A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 3

By Twig

       

"Hello, Reeve... beautiful day..."

Reeve rubbed at his eyes, looking over at the tiny clock on his desk.

//Only seven.// He fought the urge to beat his head against the desk. //It's gonna be one of those days...//

An emergency meeting concerning the main Mako reactor in Midgar had woken him at 4 a.m., and he had nearly been reduced to eating coffee grounds to stay awake since then, as problem after problem washed up on his desk.

"Never as beautiful as when you're here, Scarlet..."

Reeve snarled at her, making absolutely sure she knew that he was /not/ in a good mood. It didn't help matters; she still moved sedately towards him, perching on the end of his desk just like a cat would, watching him closely, a predatory stare.

"I didn't know you cared, Reeve."

The blonde smiled, but it was full of venom, and her eyes glittered like multifaceted gems. In their own ways, with subtle threats of violence under a calm surface, the two of them had fought tooth and nail for the position of ShinRa president half a decade before. Now, Reeve could hardly believe he had bothered to try so hard.

//If she really thinks she wants this job, she can have it...//

He noticed belatedly that he had been staring at the blonde woman, and she noticed his gaze, resting just at chest level, where her low cut red dress, as always, showed off her ample assets.

"See something you like, Mr. President?" He could almost see the fangs in her smile, the flick of a cat's tail behind her back.

"I was just wishing I had a dog." Reeve replied, and returned to his paperwork as she stared at him, completely confused.

There hadn't been a dull day since Reeve had taken control of ShinRa, or more accurately, taken a place on a board of directors that, for the most part, despised him. The only thing that pushed him on, really, was his executive veto power, the fact that he held the final say in any decision the ShinRa board of directors made, and had a cadre of the finest, most loyal officers to back up his decisions.

The problems had only started with that, with knowing that he had to have armed guards nearby at all times, protecting him from his own company. At first, all his days were spent trying to stabilize the remaining Mako reactors, and rebuild what he could of Midgar, as well as bring most of the rest of the world back from the edge of destruction.

No one had ever known... no one on the planet had discovered the real origin of the Meteor, Jenova, or about Sephiroth's death, rebirth and demise at Cloud's hands, about the Cetera, or Aeris's sacrifice. After it all, Cloud had been the first one to suggest it would be for the best to leave it in the past, to stay quiet, to go on with their lives and live in peace.

//Too bad the past didn't agree...//

Only a few months, less than a year passed after they had defeated Sephiroth, when Hojo launched his first offensive strike, completely annihilating a small village near the Wutai border. There had been a single survivor, who lived just long enough to deliver the scientist's message.

//No surrender... no negotiation. A simple message, really..."I cannot be defeated."//

At first, Reeve was the only one who was truly worried. The board ruled for a small force to be sent out to defeat the scientist. At first, it had been a collection of whatever could be spared, which wasn't much, only a hundred and fifty men... none of whom came back.

//Spare parts... bulk tissue... for Hojo's new creations... though we didn't learn that until much later... Now, we cremate all our dead...//

After that first bloody prologue, and a few more attacks on other villages in both ShinRa territory and Wutai land, the true war effort had started, and more and more ShinRa soldiers started getting massacred. Reeve, to the annoyance of the entire rest of the board, finally called in Cloud. At first, it was simply to lead, to guide the men from behind the lines. It almost instantly turned into more than that, much more.

Hojo's next attack was a brutal, surprise assault against a tiny, rebuilt village; a small rural town nestled between mountain ranges, filled with people unaware that a war had even begun.

//Nibelheim. All over again. Not his family... not his friends... but he still had to watch it burn to the ground...again...//

The war may have been personal before then, but after that, it was obvious that Hojo wanted not only to dominate the world, but also to exact his revenge on Cloud Strife. And Cloud... Cloud had all but disappeared into a war that raged on and on, with no end in sight...

//I never pretended to understand him... to think that I could gauge the scope of what he had been through...what it had done to him...//

Looking through archived ShinRa files after he had taken control, searching after hours, well into the night, Reeve had discovered more about the young SOLDIER than he had ever wanted to know, much too much, in far too much detail...

Even now, just thinking about it, Reeve shivered.

//...and they say that Hojo was a notoriously messy note taker. God only knows how much else... other experiments... that were simply never documented...//

Reeve hadn't seen Cloud personally in a long, long time, receiving information about the front lines second or even third person. It was still enough to disturb him, and he was anxious for the upcoming meeting, to learn a few things directly from the General himself.

//They say he's got a sixth sense... that he can tell where the enemy's going to strike... that he can "hear" the Planet... god, /that/ sounds familiar.//

Cloud Strife, the new "General", had quickly become a living legend on the battlefield, superhuman, unstoppable, merciless.

//Exactly the shell I thought he was pulling out of... the past I thought he could, maybe, escape...//

In all reality, Reeve knew almost nothing about his spiky-haired, blonde friend's new life, except that the battle statistics kept coming back, Strife kept winning, with his casualties relatively low and enemy damage sometimes impossibly high, and nothing seemed to stop him.

//Zack came back... and everything still seems all right... I wonder what that must be like for Cloud... seeing old ghosts...//

Reeve winced, that train of thought naturally leading to the next "ghost," a project he had never, /ever/ endorsed, never wanted, but finally realized, no matter how painful it was to admit, that it had become a necessity.

//Zack /is/ winning, Cloud is winning /more/... and Elly...//

Reeve sighed.

// Elly is dead. It isn't enough... even everything they've given... it /isn't/ enough to finish this.//

The final cloning project, bringing Sephiroth back, was their last chance, and Reeve comforted himself with the knowledge that he wouldn't have signed the papers, wouldn't have agreed to it if he had thought there was /any/ other way.

//Even with low casualties... we still have so many casualties... and the people can't keep... hell, the whole planet can't keep going on. Not like this...//

Reeve frowned, suddenly annoyed with himself.

//I have to stop making excuses. We took the power in our hands, and we... /I/ agreed to this. It's done, and Sephiroth is back. Whatever happens, I won't have any regrets, for doing what I have to. No matter what.//

Despite his resolve, he /still/ did not want to look Cloud or Tifa in the eye, or the Turks for that matter, and explain why they had spent so much time and energy, focused so hard on reviving their most bitter enemy.

"Sir?"

Reeve smiled at the aide in the doorway, leaning back as the young man bowed, stepping into the room.

"There's a Miss Kisaragi and a...um...er... Mr. Nanaki to see you, sir."

Reeve's smile widened, he leaned back even further, trying not to laugh.

"Please show them in."

       

"Nice digs, Reeve."

Yuffie strolled in, looking all around, as nonchalant as she had ever been. Her hair was slightly longer, still worn in the same messy tousle. Her well muscled, non-guarded arm bore a long scar from shoulder to elbow. Reeve was happy to see it was the only visible mark of the war. At her side, Nanaki was also looking around, his entire manner much more sedate, fiery tail flicking back and forth in the air behind him. The aide quietly bowed once more, shutting the door behind them.

"Nice service too..." Yuffie said as she gave the aide a final glance, eyes quickly darting to every corner and crevice in the room.

"Please... sit down. It's good to see you, to see you both." Yuffie dropped into the chair on the other side of his desk, letting Conformer rest on the ground beside her, leaning against one of the chair's legs. Nanaki sat next to her, and it was then that Reeve realized he actually had no way to begin any sort of conversation, all his concentration fixed on the meeting ahead.

"So... I... uh..."

"We heard about Sephiroth."

Yuffie's voice was strangely soft, and Reeve couldn't read the expression in her eyes. After a few moments, when he didn't answer her, the ninja girl continued.

"Cloud sent me a notice... he told me you guys didn't want me coming, so I decided I should definitely show up."

Reeve sighed, shaking his head.

"I told the board... we argued for hours, but I thought I had convinced them to tell you... I mean, I know it's not like we can keep this a real /secret/, or at least, not for long."

"I can't speak for my father, Reeve." Yuffie shrugged, trying to seem ambivalent, though he could see she was biting her lower lip nervously.

"I can't tell you what he'll do, when he finds out what you've managed to..."

"We discussed it in the Canyon... all the elders, everyone who understood this event's importance gathered together." Nanaki's gaze was clear, and calm, though his voice was grave. "We understand why you did what you did...and I cannot fault your judgement...but..." The massive cat slowly shook his head back and forth, staring down at his paws. "Was there really no other way?"

Reeve slowly shook his head, hoping the cat and the warrior girl believed him.

"I don't think so..."

"You should have told us, Reeve." Yuffie tapped Conformer slightly as she spoke, an unconscious gesture that was still highly discomforting for him.

"Not now... but long ago... Wutai should have been notified about this plan well before you put it into action."

"The board won't listen to me. Yuffie... you /know/ I believe that a Wutai-ShinRa partnership... with no secrets... no boundaries, will be the only way to win this war... but the board... Scarlet hates everyone, she's so singularly focused on gaining power that she can't dream of an alliance with anyone... and Anjele's got some deep rooted prejudices against Wutai... against anyone he doesn't think he can push into submission..."

Reeve's frown deepened.

"It's a tenuous hold we have here, in ShinRa, keeping the entire corporation from descending into anarchy. I have to try and hold it together...no matter what the cost, or I risk having everything fall apart under me. I'm sorry."

"I understand, Reeve..." Yuffie looked away. "But, like I said, I don't know about my father..."

"Sir?"

Reeve looked up, as the aide entered the room again.

"I got confirmation... the boat has just docked safely in a secure port near the Gold Saucer. They say they'll be here in another hour at the most."

"Thank you."

Reeve bit back a huge sigh of relief as the aide closed the door once more. The boat had been forced to chart a different course at the last moment, and he was sure it meant trouble, meant that Hojo had discovered them.

//But he's been debriefed... on eleven years of history, and all his psychological tests have come back clean. Whatever pushed him over the edge the last time, it doesn't look like we'll have a repeat. Unless, of course, he's just lying to us...//

Reeve had demanded full disclosure, hadn't backed down from that point. Hojo, Jenova, Lucrecia... he was adamant that /everything/ they knew be brought into the light, and that Sephiroth also be informed when they had little information about the past, or none at all. His revival truly was a last-chance measure... there was no reason to hide the truth, to try and protect any information, or hold anything back.

//If he chooses to betray us... if he snaps again, or, God forbid, joins Hojo... we're all dead anyway, no matter what secrets he knows.//

Even if Cloud somehow pulled off another miracle and destroyed him /again/... there wouldn't be enough of the Planet left to salvage.

//We have to trust him, we have to believe that he won't betray us, now that he knows the truth. If we're wrong...God help us all...//

The room was silent, for a very long time. Neither he, the giant cat or the ninja girl seemed to know what to say. Before anyone could speak, there was a loud commotion outside, several voices shouting, and what sounded like weapons being pulled. Reeve and the others quickly moved to the door, looking outside.

"Goddamned ShinRa cowards! Why don't you just go back to the Midgar sewers where you belong?" Barret had his arm gun leveled at Reno, who stood with his shock stick charged and crackling in the air. Elena and Rude stood just off his left, both standing in fighting positions. It looked as if things were about to get ugly.

"Too bad Sephiroth didn't finish the job when he took care of Tseng..." Barret growled.

"Say that again!" Elena snarled back, raising her gun.

"STOP!"

Everyone paused, staring at Reeve, who had managed to nearly deafen them all with a surprise keepsake he always kept nearby. After a moment of silence, the president put Cait Sith's megaphone back by his door, and glared at them.

"It's good to see you again Barret... Rude, Reno, Elena..." He shook his head. "I'm glad to see you Turks still have that fighting spirit... you're going to need it."

"Hey...don't forget about me."

Reeve choked, as a familiar voice echoed up the stairway, just a moment before the figure appeared. The president saw Barret's expression darken, and the man gave him an apologetic shrug.

"Oh...no..."

"Hi Reeve." Tifa smiled as she walked up the stairs, standing just inside the hall. The ShinRa president was speechless.

//One condition, Reeve. Just one...//

//Anything, Cloud...anything...//

"Reeve? You okay? You look pale."

Reeve slowly shook his head no, staring at her, his mind no longer working quite right.

"...T-T...Tifa?"

       

At least he had been a fast learner. It hadn't taken him long to realize that it was futile to beg for mercy, scream for help, or expect anything but more pain from the scientist now standing in front of him, flipping through a few papers on a clipboard, making tiny notes every now and again.

"All right then... looking at specimen 'C'..."

Hojo sighed, he almost sounded bored, speaking into the small tape recorder clipped to his belt. The scientist and his subject were the only living creatures in the large lab, and Cloud felt a sense of incredible dread, at the number of machines set up, it seemed, just for him.

"Specimen responded poorly to treatment Mark 6... further tests indicate that it singled out cellular development and repressed certain inhibitors in levels 6-D and 5, causing degeneration of the structure of..."

Cloud stopped listening, let the words become a blur as Hojo slid a needle into his arm while speaking, not even looking down at him. The blonde was waiting, shivering even though he wasn't quite afraid yet. It didnít really matter what he thought, what he might be able to predict. Unconsciously, Cloud knew exactly what was coming...

It had been a long time since the blonde had pretended that knowing what the scientist was talking about changed anything, that it made anything hurt less to know, or at least think he knew, what was going to happen to him.

In a way, it was actually worse, having to listen to the man's scientific, clinical tone, hear Hojo speak so cleanly about "poor response" and "aggravated conditioning" from whatever experiment didn't work quite right. All Cloud remembered was huddling on the floor of his cell, unable to move or even breathe with the pain slicing into him. He had clear memories, or as close as he could hope for anymore, of slamming his head again and again against the side of the tube, hoping he could make himself black out, force the agony tearing through his body go away, just for a little while.

Zack's voice had been in the back of that pain, inside the madness, even when he wasn't sure /anything/ was real anymore. The other man was always talking to him, always there, helping him remember that there was a world other than this, that the endless tests, the endless suffering would end someday...

//...but he's not here now...and I am...I am...//

Zack had tried to teach the blonde how to block some of the anguish out, explain a way to send his mind somewhere else while his body suffered, but Cloud had never been able to make it work.

//Failure... weak, pathetic...they were right... you would have /never/ made SOLDIER... fucking weak /coward/...//

"We will now begin the 01 substitute clone... splicing cells from the main Sephiroth...and engineering...Mako...SOLDIER...Jenova..."

Cloud strained to listen, between ever growing periods of blankness, darkness, and a slow, deadening lethargy spreading through his body, slowing his breathing, making it impossible to move.

//No...no no no NO NO NO!!!//

The blonde boy may have been motionless, but inside, he was trembling harder, his memory screaming at him that this was very bad, that there had been moments like this before... that he just couldn't remember... that something very, very /bad/ was coming...for him...

//Cloud...//

Cloud struggled even to blink, eyes watering, his thoughts echoing, filled with a sea of long-lost voices. The cloudy haze was familiar, his thoughts, memories of home, of being beaten by Tifa's father, of being humiliated, again and again, both in Nibelheim and at ShinRa basic training... but some of them were kind, too, offering a moment of heaven from the depths of hell. The voice he heard now was kind... surprisingly so, for how she had more or less left him to his own in life...

//...mother?...mother help me please...//

The moment passed...and his mind gladly provided the sound his memory had not been witness to, the near-silent slice of a long, brutal blade through his mother's body... The crackle of flames biting through any remaining peace he had left... his heart snapping at the loss of everything he never knew had mattered so much...

/Tifa...my town...give it back.../

His eyes rolled up in terror, vague memories shattering, falling away as Hojo appeared overhead. The blade of the long scalpel glistened in his hand, matching the sparkling table of instruments the scientist pulled up next to him. Cloud could not move, but he could feel... could feel /everything/. At times Hojo even made the sensations more vivid, until he was lost in a universe of pain...

The blonde looked up toward the ceiling as Hojo bent over him, all of Zack's instructions, his kind words, and the blonde's entire life lost in a rush of pure, blind terror.

//mother... I'm having a nightmare and I can't wake up... please... someone... anyone... help me...//

Cloud could not scream, could not even close his eyes as Hojo made his primary incision, a long, burning slice deep into his chest. The drugs held him over the brink of unconsciousness, there was no escape... no place he could hide... not even in his own mind...

//green//

The green was more than a color, almost an entire world of its own, and shot through the cloud of shock and burning pain, straight into his heart, holding him captive, forcing him to feel every painful step, a lifetime of misery, shame and pain, dropping on him like a brick wall...

//...worthless...weak... I truly am...nothing...//

Somewhere high above him, a calm, smooth voice kept droning on and on...

"... administering .50 cc's of Mako... followed by the initial genetic coding... patient appears to be receiving treatment..."

Cloud could feel it perfectly, the liquid burning like acid through his veins... but the pain was only the start of it, the beginning of something /much/ worse.

Changes, slow at first but quickly gaining speed... movements in his thoughts... the feeling that his own control was being overthrown, slowly and surely replaced with another power, another way of life... Cloud realized that he no longer had /any/ control, and discovered he could not even escape into insanity as something large, horrifyingly powerful, and completely alien suddenly slithered straight into his mind.

"...adding additional Jenova controlled cells... heart rate increasing... brain functions following predicted patterns..."

Cloud's eyes were wide, the brilliant blue pools sparkling in anguish as he struggled helplessly, almost immediately overpowered by the creature's stronger will.

//You cannot fight me...I am beyond anything you can imagine, simple, pathetic insect...//

He saw the universe of stars, the world as she, the sinuous voice in his thoughts, knew it, and instantly realized it was true. He trembled, inside, paralyzed with fear, as he felt the distinct impression that she was merely toying with him, that his life was less to her than that of the insect she compared him to. He knew there was no way to stop the force of her thoughts, flooding into him, making him nothing but a prisoner in his own body.

//You will forget this, boy... you...human... will go on believing you are in control... control of your life... control of your soul... we will have use for you... but not now...not yet...puppet...pretty little puppet...//

The drugs had worn off, just enough, that when the pain blasted through him once more, it jolted him out of his silent, overwhelming terror. Cloud screamed, straining against the restraints on his arms and legs, every muscle tight with incredible anguish. Just as quickly, the blonde went limp, falling into an endless, dark void that immediately rose up to greet him.

He was happy to leave his body, could sense his mind bending and twisting as the world went black around him, heard the creature laughing huskily, knew that there was nowhere safe anymore, not even in his own thoughts. He was too exhausted, much too broken to care. With any luck, Hojo /would/ be successful... the creature could have his body, and he wouldn't ever have to return.

Ro asked, sometimes, what Cloud dreamed about. The General always replied that he didn't remember.

       

Reeve paled, leaning back in his chair as the tape player calmly ejected its contents into the silent room.

//Why now....why /now?//

Trouble was supposed to come in threes, he thought, not three-hundreds. It wasn't enough that Sephiroth was coming back... not enough that /Tifa/ was here, and that Barret had barely told her anything about what was going on... That Anjele, and most likely the rest of the board were preparing to rip him a new one for allowing Kisaragi any of the information he had given her...

//...not to mention the tensions between the Turks and the rest of everyone... and I'd bet that goddamn Scarlet probably even has something up /her/ sleeve... For god's sake, if Hojo managed to blow up the planet right this /minute/, it could hardly make things any worse//.

Reeve pulled the tape out of the machine after another long, silent moment, staring at the small, black square in his hands, thinking about how fragile it really was. It wouldn't take much to destroy the video... one bullet, a little fire, dropping it into the sea, and it would be gone for good.

//No. No... because secrets, no matter how well hidden or buried, always come back to haunt you... He knew that... that's why he sent it to me.//

Reeve rubbed at his burning eyes, so overcome with fear, horror and anger at not knowing what to do that it froze him solid where he sat.

//What if he doesn't want me to show the tape? What if he sent it to me... I don't know... for some other reason? If I show this... if I show /Tifa/ this...//

He looked down at the label, staring up at him with the simple words "-Specimen 'C', experiment 243" roughly printed in Hojo's trademark scrawl.

//Why now... why /ever/..?//


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