A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 18

By Twig

       

"I once had a patient who used to practice the most horrible tortures on himself, and when I asked him why he did such things, he said, "Why, before the world does them."  I asked him then, "Why not wait and see what the world will do?" and he said "Donít you see?  It always comes at last, but this way at least I am master of my own destruction."

- I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

 

// ... she could touch his dreams now... It would take some effort, of course, to break through, to cross the distance between them... and to outfox the Cetra, who were so intent on her every move now, or more specifically, on Cloudís every move...

// ... Aeris could reach his dreams again... but what good would that do?  He was resting now, quiet and content, sleeping more peacefully, more soundly than he had in years, thanks to the sense of peace and security, so tenuous, that had been so carefully wrapped around him... thanks to Zack...

//I knew... I knew he would do the right thing... I knew he wouldnít fail...//  The flower girlís heart swelled with love, and pride, //I never trusted you enough, Zack... I never really gave you my heart, never believed enough in you... and it was the worst mistake I ever made...//

Unfortunately, Aeris knew, despite all her former loveís effort... despite the small victory, the peaceful night... it would not be enough, not nearly enough to stop what was coming, to slow down the onslaught of the Cetra...

No matter what she tried to say, Aeris knew, if she went to Cloud now, it would only make things harder for him... and that he could never fully believe in her anyway, the /real/ her... not anymore...

The other Aeris, the mask, the body the Cetra wore to disguise their cruel intentions... they had done so much damage... had hurt him /so/ badly...

Aeris shook with rage... could feel the crescent-moon depressions her nails would have left, digging into her hands... if she had still had a body...

How could they?  How could they hurt him like this, after everything he had fought for, all he had sacrificed... and how could they decide that /this/ was the best, final answer?! 

The brunette understood now, what they had been deliberating.  She could sense everything, as Cloud had screamed, trapped in terror and pain at the other end of their connection...

Sever the spirit from the body, and they would no longer have to worry about his rebellion.  Crush Cloudís soul, and then their weapon would be perfect...

Aeris shivered at the wave of cold hatred that washed through her, at the thought of her friend, reduced to nothing but an inanimate object...

Cloud, the Cetraís Vengeance, would be a cocked and loaded gun, a perfect, empty shell... nothing but the heartless killing machine they had always wanted...

Desperation... it was an act of pure, cruel desperation on her peopleís part.  Aeris had never thought the Cetra would be so brutal, so vicious, not even now...

//... and... if I want to save him...//

To save Cloud, she would have to take the very action that the Cetra feared most, the very reason behind their decision to strike when they did, the cause of their determined, relentless attack against Cloud.

... but would even that be enough?  Would it be enough to save him?

Aeris frowned.

//... /he/ doesnít understand... he... knows /nothing/ about Cloud, and... heís so cold, so /stubborn/... and... I /know/ he can be cruel...//  It hurt her to think it, to question herself and her motives, but the seriousness of the situation demanded a realistic view, //... and maybe... maybe, no matter how much he should... he really /doesnít/ care... maybe he never will...//

Aeris scowled, and her essence within the Lifestream flared brilliantly for a moment, shining brightly with newfound determination, and resolve.

No.  He cared... he /had/ to care... and if he didnít, Aeris would find a way to /make/ him... make him see the past... the present... and the one who loved him so much. 

It had been almost impossible to leave Cloud, back in the forest of the Ancients, to go and do what she knew had to be done, to die for the Planet.  Aeris knew it had hurt him deeply, knew now intimately what the blonde felt, the vicious weight of one more abandonment, one more person gone forever from his life...

//I never abandoned you, though, Cloud... I never did then... and I promise, I wonít now... not when you need me the most.//

       

//... are we all satisfied, then?  Are you happy?//

It was amazing how, even without a body, the self-confident voice of the Cetra mind could hold a keen, sarcastic edge, oozing pure self-satisfaction.  The voice of the other side, those who had tried to persuade Cloud and failed, by even the harshest means, was merely petulant, weak and moody in response.

//... just shut up...//

//We /told/ you... we told you it couldnít be done...//

//Oh, really?!//

A surge of anger, and there was no difference in the voices now, just bitter violence, frustration seeking release, //we tried... at the end... we tried your way, and /still/ he resisted us!//

//You gave him time... time to think... to breathe... to prepare...//

//Prepare?!// A surge of voices rose, swelled in a blue-green tide, whispering outrage, //We /had/ him... alone... there was /no/ support... and we pushed /hard/... and /still/ he refused...//

The urgent defense met only vicious scorn.

//You know nothing... and there is no art in your clumsy ways...// Snidely, the voice mocked itself, snarling at the efforts of its brethren.  //The time is coming... and soon... and you failed because you jumped the gun...//

//We tried to give him one more chance...//

//There is NO TIME for this!  No time for chances, for mercy!  We must act now... we /will/ strike out...//

//The other... the human... he has been touched by Mako, too... and the feelings he calls in the weapon are nearly as strong as...//

//Nothing...// The voice snapped, reducing all fears of Zackís presence, his power, to oblivion... //He is not strong enough to affect us... and, who knows, he may actually work to our advantage...//

A questioning murmur rose slowly through the tide, the shifting green, always in motion within the Lifestream, drawing together in interest...

//You overestimate humans... and their abilities, their compassion, their kindness... Look at the weapon... you can see his fear as clearly as we Can...  He knows, better than we do, of the cruelty of his species.  We know his secret... and when it is revealed, when /he/ is revealed...//

The Planet, perhaps, held its breath... and though none would admit it, it was perhaps what the Cetera feared the most...  In the end, they were servants, they were stewards... In the end, the Planet was not theirs at all, its power rested not with them, but with the weapon...

//... they will abandon him... all of them, even this beloved friend...  The weapon knows this, fears their revulsion for a very good reason.  The human inability to forgive, to understand... there will be no compassion, their cruelty and selfishness will deliver him into our power, permanently.//

       

The air he breathed in was chilly, and tasted harsh, like metal and chemicals.  Sephiroth took a quick step back, whirling in the empty corridor, furiously forcing his thoughts into a strict analysis, of where he had been only moments before, because this was all /very/ wrong...

//... I was looking over reports... listening to Reeve discuss... and then... I went to sleep...//

Green eyes widened in realization.

//Iím asleep.//

Sephiroth turned, another half step, and gently pressed his fingers against the very real-looking wall.  He almost smiled, had to admit he was impressed... these dreams of Aerisís were incredibly detailed... almost a universe of their own...

//So...// He kept his senses open, expecting some sight, some sign of the dark-haired girl, though all around him remained still and quiet... // I wonder... what is this one all about...?//

A door swung open behind him, Sephiroth turned, reacting a half-second before his mind caught up with what his eyes were seeing, the very familiar figure... gleaming glasses obscuring beady eyes, long slick hair pulled back in a messy ponytail... and Sephiroth reached for the sword he soon realized wasnít there... looked up...

... and Hojo walked /through/ him, continued down the hall without a single pause in his step, into another room.  Sephiroth could hear his footsteps echoing, fading as he moved down a flight of stairs.  It took him just a moment to catch his breath, to get over his surprise... and the anger that had seized him, the fury that had been the real cause of his racing heart...

//A ghostly visitor, then, in this land of dreams...//

Though he could touch the wall and door, the white-haired man found he had no difficulty passing through them as well... which he wanted to, as he slowly walked along the hallway, and heard a very familiar, distant murmur... 

His heart seized, as all at once, he knew precisely where he was, and exactly who was speaking.

Sephiroth moved through the door Hojo had vanished through, though the scientist was no longer in sight, and walked down a long, painfully familiar flight of gently spiraling stairs, the air chilling even further as the brightness around him increased... but painfully artificial, the brilliant white lights making his eyes ache.

//I remember this... I know what itís like... to live for /years/... in this false light...//

His footsteps soon sounded out on a metal-grated floor, and /everything/ he saw struck another brutally vivid memory... computer terminals, banks of the ugly, boxy machines... shining rows of plastic and glass tubes, always half-filled, as if the experiment would never end... metal tables, metal plating on the walls, reflecting a warped, twisted image back upon those who gazed into it... metal bars... metal /instruments/... for poking, and slicing and /digging/ in deep...

//... and that god-awful smell...//  It was almost thick enough to make a person gag, but never quite... simply nauseating, thoroughly permeating everything //... the too-sterile stink of it all...//

Sephiroth kept his calm.  His honor would allow nothing less... though the ambiance of the place made his skin crawl, bringing back all the memories of a hateful, unpleasant youth, one he had been desperate to crawl out of, and would /never/ return to...

//never... vulnerable... not again... /ever/...//

"Cloud?"

He turned at the voice, both familiar and strange, and quickly followed it to the source, the person that he had forgotten as his own memories had overwhelmed him.

//Zack?//

Two similar, clear-walled cells rested along one wall of the small room, each holding a single occupant, and nothing more.  It would have been humane, the transparency of the cage, if not for the fact that there was nothing to see outside the walls, and their almost total absence stripped their inhabitants of even the smallest privacy...  It gave Sephiroth a perfect view, one that compromised nothing, and he realized he had not even begun to regret... to feel the horror he felt now, at what he had done, at what his arrogance, his pride had brought down upon the one closest to him.

Zack sat, slumped in utter weariness against the side of the cell, his body pressed against the edge closest to the other cell, where Cloud lay in a heap, as if he had been tossed there by some brutal, clumsy hand.

"Hey... Spike?"

If there was any of the spirit, the rebellion left in his dark-haired friend, Sephiroth could not see it.  He looked only tired, completely worn down... despair could not make those hazel eyes shine like they had... and even the Mako glow was dull, and faded...

"Come on... come on, Spike... donít do this... not now... /please/..."

Zackís whisper cracked on the last word, and Sephiroth realized that it was the fatigue in the voice, the decimated, long-lost hope that had changed it so much, had rendered it nearly unrecognizable.

//He was always so confident, so fearless... I never thought...//  Sephiroth nearly smacked himself, /knowing/ it couldnít have been true, he couldnít have been that blind, and angry at himself because it /was/ the truth...

... because he had let Zack fool him into believing the lie, believing that his dark-haired friend was unstoppable, his spirit indomitable.  Zack had never showed weakness, the white-haired man couldnít remember even a single moment during the Wutai war, through the very worst, when his friend had not been strong...

//... for me... did he... for me?//

Sephiroth knew he was seen as completely unforgiving, utterly emotionless, a man who would not accept any less than perfection, under any circumstances... and yes, many times, of course, it /was/ true... but surely Zack realized... surely he knew...

//How important... how much I... care...//

/He knew,/ a small, snide voice responded, bringing all his thoughts to a razor sharp edge, /he knew... just like you knew that he wasnít always strong... just as much as you treated him with kindness, as you forgave his weaknesses... You know, the ones he never /showed/ you./

//Oh God...//

... and to think, only hours before, he had been sure the guilt could not get worse...

//... what did I do to you, Zack? What did I...?//

"Spike? ... Cloud?  You still with me...?"

Zackís raspy croak seemed to stick in the air, and he still received no answer from the limp form lying in the other cell.

The dark-haired SOLDIER looked all right, really, strained at the edges, perhaps, tense, underfed and exhausted, but physically fine, barely even bruised. 

Sephiroth could see, even staring down from his awkward angle, that the blonde boy had not been nearly so lucky.  His injuries were brutally visible underneath the bright lights... skin pale as chalk, but most of that, at least on his back where the white-haired man could see, barely visible beneath red, black and blue marks... deep tears in the skin, wide burns, and bruises... so /many/ bruises...

... and Sephiroth knew exactly what kinds of tortures would leave bruises like that... had undergone many of the procedures himself...

//... over the span of a /lifetime/, though... in a place where my survival, my well-being was at least of some concern... not only /five/ years... alone, at Hojoís mercy... /completely/ unprotected...//

For a moment, forgetting his place in the dream, in the past, Sephiroth shared Zackís obvious concern.  The boy didnít appear to be breathing.

"... Cloud...?"

"... yeah, Zack..." The blondeís voice was a weak, pained whisper, almost a groan, each word shaking more than the last, "... you know the deal... I wonít leave... if you... wonít..."

Zackís eyes lit up, just slightly, and a small, almost careful grin darted across his face, the barest hint of the man Sephiroth had known shining through for a split second.  It vanished, even before Cloud bit back a cry of pain, wrapping his arms around his stomach and curling into a tight ball on the floor of his cage.

"... sorry, Zack...  I didnít..." Cloud gasped for air, trembling, tears of pain squeezed out, dropping into the deep channels created by the boyís tension, his expression a twisted grimace as he struggled to speak without screaming, "... I... am... so /sorry/..."

Sephiroth could see his friendís dismay, and deep anger, wanting to help the other man, to reach out, unable to do anything at all.

"Itís all right, Cloud.  Itís not your fault..."

"... but..." Cloud whimpered, unable to get any more words out for the next few moments, rocking slightly, murmuring a few unintelligible words before speaking up again, "... but I didnít want him to hurt you... I didnít want...", he choked out, "... didnít..."

"Hojo made you say that.  He would have kept on torturing you until you did.  I didnít /want/ that, Cloud.  You didnít do /anything/ wrong.  I blame him... not you... /never/ you..."

"... weakness... Iím so..."  For a moment, it seemed, the agony of his shame had overcome even Cloudís physical pain, "... sorry..."

"/Donít/ be... I mean it."

"... but..."

"Cloud,"   Zackís voice was suddenly stern, almost angry, and the blonde turned his head up slightly.  Sephiroth could see the humor there, glimmering amidst the tears, and the pain.

"All right... sir..."

"Spike!" Zack barked, but the smile was once again on his face, and more importantly, in his eyes.

       

Sephiroth didnít know how much time passed in silence, while he stood there, unable to do anything to change what had already happened, only watch, as Zack watched, his hazel eyes never leaving his friend, watching every breath, as if he could will the boy back to life, to good health... a guardian angel, for one so desperately in need.

Eventually, Cloud seemed to relax a little... no longer shaking in frozen agony, trying his best not to scream in pain.  Zack shifted his legs, moved around a bit as the blonde uncurled from his tight ball, but never moved away from his position against the glass, barely even blinked, though the white-haired man knew Cloud couldnít see his friend, that the blonde wasnít watching, trying too hard to save himself...

"... you want me to tell you another story?" Zack said softly.  Almost imperceptibly, Cloud nodded.

"Any requests?"

"... anything... Zack... anything..."  The blonde shifted slightly, bringing one arm up, letting his head rest against his elbow, "... that girl... maybe... ní... and the P-promised Land...?"

"Ah... Aeris..."  Zack smiled wistfully, much too brightly for his sickly surroundings, and Sephiroth could see the memories of better days, so deep in those glowing eyes.

"... sheís beautiful, Spike.  Just beautiful... and so much of that is inside, it just shines out of her... like a beacon... and sheís pretty... Iíll be the first to admit that... but Iíd have loved her if she was nineteen or ninety.  Such a gentle soul..."  Zack turned away slightly, the next words spoken for only his benefit, "... broke up with me for my job... hated it, but only the parts I hated too... said she couldnít stand to see... what it was turning me into... Boy, would she be surprised /now/... I guess she was right..."

"... donít be sad... Zack..."  The dark-haired man startled, at the sound of Cloudís voice, the unexpected intrusion, the blondeís caring, even through the pain, "... please... donít be sad..."

Zack smiled comfortingly, though Sephiroth could still see the sadness shining in his eyes.

"Itís okay, Cloud... Iím fine.  Iím happy, really, that we did drift apart... It means sheís out there, living her life... not waiting, not wondering where I am..."

//... because the "incident" at Nibelheim was locked away immediately, Iím sure of it... ShinRa probably destroyed any trace that... that I hadnít, and razed whatever remained down to the bare earth... No one ever knew... no one was ever supposed to know... what... what Iíd done...//

He flinched as he saw Zack turn, wipe quickly at his eyes, realizing just how much his friend hadnít told him... how much it must have hurt the dark-haired man to hear... to hear who had been responsible for the flower girlís death. 

Zack had obviously loved her, very much...  Was this what Aeris had been trying to tell him, trying to make him understand?  That no matter what his friend tried to tell him, reparations had /not/ been made?

//Iím sorry, Zack.  Iím so, so sorry...//

Cloud looked up in the moment of silence, smiling at his friend but his eyes were only half open, he appeared to be slipping into some sort of restful sleep, as the agony abated, the pain faded somewhat.  Zack seemed to see it too, Sephiroth could hear the dark-haired man pitch his voice slightly lower as he spoke, softer, a gentle, smooth murmur, a lullaby.

"Aeris told me once... that the Promised Land is a beautiful paradise, far, far away... Itís perfect... there are flowers, and green meadows, and the sun is always shining, the sky is always blue...  Thereís no pain, no war..."

"... no Hojo..." Cloud murmured, the barest weak smile still on his face, his eyes completely closed now.  Zack chuckled, another vibrant emotion completely out of place with his surroundings.

"No Hojo."

"Do... do you think... Zack... do you think I can... go there?"

Sephiroth could see Zack turn slightly, the alarm in his wide, hazel eyes, though his voice never wavered.

"Of course you will, Cloud," he said quickly, "I know it... but not for a long time yet, okay?  Once we get out of here, Iíll take you back to my house... in Gongaga.  Youíll love it there... itís quiet, and peaceful, and I know all the good fishing spots.  Weíll grow old together, you ní me... okay?  Okay, Spike?"

"... yeah..." the blonde said, the words slurring slightly in total exhaustion, "... yeah... that sounds nice..."

Sephiroth was amazed, in the silence that followed, how long every second seemed to last, to stretch out.  He could hear a few machines whirring, an electronic beep every now and again, but other than that, everything was still.  Zack simply sat, one arm against his knee, turned away from his friend, staring at nothing... and there was no mistaking the despair, the sorrow in his eyes.

//Five years... five /years/ like this...?//

"... Zack...?"

The voice was quiet, very feeble, but the dark-haired man reacted instantly.

"Mm...?"

"Do you think..." Cloudís voice was so soft, it was almost inaudible, and the white-haired man had to strain forward to hear it, "... do you think Sephiroth got to go to the Promised Land?"

The dark-clad SOLDIER just gaped, slack jawed, staring at the huddled form resting on the cage floor, /immediately/ playing the words back in his mind, in amazement, and disbelief, completely unable to make sense of what he thought he had heard...

//Heís my enemy... he... but that... that was /hope/ in his voice... wasnít it?  ... but... /impossible/... that he... he /wanted/ me to...?//

Zack sighed deeply, and Sephiroth would have given anything to freeze that moment in time, as the dark-haired soldier looked over at the blonde, his eyes full of sorrow and pain and sadness... Sephiroth had seen that look before... seen it in Zackís eyes... had thought it was due to Zackís affections, his feelings for the blonde...

//He wouldnít lie to me... theyíre /not/... Zack wouldnít lie...//

The continual battle over this truth was almost overwhelming, and the other side of his thoughts immediately struck back,

//... of course heíd lie... youíre his friend, and he doesnít want to hurt you... because you could never be... because, deep-down, youíre a /monster/...//

... but now... there was something more there, something else... and he didnít understand at all, only knew that it was much more complicated, /not/ the simple explanation that Zack loved Cloud, and Cloud loved Zack, and Sephiroth was an unnecessary third wheel...

"The Promised Land...?" Zack murmured, and smiled, "I hope so, Cloud.  I hope so."

A door slid open, even the slight sound brutally shattering the peaceful calm that had momentarily fallen over the lab.  Zackís head jerked up, eyes immediately widening in shock and horror as Hojo walked into the lab, two monstrosities of twisted metal and discolored flesh lumbering along behind him.  The SOLDIER scrambled to his feet, face frozen in disbelief.

"... but... but... you already came today..." He whispered softly, as if speaking to himself, before gasping in shock, voice rising as Hojo quickly moved past his cell, towards Cloud.     

"NO!  /NO!/ Hojo... you /canít/!!!"  Zack screamed, pounding against his cell wildly, unable to even draw the scientistís gaze for a moment, "... Hojo!  Damn it, you son of a bitch! /Look/ at him!  He canít take anymore!  You canít!  Youíll /kill/ him!!!"

Zack continued slamming his body against the side of his clear cage, even his Mako-enhanced strength useless against the prisonís thick walls.

Sephirothís eyes flicked onto the blonde for a moment, as Hojo punched a few numbers into a keypad, opening Cloudís cell door.  Cloud had crawled to the furthest point away from the door, was pressed against the wall, shivering and cowering, making tiny sounds of barely repressed panic, hands up over his head as his only protection, body tucked into the tightest ball he could manage.

One of the monsters raised a metallic arm, and shot the blonde with a tranquilizer dart, the tiny sound of the air gun making Sephiroth wince in painful memory.

Cloud went instantly limp, and another huge, gleaming arm reached in and dragged him roughly out of the cage.  Sephiroth could see his eyes were still open, wide and terrified, fixed on Zack.  The drug had only paralyzed him, he was still completely aware.

Zack was still screaming as Hojo turned, the scientist ignoring him completely as he and his constructions walked back out of the room, their subject secure in a pair of cold steel pincers.

"When I get out of here, Hojo, I swear, youíll be /begging/ me to kill you!!!  Iíll tear your heart out through your neck, you spineless son of a BITCH!!!"  Zackís voice changed from the snarl, to a cry of sorrow, just before Cloud disappeared through the doorway.

"Hang on, Cloud!  Just hang on!!!"

One last glimpse, of brilliant, horrified blue eyes, and the boy was gone.

       

"Do you see?"

Sephiroth turned, still half-caught in the surprise and panic of the moment, and watched as the lab fractured around him, faded, breaking apart into the swirling green that quickly filled the void.  Aeris, her eyes brilliant, wide and frightened,  was watching him in desperation.

"What?"

"You have to understand!"  The flower girl was almost crying now, eyes underlined with tears, her fists clenched and shaking, screaming at him, "You... thereís /no/ time... canít you..." Her voice broke, sounding terribly lost, "... donít you... you..."

"I donít understand... what do you want from me?  What is it Iím supposed to do?  An apology?  Are /you/ angry?"

He was willing to do just about anything at this point, if it would solve whatever horrible struggle he seemed to be entangled in, if it would bring an end to his confusion.  Sephiroth took a step towards the brunette, froze as she looked up at him, frozen green eyes cracking with pain and despair, and she slowly shook her head.

"You donít... you... and thereís /nothing/, is there...? Nothing I can do... nothing I can /show/ you, to make you understand..."

"Is this about Zack?  About the war?"  Sephiroth wanted to scream in frustration, as Aeris quickly shook her head, and he could see that she was holding back with all her strength, to keep from sobbing.

The inspiration struck him, out of nowhere, and he asked again, completely on impulse.

"This is about Cloud."

The flower girl froze, and he knew he was right.

"What is it...?"  Sephirothís eyes narrowed... if nothing else, at least now he had some sort of range, some clue to hone in on...

The memories came... in the rain, what seemed like only moments ago... Cloud, still hurting, though Sephiroth had done /nothing/...

The Planet.  The Cetra... /they/ were the ones...

"What are you doing to him?" he murmured softly, the words laced with much more anger than he thought he felt, and the dark-clad man realized that he really /was/ angry, violently so...

//... how dare they... hurt him... hurt /anyone/ like that...//

He could remember next to nothing of his own time as that force in Cloudís life.  Nibelheim... and the Nibelheim mansion, oh yes, he had been responsible then, he would not claim otherwise, that in his own twisted delusions of grandeur and godhood, /he/ had been the one to destroy the village, to murder so many innocents in cold blood, and to strike down first Zack, his friend and brother-in-arms, and then, so easily, turn his blade on Cloud as well...

//... but after... I donít remember... nothing but shadows... that was /not/ me... not...//

The thought of losing that amount of self-control sickened him, deep down, frightened him, that he could be so powerless, and force that feeling onto someone else.

//Never a servant... never helpless... not to ShinRa... not to /anyone/...//

He could never imagine willingly pushing someone else to act against their will, to do what he knew he had made Cloud do... breaking another person's spirit like that, fracturing a soul... and the thought that the Planet... the Cetra would try to hurt Cloud like that...

//That's what it seems... he was /hurting/... but the Cetra... /knowingly/ attacking him, after all he's tried to do to save them?  For what purpose?  It's insanity.//

"I donít understand... I canít see... what the /hell/ are you... are the Cetera /thinking/?!"

"... thereís no time... theyíve all gone mad... they're so angry... that's all that's left... the anger..."  Aeris said, her voice a fragile, tight whisper.  The dark-clad man froze as she looked around wildly, into the green, seeming to sense something he could not see.  He couldn't be sure, but it felt as if the temperature around him suddenly dropped, ten degrees... fifteen... it was freezing.

"You have to... /please/..." Those soft green eyes were flashing in panic, pleading with him, "He canít... he wonít be able... and /you/ can... you... don't you see?  That's why they're so afraid of you..."

"What?  How? What do I have to...?"

Before he could finish the question, Aeris whirled, staring in absolute terror at something he could not see, and screamed.

       

Sephiroth turned, watching the shifting emerald currents of the Lifestream, and realized why the flower girl was so afraid, as they suddenly doubled back, pushed together into a surging wave.  The dark-clad man blinked, staring into the current, saw /bodies/ beneath the green, screaming faces, muscles clenched in anger push forth, as if carved out of stone, twist and disappear once more within the massive crest... and the Planetís cry of rage, the Ceteraís scream descended upon Aeris.

He thought he saw, at the last moment, a solitary figure at the front of the wave burst forward, a lone woman reach one arm out to the flower girl, pulling her close, in a protective embrace. He could not be sure, could not see if she had succeeded, not before the rest of the Cetera crashed down like a hammer blow... and Aeris was gone, vanished in the splintering tide, devoured by the angry sea, which immediately turned its attentions toward him.

Sephiroth reached down on pure reflex for the sword he knew wasnít there, as the wave surged up once more, impossibly tall, breathtakingly so, the cold fury radiating in a silent scream, focused on him, the anger strong enough to nearly knock him off his feet.

//... JENOVA!!!// The word seethed with violence, anger, and stood alone, unexplained, but justified.  His lineage, the blood that ran through his veins was the only thing necessary for their indictment.

//Iím /not/.//  Sephiroth said, barely feeling the need for even that defense.  Let them think what they would... he would not hide from them, and scorned their misplaced anger.  He refused to give a single step in the face of the anger, towering through generations, millions upon millions of souls, their only driving force his destruction.

He would /not/ be afraid.

//... leave here, Jenovaís child...// the tide fanned out, twisting, serpentine, with the coiled readiness of a viper, set to attack, eager to annihilate, //... we will... destroy...  we will...//

Sephirothís eyes narrowed, noticing instantly that, though they moved forward, it was slowly, and that there was, maybe... no, there definitely /was/ a hesitance in their movements, a line they would not, or could not, cross.

//You'll do /what/, exactly...?//

The white-haired man took a step forward, and watched as they recoiled, the tide of furious murmurs rising and falling, cries of rage and fury too numerous to separate, to hear even one clear voice amidst the turmoil.  They were angry... because they couldnít hurt him.

//Well?!  Come on, then!   I'm not leaving, so fight me!!!//

Sephiroth spread his arms wide, fearlessly, staring into the maw of the storm, watching the Ceteraís presence, the monster in the Lifestream sway with barely leashed rage...

//... if youíre so angry... why donít you just attack?//

He knew it could be dangerous, could very well be fatal, pushing them, goading them like this, but he didnít care.  Their righteous fury, expecting him to be afraid, to cower against their rage, it annoyed him... nearly as much as...

The white-haired man froze.

//... nearly as much... as Cloudís arrogance.//

He looked up, and knew, somehow, that the Cetera had heard that thought, that he had sparked, for whatever reason, a quickly growing chaos within their ranks... and the anger throbbing through the air almost immediately changed, turned bitter, the slight essence of something that felt an awful lot like fear.

//Heís hurting, you're knowingly allowing him to... and he is your ally!  How can you let him take that burden... how can you watch him suffer, and do nothing?//

Tactically speaking, even beyond questions of compassion or kindness, it was sheer madness to refuse to help an ailing comrade, and if that was the case, if the Cetera truly could help, and simply refused...

Strife was so /obviously/, unquestioningly their best hope, a necessary element, for any victory at all...

Sephiroth could see that his question had stirred incredible chaos within the beast, inside those who had banded together against him... the voices falling over one another were confused, /frightened/...

//... doesn't... /couldn't/... the enemy... and with this... he knows... he /knows/... he will destroy the weapon....//

The white-haired man took another step forward, reaching out...  the Cetera seemed not to notice until he had nearly touched them, he could almost feel the slick skin of the emerald beast beneath his hand.  He needed to know... it was very important... to know... to reach through the sea of voices and grasp the greater truth...

At the last possible moment, melting from the green at his fingertips, a face looked up at him, sculpted from pure, clear marble, preoccupied confusion giving way to instant panic, pure, unadulterated terror.

//NO!!!//

The shriek drove him back, and Sephiroth watched the Cetera, their force inside the Lifestream shiver, and shatter into a million liquid fragments.  Within heartbeats, he was completely alone in the world of green.

       

Sephiroth opened his eyes to the sound of someone knocking lightly on his door, the sudden intrusion of the real world into whatever dream... whatever alternate reality he had been in moments before neither wanted nor appreciated...

//... do you think Sephiroth... got to go to the Promised Land?//

Cloud... Cloud had said that, about him?  His mind immediately fixed on that point, excluding all others.

//... not mortal enemies, then?  Was that what Aeris meant?  Perhaps... we /can/ work together... perhaps...//

The white-haired man knew he didnít really understand, and /definitely/ didnít like not knowing, didnít like being unaware of what was going on.  The feeling of not having power over his own destiny, that it left him open, vulnerable to being pushed around, caught by a larger force he could not comprehend, let alone try to control...

//Itís how she trapped you the first time... Jenova... taking advantage of that weakness... enslaving you with your own fears of being controlled... by manipulating you herself...//

He couldnít help but smile at that piece of very bitter irony.

"Sir... sir?"

Sephiroth nearly recognized the voice outside the door, knew he would have had it pegged if not for his preoccupation with his dreams, his mind struggling desperately to determine what was going on... feeling more and more of the pieces slip away with every moment that passed in the waking world...

He opened the door, and Roman nearly fell inside, quickly regaining his balance, always ready with a salute.

"Uh... sir... um... the President asked me to come get you."

"What's wrong?"

"It's The General... and General Zack... we... uh..." Ro threw up his hands in disbelief, "... uh, we can't find them, sir..."

       

No one else had been told.  Reeve's first reaction, when Ro had been unable to deliver a message to The General, when all normal modes of communication had turned up empty... and when General Zack was also found missing, the Presidentís reaction was to call the only other person who might know were to find them, and who definitely could keep the whole thing quiet if his search turned up empty...

//If there was one person I'd trust with a secret...// Reeve thought quietly, knowing he could not look into the jade eyes that were watching him, not without time to prepare, could do little more than shuffle a few papers around on his desk and feel ashamed at his own lack of bravery.

//Bravery nothing... he's... god damn, /no one/ should be brave enough to face him...//

Not for the first time, Reeve wished he had been just a bit more cowardly, to have Cait Sith come and face this, to be able to live safely, vicariously through another.

If the President had dared to look up, he would have noticed, maybe, that those green eyes seemed slightly preoccupied, perhaps even a little troubled... but he did not hesitate to keep his eyes cast down, and the white-haired man's thoughts remained a secret, as usual, to all but himself.

"They didnít leave... we would have seen them..."

"Unless you didnít," Sephiroth said sharply.  "If Zack wanted to find a way out, without being seen... it would have been easy for him..."

"You donít think..."

"No.  Heís smarter than that, and Iíd like to think Strifeís smarter than that..."

//... and Zack would have told me, if he and Cloud were considering some sort of sneak attack...//

The white-haired man tried to ignore the voice that whispered to him, that it could easily be true, that the two men could very well have left him out of their plans, intentionally... or perhaps it didnít even cross their minds not to include him...

//Will you just STOP THAT!?// The white-haired man had to work to pull himself away from those meandering thoughts of self-pity, was furiously angry that somehow, he had allowed them to fester, unnoticed for so long...

"... I know, I know that it seems impossible... and Iíd like to think that Cloud would have told me..."  Reeve lifted his hands in perplexed frustration, "... but thereís nothing else... if theyíre not out there, where the hell /are/ they?"

Sephiroth didnít bother to answer the manís question.  As soon as he was done in this meeting, he would go look for himself, sure he knew of at least a dozen places, the basic places anyone would go when they wanted to be avoided... places he himself had used more than once...

//... but... Cloud and Zack /together/... are you sure you really want to find...?//

He wanted nothing more than to drop a guillotine blade on that voice, thankful that he could at least cut it off mid-sentence.  There were more important things to worry about... much more...

"... what are you going to do about Heidigger, Reeve?"

The man blinked up at him dumbly, and Sephiroth fought the urge to groan.   How could he not... but then, if he /really/ couldnít see... how had he ever managed to gain the presidency?

"Anjeleís going to crucify Strife the first chance he gets.  Heís going to bring him up on full charges, for /murder/, and then he will broadcast the results to the entire world, and blame you, and take the presidency right out from underneath you. He wants your office, and he wants Cloud Strife disgraced..."

"He wants worse than that... much worse. Iím sure he wouldnít blink twice if we were both publicly executed, or at least thrown out into some war-torn borderland," Reeve muttered, finally turning his eyes up to look at the other man, anger at Anjele overwhelming his fear.  Sephiroth was slightly surprised by the bitterness, the resignation in those eyes, and in the tone of the  Presidentís voice.  It was very clear that, yes, Reeve knew /exactly/ what was going on...

"What are you going to do?"

Reeve laughed, a sharp, bitter sound.

"What /can/ I do?  I canít order him to stop compiling evidence... I canít stop him from doing this... I canít have him /killed/, and believe me, that was an option for a lot longer than anyone would like to believe, including me..."  The man shook his head, running a hand through his thinning hair, "... he /confessed/ to it... Cloud /admitted/, for whatever reason... I... I donít know that thereís anything I /can/ do, short of forbidding a formal inquiry... and even that..."

"Iíll go find them... and I suggest you think of something, before I return..." Sephiroth said, turned to leave.  Reeveís voice did not catch him until he was at the door.

"Why do you... care?"

The dark-clad man paused, just long enough to realize he had no answer, that he hadnít even thought to ask the question of himself.  He didnít answer Reeve, didnít turn around, just walked away.

       

//Why do you care?//

His mind turned the thought over and over as he walked down the stairs, away from Reeveís office, towards the large room that had been set up as the mess hall, the first place he would stop...

//God, I hope Zack didnít go into the Wutai-controlled areas... Iíll never make it through there...//

Despite the truly valid problem, his thoughts refused to stray from the other question, one that troubled him most because he didnít have the slightest semblance of an answer.

//Why do you care?//

He frowned.  Care about Zack...? That was easy.  ... but he knew that wasnít what Reeve meant at all, and that the President had a very good point.  Why had he said all that?  Why /did/ he care what happened to Cloud Strife?

//Because... itís not right... because Anjele is a disgusting ShinRa sycophant, pathetic even by /their/ standards, and I donít want to let him win, and I wonít help him, Heidigger wanted to use me, and I wonít let him...//

/Youíre lying.  Thatís not it...  thatís part, but not nearly all.../

//Then what?  What is it?!// He snapped, and received only silence in reply.

Sephiroth broke his thoughts away from that silent reverie as he entered the dining hall, already scanning the room for a familiar face.  It was nearly empty, this early in the morning, and there was no sign of Zack, not even in the kitchenís rooms, where the cooks and other workers usually hung out between shifts.

//It had been one of our places, in Midgar, the kitchens, where the ShinRa never bothered to look, never bothered to wire, to bug... where we could just talk... me and...//

The thought stung before he could finish it, that he could consider anything "his and Zackís," especially now that Cloud... that he...

As soon as the hurt came, the anger followed, the alternating hammer blows striking down on him with crushing force.

//Will you /stop/ being so STUPID?// 

Sephiroth knew what this was all about, though he didnít want to admit it to himself, but he knew that if the fury of self-doubt, of fear and conjecture did not stop now, it would not stop at all, ever.  He could not afford to be preoccupied now, not with Anjele Heidigger... with Jenova, and a war raging around him...

//Cloud and Zack.  Itís /ludicrous/.  Think about it... really, just for a moment... stop and /think/...//

Close friends.  Zack had been his only close friend, his only /friend/, and Sephiroth had to admit that he really understood friendship just about as badly as he understood every other emotion, and as he /misunderstood/ many of the finer points of everyday human interaction.

//... so perhaps, you /arenít/ the best judge of a fine line, or even a very obvious difference, between friendship and love?//  The voice was more gentle, carrying the knowledge, that yes, he had made that mistake before, that there was a good chance his own preoccupation was crowding out the truth.

//Keep thinking... work it out.  It makes sense...//

Zack loved Aeris.  Sephiroth remembered that even more clearly now, recalled more and more small details as he thought about it, quiet asides that someone like his friend, who measured every word carefully, would not have mentioned unless they were important.  Aeris.  The dark-haired man had mentioned her, and now that he considered it, Sephiroth realized he had seen Zack sad... had never asked why...

//They broke up, and you never knew... and you never cared.//

He had to admit that much of his shame, his guilt, came from that realization... that he had murdered the love of his friendís life.

//... the love of his life... and Tifa Lockheart loves Cloud...// 

It was a bit less obvious, there, mostly because he didnít know the girl or Strife well enough to make assumptions, didnít see the blonde return any emotion for /anyone/, let alone the brunette who so obviously cared for him...

He had seen that sad game played out before, in all its clichťd, predictable tragedy, at Midgar... between Scarlet... and a certain other blonde... an obviously cruel playboy...  love was truly blind...

//So, I was wrong.  Zack wasnít... heís not... and I refused to believe...  Whatever I saw... whatever I thought I saw, I was just being stupid, and stubborn, and foolish.//

His conscience wholeheartedly agreed.

//It wouldnít be the first time.  Zack tried to tell you, you just assumed he was lying... /why/ would he lie to you?  You knew it the moment you saw the blonde, right?  Heís just like Rufus ShinRa, and that boy was definitely /not/... and anyway, Cloud just doesnít /look/...//

He snorted derisively at his own logic.

//Oh yes, and I /do/?//

Sephiroth moved out of the kitchen, across a narrow courtyard, over a wide expanse of grass, seeing only a few soldiers...  He took a quick glimpse of the training area... nothing, the weapons lockers... nothing... the mine equipment storage, just because it seemed impossible that they would be there... but all avenues turned up empty.

//Come on, Zack... where are you...?//

He wasnít worried... he wasnít worried... he was a little worried... 

No matter how secure they could make North Corel, and even now Sephiroth could see plenty of breaks in the security, no place was impenetrable, no person was completely safe from danger.

Sephiroth wandered a little bit longer, eventually found himself at the door of one of the chocobo stables, no reason at all to assume heíd find anything inside.

//Why not?//

A quick look inside found nothing too important. A pile of chocobo chicks were resting in the center pen, only one of which bothered to wake up enough to give him a sleepy chirp of greeting, before falling back asleep.  A note from the early morning crew was on the table, pinned under a piece of tack.  The dark-clad man read it over, finding only meaningless instructions, notes on food supply, exercise instructions, a few of the larger chicks who were just about to begin their field training...

"... Bill said not to check stables A-E... didnít want to disturb the birds... a mid-afternoon check would be fine..."

       

Sephiroth calmly opened the door of the last stable in the row, fairly sure this search would turn up empty, just like all the others.  No reason, no possibility of finding a clue here.

//Iíll have to go back and tell Reeve... maybe get a few other people in on it... check around, but still, we canít make too big a deal about it...//

There were more larger birds in this stable than the others, and the injured Chocobos he passed seemed much worse off than the others, there were many more wrapped wings, birds held in tension, kept motionless while shattered bodies repaired themselves.  A gold bird slowly lifted its head, cooed at him, a weak welcome.

He regarded it briefly, and then nearly did a double take, amazed, to see Cloudís massive blade resting against the side of the stall door.

The white-haired man looked around, somehow expecting to see something new, now that he had found the sword, but there was no sign of anyone, no sound, nothing.

Sephiroth very nearly called out, but he was still moving forward, towards the end of the paddock, and he opened his mouth to speak just as he stepped around the edge of the end stall, and felt all the words leave him in a rush.

//... I... no... they... get real... itís ludicrous... it could never...//  Snatches of his arguments with himself, his rationalizations, self-doubt and absolute conviction filtered back to him, along with his final, adamant realization, that /nothing/ could be going on between Zack and Cloud

... all of them fading to stunned silence as he took in the sight of his dark-haired friend and the blonde, resting beneath the blankets on a fresh bale of straw, sleeping contentedly in each otherís arms.

//Well...// a small voice murmured, //I guess you could always be wrong...//

       

Thinking about it hurt, a crippling agony, worse than he would ever admit to, but that pain was nothing compared to the impossible pain of seeing it, having the truth real and complete and inescapable, right in front of his eyes... It felt as if someone had hit him, full swing, with a baseball bat, and completely caved in his chest.  All thoughts, all conclusions he had reached, Zackís denials, Aerisís memories, all of them were nothing, absolutely meaningless compared to what was in front of him now.

His eyes were senselessly cruel, and not even the smallest detail escaped his notice. The blondeís bare shoulder, pale skin down to the edge of the blanket, the tangle of limbs underneath the thin cover, the tender way Zack was holding the blonde, so close, so /obviously/ caring, mocking him for not having known, for not having seen from the beginning, for wanting to believe the lie...

As if to underline the point, Zack shifted in his sleep, pulled Cloud closer to him, and the other man followed in his dreams, one hand coming up, just briefly, in sleep, two fingers brushing against the side of Zackís face... viciously casual, mockingly sweet, and /so/ possessive...

Everything he had wanted.  Any happiness, any hope... all  were something that, no matter what he did, no matter how talented, how strong he was, how many awards... how much praise... that love was something that he would always be denied.

Sephiroth closed his eyes, and took a very, very deep breath, releasing it as slowly as he could, every muscle in his body clenched, painfully tight.  Thoughts burned inside his mind, shame, sorrow, fury...

He wanted to cry.  He wanted to scream.  He wanted to kill them both. He wanted to hurt them... felt that familiar anger fill him, something refined, built up over years and years of isolation, of knowing his place in the world, away from everyone else... and he wanted to hurt /everyone/, in every possible way that.  He wanted to destroy without reason, without having to think or care, without consequences, to burn up the whole world and everything beautiful on it, anyone that lived in the joy that dared to mock his pain.  He wanted to strangle the life out of all that happiness... even though he knew, knew down to the very depths of his self-awareness, his soul, that it wouldnít take away any of the pain...

//You know, because you did that already, didnít you?  You did hurt them... you /did/ kill them both, in every way that mattered, at least... /and/ you tried to destroy the world.  Did it really make anything better?  Did it, even for a second, make you forget that you were alone?  That you would always be alone?//

Why?  God, WHY?  Why did it have to happen like this? Why did he have to exist, if this was what his life would always be, if this had always been what he was destined to become?  If nothing would change... and he would have to stand here... and see... see what he wanted so badly... that he could never have...

There just wasnít anywhere to /put/ it, no way to handle the horrible, unnamed feeling, the longing, the sorrow that had torn itself open inside of him.  He had been able to deal with everything before, /everything/ in his life before this moment, all the people, the forces that had hurt or tried to hurt or had caused him pain.  He could break it down, force it into nonexistence, forget about it or bury it away, and sometimes, the pain /helped/, reminded him who he was and what he never wanted to become...

//It wasnít enough to save anyone, though.  I /couldnít/... I /wasnít/ strong enough...  When it mattered, when it was actually important, I failed.  What does it matter that I was brave, that I was invincible, that I was anything at all, if the one time I was truly tested... I failed.//

He wanted to die.  There was nothing for him.  Nothing anywhere.  He could only be what he was, and it was not enough... not enough for anyone to love... to care...  Sephiroth had thought he had killed the need for those things, thought he had moved past... but he was wrong.  He had lost nothing, he had simply hid... and now that he had to face reality, it hurt worse than ever.

/You canít allow this to change you... or youíll fail... youíll hurt him again... and heís still your friend./

//I canít... I /canít/... this is too much... too /much/... thereís nowhere to put it all... nowhere to lose all this... god, it /hurts/...//

The voice didnít have to speak, to remind him that he was wrong... that there was a place for the pain... a way to forget... and the last time, that release, that desire had destroyed him...

/You should be surprised sheís not here already.  Jenova would love to get a second chance... to give you everything you want... and take everything away.../

Who the hell /really/ cared?  If this was what he was living for, if this nightmare was all he would ever receive, what the hell did it /matter/?  Why not do it all over again... why not...

Perspective, and a clear view of history provided the anchor he had not been given before.  He knew he would never be able to go back, could never allow the past to repeat itself...

/Heís still your friend.  Zack might not... he canít, because youíre... but heís /still/ your /friend/.  If you do this, if you continue down this road, you know exactly where it leads.  Back to her.  You already know what will happen./

Zack... facing him in the lab... sword drawn, confusion and anger in every line of his face... he didnít want to fight.  Sephiroth knew he had the man easily, already saw the end of the fight, the quick snap of the blade, ending life...  It was only that much simpler, because Zack didnít want to fight... not his friend...

... the sword came up... and he had an opening... knew Zack could not defend in time, and saw that the dark-haired man knew it, /knew/, a split second before the Masamune struck home...

... the shock, the heartbreaking /confusion/ in those hazel eyes, as if Zack couldnít believe it was real... and the emotion fading... that life flickering, the one who had called him friend... whom he had worried about, as they fought side by side.

His fault.  /All/ his fault... and yet, back then, he had made his choice, and he didnít have to care anymore... and the part of him that cared... he couldnít hear... he didnít have to listen to it anymore...

The white-haired man shook himself from that torrent of memories, forcing himself to look at the two men in front of him, to push that realization like a knife, right into his heart, not denying any of the pain.

//Live through this.  Live through it, and go on... you have to take it, and deal with it, and go on.//

He would /not/ repeat any of the stupid, heinous errors of the past.  No matter how much... no matter how much it hurt...  he would /not/.

Sephiroth turned sharply, walking back the way he had come.  His fears were quelled, he was satisfied, that Zack was all right...

//Oh, theyíre /both/ fine, you idiot... theyíre just /fine/...//

The white-haired man didnít know if heíd go speak to Reeve or not, if heíd bother to lie to the President, to tell him he had found nothing, or simply not mention it at all, not go back.  He needed to be alone... really alone, to match the feelings he had inside... the ache, the humanity that he, the perfect soldier, wasnít supposed to have...

//... and Iím sure theyíll wake up soon enough... and... itís none of my business anyway.//

Life was cruel.  It would have been so much better if he had been the machine Hojo had wanted.

//It has nothing to do with me.//

       

Cloud knew, waking up, that he hadnít slept for very long.   He didn't really need to sleep for more than a few hours, knew he would be all right, but he also stubbornly refused to let himself wake up completely, ignoring the reality of all he had to fight for, the constant battles both set up in front of him, and waiting inside his own mind.

He drifted, sleepy, content, in a warmth that soaked all the way through his body, the weariness a soft, wonderful weight on his chest, and he was happy, resting inside the peace and comfort of Zack's arms.  Cloud smiled as he opened his eyes, watching his friend sleep, slumped against the corner of the wall, where he had shifted sometime during the night, dreaming gentle dreams.

Memories swept through the blonde, drifted close enough for him to reach out and touch, remember as he chose, and the recognition was kind, and sweet, and at the most, bittersweet.  No true darkness touched him here, not in these gentle moments of the past...

... Zack teaching him how to fight, /really/ fight, the way a SOLDIER did, and that proud grin never fading, /never/ falling, not once from his eyes, as Cloud slowly learned, improved through hours and hours of determined practice...

The dark-haired man with the ever-present smile... surprising him with a side-trip, one unforgettable summer day, a short ride to a small stream just outside the city... Fishing and swimming, talking of nothing, laughing through hours in the warm, bright sun...

His first real friend, who understood without words /exactly/ why he was so shy... understood how and when to touch him, usually grabbing him in a loose headlock, rubbing his knuckles into the top of his blonde spikes, laughing about how they were indestructible, how Cloud definitely had SOLDIER hair, if nothing else...

Zack... his only friend, who knew when to leave him alone... although, even then, Cloud knew the dark-haired man understood... knew that he watched... knew that the blonde yearned for what the his friend had... wishing he was strong enough, /worth/ enough to join the SOLDIER and his friends, to joke with them, to share their camaraderie...

... and Zack had watched, in those other times, too, though even the blonde hadnít realized it, not for a long time... that he had watched while Cloud was watching...

//...always watching... always...//

Blue eyes always turned up towards the heavens, towards perfection... and the dark profile of his angel... that perfect, untouchable...

//... no words... there are just no /words/... nothing I can say... or do, to bring... from that impossible distance... to bring the heavens... ever down to me...//

The blonde reached up, very carefully, so as not to wake his friend, and gently brushed a tear from his own leaking blue eyes.  It was better that Zack not see, he thought... for he wasnít really upset, not now, but so happy, in the quiet moment, the first in so long, that he could not hold it in anymore, and tears were the only way of release.

//I thought I'd never see you again, Zack... I was so afraid... so alone...//

Cloud sighed, smiling as the dark-haired man's arms tightened slightly around him, and closed his eyes, letting the gentle darkness take him once more...

It didn't last for very long, his thoughts bobbed up and down on the surface of consciousness, drifting more in than out, peace eluding him as his mind took hold of a thought he couldn't release, forcing him back to wakefulness, to reality.  The tension had a firm hold of him all at once, tugging at him, pushing him to alertness, his muscles tightening even though all he wanted to do was relax... he was still so /tired/...

... but sleep would not come, because, over the course of a few moments, as the final dreams slipped away, he knew... knew he had to act, and act /now/...

//If the Cetra... if they see Zack as a threat...//

/No... no... I won't let it... I won't let /anything/ happen to him... to anyone... not because of me.../

The Cetra... and Cloud realized he could barely hear them, even as, without thinking, he reached out towards them, towards that distant murmur in his mind...

Nothing.

Why, though, were they so secluded, now?  Why didn't they respond? What had happened... to push them so far away... that they now ignored him completely?

//... you refused... you refused to help them...//

He had fought them before.  Was this the last straw?

/... and if... what happens now...?/

His thoughts cleared with that thought, with the accompanying fear, and new uncertainty.  The calm, drowsy peace quickly slipped away to nothing, and Cloud could once again feel every aching muscle, every injury as he shifted slightly, trying to move without waking Zack...

//It's all over.  You know that... your life... itís all over...  Nothing can change that.//

He half-rolled away, amazed that the other man didnít stir, and the last touch of Zack's arm against his own, the brush of heat, it felt so much like the dying second of a final embrace... that of friends who would not meet again...

//... not in this life...// Cloud remembered easily, too easily, the Cetraís words, their threats... //or, perhaps, even the next.//

The night had not brought Cloud much, and in some ways was more draining than helpful, but it had brought him back to himself, had given him the strength to face... to face...

The blonde swallowed hard, took a deep breath.  The air in the stable was clearer than he remembered, and he saw that a window had not been shut tight, had swung open sometime during the night.  Cloud could hear a single bird, whistling in the morning sun.  He looked down at his watch.

//... mid-morning.  I slept for what... five hours... Six...?  A /long/ time... for me...//

Cloud couldnít help but run a hand down the center of his chest for a moment, fingertips tracing the smooth line between the muscles.  He had been what, sixteen, seventeen at the most, when Hojo had started his experimentations?  Ordinary SOLDIERS, like Zack, displayed few outward signs of their difference, besides the glowing eyes, of course...

//... but I am not a normal SOLDIER... not one at all, really...//

He, however, had been permanently frozen into some sort of second childhood, for the rest of what he knew could be a very long life.  Almost hairless, except for slight dustings of sandy softness along his arms and legs, and he had /never/ had to shave, knew he would /always/ look young, almost /too/ young...

Cloud had taken it as a blessing that at least his voice had changed before he had entered the lab, that at least he had /started/ on the path to normalcy...  He knew that some found his sort of beauty, the strange, almost awkward adolescence, the fragile androgyny incredibly attractive...

//They donít...// The thought alone made him sick, //they donít... they just think they do...  Itís fantasy, and itís attractive as long as it isnít ever really /real/.  They never knew... that if they ever got close... if they /really/ had to see, had to look at me after... theyíd see me for what really I am...//

/Freak.  Abomination.  Monster./

He knew it, and knew he would never be able to escape it.

The blonde gathered his shirt up, clearly visible in the light of day, resting in the corner of the opposite stall. amazed that it only had a small stain on the sleeve, was otherwise fit to wear.

//That ready to face it, are you?  Youíre that prepared, to seek out Heidigger... your friends... /everyone/.  So /strong/, all of a sudden?//

/No./ Cloud thought back at that slightly scornful voice, another unnecessary inner critic, as he took a few steps, bent and picked up the Mystile, and snapped it around his wrist.  /... but what will hiding do?  Nothing.  Nothing but add to the trouble... because eventually someone /will/ find out... and if I can just tell the story first... if I... can.../ 

Cloud's breath caught painfully in his chest, like a fishhook digging deeper even as he struggled to pull free.

/The truth.  They deserve to hear the truth... even though it hurts... I know it will hurt.../

//Everything hurts, kid.//  The voices in his head, bitter, angry, even he didn't know who they were, who it was that spoke the words of wisdom, where they had written the footnotes of his life,  //Life is pain, of the worst kind, and it always takes you alone.  Womb to tomb, youíre on your own//

Cloud had seen the bottom, the absolute center of the nightmare.  Hell, in many ways, he was there now, or at least very close, and in some ways, the waiting was just as bad.  It could not get any worse...

//I can deal with it... I have dealt with it, and I can face it now. I can... I can...//

He looked up, as Zack murmured, turning in his sleep.  Cloud knew the other man was worried about him, but the truth was that the SOLDIER was in no great shape himself.  Thin, worn, and it was even almost a relief, to see the slightest, pale line of red against the fighter's throat, a scar not quite healed...

//His healing's slowed too... it's not just me...//

As if to remind him that he was still sick, whether Zack had joined him or not, Cloud shivered once, violently, and felt the room spin just slightly around him, blurring out of focus for a moment.  He narrowed his eyes, focusing on that scar, just visible above the curve of the SOLDIER's collar, to bring the world back to center.

Blood... almost healed, and not dangerous... but it was still a sign of vulnerability, that even the SOLDIER, his friend, could shed blood, was mortal...

//I knew that...//

... shots in the night... laughter... the body jerked... as the bullets... as... they... they...

Cloud shivered again, though this time from memory alone...

Blood, in general, didn't bother him much anymore.  It was as constant a presence, the sight and the smell, new, old, in any form, and as benign of a reminder as any part of war could be.

//... nothing like the caverns of fear in the eyes of the dying... the silent screams... her very... /loud/ screams... her screams, Cloud... because of you...//

/NO!/  Cloud tried, but failed, to cut the thought down, and it continued, a snide whisper in his mind...

//... the sounds... those wet, choking sounds... the way her body jerked, /just like his/, as she fought not to die... just /not/ to die like that, not there, not with you.  Her eyes... it was over then... she knew... she knew... she /knew/... that look... in her eyes...//

/no no NO!!!/  Cloud had his hands up, dragging through his hair, pressed tightly against his temples, the same old useless, frantic gesture, and stood perfectly still, jaw locked, eyes closed, trying not to think, not to remember...

//I didn't mean to... I didn't want to... Elly... Elly I'm so /sorry/...//

It took him much too long to pull himself back together, to feel that he could open his eyes, could move without falling over.  All the memories of her... of what had happened... cold, violent, /deadly/, all pounded against him, made only that much worse by the fact that he would have to reveal them... to all his friends... and soon...

//Focus, Strife.  Focus.//

Deep breaths, and bring the world back from where it had fallen away.  This could be done, his fear could be tamed, he could find a calm center, and control.  Anything could be done, if one wanted it badly enough... self-sacrifice was simple... as easy as breathing...

//If I want it enough... and God knows, I do...//

He knew he shouldnít have wasted even a few moments, but his eyes sought out Zack anyway, tracing the lines of that well-known face, so quick to smile... so brave... and strong...

//They should have made you their champion, Zack.  The war would have been over, long ago... if they had chosen you instead of me...//

"I know you want to stop me, Zack..."

Cloud whispered the apology to his sleeping friend, as he carefully slid the Sleepel materia into the Mystile on his arm, grateful that he had the orb, that he had ignored most of the slots for so long that he had simply forgotten it was in his care.

//... donít need magic... not when I can tear the bastards apart with my bare hands...//

"I know... youíll be angry, later... but this is something I have to do.  Anjele wonít leave it alone... and it..." He paused, took a deep breath, "... itís tearing me up inside.  I know... I know Iím going to lose you... lose everyone, when you know what Iíve..." another deep breath, "... but itís better to push you away now, then to risk..."

He watched the tiny green orb start to shimmer, and in the next moment, a heart-stopping blast of pain surged up his arm and the Materia went dark.  He nearly cried out, cradling his hand against his chest, every nerve singing out in utter agony, slight aftershocks of agony shooting through him as he shifted where he stood...

//Too much Mako... too much, for too long... and itís all catching up with you now...//

The Northern lands, in places, had nearly been soaked in Dark Lifestream... and though he hadnít taken notice of it, he had been using spells by the hour, working so closely with the energy of the Planet, in fighting, and healing, in the tents when there werenít enough skilled physicians to take care of even a quarter of the injured... months and months of abuse, of pushing for that extra moment, that extra second of added power... and that final battle with the Fullspawn...

Cloud gritted his teeth, and almost forced his hand out again, muscles rigid with the knowing... that the pain was on its way...

//... better you than him... better you hurt... than ever... /ever/ him...//

"If you stop me... Anjele... heíll..."  Cloud gasped the words past incredible flashes of pain, forcing the spell to come to life, the energy ripping back through his body in vicious waves, "... the way ShinRa /always/...  Heidigger... heíll get what he wants, no matter what he has to do..."

The spell took, hovering green and peaceful in the air, the marked opposite to the burning fire that was trying to eat its way through Cloudís muscles.  Zack never stirred, as the spell settled over him, assuring that he would not be able to interfere, to stop the blonde from doing what he had to do, not until it was too late...

//Once I tell them... once they know...//

"I canít lose you again, Zack... not again... not to ShinRaís goddamned arrogance... not when I can stop this... all of this, just by doing what I know I /have/ to do..."

He stepped closer, knowing the other man would not wake up, and knowing that this would be the last time Cloud would see him, could watch him without fear, or sorrow.

//Once they know what you did... what you are... the monster that Hojo made...//

Cloud tried not to think about the hatred, the loathing, that he would soon see in Zackís eyes, in Tifaís eyes, as he knelt against the blanket, brushed a few loose strands of hair out of the way, and placed a kiss against the dark-haired manís brow.

"I love you Zack.  Youíre my best friend, youíll always be, no matter what happens to me, no matter what you might think of me, when you find out..."  It was getting harder to breathe, and he knew he had to move away, that his hold on calm was much more fragile than it seemed,  "I know... youíll be good to everyone... youíll protect Tifa... and everyone else.  Youíre so much better... so much more than I could ever be..."

The blonde smiled.

"... and though I donít deserve it... I never... Iíll never forget...  your friendship..."  He choked off the rest, knowing that if he said anymore, if he hesitated any longer, he would break down completely,  "Goodbye."

Refusing to look back, Cloud calmly picked up his sword, and quickly walked out of the stable.

       

One purpose, one goal, imbedded through every cell, every molecule of the dark, corroded flesh, covered by the thinnest layer of life... or something close enough to resemble it, for the few seconds it would matter. 

Stripped... stripped of all but the singular intention, no more a man than a construction of iron and steel... pumped full of the desire of its creator.

The uniform was remarkably well kept, given the circumstances, with slight tears in only a few places, nowhere noticeable, especially not at North Corel, where most of the uniforms were in states of permanent disrepair. Where even The General had to wrangle for a few new buttons, and necessity was the law of the land...

//... The General...//  The small spark of life, of consciousness within the shell, stirred with hunger, the desire to complete its mission... to succeed...

The soldier had only been dead for a few weeks, just another scout who had gone out on patrol, and hadnít returned.  There was no one within a hundred miles who would recognize the former farm boy... not that he let his face be seen... the roughly sutured incisions beneath the loose-fitting hat, the scraps of remaining red-blonde hair... the empty sockets behind the aviator shades...

Hojo had never, despite all his brilliance and determination, been able to manage decomposition... could only slow it down a bit, in the more noticeable places, skin, larger muscles, the structures of the face...

It moved in the shadows, well aware that even in these hurried times, if it was seen for too long, noticed for more than a few moments, someone would notice it was wrong... the skin too gray, the movements sickeningly off-balance, lurching, not walking, fighting the still-present possibility of rigor mortis with every step...

It had already had to kill one... a too-curious unlucky commander, who had seen into its empty eyes...

Perhaps, it could have been more careful, could have camouflaged its movements better, and blended in... but there was no need, not this close to the end.  It needed to conserve its strength, its potential for destruction, itís power for the final few moments of its life... when it would finish the job it had been created to do... to succeed where others, all the others, had failed...

The creature lurched forward, along the empty alley, from shadow to shadow, with instincts that any thief or fighter would kill for, to keep it from ever being seen, being noticed enough to be recognized for what it was...

It had entered the city unnoticed... and now, all that remained was to find, isolate and eliminate Cloud Strife.

 

 

 

 

Author Notes - crunchy even in milk.

1.  All right... first, an apology to all you all that thought this chapter was going to end with something super dramatic.   I forgot my ability to expound on simple points, and a whole new thread popped up out of nowhere... All that dramaís still coming, I swear, itís just going to take me a while to get there. (I figure having to split up the chapters on Fanfiction.net in order to post them may be a sign that I need to write smaller chapters.)  

2.  Spelling errors galore, as well as name changes, and many other things that make you go "huh?" resound throughout the chapters. (I think Iíve managed to kill Anjele five times in error alone.)  Thanks to everyone who finds them and tells me, as well as all the rest of you who keep sending me letters and writing such wonderful responses.  I really, /really/ appreciate it.

3.  Denki Groove - Niji.  Itís a great song.


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