A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
"Yuffie... is everything all right here?"
The ninja recognized the low, rumbling voice of her friend, and turned with a smile.
"Yeah, Nanaki, I'm..."
The dark-haired girl trailed off as Nanaki approached, his companion matching him step-for-step.
"I... uh... hi." Yuffie shook her head, just staring at the other lion, "I... um..."
Nanaki gracefully stepped into her confused muttering, tilting his head toward the other cat.
"This is Li... Li... this is my friend, General Yuffie Kisaragi."
"Honored to meet you."
The voice was slightly higher than Nanaki's. Yuffie quickly realized the lion was a she, her dark mane slightly shorter than her friend's, tracing a path along an equally muscular physique, only in smaller, female proportions. The tip of her tail burned with a dark blue flame.
"Uh... hi... nice to meet you too..." Yuffie didn't know how to phrase her question without sounding rude, so she just gave up trying, " um... I don't... but /how?!/"
There was more quiet joy in Nanaki's eyes than she had ever seen before, and she realized it was not just joy, but the absence of an ever-present sadness, something so entwined with the cat's regular nature that she had never noticed it before now.
His entire life, the lion had lived knowing he was alone, that he would always be unique in all the world. Now, standing right next to him, was a reality he could not have dreamed to wish for.
Yuffie turned with an impatient half-snarl, /wanting/ to know what was going on with Nanaki and this new cat Li, knowing that this interruption would probably keep her from finding out for quite a while.
Ro quickly ran toward her, dodging soldiers and civilians, scrambling through debris that would take weeks to completely clear away.
"We've got a scout report... Malboros along the northern edge... coming this way..."
"Fucking Hojo!" Yuffie almost screamed, "doesn't that bastard /ever/ know when to..."
"Not Hojo's..." Ro was grinning, though a Malboro sighting was never a good thing, "... no... they're just wild... about nine or ten, a big herd... We got a call a while ago from the Highwind... you-know-who's flying in to try and salvage what he can of his image. He's bringing in supplies, some fresh divisions... the works..."
"... and he thought that Wutai would be a perfect group of lackeys for cleaning up whatever annoyances might bother his big arrival?" Yuffie snorted, pulling at the edge of one glove, "... fuck Anjele. I've got work to do here... enough of Cloud's army was from my land, they're not going to give a shit what any of those ShinRa have to say, and they're /not/ gonna listen to their orders... I gotta stay here and..."
"... we can take care of the enemy," Li said quietly. Yuffie turned in surprise.
It wasn't that she really had all that much to do, and the ninja knew that the soldiers could pretty much take care of their own, but the idea of taking orders from Anjele just made her skin crawl...
//... but not as much as putting anyone else in danger...//
"Uh, nah. That's okay. I don't want you to..."
"It's all right, Yuffie. We've all got to do our part... and she's right... we can do it." Nanaki said, something almost like excitement in the cat's low voice.
The ninja girl looked closer, between the two cats, /almost/ seeing the emotion that filled the air around them... a shared...?
It was gone before she blinked, but the determination in Nanaki's eyes was not. Yuffie nodded.
"Sure. Go for it."
Ro stepped up beside her, and they both watched the two cats walk away, breaking into an easy run once they reached open ground, quickly moving out of sight.
"You knew about Li?" Yuffie finally murmured. Ro nodded.
"We liberated her in one of Hojo's labs... just outside Wutai. She's a clone too, we think... she doesn't remember anything but being inside the lab. Hojo didn't do much to her, as far as we can tell... you know, making her... /different/. He was just meddling... experimenting, to see what he could create."
"You should have told Nanaki sooner."
"I didn't know if she'd still be alive by the time The General returned... There was a lot of hell between there and here... and... The great Nanaki of Cosmo Canyon... everyone knew he was the only one of his kind... I thought it might be best if... I didn't want to get any hopes up..."
"So...?" Yuffie finally said after a few moments of silence, waiting for him to speak. Ro realized what she wanted a moment later, and saluted her with a smile, remembering that she still outranked him.
"We're to meet with Anjele when the Highwind arrives, he'll be escorting /us/ back to North Corel, where we are to present our reports of this battle... among other things."
The infliction in his voice let her know that if she wanted to be on board, to have any part in the meetings that would commence, she would have to do so uninvited. Yuffie sighed, spoke only after a long silence.
"He's going to try and nail Cloud, isn't he? Whatever happened in Wutai... with Elicia... there's something there..."
The happiness in Ro's eyes faded, his expression clouding over with heavy troubles and fears, the depth of which was all the more frightening, because she knew he didn't actually know what he was so afraid of... not yet.
"... yeah... yes, General. There's something there..."
Yuffie almost regretted telling Nanaki and Li to go attack the Malboros alone... after only a few minutes, she found herself with surprisingly little to do. All the tasks had been delegated, everyone else had a job to do, but she was left with little more to do than stand around watching.
Anyone else would have immediately thought of sleep, but Yuffie knew better than to even try. The moment she had drifted off, no doubt there would be an attack, or someone would need her for /something/ that could not wait... it was better just to stay awake.
Ro had vanished almost as soon as he had arrived, to take more messages from the Highwind, no doubt, and probably deliver them straight to Zack...
//A go-between for Anjele and Zack? I don't envy him one bit...//
Yuffie had a fairly good idea of what Anjele wanted, why he was so eager to meet up with them.
//Check that, he still probably doesn't know Cloud's not here...//
The young Heidigger had to have been extremely pissed off when Cloud hadn't shown up for the first meeting at Costa Del Sol.
//It probably delayed his evil scheme for at least a week...//
There were things that had happened during the last nine months out on the front... and even though she hadn't been personally involved, hadn't ever gotten to the very edge of the battlefield, Yuffie knew that Cloud was holding his secrets very close, keeping quiet for a reason beyond his usual silent manner. She had spoken with him, mostly by radio, a few times in the months prior to meeting Reeve, and the ninja girl knew something had happened to him, something with Elicia, that he did not want to talk about.
//It would be better to just let it go... let whatever went on be buried in the past... but Anjele won't let it die... not if it gives him a chance to attack Cloud... stupid bastard...//
The animosity between the two men was not something Yuffie wanted to have to see again. When Cloud and Anjele had to come together for any reason, the tensions that built up between them could easily crack solid stone, and their meetings were often filled with quiet, barely veiled insults, almost always ended with one or the other storming out.
//Usually Anjele... If there's anything Cloud can do, it's keep his calm...//
Yuffie sighed, blowing the bangs out of her eyes, strolling along the perimeter of her camp, past men hauling large logs, gallons of liquid fuel, rags and other firestarters... It was time to start lighting the funeral pyres, to make sure that, no matter what else happened, Hojo could reclaim nothing but ash.
They were close enough to Rocket Town, Yuffie knew, to safely bury some of the men. If Hojo hadn't taken the town now, they were probably not in danger of losing it, but most everyone was cremated anyway... just in case.
Yuffie shuddered, remembering the first wave of "reanimations" Hojo had set upon the armies that had fought along the front at the very beginning, men and women coming face to face with their dead comrades, or parents... or children... It had been enough to break many of the fighters, driving them completely insane, and had definitely obliterated any sense of morale for the army that continued to fight... something almost too horrifying to live past...
//... but we did make it through, we did survive, and mainly because of Cloud... because he just moved on, and took everyone else with him...//
Yuffie looked up, could see the barest faint glow on the horizon, the lake of the Lifestream, the crater that had swallowed the Fullspawn whole. Thinking about how much power it must have taken to create such a hole... remembering the sight of Cloud striking the massive beast down... it still left her in shocked disbelief.
//... and Anjele won't care... he can't see the need for that power... or the price of it... he'll probably just be /more/ angry when he finds out that Cloud took care of the Fullspawn on his own...//
The younger Heidigger was terribly envious of General Strife, Yuffie knew. The ninja girl had trained with enough fighters to recognize jealousy when she saw it, and Anjele's was so pronounced that it had easily slipped the line over into hatred, and it was now impossible to separate the two emotions, where disgust ended and longing began.
Anjele hated Cloud's power, his skill and courage... hated that Cloud commanded armies, while he, with the title, had no control at all. Yuffie knew the man hated her too, hated all the Generals, but Cloud, for some reason, much more, and on a very personal level.
//He doesn't see, though... that we don't want it. None of us want it... and it isn't courage... it's just... what has to be...//
Yuffie could look at the bodies of the dead now, the sight of their slack faces glancing off her eyes like a reflection, only hitting the very surface of her thoughts.
The ninja girl didn't let anything sink in anymore, couldn't let the numbers, the thought of how many had died, how many lives had been wasted, really hit her as it had in the first few months.
She was selfish, she knew, didn't work as hard as she could in the medical tents, didn't always charge the field with the first assault... she just couldn't do it. The war itself was so maddening, there was so /much/ death, so much destruction and pain... the ninja girl thought that if she had to take it all in, everyday, that it would consume her...
//I sure as hell don't want it... and Zack and Cloud,// she refused to speak for Sephiroth, still unsure, in the end, if he /was/ really human in any sense, if he had feelings anything like hers, //I know they don't want it... and Cloud has spent so long right in the middle of it all... How can Anjele be jealous of that? I don't get it...//
Yuffie stopped short, so lost in her own thoughts that it took a moment to drag herself out of them, look around for the quiet, almost silent murmur that had cut through her reverie.
A little girl, no more than seven at the oldest, stood at the end of one of the pyres, watching the flames rise up around a body lying prone on top of the wooden planks. The fire hadn't even touched the corpse yet, and Yuffie could make out the graceful features of a dark-haired young Wutai woman.
"...mama," the little girl said again, and started to cry softly, rubbing dirt-stained hands against her cheeks, "... mama..."
"Where IS SHE!?!?!"
Yuffie stood at the bottom of the family's pagoda, with all the fierceness and anger a little girl could muster, fists clenched, staring up at her father with unnoticed tears shining brightly in her eyes, making perfectly formed trails down her cheeks. The little girl didn't have the words to articulate her anger, didn't understand why she was infuriated the most by the way her father was standing on the staircase, slumped against the wall as if it was the only thing holding him up.
"Where's /mama/!? Where is she? Why isn't she here?!"
Just out of the haze of her anger, she could hear slight whispers, people murmuring to each other but keeping their distance, staying mostly quiet, refusing to step inside the huge, invisible circle the little girl had created around her and her father, the building tension, the dangerous silence broken only by her loud, frantic screams.
"What happened?! Why isn't she here?! What HAPPENED??!!"
She knew. Deep down, Yuffie knew that her mother wasn't coming back, that the routine trip from her father's home village back to Wutai had taken a dark turn...
There were fresh bodies hanging in the square today, ShinRa soldiers... but before their deaths, they had stolen something very precious from everyone in Wutai... especially Lord Godo and his tiny daughter.
Yuffie knew, but didn't want to know, and the feelings were too much for such a small girl to bear, tearing apart her childish restraints, sending her voice tearing the air in screechy hysterics, because beneath the knowledge of her mother's death was another realization... a look she had never seen before now in her father's eyes... something broken... something defeated.
"You killed her! You let them kill my mama! You wanted her to die!!!"
It wasn't true, and she knew it wasn't true, but she had to say something... had to break the horrible silence, thick as muddy water, that had descended over everyone, that had taken her father away... That was why, though she was frozen in fear to the spot, she almost felt relieved to see the furious anger fill Godo's face, see him look at her in a way it never had before, his blind rage all focused on her, but also not her, not seeing her at all...
He didn't mean to hurt her, she knew that, not as he lifted her off the ground with one hand, bringing his other hand down sharply with the other, a slap that tore her from his grasp, sent her slamming down hard against the floorboards, sliding away from him.
He didn't come after her, but the little girl could hear him breathing, great shuddering gasps that hurt her much more than the ache of his blow. Her hot face was pressed against the cool floor, both sensations mixing with the taste of blood in her mouth...
Yuffie looked up quickly at her father, afraid that if she didn't catch sight of him, he would break apart, crack and crumble with the force of his horrible, painful breathing, and disappear. He wasn't looking at her, face hid in one hand, the hand that had hit her clenching and unclenching in open air. He said nothing, didn't look her way once, and the floor underneath her shook as he fell to his knees, pressed his face against the floor, and began to cry, great wracking sobs, as if some great invisible hand were choking him...
Yuffie had never, ever seen her father cry.
Painfully, the ninja girl extracted herself from the memory the little girl's sob had called up, and she walked to the child's side, kneeling down.
The tiny girl looked up at her, wide eyed, staring at her strange uniform in curious awe, but when Yuffie held out her arms the child reached back, hugging her tightly.
Yuffie stood up, shifting her grip slightly. The child was like a dead weight, just lay limply with her head against the ninja girl's shoulder, as if all the life had just been wrung out of her.
"Come on... it's all over. You don't need to be here anymore... Your mother is safe with the sky gods now..."
Yuffie walked away as she heard the flames on the pyre start to crackle more loudly, just a little annoyed that no one had thought to take the child away from the sight of watching her mother burn. The girl's tiny hand closed tightly around the top of her armguard, she whimpered only once more, and then went silent.
"Is your daddy here?" Yuffie's stomach clenched even as she asked the question, sure of what the answer would be. The girl's tiny head shifted back and forth against her shoulder, no.
"Do you have anyone else? A brother or sister?"
More violently now, still no. Yuffie didn't want to ask anymore than that... the poor little girl had been through enough, to have to realize that from this day on, she was now utterly alone. Another orphan of war, just as Yuffie had been...
The room was dark, but Yuffie could make out the shape of her father near the window, could see that he was looking out into the rain, and did not turn, though he must have heard her call his name.
Nothing. Yuffie frowned, unable to feel sadness, only anger. There was nothing left, nothing left of the man her father had been, the smiling leader who had hoisted her up on his shoulders, had shown her what she had thought was the entire world, all the lands of Wutai, all her home.
The final battle had been a farce... Yuffie knew her father could fight, knew that he could have beaten the ShinRa's general... Sephi-whatever-his-name-was...
Her father would have won, or he would have died trying, died an honorable death... and even though she didn't want to lose him, wouldn't it have been better than this? Better than the way he was now?
"When other men in the village destroy themselves, at least they have the decency to pick up the bottle..."
Her voice sounded brittle, cold. This was not her, not the way she wanted to talk to the father she loved... She wanted to remember her mother with him, remember the old Wutai... years gone now, but she still needed to mourn, because she had never done so... Yuffie wanted her father to remember the good times she could not, tell her about the mother she had lost so young, to laugh and cry and /heal/, even a little...
Her father was gone. When Yuffie thought she had lost one parent, she had actually seen the death of them both. Lord Godo walked like a living man, and spoke like one, but softly, and his words were uncaring, his eyes always far away. There were walls that separated them now that Yuffie knew she could never begin to break down.
The ninja girl had tried, growing up, to do something to bring him back, to make him see her again, learning fighting skills from whomever would teach her, surpassing all the others in speed and power, both girls and boys, becoming the strongest, the sneakiest, the best. Always, she waited for the day her father would look at her, would smile at her proudly, talk to her about the old days of war and glory, talk to her about /anything/... but it never happened.
"I'm leaving, father."
It had come to this. The ninja girl was old enough now, and she could no longer stay here, in the city she had once loved, which had become only a place for dead memories.
//... ask me to stay.//
"Father... I'm going..."
//... please tell me no. Forbid me, yell at me... Do /anything/... Please?//
Nothing. It was as if she wasn't there at all.
Furious, feeling tears of incredible hurt in her eyes, ones she swore she would never, ever shed again, not for him, the ninja girl turned on her heel, stormed toward the door.
"... when will you be back?"
His voice was a soft croak, and Yuffie turned as quickly as she could, unable to believe he had spoken... she hadn't talked to him for so long...
He was looking at her, /really/ looking at her, with those sad, lost eyes she hated only because she knew they shouldn't have been his... that he was stronger than that, if only he'd see...
"I'm not coming back."
Yuffie could see the moment her words wounded him, and how deeply they cut, as an aftershock of a long-ago deathblow flickered across his face.
He said nothing else, and Yuffie couldn't come up with enough words to bridge the gap between them. Even if he had wanted to, she realized in despair, even if he wanted to try... it was too late now.
"You look just like your mother."
The stab of pain was so sharp it took her breath away. Yuffie bit down hard on her lip, tasting blood...
... blood in her mouth, the heat of her face... the ache, where he had slapped her... her father, bent low, a shattered man, sobbing on the floor...
As soon as she was out of his sight, had moved slowly to the door on wobbly legs, the ninja girl ran, fast and hard, ignoring everything around her, until her lungs burned and the tears were coming too fast to see through, and the only sound she could hear was her own breathing, the force of it threatening to tear her apart...
Yuffie nodded to the woman who was bandaging a little boy's knee, as a group of six or seven more children behind her played "monsters and soldiers" in the shadow of a ShinRa cannon.
The dark-haired fighter put the child down, but did not stand up, resting on one knee, so that she was eye-to-eye with the little girl.
"This lady's going to take care of you now, and there are other children here to play with. Everything's going to be all right."
One tiny hand took a hold of her glove in a death grip, and the girl shook her head, wide eyes full of terror. Yuffie smiled consolingly, even though her heart twisted painfully at the fear on the girl's, and she gently pried the small hand away from her own.
"Would it help if I gave you a present?"
A pause, and the girl slowly nodded. Yuffie's grin widened, and she ran a hand up through her own hair, until it caught, just above the curve of her neck, on a familiar small lump. The ninja took out a knife, sliced through the hair that was tied to the small ornament, pulling it free.
"Do you know what this is?"
The little girl shook her head again, staring with curious reverence at the small twisting of metal and thick twine, threaded with small fragments of Materia that were of no more use than gem chips, tiny gleaming stars embedded within the ornamental knotwork.
"This is a good luck charm... worn by only the strongest and bravest in Wutai. It was my mother's, and her mother's..."
Yuffie gently reached up, tying the ornament into the girl's hair. The tiny child was silent, but her eyes were full of confused protest. Without knowing why, she knew that somehow Yuffie was giving her a very precious gift, and that it was wrong to accept it so easily.
Yuffie looked into the girl's eyes, her gaze steady and very serious.
"We have to be brave now, and strong, for the memories of all the people who have died, and all the good things they protected. We /always/ have to fight our enemies with honor and determination... we can't ever give up hope, right?"
The little girl nodded solemnly, chubby features set in adamant determination.
"Okay, then..." Yuffie smiled again, standing up. In front of her, the woman was opening the gate to where the other children played, and the ninja gently pointed the little girl in her direction.
"Remember that. Every one of us has a stake in the future of Wutai. Everyone has an important job to do, and we have to do our best to succeed."
The little girl took a few steps toward the gate, paused, and turned back, throwing her arms around Yuffie's knees in a fierce hug. The ninja patted her head, and watched her walk through the gate, the other children already gathering around her, a new arrival.
A few moments later, Yuffie walked away, the high, wild sound of laughter in her ears, the children behind her running and playing some new chaotic game, their past sorrows, for the moment, completely forgotten.
Until he needed her, Vincent thought, Yuffie had always been there, always dropping in on him, on everyone, at only the most inconvenient moments... loud, impossibly annoying, he had never met anyone so violently determined to make an impact...
Vincent closed his eyes, sighting quietly. He could still feel the exact spot where she had kissed him.
//This is... crazy...//
It was, but it didn't slow him down, didn't stop him from searching through the entire camp, doubling back on his own steps more than once, trying to find her. He had to know... to know... He didn't even know what it was he had to know.
//I'm too old for this.//
All his friends were safe, as improbable as that seemed, and now they were simply waiting for the Highwind to arrive to take them back to North Corel. Vincent had seen most of them, Tifa and Cid and Zack, even Cloud, for the briefest of moments, but there was absolutely no sign of Yuffie anywhere.
//... she's still annoying me, then... even when she's /not/ around...//
The ex-Turk walked from one end of Rocket Town to the other, speaking to anyone he could find, but there was no sign of Yuffie, and no one had even the tiniest clue to her whereabouts.
Finally, just inside the boundaries of the invisible border between the ShinRa and Wutai camps, he walked in on a group of children playing in a small meadow. The dark-haired man stopped for a moment, as something amidst the pile of roughhousing little bodies flashed and caught his eye. The children were shrieking loudly with delight, playing a furious game of Chocobo Tag, and he saw that, as the children wriggled out of the heap and scattered, one of the little girls had a very familiar looking decoration in her hair...
//... not decoration... it's more than that... it meant a lot to Yuffie...//
He didn't suppose the charms were that rare, but still... it did look familiar...
Vincent didn't notice that the children had now also seen him, had stopped their game and were staring at him with wide, wary eyes.
"Hey! Who're you?" One of the larger boys asked, not moving any closer.
"What's with your hand?" a girl asked, pointing towards the gleaming metal limb.
Vincent held up his claw-arm, flexing his pointed "fingers" slightly, and a few of the children gasped.
"That's scary!" a smaller girl cried.
"No it isn't, stupid! It's cool!" The boy retorted.
"Only if you're a baby!"
"I am /not/ a baby!"
Vincent's silent presence quickly lost its interest amidst the ensuing argument over who was and was not a baby, but as soon as the red-cloaked man took a step forward, the children went silent once more.
The red-cloaked man got down on one knee, figured maybe it would put them a little more at ease, thought about trying out a smile, and quickly discarded the thought. The ex-Turk had never been very good at making anyone /less/ afraid of him. He glanced up, quickly found who he was looking for.
"Can I ask you a question?"
It didn't help that the girl with the charm in her hair was also the one who had quickly moved the furthest away from him, still half hiding behind a slightly older companion. She shrunk away even more for a moment, but then froze, reached up to touch the small ornament, and very slowly stepped forward, face screwed up with all the determination and bravery she could muster.
"Who gave you that?" He pointed to the metal charm, which she quickly covered with her hand.
"I can't tell you!"
"Because... you're a vampire!"
He almost laughed at the matter-of-fact tone in her voice.
Vincent got to his feet as the woman who had been watching the children came over, scowling slightly at the little girl.
"You shouldn't say things like that to... to..."
As the woman took her own, long look at Vincent, the dark-haired man realized she was probably thinking the little girl had actually made a fairly accurate statement.
"Uh... can I help you...?"
"I didn't mean to bother you. I'm looking for General Kisaragi."
The woman nodded, pointed toward the way he had been headed before he had seen the little girl.
"She was just here, she dropped off Kasha... It wasn't that long ago, I'm sure she's still around here somewhere..."
"Thank you," Vincent said, and walked away. Behind him he could hear several small voices engaged in heated argument.
"He's a /vampire/!"
"How can he be a vampire when he's got that claw thing. Vampires don't have claws, dummy!"
"How do you know, have you ever seen one?!"
"Yeah! Ever seen one?!"
"Of course not, duh! They don't come out in the daytime, and he's out in the daytime, so he can't be a vampire!"
"... but he's all covered up..."
"Oh, maybe he's a mummy!"
"A mummy, no way!?"
"Mummies don't have claws either you idiot!"
"He's not a vampire?!"
"Mummies? Mummies are scary!"
"No they're not."
"Yes they are!"
"Only if you're a baby..."
"I am /not/ a..."
The ninja girl was sitting alone, at the edge of a long, flat rock that jutted diagonally up into the air. He could see she was rolling something over her hand, casually tossing it from hand to hand, her eyes distant, her expression full of unshed tears. The ninja was lost in her thoughts, and didn't seem to hear him.
"Yuffie?" He said again, a little louder, moving closer. The brunette turned quickly, almost jumping, and fidgeted a bit underneath his level gaze.
"Oh, Gramps... just you. Sorry I didn't see ya... I was just... sometimes it just kicks your ass, you know?" she chuckled shakily, but it quickly died as his expression didn't change, "no... I guess you wouldn't."
"What are you talking about?"
Yuffie shrugged, "Life. I've been thinking, since I found that little girl... about a lot of things... memories, mostly," The ninja girl held up a hand, "did you ever seen this, did I ever show you?"
The ninja was holding on to a red Materia, but it looked strangely dull and dark underneath the bright sunlight, cracked on the inside, and blackened, like a thousand burnt match heads trapped inside a ruby ball.
"It's a dead Materia."
Yuffie nodded, very slowly.
"It's Leviathan. What's left of him, anyway..." The ninja slowly rolled the gem in a small circle around her hand, eyes fixed on it, as if to look away would be to lose it forever.
"I was there, at the last..." she murmured something he didn't understand, in her own language, "... I mean, at the battle of the final death, or whatever it was, whatever we called it. I... was there when the first Fullspawn emerged." Her voice was sharp with sorrow, made all of Vincent's muscles tense up, his heart aching for her before he even knew why...
"We were so happy when Leviathan stayed, you know that? /Everyone/ was proud. I knew... I heard all about the other summons, that many of the other Materia had stopped working, but Leviathan still came, and helped us..."
Yuffie spoke very slowly, the pauses holding as much emotion as the words.
"It was a victory for the /nation/, can you see that? ShinRa was having troubles, but Leviathan was a special blessing... because /we/ were a special people. He was our city's protector... he wouldn't fail us... we were the Wutai nation, we lived in honor and dignity... we would be safe..."
The Materia came to a rest in the center of Yuffie's palm.
"I summoned Leviathan against the Fullspawn... that first time. I thought... I thought it would be easy... he had won before... but I was so wrong. We... I summoned... and then it..."
Yuffie paused for a moment, the memory almost too much to bear.
"/I/ killed Wutai's gift... our gift from the gods... The Fullspawn just..." Yuffie shook her head, "... just tore him in half... and it was over. It was all over..."
"Yuffie," Vincent wanted to comfort her, wanted to help, but everything inside of him choked off. He had nothing to work with, his sympathies had aged badly from disuse, leaving only an awkward silence hanging in the air between them. It lasted for a long time, too long for him to offer any words of comfort even when a few finally did push up through the cracks, and eventually he was left with only his original plan to fall back on.
"I think... we should talk..."
The ninja nodded, chafing her bare arm with her other hand, and let out a deep, ragged sigh. For her, the conversation between them seemed to hang in the air already spoken, fully formed... It didn't matter what he was about to say, she was too tired to care, too burnt out by fighting, dealing with surge after surge of memories and lost emotions, old angers and guilt... she didn't feel good or bad or sexy or nervous... there was just /nothing/...
"Listen, Vincent. I'm sorry I kissed you like that... and said what I said. It was stupid of me, and wrong, and I'm sorry."
The ninja didn't even realize she had been so keyed up until he grabbed her arm, and the brunette realized she had already jumped from the rock and was quickly walking away from him. Yuffie turned, looked up into his face.
Vincent carefully risked a smile. Surprisingly, she thought, it didn't look too bad on his face, a little unusual but not uncomfortable or awkward, the hopeful optimism melting softly into the matching emotion in his red-hazel eyes.
"Why didn't you...?" He stopped himself, searching for just the right words, "... you never said anything to me before... I never knew, before I left."
It was an apology, but in Yuffie's eyes, a totally unnecessary one. The ninja girl smiled, couldn't help but reach out, half-expecting him to pull away, or to vanish as her arms closed around him, only a beautiful illusion, not something meant for human emotion, human contact. He did neither, let her move up close, hug him tightly, and she was surprised that, after a moment, she felt the slight weight of his hand on her back.
It felt strange to hold him like this, the first time. The tall man felt too thin, almost fragile in her arms, except for his lean, hard muscles, and the power she could feel inside them... It was not what she had expected, not at all, but she realized as she considered it, she hadn't known /what/ to expect... hadn't ever entertained more than the vaguest of daydreams about a moment like this...
The situation was only made that much more interesting by her growing suspicion, as Vincent's hand hovered clumsily over a very chaste section of her upper back, that he was perhaps even more nervous than she was. The ninja girl pressed her face tightly against his chest, stifling a sudden attack of giggles, hoping he couldn't feel her nose wrinkle...
Beyond the warm boundary of red and black, Yuffie heard someone pointedly clear their throat. The ninja girl pulled away from Vincent, to see Ro, standing with his eyes modestly averted, waiting for her.
"The Highwind is here, General," he said, "Anjele didn't call for you, didn't tell anyone to tell you..."
"... so I should haul my butt up there, huh?" Yuffie grinned, and Ro smiled, nodding his head. The redhead quickly walked away, and Yuffie turned back to Vincent for a moment, watching him so closely that he almost blushed, and had to speak to break the tension.
The ninja looked up at him with one arched eyebrow, almost teasingly, but he could see the real feeling there too... the question... the concern...
"You really... you and me... you really feel...?"
His red-hazel eyes met and held hers.
Vincent had seen Yuffie smile in so many ways, mostly in fun, playful and proud of her own high spirits, enjoying her own defiant, seemingly endless optimism... but the smile she gave him now, warm and careful, shy, maybe even a little nervous, but very happy... he liked that smile best of all.
"So... tell me again... /who's/ leading the deployment of troops at the front?"
Anjele acted as if he didn't care, but always liked seeing his aides fidget nervously, liked the way they treated him, as if he might explode at any time... as if he were dangerous, and powerful...
"A second lieutenant Norris, sir."
The blonde man's scowl deepened.
"... that's not the man I told Strife to choose..."
Suddenly, the aide's fear seemed as if it were only mocking him, as if it was all an act, and Anjele wanted nothing more than to crumple him up like a paper ball.
"You may leave."
The blonde paced for a long time, back and forth in front of his desk, uninterested in the beautiful view he had, from such a prime position at the head of the Highwind... Ignoring everything... the plush carpeting underneath his feet, the smooth-polished desk shining off his right hand... and then his left hand as he turned for another cycle... back and forth, back and forth in his opulent surroundings, and his emotions sloshed around inside of him like a bottle in the hand of a drunken man. The luxury provided no peace, only the reminder of what he had to lose.
//So transient... if I learned nothing else from father, from all who have come before me... it's that even the best of situations can change in mere moments... that one can /never/ have a tight enough grasp on control, on power... Any deviation, the tiniest slip... and it all can be lost... instantly...//
His conscience snapped at him, the drive to succeed, to determine his own destiny at any cost, a belief driven into him since childhood demanded he act, /now/...
This was no abstract problem, not a matter of vague threats, of whispers in the night... this was no subtle ploy, or cunning subterfuge, it was a matter of downright treason, and it all rested in the hands of one man.
Anjele dropped into his chair hard enough that a few of the mechanisms creaked and groaned as it tilted backward, surprised by his sudden violence. The blonde turned a slow 180, feet dragging slightly across the floor, barely pushing him along, a nervous habit he didn't even notice, too lost in increasingly dark thoughts.
He would have had the presidency, had it not been for Strife. After the embarrassment at Nibelheim, and the disastrous campaign against the Fullspawn... the battle that should have struck the second death knell for that weasel Reeve, Anjele knew he would have been able to reduce the pathetic pretender's support to nothing in /minutes/...
Scarlet didn't care who was in power, that was a fact. The stupid bitch would follow whomever took the power, more than ready to be the lap dog to any man who showed her that he was in control... and Anjele knew that was why she scorned Reeve, the weak pretender who could control /nothing/... but he was no such man, no such coward...
Oh yes, he... he of less than noble blood, no prince like Rufus ShinRa, but someone of more than adequate talent, who had /worked/ for every bit of his glory... he, Anjele Heidigger... he would show her, show everyone who deserved to hold the power. He could lead ShinRa back to its former, world domination, and on, to even higher goals, things not even the young ShinRa himself could have ever imagined.
//I could... I could have already done it all... if it wasn't for that...//
His breath was a sudden hiss, hands clenching, fingernails digging into the armrests of his chair at the hot rush of incredible hatred, the revulsion he had for such a pathetic threat, really... but one that would simply not go /away/... Anjele could see the bastard so easily, so clearly in his mind's eye...
Those glowing blue eyes mocked him, silently laughing at every word he spoke, every order he gave... and he knew that Cloud knew how little power he held, how weak he was in comparison... Those muscles, they held limitless strength, while Anjele was only an ordinary man, and Strife had rank, true respect among his men, where the young Heidigger was only a shell, a politician, who had never risked his life in battle, never fallen into that life... not a fighter, let alone a SOLDIER.
//Oh yes... let's all applaud the SOLDIER, the perfect, untouchable General Cloud Strife, who fights because his skull is too thick to crack, and as empty as a Wutai prayer bell... by all means, let's /celebrate/ the man who can make friends with any heathen... from a nation we had /already/ defeated, and could easily take on again... the man who is /such/ a wonderful, perfect /hero/...//
Anjele hated the pretensions of the soldiers, /hated/ the honor system they had, completely based in nonsense. It wasn't /his/ fault he had never gotten a chance to prove himself in battle. By the time the war had broken out, he was already in an important position within the ShinRa government... what good would it have done to give that up for a place on the battlefield?
//Besides... it's not as if my life is so /simple/. This... they think that this...// He rapped his knuckles once against the polished Gongaga cherry wood, //... they think /this/ makes me soft? Makes me weak? That simply because I've never used a sword, never participated in a mindless brawl, I'm somehow less of a person than they are?!//
There were so many other dangers in the world, worse dangers than the simple life-or-death threats of war, things the self-righteous warrior Cloud Strife knew nothing of.
//... but he will... he will...//
Anjele grimaced, imagining both the glory of his sweet victory... and the roadblocks that stood in his path. It wasn't going to be easy, at least, not as easy as it should have been. The stupid, brutish SOLDIER may have been utterly ignorant of bureaucratic tactics, of political strategies, but he had been built to fight... and he could do that /very/ well...
Anjele sighed, leaning against the table, fingertips pressing hard into his temples, feeling the tension, the determination, build. With no warning at all, he slammed back against the chair with sudden, explosive force, driving his foot hard into the desk, sending himself into a spin.
//Yes, he can fight. He can fight and bash things into the ground.... and he can win, just like the great, stupid git that he is... no tactics at all, no goals past the fight... and they love him for it, all of them, those soldiers.... no more brains than God gave chocobos, and they cheer for him, simply because he can take a punch and not fall down...//
It was sickening. Anjele still didn't understand it, from God knew how many hours of studying the man, learning his strengths... /and/ his weaknesses... How anyone could follow... could trust... could even /like/ such a stupid, idiotic...
Anjele shivered with rage, feeling the fury move through him in hot, feverish waves, and a part of him couldn't help but waver for a moment, at that thought...
Cloud Strife had allies, and not just those too stupid to know better... There were others, just as dangerous as he was, just as strong, and smarter, much more observant... The young blonde could always close his eyes, always, and see the pair of sharp, unblinking hazel blades flashing in the darkness, staring back at him, watching him...
Cloud Strife may have been a halfwit... General Zack was anything but...
Anjele longed to find just one moment, one clue that would show him that the dark-haired SOLDIER was just as dull-witted as his rock-headed companion... but the blonde knew he couldn't lie to himself, couldn't afford to underestimate his enemies just to cushion his pride. He knew better... and Zack /was/ watching him... /very/ closely now... it wouldn't take much to attract his attention...
Anjele looked up sharply, at the aide standing in the doorway. The man saluted... it was nothing but another reminder of how few people /would/ give him even that small measure of respect... and a joke he had heard once suddenly interrupted all other thoughts, the memory surprisingly clear, about how Anjele Heidigger was only appreciated by morons... morons and lonely sheep...
"What is it?"
"Everyone's aboard, sir... Uh... General Kisaragi wanted to tell you that she understood that you'd obviously just become too busy to ...er... notice you'd left her off the traveling list."
"Obviously," Anjele muttered. His feelings about Kisaragi were neither new nor important, simply a long list of obscenities that marched slowly through his mind.
"Tell General Sephiroth..." Anjele cut himself off, "Nevermind. It's nothing."
Anjele winced, gnawing on his lower lip, forcibly pulling his emotions back, knowing any sign of stress, of nervousness was seen as a weakness, and if he showed weakness now...
"Set a course for North Corel."
"Uh... Colonel Highwind has already seen to that, sir..."
"Of /course/ he has..." Anjele snarled, more to himself than anyone else, noticing the aide now only as one would notice a slightly unattractive painting, a distant distraction, "... you may go..."
The blonde didn't make a move to turn on the light as the last rays of the sun, the brilliant glow of an orange-soaked horizon, gave way to mild blue darkness, the light fading in barely-noticeable degrees, somehow still managing to reach black.
It was easier to brood in the dark, to hold all the images closer in his mind, examine his options, what he thought versus what he knew to be true... It was also easier, though he refused to even think it, to ignore his fears when he did not have to see his own reflection...
Sephiroth should have been his king, should have brought him the checkmate that would have given him the entire board, the power, and ultimate control of the ShinRa corporation. The events five years ago were completely meaningless to the blonde, a pointless meandering into insanity, with now predictable results, an error easily corrected by genetics, and the forewarning that had not come the first time... It was so easy to just rewind the past and start again fresh...
//I thought I knew... I read /everything/... all his reports from Wutai, the entire history of the war...//
Historical records backed up his belief that the former General followed orders, except in situations when he had surpassed those orders in the heat of battle, and had brought an even /greater/ glory to the ShinRa than the president, than /anyone/ had ever deserved. He was the best /and/ he was controllable... he followed directions, fought the battles he was told to fight... he was no Cloud Strife... or so Anjele had assumed...
//... but he's friends with Zack, for one... that there, something I had never expected...//
The thought that perhaps they were more than friends, a rogue impression which came from nowhere, with not even an inkling of proof to back it, still made Anjele's stomach twist with pure revulsion, and it was that thought, that stupid, formless suggestion, based on nothing, that brought everything else into question.
He had never expected anything like the doubt he had now, never expected to question /anything/ about the man he had assumed to be his perfect weapon. Now, all his facts had crumbled into vague assumptions, everything he knew no longer looked absolute... and Sephiroth no longer looked like the master key, the final ace he could count on to secure his victory.
//You've still got it, boy...// Sometimes, more and more these days, his conscience wasn't a vague presence, with an unknown voice... Sometimes it sounded out eerily strong in his mind, and exactly like his father,
//... I told you, one of the things I always liked about you, you had more than one plan in the works... you always had something else in mind...//
Anjele slid a videotape across the table, held it on edge against the desktop, spinning it just slightly. It wasn't labeled, a poor copy, really, but still more than clear enough to show him what he needed to see, the information Reeve had been trying to hide from him, a secret from the world.
//You've got so many skeletons in your closet, General Cloud Strife... so many things you'd like to keep hidden... wouldn't you?//
The tape was everything he needed, really, confession and condemnation together, more than he could have asked for, a play-by-play record that so clearly showed the General for who... no, /what/ he really was.
//The freak show danger, the insane animal, completely out-of-control... and tearing apart a /woman/... of all things...// Anjele smiled, //... it really is just too much...//
The thought amused the hell out of him, that the small, plastic rectangle in his hands was worth so much more than gold, worth the price of watching Cloud Strife's pride and mockery crumble to nothing... All he had to do was show the soldiers, and they'd be turned... after all those victories, Strife's reign would be over, just like that... all those men seeing their commander for what he really was, nothing more than the science fair project from hell...
Anjele could almost hear the whispers starting... the questions that would come, as unstoppable as the tides... the beloved General being slowly but surely taken apart by the very men he thought were his, were loyal...
...but had he really fought as hard as he could have? Did that many people need to die in this battle... or that battle... a thousand battles... and maybe, just maybe, Cloud Strife wasn't fighting for the good of the people... maybe he had never gone against the man who had given him such incredible power in the first place?
The tape wasn't the only weapon he had, and Anjele would not count on it to win him the war, not at all, but it would be a perfect key, an opening blow... He could almost see Reeve's disbelief now... surprising, that the man never seemed to expect betrayal, not even when he /knew/ it was ShinRa tradition, when he had used it /himself/, was familiar with deception as a tool, as just another way to ascend to a necessary, higher position... to gain power...
//... and power, my son, is /everything/ in this world...//
No one, not even Rufus ShinRa, knew that better than he did...
The tape was the first strike, a single, torturous barb, one quick opening blow... but there was more... so much more he could use once his enemy was off-balance... There were whispers, and rumors... he had heard them all... he had been collecting the bits and pieces, forming a very disturbing picture...
He would find out what had happened to General Elicia, in every brutal, bloody detail... He would dig down to the truth, and discover what he was not supposed to see, the sickening betrayal he wasn't supposed to uncover... and he would use it... to utterly destroy Cloud Strife.
Author's notes - because it's fun!
1. Yeah, if you've seen Gladiator, just imagine Anjele as a blonde Commodus Lite (half the evil with all the mincing).
2. I don't know if this is a pre-warning or post-warning but I tend to get Reno and Rude confused in my head A LOT. Therefore, if there are any upcoming sections that make you go "Now how in the hell did Reno get THERE? Didn't she say Rude?" the answer would be yes, I probably did.
3. I have no idea what happened to Yuffie's mom or the original Heidigger right now, so I'm either not gonna say anything or just make up whatever sounds right. I might be completely wrong on the time line of when Yuffie's mom dies vs. everything else... but I'm ok with that. Hee hee.
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