A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 1

By Twig

       

There was nothing fresh or inviting about the morning that poured over the valley. It clung like the stench of rot, overpowering every other scent, and the dew congealed in an oily film over the plastic tarps, the metal bars, a slime over all the mechanics of war.

"Sir?"

There was no answer to his query, but the man hadnít honestly expected one. He coughed, throwing his cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with his heel. Though he had known the man in front of him longer than anyone else out here, had been the recipient of most of his rare smiles, his good favor, it was still hard to interrupt him, and calling attention to himself still brought fear.

"General...sir...?"

"Donít call me that, Ro. We know each other too well for titles."

"All right." The man moved up beside the man who would always be "General" in his mind and heart, the title as inseparable from the man as the sword on his back.

"Theyíre ready for you. Everything is set, we just need your order."

The muscular man sighed raggedly, running a hand absently through his hair. Ro liked the movement, it was one of the only things that reminded him that his commander was human.

"Do we know how this is going to work out... I didnít attend..."

"...the meeting? I know, remember, I was there."

His half-sarcastic tone earned him a smile from his commander. On the morning of this battle, it was a welcome good omen.

"The chocobo lancers are going to cut around and attack the left flank. We think they should be able to pass through with minimal casualties. There are more of them than even I thought we had. The infantry will follow with an assault on the west edge, hopefully driving some of Hojoís troops out into the open. Our snipers on the ridge will be waiting."

"Do they know if any of our prisoners are still alive?"

"Weíve had chocobos flanking them for fifteen miles, but they havenít been able to see anything."

Glowing blue eyes narrowed into slits.

"We hit them with everything weíve got, then. This is our last chance before they push us right back into hell, and we canít afford that. Stop them now... we have to crush them all. Thatís my order."

Ro swallowed hard, wincing at the ferocity, the absolute power that voice contained, as if just by saying it, the General could make it be.

//He can. After five years, I believe... he can do anything...//

"Yes sir."

Ro saluted, and quickly walked away, leaving his General alone, staring out at the future, at a battle to come, as unstoppable as any natural disaster.

       

//Letís go out... letís try and make the best of our lives...//

It had been that insipid, he knew, the last statement he could remember from that time, the book that should have closed, the time that he should have been allowed to leave behind.

He had been optimistic then, obscenely so, to even think of saying those kinds of words, to think that /anything/ would ever change for him.

//As if I would ever have anything to live for... ever again...//

His men. He lived for his men, for an ever-diminishing number of loyal soldiers, for a group who hadnít set foot on friendly soil in nine months, who looked to him to show them the way home.

//They think they trust me... because Iíve seen hell, and I came back. But they donít know... that I never left. I never really left.//

/Cloud./

He whimpered, slamming the flat of his hand into his head, squeezing his eyes together tightly. He could control it now, it didnít drop him like it had in the past, a lifetime ago. He could even fight through it, if he had to, fight an entire battle while the green stream of pain was trying to tear him apart. He could claw past that too, make a thousand command decisions, lead another army before he collapsing back into his bedroll, shivering at the sharp emerald knives being pushed through his thoughts. The fact that they were pure life energy, the very source of everything he thought they were fighting for, didnít seem to matter now.

//Go away. Goddamn you. Not now. Go AWAY!!!//

/Cloud. Heís coming. Heís coming /here/./

The blonde knew that. He had known for over a year that it would happen, but there was nothing he could do about it. There was no way to change anything, all he could do was fight, as hard as he could, the things set up directly in front of him. It didnít stop the pain, it didnít change the way his stomach crawled at the terror in her voice.

/Cloud. Please. Heíll destroy everything. Please. Help me. Kill him now. Kill him /now/. Donít let him return. Heíll destroy /everything/./

//Thereís nothing... nothing... I can do.//

/Cloud!?/

He didnít know whether that painful cry was real or memory, whether it was really her, or the voice of the Earth, speaking to him in the way that would affect him, hurt him the most. It still ached in a very personal way. It still sounded like Aeris, pleading, begging with him for her life.

"General, sir? Weíre ready."

Cloud turned, and picked up the Ultima sword, feeling his hand and arm muscles ache in terrible recognition, as if he had never put it down.

One whistle, smooth and quiet, brought his Chocobo to his side, and he jumped into the saddle with an ease bred of familiarity.

General Cloud, the highest-ranking ShinRa officer in the world, looked into the first rays of the morning sun, and led his troops to battle against the western wing of Hojoís army. It was the middle of the fifth year, in what had been quietly, unceremoniously dubbed the Second War for the Planet.

       

"Long night, Tifa?"

Tifa smiled wearily, and took the glasses that Cid had picked up off of a table, shoving them into a growing pile of dirty dishes.

"Didnít sleep too well. Nightmares."

"What about?"

Tifa frowned for a moment, and didnít answer the older man. After a few silent minutes, Cid quietly backed away, and didnít repeat the question. The new bar looked a lot like the old one. Cid could tell from the pictures on the walls, of the old days, days that seemed to have passed well into oblivion. Faces stared out from those pictures that were no longer with them now. Jesse... Biggs... Wedge... he didnít even know them, and it still gave him pause, a moment of somber sadness.

//Misty-eyed over poor bastards you didnít even know... thatís pretty sad, pilot.//

"Well, well. I heard you were back in town."

Cid turned at the sound of footsteps, just before Marlene gave him a big hug around the waist.

"Hi, Uncle Cid!"

Cid grinned, patting the girl on the head.

"Well, well. Look at you. Amazing how youíve grown. What are you now, twenty, twenty-seven?"

Marlene stuck her tongue out at his gentle joking, and darted past him to leap up on a bar stool, where Tifa had a root beer waiting for her.

Barret watched his daughter dart around, and shook his head.

"You know, some days, I just feel /old/."

"Yeah..." Cid murmured, and knew the words came out harsher and darker than he had wanted them to. "Yeah. I know exactly what you mean."

"The..." Barret rubbed the gun that covered the end of his hand, and lowered his voice. "The... the war. It isnít going well, then?"

Cid looked over, made sure Tifa was too far away to hear them.

"It was never going well. But now... I heard we lost Elly at the pass, and a whole platoon on the north shore, trying to take out one of Hojoís new bug plants. When I left..." He sighed, and abruptly changed topics.

"Do you know where I can find Vincent?"

"Valentine?" Barret blinked, surprised. "Hell, man. I havenít seen him in at least three years..."

The dark man frowned, face coming together like a land formation, all boulders and deep crags and crevasses.

"I hear there are places to live up in the north... the kind of places people go to try and rebuild, or to forget... If I were you... Iíd check there."

Cid frowned.

"You see... the problem is, I donít have a lot of time. Iíd like to find him soon... because if I donít, I think ShinRa will... Hell..." He murmured, looking at Tifa. "They might be at your door tomorrow, for all I know."

"Whatís going on, Cid?" Barret leaned in, dark eyes flashing.

Cid bit his lip, lighting his new cigarette on the glowing end of the old one. Chain smoking was a habit he figured heíd be getting more and more familiar with in the next few weeks.

"You knew about the... projects, right? The ones ShinRa started doing when they discovered Hojo wasnít just going to roll over and die?"

"Youíre talking about Zack, arenít you?"

The successful cloning of the old military powerhouse had injected new life into the war, had given the ShinRa forces a morale boost they desperately needed. That had been nearly four years ago, though, and things had gone unchanged since then.

Cid nodded.

"In a few weeks..." He took a deep breath. "In a few weeks, Barret... someone /else/ is coming back."

He watched Barretís face cloud over with confusion, and saw the exact moment that the realization struck, watched his eyes go wide, first with fear, and then with incredible anger.

"No."

Cid nodded once, taking a long drag on his cigarette.

"The war... the government thinks... They think he was sane, before everything that happened... and they think... this might be our only chance to beat Hojo. They say he was the greatest General that ever lived, that he was superhuman. I saw him fight once... and I... I donít know..."

"Fuck no." Barret shook his head, growling at the floor. "Stupid goddamned ShinRa, still manipulating things as they see fit, canít remember the past, donít care about the future..."

"I know... I know..." Cid shook his head, tension making the grooves in his face crack like a broken plate. "No one is happy about this. No one. But weíre there, Barret. ShinRa wonít say anything, of course, but we are right at the edge of losing everything. This is a gamble...everyone knows... but it looks like we donít have a choice anymore."

Barretís eyes flashed angrily, narrow slits of concentrated rage, until new fear opened them wide again.

"Does Cloud know?"

Cid nodded.

"Heís known from the beginning...and he hasnít said a word."

"God /damn it/!!!"

Barret slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the glasses. At the counter, Marlene spun around to look at him, and Barret saw another pair of wide brown eyes staring up at him in shock and surprise.

"Barret? What? Whatís wrong?" Tifa smiled. "The beer isnít /that/ bad, is it?"

Cid and Barret exchanged a long look, before the blonde pilot stood up, taking his heavy spear in one hand.

"I gotta get going, Tifa. It was good to see you...but, you know..." He pulled on the rank on the collar of his uniform. "Duty calls..."

"Bye, Uncle Cid!"

Cid waved, and walked out the door. Back in the bar, Barret could do little more than lean heavily against the table, trying to take in what he had been told. It all seemed like some sort of nightmare... some sort of horrible dream where he could not keep his daughter safe, secure from the dangers of the world, no matter how many times he thought he had won.

"Barret?" Tifa walked to the table, wiping the last glass with her towel. "Is something wrong?"

For a long time, Barret didnít answer her, he /couldnít/ answer her. The dark man tapped a nervous finger against the side of his gun arm, and didnít remember which pretty lie he finally told her, how he avoided the truth for one more day.

       

"Sir... weíve got a green light in tank one..."

//Awareness...slowly filtering back, bubbling up between long moments of darkness... but he was not one to wait, to wait for anything to come to him. He took the first fragile threads in an iron grip, pulled himself up, towards the light, towards consciousness...//

"Good..."

A light, fearful sigh sank into a sea of worried murmurs. The entire room was, by now, completely soaked in nervous sweat.

"Fire up the main systems... and letís finish this. Itís been long enough... we may as well see what weíve accomplished..."

//Fire... pain... all he remembered for now, all like murky fragments being dredged from the bottom of a muddy, dead sea...the deepest blue sea... and a pair of /blue/ eyes... shining, blue eyes... and unfathomable... sadness?//

/Iím.../

//?//

/sorry so so sorry oh god oh no no why seph why...?/

A flash of steel, a glint of light off the edge of a set of glasses.

"Hey, you..."

"Yeah?"

"Make sure his clothes are ready... and...." The pause was like a block of concrete, hovering in midair. "...bring the sword."

Gasps. Murmurs. Silence.

"Yessir."

       

//Long white hair, overhead... glowing green eyes, staring down at him... a perfect profile nose, crinkling above a smile he had never seen...how could it hurt so much to miss something he had never had?//

/Never...never again...never me.../

//That hand...long, delicate fingers cupping the side of his face...gently holding him close...wanting that feeling...so badly...to be /needed/, to be wanted...//

/Never happened...never /happened/... you stupid fucking deluded /FOOL/!!!!/

//Warmth... and safety... protection... strong arms wrapped so carefully around him... and he felt cherished...loved...//

/NO!!!!!!/

He quivered as the illusion shattered, and all around him The Planet screamed in Aerisís voice, tearing through him, ripping him down to the core. Through it all, he felt something.../someone/...

//"Sephiroth...?!//

All the secret, inner places in his heart, sown with salt and abandoned so long ago, stirred, caressed by a cool, gentle breeze.

//...seph?//

"/SIR/!"

Cloud woke instantly, a knife already in his hand, held against the back of his wrist for a quick thrust up, into the jugular of the man standing over him. He held the strike, recognizing the voice as sleep fell away from him like a blanket.

//A blanket... when was the last time I saw one of those..?//

"Sir...weíve spotted some of the enemy along the north cliff. It looks like theyíre trying to ambush the left flank. There could be more along the east."

Cloud looked up. It was still the middle of the night.

//One thousand and fifty men left... out of a regiment twice that size... An earlier skirmish that did nothing but left them thirsting for blood... Men who havenít seen home in eight months, who have been pushed back at every attempt to reach it.//

Cloud bit back a snarl.

"We move out now... tell everyone..."

"Sir..." Ro murmured, still waiting for orders.

"Get every extra lancer we have out there with a light, far enough away to avoid the launchers and wasps. Use the big strobes...pull them off the machinery if you have to... we canít use it anyway, it just keeps holding us back."

"Heidiggerís going to kill you, if you lose him another tank." Ro grinned wickedly.

"Heíll have a hard time doing it, when Iíve reached down his throat and turned him inside out..." Cloud murmured. "Go tell every platoon to get ready. Hojo will attack at dawn...thinking we are unprepared."

The blonde general smiled like a demon.

"If he wants a massacre, why should we make him wait for it?"

Ro nodded, and darted back into the shadows. Cloud picked up the Ultima sword from where it had lay beside him, and read his watch by the glow of the blade, frowning at how little the numbers had changed.

//I didnít sleep for more than twenty minutes...tops...and thatís the first time I closed my eyes in... how long?//

Not only that, but he had dim memories, of being inside the strangest dreams...dreams with walls, and restraints. The thought of translucent prisons, of curving cylinders, of being back at Hojoís lab made him shudder slightly.

//Itís been a long time... and never again...never the fuck again...//

Still, he thought, they had been very strange dreams.

       

The first thing he noticed, as awareness slowly filtered back to him, was that there was a group of strangers at the other end of the room, watching him, and that his mouth tasted like the inside of a chemical toilet.

The white-haired man opened his mouth to speak, and instead vomited a large amount of clear, greenish-blue water all over the grated floor beneath his hands, growling at all that the feeling reminded him of.

//Grated floor...all white...// He looked up. //Lab coats.//

Sephiroth didnít take his eyes off of the scientists as his muscles shivered back into reality, as his body started remembering how to exist correctly.

//Wrong. This is all wrong... I swore... no more tests...//

He could feel the grate beneath his hands, the cool, recycled laboratory air brushing lightly over his nude form, but everything inside his head was chaos. He blinked narrow, jade green eyes once or twice, demanding things return to normal, demanding his thoughts align, until they focused on the last moment of clarity he had.

//The Nibelheim mission. That was the last clear thing I remember... walking through the doors of the mansion...//

He blinked again, gritting his teeth slightly, but rising gracefully to his feet. The scientists stood in the doorway like a group of terrified rabbits, still unmoving.

//If they were so scared... then how could they have brought me here? Why is everything such a blur...what has happened?//

"Whatís going on?"

Sephirothís voice rang out louder than he had expected in the small room. He watched one of the scientists make a small, squeaking noise, and simply faint, sliding into a heap near the doorway.

//Idiots... how could one of them have done anything to me? What the hell is going on?//

"I demand to know whatís going on. NOW."

The scientists merely stared, and just as the white-haired SOLDIER was considering walking through them and finding some answers on his own, they parted, and an older man with a clipboard walked through.

"State your name."

Sephiroth was silent. The scientist looked up at him with unreadable eyes.

"Name, rank and serial number, soldier. You know the drill."

"Sephiroth, SOLDIER first-class."

The man scribbled something on his clipboard before pointing to a dark pile on a nearby table with the end of his pencil.

"Get dressed, and come with me."

Sephiroth turned, still fully aware of where each person in the room was, and quietly listening for cameras in the walls, for other eyes watching him.

The cameras were everywhere, he could hear the tiny motors whirring all around him, like a flock of some strange bird.

His uniform was folded neatly in the corner, along with the Masamune. He touched the edge of his blade as soon as he saw it, surprised that they had given it back to him, whatever had happened. Was it supposed to be a measure of good will? Of trust? He was surprised to see that the Materia had been removed, but other than that, the blade had not been touched.

By the time he had finished dressing, all the other scientists, including the one who had passed out, were well gone, and he and the only man who had yet spoken to him were alone.

"Come with me."

The scientist turned, walking away without a second glance. Sephiroth followed behind him silently, looking from side to side as they passed windows, banks of computers and other machines.

The white-haired man had grown accustomed to fear, to seeing other people watch him with hatred and terror easily visible in their eyes. Something was strange here, not the terror, but the incredible amount of it, the fact that /every/ pair of eyes that met his instantly looked away, that each person in the lab rose to watch him pass, staring at him in absolute horror.

//Screaming... fire... and screaming... Iíve felt terror like this before... and not during the Wutai war... but then, when?//

The scientist took him into a small, white room, with only one chair and a table, and sat down. Sephiroth watched him pour a cup of coffee, drink most of it, and pour another cup.

"They say weíre supposed to be clean, 24 hours a day. But I doubt if that really matters now."

He took a small metal flask out from a secret pocket in his sleeve, pouring a large amount into the coffee and taking another long drink before gesturing to the other side of the table.

"Please sit down, this is going to take quite a while..."

Sephiroth frowned, and slowly sat down.

"What the /hell/ is going on? Where are we? Did Hojo do something...?"

Sephiroth was surprised, when the man started laughing. After a few moments, he regained his composure, wiping a few tears from his eyes.

"Oh yes... yes, I think itís fairly safe to say that Hojo did /something/. But weíll get to all of that soon... I doubt if you even know what questions to ask, now."

He flipped open the file folder.

"What year do you think it is?"

"What?"

"What year do you think it is...?"

Sephiroth almost growled, leaning forward in his seat.

"I donít have time for these games. I was on my way to Nibelheim to take care of a monster attacking the Mako reactor, and I woke up here." He frowned. "Where is the rest of that party? Where is Lt. Zack?"

That name had been flooding back to him with increasing fervor over the past hour or so. As soon as he remembered where he was, he also remembered who wasnít there...

//Zack... the /only/ one Iíd trust...my only friend//

The scientist shifted nervously, shuffling the papers in his hands.

"Oh hell..." he murmured. "Hell..."

Sephiroth reached across the table, dragging the man forward by the front of his shirt, until their faces were inches apart.

"What have you done with Zack?"

The scientist took a deep breath, closed his eyes.

"You attacked him, sir. You ran him through with the Masamune near the town of Nibelheim, a day or so after you arrived there."

Flashes of memory were coming back to him, and Sephiroth let go of the manís coat, slumped back heavily in his chair. A deep, sick horror was bubbling up inside of him, and he /knew/ the man wasnít lying.

//Fire... and death...//

Zackís worried face swum up from the bottom of those dark nightmares, asking him questions, concerned... because something was /very/ wrong.

//I ignored him, I treated him like an inferior...//

Another memory, Zack screaming at him, pleading with him, and he had lashed out at his friend, hit him hard enough that his head /bounced/ against the opposite wall.

//Oh god... Zack...//

"I killed Zack."

"No..." The scientist shook his head, but the look in his eyes told the white-haired man that the truth was not any better.

"No...Zack, and another man were found...by Hojo, a few days after the destruction of Nibelheim."

"Hojo...?"

Sephiroth didnít really have to ask, he knew. He remembered... remembered the endless tests, the horrible experiments, that Hojo wasnít human enough to treat his subjects like they were equals. The scientist had no humanity at all, especially towards helpless creatures.

//Never again. I remember that too well... and...Zack?//

"Hojo had two test subjects, unbeknownst to ShinRa or the rest of the world, presumed to be dead, and a thousand new techniques to try out on them."

Sephiroth heard the tone of raw anger in the other manís voice, but nothing could compare to his own feeling of self-hatred.

//Zack... Hojo never liked you to begin with...didnít appreciate you being my friend...//

He didnít want to imagine what the scientist would have done, when given the chance to experiment on his dark-haired ally.

"Donít twist your conscience too much, sir. Most of the experimentation took place on the other man, someone Hojo found it much easier to...break."

Sephiroth looked up, raising an eyebrow. He barely remembered the names of anyone else on the mission...

//blonde hair...blue eyes...and sullen anger... and heíd hide it all, whenever he saw Zack...//

"Cloud Strife, now General Cloud Strife, SOLDIER first class. Heís the first man to match rank with you, the first one in eleven years."

"Eleven /years/?"

"The two men were held in Hojoís lab for five years, after which Zack attempted to escape, and was gunned down by a unit of ShinRa special forces. Cloud escaped..."

The scientist waved his hand.

"This is going to take hours to go through thoroughly enough...but anyway... Cloud joined a small group of insurrectionists called AVALANCHE... and then you, presumed dead, came back and decided to destroy the Planet."

Sephiroth held up a black gloved hand, pieces of memory, fragments of knowledge falling back much too swiftly into place, the realization hitting him, that the scientist wasnít lying.

//Everything heís saying is true...itís all exactly right...//

It was all twisted up inside his mind, the dim memory of an insane, chaotic dream, but Sephiroth knew that soon, it would all make sense, that /everything/ would be explained.

"Weíre going to sit here, sir, and tell you everything." The scientist stared up toward the sky. "God knows Iím tired of so many damn secrets..."

"Itís been about five years, then... since Cloud Strife... killed me."

"Yes. Five years since the threat of the Meteor was destroyed. Nearly that long since Hojo returned, and since he has attempted to take control of the planet once more with the help of the alien known as Jenova.

"Jenova?" There was something disturbingly familiar about that name, and Sephiroth watched the scientist flinch, but continue on as if nothing had happened.

"... It has been four years since Zack was successfully cloned." The scientist nodded.

"Yes, heís back... and it has been only in this last year that ShinRa has given us permission to attempt to bring a much more difficult, and dangerous SOLDIER back from the dead."

"Me."

The scientist nodded.

"There is much more to say... and you must know that this knowledge was what, some believe, caused you to go insane and obliterate the town of Nibelheim, and then attempt to destroy the rest of the world."

He held up a small controller, with a large, silver button in the middle.

"All of the chief scientists, as well as supervisors outside the building have these. In the event that you exhibit signs of any dangerous psychosis...this button will activate a bomb below the building...and blow us all to kingdom come, including your crazy ass."

He looked up, across at Sephiroth, and the white-haired man could see the somber, bitter resignation in his eyes. He didnít think he was going to survive.

"But...since weíve put years of research into this project... hopefully that wonít happen. Letís begin."

The scientist opened up the first file, and gave Sephiroth document after document, file after file, of the last eleven years of hell on earth.


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