A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
//A flash of green... and as always, the world went away...//
Cloud grimaced, at yet another intrusion, another forced entry into his consciousness he could not fight.
Hojo had broken him once, and the blonde knew, deep down, that he had only half-mended, bitterness and anger hiding the fractures that had never completely healed. It was enough of a weapon, that sarcastic despair, his rage was enough of a hiding place for when "visitors" appeared.
//Oh, for God sakes... go away. Just leave me the hell alone...please...//
He was drifting in a familiar sea of hazy green, in the Lifestream, but its cool embrace brought no comfort, not after all the pain it had caused him. The gentle touch wasn't any different, but that was only because he willed it away, refusing to let her soothe him.
/No... no... It's not /really/ her... and only momentary if it was, after that, it's over. It's better to have no comfort... no comfort... than a moment of joy that fades away.../
Death was the only life left for him, he knew that now. The promise of a better world was only a fairy tale.
/All lies...all lies... this world is hell.../
It was simply better not to be touched at all, when any touch reminded him of so many people who were dead, reminded him how little he had left, and the things he could never have at all.
She spoke to him then, in the green silence.
//We have time, now. We don't need to hurry... you can stay here... you can rest here...//
//Until the Lifestream realizes who I am, and makes me suffer for it? Until the Planet remembers that it hates me? Great. Just great. No thanks. Send me back.//
Cloud both hated and lived for these few, precious green moments, when the presence of someone so important to him hovered as close as it ever would again...and yet was so untouchable, almost unreachable, that it seemed only like a dream.
//Not my love... not /mine/... but Aeris... such a dear friend... why? Why?//
He had "spoken" with Aeris just a few times, only come to this quiet green place two or three times in the last five years. Normally, he received flashes of painful reaction as his only guide, anguished images directly from the Planet itself, letting him what Hojo was up to, and he had to figure out for himself where the scientist's army would strike next. Honestly, Cloud couldn't really believe it /was/ Aeris he was talking to, that this wasn't just one more stupid lie, one more fiction created by his desperation.
/But you're incredibly good at self-deception, Strife./ The blonde thought. /Why give it up? If it brings you any sense of peace, why stop now?/
He grimaced, anger at himself boiling up like hot lava.
//Not real... not real... kindness is just another damned delusion...there is no good in the world... there never was... Cloud, you stupid /weak/ bastard ....//
//Don't... Cloud... please don't hurt yourself like that.//
Aeris's voice was soft and gentle, somehow in perfect harmony with her calm surroundings. He knew that the calm was half of it... it had been so long since he had felt a gentle touch, it stung like a slap to the face.
//Oh Cloud... I'm so sorry...//
The flower girl's voice was as soft as a summer breeze, gentle as the blossoms she once so carefully tended. Everything about her had been transformed from when she had been living. Aeris was more beautiful now than she had ever been, but her beauty also made her untouchable, she was too perfect for his stained love... just like before... like always....
/That dark perfection... there simply aren't words... I was born to grovel at his feet... I could be nothing higher, nothing more than his puppet...I deserved it...I deserved all of it.../
The blonde grimaced, wishing his own self-loathing would simply consume him, end it all. Aeris misinterpreted his pain, unable to see to the center of /those/ particular dark thoughts.
//The Planet doesn't mean to hurt you, Cloud. It doesn't /know/ what it's doing... it's merely trying to protect itself...//
Cloud smiled, but it was full of poison.
//I know that, Aeris. I know the Planet is only looking after it's own interests. Humanity is unimportant... I know. I've heard it all before.//
He could tell his roughness hurt her, that he was taking his anger out on Aeris when nothing was really her fault, when she wasn't the one he was angry at. The blonde was so tired, though, tired of having no support in this battle, tired of being told he would have to continue on, alone.
When even sleep could not provide some temporary oblivion, when he was dragged from memory to delusion, just one more thing to make him fear or dread or hate, it just added weight to an ever-increasing burden he no longer felt strong enough to carry.
//I can go, Cloud... if you really don't want me here.//
/No, Aeris! NO!!!//
The sudden vehemence of his reaction, the painful surge of panic and fear that welled up within him as he felt her begin to fade away surprised him.
//Please...please /please/ don't leave me. Don't leave me alone... Aeris...//
He could feel her presence wrap around him like cool arms, and leaned in for a moment, imagining he could feel her skin, the softness of her hair, and the smell of the flowers that had been with him since the moment they met.
//Would you like to buy a flower? They're just a gil...//
Cloud blinked away the memory, forced himself to regain control, to rein in his sadness. There were reasons for her visits, he knew, and they weren't merely to feed his self-pity.
//The Planet will only become more cruel, Cloud, now that Sephiroth has returned. To the planet... he is a part of her, a piece of the ultimate threat. No matter what happened... what will happen... he is still Jenova's child...//
Cloud paused, the thought that struck him felt like an ice pick slamming into his back.
//...then so am I, Aeris. So am I.//
The brown-haired girl paused, and he could feel her sadness, and the realization that she knew he was right. What Hojo had done to him... God only knew what it meant.
Cloud had never truly understood why he could hear the Planet scream, or why he could exist in this half-delirium, why he could hear her voice, pretend she was near to him.
/Is it something Hojo did? Is it even real, or is it all just make believe?/
Some of what he felt had to be real, he knew, or he wouldn't have been so easily able to second-guess Hojo's army. How else could he know where they were moving almost before they did? How could he continue to be victorious?
The rest of it... especially Aeris... he was not so sure.
Cloud did not debate the cruelty in his life, the painful visions, the mind-tearing fear, but the kindness was suspect, simply because it /was/ kindness. The Planet was not gentle... life was not kind, and Cloud had come to accept that would never be anywhere safe for him again. He wanted to accept it, /needed/ to, but one spark of hope just would not die out.
//He's back... oh god, he's /back/...//
//Stupid, stupid fool. Do you think anything has changed, simply because he's not insane anymore? You had more connection with him then than you ever will again. He hates you, he /should/ hate you, because you're a pissant little pretender and nothing else. Nothing you do will /ever/ change that. You weren't /chosen/, you were merely convenient. You are /nothing/ to him, you're an arrogant, small-minded fool to even think you could deserve it.//
/How is he?/
Aeris's soft voice broke him from his angry solitude. Cloud blinked, and shrugged slightly.
//Zack? He's good... great, actually. He seems happy, and content. The soldiers all love him, even Wutai loves him. He's a great guy.//
//I wasn't talking about Zack.//
Cloud flinched, could no longer keep his voice from betraying his emotions, the cold, dead sorrow that seemed to have taken a permanent hold on his soul.
//I... I don't know... I haven't seen him... not yet.//
Her voice was as gentle as she could make it, but her suggestion still stung him deeply.
//You know you have to tell him, Cloud. Whatever comes of it... you must have a resolution.//
//Hell no. Hell /NO/. It has nothing to do with the war, it isn't important now... not anymore.//
He had to believe that. The truth was too hard, there was just too much he wanted, too badly for it to be real.
//Do you base all your value judgments on their place in battle? What about you, Cloud? What about what /you/ need... what you desire?//
It hurt to even dream of it, and he lashed back at her without thinking.
//Don't start. Don't you dare act as if I had anything to offer to someone like that... I don't... I can't... he'd never... never...//
Cloud felt very close to tears, but shoved them down deep, letting them crystallize in the coldness inside his heart.
//Don't pretend, Aeris. You know you never loved me.//
Aeris only smiled, holding his gaze, beautiful emerald eyes full of compassion, never anger, not anymore. The flower girl was as beatific as the moment when a single sword stroke had ended her earthly existence, when she had died with a genuine smile of joy on her face.
/She was smiling... when he killed her, she was /smiling/./
Cloud winced, regret sandwiched on top of everything else, crushing him. It was too much to deal with, there were just too many different things for him to feel ashamed for, too much look back on and mourn.
The flower girl drew him to her, and he let his head rest on her shoulder, allowing himself a moment of true peace, of respite, though he knew it was useless. Cloud felt the tears spilling out on to his cheeks, but was too weary to even lift his hand to wipe them away.
//Cloud... you didn't love me either, not any more than I loved you.//
He flinched, and her arms tightened around him.
//No. I'm not blaming you... you didn't do anything wrong. We both knew... deep down, that we were searching for others, pieces of our true loves in each other.//
Even when he couldn't see her face, Cloud could tell the flower girl was smiling.
//There were so many things you shared with Zack... /not/ things you pretended to have, but that the pretending allowed you to show. Bravery, leadership, strength, love... you can't imitate these things if they're not inside of you already. I loved you for that, for the things I saw that reminded me of Zack. And I know... I know there were things inside of me, that reminded you...//
Cloud hugged her close, squeezing his eyes shut so he would not have to see any more green, not the green in her eyes that could only remind him... /everything/ reminded him...
// Please, Aeris... just don't... It's not right... not after all that happened. I don't... it's sick... /I'm/ sick. I'm so wrong...//
The flower girl shook her head, gently stroking his blonde hair with a ghostly hand. It was as soft and light a touch as the wind, full of caring.
//No. You have to try, Cloud. Please.//
Aeris whispered to him, concern heavy in her voice.
//I saw it then, and later, and now, and it is /so/ pure, what you feel. It's eating you up inside, to shut it up so tightly, to force it away. Please, don't be afraid... don't ever be afraid to try.//
In the silence that stretched out after her words, Cloud could hear the faintest noises from outside the Lifestream, murmurs and whispers from the real world, and knew he would be waking soon. Aeris sighed as he sat up. Her expression became more serious, determined, as he wiped his eyes.
"There is time, but not much, not anymore. Cloud, I have to tell you... about Hojo... that he has made new plans for war. His army is on the march, and the Planet is shuddering where his creatures tread..."
Reeve had decided to start the meeting early, after a long, sleepless night. Sephiroth had arrived late in the evening at Costa Del Sol, and had been kept under close surveillance since then, allowed to walk around the city only after a special guard had cleared the path for him. The ShinRa president hadn't seen him yet, and didn't really want to hurry up with the introductions.
//I don't know /why/ the veil of secrecy is important /now/. It's not like people aren't going to find out real soon anyway. I bet the rumors have already made seven circuits around the city, and Cloud's probably told everyone at the front... they've most likely known for months.//
"I assume you've all been told why you're here."
Reeve stifled a groan, as his statement garnered him a trio of blank stares from the three Turks, and Tifa also looked confused. Anjele, who would have been the one to inform Rude, Reno and Elena, hadn't arrived yet. Reeve quickly buried thoughts of Heidigger's violent homicide, saving them for a later date.
"Anjele didn't tell you?"
"He said it was on a 'need to know' basis... I guess we didn't need to know." Rude muttered, drinking the dregs of a cup of dark coffee. He crumpled the empty cup in one hand, tossing it toward the trash. It missed, and Tifa gave him a face as the Turk looked at the litter, smiled at her, and ignored it.
Reeve nearly snarled in disgust, incredibly angry with Anjele, and was only happy to notice that Scarlet seemed to be equally pissed at the absent Heidigger. Her red nails dug hard into the top of the leather binder in front of her.
"Barret? You didn't explain things to Tifa?"
The massive man shifted uncomfortably in his seat as Reeve stared at him, all too aware of what he had done by bringing the brown-haired girl along.
"I... I jus' didn't know what to tell her, Reeve. So I didn't tell her much of anything..."
Tifa scowled, angry at being spoken about, like a child, instead of being addressed directly.
"What is he talking about, Reeve? You have to tell me, if it's that important!"
Reeve opened his mouth, but a knock at the door interrupted him.
//It couldn't be.. /him/... it's not time... not yet...//
The ShinRa president had no idea, really, how he intended to introduce Sephiroth. There was no easy way, no appropriate time, especially if some of the people in the room didn't realize he was coming.
//Not /now/... please, I'll figure something out, but not /now/.//
The door opened, and Reeve heard Tifa murmur something indecipherable, as General Zack stepped into the room.
"Hey... sorry I'm late. Hope I didn't miss anything..."
Tifa remembered the dark-haired fighter very clearly, and that image in her memory was nothing like the man who stood in front of her now. Zack's eyes were the same, slightly glowing, clear and calm, but the face they looked out of was thin, almost gaunt, and in desperate need of a shave. Long, thick dreadlocks framed his face, hanging down to his shoulders in a mass of dark ropes. He was wearing a mismatched uniform, a Wutai fighter's shirt over a pair of ShinRa standard-issue soldier's pants. Four tiny stars gleaming on the collar of his shirt were all that signified his rank. The shirt was fairly clean, especially when compared with the pants, which were liberally covered in mud. Zack set his massive sword down by the chair, and smiled sheepishly when he noticed all pairs of eyes staring at his outfit.
"Sorry about the mess. I lost my pack in a river about a half a day ago, and figured it was better to get here fast than go and powder my nose."
Zack sat down heavily in the chair next to Elena, sighing deeply. The Turk quickly rolled her chair away, holding her nose in one of her usual gestures of impolite criticism. Zack ignored her, looking across the table, noticing Tifa's gaze. He smiled, and the brown-haired fighter held her gaze only because she knew turning away would be much more embarrassing. Tifa's face was hot, she figured she was blushing furiously, like a total moron, and she didn't even know why.
//He's handsome...that's why...//
The brunette couldn't have been more relieved when Zack finally focused his attention on Reeve, who had found his seat at the head of the table.
"No Anjele, huh, Reeve?" His eyes sparkled merrily, as if this was a grand joke. Reeve smiled slightly in return. Even in these bleak times, the dark-haired general's good humor was infectious.
"He called in... told me he would be late. Probably had a bad hair day or something..."
The president's expression darkened.
"Cloud... General Strife... isn't with you?"
Zack shook his head, cut his eyes over to Yuffie, who shrugged.
"I thought he might come in with Kisaragi, but his group /was/ the furthest one out. He was behind me by a good half a day, and even on a Gold Chocobo in perfect conditions, it would be one hell of a battle back here."
Zack noticed the silence in the room, and did his best to reassure them, putting on his most charming, easy grin.
"Don't worry. He'll be here."
Zack's expression changed sharply as his eyes focused on Reeve once more, gaze unreadable.
"Speaking of being here...?"
Reeve nodded, figuring that the general's query was about a good a cue as any.
"As most of you are well aware, the war that started five years ago between ShinRa and Hojo has been both brutal and unavoidably costly."
Practicing the speech several dozen times over the last day was all that kept Reeve's voice steady now.
"You all also know that, due to everything that happened /before/ the war, it has not been a price we have easily paid.
The ShinRa board came up with a plan four years ago to clone a man from DNA samples on file in our database. We hoped to clone someone who's expertise stemmed from a time at the peak of ShinRa military power."
Reeve gestured to Zack.
"The result of our experiment sits before you all today, as one of our top leaders, and a war hero a thousand times over."
Yuffie murmured something in the Wutai dialect, and Zack laughed sharply, shaking his head.
"Bitch," he said cheerfully, and the ninja girl simply smiled angelically. Cid glared at her, a question in his eyes, while Vincent and Red shared the same expression of weary disbelief.
"Can you get on with it, Prez?" Reno muttered, rubbing the back of his neck with the end of his currently inactive shock stick. "Just tell us what the hell is going on?"
"The program was successful. We... We cloned another SOLDIER."
"No...not another Zack. Someone... else."
Reeve struggled for a moment with the words, not wanting to see the confusion in Tifa's eyes replaced with something else, the horrible realization on the faces of most everyone else in the room. Before he could speak, Elena beat him to the punch.
"It's Sephiroth, isn't it? You idiots brought back that psycho general, didn't you?"
A shocked silence filled the room. Even those who knew of what had happened still found the news stunning.
Reno was the first to speak, pulling a large bottle of whiskey from a bag at his side. He took a long drink before passing the bottle to Rude. Yuffie gestured with one hand, Rude handed it to her without a second glance, and the bottle made its way around the table from the ninja girl to Cid to even Scarlet. Nanaki looked as if he would have liked to participate, if not for the absence of opposable thumbs. Reeve took the bottle last, and handed the almost empty container back to Reno.
"Here's to great last stands!" The Turk saluted, drained the rest of the bottle, and put it back in his bag.
"Hopefully not, Reno. He's been around now... for a while. He knows everything that we do about what's been going on, and everything that...uh... /happened/. As far as we can tell, everything seems fine."
"Speaking of..." Scarlet raised an eyebrow. "Where is he now?"
"Right here, Scarlet sweet."
Anjele walked into the room, with Sephiroth just a few paces behind him.
Cid's hand tensed around the Venus Gospel, even though at one point, he had promised himself he would not even bring the weapon. It was unnerving to hear Sephiroth had been resurrected, and creepy as hell to actually /see/ it, the dark, armor-clad man calmly surveying the room, the massive sword that had ended so many lives just suddenly /there/, in full view.
//My God...what the hell were they /thinking/?!//
Around the table, Cid could see nearly everyone else fighting to maintain calm. Red's tail flicked back and forth sharply, blazing brighter than Cid had remembered it being before. Vincent didn't move, only his eyes betrayed any emotion, narrowing slightly. Yuffie, Barret and the Turks were also motionless, but their eyes followed every movement the white-haired man made. The tension that filled the room was unbearable, and nearly unbreakable.
Slowly, expressionlessly, Sephiroth took a few steps forward, to sit between Reeve and Anjele. Heidigger was beaming, while the ShinRa president looked as if he was about to collapse.
Barret watched in concern as Tifa sat, completely still, with her head down and her fists clenched in her lap. He could not see her face, but after a moment, it didn't matter. Her shoulders shook once, and a choked sob escaped into the air.
Without looking at any of them, Tifa leapt up and ran out the door, hands pressed tightly against her face, unable to stop all the tears that fell.
"Tifa!!" Barret stretched out a hand, but she was already gone. "Damn it!" The large, dark man pounded a massive fist against the table, and glared at Sephiroth, who calmly returned his gaze. The ex-AVALANCHE member started to rise, when a hand touched his gunarm.
"Stay here, Barret," Zack murmured. "I'll go."
Slightly surprised at the general's serious tone, Barret nodded, and sat down as Zack walked out the door.
The dreadlocked general found Tifa at the end of the hallway, face pressed against the glass, arms crossed, weeping brokenly.
Zack had seen too many people in the same state in the past few months, siblings, parents, lovers, most of them young soldiers, all of them lost, dealing with terrible grief mostly on their own.
//There's so much pain... /everyone/ has lost someone in this war... and this is /so/ bad... this is so much for her to deal with...//
Zack didn't hesitate, just walked up and wrapped his arms around her. Tifa tensed, surprised, but let herself be embraced, turning to sob against his shoulder. He said nothing, only held her, and let the storm of tears abate in its own time. After a little while, she pulled away from him, wiping the tear trails from her face with the back of her hand. Zack realized it was hard to let her go.
//Oh no... bad Zack. Don't /even/ think like that...//
The moment of surprising emotion vanished quickly, as he focused all his attention on helping Tifa with what was happening, helping her get through it.
"I'm sorry... I didn't... It was so stupid of me to fall apart like that..."
Tifa sighed, and Zack shook his head.
"No... it was completely understandable. Most everyone else had some time to get used to the idea, and I can tell you, none of them were doing real well either."
"You?" She smiled slightly, raising a curious eyebrow. Zack swallowed hard, knew he was still a little shocked, staring into the face of someone he had thought was gone for good, someone he thought he had lost forever.
//Seph... God, after Nibelheim... I thought it was over... I thought that was it... that I'd never see you again...//
"It's a hell of a shock..."
Zack turned to the window for a moment, lost in old memories. "One /hell/ of a shock..."
Tifa watched him, a thoughtful look in her eyes.
"You knew him well, didn't you? You two were close?"
Zack smiled, nodding.
"He was my best friend, once upon a time, for a very long time. I'd like to hope that... he still might be..."
The brown haired woman frowned, turning away and adjusting one of the straps on her old fighting gloves, reminding herself to get the Premium Heart out of the bottom of her travel bag as soon as possible.
"I don't mean to be rude... but he didn't seem too happy to see you..."
"That's a ShinRa thing. We never act any other way around the higher-ups. I wouldn't trust most of them for all the gil at the Gold Saucer, especially that bastard Heidigger." His eyes twinkled, as he remembered the longstanding tradition of going around the backs of ShinRa executives many, many times. "It's a lesson all the people who have to deal with those imbiciles learn real fast..."
The humor fell, as he remembered what happened when he failed, when ShinRa learned too much, when he hadn't seen the betrayal coming.
//Hojo... you're going straight to hell on the end of my sword...//
He blinked, shoving the painful memories and deadly vows to one side, wiping a tear off Tifa's cheek with the ball of his thumb. It was impossible not to notice, he thought, that she had very pretty eyes. They were sad and fearful now, but still contained a promise of sweetness, given the right set of circumstances.
//Hello Zack! This is your common sense, and we have to say, we don't like where this is going, one bit!!!//
Zack smiled, both at his internal critic, and Tifa, hoping he was being some comfort to her.
"Don't give them your tears, Tifa. ShinRa will only use them against you..."
Tifa smiled, and nodded, eyes flashing with a newfound determination. She half-turned to leave, but stopped as he caught her arm.
She turned, surprised at the sudden softness in his voice.
"The Sephiroth I knew..." Zack chuckled. "He could be an asshole sometimes... a real cold, arrogant prick... but he /never/ would have done what happened at Nibelheim. That... that wasn't him. I'm not asking you to forgive him... but please, try to understand.
Tifa looked up at him for a while, and nodded sharply.
They had gone halfway down the hall, back toward the conference room, when she turned to him again, with a hoarse, whispered question he could not even begin to answer.
"Oh my God... what about Cloud?"
It wasn't a good sign, that they walked back into a completely silent room. Zack understood. There was simply too much to say, too much anger and worry and confusion, and no one knew where to begin. It was like everyone was trying not to mention an elephant that had wandered into the room.
//Except this elephant's bright blue and covered in sparkling hand grenades... on fire.// Zack thought, returning to his seat.
Anjele was the only one who didn't seem worried. The dark-haired young man had the single smile in the room, sitting with his arms folded, calm and utterly pleased with himself. Zack was glad to see that expression falter and fade as he saw the general return.
"General... have you spoken with Strife?"
Zack shook his head. He had /heard/ things, lots of things, but they were definitely not things Heidigger needed to know about.
"Not since Gongaga... that was before he left for the front... nine, ten months ago?"
"Hmmph." Anjele pushed his fingers together into a steeple, leaning back in his chair. "I hope he gets here soon. We have /much/ to talk about."
"Cloud's coming /here/?" Tifa blurted, eyes wide. Anjele stared down his nose at her, eyes narrowing in disdain.
"Yes. Miss... Lockheart, is it? All the commanders were /supposed/ to meet here to discuss the new arrangements, the distribution of existing forces under General Sephiroth, and... /other/ matters..."
Zack was surprised.
"You're not going to give him Elly's command, Heidigger?"
"With all due respect, General, I think we can offer the General something a bit better than /that/."
Cid was watching everything closely, guessed most of the people at the table were doing the same. He gave his first, small point of approval to Sephiroth, who frowned slightly at Heidigger's dismissal of General Elicia's command.
"...and about Elicia, I don't want to talk too much before Strife gets here with more information, but we never /did/ receive a full report on the circumstances of her death..."
Nanaki was sure he was not the only one that saw Reeve pale to a chalky white, and lean back slightly in his chair.
"She died somewhere in lower Wutai, we think. Cloud reported her death about two months ago..." Zack said. "He'll have the full report ready when he gets here. Supply lines have been too much of a bitch to bother with, for the most part, especially with anything important."
"Well then, if everything's concluded..." Anjele leaned back, staring across the table expectantly. He seemed to think that the non-ShinRa personnel were going to leave, and his brow furrowed slightly in annoyance as no one moved.
"Mr. Heidigger..." Nanaki gently put his front paws up on the edge of the table, leaning forward to speak. "I thank you for extending this courtesy to all of us, inviting us here, but I don't think /anything/ has been resolved."
Anjele blinked, as if completely surprised. He turned to Barret, refusing to answer the giant cat directly, and Cid put another check on his list of things he didn't like about the man.
"What's the problem?"
"Which list would you like to hear first, Heidigger?" Yuffie smiled, eyes flashing dangerously bright.
"Kisaragi." It was impossible not to see the disdain on Anjele's face. "I'm pleasantly surprised you made it here..."
"General Kisaragi, and I already know you didn't want me here, so cut the crap. I just wanted to ask... how did you plan on getting Sephiroth anywhere near the front before a Wutai patrol skewers him sixteen ways 'til sundown?"
A vein in the side of Anjele's head started to bulge, and his voice tightened up an octave when he finally spoke.
"Is that a /threat/?"
"There are still more than enough old-timers left from the ShinRa war, they remember what "The General" did to our people. I can order them not to attack all I want, but you really think they're going to give a damn about what one little girl says, no matter who my father is?"
The ninja girl turned directly to Sephiroth.
"There are more than enough warriors willing to die as long as you go with them. Try to remember that."
"I'll talk to them..." Zack said. "Some of them will be angry that they weren't told sooner... I'll try to explain as much as I can..."
Yuffie nodded. "Most of the front probably knows by now anyway."
Anjele's eyes widened, and his jaw dropped as Zack nodded in agreement.
"/HOW/ does the front know?!"
"Who told him?!"
"He knew first... before you told anything to the rest of us. He just... knew."
"Don't you have anything to say?"
Barret rubbed the curve of his gunarm, watching one pale eyebrow curve up at his question. Sephiroth remained silent.
"Yeah, ShinRa, I'm talking to you." Barret tried to keep from spitting the words out, controlling his temper as best he could. "Don't you have anything to say?"
The white-haired SOLDIER blinked.
"What do you want to hear?"
Barret had to bite his tongue to keep from snarling, angered at Sephiroth's utter nonchalance.
"How about telling us /yourself/ that you're not going to go off and try and destroy the Planet? Do we have a guarantee that we're not going to get a repeat of last time? What the hell are you all about, now that you're back?"
The white-haired man shrugged, as if knowing that was what would make Barret the most angry.
"Calm down, Barret." Cid murmured. He hated having to assume control anytime, but this time more than most. He looked up, completely unnerved by the calm control, the ease and familiarity with which Sephiroth controlled his power, all that was captured in those glowing green eyes.
"We don't trust you. I think I can safely speak for everyone here when I say that. As for myself, I'd like to add that this whole situation unnerves the hell out of me."
"Nothing changes the fact that you're here now, you're a damned good fighter, and we need your help. Reeve has asked us all to give you the benefit of the doubt... so there you..."
"Excuse me?" An aide popped into the doorway, looking at Reeve, shifting nervously as all eyes in the room turned toward her.
"Someone from the front... they say they're supposed to be at this meeting..."
Tifa was already half standing.
The aide vanished, and a man walked into the room. He looked around, blinking warily, running a hand through his dark red hair. He threw a small salute towards Yuffie, and a perfect one to Zack, letting his hand drop only when the dark-haired man nodded in recognition. He looked at the rest of them blankly.
"I'm Ro... I mean, Lt. General Roman Gemini...uh... The General sent me..."
When no one responded, Zack gestured for the boy to take a seat. Roman nodded, sitting down next to Nanaki. He pulled a large pack of folders from a backpack, sliding them onto the table. Anjele looked absolutely irate, tapping his fingers against his arm, scowling like a five year old.
"Just where /is/ Strife, Lt. Gemini?"
"The General? At the front..." Roman either didn't notice Heidigger's annoyance, or didn't care. His uninformative answer only pissed off the dark-haired man that much more.
"He didn't happen to tell you /why/ he felt it necessary to ignore a direct order, Lieutenant?"
"We lost two platoons... one of them to an entire /forest/ of enhanced mobile flower prongs... the other... we don't even know..." Roman was both tense and angry, his tone did not carry any deference to the ShinRa board member.
"Hojo's been pushing us around, blocking our escape... picking off a squad every now and then. Shit, we haven't had a moment of breathing room for four months." The redhead shook his head. "There's no way the General could have left us... not there, not like that." Serious brown eyes flicked up, looking at Reeve, Scarlet and Anjele, and the Lieutenant General tapped the folders in front of him.
"I've got everything you need, troop movements, archives, just about anything you can want."
Reeve shook his head, sighing softly.
"Thank you, Lieutenant, but the purpose of this meeting was really more about General Strife than about the war..."
Roman looked at him blankly, confused, but Reeve did not feel like explaining.
//...didn't think he'd show up... Come on, Reeve, of course he wasn't going to be here! Would you come here, would you show up if the main event was having to sit in a room with the person who was almost totally responsible for destroying your life, and talk about how to best help him out?!//
"Well then..." Reeve flipped a folder open with a heavy sigh. "I guess we'd better get started."
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