A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 13

By Twig


How can you just throw words around
like grieve and heal and mourn?
-Alanis Morrisette, The Couch


The first breath he took was surprisingly warm, although he couldn't remember why... why he was here... why he was surprised...

//What the hell...?//

Cloud turned, and turned again, standing in a patch of soft light, completely surrounded by darkness. He wasn't afraid... this place seemed strangely familiar... he had been here before...


A cautious query brought him nothing, not even an echo of his own voice... His footsteps made very little noise, he couldn't tell what he stood on, or where the light was coming from that illuminated a long, oval section of what he assumed had to be a room...


Where had he been? He remembered... the Fullspawn... the battle... Rocket Town... but in this dream world the words meant both something, and nothing at all... He didn't feel compelled to think about them too long... didn't feel compelled to think much of anything...

"Am I dead?"

Funny... if this was the afterlife, it was a bit disappointing... He was expecting a little more than a black void and a spotlight... something a little fancier, maybe... more like...

"... the Promised Land..."

He turned quickly, spooked by a sudden voice that /almost/ sounded like it wasn't a part of his thoughts, as if someone had barely whispered the words, in time with his musing... a cool, raspy murmur... /not/ human...

"Is someone there?"

Footsteps. Soft, barely audible but definitely there, and Cloud swung around, gazing into the darkness, unable to see anything... anyone... He was only a little nervous now, looking deep into the unknown, trying to listen, gauge where the noise was in relation to where he stood...

"It's been a long time, Cloud. A very... long... time."

He couldn't move, felt his heart stop beating, the air inside his chest gone as fast as the blood surged, spiked up through his veins. He was instantly dizzy, even this strange, surreal world spinning around him at the sound of that voice... that /voice/...

"All these years have passed between us, and you won't even look at me...?"

He turned, with no idea how he did so... someone else must have taken over his body, he could do little more than try not to fall to pieces, to collapse, no thoughts, no words coming out of his daze, even the automatic responses of his body barely responding... but somehow, he turned... listening to those footsteps moving closer now...

... and Sephiroth melted out of the shadows, staring at him with a sly, half-smile curve on his lips.

Perfection. Absolute perfection in the curve of every muscle on his smooth, bare chest, in the fluid, boneless grace with which he stepped closer, white hair shifting softly with each slight movement, his footsteps making no sound now against the dark.

Sephiroth was exactly as Cloud had seen him at the last, at their final, private battle... flawless, mercilessly beautiful, infinitely powerful.

He was as a god.

The air was solid, frozen around him, but somehow Cloud managed to stumble back as the other man approached, moving a clumsy half-step backward out of sheer terror, choking on the chunks of air that never reached his lungs, paralyzed as he regained his balance, as Sephiroth chuckled. The sound was the very heart of life, and echoed in Cloud's ears like soft, distant thunder.

"Afraid, Cloud?"

Those eyes. He was caught and pinned and held frozen by those incredible green eyes, sharp as jade... aquamarine... emerald... no color, no color and no description could ever do them justice, could ever be more than weak comparison...

//... Sephiroth green...//

They knew everything. With a single glance, Sephiroth knew everything, knew who he was and what had happened and what he had done, all his secrets and lies, and though Cloud was afraid, and shamed, he was not surprised. How could he expect to hide himself, hide anything from a man like this?

//... more than a man... so much more...//

"You won't say anything? Do you hate me? Loathe me? Am I a monster to you?"


He didn't know how the word came out. There was no air in his lungs, his entire mouth was as dry as a desert, but somehow he managed to croak out the words, could almost see them disintegrate in the air.

"No... never... I never..."

He couldn't lie... had known from the beginning that all his defenses would fail him... if he had to... he couldn't...

"You never...?" Sephiroth stepped closer to him, arching one pale eyebrow. Feline grace polished every movement, and those brilliant, glowing eyes never wavered from his own. Cloud gasped as the man stepped closer, circling him, and reached out, slowly running the edges of his fingernails along the blonde's back, from shoulder to shoulder, sending warm lightning coursing chaotically through his system... Cloud had to fight not to fall, not to cry out at the sudden contact, something longed for and yet almost intensely /feared/, the shock of pleasure so powerful it was almost pain...

One strand of white satin fell over his shoulder, as Sephiroth bent his head low, whispering right into the blonde's ear... his breath was warm, tickled the hairs on the back of Cloud's neck...

"You never hated me? You don't hate me? I used you... I hurt you, and everyone you cared for..."

"It wasn't you..." Cloud forced himself to stare directly forward, unblinking, knew he was trembling like a frightened rabbit, unsure of what to be... how to act... what to feel... a thousand conflicting emotions exploding, crashing together in his mind... each sensation overwhelming... there was too much hope now, too much, when he had thought he would never hope again...

"It wasn't me?"

"I should have... you didn't... you never... I..."

Confession. If Sephiroth wanted to hear who was to blame, Cloud would gladly let him know, would show him the real truth...

"I... I couldn't... /I/ was weak... /I/ failed you... I..." He flinched, "and Tifa... and... everyone... /I/ failed..."

"... Aeris?"

Cloud nodded, squeezing his eyes shut hopelessly as more tears fell, hot like acid, humiliatingly bright and clear, but he did not reach up to wipe them away... Let him see... he could not hope to be forgiven... but... let him see...

"Aeris... I... I didn't know... I never... there was never a chance..."

The sword coming down... swift... final... and he couldn't... he was /always/ too slow... her eyes... the life falling, the brightness fading as her body slid off the blade...

"... but she was /smiling/... she was smiling..." Cloud whispered, the memory clear as crystal in his mind's eye... and he had thought for sure he would have been destroyed by it, that failing her would be the end of him... but... she had been /smiling/...

"You didn't want to kill me, then...?"

"It was a lie," Cloud choked out, his sudden smile fever bright and full of pain, because /everything/ had been a lie... there had been so much... so many things he had never said... his life no more than fragments upon fragments, each Cloud existing completely on his own, one splinter of a thousand other lives that had to be walled away... No one could ever know... no one could know the real him... the one who faced Sephiroth now...

"A lie...?"

"I couldn't... I never... it..."

"You /killed/ me."

"I didn't... I never wanted... I couldn't let you... that thing inside of you... I couldn't let it win... everyone would have... I couldn't," Cloud clenched his jaw tightly, the sudden tightness in his chest, the weight of his grief nearly unbearable. "Forgive me... /please/ forgive... I didn't... I..."

It had been fifteen years, fifteen years to hold the words, to hear them in his mind, over and over again, every time /he/ came into view... to let them echo in the corners of his thoughts, while he was cowering in the shadows... counting them like a poor man hoarding single gil, while he babbled incoherently in the sweat-soaked darkness of a ShinRa lab... to hear those words echo, dry and dead, over the graveyard of his memories...

After fifteen years, even the most impossible things would not stay locked away.

"I love you."

Cloud felt his words punctuated sharply, too sharply by something that had been almost silent... and his body shuddered as he looked down, the searing pain so brilliantly defined it was almost not a part of him, didn't seem connected to the blade that had slid so quietly through his chest.

The blonde stared blankly at the crimson-stained steel jutting through the front of his dark blue shirt for an eternity, feeling nothing, thinking nothing... not for a long, long time...

The blade pushed farther into him, digging through muscle and flesh, and Cloud felt something hot dripping out of the corner of his mouth, down his chin, lifted his hand and saw fat drops of blood sliding down his fingertips.

The blonde smiled, or wanted to, not sure if the emotion that rose up in his brain ever reached the proper connections... smiled because of the pain, not the physical... but something so much more than that... more pain than anything else could /ever/ be...

Was this it, then? After all that time... all that fear, and this was the worst it could get, or was it the best it would be? This was his love's final reward?

//... not that bad... could be worse...//

He cried out involuntarily, as the sword thrust up higher in his chest, or went in deeper, or turned sideways, he wasn't sure, and his body convulsed as the incredible shock hit his system... but it was only physical, only his body's natural reaction... nothing compared to the pain... the true pain... so much /more/ inside his thoughts...

He was sure he was in shock... giddy from the agony of it all... fifteen years... fifteen years and a burning town, a false life and a dead Fullspawn, and now he was here... this was what all that suffering had earned him...

//Sacrifice for him? Everything... always been... always for him... and if I die, can he stay alive? Can I save him with my life, is this the way? I'm willing to live with that... or die with it, I guess... ha ha...//

Cloud could no longer feel his fingertips, the deadening sensation slowly creeping over his skin, his whole body going numb, arms dangling limply against his sides. When the sword finally slid down to the hilt, he quietly sagged back against it, dropped to his knees, only missed falling completely because of the blade, the long bar of finely honed steel holding him up... almost supportive, if not for the pain...

//... like a marionette with no strings... a puppet with no power... at least I can play that part...// he smiled to himself, as he could almost feel the strings being pulled

//... I play it so well...//

A hand slid through his hair, wrapping tightly around the roots, a fighting grip, and he was surprised to feel the slight shoots of pain over the overwhelming, searing sensation in his chest... He couldn't breathe, everything was fading, and yet he could still feel the slight sting, as the hand shifted against his hair.

His head was jerked back sharply, he cried out involuntarily as it snapped the sword up, sent it sliding through new flesh... and the cry ended on his own power, with his own shock, as he looked up into furious, raging green eyes...

... two impossibly hard mirrors, endless layers of rage and hatred cycling down, wanting to crush him, straining to destroy him, and a silent vow, that the sword was only the beginning of his pain...

... eyes that no longer belonged to a white-haired man, but to the owner of the brown braid that slowly grazed his shoulder.



"Who did you think it was going to be, Cloud?" she hissed, her voice the equal of the steel still lodged in his chest, and his stomach lurched, frozen by the bitter chill of her words, "who else would come, to watch you try and unburden yourself, try and forget the sick /bastard/ you really are?"

"A-aeris... I didn't... I..."

He remembered the deep green gentleness, remembered her smile inside his dreams... but she hadn't blamed... he had never been meant to succeed... she had said so... she had given her life for the Planet... given it willingly... hadn't she?

"Do you think I /wanted/ this?!"

He whimpered as she pulled the sword hard, up, and another piercing lance of agony shot through him, the sharp, sudden pain making the entire world fade... but she brought him back with another pull of the sword, an equally furious motion that left him twitching with unavoidable shock... He was not allowed to leave yet, to escape the full horror of what he had done to her.

"Do you honestly think I wanted this?! That I wanted to die like this? I wanted to live... I wanted to /live/, and you... you coward... you pathetic little /shit/... you took /everything/ away from me!"

"... sorry... I'm..." He choked on the blood that bubbled up, flowing freely now around his lips, and her contemptuous laugh rang out loudly in what seemed to be a slowly constricting space.

"You're sorry?! You're /sorry/?! I die because of you... because of your weak... /sick/..." The girl could not even put the extent of her loathing into words, put it into the sword instead, twisting sharply until something inside the blonde's chest /broke/, "...and you're SORRY?!"

He couldn't help but cower, inside his mind, against the force of such acidic anger, but at the same time was more than willing to admit the truth, that she was right, and he deserved this, deserved all of it, for what he had allowed to happen... The kind Aeris was his own delusion... his creation, to assuage his guilt. For all the anger, for all the hate... it was still /her/... still her voice, still her face, so frighteningly angry... he had failed... he was so sorry...

"LIAR!!!" Aeris screamed, her face less than an inch away from his, he could see her out of the corner of his eye, and knew she would have pushed the sword past the hilt if she could have, that everything she had done to him had barely touched the surface of her rage... she couldn't torture him enough, couldn't kill him enough for all he had taken from her...

//... but... she was /smiling/...//

"You think you're sorry now? You think... you honestly think you know what penance is yet, you coward? ... you goddamned worthless /failure/? You think you know what it is to hurt?!"

There was someone else speaking with her voice, alongside it, the collected rage of a hundred-thousand someones, an entire race's fury behind the wrath of the brown-haired flower girl's, striking out at him with everything they had...

"You think you've suffered yet? You've barely begun... you have /no/ idea what we will do to you..."

//... I'm sorry... Aeris...// The words weren't enough, but they were all he had... he didn't even have the strength to speak them... couldn't think... didn't understand anymore... he had tried... he had done his best... and it hadn't been enough... hadn't saved anyone...

//I'm... /sorry/...//

With one easy, swift motion, the brown-haired girl pulled the sword free, splashes of blood leaving dark, discolored stains on her long, pink dress. Cloud turned, trying to see her as he fell forward, everything dissolving around him, even the darkness fading into true oblivion... the world, the light, her face all disappearing... Only her eyes remained clear, two molten, aquamarine suns blazing with righteous anger... the Lifestream, the Planet, all that terrible strength driving down upon him, determined to break him, their revenge for his betrayal... and below that, the never-ending drive, their adamant determination... their need, their goal...

He strained to listen, even as her voice melted away...

"You will be our weapon, Cloud... or you will not be at all..."

Cloud woke up.


He didn't move for a very, very long time, not until well after his vision had cleared, once he had stopped gasping for breath, and shaking, shaking so hard he couldn't even shift on the ground...

The presence of the Cetra, usually so pronounced, almost overwhelming inside his mind, was completely gone now... He could not feel them anywhere, not hear them even on the very edges of his thoughts...

// I /know/ you're out there... I know it...//

He closed his eyes against the dream memory, of Aeris, standing over him, those gentle green eyes full of only contempt, hatred and loathing, her feeling of betrayal shaking him to the core...

Cloud shuddered, and spoke the rest out loud, if only to disrupt his own disturbing train of thought. He was alone here as well, but knew that even if he had been surrounded by his men, the army had grown accustomed long ago to his sudden outbursts, listening to him argue with voices they couldn't hear...

//... they think it makes me special...//

"That wasn't necessary..."

His voice didn't sound right, not like his, even to his own ears. It was an old man's croak, tired, defeated, not the fierce command of a victorious General...

"You didn't have to /do/ it like that... you didn't have to bring her into this..." He repeated himself carefully, concentrating on each of the words, sending the message out... He knew they were listening, that even when he couldn't feel them... they were always there, always watching...

//waiting... to strike out... to hurt...//

Oh God, did they know how to hurt him... the Cetra knew his vulnerabilities much too well, and were more than willing to use them against him at a whim. They had no mercy, no compassion...

//... just like everyone else... if you open up... anyone will hurt you any way they can... everyone will always look for a way to hurt you...//

He thought of Zack, his friend, the dark-haired man's smile, always first in memory, but fading now... as the scene shifted to a rainy night on a Midgar overlook, and Zack... fallen... the soldiers standing over him... laughing... raising their weapons...

//... and if they don't hurt you, someone else will do it for them...//

He wondered how many more times he would have to learn the lesson, before he'd finally stop being so /stupid/, before he could figure out how to get rid of whatever part of him was too dumb to stop caring...

The night was calm and quiet around him, the tree against his back giving him a sense of strength, of security, and he found that after a few moments, he could think more rationally than he had been able to in the dream, that he could distance himself from what he had seen, what it had made him feel... but it all came down to the same, painful end anyway...

Cloud didn't know which Aeris was real, the sweet, gentle soul who had comforted him, tried in her own small way to help him still, even if it was only through his dreams... or the cruel, vengeful voice of her people, not a willing sacrifice but a victim, betrayed by those he had trusted, by /him/... the very angry ghost who spoke for all of the fallen Cetra.

//Oh, you know, Strife...// Her voice was a sudden shock of cold ice water washing through him... the bitter chill of her all-knowing, scornful smirk. The Cetra could see his pain, see his deepest fears... and knew, knew what he feared, and knowing that they knew was like a slap in the face. // We know...// In his mind's eye, Aeris sneered at him, //... you know that I'm the real one...//

"Shut up!" He yelled into the darkness, his voice echoing slightly through the pitch black woods. The only real light nearby was the gleam of moonbeams off the Hardy Daytona's chrome and metal plating, and the glow from his own eyes, casting a slight blue haze on anything he gazed at.

Cloud had fought on after defeating the Fullspawn, after leaving Rocket Town, and he had carved an alternate route back to North Corel almost alone, to save the stranded remains of a troop, decimating what had remained of a platoon of Hojo's forces.

//They never die... they never just /die/...//

He had fought for hours, hadn't been lying to Zack about the urgency of the situation, hadn't overreacted by leaving so quickly... but he knew he /was/ overreacting, that he had been lying to himself if no one else... There had been no need... no need to run like he had... to avoid all of them on purpose...

"It wasn't like that. It was luck," he murmured, surprised he hadn't ended up like this, talking to himself, much sooner than now, "... it was just luck that you found the Daytona, found the division that had been carrying it for you," he sighed, running a hand through his dirty blonde hair, "... yeah... yeah right... Luck. Luck that you never even had to talk to them... to Tifa or Cid or... even look at any of them... luck that you opened the throttle all the way, and didn't turn back... You ran, Cloud. You just ran away."

He knew he couldn't face them, couldn't look his friends in the eye and try to go back, to the way things had been five years ago, when even then, he had been hiding. It would be impossible, and he didn't know what else he could do, if there was any way he could ever try, ever force himself to stand in front of them again, to go...

//You'll go back,// the Cetra ordered softly, Aeris's voice a threatening purr.

"Of course I will," Cloud muttered, grinning just a little at the inexorable shithole his life had become, "I don't know how yet, but I know I /don't/ have a choice..."

//No, you don't...//

He snarled, instantly understanding the double meaning behind that dark reply... felt it festering, a burn that had dug beneath the skin... He had disobeyed their order, not immediately followed when they had pointed him towards a target, something that had never happened before... and they were waiting for him to agree to fix it...

//... as if I was being stubborn... as if they could wear me down, and I'd just give in... change my mind...//

"I can't do that."

His voice was soft, less firm and angry than he had wanted, but no less determined... there had to be a way, to make them understand... they had to understand...

"I can't... I /can't/, don't you understand...? I... not again. I... God, I can't do it /again/...."

He realized that, up until he had said the words, confessed out loud what had been hidden in his heart, the Planet hadn't known what he had truly felt for Sephiroth, and that the purpose of that dream most likely had been just for them, just so that they could find out if their suspicions were true.

"You didn't have to bring Aeris into this, you bastards, whether that was her or... not... you just didn't have to... All you had to do was ask me..."

He could feel the Planet's annoyance, their anger at the possibility that they had lost total control of him, or maybe that they had never had it to begin with, and had just realized it.

"I was always his, first. He never asked, he never wanted..." Cloud ignored the sharp stab of pain at the blatant obviousness of that admission, his shame a frozen, hard splinter digging all the way down...

"It was for my benefit alone... I knew he'd never... never... but I couldn't change... there was nothing I could do about the way I felt... and I knew I wouldn't ever walk away..."

He smiled, amazed by how easy it was to open up, when he knew the voice at the other end of the silence despised him utterly. Friendship could break him, kindness was like slow torture, but that feeling of worthlessness, of knowing he would never be good enough, it had been his closest companion for so long that this time he felt nothing at all, except a strange, sweet serenity...

"... that's just the way it is... the way I am, the way I feel... There's nothing you or anyone else can do to change it..."

//Stupid... goddamned... irrational...//

"Yes... all of that, and mental case probably fits in there somewhere too," Cloud murmured, "... lunatic, pervert, disgusting... dangerous... We've got all night, by all means, you can keep going."

The Planet did not answer, lapsing into a moody silence, and Cloud sighed, looking up towards the distant stars, wondering if life up there was as peaceful as it seemed.

He had no idea what time it was, how long he had been resting there. Cloud had no memory of arriving, didn't remember getting off the Hardy Daytona, or sitting down for a rest. His watch said it had been five hours, even though it felt like only minutes had passed since his eyes had closed.

//... I'm so tired.//

North Corel would be a welcome change from where he had been, from having to build himself up to face even the smallest tasks of the day. Having no expectations was the only thing that kept living at front bearable, there were no comforts, nothing soft or beautiful... nine months without a shower, without a warm bed or a hot meal or any sense of peace...

//... I have to go back... and when I do... Tifa, Nanaki, Vincent... all my friends... Zack... Reeve... and /him/... they'll want to know everything, Anjele will want to know about...//

Nine months without anything to care about... anything to fight for... until...

//... oh Elly...//

Cloud covered his head with his hands, the warm feeling that had barely begun to light inside of him instantly doused, torn away by swift, unyielding reality...

//This isn't over, Strife. It won't end this way... not when we've come so far. We won't allow it.//

The Cetra's sudden interruption reminded him of the actions of an overzealous, controlling parent, someone unable to, under any circumstances, let the point drop, let him think he could relax, even for a moment.

"What more do you think you can do to me?" He said, lifting his hands away from his head for a moment, utterly exasperated, "How could you put me in a darker place than this? Blisters?"

The more tired he was, the funnier and more absurd everything seemed.

//You don't have to go to the Promised Land, you know. It's not your right... it was our gift to you, for obeying us... but...//

"Please, spare me," Cloud growled, and pulled his handgun out of the holster at his side, "You want to play hardball? We'll play hardball..."

He cocked the hammer back, and pressed the muzzle tight against his temple.

"I /won't/ hurt him again... I won't be like this... for /anyone/... not again..."

//You can do that if you really want to, but it won't be any use...//

The ground beneath his feet started to glow, tiny tendrils of green making their way through cracks in the soil, tiny emerald currents that rose up, fading in the air.

//Don't dare to threaten us like that... you won't die. We won't let you die. The Fullspawn was your /last/ attempt at self-destruction... we /will/ keep you alive...//

//You let Aeris die...//

//Her death, while unfortunate, served a purpose. So will your life...//

//Get someone else.//

Cloud hated himself for thinking it, for being such a coward, for wanting to put someone else where he was... knowing he had a person in mind... Zack, the only person who could do the job... and his friend didn't deserve the pain, the anguish, but Cloud didn't know how long he could hang on... and Zack would bring success, where the blonde had only found failure...

//If we could have...// Aeris's voice, impossibly sharp, slicing through any hope he had left, that he was anything other than the dregs, their last possible alternative, //If only /I/ could... even if you obeyed properly, he was better... so much better than you... but the choice was already made, we couldn't fix the mistake... You are ours, our vengeance...//

Cloud shook his head sharply, the useless gun falling back to his side.

"I /won't/ be your puppet! I won't be /anyone's/... never again... /never/!!!"

//We'll force your hand, Cloud...// The voice held such steely certainty that his eyes flicked back to the gun for a moment, and he wondered if he should try anyway... before it was too late... //we will force it, before he does... you will...//

His military PHS rang, immediately shifting reality from the strange, ambiguous blur that was his never-ending battle with the Cetra, snapping everything back into focus. The Planet's voice, Aeris's voice, faded away to an angry murmur in the very back of his mind, just so he knew they were there, that they wouldn't let him forget.

"Strife here," Cloud said sharply, voice as devoid of emotion as ever, betraying nothing.

"General, sir... it's from the west corridor... reports coming in of shadows on the ridge... big shadows..."

Within moments, Cloud was on his bike, tearing out of the quiet clearing, with only the slightest, pensive moment of sadness, realizing that he was leaving what had been his final chance for rest, his final few seconds of peace in this world.

As always, the only thing more painful than the battle behind, was the one that was waiting... waiting at North Corel.



"General, sir..."

The PHS crackled to life, Zack rubbed his eyes wearily with one hand, answering it with the other. He had gotten very little sleep in the 24 hours since the Fullspawn's attack.


"General Strife is en route to North Corel, but there's a slight uprising near the Delari Plains, and he's been called there first. His west corridor defense early this morning was a total success... no casualties..."

"Thank you... tell me if there's any change."

"Yes sir."

The PHS went silent. All communications had been reestablished between North Corel and the rest of the world, and so had Zack's own private system, for keeping an eye on his friend.

//You're not getting away from me, Cloud. Not this time...//

Zack knew that if the blonde had planned on running, now would be the perfect time to do so. He also knew he wouldn't let that happen, couldn't let it happen. To lose Cloud now would be to lose him forever.

//I wish he were /here,/ where I could keep an eye on him... it's been... how many months since /I've/ even seen him? Too long... too much distance, for... just too long... I need to talk to him... I need to know so much...//

A cup of steaming coffee suddenly hovered in the air in front of his eyes. It took the dark-haired man a few seconds to see the hand attached to it, and Tifa's sweet smile beaming down at him.

"You're an angel, Lockheart," Zack grinned, taking the cup from her hand. He couldn't help but notice the slight line of blood under her fingernails, though her hands were still wet from a fresh washing.

"Medical duty already?"

//... the blood never comes off completely...//

Tifa nodded, unconsciously rubbing the empty slot on the Four Slots band around her arm, where Zack guessed the Full Cure Materia had been. Out of all the remaining Materia, Full Cure had been the most useful, and most in demand. No one, save the upper echelon of fighters was even allowed to consider carrying one full-time.

//... and we don't, of course, even when we can...//

"They sent me out a little while ago... the medic said anyone we couldn't save... we couldn't save."

Zack nodded, sipped at his drink. In truth, it was one of the most horrible cups of coffee he had ever had, more like overcooked mud than anything... but it was still wet...

//... and it's the thought that counts...//

"Has there been any news...?"

"... about Cloud?" Tifa was incredibly easy to read, he watched her eyes light up at his casual, optimistic tone, "Yeah. He's still leading the clean up... it usually takes us a while to get rid of all Hojo's creatures, the ones who ran the line during the battle..." Zack shook his head, downing the rest of the coffee, nearly burning through the back of his mouth, " I should be out there..."

"You've done enough," Tifa said, a note of gentle humor in her voice.

He had, he thought with a bit of weary resignation, he really had done at /least/ his share. It had taken hours to sort out the multiple armies that had taken to the field, to come up with a working, temporary plan, grouping the new soldiers who would stay and set up a defense from the veterans, tired men and women who just wanted to go home.

It had taken hours more, working until the very early hours of the morning to set up running food and supply lines throughout the massive encampment around Rocket Town, to send out scouts to alert the troops all over the rest of the countryside, to dig in and build a medical system past the emergency triage the medics and field officers had pulled together...

//... pulled out of nothing... I can't even imagine how we manage to do this, how we keep pulling out victory, hanging on...//

He knew everyone in the army had worked their absolute hardest, but he never felt as if he could do enough, as if there would ever be a point at which he could take a break...

//... and if it's like that for me... and I'm not even in the middle of... what the hell does Cloud face everyday...?//

"It should have taken a lot longer... to get organized so well," He sighed, "... and we had almost an entire night with no new attacks /anywhere/... we got lucky. Real lucky..."

//Not just lucky...// Images of Cloud destroying the Fullspawn were still fresh in his mind, //... Hojo had /everything/ wagered on this victory... we must have set him back a long ways this time...//

Perhaps he should have been thinking of a plan, trying to come up with an assault now that the scientist's forces were so weak, but the ShinRa-Wutai forces were not much stronger... no one could launch a surprise assault after such a vicious battle, certainly not on top of nine month's worth of campaigning...

//Eighteen months, really... or longer... there hasn't been even a temporary peace since you got here...//

Tifa finally sat down beside him, leaned back wearily. If he hadn't been covered in streaks of dried mud, dirt mixed with sweat and blood, he would have offered to let her lean on him, but as it was it was just nice to sit beside her, look at her when her eyes were closed, and she wouldn't see him watching...

//Really, really beautiful.// He grinned to himself, already knowing the feeling kicking through his heart was probably going to be trouble... and not caring all that much.

//I've been through enough hell already... a little romp through an emotional tangle would actually be a relief...//

"I've never seen anything like this..." Tifa finally said, voice soft, "I mean, we all went through a lot... before. A hell of a lot..."

Zack nodded as she looked to him, agreeing with her. He was sure he would never really have a grasp on what she and Cloud and the rest of AVALANCHE had seen and done, most of it sounded almost beyond belief, except that he /knew/ it was all true... that what had happened then was what had brought them to this point.

"There's just so much... it's so fast, there's no warning, everything changes before you can even take a breath... I don't know how you do it... how... how he does it... I just don't know..."

The brunette cut herself off, looking away sadly. Zack thought he understood her sudden shift in mood... that she believed someone who stayed for so long in such a battle had to change, dramatically, and that she was afraid, that the Cloud she had once known no longer existed.

//... and of course, she doesn't know... that he never really did...//

"He tried to keep you safe... I think you can see why now. He's still the same Cloud, Tifa, where it counts."

It was both truth and, the SOLDIER knew, necessary lie. Cloud had protected Tifa well before the war, Zack thought, had probably been shielding her from almost /everything/, there was so much she never knew... how much of his life he had lived in secrecy...

//You didn't tell anyone, did you Cloud? All that time, while Seph was hurting you, while Jenova used you both, and no one knew the truth... no one knew how much she /really/ hurt you... You tried to protect Tifa, even though that secret was killing you inside...//

Yes, he was still the Cloud that Tifa knew, still had every noble, heartless, selfless impulse Zack had seen almost immediately at the ShinRa academy... no matter how much life tried to beat it out of him, his blonde friend refused to give in... always refused...

//... but now... now, with past and present come together... At the academy, he never had to face Tifa, and when he was with her, he never had to face Sephiroth, not the real one, anyway... but now...//



He opened his mouth to speak and found that he couldn't do it. It wasn't only that he had no idea where to begin, what to say, but that it still /wasn't/ his right, wasn't his place to try and fix Cloud's life, make it the way he thought it should be. That kind of thing always turned out badly, always ended in disaster...


Tifa nodded, too tired to search him more closely for answers to such an ambiguous beginning...

"I'm glad he hasn't changed, then, Zack... I need to talk to him, I need to see him again... let him know I'm not angry..."

"You're not?"

"Well, a little," Tifa grinned, unconsciously adjusting the Premium Heart, "I'm nobody's fragile little doll, no matter what he thinks..."

Zack watched her smile widen, gaze lost for a few moments in some memory.

"You really love him, don't you?"

Tifa nodded slowly.

"I treated him horribly, back at Nibelheim... I don't think even he remembers all of that... but I wasn't a very nice person then, not when it counted, but I remember thinking... he was so sweet... not such a bad guy, a wonderful guy, in fact... I made myself a promise, that if I saw him again... I'd be nicer... that I'd treat him better, give him a chance..."

"So, is that love or just obligation?"

Tifa stopped short.


Zack winced sharply, cursing his tongue for so quickly turning a polite conversation into a minefield.

//... as if the war wasn't bad /enough/, you moron... you have to go picking fights with your friends as well? What the hell are you thinking?!//

"Uh... nevermind..." He quickly got to his feet, shoving the dreadlocks that fell down, pushing them almost clumsily away from his eyes, "I didn't... I didn't mean that to sound like... anything, Tifa... I'm just really tired... sorry."

Tifa didn't know how to respond, still shocked speechless by what he had said, the echoes of it still reverberating through her mind, and Zack did not wait for her to come up with a response before quickly and quietly walking away.


Tifa sat against the wall, thinking about what she had said... and what Zack had said... the words echoing over and over in her head...

... but she /loved/ Cloud, she had always loved him... or at least, had realized she did. She had never thought of him, in her heart, the way she might have acted toward him... and once she realized how badly she had treated him in the past, she knew that she had to show him, had to...

//... but loving him for something like that?! That's ludicrous! I don't play those kind of pity games... I'd never... it's impossible to love someone because of that...//

Cloud was wonderful in so many ways. So careful, so /giving/, that incredibly handsome, strong, and yet almost delicate, sensitive person... the man who had been there for her, when she had needed him most, his sturdy support holding up a large part of her world, sharing the burden of their past, the common experience, all they had been through together that no one else could ever understand...

//I do love him... I do... He needs me, and I'll always be there for him, when he's been there for me... I couldn't ever... I wouldn't, not when he's done so much, and it's my responsibility to take care of him... he needs me... my...//

Her thoughts came to a screeching halt.

//Responsibility... or obligation? Or aren't they synonyms, Tifa?//

The brunette put her head in her hands, wanting to scream in frustration. She was tired, that was all... this sudden crisis of conscience was silly, just a moment of shock, of fright at the battle that hadn't left yet...

It had been a long, terrifying fight, and a very hard, busy night after that... she had gotten almost no sleep. By tomorrow, all of this would be over, whatever these strange feelings were, not even strong enough to be /doubts/, they would have to be gone, she would once again have her stable center back.

//Unless... why did this bother you so much... unless... you and Zack... if you think you feel...//

Tifa blanched at the hot rush of surprising emotion that accompanied the image of the dark-haired man, and quickly shoved it away, almost disgusted with herself.

//No, no no! That's not right at all! I love /Cloud/. I do! I always have... I always will! Of course I love him... right? Right?!//

Tifa didn't realize, for a long time, that she was half-expecting someone to give her an answer.


"You had no /right/..."

The false Aeris shattered beneath the flower girl's blazing gaze, although at that moment, Aeris thought, the two of them probably shared more of the same emotions than not, though for widely different reasons.

//Hatred... I never thought I could hate my own kind... not this much... not here...//

The world she "lived" in now, existing as a part of the Lifestream, was only made up of emotion, and most of that dark and bitter these days, the millions of Cetra speaking with a common mind... all against her, and Ifalna.

Her mother's presence was a strong, solid wall that she could lean against in these trying times, giving her support against the storms and rages of the other Cetra. Aeris did not ask for more than that from her mother, knowing of the woman's stronger links to her own kind, the flower girl refusing to back down from the bullying masses, more than willing to fight on her own.

"You had no /right/ to go to him like that... you knew... you /know/..."

Aeris couldn't reach him now, not with what the Fullspawn had done, the way the Lifestream had been twisted, the Planet injured... she did not have near the power the Cetra held united... there was no way to speak to Cloud, wouldn't be for a long, long time... and no way to tell him... and she knew he would think, that he /did/ think the worst, the worst of everything the Cetra had thrown at him...

The emerald wall between them extended only one-way, and though she could not speak to him Aeris could feel his sorrow, the depth of his shame and despair at her... no, at the false flower girl's assault... for truly, she had never blamed him...

Aeris lashed out as she sensed the Cetra preparing to reach for Cloud again, to push him just a little more, a constant reminder that they were always watching... Her strike did not harm them, but did catch their attention, she felt the countless number of eyes focus on her.

"Leave him alone! Just let him be! Hasn't he done enough for you?!"

"He is ours," a million voices whispered as one, "he is our Vengeance... you have no right... no right to speak for him..."

"No right?! No RIGHT?! I /died/ for you! For this planet, and for him! I sacrificed myself so that this Planet could live, so that he could live, and be happy..."

"Happiness is unimportant... it is a useless triviality, now that the threat of Jenova lives... He must be used, we will aim the weapon back at its source, use Hojo's own tool against him..."

"He's NOT a TOOL!!! He's not some soulless inanimate /thing/ you can just throw away! This isn't right! How can't you see that, that this isn't right?!"

"Child, you are too young to understand, too easily led by your emotions... there is no value to a life, a thousand lives, compared to the victory of destroying Jenova. Her annihilation is all that matters, eradicating her evil from this existence is worth any sacrifice... any life..."

"You're just as bad as she is. All of you..." Aeris felt hot tears of sorrow and hatred in her eyes. She had loved the Cetra once, thought that they must have been kind, compassionate people, to have been in touch with the Planet as they were... but this... this was as evil as any ShinRa plan, as merciless as any war could be, to knowingly hurt Cloud like they had...

"You can't use people like this, it isn't right... you have to know that, don't you? It isn't right... this isn't the way..."

The brunette could feel Cloud's pain so easily, the swell of his grief, and self-hatred, so much darkness... as the Cetra ignored her, returned to the task of breaking him down...

"It won't work, mother..." she murmured as they swept away from her, feeling Ifalna's loving presence wrap around her like warm, comforting arms, "... they can't see it, not like I can... they haven't been alive, really /alive/ in so long... they just don't understand..."

Cloud would gladly kill himself before he would go against Sephiroth again... but the Cetra would not let him die.

Aeris knew the power her people had, through the Planet, over the blonde warrior. They could shape him, could balance his thoughts, center and focus his perceptions, keep him from both death and insanity, but only for so long....

The Cetra thought he would give in. Aeris knew better, and knew that if she didn't do something to stop it, Cloud would be lost to them for all time. Eventually, with enough pressure, they would wear him down, but instead of being their weapon, he would go somewhere none of them could follow, make a safe place for himself inside his own mind, in madness, the only haven that remained...

//Hold on, Cloud...//

Aeris wished she could reach him, just once, that she could let him know for certain that she was all right, that she cared, that she had never been angry... that she loved him, and would help him somehow... would figure out a way to make the Cetra stop...

//Please... just hold on.//





Author Notes

1. This far into it and /now/ I have author notes? Oh well. <shrug>
2. I've got a pretty long play list of music for the battle scenes: the remixes of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie... for any of the quieter moments, especially between Cloud and Sephiroth, I mostly use either Thomas Newman's score from American Beauty, or Graeme Revell's score from The Crow.
3. Um... I hope all the thinking stuff here between Cloud and the Cetra pans out. I never could figure out whether to use one set of slash marks or two, and for whom, so I just decided to only use the "one and two" system when they're talking to each other, to avoid confusion. Whether it actually works or not is anyone's guess.

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