had other bastards," he answered finally, lowering the contract. It didn't have any glaring flaws he could see. It had some conditions he didn't much care for, but they sounded pretty much like what you'd expect from a company like the ShinRa Electric Power Company. Pretty convincing. Not convincing enough.

"He… did, indeed," Tseng almost grimaced saying the words. "However, the first one we considered declined the offer most vehemently, and the others we have considered so far are quite unsuitable, as far as personality, skills, and expertise goes. After our first candidate, you, seeing that you have some experience in running a business… are the next viable option."

"You've looked into me?" Cloud asked, glancing up from the papers, now leaning more towards con-artist than a jokester.

"Due to the variety of risks such people pose, all of the President's progeny are watched over," Tseng answered, leaning back a bit in the chair he was sitting on, across Cloud's kitchen table. "As I said, ShinRa is a family company."

Cloud shook his head at that, a bit amused. "Well, I don't buy it," he answered, standing up. "It's very well done, all of it, but stuff like this just doesn't happen in real life. I don't know who set you up to this or why they would bother, but…"

"This is not a ruse, Mr. Strife," Tseng answered calmly. "Or a joke. And I can prove it to you, if you let me."

"Sure, make my day," the blond man snorted – and then watched how Tseng made a quick call, not really believing the man could do it. Maybe he'd find another person in a neat black suit on his front steps, but that would probably be it, and not entirely convincing. What the guy and whoever was working with him thought they'd gain, he didn't even want to know. But at least Tseng didn't look too strong, so he could probably force the man out of the house, if not with his bare hands then with the blades of his many swords.

Then the windows of his house rattled as the noise of a landing helicopter made the whole village echo. With disbelief, Cloud inched to the window, to watch as a black helicopter with ShinRa's logo emblazoned to the side landed right in the middle of the village, piloted by not one but two guys in suits exactly like Tseng's.

"Convincing enough?" Tseng asked calmly.

"Getting there," Cloud answered, a little dry mouthed. He swallowed and turned to the man, frowning and considering what he had heard again. "So, to recap, you want to make me the President because I'm ShinRa’s next most skilled bastard?" he asked. "What's the catch?" he demanded to know. "Why hasn't anyone else taken the position – why didn't the first one you considered take it? Why haven't any of the Department Heads? There's got to be a reason."

"I'm afraid that is a company secret and I cannot answer before you take the position," Tseng answered, still cool as anything. "Company policy, I'm sure you understand."

"I'm not going to sign anything before I know," Cloud answered back, folding his arms.

Tseng considered him calmly for a moment before turning back to the papers scattered across the table, and starting to neatly pile them. "Then I'm afraid our business here is concluded."

"Fine," Cloud answered, not taking the bait. "Nice meeting you."

Tseng didn't hesitate at that, just put the papers back into the briefcase and stood up. Cloud considered him thoughtfully, only barely seeing the line of dissatisfaction between the man's brows. "ShinRa's been without a President for, what, three months now?" he asked thoughtfully. "And the company is falling apart because no one's taking the helm. They don't want to – no, I think they're too scared to. I'm guessing that what happened to the previous President, his son, and the Department Heads that died wasn't an accident. I'm guessing they were murdered and whoever takes the helm is probably likely to get similarly dealt with."

That made Tseng pause, frown, and turn to him. Cloud smiled faintly at the man's expression. "So now you're desperate to put anyone you can into the spot, so you come here, to get me, an ignorant bastard with a little business, maybe just good enough to work as the President for a little while, or maybe enough that he can seem to be running the company while someone else does it from the shadows, safe from the possible assassin who took out the previous head?"

Tseng smiled grimly at that. "I'm afraid that wouldn't work in this case," he answered, looking at him thoughtfully. He seemed to make a decision, as he placed the briefcase back on the table. "It was a coalition that killed the former President, his son, and the Heads of Science, Weapons Development, and Public Safety Maintenance Departments, as well as a number of ShinRa's top scientists. A coalition consisting mostly of First Class SOLDIERs. However, they have a spy, a telecommunications expert, on their side as well, who we believe is currently monitoring all of ShinRa's communications and most likely has most if not all of ShinRa's employees under his surveillance, including the Turks. If we try to plant a… puppet President, they would know immediately."

"If you know who killed the former President, why haven't you dealt with them?" Cloud asked, curious.

"There is no one who can," Tseng answered with a shrug. "They are the strongest warriors on this Planet, invincible in every sense of the word, and their spy's sheer capability makes covert assassinations impossible. They would know what we planned before we even started. And we do not wish to kill them in any case – currently SOLDIER is all that is keeping ShinRa together."

"And the Turks?" the blond asked thoughtfully.

"We are trying to keep the company functional. It is borderline impossible – there is no command structure left and those with a bit of power and any influence in the company are too terrified to use it, not wishing to seem like they are the ones controlling the company now," Tseng answered. "Only the SOLDIER section, which is only a part of the Public Safety Maintenance Department, runs as it ought to, because it is led by General Sephiroth and Commanders Hewley and Rhapsodos: all First Class SOLDIERs and all part of the coalition."

"And why haven't they taken over the company? Since they were the ones who killed the President, wasn't it their goal to take over the company?" Cloud asked, now a bit confused. They had killed the President and then… gone back to work, business as usual? How did that work?

Tseng sighed and sat back down. "Because they are SOLDIERs, not businessmen. It was never their intention to take over the company; they only eliminated the elements they considered… unseemly," he answered. "The fact is that President ShinRa and most of his Department Heads – the Science Department Head in particular – have done some questionable things over the years, and the SOLDIER section itself is one of those things, the First Class SOLDIERs in particular. When the Firsts found out about it… they decided to simply seek their retribution as well as stop it from happening again."

"By killing everyone accountable and leaving ShinRa headless and terrified of another purge, huh," Cloud murmured. "Did they make any demands?" he asked.

"Full disclosure to them at least, though they’d prefer full disclosure to everyone, they understand why it is not feasible," Tseng answered. "They also demand a complete overhaul of ShinRa's ethics. The experiments ShinRa did… are not approved."

"Just that?" Cloud asked and sat down, thinking about it. The murderous Firsts obviously weren't against ShinRa in general, otherwise they would've done more – and they weren't against the notion of ShinRa having a President, or they would've said something, demanded changes there too. So what they wanted was… just a bit of an overhaul. "And no one thinks they can meet the demands?" he asked.

Tseng smiled faintly, resting his elbows on the table and leaning forward a bit. "Are you considering it, Mr. Strife?"

"Just keep talking, let me wrap my head around this," Cloud answered with a frown. "No one really thought they could do it?"

"Either they didn't want to risk making a mistake and invoking the wrath of the Firsts or they had questionable things in their pasts already, that they figured the Firsts wouldn't approve of," the Turk answered. "If you know anything about ShinRa, you must understand why a clean morality is a tough order for anyone involved in the company."

"I guess that's true," the younger man answered and leaned back in his seat, thinking about it. Hell, he didn't want to join ShinRa, neither as a soldier nor a President or anything else. He just wanted to… be comfortable. And he was, running the delivery service and minding his own business. But, at the same time…

If ShinRa kept on unravelling, how comfortable would he be? Hell, how comfortable would anyone be? All ShinRa had done was withdraw their people from the west, and things were going to hell in a hand basket – the monsters were already almost unmanageable, and given time, they would only multiply beyond anyone's control. The lack of ShinRa's already mostly useless couriers was being felt in Nibelheim and, before long, it would probably choke the west's small settlements – soon, people would start getting hungry and angry. On top of that, ShinRa had withdrawn from Wutai, leaving that situation unsettled, which would only explode in their faces…

And what the hell. As much as he liked his life here… actually he didn't really like it that much. He couldn't call his life exactly full of joy and happiness. The only thing that kept him going was the fact that he had gotten too used to it to stop. Travelling was more enjoyable than sitting still but still mostly pointless besides earning gil. He had no family, no friends, no relationships whatsoever, and nothing that he really… nothing to really look forward to, in his life. He doubted very much he'd be happy in ShinRa, but… he'd be well distracted.

"I'm not going to sign that contract," Cloud said. "It's stupid and embarrassing and restricting and I am not signing my future progeny to the company."

"But…?" Tseng asked slowly.

"But I'll take the position," Cloud answered and shrugged, standing up. "If the Firsts want to kill me for it they can go ahead. My life isn't that great anyway."

 

3.

 

Tseng froze the Strife Delivery Service with a phone call, while Cloud packed his things and then watched how the Hardy Daytona was rigged for transport – it would be carried on the bottom of the helicopter and he did not want any damage to occur to it during transport. Thankfully, the other two Turks, Rude and Reno, seemed to be more than competent and did their work well – though Reno cracked jokes the whole time and made somewhat pointed comments to Rude. Not to Cloud, though, he couldn't help but notice. Despite his behaviour, appearance, and overall lack of seriousness, Reno didn't address him with anything but perfect respect, just like Rude. Just like Tseng.

"The Turks are a surprisingly polite lot," Cloud commented when Tseng came out of the house.

"You are our superior, President Strife. There is nothing else we can be," Tseng answered, having stepped into the position of subordinate the moment Cloud had said yes. "Now, if you might permit it, I would like to bring some things to your notice concerning the Nibelheim Reactor and the ShinRa mansion here, sir." He glanced around – the townsfolk had gathered to watch with wide, confused eyes. "In private, perhaps," he added.

Cloud smiled faintly, looking around as well. Those of his neighbours close enough to hear were staring at him with wide, disbelieving eyes and everyone was whispering. No one made a move to get any closer though, held back by the guns and other weapons the Turks were carrying as well as the helicopter's rather impressive looking machine guns. But they were certainly watching – and the incident would probably be enough to stir Nibelheim's rumour mill for years to come.

"Let's go to the mansion, we'll talk there," the new President of ShinRa answered, after catching a glimpse of Tifa and deciding that he'd rather avoid that discussion. "I've always wanted to have a look at the place anyway."

The mansion isn't much like he had expected – it's in pretty bad condition, full of dust and cobwebs and what looks like the droppings and corpses of half a dozen small monsters. While they're there, Tseng briefly explains the human experiments that were performed there, sidling into the creation of the first SOLDIER and of course, the SOLDIER Firsts. Sephiroth himself had apparently been born there, in the mansion, as a result of experiments with Mako and the genetic material of something discovered in the Northern Crater.

"Genetic material which is being held at the Nibelheim Reactor," Tseng added.

"I guess this knowledge was what made the Firsts decide on their coup?" Cloud asked thoughtfully while they wandered around the mansion.

"Yes. Commanders Rhapsodos and Hewley are also products of such experiments, although they were created in the village of Banora, not here, sir," Tseng answered. "I believe that most information about Sephiroth is kept here, however."

"Hm. Let's have a look at this basement, then," Cloud decided, and they did – Tseng finding the way down and Cloud following with a couple of his better swords at his back, ready to be pulled out in case something decided to attack. And something did – the basement was much richer in monsters than the mansion above, and not just monsters, but experiments as well. Tseng turned out to be a pretty good shot with his firearm, but Cloud was the one who took most of the beasts out, more used to close combat after his time on the road. He might not have been trained, but he had had good motivation to learn how to swing a sword just right.

"Perhaps some private swordsmanship lessons once we reach Midgar, sir?" Tseng offered while Cloud cleaned the blade of his shorter sword.

"Why not," Cloud answered, and they spent an hour or so examining the laboratory and the many, many books and notes strewn around the place. They painted not just one gruesome picture, but several dozens of them – with some hundreds of small and big experiments thrown in the middle to spice things up even further. Cloud felt a bit sick after just a few of them – and it certainly didn't help that his mother had died because of Mako tumours. It was no wonder that Sephiroth and the coalition had decided to kill the President and the others, if what he read on the files was anything close to the truth.

Most of the experiments had been huge failures, no surprises there. Cloud wished he could've been surprised by how cheap human life seemed to be to the ShinRa scientists, but he wasn't, not really – the murderous Firsts had killed them for a reason after all. It did disgust him to read how many spent test subjects had been disposed of, though. Many, many people, with no indication of who they had been, why they had been a part of the experiments – had they ever even agreed to them? So many, in fact, that it was the mention of someone living that caught his attention.

"Tseng, take a look at this," the new President of ShinRa said, holding out a note he had found, concerning an experiment on a subject called V. "According to this, there should be a guy in a coffin here, somewhere – alive."

"I will go and see, sir," the Turk director said with a nod and slipped away, leaving Cloud to look through the note about subject V, who had apparently gone through some transformation experiments before Professor Hojo – one of the dead Department Heads – had gotten bored with him.

"A subject lives, and this guy gets bored with him?" Cloud muttered. And meanwhile when a subject had died, Hojo had felt it necessary to repeat the experiment some four times just to make sure it was always fatal. "I think I'm starting to like the murderous Firsts more and more," Cloud murmured, dropping the paper onto the table and going to see if he could find anything else useful around the place.

He was through a report about the thing in the Nibelheim Reactor when Tseng returned with subject V – who turned out to be a long haired man in a red cape, with a golden claw in place of his left hand, and boots that could've been used as murder weapons. He was pale, red-eyed and his dark hair looked like no one had gotten anywhere near it with a brush in twenty years – which was pretty much what had happened, according to the reports. The guy was surprisingly spry and mobile for someone who had been in a coffin for that long, though.

"You are the new President of ShinRa?" the man asked expressionlessly, his voice low and gravelly with disuse.

"It seems like it," Cloud answered, closing the report and considering the man, wondering what to do, what could be done. Should he feel sorry, apologise, what? The guy wasn't as pitiful as he had expected, not really – if anything, he seemed dangerous despite his long sleep. "What is your name?" he asked in the end, figuring he should start with the basics.

"…Vincent Valentine," the subject answered and Tseng at his side cleared his throat.

"He was part of the Turks some twenty five years ago. And judging by what he said, he objected to project S – the project that made General Sephiroth," the Turk director said, with a look on his face that almost hid how furious he was. "Professor Hojo then shot him, and by the looks of it, proceeded to experiment on him."

"Yeah," Cloud answered, frowning. Looked like he was going to come face to face with ShinRa's nasty past faster than he thought. What to do about it, though? "Well, Mr. Valentine. I'm sorry for what's happened to you," he said cautiously. "Judging by what I've seen from the report of your… experimentation, your current condition is stable and you aren't in danger because of it. I would like to extend an offer to undo what's been done, but it's not a promise I’ll make not knowing if it can be undone," he said and then shrugged. "You are free to go if you choose, or you are free to stay if that is Director Tseng's choice."

Valentine frowned and glanced at Tseng. "I am the current head of the Turks," Tseng explained.

"And… you would let me just walk away, knowing what's been done here?" Valentine asked.

Cloud smiled faintly. "Yep," he answered. "Didn't Tseng tell you what's been happening at ShinRa?" he asked.

"There didn't seem to be enough time, Sir," the Turk answered calmly. "And besides, sir, it's classified."

"Well, I'm declassifying it. Let the world know, it's what the murderous Firsts want," Cloud answered with a wave of his hand, and looked around the office of the basement laboratory. "I kind of want to destroy the Jenova creature, but I'm guessing I shouldn't, considering all SOLDIERs have bits and pieces of it inside them, and destroying it now might mean we can't use it to cure the SOLDIERs later," he murmured. "Are there any good scientists left in ShinRa?"

"Not of this calibre, no, sir," Tseng answered, frowning. "Sir, does this mean… you are declassifying everything?" he asked, looking uneasy.

"Not everything. Just stuff concerning me," Cloud answered. "We'll see about the rest later, once I know what's what." He glanced at the confused looking Valentine and smiled grimly. "According to Tseng, there is an element in ShinRa that doesn't approve of human experimentation and secrecy and all that – the First Class SOLDIERs mostly. They're the ones who dealt away with most of the previous heads of ShinRa. I'm one of former President ShinRa’s bastards and Tseng roped me into being the new President because no one else wanted the job, seeing that it might get me killed like the previous President. So I figured that I'll do what the murderous Firsts want, and do the right thing by the people. So yeah. You're free to go if you want to."

"I… see," Valentine murmured, eyeing him keenly. "And you are thinking of destroying Jenova?"

"It just doesn't seem like something people should be using like this," Cloud answered. "Most of the experiments concerning it seem to have turned out pretty badly – barring Sephiroth and the other murderous Firsts."

"Sephiroth is part of this… element? The Murderous Firsts?" Vincent asked, narrowing his eyes.

"The President is referring to the First Class SOLDIERs and yes, Sephiroth is most likely the ringleader," Tseng agreed. "He is the current General of all of ShinRa’s military forces since Director Lazard Deusericus resigned from the company."

"And most likely the guy who will kill me if I don't work out as the President," Cloud agreed with a shrug. "It's one hell of an incentive to do good work, I'll grant that," he muttered with a snort.

"I see," Vincent said again, looking between him and Tseng. "And knowing what you do about me, knowing what I know, you would be willing to take me in to this… renewed ShinRa Company?"

Cloud glanced at Tseng, trusting in his judgement more than his own since it seemed that the man knew more about Valentine than he did. "Yes," Tseng said. "Although I do not have the full details of your career as a Turk, the final act of your career is a great defining factor, especially in this case. You opposed Professor Hojo on grounds of morality and ethics – and the… Murderous Firsts, as the President calls them, killed Professor Hojo precisely on the same grounds. Therefore, yes, I believe you would be suited for the company, as it is now."

Valentine narrowed his eyes slightly and turned to Cloud. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "Aside from appeasing the Murderous Firsts?"

Cloud shrugged. "Whatever feels right," he answered. He didn't really have an agenda and was mostly winging the whole thing now and would probably continue to do the same later. "I think I'll be handling the previous President's mistakes first and trying to keep the company from falling apart. If I can do that, the Firsts don't kill me, and ShinRa is still functional afterwards, I'll figure the rest then."

The former Turk considered that and then nodded. "This I would like to see," he said. "I would like to formally request a reassignment to the Turks."

"Granted," Cloud answered with a wry grin.

The three of them left the mansion behind soon after, with Tseng hurriedly writing down Cloud's orders to have all the Material from the mansion transported to Midgar for further study. "Also, send a request to the Murderous Firsts to put the reactor here under guard – not by SOLDIER, though. If what I read about the Reunion thing is real, I don't want anyone with even a hint of Jenova in them near that place before I figure out what to do with it," Cloud added while peering ahead. It seemed that Reno and Rude had gotten tired of waiting in the village – the helicopter was now sitting on the street in front of the mansion, rather than in the village.

"Yes sir," Tseng answered, not so much as looking up from his phone. "Also, sir, it seems that Jenova has been listed as Sephiroth's mother on his birth certificate. It might cause some complications if Sephiroth believes it to be the truth."

"It isn't," Vincent, who hovered behind Cloud's shoulder like a particularly dark shadow, said. "His mother was Doctor Lucrecia Crescent, one of the scientists who worked on the project."

"You have any proof of that?" Tseng asked sharply.

"No, but unless Hojo has tampered with the registry, her genetic information should be on the Company database – a maternity test would be enough to verify it," the gunman answered quietly.

"Have someone do it and once you have the proof, let our murderous General know. Let's not make any mistakes about that," Cloud said to Tseng and walked closer to the helicopter as Rude jumped out of the helicopter to open the door.

"All done here, sir?" the dark skinned Turk asked, yelling over the roar of the engines and the rotors. "Do you wish to see the Reactor?"

"Not really. How is my bike?" Cloud asked.

"Tucked safely, sir. Please watch your head sir, the door has a low frame."

They entered the helicopter, and Tseng showed Cloud where to stash his swords and how to buckle in before handing him a pair of headphones to use for the noise. "If you would like, sir, I would suggest we head straight for Corel to refuel and from there to Costa del Sol. I can have a plane waiting for us, which will take us directly to Midgar," the Turk Director said through the connection of the headphones. "Unless you have any objections."

"Not for now, no," Cloud answered, speaking into the microphone attached to his headphones. "In the meanwhile, you can tell me more about the state ShinRa is in. It lost at least three Department Heads. How many are left?"

"Two. Reeve Tuesti is the head of Urban Development, who had no part in the experiments whatsoever, which is why I believe he was left alive; and the head of Space Exploration Development, Palmer, whom we believe was considered too incompetent to be of any threat," Tseng answered. "The Science Department lost more than the other departments, as several scientists were killed along with Hojo – it has been in a complete standstill since, and the only function it has been performing is the standard Mako injections to SOLDIERs, plus some Materia fusion. The Weapons Development Department has been concentrating on the manufacture of standardized weapons and all its incomplete projects have been put on hold until a new head can be found. And when it comes to the Public Safety Maintenance Department, sir, I have covertly taken some of the head's duties and seen that the department doesn't fall apart, and of course General Sephiroth is looking after the military for the most part… but we are sorely missing a proper Department Head as well."

"Okay," Cloud muttered, trying to engrave it all in his mind and make sense of it. Thank the Planet the delivery service had done some good to his memory and he could actually keep up with most of the data Tseng was dumping on him. He had thought ShinRa had more departments than that, though, but it seemed that the loss of three Department Heads was a pretty serious thing. Three out of five. And no one aside from Sephiroth had dared to step into the places of the lost directors?

"Looks like you have your work cut out for you, sir," Vincent commented from beside him.

"Yeah," Cloud answered and straightened his back. So the whole thing would be a bit trickier than he had thought it would be. He could work with that – or get killed trying, whichever came first. Now that he had started, though, he wasn't about to give in. "Okay, run all that by me again, but in full detail. Let's start with the Science Department, what's its function, what are its duties – and what has it been doing that got so many from it killed."

"Yes, sir," Tseng answered, turning to his phone and no doubt pulling up some digital documents as Cloud's lessons on the company he now was supposed to run started.

 

4.

 

Cloud had too much information crammed in his head in the space of the eight hours that took to get them from Nibelheim to Corel and from there to Costa del Sol. He felt exhausted and stupid, knowing now how much over his head he really was, and regretting ever agreeing to Tseng's rather ridiculous proposal. When they boarded the plane in the Costa del Sol airport, with the staff all giving Cloud and Vincent wide eyes while Tseng followed closely behind, phone still at hand, he was half asleep and dreaming of a simpler life.

"We'll continue at Midgar," he said after buckling into his – very fine, very comfortable, and very big – seat in the plane. "Any more and my head will burst. I'm going to have a nap, if I can."

"As you will, sir. Do you want the cabin lights lowered?" Tseng asked, while Vincent silently took the seat directly behind Cloud.

"It's fine," Cloud answered, used to sleeping in much weirder and harsher conditions. Sighing, he relaxed and closed his eyes, turning in his mind the facts he now knew about the company.

Planet but there was a lot to do. When people had said that ShinRa seemed to be falling apart, they didn't know the half of it – as it was, the company was held together by duct tape and fear right now. If it wasn't for the Murderous Firsts, pretty much every single person higher than assistant would have ran off – certainly all of them seemed to have rendered their resignation after the unfortunate resignation of Director Deusericus. Most of the people who were supposed to be in charge of this or that section were either not doing their jobs anymore, or they were trying to do each other's jobs in order to compensate for those who didn't, and thus were wearing themselves too thin.

Worst of all, the military was in shambles. The SOLDIER program was doing more or less fine thanks to the fact that the Murderous Firsts were running it, but the infantry? Not so much. The loss of their Department Head, Heidegger, had affected ShinRa's Private Security Force – the infantry – badly. Apparently, Heidegger had had a lot of projects no one but he knew anything about, and a lot of staff was send out on those projects. When Heidegger had died… well, most of the army had no idea what they were doing anymore, a lot of them had just gotten themselves killed having no clue what their missions were, thus the general recall command that had left the roads of the west unmanaged. What little damage control Tseng had been able to do from inside the Turks – which was only one part of the Public Safety Maintenance Department, which looked over the military, the Turks, and the SOLDIERs – was just barely enough to keep things running.

The Science Department was of course held together by nothing but luck, at this point. It had lost some fifty percent of its staff and what remained were low level doctors and assistants. Enough to keep the Mako injections and simpler Materia fusions going, but leaving no one with any idea of what to do with the variety of projects professors like Hojo and Hollander had left behind – and it was a lot of projects, most of them potentially very dangerous.

The Weapons Department wasn't so badly off, because it was still doing its job for the most part, it just wasn't currently inventing anything. Which was fine, because according to Tseng the things that Weapons Development pushed out tended to be only sixty percent complete, forty percent faulty, and a lot of SOLDIER missions consisted of damage control due to this or that malfunction with this or that robot.

The Space Exploration Department wasn't even worthy of mentioning – the only good thing it had managed was the manufacture of helicopters, planes, and a variety of other flying crafts, but even most of those projects had been taken over by the Weapons Development long ago, leaving only Cid Highwind's rocket project under the Space Exploration's management, and the project itself worked better with as little interference from the department as possible. As it was, the Department Head Palmer seemed to have nothing better to do currently than whimper and avoid the Murderous Firsts as much as possible – and he, like Deusericus, had tried to resign several times.

Of all the departments, Urban Development seemed the best off – mainly because it wasn't doing anything and hadn't been doing anything for a while now. According to Tseng, most of the Urban Development funds had been channelled to the other three big departments – weapons, science, and military – due to the fact that Midgar had been completed. Reeve Tuesti had kept most of his staff during the budget cuts and kept things working business as usual after the purge by the Murderous Firsts. It didn't seem that Tuesti was taking any advantage of the situation, though, but it was probably because no one dared to touch anything with the word budget in it currently, due to the fear of seeming like they were channelling the money and with it the control to themselves.

A big whopping mess. Add to that the hundreds of failed missions, the mess in Wutai, the unguarded roads and lots of robots going haywire because Weapons Development wasn't doing any proper maintenance, and you had ShinRa Company as it was inherited by Cloud Strife.

Unable to sleep with the hum of the plane's engines, as quiet as it was in the very well made cabin, Cloud started listing things in his head. He was already dividing the whole debacle of ShinRa into pieces he could easily manage – and pretty much like with Strife Delivery, it was a matter of management. Granted, he didn't know the state of the finances of ShinRa and there were no deliveries to be made for now, but it was still the same in principle – first things first on the long route of a lot of things to do.

First thing in this one was a meeting with the Murderous Firsts; that, he needed to do before he could do anything else. The Murderous Firsts wanted full disclosure to them, and Cloud would arrange that. Depending on how that went, Cloud would have a look at the state of those unknown finances – something which was only available in full detail for the President, it seemed. Depending on how those looked, he would have to tackle the departments. Science first because it was the biggest problem – he needed to put someone in as a temporary head and start cleaning out all the messes while ensuring that it would keep functioning as usual…

"Tseng?" he asked without opening his eyes. "I do have a private office, right?"

He heard a quiet chuckle. "No, sir. You have a private floor, consisting of three apartments all equipped with private offices, three meeting rooms, plus a general audience hall."

"Oh. Good to know."

The flight from Costa del Sol to Midgar was shorter than the one from Nibelheim to Corel, mostly because the plane was a lot faster than the helicopter. By the time the plane touched down in Midgar airport, Cloud's headache was on its way to a migraine – despite the fact that he had never had that particular ailment before – and according to Tseng, the initial meeting with the Murderous Firsts would happen in half an hour.

"Oh goodie. Let's go then," Cloud said, thinking that he'd be driven to headquarters. But no. Instead, there were two other Turks waiting for him and his small party, with yet another helicopter, to fly him directly over the city to his destination.

"I thought you might appreciate an aerial view of the city," Tseng said as they climbed into the helicopter, Vincent shadowing Cloud silently.

"I guess it would be interesting," the new President answered – and it was more than interesting. He had always known Midgar was big, especially by the standards of a country town nobody like him. Midgar was bigger though, much bigger. Divided into sections with the ShinRa HQ in the middle, it looked like a dark, technological pizza, with countless amounts of buildings filling every section and HQ itself standing the highest smack in the middle of things. And of course, each sector was crowned at the edge by its very own Mako Reactor, which added their eerie green glow to the buildings.

"How many people live in Midgar?" Cloud asked, glancing at Tseng while Vincent beside him still took in the vast city below.

"Close to five million, sir."

That was a lot more than he had expected. Hell, it was about as many as there were in the whole west continent in total. "Ah. And how many of those work for ShinRa?"

"About two hundred thousand, sir."

Cloud narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and turned back to the window. Four percent in total worked for ShinRa in Midgar. Who did the rest work for? Did they work at all? Of course there had to be other companies aside from ShinRa in Midgar – it wasn't like ShinRa did things like dry cleaning and car washing or such, so there were other businesses there. But how many? And what was ShinRa's relation to them? Considering that pretty much all of Midgar was owned by ShinRa – ShinRa had built it after all… Well, it was something else to look into.

Tseng cleared his throat. "Sir, it's time we head to HQ, or you will be late for your meeting with General Sephiroth and Commanders Hewley and Rhapsodos."

Cloud nodded and the helicopter veered to the left and towards the centre of the technological pizza below him. As they approached the central building, he began to see just how big it was. He had heard, of course – seventy floors in total in the main building – but seeing it was a whole different thing. No wonder Midgar was called ShinRa's crown jewel.

They landed on top of the building, on one of several helipads there, and while the Turks piloting turned off the engines, Tseng ushered Cloud and Vincent out. Collecting his swords absently and slipping them back to their straps on his back, Cloud wondered idly how many helicopters ShinRa had and how many departments had access to them.

"You'll make sure my bike gets taken care of?" he asked idly, after checking that his swords were secure.

"Yes, sir, I will have it delivered to ShinRa Headquarters’ private garage, where the previous President's vehicles are held," Tseng assured and motioned him to follow him away from the helipad and towards a pair of doors nearby. "Valentine," the Turk director said when the former experiment made a move to follow Cloud. "I'm sorry, but until we have time to properly arrange things, this sort of meeting isn't one you can attend. I'm sure you understand."

"Let him come," Cloud answered, waving a hand. He was getting used to having the man there, looming over him. "It might be an example of my better morals, if the Murderous Firsts see who I found in Nibelheim. And besides, full disclosure, remember?"

Tseng looked a little strained at that. "But sir –"

"It can't be that you're afraid for my health – I'm in more danger from the Firsts than him. What, you think he will reveal company secrets to someone?" Cloud asked and glanced at Valentine. "Do you have anyone in mind yet?"

"I would have to check to see if they're still alive first," Valentine answered with chilly dryness and Cloud smiled.

"See?" he said, turning back to Tseng.

"Fine, sir," the Turk said with a sigh. "Come this way, sir."

After a short elevator ride, Tseng took Cloud through a sort of office space into what he assumed was his floor. It opened into an enormous hall, an audience room probably, with only a large desk – his most likely – as its single piece of furniture. "Through that door you continue into the apartment section – it used to be that one of the apartments was the President’s, another his son's, and the third his wife's, but of course all of them are now empty and have been cleaned. You may of course choose whichever you wish. And from here, sir, you get to the meeting rooms, the lounge area, and the balcony."

Cloud nodded absently, walking to the large desk and around it to look at the computer sitting on the top. "So, this is mine. I'm guessing it's locked?" he asked and at that point Tseng handed him a paper full of passwords which opened this or that section of the ShinRa database. "Huh," Cloud muttered, reading through them. He'd need to change a lot of them, because he was not memorising eight digit pass codes mostly consisting of random numbers and letters.

"I would advise you not to show the list to anyone and destroy it as soon as you have the pass codes either memorised or changed to something you are more likely to remember."

"Alright," Cloud agreed, folding the list and tucking it into the pocket of his sleeveless jacket. "So," he said. "Where am I meeting the Murderous Firsts? Here?"

"I thought the sixty sixth floor meeting room would suit the best as a sort of neutral meeting ground," Tseng offered. "It is where the meetings between the President and the Department Heads took place, and is less likely to make you seem arrogant as demanding a meeting here might seem."

Cloud raised an eyebrow at that and then shrugged. He hadn't really thought that he could ever even manage to appear arrogant, considering that the Murderous Firsts had him at sword point, but whatever. "Let's go then."

It took a walk down the stairs and an elevator ride to reach the correct floor – which was completely empty of all staff by all appearances. As they walked, Cloud wondered if Tseng had emptied it or if the people there had heard of the meeting and hurriedly cleared out, not wanting to become collateral damage in another potential purge.

The meeting room was… a bit gaudy, with red carpets and walls that made it seem a bit more like a temple than a meeting room. The table was long, with a row of monitors running in the middle, lighting the table with its neon glow. While Cloud took the place in, with Vincent close behind him and Tseng already walking across the room to pull up a chair for him, he couldn't help but notice a particular stink in the place.

"I'm guessing this place has seen a lot of assholes," he muttered, waving a hand over his face and then nearly jumping as Valentine made an odd sort of huffing noise. Turning to face the man, the President raised an eyebrow and the red caped man quickly looked away.

"Sir, if you would?" Tseng said. And shaking his head, Cloud walked over to find that Tseng had started the monitor in front of the head seat – his seat – and it was now displaying the pictures of three men. "These are the Murderous Firsts as you call them," the man said, motioning Cloud to sit. "General Sephiroth, Commander Genesis Rhapsodos, and Commander Angeal Hewley. You can access their files here, if you wish."

"Nah, better to get into this without any assumptions. Had the blood test been done yet?" Cloud asked, considering the pictures. "Our Murderous General's, I mean."

"No, sir, not yet," Tseng answered with a cough. "There is a difficulty regarding the necessary genetic sample from the General – it can't be stored due to the Mako in his blood, and the material tends to disintegrate after a while. And I thought it was better not to order anyone to try and procure a new one, the General might take it… badly, considering the circumstances."

"The General might take what badly?" a new voice said, and Cloud more sensed than heard how Vincent reached for the gun Tseng had provided him with. Looking up, Cloud saw that the meeting room door had silently opened and the very men displayed on the screen in front of him were all entering the room – Genesis Rhapsodos at the head, Sephiroth in the middle, and Angeal Hewley taking up the rear.

"The General might take what badly?" Genesis demanded to know, already looking suspicious – and the two others didn't seem any more at ease, though Hewley did raise an eyebrow at Cloud, probably due to his age or clothing.

"Someone asking him for his blood," Cloud answered and stood up, looking at the Murderous Firsts. They were all armed, all very tall, all very intimidating – and all surprisingly pretty. Sure, he had known some of it – he did read the newspapers occasionally, and these people made the headlines often during the worst of the Wutai War. But it was one thing to know, and another to see it in person.

"And why would you need my blood?" Sephiroth asked in a low, threatening voice.

"For a maternity test," Cloud answered, while Tseng took a discreet step back, to stand beside Valentine just behind Cloud. "Because according to your birth certificate, Jenova is your mother, and I thought it would be… polite to have definite proof before we went about unravelling the reasons behind that lie," he said and folded his arms.” You guys are a lot more attractive than I expected," he had to say it just to get the thought out of his head. Meanwhile, the Firsts exchanged dark frowns. The blond shook his head. "Well, at least my possible death will be pretty. Would you like to sit down?"

"What do you mean, lie?" Sephiroth asked with narrowed eyes.

"What do people usually mean by the word?" Cloud asked and since none of the others were making any move to sit down he shrugged and did so himself. "Jenova isn't your mother. After Tseng roped me into this mess, we looked into the stuff in my home town's local ShinRa resort and found some stuff out – including some rather uncomfortable things about Jenova, and this guy, who was there during the time of your… conception," he added, motioning at Valentine. "He informed us that Jenova was not your mother – which, considering that the thing isn't even alive, is not hard to believe – but it was instead a professor named Lucrecia Crescent who gave birth to you."

The Murderous Firsts shared a look, Sephiroth scowling darkly and Hewley placing a hand on the General's shoulder. It was Rhapsodos who spoke. "And who are you?" he asked almost snidely.

"Cloud Strife, one of the late President ShinRa’s bastards," Cloud answered with a wry smile. "Would you like to sit down now? I've got a company to untangle and departments to try and fix and I'd rather find out now if you guys are going to let me live long enough to do it or not."

After another shared look, the Murderous Firsts walked over and took seats closest to him, Sephiroth at his right, Rhapsodos at his left with Hewley taking the seat beside Rhapsodos. "You don't look like much," Rhapsodos commented. "How old are you even?"

"Old enough. And you don't look like a bunch of murderous super soldiers," Cloud answered with a shrug and leaned back on his way too well cushioned seat. If he lived that long, he needed to get a new chair. "I don't think any of us are here for our looks," he added and considered the three. "So, you guys want full disclosure and a change of ShinRa's ethics according to Tseng. Anything else?"

"You're willing to comply with the first demand?" Hewley asked, leaning forward a bit.

"So long as it can be done in a way that doesn't get in the way of me actually doing my job. I figured your techno spy or whatever can hook me up with some bugs or something and keep me under surveillance so I won't have to worry about making any reports," Cloud said. "If that suits you. I mean, there's lot of work to be done. You guys messed up ShinRa real good and if you want this company to stand to see next year, I won't have the time to pander to you guys. I'll be way too busy."

"Um, sir, is that wise?" Tseng asked uneasily while the SOLDIERs exchanged glances.

"What? They want full disclosure so they get it. I'll disclose my bathroom breaks to them if that's what it takes," the new President said, shrugging. "Though admittedly that would be mortifying," he added and turned to the Firsts again. "So, will that work?"

"It might," Sephiroth said slowly, leaning back and folding his arms. "What is your intention with the Science Department?"

"I'll try and get it running again somehow, maybe make someone half competent be the temporary head until I can find someone better," Cloud answered. "Non-consensual human experiments are from here on out of the company’s agenda, though, and you have full authority to deal with anyone who does otherwise. I can't say more than that before I take a closer look at the records and the budget though, but I think I can promise that much."

"Do you know how easy it is for a scientist to decide what is and isn't a human?" Rhapsodos asked darkly. "None of us are listed as fully human in ShinRa's archives."

"Okay. Non-consensual experiments with anything that can be considered even half sentient are out of the agenda," Cloud corrected. "I'll figure the wording out so that no one can do anything to anyone, okay? I'll send you a copy or something; you can figure a wording that suits you. Anything else?"

The Firsts shared a look. "You," Hewley started. "You don't seem worried at all. Tseng did tell you what happened here?"

"More or less and no, I don't fear death," Cloud answered. Although he did hope that if it came to it, it would be quick and not like it had been with his mother… no, he didn't worry. "And considering the reason of why you killed the other guys, I'm relatively certain I can avoid their mistakes."

"Are you?" Rhapsodos asked, with a dark voice and narrowed eyes.

"Well, I have no plans of experimenting on foetuses or using human beings as fodder for somewhat questionable science experiments," the President shrugged. "And with the full disclosure to you on top of everything, I figure I'm off to a better start than the previous President."

"True," Hewley agreed.

"But we will be watching you," Sephiroth answered darkly while standing up. "One wrong move and it will be over for you, President Strife."

As the three of them left, Cloud leaned further back on his seat and watched their retreat thoughtfully. "That went better than I thought," he murmured. And the Murderous Firsts certainly weren't as murderous as he had thought. Murderous? Maybe. Loose cannons? No.

Tseng sighed behind him. "You are willingly giving away a lot of freedom, sir," he said.

"If it's my freedom or my life, I'll go with my life for now, thanks," Cloud said and spun the chair around to face him and Valentine. "Now, though, I want a good night's rest and then I want to get to work. What do I have to do to get status reports from all departments, budget reports from the whole company, and full details of all transactions from any and all company accounts for the past, say, half a year on my desk first thing in the morning?"

"All you have to do is ask, sir," Tseng answered, straightening his back.

"Then I'm asking," Cloud answered and stood up. "I'm going to pick an apartment and start working from there," he added. "You said they all had private offices. Do any of them have proper terminals?"

"Only the main suite, sir."

"Then that's where I'll live. Valentine, if you want to keep me company you're free to do so, but it'll probably be a bit boring from here on," Cloud said.

"So long as Tseng assigns you a proper security detail, I will refrain for now. I believe the Director wants to interrogate me," the red caped gunman said dryly, glancing at the younger Turk who looked like he would've liked to roll his eyes.

"Alright," the young President agreed. "Let's get to work then."

 

5.

 

The next day, it took Cloud two hours before he was through his repertoire of curses. An hour after that, he ordered a meeting with anyone who had anything to do with the assignment of ShinRa's budget. Half an hour after the meeting, he had fired and sued five people, the most notable being the Department Head Palmer for some scandalous embezzling. If any of the other Department Heads were still around, he would've done the same to them – and the fact that Reeve Tuesti hadn't been stealing from the company had him calling pretty much an immediate meeting with the man.

"Okay, I've been here for less than twenty four hours and I've seen enough already to be suspicious of the one man who isn't trying to steal from me," Cloud said as a way of opening the conversation with the head of Urban Development, who turned out to be a dark haired, kind eyed man with a neat suit and trim beard. "Who are you and what are you doing wrong?"

Tuesti looked taken aback by that. "Well, sir," he said slowly, looking like he wasn't sure how to take the question. "I am a bit of an idealist and I might have a bad habit of industrial spying and I might've stolen some of Scarlet's designs."

"Oh. Okay," Cloud said, relaxing a bit. Scarlet was the former, now deceased, head of Weapons Development, which meant… guns. "Why, though?"

"Because Scarlet had the irritating habit of coming up with good designs and then ruining them with function," Tuesti answered with a sigh. "I joined Urban Development originally because I like building things, repairing things, working with machinery to bring out a perfect balance of design and function, and seeing Scarlet use a perfectly good hover engine to create a robot that attacked with spinning rotor blades was just irksome."

"…spinning rotor blades?" Cloud asked slowly.

"Heli Gunner mark one," Tuesti answered, shaking his head. "Plus Sky Armour, Sky Gunner, Spitfire… the design was used on some half dozen different robots. Granted, they have guns, but it's the rotor blades they're designed to use."

Cloud blinked at that. "And I'm thinking that's not a good design?"

"That would be negative, sir," Tuesti agreed with a grimace.

The young President nodded. "And I'm also thinking this is not an isolated incident."

"Not at all, sir," Tuesti agreed again.

"Okay. That's something else to look into," Cloud sighed and wrote it down. "So, what precisely did you steal?"

A lot, but it turned out that Tuesti was only implementing a few of the ideas he had snatched from Scarlet – and they were implemented on a toy robot, called Cait Sith, which Reeve had had plans to use as a sort of supervising element in Midgar.

"Midgar is of course patrolled twenty-four/seven, but it's not the same as recorded surveillance with the freedom of reviewing security tapes later," the man said. "There is a lot of crime in Midgar and it is my job as the head of Urban Development to do something about it. I considered installing a network of video cameras, but I figured it would be too big of a task to get funding and it would have its flaws. A number of nondescript robots equipped with a state of the art A.I., all capable of individual movement and decision making…"

"And you think this Cait Sith toy would be a good way to go about it?" Cloud asked, considering. "Why a toy?"

"Who would ever be suspicious of a cat toy?" Tuesti asked with a shrug. "They are also small and agile enough to hide and escape from most situations. And of course not much has to be changed in the design to turn the robot into a simile of an actual cat, a much more nondescript version of the model. And with them being mobile, I would have a flexible network of surveillance and there wouldn't need to be as many of them as I would need fixed cameras"

Cloud smiled faintly at the use of the personal pronoun. "You're the telecommunications expert, aren't you?" he asked. "You spy on the company for the SOLDIER Firsts. You help them – you helped them get rid of the former heads."

Tuesti smiled, looking almost satisfied at Cloud's accusation. "Guilty as charged, sir."

"Okay, that makes more sense. Why let me know, though?" the President asked. "You could've covered yourself up, made yourself seem like a nobody, and I would've ignored you."

"I have nothing to fear from you and you have a lot to gain from my aid, sir – and thus, the company has a lot to gain. I've been monitoring Tseng since he met with you, and I listened to your conversations in the ShinRa mansion, plus the ride from Nibelheim to here," Tuesti admitted. "And I've been watching your progress through the database. I think… Tseng made the right call, not pursuing Director Deusericus and going after you instead. You will make a better President for ShinRa."

"Deusericus. The Director of SOLDIER, who resigned and ran away?" Cloud asked, frowning now.

"Your half-brother, sir," Tuesti agreed. "He was the first considered as the next President of ShinRa but he declined and, as you say, ran. I've later figured out that he got into the company with a similar goal in mind as the one the Firsts and I went about completing – he wanted revenge on the President for abandoning him and his mother. When the Firsts killed him… Well, Deusericus is a good director but he was never a soldier himself, Mako enhanced or otherwise."

"He got scared," Cloud murmured.

"That, and the goal he had been after had been completed, sir," Tuesti agreed with a shrug. "He might've made a decent President, but his familiarity with ShinRa would've been his downfall there, and I think he knew it – he was too adjusted to the company's ways to really change things. You, on the other hand… you ran a delivery service. So you're used to much more straightforward ways of thinking."

"Yeah, we delivery boys can be very simple minded like that," Cloud snorted and leaned back in his seat. Half-brother. Well he had known he had half siblings from his father’s side, but to know that one of them had been so close… "So, does this mean you are going to help me fix this company?" he asked.

Tuesti hesitated and then nodded. "ShinRa has the potential of being great, which the previous President never cared to consider and the now dead Department Heads would've only squandered. I would like to see that potential truly realized, but… it depends on your agenda," he paused for a moment, considering Cloud silently. "What do you plan to do, once ShinRa is stable again, sir?"

"I have no idea. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it," the young President answered and smiled. "You can rest assured, though –I'll be trying to do the right thing. Don't know if I can, if it's even possible. But I'll try."

"That's good enough for me," Tuesti nodded. "You have my support, sir. Also," he added, "if you don't mind, I would like you to have one of the Cait Siths as your constant companion. It would be the bug you spoke of with the Firsts."

Cloud laughed, shaking his head. "Fine. So long as it's not going to try to sleep on my keyboard or shed all over my paperwork, I don't mind."

Tuesti left soon after and Cait Sith arrived not much after that. It was a small thing, black and white and walking on two legs rather than all fours, so the fact that it wasn't a natural sort of animal was pretty obvious. It was very convincing though, the movements, the facial expressions, everything.

"Tuesti made you pretty well," Cloud commented to the cat, while lifting it to sit on the corner of his desk.

"Thank ye kindly, sir. He tried," Cait Sith grinned. "He told me to tell ye that if ye want me in silent mode, so I won't be bothering yeh work, ye just gotta scratch me on top of me head."

"You gonna be blathering unless I do?" Cloud asked amusedly.

"Nah, but I'll make random comments. Reeve likes to listen to people talk while he works," the cat admitted.

"Okay then," the young President answered. "I'll give you a head scratch if you get bothersome."

It took him five minutes of jumping at the cat's randomly interspersed, "Yikes, that's a lot of print," and, "Maybe ye need a magnifying glass," and, "Goodness gracious me!" before Cloud reached over and put the cat into silent mode. Cait Sith just grinned at him through its silence, looking like it had been expecting it, and then made itself comfortable just watching the teen work.

Vincent returned to his side near the afternoon, followed closely by Tseng. "Valentine has been fully approved – unless you have any objections, he will be your primary bodyguard from here on," Tseng said, while staring at the cat toy on Cloud's desk with a puzzled expression. "He is currently the strongest Turk in the company and unless SOLDIER feels like assigning a bodyguard to you, he is the best you can have."

"And I need a strong bodyguard?" Cloud asked, glancing between the two dark haired men.

"Yes," Valentine answered, having only raised a single eyebrow at Cait Sith before moving to stand behind Cloud once more.

"I will fully brief you on the potential hostile elements that might wish you harm, sir, if you wish it," Tseng added and apparently decided to ignore the toy for now.

"Maybe later, for now I'll just trust you to keep me alive. I'll look into it once I have more time," Cloud answered, giving all the paperwork a rueful look. So, so much worse than running a delivery service. "Was there something else you wanted, Tseng?"

"I have a few things to report, sir. First, the General acquiesced to the blood test and the result confirms Doctor Lucrecia Crescent as his biological mother," Tseng answered, placing a copy of the test results on Cloud's desk. "Secondly, I have taken the liberty of putting the company into a temporary media silence. The rumours of your arrival are already circulating, and the media are demanding answers, interviews, and press conferences. I thought it would be better to give you some time to settle in before we make your presence known planet wide."

"Appreciated," the young President answered with a frown. He hadn't even though about reporters or the fact that people might be interested – though of course they would be. It was ShinRa after all.

"Also, I have taken the liberty of putting together a list of people that might have the proper qualifications to take over the management of the Public Safety Maintenance Department, at least temporarily," he added, placing another piece of paper in front of him. "I thought that having at least one of the headless departments settled might ease your workload."

"Hmm," Cloud answered, looking through the list. "Commander Hewley?" he asked with surprise and Cait Sith perked up a bit from its slouch, turning to look at him. Cloud ignored the cat, staring at the list instead. The SOLDIER First was right at the head of the list. "Really?"

"He has the qualifications, possessing a keen strategic mind and understanding over the intricacies of the military and he is of all the three Firsts the best military Commander. He is universally looked up to by the entirety of ShinRa's military elements – everyone from SOLDIER to Infantry privates admires him," Tseng listed. "And he is well known for being tight-fisted and I believe he would manage the Public Safety Maintenance Department's budget admirably."

"I like that last bit," the young President admitted. Public Safety Maintenance's budget was a godforsaken mess of embezzling and wasted resources.

"I thought you would," Tseng agreed.

"But he is also a SOLDIER and General Sephiroth's subordinate," Cloud added, glancing towards the pile of papers concerning the department a bit uneasily. Sephiroth might be an admirable General. But to be the director of a department that needed a lot of specialised gear and Materia… not so much. Putting Hewley into command would be better, yes, but only if Hewley really went about things as tight-fistedly as Tseng assumed – because if Hewley fell under Sephiroth's rule even when he was supposed to be the man's superior… Cloud didn't want him in command of anything that had to do with gil.

Sephiroth, for all his might, couldn't budget his way out of a paper bag according to his reports.

"You don't think he could take a superior position to Sephiroth, sir?" Tseng asked.

"I don't know any of them that well. You said Sephiroth is the ringleader among them. Do you think Hewley could take command over Sephiroth as the head of the department?" Cloud asked calmly. "If he can, and if Sephiroth falls under his command at least as far as the damn budget goes, I am all for it."

"You've read his monthly reports," Tseng said with hint of a smile.

"Bad?" Vincent asked quietly from behind Cloud.

"It's like the guy doesn't know how money works," Cloud lamented with a sigh. "He's not losing any large sums of money, thank the Planet, but…" he shook his head, not even wanting to think about the reports. They just… didn't make much sense – most of the time it seemed like Sephiroth had just listed numbers randomly, only checking to see if the end figures matched up with the allotted budget and leaving everything else at random.

Frowning, he turned back to the list. "What about these other people?"

"All possess some good qualities, good leadership skills, and experience in business managing and so forth. Most are long time employees of the department as well – but Commander Hewley would be my first choice," Tseng admitted. "Except for the fact that he doesn't have experience in managing a large department such as Public Maintenance, he is the best qualified – and with assistance, I believe he will grow to the position well."

"If he wants it. The man might decline," Cloud mused and then stood up. "I think I'll go and ask him; I need a break and I want to see the rest of the building anyway – no, Tseng, I don't want you to come along with me. You're intimidating and scare everyone away and I want to talk to people. Vincent's more than enough."

"Intimidating?" Tseng asked, almost sounding indignant.

"Obvious Turk," Vincent commented, from the lofty position of someone who looked like a vampire who had escaped from a theatrical play.

Cloud grinned while reaching a hand for Cait Sith – who quickly clambered up to sit on his shoulder, still in silent mode. "I'll be fine. I'll call you if I get lost. Now the SOLDIER floor is the… fifty-ninth?"

"Forty-ninth, sir," Tseng sighed. "Do you even know if he's in the building?"

"Well, if he isn't I will have gained valuable experience and know to check first the next time, won't I?" Cloud grinned and headed out, with the silent Valentine close behind him.

Despite the fact that the company itself was a writhing mess of corruption, embezzlement, and near incompetence, the ShinRa Headquarters was a pretty well designed building, and easy enough to navigate – though it helped that Tseng had been quick to give Cloud the master key card and thus he could go anywhere in the building without anyone being able to stop him. Cloud made a mental note to ask Tuesti if the building was his handiwork, as he and Vincent stood in the elevator, waiting for it to reach the right floor.

"Didn't Tseng say that the SOLDIER floor was the forty-ninth?" Valentine commented quietly.

"I'm hungry so I am swinging by the cafeteria," Cloud answered and grinned, waving his PHS. "I do actually know what's where. I downloaded the building plans on this thing last night."

"Ah," the gunman answered and fell silent again.

The cafeteria was a part of the three lowest floors, collectively known as the commercial floors that included the entrance, the cafeteria, and the exhibition – which was sort of on the same floor as the entrance since the two lowest floors weren't fully separate. Above them on the third floor were the ShinRa shops where people could buy anything from food to medicine to Materia, weapons and vehicles – all ShinRa manufactured. Cloud ignored the shopping level for now and just made his way to the cafeteria, watching the people around him curiously.

Most of the people there seemed to be civilians, even though there were some infantrymen and a couple of SOLDIER Thirds judging by their uniforms, probably on break going by their relaxed appearances. All of them more or less ignored Cloud and Valentine, except to lift a silent eyebrow at the gunman's clothing.

"The atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed here," Cloud murmured, just looking. ShinRa was such a monolith of a company, with its own army, super soldiers, and fleet of military robotics and yet there were people laughing in the cafeteria. He hadn't really been expecting that.

"ShinRa does manage its outlook as well," Valentine commented quietly. "It does need customers."

"True," Cloud answered. Still, he had expected that it didn't need to be customer friendly, considering that it was the only supplier of energy on the entire planet – it wasn't like ShinRa had any competitors. But it seemed that maybe the previous President hadn't been a total idiot and while it seemed like the man had been doing everything in his power to turn ShinRa into as an inhumane company as possible, he still had paid some attention to his customer service personnel.

Something else to look into, Cloud mused, and then headed to the counter to get himself a sandwich. While Valentine hovered behind him, almost scaring a random little boy who had been trying to take a closer look at Cait Sith on Cloud's shoulder, the young President wondered what would've happened if these people had known who he was – what the poor woman behind the counter would have done, if she had realised it was her ultimate boss she was asking exact change from.

"Running low on small gil?" Cloud asked idly, while rummaging through the pockets of his riding trousers to see if he had any coins.

"It's been a busy morning," the woman answered with a smile and thanked him for the trouble. Imprinting her face and name plate into his mind, Cloud picked up his sandwich and headed back to the elevator, only to be stopped when she called back, "Sir, you aren't allowed to take food to anywhere but the cafeteria area – it is forbidden both in the exhibition room and the shopping area!"

"Oh?" Cloud answered, glancing back. "And the rest of the company?" he asked, flashing his key card while carefully covering the master part of it with his thumb.

"You are still supposed to eat in the cafeteria area," she answered apologetically.

"You going to pull rank?" Valentine murmured, sounding amused.

"Nah. It's just a sandwich. I suppose they don't want people dripping mayo all over the place and giving the cleaning staff more work," Cloud shrugged and leaned against the wall beside the elevator to eat his sandwich. As he did, he watched the people in the cafeteria, the civilians, the grunts, the SOLDIERs. Considering that they were sitting inside the building of a rather wobbly company, they looked happy. If only they knew of the mess things were in.

"I don't suppose this place was built back when you were working?" the young President asked, halfway through his simple lunch.

"No. ShinRa was based in Junon at the time," Valentine admitted. "This area was still called Middangar back then. ShinRa hadn't yet started building, though I think I might have heard some rumours about the plans..."

"Middangar," Cloud said, raising his eyebrows. He had been referring to the ShinRa HQ, but Midgar itself hadn't been built then? Well, it made sense, he supposed. Midgar had been finished only recently.

The gunman shrugged. "It was a popular town," he murmured. "An old town mostly surrounded by orchards and crop fields then, all the way to Kalm. The buildings were all stonework, beautifully made, mostly from the time before construction machinery…" he trailed away and was silent for a moment. "I was born there."

"I'm sorry," Cloud offered quietly. Midgar had been built a good fifty meters above ground, so it was built probably right over the old town. And judging by what he had heard about the slums, about how the above plate trash was just dumped there… there was probably very little of Middangar left. If anything.

"Don't be. Not your doing," Valentine said and Cloud finished his sandwich in thoughtful silence, wondering about the slums, about old Middangar. Yet something else to look into, once he had the time.

"Well, time to see the SOLDIER floor," he murmured after throwing the sandwich wrapping into the nearby trash bin and turning to the elevators.

He wasn't sure what he expected from the SOLDIER floor. Neatness, order, the same metallic design that the rest of the building had – to be instantly accosted by disgruntled SOLDIERs wasn't it. "Okay, who sent you this time? And just for your information, no matter what the assholes at Security say, we did not order any entertainment," one of them said with a tone of exasperation.

"How the hell do those guys keep getting the key cards to this level anyway?" another asked.

"Why guys?" another asked with folded arms and a disappointed air. "I didn't mind the girls so much."

"And what's with the cat toy?"

"Maybe it's part of the act or something…"

Cloud blinked at them and then glanced at Vincent. "Do we really look that out of place? Well, you do a bit, no offence meant, but me? What's wrong with me?"

The Turk cleared his throat. "You're wearing biker leathers," he pointed out.

Cloud blinked and glanced down. "True enough," he mused. He had just pulled on whatever he felt like that morning, and truth be told his leathers were the neatest set of clothing he had – the rest were full of stitching and patches. "Well, I'm not getting a suit," he murmured and turned to the SOLDIERs who were still talking about whatever entertainment Security had sent them before – Cloud would need to have a look at that, employment of strippers wasn't exactly on the company agenda.

Clearing his throat, Cloud looked around. "Could anyone tell me where I might find Commander Hewley?" he asked.

"They hired you to… Commander Hewley? The nerve of those guys!" someone snapped.

"Okay, seriously, you two, you can go," another said with a smile. "We'll handle this whole thing and I'm sure you'll get paid and everything, but we don't really need…"

"And besides you really don't want to either. The Commander can get real scary when he's ticked off."

Cloud frowned. "Tell me, is this sort of thing commonplace around here? One section of a department sending entertainment to another?" he asked thoughtfully.

"Bit of an inter-department rivalry," one of the SOLDIERs grinned. "I think they're getting back at us for the Wutai catering we sent them last week. They're pretty unimaginative so they keep sending us strippers and the like."

"And who exactly pays for these games and how much does Wutai catering cost?" Cloud asked, his voice taking on a chilly note.

"The one who accepts it, of course. So Security paid for the catering," the SOLDIER answered with a shrug. "What's it to you?"

Cloud smiled sweetly, with a muscle twitching below his eye. He certainly hoped they had paid the catering from their own pockets because if they hadn't… "Where can I find Commander Hewley?" he asked as calmly as he could manage and held up his key card – this time, with the master in full display, his ticket to every floor, every room, every office and in this case, to every high level officer.

"Where the hell did you get that –?" one of the SOLDIERs asked, making a move to grab the key from Cloud's fingers only to be faced by the barrel of Valentine's gun – which, despite the Turk's outfit, was very much convincingly real, and very threatening.

"Back off," Valentine commanded, gun held levelled just between the SOLDIER’s eyes while Cloud tucked the key card back into his pocket and into safety. The SOLDIERs looked taken aback, but only for a moment – then they seemed to decide to make a stand and were closing ranks, a few already squeezing their hands into fists and one looking like he might pull his sword.

"Threatening SOLDIERs already, sir?" a familiar voice spoke from behind the crowd, which separated instantly to reveal Commander Rhapsodos. "That didn't take long."

"Well, they're the ones stopping me from meeting with one of my employees. And that one there tried to take my key card. I'm sure you understand why Valentine disapproves," Cloud answered calmly. "Did you know that your SOLDIERs spend their time sending entertainment to the other sections of the Public Safety Maintenance Department, including high class catering, forcing them to pay for it?" he asked a bit irritably.

Rhapsodos blinked at that and then laughed. "Bit of an inter-department rivalry, nothing more," he answered. "What can we do for you, Mr. President?"

Ignoring the way the SOLDIERs around him all took a horrified step back, a few going pale and all going wide eyed, Cloud rested a hand on his waist. "I want to see Commander Hewley. I have a job for him."

"You do, do you?" the First Class in the red coat instantly narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

"Yes, I do," Cloud rolled his eyes. "He's free to decline. Now, is he here and will you take me to him or not? I don't have all day."

Rhapsodos just eyed him for a moment before glancing at the silent Cait Sith on Cloud's shoulder and nodding. "This way," he said while turning and pulling out his PHS, tapping a few keys and lifting the phone to his ear. "You might want to come to the briefing room. The President's here to see Angeal."

Rolling his eyes, Cloud followed him with Valentine – his gun safely hidden away again – close behind him. "Do I have an untrustworthy face or something?" he wondered.

"They are understandably suspicious of authority," Valentine commented, at which Cloud just sighed.

Commander Hewley was in the SOLDIER briefing room, with another SOLDIER – this one a Second Class – who stopped in the middle of what looked like a squat as Rhapsodos entered with Cloud and Valentine close behind him. "President Strife," Hewley said, standing up and almost sending the SOLDIER Second Class falling over with shock.

"He has a job for you. Sephiroth's on his way," Rhapsodos said, sitting down in front of the briefing room terminal with a dramatic whish of his coat hems. The red haired man sent Cloud another suspicious glare which the blond answered with a strained smile.

"A job?" Hewley asked, with a hint of suspicion coming to his face as well.

"We wait for Sephiroth," Rhapsodos said before Cloud could answer.

"You guys are going to be such headaches, you know," the young President sighed, and sat down as well, taking Cait Sith from his shoulder and setting the cat onto the table in front of him. Of course it was understandable, considering everything, but he really hoped they wouldn't be like this during his whole stay in the company – because if it turned out he was going to stay for longer than a few days, the constant suspicion from the SOLDIERs would probably drive him bonkers.

"Like you aren't," Rhapsodos answered.

"I'm here just to do a job," Cloud said with a roll of his eyes. "I don't really care enough about any of you guys to go out of my way to screw you over. I don't have the time for it anyway, or the inclination," he added.

"We'll see," Rhapsodos answered, while the poor spiky haired SOLDIER Second looked between Cloud, the Firsts, and Vincent with a puzzled look on his face.

Thankfully, Sephiroth wasn't slow in arriving and came to the briefing room with a dramatic stride, carrying a very long sword in his hand and looking like he was ready to use it. Giving the man a slightly uneasy look, Cloud wondered what the hell he had been doing to need a sword. Training maybe?

"What is it?" the General demanded, levelling Cloud with an eerie green glare.

Figuring he might as well get straight to the point. "I want to put Hewley in command of Public Safety Maintenance," Cloud answered. "As the Head of the Department."

That didn't seem to be what the Firsts had been expecting – and the Second's eyes widened rather dramatically.

"What?!" Rhapsodos snapped, standing up.

"Why?" Hewley asked at the same time, looking stunned.

"Because he's qualified and came well recommended, because I need someone to do that job, because that would be one department less that I would have to worry about for a while," Cloud listed with a sigh. "Because honestly it can't do more damage than having no Department Head is doing, pick your choice."

"You… honestly want to put Angeal in command of ShinRa Military?" Sephiroth asked, eyes narrowed, sword lowering.

"Why not Sephiroth?" Rhapsodos asked.

"Because the General's budget reports make me want to kill myself," Cloud answered flatly. "I've seen enough to know you're a good military Commander; it's what you're trained for, it's what you know. But Planet, people should not let you near money."

While Sephiroth blinked, looking like he didn't know what to think about that, Rhapsodos and Hewley shared a look, Rhapsodos actually cracking a small grin. Hewley shook his head, looking a bit bewildered. "A… Department Head. Me?" he asked. "Are you serious, sir?"

"Yes. Do you think you can do it?" Cloud asked.

"I don't know anything about managing a department!"

"You are a commander in a military, that's a good enough start, and the department still has some secretaries left that might be able to help you. I don't care if you do a half assed job, that's still better than no one doing anything," the young President answered. "So long as you don't take General Sephiroth's stand on money," he added and looked between the three Firsts. "So, can this be done, or do I have to choose someone less qualified and probably less liked by the ShinRa military?"

The Firsts shared a look, Sephiroth finally putting his long sword away. "We will talk about this," the General said. "You will have your answer tomorrow."

"Excellent. I'll be looking forward to it. And General, do me a favour and don't write a report this month. Just send me the end figures and I'll be fine with that," Cloud added, standing up and lifting Cait Sith back to his shoulder.

"Yes, sir," the silver haired SOLDIER answered with a disgruntled air, while Commander Rhapsodos snickered.

 

6.

 

Hewley did become the Department Head. Even though Cloud suspected that both Sephiroth and Rhapsodos ended up having a large hand in the management of the department, he didn't much mind. He happily left the untangling of Public Safety Maintenance's budget mess to Hewley and instead turned to solve the bigger mess of the Science Department, which also needed a head and a whole lot of new staff.

"I don't suppose you have any suggestions for a Department Head for that place?" Cloud asked Tseng, who was a constant visitor at the President's apartment, bringing him reports and suggestions about what might help here and there.

"Sorry, sir. I'm afraid the purge of the Firsts was very thorough. There is no one of Hojo's level left in the company," Tseng answered. "The closest would be Doctor Elanor Giweth but she is a Materia specialist and has already expressed her disinclination to take over the department."

Scowling, Cloud leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. It wouldn't be so bad, except the Science Department also covered ShinRa's infirmary and all the health care staff, and although the infirmary was functional, it wasn't… quite as efficient as it ought to be. There was no communication whatsoever between the experimental section and the health care section, which, considering how many times the SOLDIERs’ Mako injections went awry, was not a good thing.

"Cait Sith. Does Tuesti have any suggestions?" the young President asked after a while, turning to the cat that was lying on its side on top of his monitor.

"No sirreh," the cat toy answered. "But he can have a look-see if ye want. There might be someone ye could recruit."

"I'd appreciate it," Cloud nodded, turning back to Tseng who was frowning at the cat. "Okay, let's leave the Science Department aside for the moment. I still have the Weapons Development and now the Space Exploration to re-staff," he said, turning to those stacks of paper. "Honestly, though, I've been considering putting the two departments together."

"Sir?" Tseng asked.

"It’s been a long time since Weapons Development took over pretty much all of Space Exploration's aerial vehicle projects – which leaves the Space Exploration with only a couple of projects under its management, the main one being the project based in Rocket Town and that's not even a company project," the young President said, opening a few files. "Space Exploration is a withered sliver of a department. It barely hires any people and mostly works as a financer for projects outside the company. Weapons Development… develops weapons, granted, but it also handles most of ShinRa's technological manufacturing, everything from PHS to troop carriers."

"So, putting the two departments together would be more efficient," Tseng said.

"And I'd be renaming the department. Weapons Development has a rather nasty ring to it, especially considering that it's only one part of what the department does. How about Technological Research and Manufacture? Or something like that," Cloud said, trailing off thoughtfully. "The new department would also be in charge of sponsoring technological projects – such as the project of Cid Highwind – though I am considering making a new department for sponsorships. Research and manufacture of technology and sponsoring seems a bit too much for one Department Head to chew."

The Director of the Turks nodded slowly. "It does sound like a viable option, sir," he said. "But finding a Department Head will still be an issue."

"So let's lower the bar a bit. It seems to be the company standard that whoever runs a department also works for the department's mandate – let's ignore that this time," Cloud said. "And focus on finding a manager rather than an inventor and a manager. So, what I want is a person who can head the department efficiently, handles its budgets without too many mistakes and makes sure it runs smoothly – I don't need them to also head all the research projects." He considered it for a moment. "That will probably only work with the Technology department, though. The Science Department will demand a head with the right know-how."

"Yes, sir, my thoughts exactly," Tseng agreed. "Shall I arrange a meeting with Weapons Development and Space Exploration to start the merge of the departments?"

"Yes. And also get me a secretary," Cloud added thoughtfully, scowling at all the paperwork. "I have a feeling that I am going to start getting a lot of traffic now that we're finally making changes and I can't be answering my door all the time."

"Yes, sir."

He got his secretary, a middle aged woman by the name of Caslie who reminded him a bit of his old teacher back in Nibelheim, who used to bruise his fingers with a ruler – she had the exact same tight bun and pencil skirt and constant look of displeased irritation. She turned out to be a very efficient secretary, though – within an hour of her arrival, she had arranged herself a desk, had arranged Cloud's desk, and was going through the messages he had been getting without noticing. She took over the enormous official President's office and manned the enormous desk there, while Cloud kept working from the President's apartment, which worked just fine for him.

"I would like some assistants, sir," the woman informed him after a mere six hours. "A couple to handle the incoming reports from the departments, one to cover the media side of things, one to manage the database entries, and maybe one more to run messages between us and the offices below though that one isn't strictly necessary."

"If you want them, you will have to pick them for yourself," Cloud answered.

And she did – the next day found the President's office with new desks, new people, and a whole lot of new activity, as Caslie went about managing the influx of information coming from the company, arranging it by priority to be brought to Cloud's private office. It brought to light a lot more flaws in the company, more hang ups, more scheming and embezzling, and many, many things going wrong. But it also showed them in a manageable order. And after Cloud waved his hand at the mess, Caslie started delegating the problems to the still functioning aspects of the company. Robots going haywire were sent to Hewley, chemical spills to whoever was still working in the Science Department, and so on.

"I think you need to start considering a press conference, sir," Caslie added when Cloud had come out to the main office to watch his growing army of secretaries work. "The stations and newspapers are getting twitchy and apparently the rumours are getting wild."

"I guess I should. But what should I say?" Cloud wondered.

"I can write you a speech, sir," one of the secretaries peeped up nervously, trying to not look at Vincent who stood, as always, just behind Cloud – and who seemed to make most of the secretaries rather nervous. The woman swallowed, and continued. "I took a speech writing course in university. So if you just make a list of the things you want to cover and how you want to cover them, I can put something together."

"Hm. Give me a moment. I'll chat it over with Tseng and we'll see what we'll do," Cloud answered, and did just that. In the end, the speech was written – something short and succinct about how he was grieved about his father's unfortunate passing, yadda yadda yadda, how he would be doing all he could to bring the company to its former standards and so on, and how changes under a new management were inevitable and so forth.

"No press conferences for now," Tseng decided. "Too risky. Having the speech televised and broadcasted will work better."

"You will need a suit, Mr. President, and possibly some hair styling," Caslie added, making Cloud sigh heavily.

Though he forcibly rejected any attempts of having his hair slicked back, he did get a suit – Caslie ordered it especially to his measurements. And after he had been instructed on how to wear it properly and to not push his sleeves up for Planet's sake, they started setting up for the broadcast. It was decided that it would be filmed in Cloud's private office – to seem friendlier or something – which meant that it had to be tidied up, every place scrubbed clean and polished. Then, there was setting up the lighting just so, angling the camera just right, lots of fiddling with the curtains for some reason, before everything was pronounced ready.

It took seven takes. Cloud had never been much of a public speaker – or a speaker in general. He had never done as much talking as he did as ShinRa's President and speech making took it to whole new levels. At first, he messed up the lines, then he made weird faces, then the autocue messed up and so on. In the end, when they managed to get one take somewhat alright and Cloud only came out sounding slightly mechanical, it was decided that that would be it and they left it at that.

"I don't have to give that many speeches, right?" Cloud asked, quickly loosening his tie.

"Some, but I will see what I can do about keeping the number to an absolute minimum," Caslie promised while Vincent – who had for the duration of the session kept his distance – moved back to Cloud's side. "After this, you might be asked to give some interviews, but I will see what we can do about satisfying the public's curiosity without you needing to make an appearance."

"Thank you," Cloud answered. "Back to work then. I want the paperwork you carried out back on my desk, a.s.a.p."

"Yes, sir," Caslie said with amusement, and headed out while the televising crew started removing their gear.

"It could've gone worse," Tseng commented, lifting Cait Sith back on top of Cloud's computer screen.

"Could've gone better too," Cloud said. "So, what can I expect next?"

"Yourself on the cover of a variety of magazines, most likely, and lots of comments. But I would ignore those, sir."

Cloud did, although he had to lament the fact that the pictures taken from the broadcast couldn't exactly be called beautiful – he looked stiff, unnatural, and uncomfortable in all of them. Mostly though, he let the media storm pass him by and instead concentrated on the merge of the two departments and the seemingly hopeless search for proper Department Heads. His only relief was that at least Public Safety Maintenance and Urban Development were running smoothly, for now – and Hewley was making headway in untangling the messes of his department even faster than Cloud would've dared to hope for.

When the backlash of the broadcast finally reached him, the young man was asleep in the embarrassingly large bed in the President's suite – where the mattress had been replaced with all the bedding since the last President, thank you maintenance staff. He woke up to the oddest sensation of being covered by heavy shadows and the ringing of gunshots as Valentine took out the first attackers. As Cloud jolted awake, his eyes wide and heart pounding, all he could see was red flickering and flowing over him as the Turk covered him with what seemed like liquid colour, vivid and over every inch of him.

"Stay down," Valentine said, low. "I'll handle this."

And he did. Before Cloud could even comprehend that he was being attacked, the attack was over and the attackers were all down. For a while longer Valentine flowed over him, a wall of shifting and churning red, before shifting back into a more recognizable shape, revealing a pile of bodies at the door of Cloud's bedroom.

"Good grief," Cait Sith murmured faintly from the bedside table.

"What was that?" Cloud asked, staring at the doorway.

"I don't know. I heard them break the window in the living room," the Turk answered, reloading his three-barrelled gun grimly and snapping the barrels back into place again. "I suggest you call Tseng."

Frowning, Cloud did just that, briskly informing the Director of the attack before jumping up and walking to the bodies, with Valentine hovering almost all over him, his cape still shifting and flowing like it was following a set of physical laws completely unique to itself. Cloud ignored it and concentrated on the attackers.

 They were all men, all wearing the same sort of clothing – brown uniforms with shoulder guards and helmets. All of them were also carrying rifles. "Hm. My first assassination attempt, I guess," the young President mused, turning one of the bodies over. He had seen dead things before, killed a lot of things himself – even though all of those had been monsters, not people – so he wasn't too queasy about it. Valentine was a clean shot, too. All through the forehead, efficient and almost clean unless you count the blood spilling from the back of their helmets.

He found a card in the man's front chest pocket – a red card with a white skull and crossbones on it, and the letter A between the skull’s eyes. "Hm," he hummed, wondering what to make of it. "I wonder what I did to piss these guys off," he murmured.

"I suspect it's nothing you did, but what ShinRa did," Valentine answered, leaning forward to look at the card. "AVALANCHE. The Director told me about them – currently, they and possible Wutai insurgents are the greatest threats to you."

Turning to the man, Cloud raised an eyebrow. "AVALANCHE. Care to share?"

Vincent did, though he didn't know more than the basics. AVALANCHE was a terrorist organisation, anti-ShinRa and most importantly of all, anti-Mako. "According to Tseng, they believe that the amount of Mako the Planet has is finite and that when all of it is sucked up, the Planet will die," Vincent finished.

"Hm," Cloud hummed with a frown, turning the blood red card in his hand before turning to his closet. He had some research to do and he didn't want to do it in his boxers. "I think I would like that briefing about the possible enemies my company has," he said, while rummaging through the closet for something to wear, ending up with his old, stitched up cargo pants and a sleeveless turtleneck vest. "And this idea about Mako being finite…"

Of course he had heard the rumours of Mako energy being bad for the Planet – hell, they weren't even rumours. All anyone had to do was look outside Midgar and see how the area around the place had died. Orchards and crop fields, Valentine had said. Well, there wouldn't be any of those anywhere near the city anytime soon, if ever, and it didn't take a genius to figure out why. Midgar did have eight Mako reactors, after all. But Mako being finite and the Planet dying without it? That was new.

He was just pulling on his boots when Tseng arrived with a whole slew of Turks, looking disgruntled and serious, most of the Turks looking a bit dishevelled – apparently most of them, like him, had been in bed. "Are you alright, sir?" Tseng asked while kneeling by one of the bodies to examine it, the other Turks quickly beginning to drag the bodies away from the pile and into a row to be more easily inspected.

"Not a scratch. Valentine covered me," Cloud answered, and considered the words he had just spoken. The man had covered him. Rather literally. "How did you do that anyway?" he asked, turning to the red caped man.

"I am a shape shifter," the gunman said calmly.

"Hm," Cloud nodded. He hadn't looked that deeply into what had been done to the man or what he could do, not after leaving Nibelheim – those files from the mansion were probably stacked up in boxes somewhere, gathering dust. He would've liked to have a closer look, but there was so much to do before he could have that much free time on his hands. "Well, it was pretty cool," he said and stood up.

"Sir, you have my apologies. I don't know how they got through," Tseng said, scowling at the bodies. "You may rest assured that I will launch a full investigation into this."

"You do what you feel is necessary," Cloud answered, reaching his hand to Cait Sith who obediently scurried up to his shoulder. "Before that, though, I want everything you know about this AVALANCHE, especially their motivations, and I want it now."

"Sir?" the Director of the Investigation Sector of the General Affairs Department asked, frowning slightly.

"If there is a terrorist group out there that thinks my company is bad enough that they have to come and kill me in the middle of the night, I want to know why," Cloud answered with a shrug. "So get the information on my terminal, will you?"

"Yes sir," Tseng answered with a slightly worried look. And as Cloud headed out, walking past the bodies to his office with Valentine close behind him, the man was already on his phone, probably ordering someone in Archives to have the information condensed and transferred to Cloud's terminal for easy access.

"You don't seem worried," Valentine commented, as Cloud sank into the seat behind his desk, setting Cait Sith on the table. "For a man who just experienced his first assassination attempt," the Turk added.

"I'm not. You handled it," Cloud answered. And if he let himself think about it too closely, he'd start overthinking it. There were dead bodies in his bedroom, sure, and they were people, and they are dead, killed by his bodyguard, but… no, he wouldn't think about it. They had attacked him, and Valentine had killed them to protect him, and that was it. They had started it and he had a company to run – he didn't have the time to feel sorry. What he had was a need to understand why.

"You weren't worried when they attacked either. Startled, but not worried," Valentine murmured. "You really don't fear death, do you?"

"It's not really about not fearing death. I don't fear losing my life. It’s sort of a different thing," Cloud answered absently and looked over the desktop of his terminal, waiting to see if the link to the right files had been added yet. It hadn't been, so he did a general search for AVALANCHE, tagged with the President's pass code that gave him access to all the company files, putting the top secret ones in front.

Valentine didn't answer, falling silent as Cloud began his research into this new, curious threat.

In the end, he came out of the research with relatively little information, and with nothing that satisfied him. There were records of several terrorist attacks by AVALANCHE that had been prevented or halted in mid process by the Turks, but about AVALANCHE itself… Aside from a few records about some individual members who had been tagged as high priority or with varying danger levels – do not approach alone, escape if possible, and so on – there was little about AVALANCHE's origins or their motivations. Only that they were anti-ShinRa, anti-Mako, and held the beliefs that Mako was finite and that draining it would kill the Planet, which they intended to stop by destroying ShinRa and its Mako reactors.

Drumming the desk with his fingers in irritation, Cloud turned away from those files and instead typed in Mako, origins. Was Mako finite? Actually, where did the stuff come from? From the Planet, of course, from its crust, but what made it, where did it originate, how had it come to be? He had never given much thought to it – Mako was Mako and it was everywhere – but now… now, he wondered.

Mako was a condensed form of the energy that could be found in the Planet's crust. That was about all the database had to offer him. There was a lot about how it was extracted, how ShinRa had originally figured it out – while taking part in an oil excavation using a new type of technology, ShinRa had ended up extracting something very different from oil – and how it now was pulled up by the reactors to be condensed into the form that could be easily used as a power source – either in its pure form to produce electricity that could power a city like Midgar, or in further processed forms that could be used in the creation of energy cells. It could also be processed even more into forms that could be used to power vehicles – Cloud's own Hardy used a zero point three Mako solution, guzzling it up like a drunkard.

But nothing about its origins. They didn't even have a proper name for the original stuff which was condensed into Mako and processed into its various forms. There were curious blips in the data, though. Little unexplained stuff like the fact that Mako could be further condensed into Materia, which you could do magic with. But for all the scientific research on the Planet, they still had no idea why. Just that it could be done and was being done rather successfully too, to the point where all Mako Reactors had Materia refinement centres.

ShinRa's power, wealth, and influence were all based on Mako. SOLDIERs got their power from Mako, all ShinRa's technology was powered by Mako, and all the money came in from the people who had their houses hooked up and powered by Mako. But no one really even knew what the stuff was?

"ShinRa is starting to look more and more incompetent by the minute," Cloud muttered. As disturbed as he was by the lack of answers, the fact that nothing in the database disproved AVALANCHE's notions worried him a lot more. Pumping up Mako might as well be killing the Planet, and apparently no one in ShinRa either knew for sure… or really cared.

"What are you going to do?" Valentine asked while Cait Sith looked between Cloud and the screen thoughtfully.

"I'm going to find out for sure," the young President answered. And if his company was killing the planet below his feet… he would do something about it. Somehow.

 

7.

 

"Are you telling me that for all the scientists, all the specialists, and a good thirty years into the era of Mako, no one knows what Mako actually is?" the highly unimpressed President of ShinRa asked the collection of specialists in the meeting room, who were shifting with confusion and nervousness from one foot to another, trying not to look at him, at the toy on his shoulder, or at the red caped Turk at his back. "Nobody knows?" Cloud asked.

"Well, sir, Mako is the energy excavated from the Planet's…"

"Yes, every goddamn person on this Planet knows that. Tell me where the energy came from. What put it there? Has it been there since the Planet's creation, is it caused by some reaction in the planet's crust, or did some asteroid drop it here? Is it endless, is it finite?"

"Of course it is endless," one of the specialists said, almost scoffing.

"Do you have proof of it?" Cloud asked with narrowed eyes. "Are you one hundred percent certain? Can you put the evidence on my desk and back it up with science and have every specialist on the Planet confirm the theory?" he demanded. "Can you overrule the concept that it's finite? Can any of you?"

The scientists and specialists all glanced at each other, looking more uncomfortable than anything else, but none of them had any answers it seemed. "Okay. The one who brings me someone who knows, who has an alternate hypothesis, who has even an inkling of a suspicion and a well-rounded theory that isn't the exact same as what each and every one of you has, will get a pay raise. Hell, I'll double your pay, if you just get me something new," he said, making the whole group jump a bit. "Now get the hell out, all of you."

"Snappy," Valentine commented.

Cloud just harrumphed and leaned back, running his hand through his hair. "Tell me, Valentine. Why did I ever agree to take this job?" he wondered out loud.

"I don't know. Why did you?"

Cloud snorted at that and shook his head. "Do you know, this is the most human interaction I've had since… ever?" he asked with some amusement. "I talk with dozens of people per day; I argue with my secretaries; you're there all the time; and Tseng is a constant visitor." He hadn't even thought about it, but his life was a whole lot more social these days.

Valentine didn't answer at first, stepping forward a bit so that he wasn't in Cloud's blind spot and the young president could see him from the corner of his eye instead. "Why did you agree to take this job?" the man asked seriously.

Cloud frowned, turning the chair so that he could face his bodyguard. "Why are you asking?" he asked back.

"Because you are better at it than Tseng dared to hope," the red caped gunman answered darkly. "He expected you to hold up the façade of a proper company perhaps for a few weeks at most – long enough for him to find someone proper or at least to convince the Firsts that someone was needed and that they should stop scaring anyone half competent away. He didn't expect you to actually work."

"And that's a bad thing?" Cloud asked, eyebrows rising.

"No. But you're too intelligent to be so easily drawn into a life like this. You knew better. And you knew what happened to the previous President, what might in all likelihood happen to you. So why did you take this job?"

Cloud wanted to ask what did it matter, really, but decided against it. Instead, the young president considered it seriously. Why had he? Because he had hated his life and had figured that it couldn't get any worse, probably. Because for all the distraction his little delivery service offered, it hadn't been enough – he had always been aware of how much he hated his life. It wasn't anyone's fault, it wasn't his mother's fault – but he had grown up too quickly for his own tastes, and in hindsight wished he could've remained what he had been, as weak and pathetic as that was. That boy who had dreamed of becoming a SOLDIER… of becoming strong, of having friends, a purpose, and is worth something.

Turning away, Cloud frowned. He had known ShinRa would be nothing but a huge can of worms and that he'd drown in it or choke on it. He had known it wouldn't get any better and that he'd only be busier and in the end it wouldn't really change a damn thing. But he had taken the job?

"I guess it's because ShinRa was falling apart," he answered finally, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "Because if no one else was doing anything, then why not try? And if the Firsts killed me, then... well it's not like I was doing anything with my life anyway."

Valentine didn't answer, so the young President opened his eyes to see the man's face. The Turk was eyeing him thoughtfully. "What?" Cloud asked finally.

"Do you feel like you're doing something with your life now?" the man asked, his voice low.

The younger man smiled. "I'm getting there," he admitted. It was a busy, headache inducing life, and gods damn it there was so much to do… but he couldn't say he didn't enjoy it. Chuckling slightly, he stood up. "So, Tseng thinks I'm doing a good job so far? That's nice to know," he said, absently supporting a slightly wobbling Cait Sith on his shoulder. "What do you think, Valentine?"

"Vincent," the man answered. "And I think you're getting there too."

Cloud paused a little at that – at the first bit, not the second. "Vincent," he repeated, considering, a little surprised. No one had ever really… given him the right to use their first name like that. One couldn't really count the kids of Nibelheim, since it was habit there that kids were all addressed without any formality whatsoever, but… Valentine – no, Vincent – had offered it. He didn't know why the man would bother, although maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Turk watched over him when he slept after all, but…

It was still a pretty novel experience for him.

"Okay then. Vincent," Cloud said and pointed at himself, trying to not smile too goofily. "Cloud."

The gunman just nodded stoically and together they headed out of the meeting room, with Cloud turning his mind back to business. Mako aside, he still had departments in shambles and department heads missing – plus, maybe it was time he looked into the mess that was Wutai and the roads of the Western Continent – and he wasn't even sure what was going on in the north.

Work, work, work.

He wasn't really expecting it – aside from the fact that Hewley turned out to be a decent Department Head, nothing in ShinRa had been easy so far – but eventually he did catch a lucky break. The day after his abysmal meeting with his company's topmost Mako specialists, Tuesti informed him that his research had finally paid off and the man had found him a potential head for the Science Department.

"There's a catch though, sir," Tuesti said, while bringing the surveillance data straight to Cloud's office, most of it on paper.

"Isn't there with everything?" Cloud sighed, taking the folders and flipping through them with the expertise of having been leafing through similar folders non-stop for days now. After getting the gist of it, he returned to the first page and read more closely through the file about Doctor Gina Ganase, who once upon a time… had been a scientist at ShinRa.

There were two pictures of her. In the first one she was a young woman of maybe mid-twenties with short brown hair and round glasses, facing the camera without an expression. The other one was taken from the side, probably without her notice, and showed her with even shorter hair, now pepper grey, with what looked like burn marks all over the left side of her face.

"She's an infectious diseases specialist?" Cloud asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, sir. Best there has ever been," Tuesti explained.

"I remember her," Vincent said quietly from behind Cloud, leaning in to look. "She used to work in the Health Department."

"And became the director of the health department later, yes," Tuesti agreed. "It happened around the same time you, hm, had your fallout with Professor Hojo."

Cloud glanced at his bodyguard and then back at the papers. "Okay, so, some history there," the young president agreed, his eyebrows raising a bit at her many accomplishments – apparently, she had developed cures for some ten different diseases he had never even heard of when Mako studies had been in its infancy. "I am thinking this woman is no longer in ShinRa's employment or I would've heard of her by now," Cloud murmured. There was also the fact that her last notable accomplishment had happened some twenty years back.

"No, sir," Tuesti agreed. "I am not entirely sure about the details of what happened, but what I know is enough for the rest to be easily imagined. Doctor Ganase used to work for ShinRa around the same time as Professor Gast and was the Director of the Health Department while Professor Gast was the Head of the Science Department. It is my understanding that they were close friends."

"And then Gast mysteriously vanished and Hojo took over,” Cloud said, raising his eyebrows.

"Yes, sir. Now, Ganase didn't really believe the story about Gast withdrawing to enjoy his retirement, or any of the other rumours circling around the company, and I believe she launched an investigation. If nothing else, she kept a close watch on Professor Hojo at the time – she kept records, wrote a journal of which some pieces remain," Tuesti said. "However, a mere year after Gast's disappearance, there was an accident in the laboratories when Doctor Ganase was performing an experiment, and she was splattered with the experimental material she had been working with."

"The burns," Cloud nodded, eyeing the pictures.

"It was quite a bit more than that – she was infected with the disease she was working on, a type of bacteria that causes cellular decay," Tuesti explained grimly. "At the time, the disease had no cure, and the dose she was splattered with would've killed her within the week."

"But obviously, she didn't die," the young president said.

"No. She did, however, use it to fake her own death," Tuesti said, making Cloud raise his eyebrows again. Tuesti smiled faintly. "She withdrew from the company within hours of the incident, only staying long enough to oversee that the quarantine and clean up protocols were properly executed before handing in her resignation. It was accepted without hesitation, and she vanished."

Cloud nodded slowly. "Okay. She faked her own death with a disease that was incurable, somehow managed to survive, and you found her… how?"

"I didn't, sir," Tuesti grimaced. "The Turks have been watching her for a long while, although they didn't know who she was, precisely. She works under a different name in the slums, running an illegal clinic – the Turks have most people of that nature under surveillance in case they are involved with illegal drug trade, but she only treats the sickly of the slums and does little else. Most of the time she wears a mask and I had to do some very careful bugging to get that one shot of her without it," he admitted.

"Hm," the young president hummed, turning the papers to get to the Turk reports about Doc Gina of the slums, a weird elderly woman with a mask who had some medical savvy and who bandaged and splinted for relatively few Gil – and treated children for free. Their most suspicious reports were about incidents in which Doc Gina had treated gang members and known criminals, but they had left it be because she was always a neutral party, treating everyone pretty much equally.

"History with ShinRa's Science Department aside, she's been working as a slum doctor for… two decades?" Cloud asked thoughtfully. "What makes you think that she's suitable for the position of the Head of the Science Department?"

"This," Tuesti said, taking out a small memory stick. "It took me two days to manage to worm my way into her computer's archives and copy these. This is twenty years’ worth of data about the Science Department, everything from files she must've gotten from Hojo's computers to newspaper clippings – every project, every experiment, every trial and test, everything. For as long as she's been out of the company, she's been compiling data, hard data. I think originally she intended to use it to bring Hojo down. Of course, as the company was at the time…"

"It would've never worked. ShinRa would've just swept it under the rug even if she published it," Cloud murmured. "I'm still not convinced, though.

"How about this then?" Tuesti said, taking out his PHS and hooking it with the screen of Cloud's terminal. While the young President frowned, the Head of Urban Development took over the screen, bringing up what looked like the murkiest of security feeds, which showed a figure in a dark coat in what looked like ShinRa's garage, going from one vehicle to three others – a land rover, a motorcycle, and what looked like the latest of ShinRa's speed cars.

"What am I watching?" Cloud asked with a frown, until Tuesti paused the image just when the figure turned, to reveal a face with a burnt left side.

"Those vehicles belong to Department Head Hewley, General Sephiroth, and Commander Rhapsodos," Tuesti answered. "And what she just put in them are the reports of the experiments that created them."

Cloud blinked and both he and Vincent, who too had been staring at the screen, turned to Tuesti in unison. "She's the reason they purged the company."

"Well, I wouldn't say the reason. The Firsts were already planning it at the time – they had an inkling of their origins already, thanks to some slips made by Professor Hollander when Commander Rhapsodos got wounded in a training accident. But the information that she provided was definitely the straw that broke the chocobo's back," the head of Urban Development smiled.

Cloud turned to the screen again, considering it hard for a long moment. "Okay, fine. If you can convince Tseng of this, you've convinced me. But if you want her, you're going to have to get her yourself."

"Yes, sir," Tuesti answered and smiled.

Cloud, who was learning to really appreciate the power of delegation, kept only a sidelong eye on the project of Doctor Gina Ganase, and instead concentrated on other things – on his continued research about Mako's origins, which was proving to be futile, on the final stages of the merger of Space Exploration and Weapons Development into the Technological Research Department, and on what Hewley was now adding to the pile. Tseng reported to him of his approval of Tuesti's idea at some point, verbally and on paper, but Cloud was too busy with the reports about a huge mess brewing in Wutai at the time to do more than give the whole thing his stamp of approval.

ShinRa had already won the war against Wutai and the peace agreements had been signed – and Wutai had consented to a complete ban of Materia use. However, the situation in the faraway nation had been volatile for months since, and military presence had been necessary to keep the people from erupting. Except Sephiroth had been forced to withdraw the military as a result of the purge of the Murderous Firsts when ShinRa had begun to fall apart, and now the people of the Eastern Continent had started to rebel.

Which left Wutai hanging loose at first, and then raging wild.

"Most of their old fortifications have been re-occupied and are undergoing repairs according to the intel we've gotten from there," Hewley reported to Cloud, after the president had demanded a full briefing on the matter. It was the first time he had met any of the Firsts without all three being there, but it didn't make it any more pleasant of an experience. "And Director Tseng has informed me that there are rumours about the old trade routes having reopened – the ones used to channel eastern arms to Wutai."

"Please don't tell me we might be heading into another war," Cloud almost groaned, running a hand over his chin as he stared at the grim reports.

Hewley smiled wryly. "I don't know about a war. But an uprising… perhaps," he said, eyeing Cloud thoughtfully. "What is your stand on war, sir?"

"I don't really have one," Cloud sighed, closing his eyes and trying to think of a way out of this mess. "I just don't want to bother with any of it right now." He knew why the war had started – because President ShinRa had been a greedy bastard, because Wutai was known worldwide for its Mako springs and the abundance of naturally formed Materia, and because it had irked the man to know that somewhere out there were people who didn't pay their electricity bills to his accounts.

And of course, the former department heads had urged the man on. Heidegger, the former head of Public Safety Maintenance and thus the head of ShinRa's army, hadn't liked the idea that there were organised warriors who didn't jump when he called. Scarlet, the woman who had headed Weapons Development, hadn't liked the fact that Wutai still used hand crafted weapons. Hojo, on the other hand, had liked the idea of potential new experimental subjects – probably thinking that Wutai's people might be different from all those others he had cut open, having been a closed community for so long.

"Okay. Your suggestions, Hewley, if you please," Cloud said after a while. "Obviously, we can't just let this slide after all the effort put into that damn war."

"That is correct, sir. It would appear weak both to our own people and theirs," Hewley agreed. "However, I do believe that conflict can be avoided. The contracts written at the end of the war still stands and officially Wutai is still under ShinRa's control – we are simply not exerting said control. I think I can settle this with Godo Kisaragi, but… I need to know what your plans are considering the Wutai Reactor."

Cloud frowned. Oh, the damn reactor. He hadn't even thought of it in a while – that had been the cause of the whole mess. But thanks to the purge, its building hadn't started yet. Wutai was against it, of course, having fought against it nearly to the last man. It would probably bring more revenue to ShinRa once they managed to fully modernise the Wutai islands. But right now… did Wutai even have Western technology, aside from the weaponry they used in the war?

"I believe… the construction project is as of this moment under official hiatus," Cloud said slowly, staring at the ceiling. It would be until he knew more about Mako, and it would never happen if his worst fears were realised. Frowning, he lowered his gaze to Hewley who was looking at him with an unreadable expression. "Let's say there are some unforeseen difficulties due to the soil or something and leave it at that."

"So, if I have to sit down with Kisaragi, I can at least offer them more time in a bargain," Hewley said. "How much time?"

"You can safely promise them a year," Cloud said. It would take at least half of that to find a proper spot for a reactor even if they started the project now, and several months more to fully experiment, excavate, and start the building of the foundations. From there on, it would take anything from one to four years to actually complete a reactor to the current standards.

Hewley nodded, folding his arms. "I think I can work with that," he said. "If you give it the go, of course, sir."

"Go, go," Cloud said, waving a hand. "Do whatever you feel is necessary. If you save me from the headache of having to deal with a war on top of everything else, you'll be my hero forever."

"Yes, sir," Hewley said with amusement and then glanced up from Cloud to Vincent who, as always, hovered right behind his chair. "Valentine," the man said. "If you ever have the time… Sephiroth would like a word."

"About?" Vincent asked and Cloud narrowed his eyes slightly.

"Lucrecia Crescent," the Head of Public Safety Maintenance said, shrugging his shoulders. "The records say only so much and… he wants to know his mother."

Cloud relaxed a bit and then glanced up at Vincent who was looking at the wall, considering it. "I don't mind," the president offered. He didn't much care for Sephiroth – mostly because the man's reports still gave him headaches – but he knew the pain of having no family. He had been prepared for his loss. Sephiroth probably hadn't been prepared for his painful gain, if finding out the truth could even be called that.

"I do," Vincent answered. "I have a job to do. If the General wishes to talk, he will have to do so in the president's presence," he said to Hewley. "I will not leave his side, even for that."

While the president in question took a second take at that, not entirely sure what that made him feel, only that it was something very new, Hewley nodded. "I will let him know," he said and then bowed briskly to Cloud. "President Strife," he said by way of good bye.

"Commander," Cloud nodded and watched the man retreat before turning to look at Vincent. "You know, a job is just a job. You are allowed to have your own life," he pointed out. "And Tseng does have other relatively skilled Turks he can assign as my security detail."

"I prefer it this way," Vincent answered calmly.

"Over twenty years in a coffin and straight out of it you become an around-the-clock bodyguard," the young president said, shaking his head. "Have you actually left the ShinRa HQ since arriving?"

"Have you?" Vincent asked pointedly, and with something like surprise Cloud realised that he hadn't.

It had been weeks into his new career as ShinRa's President and he had not once left the building. "I… have a job to do," he said, a little baffled – not really by the time spent but by the fact that he hadn't even noticed. All that time spent outdoors, months and months of running a delivery service and he… hadn't even noticed that he had been cooped up inside for this long?

"As do I," Vincent answered slowly, staring at him somehow significantly, but Cloud missed the meaning entirely.

"Great. I turn into a workaholic and get a workaholic bodyguard. Perfect," he muttered, shaking his head. Somehow, it figured.

 

8.

 

For a while, it seemed like things were finally looking up. Hewley was on his way to Wutai with Rhapsodos and his own student, Fair, to handle the situation there. Tuesti and Tseng had somehow managed to convince Doc Gina to shed her slum identity for long enough for her to at least have a look around the building and take a glance at the projects. They didn't bring the woman to meet him, though, not the first time – it turned out she had grown a bit skittish in her time in the slums and apparently the President of ShinRa was a big deal.

Cloud let them work at her pace, and instead concentrated on other things. Now that he was a bit more firmly rooted in the company and had his army of secretaries handling the little things, the big things started getting more screen time on his terminal. Things like potential flaws in Mako Reactors, the increase of stronger monsters in the wild, the many, many problems in the west – such as the completely disintegrated courier system that had half of the Western Continent's towns up in arms – and the North certainly wasn't better off. And of course, there was still one department without a potential director; a department that was recently combined, currently had the biggest budget and most workers who weren't part of the military, and… the greatest importance. Neither military nor science paid the bills, after all. ShinRa manufactured technology did.

"Well, for now it seems like the thing is sort of carrying its own weight," Cloud murmured. The workers of the former Weapons Development Department were all pretty competent and knew their jobs well, so they could keep on working without anyone watching over their shoulders. For now. It wouldn't work for long, however, not when there were some couple dozens of new projects rotting on the drawing boards and any potential mishap somewhere along the production line could freeze the whole process. No matter how well oiled, it didn't take more than one cogwheel to fail for the whole machine to stop, after all.

For now, though, the reactors and their warnings were the biggest issue he had to handle. The Gongaga reactor and the Corel reactor both were screaming for proper maintenance according to their reports; and moreover, they had been for a while now. The previous president had pushed it aside as a minor issue, for someone else to fix. But the fact was that for all the people and specialists and departments in ShinRa, there wasn't actually anyone in the company who was in charge of the reactors. No one was supervising them, no one whose duty was to keep them running, and no one on whose head it would be when the reactors blew.

No one, but the President of ShinRa himself. And Cloud did not want, after all the time it had taken to get this far with the company, to continue on with reactors blowing up left and right.

"Freeze them," he said to Caslie, who patiently stood in front of his desk, waiting for his verdict. "Both the Gongaga and Corel reactors. Send them the order to power down for full maintenance and stop pumping. And get someone who knows what they're doing to conduct that maintenance."

"That will be quite costly, sir," the head secretary warned him.

"Not as costly as having them blow up," Cloud answered, dropping the folder on his desk. "And there is room for the maintenance in the company’s budget. Hell, there should be, now that we're not losing half of it to embezzlement and Hojo's and Scarlet's hare-brained projects."

"Yes, sir," Caslie answered, calm as ever as she picked up the folder. "What do you want to do with the production of the Huge Materia?" she asked. "If the Corel reactor is powered down, the project might fail."

"The Huge Materia," the young president answered, thinking about it. "Oh, yeah, that thing," he muttered, remembering. It was a theory of the Materia researchers that if you managed to crystallise enough of a certain sort of Mako, it could be used for extraordinary things. Four different reactors were in on the project, all crystallising different types of Huge Materia, without actually knowing what they'd be like at the end of the project, mostly because the project wouldn't reach its fruition until some five to six years after starting.

"How much money are those things costing me, right now?" Cloud asked.

"A bit," Caslie answered. "However, if you stop the production, all the money spent will be wasted."

"For this company, that would be nothing new. See which one of the four has so far been the cheapest to produce and keep that, and halt the other three – including the Corel one, regardless of what it might cost," Cloud said, sighing. "This company is running entirely too many experiments as it is, and wasting too much money on things that might not even be worth anything in the end."

"There is a theory that the Huge Materia will be worth quite a lot," the secretary offered.

"Well, we'll see when the one is finished. And if it really is that great, we can start the project again," the president shrugged. "Which we can't unless we maintain the reactors and keep them from blowing up, right?"

"Right, sir. I'll get right on it," Caslie promised with the faintest of smiles, and turned to head back to the main office.

"What about the areas left without power because of this?" Vincent commented.

"They won't be," Cloud answered. "There's two parts to every reactor. The part that pumps Mako and the other that converts and supplies power to the grids. And reactors all have Mako pools in case of shut-downs – they can keep converting the Mako of those pools for weeks, months even, without running out even if the pumps aren't working."

"And is that safe, considering the error messages the systems have been sending?" Vincent asked, frowning slightly.

"It has to do with safety procedures and the conversion processes. It's the pumps that are the most dangerous when they're running, because they're not only pumping but also condensing the Mako, which is the most dangerous part of the whole process. If something was going to blow up in a Mako reactor, it would be the pumps," Cloud shrugged. "Mako is actually pretty stable after the condensation process."

"Ah," the Turk answered. "You know a lot," he said, sounding approving. "I hadn't noticed you researching."

"I haven't – I don't really need to. Common Mako engines work pretty much the same way, only at the next level and on a smaller scale, by processing Mako into gas," Cloud shrugged. "And it's always flaws in the conversion process that makes them blow," he said, and then glanced at Vincent. "Before I became a delivery boy, I worked at a garage. I'm not exactly a stellar mechanic, but I know my way around an engine well enough to manage."

"Ah," Vincent said again. "You're full of surprises, Cloud."

The president blinked and then looked away, smiling. It had been a while since anyone had used his first name. It… felt surprisingly nice. "Do you have any surprising talents?" he asked, turning to his terminal again. "Aside from being a kick-ass Turk and shape shifter."

Vincent didn't answer at first, and the silence stretched. When he did answer, Cloud had almost forgotten the question. "Piano," the man said.

"Huh?" the president asked, confused.

Vincent shifted a bit where he stood, almost looking embarrassed – he did the bowing of his head thing, which hid most of his lower face behind the high collar of his cape. "I used to… play the piano," the man admitted.

"Hoo?" Cloud asked, turning to him and considering it while the Turk looked away. "Yeah, actually, I can see you playing the piano. Any good?" he asked, at which Vincent just sighed. The president smiled slightly. "There is one in one of the presidential apartments, you know. We could move it to the main suite, if you'd like to try your hand at it again."

"I don't –" Vincent started lifting his left hand and looking down at it with the hint of a frown – the golden claw gleaming under the electric lights. "With this hand… I am not sure. I would probably only destroy the keys. If I can play at all, anymore."

"You should try – it's not like anyone's ever used the thing anyway; it's just there for decoration. And if you do destroy the keys, I'll have someone replace them with stainless steel covers," Cloud answered, looking at him. "You should try," he repeated, a little softer.

Vincent hesitated and then nodded. "Later," he said, even as Cloud reached for his phone to call Caslie to arrange the piano's transfer to the living room of his suite. "Cloud," the Turk said, almost admonishing.

"Shush. I am the boss here and there ought to be some perks to the job, even if it's just having a damn piano moved," the young president answered cheerfully, and made the call, already hopefully looking forward to listening to Vincent trying his hand at the thing. It had been a while since he had the time to listen to music – and he hadn't heard live music since school, which had been a long while ago and not very good to begin with.

Sadly, he didn't get to listen to the piano that day. For the first time since the start of the whole ShinRa debacle, something he himself had done came back to bite him on the ass. One of ShinRa's Mako specialists, whom he had ordered to find him someone more informed than they were, actually delivered – by bringing in an old man who, judging by the looks of him, hadn't really consented to the visit.

"What the fucking hell?" Cloud asked slowly.

"You asked for alternative theories about Mako, sir," the scientist said and had the gall to look smug about the fact that there was an old man, on his knees, in front of Cloud's desk, looking like he might be bleeding a little on Cloud's rug. The scientist motioned at the man, almost as if displaying some new goods he had to sell. "This is Bugenhagen of Cosmo Canyon, and he has the wildest alternative theory on the Planet."

Cloud opened his mouth, closed it, and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. "Did you kidnap this man?" he asked in a strained voice.

"…I persuaded him to come along. The security department was a great help, sir," the scientist answered proudly.

"Oh Planet. This is what I get for sending Hewley to Wutai," the young president groaned. "Vincent, please get this idiot out of my office before I'm forced to get a sword, and have Caslie send a medic up here, right now."

"Yeah," Vincent said and did it very briskly and efficiently indeed – with the barrel of Cerberus and a cold expression that was usually enough to send people running, this time included. While he chased the scientist away and called for Caslie, Cloud looked up and stood, walking around his desk to make sure that the old man at least wasn't hand cuffed or something.

"I am so sorry about this, sir. Bugenhagen, was it?" he asked, while helping the baffled looking man to his feet and to sit on one of the two guest chairs his office had. "I've been trying so hard to weed the idiocy out from the company, but apparently with very little success. How badly are you hurt? If you need a full medical, you'll get the company's finest."

"No, I… they are only superficial," the bald old man assured, blinking at him with what looked like utter bewilderment. "You are the new President of ShinRa?" he asked curiously.

"That's unfortunately the truth. I'm the president of idiots," Cloud agreed, closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath to steel himself, and then asked, "Where did that idiot take you from? And was anyone killed in the process?"

"Ah, no. I am from Cosmo Canyon and after I figured out their goal, I surrendered to prevent bloodshed – there were some injuries – my grandson did not relent easily – but I believe there was no loss of life involved," Bugenhagen said, looking at him thoughtfully and then glancing up as Vincent returned, followed by Caslie who was carrying a first aid kit.

"A medic team is on its way, sir, but I thought you might want this just in case," the secretary said.

"Thank you," Cloud nodded, accepting the kit and considering the old man. It did look like it was only bruises, but he was no specialist. "Cure, maybe?" he asked more than stated, glancing at Vincent.

"Let me," the gunner said, taking the Materia orb from the kit and equipping it smoothly. There was a flash of healing green and some of the old man's bruises quickly began to fade, the split lip knitting itself and the redness around his cheekbone fading.

"Ah, thank you, young man. That feels much better," the old man said, wobbling a bit as if trying to jump while sitting down. "Much better, yes."

"Good. Still, I want someone properly qualified to look over you," Cloud said. "After that, I'll arrange for your transport to Cosmo Canyon – you'll get there as comfortably as the company can manage. It's the least I can do."

"I'd appreciate it," the man said. "However… I was under the impression that there was a reason for this… visit," he added thoughtfully. "I was told that it was because of what I knew – or what they thought I knew."

Cloud sighed. "I wanted to hear some alternate theories about Mako, so I told the specialists in this company to bring me someone, anyone, who knew anything new. I didn't think they'd do something like this though. It won't happen again," he muttered to himself. It was high time he looked at the company rules, it seemed. If everyone thought kidnapping was okay in ShinRa…

"Alternate theories about Mako?" Bugenhagen asked, the thoughtful look turning even deeper, if possible. "Hm. And why are you interested in hearing about alternate theories about Mako, President of ShinRa?"

Cloud smiled wryly, shaking his head. "Because somewhere out there is a terrorist organisation that wants to kill me and destroy my company because they think ShinRa is killing the Planet, and I want to know if there is any truth in their notions."

"And if there is?" the old man asked, watching him closely. "ShinRa depends on Mako. I believe it makes you quite wealthy. Would you care, if it had such consequences?"

"If I knew that Mako was destroying the Planet? Well… yes," Cloud answered a bit flatly. "I have to live somewhere too. And I'm rather fond of this Planet."

Bugenhagen said nothing at first – and then the whole discussion was put on hold as the medics came in and Cloud ordered them to check the old man fully and be damned gentle about it. Thankfully, it seemed that no heavy damage had been done and the Cure had taken care of most of it, although one of the medics did cast a Cura just in case before they cleared out of the office again. Bugenhagen, who had been enduring the examination with quiet dignity, now looked at Cloud consideringly, like he was weighing his options.

"Would you listen, if I revealed your company for what it really is?" the old man asked.

"This company is a rotten, crawling monster that has since its birth housed hordes of beasts in its innards," Cloud snorted. "It's always been a writhing mess of corruption, greed, and self-indulgence, and now it's teetering on the brink of collapse due to gross incompetence. I think very little of what you have to say about it will shock me."

"I wouldn't bet on it, young man," Bugenhagen said, and then began to tear what little faith Cloud had for the company to the ground.

Bugenhagen didn't only have an alternate theory about Mako, but about the whole Planet – and about Materia. Sure, Cloud had heard the whispers about Materia, about how its powers came from the supposed knowledge of the Ancients, but to him it had always seemed that people had let an urban legend spread way too far because they simply didn't have a better explanation for the process. How could the knowledge of something that had died thousands of years ago make something like Materia, with which you could control elements, heal injuries, and create barriers? What did the knowledge of a dead race have anything to do with Materia, which was a crystallisation of Mako, which was energy? But then, nothing else had made any sense either.

But if Mako was the condensed essence of all souls that had ever lived on the Planet…

That was Bugenhagen's theory. The Lifestream theory – a flowing force of energy that made the Planet alive just as any other being. All things that lived came from it and when things died – people, plants, animals, and monsters alike – their life-force returned to the Lifestream, adding to it and eventually taking from it when it was time for something new to be born. That was where Mako came from – it was Lifestream, the essence of souls and the life-forces of millions of life forms, billions, which the reactors pumped up, condensed, and then used – and in the process of using it, destroyed it.

"And this Lifestream is finite?" Cloud asked, frowning at his desk, thinking hard.

"As finite as something with a finite source. It's a vicious circle, Mako extraction," Bugenhagen answered. "The more Mako you pump, the less… living things there are – and thus there is less energy going back to the Lifestream when those living things die. Surely you've noticed that the areas surrounding Mako reactors eventually lose all plant life."

Cloud had, only he had thought it was because of pollution. "And when this… Lifestream runs out?"

"The Planet will die. Nothing new will be born, no energy will be going back to the Lifestream, and everything on the Planet's surface will wither. Humans might manage for a while, but eventually the food will run out, and of course by that time every race on the Planet will be in a sense infertile…" Bugenhagen shrugged.

The young president frowned, looking up from his desk with a wry smile. "I guess things were starting to be a bit too easy," he murmured, glancing at Vincent who was watching him closely but not saying anything – seeing how he'd react. Cloud sighed and turned to Bugenhagen. "I'm going to need some hard evidence about this. Can you and Cosmo Canyon provide it?"

"Yes, as well as studies performed over the last fifty years concerning Planet life," Bugenhagen answered calmly, crushing Cloud's every hopes of the man being wrong. "But all you really have to do is have the soil around Midgar analyzed. You'll find it free of pollutants and quite fertile in every sense of the word – except for the fact that it is, quite obviously, dead."

The President of ShinRa sighed, closing his eyes. Well, that was that, for his career. The moment he stopped pumping Mako, ShinRa's final death would commence – and then he'd probably be kicked out of office at sword point by the Murderous Firsts if Tseng didn't do it, someone else would be put in, and the pumping of Mako would continue, business as usual. "I am so out of a job here," he murmured, snorting mirthlessly. Well, at least he had managed to sort of help the company recover. With Hewley and hopefully Ganase taking over two of the headless departments… all his successor would have to worry about was the Technological Research Department.

And then the successor would kill the Planet by continuing Mako extraction, only this time Cloud would know as he watched from the side-lines. Unless the Murderous Firsts killed him. Or Tseng had him killed. Right. Well, it was a fun romp for as long as it lasted.

"How so?" Bugenhagen asked with polite curiosity.

"I stop the reactors and turn off the lights on the whole planet, and the company won't have much need of me after that," Cloud answered with a sigh. "My position is precarious at best, and this won't make me any more popular."

"There are alternative energy sources, young man. There was electricity before Mako, you know," Bugenhagen pointed out, sounding amused.

Cloud cracked his eyes open, looking at the amused old man seriously. Bugenhagen let out a weird, oh-hoh-hoh sort of laugh, flapping his arms like he was trying to fly. "My boy, Cosmo Canyon has never had a Mako reactor, but we do have electricity and quite enough of it to keep things working. Have you never heard of solar power or wind power? Or about coal, oil, and the old form of gas, the original gasoline? How about geothermal energy, hydropower – hydroelectricity? Good old bioenergy?"

The young president blinked, and Bugenhagen laughed at his stunned expression.

 

9.

 

Two weeks after his unfortunately started meeting with Bugenhagen, half of Cosmo Canyon was on Cloud's payroll, in the new Energy Resources Department. His Technological Research Department had found its head in a young Cosmo Canyon genius, a man named Fromm who had, for several years, not only maintained all of Cosmo Canyon's technology, but also created it, making solar panels from scraps and wind turbines from used up barrels. It was a bit of a precarious assignment, seeing as Fromm had no business management experience whatsoever. But with the help of one of the Cosmo Canyon elders, Hargo, who was Cosmo Canyon’s archivist as well as the manager of daily life there, and who had enough experience in the management of things, Cloud thought that there shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

"Just don't… change things too much. I know that it probably feels a bit off for you to work for ShinRa after everything, and I know it's probably very tempting to cease all weapons manufacture, but we need those fire arms. If not for any other reason than keeping the monsters in check," Cloud said to the pair of them, while he, Vincent, and the two from Cosmo Canyon explored the laboratories of the former Weapons Development – which, it seemed, had the best toys. Things like hologram 3D modelling systems and such. "Everything that's being manufactured currently needs to be made – we are the largest provider of the Planet's technology, everything from music players to flying vehicles, and if those production lines stop…"

"We understand. ShinRa is still a business," Hargo said, while Fromm stared at the modelling systems with his fingers twitching eagerly. "Elder Bugenhagen has explained the changes in ShinRa to us, and that we must be patient to see those changes fully realised. We will work in… moderation."

"Thank you," Cloud said. "However, if you have any better ideas, I'm all ears. And any new ideas too. That's what you're here for."

Fromm nodded, the bandana on his head slipping a bit and forcing him to push it upwards to keep it from his eyes. "I do, I have lots. Did you know that you could easily power any PHS and most hand held technology that uses electricity with just a small film and a tiny chip that could turn the covers into solar cells?" he asked eagerly.

"I didn't, actually," Cloud answered.

"Granted, the film would be a bit expensive to make, so I could never have gotten it done in Cosmo Canyon, but anyway. There are so many things I never could make because I didn't have the right things or the money or just the equipment to work with," the young inventor said, grinning.

"We will be moderate," Hargo said with a mild, exasperated look at the prodigy.

"Well, there is some give in the department budget, and a portion of it has been set aside just for research and invention," Cloud answered with a small, amused smile. The pair of them was so out of place in the laboratories, with their earthen leather clothing and bandanas – about as fitting in a pristine company like ShinRa as he and Vincent were, actually. "For now, anyway, you have the freedom to… experiment. Just keep it within limits and try to keep the building intact."

"We will try our best," Hargo answered, and Fromm bounced ahead, to tinker with the modelling table.

"Do you think that this is entirely… wise, sir?" Tseng asked later thoughtfully, after Cloud had finished all the paperwork to make Fromm and Hargo run Technological Research officially, and started on making the Energy Resources Department into reality. "Cosmo Canyon does have a history of unusual science, but –"

"We need unusual science, if we want to keep this company standing," Cloud answered without looking up from reading the contracts through and then signing them – even if he had ordered them drawn, someone in his position simply didn't sign without a thorough reading. "Some new ideas can't do us any more harm than the old ones have. I suggest you read Bugenhagen's Planet Life Research. It was very illuminating."

"Cosmo Canyon is where AVALANCHE started," Tseng commented. "It is the origin of the terrorist organisation that tried to kill you."

"Stupidity at ShinRa is the reason AVALANCHE exists," the young president corrected. "If this was a good, honest company working for the benefit of the people rather than just itself – hell, if it was just working for profit rather than the domination over all forms of life – it wouldn't have enemies like that."

While the technological side of ShinRa churned under the oncoming changes, and people watched the infantile Energy Resources Department make its rather outlandish claims about alternate energy sources, Tuesti managed to finally convince Doctor Ganase to take over the science department – and Cloud finally met the woman.

"I will not be picking up where Hojo left off," was the Doctor's way of greeting him. "And even if I have to keep on assigning Mako injections to SOLDIERs, I won't continue the research on the uses of Mako on people."

"I don't want you to," Cloud answered, frowning a bit at that. He had forgotten that the SOLDIER department was as dependent on Mako as the technology. If he completely ended the use of Mako energy, which he was planning to do, once the alternative energy sources were in full production… what would happen to the SOLDIER department?

Considering the woman, Cloud sighed. "Although I wouldn't mind if you have someone continuing the SOLDIER research and maybe figure out an alternate method of achieving the same end, that is not why you're here," he said.

"Then why am I here?" Ganase asked, sounding suspicious.

"To head the Science Department," Cloud shrugged. "Hopefully with some finesse and morality. There will be no more non-consensual experimentation on sentient creatures, humanoid or otherwise, but we still need some of what the science department has brought to the world – potions, remedies, elixirs and the like. We need the medicine it has invented, the treatments it has perfected. And we need the research to continue."

Ganase frowned. "That's it?"

"Well, I'm no scientist, I don't know what can be done with it," Cloud shrugged. "I just know it's necessary and important to keep on working." He eyed the woman, taking in the burns, the still uneasy look in her eyes, the age of her face. She reminded him a bit of the way General Sephiroth and Commander Rhapsodos looked at him, like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Can you keep working, Doctor Ganase? For the benefit of the Planet?"

"Not for ShinRa?" she asked.

"ShinRa runs the planet, and I'd like to have a healthy planet to run," the young president said simply and smiled as she, after a long period of thought, slowly nodded.

While Fromm and Hargo began sending him reports about how their projects on creating solar panels and much improved wind turbines with ShinRa's resources were going, and Ganase began untangling the messes left behind by Professors Hojo and Hollander, Hewley and Rhapsodos came back from Wutai. Cloud had been getting their reports and keeping himself up to date with the negotiations, so he had known they had been going relatively well, but it was a relief to have the head of Public Safety Maintenance back where he belonged, running the department. The man had left Sephiroth in charge during his absence.

"Kisaragi has agreed to the new, slightly more… open contract," Hewley reported. "ShinRa's military presence on the Wutai islands will be minimal and they will stop the production of personalised weapons and the training of warriors. Wutai's trade is still under ShinRa control, but for now ShinRa will not be building anything on Wutai soil. That was the clincher: the time the contract gave them as far as the reactor goes."

"I wonder what we’ll get out of them when we let them know that there will be no reactor," Cloud mused, thoughtful. He had no idea what to do about Wutai now, when the place had no true worth to ShinRa.

"There… will be no Wutai Reactor?" Hewley asked, blinking.

"No. ShinRa will be moving away from the use of Mako to alternative energy sources. If the plans pan out, we will be shutting down the Mako reactors within the next four years, hopefully sooner. It depends on how long it takes to build dams and create the solar and wind farms," the young president said and looked up, smiling. "There have been some changes during your absence. Welcome back home, Commander."

"Thank you, sir," Hewley said with a confused blink.

Later, when the day's work was done and Cloud could safely shut the lights in his office, knowing that the secretaries had all gone home for the night and no one else would bother him for the rest of the day, he retreated to the main apartment and sat sipping hot cocoa, while Vincent fingered the keys of the grand piano that sat in the living room corner. The piano's keys were rather badly scratched on the left side, though Cloud had yet to need to replace them with metal plated ones.

"Do you think it will work, the transfer to alternate power sources?" Vincent asked, while idly running through a set of scales.

"I think it won't be as easy as just flicking a switch, and the eventual transfer will be slow as hell," Cloud answered. "But if I bring enough alternatives to the market: hydroelectricity plus solar power and wind power… as well as coal and oil, though I still need to figure out how to get the old oil pumps running… Well, eventually there will be enough possibilities, enough alternatives, that they will cover the hole that Mako will leave behind."

"Hm," Vincent answered and then shifted his shoulders, placing both his hands on the keys. As he began to play the now familiar melody of a song he himself had written, years and years ago – which he now had renamed as The Nightmare Begins – Cloud closed his eyes and let his mind slip away from work. There was much to be done, but nowadays, not everything was piled on top of his shoulders and it all could wait till the morning.

It was funny, but now that he wasn't so busy, he wanted a break more than he had wanted it when he had been buried knee deep in ShinRa's tangles and messes.

"You know what?" he asked as the melody petered out to its final notes. "I think you and I need to go out. Seriously. We've still not left this building even once since arriving."

Vincent made a sound that was almost a laugh. "Tseng won't approve."

"I don't care. It's been way too long since I've had a ride on the Hardy," Cloud answered. "And I want to see the slums."

There was a long silence, while another melody started – this one a modified version of the Cosmo Canyon anthem. Opening his eyes, Cloud turned to look at the back of his bodyguard, still covered in the red of his ragged cape, still unreadable after all the weeks in which they had, literally, spent every minute together. For a while, he considered the line of those shoulders, the way his hair shifted as Vincent moved ever so slightly as he played.

"We don't need to," the young president offered.

"No. I would… like to see it myself," the man answered, still playing. "Tseng still won't approve."

Cloud laughed softly and placed the cup onto the coffee table before getting up and walking over to the piano. The melody didn't falter in the slightest even as he sat beside the man on the bench, making Vincent shift to the side to make more room. "I trust you to keep me alive out there," the young president said, watching the man's fingers, leather covered on the right hand, metal covered on the left. "Why don't you ever take this off?" he asked, touching the leather covered wrist with his fingertips. "I understand the left one, it's not like you can take it off, but this one…"

"It… never seemed necessary," Vincent answered, pausing the melody and holding his hand still under Cloud's fingers. "And it's easier to keep from injuring myself with my left hand if I keep the right one covered."

"Hm," Cloud answered, and after a moment he withdrew his hand. Vincent glanced at him thoughtfully, before starting to open the buckles with the tips of his golden talon with the efficiency of one who hadn't had much choice but to learn. After a moment, all the buckles were open, and the man reached beneath the cloak to push the glove down and eventually completely off.

Cloud smiled. "You need some sun," he commented. The uncovered skin was even paler than Vincent's face, though how that was possible he wasn't sure.

"Maybe," the gunman agreed, spreading his bare fingers slightly and staring at the back of his palm. It was covered in scars – puncture marks from dozens of IVs.

"I'm sorry," the younger man said softly, eyeing the scars and knowing full well who had put them there – on whose payroll. Cautiously, he reached out to touch the marks and was both relieved and dismayed to find that he could barely feel them – they were just scars now, the inflammation had long since passed.

"Wasn't your company back then," Vincent said, turning his hand around until Cloud was touching his palm instead.

Cloud hummed quietly, and for a moment they were quiet, just staring at their hands. "Play something else," he then said, almost reluctantly withdrawing his hand.

After a pause, Vincent did.

The next day, Cloud took a look at his schedule, decided that he could move all his appointments to later dates, and proclaimed that he was having a day off and that no one should call him unless the Planet was ending and the ShinRa HQ was going to fall down. The following day he would have a meeting with some miners and drillers from Corel, people who worked the coal mines and had worked in the oil business before it had gone out of fashion, but that was for that day. This day, Cloud would not bother with work at all – after months of non-stop working, he deserved a holiday.

Tseng was indeed not happy, but Cloud had made himself comfortable in the President's position and so the man couldn't very well order him to stay. He did push a disguise on Cloud because despite the rarity of Cloud's public appearances, his picture was known and no one in Midgar had hair like his. So Cloud ventured out with a beanie to over his hair and sunglasses to hide his eyes –Tseng didn't force him to change his clothing, thanks to the fact that all of his rare public appearances had been in a suit and no one expected to see ShinRa's President in leather trousers and turtle neck vest.

Cloud was more than a little relieved to find that his Hardy was just as he remembered it to be and that despite the long length of time of sitting still in the garage, it purred to life with the old familiar rumble. It needed a bit of maintenance and fine tuning, but for now it would do. Vincent didn't seem to agree, though, and as the president took a seat and motioned to the back of it to his bodyguard, the Turk hesitated with a slightly worried look on his face, making the young man laugh. "I ran a delivery service," he reminded while setting Cait Sith, still a constant companion, to sit in front of him where the robot could grasp the handlebar for support. "What do you think I travelled on? Sit down already – I promise I won't crash."

After a moment, Vincent did, with the sort of cautious reluctance of someone who had never sat on a motorcycle in his life. Cloud ignored the man's lack of enthusiasm and instead took his hands, leather and metal covered both, and placed them around his waist before shifting the Hardy into gear, taking them out of the ShinRa garages and onto the streets.

It was one thing to see the place from high above, to look down at it from the seventieth story. It was quite another to drive on its streets. Midgar was huge, absolutely colossal, with tall buildings everywhere and streets worming through them at neat, orderly angles. Cloud had the map memorised, thankfully, and the rules of driving worked pretty much the same in the East as they did in the West, so he didn't worry much, but the drive turned out to be a bit more intimidating than he had expected.

And then the old excitement of driving his mother's monstrous motorcycle came back, and whatever fear he had evaporated under the thrill and freedom of driving, of the wind in his hair – of Vincent's hands, clutching him desperately. He drove for a while aimlessly, up this lane and down that one, just watching his city and going from sector to sector before slipping down the streets of sector six, to where the easiest access down to the slums was. He had to slow down a bit there, as the roads got a bit trickier, and then he had to drive down a couple of steps because apparently there usually wasn't much vehicle traffic between above and below plates.

And then they were in the slums, and the grip Vincent had on his hips tightened for a whole different reason.

"Oh," Cloud murmured, a bit sad. The slums were just that, slums. Ramshackle huts and shacks compiled from scrap metal and wood, with no hint of actual buildings anywhere. There were a couple of ancient looking trailers and a few corpses of cars turned into living spaces, but… no actual houses, no building work, nothing.

"It might be just this section. Let's look around a bit," Cloud said without expecting Vincent to answer, and then carefully navigated past the crowded slum market where pretty much everyone stared at them but no one made a move to approach. They had to wait a bit by the gates to get out of the sector six slums to sector five as the gigantic doors separating the sectors opened, but once there things got a bit easier – the sector five slums wasn’t quite so thoroughly poorly put together, though it too had its huts and shacks.

And also what looked like an enormous junkyard, full of random rubble. Cloud halted the Hardy for a while, letting the engine cool a bit as he eyed it with dismay, wondering if this was where all the trash from above plate was dumped – all that metal, didn't his company do any recycling? He hadn't even realised. He was so dismayed by what he saw that he didn't notice the church before Vincent made a soft sound.

"What?" the young president asked, and then saw it – a single building across all the waste, looking miraculously intact among all the ruins. "Hey, look at that. Looks like something did survive," he said, and turned the Hardy, speeding over the wasteland of junk as fast as he dared without knowing whether or not the terrain was full of steel nails or something. He stopped the bike in front of the church, bringing the kickstand down and turning the engine off even as Vincent shifted off from the bike's saddle.

"Ever seen this place before?" Cloud asked.

"Yes. I had… lessons here, when I was very young. Most children in the area did," Vincent answered softly, staring at the church with an unreadable expression. "The priest used to tell stories about the old times."

"Lessons, huh?" Cloud answered while tucking the keys into his pocket and lifting Cait Sith to his shoulder before stepping beside his bodyguard. "Let's have a look, shall we?"

The church wasn't so well off on the inside, but not as badly as it might've been, considering the collapsed rooftop. There were still some chairs left, and the pillars still stood, but the floor was completely ruined. What surprised Cloud the most was the sight of flowers growing where they couldn't be. There, right in the middle of the church, in an enormous hole in the ruined floorboards, a practical field of flowers bloomed.

"That's not possible," he murmured, walking forward and crouching beside the flowers, expecting them to be fake. But no, they were all real, all living, and all almost obnoxiously healthy. "The soil of Midgar is dead," he said. "There is no Lifestream flowing here – why, how are these plants growing here?"

Vincent looked down from the ceiling he had been staring at. "Maybe something in the church preserved a bit of the Lifestream here?" he offered.

"No, it doesn't work like that. Lifestream flows, it doesn't sit still – it can't, it runs out if it's stationary, it's spent," Cloud answered, shaking his head. He had learned enough of it from Bugenhagen's research to know that much. "And judging by this place, these have been growing here for a while," he added, noticing that there were a lot of dead leaves on the ground, already converting into new soil around the newer, healthier ones.

Vincent said nothing for a moment, walking to his side to examine the flowers. "They seem… planted," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe someone tends to them?"

"Tends them so well that they don't need Lifestream? How?" Cloud asked with disbelief. Vincent just shook his head and then glanced up, likely hearing something. Cloud did the same, just in time to see two people enter the church – first a familiar black haired SOLDIER with a broad sword, who was cautiously covering a young brown haired woman in a summer dress, shielding her with his body.

The SOLDIER blinked at Vincent. "Wait, don't I --?" Zack Fair asked as Cloud stood up next to Vincent, and then fell silent at the sight of the President, at first frowning at Cloud's beanie and sunglasses – and more importantly, the robotic toy companion – and then almost stepping back. "Oh, cripes," the man muttered, turning pale. "Sir! What the – what are you – these are the slums!"

"Zack?" the woman behind him asked, peering past his shoulder curiously. "You know these people?"

"Uh, well, that is – why?" the SOLDIER asked, looking between Cloud and Vincent in pure bewilderment, his hand making a move as if to flip out his phone and call for help.

"Relax, SOLDIER," Cloud said, a bit amused. "I'm having a day off. And if I want to have my day off in the slums, that's my right, isn't it?" he added, when the SOLDIER just kept looking at him with a mixture of nervousness and worry.

"B-but why the slums? You're the – uh… you could go to anywhere in Midgar, sir, why the slums? Why here?" Fair asked almost plaintively, and then jerked a little as the woman behind him insistently tugged at his shoulder.

"Za-ack," she said in exasperation. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?" she asked, only making the poor Second Class pale further.

Cloud chuckled. "My name is Cloud – this is Vincent," he said, motioning at his silent bodyguard. "And we just wanted to look around. The church seemed… interesting," he added, not sure if Vincent wanted the fact that despite his appearances he was over fifty years old spread. The reason why they were there wasn't that important anymore either. "I don't suppose you might know who planted these flowers here, miss? I would very much like to talk to that person."

"Well, I did," she said cheerfully. "My name is Aerith. It's very nice to meet you."

"You did? How did you manage it?" Cloud asked as nonchalantly as he could, while the SOLDIER looked between them with a sort of mortified confusion, like he wasn’t sure what was going on or what he was supposed to do about it – or if he even could do anything. "I don't think I've ever heard of anyone being able to grow plants in Midgar for a while now."

"Well…" the woman, Aerith, hesitated a bit and then smiled. "It wasn't easy, really, but I suppose I just have a knack for it. Do you like flowers, Cloud?"

"They're nice," Cloud agreed pleasantly. "You have a knack for it, hm. I suppose you would have to, to be able to make flowers grow not just in Midgar, but below the plate and inside a building with next to no natural light," he murmured, considering her thoughtfully. "Ever thought of trying to plant more of them?"

"I did, around my house," she said, smiling a bit brighter.

"Are they taking root?"

"Yeah, I think so."

Cloud fell silent, eyeing her. Somehow, she was making plants grow in a place where it should've been impossible. How was she doing it? Just because she had a knack for it? He rather doubted it, it would take more than all the green thumbs in the world to make something grow in a place where there was no Lifestream to spare for such things. Was she using magic? Some sort of way to use Materia he hadn't heard of? Or was it something else and if so then… what?

"Um, sir?" Fair said uneasily. "What is this about? Did Tseng… has the situation here changed?"

"Did Tseng what?" Cloud asked, turning to the SOLDIER who flinched a bit, glancing between Cloud and Aerith uneasily, guiltily. The president narrowed his eyes, knowing that look well – the look of secrets and orders and knowledge. Something was going on here, concerning the church, the girl…

Taking out his PHS, Cloud hit Tseng on the speed dial and lifted the phone to his ear. It didn't ring for long before the Director of the Investigation Sector of the General Affairs Department answered. "What are you keeping from me, Tseng?" Cloud asked calmly, eyeing Aerith who was looking between him and Fair uneasily now. "You know where I am, right?"

"… yes, sir," Tseng answered over the phone, sounding almost hesitant.

"So, what are you keeping from me?" the young president demanded. When there was only silence, Cloud frowned slightly. "Tseng," he said. "Haven't I been at this job long enough? Don't you think I am here to stay? What is it that you're worried about? Retribution? You know I trust your judgement."

"…yes, sir," the Director sighed. There was another, smaller, moment of hesitation before he answered, however. "Aerith Gainsborough is the last Ancient, a Cetra – as well as the daughter of the late Professor Gast. She used to be in ShinRa's captivity, but after her mother managed to escape, losing her life in the process, Miss Gainsborough has been living in the slums under Turk surveillance. Hojo, at the time, did not consider her a priority due to her age, so…"

"I see," Cloud answered, considering the young woman with more thought now, while the woman, a bit uneasy, shifted to stand closer to the SOLDIER, to hide from Cloud's eyes behind the man's bulk. Cloud ignored it, though. "And she knows?"

"Unquestionably," Tseng agreed.

Cloud took a breath and released it, considering the implications of it. He didn't know much about Ancients – but he knew enough, thanks to Bugenhagen, thanks to his own research into the Lifestream, the origin of Materia, and Jenova. There had been something in Hojo's mismatched files about some supposed Ancient as well, Ifalna, though he hadn't paid much attention to it – seeing that Jenova had been thought to be an Ancient originally as well.

The last Ancient, though, here – growing flowers where flowers shouldn't be able to grow. And with Commander Hewley's prized pupil at that.

"Tseng," Cloud said slowly. "I would like your opinion of her."

He could hear the almost explosive exhale, before Tseng quickly answered. "A kind hearted, selfless, and intelligent young woman, capable of considerable street smarts but quite optimistic. She enjoys a good reputation in the slums and is known for willingly healing people magically, free of charge. She is a… rare individual, even outside her heritage."

"Thank you," the young president answered, and lowered the PHS, snapping it shut while Fair frowned, shifting almost unnoticeably into a more ready position, as if to protect her – as if Cloud was about to attack her.

"Miss Gainsborough," Cloud said. "If you don't mind, I would very much like to hear more about your ability to make plants grow in Midgar. For example, could you do it on a wider scale?"

"Uh… why?" she asked nervously, sensing the tension in the atmosphere.

"If you can… then I might have a proposition for you," Cloud said and then smiled at her and Fair's obvious unease, turning his eyes from them and to Vincent who was watching the proceedings in his usual, silent vigil. "But I guess that can wait. I'm having a day off and I am not discussing business today, even if you can make flowers grow," he said, figuring that the Ancient probably wasn't going anywhere and there'd be time later. And if he wanted to contact her again, it would probably be better for her – and him, considering her close contact with the pupil of one of the Murderous Firsts – if he did it through Hewley and Fair.

"So," he said to his bodyguard while Fair and Gainsborough exchanged confused looks. "Shall we keep going?"

"Hm?" Vincent asked, blinking almost lazily.

"We have the rest of the slums to see. You want to look around here for a bit more, or shall we move on?"

The gunman raised his eyebrows slightly at that and then smiled faintly. "Let's keep going," the man said.

With a nod, Cloud turned to walk towards the exit – and towards Fair and Gainsborough. He ignored the way Fair shifted to keep himself between them and the woman, merely smiled at the pair of them and bid them "Afternoon," before walking out of the church and returning towards the Hardy, Fair's confused "Sir," trailing after him.

"How unlike you, Cloud," the gunman commented as the church doors closed behind them. "To let something like that pass so easily."

"I didn't intend to get out of the office just so I could keep working outside it. Tseng knows her, Fair knows her, there will be chances later – better chances at that, once Fair's had the time to explain things to her and report this to Hewley. Let them muddle through it, and once things have stewed for a while, then I will make her an offer of some sort," Cloud answered with a shrug while mounting the bike and putting Cait Sith on the handlebars again. "Probably will let Tuesti do it, though. He's better with skittish women."

The Turk chuckled in low tones, and took the seat behind him, his arms settling on Cloud's hips with a little more ease this time. Cloud smiled at that and then glanced at the gunman. "I'm sorry about the church," he said softly. "About Middangar."

"Not your fault. Wasn't your company back then," Vincent answered, glancing at the church. "I didn't really expect much of anything to remain at any rate."

"Yeah," the young president murmured, and with a shake of his head kicked his bike into life.

 

10.

 

Cloud couldn't work. He was used to semi quiet when he read over reports or wrote orders or did some other of the half a million tasks he had to do on a daily basis on his terminal in his usually quiet private office. Not that it was loud right then, not really, but there was… talking. Talking by two rather deep voiced men who spoke just quietly enough that he could ignore them for the most part – except when one of them raised his voice just a bit, just a hint, and then it felt like he ought to get a sword and defend himself. And possibly his masculinity as a man of the tenor persuasion.

Sending an uneasy look at Vincent and General Sephiroth, who were sitting on the couch across the room, talking about the late Lucrecia Crescent, Cloud wondered what would happen if he tried to kick the pair of them out. He was relatively used to Vincent's voice, and could for the most part endure it without any unreasonable urges to run for cover. But two of them talking together was a bit too much. And even if he realistically knew that they were not talking about him, about to talk to him, or about to attack him, it was still highly distracting to listen to them.

Sighing, he turned back to the screen, and went back to work.

Things were slowly settling on track, finally. Soon, Fromm and Hargo would have the first models of the ShinRa made solar panels out. And hopefully, if things worked out well, they could start mass producing them for private use. Then, if the numbers came back as good as Fromm promised, the establishment of the solar farms would begin, one near Junon, which would be the prototype and if that worked, then one on the west continent, near Corel.

They were already testing the wind mills, which were far easier to make than the solar panels – two had been pitched up on the shore of the Middle Ocean, not that far from Midgar. If those tests panned out, the shoreline would eventually house a great deal of windmills, which would eventually power the whole of Midgar along with the water power plant they were planning to build near Kalm, where the Kalane River flowed. That would take a while longer, since the whole artificial lake thing was a bit trickier than they first suspected, and there was some worry about it drowning Kalm all together, but there was time.

And in the meanwhile, the coal mines of Corel and North Corel had been blown wide open, for the first time in a long while. Cloud was a bit leery about using coal – Bugenhagen preferred it to Mako, sure, but he preferred pretty much everything else to coal because apparently it polluted the environment a lot – but if things worked out well there, and the mines proved to still have as much coal as the townspeople thought, then… the Corel Reactor would be the first to be powered down indefinitely, eventually to be dismantled. Right now the reactor was on standby, still powered down for maintenance along with the Gongaga reactor, except the maintenance itself wasn't happening – because what was the point in maintaining the reactors when eventually he hoped to stop using them entirely? Aside from making sure that the things didn't blow up or cause more damage than their existence already did, it was a waste of money.

And now, with so many projects rolling, all eating money and the general populace teetering in confusion about what their ruling company was doing, Cloud was back to his tight-fisted ways of rigorous budgeting. Which in and of itself proved to be a very interesting and surprisingly profitable thing to do – especially after he had added the concept of recycling to the company mandate.

ShinRa had just trashed a lot of stuff before. And not just the lots and lots of projects that had gotten swept under the rug, but also the materials they had considered unnecessary. The slums were brimming with excess material from the building of the city that was just rotting down there, when a lot of it could've been processed and made into something useful – even scrap metal could be melted and turned into something. Bolts and iron nails if nothing else.

So that was a thing. Although the newness of the whole concept of a recycling plant was a bit off to ShinRa workers and pretty much everyone else in general, having the people of Cosmo Canyon on his payroll in the Technological Research Department helped – they believed in recycling things more than the President did. It hadn't taken much work for Fromm and Hargo to turn the factory that had previously manufactured the flying Heli Gunners, Sky Armours, and other similar flying robots that attacked by rotor blades into a recycling plant. And although the project was still in its infancy, it had already produced enough usable material to make itself worth the effort. It had also opened some fifty new jobs for those with lower-education, a fact that the people of Midgar highly approved of.

Unemployment had never been on Cloud's agenda before – too busy with all the horrible wrongness of his company – but it was pretty nice to make a dent on it. Corel and North Corel were his greatest successes so far – it had been enjoying a good forty percent unemployment rate before his meeting with the miners and the reopening of the mines. Now, there were very few people left there who didn't work.

Rubbing his neck slightly, Cloud leaned back to read the last lines of the message he had written to be sent to Mr. Wallace in Corel – one of the managers of the mines, and the link between the miners and ShinRa. Cloud would send some of Ganase's scientists to help them in examining the mines that the miners feared might've gotten polluted by Mako in their long disuse, but with the people of Corel – who had previously been shunned by ShinRa and were still stinging about it – everything had to be worded very carefully, or they'd think that ShinRa was bossing them around again. Which of course they were, but it didn't need to look like that.

Twitching slightly as Sephiroth raised his voice just enough for the word "Honestly?" to carry across the room, Cloud put the message aside and turned to the other matter at hand. His and Ganase's on-going argument about Jenova.

Since settling into the position of the Science Department's head, Ganase had been tearing her way through the worst of the company's science projects and of course Jenova was at the top of the list. However, Ganase was a specialist of viral infections and thought that the Jenova Cells – which all SOLDIERs had, the Firsts in most quantity – acted like a virus. She wanted to bring the specimen to Midgar to study it further and maybe even use it to stop some of the problems with the SOLDIERs from progressing. Like Commander Rhapsodos' on-going ailment that made it difficult for him to heal from superficial wounds, which Hollander had called Degeneration. Ganase had explained that it wasn't really degeneration so much as there was something that interfered with mitosis and the cellular reactions that were usually responsible for healing – and apparently, it was the Jenova Cells that caused it.

"The most dangerous of the Jenova Cells’ interactions with the human body is the interference with mitosis, which causes cells to divide," the scientist had explained. "Surely you've heard the saying about you being a new person every ten or so years? It's not precisely accurate; however, most cells in the human body, with the exception of neurons, are replaced periodically through cell division, the longest taking some twenty years. The Jenova Cells interfere with this process, which is causing the apparent speeding up of aging in Commanders Rhapsodos and Hewley."

Cloud had heard nothing about that until that point, but apparently, Rhapsodos and Hewley were both actually a bit younger than they looked – and due to the Jenova Cells, all SOLDIERs had their life-spans shortened, the most unfortunate being the Firsts who had most of Jenova in them, but all are suffering just the same. Ganase wanted to study Jenova mainly to get rid of the side effects, which was admirable enough, except for the fact that it was Jenova.

"Absolutely not," had been Cloud's firm answer. "I'll authorise you or any of your people to go to Nibelheim and study Jenova there, or move the specimen to some other facility, but no one brings the thing here where we have four hundred SOLDIERs all with her genes."

"Surely you don't actually believe in Hojo's inane theory about Reunion?" Ganase had asked.

"A couple of months back I didn't believe in Aliens or the Lifestream, and look at where we are now," Cloud had answered. "Whether you believe it or not, I don't care. I am not taking that risk. Do what you want and what you must, but do it at a distance."

And that had been that. Ganase was still arguing about it because Midgar had the best equipment for the study, but Cloud wasn't letting her bring even parts of Jenova into the city, so the studies were being conducted at two places, with Ganase's team working in Nibelheim while she monitored the process from Midgar. As far as Cloud was concerned, that would have to do.

"The lass is coming," Cait Sith commented from the top of his screen, making Cloud look up from Ganase's latest list of very well worded arguments.

"She's early," Cloud commented before turning to Sephiroth and Vincent who had paused in their low toned talk to look at him. "Sorry to interrupt your discussion, General, but I have a meeting with Miss Gainsborough coming up," Cloud said, though he didn't feel particularly sorry.

"I think we've covered most of everything I know," Vincent added, at which the General nodded and stood.

"I will take my leave then," the silver haired man said before glancing at Cloud and raising an eyebrow. "Zack Fair does know about this meeting, correct?"

"Zack Fair is probably going to be a part of it," Cloud snorted and shook his head. "I don't mind – Miss Gainsborough should have a good bodyguard, considering everything."

"Indeed," the General said with a thoughtful nod and then turned to leave in a whirl of black coat tails and silver hair.

The president gave his retreating back an amused glance, not entirely convinced that the man wasn't doing it for the dramatic effect, before looking up at Vincent. "How was it?"

"You were here the whole time," the gunman pointed out.

"Trying not to listen," Cloud answered with a shrug and leaned back in his seat. "Also, do you have any idea what a pair of men like you can do to a guy's ego?" he sighed, shaking his head. "Why couldn't you be opera singers? I would feel much better about life if you were."

Vincent let out the slightest huff, which for him passed for a snort, and then took his place behind the President's chair – just in time, as that was when Gainsborough entered with a newer model of the Cait Sith on her shoulder, this one with a little golden crown on its head and a red cape, with SOLDIER Fair trailing after her. She also had a bunch of flowers in her hands.

"Good morning sir," the last Ancient greeted him cheerfully, walking right over to his desk and depositing the flowers in a vase there, which Caslie had procured just for this sort of occasions. "Bit of something to cheer you up," she said.

"Appreciated," Cloud smiled, powering the screen of his terminal down and turning to face her completely, while Fair lingered behind her, still a bit uneasy in the President's presence but not quite as much as he had been in the beginning. "How did the survey go?"

"Better than I hoped. The soil samples are in the laboratories right now, but I can safely say that there is very little wrong with the land around Midgar," Gainsborough said, clasping her hands behind her back and bouncing on the balls of her feet almost giddily. "If the lab results come out clean, we're going to start setting up the three temporary prototype greenhouses on the dead zone; the first near the city, another just at the edge of the dead zone, and the third between the two."

"That's good to hear," Cloud said with a nod. Tuesti already had a plan for the rejuvenation program, which, if it worked, would eventually see the orchards, gardens, and fields that had been so common in the area before Midgar restored. If – and the if was a pretty big one – Aerith could work her powers on a larger scale, then she and Tuesti would surround Midgar in rings of greenery.

"And the other thing?" Cloud asked, which made the young woman frown.

"It… reaches pretty far," she admitted. "There isn't any Lifestream flowing freely within a fifteen mile radius. A bit, yeah, just enough to allow some withered trees here and there to grow just ten miles away, but…" Gainsborough shrugged. "I think it will return once the reactors are powered down – once the reactors aren't sucking it into the centre, it will start flowing in the area around the city again. But it might take a while."

Cloud nodded with a slight frown. He had suspected as much. If things panned out, the greenery project of Gainsborough and Tuesti’s might stimulate the Lifestream to return faster, but… it seemed like they were in for a long healing process.

"Sir?" the young woman asked after a moment of silence, making him glance up. "Is it true what they say, about the birth statistics?"

The president sighed – that was the reason he didn't much like the idea of a long wait. One of the things Ganase had done was the beginning of the archiving of all the negative side effects of Mako use and all the other things the Science Department had pushed out. Since Midgar's building, the birth-rates in the area had dropped by about sixty percent. It wasn't that there were miscarriages or anything equally horrible, thank the Planet. People just… got pregnant a lot less in Midgar than they did anywhere else, and it wasn't for lack of trying.

"Yeah," the young president answered. "No one noticed before because no one was looking, but it's pretty hard to have kids in Midgar." Most people who did, did so thanks to the fact that the conception happened somewhere else – Kalm was a pretty common attraction for couples thanks to the rumours that it had a good effect on fertility, but that wasn't it. Midgar just had a negative one.

"So, the sooner we get the place growing again, the better," Cloud added, smiling slightly. "Is there anything you can do about it? I know the reactors make it pretty much impossible, but we can't power them down unless we want the city to freeze in the upcoming winter."

"I know. I'm… trying things," Gainsborough admitted, swinging back and forth again and then clasping her hands together. "I did... something with the church, which made the flowers grow there. I'm thinking I might be able to do it elsewhere too, and maybe make it permanent. I have to keep doing it repeatedly in the city, but out there I might not have to. At least, not so often."

"Do whatever you feel is necessary, just don't overexert yourself," Cloud smiled. "You are pretty important to this company, Miss Gainsborough."

"Why thank you, Mr. President," she answered, curtsying with a laugh. "I'm honoured. I've told you to call me Aerith, though."

Cloud just chuckled at that and shook his head. He liked treating his employees with all due courtesy – it felt… better, than acting all familiar with them. Even when he was familiar with them. Gainsborough worked for him, and though she hadn't done much yet, he had a feeling that eventually there'd be a department with her name on it that would have a big part in the company – and she deserved his respect. "Maybe one day," he offered.

"You call Vincent, Vincent," she answered, pouting.

"Well, he watches over me while I sleep. Anything else might be a bit awkward," Cloud shrugged, though that wasn't it precisely. It wasn't like people really needed to know the details of what meagre private life he had. "Was there anything else, Miss Gainsborough?"

"Nope. Just wanted to bring you flowers," she answered, smiling, and turned in a whirl of brown hair and skirt hems to skip out of the room. Cloud eyed her as she and Fair left, and laughed softly to himself, at how much she and Sephiroth were alike, even while being completely and utterly different.

"That girl has a lot of liberty in this company," Vincent noted thoughtfully. "Skipping to your office freely just to bring you flowers."

"Could you say no to her?" Cloud asked amusedly, reaching to pluck one white flower from the vase, snapping the stem short and then turning to Vincent. "Bow down a bit," he said, and with a sigh the bodyguard did as asked, eyeing him with stoic amusement as Cloud eased the flower into his bandana, so that it peeked past the black strands of hair.

"You've turned whimsical," the man commented.

"Things are looking up," Cloud shrugged, while tucking a few black strands of Vincent's hair out of the flower's way. "And I think I've gotten there now."

The monster that was ShinRa was turning underneath him, changing – and he could justifiably take all the credit for it. Of course, there were still problems and there would probably be until his death – people were still a bit ticked off at ShinRa, more so now that it was changing and how bad it had been before was coming to light. AVALANCHE still wanted him dead, judging by the recent attempt to blow up Sector Two’s reactor, and there was a lot of hate mail sent his way. The Planet was weak, withering, and he couldn't even turn the reactors off yet, not unless he wanted ShinRa to completely fall.

But… they were getting there.

"I think so too," Vincent agreed, standing up straight. Cloud smiled at the visage he made, with the blossom in his bandana, and turned back to his computer. He had reports to read and assignments to hand out and department heads to manage, and a world to save.

With Vincent's hand resting on the backrest of his chair, just enough for Cloud to feel the tips of the golden talon on his shoulder, the President of the ShinRa Electric Power Company got back to work.

 

∞.

 

Genesis considered the apple in his hands. He was bored, which was something he hadn't thought possible considering where he was. It was one of ShinRa's new Tech Expos, which Strife, for one reason or another, had decided that the company needed to host once or twice a year, and which usually ended up turning into huge balls, glorified with gadgetry and science. They started with a lot of displays about what was the newest and shiniest and then devolved into people babbling over each other as they wandered around the exhibition hall, ogling at the newest goods, before the whole thing changed into dancing, betting, and occasionally fighting depending on who was in attendance.

After a moment of examining the Banora White, he flicked out his knife and began carving on it. They were still showing the newest things – currently, it was one of the wind turbines on display, one which apparently would be finishing up the Midgar Wind Farm, or something. Genesis wasn't really listening – technology had never been his thing, and who the hell could keep up with all the things that Tech Research pushed out these days anyway? It was something like ten different products a month, all with names that were a bunch of random letters and numbers, which all looked the same to him.

"Don't you look cheerful," a familiar voice commented, and he looked up to see Angeal.

"Same to you," the commander said, smiling faintly at the suit Angeal was wearing. The Head of Public Safety Maintenance looked highly uncomfortable in the tie, and was loosening the collar even as Genesis watched and, by the looks of it, had been doing so for the last hour or so. "My friend, the fates are cruel," Genesis said, and chuckled.

"It's not so bad. It's just damned hot in here," Angeal answered and sat down beside him with a sigh, looking up to the stage where one of the geeks from Tech Research was pointing at the big screen and the list of some obscure facts there. "What are you doing here, anyway? You don't care about technology."

"Neither do you, but here you are," Genesis said, easing a fleck of the apple off and bringing it to his lips on the tip of the knife.

"I had to make an appearance at the start, all department heads do. You don't."

"True. I'm here to see if anyone tries to assassinate the president this time. It was entertaining the last time around," Genesis grinned, thinking back to the last Expo that had been just six months ago. Not that he particularly wanted the president dead anymore, but it had still been pretty hilarious. Some might've called it gruesome – Valentine had done quite a number on the attackers and that was after the president had brained the nearest one with a decorative pole – but Genesis appreciated it for the drama. The AVALANCHE stooge that was the head of the so called attack had certainly enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame. Or, a minute and twenty eight seconds before the President had brained him.

"I'd tell you that you need a hobby, but considering the hobbies you do have, I think it's probably safer for the planet in general that I refrain," Angeal murmured with a snort, even while turning to look at the table where the President's party was sitting, watching the display – where he himself had been sitting.

Strife, Genesis was amused to note, looked even less comfortable in a suit than Angeal did. It made sense though – Strife usually went around in leather trousers, hiking boots, and sleeveless turtle necks, looking precisely nothing like the President of ShinRa ought to have looked like. But then, considering what the president who had looked the part had done, Genesis had to admit he could deal with leather trousers and turtle neck sweatshirts.

"Do you think he understands any of this?" Genesis asked idly. Sure, he knew that Strife was intelligent – but he looked like such a… stereotypical blond, not just with the hair but the wide blue eyes and the whole diminutive look and all. Even in a suit, it was hard to take the man seriously.

"I think he does," Angeal answered. "I heard he used to work as a mechanic for a while before coming to ShinRa."

"I heard he was a delivery boy," Genesis answered, grinning at the memory of the rumours. It didn't help that Strife had never bothered to deny any of them in the rare interviews he gave – though then again, Strife never bothered to address any rumours about himself.

On the stage, the geek bowed to the applause he was suddenly receiving and was then ushered off the stage so that another gadget could be brought out to be displayed. Genesis glanced at the stage with only the barest hints of interest and when it turned out it was yet another solar cell they were going to be talking about, he turned back to his apple carving.

He still wasn't entirely sure what he really thought of President Strife. Two years into the man's career, and he still couldn't really figure out what the man really was. Hell, the guy wasn't even a man yet – it turned out he had been something like sixteen at the time Tseng had presented him to Genesis, Sephiroth, and Angeal. Which had been the weirdest meeting ever – Strife hadn't been anything like they had expected of yet another bastard of ShinRa’s to be like. For one, the guy had called himself a bastard of ShinRa’s and seemed actually amused about it; and secondly, he had openly acknowledged the fact that his life was balanced on the tips of their swords – and the man hadn't seemed to care in the slightest.

Genesis had to wonder if the man even knew that it wasn't anymore. Not that they couldn't – though admittedly it would be damn hard with Valentine there, every moment of every day. But it was that none of them would. Because Strife, despite all of his out looks and weirdness and everything… was actually a damn good President.

They had really fucked things up, when they had decided to kill ShinRa, Hojo, Hollander, and everyone else that stood in their way. Tuesti had warned them, but they hadn't actually believed how easily ShinRa could collapse into itself. In those few months when no one had wanted to take the helm and no one had wanted to even suggest that someone be put in charge… ShinRa would've collapsed without Tuesti and Tseng. They too had tried, they had kept SOLDIER and what little of the infantry they could running, but that would've never been enough.

Pays were late, people were angry, not coming to work, not doing their jobs – four times Genesis had been sent to drag back this or that person to work because it just so happened that they were needed to keep this or that reactor of Midgar from blowing up. Shipments had been late, things had malfunctioned and no one had the authority to order repairs, and the science department had completely unravelled before Tseng had somehow managed to make a few people actually stick to their stations…

And then Strife had sauntered in, told them rather pointedly to either kill him right then and there or let him do his damn job. And then he had done his damn job.

And then, after starting to do his job, he had turned his job into something else. How someone so little could change so many things in such a short period of time, Genesis had no idea, but Strife had. Already, five of Midgar's eight reactors had been put out of commission, and the last three would be shutting down sometime in the next year or so, once the Kalane Dam is finished.

There was a clatter of applause and the Commander glanced up from his apple to see that they were displaying concept sketches about the upcoming Junon Solar Farm on the screen. It looked ridiculous and Genesis could already see how hard it would be to maintain the thing, with monsters about – those fences would only stop the land bound ones after all – but it seemed to make the people excited if nothing else.

"A world without Mako," Angeal muttered. "Can you imagine that?"

"I can. It's full of turbines and glossy rectangles," Genesis snorted and held the apple up. "What do you think?" he asked, showing the carving of a rose he had etched into the apple's side.

"Very artistic," Angeal answered with a crooked smile. "No one ever said that you shouldn't play with your food?"

"Probably wasn't listening at the time," Genesis answered, and took a bite of the apple while on the stage, the solar geek headed off and another display started. "Oh, it's Missus Puppy," the Commander noted, making Angeal look up and to the stage.

Aerith Gainsborough was greeted, as always, with a huge round of applause and lots of whistling – all of which she welcomed with grins and waves and a few kisses blown at the crowd. The last Ancient was pretty well liked among the population of Midgar, and the reason for it was soon displayed on the screen behind her. The Ring Gardens of Midgar was already world famous for being a miracle, for growing in a place where Mako had previously drained the life from – they didn't look like much in the aerial image, just a sort of loop that lazily coiled around the city with the glass domes of green houses here and there, but Genesis had seen them up close and yeah, they were pretty damn impressive. Especially considering that they hadn't even been there, two years ago.

As Gainsborough started to, rather excitedly, explain something about this new Materia that they were developing that had the power to make plants grow faster, Genesis considered the image of Midgar, the RingGardens. Yet another thing that no one would've imagined, Midgar surrounded by greenery. True, they weren't quite there yet, since there was still a lot of dead space in between, but… each month that space was getting smaller. Especially since the reactors had started powering down.

"We've turned into a damn nature organisation," Genesis muttered, wondering. He had heard that they were growing Banora Whites in one of the greenhouses, but Gainsborough hadn't admitted it out loud yet.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Angeal muttered, leaning back. "Though I suppose things have changed some."

"Some, indeed," Genesis grunted, and took another bite of the apple. His eyes slid back to Strife, who was smiling at Gainsborough's presentation. Behind him stood, as always, the red clad shape of Valentine who was eyeing the crowd closely, looking for any hostiles. The Turk's eyes met Genesis' for a moment, but passed by without acknowledgement, going back to screening the crowd without pause.

Genesis still wondered – pretty often too – what Strife had done to earn the loyalty of someone like Valentine, who was indisputably the strongest Turk in existence. And immortal too, if the rumours were to be believed. "There is no hate, only joy," Genesis murmured, giving Strife a pointed look. "For you are beloved by the Goddess."

There was a moment of silence before Angeal commented, "That's something I haven't heard in a while."

"Hm?"

"You, quoting LOVELESS," the other man answered, shrugging. "Strife?" Angeal then asked.

"He certainly seems to be," Genesis muttered, shifting his shoulder and looking away. Not that he had anything to complain about, not anymore, not since the Degeneration had been cured. But still…

Sometimes he wondered what it would've been like, to be in Strife's boots, in the man's head. They saw everything he did, of course; the man still carried his Cait Sith around and let it see pretty much everything – except Tuesti nowadays no longer made the cat toy follow the President to the bedroom, for some reason. But it was one thing to watch the man go through mountains of paperwork but quite another to actually understand how his mind worked. And what it felt like to have the loyalty of his whole work force in a way that even Angeal, with his adoring crowds of infantrymen and SOLDIERs, couldn't match.

What was it like to be the most powerful man on the Planet?

Angeal was looking at him. "What are you thinking about?" he asked, frowning.

"Power, mostly," Genesis answered, and finished his apple. He had always wanted to be a hero greater than Sephiroth – or just a Hero, acknowledged for his strength and honour. Strife wasn't strong – though there was the rumour that he has six different swords, a sheath that could carry all six in one go, and that he could use them all. Genesis didn't really believe it. Strife wasn't strong, wasn't enhanced in any way.

And yet he – not Sephiroth, not Genesis, not Angeal – had saved the world. Granted, they had cleared the way for Strife to take over and actually do so, but still. A flimsy little slip of a man, not tall enough to reach Genesis' chin, who called them the "Murderous Firsts", according to rumours.

Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds.

Genesis smiled wryly. The ways of the Goddess were mysterious, indeed.