A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 10

By Twig


Adam Ray was laughing. It was a mad, utterly carefree chuckle and Tifa's blood chilled at the sound. It was as if his capture, and any threat that could be brought against him, all threats were meaningless, and he thought it was terribly funny that they were even trying to threaten him.

The fighter still didn't know exactly what was going on, but the confusion pooling inside of her felt bitterly cold, almost painful, and she almost didn't want to discover the truth, knew it would be worse than anything she could imagine.

Nanaki crouched at her left, growling softly, hackles raised, and Tifa saw the gleam of the Venus Gospel off her right, Cid nearly biting through his cigarette, standing still, as if he were locked to the ground. No one, however, looked more horrified or angry than Roman, who was staring at Ray, deathly pale, his hands clenched into shaking fists.

"Ray... what... did... you... do?"

Adam's laughter slowly faded, and he looked up, his entire expression, the light in his eyes something Tifa did not recognize as human, let alone sane. His grin was sickeningly wide, but not nearly as alarming as the wild flickers of manic glee in his eyes, the thrill of sheer delight that overflowed into his every word.

"Oh, a little of this... a little of that." He jerked his head in Sephiroth's direction.

"Hojo's son... he knows... I'm sure he figured it all out..."

Adam gave Sephiroth a proud, leering grin, and laughed as the dark-clad main pointedly ignored it.

"Oh for God's sake, don't be like that. You know as well as I do you're the only one here worth /anything/... All the rest of them are a bunch of fucking morons... worthless..."


Roman seemed to be taking Ray's deception very personally, was almost on the verge of tears, or violence, staring intensely at Adam, as if unable to fathom the darkness within the man, but trying as hard as he could. Adam gazed at the soldier with eerily calm, flat eyes, no trace of the amusement that had been on his face mere moments before.

"I doubt I could explain it to you if I took your hand and /led/ you through it. Someone like you... you could /never/ understand... what it has been like... to have been... /me/... for such a long time..."

Tifa shivered as if a cold wind had struck her, at the absolute desolation, the weariness in Ray's voice. At a thousand different points in time, she knew she could have heard those exact same words come from Cloud.

//No... Cloud wouldn't... he'd never... not something like this...//

"How /could/ you?! How could you betray us like that?!" Roman shook his head in utter disbelief, refusing to believe Adam's explanation, unable to understand, "...we all... we all have to work together, or no one's going to survive! /Everyone/ knows that! How? How could you betray your own people..."

"I HAVE NO ONE!!!!" The two men holding Adam suddenly strained backward, as the man lunged forward, screaming at Ro with all his might, his anger so sudden and unexpected that Tifa jumped away. Adam seethed like a rabid animal, the hilarity that had turned into ice now exploding with incredible fury.

"I have no people, you stupid fuck!!! I've never been anything to /anyone/. I never /mattered/, I was never important, never worth even one extra second, one spare glance, one worthless gesture, even for show... and you think you can pull that kind of shit with /me/?! Ignore me... toss me aside, and still expect me to be loyal at the first sign of trouble? To who, you? To /humanity/?" The major snarled out the word as if it were the worst insult imaginable, and sneered at Ro, "I hope she kills the whole fucking lot of you, I hope she grinds you right into oblivion and makes you scream all the way down..."

"How much did you tell Hojo?" Sephiroth murmured, cutting off any retaliation from Roman. No matter how much they all may have wanted to interrogate him fully, among other, more painful things, they were also quickly running out of time.

Adam laughed, smiling appreciatively at the white-haired man.

"It wasn't just gibberish, was it? You figured it out... course, I knew /you/ would," he frowned at the rest of them, contempt etched deep into his features, "...secret code... encrypted messages, in the radio waves..."

"How much does he /know/, Major?"

Ray rolled his eyes, and shrugged to the best of his ability, arms pinned behind him now, the two men holding him keeping their grip tight while also trying to distance themselves from the madman, almost holding him at arms' length.

"Not nearly enough. Nothing of any importance, anyway. That dumb fuck Strife never tells anyone his plans in advance... I'd bet even /he/ doesn't know what he's doing half the time..."

Sephiroth's gaze flicked up to the rest of the group for a moment, and he realized that there had still been no real information shared, no understanding of what was going on.

"Major Ray is responsible for the sabotage at this base. He is the one who, most recently, deactivated Cait Sith, and he has been disrupting radio communications and trying to steal information for Hojo. He also killed most of the higher-ranking communications officers, I'm guessing by poison, except for one electrocution and a faked suicide..."

"I didn't kill him," Ray snickered. "That stupid bastard had his own plans, shot himself in a utility closet... His suicide note said... it said," the Major could barely speak past a spurt of giggles, "... it said that he had started suspecting his own troops... and the ShinRa commanders wouldn't relieve him of duty after repeated requests. He didn't think someone so paranoid could be an effective officer... so he... he... what a dumbass..."

Ro had paled three shades while Ray had been talking, now stark white with absolute fury, growing exponentially more angry with each burst of laughter from the other soldier.

"... so... what do we do...?"


Tifa turned as the ninja girl groaned, Vincent helping her slowly sit up, the slight glow of a Full Cure spell still fading from her body. One side of her clothing was dark and stiff with dried blood, but her neck had been completely healed, the poison dispelled, and the ninja girl appeared to be fine. After a few moments, she stood up, shaking her head slightly to clear it.

"I think I caught the last part of that... so, /Ray's/ the one who called in all those monsters?"

"Hojo was just waiting for my signal," Adam smiled to himself, "... I sent that stupid, brainless Turk back to North Corel, and that idiot Zack out on a wild goose chase with the rest of this town's pathetic defense... and, oh yes," he sneered at Ro, "...your /precious/ General Strife..." The absolute loathing in his voice made Tifa's heart go into free-fall inside her chest.

"He'll stop you," Ro snarled, his whisper like a rusty, jagged blade, "It doesn't matter what you throw at him... it doesn't matter... he'll stop you..."

"Not if he's not here," Ray beamed with a poison smile, "Where oh where do you think your general's gone, Ro? I sent him... back out... to the /front/!" The man's voice was crazily happy, horribly /wrong/ the high-pitched chirp made Tifa cringe despite her best efforts not to.

"By the time the General returns, the only thing he'll find is the path Jenova has carved straight to the sea. North Corel, Costa Del Sol... and everything in between... all of it gone, starting with you, and this crappy little burg."

"You'll die too..." Cid muttered, looking toward the horizon, stirred into speaking by the insult against what he still considered /his/ town. "You think Hojo /or/ Jenova gives a damn about you? You're just as dead as the rest of us."

Ray's eyes had gone strangely blank, a sight that made Tifa's stomach twist. On top of her heart, which had not recovered a steady beat, she felt intensely ill. The look on the Major's face was too familiar, as if the man was no longer really there at all. The two men holding him had to step forward again, bracing his weight, as he went completely limp in their arms.

"...Jenova has shown me... such wonderful things... things beyond this... pathetic... existence... She loves me like no one else ever has... it doesn't matter what happens now... it doesn't matter...."

Tifa watched Major Ray's smile change, yet again, to one of almost childlike innocence, peaceful contentment, and felt a wave of something, perhaps pity, sweep through her.

The brunette did not want, under any costs, to feel sorry for the man, and almost forced revulsion and disgust back into her heart.

The thought still came despite her best efforts to ignore it, that much of what he had said... the heartache... the loneliness and desperation... the feeling of isolation... //... if you hadn't been so horrible... would Cloud have gone away? Would he have become...//

//No! NO NO NO! This bastard is /nothing/ like Cloud!!! Cloud doesn't feel like that! Not anymore! All of that is over!!!//

/... then why did he leave you again...?/


A ShinRa scout scrambled around the corner on her Chocobo, not even bothering to dismount, simply wheeling in front of Sephiroth with a quick, distracted salute.

"Sir... we've got a sighting... out... still a few miles away but gaining ground quickly... Hojo's army, sir... they're /everywhere/..."


Yuffie turned away from the pale scout who was still stammering information to the white-haired General, looking up at the red-clad man who still had a steadying hand on her arm.

"That bad, Vincent?"

The ninja girl could easily see the horror and dread on his normally expressionless face.

"It's that bad," he murmured, and before she could blink, those red-shaded hazel eyes focused sharply on hers.

"Are you all right?"

His voice was surprisingly warm and concerned, and his touch on her arm flared with sudden heat. Yuffie felt her heart beat out of time for a moment, before she furiously reined it all back, slapping the gushy adoration out of her thoughts.

//Hello?! Idiot! He's right next to you! If you act like a dumb ass, he'll /see/ it!!!//

The ninja girl knew Vincent was standing close enough to her that he /had/ to see her embarrassment. Hell, with his advanced senses, he could probably hear her heart kicking its way out of her chest.

//... and of course, because now would be the /perfect/ time not to think about him...//

He was standing so close, near enough to fill her senses with his presence... and she had always thought him beautiful, almost too beautiful. Delicate featured, but with a strong profile, and utterly fearless, strong, violent when he needed to be... He had been a Turk, but that only meant he could push his emotions aside to do his job, not that he didn't feel anything at all, that he didn't have joys, or desires...

//...and he's got /really/ kissable lips... I'd bet they'd be so soft... and gentle...//

"... uh... Vincent," Yuffie had no idea why she had started speaking, nor what the sentence's conclusion could possibly be. Like many other times in her life, her mouth and brain seemed to be on completely different roads, speeding away from each other as fast as possible, "I... uh..."

"... General, ma'am?"

Yuffie turned, as a small boy, no more than ten, quietly saluted her. Her heart stopped, as she looked at his clothing, the ornaments he wore, all signifying his clan status.

//... the clan... the refugees... oh /no/...// All her thoughts disappeared in a rush of pure panic, blinding, asphyxiating terror.

//... remember Yuffie... for a very long time, I was not Lord Godo, only a sorry, broken man... and I did not remember the most important of rules... that the people are the lifeblood of Wutai... and you must take care of them.... always, /always/ protect your people...//

"Oh /NO/," she gasped, words coming out in a horrified whisper. Yuffie whirled, staring wildly at Valentine without really seeing him,

"The refugees... the civilians... they're all still /here/!!!"


"What's the standing army of this base right now, Gemini?"

Sephiroth turned after a moment of silence, to see Roman still staring wildly at Ray, who was humming tunelessly to himself, muttering a few words every now and then that no one could hear.


"Sir...uh..." Ro blinked a few times, recollecting himself. Tifa could tell the moment the reality of the question sunk in, and he paled again, this time with dread.

"Uh... maybe... fifty men... light artillery... twenty or so scouts... on chocobos. Two stationary cannons that can be converted to ammo or Materia... we have them on ammo now... about a hundred crates of that, but they take time to load..."

"/Seventy/ men total." Sephiroth murmured in a toneless half whisper. Ro shook his head dumbly, the horror of the situation quickly dawning in his eyes.

"Yes sir. General Zack... he... he took everyone else."

"We've got to try and evacuate the civilians!" Yuffie broke in, pointing towards the other end of town. "There are children down there... and old men and women... they'll be /slaughtered/!"

"I think you're missing the picture, Wutai witch," Ray said, voice low and slightly slurred, the sarcastic grin back on his face. "You're /all/ going to be slaughtered..."

Ro took a step towards the Major, hands outstretched and clenched, as if to strangle him right then and there, but Sephiroth pushed him back slightly, and took a step in between the two soldiers.

"Ro... go with General Kirisagi, /now/. Get /any/ spare Chocobos and get those people moving, on any safe route out of here, then find the head of command, and start trying to create...."


A scout rode by, yelling the warning at the top of his lungs to anyone who would listen, continuing on towards the rest of the town . Sephiroth nearly shoved Ro towards Yuffie, and made no protest as Vincent followed the two quickly out of sight.

"Tifa... Cid... Nanaki... go help the soldiers pull up some sort of barricade on the side of town facing the plain, and tell the soldiers to get the cannons into place on opposite corners, as far apart as possible without being undefended..."

Tifa blinked, dumbfounded, but Cid grabbed her arm and hauled her away before she could begin to react to being given orders from Sephiroth.


"It won't work..."

Sephiroth turned, Ray's eyes locked on his, the man's voice a dead, flat monotone.

"She's waiting for you... for you to come back and take your place at her side. You /are/ her son... no matter what they've told you, and you /know/ you deserve better than this. Your destiny is hers... you have ascended so far past them... your strength, your will, your knowledge... I don't have to say anymore... you know your power... you know I'm right."

"Are you going to offer me even more power, then? The ability to crush my enemies completely, to reign supreme, be as a god?"

He knew he was no longer talking to Adam Ray, and that perhaps none of them had ever known the /real/ Major, only the shell Jenova had left behind to do her bidding. The look in the man's eyes changed as he smiled brightly, something cold and utterly alien slithering beneath the flat, dull mirrors.

"All that and more... so much more... when you join me."

The two men holding Ray were taking small glances between him and the white-haired man, growing more and more anxious but holding their position in silence. Sephiroth looked away for a moment, and something eager and delighted flickered through Ray's eyes.

"I cannot be defeated... not this time... and you will reign at the highest place in the heavens... as... as..."

He trailed off, as the dark-clad man turned sharply back, his eyes glittering, hard and sharp as pale green diamonds.

"I can't /believe/ I could have been such a fool... to listen to such a lie... to be taken in by such an obvious deception..."

Adam's jaw dropped, and Sephiroth glared into those wide pupils, challenging the monster he knew lay within.

"I owe you a great deal for what you did... for what you attempted to do."

Ray gasped, the last remnant of his human consciousness completely terrified, caught between the clash of two incredible wills, unable to look away. His eyes widened, pupils dilating to pinpoints, and the voice that spoke through him this time was /definitely/ not his own.

"Do you honestly believe in their deceit, that their words are any less lie than my own? They don't want you, they wouldn't have brought you back if there had been /any/ other way. You are nothing more than a necessary evil to them. How long do you think you will live when they realize even you cannot give them an easy victory? How long do you think you can defy /me/?"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed coolly.

"As long as it takes."


Sephiroth turned as Ro ran up, a panicked look on his face.

"Sir... we're surrounded... and..."

The white-haired man nodded, expecting to hear as much, stopped the Lieutenant with a wave of his hand.

"Thank you, soldier. Go take command of the left flank, as soon as you've dealt with Major Ray."

Ro blinked, staring first at Adam, then at Sephiroth.


"I have no further use for him," Sephiroth said flatly, and walked away without another word.


Ro slowly turned towards the other man, and his eyes were glinting with growing, hungry anger. The redhead slid his gun slowly out of its holster, and the two men holding Adam let go of him, stepping back a few paces.

"Major... you have been found guilty of high treason against your country... and your species..."


Tifa jumped, whirled around as a single gunshot cracked the air. Cid barely looked up, straining to help a group of soldiers push a rusted-out truck across a gap in the growing wall of debris, broken wood and scrap metal.

"There's no way we could have kept an eye on him, anyway," Cid muttered. Tifa realized it was all the eulogy Adam Ray would ever receive.


Organizing the defense was sickeningly easy, because there simply /wasn't/ one, there was no way to defend against an army of monsters with seventy men and almost no weapons. Fifty soldiers, twenty scouts and the former members of AVALANCHE all scrambled to put up any barrier they could with whatever rubble they could gather. Hushed, panicked murmurs rose and fell like waves in a growing storm as the ground started to tremble harder and harder with the movements of the approaching enemy. With each moment the ground shook, any remaining hope seemed to flicker and die within the town.

Tifa helped move what felt like a ton of rock and steel in only a few minutes, pausing for a moment's rest to see that someone with a jeweler's lens and a toolbox was quietly trying to revive Cait Sith, poking carefully through the wires on the robot cat's head.

//... even Reeve can't help us now... no one can help us... not anymore...//

The ground shuddered harder underneath her feet as the two large cannons were slowly rolled into place, soldiers shouting and cursing as they awkwardly maneuvered the massive weapons through the too-narrow streets, barely avoiding colliding with every building in their way. Tifa felt a little better as she looked at the dark, gleaming structures, realizing she would have to stand on tiptoe and stretch her arms out as high as she could to even brush the bottom of the enormous barrel. The thick, sharp tang of metal lay heavy in the air, nearly making her choke as the enormous gun rolled by.

Over the noise of the moving weapons, and the shouts and cries of preparing soldiers, Tifa heard a quiet, mournful murmur, and turned to see Nanaki sitting completely still beside her, head hanging low to the ground. He seemed to be concentrating very hard, but getting more and more anxious with each passing moment.


"I can't... I..." The giant cat opened hazel eyes that were three shades darker than usual with worry, "I can't sense anything." His voice was small, almost apologetic.


"Sometimes, before a battle at the Canyon... I ask Grandfather... I call to him... and try to ask for his help and guidance... Sometimes... it feels like he's right at my side, showing me the way... but now..."

Nanaki was troubled, they were all troubled, but what worried Tifa even more was that now, the giant cat sounded /scared/.

"I can't feel anything anymore, there's nothing... nothing here... and the Planet... the Planet is /silent/..."

"Nanaki," Tifa searched her mind for something comforting to say, "I don't..."

"Tifa! Cid!"

Yuffie and Vincent were walking towards them, a violent anger etched deeply into the ninja girl's features. A large group of men and women had gathered behind them, following close on Yuffie's heels. Tifa was shocked to see they were the Wutai refugees.

"What the hell?" Cid murmured, "I thought you were gonna get these people out of here, Yuffie..."

"There's no way out, Cid. Hojo's got us surrounded..." Yuffie looked angry enough to explode, slamming one hand against Conformer as she grimaced, "... and get /this/... those bastards blocking the route to North Corel /aren't/ moving. They're not attacking, they're just there to make sure no one can escape, not even the /children/..." Yuffie bit back a half-scream of desperate frustration, "God /damn/ Hojo... he's going to make sure he kills us all."

"What do we do?" Tifa murmured.

"The only thing we can do," one of the refugees stepped forward, bravely brandishing his only weapon, a harvesting scythe, "We fight."

"Oh my God..."

Tifa turned as another, much louder murmur swept over the barricade, and she realized that while they had been talking, the rumbling underneath their feet had stopped. Cid had turned before her, she saw the cigarette fall out of his open mouth.

"Holy /shit/..."

The brunette was nearly knocked over by a thunderous wall of sound, the most spine-chilling wail she had ever heard, a hideously disturbing moan on every note of the scale, as all the monsters in Hojo's army let loose with a screaming war cry. Tifa turned, staring down certain death less than a half a mile away.

Hojo's army stretched across the land as far as she could see, deep enough to make her eyes hurt as she tried to see through to the other side of the nightmare. The monsters moved like a living ocean, in endless currents and eddies, crushing together, straining at invisible boundaries, as if the very fabric of reality struggled to contain them.

Creatures both recognizable and horribly new pounded the ground with their gargantuan hooves, lashed out at each other with claws the size of Tifa's forearm, snapping jaws full of teeth that were even longer. Whiplike tentacles flailed upward with sickening speed and grace, snapping out loudly, as if trying to break the sky, just below the wings of hideously deformed creatures, some birdlike, some more reptilian, all splintering the air with their harsh cries.

Some of the soldiers had put their hands over their ears to try and drown out the sound, the battle roar that seemed to go on without end, and many others had turned away, quaking in absolute terror. As the horrible discord died, Tifa could see that everyone around her had paled at least three shades. Now that the enemy had arrived, the abstract had been given flesh, the entire fighting force behind the walls of the city knew they were doomed.


A soldier screamed a warning as one of the monsters flung something high in the air, a dark mass that hurtled in a wide arc directly toward them. There was no time for counterattack, Tifa simply dove out of the way as the projectile crashed into the barrier directly in front of them, tearing the door off of the wreck of the truck it smashed through in a cacophony of screaming metal and shattering glass.

When she could only hear silence, Tifa stumbled to her feet and turned to see what had hit them. Only the slightest murmurs from a few soldiers gathering around the site dared to break the still that had descended, and Tifa had to swallow hard against a bitter taste that leapt into her mouth, fighting to keep the bile down as she moved closer.

All the fighter could make out of the blood-stained, broken projectile that had hit them, the heap of slightly smoking carnage that remained, was the shreds of a ShinRa scout uniform on a body bloody and broken past recognition, and a single chocobo feather.

"Lockheart, take left with the Lieutenant... Yuffie, you take right with Vincent... Cid, you're center with Nanaki."

Tifa turned slowly, staring blankly at Sephiroth, who had come out of nowhere, barely able to understand what he had said.

His serious, completely unshaken calm as he gazed at the remains of the scout snapped her back into some sort of rational thought, and when he looked at her, as if wondering why she was still standing there, the brunette nodded slightly, and took off towards the nearby cannon.


"What the fuck are they waiting for...?" Cid murmured, slowly climbing over a small wall to the very front of the barricade. He didn't want to be in the front, liked at least having the illusion of some sort of wall between himself and the army still standing on the other side of what now seemed to be a very small gap. Behind the barrier, he thought, he could /almost/ trick himself into thinking he wasn't about to die.

"What do they have to lose by waiting?" Nanaki murmured, looking just a little green, the giant cat affected in ways the pilot was not by the presence of so many unnatural enemies. Cid wondered what the cat was sensing, what he could pick up in the air, and was grateful he didn't have to know.

"They're using psychological tactics, trying to make the soldiers panic. It is much easier to defeat an enemy who's already decided to lose."

Sephiroth dropped down next to Cid in one graceful motion, and the pilot was amazed to see him staring at the battlefield as if he were actually making plans, sizing up his opponents... almost like he really thought they had a chance.

//Maybe... maybe... I mean, it wasn't like he wasn't almost fucking /impossible/ to defeat when /we/ fought him... maybe... maybe there's a way? He has a plan?//

"... you think there's a way out of this?"

The blonde pilot could actually feel the bubble of hope that had rose up inside of him burst as the white-haired man shook his head a mere fraction of an inch.

"No. We're all going to die here. It's just a matter of how many of them we can take with us."


"... k-kick up the... d-degree mark a few more centimeters..."

Tifa watched as a very pale soldier gave trajectories to his compatriot on the targeting computer. The man, little more than a boy in uniform, was crying in terror, but also hanging on stubbornly to the barest degree of calm, forcing himself to continue.

"... w-we h-hold until r-right gun fires... and launch our first assault three seconds after... that's what The General said..."

Tifa still scowled, just slightly. Hearing Sephiroth referred to in any terms that weren't completely insulting still bothered her, but she had to admit that, without him, the base would have probably descended into total chaos a long time ago. His unshakable calm had inspired some level of stoicism and determination in the other soldiers, everyone was prepared to carry this fight to the bitter end.

//... and he was the one who discovered what Ray had done... he /tried/ to stop this...//

Tifa frowned, a sudden streak of cynical rebellion swooping down upon her. The brunette knew she only had a few more minutes to live, the least she could do was go out still hating Sephiroth.

The murmurs around them had not ceased, although they had taken a different tone, the few soldiers standing nearby with eyes either closed or their heads down, obviously praying. Tifa could hear Ro and one of the refugees from Wutai speaking in the exact same words, just a few feet away from her. The brunette didn't understand the prayer, but smiled when Ro caught her eye.

"...put me in there too, will ya?" she said quietly. Ro nodded, his sudden solemnity reminding her too quickly of what they were facing, how brief the rest of her life was going to be. The man from Wutai looked up, seeing the sudden fear splash across her face, and smiled.

"Those who die in battle die righteously, and will ascend to the highest of Heavens, to live in paradise forever after," he said simply, tightening his grip on an antique rifle. Tifa nodded politely, but did not feel any less afraid.


Tifa turned, to see a Wutai woman and her daughter sitting on the staircase of a nearby building. The brunette almost yelled at them to get back, to get to safety... before she realized it really didn't matter anymore.

//There isn't anywhere safe, there's nowhere left to run or hide.//

"Mommy..." The little girl's voice was soft, the tremolo of fear that quivered inside it made Tifa's heart shiver, "... are we going to die?"

"Shh, baby..." The woman put a comforting hand on her daughter's head, smiled soothingly as the child cuddled against her, "Shh... don't worry. It will all be over soon..."

Tifa bit back a sudden sting of tears, a mad, hot rush of useless anger. This just wasn't /fair/.

"...let me tell you a story... about a special place... far away... it's called the Promised Land..."

//The Promised Land...//

There was a loud gasp, and Tifa felt the earth underneath her feet start to shake again, heard a few small cries of terror around her as Hojo's army finally started its charge. The brunette kept her eyes closed for a moment, steadying herself, everything disappearing except for the roar of the approaching battle.

//The Promised Land... and Aeris will be there... and Cloud will come... and everyone will be all right. None of this will be important anymore... we will finally all be together... at peace...//


Yuffie bit her lip in a fury of indecision. There were precious few moments left, before she would be out of opportunities, and she realized that, after those few moments, it would no longer matter what she had done or not done in her life...

//Oh, what the hell...//

"Yuffie... what...?!"

Vincent barely had time to realize what was happening, as a gloved hand slid around the back of his neck, and Yuffie pulled him into a sudden kiss.

The dark-haired man didn't react, too shocked and startled by the ninja girl's sudden action to do much more than stand there, but the gray-green eyes that looked up into his as she pulled away were bright with affection. Yuffie smiled, and it was not her usual silly grin, but something infinitely sweeter and sadder, a woman's smile. The ninja girl's other hand, gently tracing the curve of his jaw, did not fall away for another few moments, as if making sure he had enough time to get past his surprise, to realize that yes, it had happened, and yes, she did care... a great deal...

"Lucrecia was a very lucky woman to have you..." Yuffie murmured, turning away. Before Vincent could think to speak, the roar of the attack was in his ears, and the battle fell down upon them.


Nanaki couldn't help but think that Cid looked more pissed off than afraid, angry rather than upset. The blonde pilot finally noticed the cat watching him curiously, and sighed.

"I was gonna die in the Highwind... I had it all planned out. I'm surprised I came this far, after all the shit I've pulled in the Bronco over the years. I should have died up there, in the air, in at least /one/ of my planes. This is just bullshit..."

//... just bullshit... stupid, unfair bullshit... because... because... who will take care of the Highwind... and the Bronco... and Shera?//

His love was safe, far away, not even on this continent, but with him gone, with all of them gone, how long could that safety last? How long would it be before these monsters were at /her/ door?

//... I should have called her... I should have told her... just one more time... I never told her how much I, never enough... not like she loves me... stupid pilot... I should have...//

"Damn it..."

"Wait!" Nanaki turned his head suddenly, staring back toward North Corel, ears perked up and nose high in the air, sniffing. "Do you..?"

Cid turned, but all he could hear was what had most recently become /all/ he could hear, scattered screeches and howls from the enemy's ranks, and a terrible silence behind the barricade, reminding him again just how few of them there were to fight.

"... if I'd had the Highwind, I'd have shown these bastards..." The blonde pilot muttered, still preoccupied with the loss of his ship, and with knowing that when he died, it would become Anjele's ship, "Nanaki, I don't hear a damn thing."

Sephiroth turned too, emerald eyes narrowing, but after a moment also looked away.

"I hear nothing."

"I know... I don't... not now... but I thought..."

Nanaki's attention snapped away from whatever phantoms had stolen his attention as Hojo's army suddenly lurched into motion, the creatures quickly gaining speed as they lunged forward, their charge quickly eating up the distance between them and the handful of soldiers and civilians at Rocket Town. Cid watched in horror as one of the creatures at the lead of the assault stumbled and fell, and its fellow monsters trampled right over it before it could even scream.

A massive blast rang out on the right side of town, Cid saw one of the cannons smoking, saw an explosion rise up inside the ranks of the charging army, a plume of dirt and smoke thrown up, along with the scattered limbs of some of Hojo's creatures. A few soldiers cheered, but the results of the cannon's fire disappeared almost instantly, the hole in the charge closing up in seconds. Another blast fired from the left cannon a few seconds later, and, though it was as direct a hit as the first, it too seemed to go unnoticed by Hojo's forces, more monsters swarming in just as soon as their allies had been blown away.

//...they'll go through us like nothing... we can't even slow them down...//

Cid could see a slight green glow off his right, didn't have to look to know that Sephiroth was casting something, and immediately started casting an Ice 3 spell himself, looking for a good place to aim it.

//...doesn't matter... doesn't matter...//

He swallowed hard, the monsters close enough that he could see the beady blackness of their eyes.

//Goodbye, Shera.//

Not even Sephiroth was prepared what happened next, as an explosion like a thousand cannon blasts firing in unison rang out directly above their heads. The sky flared into life, lighting up into a pure white sheet, thunder rumbling in great waves that made the pilot's blood shiver, echoes upon echoes, quaking down through every molecule in his body.

Cid realized after a few moments of total confusion that at least some of the thunder wasn't thunder, but the sound of gigantic chunks of fiery rock slamming into the earth, and into the enemy's ranks, pounding mercilessly down upon the monsters, breaking the charge.

"Comet2?" Sephiroth murmured, barely audible above the shrill cries of the wounded monsters and the crashing thuds of more comets falling from the sky. Cid was amazed to see an enormous wall of fire suddenly sweep over the right side of the enemy's flank. At the same time, jagged spears of lightning danced through the skies, striking down with lethal accuracy along the left side of the field, monsters dying, turning to charred, smoking corpses well before they hit the ground.

//No one's Materia is that strong here... even ours... unless Sephiroth... but I don't think he's even /cast/ yet...//

In fact, Cid thought, in his own nearly indistinguishable way, the white-haired man looked just as blindsided as the rest of them.

The comet spell came to a sudden end, and Cid saw a flicker of light, high in the sky, as something plummeted toward the earth. The spell had come from up /above/ them, he realized, though the other two had seemed to come from...

//... behind us? Was /that/ what Nanaki sensed? But /who/?//

The pilot had almost decided to turn around when the object falling from the sky finally slammed into the ground. He froze, staring at it in complete disbelief. The sword rested, half buried in the earth, it's Materia still glowing slightly from the effect of the spell that had been cast.

//... still glowing... from...//

Cid's jaw dropped as he realized he was staring at the Ultima Weapon.

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