A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 2

By Twig

       

Cloud stepped into his tent, wiping the last remaining traces of gore from his hands. It seemed impossible, most of the time, to get the blood of Hojo's creatures completely off of his skin, wipe himself clean of their presence, no matter what he tried.

The battle had gone as well as could have been expected. It was the third assault in less than twelve hours, as the combined ShinRa and Wutai forces under his command attempted to crash through a wall of monsters Hojo had encamped at the end of the pass, blocking the only way they could get back to base.

After their sneak attack the morning before, catching Hojo's forces by surprise and destroying them almost completely, the blonde knew Hojo wouldn't just sit back and let them go, not without a fight.

//Even though we found no survivors, even though none of our guys were left alive... Hojo... you fucking /monster/.

To Cloud, Hojo's sudden, fierce attempt to catch them was little more than an expected annoyance, one final barrier towards reaching home. With one more advance through the scientist's ranks, running the gauntlet of horrifying monsters...

//God willing, as long as nothing /worse/ than what we've been fighting before shows up...//

...they would be quickly on the way back to base. Although now that he thought about it, /now/ that he had almost reached it, it was hard for Cloud to remember why he was so eager to go back to a peaceful destination. There was nothing waiting for his return, no one he was going back to.

During the battles, deep in Hojo's territory, it was easy to forget that things had gone so horribly wrong so fast, but now... now it was all catching up with him. The /only/ thing waiting for him, really, was a confrontation so terrifying that he had pushed it to the edges of his consciousness, and could not even consider it. The future promised only pain, and the closest thing to peace, to happiness, once more lay in his past, irretrievable.

//Elly...//

He had been the one to blame for her death. Cloud had known it would go wrong from the start, somehow he knew it, and didn't stop... didn't stop himself, when he knew... he must have known... otherwise why would he have left Tifa when he did?

//Heidigger's going to want answers, you know... and whatever you say, he won't believe you.//

The General dug his fingertips into his left temple for the thousandth time that day, wondering once more how anyone like /Heidigger/ could have possibly managed to spawn another little version of himself.

The son, Anjele Heidigger, was much more genteel and physically attractive than his idiotic father, something Cloud figured Anjele probably worked on incessantly. It still didn't change the fact that the son had inherited daddy's annoying, erratic streak of poor leadership, his misguided urge to be in control.

//He's going to ask about Elly... as if he has the /right/... as if she meant /anything/ to him... /anything/ like what I felt for her.//

Cloud felt a powerful wave of shame, sorrow and disgust sweep over him. He /hadn't/ loved her, hadn't cared... not enough.

//Maybe if I had... I wouldn't...I didn't mean to... It wasn't my fault... I didn't know...//

There was no way his conscience would let him off that easily, let him get away with the excuse of ignorance.

/You killed her, Strife. It was as simple as if you had put a bullet in her brain. Your selfishness killed her./

//I didn't want to... I didn't mean to...//

/You destroy anything that cares for you. Your love is poison, and you are a goddamned walking nightmare. Get it through your fucking skull, and STOP whining about it already!!!/

Cloud sighed, wiping his face with a trembling hand, his inner demons once more bringing him to the breaking point. The blonde wished he could get really drunk, drink himself stupid just one more time, and make the pain go away for a while. Instead, his thoughts ran on in a vicious, endless loop, guilt and shame like sandpaper mixed with shards of glass digging into his mind, endlessly reminding him of all his flaws, faults and failures.

//Damn Mako enhancements... can't get drunk anymore...can't get injured... or sick enough to just fall over and die...//

His stomach lurched, as the conversation with himself came full circle...

/...among other things, you stupid fuck. The Mako did all that...and other things... Oh, Elly... I'm so sorry./

"Sir?"

Ro didn't enter his tent, his voice low and polite, as he stood just outside the front flap. The blonde knew, that most of the time, even Ro was afraid of him. When Cloud would fall, clutching his head and writhing in agony each time the Planet screamed too loud, each time Hojo unleashed some new horror onto the world... he knew Ro was scared. But the redhead was afraid other times too, sometimes even when Cloud wasn't doing anything at all.

//Most of the time...most of the time, everyone's afraid of you...//

Cloud looked down at one hand, slowly clenching his fist. It didn't seem more powerful than when he had been younger, before he had been infused with Mako, but Cloud knew he now had the strength to take creatures apart with his bare hands. He had done as much a thousand times, as recently as a few hours before now.

"Uh...sir?"

Cloud snapped himself out of his thoughts.

//Thinking too hard... again.//

"Yeah, Ro. Come on in."

Cloud let the knife he had been half-holding slide back into its sheath as Ro came in the door alone. The blonde had stopped expecting even one moment of peace, stopped believing he wouldn't be ambushed. Cloud had almost grown accustomed to living under a constant threat, and his instincts kicked in, preparing for battle, even when the blonde wasn't really thinking about it.

//It's when you least expect it... at the quietest moments... that's when the world turns dark, and brutal... oh Elly...//

"Sorry, sir. I thought you might be resting..."

"I was."

Cloud knew what the other man meant, that Ro thought he might have been sleeping. The blonde knew, though, that somewhere in the world, ShinRa's scientists had finished the procedure, finished a year's worth of work. The blonde knew it had been successful, and because of it, /nothing/ brought him comfort anymore. Cloud could barely even close his eyes.

//He's alive... I /know/ he's alive now. They brought him back, and that goddamned... goddamned...//

All the thoughts /always/ came at once, a swirling vortex of sight, sound and agony, all the memories he couldn't hide from, all the things he couldn't forget.

//humiliation... terror...pain...//

/the flames stretching toward the sky...the body of his dead mother...everything gone.../

//Why...why...//

/...tubes, wires... electric shocks and much, much /worse/... screaming for hours, until his throat had been torn bloody, until all he could do was whimper, beg for mercy in a whisper too low to be heard...//

/green eyes... and blood... dreaming about green eyes...hers...and his.../always/ his.../

//...why...seph...?//

/He's alive again.... god, no... no...don't do this to me.../

For the last few days, he had been unable to even look at his bedroll, let alone think about sleep. Cloud honestly didn't remember the last time he had taken a break, if there had been any battle or skirmish when he hadn't followed his men into the fray. A bowl of food, at least a day old, sat untouched just off where his left hand rested on the makeshift table.

//Can't sleep... no appetite... Once again...he's taken everything from me. I guess it was just lucky that, this time, I didn't have much to give...//

"Sir... this just came from Costa Del Sol. ShinRa direct...straight to you..."

Cloud rolled his eyes in silent disgust, and took the manila envelope from the other man's hand, tearing it open.

There was an incredible irony in the fact that he was waist deep in stinking, horrible misery, while the ShinRa elite had set up their permanent base in the hotel town of Costa Del Sol.

//Don't think about it, Strife. You start thinking about things like that... you'll go crazy.//

Cloud couldn't help laughing a little.

/I already /am/ crazy./

He expected the piece of paper that fell into his hands, a one-page document direct from ShinRa HQ.

"Orders?"

The General nodded grimly. His face went as cold and dead as marble, and his voice was hard, completely emotionless.

"They've...resurrected Sephiroth. All the major commanders are supposed to pull out and go to Sol for...introductions, that kind of crap."

Cloud knew he couldn't keep a grip on himself for long, and saw his fingers tremble slightly, the words on the page wavering just a little as tears collected in the bottoms of his glowing eyes.

//Stop it stop it stop it STOP IT!!!//

He looked up, distracting himself with a stupid question, one he already knew the answer to.

"Kirisagi didn't get one of these, did she?"

Ro grinned wryly.

"I got to the mail post a little late, but I wouldn't bet on it, sir."

"Why would she?" Cloud said, words both sarcastic and bitter. "I mean, Yuffie Kirisagi is only the head of the entire Wutai army...they're only what, 55 percent, 60 percent of our entire fighting force, and even more than that out here at the front? Godo's only saved our asses /how/ many times?"

"Just slightly less than you, sir."

Ro smiled weakly. Cloud let the letter fall to the table, closed his eyes for a moment as a terrible, familiar hollow feeling slowly swept around inside of him.

//Always fear. I can't remember when it wasn't like this, when I wasn't always afraid of something.//

/ShinRa and Wutai... no matter what Hojo does, no matter what he threatens... ShinRa have to fuck everyone over... always.../

//It never ends. It never, never ends.//

/I want to stop. I want to go home./

//I don't have a home to go to.//

"Make sure Yuffie gets a copy of this, Ro." Cloud flexed his fingers, noticing how stiff and sore his entire body felt. He knew if he stopped moving for too long, he'd probably be unable to get going again, or he'd start thinking, and wouldn't want to do more than curl up in a ball and scream for the rest of his life.

//... and we have to move soon... They're still chasing us, and preparing to fight us... and thinking of new ways to kill us... always...//

The army would have to break camp very soon, and fight the good fight one last time, break through Hojo's living barrier and run like hell toward Gongaga, toward Corel, and safety. Cloud knew his men had been much too long on the front lines, this last battle was testing their limits to the full.

//How long since I've seen a friendly face?//

A dagger of sorrow, straight through his heart, reminded him.

//Oh god, Elly...//

Cloud winced, and hoped he could just go out with the next available platoon, turn around and dive right back in to battle as soon as he had filed his full report. The ache, the weariness in his body was nothing, he knew, to what he'd be feeling if he rested enough to remember, to let his mind sort /everything/ out.

Ro watched him carefully, before speaking, voice still soft and quiet, very cautious.

"Sir, General...I'll make sure she gets the message. We've got your chocobo ready, and we can hold down cover fire, if you're ready to go to Costa Del Sol."

Cloud sighed heavily, and got to his feet.

       

"NO!!!"

Tifa looked up, from where she had been wiping a bar glass, getting ready to take a break. The voice was female, and Tifa's brunette's eyes were already narrowed in focused readiness, she flexed her hands, preparing to take care of any boyfriend or other man who was harassing her guests.

The scene that met her eyes was surprising, nothing like what she expected. The man and woman standing up at one of the center tables were alternately hugging and struggling, the girl was sobbing loudly, striking the boy's chest with blows he didn't try to dodge.

"WHY? Why do you have to go?! Why there?! To the front lines!? You'll be killed! Everyone's being killed there! I don't want you to die!"

The girl sobbed, wrapping her arms around herself, pulling away from his attempts to pull her close.

"I /want/ to do this. It's an /honor/ to serve my country, and to protect you."

The boy smiled, reaching out to stroke his girlfriend's cheek, gently wipe a tear from her eye. Tifa's heart twinged, as the light struck his blonde hair at an odd angle, and for a moment he reminded her too much of another young man, another boy who had gone off to play at war.

//Oh Cloud... what the hell happened? Where are you?//

Tifa hadn't seen Cloud in half a decade, had lost him almost right after the defeat of Sephiroth, only a few months later when they had both been staying in Kalm. One night, he just... disappeared.

//That night... after I told him what I felt for him...//

The brunette could not forget the look on his face, as if she had hurt him more with her words of love than anything had ever managed to do before. Cloud never spoke to her, never answered her pleas, for him to just /answer/ her, and walked away. By the next morning, he was gone.

//The war...with Hojo...that's where he is...//

Tifa had gotten reports from Cid, from time to time. The gruff, cigarette-smoking, spear-carrying curmudgeon had kept her informed, that Cloud had joined the war effort, fighting against Hojo, trying to destroy him once and for all.

Other than that, she had received scant information, next to nothing, for the last five years. Kalm was out of the way enough that the war never really became a topic of conversation...

//...but sometimes, I get the feeling that it's being /kept/ that way. Like there's a shield around this whole town... protecting it from the rest of the world...//

Life at the bar had been busy enough to keep her occupied, along with helping Barret raise Marlene, and the few times she had ventured out, on vacation to the rebuilt Midgar, things had seemed very strange.

//No newspapers... or at least not all of them. Not in all the time I was there... I don't think I saw a single /whole/ newspaper. And Reeve seemed strained... almost as if it hurt him to talk to me... I know he was usually used to negotiating with me as a cat on a stuffed Mog, and he had a city to run... but still...something was different...//

Tifa had heard little news about the situation on the other side of the world, except that the war was bad, and that things were not looking to improve any time soon. This outburst in her bar, however, was the first real evidence of any actual problems she had witnessed.

Twice, she had received short letters from Cloud, just to tell her he was all right. They had been painfully brief, with no return address, and the last one had been delivered over a year ago.

//Cloud...//

"I'm serving under The General... Do you know what an honor that is? They don't just pick any recruit to join his troops... you have to be /very/ good."

//The GENERAL?!// Tifa blinked in surprise. There had been only one man she had ever heard being described that way, and that was...

//... that was Sephiroth, and he is /long/ dead. Gone. He can't hurt us... canít hurt Cloud... not anymore...//

The girl sobbed harder, shaking her head, but did not protest when the man stepped forward to embrace her again.

"I'll be all right. I'll come back to you. I promise."

"Excuse me?"

Tifa leaned slightly further over the bar, staring at the young man.

"I couldn't help but overhear." She waved away the tearful girl's murmured apology.

"It's all right. I just wondered... you said, you're going to be serving under The General?"

The man, little more than a boy, now that she really looked at him, grinned.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Which general?"

He blinked, as if startled by the obviousness of her question.

"Uh...ma'am?"

"General /who/?"

"General Strife, ma'am. General Cloud Strife. You know..." He paused. "/The/ General."

The only sound after that was the bar glass Tifa had been holding, shattering into a thousand pieces as it hit the floor.

       

"Hey Reeve."

Cid knew that, technically, Reeve outranked him, that he outranked everyone, but the pilot couldn't be more than casual to the man. They had simply known each other, fought together for too long, and seen too much.

//Boy oh boy... are we about to see a whole hell of a lot more...//

Reeve was the new president of ShinRa, the only real power left on the planet if one didn't count Hojo's twisted attempts at control and domination.

//The power of the company, perhaps... but the power of the people resides elsewhere...//

It was all too obvious, especially for a military man, that while the ground troops may have fought under the ShinRa banner, every one of them fought /for/ Cloud Strife, believed in and followed The General to the very end.

//It must be killing him, to hear that name, to receive that title, with everything that happened between him and Sephiroth.//

Cid realized that now, somewhere, the cloned SOLDIER was walking around once more, as if all their efforts, all that struggle, had never done anything to the white-haired man at all. The thought made his blood chill slightly, even as it royally pissed him off.

// This shit is just not fair... it's just not... and Strife... you poor bastard... this must be eating you alive...//

"I see he found you, Vincent."

The dark-haired man shrugged, stepping past Cid. The ends of his red garments flicked out slightly as he moved gracefully forward, almost gliding along the floor.

"Hojo is still alive."

Vincent's voice was soft but steely, and his statement was not a question. Reeve nodded, meeting the dark-haired man's gaze.

"We looked for you in the beginning... /I/ looked for you, early on... but then the war truly started, there were a few costly first battles, and everything non-essential to the battle got left in the dust..."

He winced.

"I didnít mean... you're not non-essential...but...you know..."

Vincent nodded.

"I didnít want to be found. I know you did your best."

Reeve smiled wearily, as if he hadn't heard anything that close to a vote of confidence in a long time.

"Thanks."

"So..." Cid looked around nervously, at every closed door, not knowing what was on the other side. "Where is he?"

"Sephiroth? We've still got him at the research facility... We're pulling out everyone important from the war for this conference... it'll take a while for them all to get here. Better to keep Sephiroth where we can watch him... before we... you know, let him run free."

Cid nodded, and took a step back, leaning against the wall as Reeve and Vincent started speaking, thinking about the people who would soon come together at Costa Del Sol.

It was incredibly strange, to count off the leaders of the ShinRa army, to realize how many old friends and enemies had now banded together to save humanity.

The blonde pilot didn't believe for a moment that the Highwind name had brought any more pilots to the fore. As Cid had tried to explain, he wasn't even the tactical leader of the air forces, but Reeve had assured him that he was the one who mattered most in the skies, that he should represent them at this meeting. Unfortunately, Cid hadn't found anyone to disagree.

The sea forces were non-existent, had been ever since the beginning of the war, when the first and only appearance of a Jenova spawn, Hojo's ultimate weapon so far, had decimated nearly all of the Wutai and ShinRa ships. The spawn had been destroyed, but the battle left them with only a few transport vessels, and a dream of what had been. There was little left to build new warships with.

//Nothing remains for anything anymore... God knows how we still manage to have Mako energy...sometimes I think even the Planet's against us. After all that happened with Sephiroth, this war is costing us the rest of what we saved...//

Nanaki had been protecting Cosmo Canyon dutifully throughout the war, always vigilant and proud, dedicated to preserving his peoples' way of life. The tiny city had actually done an incredible job holding together through the war, as close as they were to the front lines, but Cosmo Canyon mainly acted as a supply and medical station, and this would be Nanaki's first entrance into the true center of the war.

Yuffie Kirisagi was the leader of the Wutai army in all its factions, the closest thing there was to a general among the tribes. Wutai's alliance with ShinRa was the only thing, in Cid's opinion, that had even made this a war instead of a short, bloody battle, with Hojo emerging victorious.

A whole new generation of fighters had been born since ShinRa had taken control of Wutai, and they were more than ready to show their fighting spirit. The wounds of pride that had crippled Godo and the older warriors had not affected the young. Kirisagi was more than enough proof of that.

The ShinRa ground forces were split up in four, the territory they covered was too vast for one commander to control them all. Rude, Reno and Elena had somehow taken charge of the main forces, dealing with the overall, day to day actions of most of the reserve army.

//ShinRa dumb decision number one-thousand something... if you ask me...//

Working in the air, Cid still had to deal with the three of them more than he had ever wanted to, but he also had to admit that they knew what they were doing. The army had been holding together fairly well, and morale among the men was almost impossibly high.

//We're fighting for our lives here... there really isn't a choice... we might as well be proud about it.//

Anjele Heidigger was the liaison between ShinRa and the army, the one who brought down orders from Reeve and his underlings to the front. The man was sly, flattering, and had never been in the military in any scope, had never fought a battle in his life. Everyone ridiculed him, hated him, and Cid was sure that, in the front lines especially, his orders were never even heard.

//The front lines... the holy trinity...the three generals.// Cid shook his head. //Not really, though. There's only one head of this army, always has been... just one General...//

At the front, in the middle of the most dangerous work and the most violent conditions, three generals had once commanded the troops. Soon, with the success of ShinRa's cloning, there would be three again.

//Probably the three strongest men in the history of the world...I doubt if we'll ever see anything like this again... if we survive past this battle, that is...//

General Elicia, Elly to those who had known and loved her, was among the newly dead. Everyone mourned her loss, but none so much, it was whispered, as General Strife. Cid knew the two were close. How close... he didn't think he really wanted to know.

//Another loved one gone, Cloud?// Cid thought of his own beloved Shera, tucked far away from the battle in a border town across the sea, and what it would feel like if something happened to her.

//It would break me into a thousand pieces... I don't know... I don't even know how I /could/ get through the day, knowing I'd never get to see her again... how I would care enough to keep fighting? God, Strife...how in the hell do you go on?//

General Zack, the second most powerful general, was well-respected among his men, seen as almost a big brother, someone worthy of honor and admiration, someone to look up to. He had brought a thousand victories to what many had called a hopeless war, and his presence was a calming one during heated tactical discussions, always logical, always rational. Cid had his initial doubts, given the man's close relationship with Sephiroth in the past, but he had found Zack to be polite, kind to his friends, and absolutely merciless with his enemies. Zack had also formed tight ties with, of all strange possibilities, Wutai. He had many of the best fighters of Wutai in the ranks of his own forces, and they were happy to serve under him. If that didn't make him a good commander, Cid didn't think such a thing could be done.

//Then... then, there's Cloud.//

It was simple, the lean, diminutive blonde with the spiky hair was an unstoppable machine of incredible destruction. People had stopped saying that no one would ever hold The General's position again, that there could never be someone as powerful, someone who almost could not be stopped. Those statements had died almost five years ago, when Cloud Strife had nearly single-handedly hunted down and destroyed the section of Hojo's forces that had been overwhelmingly victorious at the battle of Nibelheim, forces that had decimated an entire ShinRa /army/. Anyone who considered Cloud's victory a fluke was silenced when the blonde fighter did the exact same thing, only a week later, at the Rocket Town pass.

Cloud outranked both Zack and the late Elicia. He was the only five-star general in ShinRa at the moment, and if anyone had thought to make medals for this war, he would have been one of the most highly decorated men ever.

//He's been fighting since the beginning... since the start... God only knows what it has done to him...//

Cid pulled half a quote out of the back of his mind, something an old fighter pilot had told him once, about staring into the void, and having the void stare back at you. As far as he could tell, Cloud had been staring into the void for an awfully long time.

The pilot remembered seeing Sephiroth, just once, a long time ago in Midgar, following him at a respectful distance for most of a day as part of a large crowd of soldiers being given the prerequisite "tour of things you will never be a part of." Cloud Strife received the same fearful treatment by everyone around him that the white-haired man had, exactly the same. People didn't approach The General except in times of extreme emergency. They stopped speaking when he walked by, whispered in awe only in his wake. Cid had noticed that strange treatment the last time he had seen the spiky-haired blonde, months ago now. It was impossible /not/ to notice it, and it had frightened him, that Strife was so isolated, that alone. He thought he had mentioned it, asked the blonde about his friends and companions. Cloud had only smiled thinly, glowing blue eyes bright with some overpowering emotion, and said nothing.

/Everyone/ was afraid of him, from what Cid could tell, but they were just as grateful that he was on their side. The legends of Cloud's battles, victories pulled from the very edge of defeat, The General taking on whole armies of Hojo's creations on his own, saving countless men, were spoken of reverently.

//Who cares about praise, if no one is brave enough to /talk/ to you when the battle's over. Cloud closed off too much /before/ this war... he shut down everything, like his skin was a suit of armor, a wall he could hide behind...//

Cid could hardly blame him, knowing what he did of the blonde's past, but he was also afraid, very disturbed by the possibilities, the dangers when someone who had been hurt as much as Cloud had stayed so silent.

The blonde fighter hadn't ever said anything about the Sephiroth project, hadn't even reacted when Reeve had explained it to him, merely nodded and walked away, expressionless. Cid knew, on some level, the blonde man /had/ to be hurting, had to be in incredible turmoil. The pilot hadn't understood all that had happened between his friend and Sephiroth, but he did know that emotions between the two men ran deep, and dark, and dangerous.

//What will we do... what are we going to do if this goes wrong? If the project doesn't work? If Sephiroth goes off the deep end again... if he turns against us? Or if Cloud can't take it?//

He frowned, answering his own question.

//We're probably going to die... that's what we're going to do...//

"Cid?"

He had been lost in his own thoughts, looked up to see both Reeve and Vincent watching him.

"Yeah?"

"Did you tell Barret we need him here?"

The blonde pilot shook his head, lighting up another cigarette.

"No... I didn't know... I didn't want to get him involved..."

Reeve shook his head, eyes solemn.

"I know... I know, but we need him here. I've got Heidigger... and a few others... they're all demanding the full team, all of you..." Reeve rolled his eyes. "They don't want Kirisagi, though... and I'll be goddamned if I can ever figure /that/ one out..."

"I thought you ran things here." Vincent murmured. If there was one reason Cid liked Valentine, it was that the red-clad man had none of his politeness, no restraint at all, simply asked whatever it was that he needed to know.

"Consensus." Reeve flipped through a few papers on his desk as he spoke, sighing heavily as he couldn't find whatever he was looking for. "We're a consensus, pretty much... Me, Heidigger, Scarlett... a few others..."

"Wow... I bet you must envy Cloud, huh?" Cid quipped.

Reeve smiled. It was a pale imitation of Cait Sith's most restrained enthusiasm, but Cid could still see the prank-happy cat peeking out from behind the man's eyes.

Cid shifted, looking out the window for a moment, not sure how to ask the hard question, the one that had to be asked.

"...Reeve... what about Tifa?"

He watched the other man freeze, staring up at him like a deer in headlights, wide-eyed.

"I... I... don't know."

Vincent turned to him, arching one dark, elegant eyebrow.

"What about Miss Lockheart?"

       

"Barret!!!"

Tifa stood at the bottom of the stairs, hands on her hips, listening to the large man move around above her, packing his bags.

"Barret Wallace... I'm not letting you leave this house until you tell me what's going on! I mean it!"

The older man couldn't tell, but Tifa's eyes were flashing dangerously with determination. Barret knew, though, just by the angry tone in her voice, that she was serious. If he wanted to leave with his house in one piece, with /himself/ in one piece, he was going to have to tell her something.

//I can't think right now... with all that's going on... I'm no good at lying, especially not to her...// He resisted the urge to pound the wall in frustration. //Damn it, Wallace... think of /something/... anything.//

"I'm jus' gonna be gone for a couple of days, Tifa. Nothing more than that... and I need you to look after Marlene for me. What's your problem, anyway?"

He instantly regretted attacking her, even halfhearted as it was. Her voice shot back up the stairs like an overload blast from the Sister Ray.

"WHAT'S MY PROBLEM? /WHAT'S MY PROBLEM??!/" The dark man winced, hearing heavy booted footsteps thunking loudly up the stairs. Barret was surprised when he turned, and found Tifa staring at him with wide eyes, brimming with tears. Her voice was little more than a whisper, she was not angry anymore, but frightened and terribly sad.

"What's my problem, Barrett? Two kids came into my bar, and started arguing about the war, because one of them was enlisted... The boy said Cloud was a General... no, excuse me.. /The/ General. He said that General Cloud Strife is the..." Tifa chuckled weakly. "How did he put it exactly, the "premiere ass-kicking, Hojo-nuking warrior dude" and the /head/ of the ShinRa army. I wasn't even sure Cloud really still was /in/ the army... let alone leading /ShinRa's/!"

Tifa shook her head, fists clenched, staring at him with pleading eyes.

"This war... this war doesn't sound simple, Barret. It doesn't sound like something that's simply dragging on, that we're winning... it sounds like we've been fighting for our /lives/ here, that we still are! Cloud's been.../fighting/ in it, leading it? All this time?" She weakly gestured towards the window. "Now there's a ShinRa helicopter here for you...? Taking you /where/? Please, /please/ tell me what's going on."

Barret shifted uncomfortably, listening to the gentle hum of the helicopter's engines through the thick plate glass of the windows. He looked out the window for a moment, over the quiet, sleepy town he had grown to cherish so much, the sun beaming down on gently sloping rooftops, heralding yet another beautiful day. He loved it in Kalm Town, loved the simple lifestyle, loved that Marlene could grow up living in the sun, being around nature and clean air instead of the slums of Midgar. He also loved that she was protected from almost all the horrors the rest of the world seemed to be facing.

//I owe all that to Tifa... and Cloud... Now, I'm going to break my one promise to him, one I swore I'd never, ever forget... Do I even have the right...?//

Barret rubbed the bridge of his nose for a moment, sighing deeply into his hand. Tifa rubbed her hands together worriedly, staring up at him anxiously.

"Barret? /Please/?"

Try as he might, it was impossible to deny her.

"All right..." He murmured, feeling shame and guilt drop like a granite block on him, wedge itself painfully deep inside his chest.

//I'm sorry Cloud... I'm really am...//

"You coming with me then?"

Tifa nodded sharply, eyes fixed on his face, jaw set in adamant, proud dedication.

//What am I doing... what am I doing... what have I done...?//

"I'll explain everything, Tifa." He lifted his bag onto his shoulder. "Get your things, and I'll tell the pilot to wait for a few more minutes. When we get on our way... we'll... we'll talk..."

The dark man sighed deeply as Tifa quickly disappeared, her footsteps echoing down the stairs, the front door slamming as she quickly darted towards her own house. It would be so easy to leave her in Kalm, to just get in the helicopter and go, but Barret knew she would follow him. Now that Tifa knew something was wrong with Cloud, he knew there would be no stopping her.

//We're just lucky we kept her safe for this long, Cloud...//

With a heavy heart, Barret walked down the stairs, to kiss his daughter goodbye, to wait for Tifa, to take one last look at the town he loved, with no idea of when he might return, or if he would ever make it back at all.


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