A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
Half the soldiers at the epicenter of the emergence, those standing directly over where the Fullspawn rose, died within moments. Anyone who hadn't started running, hadn't evacuated on The General's first order was instantly killed, as the ground suddenly gave way for nearly an acre in every direction, and soldiers, Chocobos and monsters all plunged into a pool of thick, black acid. The screams, survivors later whispered, averting their eyes, were only overpowered by the smell.
The last man to die in those first few, brutal moments was a young lieutenant from Junon, a soldier fresh from very little training, part of the miniscule initial defense at Rocket Town. He didn't know how he had gotten to the center of the field, couldn't believe he had fought, though his bloody sword clearly indicated that was the case. He was still rather disoriented when Cloud's frantic order came, and the men around him, all veterans from The General's division, immediately scattered.
The lieutenant, frightened by the fear in even the most hardened veterans, reached for the reins of the nearest Chocobo, only to have them torn out of his hand as the earth split apart beneath the bird's feet.
The Chocobo's cry of surprise quickly turned to fright, and then broke free of all restraint, it's voice rising impossibly high into an overwhelming shrill shriek of agony as it plunged down into the chasm. The lieutenant scrambled away in panic, unable to do anything to save it, watching the bird quickly sink beneath the black, bubbling liquid.
He choked, nearly retched as smoke sizzled up, feathers and flesh melting away, the bird's screams solid and tangible in the air, just as sickening to listen to as they were when they finally, abruptly, cut off.
The lieutenant scrambled to his feet and fled, blindly, not looking behind him as the earth bucked and heaved underneath his feet. He was thrown to the ground more than once, got to his feet without noticing new cuts and scrapes, only hearing his own quick, panicked breathing and a rising rattle, like the shivering and shaking of a hundred thousand snakes, saturating the air.
He didn't realize he was praying, or more actually begging, a litany of babbled pleas over and over as he ran, until he noticed that he was alone, that the desperate voice could /only/ be his.
"Please please oh please I don't wanna die please God please /please/ don't wanna die...."
His thoughts were filled with the chocobo's screams, of watching its feathers dissolve away, the creature's normally placid eyes completely filled with fear and pain... and the buzzing, getting louder and louder in his ears... closer...
//... what is that... what... what's going on... and that black shit... what is it? What? I don't wanna die... I don't... oh God....//
For a few steps, someone paced him, another soldier as blind to the world as he, lost in fear, running for his life. There was a hail of some sort of projectile from above, and a spike as long as his arm and twice as wide shot through the other man's chest. The lieutenant ran on alone as the man stumbled, already dead before he fell.
The young man had heard the cry of Hojo's army as it roared down through Rocket Town, and it had scared him more than anything in his life, truly the howl of the heart of darkness. The sound that rose up behind him, all around him, was infinitely worse. It thundered through his body from far too close, shaking down to his bones as if attempting to tear him apart, leaving him weak and breathless, every cell saturated with pure adrenaline.
The ground buckled sharply, disappearing under his feet, and he fell with a choked cry that quickly turned into a scream, imagining the dark, unknown ooze reaching up to eat him alive, knowing there was no escape, nothing to stop the fall...
It had merely been a violent tremor, and he tumbled against the ground without falling into any waiting darkness, out of control, head over feet, slamming hard against an upthrust wall of solid rock.
The lieutenant groaned, and froze as he realized the sound hung in empty air, that the world was completely still and silent. An immense shadow passed over him as he pushed himself up on his hands, leaning against the wall. The lieutenant looked up, and his jaw dropped, his scream quickly withering away to nothing as the air drained out of his lungs. One of the Fullspawn's legs slammed into the earth a few feet from where he sat, and he could see fresh blood on the shiny, burnished gold and brown shell. The lieutenant looked up, pressed painfully tight against the rock face now, heart nearly bursting inside his chest... and realized that the creature hadn't seen him yet, that perhaps he was too small, not large enough to be even a potential victim...
//Safe... I'm... safe...//
The huge head swiveled down, flat black eyes each as large as a full-length mirror pinning him to the spot.
The lieutenant didn't see the tail, only its sharp fractal edge, the tip, dividing once, then again, and again as it crossed the distance between them. He saw the reflection of his own wide, terrified eyes, broken into a hundred mirror images, his own fear piercing his body, throwing it effortlessly against the wall, spirit leaving flesh well before the tail withdrew, perfectly smooth barbs easily divesting themselves of his miniscule weight, his mangled corpse sliding to the ground.
"What /is/ that shit...?" Cid hissed, looking at the cracks and crevices opening up in the earth beneath the Fullspawn's feet, all overflowing with a pure black liquid that lay thick and heavy, a delicate spider web that covered much of the land around the monster.
"Poisoned Lifestream..." Cloud said softly, his color deathly pale, as if the same dark fluid was running through his veins as well, "... the Fullspawn is an abomination... it destroys anything it touches..." he shuddered, and swayed slightly where he stood, "The Planet is in such /pain/..."
"Cloud?" Zack murmured in concern as he took a step towards the blonde, but his friend did not seem to notice.
"How did they not know... how could they not see this coming... they promised me... they /promised/... what /happened/?"
The blonde was no longer speaking to any of them, lost in his own internal dialogue.
"Oh FUCK!!!!" Cid yelled, pointing at the Fullspawn, who had, impossibly, locked onto their position from across the field. "It's...!"
It didn't matter what the blonde pilot had been about to say, everyone got the idea, as the Fullspawn arched its massive spine, bending nearly double, and launched a round of spearlike daggers from its tail and lower back, most of them larger than tree trunks, the crack of the whip-like tail like a cannon shot in the air.
They all dove to the ground, Tifa wincing as she heard the missiles tearing through the land around her, and soldier's cries, over the sound of bone tearing through flesh, the screams of people who hadn't been fast enough to get out of the way. There was a rustle near her ear, she realized a warm hand was on her back, keeping her low to the ground, and safe, but Cloud was already moving, rising into a crouch, and his hand abruptly lifted away.
Hazel eyes widened in surprise, the dark-haired fighter quickly turned toward his friend.
"...take care of Tifa."
"Cloud...?" Confusion gave way to understanding, and anger, "NO! Cloud, WAIT!!!"
The blonde was already running, feet sliding down the steep slope that a thousand explosions had dug out in front of the town, and he whistled, one high, short blast ringing clear over the battlefield.
A gold Chocobo ran toward him, Cloud matched strides with the beast for a moment, pulling himself into the saddle without the bird ever slowing down.
"... like /hell/ you will..." Zack growled, and the group, watching Cloud's quickly receding profile, turned to see the dark-haired man leap into the saddle of his own chocobo, the black bird making slight chirps of nervousness, skittish underneath his weight, all of its attention on the Fullspawn, who had resumed attacking the men at its feet.
"Zack!" Cait Sith yelled, but the dark-haired General had already taken off, in mere moments too far gone to turn back.
"... I hate it when they do that," the tiny cat mumbled, and the Mog let out a soft, mournful cry.
Cloud met up the chocobo lancers first, watched them slow as they saw him move as quickly toward the battle as they were fleeing it.
He knew the man at the head of the ranks, a tall, dark-skinned ShinRa commander, one of the bravest and best... a man that, if the blonde asked him to, would follow him right back into the belly of the beast...
"Run. Get to Rocket Town, try and get some sort of defense there, keep Hojo's monsters from breaking through."
"Sir... what about the Fullsp..."
"I'll take care of it, soldier."
The man's eyes widened, but within another moment he had turned, was moving up the field towards another group of retreating men, taking down a few of Hojo's minions who had followed them. The other lancers quickly spread out, sending the word through the army of the retreat, trying to hold together the only part of the war left in their control...
/Hello, human... come to play?/
Cloud turned, lips curving into an unconscious snarl at that dark thought, that menacing welcome that moved so freely through his thoughts. The eyes of the Fullspawn were no longer on him, it was now mowing down the retreating figures at its left side, destroying allies and foes alike with its huge claws and vicious fangs, it's unstoppable tail making scrap of whatever machinery had survived the battle. Cloud knew that made the voice he heard no less real. The bubbles of black he could see between the cracks in the earth told him that.
//Hello, Jenova... come to die?//
The husky chuckle that slid into his brain would have been warm if it hadn't been so poisonous, and the pure alien power it possessed was as cold a touch as liquid oxygen, bitter, and icy enough to cauterize. Cloud knew what he was, in her eyes, that he was less than nothing, a pest, an easily eradicated error in the otherwise flawless system of the universe...
//... I beat you once before, Jenova, I'll gladly do it again...//
The Cetra's presence was gone, not a part of this war of wills. They had given him nothing before, not the first time, and he had done it then... done the impossible and defeated her... It would mean nothing more to do it now... and it certainly couldn't /cost/ him any more, not this time.
//never again... never /again/.//
/You've got no Planet to win, human, if you ever did. This fragile sphere is crumbling around you, and it doesn't even /want/ your help... How can you... so powerful a creature... show such loyalty to something that treats you so expendably?/
Cloud grinned, once again relying on his body to act on its own, fight its own wars while he concentrated on the furious battle /inside/ his mind. Physically, he was speeding down the plain, hacking down whatever monster stood in his way, shouting orders to the men who passed him, but it was all little more than a blur, a routine... the real battle was within...
//You weren't nearly so talkative last time, Jenova... your social skills are improving...//
/Your human doctor is an exquisite teacher.../
Cloud forced himself not to react, not to think of Hojo, not to think... /any/ weakness was fatal, in this battle...
//... taking etiquette lessons from Hojo? You must be desperate...//
He was clawing for calm, and she knew it.
/You should join me, you know. In many ways, you already /have/... just like my... son./
That purring female voice chuckled again, as he tried to restrain even the barest flicker of surprise...
/I know he's alive, human... He is mine, no matter how small, how insignificant the measure... he is mine, just as /you/ are mine... and I will come to reclaim you both... when this battle is over.../
Cloud knew what she would offer, even as the temptation filled his thoughts, her gift as sweet and warm as any part of his life had ever been, and kinder than most... not power, not domination, but an /end/... an end to thinking, to caring... being erased, mind, body and soul... with nothing left to do but vanish... disappear forever...
Not even the Planet could offer him that.
He knew she would do it, and could, that whatever resistance he had existed solely because he willed it, not because he thought winning was worth anything anymore, not because he cared, and that if he gave up... if he let go...
/You don't desire victory... you're just tired... tired of all of this... Even if you could win, it wouldn't change anything... you know what all promises are worth... you know what you are... that you can never go back.../
Cloud laughed out loud, and by the way Karat tensed underneath him, knew it must have sounded as insane as it did echoing in his mind.
//You're preaching to the converted, Jenova.//
/Then /join/ me.../
He couldn't give her a response in words, instead just sending all his violence, his hatred, every dark emotion he had hurtling at her like a cannonball. He knew, above any injury he could have done, that he had managed to /surprise/ her... the returning reply was fury-laced but nearly silent.
/Why..? You would trade happiness for suffering, you would fight, /knowing/ your life will not improve even if you win... /why/?/
//Just stupid, /human/ determination, I guess... I suppose I'd do just about anything to watch you suffer, even with a better alternative... I can't remember if I've heard you scream or not, Jenova... remind me...//
She didn't answer him, but he sensed the pulse of her angry, indignant silence... angry because she had worn Cloud down with her logic, had seen that he was not fighting this war for any goal or victory, and yet could /still/ not offer him anything to bring him to her side...
... and below his Chocobo's claws, the ground cracked black as instant death, and the Fullspawn roared above...
//I'm coming, Jenova... you think Hojo is brilliant now... just wait until I show you what he did to /me/...//
//... the Cetra's Vengeance, the anger of an entire race flowed through his veins... and there was no hope of stopping him...//
//... kill and kill and kill...//
His hand clenched tighter around the hilt of his sword, and it was only instinct, beyond anything sense he thought he possessed, that he did not instantly annihilate the owner of the arm that clamped down on his shoulder. He felt the surge of energy, the anger, ready to fight, to tear apart whomever had dared to think they could defeat him... until he looked up into a pair of hazel eyes...
Jenova's voice snapped away, as if it had never been.
"Zack? What the hell?!"
Surprise, and the sudden rush of fear that would always exist, because the dark-haired man would /always/ be his superior officer came and went in a heartbeat... Cloud forgot the world and remembered again, one more moment of being nothing more than an actor in his own life, continually switching roles...
"Damn it, Zack! Leave! Somebody's got to be back there organizing the troops! You're the only other commander out here who knows what's going on!!"
"You overestimate me," Zack muttered, eyes flicking between the darkness that had outlined the ground and the Fullspawn still rendering its carnage on the helpless souls at its feet, its incredible bulk shadowing the sky... "... this is madness."
"Get /out/ of here!" Cloud shoved him away, feeling an all-too familiar childish weakness, a frantic fear descend on him... that he would have to watch Zack die, and he couldn't, he couldn't take /any/ more... how did Zack not see that?! Didn't he understand, that it had to be done, that Cloud had to act quickly... that these /distractions/...
//Only a distraction... and Elly was a distraction and Zack is a distraction and... and... I can't remember how to /be/ anymore... I don't know what to do... I never should have come back... I never should have...//
So many times... so many things he never should have been forced to see or do... or choose between...
"I'm not going to let you fight this monster /alone/!"
"Someone has to lead the army, and someone has to kill this thing! We don't have time to argue! They need you back there!"
Zack grabbed his arm, tight enough to hurt, forcing the blonde to look up at him, and Cloud could see everything his friend was thinking, that Zack knew how dangerous the situation was, knew they were teetering on the edge... and what Cloud had to do... but there was something else there too, and the blonde didn't want the dark-haired SOLDIER to ask it, to say what he was about to... it would be too much, too much... Zack paused for a long moment, caught between impulses, but finally spoke, voice low and rough.
"Promise me you won't be a martyr, Spike. Not here. Not now."
Cloud flinched, very deep down, though on the surface he was actually surprised by the request. Subconsciously, though... he knew this battle would be... perhaps... his way out... his only chance for escape... his last... before...
//... Sephiroth... to have to...talk, to sit there and... I can't... I can't... and Elly... oh God, no...//
Zack shook his arm, hard, as Cloud tried to look away.
The blonde never answered, but damned his eyes for betraying him, as Zack stared at him, read right into the too-bright blue, and found whatever it was he was looking for.
"I'll gather everyone we've got left, round them up to give you some sort of a wall, keep Hojo's forces from gaining any ground in the chaos... you take care of business here."
There was an incredible roar of rage and fierce delight, the scream of the Fullspawn, that deafened them both. Zack turned back towards Rocket Town, and his Chocobo lurched forward eagerly, glad to be moving away from the horrible, towering monster that had grown far too close. Now Cloud was alone, and looked down what seemed an impossibly short road, towards his future.
//Zack will take care of the town... and Sephiroth's there... and nothing could... all I have to do is... win.//
"Forty-thousand at the battle of... I don't remember... we didn't name it, it was a water battle, and we don't usually..." Cait Sith paused, as if realizing he was rambling, "... Wutai, they called it "the battle of final death" ... forty-thousand soldiers, our /entire/ navy, over half of the land defenses on the nearest coast, my god, we died by /divisions/ that day..."
"How did you destroy it the first time?" Sephiroth said tersely, as if searching a madman's ramblings for helpful facts. The dark-clad man had seemed on the verge of charging into the battle ever since Zack had disappeared... but a sudden attack by an enemy platoon had kept him from moving, until now.
"... destroy?" The tiny black cat looked at him in something like surprise, "... destroy it? We used everything we had... threw everything we could find at it... missiles, guns, Materia... an entire crew aboard the Gallant sacrificed themselves to get a Huge-Ultima combination close enough to take a chunk out of it... it took a long, long time... so many soldiers died. It wasn't easy... there was no defining moment... we just kept pounding away... pounding away and dying... and /dying/... we can't afford... we can't die like that again..."
Tifa glanced up, where there had been nothing before, and saw Zack running along the top of the slight ridge closest to them, pushing his black Chocobo as hard as he could. The brunette's heart sank, cold and motionless, as she realized he was alone.
No one had realized there was a radio anywhere nearby until it crackled into life, and Cid quickly pulled it out from underneath some fallen debris.
"... anyone out there who can hear me, pull up your positions... Rocket Town... keep any peripherals from moving past... I repeat... to everyone who can hear me, we have to stop... Hojo's army at Rocket Town..."
"Zack?!" The blonde pilot had to yell to be heard over the crackles of static obscuring the general's voice. The Fullspawn's presence appeared to be affecting /everything/ in the area, including radio waves, and it was difficult to hear anything at all, even his own name.
"Where's Cloud?!" Tifa blurted before the pilot could speak, and her heart lurched as her only answer was silence.
"Zack!? Where is he? Where?! You didn't /leave/ him out there?!"
//I am death... I am destruction... I am revenge, the planet's will given flesh...//
The Cetra had returned, he could hear them, murmuring in the back of his mind, but he didn't care. Cloud didn't need them anymore... he didn't need anything anymore, not for what he had to do. His own hatred was more than enough to push him on.
Karat was terrified, he could feel it, in every motion, the normally flawless motion of the chocobo now jerking and shaking with fear. Nothing living wanted to go near a spawn, especially a Fullspawn... but the bird was brave, and loyal... the only one who had followed Cloud all the way through the last nine months... the only one who had made it...
He looked to his left as the monster charging toward him was torn down, ripped in half, and Li appeared, running full speed at his side.
Nanaki was at his other side, fresh blood on his jaws as well, pacing the chocobo as they ran up the field.
The two cats were giving him a clear path, cutting a swath through anything that dared to come too close, so that he could concentrate on the Fullspawn. The blonde had let the rest of the world around him fade away long ago, refusing to see the bodies of soldiers, /his/ soldiers, draped over crushed remnants of guns and buildings, impaled on trees or dead monsters...
//... I am the Cetra's Vengeance... I am fury... I am the Planet's living weapon...//
/... what he taught you to be, what he made you to be... sweet revenge, to use it against him... and that's all that's left to do.../
He never saw the monster that took Karat down, only heard the bird's shrill shriek, saw fur and claws and a pair of intense, glowing yellow eyes that locked with his, and the bird rolled backward... he could see Li, fighting with the monster, Nanaki leaping onto it as well, it was falling, but so was he... Karat crying out in pain, and he was /still/ falling... he must have been riding along the edge of a ridge, for his back was touching only empty air now, no impact, not yet... His shoulder slammed roughly against the side of the wall, but he was still falling free, knew it would hurt when he hit... saw the shadow... looked up to see Karat, bleeding, coming down right on top of him...
//... oh hell...//
The slope of the ridge lasted for only a few meters before dropping off into a completely vertical free-fall, ending in a flat span of solid rock at least three stories below. Cloud hit it without any chance to cushion the fall, and the Chocobo crashed on top of him, pinning him to the ground.
//... get up... get up!!!//
The pain in his back and side was incredible, but Cloud hauled himself up, feeling the soft bulk of the Chocobo slide off of him, the bird's claw accidentally digging into his arm as the bird twitched in pain. Karat was cooing softly, weakly... so much blood, there was so much blood...
Li was calling to him, but he ignored her, looked past her in horror, as the Fullspawn screamed again, the enormous monster nearly parallel with him now, across the field, as close as he was to the town and gaining speed, passing his position... It had doubled back while he had been falling... it was heading toward Rocket Town...
//NO!!! How!? HOW?!//
/... Tifa behind the line... and Zack... and Cid... and... all there... and... and.../
He was a machine, the pain there in his body and mind, threaded through every muscle, but it never really reached him... was completely unimportant... and Cloud ran, not hearing or caring about all he left behind... not waiting for Nanaki, or Li, not looking back...
//No... no... no...//
He knew what he would see before he reached the top of the small incline, he could have painted the scene, each detail was already fixed in his mind. The Fullspawn, not charging at full speed but far from motionless, lumbering over the field... Most of the soldiers who could move already had done so, although there was the occasional scream, as another dark fissure in the Planet claimed another victim.
The beast, as large as anything ShinRa had ever constructed, any gun or building or weapon, a nightmare in shell and bone, screaming a challenge to the first opponent it saw... a man who stood at the edge of the Rocket Town line, unmoving, a sword as long as he was tall extended in a long, smooth curve toward the ground.
/... oh this.../ The voices of the Cetra slowly joined together in surprise, and sudden, hopeful elation... /this will work.../
//No. No. NO.//
Cloud could see the outcome already, he could /see/ it, even as he tried to tell himself it would never come to pass, that the white-haired man could /not/ be defeated, not like that, that it wouldn't... it couldn't.... and he knew that Sephiroth /would/ defeat the Fullspawn... but the cost... the price...
Terror sang in the air, a high, silent tremolo that made all his hair stand on end, the silent scream of dread, panic, and a moment of clear, perfect foresight...
//... blood on silk-snow... the world... empty... alone... not again... not /again/... I can't do it /again/... I /won't/...//
The Cetra's whispers ignored him, grew louder, more excited, as this new, possibly war-altering turn of events grew ever more probable, moments of time passing, gone forever, each one bringing the Fullspawn closer and closer...
/Perfect... let the two abominations cancel each other out... it's /perfect/...just walk away, weapon... just turn around and walk... let them.../
Memories came, each carrying their deadly poison... his ears still ringing from being slapped around by the boys in Nibelheim, never being strong enough to defend himself, always too short, always too weak... Tifa's brown eyes watching him from a distance, the pity in them so much worse than the pain could ever be...
... so much worse... nothing worse... than looking on that list... not hearing the laughter echoing through the hallways or the taunting scorn whispered right in his ears... realizing that his only dream was already over... gone, gone forever... and that he would spend the rest of his life alone, with the fragments of what could have been paradise... or at least a chance... his horrible, total failure...
... the mansion, at Nibelheim, so much later, and he had tried so hard to hide himself, from everyone, sure they could see his humiliation, waving like a banner, announcing his disgrace... but something else was wrong, something so much more important than his own petty concerns... Sephiroth... something was /wrong/... and there was nothing he could do... Zack didn't see, didn't understand... and he had nothing of his own to fight that darkness with...
//I couldn't save you... I couldn't... I tried... I would have...//
... the meeting on the bridge, still half in shock, never really feeling the sword go in, Zack's order ringing in his ears... knowing it wasn't the white-haired man who had... wasn't really him... but it /looked/ like him, and he had thought he would never win this fight, couldn't ever... and that shocked surprise as the sword... as it... it...
... following the Lifestream down, alone... the battle he never wanted... the confrontation... and /knowing/ he would have to act again, battle again, though fighting was the equal of tearing out his /own/ heart, and he would have rather done so a thousand times than attack... than strike out against the one who waited for him...
//I would have done anything to save you... anything...//
/Strife! Let him die! Let them both die! This is the way it should have been from the beginning, just let it happen!/
He could feel the Cetra building their power, felt the way they were watching him now, listening to his thoughts with increasing anger, more than ready to deliver another 'reminder,' should he not agree with them, should he try to interfere with what they had decided would be.
/You don't have a choice, Strife.../
//... no one's puppet... never again... /never/...//
/Strife... don't make us.../
The power rose in the air, an invisible mirror of the Fullspawn's death strike, a lash of pure energy... they were more than prepared to stop him... he didn't know... they might do it just to make sure...
/... don't do it... we don't want to hurt you, but we will if we have to.../
If we have to... if /he/ had to... if he had to see that body, bleeding, slumped lifeless against the ground, just one more time...
//I would have died for you, I was ready, I was willing...//
Cloud reached beneath his shirt, searching for a pair of small, smooth spheres that lay against his breastbone, that once contained incredible power... Now they were nothing more than the remnants of memories, the connection he had fought to form, between the darkness of his life now and those most tenuous, brilliant and happy times of his past... His hand closed around them as his mind reached out, further than even the where the Cetra could reach...
//Funny thing, that...// he thought. When they weren't thinking about it, the Cetra used Jenova's term for him.
//Maybe we're /all/ nothing more than pawns... players...// It was enough to make his heart break. If he didn't laugh, he'd die,
//... maybe this is all some great cosmic joke...//
/... Strife... what are you doing?/
He knew, had known for a long time, that the Cetra were, in the end, only the middlemen, controlling his power from the source. It hadn't mattered before now, they were much better at it than he was, they helped his focus, his strength... but he /knew/ that he could... if he was brave enough... if he could take hold of that white-hot fire ... even for only a moment...
... Aeris, speaking to him in the sea of green... quiet murmurs, telling him things he knew he wouldn't remember, not completely... that, where it counted, /he/ had the power, that they were using him... that he couldn't control it, not really, but that it /was/ his...
/... it could kill you, if you try... I know it hurts to let them... they're not... they don't... but it's so much... too much... promise me you won't... you won't.../
He had, but that promise meant nothing now, not in the face of all he had vowed before. She was dead, and /he/ was still alive, and Cloud had to make a decision that was no decision at all.
//I would have died to save you...//
His voice was less than a whisper.
"... and now I have the power."
The Cetra's voice was a howl in his ears, as they realized what he had been planning all along.
/DON'T! DON'T DO IT!/
Cloud smiled slightly at the fury and fear in that voice, extended one hand toward the Fullspawn, and closed his eyes, letting his soul take a long, long fall, straight into the heart of the green.
Cid looked up from the radio, hoping he could assuage some of Tifa's fears... and his own.
"So we've got about two-thirds of what we had before that fucking thing showed up, maybe a little less... and as far as I know, Yuffie and Vincent are fine... I don't know where the hell Nanaki is..." Cid looked up at a sudden noise, to see Sephiroth quietly moving around the barrier, away from the town, "Hey! Where the hell are you going?!"
"The Fullspawn is coming," the dark-clad man said expressionlessly, not slowing his step.
Cid paled, realizing a moment later that Sephiroth was right, that the massive beast was indeed moving their way, and quickly.
"Cloud?" Tifa whispered, terrified... knowing that the creature could not have gotten past them without fighting Cloud, and that it would not be coming towards them unless Cloud had... unless he was...
Her insides turned to ice.
Sephiroth knew he stood alone on the field. If he had wanted to take the moment at its most poetic, he knew he could have, and that he had been alone before that, for a long time... in a way, alone for all his life. Solitary, at the top of any class... he was the very best, of course, but he was still alone.
//... Zack... even he... didn't want...// The white-haired man hated it, when his thoughts betrayed him, when he couldn't stop even the smallest idiotic, self-pitying impulse, //oh, shut up.//
The isolation was a point that had never been sharpened to such a keen edge as now, even he had to admit that, as he walked away from the slight protections at Rocket Town.
There was only empty land on either side of him, and in front of him as well, a barren plain devoid of anything living, that extended nearly all the way to the feet of the approaching Fullspawn.
There had been no real reason to defend the town so heavily, he realized. Most of the other monsters had quickly evacuated the area completely, standing on the edges, well away from the larger beast that so eagerly destroyed both friend and foe.
He felt no different as the fathomless black gaze locked onto him, and the tail started rattling like a transport truck full of boulders. There was no fear, no nervousness... a lifetime of battle, both on the field and off, had taken care of that.
The pale-haired man didn't stop to think about his death, that he would most likely not see the end of this battle, not against so large and powerful a foe. Instead, he subconsciously was taking note of how the creature moved, the places that could be vulnerable to a sword, where he should not be standing when the massive tail started to swing... Consciously, he wondered where Zack had gone... and what had happened to Cloud Strife.
If the Fullspawn had dispatched the other fighter so easily... and he knew Cloud Strife /was/ a formidable adversary...
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and he adjusted his grip on the Masamune.
The beast slowed its approach the closer it got, perhaps sizing him up, perhaps something else... He could see its gaze, from what he could tell, looking him over very, very closely. Somehow, it reminded him exactly of being in Hojo's lab, so long ago, watching as the scientist searched for another place to stick a needle, or finding another painful test of strength or stamina that would always leave him half-dead and aching... wishing for the day when he was grown, when he would make sure that no one would /ever/ have the chance to hurt him again...
//It's over.// He thought, wondering if somewhere, somehow, the connection between himself and Jenova still remained, for if Hojo had created this monstrosity from her cells, then she was still here too... and /something/ had incapacitated Cloud, just before the Fullspawn had emerged... The blonde was obviously more sensitive, had a much stronger, deeper connection to the Planet... but still...
//So... can you hear me, Jenova?// His eyes narrowed, as the Fullspawn /seemed/ to blink, possibly in surprise.
//Tell Hojo he'll have to find someone else... and he'd better do it soon... because when I get a hold of him, /and/ you...//
He didn't need to finish the thought, let it drift off into abstract violence. He had been saving up those plans for a long time, of what he would do if Hojo was ever at /his/ mercy... and since he had learned /all/ of what had happened, to his real mother, to Zack after the he had been so cleverly deceived to at Nibelheim... after he had believed Jenova's lies...
//... it's going to be a long, /long/ time before I'm finished with you...//
He couldn't be sure that the Fullspawn understood him, but swore that the hesitance, the indecision that had been in the beast's step only moments before, was gone.
The dark-clad man steadied himself, tensing slightly as the massive tail arched over the creature's back, and the spear-like tip began to split, once, then again, dividing into a dozen equally long, sharp points that swayed, a few fractions of an inch, as the Fullspawn took aim.
Sephiroth turned his blade, just slightly, in final preparation for the first attack, waiting for the tail to start its descent. He saw the creature freeze, the multi-headed tip of its enormous tail tremble slightly... and out of nowhere, surprising them both, an arc of pure green energy, the fury of the center of the world, slammed unchecked into the beast.
Burnt... he had been charred from the inside out, only the shell remained... thin... paper thin... if the Fullspawn hadn't done it, the sight of Sephiroth, the realization that the already impossible... painful act of... living... that it had all just become so much harder, would be so much harder... If that hadn't done it, hadn't broken him, he had finished it all on his own... with the overwhelming force of an emerald scream... the echoes ringing in his ears... just above the barest whispers of an angry, angry voice...
If he survived this, he knew they would make him pay.
Still standing? Was he still on his feet, still breathing, alive? Was he already a memory, identity and consciousness unraveling in the Lifestream... he remembered... it was supposed to be good, and kind, that breath of life... but God, the green hurt, it /hurt/...
... or perhaps none of this was real, and he was only the last dream of the cowering remains of a failed young soldier, huddled in a cell as the nightmare descended upon him one more time, the scalpel's edge of light upon a pair of glasses... that light mocking him, knowing he would never escape, that he was already as good as dead...
//No more!!! Oh God, please... no more!!!//
That voice... and it faded before he could reach back for it, although he tried, he /tried/, as it disappeared into nothingness... he was awake now, he was alive, and if he could still hear, if it was real... then it meant she was still... that he /knew/ she was... and he hadn't failed...
Failure. It hurt so much worse than death.
His legs trembled, but not with weakness, although he felt as though at any moment, he could crumble up and blow away... but the ground... the ground was being beaten down underneath him... there was something... but his eyes would not open... much too heavy... much too... and why did he even care...?
/ST... IFE! ... FIGHT! FI... HT!//
A familiar chorus was screaming at him, worse than ever this time, nails driven down through his skull, and their insistent cries finally pried his eyes open, forcing the world into clarity.
The Fullspawn was coming. It had turned, and had found him, and in another moment it would be moving, and upon him. He felt an incredible moment of relief, though the why didn't come... not for a while, as he looked wearily at the sharp, deep slice that his attack, the Planet's attack, had left in the creature's armored side... easily cutting through the bony plate to the soft tissue underneath... he had done his job... and... Sephiroth... was ... safe...
//... protect you...// The thought was broken almost instantly, destroyed by a remarkable amount of bitter irony, //...protect you? I could...? Useless... worthless... failure. There is nothing I can do for you... nothing to offer... nothing... I am...//
/FOCUS, STRIFE!!! FOCUS.../
The voices were gaining clarity, a definite presence in his mind now, though they still faded in and out, and /hurt/... but pain no longer meant what it once had, nothing could maintain its former importance... not when it /never/ went away...
The blonde looked up dully, as a roar split the air, seeming to crack down the center of reality, break right under his feet. The Fullspawn... two dark eyes, shining with alien power, an endless drive for more, a thirst for death, staring at him... so much fury... and it happened so slowly he thought that time had come unstuck... as the Fullspawn started to charge, huge pincers digging up the earth, the massive creature, nothing but armor and rage and the promise of death, moving faster than it ever should have been able to... right toward him...
He stood where he was, the edge of his feet sticking out over the tiniest of drops. There was no less than an inch of space between his feet and the ground... but it was enough... and when he closed his eyes, it felt as if he were teetering on the edge of the abyss... it felt like freedom...
Tifa didn't know where Zack had come from, only that he was standing beside her, and that they could all see the monster turn, could see it's target, the blonde-hair battle flag, the man standing in miniature at the other end of the field...
Tifa squinted, fighting to see... mouth dry, heavy bricks pressing hard against her chest... wiping the wetness out of her eyes as they protested against the dust and strain, forcing herself to look... because her first impression had to be wrong... she wasn't seeing it right... his sword wasn't down... it wasn't /down/...
Sephiroth stood close enough that she could hear him say something to Zack, though the brunette couldn't make it out, and didn't care, didn't care where he had come from or what he thought, and even the wave of green that had stopped the Fullspawn's charge was less important than what she saw now... his sword... her eyes... she couldn't see right, because it couldn't be down... point resting against the ground... couldn't be... couldn't...
"Open your /eyes/, Spike..." Zack whispered, tense voice immediately giving all her deepest fears vivid life, incredible power, and she looked up to see him watching, his Mako-enhanced vision much better than hers... looking across the field... and Cloud had his eyes /closed/?
//No... no no...//
Another roar, the Fullspawn's blood dropping in huge, wet blotches across the field as it ran, its only impulse for destruction, for absolute annihilation against the one who had wounded it so... and Zack's expression didn't change...
Tifa felt a wave of wild terror, almost giddy disbelief... it was a plan, wasn't it? Cloud had a plan... it was a bluff... he was always one step ahead, always... but those long claws, that enormous tail moved ever closer, plowing up the earth and splitting the air, and Cloud didn't move... Zack was paler and paler with each passing second, and Cloud didn't move... he didn't move...
"Come on, Spike... you promised me, you /promised/..."
Cloud felt the wind, blowing gently against his aching skin, though all his bruises were already gone, already healed. The wind... the wind didn't care about their war, nothing they did could catch its attention, let alone hurt it... and if he died, maybe he'd join that wind... there would be no thought, no memory... wonderful...
The Ultima Weapon was heavy in his hand, pulling toward the ground... why was he still holding onto it? One hand had already uncurled, gently, held into the wind...
The Planet... the Cetra... was begging him, was pleading with /him/? He knew it was a lie, knew it wouldn't last... and if he won this battle they would punish him, they would make sure he never dared to stand against them again... though it wasn't really his choice to make, there /was/ no choice...
//... never... never again...//
His thoughts came much too fast... the Fullspawn should have killed him by now... and he was afraid if it didn't, he would remember... something... something, and he would have to act... he didn't want to act... not anymore...
The Planet was frantic, searching for a way to stop his self-destruction...
/This thing will kill her if you don't stop it, Strife! All your friends, it will kill them... you have to! You.../
He almost laughed, at the desperation in the Cetra's voice, in the combined voice, searching for any way to bring him back to the fight, reaching for any argument to keep their best weapon safe.
//I wounded it... and Zack... Zack can take care of it now... take care of Tifa. He's twice the man I could ever be... and Sephiroth's still... still there...//
He couldn't believe he had been worried, only moments before... nothing could, nothing /should/ have been able to stand up to the dark-clad man... His own victory was no more than a fluke, even he realized that, twice allowed, perhaps, but still unique in all the universe...
//I shouldn't have won... I didn't want to... I don't want to... not anymore...//
It would be so easy... so easy to just stand there... let that tail descend, let the Fullspawn shred him where he stood... no more than a few moments, and it would all be over... he would be free...
The wind seemed to agree, cooling his too-hot body, so gently... it had been so long... the gentleness...
//Elly...// The pain, and he wished it would stop his heart instead of just making it feel like it had... //... so many reasons to go... I kill everything I care for... I'm sorry... everyone...//
It would be so easy... to just let it /end/.
/Do it for /him/, then, Strife. Do it for him. What if you're wrong!? What if it's still too powerful... he could still.../
It was hilarious, actually... The Cetra, chiding him for his lack of concern for Sephiroth's life, when only moments before it had beaten him down, tried to destroy him for refusing to slaughter the man?
This time Cloud did laugh, the slight chuckle reverberating painfully against his aching lungs, slamming inside his chest like a boulder, /hurting/...
//For God's sake...// he thought, suddenly exasperated, //will you hurry up and /kill/ me!//
There could only be moments left, he figured... it had already taken far too long...
Cloud flinched, immediately trying to shove that memory away... He didn't want it... had never said yes, never meant to make the vow...
He almost let out a sob of frustration, his entire future changing in a heartbeat, because the Cetra had him now, they knew it, that they had found and caught hold of something he could not forget, and forced him to remember... would not let him... would not let him...
//Promise me you won't be a martyr, Spike...//
There was no way Zack could know what he had asked... but Cloud already knew it was too late, too late to save the hope, his chance at peace, at an end...
... he had broken too many promises.
Tifa screamed as the Fullspawn slowed its charge, arching its enormous body, the long, whip-like tail pulling back, gathering power, cocked and ready, and she could almost hear it slicing through the air as it launched out, lashed against the ground... against the blonde, still standing with his sword down and his eyes closed, nothing more than a helpless target... she heard Zack bite back an involuntary cry, turning three shades more pale in a heartbeat as the monster's strike struck home.
Dust, dirt and rock flew up around the impact site, completely obscuring her view, but even before it cleared she heard Zack gasp, turned to see that he was looking up, toward the sky... at a thin, gleaming sliver of metal, the sharp, brilliant burst of green... Cloud, descending upon the Fullspawn.
// "... h-hey... sir. You called me?"
Zack looked up, to see Cloud watching him from the doorway, one hand raised in a cautious greeting. He smiled, even more broadly than usual, knowing the young soldier needed to be shown that his presence was not a problem, that he was /wanted/...
The sight of the blonde's hesitance, his honest hopefulness, his desire to fit in made Zack's heart ache every time he saw it. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't fair...
"How's it going, Spike?"
Cloud shrugged, smiling, blue eyes always shyly tilted toward the floor, "Not too bad, sir... you?"
"Fine." Zack said, trying to keep things casual, trying not to say anything... If he pushed, if he tried to get the blonde to open up, he knew Cloud would run... he was so skittish, so terribly afraid to offend or bother or just let anyone /inside/, let anyone try to help him...
Cloud looked up, Zack followed his gaze, sure of what he would see, by the hero worship that sparked in the blonde's eyes... it was scary, sometimes, how the young man seemed to /know/ where Sephiroth was... and yes, he /was/ standing on the second floor, at the edge of the open hallway, had just walked out of another meeting.
Zack could see that someone had managed to piss him off, in the straight, stiff way he quickly stalked across the hallway, almost radiating a barely-controlled anger. The dark-haired soldier raised a hand in greeting, knew the other man saw but didn't respond, and as the white-haired man vanished, Cloud reappeared from where he had been hiding. Zack realized he hadn't even seen his friend move away.
//You sure know how to pick your friends, Zack...// The voice of his conscience chided him mercilessly... //... you've got one who doesn't acknowledge your presence in public, and another who's too timid to walk in direct sunlight, deathly afraid of you half the time. Neither one will talk to you, or let you help them, though they've both got more problems than they deserve... God, if Spike had grown up with just a little more self-confidence, they'd almost be the same /person/... maybe that was why, because he'd /always/ had to do the difficult...//
He sighed, grudgingly acknowledging the truth of that internal dialogue. It had been the same, always, since childhood, he couldn't help but make friends with the people who made it the most clear they didn't want /anyone/ near them.
//... but everyone needs a friend... and I /like/ them, I like them both a lot. Seph's great, when he remembers to pull that stick out of his ass... He's thoughtful, and brilliant, really, and more loyal than he'd ever admit... a little too tightly wound most of the time, of course, not that I can blame him... but he's got that great sense of humor too, dark as hell, but it never fails... no matter how bad things get...//
Zack dropped that line of thought, reminding himself of what he had already decided long ago, that he would probably know the white-haired man for the rest of his life and /never/ really figure out how to relate, never know what was really going on inside his head... only know those few details that his friend felt like sharing...
//... not that it'll stop me, of course...// A small, defiant smile teased the corners of his mouth.
The more pressing problem, he thought, was the one that had crept out from around the corner after Sephiroth had vanished, Cloud still looking up every few seconds, timid elation battling with cautious fear for control of his expression. Zack had his suspicions, of course, from nearly the first time he had seen the blonde, and by gaining Cloud's trust, he had been able to see things even more clearly.
Yes, it was as bad as he had first suspected, possibly even worse than even he knew. Zack had never seen the look in Cloud's eyes on anyone, not for week after week... after week...
//God, Cloud, can you pick 'em...//
If it had been anyone else, anyone at all, Zack would have done everything in his power to arrange /something/, if only so that he didn't have to keep seeing that desperation, that painful expression, Cloud wanting what he knew he didn't deserve to have...
Zack hated that emotion most of all, hated it when people were hurt by the arrogance of others, despised it when anyone thought they couldn't dare to do what they wanted, that they weren't good enough... but if /he/ couldn't break down even the smallest of Sephiroth's walls, he knew he couldn't send someone like Cloud... someone that unsure, that timid... it would be like offering a sheep to a pack of starving wolves... Sephiroth would crush him without trying, without ever knowing he had done anything wrong...
//... he doesn't need me to try and help him, anyway... I can't help him... not when he already /knows/ he's not good enough...//
Cloud's inner sense of his own lack of value was startling. The way the blonde managed to dart in and out of corridors, and rooms, and life without ever being seen or noticed, it hurt Zack the most because he knew it must have taken a lot of practice. For the blonde, it was automatic.
Anyone with any sense of worth would have done /something/ by now, even knowing it would end in tragedy, in rejection, but Cloud had learned he was not important, in any way, and that in order to minimize his effect on the people who were important, he had to be invisible.
//Invisible unless, of course, they're teasing him...//
If he ever got his hands on the little bastards who had posted the SOLDIER disqualifications in the lunchroom... Zack's hands still clenched into fists at the thought.
As it was, he hadn't found out about it until much too late, too late to stop Cloud from finding out in public, being humiliated in front of everyone... and it hadn't taken much deduction to realize just how much being a SOLDIER had meant to the young blonde.
//Everything. It meant everything to him... the first step towards the impossible, and he never even got try...//
It wasn't as if he had failed at something most achieved, there was nothing to be ashamed of... ninety out of a hundred never even made it past the preliminary round... but for someone who had spent a lifetime failing, who had pinned all his hopes, all his dreams on one distant goal...
The dark-haired soldier had come to Midgar from a town just as small as Nibelheim... he knew what it was like to dream of bigger things...
//... but you got yours, SOLDIER... you got yours, and he got nothing...//
Zack had kept his eye on Cloud as much as possible after that, angry at himself for his own helpless worry, not knowing what to do. He was sure he was the only one who saw the dark circles underneath the young soldier's eyes, watched him drop ten, maybe even twenty pounds from an already thin frame... Cloud wasn't sleeping or eating well, and the dark-haired man feared that one day, he would simply not see Cloud at all... there were a thousand ways to quietly give up, to disappear in a large city like Midgar...
//I'm /not/ gonna let that happen, damn it... I'm /not/.//
"Uh... s-sir?" Cloud said quietly, shifting slightly where he stood. Zack realized he had been staring off into space.
"I told you not to call me sir, Spike," Zack grinned, "... I've got this idea... they're assigning me a really strange schedule, and I'm not gonna have any time to go find any of the other guys... I figured, if you're not busy... you and me could be sparring partners for a while?"
Zack wouldn't have even bothered with the act, would have just offered directly, but knew that Cloud wouldn't accept if he had. The blonde was so wary... even friendship /scared/ him... When the hell had he learned how to fear so much?
"Uh..." The smile fluttered across Cloud's face awkwardly, afraid to take up a permanent place, "... uh... me, si- I mean... Zack? Are you really sure..."
"You arguing with me, soldier?"
"No... no, sir."
"Uh... no... Zack."
The dark-haired man grinned.
Zack swung his massive Buster off one shoulder, swinging it around for a moment before slamming it into the ground, feeling the sword /still/ not moving perfectly, not the way he needed it to... but he'd get it... he would... it was too good, too cool a move to waste...
The dark-haired man grinned, trying to figure out where to begin, which parts of combat Cloud already knew, and what he needed to learn... Cloud might not have the rank, but Zack was determined to make him the best SOLDIER that never was...
He looked up, to see the blonde staring, wide-eyed, where he had dropped his sword. Cloud had been watching him swing, those preliminary few strokes of a very complicated pattern.
"... can you teach me... how to do that?"
Zack laughed. Finally, a little boldness, a little excitement... there /was/ a way to reach his friend, after all.
//I knew it... I /knew/ it...//
"I'm gonna have to teach myself first, Spike... It's this new thing I'm working on... got it out of an old book somewhere... kind of modified it... I'm playing by /none/ of the rules, here..."
"What... what /is/ it..."
"I call it... I dunno, the Omnislash, I guess... though that's only a working title..."
The great, dark void... coming closer... to swallow him, devour him whole... and he didn't care... looked back into it without fear or pride or dread... he didn't /care/...
The anger inside was flawless, beautiful, pure and clean and perfect, and it didn't matter... nothing mattered, except that now he was descending upon his enemy, the /invulnerable/ enemy, and there was no time left for surprises, and he knew he would win...
For everything that had been done to him, for the casual cruelty, the way so many had thought to own his life... for Zack... for Nibelheim... Aeris... Tifa... all his friends, all that pain... for Sephiroth... always, always... and for himself.
The descent, the rage... for every moment he had spent with his soul twisting tighter in the screws, plunged down into insanity, seeking an end... only to find true, inescapable clarity past all his limits, past the point at which he shattered... something he had never, ever wanted... It wasn't for anyone to know how meaningless it all was... the inevitable victory of suffering over love and hope and life...
//... but not today...//
He already knew he would win, and it was unimportant what it would cost him, what he had to give up. His life was already gone, the future was already spent... it was all over... all over...
Cloud looked into the void as he fell, the point of the Ultima Weapon carving the path ahead of him, pointing the way, the first sharp slice straight down into the darkness... He looked into the void, and the void looked back, and he smiled... because he could see inside, could see everything... and it was afraid.
In truth, none of them had actually seen the Omnislash before. Zack had never been able to make it work, had only gotten two-thirds of the movements figured out, and could only use the technique in a very slow pattern, just in practice, before his death, and he had never had the time to perfect it when he had been resurrected.
Sephiroth only had fleeting moments, memories, glimpses of the true final battle... but he didn't remember the fight, the sword or the deadly attack so much as he did the voice... pleading... and the tears...
It was impossibly fast, and yet seemed to take an eternity, the sudden, brutal assault echoing endlessly across time. One moment, the spawn had struck the ground, Tifa had screamed, the dust had cleared... Zack could see the arch of the creature's tail, coming up, could almost see the surprise in its body as it saw that it had hit nothing, nothing at all...
... and high in the air, the barest gleam of metal caught his eye, snapped his head up, and Cloud was attacking, dropping down onto the Fullspawn with the sword out in front of him, and even as Zack thought that one strike would not be enough, he knew that one strike was not what the blonde had in mind at all.
There was no noise. The most chilling thing of all, far more than speed or viciousness or power, was that the attack was completely silent. The Fullspawn had no time to cry out, there was no time for it to do anything, the Ultima Weapon already had cut through it /three/ times before it realized it had even been hit.
The massive monster staggered back, but just slightly, as fractured lines of pure green shivered into life all over its body, needles of new lightning springing away from each one of Cloud's massive strikes...
The blonde was no longer using just the blade... the green fire went well past that, extending his reach, slicing through the entire creature with every strike... so fast that Zack could barely track it... could see no more than another explosion of green light each time another blow connected... but where was Cloud? Zack had caught one glimpse, the corner of his uniform inside a haze of Lifestream and dust, but now the fighter was gone, all he could see was the monster, and the pulsing, awakening green... where was his friend?
Everyone on the field could feel the power growing, the Planet preparing a last strike, although most of them had no idea what it meant, too engulfed by fear to rationalize much of anything... Hojo's monsters, or what was left of them, were pinned to the spot, watching their leader, the pinnacle of their creation, being torn apart right in front of their eyes.
A green sweep slid through the Fullspawn's center, slicing it in half. Zack could hear the damage that strike had done, tearing through bone and muscle, shattering the thick armor like brittle ice, and before that green flare had died, Cloud leapt back in the air, as high as before, holding the Ultima Weapon in both hands, the blade over his head, bringing it down for one final strike, the deathblow for an enemy that would not survive...
There was an incredible explosion when the final attack struck home, the ground shook once more, shuddering violently, and the land directly around the Fullspawn exploded with green energy, swirling patterns of poisonous black still making a deadly lacework inside the green... but the green power surged up, overwhelmed the taint of Jenova, burned it away, and something screamed, though the Fullspawn was /very/ dead... /something/ let out a howl of anger, of fury, before vanishing completely, a smothering presence lifting away, a feeling that no one had noticed until it was gone.
Tifa blinked away the pale afterimage of the final strike, staring down at a scene too familiar, too known to be real... too much a memory of the past, something horrible that she prayed would never happen again... that could never happen again...
The center of the field had been swallowed in the Lifestream, and a huge, glowing crater was all that remained... just like Mideel.
There was no sign of Cloud.
Tifa looked into that gleaming emerald pool, the shifting patterns... saw the emotion, almost like anger, resting inside the swirls and eddies of green... an overwhelming deep, deep fury that took her breath away... The Planet was nurturing, yes... and yes, it had been kind to her once, as she had struggled to help Cloud... but she knew, without any idea how she knew, that /nothing/ would survive within that pool now... not within the violent center of a Planet at war...
Her voice barely escaped her throat, seemed to evaporate as soon as it hit the air. No one else had moved, the entire field had gone silent, but she could not seem to stop shaking, her breath coming in fast, uneven gasps. Where was he? He couldn't have... it wouldn't happen... not again... but if not, then where was he?
Billy scrambled after the girl who was already far ahead of him, looking around wildly... It did sound as if the enemy were retreating, and the giant, glowing crater /was/ all that was left of the Fullspawn... but still... couldn't she be a bit more careful..?
"/Priscilla/," he hissed, and when she turned he could see she was angry.
"I heard something down there, Billy! It's a hurt Chocobo, I know it! We don't have time to wait!"
Without another word, she took off again, maneuvering her way down the steep cliff. Billy sighed and rolled his eyes, taking off his ShinRa soldier's cap, rubbing the sweat out of his eyes. When he had imagined meeting a girl just as dedicated to animals as he was, he had no idea how infuriating it would be.
He recognized the fear in her voice, his portable med-pack was off his back even as he slid down the side of the slope, following her cry. They had already passed a countless number of dead men, dead chocobos, but the sight of each new corpse hit him just as hard as the last... the body of another beautiful, graceful creature ground into the dust, broken, dead...
The people of Wutai understood the way he felt better than ShinRa did, although most of the soldiers on both sides now took equally good care of their Chocobos, treated them almost like fellow soldiers, indispensable allies rather than disposable transport.
Anytime they had reclaimed the field after the battle, or went in to relieve a unit under siege, Billy and Priscilla had as much respect as veterinarians as the regular medics did. Chocobos bred fast, but died fast as well, the front lines of the lancer corps losing up to two-thirds of their forces in any major battle, and so saving any of the birds they could was vital.
Billy rounded the corner and skidded to a halt, almost falling over Priscilla, who was quickly wrapping the side of a Gold Chocobo's wing, gently stroking the bird's neck as it cooed, very quietly, obviously in pain. Billy looked around, searching for the remains of an officers uniform, the body of someone who could have been riding a Gold, but saw nothing... no one...
"Billy... get pressure on the wound at the front... it's still bleeding," Priscilla was stern and demanding now, quickly bandaging and repairing all that she could see, wincing as she looked down at the bird's twisted leg.
"It's broken... that's real bad..."
Billy hissed as something shifted underneath his touch, beneath the skin, and the Chocobo tensed, letting out a shrill cry.
"Damned fragile bones... It's okay... it's okay..." He moved his hands gently, trying to stop the bleeding without moving any more broken bones. He couldn't help but look at the bird more closely... most people would say that Chocobos all looked about the same, but he knew better... there was a vast difference, if one knew what they were looking for, and there was something about this bird... It had a light riding saddle... one of the lancers, no doubt... but that was too easy, too generic a distinction... He /knew/ this bird...
//... No problem, sir, I've got just the one. This bird here is the best of the best... His mom was a real winner too, perfect speed, flawless gait... We call him Karat... not the most original, but...//
Billy's jaw dropped as the memory hit him.
"Priss... this is... this is The General's bird!"
The girl was as surprised as he, but did not show it, her movements still as quick and careful as ever, as she cautiously lifted the wing, peering beneath at the deeper wounds underneath...
"Poor bird... poor bird... it's okay... I'll fix it," she murmured soothingly, "it's okay..."
"Is he going to be all right?"
They both jumped at the sound, the voice that had come out of nowhere, and turned sharply to stare at the figure that had appeared behind them.
Billy saw The General's gesture, trying to get him to remain motionless, a moment too late, and realized The General was trying to stay out of the bird's line of sight. As soon as Karat saw the familiar figure, it started to struggle against Priscilla's hands, crying out as it tried to get to his feet, even though it was badly injured. The General quickly moved to her side, dropping his weapon as he put both hands out, to help her calm the bird down.
"Quit it... stupid bird..." He said in a hoarse, soft whisper, carefully stroking the bird's feathers with one hand, "... come on, Karat... you're only gonna make it worse..."
Priscilla and Billy shared a long look over The General's head, each of them unable to keep from staring at his massive sword, covered in the black blood of the Fullspawn, wondering how... how he had managed to stop something so powerful... how...
The young soldier didn't remember too well, didn't think much about the party of fighters that had come to his house, who had lodged their chocobos while the Meteor had hung in the sky. It had been five years, and his father had many stalls rented out, many guests since then...
Billy supposed it didn't matter all that much anyway, for the man he remembered, even vaguely, was very little like The General he followed now.
He could not meet the man's glowing gaze for more than a moment, no matter how hard he tried, the blue eyes shining more brilliantly now than any other time he had seen the man... a demanding gaze...
Something had happened out on that field, when The General had taken down the Fullspawn single-handedly... something had to have intervened... he had heard the stories of Nibelheim, and others... but what in the world... and did he really even want to know?
//The General is... the General... more powerful than any other man... unstoppable... and if I ever doubted it before, even a little... all that's gone now...//
It almost felt wrong to be speaking to him, so soon after the fact, and Billy would be the first to admit that he was even a little bit scared, as The General's gaze shifted from him, to the chocobo, and back again.
"Can you save him, Bill?"
"Yes, we can."
Priscilla answered for him, her jaw determinedly set, eyes flashing with an adamant strength that was almost anger as she looked up at The General.
"I still owe you one, Sir."
The blonde warrior looked up at her for a moment, and smiled slightly, although the power in his eyes, singing through his entire body, changed the smile into a feral, slightly unsettling predator's grin, and Priscilla quickly dropped her eyes.
Karat gave another small wark of protest as The General started to his feet. The blonde knelt back down, patting the bird's neck gently.
"... you just stay here and rest, ok? I know these guys, they'll take good care of you... I'll see you in North Corel."
The Gold chocobo cooed mournfully, dejected, and The General chuckled softly.
"Don't worry. I promise... I won't take any other Chocobos back... I won't ride until you're better."
The General stood up, took a few steps back, turning for a moment to make sure Karat wouldn't try to follow, and then disappeared. Billy and Priscilla kept working, the young man lifting his head for a moment as, in the distance, he heard what sounded like an engine turning over.
"This is the fifth... I got part of the third with me... one cannon left... we're running at about eighty, eighty-five percent of total fighting force... not too bad, gentlemen... not too damn bad..."
"We're... shit, I think we're what's left of the right flank... there's too many of us from too many divisions... we've got men dying here... that black shit, what /was/ that? We need a medic /immediately/...."
"There's some of Hojo's little bastards heading into the hills... we can't pursue... down to only a handful..."
"... we're at the center of this bitch, I can see that fucking hole from here, but we're /all/ still alive and goddamned accounted for. God /damn/... this was one /hell/ of a motherfucking battle..."
"We're running seventy... seventy-three men out of a hundred, but I think... the lancers, the second... they're gone... No sign of any enemy after what... after what happened to the Fullspawn... God, I need a drink..."
They had all gathered around the radio, listening to the first reports coming in from the field, the good, the bad and everything in between. One out of every two or three messages would be in the Wutai language, completely unintelligible to most of them, although Zack seemed to understand them all. His face was terribly expressionless, revealing nothing, and Tifa found herself too afraid to ask him if things were going well or not, watching as he flipped frequencies, searching between channels. He finally settled on the one reserved for senior officers, and paused for a long moment. They all knew who he was waiting for.
"Hey! This is Yuffie Kisaragi!" Out of the static, a familiar cheery voice emerged. "We're doing all right in the northwest sector! Anyone out there seen Nanaki or Cid Highwind? One of them's a giant cat, and the other's a kinda ugly pilot with a chain-smoking prob-"
"Yuffie!" Cid barked into the radio, and the ninja girl laugh echoed tinnily into the air.
"Cid! Good t' hear ya! You all right there? Seen anyone else?"
"Everyone's fine," Zack said shortly, cutting the pilot off before he could reply, "Have you seen Cloud?"
There was a long pause, and Tifa held her breath, though she already knew the answer... the pause alone told her more than she wanted to hear...
"... no, man. A couple of soldiers a little closer to, they said they thought they saw him get out... but these other guys swear he went down, that nothing... no one made it out... I don't know..."
"Come on, Yuffie... it takes a little more than /that/ to kill me."
The voice that broke through the static was dry, calm and cool... and sent a shock of joy so intense it was painful shooting through Tifa's heart.
"Cloud!" Zack's voice spoke for her through the radio, he leaned forward, as if trying to reach for the invisible voice through the tubes and airwaves, lunge through the machine and pull the blonde to them, "where /are/ you?!"
"Right in front of you, Zack..."
Tifa heard the engine roar, looked up to see Cloud tearing a path across the field, pushing the Hardy Daytona to its limits.
Soldiers cheered as they saw him pass, cries of victory from both ShinRa and Wutai soldiers filling the air, all the way back to Rocket Town, where the beleaguered rocket /still/ stood, defiant, stretching into the sky.
"... a motorcycle?" The dark-haired soldier yelled.
"... there's some of Hojo's freaks... they're still trying to reach North Corel... Karat's gone... I ran into the eighth... they were carrying... Daytona. Remember, it's ShinRa standard... generals always need another form of transport... nothing else is fast enough..." Cloud's voice faded in and out, replaced with the roar of the motorcycle's engine as he ran over rough ground, "...enough of Hojo's to cause a problem, and there are small towns between... and there... need our help... some of the men... gone on ahead... I'll see you in North Corel."
"Cloud, wait!" Zack yelled, but the blonde had shut off his radio, and the only sound that remained was the slight hiss of static, and the fading roar of an engine.
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