A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
... I need to remember...
Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world...
I feel like I can't take it...
and my heart... is just going to cave in...
- American Beauty
One bleary hazel eye opened, peering up at Sephiroth as the dark-clad man carefully draped a blanket over his sleeping friend.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you..."
"... mmph... 's nothing... don't worry about it..." Zack stirred a little more, lifting his head off the couch's armrest, staring back across the open area separating the quiet reception area from the bridge. He could see people rushing back and forth, a steady, constant stream that made his temporary peace on the couch even that much more inviting.
"... they need me?"
"I don't think so..."
Zack nodded, pulled the dreadlocks away from his face before burrowing back against the couch, curling his arms up around his head. The dark-haired man knew it was risky to sleep where he was... he was too easy to find here, too visible, without even a closed door to ignore someone through...
The SOLDIER knew he should have stumbled off to a room somewhere, try and catch a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep before they landed... but he was incredibly comfortable where he was, even more so now that he was only half-awake, and moving just seemed like a pointless bear of an activity, one final injustice his body would not permit.
The couch had perfect dimensions, he could just stretch out completely, toes pointing over the edge, and ease the ache in the muscles in his back and legs. He was positioned just right against the nearby windows, out of the full brightness of the sun but still in its wide swath of warmth. The blanket he had just received only added to the captured heat that was soaking through his muscles, and it felt as if he were in his own mini sauna.
//These are the moments I live for...//
Zack grinned in sleepy contentment, giving in to the heavy, lazy feeling that weighed him down, happy to do nothing more than lay still for a while... watch Sephiroth through half-open eyes, his friend caught, as always, in some pensive thought. Zack couldn't tell whether the white-haired man was sitting in the kind of chair that would keep him so perfectly positioned, absolutely straight-backed. He grinned as he realized it probably didn't matter...
"Do you /ever/ think about yanking that stick out of your ass, Seph? You know, just for a change?"
He was much more blunt when he was tired, more willing to give into the impulse, and catching Sephiroth off guard /never/ lost its novelty. Zack chuckled as his friend blinked, wide, surprised green eyes staring at him silently. No one else would have seen the quiet smile Zack saw in that gaze...
//... well, maybe one other...//
"Nevermind... sorry, I'm just /really/ tired..." Zack tugged the blanked up under his chin, trying to find the right combination of folding limbs and angles to maintain some sort of continual comfort on the couch, "... thanks for the blanket..."
He felt a swell of emotion at that awkward reply, knowing things had changed once more in his life, but for the /better/ this time... It still surprised him most of the time, to feel that camaraderie again, that friendship returned, a warmth that filled him from deep inside... his friend was back, really back.
That feeling of stability had been gone for a very long time, and he still was not completely used to it's return, still found it impossible to overlook, or ignore...
Zack already knew he would not let their friendship go back to the way it had been, before Nibelheim. He couldn't handle the emotionless, frozen hours that had existed between them, silence like a wall, both at war and peace, the quiet days, broken only intermittently by moments of joy... of having to have reminders, many times, that they were even friends...
The dark-clad warrior could continue to act like a Sephsicle if he wanted to, but Zack was done with that crap... life was too damn short...
Zack caught the other man's eyes, and smiled, and watching the surprise in them almost made him laugh... but made him sad too, reminded him so much of the way Cloud always reacted to his smile, his friendship... The blonde and Sephiroth both fumbled with his kindness, as if neither one had ever had it dropped on them before, and didn't really know what to do with it...
//... they're alike... in so many ways... if only they could see...//
"God... I missed you, Seph..."
His eyes closed before his friend could answer, but Zack really didn't need his friend to say anything. He was sated with sleepy optimism, and a sudden, deep-rooted determination...
He /had/ all the pieces now... both of them were alive, hell, this time they even had the same /rank/...
//... /this/ time...// he thought between deep yawns... //this time I'll find a way... to make them realize...//
Sephiroth wasn't tired, had never needed more than a few hours worth of sleep a night, if that, to work at his peak... besides, there was something he was getting here, sitting in the sun, watching Zack rest, some healing thing that was much more important...
Zack shifted positions at least a half-dozen more times before finally committing to one, settling in to sleep...
//... just like always...//
The white-haired man had remembered listening to his friend toss and turn on the bunk above him back in Midgar, so many years ago, remembered how hard it was to go to sleep, when every movement the dark-haired young soldier had made sent the most delicious, most uncomfortable and utterly /embarrassing/ thoughts racing through his mind, along with the most bitter of sorrows...
Wasn't it enough, he had thought silently, angrily throwing his thoughts towards the midnight sky and a God he assumed just didn't care, wasn't it fair enough that he was already set apart from everyone else, already an outcast for life... but that he had to... about other boys... that he had to be /that/ way too?
He had, of course, years later, in the most stupidly immature, clumsy move in his life, one of the few times he had /ever/ considered himself completely inept, finally made his move, and kissed Zack... The where and when of the fateful day hadn't been important, only that he had been dead wrong...
//... reading something I thought was there... that I wanted to be there... instead of seeing it for what it was...//
Mistaking friendship for love. Pretending kindness was desire...
//Mistaking the fact that you're a scientific anomaly for your right to be a God? Are we paying attention? Do we see a pattern here?//
Sephiroth frowned. If there had been any penance for what he had done at Nibelheim, any way to make amends, and not just wallow in his own anger, he would have done it a thousand times by now. The SOLDIER knew he would have done whatever it took to try and make his failure up to Zack, to give back anything he could of what had been taken, what had been broken... even though, at the best, it could only be a pittance...
//I hurt you... I hurt you so badly...//
He had known, though, known somehow that Zack had already forgiven him, that there was no need for apology, or absolution. Zack held no ill will, no anger... even now, with all that Sephiroth had done...
//I tried to /kill/ him, for God sake! I /ran/ him /through/ and left him to /die/!//
... and how in the world had he ever come to deserve this? For his friend to be able to sleep in front of him like this, with no fear... to trust in him completely, when Sephiroth had been absolutely sure he had shattered that trust for all time. There was so much he could not forgive /himself/ for...
The white-haired man remembered the awkward silence after that first and last kiss, the surprised look in Zack's eyes that he had seen only as terror, the shocked murmur that his ears heard as pure revulsion... and once he could move again, Sephiroth had just fled, locked himself in his room, thankful for the door that stood between them... he had been a General at that point, he remembered now... remembered refusing to come out, more shocked, alone and terrified than he had ever been before, /ever/... waiting for Zack to stop pounding on the door, to stop talking, to just go away and leave him alone... alone... there were worse things than being alone... weren't there?
//I pushed him away before he could hurt me... I was so sure he would...//
Finally, after hour upon sleepless hour, he /had/ fallen asleep... and woke up the next morning, opened his door... only to trip over Zack... Zack, his friend, who had spent the entire night curled up, sleeping against his door, so that Sephiroth couldn't get past him, wouldn't be able to leave without listening to what he had to say...
//Never angry, not even then... he understood... he /knew/ me... knew what I was, and wanted to be my friend anyway... and we were like brothers after that... we trusted each other completely... he trusted me... until I... I...//
Zack had always been the one to give. Sephiroth realized now just how much he had been given free reign with his bad moods, with his temper, from the lowest ranks through his entire career as General... he remembered now in aching clarity all the times he had ignored his friend outright, considered his questions, his worries unimportant, his friendship too time-consuming... too trivial...
Up until the very end, at Nibelheim, Sephiroth knew that a part of him had been determined not to admit that Zack was anything more than a convenience... an obstacle to shove in ShinRa's way, should they try to get too close... but not a friend...
He had been so /stupidly/ sure he didn't need friendship...
//... what an idiot I was... what a disgusting, egotistical...//
Sephiroth was broken by his thoughtful reverie by the sound of footsteps, moving further from the edge of the bridge, coming toward him. It was Anjele Heidigger, walking his way, a scowl permanently nestled in places in his face where lines would form with age...
Sephiroth had seen it all before... more than one man had walked toward him with that frown, the latent force of its hatred increasing as Zack came into view... The white-haired General had seen it all before, that look, but he knew now what he hadn't seen then, he knew what that look represented...
Anjele didn't like Zack, that much was perfectly clear. Anything after that went unspoken, went deeper, but was no longer a secret, not after what the past had brought to bear.
The ShinRa official obviously didn't like what Zack did to Sephiroth, giving his perfect weapon ideas, and /feelings/, things that could make the man less of a fighter... weaker... more human...
Oh yes, Sephiroth had seen this look before, had seen it, and had lived what had come of it, when he had not understood, when he had not been prepared...
Nibelheim on fire, and the bodies of the innocent dead strewn around him, women, children... no war this time, no way to justify his actions, but, back then, believing he didn't /have/ to, not anymore... and... God, no... the shocked look, dismay, disbelief in those friendly dark amber eyes... the bonds of friendship snapping, his own hand shattering shared dreams... as the blade sent Zack down, bleeding... those eyes getting smaller, and dimmer, and smaller and....
... the coiled violence, fueled by those bitter memories, rose up inside of him. Sephiroth's eyes snapped up, and he stopped the blonde man with a single glance.
There were no words. There was no need. Sephiroth knew exactly what Anjele wanted, what seeds he wanted to sow, how he longed to set a familiar set of wheels into motion... and the SOLDIER would /not/ let it happen again, for /any/ reason.
The dark-clad man knew how well he could radiate intimidation when he needed to, just one of the more popular reasons that, in the old days, he had been referred to by title alone, in mostly whispers.
Sephiroth's glare froze Anjele solid. The white-haired man could see all the plans the ShinRa official had collapsing, crumpling up inside his eyes, as Anjele slowly realized that he knew /everything/, that he was one step ahead... and that the lines of battle, of territory had just been irrevocably drawn, setting them in opposition for as long as the conflict would last.
Raising his eyebrow a fraction of a degree above normal sent Heidigger slowly teetering around, knowing he had been defeated, and the blonde walked quickly back the way he had come without ever uttering a word.
Sephiroth looked across at Zack as soon as the blonde had disappeared from sight, almost anxious, as if worried that some of that coldness had somehow leaked out...
He had always been afraid of that... that if Zack got too close, that it would be dangerous... that the white-haired SOLDIER would hurt him without ever meaning to...
//... and you did, didn't you? All he wanted was to be your friend, and you destroyed him. You were right... you were right to fear for him... you're a monster, easily just as dangerous as they say... They were right about you... they were /all/ right.//
Sephiroth threw that thought aside, though the guilt stayed, the guilt always stayed, like a stain on his soul. Zack, of course, was just fine, still sound asleep, unaware that anything had happened, sleeping peacefully because he knew Sephiroth was there, and felt safe, secure in that knowledge.
//I don't deserve it... I don't...//
That trust, that unbreakable faith was a priceless gift, and if it had not been enough to pull Sephiroth back from the brink, from the edge of insanity, it had never been Zack's fault...
//I had simply been too blind to see it... to see and trust... that what he offered was real... I never believed, when I had never had a reason to doubt...//
He would not make the same mistake twice, would not fail to do right by Zack... not /ever/ again...
Sephiroth looked up at the murmured word, too lost in his thoughts to hear it clearly, but Zack had already turned away, murmuring only for himself, sighing his way back into a heavier sleep...
"It's really beautiful here..."
"I wish I could have given you something like this... a long time ago..."
Zack stepped off the thin dirt path for a moment, gently snapped the stem of a flower, light lavender petals sending a shower of dew onto his fingers. He handed the blossom to Aeris, her smile immediately hidden as she dipped her face closer to the fragrant petals.
"Is this what it's like then?" Zack murmured, looking up just in time to see a few mourning doves sail above, soaring through the cloudless blue sky. The flower girl answered him with a laugh, a rare, musical sound, as gentle as a summer breeze...
"I'm not me, you know. You're on your own here..."
"Hell..." Zack smiled sheepishly, "ah hell... and you guys are just gonna be a club then, without me?" Zack sighed, "Oh, don't mind Zack, he'll be just fine with guessing what's going on... Are you ever gonna throw me a line or do I just gotta sit outside and gesture frantically?"
"I can't answer that if you can't," Aeris said, a teasing smile, one she had never had before, now on her face, "you know that..."
"Yeah, I know that..." Zack folded his arms behind his head, stretching in the sunlight, kicking lazily at the tiny stones that littered the way... "I know you can't tell me what's going to happen, or how to help anyone... or /anything/... anything that will help..."
"Do you think they know? Is that what you're missing?"
"No," Zack shook his head sharply, remembering broken, jagged blue eyes, so full of fear and pain... "hell no."
After another moment, he grinned.
"... but then why am I /here/, of all places? Why aren't I dreaming of... hell... I don't know, the ShinRa corporate dance team bikini car wash?"
Aeris laughed again, and Zack's heart hurt in sudden recognition... the laugh, the smile, the breezy, carefree attitude... that did not belong to her at all. His memory of her had changed...
//... no... that's not it...//
"Are you changing?"
The flower girl smiled, still laughing. The girl he had known had never smiled that widely, never laughed so hard out loud. The emotions had always been there, but hiding in her eyes... and the eyes he looked into now were not Aeris's at all... they were...
//... deep brown... and so soft... the color of dried roses...//
"You won't see me like this much longer, Zack..." she looked around, he knew the path now, somewhere they had walked together, in that far distant past...
"oh, hell..." Zack whispered, at the knowledge of who would take her place, "oh... I'm sorry..."
"Don't take it like that. It's time. I'm dead."
"It's not good to hold on too tight, not to what's already gone..."
Zack wanted to listen, just as much as he wanted to argue with her, but everything faded to a dull murmur as he saw a sudden flash of light out of the corner of his eye.
He turned, to see a brilliant glow, light streaming like a miniature spotlight through a hole in the lower branches of a tree, as if a tiny sun had flared up just beyond the foliage, breaking through a gap in the brush.
Zack looked closer, feeling the cold, rich call of something beyond that gap... something sharp, solid... real...
"No! Don't! It's dangerous!!!"
Aeris, the dream Aeris, reached for him, but her hand faded away, passed through his without making contact... and before he could blink she had dissipated altogether, fading to nothingness in the harsh, powerful light that flowed out, washing over him... pulling him out of his dream... and Zack heard the keening, dry cry of a seagull, the cold, all-consuming smell of seawater in the air...
Intense, glowing green eyes scanned through map after map, connecting them with dates and times on battle plans, charting out the course the ShinRa and Wutai armies had taken over the land, their decisive victories and all too common defeats.
Sephiroth's emerald gaze was completely focused on scanning through the puzzle-piece history, but he instantly looked up as Zack almost jumped, still asleep but troubled, twisting underneath the blanket, murmuring something the white-haired man couldn't hear with a confused scowl on his face.
Sephiroth felt the slightest, tiniest instant of absurd, nameless fear, half-hoped the other man would wake up on his own, as Zack tossed and turned for a few more moments.
He was about to walk over and shake the other SOLDIER awake when his friend quieted, and rolled over, and fell back into a motionless slumber. Sephiroth didn't see the frown deepen, more worried than anything, or hear his friend softly whisper Cloud's name.
"What the... holy /hell/..."
Zack swayed on his feet, slightly unsteady after being dragged down what had seemed like a long tunnel... a long, twisting corridor... or perhaps he had only been pulled, from one reality to the next... or...
The dark-haired man shook his head. That wasn't important now, he knew. The important thing was to figure out where he was, what the hell he had fallen into...
He had been dreaming, dreaming about Aeris... there had been other things too, in the dream, complications, things his mind had been quietly running into the ground for a long time, but nothing as important as where he was, what was going on now...
Zack knew he wasn't awake, but also that he wasn't still dreaming, at least, not as he imagined his dreaming to be... This place felt too real, to sharp and vivid to be a simple dream...
He could smell the sea, the salty, fishy tang sharp and thick in the air, and the gravel underneath his feet crunched and crackled with each step, too loud, too real for dreaming. The dark-haired man moved past a few trees, the forest soon giving way to a wide open space, brilliant green grass waving slightly in the wind. The space narrowed ahead of him, tracing a path up a high cliff face, and past that, beyond the reach of the land, the jagged, white-tipped waves of the endless sea...
A figure stood in full view on the very edge of a point that jutted out like an insult against the slate blue waves. The wind was bitterly cold, blowing against him angrily, and the sun rested behind the clouds, wrapped in them as if in mourning. Its light barely touched the waves, swept across the beautiful scene in a hazy swath, the entire world set and lit as if it had been composed on a funeral day.
Zack moved slowly forward, on instinct, somehow knowing how to move without disturbing the pace, and that he should not break the tenuous calm so abruptly, not before he understood.
That impossible knowing was why he hadn't called out at first sight, of the unmistakable, defiant blonde spikes of hair, alarmingly yellow against the backdrop of the dark blue sea, the blue of his uniform... it was Cloud on that point, perched at the edge of the void.
The blonde didn't turn to speak to him, eyes fixed on the flat, smooth thick line at the horizon, a dream of perfection in the unknown space where water met sky.
"How'd you ever manage to get here? Not even she... comes here..."
The desolation in his voice felt like someone had poured cement into Zack's chest, strangling his words to nothing. It took him more than one hard swallow to find his voice, and gather the strength to speak.
"Are you going to jump?"
Cloud laughed, lifted himself up onto the tips of his toes, slowly swaying forward. Zack reached out a hand, nearly cried out, but found himself frozen, motionless and mute, watching his friend hang above his own destruction...
The surge of fear passed, and Zack found his voice again...
"... don't. /Please/ don't. It's dangerous."
Cloud's smile was wise, and patient, as if he knew something Zack did not... as if he had nothing to fear... as if he knew that nothing was risky anymore.
"I used to be afraid of it. I wouldn't come up here once. Now it's my favorite place. It helps me think, even if I don't remember... and it's safe... I don't think they can find me here..."
"What if you fall?"
Cloud chuckled, and spread his arms wide, stretching his fingertips into the freezing wind.
"Maybe I'd fly?"
Zack knew, at that point, just knew that his friend wasn't going to fall... not now, at least... but the dark-haired man did not dare to jinx that thought with even the barest sigh of relief.
"Maybe you would..."
A thousand years passed, while the two men stood at the edge of the world, time marked only by the rhythmic, endless surge of the waves...
Zack found himself smiling sadly, unexpectedly, into the sun, watching his friend's back, the way the wind and light seemed to hold the blonde up, hovering about him like a lover's kiss, unsure of where to lay its gift...
Cloud made a wild, decadent portrait, standing so boldly at the edge, the tragedy that hung around him as bittersweet as summer wine... So beautiful, the broken, wingless angel... so flawed, and flawless...
//... and he doesn't see... he /can't/ see it...//
The dark-haired man shivered suddenly, as the wind snapped at him, and he found himself just slightly afraid... afraid that Cloud /would/ fly away somehow, leave him, leave everyone...
"It's very cold," he finally said, just to make himself more comfortable, less worried, as if the words alone could warm him and assuage his fears.
The blonde's voice was an aching whisper, Zack really couldn't tell if his friend spoke aloud, or if something more than that passed between them, something timeless...
"It was always cold... always... though we didn't have the sea..."
Maybe, the hint of a child's sad smile there for a moment, dreaming of a future that had never come to pass,
"... I used to think I could smell the future in those days... high summer... I think... Tifa called it... and the smell of winter. It was always cold there... except when it was burning..."
Cloud grimaced, turned away, and the dark-haired man knew he could not help but remember it like that, /always/ remember like that. Zack reached out a hand, but did not move closer, with the strange knowledge that the distance between them was not a physical space at all.
"Why stay out there? You can come back... you don't have to be alone..."
"It doesn't even seem real anymore..."
Cloud whispered, the waves surging, keeping metronome time in the long pause that followed, "...and I wonder... I wonder..."
"Did I know then, do you think? Did I know how bad it was going to get, or did I just think I did?"
"But... it's over now..."
Cloud's smile was heartbreakingly honest, dragged through a lifetime of pain.
"It's /never/ over."
Zack shook his head.
"No. I won't let it happen... I won't, not this time... I'm /going/ to save you."
Cloud rolled his eyes, a teasing grin flaring to life, only for an instant, a flicker of halfhearted annoyance inside the blue.
"Golden boy... everyone's hero... you shouldn't bother yourself with me."
Zack snorted, the old insult always made him smile.
"I'm me. Just me, and I only do what I want to do."
The smile on his friend's face changed... all the old hesitance... all the old confusion... anchored in a despair so deep that even Cloud hadn't seen the bottom, hadn't found what lay past it... not in his entire lifetime...
"... and you want to save me?"
Cloud smiled again, a brilliant, sorrowful expression, and finally turned fully, to face him. Zack could see the tear trail, just one, lit along one edge, white gold in the sun...
"I should have known you then, I think... back then... Things would have turned out... or maybe not... but I think I should have known, then... about you..."
"There's still time... it's not over, not as long as we have a moment to change it... Anything can happen..."
Cloud turned back, fingers threading through the wind as if it were tangible, as if he could reach out, grasp the threads of air and weave together the soul of the world...
"I don't think so... can't you feel it?"
Zack grimaced, because he could, he realized he had sensed it all along. It was indescribable, a furious tension, nervous energy, cold dread building through his legs, surging up through his entire body, making him want to grit his teeth and shiver, not agony but a disturbing, powerful echo... of something returning... nothing more than the very first forewarning, the tremor that no one but the Planet noticed, but that promised... promised...
"How long do I have?"
Cloud's voice was soft, the dark-haired man could barely hear it over the wind.
"I don't know..."
Zack didn't move, and slowly, the scene faded... everything breaking up, Cloud, still on the edge of the cliff, poised as if to fly... and his image shivered apart like grains of sand, an impossible number of colors all scattering, drifting into darkness...
... and just on the edge of waking, Zack could still hear the sound of the sea, the endless movements of the waves crashing against the coast... stealing the shore away...
"Zack. We're here."
His eyes snapped open immediately, focusing on a pair of glowing green mirrors, and he knew he looked alert well before he felt even conscious, still almost sleepwalking, legs and arms strangely numb as he scrambled up from the couch.
The dark-haired man could hear various mechanisms on the Highwind locking into place, the slight shudder throughout the whole ship as they docked. The sun that had been streaming through the window near the couch was now blocked by one of the many buildings that made up North Corel.
Zack blinked a few more times, trying to reorient himself to the real world even as his mind chased dream shadows down through the corridors of his mind, losing them before catching more than the barest glimpse... what had happened... where had he gone?
"Are you all right?"
He nodded reflexively, not looking at Sephiroth, still frowning in concentration...
Everything felt weird... the world slightly disjointed, his body and mind not completely connected, and he was slightly surprised at how relieved he felt when the feeling started to fade... as if it might not have, as if he could have been trapped in that dream forever...
//... what was that... and where? What in the world...?//
Zack shook his head, still confused, but knowing... somehow...
"It... wasn't mine."
The Highwind had made it back to North Corel well before the rest of the army had even begun to move, but Tifa found herself getting a sneak preview of what that event would bring as the massive ship shuddered, slowing down as it approached the town.
The airship had taken on many of the more badly wounded soldiers, and medical officers, and other men and women to help carry them, soldiers to work as go-betweens as the doctors fought to keep their patients stable. By the time they had reached North Corel, even most of the doctors and medical officers had been able to take a break. They had saved the soldiers they could, fought as hard as they could for the ones they couldn't... but the first round was over, and as far as Tifa could tell, it had been decided in their favor.
Now, many of the soldiers had crept to the edges of the bridge, were looking out over the town in silence, smiles on nearly every face, and tears on quite a few as well.
"Bring her on in, sir... we've got a steady dock waiting..."
The man standing next to Tifa gasped, listening to the conversation between Cait Sith and the officer on the other end of the line, down in North Corel. The Highwind's crew were busy negotiating a landing procedure with the soldiers at the docking bay, and the tiny cat's voice barely made a dent above the commotion. Tifa realized quickly the man wasn't interested in what Reeve was saying, but the tinny, female voice on the other end of the line...
The man stepped forward, very slowly, protocol warring with elation, and tapped the tiny cat on the shoulder only after he was sure that Cait had said everything he was going to.
"Uh... sir... I don't mean to... I know we're going to be... but I was hoping..." The soldier pointed to the receiver in the cat's paw, voice low and soft "... that's my fiancée..."
Tifa didn't realize Anjele had appeared until he moved forward impatiently, an annoyed scowl on his face.
"Soldier, we're all quite busy here... if you could just wait until..."
"That's all right, Heidigger... I was already done..."
The black cat handed the soldier the radio microphone, stepped back, exchanging a long, angry glare with the blonde Heidigger.
"... so..." The voice over the radio started up again, Tifa could see the man holding the receiver smile, holding the small box close to his heart, "... will there be anything else, sir?"
"You said that if I came back to you, you'd marry me. Does the offer still stand?"
Tiny lines of static crackled over the radio, a long pause, and then the loudest scream, the most delighted sound of pure joy Tifa had ever heard threatened to completely destroy the tiny electronic transmitter.
The brunette felt the ship dock then, she wobbled slightly on her feet, and turned, as a spontaneous cheer of joy broke out among the crew, many more of whom had come to the bridge, to look out at North Corel, men and women able to breathe a sigh of relief for the first time, able to believe that now, they were really back home.
A gentle hand came down on her shoulder, Tifa smiled up at Zack, caught in the wonderful moment of everyone's shared joy, still half-listening to the conversation between the man and his soon to be wife, her voice high, frantic in delight, promising to meet him as soon as he was off, promising to marry him, that her heart was his forever and ever...
Tifa's own heart sunk slightly, at the thought of who wouldn't be there to see her now, who might not even be happy to see her when he did show up... After all that had happened... and the things she still didn't understand... Suddenly, the weight of Zack's warm hand on her shoulder felt oppressive, incriminating and uncomfortable.
"Thinking about Cloud?"
The brunette nearly jumped, not realizing he was still watching her, standing close enough to see her face fall.
Tifa expected him to say something quickly, to tell her that it would be all right, or if not that, then something else equally optimistic. After a moment, she realized Zack wasn't going to speak, looked up to see him staring out the window, back toward the way they had come, and his eyes were narrow, dark and very serious...
He looked down, grinned sheepishly at being caught in the very same pensive moment he had broken her from.
"It's nothing... I'm sure he's fine... and he knows about the meeting... He should be here soon."
The way that Zack said it, it made Tifa want to believe. The brunette didn't truly understand her fears... that deep down, something was wrong... very wrong...
"Roman! Yo! Roman!"
The lieutenant groaned his way awake, flashes of light overhead meaning that someone was shaking his fragily-strung hammock much more wildly than it deserved, and he had to get up before it fell apart... even though he really didn't want to...
"Uh... coming sir... uh, General... sir..."
No, that wasn't right. The General was gone. Ro was no longer at the front. He had been sent ahead, to act as his mouthpiece at one of Anjele's meetings.
"Uh... I'm up... Mr. President..."
No. They had left Costa Del Sol long ago, gone back to the front... so many new faces, new leaders among familiar superiors...
"Uh... Sephi... er... Zack?"
No... that wasn't... but then, where the hell was he?!
Roman opened his eyes wide, blinked a few times until his mind fixed on a familiar face. He couldn't remember the younger officer's name, but was immediately torn from whatever sleepiness remained by the slightly panicked look in the soldier's eyes.
"Roman, dude... I didn't want to wake you, but The General just rode in like, five minutes ago, and I thought..."
Roman was halfway down the stairs before his brain caught up with his feet, told him where he was, what was going on.
They had gone back to North Corel... there was to be a meeting later that day, which, given how long it felt like he had slept, was probably /now/. The General had been scheduled to arrive... there had been just enough time for a nap...
//... just enough time...// Roman grumbled at his own stupidity, //like hell!//
He skidded precariously around corners, lunged over the short hedges just in front of his small apartment, moving by memory through groups of soldiers, into alleyways, trying to avoid the mob... the first trucks of men from the front were just starting to arrive, with many more on the way...
His watch told him what the setting sun hinted at, that if The General had just arrived, he was late... everyone else was probably already heading to the meeting...
//... like he cares...//
Ro prayed that General Strife had taken the Hardy Daytona to the mechanic's garage, as he usually did, and not directly to the meeting. The redhead swallowed a sigh of relief as he stopped at the top of a small flight of stairs, and saw the bike, and The General standing just outside of the garage door. His blonde commander was talking to one of the mechanics, buying Ro just enough time to catch up to him, to be where he should have been in the first place... until the soldier caught a glimpse of himself in a nearby window.
On The General, amazingly spiky hair that tended to follow its own whims looked surprisingly professional, and just plain cool. Ro's red hair was pathetic, even without the comparison, pointed and sloped as if it were making a half-hearted attempt to part ways with his head. The lieutenant froze in indecision, part of him wanting to find the nearest shower and comb, the other part knowing he should have /already/ been at The General's side.
The redhead finally noticed a full barrel of rainwater, resting just off the side of the building, and that quickly cinched the decision. With a deep breath, the young soldier dunked his entire head into the barrel, trying to pry apart the more ground in, cemented knots with his fingers underwater, working quickly, without getting his uniform unduly wet. It worked... more or less...
Even with his ears half full of water, that voice came through, loud and strong as ever.
The redhead stood up so quickly that a spray of water followed, flicking up off the back of his hair, falling back down on him in fat drops as he stood in a silent, perfect salute. Not even the tiniest grimace gave away the embarrassment he felt.
The General stepped past him, expressionlessly, and Ro quickly smoothed down his hair, wiped the water off the back of his neck, and followed.
It took him a moment to catch up, the blonde fighter was moving quickly, did not know or care that Ro had lagged behind. As he took the few extra steps to his commander's side, Roman felt himself moving effortlessly back into his role as lieutenant general, as The General's second-in-command, with all the stoic professionalism that entailed.
He had to admit, though, it had been nice to be around other people for a while: Tifa, Cid, even General Zack, people who weren't so completely emotionless most of the time, who seemed almost more /human/... not that he'd ever say anything, of course... but even the other General didn't have eyes like glowing glaciers, impossibly cold and distant, as if The General knew he had nothing in common with Ro, or anyone else around him.
"I need you to gather up all of..."
"Already done, sir. I left all of the files, checked, at the conference room."
Ro bit the inside of his lip, wishing he could have taken the words back, feeling no little fear at interrupting his superior, even for a good reason. Shining blue eyes flicked onto him for a moment, but if Cloud was pleased or angry, it didn't show.
"Thank you Ro... and you still don't have to call me sir."
"Can't be helped, sir."
Silence for a moment. As they walked through town, towards the main headquarters, buildings Ro had left only moments before, the redhead watched people move out of their way, more experienced soldiers pulling younger ones back, saluting respectfully as their junior officers looked on in confusion, not recognizing their General.
It wasn't that surprising. Cloud's only sign of rank was the circled star on his collar, something badly scuffed, scratched and covered in mud, barely visible. Other than that small recognition of rank, he looked like any other soldier, only the massive sword on his back and the spiky blonde hair suggesting that he might be anything more.
//... that and the fact that he's a /legend/ to anyone who fought out there...//
Ro knew, as soon as soldiers returned from the front with news of what The General had done to the Fullspawn, how he had saved the entire army single-handedly, there would be no one that remained who did not have to be told to salute.
"Where is everyone now, Ro?"
"The meeting, sir. Anjele called for it as soon as we were off the plane. They were bringing in Scarlet from Del Sol... although they should have arrived hours ago... Everyone should be meeting in about 25 minutes..." Ro looked down at his watch, grimaced as he realized how much oversleeping had handicapped him, "I mean 7 minutes... sir."
"I'll be there in 15. I need a shower."
Cloud's official quarters consisted of one small, bare, white box... the size of a hotel room, with the same transient feel. The bed had never been slept in, he had never opened the window, or even bothered to move the curtains back and see what was outside.
Cloud looked down at the soft mattress, the thin comforter, and the sudden ache in his lower back threatened to make his knees buckle, his entire body sent up a rousing, demanding protest against the life he had been living, now that he had time to stop and think about it.
//This is bad... real bad...//
Things were slowing down again around him. Without a battle to fight, or a new attack to plan... even with the fighting he had been doing, just before his arrival in North Corel, it hadn't been enough to stop the slow ebb of his perfect focus, the concentration he needed now, more desperately than ever before.
His mind was starting to fill in details... for so long there had just been a haze, the battles, the plans, nothing else mattered, he didn't need to think when everything around him was chaos... but now he was standing still, aching feet cushioned by plush blue carpet, ugly white drapes over the window, and an inch of dust on all the furniture... he was starting to see things again... and soon... soon he would have to feel...
//No... no, /please/... not now... I can't... I /can't/...//
There was a crumpled Loveless ticket on his nightstand, from a concert he had gone to only hours before he had left... nine months ago. The room hadn't changed at all, just a nameless tomb trapped in time...
He felt as if he were shedding parts, letting the sword slide off his back as he peeled the Mystile off of his wrist. His shoes had become almost permanently welded to his socks, and it took nearly a minute to get each one off, flexing relieved toes in the cool air.
His hands emptied his pockets of their own free will, Cloud didn't need to see what was inside, didn't want to know, not with the way his mind was racing, reminding him of all he didn't want to remember, filling in gaps he hadn't even thought of yet, throwing random memories at him like stiletto knives... Nothing /truly/ painful yet, but give it time... it would come... it would come...
//stop it...// His fingers pressed hard against his temples, as if that had ever done /anything/ to help... //stop it... stop...//
His teeth felt permanently clenched into a steel-forged snarl... but if it was anger, it was only an illusion, a gut reaction... he felt more tired than anything... couldn't feel anything but the weariness...
//no time... no time...//
Fifteen minutes left. He could not get away from it any more... could not escape what he had hoped to solve with death, back in Rocket Town... He had survived, and now they were all waiting for him... Tifa... Zack...
//I can't... I...//
He wanted so much to just fall into sleep, all his muscles throbbing in weariness, exhaustion... despair. He shook his head to clear away a slight haze, grimacing as it only half-worked. Reality had begun to waver more and more in the time since the last battle... since he had destroyed the Fullspawn...
He had woken up only hours ago, not knowing when he had gone to sleep, or for how long, or what he had dreamed... only that he was more tired when he woke up than he had been before...
//... and... I dreamed...?//
Everything in his life seemed impossibly distant somehow, despite the current recollections, the memories slowly filing back into his mind. This quiet world around him was almost unrecognizable... bizarrely unreal between seizures of painfully vivid clarity. It was both too much and not enough, all at once, nothing even coming close to normal, to something he could anchor his thoughts to. He would swear he was going crazy...
... except he knew insanity didn't hurt this much.
Paper in his hand, from his pocket, his body still sorting out the past as his mind continued to reel... this tiny memento was a shredded, dirty note, blue ink scrawled past recognition on the back of a scrap of bandage wrap. He crumpled it into a wad, dropping it into the empty trash can. If it had ever been important, some dying note from soldier to sweetheart, some reminder to himself, more or less than that, whatever it was, it was long gone now.
He pulled a lone gil from his other pocket... God only knew where it came from, he hadn't needed money for /years/, but he was relieved, not knowing why, not knowing what he was glad the coin /wasn't/... until his knuckles brushed up against another small, hard lump at the very bottom of his pocket.
//... another gil... God, please... please...//
It wasn't, and he knew it wasn't even before he pulled it out of his pocket, into the fading light.
//"I've got huge fingers, you know... for a woman..." she frowned.
Every emotion on her face seemed so dramatic to him, so understandable, as if using words only came to her as additions to what her eyes and smile could already say so well.
He watched her flex her strong hands, another emotion, maybe some sadness, resignation, or even a weary pride flickering through her eyes.
"My mother used to put me on diets... yelled at me all the time... I was clumsy, I was unfeminine... indelicate, all because of these fingers..."
The impulse that struck, watching her fumble for the words, wanting to react, it was frightening for him... He had never... never had the chance to act, not like this...
Maybe that was what had made him move, almost desperately, to act on that urge, and he was so happy to watch her face light up in a smile as his lips brushed over her knuckles, happy for her and for himself... perhaps it meant, he wasn't completely... hopeless... lost...
"I like them... your hands..."
The thick gold circle rested in the center of his palm, a simple ring, nondescript. There were a thousand similar, if not identical... but this one was important... important to him... important to...
Life was indescribably cruel, that he had not lost the ring, not been allowed to dispense with at least some of the sorrow of the past. He hadn't thought about it, and had forced himself to forget her... as much as he could, pushing away every detail that could remind him of what had been lost...
//... what I... did...//
Cloud hadn't remembered the small band through months of changed uniforms, and more months of living indescribably hard, when he hadn't thought about /anything/... but still, it had followed him... the tiny, shining circle, a reminder he didn't need...
The blonde opened the bottom drawer on his small dresser and dropped it inside, made sure the drawer was shut before he moved to the bathroom, doing his best to keep himself busy, keep his memories /anywhere/ else but in the center of his thoughts.
Physical speed replaced the blur that no longer remained in his mind, he quickly stripped, struggling as hard as he could to ignore anything and everything else, almost diving into the shower... forgetting that once he was inside, there was nothing to do /but/ think... and remember...
//... don't... just don't...//
Cloud turned the water on, made sure it was very hot. He needed it now, more than anything else, the heat a solid connection between him and reality, some small comfort amidst all the madness.
That was one thing he hadn't realized about war, he thought, turning his face up to the shower's spray... one thing he hadn't known about hardship until he had lived it... the slowly maddening inability to live in extremes. On the front, water was never cold or hot, always lukewarm, and the food was the same... He hadn't been /really/ clean in nine months, clothes and body both always covered with a fine layer of dust no quick river clean-up could remove... and it was those tiny, small details, the lack of even the smallest comforts that finally ground the soldiers down, so that even when they survived battles, lived through months of fighting, they would never emerge unscathed.
Smells twined up between the tiny rivulets of water, old, dead days sandwiched on top of one another, against his skin, peeling back in ghostly reminders under the trickling heat...
He smelled chocobo first... not surprising... he had slept next to Karat more times than he could count, out on patrol with the scouts, the bird's wing around him as warm as any blanket, a warm, fluffy heat... Sometimes the bird had even woken him from his nightmares with a gentle warbling affection, knowing his distress...
//... of course, that was when the dumb bird wasn't trying to tear my hair out, dreaming those dreams of imaginary greens...//
Cloud sighed. Karat had not returned, and there had been no word. He hoped the chocobo was still alive.
The stale scent of powder filled the small shower for a moment, the sharp smell of gunmetal, and steel, of long hours checking and rechecking weapons, stocking, reloading, bargaining with the gods for another case of usable ammunition, for five minutes of battery power, for the radio that only worked once in every twelve tries to turn /on/...
Dirt. Dirt and mud and death... Cloud took a few deep breaths with his mouth open, refusing to deal with that thick, intimate scent again... not this soon... not this soon... It held too many memories, the smiles of too many now-dead friends, too much hell he did not want to return to... not until he absolutely /had/ to...
Finally, at the very last, just for a moment... and he would never really know if it had been an actual scent, or merely the ghost of a memory, some sick, masochistic impulse of his own need to remind himself... but he caught the barest edge... the slightly bitter tang of sweat... body heat... baker's chocolate perhaps... not that of a refined lady, but something musky, strong and sure... a hint of smoke from the fire... and he remembered the way the scent had always tangled in her hair... Not beautiful, not the way he had always heard of women, but there was majesty, a proud nobility in her power...
//Cloud... something's wrong...//
The voice, in memory, was more terrible, more agonized each time he heard it...
//Cloud...? N-no... Cloud!!!//
An impossible scream, high and hard, brutal agony in a dead world of white... and red... and then no sound at all...
The stab of pain, the memory that slammed down on him full force shattered through his meandering thoughts. Cloud pushed it away frantically, terrified. He /had/ to run from it, had to flee that dark, horrible thing threatening to swallow him alive...
//No time... no time left...//
Cloud gasped, suddenly frantic, eyes darting, searching for an escape that he knew wasn't there. In only a few moments, no time at all, they would be asking all the questions he couldn't answer, the things he had feared to answer...
They would /know/ what he had done, that the evil, sick perversion Hojo had planted still lived inside of him, still /was/ him...
Cloud knew that he was out of time, and all the horror he had pushed back, everything he had forced away just /exploded/...
//... too much... too much... I can't...//
The blonde pressed his face against the cold tile with his eyes shut, tried to think of anything, anything else in the world that wasn't part of the past, part of that impossibly terrible night, whispering nonsense like a mantra... because he couldn't... he /couldn't/...
//... please... help me... someone... /anyone/...//
//Trying to distract ourselves, are we?//
The voice was ice cold, a shocking surprise, as if he were suddenly naked in front of the entire world, not alone in an empty bathroom shower.
Cloud reached out, twisting the knob until the water hitting his skin was almost burning, and he could barely see through the steam. Sometimes he could keep them at bay... keep enough of a barrier, enough of the real world, between himself and them... A quiet chuckle, full of mirth and anger, let him know it wasn't working...
//So... I don't mean to intrude, but how will we do it, exactly? A bomb at the meeting? I'm sure you could find one soon enough... Or poison...? Or will you just gut him quietly in the middle of the night? It won't be /that/ hard... even the best fighter won't see an attack coming, if it comes out of nowhere...//
//Go to hell...//
His hands pushed against the tile front of the shower, digging into the cracks, and his back was on fire from the heat, pain on top of pain, but it wasn't enough... it wasn't enough to stop them... to stop her voice...
//It's not Aeris... it's not real, it's not her...// He didn't know if he even believed it, really, but /had/ to cling to that desperate hope, and the hope that if he could only block them out... just a little longer... maybe they would give up... maybe...
The sting of their thoughts was like liquid nitrogen against an open wound.
//You won't get rid of me that way anymore, Cloud... not so easily... and every day, we dig a little bit deeper, get a little further inside of you...//
He was bleeding now, a familiar feeling... Aeris's voice, the weight of the Cetera's common mind pushing down on him, it had snapped something inside his mind, some vessel somewhere... his body couldn't take the pressure...
Cloud wiped the blood away, as it trickled unimpeded from his nose, across his lips... felt it down the back of his throat, tried not to swallow, to gag...
//Why do you make us hurt you? Why do you insist on acting like this? We don't want to do this to you, Cloud... we really don't... but, trust us, it's for your own good...//
/Please, Aeris.../ he didn't want to whimper, didn't want to plead, but it came out anyway, he couldn't fight it anymore... /please... it /hurts/.../
//Not as much as it will, Cloud, not as much... If you don't do as we say... You really think /you're/ the one who's survived all this time, that your own fragile, human mind could handle the stress...?//
The weight of the pain increased. Cloud squeezed his eyes shut, determined not to scream.
//... don't make us...// The voices echoed inside the pain... they knew what they were doing, and they didn't care... he couldn't make them care... //don't make us do this...//
The blonde reached out, searching for anything, any power that could help him... that would at least drive them away... reaching for the green... but he was too weak, much too weak to defy them again, could not even catch the edge of that power...
He clenched his teeth hard, gasping as the Cetera let the pain intensify to a drill bit, grinding away at the inside of his mind, before cutting it off sharply, leaving him shaking and barely standing...
//So many secrets for such a fragile life... maybe... maybe once they see what you are, you'll see things a little more clearly?//
He could feel them pulling back, moving away...
//They'll abandon you... all those little friends... It's what they do... they're so /fickle/... perhaps we'll leave you alone for a while, to deal with them... if you can...//
Aeris was laughing at him, an all-knowing smile gleaming in the backs of those frightening, cyanide eyes... It couldn't be her... not that rage, that hate... it just /couldn't/... or was this what his failure had forced her to become?
//... we'll be waiting, Cloud... we're patient, we'll wait... It would be for the best for you to remember that...//
Without another word, the Cetera were gone from inside his thoughts, or at least as close as they ever came to leaving, nothing more than the barest of remembrances in the back of his mind... a reminder...
//... God... anyone, please help me...//
Cloud coughed up a little of the blood that had slid down his throat, nearly retched, recovered, sliding to his knees in the scalding hot water... There was so much, so many dangers, and furies, and sorrows... he didn't know where to begin...
//They'll break me... long before I can counterstrike... if I even knew /how/ to... to...//
The thought was flooded with resignation, that final, fatalistic knowledge. He couldn't get rid of them, and they knew it. No matter what the Cetera did to him, Cloud knew he could not willingly give up their support. As The General, he needed what the Cetera knew, what they would give him, needed their help channeling and filtering the Planet's power down to something he could use just as much as they needed him to use that power... even Mako-enhanced, he was nothing compared to the true power at the heart of the Planet, and could not use it on his own, not for long... not without insuring a lifespan of only months, if not days... it would tear him apart...
//If they abandoned me now, I might not even make it through the next battle...//
The Cetera needed a weapon, and he needed a way to catch Hojo off-guard, to save the men he could and win the battles he had to... He needed the Cetera's foresight just to keep things even, to give them at least a fighting chance...
//I have to save the Planet... no matter what the cost... /everyone's/ in danger... we can't lose... I can't...//
The blonde held no illusions, especially about his future... and knew, beyond all hope, that the Cetera were probably right about everything... even about Sephiroth.
//Never me... no matter what happens,// Again, the pain so hard and brutal that it was funny, his entire life so tragic it was satire... //Even if he is sane... even if... it will never be /me/...//
Cloud could already feel the iron bands of that future betrayal, that destruction clamped around him, splintering his bones, crushing his heart in a simple, final twist of the screws...
//... I can't... no matter what happens... I /can't/...//
It was fatal weakness... but it was his... as much wanted as it was terribly inevitable, his desire entwined with that dark fate, ultimately inseparable from his destruction...
He grinned weakly, reaching up with a trembling hand to turn off the water.
//I guess I always was... attracted to the bad boys...//
He knew the Cetera would return, though he could not hear them now... he knew that Aeris would return...
//... can't die... can't kill... /never/ again, not him... but can't give in... have to fight... reach some sort of peace... with the Cetera...//
The hot water made him feel feverish and sick, horribly uncomfortable as he stepped out of the shower, the cold air that hit his skin glancing off without taking any of the heat away.
Cloud slowly reached for a towel, though he didn't like the sudden roughness against his fingertips, every bit of him sore and tender, his hands aching as they slowly flexed. He quickly found he was unable to even clench a fist without pain, the adrenaline barrier between himself and the self-inflicted punishment of the battlefield completely gone. The constant threat of war was now over, at lest for a while, and his body had a chance to catch up with itself, and catalog his new injuries...
//... don't get too comfortable, stupid...// He told himself, glancing up into the mirror.
Cloud froze, for a moment unable to tell who the pale, blue-eyed skeleton was that stared, shocked, back at him.
The SOLDIER treatments would keep him forever conditioned, but his body had been pushed well past that, stripped of all but the necessary muscle and sinew, the latent power lean and hard and compact, with sickly white skin stretched tight over it all.
The dirt had been hiding a timeline of cuts, bruises, lacerations, but it was the history of only, at the very most, the last week's worth of fighting. Most of the bruises were already a light brown, with a few spots of black and blue, but all of them would be healed within the next twenty-four hours, if not sooner.
As Cloud traced a deeper cut across his stomach, he noticed the sting of the pressure, that the wound was slightly red-tinged, and hot to the touch...
//Infected... but the Mako will take care of that... if it shouldn't have already...//
Cloud frowned. He needed to be able to count on his body at all times, to keep going... and if he wasn't healing as quickly anymore...
//I can't stop... there's no time... no one seems to /understand/ that...//
The blonde stifled a groan. Dr. Melissa would be all over him for ignoring himself...
//... as if I had a choice...//
He had hoped to avoid her, that she wouldn't be at the meeting...
Cloud felt his jaw clench, looked up into the cold blue eyes of his expressionless reflection. He had to figure out a way... there had to be something he could do... to meet them, to see them... but he couldn't... so many secrets, so much pain all pushing inside of him, all trying to get out, but he couldn't... couldn't say anything... it would bring disaster...
"Let it go..."
Cloud focused on the mirror, on that Strife, the one he would have to be now, perfect, polished, like ice... that Strife didn't know friendship, or love... and didn't feel any pain, didn't get hurt... no emotion at all... just a clean, pure emptiness...
"You can do this... you can..." The words were a mantra he desperately needed, rocking forward slightly, on the balls of his feet,
"... just let it go... let it go... let it all go..."
"Woo hoo! Send in the clones!"
Reno saluted the group with a half-empty liquor bottle as they walked in, rocking back in his chair, barely keeping his balance. The redhead was laughing, and laughed even harder when Zack merely rolled his eyes and Sephiroth ignored him completely.
"That joke..." Elena muttered,
"... never gets old." Reno replied, grinning at her. The blonde clapped a hand over her eyes and turned away sighing. On the grinning Turk's other side, Rude said nothing, casually flicking the safety on and off on his gun.
They had all been invited to this meeting, though Tifa got the suspicion that Zack had more to do with that than anything. His insistence that they stay was the reason they were all there, instead of being shuffled off, pushed away so that the "real" work could be done in secrecy.
It had been nearly a year since the last full meeting, both Cloud and Zack on campaigns across the country, to the very edge of the disputed territory... and probably farther than that, Cid thought, knowing both of the Generals.
//... and of course...// the blonde pilot mused, looking over at Sephiroth when the white-haired man wasn't watching, //... things have definitely changed...//
This meeting was a second attempt for the discussion, the nine-month review that had not happened at Costa Del Sol, a chance for all the generals to gather and go over all that had occurred...
//... and now, with the Fullspawn's attack, with Cloud... and Tifa being here... and Sephiroth, for God's sake... this ought to be one hell of a meeting...//
Tensions already were running high inside the large conference room. The meeting had been placed at the top level of one of North Corel's newly constructed buildings, but it took at least fifteen minutes of near silence for Cid to calm down enough to even notice, let alone enjoy, the view.
Barret had met them as soon as they were off the Highwind, anxiously grateful to see that they were all still fine. He kept murmuring "should have been there... should have been there," no matter how many times Cid or Tifa tried to console him, shaking his head, obviously disappointed in himself.
Scarlet, Elena and Tifa were all exchanging slightly angry glares anytime their eyes met, seemingly on the verge of a very violent dispute. Apparently the true level of their combined hatred for one another didn't show itself until all three were present.
//Vinegar... baking soda... and nitroglycerin...// Cid thought, grateful he didn't have to think about it any more than that, and definitely grateful that he didn't have to get involved. Yuffie and Vincent sat next to each other, more than once Cid swore he noticed something... something different about the two of them... but neither the ninja girl or the former Turk said or did anything out of the ordinary...
//... must be getting old... senile...// The pilot did what he usually did whenever there was a pause in his thoughts, in the room, and when his services were not immediately required. He lit a cigarette.
Red and the new, dark-maned cat Li were speaking quietly, sitting on the floor, conversing in quiet, private tones. There was no way to hide the elation on either feline's face, the red-maned cat's tiger-eye gaze was still bright with excitement, and Cid watched the dark flame at the tip of the lady cat's tail flick back and forth quickly with a brilliant joy.
//... at least somebody's happy...//
Zack was speaking to Lieutenant Roman in similarly quiet tones, just below the audible conversation in the rest of the room, but Cid could tell he wasn't happy. The dark-haired general's eyes were intensely serious, and he and the redhead seemed to bat increasingly gloomy expressions back and forth in the space between them. As usual, Sephiroth sat quietly, alone, as if he was above all of it, watching everything with sharply disinterested, impenetrable jade eyes...
"Hey..." Barret turned to him abruptly, "... where's Cait?"
Everyone's attention quickly focused on the pale, dark-haired man who walked quickly into the room, slamming down a pile of documents at the head of the table. Ro immediately stood, and saluted, but sat down just as quickly, the gesture only one of symbolic courtesy. Reeve barely acknowledged it.
"Reeve?" Tifa said.
"Yeah... I'm here... had to carry up all the documents... and pull some of /Scarlet's/..." Her name was strangled by his annoyance, but the blonde woman pretended not to notice, and didn't have to pretend not to care.
It was impossible to ignore how clumsily the ShinRa president fumbled through the papers at his fingertips, how flustered and pale he was, silently terrified...
"Reeve..." Zack said slowly, after watching the man for a long moment, "... are you sure this is a good idea?"
The president looked up for a moment, expressionless, and broke into nervous laughter.
"Actually," he muttered, shaking his head, "no. No I'm not... but I can't expect to hide behind that stuffed gargantuan forever... he already gets to have most of the fun." Reeve's smile faded as he saw that no one was buying his bid at bravery. Taking his seat, the dark-haired man gave a deep sigh.
"No... but... I can't hide from it." Another sigh, "Whatever he... if I... I've got to deal with the consequences of my actions."
The redheaded Turk's eyes widened.
"You really didn't tell him about Lockheart?"
Obviously, whatever everyone had assumed Reno knew, no one had explained it all to him. The redhead rolled his eyes, muttered something incoherent under his breath, and both Elena and Rude nodded in agreement.
Tifa looked around the table in stunned silence. What were they talking about? Why...? They were all acting as if Cloud were going to do something horrible to Reeve, and that he had the right to...
//This is crazy... Cloud would /never/...// The brunette shored up that belief with pure determination, adamantly refusing to believe anything else. This was Cloud, her childhood friend...
//... the one you watched them hurt, over and over...//
//NO!// she shot back to that voice of conscience, feeling the remorse anyway, the bitter sting of the old realization, //it wasn't like that! We were little kids... it was different back then...//
//Was it different to him? You were in his head, you know he still remembers everything... You remember, you know it doesn't go away... all the hurts from your childhood are still there, somewhere... that kid in Junon who called you ugly, just that one time... but you can still hear the exact tone of his voice...//
//It's not like that... Cloud's not like that...// she was furious with her own doubts, tired of their ever-present nature //... why does this keep happening to me... why do I keep running around in these stupid circles!?//
"What time /is/ it?" Reno muttered. Rude turned his watch hand up, wrist pointed towards the redhead. The Turk leaned forward, gave a disgusted sigh.
"So... king bitch Anjele's late again..."
"... and Cloud..." Reeve murmured. Reno laughed.
"You don't /really/ think he's gonna show, do you?"
A moment later, the redhead realized he had the attention of pretty much everyone in the room. Only Sephiroth appeared disinterested in his observation.
"... what do you mean, he won't..." Reeve started, and Reno cut him off with a shake of his head.
"Come on. We all know what this meeting's about... Hell, I'm not even in the privileged inner circle set, and I can damn well figure it out... You've heard the rumors, Reeve... about Cloud and Elicia... You know what Anjele's gonna try to do, what he's gonna throw out... He's never liked Cloud... not that he really thought all that much of Elicia, or any of us for that matter... but this is the perfect chance."
Tifa broke the silence that followed, feeling stupidly ignorant, as if the answer should be perfectly obvious from context.
"They got chased up into the woods, your nut General friend went "psycho boy" again and fuckin' took General Elicia apart... sliced and diced... ex-ter-min-ated..." As if his description hadn't been enough, Reno drew a straight line slowly across his neck with his index finger, grinning widely at Tifa's horrified disbelief.
"There's no proof of /any/ of that..." Ro said angrily, glaring at Reno. The Turk shrugged, leaning back in his chair, the smile never wavering.
"Hey, hey... don't shoot the messenger. I'm not saying for /sure/ that he did and I'm not saying he didn't... but that's what Anjele's going to call him on... and come on, soldier boy, /something/ happened up in those hills. There's no way General Elicia just up and /died/..."
Silence, and once more Tifa felt a horrible dread flow through her, as all the voices that should have been protesting at the table, her friends, those who would /know/ that Cloud was incapable of such a thing, were strangely silent. Even Zack's eyes were veiled, revealing nothing of his thoughts.
//So you speak up for him, then! You know he'd never be able to do such a thing! You know it!//
Tifa didn't move.
//... you know it... you do... don't you?//
... but those eyes... on the battlefield, and the way he had looked at Cait Sith... the absolute emptiness, the pitiless, cold rage... the videotape... the woman...
//... just like me... she looked just like me...//
... and years of teasing, of standing by and watching Cloud take the brunt of everyone's childish torment, years of deluding herself into thinking she hadn't been the simple child she was, hadn't gone along with the crowd because it was easier, it worked out better for her than doing what was right...
//Who am I to say I know him? Who am I to say I can /judge/ him?//
Tifa didn't think she'd find an answer, of course, but didn't have more than a moment to even think about it before Anjele Heidigger walked in the door.
The blonde man looked over the room more slowly than necessary, as if he already knew he wouldn't find whom he sought, but was double checking his own eyes.
"He's not here, is he?"
Anjele shook his head slowly, in quiet exasperation, taking a seat just off of Reeve's left, staring at the extra chair between Yuffie and Elena in quiet disgust.
"... he's not here..." Anjele said again, slowly, as if the words held some greater meaning the second time around.
"The General will be here soon..." Ro said, and Tifa realized that the boy's entire demeanor had changed, back to that original expressionless, slightly annoyed manner he had shown at their first meeting. It was amazing to see the change, between the helpful, friendly man and the solemn, curt soldier that sat near her now, so ready to snap at Anjele whenever necessary, to defend his General however he could.
"So, where did he decide it was so important to run off to now?"
The tone in Ro's voice made it very clear, that it would be the only answer Heidigger would get. Anjele rolled his eyes.
"Well, I suppose we could get started... although I really don't see the point... if General Strife doesn't think these meetings are important enough to /attend/..."
"... and disappoint you? I wouldn't /dream/ of it, Heidigger."
Tifa turned so quickly her head spun, but the figure in the doorway was crystal clear.
No one spoke. No one moved. Tifa couldn't take her eyes off of him.
"So..." Reno's voice was like a gunshot through the silence, "you're still alive."
Cloud nodded. Rude slowly brought one hand up, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, a gesture Tifa didn't understand until Reno muttered a few curses under his breath and handed the other Turk a large bill. Cloud raised an eyebrow.
"500 gil? What were the odds?"
"Five to one you didn't make it back."
"You should have let me in on that."
The Turk's remark had thawed time, had given everyone leave to breathe and move again. Cloud moved over to the chair between Yuffie and Elena, pulled the Ultima Weapon off his back and set it on the wall behind him as he slid into his chair.
The brunette hadn't had the time to notice, events on the battlefield moving too quickly for her to take count of what she could see now... how much he had obviously been through... the scars, cuts on his hands, his bare arms, the dark spots underneath his eyes, signs of near-constant fatigue... and he was a SOLDIER, he healed more quickly, he didn't show /normal/ signs of wear and tear like most people... so then, what did that mean? How could he have done this to himself?
"I hear you guys have been busy," Cloud said, looking up at Reno. Tifa finally noticed the small container he had in one hand, a can, marked as ShinRa rations. He pulled the tab back, twisted it, turning it into a makeshift spoon. It wasn't the only thing to eat, but it was what he had been carrying with him. There hadn't been time to get anything else.
"Oh, you know... little of this and that... massacre here... bloodbath there..." Reno shrugged, "thanks for the warning on the sea attack near Junon... saved all our asses..."
"Junon?" Reeve murmured, looking shocked. "What... I wasn't informed of any..."
"It's finished," Cloud said in a low, dead voice, "don't worry... we took care of it."
He gestured to Ro, who immediately threw him a water bottle he had been carrying. It was amazing to watch, the silent, intricate dance between superior and aide, the redhead quietly shuffling file after file, throwing some to Cloud, judging the commander's reactions as to his next move...
//... at least that's what I think he's doing, but I can't even...// Tifa frowned, as Cloud tipped the water bottle over, letting a few drops fall on the underside of his arm, rubbing them in with the tip of his other finger.
"Little paranoid, are we?" Reno snickered. Cloud looked up, blinked, looked back down at the shiny patch of wetness on his arm.
"God... I've been away a long time," he muttered, taking a long swig out of his water bottle. It was clear from the silence that everyone else needed an explanation.
"That black stuff out on the field, the polluted Lifestream, it only gets worse the farther you go, into the land that's been under Hojo's control for the longest time... sometimes the water takes on its acidic properties... it's poisonous, so you check it. If it burns on contact, you don't drink it. If it doesn't..." Cloud shrugged, capping the bottle, and stirred the small can of food.
Cid's eyes widened in surprise, and he looked at Reeve. The blonde fighter had said it so simply, but neither the pilot nor, it looked like, the ShinRa president had even realized there was a problem, let alone that the soldiers had come up with their own solution.
"What if the water's still bad?" Tifa finally spoke.
"Then you're fucked." He chipped at the bottom of the can with his spoon, frowned slightly, "it doesn't happen that often, though. Mostly with thirsty chocobos who get away from their riders..."
"This is all /amazingly/ interesting..." Anjele finally broke in, looking both bored and impatient. Scarlet sneered at him slightly behind his back, as if she were unable to keep from doing so, "... but I think this meeting has been postponed long enough..."
"God, Anjele..." Cloud muttered, still stirring his food as if the other man hadn't said anything of any importance. He gave it an experimental sniff, and obviously didn't like the results, "... do the people who work in ShinRa have to take classes in how to be hopeless fuck-ups, or does it all just happen naturally?"
Tifa could see Anjele's eyes flash with anger, but the blonde-haired man did not rise to the bait. Cloud finally took a small bite, sighed heavily, shaking his head...
"Well... I think I've found the way to kill off any more Fullspawn..."
With one hand, he closed the lid back down over the barely-touched meal, and tossed it over Reno's head, in a low arc, into the trash.
Anjele was not amused.
"If you're /quite/ finished, General..."
Cloud nodded, leaning silently back in his chair, arms folded impassively. Tifa almost shivered, watching those blue eyes gaze at Anjele, cold, distant, as if Cloud didn't give a damn... whatever it was the other man had to say, he knew he just didn't care...
"It's been good. As good as we could have asked for." Reno said, flipping through the few papers at his fingertips only out of habit, not really looking at them, "I think everyone here knows..."
Anjele frowned as Cloud and Zack nodded.
"I thought updates were supposed to be only presented through majority."
"You thought wrong, sir." Cloud said, voice betraying nothing, not anger, not hate, speaking with a professional edge so sharp it was dangerous.
"We had surprisingly low casualties... Hojo's armies seemed smaller in number... I can only assume he was using his biological reserves to construct the Fullspawn."
"We should make an attack on the Northern Crater now." Cloud murmured, "he's weak... he didn't expect to lose at Rocket Town. We should strike /now/, with everything we have."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Anjele sniffed, turning his head away.
"/What/ was that?" Cloud said, leaning forward. Tifa saw Ro's jaw clench slightly as a tense silence descended, the two blondes staring at one another in a sudden, furious war of wills.
"Nothing, General... maybe you're just hearing things..." Anjele's tone was deceptively mild, but he nearly spat out the words. It was a low, mocking blow, but one that had been used before, Heidigger trying to bring Cloud's competency into question, knowing, as they all did, of his past actions. Anjele was almost obsessively well-versed in those events, given the power to access even the highest levels of Top Secret files Hojo hadn't shuffled away before his assumed demise.
"Maybe..." Cloud said, the barest hint of a challenging smile in his eyes. It was going to take a lot more than that, his gaze said without words, a lot more than that to goad him into an attack.
They all turned, startled, as a shot rang out from another corridor of the building. Tifa's eyes quickly snapped back to Cloud after looking down the empty hallway, as if he would fade away if not for her gaze, and she froze.
The man she had known, the Cloud she loved was looking toward the door, with those beautiful, compassionate blue eyes that were always so open, always so bright. Just for the barest second, he had returned to her, and the deep sapphire gaze that looked out the door was full of more suffering and terror than she had thought possible, deep sorrow like a secret mask, and as suddenly pained as if he had taken a knife to the gut.
The brunette blinked, and it was gone, the emotion vanished... he was as untouchable as he had ever been...
//... but wait... I saw it... I know it was... there...//
"... Deloryan..." Cloud murmured.
"... who?" Reeve spoke first, still very pale.
"One of my commanders... his platoon was decimated in one of the last attacks, before we were to leave for home. It wasn't his fault, but he took it hard... real hard... there wasn't anything..." Cloud shook his head, "I think... he just gave himself an honorable discharge."
The moments of silence almost seemed pre-planned, they were so frequent, and they were broken by what seemed only random chance.
"You should have said something. You have a responsibility to your commanders, and it's your duty..." Anjele started to snipe.
This time it got a reaction. Cloud was on his feet immediately, leaning toward the ShinRa official with hellfire burning in his eyes.
"... and I don't have /time/ to hold my soldier's hands while they try to figure out whether life is worth fighting for or not, /sir/!"
"General, sir!" A soldier ran into the room, calling for Cloud, not Reeve, saluting his commanding officer, not the President. Tifa realized then, just what the structure of power was, why Anjele was so hostile... that even if the blonde managed to get rid of Reeve, he could do nothing about Cloud... and Cloud had /all/ the power...
"General, it's about Lieutenant Deloryan..."
"I know, soldier, I know..." Cloud said, and for the first time Tifa heard something in his voice, something besides the cool uncaring... there was a low, dry sound, a deep weariness...
//... a complete loss of hope...//
"... can you take care of the body... tell any friends of his...? Later I'll... it doesn't matter anymore, the timing, not anymore... It can all be figured out /later/."
The soldier turned sharply, and left. Reeve looked between the hallway and Cloud for a moment, openmouthed.
"... Cloud... I... should have..."
"Skip it, Reeve." An afterglow of that burning fury, the undercurrent of intense hatred, and though it hadn't shown itself before, it was clear now. Cloud had not forgotten about Tifa, about the President's broken promise... "... just skip it. I stopped expecting help from your corner a /long/ time ago."
He sat down heavily in his chair as Reeve still silently gaped, and Tifa saw something flash in the air, a necklace that his landing had sent flying up, over the collar of his shirt. The brunette blinked, shocked, as she realized what it was she looked at, and was distantly grateful that no one had started speaking, because she could not have maintained her silence.
"Cloud... is that...?"
The blonde followed her gaze, looked down, where the small twin orbs rested in the space just below his breastbone. He lifted them slightly into the light, though they remained dim, not the way Tifa had remembered them, one a glassy sea green, the other dark as deepest night.
"Holy and Meteor..." Cloud murmured, tapping his fingertips slightly against the small spheres. She could hear them click together slightly.
"They don't look..."
"They were smaller, when I found them... I don't know why... and of course, they don't work anymore..."
"Why, then... Why...?" Nanaki murmured, watching the twin Materia just as closely as the rest of them.
"To remember..." Cloud looked up, across the table, and his eyes met Sephiroth's in an unflinching gaze, latent fury, silent hate, a look so full of emotion that Tifa didn't think she could ever unravel it all... only knew that it was all based in deepest loathing. It had to be, after everything the bastard had done to him... she was almost surprised Cloud hadn't tried to eliminate his arch-nemesis already...
"... to remember /everything/."
His words hung unchallenged in the air. No one spoke, the tense silence that had threaded through the entire conversation moving in inexorable ebbs and swells, seeming to take all the oxygen out of the air. Finally, the blonde General broke it himself.
"We were lucky... up through the high mountains, halfway between here and the northernmost towns... casualties were pretty low... there was a battle between Rocket Town and... Mt. Nibel," the pause was tiny, but it was there, "... we took about fifty to sixty percent damage from the teams that went in... and a lot of the guns couldn't withstand the cold..." He unholstered a weapon from his hip, slid it across the table, almost into Scarlet's lap. The woman picked up the weapon, started examining it, and gasped.
"You fused the... it's... for god's sake, how fast were you /firing/ this thing?" she exclaimed, looking up with wide eyes. Cloud shrugged.
"As fast as I had to. I need you to get me some better weapons, Scarlet, as soon as possible. I need more handguns, ones that /fire/ this time..."
The woman scowled, "... that'll take /weeks/, Strife. We don't have the resources now, not even the raw materials..."
"Tear apart the larger vehicles we brought back... and all those damn robots you keep putting together..."
"They /don't/ work, and they're getting my men killed."
"General /Zack/ doesn't seem to be having any problems..."
"Zack isn't dealing with..." Cloud paused, pulling a small vial out of his pocket. He tossed it across the table to her, just gently enough that it tinkled but didn't break as it skittered across the tabletop. The woman frowned, examining the tiny spine, about the size of her index finger, inside.
"That's off some new animal Hojo came up with... we ran into them a few miles down, just before we hit the mountain ranges in southernmost Wutai." Cloud reached back, pulled his shirt up over his belt as he stood up, showed her his left side. Tiny black and blue marks, encircled in red, covered his skin from waist to upper arm, spreading like a rash across his body.
"They shoot those quills, and they're poisonous, Mako-based, we all assumed. They killed nearly an entire squadron of lancers, and /all/ of the chocobos that had gone with them... took them all out before we could fight back. Your weapons were too big and too clumsy to work, and these things were too damn /fast/. Either give me weapons I can use to wage a land war, I mean quick, light and lethal, or appoint someone else who can."
Scarlet was silent for a long moment, staring down at the malfunctioning weapon. Although many regarded her as little more than a bitchy, self-serving excellent example of horrible ShinRa leadership, she knew she worked as hard as she could on what she loved, and took pride in her pragmatism, and her weapons. The blonde was proud... because she didn't let her ego get in the way of success, like President ShinRa had, like Anjele... even as she knew Rufus ShinRa had, at the end.
"... I can do that."
The General's glowing blue eyes were merciless in their determination, but he nodded in understanding, and she knew she had been given the benefit of the doubt, a second chance.
Tifa watched Cloud sit down, staring at where his shirt had fallen over the wounds, the marks from the poison quills... she couldn't imagine someone taking more hits than him... couldn't imagine it could have taken more than that to kill a man...
//Cloud's okay... he's just like a SOLDIER... he doesn't get hurt like that...//
The brunette looked up to Zack for support, but he was staring at Cloud with the same disbelief, the same shock in his eyes.
"... there's nothing to say. We took the plains, we held the plains. Various attempts to expand, to take back the uppermost portions of land, anything too close to the Northern Crater or the upper peninsula of Wutai... we were repelled, although their forces are keeping Hojo's presence at a bare minimum. We're firmly entrenched everywhere between here and the Inn... How's it look on the Midgar side...?"
"Very little action..." Reno said. Most of the battles had been fought on the North Corel side of the sea, very little had happened near either Midgar or Junon...
//... or Kalm... which is why Cloud wanted me kept there...// Though she still didn't agree, still felt angry and hurt for being left out for so long, Tifa was starting to understand why the blonde had done what he did... The images, memories of the last battle, of the Fullspawn and all the other smaller, still lethal monsters charging her, preparing to strike her down was fresh in her memory... It /was/ dangerous here... terribly so...
"Everything from low Wutai to the edge of Cosmo Canyon, with pockets near Gongaga..." Cloud tapped a vaguely crescent shaped area on the map, "... it has changed hands back and forth over the last nine months, and we're losing men and resources we cannot afford to sacrifice. We /have/ to make an assault on the Northern Crater..."
Anjele shook his head sharply. Tifa had the feeling this was not a new argument.
"We don't even know if that's where his main base of operations is, General. We have no idea... all we know is, the first main attack we attempted there failed... /miserably,/ I might add..."
"Send /me/ in then!" Cloud said sharply, "If you're worried about sending too many people, then just send /one/!"
Reeve seemed ready to protest, but the battle between Anjele and Cloud was now full on, the General's last statement all Heidigger needed to start in on the old, familiar battle. Cid was disturbed by the way he seemed to be fighting back a smile, as if he had his entire argument pre-planned, had been waiting for Cloud to say just such a thing.
"As far as I've seen during these last nine months, General, I don't have to /send/ you anywhere." He pulled out a map of his own, finger slamming down on several red points on a map of the area between Wutai and Gongaga.
"I've heard reports that you've been spending a /great/ deal of time on your own vigilante missions, diverting your energy towards the destruction of /unconfirmed/ reactors Hojo /may have/ erected..."
Cloud looked down at the paper, obviously unconcerned.
"You missed at least five, Anjele... and for every one of those, I took at least three more groups out on dedicated killing sprees, /completely/ against ShinRa orders."
"You're admitting this?!"
"To going against your bullshit plans?" Cloud barely kept the smile off his face, "Oh, yes sir, I definitely am."
"Bullshit?" Anjele shot back, "You refuse to follow /any/ rules, Strife, for the simple reason that you have some ludicrous notion of playing the invincible hero at the Northern Crater."
"... and you, Anjele, still think you can negotiate." Cloud hissed, and stopped Anjele short. He waited for the man to pale a few degrees before he continued. "... isn't that why you never sent a dedicated force up, why you've been holding them back, convincing Reeve to hold me back? Hojo's got a lot of knowledge up there... a lot of technology and a hell of a lot of power..." He shook his head, slowly, knowingly, "... wouldn't you like to see what Jenova has to offer you, Anjele? Don't you think, if you could only just /rationalize/ with him, if you had a moment to just /talk/, that you could come to some mutually /beneficial/ agreement... and bring ShinRa back into full power again?"
Cloud's words were like acid, burning the air, and had obviously hit a very sore spot. Anjele's eyes flicked around for a moment, nervously, as if waiting for some unknown force to break the still, waiting silence, just slightly afraid when he realized nothing would...
"... you're just a hotshot, Strife. Just a renegade, a loose cannon who thinks he knows /everything/..."
"... because my way /works/, Heidigger!!"
Anjele's eyes were suddenly, dangerously sly, his voice a malicious sneer.
"Did it work on General Elicia too?"
If Cloud's words had struck Anjele like a well-aimed arrow, Anjele's unexpected blow hit him a thousand times harder. Cloud went silent, the color draining from his face as if a plug had been pulled. Very slowly, he sat down, but his eyes weren't fixed on Anjele's triumphant sneer... he barely seemed to notice the other man, or anything else, at all...
"Anjele..." Reeve started, but Cloud's eyes locked onto him, cutting him off.
"No, Reeve..." The blonde's voice was oddly calm, almost distant, and it sent chills up Tifa's spine. "This is what he really wanted. This is why we're all here."
"This isn't what /I/ wanted, Strife. Not at all. I didn't want Elicia dead." Anjele snapped, and waited in the moments that followed, for Cloud to give an answer that he realized wasn't coming.
"You get Sephiroth... Sephiroth gets the front..." Cloud said quietly, counting off the points on one hand, speaking softly, to himself, as if none of them were there, "... Sephiroth screws you over, obviously, and everyone dies... but in between there and here, there's one tiny problem." He pointed at his chest, "Me."
"Do you really expect me to dignify that with an answer?"
"Anjele... now..." Reeve started again.
"Shut UP, Reeve!" Cloud yelled, loud enough to make the President jump in his chair, "Anjele's trying to make a point... make an example... if this is what he wants... let him do it..."
"I'm trying to bring justice... and I think it has /long/ been overdue..." Anjele said, leaning over the table as if trying to tower over Cloud, though the blonde General was no longer standing in opposition, obviously no longer in the battle, "there are issues that have come to my attention... things I have reason to believe certain parties have been trying to /hide/..."
He reached beneath his file folders, pulling out a very familiar tape, smiling victoriously at Reeve, who gaped, immediately looking to Cloud.
"Cloud... I..." The dark-haired man shook his head, horrified, "I never gave... I swear I didn't... I don't know how..."
The blonde general stopped him with a gesture, never taking his eyes off of Heidigger.
"... what do you want me to say, Anjele?"
"I want you to admit what you did! What you /know/ happened in Wutai!"
"... and what would that be, exactly...?" Cloud's voice was so soft, almost teasing, seeing how far he could provoke Heidigger. At this point Reeve seemed to realize that he had to act, that he was the President, that this was madness...
"Anjele, this is enough..."
"Answer the question, Strife!!!" Each time Cloud's voice lowered, Anjele only got louder, more angry.
"Anjele! Sit /down/!!!"
Cloud looked up at the other man, who was nearly crimson with his fury, and smiled, shrugging, both hands up, a perfect picture of innocence.
"Fine, Heidigger. I killed her."
Stunned silence. Tifa felt as if the words she spoke were slowly squeezed out of her, as if all the strength had left her body.
"... Cloud... no..."
Anjele was still staring at the blonde General, but not with the look of triumph one would expect to see. Instead, it was simply stunned disbelief. He could not believe he had won so easily.
"No, I'm not. I killed her."
Reno felt a cold chill, at the simply stated words, the absolute lack of emotion... he had heard rumors, yes, but they were rumors /about/ Cloud and Elicia... but there was no way... not now, if the blonde could sit here and say such things... even he, the cold-blooded Turk, had his limits, he /did/ have morals...
//... fucking SOLDIERS... I /always/ knew they were bad news...//
If Sephiroth's actions, his near destruction of the entire Planet hadn't made that fact plain, Cloud's calm admission definitely cemented that fact in the Turk's mind.
"Happy now, Anjele?" Cloud said, voice still soft and low, almost a monotone, "... you going to put me in the stocks or just hang me in the square?"
Anjele's eyes slowly narrowed, a dangerous, measuring look.
"How did you do it?"
"Dismemberment, sneak attack, outright assault... maybe I just beat her to death with my bare hands. Take your pick. You'll never find the body, so what do I care?"
Zack was listening to his friends coolly brutal words in a mixture of horror and complete disbelief. There was something /wrong/, well past what his friend was admitting... Cloud wouldn't act like this, wouldn't say these things... he wouldn't be doing this unless he was trying to get something, to get Anjele to do something, or if he was trying to /hide/ something...
//... but what could it /possibly/... what in the hell could be /worse/ than admitting he killed Elicia in cold blood?!//
Zack knew there had been a relationship there, some sort of involvement, although the depth of it remained frustratingly vague to him... he had simply not been around.
He was not ecstatic, however, that Anjele seemed to have come to nearly the same conclusion, that things could not be as simple as Cloud was trying to make them out to be.
"You /are/ lying."
"She's dead, Anjele. Elly is dead, and you want Sephiroth to be in charge. Fine, he's in charge, and I'm in disgrace as the man who killed the beloved General Elicia... one of the only female Generals in history, by the way... No one will follow me, no one will listen to me anymore... you've won..."
"What happened to "Elly," General...?" There was a growing hunger, a perverse delight in Anjele's voice that matched the slight note of trembling disturbance in Cloud's... the blonde haired ShinRa official was starting to sink his claws into the truth, something the fighter obviously wanted him to leave alone...
"What happened, Strife? Did she reject you? Laugh at you? Is that why you killed her? Was she repulsed by you, because you're such an anomaly... a freak?"
Zack stood up on one side of the table, as Barret and Cid did on the other, more than willing to protect their friend from such accusations.
Cloud, however, sat silently, staring up at Anjele, his face as blank as pure snow, eyes like blue jewels, hard, unyielding... but there was something horrifying in his eyes, some terrible, unspeakable truth that cut to him deeper than anything Tifa thought she had ever seen before. Even losing Aeris, he had not looked like this. If anything, that dangerous vulnerability only made Anjele even more excited.
"What happened, Cloud? What... /exactly/ did you do to her?"
"You've won, Anjele. You've won... it's all yours, all you wanted. The army, control over it's leadership, your chance at power... it's yours, and you can dispose of me any way you want to... I honestly /don't/ care anymore... but /please/..."
His voice cracked on the word. Cloud had stopped fighting, was now honestly appealing to any altruism the blonde man might have had, any sense of compassion, or even basic human understanding, moving past all boundaries, all their pointless feuds... surely the man had to see, had to see that the dark secret, the truth... that the blonde would have to live it again, draw it up from where he had buried it to tell... and it would destroy him...
"Please... don't do this."
His heart held for a moment, and then slowly sunk, as Anjele's lips slowly spread in a wide, predatory grin of imminent success, of knowing not just that he had won, but that he would have the chance to crush his enemy whole.
//... cruel... the world is only cruel... life is nothing but pain and suffering... a punishment from some vicious god... Hojo was no different... really, no different than any of them, no worse than anyone else, if you just give them a chance to hurt you...//
Cloud felt the last spark of hope, hope in anything good and right and just fade and die inside of him, as Anjele's eyes twinkled with newfound delight, at the rising opportunity to bring the mighty general to his knees.
"I'm afraid I have no choice, Strife, but to call for a full investigation, and an immediate interrogation. The truth /must/ be known."
Another young aide ran into the room, this one obviously from Wutai, but even she smartly saluted Cloud, ignoring the rest of them. Apparently, Tifa thought, the ban on Wutai respecting ShinRa officers did not reach The General's high position.
"General... uh..." The girl shifted nervously, as if not wanting to speak, "uh... shit... it's... Lord Godo, sir. He's... he's here."
Yuffie's cry beat out all other reactions.
"He's /here/, sir... he heard about..." The girl motioned to Sephiroth, grimacing, "... he heard... and he looks /really/ pissed, sir..."
"If... if he pulls Wutai out..." Yuffie said.
Cloud stood up, instantly shaking off his expression, removing any trace of anything that was not calm, collected, professional, until there was no sign that anything had happened, that anything was wrong.
"I'll go out first, see what..." Yuffie started, pausing as the aide shook her head.
"Sorry, General Kisaragi, ma'am... Lord Godo said he wanted to see The General alone."
"Fine." Cloud picked up the Ultima Weapon, sheathing it without any flourish as he walked toward the door. Just before he reached the aide, Anjele intervened, stepping out of nowhere, between him and the exit.
"Where do you think you're going?"
All the anger, all the fury settled inside the two blue pools like liquid flame, and Cloud's voice was ominously flat.
"Get out of my way, Anjele."
It was a suicidal pride that drove the ShinRa official on, knocking all sense of fear and the sense of his own mortality out of the way. Moments ago, he had the most powerful general in the world at his mercy. The blonde knew he could not go back now, could not give up the near victory he almost had achieved.
"You're not leaving, Strife."
Cloud half-chuckled, and turned away just slightly, but the slight touch of fingers against the side of his nose, scratching an imaginary itch, was only a way to keep Anjele from realizing the real reason he wanted his arm down... that he wanted a way to build up just a little inertia, a little speed...
He could have killed the blonde man easily, in any number of ways, slamming his fist up, to drive shards of bone into his brain, driving his fist into the ShinRa official's throat, bursting any number of vessels in his neck and possibly snapping his spinal cord, or simply by hitting Anjele hard enough in the chest to make his heart explode. Instead, Cloud hit him once in the face, a clean, accurate, almost surgically precise punch, neatly breaking his nose.
Anjele let out a howl of pain, but Cloud had already grabbed him by the shoulder, half-tossing him out of the way. Anjele hit the table hard, getting the breath knocked out of him to the sounds of Reno's laughter. The blonde ShinRa official gasped, catching his breath, fighting furiously to regain control.
"Strife!! STRIFE!! You're FINISHED!!!"
Heidigger's voice was shrill, anger overwhelming pain as he tried, ineffectually, to stop the bleeding, the red liquid dribbling down his fingertips as he screamed, "You're GONE, you're OVER, I'll see you HANG! I'll have your RANK for this!!!"
At that, already in the doorway, Cloud suddenly turned back, his eyes the centers of two blazing fires, a blue that vaporized, not just burned. With one smooth motion, he pulled the circled star off his collar and threw it in a wide arc up through the air. It hit the table, bounced once, twice, and landed right in front of Sephiroth.
"Take it. I never wanted it to begin with. Besides..." There was nothing but ice cold scorn in his eyes, as he looked up at Sephiroth, "ShinRa's got a new bitch now."
He turned, and walked out the door.
Author's Notes - taste like chicken!
1. I promised myself I wasn't going to open these chapters with lines from movies or music. I don't think I'll open them all this way, but sometimes I just can't help it.
2. This is a damn long chapter. I hope there aren't any errors, but if there are, please forgive me.
3. Okay, I don't see any reason Cloud couldn't have both Meteor and Holy with him. I don't remember either one of them getting destroyed (and though I haven't beaten the game, I've seen both the Aeris death FMV and the end of the game FMV)
4. Thank you all for writing answers to my questions. If I have any future questions, I'll know who to call... er... write.
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