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Ah, mornings. That wonderful time when you staggered out of bed, prayed the coffee was strong enough to cut through the fog, and got your gear in place at the obscene crack of dawn. Even the roadside motel bed Zack was peeling himself out of looked more appealing than the dim light of the outside --

Hey, self, come on. Just chug the caffeine and let's get moving.

I mean, I'm actually doing something useful for once.

And nice normal practical missions, even mundane ones -- like this one, playing babysitter to an admittedly big and important chunk of ShinRa equipment while the caravan snaked its way along a freshly-paved highway -- made Zack's day, any and every day of the week. Getting out of Midgar? Cool. Getting to see the sights, check out new people (and needle Cloud into doing the same), maybe goof off some if everything went smoothly? Awesome.

Watching General Sephiroth get more and more uncomfortable the further from Midgar they got? Priceless.

Besides, it all made a great distraction from ... well, everything else that happened, and that Zack suspected wasn't as wrapped up nice and neat as ShinRa execs liked to claim. But, damn it, he wasn't going to let that get to him today, and not on any other stretch of the trip either! This was going to be cool, and relaxing, and ...

... And what the hell was Cloud doing?

It was great that he was up and ready to go already -- lookit that, had his uniform on and everything -- but what was he stuffing into his pockets? It looked like ...

"Cloud. Hey."

Cloud looked back at him, startled, and dropped a few bits of what was, most definitely, breadcrumbs. Zack blinked. Twice.

"Sooo ... why are you hiding bread in your pockets, man. It's not like we don't feed you."

Sure, he was joking; but the look Cloud gave him was completely, utterly serious. He poked one pocket, zipped it up, and shrugged like he did this every day.

"I was sort of listening in and getting some information about the village the techs're setting up the core drill at, and it's right in the middle of a moogle forest. I'm not taking any chances, because the last thing I want to do is wake up years later or find myself under a lake or have string and fishbones coming out of some crazy sore or something even weirder.. So, crumbs it is."

That was more of a speech from Cloud than Zack had managed to pry from him since he'd met the ambulatory dandelion, even if Cloud immediately clamped his mouth shut the moment he'd finished. It was too bad that he was completely wrong about the breadcrumbs, though.

"I don't know if that's going to work, man. Try turning something inside out and wearing it that way, that's what we do back home and it never fails --"

"Not that superstition again."

Amused and exasperated, Sephiroth's drawl echoed down the hall before the man himself turned the corner and strode into view. The picture of the perfect skeptic, he shook his head at the two without breaking stride; but Zack caught the slightest hint of an indulgent little smirk. The General's commentary continued on:

"They're just animals. Odd little beasts, certainly, but just animals. Anything else is tall tales and fairy stories.

"Get yourselves together and move out."

Cloud stared after Sephiroth like he'd been whacked in the back of the head with a log, and Zack -- long used to the skepticism, like Sephiroth ever saw moogles or much of anything else coming from Midgar like he did -- just shrugged and socked Cloud playfully in the shoulder.

"Naw, don't take it personally, he just doesn't know any better. It's not like he told you to knock it off, right? Come on, let's get going."

... Maybe he'd add the breadcrumbs idea, though, just in case. Couldn't hurt.

-*-

There were -- alas? -- no signs of moogles when the caravan arrived at the assembly site, or while the grunts (Cloud included) set up temporary camp outside the village and its scattered old stone walls and patches of fruit trees, or even after the techies started spilling out over the countryside forgetting half their kit every time they came back from a survey. (Eventually even Zack got tired of playing fetch for them, not that he'd admit it.) No obvious signs, anyway. He'd spotted a few ghostfires flitting around at night and had no doubt Cloud saw the same.

But nothing came of the fires, spotted or otherwise -- score another one for crumbs and inverted clothing -- and after a good week of shooing curious kiddies away from the installation and, once, putting down an ornery pack of bombs that came out of nowhere, everything was more or less finished. Zack was feeling pretty good about it all, really -- a job well done, and all that -- but it was time to pack up and move on.

And that was definitely alas, because the locals had plied them with goodies since the evening they all turned up. Nice change from the side-eye ShinRa folks could get closer to Midgar. Hell, Cloud was trotting up to the flatbeds with one last neatly-made local basket of pears (not apples, for which Zack was eternally grateful) under his arm right that moment, gnawing on one of them --

Wait. Wait wait wait. The only place he remembered seeing pears growing anywhere around was out by the village's old burying ground and --

"Zack, breathe. You look like a panicked child."

-- and Sephiroth was coming out of nowhere, like usual, snagging a pear from Cloud. Zack boggled at them both. One fine silvery brow shot skyward, and Sephiroth sighed.

"Spit it out. What's the issue this time?"

Nope. He wasn't saying a thing to the other First Class in the place quite yet. Better to interrogate Cloud first; Cloud, who was finishing off his pear like nothing was going on at all.

"Hey, Cloud. Did anyone say where those came from?"

Stare. Cloud finished the fruit, tossed the few inedible bits of core.

"Not really. Probably the trees on the edge of the old graveyard though. Why?"

'Why' came out as a drawn out gurgle that had Zack clawing at the air while Cloud eeled backward a few steps and Sephiroth asked him if he'd suddenly taken leave of his senses altogether. And he felt like he did, but whatever --

"Don't eat anything growing in a graveyard! God, you're going to piss off the dead guys and get haunted or possessed or your brains get eaten or all three --"

"Zack."

A hand like a hammer came down on his shoulder, but Sephiroth wasn't annoyed. If anything, there just may have been a bit of concern lurking in the man's weird eyes -- concern for Zack and what sounded a hell of a lot like a sudden attack of lunacy.

"Zack, it's fruit. It's just a basket of pears. Nothing's going to happen, the exact same way that no little furry white moogles came and spirited anyone away. It's just superstition."

Sephiroth shook his head.

"Take a deep breath and calm down before someone spots you and decides it's an admirable time to make a report on more SOLDIER operatives getting irrational."

Okay. Okay, that was fair. More than fair, and he appreciated the warning that wasn't one exactly. Zack sighed -- deep breath -- and mustered a grin.

"Got it. Okay, I'm fine. Let's get things done, yeah?"

"Good. Come on. You too, Strife."

But that night, in the next motel down the road, Zack just didn't shake the woolies the thought gave him. And didn't touch the pears.

Some things, it didn't matter what you got told.

You just knew.