A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
// Cloud's hand trembled, gripped tightly around the hilt of the small knife. No one had seen it, none of the men surrounding him knew he even carried it.
He fought to keep from crying, balancing on his uninjured leg, staring at the swarm of people that had managed to surround him. Even when Tifa's father had gotten a hold of him, beaten him to a bloody pulp in a terrible misunderstanding, he had /never/ been as afraid as he was now.
"Come on, pretty boy... what now? You know you can't fight all of us."
Cloud knew what the group of students wanted, he could see it in their eyes, in the way they watched him every second of every day, violating gazes that slid slowly all over his body, predatory stares that seemed to follow him even when he was alone. He had heard the rumors of groups like this on the trip to Midgar, and though the punks and bullies in Nibelheim hadn't been exactly the same, Cloud knew instinctively, what kinds of things would happen if they caught him.
The group of young fighters surrounded him like a pack of jackals, circling in anticipation, waiting for the kill. He had managed to avoid them, running, dodging, hiding, ever since he had joined ShinRa, hoping that maybe they'd just let up, find an easier target, although Cloud hoped beyond hope that they wouldn't find /any/ target.
He was very good at running and hiding, had learned his way around every back route through Midgar before he had even learned the name of his commanding officer. The blonde spent every spare moment he had thinking of new ways to avoid danger, to remain unnoticed, hoping that eventually, they would just forget about him.
They hadn't, his resistance had only made him that much more enticing to them, and now they had him cornered, he was out of places to run. The lead boy's smile was only lacking fangs, as he took a few steps closer.
"We won't hurt you, pretty pretty... as long as you do what we want you to..."
Cloud tried to keep an eye on each member of the group, even the ones standing behind him, his thoughts nothing but a steady blur of terror. The blonde had been trying to keep up with his fighting lessons, but most of the time he was too small to do any real damage against his opponents. His instructor had quickly deemed him a hopeless case, and mainly left him to his own devices. Even with the best training, though, Cloud knew there was little he could do against a mob of people this much older and stronger than he was.
The boy who had been talking to him all along, the leader, suddenly lunged at him, and Cloud just reacted, not thinking, bringing the knife up in a clumsy, wide arc. He heard his attacker yell in surprise, saw blood splash against the street, and wide eyes staring at him in surprised shock, as the boy touched the bleeding gash on his chest gingerly with his fingertips. A second later, he screamed in rage, high, hysterical voice matching the blazing fury in his eyes.
"Kill him! Kill that little bitch!!!"
Cloud tried to run, but hands quickly grabbed hold of him from all sides, forcing his arms away from his head, so that he was completely unable to protect himself as they started beating him. Each member of the group took a turn, not working as a chaotic mob but an organized group, making sure each blow hit him as hard as possible, caused the most pain.
A thought floated gently through his mind, drifted between the anguished chaos caused by the brutal punches and kicks, weaving around flashes of pain as everyone fought to get a piece of him, to put his blood on their hands.
He was going to die, here and now, never a hero, never more than a barely average ShinRa student. The group would probably kill him, but at least they hadn't gotten what they wanted. He would die on his own terms, even with the pathetic hand life had dealt him.
Maybe, Cloud thought, he should have felt proud, but to him, it didn't seem like much of a victory.
Suddenly, the blows stopped, one last sharp kick to his back ending the vicious punishment. Cloud tried to open his eyes, make them focus, looked up between lengthening blurs of darkness to see someone standing near him, a dark-haired man holding the leader of the group high in the air, one hand around his neck, like a big dog would hold a puppy.
The boy was making short, choking noises, clawing desperately for air, and he seemed suddenly very small, very weak compared to the other fighter, though Cloud had been completely terrified of the boy only a few moments before.
The thought bubbled up around sharp knives of pain, the blonde recognized the navy blue uniform instantly, part of a dream that had died almost upon his arrival in Midgar.
//...dreams... of course you remember... it was all you wanted... but... no dreams... not anymore...//
Even Cloud's thoughts were disgusted with his failure.
//...all you wanted... and you actually thought you could... you could make him notice you...//
The dark-haired SOLDIER dropped the leader, watched him flee, tearing around the corner. The other students had scattered long ago. Cloud dug his bloody fingertips into the pavement, trying to crawl away, shame slamming down on him, a thousand times worse than any pain could be. His arms and legs didn't want to follow orders, though, there was no strength left in them. A hand on his back stopped him completely, as the SOLDIER gently rolled him onto his side.
"... you okay? Kid? Hey, can you hear me?"
Cloud couldn't express the horror, the incredible sorrow that plunged through him like a long knife in his chest, as he looked up into a pair of concerned, /glowing/ dark hazel eyes, framed by a mane of long, dark hair.
//Zack... second in command... to... Oh hell... why... why me?//
It couldn't have been more embarrassing if The General himself had been there, watching him at his weakest, his most pathetic moment. Cloud gladly closed his eyes, humiliation and shame pounding mercilessly on him, as everything faded into darkness.//
"So that's how you met him?"
Zack nodded, shifting on the picnic bench, just outside of the last building on the edge of Costa Del Sol.
"I ran into him, or he ran into me, a few weeks before that, running away from that same group of little bastards..."
Zack remembered the horrified look all too well, after Cloud had run full-speed around a corner, right into him. Zack had been all right, but Cloud had been thrown back, ricocheting against the opposite wall before falling hard to the ground. The blonde boy had quickly scrambled to his feet, murmuring a frantic apology, and was gone with a quick salute before Zack could even make sure he was okay.
"...he actually helped me take care of them. Those sick punks had been terrorizing students for about a year, but no one could ever pin anything on them for sure, not until I found them kicking the crap out of Cloud..."
"...I don't remember hearing about that." Sephiroth frowned. Zack shrugged.
"It wasn't anything you were supposed to concern yourself with. You were The General, you had more important things to do."
Sephiroth noticed the slight note of bitterness in Zack's voice. It was surprising, something he never remembered, even a little, in the past.
"Did I... miss something important...?"
Zack avoided his gaze, thinking about what had happened after he had rescued the blonde, when Cloud had woken up in the SOLDIER's room, too injured to move but trying anyway. The boy had been desperately trying to get out of Zack's sight, as if he felt that the SOLDIER should be angry for even having to look at him.
Zack had kept his eye on the blonde after that, and it hadn't been long before he saw /the/ look, full of longing, hero worship, and despair, the look reserved for one person alone, when the blonde thought no one else would see.
//So, what happens now, Cloud? What happens now?//
He really didn't know how to answer Sephiroth, there was simply too much the white-haired man hadn't seen or known, things Zack couldn't tell him.
"They... they didn't give Cloud enough of a chance... No one ever even wanted to see if he even had anything to offer..."
"From what I hear, from his preliminary evaluation... he was sullen, disrespectful, slow..."
Sephiroth had taken a chance to look at Cloud's chart, it had been part of the official ShinRa documents he had been given back at the lab. He was unimpressed by what he had seen, but intrigued by how much his statement now angered Zack. Just as he had done when Reeve had suggested Cloud's part in Elicia's death, the dark-haired SOLDIER was instantly, absolutely livid, perched at the edge of a dangerous rage.
"Do you even /know/ who did his preliminary report? It happened to be the most short-tempered, rude old fart ShinRa had dusted off, to take care of all the extra cases that year. Cloud wasn't disrespectful... those stupid bastards... he didn't even /say/ enough for them to tell if he had an attitude..."
Sephiroth couldn't help but be amused, watching Zack fly off the handle. He still didn't know quite why the SOLDIER was acting like this, but it was very interesting to speculate.
"So, Zack, what went wrong?"
The dark-haired soldier shook his head, sighing in disgust.
"He was shy. Painfully shy. He didn't talk because he /couldn't/, he was so sure he didn't matter to anyone. He honestly didn't think he was worth enough to even call attention to himself."
"Even in that case, he couldn't have made SOLDIER, not with that kind of social stigma. Joining the program was his goal, wasn't it?"
Zack winced internally. This whole conversation had taken a dangerous turn when they had started discussing Cloud Strife, and the dark-haired man was treading thin ice that threatened to crack with one wrong word.
//Not my right... it's not my right to tell him what's /really/ going on with you, Cloud...//
"You're not going to tell me what's really going on, are you Zack?" Sephiroth smiled, a confident almost-smirk that had always annoyed Zack a little, because the white-haired man was usually right, could usually see right inside to what his friend was thinking.
"That's all right... what goes on in your private life is none of my concern."
Zack blinked, stunned.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Sephiroth raised a shoulder in an elegant half-shrug.
"I saw him, from time to time. I saw the way he watched you, whenever you were around. Cloud Strife had a crush on you. Given the way you helped train him then, and you defend him now, I can only assume it was mutual... and that it still is."
Zack opened his mouth, shut it, opened and shut it again, and still could not come up with any sort of rational response. Once again, a reaction he had not been expecting from his friend had completely blindsided him.
//Oh Seph... you couldn't be more wrong if you /tried/...//
"... Cloud did /not/ have a crush on me, not then, not now. We're not... we never were," He looked up at his white-haired friend, voice softening. "I'm straight. You know that."
Sephiroth shrugged slightly again, but Zack knew the man didn't really believe him. It touched another hard truth he had buried, something that had been unnecessary to even think about until now, when his closest friend had returned from the dead.
The white-haired man was almost impossible to read, /completely/ so when he wanted to be, but Zack knew he had the same feelings, the same doubts and hopes and fears as the rest of the world.
//Sometimes... sometimes I just have to assume that... until something comes along to prove it to me...//
It was subtle, but Zack could read the slight note of complex emotion, anger, regret and sorrow, in Sephiroth's voice.
It had been a very long time ago now, a moment in the past, the apex of a building romance Zack hadn't seen coming, when Sephiroth /had/ offered... and Zack had rejected him.
//Gently, as gently as I could... but it still was a rejection... and I wonder if, sometimes, he thinks it was something he did... or something he /is/...//
"Cloud is like my brother... we've went through a lot together. He's spent a /long/ time protecting others, and someone has to keep an eye out for him." Zack sighed. "I get so angry... because ShinRa keeps screwing him over, with no remorse. I'm pissed because everyone keeps misreading him, judging him for the wrong things, hurting him for no reason. I don't know how he can keep fighting for them, sometimes..."
"Why are you?"
Zack shrugged nonchalantly, but was grateful to switch the topic off of Cloud.
//It's going to have to come up eventually, you know. Maybe it never would have back then, with him in the ranks and The General being... The General... but now... they're on the battlefield as equals... and it /will/ come up...//
Zack refused to think about it, his ability to live in the moment much improved during the course of several months of battle, and the constant threat of sudden death.
//Not tonight. I'll deal with it, but not tonight.//
"Why do I fight for them?"
Zack gestured to the tree line, the beaches, and the calm surf beyond.
"For this. For the Planet, and everyone who lives on it. Even if I'd like to see ShinRa fall, crash and burn for everything they've done... if we don't defeat Hojo, this planet won't be around for long, and neither will anyone on it."
Sephiroth nodded, eyes narrowing slightly. He looked down at the sand, voice uncharacteristically soft and quiet.
"Zack...I... I never said...I never apologized for..."
Zack shook his head, dreadlocks shaking slightly.
"Forget it. We both know that wasn't you, everything that happened, it wasn't your fault. You were just as much a victim as anyone else."
Sephiroth nodded, still frowning slightly. Zack watched him for a moment, silent, before speaking.
"What /do/ you remember, exactly?"
The white-haired man shook his head slightly.
"Nothing but fragments. Bits and pieces that seem more like fantasy than reality... Violence, pain..."
//... why... Seph... no... please... /please/...//
"... Nibelheim burning, I think... and a girl I killed, in a city of glass..."
"Aeris." Zack swallowed hard, looked away, refusing to think about it.
//It was a long time ago... well back in the past... let it go. Just let it go.//
"I know, I know." Zack shoved the pain away, not wanting or really needing it anymore. Wherever Aeris was now, it was a much better place than any of them were, that he knew for sure.
"Really..." Zack sighed. "... just forget it. It doesn't matter, it's not important. Hojo fucked us /all/ over in the past, and /he's/ the one responsible for all of this. What's important now is finding a way to make him pay for it."
Clear, glowing hazel eyes looked up, filled with hesitation, and just a little fear.
"Seph... you... you are going to fight, aren't you?"
Sephiroth nodded, gleaming emerald eyes narrowing in confident, dangerous determination.
"It is well past the time for my father and I to... talk."
Zack grinned wickedly, Sephiroth returned the smile, the camaraderie they both thought had been lost forever was back, as if it had never been gone.
Sephiroth lay in bed, much later, fully clothed, eyes wide open. He hadn't even removed his gloves, and rested with his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. The white-haired man didn't bother to look at the clock, but after some time had passed, without even the suggestion of sleep entering his thoughts, Sephiroth stood up, and walked out of his room, back into the night.
ShinRa had stopped posting a guard at his door since they had reached Costa Del Sol, but Sephiroth figured that somewhere, someone most likely still had their eyes on him.
//Probably more than one...//
He knew Anjele was up to something, recognized the glint of drive and ambition in the young man's eyes from the first time they had met, a look he had seen countless times before on young ShinRa executives. It didn't take a reactor scientist to figure out what the young Heidigger wanted, and how Sephiroth fit into his plans.
//Just like Wutai, when they held up our army's every victory as a symbol of ShinRa's greatness... morons...//
He had refused to be their willing poster boy then, and he refused now. Anjele's petty politics, his endless narcissism and greed disgusted Sephiroth, there was no way he would help the young man overthrow Reeve, take control of ShinRa.
//Does he even see... how utterly /unimportant/ that goal is? Can he not see the bigger picture?//
The SOLDIER reminded himself to detach himself from Heidigger's politics as soon as possible, make sure the man knew exactly who he was dealing with, that their goals were nothing alike.
//Well then, exactly what /are/ your goals?//
That was simple enough, for now at least. Sephiroth would command the army he was given, and crush Hojo into dust, if for nothing else than what the bastard had made him do to Zack.
//Zack... and Cloud...//
Sephiroth opened the door of the small room, where Reeve had shown them the tape of Hojo's experimentation, the display of Strife's power. That tape was long gone, Reeve doing everything in his power to keep it out of anyone else's...
//which would be Anjele's...//
...hands. It was clear that Heidigger did not get along with Cloud at all, Sephiroth could only imagine his joy at receiving a tape like that, revealing the absolute worst side of the blonde General. Sephiroth was reserving judgement, but admitted he was fairly impressed with Reeve, his command, his direct and forthright manner, a complete 180 from usual ShinRa technique. The man's double life, his feline alter ego, was also an interesting twist, a unique quirk in an otherwise normal life.
Sephiroth sighed, opening a drawer in the corner cabinet. He really had no time for that, though, was utterly tired of dealing with the unique individuals of ShinRa, and the continued cliché of untold secrets. Even Reeve, no doubt, was hiding /something/.
//... aren't you just angry, because /your/ secret flaw was unearthed, and used against you so easily?//
It felt like he had been picking at a scab, thinking about the past, something that was painful but almost impossible to avoid doing, the ache somehow irresistibly compelling.
//It... that Jenova thing, /she/... she told you exactly what you wanted to hear, and you believed every word.//
Sephiroth knew he would have helped her, to the bitter end, until she had swallowed up the entire Planet and everything on it, eventually casting him off, a useless tool that had fulfilled its purpose.
/That/ royally pissed him off.
//She didn't know me as well as she thought.// He smiled, a sharp, dangerous thing. //I /won't/ be manipulated again... and I won't let her get away with it...//
He slowly flipped through a row of digital tapes, lined up in the drawer, each marked with a single name: T. Lockheart, B. Wallace, V. Valentine....
His hand paused, lifting up a cassette marked "C. Strife, 1."
The videotaped footage came from interviews taken just after he and Jenova had presumably been destroyed. In the midst of all the chaos, ShinRa had been determined to get the best, first-person explanations of what had happened. Of course, as far as they had known then, it was already irrelevant, unimportant to all but future historians.
//...but someone in ShinRa gets an idea, and pushes it far enough... and the momentum alone will carry it through...//
There were times, he thought, that the entire Wutai war could have been explained in those terms.
Sephiroth shrugged off thoughts of ShinRa's endless stupidity, as more pressing questions entered his mind. At the time of these recordings, Meteor was gone, all threats had been destroyed, the world, everyone presumed, was safe... so why did Cloud Strife look so miserable?
Sephiroth could see what Zack had been trying to tell him. Now that the dark-haired SOLDIER had pointed it out, he wondered how he had managed to miss it on his prior viewings.
Cloud's answers were all short, surprisingly soft-spoken and usually halting, with a long pause before each one. It wasn't because he was belligerent or unintelligent, Sephiroth could easily see the strength of will, of character, in the boy's blue eyes. Something else was wrong, Strife had a lot to say, a lot on his mind that he was simply holding back.
//Smart move. Better to tell ShinRa only what they need to know... but...//
It wasn't just that. Sephiroth could tell that Zack had been nervous whenever the conversation strayed toward the subject of the blonde boy. He didn't know if he truly believed Zack's story, that the two of them were only friends. The tiniest voice whispered that Zack was merely being polite, that the white-haired man should have realized he was too flawed, simply too strange to ever /really/ be loved like that, like another human bei...
//Shut up.// He killed that thought, strangled all the emotion that came with it. There were more important things to think about now.
Even if Zack and Cloud were only friends, there was /still/ something more, just under the surface, some great mystery he just couldn't see. Sephiroth half-hoped, with another viewing of the tapes, to crack the secret, discover whatever he had overlooked before.
All of the others had one interview session, but Cloud had three, mainly due to his personal connections with what had happened, his prior associations with ShinRa and Hojo. Sephiroth knew this left him with a lot of material, probably too much to scan in detail in one night.
"Cloud Strife, SOLDIER first-..." Cloud stopped, a flash of hurt filled his eyes as he looked away from the camera.
"Cloud Strife, private Cloud Strife..."
"Tell us, Private Strife, how you came to possess the powers of a SOLDIER, but not the rank?"
Sephiroth had heard all of this before, was now watching the tape mainly to study the blonde, the way his fingers fumbled, almost shyly, as he rubbed a cut that stretched across the side of his neck. It was still fresh, the white-haired man assumed, from the fight.
//At this point... I was dead... that's so strange...//
The glowing blue eyes never looked up for more than a moment, before returning to some distant horizon, some spot underneath the floorboards. Cloud's voice was a steady monotone, as he recounted his experience as Hojo's prisoner in stripped, bare fact, revealing little of the horror of the experience, the bloody destruction Sephiroth had seen on the other videotape.
"... and so, Strife, you pretended to be Lieutenant Zack, SOLDIER first class..."
"I... I wanted to be. I couldn't..."
Sephiroth watched carefully, as Cloud swallowed back whatever he had been about to say.
//...couldn't what, Strife?//
"Hojo... had forced Zack to teach me what he knew... on top of everything he had already taught me at Midgar. Zack... tried to teach me how to be a better fighter before everything happened at Nibel... at Nibelheim... In the lab... he always talked to me... told me /everything/ about him, about his life... there was more... I don't really remember..." Cloud paused, eyes closed. "I guess I just didn't want to be me for a while..."
"... and that is where you learned the technique you say allowed you to defeat Sephiroth in the Northern Crater?"
The white-haired man realized, then, where he had seen the moves Zack had been working on, the multiple crushing blows were vaguely familiar... except, last time, they had been coming down on him... in the darkness... a glowing sword... and those shimmering blue eyes...
//... sorry... so sorry... Seph...//
"The Omnislash, yes. Zack had been working on it... even before... Nibelheim. I used to practice it on my own at ShinRa... with a much smaller sword, of course..."
Cloud smiled for a moment, lost in some happy memory of long ago.
//He only smiles in his past. Why? He won... he's a hero... they were victorious. Even if no one knew... he knows... shouldn't that at least be worth a smile?//
The happy moment faltered and died, Cloud's voice and expression returning to its dead, flat emptiness.
"I used the Omnislash to defeat Sephiroth... win the battle... finish it."
Sephiroth didn't really remember hurting Cloud, manipulating him the way all the reports suggested he had. He almost didn't remember killing Aeris, the flower girl Cetera whose Holy materia had saved everyone. Nothing was clearer than the very dimmest of memories, like a bad nightmare seen through a long, dark tunnel. In a way, he was glad for it, although it left him with too many unanswered questions, many of them about Cloud Strife.
//... this really is the man they call "General" now?//
The use of his old nickname now describing Cloud Strife had not escaped his notice for a moment.
// This is the man who defeated Jenova... defeated me?//
Zack had spoken a little bit about what he knew concerning Cloud's long brutal fight with ShinRa, Jenova, and seemingly anything else the Planet had thrown at him. Though Zack hadn't been there to see it, he knew at least a little bit more than ShinRa had been able to decipher, knew the emotional struggle that went along with the physical battle, had spoken with Cloud himself.
//Awkwardly shy... tortured by Hojo... fighting inner demons... Jenova... me... and /he/ was the one to save the world?//
Cloud had suffered an emotional breakdown after a case of severe Mako poisoning, which had finally shattered his fantasy that Zack's life was his own, that he was a SOLDIER, a hero, a fighter... but even Zack hadn't answered the question, of why? On the surface, it looked like a simple case of hero worship, but Sephiroth rarely took things as they first appeared.
//Was it because you envied him, Cloud? The power? The status? Why Zack? What did he have that you needed so badly?//
"You were aware, private Strife, that this panel believes that Hojo released you on /purpose/, that until Sephiroth's reappearance, /you/ were to be the one..."
"I don't know."
"... but, can you think...?"
"I said I don't know." Cloud snapped, and the room fell silent.
//Finally, he shows a little steel...//
Cloud Strife /was/ The General now. His second-in-command had used the term with no hesitation, and Sephiroth had heard it used other places as well, in hushed tones, with reverence and excitement, but as he watched the blonde speak, still never looking up for more than a moment, the white-haired SOLDIER simply couldn't see it.
//Maybe he's changed since then... any war will do that to a man...but still...//
Cloud looked terribly young, and vulnerable, still little more than a wary recruit, despite all that he had been through.
//I can read you like a book, Strife...//
Sephiroth thoughts were full of dark humor, a strange anticipation, eagerness, focusing his concentration. He hadn't yet been in a true conflict with anyone, although most of Cloud's friends probably would have been willing to take him on at his request. It looked like the meeting at North Corel would bring him face to face with his first real enemy, someone who had already bested him once before.
//Now there's a challenge. But I can read you, Strife, when I'm sure you don't want anyone to get half that close. I can see that shyness, that fear, behind what you think is a safe, blank mask. I know you. You probably already hate me more than any man alive... you might even hate me more than you hate Hojo.// His eyes narrowed. //Now this ought to be interesting....//
/leave...him.../NOW/...boy is /ours/...leave... alone, Jenova.../
Sephiroth frowned, putting a hand against his temple at a flicker in reality, a sudden shift in the world around him.
This was his only true secret as of yet, from ShinRa and from Zack, from everyone. The white-haired man refused to show any weakness to his enemies, or let his friend worry, but he could not hide the facts from himself: he was hearing voices.
He would have told Zack in a heartbeat, if he had thought for a moment they were dangerous, a repeat of the past, the start of the madness that had destroyed his identity once before. This, though, seemed different, somehow he knew it was definitely not like before, it was /not/ Jenova.
//If not that thing... then what... who?//
Sephiroth concentrated, pushing out with his mind, heard the crescendo of voices peak and subside, murmuring and whispering lower and lower until they were completely silent. He could never catch more than a few words, and usually the voices disappeared on their own, only to reappear when...
//Cloud Strife... they do seem to increase, to come back... whenever I think about Cloud...//
He had heard, more than once, that Cloud was somehow speaking to the Planet, that whatever ability the Cetera girl had, the blonde had managed to learn it too. The voices seemed to be angry with him, and very protective of Cloud.
//Voices of the Planet...? Telling me to stay away from Cloud... trying to protect him from me. I wonder what they know, that I don't...//
Sephiroth couldn't help but smile, unafraid of what "the Planet" might think or say. If it hadn't attacked him yet, hadn't tried to destroy him already, it was unlikely that the voices could do more than throw empty threats at him. They were merely angry at what he had tried to do once before, still seeing him as an enemy, trying to protect their champion from him the only way they could.
//Cloud Strife... the shy little hero... protected by an entire Planet, just from me?// His smile widened, eyes sparkling beneath their constant glow.
//This /is/ going to be interesting...//
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