A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
"... since /you/ are the first order of business, I guess I'd better go over what your orders are first." Reeve murmured, looking at Sephiroth for a moment.
"We'll meet up with the army... Cloud's army... coming back from the front at North Corel, and you'll be able to see how we've set things up. It isn't much different from the way ShinRa was always organized... but you probably could still use a day or two to adjust."
Sephiroth didn't answer. It was amazing how unnerving a simple silence could be. Reeve continued on.
"Okay... so once we get there, and Cloud informs us on the changes that have occurred... what's going on..."
"I want a full investigation into General Elicia's death." Anjele said simply. Reeve knew it was coming, and didn't react, only nodded.
"I know you do, Anjele..." His tone suddenly turned harder, more angry than most of the team had heard it before. "... but there's a /war/ going on, if you hadn't noticed, and we can't take out one of our field commanders, our /best/ General for your little side projects."
"General Sephiroth can't take over?"
Yuffie laughed, looking at Roman, who couldn't quite share her disbelief due to protocol, and could only look politely surprised.
"You think they're just going to listen to a new guy? I mean... even if they don't know jack about Sephiroth... you honestly think they're just going to abandon Cloud? Moron."
"That's another matter we need to discuss..." Reeve couldn't believe he didn't have a headache yet, that he wasn't wincing between words. He looked up again, but Sephiroth was still silent, watching everything but saying nothing.
"No one knows what happened... at Nibelheim, or after. No one really understands what happened with you, with the Meteor, and the Planet." He gestured to Roman, who stared blankly back, proving his point.
"The Wutai army, as General Kisaragi said, is going to be angry because of things you did in the war. No one else... no one really knows what this war is about..."
"Sir... it's about The General, isn't it?"
Reeve blinked, staring at Roman, who looked back at him, carefully choosing every word.
"I mean... maybe its because I'm his second-in-command... but most of the army, we can tell. Hojo... That stupid ratfucker, it's pretty obvious he's got some sort of vendetta against The General."
Reeve sighed, nodding, but knowing there was truly no way to explain. How could he even begin to bridge the gap between the past and the present, when no one shared the same information, when he had two legendary Generals fighting on the same battlefield?
//Cloud hasn't even met him yet... I thought, maybe here... it would be better, more controlled... but God only knows what will happen now...//
"All Reeve's saying is, nobody knows who you are, except for what they know about the past, the /distant/ past. Your history precludes you. Hell, they'll probably just think you're some war hero we put in storage for a while..." Scarlet sighed.
They could all see Roman taking tiny glimpses of Sephiroth after that, trying to figure out who he was, and failing to recognize the man.
"All right... now... anything new from the main army?"
Reno leaned back in his chair, and shrugged.
"We're taking it up the ass in the north, but it shouldn't be that big of a deal... I'm not /real/ worried... yet."
"What about Hojo's Mako reactors? The one at Mt. Nibel, and the smaller ones...?"
"Mt. Nibel isn't a problem anymore..." Roman murmured. No one on the outer circle, most of the team, reacted, but Anjele and Reeve both stared at the young soldier.
"What are you talking about?" Anjele nearly yelled.
Roman simply shrugged.
"After... a little bit after General Elicia died, we lost another platoon to something in the swamp near the ocean. They were trying to evacuate... they had civilians, from Wutai and a few smaller settlements. Some of our army... it was their wives and children that..."
Roman shook his head, not needing to finish the sentence.
"The General gave me command for about a week, just normal deployment and strategic placement... book stuff, first year academia... and they left..."
"The General... and about twenty or so soldiers, husbands and friends of the people who got killed." Roman's voice was small, but his tiny, defiant grin pierced the somber mood. "Trust me, Mt. Nibel... it isn't a problem anymore."
Roman pulled open a folder, slid the transparent map across the table. Everyone could see where things had been crossed out, new routes had been added, things had been changed. Mt. Nibel had a very large red 'X' over it.
"This is the updated map, as of the time I left the army. We took care of the temporary Mako drills near lower Wutai, and directly across that strip of land, near Cosmo Canyon. There was one near Gongaga... but The General handled that one alone."
"Alone?!" Anjele couldn't have possibly been more pissed. Roman nodded.
"He didn't want to see anyone else die for something he could handle on his own. That's what he told me."
Reeve's heart sank, he ignored Anjele's fuming, angry enough for himself.
//Alone, Cloud? No one could do this alone... no one... Is that why..? Are you trying to keep them safe, just in case you...?//
No. He would not believe that, not about his friend, not about someone who had proven themselves to be a hero beyond the shadow of any doubt. He remembered the tape, securely locked in his desk, and fought the urge to wince
Reeve looked up as Roman murmured something to Yuffie, and the ninja girl laughed.
Roman shrugged, looking confused.
"I just asked her, sir,... how long they all had known General Zack..."
Tifa, Barret and the rest of them simply stared at the Lieutenant. Reeve figured out the problem first.
"No, no Lieutenant... These are friends of General Strife's..."
Roman's eyes widened, but he said nothing.
"Why do you look so surprised?" Vincent murmured. Roman paused, then shrugged.
"...sorry. The General just doesn't seem like the kind to have...friends."
"How is he?"
Tifa couldn't contain her concern anymore. Roman's eyes flicked over to Anjele before he spoke, and his voice was flat, revealing nothing.
There was more, it was obvious, but the Lieutenant made it quite clear he didn't want to talk about it in front of Heidigger.
"All right..." Reeve sighed, pulling the files Roman had brought along over to his side of the desk. "There's a lot of back story I think you all need to know... about the war," he looked up at Tifa, "...about the last five years... about a lot of things, and there's no time like the present..."
Reeve, Scarlet and Anjele took turns explaining the last five years of combat. Cid, who had been in the air, leading attacks and taking reconnaissance from the Highwind, learned more than even he thought had been going on, how equally matched both sides of the war actually were, how ShinRa at times had been barely holding its own.
Midgar and the ShinRa Electric had been frantically working all this time, fighting with the planet for Mako, and as far as the pilot could tell, from what Reeve was saying, the Planet was fighting back.
"The reactors aren't infallible, Mako levels have been surging, blowing out fuses... sometimes taking out whole reactors. With Hojo doing whatever the hell he wants, and our side doing what we have to do just to survive... the Planet is in trouble."
Hojo also had his own Mako reactors, temporary deep-core drilling structures that were, as far as ShinRa could tell, causing a lot of damage to the planet and its ecological systems. At least the ShinRa reactors had been well-mapped and researched. These new structures of Hojo's were anything but. The drills were destroyed as they were found, but the simple structures were terribly easy to create, and Hojo seemed to have no end to supplies, resources, or new ideas on how to continue his attacks against the army and the Planet.
The slide show of monsters that Reeve flipped through looked like a cross section of the seventh level of Hell, and Roman's colorful commentary didn't help to lighten the mood.
"There's one of the things that took out the ninth brigade... they attack in swarms, you know. Oh yeah, those are the things that attack from the air, and those ones come up from underneath and tear you in half. Woah, I saw a guy's head get bit off by one of /those/... shit... and he owed me money too..."
Roman paused as Reeve slid another slide onto the projector, a grainy, wide-angle shot.
"Holy shit... is that the Fullspawn?"
"Excuse me... what is a Fullspawn?" Nanaki asked, speaking for most of them.
"Well...president, correct me if I'm wrong, but that was the thing that blew out ShinRa control of the water... a piece of the original Jenova."
He noticed most of the people at the table still looking at him blankly, and grinned.
"I got into a conversation with a few of the people in the science section at North Corel... they explained the hypothesis... I mean, no one living's actually /seen/ what Hojo's been up to, but it's pretty easy to figure out what's going on... at least, that's what they say.
He doesn't have the materials or the power to regenerate the entire Jenova... but he can split its cells, create an entire army of clones with various capabilities, all with a segment of Jenova's power. We can keep blowing 'em up, because most of them are pretty weak. Every once in a while, he puts a little more Jenova into the mix, and you get a half-spawn... they're tricky. I've only seen a couple, they're usually leading divisions of the main army... They're smart, and fast, and..." Roman shook his head. "Shit man, we just let The General deal with it... he's the only one who can..."
"And that thing...?" Barret pointed towards the screen.
"Fullspawn. Nearly one-hundred percent Jenova material..." Roman stared at the screen, eyes narrow and focused. "It took the /entire/ navy to destroy that bitch, and thankfully, it doesn't look like Hojo had any way to make another one. We're just lucky the fucking Weapons didn't regenerate..."
"How do you know about the weapons?" Anjele stared at the lieutenant, who merely smiled back.
"If you told us what was going on, Heidigger, the General might not have to."
It wasn't long after that when they were all politely but firmly shoved out of the meeting room, so that Anjele, Scarlet and Reeve could discuss things in private. The Turks didn't seem interested in hanging around, quickly walked away with Reno in the lead, most likely in search of the nearest bar.
Tifa realized, as they stood in the hall, that Sephiroth was with them, not speaking, standing in the back, but seemingly attached to their group. The brown haired girl had no idea what to say, or at least, what she could say that would remain coherent and vulgarity free. A large part of her simply wanted to tear the white-haired man into shreds, no matter what Zack had said, but his words let her know that whatever she did to the former General would hurt him as well.
//If I could even touch the bastard... and wait a minute, why do you suddenly care so much if Zack gets hurt?!//
"Where the hell do you think you're going, ShinRa?"
Sephiroth looked up, and they all noticed that Barret's armgun was half raised. Zack seemed poised to speak, but said nothing. Sephiroth still appeared completely unconcerned.
"I don't believe I am welcome here. I was going to go somewhere less... troublesome for you."
"Hell with that! Do you honestly think I'm lettin' you out of my sight?"
Sephiroth shrugged, disturbingly mild-mannered, and fell into step behind them as they walked toward the outside door. Tifa knew she was not the only one who felt unnerved with the man behind her, she could easily see that Nanaki's hackles were raised, and his tail was still twitching madly, but there was nothing she could do about it.
//There's nothing I can do about anything... god, this just /sucks/...//
They stepped outside, and found Roman leaning precariously over the balcony, eyes closed, a wide smile on his face.
"Uh... Lieutenant Roman...?" Tifa murmured.
He took a deep breath, and another, before turning to them with a glowing smile.
"Just call me Ro. Everybody does," He turned his head up to the sky, "God...do you have any idea how long it's been since I've smelled /actual/ flowers? And the birds... I almost forgot about birds...do you know how long it's been...?"
"About as long as it's been since I had a good meal, I think." He grinned at Ro, and both men's eyes lit up.
The waitress at the Costa Del Sol inn handled the large, obviously angry party of weapon-carrying fighters with gracious but stunned surprise, though she couldn't help but start in shock as Nanaki padded through the door with a polite "hello".
The petite woman quietly sat them in the back of the nearly empty restaurant, at the largest table they had, before nearly fleeing out of the main room.
Almost everyone was nervous, looking at Sephiroth out of the corner of their eye, then away, or like Tifa, only down at their plates, unable to do more than absently fumble with the silverware. Red sat on the floor just off the end of the table, staring pensively toward the door. Yuffie, Ro and Zack, on the other hand, had spent a /long/ time away from good, hot food, and were staring at the menu with sparkly eyes.
The waitress reappeared after a moment, shifting nervously from foot to foot, obviously afraid to disturb them.
"Hi," Zack said warmly, giving her his brightest smile. "The three of us would like that..," his finger pointed to an appetizer at the top of the menu, and he dragged it all the way down to the desserts, "...to that. Three servings, please."
The waitress looked toward Yuffie and Ro, who quickly shook their heads in agreement. Perplexed, the waitress belatedly remembered to smile back at Zack as she dazedly wrote down the large order.
Cid wasn't hungry, couldn't understand how anyone at the table /could/ eat, especially given the company. Mostly, no one was eating, or only taking small, disinterested bites out of their entrees. Zack, Yuffie and Ro, however, could not seem to get the food down fast enough. The pilot watched in amazement as hands, forks, spoons and knives all shot through the air over the ever-diminishing pile of food, spearing various dishes somehow without injury. For about ten minutes, there wasn't even any discussion, the three soldiers simply inhaling everything on the table.
By the time the second portions started coming out, they had slowed down just slightly, and the waitress, who had retreated quickly after delivering the first course, reappeared.
"Uh... is everything all right here?" She smiled hesitantly, looking at the large pile of already empty plates, obviously pointing her question at Zack. Cid realized it was fairly obvious that the rest of them were not in the best of moods.
"S' great... just great..." Zack pointed to a cluster of nearly-finished dishes. "We're going to need about two more of those, each, and one or two more of..."
"...these things." Ro said, pointing at his own plate. Zack nodded.
"Yeah, yeah... and... do you guys still carry that stuff they used to bottle... Shit, I used to get it all the time up near the Icicle Inn..."
The waitress nodded, smiling brightly.
"I used to work there! Yeah... we have some of that stuff," She studied Zack's face more closely for a moment, "I don't think I remember ever seeing you..."
"I've been kind of... out of touch..." Zack grinned back.
The waitress left, and after another few moments, Yuffie and Roman both leaned back in their chairs with a happy sigh.
"...good meal." The ninja girl smiled, and the redhead nodded.
"Much better than the Cream of What."
"Don't you mean Cream of Wheat?" Vincent murmured. Ro laughed.
"No. No I don't."
"...good God, between that and the "ShinRa surprise"..," Zack rolled his eyes, chuckling as he picked up another forkful of macaroni.
"I can't believe you used to fight against Wutai..." Ro shook his head. "Their spices are about the only thing that makes that shit edible...and the rat meat...man, I wouldn't be able to get it down otherwise..."
Tifa's eyes widened. "You eat /rat/?!"
"Hell yeah." Ro smiled, almost proud. "Not too bad, either." The soldier speared a stack of green beans with his fork, eating them all in one bite. "...there are worse things."
There was a desolate note in his voice, and Zack looked over, sadness in his eyes.
"I heard about that."
Ro noticed everyone watching him, realized he needed to explain.
"Uh... some of us got caught... way too goddamn close to Hojo's border in the north... He had us blocked in... Shit, I thought we were dead for sure. We usually try to leave as many of the good rations to the sick and wounded, but we were out of /everything/ up there... We had to kill some of the chocobos."
Ro tried to shrug it off, but he was obviously upset.
Cid couldn't help but ask, amazed by the soldier's casual statement.
"You got caught up /there/?! How in the hell did you get your ass out of that?!"
Ro raised an eyebrow, as if surprised the blonde pilot couldn't figure it out.
"The General. We camped out... waited... he just found a way through. Shit, I mean it was still one hell of a fight... they hit us hard, but without The General..."
"How's he doing?"
Ro very obviously looked directly at Sephiroth, then turned to Zack, and raised an eyebrow. Zack shook his head.
"Don't worry. He's not ShinRa. He's okay."
//...don't know if I'd agree with /that/.// Cid thought quietly.
Ro shrugged, sighing.
"You think he really talks to me, sir? The General's quiet... real damn quiet... ever since General Elicia...died... Shit, you can't get three words out of him. Not like you could before, but..."
Hearing Zack's question, Tifa realized the dark-haired warrior didn't know as much as he had acted like he did, that Zack was nearly as unaware as Anjele or Scarlet.
Ro sighed, running a hand through his hair. He suddenly looked very tired.
"We hit a lab Hojo had in lower Wutai... weird ass shit, though they usually are. We found Li, she's..." He paused, and waved a hand, for some reason taking a glance at Nanaki.
"Nevermind, you'll meet her later... but anyway, we got her the hell out of there... and then half of Hojo's goddamned army showed up. We made it out, but... The General, and General Elicia... they got cut off. The last thing I heard from her, they were headed up into the mountains, to try and escape, meet us on the other side."
Roman sagged slightly in his chair, head in his hands, eyes closed.
"He came back... she didn't."
He looked up at Zack with an unreadable gaze.
"The General didn't say anything, and I didn't ask."
Zack nodded, they could all see he was troubled, but he smiled as a bottle of cloudy amber liquid slid across the table, and the waitress set down a whole tray of shot glasses, smiling as she surveyed the remains of the massive meal.
"I figured you'd just want the whole bottle."
The liquid was sweet, only mildly alcoholic, but very tasty. Even Cid, who usually only drank his alcohol straight and strong, found the sweet taste enjoyable. He noticed that Barret's gaze followed his own, quietly watching Sephiroth down a shot.
Watching the white-haired man do /anything/ normal was surreal. No matter how long he sat there, how quiet it was, Cid could still feel the adrenaline racing through his system, constantly reminding him that he was sitting right next to the /enemy/.
//I'm never, /ever/ going to get used to this...//
He knew he wasn't the only one. Tifa just couldn't keep the anger out of her eyes when she looked at the dark-clad man, and both she and Barret were on the edge of open hostility all the time. There was no way to tell what Vincent was thinking, hiding as he did behind folds of scarlet cloth and a dark, always brooding expression, and Nanaki's was now an even match for it, betraying none of his thoughts.
Yuffie was hiding just as well behind her mirth, though it seemed her problems were more with ShinRa and Anjele than anything to do with Sephiroth. Cid didn't know Zack well enough to tell what he was thinking... all the blonde pilot knew about were his own thoughts, which always kept coming back to one important, disturbingly dangerous point. It wasn't something he wanted to discuss in front of Sephiroth, but Ro had answers, knew what had been going on in Cloud Strife's life as well as anyone, and Cid wanted to know what was going on.
He turned sharply at a scream from around the corner, the waitress at the door, and could hear her speak in a resigned tone, saw the end of her hand point towards their table. Before he could move, a familiar stuffed Mog bumbled around the corner, making its way toward them.
Cid frowned, staring at the small black cat atop the gigantic white beast. What on Earth did Reeve think he was doing?
//...and why in the hell is he using that stupid robotic disguise?//
Though he knew that inside, it was Reeve, Cait had never been one of Cid's favorite... people, and seeing him again did not make life any easier or happier. The robotic cat seemed as lifelike as ever, and also seemed to sense their distress.
"I'm sorry, but there's no way for me to talk to you alone, to leave, without it seeming suspicious. This is less conspicuous."
Cid looked across the restaurant, saw the waitress staring vacantly at the gigantic Mog and his small companion. Nanaki had been a surprise she could handle, but this strange new addition was simply too much for her.
"Yeah, Reeve. You really blend."
At the other end of the table, Sephiroth raised an eyebrow in silent curiosity, watching Cait Sith closely. Zack was amazed how quickly he noticed it, how easy it was to slip back into his old habits, reacting to the white-haired man's subtlest reaction.
"I'll explain later."
Sephiroth caught his eyes for a moment, glowing emerald gaze flickering with emotion, sorrow, regret and joy the dreadlocked general was sure he was one of the only people to ever see. Zack knew the white-haired man wanted to talk to him, he felt exactly the same.
//I know... I know... it's been such a long time...//
The conversation at the rest of the table drifted away from a total focus on Cait Sith, and Sephiroth's expression flipped off like a switch, as half of the table remembered how important it was to keep their eye on him. Zack sighed, knowing he would have to wait a little longer, and turned back toward Cait, still struggling through his explanation.
"I...uh..." The robotic cat loosened an imaginary tie around its neck. "I...there's something I need to show you all..."
"You look upset, Reeve." Nanaki murmured. The tiny black cat nodded violently, before grinning, sheepish.
"Sorry... the controls on this thing were programmed for comic effect. I don't know how to change them..."
"The /point/, Reeve?" Barret murmured.
The little cat winced.
"It's about Cloud... and I'm sorry to say, it isn't pretty."
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