A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 16

By Twig

       

Life existed, on every level, as a mirror, a reflection, both described and describer of that above and below...

As cells lived, breathed, ate and died, so did humans, and, presumably, so did gods.  The living and the dead moved in cycles, all things were connected, usually beyond all but divine understanding.

It was not surprising, then, that as Cloud Strife was engaged in a heated argument with Lord Godo Kisaragi over the future of the ShinRa/Wutai combined alliance, over the very future of the war and the Planet itself, on another level, a much deeper level, the Cetera were engaged in a debate of their own, with a surprisingly similar goal.

The defeat of Jenova, the survival of the Planet... on both levels, the fate of the world rested in the hands of one man.

       

"The weapon is /ours/!"  The united mind swirled with the anger of its more vocal members, "it belongs to us, to the Planet!  We agreed to that long ago, it should not even be an issue! It is only a product of what /we/ have given it... we ourselves realize our place in the Lifestream, that we sacrifice for the will of the Planet, just as it should!"

The Cetera shared a common voice in many ways, but that did not mean there was truly one singular consciousness, only one opinion between them.  The Cetera would strike out as a singular force against their foe at any time, of course, but even the nature of the strike was starting to take on new dangers, and those possibilities were fracturing what had once seemed to be unbreakable bonds.

"The human is our weapon," the calmer side spoke to its furious other half, calming the tempest with its quiet judgment, "of course we recognize that.  That is not the argument... its life /is/ forfeit to the common good, for the Planet..."

There would be no argument, not about those kind of facts.  The difference between a single life and the united rage and fury of the Cetera was obvious... there had never been a question of right and wrong... of what would be sacrificed, if necessary...

The bloodlust of the original stewards of the Planet had only been amplified through their impossibly long struggle, the countless millennia they had spent, suffering under Jenovaís wrath, fighting hopelessly against her ambitions...  They had a weapon now, and they would use it, there was no doubt of that... or, almost no doubt.

Only one, who still stood firm amidst the overwhelming power of the collective mind, who truly did not believe their way was just, or right.

The flower girl had once been the last living Cetera, and was now quietly ignored, for her ludicrous viewpoint could barely be understood, even through the lens of her own immaturity.

Aeris was little more than a child... and did not truly understand the scope, the enormity of the struggle that had to be won, of what her ancestors had fought and died for...

Unfortunately, the Cetera had realized now, they had to reexamine her, and her views, very closely... Not to understand her side, to consider it anything but triviality, but to help them in their own ambitions... for she... she had loved the human, and loved him even now, the bonds of their friendship extending past all barriers of time and distance...

That friendship made her judgment questionable at best... and that love, ultimately, made her weak.

Weak, just as it made the weapon weak.  The same vital, vicious flaw... that love.

"Itís weakness... it will /not/ stand against Jenovaís child."

"It has said as much before... it has refused to fight, that it would not, could not, but the weaponís body is strong... and the Planetís need is more powerful than his will... It will agree, it will fight for us... for the Planet..."

The Cetera served the Planet, an unbreakable, irrefutable bond, a justness beyond any mortal law.  The Planet, ultimately, not the Cetera, needed the weaponís sacrifice.

"It will /not/ break..."

In a way, it was impatience, to have this conversation now, to force a decision when Jenova had been pushed back, surprised out of victory, but even the more hesitant of the Cetera knew they were running out of time.

Every day, every moment they hesitated was another chance for the Jenova to call her child to strike down the weapon... that she hadnít done so yet was simply a matter of good fortune... and even if she didnít... even if their luck held...

Many within the Cetera had been holding their breath, waiting for a catastrophe they saw as inevitable, given the terrible chaos of the past, what had happened before they had been given their awakening against the Meteor...

The weapon, Strife... there were things it didnít know... things only the Cetera truly understood, and the real reason they had to move with such haste...

"If Jenovaís child... if he /turns/ the weapon..."

"If you try to take him now, you could kill him... even the Lifestream... it cannot cure a failure such as that..."

It had been important, on more than one occasion, to lie to the weapon, in order to turn its power toward the correct path, focus its rage without so many diversions, so many questions.  Any lie was necessary evil if done for the common good.  No darkness they could ever carry out was important when it was done for the continued survival of the Planet... and the Cetera who dwelled within it... and their revenge...

Yes, the weapon had been lied to... and beyond the lies were even more things that were simply never spoken... unnecessary truths...

They could not /always/ assure its survival, as they had promised, had threatened it with... especially if they had to choose between its life and their own...

"... dividing soul from flesh... Jenova herself cannot guarantee her victory there.  We have seen that outcome before... You could easily kill it, and we would lose our chance at using it for our vessel, or of having a weapon at all... It would be of no use to us then, and we would be lost.  We would be risking everything, /everything/ on the impossible!!!"

The risk, the all-or-nothing nature of it, was why the idea had always been ignored, always brushed aside even through the weaponís worst struggles, itís most adamant refusals to cooperate.  It was simply too dangerous to try, even the enhanced humanís shell was such a fragile thing, and forcing the weaponís body to shed its soul had been little more than mere hypothesis for most of them...  Only now... now... so much had changed...

Jenovaís child was back... the threat had appeared in full, and the weapon would not fight for them, would not bring up arms against the one it... loved.

"What are our other options, then?  There are none.  There are no other chances, and we are out of time.  This is the only way."

"The weapon was persuaded before..."

"This is /different/ than before!"  The angry voices of the common mind rallied up against their fellow kind, almost furious, screaming in disbelieving rage,

"We did not kill Jenovaís child when we should have, before it was strong, fully in its power!  We should have sent the weapon then, despite the battles lost, we should have sent it...! We did not know... we did not look deep enough into the weaponís mind to see what we know now... but some of us know of love, and we have seen the depth of what it feels...  Those human feelings cannot be completely ignored, they cannot be considered unimportant!  It /will not/ do this, it will not kill for us this time!"

"If we lose the weapon... there is no other way to touch the surface of the Planet... It is our only link, our only outlet... without the weapon..."

"Jenovaís son is enough of a threat, it would be worth it... be worth it... to kill one with the other... we could still find victory..."

"The humans... the others..."

"/Forget/ the humans.  This is about /our/ survival... We will defeat Jenova... she must /not/ be allowed to win..."

This was a fact, unarguable, and the more somber, quiet voice was only an echo of the truth.

"Jenova must be stopped... her child must be destroyed... at any cost."

The united mind shifted in excitement, anticipation.

"An agreement then?  We act now."

The shift swayed, reflected on itself, devoured in its own eagerness to proceed... Too many, too many were still unsure...

"Time.  We need time.  This is not a decision to be made in haste..."

"There is no time... /no/ time!"

"We will wait... a little longer, and give him... one more chance..."

       

Aeris drifted by herself, in silence, far away, watching through the Lifestream as the Cetera, the emerald cloud like a thunderhead in a pale green sky, warred with itself, a swirling chaos she could not comprehend, and was not allowed to join.

The flower girl did not understand precisely why, only knew that they had chosen to ostracize her, that she had been suddenly, firmly removed from their presence... which meant whatever they were debating, it ultimately had to do with her.

... and that meant it had to do with Cloud.

//Oh, Cloud...//

Aeris had been afraid the Cetera knew she could speak with him, knew of their connection, and was afraid that this action, sending her away, only confirmed that yes, they knew.

//... and of all the times... all the times to be in the dark... to not know...//

Her friend, her beloved bodyguard, was vulnerable now, terribly so, she could sense his mind swaying on the edge, with nothing at all to hold him, to keep him from slipping away...  she could see all the secrets, the fear he was trying to hide, the shame, the sorrow, always, and she mourned that she was a part of that as well... hated that she had been responsible for even a moment of that sadness...

//You still blame yourself... Iím so sorry...//

Aeris couldnít help but frown, just slightly, as she caught a more focused glimpse, just for a moment, inside his mind, his thoughts that were always with her... a sharp image that flickered, flashed and died in his mind... one of so many, too many fears...

//Tifa... Tifa... what will she think... what will she... of me... oh God...//

Aeris felt a moment of vengeful anger.  Lockheart should have been there, should have been helping him, and instead she was only causing even more agony.

//... and are you angry with her because of that, or because youíre doing the exact same thing?//

Aeris winced, grimacing in further anger, frustration at her own inaction, only able to sit and watch.  It was almost impossible to even speak to him in dreams anymore, and even then, he did not believe... could not believe that it hadnít all been his fault.

//The Cetera... the Cetera come to him in my skin, hurt him in my name... bastards...//

Her own mother, Ifalna, could not truly help her, too united within the Cetera to speak against them, too close to them to endanger herself, to risk ostracism as Aeris so willingly had.

Her mother was kind, and gentle, and knew of the goodness of humans, knew that Aeris loved them, but ultimately her strongest link was to her own kind, to the goals and visions of the Cetera, to the revenge they sought, and the means they would use to carry them out...

//... but what are they planning... what are they thinking... and what do I do about it...?//

The flower girl could comfort herself with very little now, could barely find a calm center amidst her own anxiety, and only within the knowledge that she still had a few secrets, a few avenues into the outer world that the Cetera did not have, and that they had not ever suspected she possessed...

//... they would destroy me... if they did... if they knew what I knew, that I could reach /him/...//

Did it matter, though?  Could she still reach him, would she be able to for long, and would he understand, no matter what she sent?

Aeris could have screamed in frustration, at only being able to speak to him through their common language, through memories they both could share... Cloudís memories...  but did he have any idea, any idea what that meant?  Of why the Cetera /truly/ feared his presence, why they wanted him dead so badly?

Aeris could not see /his/ thoughts, not as she could Cloudís, and it was hard to reach him, getting more and more difficult with each moment that passed... and...

He was no understanding hero, no noble, kind protector... even when perfectly sane.

The way he acted, the cold, calculating distance, the dangerous silence... sometimes it made the flower girl wonder how much of her own drive, her own insistence to see him as the key was simply insanity.  To give someone like him even the briefest of glimpses into Cloudís soul, to give a murderer, no matter what the circumstance, /that/ kind of opportunity, that ability to hurt him, so intimately... what was she /thinking/?

Aeris could only hope, just as strongly as the Cetera had discounted it, that someone else was there with him, with both of them, to help show them the way...

//... Zack...//

The flower girl closed her eyes for a moment, at the warm, sweet memory of his smile, his strength...

Zack /would/, if he could... if he saw and knew, perhaps even if he didnít understand... he would do anything to help his friends...

Unfortunately, even Aeris couldnít see enough details, didnít know enough to be able to try and stop or even slow down the terrible future she knew was coming, and had no idea what tragedy her former love would have to avert.

All she knew was that the Cetera were planning, that they were preparing, which meant that time was running out...

       

"Uh... sir..."

Cloud opened his eyes with infinite care, shifted just as slowly, feeling a piece of the wall he was leaning against dig painfully into his shoulder blade.  It took a moment to remember where he was, having to tear his thoughts out of the thick fog that crept over his mind every time he relaxed... even for a moment...

//... not just tired... itís shock... trying to keep... to keep me from having to... to...//

It didnít matter, he thought, and the anger scraped against the inside of his mind like a sharp stone.  His consciousness was trying to protect itself, desperately warding away the future, but he knew it didnít really matter, that nothing...

//... nothing matters... not anymore... itís all been done, it was all done months ago... only the consequences remain...//

If not sooner, than later, and it would all have the same result... it was all inevitable...

The blonde looked up, as Roman shifted from foot to foot in front of him, and finally saw the cup of ice in his lieutenantís hand.

"Sir... I figured... maybe if you had a break... I couldnít find any actual /food/..."

Cloud almost grinned at the annoyance in his lieutenantís voice.  The ineptness of the ShinRa kitchens, even among the companyís usual level of incompetence, was legendary.

"Thanks Ro... thanks..."

The ice was so cold it was almost sweet, he savored the feel of it cracking between his teeth, the sharp sensation cutting all the way down to his stomach, the way the chill of it nearly made him shiver.

//... thatís not just the ice, you know...//

He had tried unsuccessfully to gauge his own temperature a few times, after he noticed that each blink felt as if he were drawing two heating pads over his eyeballs.  He was sure now that he was running a fever, not dangerously high, but still...

//... it doesnít matter, Iíve done it before... Iím still standing, and if I can stand, I can fight, and if I can fight, then this can all go on... it has to go on...//

All around him, he could hear the sounds of elation, of relief and success swirling through North Corel, as more and more soldiers arrived back from the front.  He and Roman were currently standing in the officerís section of the town, the most determinedly stoic and serious set of men and women anywhere, and even here Cloud could see and hear only pure joy, warm embraces, passionate kisses between long-separated lovers, large groups that slowly moved down the roads between buildings, loudly drifting towards some larger party, taking along anyone they could, gathering momentum and manic glee as they passed each building.

The blonde could barely imagine what it was like down in the enlisted menís barracks, or in the Wutai sections of town, or at the Gold Saucer...

Cloud smiled, knowing he had earned this, earned at least one moment of victory.

This was what he had done it all for.  All the fighting, all the months of struggle and sacrifice had all been for this perfect moment.  For one more day his men, the civilians, everyone else on the Planet could live and love and celebrate.  His struggle, his victory had earned them all one more day.

//Itís worth it... goddamn it... itís worth it...//

"How... howís it going, sir?"

Cloud shook his head wearily, at both the question and the tone, the undercurrent of fear in the redheadís voice cutting deep and very painful.  Ro was afraid of him now, truly afraid, not simply the slight nervousness that the blonde could ignore most of the time...  His lieutenant had heard him admit to killing Elicia... and now everything had changed...

//... everyone did... everyone heard... thereís no way... no way to escape it now...//

The boy still stood before him, though, refusing to dishonor his position, simply because he was afraid.

//Youíll be a General someday, Ro...//  The proud thought went south at an astronomical rate //... probably soon, in fact, as soon as Anjeleís done flaying me alive ...//

Cloud knew that it was probably less pure honor on the boyís part than total disbelief, that Ro could or would not believe that his commander had murdered another General in cold blood, that the man he had come to respect and follow could be responsible for such a heinous act...

"... even more heinous than that..." Cloud murmured, the memories flooding in on him /any/ time he dared to think about it, "... she wasnít the only... innocent... I..." his voice choked on itself as he realized he was speaking aloud, and broke off into instant silence.

"Sir?"

Roman was watching him, slightly confused, and a little worried.  The fear swallowed it all after a moment, all the concern dying in his eyes, and Cloud slowly shook his head.

//... so tired... so tired of this fear... this pain...//

"Itís nothing, Roman.  Itís all going fine."

Cloud looked up, just as the edge of Roís dark wine hair caught the sunlight, dusted it in pale highlights, because it was so thin, baby fine, really...

He hadnít looked at his younger officer up close in a long time... and he noticed that the boy hadnít changed... hadnít aged the way it /felt/ they all had, the way Cloud knew they all had... no one could survive a war like that and stay whole...

//Peel back the dirt, though... and nothingís changed... on the outside, nothingís changed...//

Ro was watching him nervously, unsure of why his Generalís gaze had pinned him, but the blonde could not tear his eyes away...

//Children... theyíre children when they come in, and when they come out, and when they die... theyíll never know... never know another life than this...//

"God, Ro, youíre so /young/..."

"Um... sir?" The redhead was too surprised to know how to react, had no official reaction to the comment, or the surprising level of emotion in The Generalís usually dead eyes.

"You donít have to stay here, Ro... things arenít going to get any better, and I can handle worse..." Cloud sighed softly, "Youíve been fighting for nine /months/, kid... go take a break... get drunk, get laid... go live your life for a while..."

"Sir?"  Ro was still staring, confused, "... you... you donít need me, sir?"

Cloud shook his head.

"Just go."

The redheaded soldier didnít move.  Cloud could see the boy was fighting conflicting impulses, could see that Ro was even worried, perhaps, about the stability of his commander...

//... but like I said before, I doubt if it could get any /worse/...//

"Iíll order you if I have to, Ro."

"N-no sir," The redhead saluted, taking a few steps back, "Iíll be around, sir, if you need me... and thank you..."

Cloud sighed slightly as he heard Ro leave, eyes closing, leaning his head back against the solid wall behind him.

//How much would he thank me... if he knew I just wanted him away... I wanted everyone /away/ from me... until I can figure... figure /everything/ out...//

Who to be, now?  Who was he supposed to be?  Cloud the solider... or Cloud the leader... or the boy from Nibelheim...?

His mouth quirked upward in a joyless smile, at the absurdity of that thought.

//... that boy is dead... he died a long time ago...//

It was all impossible, of course, nothing more than silly, pointless conjecture on his part.  Anyone else and Cloud the General simply could not exist side by side.  He could not show weakness /and/ lead an army, he could not be both friend and commander... he could not look at...

Cloud smiled wearily, eyes still firmly closed, forced himself to finish the thought //... could not look at Sephiroth... hell, I canít even /think/ about him... god... pathetic...//

He could not go back, not all those years, could never go back to the person he had been...

//My friends... how could I tell them...? ... tell them the truth, when I already know what would come... Theyíd hate me... everyone would...//

The blonde shuddered, though he knew his secret was still secret, from everyone save Zack, still locked up tightly in the hidden spaces in his soul...

//... secret... but for how long?//

/Forever./  He answered his own question.  No matter what happened, no matter /what/, his friends could never, ever know.

//... but these things... these things have a way of letting themselves be known... and you canít be the way you were, canít be careful like you were then, back at Midgar.//

He had to be in full view now, when he had been so careful, in the past, to make himself so invisible.  How long... how long could he possibly hide, when he could hide nothing?

//... and what will I do... what will I do if /he/... if he... finds out...//

The thought was truly too frightening to bear, and Cloud had to let it go.

It was all he had left, really, that lie, that he was The General now, and in control.  It was the only way to salvage anything, to be the person his friends all thought he was, to stare unblinkingly into his enemyís eyes... the man everyone /knew/ he despised... to say the things they needed to hear him say, his agreement in that hatred... because he couldnít tell them... how could he tell them...?

//... that it was their hatred, not mine... their anger... never mine... never...//

How could he tell them that there had been, that there still was a Cloud who could have looked at Sephiroth...

//... no... a Cloud who could never have looked at him... not like that, with that familiarity... that Cloud, that past Cloud never would have dared to gaze so easily upon such perfection...//

The mask he wore, made up of all his friendís ideals, was all he had left to save himself.

The blonde sighed, hoping the meeting would start soon.  These thoughts, this silence ran rampant through his mind, and he could not show weakness now...

//Me, weak?  ... but I always thought I /was/... or maybe...  Hell, I donít even know who I am anymore...  Maybe... maybe that /is/ me, that hero...  Maybe the me right now... maybe heís the one thatís false...//

That was a nice thought, the best possibility in a world of insane choices.  Maybe he really was dreaming, and when he woke up, it wouldnít be him... he wouldnít exist... and some other Cloud would have to go on living...

He certainly didnít think, no matter what the Cetera said, that he could do this for much longer...

       

It wasnít more than a few minutes after he had sent Ro away, that a voice called out to him softly, very close.

"Cloud?"

Of course, he had known she was standing there, had heard the soft sound of her boots against the ground, and the footsteps of everyone that had followed her well before she spoke, but Cloud didnít look up until he had to, couldnít look up, hoping to prolong the inevitable down to the very last...

//... I shouldnít have come out here... damn it... I shouldnít have let them find me... let her...//

He was so tired that not even the extent of that regret could sink in... everything seemed so fixed, as if it had already happened, as if he was living in a movie, and there was just no use fighting it... as if nothing he did would change a thing...

//I never wanted to hurt her... I never...//

"Cloud...?"

That voice, more hesitant this time, because he hadnít answered, hadnít acknowledged her.  The blonde looked up slowly, steadying himself... bringing the mask down... hiding again...

Her soft, fawn colored eyes were brimming with unshed tears as they looked into his, full of more emotion than either one of them could bear.

Tifa rocked forward, just slightly, he could tell that she wanted to come nearer, but held herself back, hesitant, unsure of how he would react...  He tried to tell himself that she wasnít scared, and refused to look for any signs of it on her face, in those deep, beautiful eyes...

//... youíre a monster, Cloud... for hurting her like this...//

"Hey, Tifa..."

He dropped his arms just enough to allow her an opening, and Tifa quickly took it, throwing herself against him, holding as tightly as she could... He dropped his head against hers, into her hair... she smelled wonderful... so sweet, warm and alive in his arms, something he had not felt in such a long, long time,

//Oh god... that life... I tried... I tried to keep her safe...//

He winced, as his conscience quickly responded, that trying wasnít succeeding, that trying itself meant nothing, and would not save her from this war...

//Iíll keep you safe Tifa... I promised... I promise...//

Cloud made sure not to touch her with his bare skin, grateful that his hands were in his gloves, so that she wouldnít notice the fever, if indeed he was sick...  He had vowed to himself, would keep that vow... he would not make her worry about him, not ever again.

//... but why...?  Why is she even here... God... why?//

Cloud could feel her body shaking slightly with sobs, just as he could feel the gap between his heart and his intellect, the invisible walls of his necessary protection, widening with every second... eating away at him from the inside out, forcing the emotions aside, away, anywhere he didnít have to feel them anymore...

//How could I tell her... /anything/ now... How can I... and Iíll have to... I never wanted to hurt anyone... I never...//

"Iím so sorry, Tifa..." He whispered in her ear, knowing no amount of gentleness would take the pain away, and felt his heart seize as another sob shook her.  After all he had done, all he had tried to protect her from, he could see now that the culmination of those deeds would undo her... Tifa /did/ love him, and now she hurt, hurt because of him...

... and because of Reeve, who of course, hadnít come along with the rest of the old team, although the first wave of anger he had towards the man had passed long ago.

//... how /could/ you, Reeve...?//  Most of the anger had passed, but never all.

Cloud no longer felt much of anything, only a tired despair, the sorrow of having Tifa here now, the continued, unstoppable inevitability of it all...

It would have happened eventually, he thought, he would have hurt her somehow...

//... because of you, because of what you /are/... and how many more will have to hurt, because of you?//

Cloud could not begin to think about what was coming, what lay beyond the next few hours... after the situation with Godo was resolved.... that Tifa and the rest of them had only begun to see... didnít even know how bad it would get, what horror... what pain...

//God... please... no...//

The silent plea came without thought, although he knew it would do no good.

Tifaís father had been right, all those years ago, right for the wrong reasons, for reasons he never could have understood, and Cloud only wished his punishment had gone deeper, had been enough to truly feed the rage he had seen in the older manís eyes...

//... he should have killed me then... for something I hadnít even done yet... he would have done the world such a favor...//

Cloud looked up past the top of Tifaís head as her crying slowed, already knowing what he would see, all his friends, gathered together again, quietly watching him, a thousand questions hiding in their eyes.  The blonde tried not to think about it, tried to let it wash over him without sinking in, but the fear came anyway, placing a lens of absolute foresight over the scene, throwing it into darkness and threatening to stop his heart...

He could already see their gazes turn as they watched him, as he told them, told them everything, and could see their eyes go dark, cold, angry, full of nothing but loathing and disgust... and soon they would know what he did, what he /was/...

Cloud felt his legs lock up, and, for a panic soaked moment, paralyzing terror was all that kept him from pushing Tifa away and running for his life, his sanity.

//I canít do this... I canít... I canít...//

He couldnít hide it... couldnít do anything to stop it... the distance, the physical space was all that had saved him before, from having to deal with everything, and now it had been reduced to nothing.  They would all see what he had tried to keep from them, what he had fought so hard to get away from... Elicia... what he had done...

//... loathsome... thing... unnatural creature... monster...//

... and he would be completely alone.

"General!"

Cloud turned at the heavily accented salutation, the Wutai aide standing just off of Cidís shoulder not saluting, but standing perfectly still as he delivered the latest in a long string of messages, using only the Wutai language, a conscious slight against any listening ShinRa ears.

The blonde could feel Tifaís eyes on him as he responded in turn, the foreign tongue almost second nature to him now, after so long fighting on both sides...

The fluency came from necessity, from knowing that Hojo had been Jenovaís only instructor, and the Halfspawn came from her... that sometimes the Spawn understood ShinRa orders, but only those words that Hojo could... and the scientist hated Wutai far too much to take anything from them, including the language...

//Wutai... if we lose Wutai /now/...//

The aide turned on his heel as soon as he had finished, and disappeared.  Cloud didnít want to speak into the silence that followed, didnít want to meet Tifaís curious eyes for any reason.

"That was nothing... just... Godo wants another twenty minutes to prepare..."

"Howís it going?"

Yuffieís voice was too calm, the usual humor stripped away, her eyes full of anxiety.  Cloud shrugged as Tifa finally took a step back, still standing close to him, as if afraid to move too far away.

"I canít really tell yet.  There hasnít been much progress, in between the unintelligible swearing..."

Cloud rubbed the bridge of his nose briefly, closing aching eyes for a moment, feeling the edges of his walls, his barriers crumbling... his jaw clenching in determination.  He had to salvage it... had to salvage... because Cloud Strife didnít care, about anything... because The General was untouchable, distant... he had to be...

"I didnít realize Wutai had so many ways of comparing ShinRa officials to Chocobo dung," he finally finished.

Yuffie couldnít help grinning then, the skeletal remains of that brilliant humor lighting up her face, "... weíve had some time to practice."

       

//He wonít look at me...//

For the most part, from a good enough distance, Cloud looked as if he were holding his own against the pressures around him... leaning almost casually against the side of the building, speaking in a low, quiet murmur, obviously tired, but not overly troubled, not /in/ trouble...

//Bullshit...//

Zack ignored the actual conversation, knowing all of it was little more than small talk, as everyone tried to avoid words with edges, with dangers.  The SOLDIER kept his eyes on Cloudís, watching those blue gems flick across the faces of the group.

Person to person, person to person, those glowing mirrors moved like clockwork, almost as if timed, to pretend that they were moving unhurriedly, to maintain the faÁade, that the blonde was calm, that everything was all right...

Of course, that precision, that obvious mechanical determination to maintain the image, was what destroyed it completely.

Cloud was in desperate trouble... it was at /least/ as bad as Zack had thought it might be... and there were still so many things he didnít understand, he didnít know...

//What happened, Cloud... what /happened/ out there?//

He had expected to see some change, between the way his friend had been before and the way he was now, some guarded behavior, to keep his secrets, especially after Zack had learned that he was still the /only/ one who knew what had really happened, that Cloud had not told any of his new friends about anything, including Sephiroth.

The difference between his friend then and The General now, though, was almost total, as if half of the blonde had just been cut away, discarded, unnecessary.

There were two separate entities now: the Cloud that Zack had befriended, and the general, the war hero who stood before them now... and even Tifa, Cid and the rest of them seemed stunned, surprised by his sudden coldness.

//... impossible... Iíd almost think it was impossible, to hide like that...//

He would have, but he remembered the way Cloud had hid at the academy, the way he had always existed on the edges of life itself, how that distance had been like an instinct to him, even at such a young age.

Cloud was still hiding now... in full view, but with every gesture weighed, every word measured in advance.  He was still managing to hide everything.

Zack /needed/ to talk to his friend, desperately needed to find out what was going on, which meant he had to get Cloud alone, away from everything that the blonde had spent so long hiding himself from, constructing such elaborate defenses...

//ShinRaís bitch!?//

Hearing that, that snarling, absolute anger coming from /Cloud/ of all people... it had shocked Zack more than it ever could have surprised Sephiroth...

The sorrow... his shame, because there had never been a chance...

//... because youíve never known that, have you Seph?  Youíve never realized that he /could/ feel anything else, that there was a time... that he knew you, watched you, /worshiped/ you... so long ago...//

There had been so many mistakes, so many things Zack knew he should have done differently...

The dark-haired SOLDIER was broken from his reverie at the sight of one of Lord Godoís aides, catching a glimpse of the brightly colored imperial insignia out of the corner of his eye.  It made him grit his teeth involuntarily.

Zack had become friends with Godo over the last few years, impossible as it may have seemed, and knew exactly why the other man was so angry... understood that he must have felt horribly betrayed, that there could be no trust between him and ShinRa anymore.

The fighter understood that perfectly, he had stopped trusting ShinRa a long time ago, if he ever really had at all...

//... but why /now/?  Of all times... why... I /know/ itís important, damn it... I know heís hurting... but why /now/!?//

Cloud had followed the aide with his eyes as well, but quickly averted his gaze toward the ground when Zack finally spoke.

"So, what does he want?"

"Sephirothís head on a war pike, for starters," Cloud muttered, "... I figure if I let him scream at me for another few hours, he might decide to grace me with a few more ideas, workable ones."

"He hasnít mentioned... withdrawing support...?" Yuffie said softly.  Cloudís grin was like a open wound, dripping bitter mirth.

"Only about a thousand times or so... that was the first thing out of his mouth, actually... and the second...  For now, I think weíre safe... Iíve convinced him, I think, that my goals and ShinRaís goals are two mutually exclusive items..."

//That goes...// Zack thought, //... without saying.//

"... and besides, in the end... what the hell /else/ is he going to do?"

The statement was made with a bitter finality, an unspoken knowledge between all those who had fought, that this was not a war with many choices.

Cloud leaned back for a moment, stretching the muscles in his back, and pulled a small bottle out of his pocket.  He shook a few tiny pills into one hand, sighed, dumped them back and just dry swallowed the entire contents of the bottle.

"Hypers?"

Cloud nodded, definitely would not meet his friendís eyes now.  Zack opened his mouth to protest, but a sharp, almost brittle voice beat him to it.

"You know, Iíve got some battery acid you could drink instead.  It would work quicker."

The blonde General visibly tensed as a dark-haired woman in a white coat stepped closer, and Tifa flinched at the dry, brittle sarcasm, spread thinly atop a vicious hostility, in his voice.

"Good to see you again, Melissa."

       

The woman took another step forward, the light that glinted in her dark gray eyes matching the reflection off the metal clipboard in her hands.  Though petite and reserved, the woman radiated a feeling of authority, a cold, professional chill that instantly reminded both Cid and Barret of Scarlet.

The two men shared a look, both curious and knowing, from past dealings with people who had looked just like the doctor in front of them now.  This woman was new, but odds were, she had no good news.

"Dr. Melissa, please... and you can cut the sarcasm crap, General, itís getting old..." The doctor sighed, looked down at her clipboard, and looked at each of them in turn.

"... Mr. Wallace, Mr. Valentine, Ms. Lockheart and..." she looked up at the giant lion for a moment, but no visible surprise crossed her face, "Nanaki... Iím going to need you for a few new vaccinations, a round of shots, the basics... if you plan on staying here at North Corel..."

If Cloud paled another degree at that casual remark, that his friendsí visit was already considered permanent, he did so quietly, and no one noticed.

Melissa ran a hand through her short, wavy black hair, tapping her pen slightly against the clipboard.

"... Highwind and Kisaragi... youíre fine... General Zack..."  The woman looked up, and her expression might have lightened slightly, reflecting the warmth of his good-natured grin, "... a little low on vitamins and sleep, but thatís no big surprise..."

The doctorís head snapped up, she looked around her for a moment, gazing past all of them almost expectantly, and frowned.

"I was hoping I would get a chance to meet General Sephiroth..."

"Youíd have a lot to talk about, Iím sure..." Cloud said dryly, earning another frown.  Melissa rearranged a few papers on her clipboard, and met his icy eyes with an equally cold stare.

"I didnít get a report from the attending physician assigned to your unit, General.  You know, the doctor whoís supposed to make sure youíre not killing yourself out there..."

"Our official medic got decapitated by a half a block of concrete a week out... I couldnít justify the manpower to retrieve a spare."

Melissaís eyebrow may have twitched in annoyance, the only sign of emotion on an otherwise expressionless face.  Whatever tension Cloud and Anjele had brought out between them, the power struggle between him and Melissa seemed to be just as bad, if not worse...

//... this is worse...// Cid thought, trying hard not to fidget.

He could feel it in the air, could almost see it, that horrible tension threading between everyone in the group, connecting them all in a huge, inflexible web of slowly building anger, frustration...  This was what had made it so hard to intervene before, with Anjele, and made breaking in to the conversation almost impossible now.

"There was no attending specialist..." Melissa finally said, in too-level tones, "... for nine months."

Cloud nodded.  The doctor paused, sighed, and ultimately just shook her head wearily, still staring at him with a mixture of disgust and anger in her eyes.

"Well, I was supposed to come to you to retrieve the monthly reports... now I see why no one else had them.  They donít exist."

The woman reached into the pocket of her lab coat, pulled out a new ballpoint pen as she let go of the old one, clicked the tip up sharply and started to make a few introductory notes.  Cloud raised an eyebrow.

"Youíre going to do this now?"

Melissaís gaze was easily as determined as his own.

"Godoís not ready yet, and youíve managed to, with /any/ advance warning, avoid almost every clinical test Iíve ever tried to give you... /General/," she ground the word out, as if expecting him not to remember it, "So, yes... as long as youíre standing in front of me, Iím going to do it now."

Cloud sighed slightly, and turned to Cid, as if determined to deal with the doctor only as an aside, not to allow her to be the center of his attention.

"So, howís the Bronco?  I heard you had a few close calls up there."

Cid nodded slowly, eyes flicking over to the doctor as she clicked her pen again.

"Whenís the last time you ate?"

Cloud shrugged.

"No idea.  What day is it?"

Melissa frowned, "Funny, General."

A few stomachs clenched at the quiet steadiness in Cloudís voice, "It wasnít supposed to be."

The doctorís hair bounced slightly as she shook her head, sighing disgustedly, and the blonde turned back to Cid.

"Halfspawn clipped the wing... thatís what I heard..."

"Yeah," Cid did his best not to seem nervous, kept glancing at the doctor anyway, with the background of his thoughts still looping over what his friend had said... what Cloud had admitted to...

//I killed her... I killed her... I killed her...//

The pilot forced himself to stop thinking about it, "... yeah, the damned spawn... we got the plane back in the air just in time for the engine to give out."

"Isnít that always the way..."

Cid chuckled, hoping it didnít seem as tight and forced as his nod, "Thank God for the Highwind."

       

Melissa had finished the set of notes on The Generalís eating schedule, or severe lack thereof.

"All right, how about sleep?"

Cloud shook his head, "Donít know."

The doctor pointed to the small, white bottle he still held in his hand, "how many daily?"

"It was full yesterday."

"Youíre an addict."  Her expression was flat, she wasnít joking.

"Youíre only an addict if it feels good."  Cloud wasnít joking either.

//It barely takes the edge off anyway, you moron...//  He was angry, that she dared to assume... that he was somehow enjoying himself...

//Iím just tired... always so tired...//

It was mostly another way to get under her skin, to satisfy his urge to lash out at...

//doctors... scientists... white lab coats...//

... at her, and anyone like her, whenever possible.  It was worth it, to take them in ever increasing doses and admit it so freely, just to watch her frown, see the anger in her eyes.

Cloud tried to speak to Cid again, to take the edge off having to deal with Melissa, but sensed the fear there before he ever opened his mouth... and that fear hurt... hurt almost as badly as looking into Tifaís eyes, seeing the confusion... the wounded gaze staring back, but so sweetly even in its pain, always trusting him, caring...

Her love was worse than the doctorís professional detachment, far, far worse.

Cloud found he could not speak again... not to Vincent or Yuffie or Nanaki... half out of fear of seeing their fear, and half because /he/ was so afraid... afraid that they would notice something, some guilty thing in his eyes... that he would reveal the real secret somehow... and his world, his carefully constructed haven would come crashing down around him...

//I canít... I canít do this... I canít...//

Cloud tried to think of something to say to Barret for a few minutes, but finally just stopped himself, and gave up.

The former leader of AVALANCHE had been given his home back, had to have been living almost in a dream since he had returned to North Corel, the smile still glowing in the spaces, between the lines on his face, permanent scars of a hard-lived, hard-won life...

Cloud could not ruin his joy... would not dare to taint it with his questioning, with his presence...

//... everything... everything I do, I /am/ causes pain...//

"Scarlet gave me this..." The doctor held up the small vial with the tiny barb inside, "... and she told me you got hit."

The blonde nodded.

"Let me see..."

Cloud pulled up his shirt as he had before, turning towards the doctor.  Tifa gasped.  Standing closer now, she could see the slight red and blue marks, like spider webs under the skin, in between the small, scabbed-over sores, the extent of the damage worse than she thought it had been.

"Itís not that bad," Cloud murmured, grateful for being able to console her, being able to turn his head away as the doctor approached.  He did not want to watch Melissa for long... could not see her coming at him, no matter what his common sense tried to tell him, that he had nothing to fear...

//... white coats... white lab coats... and screaming... never again... never /again/...//

He absolutely refused to flinch as the doctorís thin hand ran along his side, touching a few of the scabs with thin fingertips, as precise as any machine.  Cloud didnít have to look to know that all the anger had dropped from Melissaís face, that /all/ emotion had been wiped away while she examined him.  He was avoiding that soulless, pitiless look, her gaze the same reason he had done everything in his power to avoid having to see her in the past.

That look... that look had been in Hojoís eyes too... the look that said, in the end, he was nothing more than an experiment to be tested, examined, just another piece of meat to poke holes into...

       

//... take a look...//

Cloud flinched as Sephirothís voice murmured through his thoughts, a distant memory he did /not/ need right now... one that wasnít even his, really... of a time long ago, back at Nibelheim, of row upon row of egg-shaped incubators... Mt. Nibel... the creatures that dwelled within... not SOLDIERS, but hideous monsters.... created by Mako...

//Weíll begin the initial procedure...//

Hojoís voice now... another moment from a less distant past, his own memory this time... and, strapped to the table, tied and bound and gagged, he could see that first syringe of pure green, felt fear...

//no idea... you had no idea then how bad it was going to get...//

... felt the fear, because he wasnít a SOLDIER... and if you werenít a SOLDIER... there was only one place left to go...

Cloud screamed well before the needle pierced his flesh, his muffled cries of terror through the gag only making Hojo smile slightly... and the hand came down... the shining tip of that needle coming closer... and closer...

//... please donít... please /donít/... donít turn me into a monster...

/PLEASE/!!!//

       

"General!"

Cloud snapped out of his memories to see Melissa staring at him.  The doctor had obviously been talking for a while, and he hadnít heard a word.

"I /asked/, is that," one finger pointed at the row of sores, "a reaction to Mako energy?"

"Most likely," Cloud nodded, "... the guys that died, the ones we found, all had symptoms of extreme Mako poisoning..."

"Iím going to need a blood sample, then.  A full vial, to test..."

"It was a while ago... I feel great..."

Cloud nearly jumped, felt the adrenaline rush through his body as she pulled the needle from her pocket.

//no... no no no NO /NO/!!!!//

"... it doesnít matter, we donít know how..."

//NO! NO MORE /EVER/!!!//

"Iím /fine/, doctor."

Cloud rounded on her, eyes blazing beyond their usual glow, and for a few moments they were engaged in a silent showdown, neither he nor her ready to back down.

The blonde knew Zack was watching, knew the other man understood... It wasnít anger, but fear... God, he hated needles... even now, the thought, the memories piling up on one another almost made him shudder, almost made him want to scream...

"Iíve met mules less stubborn than you are, Strife," Melissa finally muttered, averting her eyes, and sighed when he didnít answer, "Fine.  No blood.  You kick off to the Promised Land in the middle of the night, itís no problem of mine..."  The doctor put the needle back in her pocket, produced a vial and a small pair of tweezers, "... but Iím still going to need a biological sample..."

He lifted his arm slightly, tightening the skin, saw Tifa wince as Melissa reached in with the tweezers and quickly ripped one of the scabs away.  Cloud barely felt the sting, just let his shirt fall once she had finished, feeling just a few drops of new blood already sticking the fabric to the open sore.

"I heard you killed a Fullspawn... single-handedly," Melissa said, putting the vial back in her pocket, "Iíve heard soldiers talking about it all over... no one knows what to think..."

"What do you think?"  Cloud couldnít help the hard edge in his voice.  All her pretension, her closed-off attitude just made him tired, annoyed.

"I think youíre going to kill yourself if you keep this up.  I think, that if this world were still a sane place, youíd already be dead."

"Good thing weíre crazy then..." Cloud murmured softly, his voice distant, lifeless.

       

"Sir!"

Cloud turned, caught Godoís eyes, the Wutai leader standing behind the aide that had shouted to him.  The dark-haired man looked from Cloud to his daughter, ignoring everyone else and turned away, walking quickly back towards the official meeting room.

"I have to go," Cloud murmured, moving just as quickly as Godo, not giving any of them a second glance.

"Cloud... I could help..." Zack said, taking a step forward.  Beside him, Yuffie shook her head in agreement, but Cloud kept moving away, didnít turn around farther than it took to speak to them, to make sure they could hear his reply.

"ShinRa smashed a lot of things, broke them open, wounds that never really healed the first time... I think we should just play it the way Godo wants for now..."

Tifa swore she was watching some sort of replay, some skip in the record of life, as once again, Cloud turned in silence, and walked away, alone.

       

Yuffie was the first to speak, and her call of "good luck" only reached Cloud after he had turned the corner, she never knew whether he had heard her or not.  The rest of them were stuck in the same uncomfortable silence that seemed to be following them everywhere.

"Heís in rough shape," Melissa said sharply, after a moment, "... you should really consider doing something about that, General."

Zackís eyes narrowed, he turned on the young woman angrily.

"You werenít helping any, /doctor/."

Melissa snorted, eyes glinting with amused sarcasm.

"Thatís not my job... remember, Iím the enemy..."  The woman looked down, and took the lapel of her white lab coat in between her thumb and forefinger, "... ah, damn it..."

"You shouldnít have worn..."

"I didnít /mean/ to..." The doctor snarled, cutting Zack off, "I forgot.  I have family too, you know.  Out there.  A brother in Neo Midgar... and if you think I donít know where Hojo will strike first, if he wins the war over here..."

"Whatís going on?"  Barret muttered, confused.  If there was anything the former AVALANCHE leader truly hated, it was being left in the dark.  More than enough past experience told him it could only lead to problems.  "What you talking about, doc?"

Melissa looked at him for a moment, and shrugged, turning her eyes towards the notes on her clipboard.

"The coat.  I forgot I was wearing it... I usually donít, in case thereís an emergency..."

The doctorís eyes flicked up in the silence, to see that everyoneís eyes were still mainly blank, confused...  Melissa sighed.

"The General reacts... poorly, to certain reminders of his years as one of Hojoís... test subjects," one slim, thin-fingered hand tugged on her collar, "... like my white coat.  I try not to wear it around him, or when heís nearby, and might need my help. The last time I saw him, he had been bitten by a very nasty creature, Mako-enhanced of course... there was blood, everywhere, and he was badly injured and... slightly disoriented..."  The doctorís words were surprisingly emotionless, almost disinterested, "He didnít recognize me immediately, only saw the coat... and broke my arm in three places.  If he hadnít been weakened by his wounds, he would have killed me..."

The silence was no longer due to confusion, and Tifa was almost gaping in surprised shock.  Melissa adjusted a few more papers in her clipboard, let the fastener snap shut as her eyes flicked to Zack.

"Iíll be around if you need me, General... or /when/ Strife needs me..."

The doctor turned on her heel, and quickly disappeared from view.

 

 

 

 

Wild Authorís notes stole my baby!

1.No, I have no idea what Wutai as a language sounds like.  All I know is that I am absolutely horrible at trying to create new words, so I didnít bother trying to have anyone speak it, and if I can help it, I wonít do it at all anywhere in this story.

2.Iím trying to format this thing with spaces in between paragraphs but it doesnít want to work.  If anyone knows how to do this on a Word 2000 program I would be GREATLY APPRECIATIVE!!!!

3.Chapter 17 can be thought of as Chapter 16 part 2, because originally I wasnít going to stop the chapter here, but I just canít write 30 pages and still keep any thoughts straight in my head.  I know this is kind of slow right now but I am building up to some stuff... hang in there, ok?

4.I want to thank the person (the exact screen name eludes me right now) who gave me the heads up on that "Reno-Ro" switch in the last chapter.  Rude, Reno, Ro... ow, why do I do these things to myself?  Thank you thank you thank you! I really appreciate that (Iíd like to think, in my more serious moments, that Iím actually a perfectionist... hey, stop laughing.  : )  )


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