A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 8

By Twig


Tifa watched the point on the horizon where Costa Del Sol had vanished, the scenery quickly zipping by as they drove at a breakneck speed toward North Corel. The bone-jarring ride was enough to make her teeth ache, and her neck was starting to send protesting jabs of pain up into her temples. The brunette almost wished they had been riding chocobos, as they had the last time they had visited the mining town, so long ago.

//Oh, Cloud... I miss you...//

Tifa smiled as something tickled her, a tendril of red hair brushing against her neck as Ro's head slowly dropped onto her shoulder. While she was mildly irritated and uncomfortable, the lieutenant was sleeping quite soundly.

The boy had done his gallant best not to intrude on her space, jerking awake every few moments as he had nodded off, but sleep had finally claimed him, and she happened to be the nearest, and most comfortable thing to lean on. Tifa didn't mind, and did not want to wake the boy, simply tried to shift positions to make him more comfortable, allowing him to cuddle against her as much as he wanted.

At Ro's feet were the treasures of a gleeful, last-minute spending spree, two large duffel bags filled with chocolate, coffee and other gifts for his friends. Some of the items were goofy, stickers, a kite, and a bag full of kazoos, and reminded Tifa just how young the soldier really was.

//Eighteen? Is that what he said? Or seventeen... and some of the Wutai scouts, the ShinRa supply runners are as young as twelve or thirteen?//

Ro hadn't been bothered by the youthfulness of his fellow recruits, explaining the situation matter-of-factly, as if he couldn't see the problem with ShinRa and Wutai both sending younger and younger soldiers out to die.

"Everyone joins up willingly... because they know what they're fighting for. There aren't enough real soldiers, real professionals, left... not after the Fullspawn attacked, not since the first few months of the war. Age doesn't matter, because if we don't win... it's all over, for all of us. Hojo... he won't let anyone survive. This is everyone's fight, everyone on the Planet, we all have to get involved."

Tifa had heard that sentiment repeated many times already among the other soldiers she had spoken to, that this was not a war for territory or power, but a battle for survival, for the future of humanity. There had also been enough losses, military and civilian, for nearly everyone to have a personal vendetta against Hojo and his army.

//A war of good and evil... Hojo must be destroyed, and...//

Tifa had heard enough to piece together the story of this war, the way all the soldiers saw it, the popular version of the fight.

//Cloud is the hero, the perfect warrior...The General who will annihilate the enemy, and lead his army to victory...//

Tifa winced, still able to hear the sound of a woman's neck snapping in that cold, empty room of the past, a woman who had looked just like her, dead in Cloud's arms.

//Oh, Cloud...//

The brunette thought they had broken Hojo's control, his power over the blonde, at Mideel, that Cloud would never again have to suffer because of that bastard. Only now that Tifa saw just what had been done to the blonde, what horrible acts he had been made to perform... She wasn't so sure her help had been strong enough to counteract what had happened, that she had helped Cloud at all.

Her memory of the time after Sephiroth's defeat, the months before the war, didn't help to calm her fears.


//"Cloud... why do we keep doing this?!"

Their conversation, the night he had left, haunted her more with every new fact she learned about the war. Tifa remembered every word she had spoken as if the conversation had been scripted, as if she had memorized it beforehand.

"Why do we keep avoiding each other, Cloud? Why do we keep pretending that everything's okay the way it is, that we don't need to be together?!"

What had been in his eyes, in his expression? What had he needed or wanted that she hadn't been able to see, that she couldn't seem to give him? Tifa could remember only her own words, and even though he hadn't said much, she couldn't remember /any/ of his response, or understand the reason why he walked away.

//He walked away... he walked away...//

"Tifa... I..."

"Cloud... I /love/ you."

Cloud had said nothing, and Tifa could still feel the place that the silence had filled inside of her, the hole where her heart had been, as he had quietly turned and left, without looking back.//


//Five years... that was five years ago...//

Tifa pushed the memory away, not really needing the reminder that there were many things she had once believed in, things that turned out not to be true.


"Hey, how you holding up?"

Zack caught her eye and smiled, seemingly comfortable from where he was sitting, leaning against the other side of the truck. Tifa gave him a thumbs up, ignoring the way his gaze made her heart shake, and her skin tingle slightly.

//No... no... you can't even think about feeling... this is silly... it's crazy...//

The truck was making good time, already moving over the first set of foothills toward the mountain ranges of North Corel. There, Tifa assumed, Anjele would once again try to run interference between them and the soldiers returning from the front, try to keep them out of the way while he executed whatever plan he had obviously been working on.

//Like hell...//

/Nothing/ was going to stop her from reaching Cloud's side, not now that Tifa understood how much he had been protecting her from. Anjele may as well have been talking to a brick wall when he had asked them if they wouldn't mind staying behind. The brunette knew that the entire group agreed with her, that it was important to find their former leader, and make sure he was all right.

//We're /all/ worried about you, Cloud... why didn't you let anyone know? Why won't you let us help you?//

Tifa was still a little pissed at Reeve, Cid and Barret, all of whom had been in on the whole plot to keep her in the dark. To be fair, though, she knew that not even they had known just how bad things were, and that Cid and Reeve had been busy, working themselves to the bone, fighting the same vicious war just as hard as everyone else.

//Besides... with the company they've got with them now, I think they're suffering enough.//

The pilot was currently on board the Highwind, along with Anjele, Sephiroth, Rude, Reno and Elena. The only person going it alone was Yuffie, who had taken a Chocobo to visit a few Wutai-manned outposts north of the route, before meeting them at North Corel.

Reeve was also on the Highwind, but only in his robotic body, and as far as Tifa could tell, even Cait Sith had been making himself scarce since Zack's outburst.

//Zack had every right.... Reeve was wrong... Cloud would never hurt someone for no reason... he wouldn't... Zack was right... wasn't he?//

Tifa wanted to agree with the dark-haired SOLDIER completely, to not harbor even the slightest shadow of a doubt against Cloud. The brunette wanted more than anything to say that her love could not have possibly hurt this General Elicia, that the Cloud she knew simply couldn't kill in cold blood.

//...but Zack wasn't there... not before, when we were fighting Sephiroth. He didn't see everything I saw... there was more than that video... so much more...//

Tifa remembered Cloud's strange "headaches", those vacant, almost dead blue eyes, all too well.

Cloud had been incapacitated over and over again by the voices in his head, had nearly killed Aeris himself, and he /had/ given Sephiroth the Black Materia, and nearly killed them all.

//I thought it was over... it should have been /over/... why does he have to suffer any more?!//

At Tifa's feet, the also slumbering Nanaki quietly murmured something, paws twitching, before he rolled over and started gnawing on the end of Zack's boot. Tifa laughed as Zack tried to nudge the massive head away without waking the giant cat. Thankfully, the truck made a sharp turn, and Nanaki rolled away on his own.

Tifa returned Zack's rueful grin, turning away uncomfortably, annoyed by the butterflies that had surged up again inside her stomach. What was going on? Why was she having these feelings about someone who /wasn't/ Cloud?

//I love Cloud. I do. That's it.//

No matter what she might have thought she felt... Tifa told herself she had to be there for Cloud. He needed her too much, and that /had/ to be the end of it.


Sitting on her left, Barret sighed quietly, putting his PHS away. Between the loud noise of the truck and the interference from the mountains, there was no way of hearing a message from Kalm Town, even if he could get one through.

Tifa touched Barret's arm in a gesture of support, as the dark man grumbled unhappily, rubbing the side of his gunarm. Barret looked up at her, and nodded, but soon turned away, lost in his own thoughts.

The brunette knew he was troubled, upset at leaving Marlene, even though the girl wasn't truly alone, that Elmyra would be returning from her trip to Junon very soon.

Elmyra, Aeris's stepmother, had been living with the Wallaces', looking after Marlene, ever since the battle with Sephiroth had ended. Being like a mother to the child, and helping around the Wallace home had helped the woman immensely after Aeris's death.

Tifa wasn't exactly sure, but got the feeling every now and then that Elmyra and Barret had also helped each other a great deal. They were kindred spirits in many ways, since both had dealt with such loss and hardship in their lives.

Maybe, although it was only her guess, Tifa thought their friendship had also quietly blossomed into something more.

"Elmyra's probably still in Junon... visitin' friends..." Barret finally spoke, "she's gonna be pissed when I'm not there..."

Tifa knew that wasn't true. Elmyra never got angry, but Barret was angry at himself, and that was enough.

Ro had snuggled tightly against her side, close enough that Tifa could tell at once when a nightmare seized him, as every muscle in his body suddenly tensed up. Tifa had been through moments just like this before, with Cloud, and lifted a hand, gently stroking the boy's red hair, murmuring a few comforting words. Thankfully, the redhead's nightmares were much less terrible than those that usually plagued the blonde, and Ro quickly relaxed, moving back into pleasant dreams within a few moments.

Over the top of his head, Tifa could see Vincent, staring into space, quiet eyes distant, brooding and as somber as they usually were, revealing nothing.

The brunette didn't really know why Vincent had joined them this time, anymore than she really understood why he had been with them during their first fight with Sephiroth, Hojo and Jenova.

//He wants Hojo dead, in a bad way, and I guess, he was just too far secluded to realize there was even a war going on until now... If he wants to fight, that's good enough for me.//

Tifa saw one or two small, manmade structures pass by the back of the truck, and the car slowly shuddered to a stop.

"Checkpoint, sir."

Ro snapped awake instantly, blinking a few times to reorient himself. He looked over, turning a deep red as he realized how close he had been to Tifa.

"Uh... er... sorry, ma'am..," he finally croaked. Tifa couldn't help giggling at the shocked, panicked look on his face.

"Apology accepted."


"So, what rejects did you bring me this..."

Whatever else the soldier who appeared had been about to say was choked off, as he saw who was sitting in the back of the truck.

"Lieutenant Roman... and General Zack?" The man's instant stand to attention was so sudden and precise that it almost looked painful.

"Hello, sir! I didn't see you there, sir!"

Zack grinned, waving his hand in dismissal.

"At ease, at ease. We're just passing through."

Zack and the other man disappeared for a moment into a small building, leaving the rest of them in the truck. Ro quickly hopped outside to stretch his legs, and the rest of them followed suit. Tifa heard a gasp of shock as Nanaki padded out, watched the four or five soldiers who were standing around quickly try to avoid staring at them, still watching in curious awe from the corners of their eyes.

"So... uh.. who are your friends, Lieutenant...?"

One of the soldiers looked warily at Ro.

"This is Miss Lockheart, Mr. Wallace, Mr. Valentine and... er..."

"Nanaki will be fine." The giant cat murmured, amused by Ro's fumbling for a correct title. The soldier talking to Ro stifled a gasp of surprise, trying and failing to camouflage his amazement as he stared at the massive animal.

"We... we heard about you... some of the Cosmo Canyon troops talked about you... but I didn't really think..." The soldier saluted. "It's an honor to meet you, sir."

"Hey... not just that..."

Ro grinned, jerking a thumb towards Tifa, Barret and Vincent. "These are the /General's/ friends."

"No shit..," the soldier breathed, realizing a few moments later that he was gaping openly. "I... uh... I mean... it's an honor to meet you all, ma'am... sirs..." He saluted again.

Tifa could feel the power of Ro's explanation ripple through the small outpost, hearing whispers suddenly surround them, watching eyes turn to her and then quickly look away again. It gave her a strange, uncomfortable feeling, and she was glad when Zack returned, and they were back in the truck once more.


Zack was flipping through a series of documents with one hand, and tossed a small bag to Vincent without looking up. The red-clad man caught it easily, raising an eyebrow in query.

"That's some of the best Materia we could gather for you all on such short notice. Most of them are greens... fire, lightning, earth..." Zack shrugged, still looking through the papers he was holding.

Vincent's eyes narrowed.

"I was holding on to a few "summon" Materia... but couldn't seem to call on any of them the last time I tried..."

Zack nodded.

"Yeah. Most of that red stuff doesn't work anymore... and there are a few others that are pretty finicky, some that tend to fail more often that most. I don't know if anyone told you... we're not exactly swimming in Materia anymore. After that first fight, you know, with Jenova and the Meteor and all... everything changed. The Planet's not the same as it used to be..." The SOLDIER sighed. "Anjele's got all the /really/ good stuff left over...he's giving Seph the first pick of that."

It was easy to see what Zack thought of Heidigger, as the dark-haired man rolled his eyes with a disgusted sigh.

"What's goin' on?" Barret said.

Zack looked up, spoke as if his words had been refined over long periods of thought, perfected by constant contemplation.

"Anjele hates Cloud and is jealous as hell of Reeve. He figures that if he can get Sephiroth behind him, rack up a few major victories, Seph'll take over the front lines, and Reeve won't be able to hold on to control of the company, giving him the ShinRa presidency."

"Yeah, right. That'll happen..." Ro muttered. "If The General leaves, half the army will go with him..."

Zack chuckled. "That's mutiny talk, soldier."

"Damn right it is..." Ro leaned back, yawning. "I don't owe ShinRa a goddamned thing..."

"Interesting sentiment from a soldier..." Vincent murmured.

Ro shrugged.

"You ever been to Rock Valley?"

The redhead laughed when Vincent shook his head.

"Don't worry... no one has. That town makes Gongaga look like a sprawling metropolis. If there was a World Map, my town wouldn't look like much more than a Chocobo turd."

He frowned.

"... that was why they let Hojo hit it, right at the beginning of this whole damn war. You know... who cares, right? Who in Midgar really needs a handful of civilians, alive or dead? What does it matter to them that my little sister's only eight, or that my dad served for twelve years on one of their stupid reactor teams, or that my mom's the world best cook? What do they care, when there are so much more important things out there to save?

"I'm sorry..." Tifa murmured, completely surprised when Ro let out a bark of laughter, shaking his head.

"Don't worry. They're fine. My family, the town, it's all just fine. We all thought we were dead, we nearly /were/... and then The General showed up..."

Ro's voice was soft, very reverent. At that moment, Tifa realized why the redhead was so devoted to his General. Cloud had been his hero too.

"I never saw anyone fight like he fought... he was so strong... so fast... It was just amazing." Ro smiled. "They told him to move on... just when we had some kind of defensive line /finally/ established... Those goddamned ShinRa bigwigs told him to leave us to the monsters. I was there when he got the call. He told them..."

Ro chuckled, remembering the moment well.

"He told them to go to hell. Just like that, he just saved our lives... like it was no big deal at all."

The redhead closed his eyes, leaning back against a pack that had been stuffed in the corner.

"I'd die for him... for what The General did for me..."

The rest of the trip was silent, no one could think of anything to add to the lieutenant's words. The Materia bag was passed, and the group loaded up on the small, round gems, adding to what they were already carrying, preparing for battle, as most of them hadn't done in half a decade. A few hours later, the truck pulled to a stop at the edge of North Corel.


"My... God...."

"Something wrong, sir?"

Ro looked worriedly at Barret, who was frozen at the entrance of the town.

"No... no... it's just... I used to live here. It looks like..." Barret gaped openly, craning his neck up to stare at brand-new buildings, shining equipment, and the masses of people moving about all around them.

"It looks like I remember... long time ago... but even /better/."

"North Corel is the last real safe point before we hit "disputed" territory. This is the base of Rude, Reno and Elena's operations, and they're pretty proud of it, though Rude won't ever admit it." Zack pointed to a group of people emerging from a hole in the side of a cliff, "They've got people mining coal again, too, because of the problems we've been having with the Mako." He smiled. "She's a beautiful town again, Barret."

There was a commotion from someone at the top of a tower nearby, and Tifa looked up, to see the Highwind coming in for a landing. A few people also watched, pointing in surprise at the massive ship, but everyone else was much too busy to stop and gawk.

Barret was openly in awe of the changes in his formerly rundown town, looking around with wide eyes, a half-smile of disbelief passing over his face every few moments. The massive man somehow managed to avoid running into anyone or anything as they moved through the town, although Tifa swore he wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to where he was going.

The brunette was, of course, equally impressed, amazed at the changes in the town and its inhabitants. Of the latter, there were considerably more than she remembered, and she was surprised to see that many of them appeared to be from Wutai, with clan flags, symbols and intricate patterns of calligraphy hanging from windows, and colorful banners and signs posted everywhere else. Many of the Wutai works hung right next to posts, windows and doors emblazoned with the ShinRa logo.

"This is... interesting." Vincent murmured softly, a surprising note of amusement in his quiet voice.

Tifa turned when she saw a flash of red, as Ro walked away from them, heading down one of several roads toward where the Highwind had been anchored. Without any idea where she was going, the brunette followed him, and the rest of the group followed her.


"Hey, love..."

Ro smiled as he lifted a set of tags, shining in the sun, out of a sea of similar shapes, one pair from row upon row of glittering rectangles. Some names he could read, others were written in the language of Wutai, and some had been damaged so badly that only the people who had placed them on the board knew whose memory they held. The redhead kissed the upraised letters he held in his hand gently, rubbed his thumb over them for a moment, remembering...

//... laughter... and apple trees... blossoms dancing in the summertime... beautiful... beautiful...//

With a small sigh, Ro let the tags go, heard them tinkle lightly against the wood board as they fell. As he moved away, another soldier stepped in, picked up a set of tags a few rows below the ones he had held, weaving a flower between the clasps on the chain. Ro knew the board was never empty, that someone was always making the pilgrimage, either to visit, or to add to its population.

"I made it back to you... one more time..."

Ro turned, and saw that Tifa and the others had followed him, were watching him quietly but curiously. As they continued on, he saw Tifa's eyes slip back toward the board again, still wondering, but knew that the brunette was too polite to ask outright.

"It's a memorial..." Ro murmured. "They have them all over North Corel, and Rocket Town too... there's a few in places in Wutai as well... We have to burn all our dead, anyone we can't get back for a proper burial, which is mostly... everyone."

Even with the warm sun on his back, Ro shivered.

"Hojo uses corpses for raw materials, almost like we use scrap metal. The soldiers try to take all the tags before we cremate the bodies, and we put them on the boards, so that we can remember the ones we lost..."


Ro knew she was still wondering, who /he/ had been remembering.

"Annie... she was my first girlfriend. She was a member of the ShinRa Stanza crew... one of the first destroyer-class vessels sunk by the Fullspawn at the beginning of the war..."

He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the echo of the painful moment.

"There were no survivors..."

Tifa touched his shoulder gently.

"I'm sorry..."

Ro smiled, only a little bit of hurt still held in his eyes as he opened them again.

"It's all right. It's been years... I just... still miss her sometimes, you know?"


Tifa instinctively took a step out of the way as a loud, brightly colored cannonball suddenly crashed into Ro. The soldier staggered back, but managed to remain standing, as a teenage girl leapt straight into his arms. Tifa was reminded, almost immediately, of Yuffie.

"Damn it, Gemini. You don't tell me when you're going, and now, you don't tell me when you're back!?" The bright-eyed girl pouted for a moment, before grinning and sticking out her pierced tongue. "You just don't care about me anymore."

"Hi, Jilly."

Ro turned a deep red as the dark-haired girl kissed him on the nose before leaping back out of his arms.

"Well, soldier... I have to say, even for a Wutai officer, you're being a bit lax with the uniform." Zack smiled, looking the girl over with a grin on his face.

Jilly was wearing a patchwork of ShinRa and Wutai uniforms, with Wutai insignia decorating a ShinRa aviator's top cut above the midriff, and a pair of soldier's pants, two sizes too big, cut into shorts that ended just below the knee. Tifa could hear the jangle of bracelets around both her wrists, and saw the sparkle of a row of tiny crystals arcing around the girl's left ear.

"Well.. y'know, sir..." Jilly dug her toe into the ground, giving him a mischievous grin, "us fashionable types have to do our best..."

Her eyes lit up as she suddenly turned back to Ro.

"Hey! I'm on leave... me and half of the fifth and sixth artillery are going to the Gold Saucer for a bit of R&R... in like, five minutes! You should come!!!"

Jilly tugged on Ro's hand, and her smile changed into something more personal as she looked deep into his eyes. Ro choked slightly, turning an even deeper shade of red, and looked around wildly, hoping someone would say something to extricate him from the situation. Tifa could see Zack stifle a chuckle, keeping his face completely blank as he watched the younger man's predicament.

"I... uh... I can't... I... um... I have to wait for The General..."

Jilly pouted for a moment, then shrugged.

"Yeah, I figured as much... workaholic..."

Ro smiled, rummaging into the pack he had brought with him.

"Would you forgive me if I brought you..."

He held up a jar, and Tifa put a hand to her ear, wincing, as Jilly squealed in delight.


The girl snatched the jar out of Ro's hand, twirling around and laughing like a maniac.

"Do you /know/ how long it's been since I've had these things... they're my favorite... and these are from Del Sol?! Garlic flavored sweet dill... I /love/ these things... and..."

Jilly looked at Ro, as he slid the end of a refrigerated pack out of his bag, smiling.

"You even kept them cold for me!! AAAHHH!!! ROMAAAAAN!! IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!!!!"

Jilly leapt back into Ro's arms with a giggle of delight, shrieking as he spun her around.

"Maybe I should stay," she murmured suggestively when they stopped spinning, her laughter increasing as Ro's cheeks burned an even brighter red, "... I mean, I /have/ to thank you properly, pickle man."



They turned, as Rude, Cait Sith and Sephiroth quickly approached, Rude looking extremely pissed off, even for the redhead's usual bad mood.

Zack and Rude moved a little ways away, speaking to each other in low tones, while Cait Sith and Sephiroth continued towards them. The little cat looked dazed, frantic and bewildered. The white-haired man, as usual, was expressionless.

"So, /you're/ the new guy? the one everybody's been making a big deal over... "

Jilly chirped, putting her hands on her hips as she gave Sephiroth a long look-over.


The girl stuck out a hand, and Sephiroth paused for a moment along with the rest of them, before realizing that she truly meant for him to shake it.

Tifa nearly gaped at the girl's nonchalance, her carefree attitude, before she realized that what Reeve had said was true. Jilly, along with almost everyone else, had no idea what had happened, what had caused the Meteor to appear in the sky, what had destroyed it, and who Sephiroth really was.

Even the girl's memories of the ShinRa-Wutai war, Tifa thought, were probably dim, little more than shadows of a distant past.

"Sorry man, no salute." The dark-haired girl smiled, shaking his hand exuberantly. "Wutai do not salute ShinRa... and I've heard a /lot/ of rumors about you and your little goings-on anyway..."

The girl gave him a conspirital wink and a smile, which only grew larger when Sephiroth didn't respond.

The group turned again as a blue Chocobo raced around the corner toward them, Yuffie leaping from the saddle before the creature had even slowed down.

Quickly proving her point, though she hadn't raised a hand to any of ShinRa fighters, Jilly quickly stood at attention, saluting proudly at her commander. Yuffie didn't notice, already too busy conversing with Zack, waving her hands around in frantic, wild motions. Tifa could only hear fragments of their conversation, but she didn't like what she heard, or the concerned, angry voices filling the air.

"...what I heard too..." Yuffie said, staring at Zack. Rude shook his head, slamming one hand against the butt end of his holstered weapon.

"...impossible... too many people... too goddamned /many/..."

"What's going on, Reeve?" Tifa, Barret and Red asked all at once, turning on the tiny black cat so quickly that Cait Sith's mog hopped backward a step.

"They're probably wondering what to do, now that The General's vanished."

Jilly spoke calmly, giving a small shrug, and watched as /everyone/ turned to face her. Her eyes widened, she obviously hadn't expected the attention.


"What do you know about it, R.T.O?" Yuffie barked. Tifa had no idea how she identified the girl's rank out of all the badges and buttons she was wearing, but the radio technician quickly snapped to attention again, Jilly's gleeful grin wiped off without a trace as she answered her superior.

"Not a whole lot, ma'am. We got the call in from Rocket Town a few nights ago... said that General Strife was on the opposite end of the plains, heading back this way. The next night, he was supposed to send his final transmission before base call... but none came. We waited a few hours... I heard that RT-main sent out a scouting party... they made it to where the last transmission received had come from... but Strife wasn't there." Jilly shrugged. "He's gone sir, along with the rest of the army. They just... vanished, sir."

"You can't just /lose/ eleven hundred /men/!!!" Rude yelled. "Not even that pointy-headed freak of nature is /that/ stupid!!!"

The redhead looked up at the sound of Barret's gunarm chambering a round. The dark man was quiet, but his eyes flashed dangerously.

"Watch it, ShinRa."

"All right, all right..."

Zack waved his hands, moving between the two men, refusing to let things degenerate into a street brawl.

"We have to get to Rocket Town, /now/, and find out what's going on... just what in the hell happened to Cloud and..."

"I don't think so, General..."

Anjele Heidigger suddenly appeared, with Cid in tow. The blonde pilot looked nearly as furious as Rude did, barely suppressing a scowl, lips clamped tight around a smoldering cigarette. Zack swung around, expression darkening as he saw the ShinRa executive.

"/What/ are you talking about, Heidigger...?"

"What do you mean, what? Why are you questioning this, General? I see no reason to make such a fuss, simply because one of our most erratic commanders can't find his way back to a meeting. It's not like he ever has /before/ this..."

"This isn't the time, /sir/," Zack snarled, "Something's /very/ wrong. Cloud would have been here by now.... unless something happened to him and the rest of the army... He knows how important..." Zack cut himself off, as if realizing the uselessness of further explanation.

"I'm taking the Highwind... we're going to Rocket Town..."

"The Highwind is a ShinRa military vessel, not your own personal pleasure cruiser..." Anjele sniffed.

Cid seemed as if he was about to protest soundly, but Reeve broke in before he could speak.

"... Anjele, I don't think it would be wise to ignore General Zack... I think, perhaps..."

"Even if I /wanted/ to give him free reign with the Highwind, Mr. President, you and I both know that it takes a consensus to do so. We have to contact Scarlet at Costa Del Sol, make arrangements for a meeting... discuss the pros and cons of..."

"/FINE/!!!" Zack threw up his hands, turning away in disgust. "I'm out of here. I'll see you at the front, with General /Strife/, when you've all decided to make a decision..."


The small black cat extended a paw, but Zack's back was already turned, the SOLDIER quickly walking towards the edge of town. Without a word, Sephiroth moved to join him.

"Sephiroth. Sir! Wait! Where do you think--"

Anjele caught the corner of the man's dark coat, and froze, as Sephiroth turned on him with an icy stare. The white-haired man said nothing, merely lifted one pale eyebrow over a violent emerald gaze. Heidigger choked on whatever he was about to say, and seemed to deflate as he quickly let go of Sephiroth's coat, and silently watched the white-haired man stride away.

The rest of the group exchanged a series of short, questioning looks. Tifa didn't know about any one else, but she was only wavering between fear and confusion, with no idea what was going on, not nearly enough to make any key decisions.

"I'll meet you in Rocket Town with Reno and Elena..."

Rude muttered, and vanished around a corner. Cid looked back despairingly at the corner of the Highwind's left propeller, visible over the top corner of a building, and sighed.

"Damn it... bastard Anjele thinks he can go and steal my plane...it's /my/ plane, goddamn it."

In the midst of the sudden confusion, a young soldier in a ShinRa uniform passed by, and called out to the girl at Ro's side.

"Yo! Jilly! Move it! We're leaving!"


The dark-haired girl groaned, almost shaking in frustration, her desire to leave mixed with her knowledge of the crisis at hand. Jilly gave Yuffie a pleading look, full of dread, sure she already knew the answer to the question she had to ask.

"I guess the trip's off, huh, ma'am?"

Yuffie shook her head no, leaping back into her blue Chocobo's saddle.

"You might as well have some fun, soldier. If we can't find the rest of the army, nobody's going to be having any fun for a /very/ long time..."

Without another word, Yuffie took off in the direction Sephiroth and Zack had disappeared. Jilly frowned, slapping her fists together in nervous frustration, and turned to Ro.

"If you ask me to stay..."

"Go, Jilly..." Ro smiled, putting his hands gently around her upper arms.

"Seriously... you deserve it. Go and have a good time. There's no need to stand around here waiting. Whatever happens... you might as well have a good time while you can."

The dark-haired girl nodded, and then kissed him, held the redhead very tightly for a long moment. As they parted, Cid and the rest of the group pretended that the ground or the sky had suddenly taken on some keen interest, refusing to watch what was quite obviously a very personal moment.

"You be careful, ok?" Jilly whispered. Ro nodded, gently bumping her head with his.

"You too..," He laughed, to lighten the mood, as she stepped out of his arms. "... and for God's sake, try to keep from getting carried out of the bar this time? You don't have to make up for six months of sobriety in one /night/..."

Jilly giggled, kissed him again on the cheek, and walked away, taking one long look back before turning the corner. Ro sighed heavily, and looked up at them.

"I guess... we should get going too, then"


"Tell me you have some idea what's going on."

Zack's voice was grave, oddly hollow, and he watched Ro as if the boy's every expression were a vital clue. The redhead shook his head slightly, equally as upset and nervous as his commander.

"No sir... No idea, sir."

"Cloud didn't say anything? About an alternate plan? A different route? He didn't say he sensed... he felt something had changed, maybe?"

"No sir. Nothing, sir..."

"Damn it.../damn/ it..." Zack leaned back against the side of the truck with an angry scowl on his face. "Rude was right... you can't just /lose/ an army... unless..."

"Unless?" Tifa murmured. "Unless what?"

Zack waved a hand, immediately trying to get rid of the anxiety he had caused.

"Nothing... there's just always a chance that Hojo came up with something new... there's /always/ that chance. We've lost hundreds of men to swarms of unidentifiable poison bugs, or some new, nearly indestructible monster Hojo's cooked up off the fly... Jenova spawn in a thousand different forms..."

Zack winced, staring into space.

"If the army's found... but no... they can't be... he can't... He's just /got/ to be out there, somewhere."


No one spoke, there really wasn't much to say, nothing that could relieve the tension they all were feeling.

Zack sat alone with his fears, the depth of which not even Ro was familiar with.

The redheaded lieutenant knew more than most, knew how dangerously close the army always was to being outnumbered, knew that they could /not/ afford to lose another thousand men, even if they could bear the loss of General Strife.

//No... no we couldn't. If we lose him now, I don't think, even with Seph... without Cloud, we couldn't win this war...//

The blonde SOLDIER simply knew too much, was in touch with powers Zack couldn't even begin to understand.

Cloud could position men before anyone even knew where Hojo's army would appear, and catch the monsters completely off guard. He could sense a sneak attack coming well before there was the first sign of danger, and had held casualties at an almost unthinkable low against legion upon legion of the most dangerous monsters Hojo's twisted mind could design.

Zack had not been there at the beginning, but had heard that it had taken no time at all for Cloud to grow from a mere soldier, a fighter, into a leader with amazing tactical strategies, cunning, merciless attacks, and the uncanny, unnatural ability to "see" the enemy coming.

//... and from there, he became a legend.//

Images of the possible grisly demise of his friend ran through Zack's head as soon as he heard that the blonde hadn't checked in. Cloud impaled, crushed, dismembered... the dark-haired man knew too well the kind of insane risks the blonde General took, and the reasons behind them. He never wanted to see what the consequences of those risks could be.

//Especially not now, not now... He's a legend because he doesn't care. He charges head-on into battle, he takes the same risks as the soldiers that are in the most danger... all the time... he's /always/ leading the first change, from the front lines... because it doesn't matter to him if he dies or not. I honestly don't think he /wants/ to live anymore...//

The dark-haired man had hoped that some parts of his friend's life had changed for the better over the last few years. With the responsibility of being a general, Zack knew, there also came the feeling of personal responsibility for the troops who were serving underneath the position.

Cloud knew his men depended on him, needed him in order to make it through the battle. He was crucial in their survival, and Zack was sure the blonde could not just abandon others, would not knowingly sacrifice himself for nothing, knowing the fate that awaited his soldiers if he did.

Zack also knew that it helped that he was there. The dark-haired man and Cloud were close friends, and the blonde counted on him, trusted him more, Zack thought, than even those he had fought with, even more than Tifa. Zack was in a very unique position, and often wondered if /anyone/ else knew the things he did about the blonde's past and his present, if he truly was Cloud's /only/ real friend.

//... but now... with Seph... was it the last straw... was it finally too much, more than he could take?//

Zack had promised himself a decade ago, and renewed that promise now, not to reveal Cloud's secret, ever, to anyone.

After he had been revived, four years ago, that silence did not seem oppressive, not with Sephiroth's absence. There was no secret, not when the white-haired man had been dead.

//... but now, it's all different... /everything's/ changed...//

Zack had only spoken to Cloud once after he had been informed of ShinRa's plan to bring Sephiroth back from the dead. It had been just before the two of them had been split up, sent to fight on different fronts for the better part of a year.

//... Sephiroth's return... something I learned through Cloud, strangely enough...//

The blonde had hardly spoken a word, except to tell him what ShinRa had decided to do. Zack couldn't begin to imagine the kind of turmoil going on inside of his friend's thoughts, what kind of hell Cloud was going through, because he knew what was coming.

//I can't imagine... and I don't know what to do. Either things have changed completely, or they haven't changed at all... and which would be worse?//

Though Zack had heard all about what had happened to Cloud when Sephiroth had reappeared, the manipulation that bordered on torture, the struggle the blonde had barely made it through... The fact that Cloud had tried to become /him/ seemed to clear up everything, left the dark-haired SOLDIER with only one obvious conclusion.

//He could have just forgotten everything... that would have been easiest... but he tried to be /me/... because he knew who I was closest to... At Hojo's lab... it was so clear... sometimes that was the only thing I could get through to him, was when I talked about Seph...//

Zack remembered the first look he had seen, well over a decade ago now, as clearly as if he had only just turned away. The dark-haired man felt the ache of the memory, watching Cloud watch Sephiroth from a hidden corner, high above the ShinRa training room. The joy mixed with longing blazing in those blue eyes, and the sorrow that drowned it all, it was enough to make Zack's heart crack in pity, both then and now.

It was a simple thing, really, the secret he had kept for so long, heartbreakingly easy to understand.

Cloud worshiped Sephiroth, and loved him with all his heart, without questions, limits or conditions. He had done so for as long as Zack had known him.

It was a love so absolute, so unconditional, that for the longest time Zack thought it /had/ to be nothing more than a crush, a bad case of puppy love, the kind of emotion that was too strong, too all-consuming to last. It seemed to be a feeling that would /have/ to quickly fade and die, or else consume the one who had carried it.

//Five years. It never wavered, never faded, not once in five years. I've /never/ seen someone look the way Cloud did at him... /never/ seen a love, a longing that strong...//

A love that had existed only in secrecy, only cherished in the shadows.

//... he was /always/ hiding... They never even /talked/, Cloud never said one word to him, and yet... five /years/...//

Zack knew Sephiroth thought he was a bit too protective of Cloud, too concerned for his well being for mere friendship to explain. He didn't know, no one knew, what kind of debt Zack owed the blonde, how much he had to make up for.


// "Hey, Spike..."

Zack wondered if the timid, almost frightened look would ever leave Cloud's eyes, if the boy would ever be able to consider him a friend, a confidante. For the boy to treat him as an equal was too much to ever hope for, not with Zack's position as a superior officer, but the dark-haired SOLDIER wondered if it was possible for the blonde to at least not be afraid of him?

Zack ambled over to the room's single chair and sat down, leaning back so that only two legs touched the ground. Cloud smiled hesitantly, shoulders bowed forward slightly, reminding the other man of a cowed, beaten animal, desperately willing to please but always expecting punishment. His voice was hesitant, but cheerful.

"... h-hey Zack. How's it going?"

Zack smiled brightly, a twinkle in his eye. It was rare that he could offer his friend anything in the way of a favor, but /this/ time...

"Good for you, kid. Real good for you. I just got the word that we'll be traveling, checking out a Mako reactor on an away mission. It shouldn't be much more than a few day's vacation, actually. Just me, a couple of soldiers, and The General."

There was no mistaking Cloud's interest, the way something in his eyes lit up at Sephiroth's title.

"Yeah... and... y'know," Zack shrugged, "... they told me to pick out a few regular troops, the ones coming with us. Just anyone I thought might be helpful..."

The excitement, the pure delight in Cloud's eyes, hurt him. Zack knew he was offering a pittance, truly only a small favor, but the blonde looked as if he had just been given the keys to the universe.

//Oh, kid...//

Zack was sure not to let his smile waver, knowing that Cloud had a tendency to think such things were his fault.

"So... You wanna go...?"

The blonde shook his head, just a little bit, smiling broadly.

"Yeah... sir. Yeah... that'd be... yeah..."

Zack laughed.

"Don't call me sir, Spike. We're friends, aren't we?"

Cloud's smile widened, he turned away for a moment, towards something on the desk.

"It's in this little town," Zack flipped open the one page description he had been given, scanning the mission file, "Nibel...Nibelheim, I think. Yeah, that's it."

He looked up after a moment, to see that Cloud had completely frozen in place, still turned away from him, not moving at all.

"Spike? Hey... did I say something wrong?"//


//My fault... if I hadn't tried to help him... if I hadn't offered him the mission... because of me, he watched his town die, he watched his entire life burn...//

Zack didn't think the horror at Nibelheim was something he could /ever/ make up for, but he knew he would spend the rest of his life trying.

//I'm trying to make up for so much... and there were things I should have done then, I know, even though now, I don't know what they are. I don't know how to act now, what to do /now/...//

Zack looked up at Sephiroth for a moment, feeling another load of regrets pile up on his shoulders, mistakes he couldn't have helped but make, but that he regretted nonetheless, and the horrible uncertainty, not knowing what would help and what would just make things worse

//Should I have told him then? Should I now? What do you feel for him anymore, Cloud? Do you hate him? Somehow... I doubt that...//

The blonde had told him, in a thousand gut-wrenching details, the tale of his struggles with Jenova, ShinRa and Sephiroth, since the first night above Midgar, when the dark-haired SOLDIER had been executed by ShinRa troopers.

//I remember that day, Cloud. I remember how sick, how weak you were... you couldn't stand, or speak, and you could barely move...//

Cloud had told him the whole story, but not once, not /once/, did he say he was angry, or hated, or despised Sephiroth.

Zack sighed. Remembering Cloud's story brought another problem to the fore in his mind, when it was already nearly overflowing with crises.

Had Hojo really released them on purpose back then, using Zack just to move Cloud to the proper location? Had Cloud truly been set up to be some sort of soulless superweapon? His blonde friend had fought against the programming, had seemingly defeated Jenova's control over his thoughts... but did he... could he have snapped, somehow, more recently... and killed Elicia?

//No... /NO/. I won't believe it... I /can't/...//

The two problems hung like heavy blades inside his mind, suspended by the thinnest of threads over everything he hoped was true, but was afraid to question too hard.

Zack knew that they were quickly speeding toward the moment when those threads would snap. All his questions would have answers very soon, almost too soon for his peace of mind.

Zack sighed again, looked up, and caught Sephiroth staring at him with curiosity in his glowing emerald eyes. The dark-haired man realized he had been brooding silently, staring into space for a very long time. Zack looked away, knowing he couldn't give his friend the answer he deserved, because he himself didn't know where things stood.

//I know you're alive. You have to be. I just have to find you, Cloud. I have to... and then... I don't know... we'll just have to see what happens...//


A moment of still, a quiet pause, respite from the battle, was all it took anymore, for his thoughts to tumble end over end into darkness, into dream, and painful memory...


// The energy at the Gold Saucer's Stock Footage club was always maniacally high, the bass beats pulsing through the air in waves of sound, making the entire dance floor move as one, drugs and alcohol pouring freely due to the club owner's status within the Saucer.

Even with its reputation as a gay hot spot, the club's intense atmosphere attracted a fairly mixed crowd most of the time. Almost anyone interested in a good time, either dancing, cruising, or just watching the floor hung out exclusively at the SF.

"It attracts the best, and the most beautiful people in the world, especially now that Midgar's toasted, and you want me to give that up?"

The owner of the SF gave his friend a slight smile of disbelief before taking a long drink of champagne.

"No, no! Of course not!" His fair-haired companion waved his hands furiously, only slightly nervous. "Just a few... you know... just let me offer a deal to a few of them. You have the most beautiful boys anywhere, right here, and I've got to get some of them to match the girls I've got... otherwise I'll never get this whole thing off the ground!"

"I don't know... you saw what happened to Don Corneo."

"I know, I know. I've heard it a thousand times already... but those were strange times... and I'm not like him..." The fair-haired man paused, watching an attractive, dark-skinned man walk slowly across the dance floor, eyes following him until he disappeared into the crowd. The owner laughed heartily.

"... /sure/ you're not... just because it's not girls you're chasing doesn't mean..." The man trailed off, and shrugged.

"Yeah, you can ask. It's not like I have them contracted or anything, and they sure aren't making good money working here."


The man's gaze almost instantly fell on a blonde dancing on a side platform, eyes closed, moving as if he were in his own universe, or as if the entire world was made for him alone. Almost immediately, the club owner shook his head.


"Whaddya mean, no? Look at him! He's perfect!"

There was something strangely compelling about the short-statured blonde, some strange, intangible quality he possessed that set him apart from everyone else.

//Vulnerable... not just beautiful, but he looks... fragile, somehow... like he's got his heart right out on his sleeve and he can't cover it up...//

Though the blonde was incredibly well-built, muscle covering every inch of his frame, he also had a certain cautious, innocent charm, something that inspired a protective impulse inside even the jaded, fair-haired man.

"He's /perfect/!!!" the man yelled again, "Just look at him! I have to ask!"

"He'll say no. Trust me. He's not for sale, showroom only."

The man snorted.

"Come on... looking like that? As pretty as he is, he must know what he could make working for someone like me! Probably already has... hey, you aren't helping him up his price, are you?"

"Don't be an idiot." The owner of SF rolled his eyes, staring across the floor at the dancer in question.

"I don't even know his name. He says it's Cloud, but that's gotta be, you know, a stage name. He just showed up, and was so /good/ on the floor, that, you know, I hired him. I honestly didn't think he'd say yes. I figured he'd stay just a few days, that he was only looking for a sugar daddy, some cute rich old guy who would take care of him... but... nope. He left, and came right back, and he's still here..."


The fair-haired man scowled slightly, slightly less nice thoughts creeping into his mind as he tried to come up with a plan. His friend saw the look on his face immediately, and shook his head again.

"I wouldn't try and pressure him if I were you. One, he doesn't do drugs, doesn't even drink, so you won't be able to get him that way. Two... well, lets just say the last few times I saw someone try to force him into anything, they weren't dancing for a while..."

The way the blonde had acted, the precision of his fighting technique when the owner had seen him get attacked after hours, and the strange way his blue eyes almost seemed to... well... /glow/ had gotten the SF owner thinking: Had he somehow hired a SOLDIER? The question came up whenever he thought about the blonde, although he had disregarded it several times out of sheer impossibility. What in the hell would a SOLDIER, of all people, be doing dancing in a gay nightclub in the Gold Saucer?

//I've just never seen him in the light... the dance strobes must mess with his eyes somehow... and anybody who looks like him probably has had to fend off the occasional overanxious suitor, so it's not surprising he has a couple of good moves...//

"Just don't bother with him... he doesn't even like to be touched... he just comes to dance..."


Drugs didn't affect him, alcohol was useless, and he couldn't just keep picking fights with strangers... dancing was the only avenue of escape anymore... to escape the world... to escape himself.

//What would they think of me, if they knew I was /dancing/. Barret, Vincent...//

Cloud stifled a small grin, trying to imagine the stoic, silent red-garbed fighter cutting a rug on the dance floor.

//... and so, the savior of the whole wide world... the /winner/ of the whole stupid...// The blonde's thoughts were like burning acid, angry enough to kill... //...the hero... dances.//

There was simply nothing else he could do. Each day after the final battle was more difficult than the one before, every moment that he lived with a normal routine, Cloud could feel the silence closing in on him, the emptiness inside growing, slicing at his insides like the sharpest of knives.

//Oh god... I never wanted to hurt him... I didn't want it to end like that... I swear... if there had been any other way... I would have died... I wanted to die...//

Reeve had asked him if he wanted a position inside the new ShinRa, and a chance to help rebuild Midgar, help put the planet back together again.

//... as if I want Midgar /or/ ShinRa back, after all they took away from me...//

Cloud couldn't stay in Midgar or Kalm, or with Nanaki, who was relatively happy in Cosmo Canyon, also helping his village rebuild, and working just as hard as Yuffie was in Wutai. Vincent had vanished, and Cloud had wished the dark-haired man had waited to say goodbye...

//I would have gone with you, Vincent. Wherever you went because you don't belong anymore... Don't you see, I don't belong here either?//

Everyone was rebuilding, because to them, Jenova had only been a dark place in their life, Sephiroth had only been an enemy to be defeated, and now it was over, and they could all move on.

//For me... Jenova was /everything/ I had to defeat, all the darkness inside myself, all the lies I didn't want to face... and Sephiroth...//

There was nothing left to say about that, nothing that he hadn't cried himself to sleep with a thousand times before.

The blonde had ended up, after a few weeks of aimless wandering, at the Gold Saucer, and when he heard the music, pounding out from the dark void of the club, it filled something inside of him. Nothing could ever change what he had done, what he had been forced to do, but the music took the pain away, at least for a little while, giving him some small amount of peace, some measure of oblivion.

//Tifa was pissed...//

Cloud had left her with only the smallest explanation, nothing more than a small note at her front door, because even he didn't know where he was going or when he was coming back.

//If I was coming back...//

There had been a long moment, at the edge of a cliff in Cosmo Canyon, when Cloud had considered the benefits of letting go then and there, just letting everything go /away/. Truth be told, he still didn't know what pulled him back from the edge.

Cloud had come back to her, though, had left the Gold Saucer abruptly one night, knowing already that he would return.

Tifa had cried, worried and hurt, both pleaded and yelled at him, and finally slammed the door in his face. Cloud realized then what he had been pushing away so hard, for so long, refusing to admit the truth to himself. Tifa cared about him, she might have even loved him.

//She loves me... she /said/ she loves me...//

The blonde had left her that night, because she loved him, and he couldn't change that, there was nothing he could do to keep from breaking her heart.

Once, he had been shy, and frightened, and incredibly careful around the feelings of others. Now, he was cold and hard and dead inside, and he knew she would hate him if he stayed.

There were so many things Tifa would hate him for, he knew, if she knew what he did, what he felt, what he /was/. Cloud had already failed her, though she didn't understand it yet.

//If I have my way, she never will... I'll just go away... I'll just disappear...//

He swore he wouldn't return to Kalm Town, not ever, and let her build a life with someone else, in peace. It was all he could offer her, the only way he could still be her hero.

//I couldn't tell her... how was I supposed to tell her? That I didn't go to Midgar for her... I never wanted to be stronger for /her/... that I... I...//

Cloud had done what needed to be done, he /knew/ that... even though the blonde had to keep telling himself that what had happened at the Northern Crater wasn't his fault.

//... it was your fault... your fault... if you had only loved him more, if only you hadn't been so /pathetic/... it never would have happened... he never would have left you... become that evil, twisted thing... you did this... you did this to him.... all your fault... it's all /your/ fault...//

The blonde had made the only choice he could, so that the world could go on, so that everyone would be safe. He would not, however, make the effort to pretend like it hadn't cost him everything, that there was any way /he/ could go on like nothing had happened.

Tifa had taken the last bit of Zack away from him, left him naked and defenseless against the memory of his own sins, his own failure and shame. He couldn't ever get that protection back, but had told himself before the battle that she had done the right thing, even though it hurt.

Now that it was all over, when he realized there was nothing left to be strong for, that his life was nothing more than a string of endless, empty days, all Cloud wanted was to crawl back inside, wrap himself up in Zack's identity, and disappear.

//Maybe... maybe if I had stayed like that... with enough of Zack inside me... maybe I could have even loved you, Tifa...//

He couldn't do that now, he couldn't do anything anymore, so Cloud had left her in Kalm and come back to dance. He reveled in the anonymity of the club, in the sheer pointlessness of his existence, and the gazes of the men around him. Their eyes filled him with the same sweet sense of oblivion as the knowledge that, at any time he wanted to, there was an unguarded balcony waiting for him, and a long, long fall to the desert below.

Cloud wanted them to look at him with lust, with cruel, desperate desire alone, wanted to be nothing more than a piece of meat to everyone around him, because love only meant /hurt/, and friendship would only bring more useless pain. As long as no one could touch him, as long as all they had was blind, superficial desire, he never had to think about needing or wanting, worry about trusting those around him. He was safe from ever having to feel anything again.

Cloud didn't care about the future, and tried not to think about the past, only tried to dance, to lose himself in the music, lose the stupid, ridiculed child who should have never left home, destroy the pathetic, cowardly soldier...

//... you failed him... again and again and again....//

... who had hurt so many people, and failed to save anyone any pain. He let the music take him away from the memory of Tifa's tears, the promises he couldn't fulfill, questions he could not answer, and the gentle final smile of someone else who had trusted him to protect her.

//I'm sorry... I'm so sorry for being me...//

Aeris had saved everyone, he had done nothing... and all he had left of her now was the memory of those blank green eyes.

//... green eyes... almost like his eyes... like the Lifestream... just as easy, to drown in those eyes...//

He danced as hard as he could every night, closing his eyes so that he didn't have to think about anything but dancing, so that he didn't have to think... about the empty place inside of himself, though it was all he ever thought about anymore.

Cloud knew that he could dance and fight and scream forever, and nothing would ever take away the look of shock inside a pair of glowing green eyes, as he cut down...

//... twice. Cut down twice, because whoever said swords were final..?//

... as he had destroyed the only person who had ever meant anything to him. The pain of it never went away, no matter what he did. Cloud lived each moment with the knowledge that he had killed the best part of himself... the part that had lived in his love for another.

//I don't care anymore... just let me dance until I drop... take the pain away... let me die... please just let me die...//

He danced, alone and untouchable, until nearly everyone else was gone, and the club finally closed up for the night.

"Good show..."

The blonde knew the club owner was talking to him, but didn't turn around, didn't care. Everything seemed to come at him from the end of a long, dark tunnel, and he didn't have to deal with anything if he didn't want to.

//Just sleep... sleep... too exhausted to dream... and then get up and dance again...//

"Hey Cloud... hear there's a neat new bit of theater tomorrow... I mean, I guess it's tonight... but you've got the night off, don't you?"

Cloud looked up, slightly surprised. One of the other dancers, the blonde still couldn't remember his name, was walking up to him with a hesitant smile on his face. Word had passed rather quickly that Cloud wasn't easy to talk to, didn't like other people, the new dancer just wanted to be left alone. Mostly, the other guys didn't talk to him, except for the man in front of him now, who just didn't seem to understand...

//... or still wants to try... despite what he's heard... like I was... like I was with... him...//

Cloud knew the other dancer knew that their job wasn't on any schedule, that the blonde could take off any day that he wished.

//... so he still thinks that maybe... maybe there's a chance... maybe there's a way... to reach me...//

/... but there's nothing anymore... nothing.../

Cloud remembered, too, too well, what it had been like to hope beyond hope, to wish he could offer everything he had, even though he knew it wouldn't be nearly enough... remembered what it had been like to dream of finding a way to make /him/ smile...

"Uh, listen... I don't..."

"Excuse me, sir!"

Cloud turned quickly, surprised to see two men in official ShinRa uniforms walking toward him. They did not look happy.

"Are you... Cloud Strife?" One of the men said cautiously, staring at his club outfit in obvious disdain.


As he spoke, Cloud let his gaze shift to the hallway around him, to see what he could use as a weapon, in case these men tried anything...

"We need you to come to Midgar. President Reeve told us to tell you, there's been a situation at Nibelheim."



Cloud jerked awake, his conscious mind cutting through a sea of dream and memory, ignoring the pain, both mental and physical, in a search for reason and order. Where was he? /When/ was he?


The hushed voice belonged to an unknown soldier walking beside him, and Cloud realized he was sitting atop Karat, his gold Chocobo, with the General's circled star shining high on the lapel of his filthy uniform. The blonde looked down at his watch, and realized his return to the past had been shorter than it seemed, that he had been asleep for only a few minutes.

"Sir... I've finally got a radio message back... I think you'd better listen to this..."

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