A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 20

By Twig


Nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever could...

For all those born beneath an angry star...
Lest we forget how fragile we are.

-Sting, "Fragile"



Scarlet's snarling words punctured the growing sense of unease like an ice pick, bringing the conversation to an explosive head, and twisting the tension in the room to well past the breaking point.

Anjele had obviously been expecting something else, though what could have been more surprising, Reeve didn't know. The blonde politician reacted in much the same way they all had, by sitting very still in his chair, staring incredulously at Scarlet, not saying a word. Reeve didn't need to look around, to know the others in the room all as shocked as he was, not comprehending enough of what they had uncovered to even realize they couldn't speak.

//Pregnant... /pregnant/... dear God...//

The President had heard rumors, of course, about Cloud and Elicia... but, over the course of time he had worked for ShinRa, he had heard rumors about absolutely /everyone/, and had learned to ignore most of them outright. With both generals out in the field, there had been no way to know... it was a possibility impossible to prove or even truly speculate upon... until now.


The blonde looked so pale that Reeve was almost afraid to blink, thought that if he looked away for even a moment, his friend would fade to nothing. It was as if a wall had been lifted, an illusory fiction of strength struck down to dust, his power gone. Cloud looked so fragile, as Scarlet's words struck home, the man a collection of nothing more than starved angles and thin lines, held together with only the tension that had frozen the air, mere moments away from total collapse.

"Cloud..." Reeve murmured again, as the fighter didn't answer, didn't even look up. "Is it... is it true?"

The blonde general swallowed hard, and nodded almost imperceptibly, his hand clenching into a fist against the tabletop, glowing eyes closing for a moment, as if moving itself caused him pain.

"... she didn't tell me anything, until after we had left the Camp Six plateau. In between the mountain ridges... just after... just after I could have sent her back. Just past the point of no return..."


With most people, especially close friends, Zack could easily read their feelings... happiness, grief, despair, with relative ease, even when they attempted to hide them. He could immediately gather the mood of the room, for example, but mainly because the disbelieving shock of Tifa, Cid and the others was the match of his own. He could tell what they thought, because they all considered him an ally, they didn't have to conceal the truth from him...

//Or almost all.//

There was a strange, silent void in the general sense of shock that permeated the room, all of it coming from one man, who, Zack knew, did not trust, and lived as if each moment of his life was independent from all others, each chance to believe in someone else just another opportunity to be betrayed.

//It's called friendship, Seph, and it doesn't go away when times get tough, it won't abandon you, or try to take advantage when you're vulnerable, to hurt you... it's a novel concept.//

Zack's thoughts crackled with frustrated sarcasm, bitter anger, that each step forward with his friend was somehow always one in reverse, that the other SOLDIER was, no matter what he did, eternally positioned just beyond his reach.

If he had tried to read Sephiroth by any conventional means, the dark-haired man knew he would have had to conclude that his friend was, for all intents and purposes, clinically dead. The white-haired man's expression was perpetually fixed, stoic and heartless, whether he was told that it was a nice, sunny day, or that multicolored, man-eating chocobos were raining from the sky.

However, the part Sephiroth played as "the coldest man alive" did have its advantages, its own set of guidelines, and Zack swore only by what he could sense, not what his eyes told him, to read his white-haired friend. Despite his apparent icy nature, Zack knew that Sephiroth /did/ feel things, and those emotions had to go /somewhere/. His silence gave him an unavoidably strong presence, an aura that defined the space around him, and changed, if only subtly, with his silent shifts in mood. In a group, he usually vanished to the background immediately, but if Zack focused... sought him out...

It might have sounded insane, or at the very least highly doubtful, but Zack knew he had used those instincts, that barely noticeable fluctuation in the world around his friend, on one than more occasion, successfully. He had played his hunches, to get further inside the other SOLDIER's head than Sephiroth had ever expected anyone to, used that knowledge to convince the man he was serious, that he /could/ be trusted... could be let inside the private citadel of his friend's inner thoughts, and fears...

//To convince you that I'm not going to stop trying to be your friend, just because you're a mule-headed /idiot/ most of the time...//

Zack often wondered, if Sephiroth knew how much the dark-haired man considered his moodiness, and silence, as nothing more than a supremely interesting puzzle, a challenge he gleefully rose to accept. It was a test of his optimism, and his determination, to drive the man he knew was in there out of his emotionless shell.

//He /has/ changed, too, from the past... it's actually gotten a little better. He's not totally open, of course, and most likely never will be... but he's not the person I remember before Nibelheim, either. There's something new there... something /good/. Maybe it took him all that, all that nightmare, to realize it, but I think he might actually be making some progress...//

Hell, Zack thought, a lethal threat to the Planet, was that all it took? If the dark-haired man died a few more times... if Sephiroth was allowed a few more insane schemes, and half-baked genocidal takeovers... with the Planet nearly spinning off its axis once or twice... would the dark-haired man might actually get Sephiroth to crack a smile every now and then, or not reply to every tease, every joke, with, at the most, a disinterested shrug?

Zack tried to rein in his dark humor, douse the even slightly merry tone in his thoughts, as he focused on what had changed in the air, and why.

He doubted if anyone else had noticed, knew that the only other person as focused as he was on his white-haired friend, as insightful to his silent shifts in mood, was Cloud, who was clearly struggling just to keep himself together, fighting to tell his story.

//God, pregnant... No wonder he didn't want to tell Tifa... he didn't want to hurt her, and whatever happened to Elicia, losing the baby too, in all of this... that must be why he thinks its his fault... that if she hadn't been pregnant, maybe... that it was a handicap... It must have been some battle, out in those mountains, and she couldn't move fast enough...//

... but that didn't explain the growing feeling he was receiving from Sephiroth, the emotion radiating off of his white-haired friend in waves, though the SOLDIER's face was blank, and his steady, emerald-green gaze revealed only that he might be at the edge of utter boredom.

//That's a lie... he's not bored, he's...// Zack tried, and failed to name what he sensed, but knew that whatever it was, he had rarely, if ever, felt something that strong come from the other man.

//What is it, Seph? What do you know?//


As soon as Scarlet revealed the keystone truth, the rest of the pieces instantly fell into place, and Sephiroth /knew/, knew what had happened, knew exactly where Cloud Strife's fear came from.

The accompanying memory hit him hard, a fragment of his lost past... a few tattered images... poring over books in the Nibelheim Mansion, slipping further and further into an inescapable downward spiral, a chaotic insanity that eventually sucked him under completely, devoured him...

All because he found out what he had already been fearing was true, because he was presented with hard facts that engraved his worst fears into reality... that he wasn't normal... wasn't simply a SOLDIER... wasn't... wasn't...

//I'm not human.//

It was his weakness, Sephiroth knew, then, now and forever, the desperate fear, of who, of /what/ he really was. A fatal flaw, and if he let himself slip, let himself believe that he truly was, on a fundamental level, different, and ran with that, his anger, his isolation... chose to believe he was somehow /superior/, because of that difference...


He had been given a second chance, and would not destroy it, not by repeating those mistakes of his past. The clearer view he had now, of all that Hojo had done, of how the scientist had manipulated him, how he had let Jenova use him, made the reality that he was truly /not/ completely human, at least not anymore, an easier truth to bear. It made the question of what he was much less important than the answer, of what he was /not/.

//... and I am /not/ Jenova's child, no matter what Hojo did to me. I am no more her child than I choose to be claimed as his. I am not the last Ancient, I am not superior by design... there is no 'destiny' for me... I am whatever /I/ decide, I can be whomever I want to be.//

... but there were still truths, tied into that declaration, dark and bitter, that had to be recognized. He was free... but not completely, not at the most damning level, the base of who he was, where his future sprung. Hojo had seen to that long ago.

Oh yes, he knew now what the blonde general had been fearing, the final truth that was so slowly revealed, ripped free inch by excruciating inch...

Sephiroth had /never/ been a man of pity, or even compassion, but he felt both for Cloud Strife now, confronting a truth that, for some reason, he kept forgetting, or ignoring... that life /always/ held the potential for astonishing cruelty.


//"So... I hear you're spending a lot of time with a commander... from one of the other bases... that you and he are... close..."

Sephiroth turned quickly, regretted it even as he moved, knowing that, with just that gesture of surprise, he had given Hojo all the evidence he needed.

The white-haired young man had known all his life, that he had to hide his secrets, and had done his best to keep them all well hidden from his public life in ShinRa. No matter how well he hid, though, no matter what he fought to keep as his own, his private joys and failures, somehow the scientist still found out...

//One more year, or even less... not even a year, and I'm a General, and this is over... it finally /ends/.//

It was strange, was always strange, to guess at Hojo's motives, the reasons behind his actions. The scientist had not said it as if he held some secret, though he must have known Sephiroth did not want him to find out about his love life. In a way, that almost hurt more, that what the white-haired young man had considered one of his greatest secrets, meant nothing at all to the scientist, was completely unimportant. Only Hojo... only he could take what should have been a relief, and turn it to insult instead.

Sephiroth watched, waiting for the dark-haired man to say something more, to mention why he had brought it up, watching the scientist's back as Hojo moved from instrument to instrument on the large panel against the wall, making measurements, taking notes, as various machines recorded their data. The white-haired man swallowed, felt the electrode at his neck shift against his skin, saw a number on the wall rise and fall with the motion...

//... a few more months, and this all ends...//

"... and that other soldier, Zack... though I don't think you've been sleeping with him yet, hm?"

The neutrality had slipped from Hojo's voice, just for a moment, and there was something hiding underneath... something dark, and potentially /very/ threatening, a startlingly black shadow that made Sephiroth's blood chill...

His sex life, apparently, was of little concern... but then what...? Zack was a threat... but how? Why?

The white-haired man filed it away, waiting to discover any more such suggestions, potential threats, already preparing for a day, far ahead, when he could have to act... The ShinRa had too many easy brutalities, quiet and effective ways of dealing with their problems, for the young man to take anything lightly.

Sephiroth was still loathe to admit, even to himself, that the dark-haired man was anything other than a nuisance, an annoying tangle of trouble that it had been easier to befriend than continue to ignore...

//You didn't just ignore him.// His conscience spoke up harshly, demanding attention, //You were rude, and mean, and /cruel/ to him, and yet he didn't leave... He hasn't left... he seems to see right through you... //

Right through him, just like Hojo could. Except... it didn't feel... with Zack, it didn't feel wrong.

Sephiroth pushed that confusion to the side, knowing that conflict was unimportant against the larger picture, that he would not let the ShinRa take anything more away from him, whether annoying acquaintance, or possibly... more...

"Zack's only a friend."

The white-haired man couldn't help the steel that slipped into his tone, though the same quiet sense that had alerted him of the danger before seemed equally sure that it wasn't the right course of action. He couldn't defend Zack, or anything else, so strongly. It was too easy a way, to let ShinRa discover exactly what was important to him, where his weaknesses lay...

... and yes, he knew, deep down, that he did care more for Zack than any of the few men he had found, he cared much more than even those that he had shared a few, fleeting, intimate moments with...

//They all /wanted/... I don't understand, what it is they want from me, but they all /want/, if not with the blatant motives of the first...//

The young man had found out well after, much too late, about the designs of that first lover, who had gloated long and loud on how he had "took ShinRa's top prize," or some such nonsense, how he had tamed the ice god himself...

It didn't hurt anymore, that first one... not as much as the rest, those who didn't /say/ as much, but that Sephiroth knew felt exactly the same, that even when they touched him, they weren't, weren't touching /him/ at all. He was only an image, a symbol, something to try and take, to /have/, a /thing/, to make them all feel... what? Strong? Superior?

Sephiroth didn't understand, didn't see what desire he continued to command, how, even after he had bedded his share, he could still be seen as somehow untouched, and untouchable. Distant. The ice god. Even his former lovers wouldn't dare to look him in the eye, wouldn't talk to him, hiding even when he tried to seek them out.

//Fear... It's always the same, there's always that fear. They just want to see, just curious, and they're always so /afraid/. I don't know, I don't see why everyone thinks I'm so dangerous, /always/ so dangerous... why it's so daring, to see how close they can get before they get burned. They act like moths braving the flames, and I know they gloat about it in secrecy... and yet they're still so /afraid/ of me. All the time, it never ends, the sex doesn't even... the distance /never/ goes away. /Nothing/ I do brings them any closer, nothing can convince them that I'm not... that I'm /real/. I'm not some heartless statue, some unbreakable paragon. I'm /human/, just like they are... I am human... I am.//

Zack was the only one... the only one who didn't seem to /want/ something from him. The only one who wasn't afraid.

Sephiroth looked up, momentarily distracted from his thoughts, as Hojo punched some new numbers into a bank of terminals, waiting for another set of data to appear.

Of course, Hojo wasn't afraid of him, either... but nothing about the scientist seemed quite right, or normal in any way. The man was wholly a creature of science, devoted entirely to his work.

It was also, from everyone the white-haired young man had talked to, the way it had always been, though there were also bitter whispers, that the scientist, for all his study, had never really been the /best/, had let his own designs get in the way of pure scientific rationality. Hojo was only interested in the world in terms of what he could /do/ to it, what results his actions could produce.

//He lives, he /bleeds/ science. He's more inhuman than I am... much more... and even though he is my...// Sephiroth cut that thought off, reminded himself he had torn that title from the man long ago, though Hojo didn't even know the white-haired man knew it. //It doesn't matter. I've already trumped him there, I'm more normal, more human than he'll ever be...//

Sephiroth waited, for what he knew would come, for the scientist to lay his trump card, to use what he had mentioned, to some end. The scientist knew about his newest relationship, knew that the white-haired man had fought to keep it secret. So what would Hojo want from him, what would the scientist ask of him now?

"Men, hm? I can't say that was expected, truly... but it's of no real importance." He turned, but was still looking at his clipboard, his tone completely neutral, "I suppose, given the circumstances, it's for the best... though I wouldn't have minded... the results /could/ be interesting, the spawn of a mating... perhaps a few too many possible complications, unpredictable..."

Sephiroth couldn't help but ask the question, though he wasn't sure he wanted an answer.

"What are you talking about?!"//


Hojo, still immersed in whatever data he was so intent on collecting, had told him, in simple, descriptive terms, so matter-of-fact that it was chilling, describing exactly what he meant by "circumstances" and "complications"...

//... and why it was, in his opinion, preferable that I was with men...// Sephiroth almost snarled, even now, at the thought that any of his actions had made the scientist's life better, had eased Hojo's twisted mind in any way...

"I never..."

The white-haired man looked up, watching Cloud speak, listening to the unchanging calm, and the deep, deep horror he knew was buried underneath. The blond had been repeating himself for quite a while, making sure they all understood, that he hadn't known Elicia had been pregnant, that he felt nothing but shame, and anger at himself, that he hadn't thought about it, hadn't thought of /her/, and it had been all his fault... though it seemed, from what he could tell, that Elicia was the seducer, and Cloud the surprised, almost baffled recipient...

//Lesser men than you, Strife, have ignored the finer points, the details, in the heat of the moment...// Sephiroth thought almost wryly, remembering countless overheard conversations, anxious ShinRa soldiers with girls in every port, trying desperately to stay out of trouble with all of them...

//Lesser men, who were not out in the middle of that hell, just trying to stay sane... men who never thought twice afterward when something happened, who didn't try to apologize, and who didn't have to fight through the darkness you must have faced... before, and after.//

From what the SOLDIER had seen already, these battles, this conflict was a thousand times worse than the Wutai war... and though some memories were vague, and overall his past was cloudy, Sephiroth /remembered/ all the battles of the Wutai war, in every gory detail...

"Elly didn't tell me... I didn't know... I didn't /think/..."

Hojo's words wound around those statements, whispering in the back of Sephiroth's thoughts, those sharp moments of the past, filled with subtle violence...

//... and it had been better, that I had chosen men so far...//

Sephiroth wondered now, when Hojo had been planning on telling him, when it would have come up, if he hadn't asked...

//... because I could have had a wife, yes, or as many female lovers as I had wanted, but I would have had to be careful... so careful...//

Cloud hadn't known any of that, of course. Hojo had no need to inform him, not when he had wanted the blonde to be merely a weapon, when he had been sure that Strife's entire future had been planned to the last heartbeat.

Cloud hadn't known, what Sephiroth had... why a man who was more than a SOLDIER had to always be so very, very careful.


The blonde spoke slowly after that, choosing his words carefully, knowing he had the attention of everyone in the room, knew they would listen, for as long as he cared to speak.

//If only I had something... anything important to say... if only I could tell them, what it had been like to be with Elly, to watch her work through it all, and fight so bravely, and... the way she smiled at me. To tell them what it was like, to believe again, just a little, that maybe the world wasn't only suffering, wasn't always vicious...//

The memories were freezing him now, painfully welding themselves to his bones in long shafts of brittle ice, making it almost easy to speak, to do so without thinking, without listening to Tifa's slightly labored breathing, or caring that she was gasping because she was trying to hold back tears, caring if she cried... Without remembering, all his emotions pushed back by a crumbling barricade... a few brilliant, warm moments, ones that /burned/... truths he knew would topple his desperate struggle for control...

//I just wanted... no more death. I didn't want... any more hurt, or pain. No more blood on my hands... /anyone's/ blood...//

He swallowed nothing, but it felt as if bars of lead were sliding down his throat nonetheless. Cloud found himself absently rubbing at his hand again, feeling slight stabbing pains, the same he usually had when he had fought ungloved too long in the snow... Strange, but easily explained away... his body no longer healed as it once had. Even a simple slice, it seemed, would not vanish quickly.

"We moved into the mountains, all the way into the mountains, in the middle of the fourth month. We knew, all the soldiers knew that there was no coming back, no retreat. We all understood exactly what it meant, when we marched against little or no resistance, for weeks and weeks, when we did not meet the full force of Hojo's resistance, all the way down..."

//... and still, they died. Not even against Jenova's total power, and they died. Nothing more than children, screaming for their parents, frightened and hurting, alone in the night.//

"I... we knew where the lab was, that it sat in the center of the valley, in the middle of the continent, ringed by mountains for hundreds of miles. The lab and the Mako reactors shared equal importance, though we didn't know about the lab until much later. We had to destroy all of it."

Cloud remembered all too well, the first howl from the Cetra, the Planet, the taste of chemicals in his mouth, memories... that there was a lab, that the impossible task of taking out Hojo's Mako reactors had just become a thousand times more difficult.

"There were no supports inside the ranges, nothing Hojo hadn't annihilated months before, and, as we soon learned, no way to set up a supply line..."

Cloud had held that first young scout himself, as the girl, no more than 13, had been added to the ranks of those who died in his arms. She had been their envoy, their brave, reckless test pilot, and she had never made it past the first ridge, before enemy fire, some unknown, explosive force had torn her Chocobo to shreds, ripped her own body in half...

//Two sisters, she told me. Two sisters, living in Junon Harbor...//

The blonde would remember that voice, and a thousand others, an endless litany of choked, shocked whispers, until well after the war had become only a memory, voices with final requests, wanting someone to remember them, their families, and to give them a reason, why they had to suffer, to die...

//... even when I am dead, I will remember them all.//

Cloud didn't know if he wanted to, if he /could/ handle all that sorrow, all that wasted life, but knew he didn't have a choice, that there were just some things that even time would not heal, could not erase.

//I told her that she had been brave, that her death had meaning, that her sisters would be safe, because of her sacrifice.//

He had told her that, because he believed it. More than once, that thought had been the only thing that kept him going.

//This is a war for survival, and that is enough. I cannot surrender, because now, all their blood is on my hands. They followed me, because they believed I would stay, that I believed, always, that this war, this world, was worth fighting for.//

"Attacking the lab was suicide, plain and simple. Hojo was luring us down, into the mountains, drawing us close to the lab, where we knew all his creatures were waiting."

Cid glanced over at Reeve, saw that the President shared his surprise, his shock. No, as the commander of the entire Air offensive, the pilot had /not/ known things had been that bad, that the army had gone into the mountains with such a view, such belief in their own destruction. Neither, it seemed, had the President.

"There was no way to dig in, not with that many enemies, no way to situate ourselves, plan out an extended attack, hell, even collect our /thoughts/ most of the time... but we knew that the lab /had/ to be destroyed."

There was a terrible, fierce pride in his voice, Cloud knew, a mad, hard, rebellious honor, in fighting the unstoppable, taking on impossible odds because it was the only avenue left.

"At that point, all my men had seen death firsthand, horror and madness and suffering every day, for months. Reports had been coming in, one after another as we marched forward. News from so many cities and towns, soldiers discovering that their families, their children, were no longer alive to welcome them back, that Hojo had made some suicidal attack, some insane maneuver, and taken a few more lives with him on the way out. All we commanded, going in to the mountains, in the final push, were survivors, war machines. There was no getting out, and going in, I can honestly say that most of us didn't care."

"You didn't care?" Vincent's voice was soft, a surprising realization on top of his already startling interruption, "You knew... you knew Elicia was pregnant, and you didn't..."

"Elly didn't tell me, until we were well inside the border. When she did... I didn't, I didn't... take it well. There were weeks, maybe a month..."

Cloud didn't even remember /why/ exactly he had been so upset with her, what specific list of excuses had quietly pushed Elicia to the back of his mind. All he could feel now was regret, painful, stifling sorrow, for every selfish, stupid second he had spent away from her, every moment he had hurt her... before...

//All you know how to do, monster, is hurt. It's what you were built for, what you were made for.//

"A month, I think, where she and I didn't talk to each other except in battle, over the radio. I... I kept my distance, I took on a few more independent missions, one-man raids, or leading small parties into the areas around us that were more highly populated with monsters, to dissuade them from making a sneak attack..."

Cloud, of course, hated himself for that, for keeping an unknown number of soldiers dying, by naming those who would die instead, leading those chosen few on what he knew would almost certainly be their last mission. The fact that all of the soldiers who went did so of their own volition, that most of them were more than ready to die, had lost so much that they no longer cared to live, and only sought to fill their final moments in vengeance... it didn't matter. Cloud had still led them, led groups of young men and women, /children/, to end after bloody end.

"We had a thousand pointless clashes with Hojo's forces... small fights, but still lethal, just to pick away at our strength, make us tired, angry... A few men here, a few there. We could never let our guard down, there was always death, every day... It wasn't like a real war, where you could assume the worst, and prepare for it. There was never just one final attack, just surprise assaults, always out of nowhere..."

Yes, Cloud knew he could tell them a countless number of hellish stories. This last campaign had certainly been the worst, and he was not so arrogant to truly think that any one event, even Elicia's death, took precedent over the rest of it. He knew too well, that his pain was nothing special, no more or less than any other soldier, and /nothing/ compared to that of the Planet.

//It doesn't matter... nothing I do, nothing I've ever done has stopped a single death. This is a nightmare that will /never/ end... /ever/.//

They did not want to know about that, though. Anjele, Reeve, all of them... even Tifa, they only wanted to know about what... what he had done... to Elicia.

//Tell them... tell them and leave. It's simple, so /do/ it.//

"After a month, she... Elly and I... we talked. We reconciled. I suppose we both realized that, with the battle, with where we were going, there probably wasn't much time left."


The meetings between what remained of the commanders, Cloud and Elicia, and whatever higher-ranking officers filled the increasing gaps, were nearly unnecessary, mainly culminating in a half-hour's worth of relative silence, exhausted bodies and tired minds fighting just to /comprehend/ the scope of what lay ahead.

Cloud hated the meetings most because he knew that, in the midst of it all of it, on the very cusp of the most important set of battles they would probably ever fight, when he needed /all/ his concentration... all he could think about was Elicia. Even when he wasn't watching her, when she wasn't nearby, she was all he could see.

They hadn't talked, not since she had told him. He still didn't know what to say, how to act, and so, said nothing.

//What am I supposed to do? Be the father I never had? In this war? Madness... this is madness...//

It shouldn't have been happening. None of this, this was a problem that simply should not have existed. Of course, thinking that didn't make it go away.

//No matter how hard I try...//

The pointless meeting soon ended, with nothing much said, nothing to add, everyone just walking back to their posts with an update on who had died, who was taking their place.

There was no good news. The army was the same as it had always been, too little food, not enough Materia, and now, with every step they took into Hojo's control, the land bordered with his Mako reactors, the chance of finding enough water, and enough game to make up for the depleting rations decreased dramatically. The chances for survival dropped with each step they took.

Cloud was saddened, to realize that, with the water problems, Elly had probably stopped developing her film. He was instantly furious with himself, that he even thought of it. It didn't matter... /she/ didn't matter...

//Yes she /does/!//

He tried to throw that thought away as he walked to his tent, slightly grateful, though, that at least his anger was keeping him warm. The blonde's boots crunched in a thin, but increasing layer of snow, and he could smell in the air, that there was more on the way.

//I /never/ asked for this. I never asked her to... I /don't/ love her! I don't... I can't...//

Cloud knew didn't love her, but he could not ignore the sharp, hot, choking pain that seized him, when he thought about her now, the new dangers she was in, that the pregnancy would limit her ability to defend herself. That, if she survived the war, when she had the child, she could only be hurt by anything he did, because he couldn't... the blonde just didn't know how to be a father. Whatever he did, any attempt, Cloud knew it would be wrong, that it could only fail... and he /didn't/ love her, but he cared, cared for her so much... and he couldn't bear to see her suffer, not for his flaws.

Cloud didn't consider taking off much before going to bed, hadn't even stripped down to even his undershirt for weeks. No matter how warm it was, in these mountains, it could never be warm enough, not even to be called comfortable. The only concession he made to his weariness was his shoes, which he kicked off into the corner, pulling off his socks, hanging them on the back of his cot to dry. His feet would be freezing, of course, even under his pack blanket, and he was probably immune to most of the problems with sleeping in his shoes that made other soldiers cringe, but there was something about sleeping in socks sweaty enough to squish that was more than he could handle.

Cloud wasn't really planning on sleeping, he was really just waiting for the next disaster, the next call to arms. It would come soon, probably before he had a chance to doze off, but he had to make the attempt.

The blonde shifted in the hard, cold bed, tried not to think about how much warmer it had been, with Elly beside him, how it had felt to touch her, how the cold place, the icy gash deep inside, how, for a while, he had been able to forget it, distract himself with kinder things...

Cloud looked up, as the fabric in the tent bent, rustled slightly, as someone on the outside fumbled with the ties. A few thoughts, of danger, or proper protocol fluttered and flickered, and quickly vanished inside his mind. He was too tired to care. Whomever it was, whatever they wanted, if they weren't already screaming, it wasn't /that/ urgent, and he would enjoy a few more moments of fleeting peace.

Cloud realized just how tired he was, as he only felt a dim sense of muffled shock, distant surprise, as Elicia walked through his door.

He watched, unmoving, as she reached back through, retied the doorway, making the attempt to keep the cold at bay, before turning back toward him.

"They moved my tent again. I came out from the meeting, I talked with a few soldiers, and then I looked for it..." Her hand gestured vaguely towards some unknown failure in the system, "My tent's gone, and it's too dark, and I'm too damn tired."

Nothing she said bore the semblance of a question. Elicia wasn't asking his permission to stay, but she must have known, he thought, that it would have taken too much effort, to force her away. Cloud just didn't have it in him to care that much, to push himself to go through the motions, to show he was still upset. Instead, he watched her quietly undress, removing only a few layers of clothes and weapons, scowling as she swept new snow out of her hair.

"It's quiet out there... no sign, they say, from any of the outposts..."

//It's been quiet inside, too,// Cloud thought softly, but said nothing. It had been nearly two days since the Cetra had told him anything of importance, since the currents of the Planet had murmured of some new movement, a rising threat. Jenova, her creations were out there, of course... always... It was simply a matter of time now, and it seemed, they saw no reason to rush.

The blonde realized he should have known, that if Elicia was shedding layers, relieving herself of her heavy winter wear, that she wasn't leaving anytime soon. He didn't move, as she sat down on the edge of his cot, and then lay down beside him, and cuddled close.

A lump formed in his throat at her presence, so warm, so close, and he felt his heart skip, beating erratically inside his chest. It hurt, to be near her, to know she was now in more danger than ever, but still, Cloud slid an arm around her shoulder, and let her move as close as she wished. They were both wearing at least two layers from head to toe, but it was still more contact, closer, than he had been to her, to anyone...

//... since the last time she touched me.//

How long had it been, two weeks, three? The short time they had together, the gathering of sweet, tender nights. It was such a small thing, really, but precious, even when measured against the brutal, endless days.

"This is horrid. I can't even get good and naked in this shitty weather." Elicia's voice was bitter with fatigue. "Hell, not like it would do any good, really. I'm beat."

Exhaustion also kept Cloud from moving too much, from really wanting to, but he did realize how good it felt, to have her beside him once more, the feeling intensifying for a moment, as she shifted into a more comfortable position, the material of the second layer she was wearing so soft, brushing gently, where her waist pressed against the back of his hand.

//Dangerous.// He thought, closing his eyes, regretting every moment of his happiness even as he fought to draw it closer. //Dangerous, to know her like this... to /need/ this, and miss it when it's gone...//

Cloud tried not to shudder as his breath hitched, watching her fingers absently trace the curve of her stomach. The blonde fought to convince himself that he could see nothing, but knew it was inevitable. Elicia wasn't showing now, but she would be soon... and they had nearly reached the front lines,

"You're so careful, when you touch me," she murmured, glancing up into his eyes for only a moment. He realized that, deep in thought, he had been gently rubbing his hand against the side of her arm.

Their argument, the near month of silence between then and now, had not been forged by angry words. In truth, there had been no real disagreement between them at all, nothing said to provoke such distance. Cloud knew he had simply run away, gone silent, vanished...

/You always going to run away?/

He was angry at that voice. He had no other options, and it was the best way to keep the pain at bay. Any pain anyone felt at his departure, Tifa, Elicia, it was nothing compared to what he would do to them, without ever meaning to, if he stayed.

//I don't want to hurt anymore, I don't want to take the risk, and I can't watch you suffer...// He fought against his sense of duty and honor, rallied against the shame. //I can't, God, don't you understand, I /can't/ take it?!//

All the things, he could never say. Not without hurting her, for reasons she could never understand.

"So careful... why?"

"It would kill me, if you pulled away," he said softly, hating himself, for the weakness, for how contrived it sounded in his thoughts... but it /was/ the truth, nothing less.

Cloud looked away, could not, and did not want to see if Elicia turned to him, but when he felt her body press slightly harder against his, he knew she had.

"You're still angry at me, aren't you? ... because I didn't tell you, right away?"

"Of course I am," Cloud murmured back, though his arm did not fall away from her, and he let his eyes turn back towards hers. Perhaps, if this had been a different place, a different time, they might have been yelling at one another, slamming doors, screaming brutal, pointless insults until their throats were raw...

//... but there are no doors here... and even so, in any other place and time, I'd still probably just walk away.//

A moment of useless happiness, at that, the thought of being someone, somewhere else. /Anywhere/ else. Of course, if this had been a different place, a different time, Elicia would never have noticed him to begin with.

//There would have been no need... her husband would still be alive, and I would be...//

Cloud found he couldn't finish the sentence, because he didn't know if he would have bothered, eventually, to kill himself. Would it have even been worth it, when he already felt so dead inside, almost too much to remember that he was still alive?

Somehow, Elicia seemed to sense his thoughts, the quiet despair, and was already well aware of the strange nature of this soft, subdued argument, the close conflict hand in hand with comfort.

"There's someone waiting for you, isn't there? After the war, is that why? I've ruined... ruined your life, with all this."

He felt an insane grimace, an absurd smile twist his features for a moment, and hoped Elicia didn't see. There was no way for him to explain why it was funny... how this illegitimate child could be seen as so benign, so wonderful a consequence, compared to all that he had been through, the life he had lived before the war. The lab, losing Zack, losing Sephiroth, walking away from Tifa... in comparison, this problem seemed heaven-sent.

"There's... no one... no one waiting for me."

Not here, not anywhere, on heaven or earth. Had he sinned, as Vincent had, or at least, as he had punished himself with believing? Would he someday know, what he had done, to make his life the way it was?

"Cloud... what is it?"

Elicia , reached up to touch his face, turn his gaze toward hers. He could see, could tell that she had been preparing questions, arguments, to try and discover the probable cause of his anger, and fight him back onto her side. It was her way, her beautiful, stubborn way, but it had been abandoned immediately, as she looked into his eyes, saw that there was no true anger there, only fear, and sorrow, his glowing eyes filled with nothing but old memories.

"You can tell me, Cloud. Please?"

He smiled, though the past was rising inside him, squeezing his lungs, his heart.

"You really couldn't find your tent?"

"No..." she murmured, tilted her head up and shimmied slightly against the bed, until she could plant a kiss just below his ear. "I found something better." Her sweet smile turned to a grin. "... and you're dodging the question, soldier. Talk."

He didn't know where he found the strength, or perhaps somehow the exhaustion made it easier, but he opened his mouth, and the words just came, the story that all the people in his life knew in bits and pieces. The story of Nibelheim, of his mother, Tifa, Barret and the rest of AVALANCHE, of ShinRa, and Hojo, and ultimately, what no one knew save Zack, and not because Cloud had meant to tell him. Elicia listened quietly, as Cloud told her the story of his one and only love.


The memories were sharp and hard, almost overwhelming, and Cloud was sure he would let something slip, would suddenly blurt out what he had hidden, what he had told Elicia on that silent night. He was surprised by the steadiness in his voice, the way the part of him that had taken over, The General, kept him from revealing any of those fatal truths.

"It was easier to reconcile, out there, in the field. It wasn't... nothing was as important, as losing the Planet. We all knew... Out there you could feel it, how vital every moment was, how anger, fighting with one another, how worthless it was. What could be so important, against what we fought so hard for everyday?"

"Hey! We're holding our own, here!" Yuffie yelped indignantly, pounding her fist against the table.

Tifa felt her heart give a sickening lurch, pounding double for a moment, as Cloud didn't respond, and turned his head away.

"We are taking expected losses. All the reports are mainly positive, even when we're in some trouble..." Reeve murmured, but his words were more question than determined truth.

"Haven't you ever wondered, why there haven't been any new Weapons?" Cloud's voice was soft, toneless, "Why it is, if Jenova's still a threat, if /nothing/ was resolved..."

//Nothing, nothing... and I suffered, and I /killed/, I watched Aeris die... I killed... him... for /nothing/...//

"... and if destroying Meteor accomplished nothing, in the long run, haven't you asked yourself why the Planet hasn't pulled together another defense?"

The ninja girl frowned, stubbornly refusing to let her optimism die, searching for an answer.

"It.. it won't... It knows..."

Cloud shook his head.

"It /can't/, Yuffie. The Planet's too damaged, there's been too many injuries, there were too many even /before/ this started, with the Mako reactors, with Meteor. The Planet is dying."

Nanaki felt his blood run cold, the blonde soldier's words eerily reminiscent of his grandfather's most potent fears.

"You don't..." Reeve choked out, his expression a mask of total disbelief, confusion. "You don't /know/ that, you /can't/ know..."

"I don't know for sure, Reeve, but I /can/ feel it. I could feel it in the mountains near Wutai, as if I had touched the Northern Crater itself. Hojo's forces outnumber us. They always have, and he can pull up Mako energy faster than we can destroy, and Jenova, alive and very much awake, she poisons the Lifestream just a little more each day..."

Cloud felt the words he hadn't spoken to anyone, fears that felt more like certain truths, predictions for an all too clear future, falling unstoppably from his mouth, the words like boulders in a rock fall, crushing hope where they fell. He didn't want to say it aloud, didn't want to force any of them to share his fear, his pain, but the words would not stop.

"I think, this might all be meaningless... in my more optimistic moments, that is." Cloud sought to soften the blow with a slight smile, fighting for sarcasm, forcing the expression across a face turned to stone. "I think, this is all just revenge, now. This has nothing to do with healing the Planet, or saving the Planet. Not anymore."

"Revenge?" It was the first time Sephiroth had spoken, Zack was sure he was not the only one to see Cloud flinch as if he had been shot.

"The Cetra's revenge, for what Jenova did to them, for the destruction she caused in the past."

Cloud knew it was true, it was the only thing that made sense, the only reason they would make him suffer so. The lies they had told him in the beginning, how they were working with him to save humanity, those had been long dropped. He knew now, especially after their determination to eliminate Sephiroth... this wasn't a fight for the Planet, to save it above and beyond any other goal. This was personal, the Cetra would not stop until they had annihilated all trace of their enemy, and Cloud could not see how Jenova could feel any other way.

//So, I'm the final weapon, in a endless, cosmic /pissing/ contest...//

"They want to /destroy/ her, forever, no matter what the cost. No matter if... if they lose the Planet, because of it."

The blonde had expected some reaction from the Cetra before he had gotten this far, and was waiting, expecting any moment for them to say something, to keep him from revealing what he was sure were their true intentions. Surely, they didn't want him to reveal his assumptions, that they were completely self-serving, that truly, /no one/ cared for the humans on the Planet?

That even Aeris's sacrifice, her belief when she had prayed for Holy, that humanity was worth saving, was a mistake, and ultimately a regret. Cloud expected some sort of punishment, couldn't believe there was only silence. Silence, where there had /always/ been something, if only the barest whisper, waves on a distant shore, but the Cetra, and the entire Planet, seemed to be holding it's breath.

The blonde fought a cold shiver, a wave of ice that seemed to sweep through him at that thought, and reached out, though the presence of the Planet, seeking the specific energy, the thread of power that thrummed within, his link to them, and to any real understanding of the Planet itself.

It should have been a blessing, almost salvation, a merciful act, to have those voices muted, but something was wrong, that mercy was /wrong/. They had not tried to stop him, from calling them the enemy, there had not even been a flicker of anger, fury from their corner.

//Wrong... very wrong...//

Cloud searched deeper, didn't realize he had closed his eyes, he had turned away, until he heard Zack's voice, calling him, from what, for a moment, seemed to be a great distance.


Another voice, not nearly so gentle, definitely not concerned, overpowered his friend's call. Anjele was grinning, /this/ was the type of ammunition he wanted.

"Hearing voices, then, telling him that we're all doomed. I knew it, I told you, Scarlet, we should have pulled him out /years/ ago."

"A crazy fighter's better than none at all." The blonde woman retorted, and as Cloud opened his eyes, met her gaze, he saw a moment of something startling, something that almost seemed friendly, behind the bitter hatred.

"I must say, though, Strife, all this talk of futility does us no good, five years into the war. I certainly plan on taking this to the end, whatever that may be, and a very large part of that rests on you, on the conclusion of this conversation, and on what happened to General Elicia."

"That's noble..." Cid said, obviously restraining a few more, much less tactful words.

"If I thought that rebuilt rocket in that town of yours could take me to a different planet, believe me, Highwind, I'd shoot you to get there, but it can't. We're stuck on this ball of mud, for better or worse. Besides..." The blonde tapped her highly polished nails against the table, "Hojo took a few rather important machines of mine when he "retired"... I have no intention of letting him keep them."


Zack was grateful for what seemed to be a slight pause in the conversation, a few moments where Cloud wasn't doing all the talking. That final outburst, the talk of certain death, of the Cetra's aims, the despair... it wasn't like Cloud at all. Yes, the blonde had /thought/ those things, Zack was sure of that. Everyone had.

//... but it was the /way/ he said it. I /know/ something's wrong, damn it... but what can I do?//

The dark-haired SOLDIER tuned Scarlet and Cid out entirely, watching his pale, brutally thin friend do his best to avoid the eyes of everyone at the table, closing his own for increasing periods of time, his face taking on a strange look of concentration, as if he were searching for something, reaching out toward some invisible shore. Zack didn't understand, but the blankness, the distance that seemed to be opening up between them scared him, had made him call out, when he hadn't wanted to attract undue attention to the blonde's strange behavior.

He watched Cloud reach down, unconsciously, and rub his fingers hard against the side of his other, gloved hand, jaw clenching slightly, as if in pain, though Zack could see little sign of a wound...

//No, wait...//

There was a tear, in the side of the fighter's glove, but just slight, nothing important. His friend was most likely using the gesture simply to escape, some random, repetitious movement he could focus on, keep himself from thinking too hard about the past. It only deepened Zack's fears, that all of this was wrong, that forcing Cloud to make this confession would do no good. The dark-haired man had already made up his mind, whatever was happening, whatever he would learn, that it wouldn't change a thing.

//I just want this to be over...//

He pushed back the nagging fear, that once it was, Cloud would be too, that what the man had survived was not something he could relive.


"I've got a score to settle with that bastard."

The blonde couldn't help but smile to himself, at Scarlet's words, that there was yet /another/ personal vendetta against Hojo, that /everyone/ seemed to have a private score to settle with him. He wondered who would finally be the one to exact punishment, which lucky soul would get to go head to head in the final fight with the madman... The thought, Cloud knew, imagining the details of who and how, already had given him countless hours of satisfaction.

"This battle is personal for everyone, then. Everyone's fighting for something different, to avenge someone they've lost, to save something they still have... even Hojo."

"Hojo... he...?" Reeve was lost, and not the only one.

Cloud sighed, knowing he had to return to Elicia's story, but also glad to answer Reeve's questions, knowing he was fighting against memory, trying to give himself just a few more minutes not to remember, and knowing this would be the last time anyone here would ever call him "friend".

"It was the reason... probably the most important one, why I was angry... why I was so afraid for her. We were nearing the main concentration of Hojo's Mako reactors, and the lab, and with every step, there were more enemies in our path, and we knew once we crossed the line... we /knew/ they were drawing us in." Cloud took a breath, forcing himself to relax, knowing he hadn't come close, that if he was this tense now... he would never make it to... to... later...

//Oh Elly, I'm so /sorry/.//

"They were after me, specifically, in every battle... hell, in all the battles I've ever fought in. I knew they were searching, that Hojo, that Jenova's creatures were looking for me. There were always assassins, sent in on suicide missions, trying to get rid of me..."

More than once, Cloud knew, the enemy had come /very/ close to success. The blonde wasn't proud, either. Many times, it had been luck alone that had saved him...

//Luck, or another soldier... stepping in the way...// The blonde didn't want to think about that, to remember. He had never asked to command that kind of loyalty, knew what kind of pain it would bring even before he felt it for the first time.

"I smashed all of Hojo's aspirations five years ago, or at least, that was what he believed. He told me I was a failure, but he never had the chance to say I was his greatest one. Not only did I refuse to follow orders, but I actively fought back. I brought down everything he had worked for... or, like I said, at least he thought I did."

Cloud refused to take credit for any of it. As pathetic as it sounded, as much as he truly hated Hojo, then and now, he had never done more than go along with what had happened back then, too mind sick, too shattered by all that was happening to ever do more than what he did best, and just fight what stood in his way.

//... and they didn't know, Barret, Tifa, Cid... none of them knew...//

... and now? He could not even raise his eyes from the table, could not look, even though all he had ever asked for, all he had begged for, was once again before him. Sephiroth was back, and still, all was the same as it had always been... there was nothing new, no way to break the silence that had come to define his life.

//Stop this. This is selfish, this is stupid, and none of this... this is about Elly now. Stop thinking, and tell them about her. Tell them. Tell them what you did.//

It didn't take much, really, to drag him back to that time, the campaign, which seemed both as recent as yesterday, and as distant as a lifetime ago. A few sentences, and he was lost, back among those memories, even the happier ones tinged with darkness.


A slight, clicking sound woke him from his light sleep, and Cloud froze, keeping his eyes closed, the world coalescing from the darkness in a heartbeat. His tent... it was, what, halfway through the campaign? They were moving forward, surprisingly fast, to their destiny, though whether it would be their final stand remained to be seen...

The past came then, Cloud let the moment of sorrow and pain pass over him, knowing it was better to just let it come, than try to hold it back, refuse to acknowledge the fragments of what had been. It was the same as it had been for the last few years, every day, waking up, and remembering who he was, what he had done...

He pushed past it as soon as possible, there were much more important things in the near future, not the least of which was the clicking noise, which hadn't abated in the few seconds he had taken to collect himself.

He opened one eye, blinked, quietly watching Elicia from the other side of the bed, where she had perched, taking pictures of him.

"What are you doing?"

"I have to document this for posterity." Elicia smiled, and shot off another few frames. "I'll print the pictures once we get back to North Corel, but I have to shoot now, while I have the chance. No one will ever believe I bagged someone as gorgeous as you if I don't have proof."

Cloud waited, to break her happy mood with more serious thoughts, until she had taken a few more shots, teasing him to smile, finally setting the camera aside. The blonde reached out slowly, took her hand in his.

"I won't leave you, you know that."

Elicia sighed, and nodded.

"You won't have the chance. I'm not leaving the military. I'll have this baby, and leave him, or her... somewhere, Kalm, or another town in the east... and I'll be ready for the next campaign."

Cloud pushed himself up on the bed, until he was sitting up, his gaze level with hers, ready to protest. Elicia's hand on his, the slight shake of her head, stopped him. He looked down, and quickly averted his eyes. So far along. He didn't know the specifics, how many weeks, what it meant, only that now, more than ever, he didn't want her in this war.

"There aren't enough of us, Cloud. You know that. Even with... even if this next procedure works, even if there are four, it won't be enough. I'm not more important than anyone else in this army. My life doesn't matter more. Our child... if there's going to be a future for it, or anyone else..."

//But it does matter... you /are/ more important... because I /care/ about you.//

Cloud wanted to say the words, but knew it was the most selfish of self-centered sentiments, that it would not change her decision, that, really, no matter how frightening it was, to watch her fight, to see her life at risk day after day, Elicia was right.

"Don't look so low, blue eyes." Her hand came up, cupped the side of his face, and he let himself lean into her touch for a moment, looked up at her. There was something strange in her gaze, some sentiment he didn't understand.

"What? What is it, Elly?"

It didn't look as if she planned to answer him, but Cloud never found out if she would have or not, as a sudden, violent shaking of their tent flap, and a frantic shout broke what he later realized had been one of their last peaceful moments together.


"A scout told us, there were three main divisions of the central lab, all of them stretching out over about a half mile, in the valley between the Kipatha Mountain and the Tedeay range."

Cloud looked down at the timeline beneath his hand, something a soldier somewhere, some scribe had been able to write down during, or perhaps only after the campaign had ended.

He himself did not remember the passing of time, really, where one battle ended and the next began. If anything, he remembered watching Elicia's body change, that curve he had fought not to notice slowly growing, though the woman changed nothing in her life, still fought as hard and fast as any other soldier...

//Until I put her in the back, I forced her to man the rear guns...//

It was the only thing he could think to do, the only thing he knew might keep her safe. Cloud knew nothing about babies, didn't know how to help, what he might to for Elicia, and she refused to let him coddle her. Any problems she had, she kept to herself.

//If she had only told me... if I had known... maybe...//

Cloud tried not to delude himself, knowing it most likely would have changed nothing...

//It wouldn't have left me with any happy memories. I don't /want/ to remember, that there was a time, that I enjoyed...//



He turned sharply at her exclamation, but was surprised to see her watching him with joy, reaching her hand out to him. He offered his own, eyes widening in surprise as she lay his palm against her stomach, and he felt the small tap, the baby kicking... /his/ baby...


//I would have stayed with her... I would have...//

He snapped at himself, knowing that, just before they had entered the Northern Crater, that final battle with Jenova, and Sephiroth, he had vowed to do the same for Tifa. He had lied to them all, smiled when he should have, laughed and looked contrite, when Cid and Barret revealed that they had been watching, from the Highwind, all night, while he and Tifa had held each other on the ground below.

//They watched me... they watched me lie to her all night long. Pretending to love, because I knew Tifa was right, because at least one of us should have been happy, and, no matter what happened, I knew it would not be me. All we had was each other, or at least, all she had was me. I had nothing, except that maybe, if I lied, I could make her happy.//

It hadn't worked then, he couldn't keep up the lie, couldn't maintain the charade for long, when her love only reflected the hole, the emptiness that had become his life. Perhaps, though, this time, with Elly, it would be different. He didn't love her, but she knew that, and didn't expect him to. Cloud knew he could care for a child, or at least, that he wanted to try, to do his best to finally bring some good out of his life.

"Elly and I, we never talked about the child, about bringing it into the war, bringing it into this world. We couldn't say, what I think we both must have feared, that the birth would be close, too close to the end of the campaign... that she was vulnerable, that if something happened... It was a brutal war, and more died every day, and our plans could die too, any of them, at any time."

It was nearly impossible to speak, the words like boulders, gathered in his chest, not allowing any air, and he struggled for composure.

"We were both needed, we both had to fight, there was /nothing/ I could do to change that. There... there were a few close calls, as we reached the lab sites. I discovered that, somehow, Hojo knew..." Cloud could still feel his blood freeze, the potential, the horror he had learned of, coming out of nowhere, "his monsters, they tried to take her... I think, they must have known she was with child, somehow. I don't know /how/..."

"It's happened before." Reeve nodded, paling with each word. "We've had reports, of monsters coming into cities, except that some of them don't kill /everyone/. Sometimes, they take prisoners... and they try to steal pregnant women, most of all..."

"The Jenova project... again." Cloud whispered, and knew he could not pull his gaze from the tabletop if he tried, couldn't deal with anyone else's pain, any other emotion alongside his own bitter sorrow, of knowing that this would /never/ end.

//How many more times, Hojo? How long do these redundant, stupid games have to go on...?//

There would never, /ever/ be another Sephiroth. Cloud would have told the scientist that, knew it was the truth, could have predicted his own failure as a "clone" long before Hojo had given up.

//Me... as if I could ever be... even one-/tenth/ the man...// He stopped himself, had been down that particular path in his thoughts too many times to mention.

//Wandering again. Stop. Finish the story now, and just get /out/ of here.//

"Li..." Nanaki murmured, interrupting him before he could speak. "Was Li in that lab, the larger lab?"

Cloud shook his head.

"It was another one, a smaller facility. We found it, maybe a month before we hit the main building. Hojo was using it purely for cloning and genetic recreation, though Li appeared to be his only success. He /was/ trying, to clone humans himself, but apparently it's still not one of his strong suits."

It was one of the most bitter ironies of the war, really, that Hojo was really not even a very good scientist, nothing special, not someone who should have done anything he had managed to do. Hojo was not Professor Gast, would never even come close to touching the truths the other man had found, the humanity he considered Gast's greatest flaw, his love for Ifalna, and Aeris, was, Cloud knew, what had made the man truly great. Hojo's myopic focus on science was ultimately his greatest flaw.

"Cloning humans?" Anjele shuffled a few papers of his own. "That's not in the report."

"I figured it was probably top secret, too much so for the paperwork, given that it seemed, from what I could tell... He was trying to clone Rufus ShinRa."

Scarlet's pen fell out of her hand, she looked up with a surprisingly open, wounded stare.


A snort of laughter broke the silence, Scarlet turned sharply, to see Barret sniggering in the corner, as he watched the blonde woman's icy, stoic shell crack, and tried very hard not to laugh his ass off.

"Shut the fuck up, slum trash!"

Barret only laughed harder, with every moment that Scarlet's fury grew, and as the pain shone brighter in her eyes. The woman had been responsible for the death of his best friend, and the destruction of his town, his wife, his entire world. She had tried to kill them all, more than once. Any pain of hers was a true victory for him, something worth celebrating.

Cloud leaned back in his chair, remembering the tanks, the jars and glassed-in walls upon walls of half-formed, rudimentary clones, all with the face of the younger ShinRa leader. God only knew what Hojo was up to...

//... and quite possibly, even He can't believe it.//

The blonde remembered how he had found Li, weak and sick in the center of another of those horrible, cold, white rooms, and how he had fought with himself, for days, unsure of her true nature, of whether she truly was like Nanaki, or whether he had just welcomed the enemy right into their ranks.

//I couldn't take her life. It was weakness, risky, I knew that, but I couldn't kill... not again, not when there was even a chance, that I didn't have to have her blood on my hands too.//

He had been lucky. In one of her first actions, when she had been strong enough to fight, Li had defended Elly, and held the line long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

//"Lady Cloud." I wonder what Elly thought of that, when we finally figured out that Li was talking about her?//

Of course, the giant cat hadn't been the first, or the only one to figure it out. Cloud didn't try to hide his and Elly's relationship, didn't care, didn't give a damn who saw the woman going in or out of his tent, who was watching, as he touched the ever-increasing curve of her waist, or smiled when she touched him back. It wasn't as if things could get much /more/ dangerous, and Cloud was already more than willing, that if they had wanted to take that happiness from him, Anjele or Scarlet or Hojo or /anyone/, if they wanted Elly, they would have had to take her over his cold, dead body.

//Instead, they did it over hers, now didn't they?//

He almost cried out, the pain in that thought was like cold, frozen steel pounding its way through his skull, digging deep into his chest, his center, his soul.

//Not long now...//

Cloud was glad Barret and Scarlet had finished their vicious spat. He knew he would not last much longer, could not keep his calm, and the fighter suppressed another violent shiver, one of many that were growing ever worse, signs of his own fear and shame, he supposed, but their growing intensity surprised even him.


"The plan to hit the lab, to destroy it, had completely changed. We no longer had the resources to blow up all three structures. Hell, with the way things were going, it didn't look like we'd be able to take half of it."

It had happened the way they had all been expecting it to, dreading it would, and hoping beyond hope that maybe, it would not.

Hojo's army was waiting for them to enter the valley, with more monstrous creations than Cloud had ever seen gathered together, many of them utterly foreign, new prototypes, beasts programmed simply to kill. Some of the soldiers had reported back in awe, that the monsters would sometimes even attack each other, without any provocation, too bloodthirsty to have even a semblance of pack instinct or rational thought. Spawn, and Halfspawn, and even they could barely restrain the more dangerous members of their forces, though they controlled the rest with impenetrable guidance, with skills more than strong enough, given their numbers.

"They outnumbered us ten to one, all the way down the central corridor of the valley, just waiting for us to make a move. We had to take out the lab, but we didn't have the resources..."

His eyes flicked up for a moment, to Reeve, and then Scarlet, and Cloud smiled thinly, his eyes glittering sharp and brilliant as uncut Materia. No matter the tragedy, there was something triumphant, about blowing up your enemies with the biggest gun available.

"I asked Reeve, and Scarlet, if there was any way to fire up the Sister Ray."


It was absolute insanity. He had known it at the time, just as he knew it now, that there was no way it should have been successful. The Planet had been /screaming/, so, of course, the Cetra had not been pleased with him, and Reeve and Scarlet had no doubt spent /hours/ screaming at each other, over whether Midgar itself could take the strain, or if the whole city would fall apart from the stress, of firing up all the remaining Mako reactors. In the end, though, all, even the Cetra, had grudgingly realized there was no other way.

"It was our only option... our best chance. We were taking too many casualties, there was no way to fight out of the basin, no way to take the valley, /no way/ to salvage the lab." He couldn't help adding the final sentence, glaring at Anjele, who had stood with Reeve, an astonishing switch from his usual position, against blowing up the lab with the Sister Ray.

//For different reasons, though, for power, and prestige... the idea that he could /still/ use some of Hojo's research, could still gain from the actions of that madman. How many have to die? Will we /ever/ learn?//

One person, Cloud thought, if there was even one person who thought Hojo had any value, any humanity... one was too many.

"Elly and I ordered a retreat to the perimeter of the valley, a camp along the eastern edge, and I took fifteen, maybe twenty soldiers, all black-tagged, in on a mission, to plant a transmitter inside the lab."

"Black-tagged?" Tifa murmured.

"Suicidal. It's a Wutai thing, though the ShinRa caught on pretty fast, and picked it up. Soldiers, they'll tie a black Chocobo feather in their hair, it's a symbol, that they've lost everything, that they don't want to live anymore," Yuffie shrugged, "Common practice, really, black-tags."

Tifa shuddered slightly, remembering that she had seen a few such "tags", even in the relatively peaceful North Corel.

"You put a transmitter on the /inside/ of that lab?" Anjele sniffed suspiciously. "Without being seen?"

A grin passed across Cloud's face. No matter how bad, how brutal the war had been, memories of destroying something of Hojo's, and Jenova's, only held delight. Watching those bastards burn... hearing them scream... it was truly a thing of beauty.

"Oh, we were seen, but the transmitter had an instantaneous detonation sequence hard-wired in. As soon as I triggered it, the Sister Ray fired. There was no chance, not for that many of Hojo's troops to get out of the way in time, and I don't think they ever really knew what we were doing, they took our evacuation for fear, for panicked retreat. We took out the lab, the valley... hell, we destroyed /everything/. Thank God, the Sister Ray worked. The other men... they all died, but they covered me for a long time, gave me a chance to set the charge... I still don't believe /I/ made it out."

He could remember, looking up, seeing the blast coming, diving out a window some countless number of feet up, never expecting to hit the ground, knowing he would probably be vaporized. Cloud swallowed hard, his heart pounding double time, as the joy at that thought twisted, and vanished, ripped apart. Why was he so happy that he had survived? In the end, what had remained?

"I thought... after the lab went up, that it was over, but... Shit, there were /more/... more we never saw, and as soon as the lab- once the initial explosion was over, they came over the ridge, and caught us off guard. There were a /lot/ more."

"Off guard? Even your precious Cetra were caught off guard?"

The blonde couldn't even hear the sarcasm in Anjele's voice, as another bitter chill took him, just as cold, just as unforgiving as it had been back then... forcing him to relive, too close, every moment, except now, he knew what the end would bring.

"They didn't see it either, I don't know why. Hojo's army came out of /nowhere/, and pushed us back, /hard/, nearly broke the ranks clean through, and picked us off one by one. All of a sudden, they were just /everywhere/, it was a nightmare... and I thought, if I could just distract them..." he swallowed again, ignoring the cold numbness slowly rising inside, "... but I had to get Elly out first."

He would never forget the terror of that time, running through the battlefield, not knowing or caring who attacked him, letting his body go through the motions of dispatching them, as he sought Elicia out, sprinting back and forth to anywhere he thought she could be, desperate to find her.

//To protect her. If he was there, no one would hurt her. He would ensure it.//

"It was the worst possible..." Memories, too many, the ice, the snow, the unforgiving, white silence, and his words tripped over each other now. He needed to tell it quickly, as quickly as he could, so that he didn't have to /think/...

"We got cut off, from the rest of the army, a few soldiers... but then there was a small skirmish, and it was just Elicia and I. There was no time, if the army had come back for us, if they had tried to reach us... Just more wasted lives, and I... I was sure that I could keep Elly safe. I /did/... I..."

Cloud paused, dragged in a lungful of air slowly, painfully, felt the pressure on his chest, the same crushing power that was inside his head, making his ears ring. It felt as if a low current were running through him, as if thin lines of electricity had been set along his entire body, bitterly cold, the frantic energy it provided almost unbearable...

//Please don't make me do this... please... please...//

The voice that snarled back at his weakness gave no quarter, throwing all his failures back in his face. It was for the best, though, to make him hard, always, hard, cold and strong, because if he could not face himself, how could he ever survive a world that showed no mercy?

/Suck it up... SOLDIER. Ha ha./


"We- for days, we made our way through the mountains. There were attacks, they were chasing us all the way through. I... I fought them off, of course. Elly did too, the best she could. God, she was still strong, and capable. I never should have doubted her. We..."

Cloud shuddered hard, and for the first time, it was something that no one could miss. Without warning, he stopped speaking, just stared at the table, hard enough to bore a hole through it, as if the reflection of the light were a lifeline, his eyes wide, desperate, and unnervingly distant.


Zack didn't know whether to go to him or not... the blonde was always strange, so averse to close contact much of the time. What would help, and what would only hurt, only push him further away? The dark-haired man tried again when, alarmingly, the blonde didn't even respond to the sound of his name.

//Too far, this has gone too far...//

Zack couldn't even catch Cloud's eye, the blonde would not look up.

"Cloud, you don't have to do this. You don't have to, if you don't want to."

He ignored the snort of protest from Anjele's corner, more than willing to throw the man through a wall if that was what it took to remove his protest from the table.

"I..." Cloud spoke softly, his voice nearly a monotone, continuing as if he had not heard Zack at all. "We found a small village, deserted but not destroyed, not all the way... and... and then..." he choked, and shivered again, "something went... wrong."


Cloud watched, as Elly yelled sharply into the radio, and banged it against her hip, fiddling some more with the buttons before turning to him with a disgruntled sigh.

"It's dead. I got a last call out to Roman, we should try to regroup with them over the mountain."

He nodded, relatively unalarmed about the loss of the radio, as they continued moving forward. The machine would do them no good anyway, not out here, in the middle of nowhere. He wasn't any more worried about the prospects of crossing the mountain range alone, with almost no supplies, and Elicia now heavily hindered by her pregnancy.

//Whatever it takes, I'll do it. It doesn't matter...//

The entire war had been this way, survival in the face of impossible odds. Now that he had someone special to protect, the question of failure never even crossed his mind.

Thankfully, the Cetra had done their job, and pointed out the enemy thus far in their journey, giving him warning long in advance, so that he could plan an ambush, or even avoid them when possible, though he knew he wasn't gaining any respect from them by doing so.

//I don't care...// he thought loudly, just in case the Cetra were listening, //I don't care if I can't kill them /all/, as long as Elly is safe.//

It was cold enough, on these open plains, to catch his attention when he had all but forgotten the string of freezing days that had made up most of the rest of this campaign. The air made his lungs hurt, and that ache brought attention to a mass of other, small injuries that had just begun to heal. Cloud did his best to ignore it, kept all his focus on the sound of Elly breathing behind him, as he lay a track for her to follow, plowing his way through the seemingly endless snow. If she needed rest, they rested. If she needed food, she ate. Nothing else mattered, as long as he could keep her safe.


Cloud turned his eyes up, from where he had been determinedly staring, only at the white, intent only on moving through the drifts, to where Elly was pointing.


"We found that village... small, /high/ in the mountains. It was abandoned... it looked as if all the people had left, had fled. Most of the doors were wide open."

Cloud remembered, how Elly's hand had found his, as they had walked silently down the center of the eerily quiet town. There had been no visible destruction, no sign of a massacre, but the blonde had been grateful, that Elicia had remained quiet, that hadn't asked him, to tell her everything was all right.

"We were going to stay, maybe a day, to rest, to try to find some supplies, and make a run for the tail end of the army, catch up to them by the end of the week. It... it happened /so fast/."

Cloud knew that he was shaking, thought he heard his voice choking on even those simple words. Strange, his panic, for now, he could feel a slowly growing void, opening between himself and the rest of the world, a cold blanket stretched just underneath his skin, numbing him fully. Odd, that although there was that distance, it seemed to only amplify the pain, the clarity of his remembering... memories that were already sharp splinters, digging under his skin



He turned swiftly at the short, choked cry, the Ultima Weapon half drawn, as Elicia let go of his arm without warning, dropping heavily into the snow, clutching her distended abdomen with one hand, her other fist firmly planted against the ground, arm stiff and shaking, the only thing keeping her from dropping completely into the snow.

"Elly?! Elly, what's wrong?!"

Cloud took only a second to pull his gaze away from her, to look around, the glow of his eyes nullified by the shining, diamond snow all around them. He searched, a half-second at each window, a moment, for any sudden movement at a doorway, for a hidden sniper, some invisible, waiting warrior.

The blonde strained, to hear any noise in the still, silent air, but all he heard was a low moan, as Elicia finally lost her hold on the earth, collapsing fully into the drifts. Cloud knelt at her side instantly, panic a sour tang in his mouth as he reached for her tightly clenched hand, the only sign of life in her otherwise lifeless body. When he spoke, his voice came out too high, not his voice at all, almost a scream.

"Elly?! ELLY!?"

"The baby... Cloud, the... baby."

His heart lurched at her words, but the blonde ignored it completely, quickly moving, if only to give his hands something to do, to /do/ something, anything at all...

"Come on..." He looked around wildly, as if expecting an attack to come now, at this sudden sign of vulnerability. "Come on, we can't stay out here."

He gently lifted her to her feet, brought her into his arms as her legs immediately gave out underneath her. It was awkward, she was no shorter than he, but he didn't notice, panicked by the rigid tenseness in her body, her short, stifled gasps for air. Elly cried out again, shuddering, and burying her face against his neck as the cry increased into an agonized scream. Cloud only tightened his grip, feeling blind, unknowing terror assault him from all corners.

"Don't worry, Elly. It's going to be fine... You'll be..."

The words died, as he felt something wet on his hand, near her legs, where he was cradling her. Cloud looked down, to see her blood, /everywhere/, staining his hand, and the snow beneath a brilliant red.


"That /can't/ be right!" Anjele burst out, shaking his head violently. "She died in /childbirth/? That's outrageous! You /said/ you killed her, Strife!"

The fighter's response was swift, calm and emotionless, the one moment he had been preparing for, silently scripting, finally coming to a head.

"Elly wouldn't have died if it hadn't been my child."


Tifa knew she was wringing her hands together, obsessively, but could not stop, so confused and afraid that she feared to stop that simple motion could cause her to fall to pieces, shaken to bits by her battered nerves. So much had been thrown at her in the last few minutes, more than she had ever expected to hear, to have to take in. There was so much she just didn't understand, and /this/... what did he mean?

"What... what are you talking about?" The brunette knew, even before she said the words, that she didn't want to hear the answer.


Zack's voice, a moment later, was an echo of her fearful tone, but not her intent, and that only made her more afraid. The dark-haired SOLIDER was watching the blonde, focused solely on him. He had good reason to be afraid.

Cloud seemed to be shrinking into himself with every word, growing paler and quieter by the moment. His eyes had not shifted from their near static, downward gaze, but Tifa could still see the growing distance in them, a dawning shock and horror that opened up like a wound.

"Hojo... he had..."

Cloud swallowed hard, as the words collected into his throat, and tried again, fighting the increasingly powerful pull of the past, flickering images of blood, of her screams, Elly's body, wracked with agony... and the cold of the present washed over him in unending waves.

"He... I... he never told me..."

//Elly?! Elly, /please/!//

Cloud swallowed again, but this time when he opened his mouth, there were no words at all, only terror, horror, shame...

"Hojo's experiments, on both myself and Cloud, made us "incapable of producing progeny," as he once told me. It was also his theory, one that I believe he was never able to test while working at ShinRa, while I had been alive, that any woman who did get pregnant by such means would carry the child to term, and die."


Zack was stunned, turned to his white-haired friend, every angle of his expression a perfect measure of disbelief.

"That can't be true! No... that's... they /told/ us, told /me/... Other SOLDIERs, they had families! I /saw/ them!"

"You are a normal SOLDIER, the others were normal, and held to a strict set of procedures, of exposure to both Mako and a /very/ small measure of Jenova cells. Those, Hojo also told me once, were inert and inactive. ShinRa had not been lying... for once. Normal SOLDIERs could, for most intents and purposes, lead wholly normal lives"

Sephiroth avoided Zack's eyes, the bewildered question they both knew lay behind the dark-haired man's gaze: Why didn't you /tell/ me?! It must have /killed/ you to know that, why didn't you ever /say/ anything?!

//It would have been better, to tell you, Zack. I realize that now... but I thought, if I had told, that once you had found out...//

The white-haired man had always believed the worst, that he had continually been only one revelation away from losing Zack forever, from having the other man turn away from him in repulsion, in disgust. Only now, did he knew how wrong he had been.

He also knew that, if /this/ was what Cloud had been fearing, if this was what the blonde had held out so long in revealing, that at least from Zack, there was no reason to be afraid.

//If I had only known /then/, what I realize now... God, I really am a stubborn ass.//

"I am not a normal SOLDIER, though, and neither, it seems, is Cloud."


He could stop now, he could stop... Sephiroth had revealed the secret, more calmly and simply than he ever could. There was nothing more to say. It was over.

Cloud had one hand gripped tightly against the edge of his chair, and was holding very still, fighting against the insane impulse to rock, to do anything that might take his mind away from itself, anything, to go /away/...

He could stop... even Anjele had heard enough, knew enough now to make whatever decision he had already made beforehand. It would be useless anyway, right? It didn't matter what he thought, or ordered, right?

Cloud already had his plan, already knew what he had to do... but he hadn't realized, hadn't remembered at the beginning, how much he had pushed back, and how far, not the vivid, terrible memories that were resurfacing /now/, coming back as all the walls, all the dams that had held them at bay for so long were being shattered.

"I d-didn't know... she n-never told me..."

Why the hell was he talking, drawing all those accusing eyes back to him? Were those his teeth, chattering? Was he shaking? Why the hell didn't he /shut up/!?

//Cold... why is it so /cold/?//

Cloud reined everything in, fighting for anything resembling a state of calm, and knew he had to do so with no visible effort, without looking as crazy as he felt, for he knew they were all watching. All watching him, judging him, and if they knew, if they saw that he was weak, and worthless and as /mad/, as insane as he knew he was...

//I don't want to be alone... I don't want to be alone Idon't wanttobeALONE!!//

/You already are,/that quiet, inner voice responded with a dry chuckle. /This means nothing, nothing to no one. Elly is dead, except in your heart, and what the hell is /that/ good for? You killed her, you're a monster. You'll be alone... alone for the rest of your life. Get used to it./

He almost slammed a fist against his head, to force the voices to subside, restrained himself by the barest of impulses, the fear pounding the icy deadness that had seized him so fiercely into a swift avalanche, tossing and turning his insides so violently he wondered how he could still manage to look calm, look normal at all.

//Maybe you don't, hm? Maybe they see everything... and they just don't care.//

/Not true... that's... not true.../

Cloud breathed in, very shallowly, the icy weight pressing down hard on his chest now, trying to crush him. He couldn't, wouldn't give in, though, not before he told, before he confessed the very worst of it, the memories that had haunted him for so long.

"I... I tried to save her. I tried, but I didn't know what to do. There was nothing... I was so /afraid/..."


Cloud couldn't move fast enough, wasn't able, somehow, to catch his breath, mind both blank and racing as he frantically searched for something, anything... He had brought her into one of the houses, was now rummaging through the upstairs bedroom, grabbing blankets, sheets, anything that might staunch the flow of blood, though he didn't know, wasn't sure if that would do anything at all.

//It has to... it has to...// He ignored the chill in the upper room, the isolation of it... Someone could die here, in this silence, just be swept away to nothing...


Elicia screamed again, from the lower room, where he had lay her on a tattered couch, and he nearly fell down the stairs in his attempts to reach her.


He touched her forehead briefly, an attempt at comfort, and watched in panic as her pain-filled eyes looked up to his.

//What the hell happened?!//


"I'm here. I'm /here/, don't worry." The blonde moved quickly, tearing the sheets into strips, although he still didn't realize what exactly was happening, or how he might work to fix it...

//So much blood. No Cure spell on the Planet could handle this...//

He adamantly refused to think about what that meant, to follow that thought to any conclusion, pulling out his knife, gently shifting Elly's body slightly, slicing quickly through the side of her pants.

"It's gonna be all right, Elly. I promise, I..."

Elly choked past another gasp, "Cloud... the baby... the baby's coming..."

"What, now?!"

It was as if he had been kicked sharply in the gut. At her words, all the air left him in a rush. He didn't know, hadn't known how far Elly had been along. He had never known... and there wouldn't have been anything, even if he had known... when did a soldier ever learn about childbirth?

Dizzily, he fumbled with the knife against the end of the fabric, nearly tearing away the crease at the ankle.

//Too much blood. I don't know about birth, but I know there's not... not supposed to be this much blood...//

Keeping his hands moving, tossing away what remained of her now completely bloody garment, Cloud quickly did the same to her underwear, keeping his mind fixed on those solid details, the red blood, sticky on his hands, the chill of the room, the pitch of Elly's screams. The solid details helped him remember, in some strange way that made sense only to him, that this could not be happening, it just /could not/ happen, not to her, not like this. Whatever was going on, it wasn't going to end like this, she would be all right soon.

//This isn't real... this isn't true. She'll be fine, she'll be fine, she'll be /fine/...//

Elicia screamed again, too wildly, shrilly for even the most torturous of birth pains, only hammering home that the blonde soldier could not pretend ignorance, that even if Cloud knew /nothing/, he had to realize that this wasn't all right.

//No... it's fine... it's going to be okay... Please?! Please, don't let her leave... please... please...//

All he had done, all the months, the years worth of fighting... surely, any merciful god would grant him this simple victory, would keep her alive.

His heart twisted as if someone had reached inside his chest and /pulled/, as Elicia suddenly groaned, the tone the same as the dying moan of every creature, every beast of Hojo's that he had ever killed, digging her hands into cracks of the baseboards, bearing down hard.

Cloud moved to where he thought he was supposed to be, just below her legs, the shredded bed sheets abandoned, not even knowing what to do anymore, as the bleeding did not abate, and he looked down...

"The head... I see..."


Cloud was silent, motionless where he sat in the conference room, only wished the still could last forever. There was no way, no words for what he felt, and only knew that life had made a mistake, allowing him to live. He should not have been allowed to go on, not after...

There were just some things that couldn't be lived through.

The blonde clung to the cold running rampant inside him, clung to that pain with everything he had. It was better, that suffering was better than happiness in every way... pain never lied, never offer a few moments of joy, of hope, never reached out with possibilities, only to snatch them away... Happiness was cruel.


If he made the dark-haired man question him again, say his name with such concern... if he made his friend call to him one more time, Cloud knew it would be over. Zack would take control out of misguided concern, and he would be trapped, and then /everyone/ would die, die because he couldn't act, to do what he knew he had to, to go alone, and /die/ alone, to save them.

//No one... I won't let... I /have/ to /go/. No more suffering, not because of me.//

"The... the b-baby. It w-w-"

Cloud squeezed his eyes together, forcing the words out, fighting against the sudden wetness he could feel behind his eyes. He would not allow himself the release of tears, not after all he had done to her. It would be sacrilege, to think he had the right to cry for her.

"The baby w-wasn't... human."


How long, did he sit there, cradling the small, malformed thing in his arms? Elly had seen it, had shifted with all her strength as soon as she could, to meet his eyes, fighting to discover that his strange, sudden silence was a lie, that the child was fine... and before the blonde could hide it from her, Cloud knew she saw everything, realized that her baby wasn't really a baby at all.

Cloud could hear her fall back against the wall, dead silent, too exhausted for sobs. He didn't look up, though, could not tear his eyes from what he held in his hands, the small, writhing creature opening first one mouth, and then the other, gasping for air, limbless body twisting in agony as it received none. The blonde wondered vaguely, as if he were using someone else's hands, looking in on someone else's life, if it even had lungs.

//You might make a good scientist.//

Hojo's words, out of the past, glanced off him without leaving a scratch. There was simply nowhere darker to go from here, no pain greater than the culmination of his life, and what he was experiencing now.

The blonde felt abnormally, insanely calm, feeling the tiny body shudder, and finally go limp in his arms. Yes, he realized, holding the small, dead weight, yes, this was what he should have expected, being arrogant enough to dare for happiness, for allowing himself even a moment, to forget what he was, the darkness that he was eternally, irrevocably connected to.

//Did you know this would happen?// He thought softly, reaching out to the voices of the Cetra, that had drawn away, in shock or horror or perhaps just apathy. For what did his problems matter to them, as long as he could still fight? The silence mocked him, that they had demanded so much, and would abandon him now.


He was shaking with rage, but knew he couldn't face it, couldn't allow himself to scream, and rant, and rave now. Not now... for Elly was still alive.


Of course, Cloud already knew, was already well aware that she had lost too much blood, and that the sight of the /thing/ that should have been her child, was simply insurance that she would not survive. Who wouldn't choose death, to escape a world that took such joy in pointless suffering, that exacted such deliberate cruelty? Cloud tried, /tried/ to keep his voice steady, to just hold her, and tell her it was all right, that she could go...

//It's not!!! It's not!//

He reached for her, cradled her as tightly as he dared.

"I won't let you go. I won't. Please don't leave me... Elly, please don't go!"

No matter how tightly he held on, though, it could not stop the tremors, as Elly's body followed the same rhythm as her dying child's had, moments before. He had fought, so hard... for her and the child, and now they would both die... all because of him. In a strange way, it seemed somehow, that things had come full circle.

//Happiness to this... this suffering, this pain. The same as the rest of your life, the same as every other moment... why are you so surprised?//

"Elly... please... please don't go. Don't go..."

He couldn't breathe against the pain in his chest, the tears that were now /everywhere/, and found his mind racing, begging with voices that didn't answer, desperately straining to reach the Cetra, lunging for what a part of him already knew wasn't possible.

//Please do something, do something, do /anything/!!! I've given you my life, I've given you /everything/... please don't let her die, PLEASE!//

Silence. As if the Cetra had never been with him at all.

"I do love you... you know."

Cloud looked down, eyes wide and panicked, struck once by her body, dying in his arms, and hit even harder by her words. Elly's thin frame still shivered, and more violently with every passing moment, but her eyes were steady, in shock well past pain now, and her words were smooth, each soft, gentle whisper so careful, but still cutting him to the core.

"I thought, I told myself it wasn't... but I was. I /do/ love you, Cloud. One night... I just looked at you, so beautiful, so kind... and I... I knew..."

He remembered that moment, the focus of it sharp and unmistakable, that otherwise unremarkable night, when, for just a few seconds, she had looked at him but said nothing, and he had not understood, had eventually let it go.

//Oh no... /no/.//

Blinding pain replaced the building agony, he bowed his head toward hers in grief and shame, an unforgivable crime he hadn't known he had committed... that she had loved him, and still, even now, he did not, could not return that love.

"No... no... please don't... /don't/..."

Elly smiled, so calm. His heart shattered, as her bloody hand gently touched his arm, he realized she was trying to comfort /him/.

"I'm sorry. Don't be sad. It's... all right." Her voice changed, as she turned her eyes to the window.

"The snow out there... it's so beautiful..."


Cloud panicked, at the sudden distance, the sharp change in her voice, the wistfulness, watching her eyes look off, move towards some point he could not see,

"Elly... no. NO! Come back. Please... /please/... come back?"

No. This wasn't happening. She was going to be all right... she had to be... /had/ to be... His arms tightened, he would not let her go.

//Help me!? Someone?! ANYONE!?//

"It's worth it, isn't it? All this pain, everyone's... suffering... the world is so... beautiful... and... it's worth..."


The blonde held on, would not let go, but there were no more words, no last chances, not even a final shudder. Her eyes were still on his, but he knew, gazing down one last time, slowly carving her features into his memory, that she wasn't there anymore. There was only the dull, unfocused gaze, so familiar, one he had seen on so many, on almost everyone he had ever cared for.

//My mother. Zack. Aeris. Sephiroth.// The names were a dull litany, the grief so deep it just left him dead inside.

He had held on... as tightly as he could, and as always, it had meant nothing, changed /nothing/.

Cloud wanted to answer her final words, to give her still-warm body that final farewell and agree that yes, yes it /was/ worth it... but all that came, when he finally caught his breath... all that came were the screams.


"I held on to her... I don't know how long."

The drama was over, the tension... it was finished, and Cloud felt just as he did after she had died, an empty shell, filled only with ghosts of sorrow, the knowing, or really, the remembering, that nothing would ever be good or bright in his life again. Only this time, he would not let himself forget.

"I burned the house down, with her and the child inside, so that Hojo... so that he could never hurt them again."

He believed it, and in equal measure, it held no comfort. A part of him /knew/ there was no reason to worry. There was no Promised Land, and even the Lifestream meant nothing, not really, just a collection of soul energy, held solid by the Cetra, who were bound by nothing more than their endless hatred of Jenova. There was nothing greater than their desire for revenge, nothing sacred. There had been no great purpose to her death, Elly had died for nothing noble, no high and glorious truth. Cloud had simply not known, that his love was poison, and for that mistake, the innocent woman had suffered the consequences.

//God... she /suffered/...//

Cloud forced himself to speak, too afraid to spend another moment in that past, unable to stand remembering any more.

"I don't remember what happened... after... for a while."

There was a span of time after he had left her, left the ashes of what had once been promising, what had been happiness, that he only remembered in fragments, but Cloud knew that those few images were enough, that they easily captured the whole.

Death. For a time, he had been only death. Cloud had turned back, towards the lab, towards any of Hojo's creatures who had survived the attack from the Sister Ray, and he had killed. Hours, days, not sleeping, not thinking, devouring his remaining Hypers in, at the most, twenty-four hours, and killing, killing anything he could find, one at a time, in large ranks, it didn't matter. He didn't know if the Cetra had given him their help, didn't remember their voices, had no idea how, then, he had managed to track down the enemy. It didn't matter then, /nothing/ mattered then.

"I killed as many of them as I could hunt down, until there was nothing left to kill. It couldn't have taken long, because I met up with Roman and the rest of the army soon after, and they didn't seem that surprised to see me."

Cloud couldn't remember much of that either, only that he had been fighting for so long, his mind hard-wired with the details of war, that it had been possible to simply /act/, to move on, to fight whatever moved to block them and just not think.

His mind had mostly drifted then, and, over the time between those mountains and now, had worked to put everything away, to lock all of it down tight, to strip the facts of all their emotion, until they were painful, but no longer unbearable. He remembered them every day, but the brief flashes were no longer each a crushing weight.

//I exposed every roll of film she had ever taken, of she and me...//

He could still feel where the cuts had been on his fingertips, the ache in his hands, from smashing apart the small cylinders, letting the shining lines of memories, of shared smiles, quiet nights go, watching them vanish, unrolling into the sun. He didn't want to remember, to think of /any/ of it, when the good times only made the bad that much worse.

//I don't deserve to remember the good times, when I... after I killed...//

It had not unbearable then, out in the cold, not when there had been no reminders, not when he had been alone. All that mattered was the fight, the kill. It was unbearable now, or would be soon, when he was alone, when he did not have to show strength in front of his friends.

//Friends? Not anymore.//

He remembered that then, that up until a few moments ago, he had been afraid. Afraid that once his story was told, he would be hated, reviled by all who had called him their ally. Now, the thought seemed to hold no great sorrow. There was simply no room for it in his heart, no room for another ounce of sorrow.

Cloud waited patiently, for someone else to speak. He had said his peace... weren't they going to dismiss him now? Wasn't he supposed to be jailed, or executed?

The blonde shifted slightly, and though his entire body seemed to have turned to ice, frozen numb, he could still feel the slight poke of the letter in his pocket, heard it crinkle.


The plan came back to him, but the weight of his decision had been long lifted. There was no reason to do anything anymore /except/ leave, no other choice he could make... Funny, how distant the world seemed, and the chilling, biting cold... it didn't really hurt anymore. Cloud decided to break the silence, and end things himself. Now, they were all just wasting time here, and he had things to do.

"You see, Anjele, I killed her, didn't I? If she hadn't loved me, she wouldn't be dead."

There may have been a note of hysteria in his voice, and Cloud thought he saw Zack's eyes narrow, watching him carefully, but it didn't matter, he didn't /feel/ any panic. He only felt light, and free...

The blonde stood up sharply, the sudden movement shocking the rest of the silent room, and pulled the letter from his pocket, throwing it across the table, to land perfectly under Reeve's frozen hand. The blonde fought a moment of dizziness as soon as he was on his feet, felt his legs almost give out as the letter skittered across the gleaming tabletop... what was wrong?

//Nothing's wrong...// The insanely cheery voice almost laughed back, //Nothing at all. It's all over, see? You survived...//

He couldn't stop the memories, though, and when he wasn't using all his strength to push them back...

//Blood... her breathing, full of pain, that sound just as bad as the screams... that /thing/, it should have been a child. You created that, you did that to her, to that baby! It should have been a child, you murderer!!!"//

"What is this?"

Cloud couldn't wait, not even for Reeve to open the envelope, already having to fight the irrational, overwhelming panic, to convince himself not to bolt for the door.

"New orders, a change of plans. I'm not taking leave. When the next platoon leaves for Wutai, I will be joining them, and heading north along the route that junctions with the Northern Crater."

He heard several surprised shouts, from Anjele, and Reeve, and Zack, but ignored them all. It didn't matter, no one had the rank to stop him... and he could no longer fight the need to get away, to be alone. Alone, and though it was empty, and devastatingly lonely, it was also /safe/...


"Cloud, wait!"

As the blonde turned sharply, walked towards the door, Zack felt as if he had been flattened by his disbelief. He was going? Leaving? It was insanity! The surprise and shock raged up inside of him as he stepped forward, quickly sharpening into one demand, one word.


There was /no/ way Zack was going to let this happen, going to let the other man just walk away, let his friend go out alone, let him go out at /all/, not after tearing his soul apart as he just had...

//God, I /remember/ you, Cloud! Don't you remember yourself? I /know/ you! Nothing could have changed you this much, not /this/ much...//

It hadn't, and this emotionless, dead man walking away was only a lie. Zack could see the silent scream, behind the mask of determined indifference.


The blonde hadn't slowed, was nearly to the door when Zack finally caught up with him.

"Cloud, damn it, /wait/!!!"

He barely touched the blonde's shoulder, and jumped away, startled, as Cloud rounded on him, the sorrow, the agony in his blue eyes striking the dark-haired man as powerfully as any blow.


It was the first time Zack had heard Cloud scream like that, actually, truly /angry/ at his friend, the first time the dark-haired man was being shown the real fury he knew had been there all along.

Fear, anger, and deep despair, secrets the blonde had usually given up unwillingly, admitted to only under a great degree of coercion, and never in front of others, never like this. A wall, a dam had broken inside of his friend now, though, and there was nothing but wild panic, terrified sorrow in those glowing blue eyes. Cloud was trembling where he stood, taking short, pained, slow gasps for air, as if fighting to keep from being destroyed, eaten alive by all he had been forced to remember.

"God /damn/ it, Zack! What do I have to do to make you understand?! What more can I... what the hell do you /want from me/?!"

Zack was stunned, could not answer that sudden anger with anything but confusion. What did Cloud mean? What had he done?

"What...? What do you-- I don't want /anything/ from you, Cloud. I just want to help. I just want to be your friend."

The dark-haired man kept his voice low, soft, did not let himself move forward. The blonde looked as if, at any moment, he might simply bolt, and Zack wasn't willing to risk it, fearing he might lose his friend forever. Thankfully, the rest of those at the table were either still too stunned to move, or realized the dangerous balance of the situation, how easily it might tip into some unknown disaster.

Cloud shook his head, never taking his eyes off his friend, not bothering to wipe away the tears that fell like scattered gems, shifting where he stood, letting his arms rise and fall in a gesture of utter futility, lifting his eyes skyward, cursing God with a bitter, mirthless bark of laughter.

"Why can't you just leave me alone? Why do you have to... why are you...? I tried... I /tried/ to atone for it, to keep everyone safe. Don't you see? I did the best I /could/, to send Tifa away... to protect everyone... I was... I would have /died/ for her... oh, /Elly/..."

The blonde's voice broke on the name, and he brought a hand up, hiding his eyes as his face crumpled. Zack took a chance, easing forward almost imperceptibly, startled as the blonde jumped back, staring at him with accusing eyes.

//God, how did he see me?//

"Cloud," Zack kept his voice calm, "You didn't do anything wrong. It's not your fault she died. You didn't know, you /couldn't/ have known what would happen..."

"Don't you... I just can't... I /can't/ take it... I..." Zack braced himself, keeping one eye on the blonde's tense form, while still listening to every word, preparing himself, so that if Cloud tried to run...

"I didn't love her, Zack, but she loved /me/... she died for it, loving me, when I didn't even /care/..."

"That's not..."

"Why won't you admit it?! You... Of all people, God, Zack, /YOU/ should understand! I'm a /monster/. I've killed everything I ever cared for! Everything!" Cloud shook his head, jaw set in feverish determination "... and I can't... I just can't... What do you want?! How much do I have to give you?! Do I have to watch you die again, Zack? Or Tifa? Or..."

There was another name there, but even in the depths of his sudden breakdown, Zack knew Cloud would never say it, never reveal that secret. It only rested in the blonde's eyes, another heavy weight on an already unbearable burden.

"Please... don't stop me. If I go to the Crater, if I challenge him there, now, the war will be /over/. I'll stop him, I know I can. This will all end, and everyone will be safe. The /Planet/ will be safe, I know it. If I can save it now, this will all be over, you can all be... happy."

"How can you say that, Cloud?" Zack kept his voice gentle, but would not back down. "How do you think we... /I/ could be ever be happy, if you were dead?"

Cloud smiled, shaking his head at a silly question, as if privy to truths Zack would never know, could never understand.

"You'd forget me, before long. Everyone forgets..." His voice was so bitter, so wounded, strong only because he knew, no one would help him if he fell. "Time heals all wounds, right Zack? I'm the only one... the only one who has to keep..." Cloud suddenly turned, staring out the door, though Zack could see that nothing, no one was there. "... remembering."


The dark-haired man didn't dare move forward, fearing that a single step could shift the already unsteady balance, but felt a new terror fill him, at the look in Cloud's eyes, the word he saw the blonde whisper, recognizing it only because he knew it so intimately, had spoke the name so many times himself.



Cloud wasn't really paying attention to his words, but heard each of Zack's replies, like an arrow, driving right through him, down to the bone. He should have known, should have been faster, not let Zack stop him... because he knew the other man /was/ going to try and stop him, and the fighter knew he could not stay here, to deal with their scorn, their anger, and heartache. Tifa's heartache, God, he had hurt her in so many ways.

//... and if I let him stop me now... everyone dies. The Crater, it won't just be me. If I don't go now, I won't go alone, and they'll all... and Hojo will... he'll hurt, he'll kill... because I can't protect them... No matter what I do, I can't protect /anyone/.//

How many more pyres would he have to light?

//One more. One more death, and it will kill me too, and there will be no one left to light another.//


Soft, and gentle, his name cast to the air by some invisible dreamer. It threw him for only a moment, while Zack was talking, and Cloud shrugged it off, immediately forgotten, focused only on the intent in his friend's glowing hazel eyes. It was so obvious, that the dark-haired fighter wanted to stop him, to prevent the blonde from leaving.

//I won't let you do this, Zack. Not this time. You don't... it's worth nothing to protect me. I have to leave. I /have/ to.//


This time, the voice was much stronger, as if someone was standing on their tiptoes, and had whispered right in his ear. Cloud couldn't help but turn, only for a moment, to look, still preparing, waiting to see if Zack tried to bar his path...

As his eyes met what he knew was an impossible scene, the distant horizon that lay out before him, Zack, the argument, the urgency of the fight... all was instantly forgotten.


Cloud gasped at the vision before him, felt a new wave of rending cold wash over him... but even though it was powerful, it was also strangely muffled, and he was too shocked by what he saw, a world fading in from where North Corel should have been, to feel much of it, or anything else, anything but stunned disbelief

//It's... I'm... /home/?//

Nibelheim, his hometown, as it had been so long ago, a quiet town, untouched by darkness, no stain of madness, or the smell of ashes in the air...

//The heat... I'll never forget...//

Cloud realized, almost immediately, glancing from shining steel to brightly painted beam, this was not just his town, this was /better/. The buildings all looked new built, standing proud and steady, almost glowing in the warm sunlight. The one truck in town was no longer a heap, but gleaming and bright, as if it had just come from the shop. There were flowers blooming at all the boxes, in every window, and all along the small paths between the houses, the way they only did in the first few weeks of spring.

God, he could /smell/ them! It was all so vivid... and the figures walking by, they looked so /real/...

The fighter gasped again, as he realized he was watching Tifa's /father/ walk along the border of the square, and the man gave him a smile and a friendly wave, before disappearing back through the inn doorway...

... and then Cloud stopped breathing altogether, as a figure opened a door on the other side of town, sweeping a bit of dust back out into the street before bending down to rearrange the mat on the front stoop.

The woman looked up, pulling a few strands of blonde hair back into her messy ponytail, and smiled at him. It was such a vibrant, proud smile, as if nothing at all was the matter, as if no time had passed at all. Cloud's eyes went wide, his ears were ringing, all the blood in his body dropping to his feet, leaving him lightheaded with the shock. Oh yes, there had been problems, and she had been distant, and he had been silent, but she had always been, would always be... his... his...


/Hello, Cloud./

The voice that spoke was not his mother's, was nearer, and he tore his eyes from the blonde woman only when another figure, equally loved, stepped slowly into view, smiling at him, as her long, brown braid swung slightly behind her shoulders.

//Oh God...//

It wasn't real... it wasn't real... he didn't care.

Aeris looked just as he had seen her in Midgar, a basket of flowers held in the crook of her arm, the blossoms the same lush color as her long, pink dress... and the most beautiful smile on her face, bringing life and warmth to those depthless aqua eyes, something he never expected to see again.

//A dream... a fantasy... this isn't... but it /is/...//

He knew it, that this was not a dream, that she was not some vague presence, a useless delusion he could argue away as nothing more than his own need to see her again.

This was also /not/ the enemy that had mocked him, he could feel that too, swore he could feel the warmth of her love, her caring, nothing like that impostor's cold touch...

Hadn't he been cold, nearly frozen, only a short time ago? Where had that gone, that other world? A gentle breeze tugged at his hair, the perfect counter to the warm sun...

//... where has the world gone?// Another question, much more important now, //Why do I care?//

This was real, this was the /real/ Aeris, so kind, with compassion that could never be illusion... and that meant, that meant she /hadn't/ ever hated him, as he had so feared. Aeris hadn't wished him harm... and...

Dear God, she was standing only a few footsteps away.

Cloud shuddered, and watched, as the entire scene swirled out of formation for a moment, into rustling, shifting currents of bluish green, reforming into something that seemed even more solid, more /real/ than before. He could feel another brush of the slightly cool wind, watched a few very high clouds skim by in the endless sky, knew that this was the beginning of a beautiful Nibelheim morning...

//Aeris... I don't understand... What... what's going on?//

His heart was threatening to burst, the tightness in his chest, at the sight of such a beautiful, untouched peace, so many lost friends, once again together. All of it /real/ somehow, and being /given/ to him, set right in front of his eyes, that perfect, lost happiness... and he could feel it killing him, the longing for it, tearing him apart.

Panic... he knew this wasn't true... that it /couldn't/ be... but he no longer had the strength to keep the weariness at bay, to look away from paradise. He wanted... wanted it to be true.

//I can't take this... I can't, Aeris, please don't, don't do this...//

Aeris's smile grew, as if she could hear his thoughts, was ready to assuage his fears. It was the same smile she had always given him, fearless, and full of an unconditional love he never thought he had deserved to see, a gift he felt almost shamed to receive. The flower girl smiled, and held out her hand.

//You don't have to be afraid, Cloud. Come with me. Just take my hand.//

//I... I can't, Aeris. I... you're...//

He struggled for anger, for the determination that had held him up to this point, but soon lost it amidst his longing, his need to believe, that what he saw before him was not some cruel joke, that the welcoming, the joy and peace, that it was /real/, could truly be his.

The idea that anything dark, that the selfish motives of the Cetra could offer him this, that they would offer him this... It was impossible, and he knew it. That truth broke his will to resist, it was more and more difficult with each breath, not to just let her smile take him, take him to such a wonderful place, even if he was wrong, even though it /had/ to be a lie, couldn't really be...

//It's no lie, Cloud. It's not a trap, not an illusion. There are places the darkness cannot touch. Places for the innocent and the kind, for /all/ of us... and for you, too.//

The blonde blinked in pure disbelief, fought the urge to rub his eyes. Was that truly /Lucrecia/ he saw, laughing, smiling with ... /Elicia/ near the gates of the Nibelheim Mansion?

The building was covered with the same flowers as the rest of the town, and no longer looked anything but welcoming, elegantly beautiful. Was that man beside them, his arm around the former general's shoulder... was that Elicia's husband?

//She was right...// He thought dimly, through the shock, //His hair really /was/ it's own color, I don't think she could have...//

The thought died instantly, as he saw Elicia look down, to a bundle, cradled in her arms.


Who... was the child...? It wasn't... Was that...?

Cloud choked again, staring at the small bundle held so gently in Elicia's arms, the tiny, perfect hand that rose to grasp its mother's. Was that... God... was that /his/...? Was that the child that... should have been...?

//No. No... this isn't possible. It's just not /possible/...//

He fought for hate, for anger, to find some sort of rage and hold it as truth... and felt it fail him, as his heart reached out to Aeris, to the world she was offering, completely beyond logic, or reason. It knew, even if he hadn't let himself believe it yet, his heart /knew/ that this was not the pale remnant the Cetra pretended they controlled, that this was the true Lifestream, the true will of the Planet... and perhaps... even...

//The... Promised Land...?//

Elicia looked up, seemed to know he was watching, and he could hear her words clearly, though she stood far away, the husky, happy murmur he would have bled for, would have sacrificed so much to hear for only one moment more...

//Come with us, Cloud. Join us here. Please, don't turn away.//

He turned back to Aeris in wonder, could only look at the hand she offered in dumb shock, could not believe he had a choice, that he still lived, not with the sorrow, the new hope that had overwhelmed him, bursting out from within.

//You don't have to suffer anymore, Cloud... You've done your duty, this doesn't have to be your fight anymore. It will be all right, you've earned your right to let go...//

The words were almost the same as the Cetra's, as that other Aeris, but Cloud knew this Aeris spoke the truth. He /knew/ that, somehow... that her offer was true, that there was someplace untouchable, somewhere safe, and it was /here, and he was welcome.

He would never have to hurt again. The Cetra could not use him, not if he left, and would not be able to make him hurt, or force him into an impossible decision, to make anyone else suffer. It would be over... he could /finally/ rest.


The thought was only a mere whisper, and Aeris said nothing to challenge it, only watched, her hand still extended, offering Elysium. The flower girl wanted him beside her, and he knew she would be his friend, would be there for him... in Nibelheim, his beautiful home, forever and ever... and he missed her terribly, had felt so lost, so hopeless without her.

//... and he doesn't... He will never, could... /never/. I'm nothing to him, nothing but a nuisance, and I can't... There's nothing I can do to change that, to change what I am.//

Agony, blinding and absolute, filled him at that thought, and at everything else he had come to hold as truth. The sorrow of the living, of watching friends die, watching so many innocents suffer for /nothing/... and there was no meaning behind it, no way to justify, to make it easier to go on. No glory, no noble sacrifice, just death, cold and unforgiving, and utterly meaningless. It only meant more loneliness, more sorrow, more nights where all he thought about was how he might seek to join them.

Too much, there was too much pain in the world, too much grief and suffering, and no matter what he did, Cloud knew he could stop none of it, could not even seem to slow it with his sacrifice... /any/ sacrifice... He had given /everything/, had piled loss on top of loss, had learned to care and lose and somehow, care /again/, only to have that fledgling happiness torn away as well.

//It hurts too much... to love, and I can't... I /tried/, but I just can't... not anymore. I'm... done.//

Shame fell on him, as he knew it would, that fifteen years had been all he could give of himself, all he could stand of sorrow and want, and that when he was offered hope, offered peace, he was too weak to turn away...

This was, perhaps, his final test, of a love he had held as pure and unyielding... and he could not continue to choose the darkness, the solitude, not when Aeris was calling him, so gently, toward the light.

//It's all right, Cloud... It's all right to let go. You've done enough. Come with me, and you'll never have to hurt again.//

Slowly, he reached out to her, and his heart, his entire body seemed to fill with light, as Aeris's smile grew. The sorrow he had carried so long, all his sadness, for /everything/... he could feel it release its death grip, began to fall away...

//I'm sorry, Zack, Tifa... Seph... I'm sorry I was never enough... that I was /never/... enough.//

His fingertips touched hers, Cloud swore that somehow, he was falling into her smile...

...and he could not even scream, as, without warning or reason, a pure wave of ice plowed into him, the green dream vanishing beneath it, Aeris disappearing without a trace.

Out of the sudden, overwhelming darkness, Cloud could hear terribly familiar voices, the Cetra, the roar of some wild, stormy ocean on all sides, preparing to bear down on him.

Without warning, without hesitation, the force of their anger flooded his thoughts, and they showed him, filled his mind with all that, he realized in horror, they had been /blocking/. That shield was the reason for their silence, all throughout the trial, why they had seemed so distant.

His punishment for disobedience.

//We told you, Strife. We warned you. You are /our/ weapon, now and forever, and human, you will /not/ stand against us.//


Zack wasn't sure whether the look on Cloud's face was wonderful or terrible, the sorrow still bright and burning in his eyes, though he was smiling as well, a real smile, at something that, though the other man couldn't see it, the SOLDIER didn't doubt was out there, somewhere.

//What do you see, Cloud? Is it really... Aeris?//

"Zack?" Tifa's voice was small, distant and bewildered.

"Don't move." Zack didn't bother to turn toward the table, still frozen where he was, waiting for something to happen, for a chance to move... to act...

//What? How will you act? What will you do?//

//I'm not sure.// Zack snapped back, silencing that inner voice. //I'll figure it out when it happens.//

It came all too soon, as the dark-haired fighter could see the moment that something changed, and whatever dream Cloud was witness to dissolved into darkness.

A shadow passed over the blonde's face, the smile dying, replaced with an absolute dread it hurt Zack to see, as if he were preparing for some distant, inevitable and bloody end.

The blonde suddenly closed his eyes, swaying on his feet, and staggered back against the wall, clutching at the doorframe to keep himself upright.


Zack heard chairs being pushed back behind him, didn't know if only Tifa, who had cried out, was on her feet, or if there were others as well.

//He means so much to all of them, /and/ to me! He's important to us all. Why can't he see that?//

Zack took a step forward without thinking, determined to reach Cloud first, but was immediately stopped by the blonde's outstretched hand, a silent cry, to keep him at bay. After a long moment, the blonde's head came up, eyes immediately seeking out the now-panicked hazel, and the dark-haired man could see new pain eating away at the shining sapphire, an overwhelming despair.

"It's... it's all /gone/. Gongaga... the soldiers... the Turks..."


Anjele had spoken, voice rising above several other shocked murmurs, but Cloud never looked away from Zack, his eyes locked on his friend's face, entreating, almost /pleading/...

"They wouldn't... they /hid/ it from me. The Cetra didn't tell me, I couldn't feel the Planet... they blocked... why?! I could have saved... and they all died, the soldiers... They /knew/, the Cetra... they /knew/, and they don't... care."

Cloud shuddered again and this time Zack could /see/ the break that appeared, cracks swiftly splintering through the blue spheres, the Mako glow still burning, as all the light and life drained away.

"I'm... sorry."

Who was he talking to? Zack, or Tifa, or Sephiroth? Elly, or Aeris? Or everyone, all of them? The dark-haired man didn't know, couldn't begin to guess, because Cloud's wide eyes were sightless, the lost gaze looking /through/ him, into a distant, empty void.

"I'm so... sorry... I..."

Zack stifled a cry of alarm, and lunged forward to catch his friend, as Cloud's eyes rolled back to pure white, and he collapsed.





Author's Notes

1. I've got a total music obsession, especially for writing emotionally f*cked up scenes. I think I listened to Maire Brennan's "Come Josephine in my Flying Machine" and Dmitri Shostakovich's Waltz 2 from Jazz Suite (it's the song at the end of Eyes Wide Shut) about a million times each. There's just something about Waltz 2 I find so deliciously depraved. <shrug>

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