A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 6

By Twig

       

"He's going to kill me... he's... You understand, Tifa, you were /never/ supposed to be here."

Reeve paced back and forth for a moment, before flopping ungracefully into his leather chair, staring directly at her, the sadness in his eyes mixed with something that almost looked like fear.

They had all been taken through a back entrance into a small conference room in the ShinRa side headquarters. Tifa could see a TV hooked up to a VCR that hadnít been turned on yet. Somehow, the dark screen seemed disturbingly ominous. Tifa didn't like the feeling that was starting to gnaw at her insides, a horrible foreboding, even though she didn't have the slightest idea what was going on.

"Cloud knew this war was going to be bad. Really bad, right from the beginning. He..," Reeve visibly grimaced, "he only had one demand, one condition before he'd fight for us... and that was to keep /you/ safe. To keep you in Kalm town, away from this war and all of its consequences, under /any/ circumstances. No one in Kalm town knew more than an inkling of what was going on... and now I... I broke my word..." Reeve winced again, "...and I /know/ he's not going to like it..."

Tifa bit her lip, instantly angry, annoyed that Cloud would treat her so carefully, protect only /her/, when it seemed that the rest of the world was already fighting for their lives. How could he put her up on some kind of pedestal, think she was somehow more important than everyone else?

"No, Tifa..." Reeve saw her frown. "He was right." The president's gaze was as earnest as he could manage, and he pushed as much extra sincerity into every word as he could.

"Everyone's lost someone close to them in this war, and there's no way to protect anyone on the battlefield. Hojo's attacks are as random as they are fierce, and... it would kill him to lose you...and..."

Nanaki was sure he was not the only one surprised by that "and," or the increasingly dark expression on Reeve's face.

"What is it, Reeve? Has something happened?"

Reeve nodded, slowly holding up a small, black rectangle in one hand.

"I received this in the mail, just a few days ago. As far as I can tell, it's not a fake, not something Hojo cooked up in the here and now... It's a videotape of some of Hojo's experiments... on Cloud... five years ago."

Zack cursed sharply under his breath. Other than that, no one spoke, not for a very long time.

"How bad is it, Reeve..?"

The dark-haired SOLDIER's flat, calm voice finally broke the silence. Reeve swallowed, pale and expressionless, looking as if he might throw up, pass out, or both.

"It's bad, Zack. It's very, very bad." The president blinked, shifted in his chair, trying to regain some sort of balance, and calm. Reeve looked at each of them in turn, taking a much longer look at Sephiroth, and when he spoke, his words seemed to be aimed with special consideration toward the white-haired man.

"I think you all need to see this, because I expect most of you are already, or are going to want to, ship out to the front, and you should be as well informed as possible about /everything/ that's been going on. Also, once we get out there, Anjele will push for an inquiry into Elicia's death... I swear, that bastard can smell when there's something that should be left alone, he knows exactly when to push... where and what to dig up to make everyone's lives worse..." Reeve paused, biting his lip, unsure of how to continue.

"What we see... all of this stays here, with just us, at least for now. No Anjele, no Scarlet... not even someone like Lieutenant Roman, that's why I sent him away. Even though we may not like it... there are things that tie us all together, there are skeletons that live in our closets, and ours alone."

Barret figured the president couldn't have picked a more ominous note to end his speech on, as he slid the tape into the VCR.

       

"All right...this is Professor Hojo, experiment two...forty two...three...whatever..."

The man's voice trailed away into a disinterested mumble. Only Sephiroth saw Zack jerk back slightly in his chair, both his hands clenching into fists. The dark-haired man was watching the television with an almost crazy gleam of anger in his eyes.

"...project 'C' /has/ completed initial treatment. The male /is/ the first one to survive the full procedure up to this stage, although information about long-term survival is, of course, nonexistent..."

Hojo took a deep breath, sighing. They could see him in the corner of the screen now, as he turned on the lights, staring through a window high above an empty white room. For whatever reason, the scientist seemed to think it was the opportune moment for a monologue.

"... the Sephiroth project, project 01, was going to be my masterpiece. He was strong, utterly invincible, brilliant... I thought that by using a subject from the womb, I could rid 01 of that distasteful...humanness... that willful flaw that the rest of the race seems to carry so proudly."

Hojo's voice was both bitter and disturbingly wistful. No one dared to turn and look, to see how the white-haired man was reacting to his words.

"...Of course, it was not meant to be. Through a chance of luck, fate...perhaps even destiny, project 01 self-destructed in a tiny, pathetic little village, killed by a tiny, pathetic little nobody... victim of little more than bad timing and circumstance..."

Barret's large hand closed around Tifa's, trying to offer his support. She was shaking with fury at the calm distaste, the apathy in Hojo's voice, which soon turned into an almost joyful purr.

"I have since discovered, however, that it is not necessary to bring up a subject in a vacuum in order to attempt to divest it of the baser impulses. It /is/ possible, with enough patience and time, to find someone who will gladly receive your attention, your help, that there are those already born with enough self-loathing at their humanity... to make your job almost easy..."

Zack winced, stomach churning painfully. He had some idea of what was coming. He could remember Cloud being dragged away to the lab's other rooms, the terrible sounds and the even worse silences that followed, remembered it all too well. The dark-haired man also knew he could handle it. Whatever happened, whatever he saw, his opinion of Cloud was set in stone. The others though, Cid... Tifa... he wasn't so sure...

"Project 'C' has survived the basic SOLDIER tests..."

Hojo chuckled to himself, an oily sound that slithered around the base of Tifa's spine, and made Nanaki growl.

"...he passed them with flying colors, as a matter of fact, as well as a series of more... difficult examinations..."

The scientist sighed deeply, as if suddenly bored with himself, switching gears without any introductions.

"All right, let's begin, series 5..." He chuckled again. "Human interaction..."

Hojo flicked on a switch, and a panel opened in the wall of the room below. Slowly, carefully, an entire unit of ShinRa soldiers walked into the room, guns raised, looking wildly around them.

Zack shifted uncomfortably in his chair, looking away for a moment. It was, surprisingly, Vincent who caught his eye, his own gaze sharing the same understanding, the same dread. They both knew, then, exactly what Hojo had planned.

"What the fuck!? Hojo, you son of a bitch..." One of the men called out, staring up, but apparently unable to see the scientist. "What the fuck is going on here? You oily little shit... when I get my hands on you..."

Another door in the room slid open, and Tifa gasped, putting her hands up to her mouth to block a cry of horror that only came out as a whisper.

"Cloud?"

The blonde's jaw was set in a feral snarl, features twisted in intense rage as he looked out at the soldiers. His glowing blue eyes were completely vacant, hollow and dead except for that insane fury, a power that they could see winding its way through his entire body, gathering into rippling, tense muscles that slowly clenched his hands into fists.

"No..." Zack murmured, with the sadness that came from knowing too much. "No... that isn't Cloud... not anymore..."

       

Cid winced as the point man in the group raised his gun toward the blonde in the doorway.

"Don't move!"

//Wrong... that was the wrong thing to do...//

Cid remembered a plane crash that had happened in one of his first few years at ShinRa. It had been an ugly sight, twisted metal and broken bodies, but almost all the soldiers had stopped, watching the medical crew attend to the carnage. It had been absolutely godawful, but Cid had felt almost compelled to keep staring, could not look away. This was no different, the pure force with which Cloud killed, the sheer lack of restraint, while still maintaining a vicious control, was horrifyingly mesmerizing.

The pilot could hear Hojo's quick breathing in the observation room, the audio still picking up his transmission. The scientist was excited, muttering unintelligibly to himself, but it was soon drowned out by the sound of gunfire, and screaming.

Cloud was too fast, much too fast to hit even at point blank range. He dodged the first man's shots, easily tearing the gun out of the soldier's hands, swinging it like a baseball bat back toward its owner. One massive blow effortlessly hurled the soldier into the air, and he crashed against the opposite wall, leaving a bloody smear behind him as he slumped to the ground, unmoving.

Cloud looked down at the gun in his hands for a moment, before letting it fall to the ground with a sharp clatter. The other soldiers had their guns raised, but weren't firing anymore, standing completely motionless, frozen in terror.

It /was/ frightening, the complete vacancy, the hatred burning in the eyes of someone Cid had called his friend, and the lack of any emotion as Cloud killed again and again, an explosive rage that tore apart his enemies with swift, exacting grace. Cloud didn't hesitate, didn't even look at the group of men in anything but detached disinterest.

//As if he knows they're already dead...// Cid thought, chills shooting up his spine. //As if they're already dead.//

With no warning, no semblance of any strategy, Cloud dove directly into the front of the formation. One of the soldiers finally came to his senses enough to shoot, but only managed to hit one of his own comrades in the neck, sending a geyser of blood into the air as the man collapsed backward.

The blonde turned, rushed the soldier that had fired, and Cid couldn't help but swear, not even sure which words came out, sickened beyond belief by the sound of sinew snapping and bone crunching as Cloud neatly tore the man's left arm off.

It was surreal, hideously brutal and macabre, with the impossible strength Hojo had bestowed upon the blonde, and the cruel, natural sadism that came with his gift. The Cloud on this tape was nothing less than a killing machine, anything in his path was a target to be destroyed, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The soldier Cloud had attacked screamed, high and loud and long, an intense, vicious sound that, even in battle, Cid had never heard before. Cloud let the limb fall out of his hand, did not look at the screaming man as he stumbled back, fell to the crimson stained floor. The soldier's eyes glazed over in shock, and Cid could hear his harsh gasps punctuate the air, slowly taking longer and longer, until they stopped altogether.

The blonde paused in his attack, rubbed the side of his face, leaving a long, bloody smear trailing from his lips to his ear. Cloud was spattered in red, his hands were solid crimson, almost to his elbows, but he didn't seem to notice, still focused solely on taking out the last of his opposition.

One or two more of the remaining men fought back. Cloud sent the barrel end of a gun through the chest of one, impaling him, before the blonde turned, to kick another soldier in the face as the man tried to land a punch. If the first blow didn't snap the soldier's neck, as it sounded like it had, the fist that went /through/ his lower abdomen as he fell certainly finished the job.

Cid could hear someone on the tape, one of the soldiers, praying, too afraid to even raise his gun. In the real world, sitting right next to him, he could hear Tifa pleading under her breath.

"... oh god... please... Cloud... /please/ stop..."

There was nothing any of them could do to change what had already happened, nothing the soldier could do to prevent his own death, and he knew it. Before Cloud could reach the praying soldier, the man quickly put the gun up to his own temple, and pulled the trigger. Cid heard the sound of Hojo's laughter, the scientist still watching from the observation room, delighted with the way his experiment had turned out.

The suicide brought the last of the soldiers out of his terrified stupor. With a frantic, wild cry of rage, he dove at Cloud with a knife, desperately trying what he had to have known would be a futile last attack.

It was.

Cloud dodged the knife, using the man's own inertia against him, sending the blade out of his hand, high into the air. The blonde caught it on the way down, slammed it to the hilt in the soldier's back.

The man spasmed, still moving forward, until Cloud drove a knee into his midsection. Somehow, impossibly, the man didn't fall, but staggered back upright, seconds from collapsing for the final time. Cloud drove his fist into the man's face, blood flying everywhere, and as he pulled his hand back, they could see it was covered with bits of bone, flesh, and brain. Tifa turned away, leaning over in her chair, trying to simply breathe without retching.

"... oh god... oh my god..."

The brunette froze, whirling back around at the sound of a frightened sob. Another door in the room had opened, and a woman in a torn dress, long disheveled brown hair hanging limply around her, stumbled into the room. The woman stopped short, as she looked down at the carnage all around her, and her eyes went wide when she saw Cloud, all her breath leaving in a single, terrified whimper.

//She looks...she looks...// Tifa stared at the screen in disbelief. //My god, it's /me/.//

"Reeve?" Her voice refused to come out as more than a near-silent whisper.

"Yes, he knew who you were, Tifa. He knew everything..." Reeve murmured, eyes still on the television screen. "She's supposed to look like you... We don't know who she was, or even where Hojo picked her up. I'm sure it's a test, to see just how far Hojo could get Cloud to go..."

"The project's response to potential threats is /exceptional/..." Hojo's voice broke in to the video, sounding delighted, almost elated. Barret muttered a string of curse words, turning away slightly, the excitement in the scientist's voice making him ill. In all his life, even at North Corel, even when Sector 7 had fallen, he had never wanted to kill someone as badly as he wanted to destroy Hojo right now.

"... of course, we'll have to repeat the tests a few more times, just to make sure... Now, we'll see how 'C' responds to /unthreatening/ situations... with a little help, of course."

Cloud had frozen, staring at the woman, and Tifa thought she saw a flicker of awareness, of life in those blank, glowing blue eyes. After a moment, the blonde took a step closer to her, breaking whatever silent spell had fallen over the room. The woman screamed hysterically, quickly moving to the corner of the room, keeping her back tight against the wall, trying to get as far away from Cloud as possible. Slowly, her screams turned to whimpers, and the woman kept her eyes on Cloud, who still hadn't moved more than that first single step.

"Now you'll see the beauty of my new research. Unlike 01, /this/ specimen has no free will of its own. Through the use of Jenova cells concentrated in specific areas of the brain, I have created a living puppet of sorts. Camouflaged by the illusion of his own identity until he is required to fight, this creature now has no heart, and cannot feel any pain, physical or emotional..."

       

Zack's hand was holding the armrest of his chair in a white-knuckle grip, and Sephiroth could hear the wood creaking slightly, just on the verge of splintering. It was the only sign of the Zack's discomfort, but the white-haired man had never seen his friend unable to control /all/ of his emotions, to not be able to lock them away, safe behind a facade of calm serenity.

//Your fault, Sephy. You realize, don't you, in one way or another, /all/ of this is your fault. Zack doesn't blame you... but he doesn't really have to.//

Sephiroth watched the screen, where Cloud and the nameless woman were still frozen in time, locked in the past.

The SOLDIER did not, as a rule, keep track of his regrets, or allow others to explain their failures in the present on things that had happened in the past. Blaming problems on any external pressure, and not an internal flaw was terrible weakness, personal failure, nothing more.

Even so, the white-haired man could not deny responsibility when it obviously lay on his shoulders. It was true that all he was watching, all that had happened, came from /his/ failure, his inability to distinguish his fantasy from reality.

Sephiroth knew he had much to do to make amends, almost too much to atone for. There /had/ been a point when he had considered just leaving, it was so very obvious how much he was /not/ wanted, how much and how fiercely he was hated. He frowned, watching the blonde struggle not to commit one more atrocity, knowing he would fail.

//...I can't walk away from this. I can't.//

       

"Project 'C'... would you dispose of this for me, please?"

The woman realized what Hojo meant a second later, started begging with the blonde, pleading in a frightened babble, tears falling down her face. Cloud took a step forward, and another, but paused, rocking back slightly on his heels. His face was a mask, emotionless, but behind the blue eyes a fierce battle seemed to be raging, Cloud appeared to be fighting for control, and at least holding his own.

"Ah...damn it..." Hojo sighed. "At this stage, in certain... uncomfortable situations, the subject /still/ shows an annoyingly strong resistance to even the enhanced Jenova conditioning..."

Hojo pulled something small out of his pocket, a box with a few buttons, and Sephiroth saw Zack flinch, just slightly.

"I am sure this will not be a problem, in this late phase, a little pain is all it takes to overcome the vestiges of will..."

He hit the button, and Cloud screamed, clutching at his head in a familiar gesture that made Tifa's stomach turn in on itself. The blonde shuddered all over, and then went completely stiff, not even breathing. When he finally looked up, his eyes were eerily calm and still, lacking even the anger they had held moments before. Tifa couldn't help but shake, recognizing that emptiness she had seen in the past, when it had looked as if Cloud wasn't there at all.

He walked toward the woman with slow, even steps, completely expressionless. Out of some concealed pocket, she suddenly drew a short knife, the blade less than three inches long, in a move of last-chance desperation. The brunette slammed it into Cloud's chest with a wild cry, and gasped as she pulled her hand away, leaving the knife imbedded up to the end of the blade in his skin. Cloud didn't even blink.

The woman huddled back against the wall, whimpering. In a move so fast Cid couldn't track it, Cloud brought his elbow up in a vicious strike, catching the brunette full in the face, blood spraying out far enough for a few drops to land even on the videocamera's lens. As the woman fell, Cloud grabbed her head in an almost graceful motion, and snapped her neck with a sharp twist of his hands.

"Excellent!" Hojo cried out, and the camera shots stopped flicking from angle to angle inside the white room, cut back to the view of Hojo's observatory, as the scientist paced back and forth slightly, smiling.

"When project 'C' is unleashed, it /will/ be the end to any question of ShinRa military power... the question of how to create the perfect soldier will be answered definitively... This is going to be my masterpiece... my crowning gl..."

He was cut short by a long, intense scream from below. The camera quickly cut out, focusing back on the white room. Cloud was standing, motionless, staring down at the woman crumpled at his feet. His breathing was harsh and ragged, eyes glazed now with nothing more than shock, absolute horror, as he slowly turned around, looking at the room filled with blood and bodies. He had woken from a hideous nightmare, only to find that the dream was all too real.

"...n-no....no no no no no no /NO/!!!!!"

Cloud screamed again, stumbling back against the wall, sliding to the ground, legs folding underneath him. It was dead silent in the room, the tape picked up every word the blonde said, as he wrapped his arms around his knees, eyes still staring blankly at the destruction he had caused.

"...no...no...not me...I didn't...it wasn't...oh god...no, please...no ... oh god...no...no no no no..."

"Damn it!!!" Hojo snarled, rampaging inside the observation booth, scattering papers in a flurry of white as he threw everything on his desk against either the door, the wall or the shatterproof window in a sudden, violent rage.

"Project 'C' /isn't/ as far along as... god damn it, stupid /inept/ little /FAILURE/..." Hojo's voice was thick with sarcasm and anger. "..They couldn't bring me something /worthwhile/ to use... oh heavens /no/, and the SOLDIER is /completely/ useless as a test case..."

Cid didn't think his stomach could possibly tie itself into any more knots, but felt it twist sickeningly as Hojo leaned against the window, watching the blonde, who was quietly rocking back and forth, pressed tightly against the far wall, still whispering denials to himself. There was something in the scientist's eyes that Cid did not like at all.

"Damn it... damn... damn..."

The scientist tapped his chin thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on Cloud, and everyone in the room could see that he was already working on a solution to his problem. Within the span of a minute, he was smiling again.

"Really...we've still got time, don't we? There's no reason to panic, not now..." He touched the glass, almost tenderly. "We've got all the time in the world to work on this little roadblock, you and I... and you'll break, project 'C'. I'll /make/ sure you break. This is /far/ from over..."

The screen went abruptly dark. Cid blinked, realizing the tape was finished.

"...by the date marked on the front, if it's correct, we know that it was another two years before Zack made his escape."

Reeve said nothing more, quietly turned on the lights. No one moved or said a word. Tifa was pale, shaking slightly, a few tears falling slowly down her cheeks. Cid felt as bad as she looked, felt his fingers tremble as he fumbled for a cigarette. He wavered between horror and anger, not even sure who he was angry at anymore. Sephiroth? Hojo? ShinRa?

//This is.... /bullshit/... this is all such /bullshit/!!!//

"Well, Reeve... I guess the big question is... how are we gonna keep this from Cloud?" Barret finally said. Reeve's expression was unreadable.

"Who do you think sent it to me, Barret?"

Zack turned his eyes toward the floor, cursing. Even the normally emotionless Vincent seemed disturbed.

Nanaki shifted on his paws, looking up after a long moment of silence.

"Reeve... why... I can see what... I mean..."

"Why did you show this to us?" Yuffie asked bluntly, cutting off Nanaki's slower, more gentle, approach. The ninja girl wanted answers /now/.

"I... because..."

Reeve wrung his hands together, biting his lip.

"... General Elicia and Cloud /were/ alone when she died..."

       

Zack felt his jaw drop, completely unable to believe what he had just heard, that Reeve could...that he could...

"You son of a /bitch/!"

The dark-haired SOLDIER leapt to his feet, staring at Reeve in wide-eyed shock, anger sizzling through his veins, hands clenched into flexing claws.

"How can you even /say/ something like that? How could /you/ of all people... After /everything/ he's done for you, after all the unforgivable /shit/ you've put him through, how /dare/ you even suggest...!"

Reeve winced.

"Zack... please... calm down..."

The president's murmured entreaties and panicked gestures did little to calm the furious warrior, only seemed to make him angrier.

"Do you have /any/ idea what he has given up for you?! He didn't have to fight in your war... He didn't have to leave his entire life, not for /this/. Years of pain and endless battle and watching good friends die left and right, burying /regiments/ of soldiers, young soldiers... little /kids/, Reeve!!! Having Hojo torture him on one side, and you and the goddamned ShinRa Corporation on the other... How /DARE/ you!"

Zack felt as if a bomb had just exploded deep inside his chest. The dark-haired man had been expecting the worst possible reaction to what they had just seen, and even he couldn't believe what Reeve dared to insinuate.

//After all that's happened... they couldn't even keep their /one/ promise to him... and then to bring Tifa here and then show her /this/?! He's given them everything... /everything/ he has...and they betray him again and again and again...//

He felt sick, especially because, very deep down, he knew that Reeve might be right. That much time... Hojo had already pushed it so far... just what was Cloud still capable of?

//No... no no... I won't... I /can't/ believe that... not Cloud... /not/ Cloud... I can't do that to him... I won't break his trust in me...//

Zack shook his head, sighing in disappointment.

"You were right about one thing, Reeve. If you don't hide out in that toy cat-suit of yours, when he comes back, Cloud probably /is/ going to kill you..."

Zack turned on his heel, and quickly walked out of the silent room.

       

Sephiroth slipped away from the group as soon as they left the video room, not surprised that they simply let him go. After Zack had walked out, there really wasn't anything anyone else could say. Everyone was in some sort of shock, most of them wandered off to be alone with their thoughts. None of them wanted to deal with him.

Sephiroth thought about that for a moment, that he was now something that had to be /dealt/ with.

He refused to acknowledge the small sting of pain, at not belonging, not being welcome, something he had learned to push away long ago. He smiled, actually, at the pain, the familiar feeling from the distant past.

//Welcome back to the old days... just like it was at ShinRa... I /can/ live with that.//

He had been used to being intimidating, or scaring most of the people around him well before he had become a full-ranking SOLDIER. Many times, the fear had been a useful tool, when he had needed his orders carried out quickly, with no questions asked.

//It was never this bad, though... Maybe in Wutai, maybe a taste of this, but not even that compares... not really...//

The white-haired man strolled quietly along the shoreline, thinking to himself, until he found Zack, practicing his sword technique on the beach. The dark-haired man nearly glowed under the light of the full moon.

Sephiroth frowned, watching Zack slowly move through a pattern he had seen somewhere else before, a collection of fluid practice strokes he /knew/ he recognized... a memory from a strange time, and a very strange place...

/... cool blue eyes that screamed, somehow, directly to him... and his own pain was more detached, each distinct strike less painful... than the pain he could see in those eyes.../

//...i'm sorry... forgive me... please... /forgive me/...//

Sephiroth shook the disturbing fragments of memory away as Zack finally looked up toward him. The white-haired man watched the SOLDIER drive his sword into the soft sand, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand as he approached.

"That wasn't very professional behavior back there, solider." Sephiroth smirked, but the tease fell away to nothing when Zack didn't respond.

The white-haired man knew he should have been expecting this, knew that he had probably shattered their friendship past any hope of repair. It still hurt badly, felt like someone had twisted a knife deep inside his chest, the realization that he might be completely alone in the world once more.

//Even back then...in the worst of the war... I still knew you were out there somewhere, Zack... I knew I had someone to rely on... Oh, hell...//

In the past, no matter how tough things had gotten, no matter how much he might have closed off to the rest of the world, Sephiroth knew that he and Zack shared an unbreakable friendship. They had an unspoken promise, that they wouldn't betray each other, wouldn't close off from each other, not ever. As two of the highest-ranking officers in the ShinRa military, they /had/ to rely on friendship...

// "We've got to present them with a united front..." Zack raised an eyebrow, eyes adamant, "They'll walk all over us, Seph, if we don't trust each other...and I trust you..."//

Sephiroth knew he had taken that trust, that faith, and destroyed it... destroyed Zack.

//I killed him... even if I didn't pull the trigger, I might as well have. He died because of me...because I was so fucking /stupid/...//

The dark-haired man standing in front of him seemed to agree. Zack's expression was completely unreadable, with not a sign of welcome cheer or joy behind those glowing brown eyes. He didn't move, seemed to be waiting for Sephiroth to speak. The white-haired SOLDIER knew there was no apology, no explanation, nothing at all he could say to begin to make amends.

"Zack... I..."

Nothing more came out, he was too surprised to speak, as Zack suddenly bridged the gap between them, roughly throwing his arms around the SOLDIER, holding him in a tight embrace. The dark-haired man's whole body shook, and Sephiroth felt tears falling onto his shirt, realized his friend was crying.

//I've never seen him cry...not ever...//

"You dumb shit..," Zack's voice was raw, aching with a decade's worth of memories and regrets, "... you stupid... /stupid/ ... don't you /ever/ do that again... don't you... /ever/...//

His words faltered and died under his tears, and Sephiroth could only stand there, murmur his apologies, feeling Zack's hands fist in the material of his coat, as the SOLDIER cried himself out.

//Thank you...//

He thought, hesitantly rubbing a hand against Zack's back, suddenly feeling awkward, unsure of himself, lifting his eyes briefly towards the heavens. Sephiroth didn't believe in any gods, any higher powers... but still...

//Thank you...//

Sephiroth held onto the end of one of Zack's dreadlocks, as his friend finally took a step back, and let the thick rope fall back against the man's shoulder with a small smile.

"I don't think those are regulation."

"The military's a little bit different around here, sir..."

Zack smiled, wiping his eyes, and Sephiroth felt his heart spasm with painful joy, at all the emotion he could read in the now vibrant dark pools. His analytical side was quietly musing over the surprising realization that Zack's friendship /was/ so important, that it meant more to him than he had ever really expected it to.

//We're not meant to live alone. Even the most cold, most cruel... even you. Humans only /exist/ because we're not alone, we're only important because we have each other...//

Sephiroth /was/ human, too, that much he knew for sure. He knew he had been born to a human mother, and as repulsive as the scientist might be, a human father as well. It was one of the first things the scientists had told him, before they had explained anything else, Meteor, the Cetera, or Jenova. They had actually told him twice, the whole story, and made sure to have plenty of information on Lucretia, files, records, pictures. For the first time in his life, Sephiroth knew what his real mother had looked like.

//They told me so much, because that was what sent me over the edge... the first time... thinking that I wasn't human... that I was connected to this.... Jenova.//

He shook the disturbing thought away, knowing those answers would not come easily. Hojo still had almost all the information on the space alien, on the SOLDIER project, on everything. Whomever this Jenova was, he didn't have to worry about her now.

There were still too many other gaps he had to be concerned with. He had always despised not having the complete information, every detail, on anything. Unfortunately, even the highest ranks of the ShinRa Corporation could only tell him so much. The rest, he knew, he would have to piece together on his own.

"You're back... you're really back..." Zack murmured, shaking his head in wonder. "I thought I'd never see you again."

Sephiroth looked back towards the lights of Costa Del Sol, raising a hopeful eyebrow.

"I was hoping... maybe, we could talk for a while..?"

Zack's smile turned into a familiar grin.

"You try and stop me."


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