A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, oh it kills
Cuz I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up
I got to fold cuz these hands are too shaky to hold
Hunger hurts, but starving works,
When it costs too much to love
~Fiona Apple, Paper Bag
"Sir! General, sir!"
Cloud turned, maneuvering Karat in a slow circle through the narrow, tightly packed street. Supplies, equipment and provisions of all kinds were piled high around him, nearly blocking Ro from view.
"The other divisions are ready, sir, and as soon as we move out, the second set's read to bring the supplies up behind!"
The blonde nodded, surveying the road in front of him as the redhead gave a parting salute and quickly darted out of sight. The fighter's mind wandered in the still moments afterward, Cloud knowing he was still unable to truly comprehend all that had happened in such a short amount of time.
It had been almost two weeks, since he had made his "miraculous" recovery, although the week of complete bed rest that had followed had been anything but a miracle, Melissa demanding he recover not only from the stress of his unexplained ordeal, but from the more mundane lack of sleep, dehydration and malnutrition as well. Cloud hadn't argued, mainly because he had been too weak to stand.
He remembered the week in drowsy bits and pieces, interspersed with long periods of sweet, peaceful darkness. Zack had been there, of course, but Cloud had been startled, amazed that /everyone/ else had come to see him too, Tifa, Yuffie, Vincent, all of them, though Barret's visit had been short, and mostly punctuated by awkward silence. They had always been better enemies than friends, Cloud thought with a smile, and paused, holding the expression for a moment in surprise. A smile... when was the last time...?
//They all care, that's why you're happy. They all know, about Elly... and you were true to her memory, by telling them... and they don't hate you, no one left you because of it.//
Zack had told him as much, when he had finally had the nerve to ask, along with /many/ other things...
//... what happened, what happened to me.//
He had felt so /safe/, in that long, restful week, and though the feeling had faded over time, he could still bring that sensation close, out of the depths of his memory, any time he wanted to. He had never had that warmth, that peace before, and it helped, worked against the dark, muddled memories, of those other endless nights, with the Cetra pulling one way and Jenova the other... All of those memories of pain had dulled, and he still thought, when he concentrated hard enough... he could /still/ feel that touch, those arms around him.
//It wasn't just a dream... it wasn't. It was /real/.//
Zack had told him all he knew, and all that Sephiroth had told him, about what had happened when he had nearly died. The white-haired SOLDIER had been the one that saved him, had journeyed deep into - where? Cloud's mind, the Lifestream, some place in between? - and had pulled him out, away from the Cetra's grasp. With Zack's story and his own fractured memories, Cloud had been able to piece more of the truth together...
//... and what a truth it is.//
Sephiroth had brought him back. The simple thought alone was more than Cloud could handle, and he had yet to actually face it directly, to answer the important questions of how, and why.
//Why? Why did he... why did he...?//
Any hope, any possibility of something greater, his mind quickly cut away.
/He did it because Zack asked him to, stupid. Please, let's not try not to get any /more/ pathetic, all right?/
Along with the knowledge that Sephiroth had done something to bring him back came another startling discovery, one he /had/ been pondering with dedication, but coming up only with questions, and no answers.
The wind was /silent/. When Cloud closed his eyes, all he could hear was that empty space, his own thoughts, nothing more. There was no quiet murmur in the background, no suddenly sharp, shouting voices, nothing to interrupt his dreams, no one constantly picking at him, fighting, angry...
The Cetra, for all he could tell, had vanished completely, if not from the Planet, than at least from his own mind.
What to make of it? Where had they gone? What had happened, when Sephiroth had pulled him free?
A shout echoed off the buildings, from another alley further into town, of preparation, carrying a question he could answer. Cloud quickly wheeled around on Karat, sent the bird into motion with the tiniest pressure of his heels.
What had happened? Right now, he knew, it didn't matter. There was a war to be won.
"He's too quiet."
Vincent looked out the window, watching the groups of soldiers moving briskly through the streets, many of them adding to the slowly growing stacks of supplies and equipment, others, on chocobos, maneuvering through the busy crowd, matching the beasts to their new platoons. North Corel was in motion, and the former Turk could taste the excitement in the air. He knew it was the first time, in a long time, that the ShinRa-Wutai military was strong enough to attack Jenova, to reach out and strike a blow, instead of just defending. Cloud had killed the Fullspawn, and Zack and Sephiroth had repelled the sudden attack at Gongaga. Hojo's army was at a weak point that it might never reach again, and after all the long hours of debate, Cloud's voice had been heard. After five years of fighting, they were finally making a run at the Northern Crater.
Vincent rarely felt the excitement of an upcoming battle, his steel nerves and unshaken calm had been the reason he had made such an excellent Turk, but what he felt now was not calm, not even a simple foreboding, of the dangers sure to come, but an undefined, heavy sense of dread. Plans were being carried out, to attack the Crater, and the man who had been the biggest opponent of that strategy had, all of a sudden, fallen silent.
"Heidigger didn't argue, he didn't raise a single complaint. That's not like him." After Hojo, very little escaped the ex-Turk's notice, as a possible warning of danger. "I don't like the idea of him alone with ShinRa's secrets, with all that potential power... not after what he tried to do to Cloud."
Reeve nodded, folding his hands on the desk in front of him.
"I know. We've restricted his access and influence severely, for precisely that reason. I know for a fact, he's /extremely/ angry at that... but there's really nothing he can do about it. If he didn't expect some kind of repercussions, for trying to bring down my Presidency, and Cloud's position as lead General, he was an idiot."
"He's lucky to be alive." Vincent said mildly, examining the shining tips of his metal fingers. He knew from personal experience, that potential usurpers were almost never given such mercy.
Reeve chuckled. "You don't know the half of it. That's actually probably why he's so quiet. I heard that as soon as Cloud was out of danger, Zack went to have a little /talk/ with Anjele."
With the mood the dark-haired SOLDIER had been in, the ShinRa president wasn't at all surprised that Anjele was hiding in some dark corner, his tail between his legs.
"Still..." Reeve looked up, watching Vincent's slim profile carefully, intent on every word the near silent man said. "I don't trust him... he's not just going to go away."
The president nodded, knowing Vincent was most likely right, but that there was also very little he could do about it at the moment. As much as he wanted to believe it, he was not President ShinRa, or Rufus, and could not simply order cold-blooded executions on a whim.
//... and anyway, we can't spare the bullet.//
"The Turks are staying here... as am I. Nanaki won't be /that/ far away, in Cosmo Canyon... and as soon as Zack and Sephiroth escort the rest of the permanent force down to Gongaga, they'll be back up through, before they head out towards the Crater."
It was, while not a foolproof plan, the most stable of any they had been working with for quite a while. The center of the plan was a three-stage strike, to establish a permanent foothold in the Northern Island, something that had not existed since the very start of the war. Zack would attack from the southeast, pushing in as far as Bone Village, while Sephiroth would strike from the west, and try and establish another camp at the ruins of Icicle Inn. Cloud's move would be the strongest, and the most risky, driving up past Sephiroth's position, through the mountains, to the plateau just outside the Northern Crater. If he got there, and they could fortify a defensive line, that close to Hojo's main base of operation...
//... and if nothing goes wrong, and no one gets /hurt/ or /killed/... yeah, and I'll suddenly start growing chocobo feathers out of my head...//
Reeve knew it was impossible, to expect the plan to work without any problems. He only hoped, and /prayed/, that the problems would be small, and survivable.
"Believe me, Vincent, I understand your worries... but really, Anjele Heidigger is not, in /any/ way, our biggest concern."
It was different this time, much calmer, leading the troops down to Gongaga, to help make sure that they could keep what they had taken back from Hojo's army. They weren't attacked once, all the way down, though Sephiroth knew he could see movement, especially in the night, knew that they were definitely not alone. Hojo's army watched... but only watched, not making the slightest hostile move. It was an impossible blessing, that the ShinRa army was too strong now, and Hojo's army, at least here, was scattered, too weak to fight...
//It's not going to be this way for long, I think... and certainly not up at the Crater...//
Sephiroth hadn't told Reeve, or Zack, or anyone of his own plans, had gone along quietly as they had divided up the tasks. Of course, it hadn't even been a question, that Cloud would be the one to lead the force up closest to the Crater...
//... and do any of them honestly believe he'll stop there?// The white-haired SOLDIER didn't, and knew exactly what he would do if /he/ were the one in the blonde's place.
//I'd wait just long enough, just until the soldiers had a firm hold, and then go to the Crater, find Hojo, and kill him.//
It was a good plan, the white-haired man wouldn't deny that, but he wasn't about let Cloud go through with it...
//At least, not alone... /I'm/ going to kill the son of a bitch.//
He just couldn't let the blonde do it, couldn't watch him walk out of the Crater with the blood on his blade, and know that Hojo had died, that it was over. It just wouldn't be enough, not to satisfy his need for real, /painful/ revenge.
//I have to see it... I have to /be/ there... hell, /I/ want to be the one to kill him. I have just as much right...//
... then again, who didn't? Vincent, or Nanaki, or Zack? In one way or another, they, along with thousands of others, if not the whole /world/ had a personal score to settle with the man who was so callously attempting to destroy them all.
The tiny, almost manic voice deep inside refused to relent, crowing in determination.
//... but /I/ want to do it!//
Sephiroth finally quashed the rebellious cry, knowing it wouldn't do any good to look that far ahead, to prepare for a future that could change at any moment. He had been given a mission, and he would carry it out... and then, once the soldiers were settled, once it was certain, that they could hold on to what they had taken...
//Unless Strife beats you to it... and before he was poisoned, that /was/ his plan... to just go up there and do it himself.//
Sephiroth found that every moment they remained in Gongaga wore harder and harder on his nerves, and he wanted nothing more than to make the return trip with Zack back to the north, knowing that Cloud would /already/ have the advantage, that the blonde could, at any time, choose to leave, just vanish into the wasteland...
//He wouldn't. He's done his duty all this time... he won't just abandon his troops /now/...//
It hadn't been a comforting thought when he had first had it, and now, already half a day away from Gongaga, it was managing to calm his worries even less effectively.
"What's wrong? Did you leave the stove on?"
Sephiroth startled at his friend's mutter, realized he hadn't been paying much attention to his surroundings, letting the black Chocobo lead the way, while his expression had gotten darker and darker, following his thoughts to a dim, unpleasant conclusion. He realized the bird's pace had slowed considerably, and he could see that Zack's was fatigued as well.
He still hadn't answered the dark-haired man's tease, and Sephiroth knew from experience that Zack wouldn't be happy with a simple answer, would keep digging around until he had uncovered the truth... no matter how long it took. There was no point in trying to stall.
"I'm worried that by the time we get up there, to the north, Cloud /won't/ be."
"Of course he won't be there to meet with us, they're heading out early to try and... oh." Zack nodded, finally catching the man's meaning. "Don't worry. Spike won't go vigilante. I made him promise."
Sephiroth had the sarcasm ready, bitter and sharp in his mouth, but quickly let it go, as he realized his friend was in earnest.
"You really trust him that much?"
It was a stupid question, and seemed even more so against Zack's simple, honest answer.
"Of course I do."
They dismounted in an amiable silence, giving the birds their midday meal, and Zack unwrapped a small, brown block marked as rations, sniffed it warily, and finally took a tiny bite. Sephiroth watched him mime asphyxiation, and sudden death, wincing as he tossed the rest of the package to the side as if he were lobbing a hand grenade.
"I /told/ you they thought Wutai would take longer to fall than it did... we're still eating the rations," the soldier muttered wearily, reaching into his pack for another, hopefully less vile, brick.
Sephiroth grinned slightly at the joke as he dug out his own meal, and saw Zack's eyes widen in slight surprise.
//Why is he so shocked... it's not like you never...//
/No. You never did. Never smiled, never joked back, not ever... Repeat after me, "I was a /real/ prick."/
//Well then, not anymore.//
It was a swift decision, but then, most of his ideas usually were. If there were a problem, Sephiroth would fix it immediately, whether it lay in a set of plans, or in a dangerous situation, or in himself, which was most certainly the case now.
He had been silent much too long, even before the nightmare at Nibelheim. At the old ShinRa, he had become the General he had always wanted to be, the position he had told himself would change his world, but it had changed nothing. He had still been silent, still refused to let anyone in to hurt him, while paradoxically believing it meant that he could not be hurt...
//Stupid. It was just stupid, and it has to /stop/.//
The old order had been destroyed, the ShinRa he knew was gone, and his enemy was now the /world's/ enemy. There would be no better time, to rid himself of the fear and anger that had kept him from really knowing, and really enjoying his friendship.
"Seph... yo, Seph..."
Zack waved a hand, that familiar grin never fading as he caught his friend's surprisingly wandering attention. He looked impatient, but happily so, that the other man was acting out of his usual, focused character.
"I think the birds are done eating, and they've rested up. We might be able to make the foothills by nightfall, if we hurry..."
Sephiroth refused to let the idea that suddenly hit him show up on his face. It was absurd, and pointless...
//... do it.//
"Huh... what the...?" By the time Zack had overcome his surprise, the white-haired man was already in his saddle, the black Chocobo speeding away...
"Hey... wait... that's not... wait up!" Zack quickly leapt into the saddle, followed the other man, trying to make up an already impressive distance.
"Hey!!! Wait for me!!! That's not fair!!!" Zack had to swallow half of his shouts, too busy laughing, his brain reeling in surprise.
//Now who is /this/ person, Seph?!//
His howls echoed, as Sephiroth continued to gain ground, Zack fighting, and failing, to close the gap.
"Wait up, you cheater!!! Wait!!!"
After another few hours of riding, with no sign of any enemy along the way, they stopped at the foothills, just as the sun was setting. Camp was simple, in a wide valley near a small but picturesque grove of trees.
Zack quickly realized just what a bad idea it had been to hurry to get this far... how much he didn't want to spend /any/ time, even a night, in this particular area.
//I forgot... where this trail moves past...//
The dark-haired man tried not to show his anxiety, but after the eighth or ninth time he paused while setting up for the night, staring off into the distance, even Sephiroth couldn't shrug off his need to ask.
Zack shrugged, not even wanting to try and lighten the mood.
"I forgot... I wanted to be /past/ these foothills, before night..."
He shivered, just slightly, though the wind wasn't all that cold. Sephiroth followed his gaze, past the valley, high into the distant, white peaks beyond, one rising up higher than the rest, sharpened into a brilliant blade by the last rays of the setting sun.
"Mm-hm..." Zack sighed heavily, throwing out his bedroll along the already settled Chocobo. Setting up tents just wasn't worth it... and this place made him too nervous anyway. He wanted a clear view all night, of everything around him...
//Why so concerned? There probably aren't even any /monsters/ around here... you haven't come across any all day... just old ghosts to spook you...//
/Yeah, but old ghosts... are bad enough./
The SOLDIER looked up, stopped working on his camp, and took a few steps towards Sephiroth, who was still staring at the mountain, the black shard dusted by thin, near-transparent clouds.
//It looks so distant, and dark...// Zack thought, //It really looks as if something horrible could, and did happen there...//
"There was no reason, was there?" The dark-haired man turned, not understanding his friend's soft question. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, still focused on the mountain. "Nibelheim was strategically worthless... useless for either side. Hojo destroyed it, for /no/ reason at all..."
It was then that Zack realized exactly what Sephiroth was searching for in the view.
"You can see it from here, if you know where to look..." He extended an arm, pointing to a small, dark stain near the base of the mountain, just before it vanished behind two smaller peaks. Zack paused, surprised, as he realized Sephiroth had turned his attention from the view, was watching him closely, his question still unanswered.
"There was no reason, /no reason/ to send out his soldiers like that, for Hojo to give up his element of surprise, to let ShinRa know just what his forces could /really/ do... There was no point in killing a town full of noncombatants..."
"Did Hojo destroy it just to get to Cloud, you mean?" Sephiroth nodded incrementally. The dark-haired man retuned the nod, and let his hand fall, moving away, throwing his hands behind his head casually, though relaxed was the very last thing he felt.
//Some days I think /I/ might go mad, fighting against these odds, against this war machine... How did you do it, Cloud? How did... how /do/ you manage to live through this?//
"Yeah, yeah... he did. Hojo knew Cloud would come. He even waited, held his final strike, so Spike would have to watch it burn... again. There wasn't anyone here he knew, of course, just a bunch of ShinRa employees who had lived here for a while, and some other people who had moved in when ShinRa fell..." The dark-haired man dug at the dirt with his foot, distracting himself, anything to keep at least some of the hurt at bay. It hurt, to know so many people had died for /nothing/, and that Cloud had been forced to see it all, deal with all those memories alone.
"He got it /all/ too, the mansion... everything. Hojo did an even better job than when you..."
Zack cut himself off immediately, feeling the color drain out of his face as cold horror moved in.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry... I /didn't/ mean that..."
Sephiroth waved off his friend's spluttering apology, not hurt, knowing Zack meant no wrong, and still preoccupied, looking up toward where the tiny town had been, perched courageously amidst so much power and glory, standing bravely against the amazing expanse of the mountains, the constant threat of nature.
//It should have been that, their fate. Those people should have known the face of their destroyer, it should have been expected. The snow, the wind, /that/ should have been the force that turned the town to splinters. Not fire. Not Hojo. Not me.//
The mountains were dark, but beautiful, and whispered of simple things, of a hard but peaceful life. The white-haired man watched the clouds continue to drift and twine around the peaks, saw snowdrifts rise and fall in the heavy winds.
//What would you have done, Cloud, if none of this had ever happened? I think you would have come back here. Most everyone goes back to where they grew up, if they have a place like that. What kind of life would you have had... would you have been happy here?//
Anything had to be better than what the blonde was doing now, Sephiroth reflected.
//Maybe... maybe I shouldn't be so ready, to say that Hojo's life is mine to take...//
Sephiroth wasn't ready to give up his claim on revenge, not completely, not yet... but Cloud needed his vengeance too, needed to take blood, for all that had been lost to him.
"You're going to ignore your orders, aren't you?" Zack murmured, and the white-haired man turned, surprised by his friend's soft, serious tone, the knowledge in his eyes. The dark-haired man continued, as if unsure if Sephiroth caught his meaning.
"The Crater. You're going up there... that's why you were so worried... you thought that Cloud might beat you to it."
Sephiroth finally nodded. "You read me too well."
He was surprised, and a little worried, when Zack didn't answer him, turned away, and laid down for the night. Sephiroth followed suit, though he didn't feel much like sleeping, surprised by the cold, empty feeling that was sweeping through him... something about that mountain, the dark mark where Nibelheim had been... that vacant place, where something beautiful had been callously wiped away.
//I know what it is. It's guilt, and shame, that I... I /did that/, once. I ended that, for all of those people. I destroyed Zack... and Cloud... I took his whole world.//
So many lives ended, but he felt most guilty for those that had survived, that the blonde had been left to Hojo's mercies, and then had watched Zack die...
//If I had been sane, I don't think I could have taken that. I don't think I could have lost him. Insane as I was, I remember so little... but /still/, how could I have struck him down? How could I have /ever/...//
Sephiroth tried for a question, for anything to say that would break the silence carefully, gently... so of course the first thing out of his mouth was both startling in its unimportance, and a painful blunder, destroying all chance at a casual conversation.
"Cloud doesn't know, about you and Tifa, does he?" He had thought that she and the blonde, it had seemed rather obvious... and Sephiroth mentally kicked himself, with the reminder that he had thought a /lot/ of things that turned out not to be true.
Zack chuckled, and even in the darkness, Sephiroth could see him raise one hand over his eyes, his expression too strange to comprehend...
"Yeah... he... I mean, he knows. He doesn't care, really doesn't." Zack sighed, those glowing hazel eyes staring out at him from the darkness. "You should ask /him/, I think. Talk to Cloud, if you want that question answered all the way through... I really can't answer for him, not his reasons. When you get up there, you two should have plenty of time... to talk it all out..."
"/That's/ easier said than done..." Sephiroth muttered, tucking his head on his arm and pulling his blanked up just slightly. How many times, in the week after Cloud had been released, had the white-haired man tried to track him down? How many times had he seen the blonde across a street, or walking up a flight of stairs, only to have him /vanish/ by the time the dark-clad man could get to where he was?
//I want to know... I need to know what the hell exactly /happened/...//
Cloud had made it quite clear, from what the white-haired man had overheard later, that he could no longer hear the Cetra either, just as Sephiroth could not... but why? Where had they gone? What had he /done/, when he had sent them away?
//It saved his life... but why? How? What did I change?//
He needed to know, and Cloud Strife was avoiding him at every turn. He didn't blame the man for being nervous, Sephiroth still didn't quite believe Zack, that the blonde had completely forgiven him for Nibelheim, and everything after... that somehow, Cloud had simply been able to wipe that slate clean...
//It would take a saint, to just /forgive/ me for everything I did to him, let alone to speak to me, or work with me. He /did/ make sure that creature couldn't attack me... but that /doesn't/ mean he likes me.// Sephiroth frowned slightly. //Really, though, he must know... he must remember some of what happened with the Cetra... and he must have questions too.//
It had been a strange experience, though the particulars of it were dim, hazy and muddled no matter how hard the white-haired man had tried to pull them back to life. He knew he had been close though, very, very close to Cloud Strife, to his soul, or spirit, the words and labels weren't important, his feelings were enough to describe it to himself... and Sephiroth /knew/ he had been that close...
//... and what must that have been for him, to have someone who toyed with him, who tried to destroy his entire world, to have /that/ person get that close to him again? Regardless of the circumstances... God, no wonder you're avoiding me, Strife...//
The SOLDIER felt a cold ball of fear, a small block of ice in his chest, at the thought of someone ever being that close to him, not some alien presence, something wholly inhuman, but another person touching him, in a way more invasive, more threatening than all he had been protecting himself from, for his entire life... Sephiroth realized that he had taken the easy path, into madness, when Jenova had attacked him. He could not imagine what had Cloud been through, what kind of strength the blonde man had, to keep his sanity.
//... no wonder. How /could/ he want to ever see me again?//
Sephiroth wanted to talk a bit more, and knew Zack wasn't asleep, but the other man had turned away, feigning unconsciousness, and Sephiroth didn't want to call him on it. Distance... there was a strange distance between them, a secret that Zack was keeping to himself, and had been for some time. The white-haired man had noticed it before, but now, in the silence and still, that gap was even more pronounced. At first, he had assumed it was about his friend's relationship with Cloud, but with that avenue gone, he could only speculate.
//Lockheart, maybe? It's fairly obvious Zack likes her, and by that kiss, I'd assume it was at least somewhat mutual. I wonder if he's /worried/, that Cloud sent her with him. She wouldn't go back to Kalm, and he /wouldn't/ let her follow him up closer to the Crater, not that I can really blame him for that...//
No one could, the brunette had barely even argued with Cloud when he had given her what amounted to marching orders, no questions asked. Lockheart had seen the danger of this war in Rocket Town, had seen exactly why Cloud had tried so hard to keep her away from it. Her pride, her determination to help the Planet would keep her fighting, but Tifa was smart enough, or loved Cloud enough, to know to keep her distance. The kiss was still frozen in his memory, though, and Sephiroth guessed that passion had /not/ been completely one-sided.
//Is it really that clear-cut, then, Zack? Does Strife really understand what's going on, that you'll take Tifa away from him?//
Sephiroth grinned in the darkness, remembering conversations long past, Zack's recurring woman troubles, which usually involved more than one, sometimes more than /two/... and the white-haired man doubted if his friend had changed all /that/ much...
//... but Cloud's his friend, and Zack's just as loyal to his friends as he is to his lovers.//
It was a puzzle, then, but only one of many, and not nearly the most important one he had to solve.
//Zack's right... Strife won't be able to avoid me, not up there, not /forever/. I'll get my chance to talk to him... and get some answers...//
"Sir, we're ready for your orders, sir!"
Cid paused, glaring at the cadet saluting him, wanting nothing more than to kick him into the stratosphere...
"Just... just keep flying the &% @ *^$ ship!!!"
He turned away before anyone else could ask him stupid questions, too busy trying to answer one of his own: Where the hell was that stupid ex-Turk?
//Always lurking around driving me fucking nuts with his goddamned silence and the second I fucking need his fucking ass... gone, just gone!!! I'd even deal with a visit from miss-puke-all-over-my-fucking-deck ninja right now!!!//
The problem really wasn't worth the amount of anger the pilot was pouring into it, but just like everyone else, he had been tense as hell for the last few weeks, riding the same emotional roller coaster at North Corel as everyone else had... was Cloud dead, would he survive?
//Dying, but they found a remedy to save him... but then he was /still/ dying, the remedy wasn't working and no one knew why and he was /definitely/ going to die, then /out of the fucking blue/ he's just fine again and no one will say why or what the fuck happened... son of a bitch what the hell is going on my feet are /killing/ me and WHERE THE FUCK IS VINCENT?!?!//
All that pent-up fear, along with the confusion that followed, as absolutely /no one/, not even Zack, would explain why Cloud had been pulled from death's door was wearing on Cid's nerves in a bad way. His fury had been given no release for weeks, and it finally came to a head as, reaching into the later hours of the night, he realized he /still/ didn't know where Yuffie and Vincent were headed... that in all the chaos and confusion, they had simply never bothered to tell him.
Lord Godo might have known, but he was asleep in his own quarters, and the pilot couldn't imagine dealing with a sleepy, pissed-off Papa Ninja in the state he was in now. Tifa was also asleep, had been so for hours, and even if she might have been able to help Cid, there was no way the pilot would have asked, knew that she had been through so much in these past few days...
The pilot's mood softened... for half a heartbeat.
//Vincent %*^&#$ Valentine, WHERE ARE YOU!?!?//
The ex-Turk was not in his quarters, or in any of his usual places on the deck, where he had said he liked to stargaze... and Yuffie wasn't at the end of the main walkway, trying not to hurl, or hanging off the end of the ship, when "trying" failed her.
//... and the %&^*# @ stupid $ @ %^&*$ STUPID com system's on the fritz!!!!//
His questions could have waited until morning, they really could have. The Highwind was currently taking Lord Godo back to Wutai... and a small, quietly logical voice in Cid's brain, one that sounded an awful lot like Shera, whispered that Yuffie would most likely stay there as well... or somewhere else nearby, and that all of this was really unnecessary...
//Oh NO you don't!!!// The pilot snapped off that thought, attacking that voice as if it were his worst enemy. //This is MY ship, and on MY ship, I get MY answers when I damn well WANT THEM!!!//
"Yuffie, are you in here?!"
Without hesitation, Cid slammed down on the door handle of what had, temporarily, become the ninja girl's quarters, striding into the room. He knew the girl wouldn't be here, that Yuffie, as far as he had known, hadn't /ever/ entered her quarters, unable to handle the sway and lurch of the Highwind enough to stay anywhere but wide-open spaces, or more preferably on the deck itself.
Yuffie's tendency towards motion sickness had always seemed to Cid as some sort of veiled insult against his ship, that the ninja girl couldn't /really/ get ill on such a well-built, well-piloted craft, and was simply using it as an advantage to taunt him... and that thought had been rustling around with the maelstrom other illogical, muddled and angry thoughts, was the real reason he walked into the ninja girl's room without knocking...
... and the real reason momentum carried him a few steps into the room before he could stop himself. Cid opened his mouth to speak, and it hung open for a long time afterward, though he never uttered a sound. Yuffie looked up from where she was straddling Vincent, her hands on his chest, both of them very startled and, his brain quietly added a moment later, /very/ naked. Three pairs of eyes stared at each other in a moment of absolute silence, broken as Vincent reached for his cowl and discreetly tried to cover the parts that Yuffie's body hadn't. Very carefully, the ninja girl raised one hand, wiggling her fingers in a hesitant wave.
Of course, with Yuffie, the simple salutation wasn't enough.
"Uh... it takes care of the motion sickness?"
The pilot staggered out of the room, moving as fast as his watery limbs would allow, shutting the door tightly behind him. Cid knew he was bright crimson, and spluttering, for some reason, but that was about the extent of his awareness... all his other thoughts had fled to parts unknown.
He turned. A soldier was watching him warily from the other end of the hall.
"Sir... are you all right?
Cid didn't answer, couldn't answer, the mixture of shock, embarrassment and complete disbelief had become a glue that had locked his muscles and joints solid against his bones.
"Sir? Is something wrong...?"
The blonde pilot immediately shook his head, yes, before pausing, and quickly negating the gesture. He knew he was staggering slightly, still /had/ to be, with the way his thoughts continued to evade him... and finally, grabbed hold of one of his oldest habits, refusing to let go.
"I /need/ a cigarette. Right now."
Vincent was silent, but Yuffie was giggling hysterically, knowing that if she wasn't allowed that release, she would be absolutely /screaming/ with laughter...
//The look... the look on his f-face!!!//
The ninja girl knew she would keep that moment, Cid's shock, clear in her thoughts for the rest of her life. Getting to see the gruff, vulgar old pilot so mortified... it was almost worth giving up what had been quickly becoming one of the more stellar, and passionate moments of her life...
//Giving up? I don't /think/ so...//
"I think..." Vincent shifted, as if to get off the bed, "maybe I should..."
Yuffie put all her weight against the dark-haired man, and pressed her face against his warm chest, ignoring all of his embarrassment, shoving the thoughts of how much fun it would be to tease Cid from now on to the back of her mind.
"You smell /wonderful/..."
Vincent seemed not to hear her, red-hazel eyes flicking from her, to the door, and back... good lord, he was cute when he was embarrassed.
"Maybe... I should go, and apologize..."
Yuffie laughed, but kept her annoyance in check. Vincent seemed more dazed than anything else, was somehow attempting to put on his cowl via his left arm.
//Men...// Yuffie promptly relieved him of the red cloth, letting it slide to the floor, lacing his fingers with hers instead.
"Apologize? For what? He walked in on /us/..." she followed the last word with a kiss, smiling as he returned it, as she felt his entire body follow suit, excited... and watched him laugh, she could see the blush stain his pale skin, as he tried to pull away, fighting to restrain himself, just a little...
"Yuffie..." he stammered, and she chuckled slightly, delighted by his sudden embarrassment. The ninja refused to let him go, her hand tight around his metal, and perhaps she was acting the idiot now, giggling like this... but it was so /good/, here with him, and he was so /gorgeous/...
"What's the matter, Vinnie? Are you... yike!"
Vincent gave no sign of his intent, that his mood had changed, but just /moved/, almost faster than she could follow, until, all at once, /she/ was the one pinned against the bed, his human hand still entwined with hers, her other hand loose, and the back of his claw gently pressing against her side, the cool metal making the heat of their bodies seem all the more intense...
"Watch out, old man..." she whispered, nearly breathless at the hunger in his amber eyes, bringing up her other hand to twine itself deep in his smooth, jet black hair, "... I might be too much for you..."
He smiled, eyes lighting up in a way that made her shiver all over.
"I'll show you who's old, Kisaragi..."
Yuffie might have replied to that, had his mouth not been firmly against hers... and after that, she really didn't care...
//Of all the places in my life I thought I'd end up...//
He had been a Turk, had never expected life would split from that path... and she... she was the daughter of the leader of Wutai...
Vincent smiled at the seemingly impossible incongruity. He no longer tried to make too much sense out of life, finding it usually to be more effort than it was ever worth, that any answers he had ever received were temporary at best.
//Life always changes... You tried to stop that, tried to make yourself suffer permanently for your sins... but life changes anyway, and drags you along with it, no matter what you want...//
The dark-haired man wondered if, somewhere, in the back of his thoughts, he hadn't /wanted/ something like this to happen... that he hadn't chosen to follow Cloud and the rest hoping to, at some distant, future date, build a life again... and now that he had learned the true nature of his sins, what he had and had /not/ been responsible for... now, could he admit that?
//Moving on... can I really move on?//
Yuffie turned in her sleep, pressing herself against his side, tousled hair brushing softly against his chest, her body curving so nicely against his own. He was a tactile person by nature, though the delight he found in simple touch had been long forgotten, even before Hojo had torn his world apart. The ninja girl brought all those sensations back to him, so much about her so alluring, and inviting. He reached out his human hand, tracing a finger slowly along her arm, the tanned skin so soft, the muscle, the scars, and signs of the hard living she had endured not making her any less beautiful, any less of a woman...
//... and what a woman...//
He smiled, remembering the nights activities with an amused chagrin. Yuffie was somewhat of an exhibitionist, he was sure, and the glee she had taken from startling Cid, however accidentally the deed had been done, had struck a wild fire in her, something amazing to see, delightful to have her share... Making love to Lucrecia had been passionate, tender, sometimes wild, but always with an undertone of seriousness. Making love to Yuffie was... fun.
Vincent knew he had held back for most of his life from caring, knowing that, once he had opened up his heart, he tended to be overzealous with his affections. It was that flaw that had gotten him into trouble with Lucrecia, what had kept him from seeing all that she had done, and would do, and all that she had tried to protect him from. The ex-Turk felt, most of the time, quite clumsy with love, and with trying to express how he really felt.
//It didn't feel like that, though... not tonight...//
He hadn't planned it to happen, hadn't expected to do more than talk to the ninja girl for a while, hoping he could stay with her at Wutai, follow along with her as she, along with Barret, Cid and the Turks, attempted to keep a hold over the rest of the world, as the Generals attempted a combined strike at the very heart of the war.
Vincent couldn't even remember how it had started, whether he had kissed her, or she him, only that the entire world had warmed to them, and everything had taken on the aspect of a wonderful dream, a world where nothing either one of them did or said seemed wrong, and he knew that she wanted to touch him just as much as he needed to touch her. Before he realized what was happening, she was sliding her shirt off and attacking the snaps and buckles on his clothes with a vengeance...
//... and then, Cid, of course...//
The red-clad man smiled again, and this time reached his hand up, touching the corner of his expression, one he hadn't managed, of his own will, in so long, now something he couldn't seem to stop... a joy, that the woman at his side had unexpectedly brought out in him...
//Oh, Yuffie... look what you've done to me...//
He had so many questions, serious ones, spinning around in his mind like a whirlwind... did she really love him? Could this last? Was he right, to even try and love her? Was it wrong, that he hadn't followed Cloud to the Crater?
It had been for the best, really. They had beaten back Hojo's troops, but the monsters were still out there, it would not be an easy fight to keep the mainland, and his help would be invaluable... but Vincent knew that wasn't the /real/ reason he had stayed, why he hadn't gone right alongside Cloud, on the first transport north.
//I don't want... I don't have that /vengeance/ in me, not anymore... Lucrecia is dead, and I am still alive, and Hojo... Hojo /will/ die... and if I'm not the one who kills him... why does that feel all right?"//
He sighed, as the answer did not, on command, appear, and let his eyes finally close, not really caring whether he fell asleep or not, not trying to answer any of his questions. This night, he was simply content to /exist/, to fall asleep in a comfortable room, with Yuffie's warmth stretched out with boneless grace, lazily, lovingly against his side.
It was late, and cold, when Tifa finally walked out onto the deck, unable to stand one more moment of fighting, and failing, for sleep. The brunette wasn't sure if she wanted anyone to see her or not, couldn't decide whether it would be a burden or a relief, to try and pretend nothing was wrong. No one came, and, after a few moments, she leaned against the ice-cold railing, chilled by the wind, looking out over a dark span of nothingness, the land beneath her pitch black, the sky completely obscured. It matched her mood, lonely, bleak...
Cloud had left her. Again.
Tifa tried to convince herself that she knew why he did it. She knew he was terrified that he could lose her... and as much as she had wanted to argue, to jump down out of the case he had placed her in, the cage he had made to protect her from the world... she wouldn't...
//... and it hurts, it hurts... I /don't/ know, I don't /really/ know why he did it...//
... because Tifa was convinced, now, that Cloud wasn't really protecting her, or at least, wasn't doing so because he loved her. He was protecting himself.
//He can't stand to lose me... but not because he loves me, not like I want him to.// It was easier to face that fear, when it was only the sum of her own fears speaking, only her own voice. //I don't think he does... love me... and I don't think he ever will.//
The brunette's thoughts drifted back to a memory that had nagged at her since it happened. It was like an itch, an irritation that never really went away, of what had happened on that night, below the Highwind, the night before the final confrontation with Sephiroth...
//If there had been a moment between us, it had been then... I thought for sure, that he... that we...//
The blonde was her only link to the past, the only person who knew what it was like, and she had been sure he thought as she did, that he loved her as much as she loved him...
//I had thought... I thought we would have... made love.//
The brunette had been ready for it, her stomach in butterflies the entire night, waiting for him to make a move, to show some sign that he understood, and that he wanted her as badly as she had wanted him... but it had never happened. He had held her closely, the entire night, but that was all...
//Why? If he could... with Elicia...//
The reality of what had happened to the other woman was not lost on the fighter, but it still /hurt/... it meant that Cloud had truly rejected /her/, Tifa, as a woman... instead of...
Only now, did Tifa realize that she had always has small, quiet doubts about the blonde, about who he loved, who he /could/ love, and that she had forever been afraid that there was something about Cloud that she simply couldn't see, or refused to...
//Zack. You thought, maybe that...//
The intensity of emotion she had seen in the dark-haired man when Cloud had fallen ill was amazing, and Tifa had to admit that, despite all her terror and fear, Zack's sorrow ran even deeper than her own. The thought had come, she was shocked at how obvious it sounded, how easily it was for her to consider the seemingly impossible possibility... that Cloud and Zack... Cloud and Zack...
//... but Zack kissed /me/.//
Tifa didn't have to consider what she felt about that, and hated herself for it, for being so...
//Fickle. Immature, to lose yourself, to think it meant anything... over /one kiss/.//
It had been surprising, though, and warm, and wonderful, a jumble of breathless, delighted sensations, that one intimate moment touching on the very best she had inside of her, but she had recoiled from him anyway. Cloud had been /dying/... and Zack /knew/ how she felt about him, and he had kissed her?!
//... but Zack /wouldn't/... He didn't do it to hurt me, only to... reassure me. I'm sure of it//
Her belief in Zack, the entire /team's/ belief in the dark-haired man had already done the impossible, and kept Sephiroth out of the center spotlight, kept him trustworthy in their eyes when nothing else would. If Zack said the white-haired man was his friend... well, Tifa didn't have to like it, but she would do her best to adjust, and everyone else had followed suit. The dark-haired SOLDIER seemed to inspire that confidence in all of them. No matter what was said, if it came from Zack, Tifa knew she could count on it to be honest.
... and he had kissed her.
The fighter slumped forward, pressing herself further against the cold metal, burying her head in her arms as the wind continued to chill her. It was all so confusing, and now, even if she had wanted to, she could not ask Cloud directly. He had gone, willingly, to the most dangerous place on the Planet, to lead what seemed like an impossible mission to save them all.
//... and I'm staying behind, with Zack. Cloud left me with him, so that he could protect me.//
All this time, with his silence, and his absence, had the blonde simply been trying to protect her, shield her from the truth?
It hurt Cloud to hurt her, Tifa knew that, and knew that the blonde would never say a word that might do so. It had been that way from the first time she had found Cloud, when he had been nothing but hostile to Barret and the other members of AVALANCHE, and unconcerned with the Planet or anything else... from that first time, he had been kind to her, and silent when kindness wasn't possible.
Was he silent now, not because he was hiding his feelings for her, but because he had none? Was it that he /didn't/ love her, but wouldn't tell her, not when she needed him so much?
Did Cloud tell Zack all the things he wouldn't, or /couldn't/ let anyone else find out? Tifa didn't doubt it, if she had mistaken their friendship for love, for the confidences of soul mates. If they were /that/ close, then Zack would know /everything/, know all the secrets she could see hidden in those bottomless blue eyes. Did Zack know something, then, that made it all right for him to kiss her?
//... and if he does, then that means... that Cloud /doesn't/ love me...//
... and then, where did that leave her? Alone? With Zack?
It was too much to think about, she had too many questions, and though Tifa tried to placate herself with the hope that she would have answers, that things were always changing, and in fact moving with startling swiftness, it just wasn't /enough/, not in this silent, still night, with the darkness and cold all around her, and the seemingly motionless stars, flint chips stuck in the sky, glittering down with a hard, merciless light, offering no answers...
//I just want...// The stars looked angry tonight, or at least pitiless, disdainful of the small emotions of a human, but Tifa had always wished on them, and always would. //I want us all to be /happy/. Cloud. Me. Zack. Everyone. Whatever that means, even if it means that Cloud and I...// It hurt, but the brunette knew it was still the truth. //... even if it means we're not supposed to be together. That's what I want.//
Tifa turned after another moment of windswept silence, and slowly walked off the deck, her steps dragging, unhurried. The fighter knew that sleep would not come soon, if at all, and that she could see no chance, no possibility of reaching her happy ending.
North Corel was silent, peaceful, and Zack and Sephiroth were in and out of the city within an hour, over the mountains, and moving swiftly along the edge of the mountains on the sea path. A short trip by ferry brought them to the tip of a narrow peninsula, the halfway point between Bone Village and Icicle Inn. Zack's armies were waiting at the edge of the hills nearest the village, preparing for him to lead the strike over the ridge, and secure the area at the base of the mountains. It was said to be the safest of the three maneuvers, for Hojo's monsters seemed to keep their distance from the Sleeping Forest, and, it was assumed, the City of the Ancients as well.
It was still no easy task, and no matter how many times the two men had parted ways, no matter how many rough battles they had not fought side-by-side, Sephiroth still found that it troubled him, to let his friend go, to simply trust that Zack was the SOLDIER the man knew him to be.
Zack had noticed his troubled mood, thought perhaps he was sensing Jenova, somehow, as they moved closer and closer to the Crater. After a moment, Sephiroth shook his head, unable to feel anything but the cold wind on his skin, and the dread of his own awareness, that every inch of territory from this point on, everything that was taken would cost them in blood.
"Just the cold..."
It was time to part ways. Sephiroth felt the tension in the air, wanted to respond to it, to say something, though he knew it wasn't necessary, had /never/ been necessary. His and Zack's connection... it didn't need words...
//Brothers, you and I...//
Zack caught his eye, and grinned momentarily, but then his expression changed, turning serious, deep and unreadable.
"You've never met the real Cloud, Seph. You got close, watching him break down like he did... but everyone hides, hides the things that can be used against them, their weaknesses, and Spike's been through so much... that side of him is almost another /person/. I know you still care, that you want to make things right with him. You two have... unfinished business, I know that, but if you want to apologize, if you want to make it count, hell, if you want /any/ real answers to your questions... you'll have to find that Cloud first."
Sephiroth frowned slightly, surprised at the seriousness in his friend's words, and nodded. Zack nodded, as if sealing some deal, before he grinned again, pulled his chocobo closer. They shook hands briefly, and Sephiroth didn't know whether he pulled Zack closer as the other man tugged on his arm, only that he didn't draw back, as he might have done in the past, out of the sudden embrace. They had never been this close, not outright, in all their time together as friends...
//... but I am a different person, and, I hope, a better friend to him now, and this is a much different, much more /dangerous/ war.//
"You take care of yourself." Sephiroth whispered, noticing in surprise that his voice was just /slightly/ unsteady. Zack never stopped grinning, strong and fearless.
"Let's ice this bitch."
Moments later, Sephiroth was nothing more than a dark dot on the horizon, as Zack's chocobo sprinted off just as quickly in the opposite direction. The dark-haired man didn't bother to look back, but kept his thoughts focused on his friend, on /both/ his friends.
//Take care of yourself, Seph... and... God, let him watch out for Cloud too. Let him see... please let them /both/ see.//
"How does it look, sir?"
Cloud didn't turn, his eyes still scanning the horizon, nothing along the path ahead, the mountains blocking his view near the edge, where land met sky... Slowly, he shook his head, mouth carved into a frown, and he heard the other commander give a slight sigh, turn his chocobo back towards his own troops.
//They're coming... soon... the first /real/ battle...//
Hojo's resistance had not been what he had expected, the first strike upon landing not even half of what they had fought their way through at any point in Wutai, and now, Cloud was /very/ nervous.
The Cetra were gone, and with them, his former pinpoint accuracy and range, the ability to feel an attack, anywhere on the Planet, and know instantly how many of the enemy had struck, and how many soldiers and civilians had died. That power had ravaged him, in both mind and body, in ways he was only beginning to notice now that they had gone... but he could still feel some things, especially this close to the Crater... and he knew they weren't in for an easy victory.
Skirmishes were still breaking out where the initial camp had set up, though so far the ShinRa and Wutai troops were holding their own, and Hojo's monsters hadn't been able to repeat any of the massacres that had happened before, in the mountains of Wutai, or near Gongaga.
//We're /winning/... yeah, right.//
Cloud could still sense enough... and a tiny voice in the back of his mind kept wondering how he had ever considered it sane to make a rush at the Crater at /all/...
//It wasn't sane... I never said it was sane... but alone... if I had been alone...//
Alone, he might have made it, and could have used what remained of his abilities to sense where Hojo's troops were, and possibly avoid them entirely. It was impossible to even think of doing so now, with the army he carried behind him. There was no way to move that many men fast enough to dodge an attack, nowhere to go except straight down the valley...
//Low ground, limited visibility... could we possibly /be/ at a greater disadvantage?//
The only comfort Cloud had now was that slight sense of the Planet still singing under his skin, and that when Hojo attacked they wouldn't be /completely/ off guard, and in knowing that his men had been chosen from the finest who had survived the Wutai campaign, that many of them had volunteered for this mission...
... and that he really /couldn't/ go back, not now.
//He's probably reached Icicle by now, I think they could have easily taken care of all that we plowed through so far...//
His tension now was still not as it had been, back among the larger formations, knowing that Sephiroth was on his way back. Cloud had been impatient to leave, had been almost grateful to escape, to know that there was no danger now, of having to face him...
//Alone? I thought that was what all this was about... Having to face him in front of Tifa, or Barret, or the rest of them...//
/Don't be dense.../ His heavy sigh received a worried warble from Karat, who seemed to sense his rider's increasing worry. Cloud patted the bird on the head, smiling slightly as the bird let out a contented coo.
//So... what are you going to do, then, about him?//
Cloud felt his entire body, even in this snowy land, get very, very cold inside. He hated his conscience, for reminding him that, in some places, at some times, people felt it was all right to hope.
/About... there /is/ no "about him". Nothing. Ever. I've been through this damned argument a thousand times before. I won't see him... it's /over/... and I'll go kill Hojo and Jenova... and that will be the end of it./
//What about after the war, then? What if you survive?//
Cloud fought a grimace, feeling something in his chest constrict. What could he do? How could he keep his distance, from the person who meant everything?
//This was a lot easier, when I was sure I was going to die.//
Cloud winced, doubling over just slightly as a cold, a thousand times greater than the force of his own anxiety, washed through him. His body shook with the power behind the warning, the Planet breathtakingly strong now that the Cetra had stopped guiding that energy, but his mind was clear as he leaned back in his saddle and sounded the alarm, whistling two notes, one high, one low, a Wutai signal of danger, that the enemy was already close, and moving closer.
//What was that? You /were/ going to die?// He grinned at the sarcasm in his thoughts. //Come now, Cloud, there's still /plenty/ of time to make /that/ dream come true...//
It took Sephiroth nearly an hour to meet up with the first sign of Hojo's defenses, but the creatures were both unfamiliar and easily destroyed, the black chocobo could easily dodge their lashing tentacles as Sephiroth wheeled, only once, and dispatched them with a well aimed Fire 3.
//Getting sloppy, Hojo? Were these last few losses just a little more than you could handle?//
The battles came more frequently after the first, but still were little threat, more of an inconvenience, like the mountains or the spans of thin, waterlogged ice, than anything Sephiroth even bothered to plan to avoid. He regretted it a little, as not having to bother to plan strategy left his mind open to brood, on what he would do, not when he reached the army and they reclaimed Icicle Inn, but /after/ that, when he went further north, to join Cloud...
//... to join him, in defeating Hojo, even though, no matter what Zack says, I still think he hates me, and I /know/ he has no reason to trust me...//
It didn't help that his feelings concerning the blonde were dangerously mixed, more so than usual... and in strange proportions, more so than they had /ever/ been before. At times, Sephiroth wanted nothing more than to strangle the impossibly stubborn man, or at least ask him how he had managed to wedge his spiky head /that far/ up his ass, but at other times he found that attitude only funny, and wanted to tease the hell out of the blonde, /just/ as he had done to Rufus ShinRa, to see what reaction he could provoke through surprise...
//Surprise? He'd probably surprise you by flinging you right through a wall... "ShinRa's bitch... we do remember that, right?//
Sephiroth knew Zack was an optimist, and though the SOLDIER trusted his friend's word in most cases, at least here, he would /have/ to make an exception. It had been /obvious/ to him, that if Cloud didn't hate him, it was only by the barest of margins, that Aeris, and Nibelheim, no matter what was said, had /not/ been forgotten. The white-haired man did /not/ relish the idea of having to engage the blonde in serious conversation, in asking him anything about the Cetra, about what had happened... about how they could work together to defeat Hojo.
//"I work alone..." I can just hear him say it, I really can. Growling it out, as if he had to /prove/ he was in charge, and staring up at me with that stupid...//
He paused, mind snagging on the incongruity. No, it wasn't right, to imagine Cloud staring at him in anger...
//Not anger... and come to think of it, how many times has he not looked at me, at all? We've had entire conversations where he was unwilling, to the very last, to look me in the eye.//
All his emotions about Cloud Strife were mixed, muddled, and /this/ particular set of memories brought out the most complex, and uncomfortable feelings of all. The blonde had saved him once, a split-second decision, something no real enemy would have bothered with...
//... and Zack said, I was his hero. Not anything special, really, ShinRa tried to make me into everyone's hero...// He couldn't help but grin at the thought, //... and they kept the cameras off me, and never let me talk, so everyone wouldn't realize I was an asshole.//
It hadn't really changed his icy image, of course. The media blackout had simply kept any bad press from being attached to his name, kept him popular, and kept there from being any chance of him speaking out against Wutai... /or/ ShinRa...
//I was their little pet SOLDIER... and always telling myself I'd find a way to change that, that I'd /never/ be their willing little warrior, not in my heart... that I'd never let them manipulate me like they always thought they could...//
... and then, when it had been time to /prove/ what he had always held to be true, when he had been presented with Nibelheim and all the facts of his creation, everything ShinRa could throw at him, everything he had always /promised/ himself would be inconsequential, would mean /nothing/ against what he knew, that ShinRa would do anything it could to keep him obedient, that his heart, his soul meant nothing to them...
When it had been his moment to spit in their faces and walk away, to face the truth in Nibelheim and look past it, to what he had built, to who he had become on his own, to Zack's friendship, and his own total rejection of all ShinRa had tried to make him... he had failed. He had done /exactly/ what they, what Hojo, had been expecting, Sephiroth knew that now. All that work, all that pride in being his own man had been for nothing.
//Weakness. You /dared/ to look down on other soldiers, on ShinRa, when you were easily the weakest of them all...//
Jenova's intervention, the influence that had sent him completely over the edge wasn't a factor. The alien would have never had a hold in him, if he hadn't already been ready for her, hadn't already been broken inside, and willing to hear her lies...
Sephiroth's hands tightened around the chocobo's reins, and he realized his teeth were tightly clenched, every muscle in his body tight and rigid. God, he was still so /angry/... at how he had failed, at what he had done, all the time nothing more than Hojo's plaything, Jenova's puppet, doing exactly what she wanted, moving as she pulled the strings...
The word had come up more than once, and though he had no confession, no moment where its use had been truly defined, he was smart enough to put it all together. The tapes, Zack's explanation, everything else he had read...
Muddled emotions... and at the core of them, he was /sick/, saddened and repulsed, deep down, disgusted at what he had become, and that he had taken Cloud with him, that his weakness had been forced upon another. He knew Jenova had taken her pleasure in watching Cloud writhe in her grasp, because while /he/ had been long gone, past insanity, nothing but her shell, the blonde had still been sane, had /suffered/ on his strings, writhing in her grasp... and Sephiroth saw no reason, why Strife wouldn't have remembered it all.
//Living with that, Strife, with knowing that your innermost thoughts had been stripped, and /violated/...// Just thinking about it made Sephiroth shiver, horrified, that he had forced his greatest fear on another.
//I'm /sorry/, Cloud... and maybe it doesn't mean anything for you to hear it, but I /have/ to say it. Zack said we had a lot in common... and maybe I can...//
/What? /Help/ him?/ A bitter chuckle accompanied that statement, and Sephiroth grimaced.
//No... I wouldn't presume... I don't know. ... but something. I could... I have to try, to do /something/ to make this right, or at least make it better... I...//
Sephiroth paused, as a slight, distant cry cut the air, disappearing immediately as it flew across the wide, flat plain. The SOLDIER brought the black chocobo to a halt, straining in the silence. It wasn't necessary to do so, as another, louder cry, this time most definitely that of a chocobo, sounded out from the hills ahead of them.
It was a welcome gift that Roman Gemini could track his position on an otherwise near featureless landscape by following the regular transmissions of the army on his radio, and a bitter irony that he could hear those bored messengers talk of nothing, even as he was frantically scrambling for simple survival.
A group of scouts doing an invasive survey of the Bone Village area had come across an old soldier's outpost, and inside, amidst the skeletons, they discovered what the soldiers had given their lives defending: a cask of Materia, a hundred of the spheres at least, of all kinds. It was a near miracle, Roman didn't know how the soldiers had managed to hide the stash from Hojo's forces, and didn't care. All that mattered was that the materia could save lives in the Bone Village offensive, and more importantly, for the men waiting to attack Icicle Inn.
He had been more than ready, then, to make his way back to Bone Village to retrieve their share, and then immediately turn back towards home. He was the leader of the Icicle forces, and had been ordered to stand guard until General Sephiroth arrived and he could leave to follow Cloud, but the redhead knew the importance of that materia, how many lives it could save, and could not risk sending anyone else out after it, not when he knew he was the best.
The biting cold, he could ignore, the danger, from both nature and the unnatural, he could ignore... but the fact that Roman could hear the army sending out routine messages, to say that nothing at all was wrong, while /he/ was fighting his way through a seemingly unending sea of monsters to return to them... /that/ took a little more work to ignore.
Thankfully, the chocobo underneath him was one of the ten finest birds in the world, a gift to him from the General himself, one of the offspring of the birds he had raced for a time at the Gold Saucer... and yes, trying to imagine his General actually /in/ a chocobo race had always been next to impossible for the young redhead, but he had never appreciated it more than now.
A spine, six feet long and glowing with some sort of acidic slime screamed past his back, so close he could feel the breeze caused by its passing, and Roman flattened himself even further against the bird's back, watching for any sign of shelter, anywhere to hide or escape in the barren, desolate landscape.
He cried out in shock and surprise as a dark blur appeared on his left, and fired off a round from his gun without thinking, heard the beast cry out, saw a flash of fangs and claws as it tumbled and fell to the earth.
//More... there are more... not just the big one behind me, but /more/... oh /shit/...//
He had not bothered to look behind him for quite a while, and did not dare to risk looking now, and losing what remained of his nerve. Of course, Roman wasn't really focused on the land in front of him either, a fact that quickly made itself known, as the earth suddenly disappeared beneath the chocobo's feet, and with a wild warble both beast and rider flew through the air, landing hard on the ground below.
Roman flew of the bird's back, hit the ground with one swift, sharp snap that spent his head spinning and threatened to cave in his chest. Through the haze of pain, he struggled to collect himself, could tell by motion and sound that his chocobo had already returned to his feet, that they had landed in a lower valley - how had he not seen /that/ coming? - and that he hadn't been hurt too badly, nothing was broken... but where was his enemy? Ro looked up, saw nothing but the white slope in front of him, bearing almost no mark of their violent tumble...
... and the ground beneath his feet dropped slightly, with a powerful, unbelievable bang, and the soldier quickly realized that the ground hadn't dropped, but that an /impact/ had lifted him into the air... the impact of the massive, misshapen creature who had leapt in front of them, who was now only a few feet in front of him, and growling. Smaller creatures with razor fangs and screeching cries danced around his feet, darting forward almost playfully if not for the /hunger/ in their empty eyes... and the chocobo was backing up behind him, cowering with little chirps of terror, seeking a protection the soldier could not give. Roman knew his gun would do nothing, that even his best Materia wouldn't be enough, and only hoped these beasts were too stupid to realize what a Materia cask was, that someone would come to look for him, and at least find the precious spheres...
The attack, when it came, was swift, powerful, belonged to only one man the soldier had ever met. Ro's first thought was baffled... How had The General returned, and how had he known that the other soldier had been in trouble?
The thought soon vanished, as the wall of smoke caused by the first offensive cleared, and he saw the man standing in the crater that remained was /not/ Cloud Strife... not that Ro was complaining.
//... but... how in the hell?//
The General had not been the first owner of his title, Roman Gemini had known that much for a long time, but only now was he getting his first taste of /why/, and why the debate in the ranks over who really was the best had been so divided, how it had seemed that neither side was really in the wrong...
Ro didn't bother to provide cover fire, there was no need. The General was frightening despite his size and weight, the power he held, those glowing blue eyes always lending an air of barely leashed fury, a threatening sense of unimaginable strength despite his seeming weaknesses. General Sephiroth had no such "despites." He was awe-inspiring, period.
The fight ended within moments, as the man drew his massive blade and simply cut the monster down, annihilating the smaller beasts with a simultaneous spell, lightning, demi... it was too fast for Roman to follow. The redhead stood gaping, dimly remembering the story, of another battle once, that his General had supposedly fought, and /defeated/ the man standing before him... though Ro could barely believe it, wondered how the Planet had ever survived such a conflict.
... and though he didn't want to admit it, the next thought came anyway, as those emerald eyes looked up from where they had been staring at the carcass of the kill, pinning him effortlessly, and Ro felt his stomach drop past his shoes, hurtling towards the center of the earth.
//Sir, General Cloud, sir... how in the world did you ever /survive/?!
//You're not going to survive this... tell me, even with all the weapons, all the power you have, that there's any way you can see, that you're going to make it out of this one alive.//
Cloud froze, as the word crackled across his PHS, and one of the Dark Dragon's heads swiveled up towards him, as if it could hear the soft static, or see where he stood in the shadow of the rocky path. Karat knew better than to warble, to make any noise, though the blonde could feel a deep shudder of terror run through the bird, and the chocobo shifted slightly where it stood.
//God help me... let me strike true, let me be good enough, to make it through this... I /have/ to win...//
He repeated a similar prayer silently in the Wutai language, although he didn't believe either would do him or his men any true good, that the gods that had abandoned them before would somehow choose to listen now. Still, he knew he had to give some praise to those spirits, those of blind luck if nothing else, for if he hadn't felt the Planet's cry, if he hadn't decided to hide, observe the path ahead from a slight distance, away from his troops...
//I have to get through this... I /have/ to make it through this... there's no way they can handle this...//
Carefully, he pushed the button down on the PHS, relayed his orders in quiet, steady tones, the information immediately making a mockery of his attempt at calm. Along with his orders for retreat came a description of the enemy's attack force: twenty dark dragons, /at least/, along with two or three clusters of other monsters, each creature the very pinnacle of Hojo's destructive abilities, some of which Cloud had seen before, deep within the Northern Crater, others completely unique, originals, but all of them most definitely lethal, each with the power and intelligence of any Halfspawn, Cloud was sure of that much.
//Well, we wanted to see what he'd push back with... and this is definitely it.//
There was no way to get everyone to safety, no way they /weren't/ going to have to stand and fight, but if he could start a retreat now, get his men into a better position...
//We /have/ to retreat... this is too much, too many, and we can't afford to lose as many men as we will, if we attempt to win this...//
Cloud wasn't desperate enough to risk an all-out brawl, wasn't too proud to admit that victory, or at least one he could live with, was absolutely out of his reach.
//... but they've got to take Icicle now, Sephiroth or no, and we've got to be able to /defend/ from this... from anything more like this...//
He had relayed that order, but knew it was impossible for the men at the base camp to move in /and/ prepare in time, that if he and the others rode back with /this/ enemy, undamaged and directly on their heels...
//It will be a disaster, if not a total massacre. They won't be ready, not for all of these bastards. They can't, we can't...//
Cloud slid silently off of Karat's back, patting the bird's neck absently, his eyes fixed towards where the last of the dragons had disappeared through the rocks.
"You stay here... and /don't/ move until it's clear."
He didn't know if the bird understood precisely or not, but previous battles had made it clear, Karat was not stupid. The bird shifted from foot to foot, worriedly, but did not move to follow him as he walked away.
Moving silently, the massive sword in his hand held easily parallel with the ground, Cloud crept through the light snow, not feeling the cold, not noticing the wind or the bright, midday sun, save for the way it glanced off the rocks and trees and, disturbingly, /not/ off the scales of the dark creatures that all too soon came into view.
//You never did explain, exactly, how you planned on making it through this...//
It was a question that he could not answer, not with anything that logic would accept as a plan. Without logic, Cloud thought, it was quite simple. He /couldn't/ die, not to leave his army to be slaughtered, and he /couldn't/ launch an attack with the full force of his men behind him, for that would cost too many lives as well. If he waited, Hojo's creatures would reach Icicle. The army that awaited them there was also too important to lose, and too unstable and unprepared to defend against the enemy that would bear down upon them.
Cloud /couldn't/ let himself die, and he /had/ to attack.
The blonde took a deep breath, to steady himself, still crouched just out of the enemy's line of sight, preparing himself for that first attack, the quick entry into battle, the vicious thrust up that would disembowel the first dragon, hopefully, before he was even seen. He could feel the rock beneath his hands and feet, the cold, digging into him, and the sun, uncomfortably warm on his face. There was no time for anything else, no thoughts of past or future, regrets or happiness...
No need, to wonder what might happen. He couldn't die here, he /couldn't/ die here... and that thought fueled him all the way through the first attack, giving him the speed he demanded, tearing it out from inside muscle and sinew, as he ran silently, and was not seen, went unnoticed until his sword drove home though foot-thick skin and muscle, digging for the heart, for the killing blow...
The scream of the beast was loud, but hinted at an end, and Cloud pushed off, dove out of the way as the monster staggered, wavered and fell dead, its blood a thick, dark pool already gushing in a wide stream over the ground... and the second dragon screamed in rage, and then a chorus followed, until Cloud's ears rang with the screams, and the entire world blurred into chaos and speed, adrenaline and pain.
Sephiroth turned, only moments away from sending his chocobo back into a run, watching as Ro listened intently to someone on the other end of his PHS, his expression darkening with each second that passed. The white-haired man was about to ask what had happened, when Ro held up one hand, asking for silence, patience. Sephiroth nodded, waiting. He had been impressed with Cloud's second-in-command. The redhead was startlingly young, but skilled, had recovered from his sudden rescue with surprising ease given his age.
//Nobody stays young in a war...// While impressed with the boy's abilities, and curious as to what was happening, Sephiroth couldn't help but be just slightly impatient, the small break just to let the birds rest and eat already a tax on his nerves. He wanted to meet up with the army, wanted to take Icicle in the next day, and hopefully join up with Cloud's forces in the day after that. He knew there was no time for hesitation, that no matter what Cloud had promised Zack...
//He's not just going to /wait/... he doesn't need an order, not to take out Hojo...//
... and beyond that, Sephiroth didn't want to spend a night out on this snowy, barren nothingness, especially if there were any more creatures like the one that had nearly killed Ro wandering around.
"Well, what is it?" He was finally able to speak, as Roman slid his PHS back into the holder at his side.
"They've taken Icicle... there was no reason to wait. There was enough of a force to take out what Hojo had put there, and they /had/ to put together a permanent defense... closer to the mountains because..." Roman was nearly breathless, looked as if he couldn't believe the words himself. "The General... General Strife had to retreat, fully, from halfway up the ridge. They're bringing back the wounded now, it was too much for them... /twenty/ dragons... and some other... it was more than they could take on, even with the weapons they had. It was too much."
Sephiroth nodded sharply, more than willing to believe it. He had been half expecting a third strike not to work, at least not with the first attempt. Tearing the heart out of Hojo's operation would not be an easy task, no matter how they had surprised the enemy in the last few months.
//I'm surprised, though, that Strife didn't try to push through /anyway/...//
It was just another strange paradox the white-haired man could not puzzle out, that a man as stubborn, hot-tempered and headstrong as Cloud seemed to be could be so cool, so logical when it came to war.
Sephiroth shook those thoughts of as he spurred his chocobo forward, saw Ro do the same a moment later. No matter what had happened, Cloud would still be returning with a rampaging army of monsters at his heels...
//... and /someone/ will have to be there to greet them.//
It was a satisfying thought, but not meant to be. By the time he and Roman crested the final ridge, looked down upon the whole of Icicle from where they stood near a hurriedly erected watchman's post, all of the wounded had returned, all the battles had ended, and the town was steadily bustling with the sounds of hurried labor, the bare necessities being rebuilt from the barren ground up, the air steady with a hum of tension, determination, but not fear.
//It doesn't look like many of the enemy even made it this far...//
Roman vanished with a quick salute, quickly moving into the darkness around the well-lit town, no doubt to find Cloud, to discover what he had missed, what exactly had happened.
Sephiroth wanted to follow after the redhead, but hoped he could find a few of his own answers first, knowing his conversation with Cloud Strife would likely be short and awkward, that the blonde would probably get rid of him as soon as possible... and that it was better to get anything else he could resolved elsewhere.
He dropped off his chocobo at the "stables", little more than a few long poles that the reins could be tied to... but all the birds had been blanketed against the cold, and he could see people hurrying back and forth down the long lines, giving food to each, and medicine and aid to those that had been wounded. He caught sight of Cloud's gold, standing at the end of a line, eating calmly along with the rest.
//He's here, then... that's good...//
The speed with which even the temporary camp had been erected was startling, and Sephiroth was sure most of that was due to the Wutai involvement, remembering how mobile Lord Godo's troops had been during the last war, the speed with which they could maneuver even in large groups, vanishing without a trace only to appear at a safer location, as fortified as if it had always been their home.
He was a little worried by that, walking into the commander's tent, half thinking Cloud might even be there, among what was very obviously a Wutai-controlled hierarchy. His worry soon disappeared, Strife was nowhere to be seen, and though most of the young men were wearing markers of tribal status, were definitely from Wutai, there was no latent hostility in the eyes that turned to his.
//So, perhaps common enemies do make allies of us all.//
He was startled yet again by how /young/ the fighters in this war were, that even the men standing before him now, part of the strongest veteran combat force they had seemed to be, at the most, only a few years older than Sephiroth had been when he had become a General... and even then, the white-haired man knew, he hadn't had the actual combat experience of the commanders watching him now.
"Sir." A salute. Wutai didn't salute ShinRa, but they did salute those they respected, and apparently Sephiroth's actions, so many years ago, had taken a back seat to his performance at Rocket Town and Gongaga.
"At ease. Was it difficult securing the area?"
He could see a slight fear in the leading commander's eyes, and that only because he had become prone, over a lifetime of expectation, to seeing it...
//He went on Cloud's orders, to take this town. He believes in what he did, but he's not entirely sure I'd agree...//
Fear, that fear, just because of what he was, who he was, even if both of them knew Sephiroth would have been a fool to get angry, let alone /do/ anything about it... God, he hated that fear, hated it with the same intensity no matter how many times he faced it.
"I understand, soldier. I'm impressed with the hold you've established here. It must have been quite a fight to keep it."
"Uh... no, no sir."
"The General, sir... he, uh... took care of most of them before they were out of the valley, sir. His army polished off most of the rest... We laid down some cover fire, sir, but there wasn't else much that needed to be done."
"General Strife took down twenty dragons on his own, then?" Sephiroth's voice was neutral, though the statement sounded utterly ridiculous even in his own mind.
"Yes. More or less, yes sir."
There hadn't been much worth asking after that, nothing he couldn't figure out on his own. As Sephiroth passed the tents set up to handle the wounded, he could see that they were filled to capacity, the green glow of Cure, Heal and Sleep materia giving the entire area a soft green glow, and a greenish tinge to every saluting soldier he passed, even more than the usual hint from his emerald eyes in the darkness.
//This damage... and this is all from whatever Strife /hadn't/ been able to stop...//
He had been told that Cloud had returned to his own tent, and had caught the glimmer of worry and warning in the commander's eyes, that the blonde had gone there for a reason, instead of staying in the commander's quarters, and Sephiroth was sure if he had been anyone else, he would have been /told/ to leave the general alone, that the blonde didn't want to be disturbed...
//Hell with that.//
He had wanted answers, a lot of answers, and now he wanted even more.
//Twenty dragons? ... and he doesn't even call in support for his troops? He's out of his /mind/!//
Of course, /that/ much had been clear to the white-haired man since he had watched Cloud turn the path of the Fullspawn, drawing its attention back to him, bringing down the full force of that anger upon himself, rather than risking any of the lives in Rocket Town...
//Martyrs make shitty fighters, Strife...//
Sephiroth could feel a strange anger growing, as he made his way to where Cloud's tent was, indistinguishable among the row of others except for its double size, and the small flag that waved at its peak, not ShinRa, Sephiroth noticed, but a Wutai general's flag.
//Rebels too, especially when they're rebelling against the army they're /fighting/ for...//
It was a stupid hubris, really, to stride into Cloud's tent pretending to carry the honor and regulation of ShinRa with him, when he had often been just as disgusted with them as the blonde was, and dimly, Sephiroth was aware that his arrogance was serving as little more than preparation, for what he was sure would not be a pleasant discussion.
//I'm going to find out what's going on, though... whether he likes it or not.//
In a decision that gave him a small jolt of childish pleasure, he didn't even bother to make his presence known, and just walked inside Strife's tent as if it were his own. In the seconds that followed, he could feel all of his building arguments, his determined cool arrogance collapse, quietly deflating as his eyes adjusted to the scene in front of him.
It was dark in the tent, dimmer than outside, though Sephiroth's eyes quickly adjusted. Cloud had taken up a old Wutai trick inside the small structure, the main light in the room coming from several Materia, mostly yellow, that were glowing softly from various nooks and corners of the room, their powers activated but not released. There had been enough power to provide light to the perimeter of the town, but nothing more...
//You could have /asked/ for light, though, Strife. You /can/ take some of your perks, you know...//
His annoyance at the blonde's tendency towards unnecessary personal sacrifice flared up again, quickly quelled in the next moment, as he realized that what he thought he saw, half-concealed in slight shadow, really was the truth.
Cloud was standing with his back to the other man, bent half on his side over a large barrel, one arm dropped down inside. Sephiroth could see that the massive container had been filled with water, but it took him a few more moments to notice why the man had done what he had... that the blonde's shirt was off, and his right arm, shoulder, and the skin along a wide arc down to his spine was painfully marked in various degrees of red, mottled shades of pain that blistered almost as he watched, with more than one deep crack welling blood, running parallel lines of red down his skin...
Somehow, despite what Sephiroth had heard, the thought simply hadn't occurred to him, though now it seemed painfully obvious, that Cloud could have gotten injured in the fight, even quite /badly/ injured.
The man took another step forward, could hear a litany of softly hissed swear words carving a pattern through the air, the blonde's voice tight and ragged with pain.
"Does the swearing help?" Sephiroth murmured softly, his tone mild, suddenly not as worried about the blonde's survival, given the surprising ferocity of his verbal barrage.
"YES!" Cloud snapped back. "Damn it Ro, do you even have to /ask/ me that? What do you need... now..." The blonde had turned, and the sentence trailed off as he saw that the man behind him was not his second-in-command. Blue eyes widened slightly in surprise, before Cloud quickly turned away, and Sephiroth stifled a sigh of impatient disbelief, and he knew that the tension that he could so easily see, that had turned the man from flesh to shaking steel no longer came from the pain alone.
//How in the hell /can/ you get angry at me?! How can you spare the attention?!//
Sephiroth took another step forward, watching Cloud lift his arm partly from the water, and the white-haired man just barely stifled a shocked gasp. The damage was even worse further down the limb, colors skirting the edge between deep red and olive green, and the dark-clad fighter could see nothing lower than the other man's elbow, couldn't imagine how bad the extent of it could be.
"You should be with a doctor."
It came out without hesitation, though Sephiroth was surprised afterward, at his sudden reaction, at how concerned his voice had been. Cloud briskly shook his head, biting his lip against another cry of agony as he lowered his arm back down.
"No point... they're too busy... and it..." Cloud shuddered, his knees giving out, though he had propped himself up enough against the side of the barrel for it not to matter, and he remained standing until he could get his feet back underneath him. "It's too damaging for morale, for them to see me like this..."
Sephiroth couldn't help a slight snort of derision, couldn't believe how /stubborn/...
"Then why not just get a materia... a Cure...?"
"Most don't work well enough up here to matter... and there aren't enough that do for the wounded /now/!" Cloud cut him off sharply, angrily. "I've done this all before, and I'll heal fast enough, so it doesn't... matter, it..."
He choked then, and coughed hard, the anger putting too much of a strain on his already overtaxed body. The white-haired man could hear him fighting back, doing his best to relax, trying not to make the tremors that shook him any worse. The fit subsided after a few moments, though Sephiroth didn't miss seeing the flecks of blood on the blonde's hand when he drew it away from his mouth.
//The fire's scorched his lungs... hell...//
It wasn't lethal, but Sephiroth knew from personal experience, that it was /damn/ uncomfortable, even though it /still/ didn't change the other man's attitude. Cloud was rigid and tight with anger, not looking at him, as if refusing to acknowledge his existence...
//Stupid, stubborn, /stupid/...//
Sephiroth was too preoccupied with his anger to really notice what he was doing, that his body was moving forward while his thoughts were focused on remembering some incident with Zack, quite like this, and when he had finally finished musing, the dark-clad man found he was standing just a few steps away from the blonde, close enough to see the extent of the damage, to see that the blonde was shaking... and only then did he noticed how hot the room really was, that Cloud had been burned badly enough to affect his body's temperature.
//Skirting the edge... he might not need a doctor, but it's a damn close call...//
The white-haired man winced, as the blonde shifted slightly, trying to drop more of his shoulder into the water, the burn across his back cracking with the movement, a few more drops of blood dribbling down along his side. Cloud hadn't seemed to notice the other man's approach, too busy concentrating on his own body, on trying to ease as much of the pain as he could.
//I'm surprised he's not in shock, even if he /does/ have a SOLDIER's body, and even if he can cool his arm down, he can't touch his back at all, there's no way to try and heal it...//
Cloud had obviously realized this too late. There /was/ a jar of ointment on the table to his right, though it was clear that there was no way the blonde could apply it himself, even if he could reach all the burned areas, not with the state his back was in. Sephiroth reached out, and saw that Cloud finally noticed his presence, as the blonde jumped where he stood.
//Surprise, Strife,// Sephiroth thought, with no small humor, and quickly checked himself, his reaction... what was so funny?
//Tossing Cloud off his high horse... probably the same kind of thing that Zack likes doing to me.// He knew the dark-haired man had baited him on many occasions, and that his friend took great delight in it, and yes... the white-haired man had thought often about doing the same thing to Strife, when the opportunity arose.
//Yes, but... now, what are you doing?//
"What are you doing?"
The question was the same aloud as it was darting through his mind, though Cloud's query was easily the more harsh, not as quietly curious as his own silent musing.
"I knew there was a reason /I/ didn't get burned..." he muttered as a reply, knew Cloud would take it as a taunt, and watched with amusement as the man barely repressed a snarl. Sephiroth pulled off one glove, unscrewed the top of the jar, and both he and the blonde grimaced at the bitter tang that filled the air. The salve did its work, but it wasn't without a price...
//Well, at least some things haven't changed since the Wutai War.// There was, despite all of ShinRa's scientific advances, just no way to make the greasy mixture /smell/ any better...
Despite his obvious annoyance, the blonde hadn't said anything more, and though Sephiroth had expected as much, had known that he would face that wall of silence, it still irked him. Sephiroth found himself /still/ angry at Cloud's unnecessary stubbornness, even though he knew very well /why/ the blonde acted the way he did...
//... and you said yourself, that you couldn't blame him, that it's amazing that he'd see you at all. I'm surprised he already hasn't told you to go to hell.//
/That's supposed to make me feel better?/ Sephiroth sniped back. /I don't care /what/ the situation is, he's still being immature. I need answers, not silence./
It was strange, then, that he kept moving, even though his practical side told him that invading the blonde's personal space, when Strife was turned away and in pain, most likely feeling more than a bit vulnerable, was no way to defuse the tension, let alone get any answers. He found he really didn't want to listen to that voice of reason, didn't /want/ to be practical. He wanted to help Cloud... and wanted to touch him again...
Sephiroth stopped, and studied the thought for a moment, but found nothing untrue, nothing lacking. It might have been a strange impulse, and confusing, but...
//Oh, what the hell... why not.//
He half expected another rush, a surge of power when he first touched the blonde's bare back, just as it had been the last time... but there was only the feel of the rough, hot skin under his fingertips, the salve mixing slightly with a few scattered drops of blood... it was messy, yes, but that didn't bother him, he had done as much for Zack, and for himself, a hundred times before...
Cloud had tensed, was still frozen, though Sephiroth quickly felt him shudder under even his most careful, feather light touch.
"It stings, I know, but it will feel better in a moment."
Cloud did stop shaking, after Sephiroth had slipped his other glove off, realizing he couldn't tackle the job one-handed, that the blonde's injuries were more severe than even a second glance had made them out to be. The white-haired man tried to be careful, rubbing the vile-smelling, almost sticky mixture into the cracked, dark skin at the shoulder, the worst of the burn not already in the water, knowing it must hurt like hell...
"Why are you here?"
The blonde's question startled him out of his focus, and Sephiroth realized just how intently he had been working, trying his best not to cause any more pain...
//You sure are worried, about not hurting him...//
There was a question imbedded in that thought, but Sephiroth ignored it, kept his mind on his work, and on Cloud's query.
"We need to talk, about many things. I need to know, just what happened with the Cetra... with..." Sephiroth trailed off, as he hit a tender spot below the blonde's shoulder blade, and felt Cloud quiver again, fighting hard to keep from crying out.
"Your guess is as good as mine..." Cloud ignored the apology, his voice thin but steady, punctuated every once in a while by a slight hiss of pain, as he shifted the position of his arm inside the barrel.
"Can you hear them? At all?"
Cloud paused for a moment, as if testing the white-haired man's question, unsure it wasn't a trap, before he shook his head, just slightly.
"No. I can't. Not anymore."
Was that a blessing, or a curse? At the time he had done so, Sephiroth had been convinced the Cetra were trying to kill the other man... but now...?
//Would this have happened to him, if he had been able to sense them earlier? Was that power too much to give up, even with the inherent dangers?//
Cloud seemed to follow the train of his thoughts, his voice softer, losing its edge of anger, though whether it was a conscious decision, or the fury was just too difficult to maintain with the strain he was under, Sephiroth couldn't tell.
"They were trying to... they wanted to tear out my soul. To use me as their weapon, as a shell for their power. I don't remember all of it... but I'm sure that's what they wanted."
It was startling, mainly because of the way Cloud spoke, as if it were a logical decision for them to make, and that it didn't hurt him or frighten him to think about it, say it aloud.
"Why would they /do/ that?"
Cloud tensed again, though Sephiroth was almost sure he hadn't hurt him.
"I... I disobeyed. I wasn't going to be their mindless servant, and they knew it." Cloud shifted slightly, as close as he could get to turning without lifting his arm from the water. "What... I don't... Zack told me, that you... What did you do, to make them leave?"
"I told them to go away."
Cloud laughed, a sharp bark quickly accompanied by a few slight coughs, but Sephiroth was surprised to hear the sound anyway, watched the blonde grin, shaking his head from where it rested against the edge of the barrel, smiling, though he said nothing...
"Nothing... just..." Cloud sighed, still trying not to cough, "That's about all it /would/ take, from someone like you..."
//... someone like me..?//
/He never hated you. Cloud knew that wasn't the real you, just like I did.../
Sephiroth hadn't really believed Zack's words then, and didn't know what to believe in now, only knew that he had to at least try to find the truth, and here and now seemed as good a place as any. If he could catch the blonde still in his good humor, Strife might be more willing to listen... and he /wanted/ the fighter to listen, to believe.
"I'm sorry, Cloud." Sephiroth rushed the apology, knowing that he had been cut off before far earlier by the other man in this sort of conversation, that every minute he was given now was probably little more than luck, that the pain was most likely the only thing that had kept the blonde from just walking away.
"I'm sorry for what happened at Nibelheim. I'm sorry for what happened... afterward."
Funny, that it should be so difficult to say now, to think of the words, when he once had it all planned out in advance... funny, how being here, this close, with his fingertips still against the blonde's back, made his apologies seem meaningless, far too little, much too late...
A long, long silence met his words, and as it stretched out, as there was no reaction, Sephiroth was half sure Cloud was not going to say anything... and he didn't feel angry about that, not annoyed with Cloud's stubbornness as he had been only moments ago. Instead he felt... sad, as if he had been given an vitally important task, and he had failed.
//There's nothing more I can do, and I know it isn't enough... it isn't even close to...//
"I don't blame you, for anything."
Sephiroth was stunned.
//Zack was right?!//
Cloud turned his head, still resting against the barrel, just for a moment, watching him with those wide blue eyes, bright with pain, but earnest, honest. The blonde turned away, his voice a soft, choked whisper.
"You weren't the one... I know it wasn't... you, that you wouldn't have..." It was too much for him, too much to try and admit to and still keep his calm, and Sephiroth let him trail off, didn't try to force the issue.
In fact, it was strange, that though he had walked in with every intention, and expectation of a short, stilted argument, the white-haired man found it much easier now to simply push all his remaining questions to the side, allow so many of the specifics to simply fall away.
//He doesn't know what happened with the Cetra, any more than I do, and he /doesn't/ hate me, I should have listened to Zack on that one...// Sephiroth stifled another small grin, could see his friend's all-knowing "I told you so" smile clearly in his mind's eye...
//Only one more thing, then...//
One more thing... but maybe it could wait, just for a little while. Why rush this? Why should he be so eager to end a time when Cloud actually seemed willing to talk with him, to finish so quickly his first real chance to study the man who had become such a key part of his life...
//So... we're in a musing mood, hm?//
It /was/ a little strange, the sudden shift in his thoughts, as he usually wasn't prone to pondering, especially not this late, after fighting and a hard day of travel, standing in the tent of someone who was, at most, a highly tenuous comrade... standing, really, much too close for comfort...
//Strife... it's because of him.//
/It's either him or the barrel, moron. Now the real question is... why?/
Why was he staying? Why was he helping? It was a simple question to answer, on the surface. His assistance was, if not absolutely necessary, then very welcome, Cloud's skin absorbing the healing ointment nearly as fast as he could apply it. Sephiroth was glad to see that Roman had brought the man a large jug of water, that the blonde had been taking regular drinks while they had been talking, Strife not stubborn enough to risk dehydration.
The white-haired man's anger briefly flared up at the young redhead. If Ro had been here to give him water, he had to have seen Cloud's injuries...
//... and even if he told you he was fine, that's /still/ no excuse...//
"It's as if you're disposable..." he murmured, too angry not to let some part of it be stated aloud.
"It's not /that/ bad. This..." Cloud murmured, raising his injured arm a few inches, "this isn't anything, not with the way I'm... built. There are soldiers out there now, they're /dying/ from less than this. I saved them, I can survive... it doesn't matter."
Sephiroth understood the blonde's argument, and knew that, in reality, he had a fairly decent point, one the white-haired man would probably have agreed with in another time and place. It did nothing to quell his anger now, though, especially knowing that, though the blonde might have understood the reasons for being left to take care of himself, most of the other soldiers merely took his strength for granted, took /him/ for granted.
//I know what that's like... and I hated it...//
Once more, he was preoccupied by his thoughts, and his touch turned rough, burst a few of the blisters along the edge of the red, raw burn. Cloud strained forward, head down, burying his cry deep, until only a slight moan escaped. Sephiroth didn't bother to apologize, knew Cloud would ignore it, and chastised himself instead, making sure not to repeat the error.
"How's your arm?"
Cloud nodded, his head still against the barrel, saying nothing. Sephiroth only hoped it was a sign of improvement, wondered, as the blonde continued to slump forward, if he really /was/ all right.
//He'll be fine. Really, you've seen this kind of thing before... and he's probably just /trying/ to relax, doing his best not to think about it. Having you standing behind him like this, no matter how much he thinks you're not to blame... you are the guy who rammed a sword through his guts... it's /got/ to be damn unnerving...//
Sephiroth didn't blame him, and if Cloud thought the white-haired man was using this chance to study him up close, he was right. The blonde's lean musculature, the smooth curves of a perfectly honed body did meet an admiring emerald eye.
Sephiroth had been to a ballet once, some official function he had been forced to attend, to entertain someone who didn't matter... the details were meaningless, both then and now, but he /did/ remember the male lead, and thought that Strife looked very much the same, short-statured, but lithe and lean. The white-haired man had almost asked at their first meeting, and nearly asked again now, though he knew it was a stupid question... of course, Cloud had never danced like that...
The fluid, sculptured beauty of a dancer in that body, but the blonde held himself like a street fighter, a brawler, with a wary, dogged tenacity that never left him, as if he were constantly preparing himself for attack, knew the world was little more than a constant threat. Sephiroth remembered others he had known that were the same, with just that kind of dedication, mostly SOLDIERs with similar builds, not too big, not visibly intimidating, but who went into the fight determined to hang on at all costs, not expecting to win or even necessarily survive, but always to give as good as they got.
//Watch out for the skinny guys... they fight to the death.//
That kind of attitude wasn't something that happened overnight. It took a lifetime, to make such a man as the one that stood before him, and Sephiroth wondered, as he had a countless number of times, how he had /never/ managed to notice Cloud Strife, not /once/, in five years at ShinRa.
//Not strong enough for SOLDIER, they said, but there's too much of a fight in him for the common ranks, too much potential... I wonder why he never thought of becoming a Turk?//
Cloud sighed again, and lifted his arm halfway out of the water. It looked... very bad, like slightly charred hamburger, but Sephiroth knew twenty-four hours would find him nearly healed, and at thirty-six, there wouldn't be a sign that anything had even happened.
//Yes, but thirty-six hours isn't /now/...//
The white-haired man scooped another dab of ointment into his hand, carefully rubbing it into Cloud's shoulder, as the other man moved to allow him a better look at the last of the burned areas he hadn't tended to.
"It doesn't... hurt as much now... thank you."
Sephiroth stifled a smile at the swallowed offering, wondering how much pride it cost the blonde to acknowledge his help. Only then, as that humor faded, did he really notice how close he was now standing to the other man, having moved in order to better attend to the blonde's injured shoulder.
Only he knew, though, that when he eased another layer of salve into the skin of Cloud's neck, brushing the hair away, it was more to catch the feel of that feathery softness between his fingers, just for a moment, than anything else.
//... hello? What's this, then?// His inner critics were stirred into curious intrigue, if not exactly excitement, by his sudden change of mood. Sephiroth didn't bother to answer, knew very well what he was thinking, and had no problem admitting it.
//It's the first time I've seen him this close, for any length of time, when I can just /look/ at him...//
Pale, Cloud was too pale, and much too thin, but Sephiroth could fill in all those gaps in his mind... and when he did, when the blonde was whole and healthy, not injured, and curled up in the oppressive, dim heat of some tent, but standing free in the sunlight...
//He's very beautiful.//
Sephiroth knew Zack well enough to know the types of people he was attracted by, the characteristics of the people he would want to befriend... and Cloud Strife fit every one of those near perfectly.
//You barely know him... aren't we romanticizing this a bit?//
/No... I don't think so./
The blonde was... fragile, somehow, in a way Sephiroth could only dimly sense, but knew was true. It sounded stupid, to say such a thing about a man who had fought the war Strife had, and had fought so long /before/ the war... but it was there all the same, despite Cloud's cool exterior, or perhaps highlighted by it, the lie giving the truth even greater brilliance. Of course, Zack would have responded to that... especially since Sephiroth could feel a pull on his heart too.
//Strange, this...// He held his other hand back, from running it along the blonde's uninjured shoulder, in a move he knew would have been impossible to explain away.
The white-haired man wished Cloud would turn, wished there could be a moment for it, some way he could ask him to, clean of any intent. He wanted another glimpse, now, of the eyes he remembered so clearly... needed to see them again, to try and understand the contrast...
In his memories, the body was as it always had been, angry, unyielding, defiant... and the polar opposite of those wary, depthless, painfully cautious eyes...
//Well, aren't we in a poetic mood...//
/Oh, shut up./
Thankfully, this train of thought, if anything, only made him want to be more careful with how he moved, and since there was little less pleasant than slathering smelly substances on burned skin, there was no way for Cloud to tell which direction the white-haired man's thoughts had taken. The blonde was not watching, to see Sephiroth considering the curves and contours of the rest of his smooth, flawless body, or the slight smile, as he imagined running his hands along those muscles, and up through that soft, spiky hair...
... and the thought came from out of nowhere, that it would be very, /very/ easy to just bend over slightly, and kiss the curve of Cloud's neck, the soft, untouched skin just below his ear... just to see what might happen...
//Yes... and what would happen is that he would turn around, burn or no burn, and kill you... again!//
Sephiroth had to admit, the sudden, intriguing thoughts were a bit startling in their intensity, but not really all that surprising, especially when he let himself forget the particulars, and all the reasons the blonde had to hate him more than any man alive.
Cloud /was/ very attractive, in nearly any way that could be asked for... and then there was that wariness, the sense that he really didn't understand kindness, that little had been shown to him in his life... and it would be a delight, to show him, that the world could be light, not darkness, and more pleasure than pain.
//... except that /he/ doesn't realize that /you're/ nearly drooling all over him, after what... the /first time/ you two have had a conversation? Cloud Strife, remember?! Until five minutes ago, you thought he wanted you /dead/, and hell, he very well /still/ might. I think him finding out you suddenly want to jump his bones would most /definitely/ tip you back into the "hated enemy" zone, don't you?//
Sephiroth wondered idly if his voice of reason could be bribed away, for eternity preferably, but sighed to himself, realizing it was speaking true. The last thing he needed to do was screw up this possible alliance, hell, the outcome of an entire /war/ because of the unexpected desires of his illogical libido.
"I want to go with you, up to the Crater."
Cloud nearly jumped again, though Sephiroth was finding it more amusing than annoying now, how easily it was to startle the other man. He kept speaking, before the blonde could regain his composure.
"They're fine here, or fine enough, and if we both go, there's a better chance of punching through to the second camp..." he paused, still a little unsure of whether to say more, "... and I /know/ where you're going, Strife, that you won't stop once you get to the camp. You won't wait for Reeve to give the order..."
He trailed off, waiting for an answer, could see that Cloud was expressionless, gazing at some invisible future, leaving Sephiroth to wonder which direction he would take, how he would react...
//Angry? ... but he doesn't seem angry, almost... thoughtful. /I'd/ be angry, if a man who's tried to kill me, more than once, suddenly wanted me to trust him, and take him on the most important mission...//
"Why do you want to go?"
The blonde's voice was toneless, Sephiroth couldn't tell what he was thinking.
"I want to be there. I have to see..." The white-haired man paused, surprised to find that the words weren't readily available.
"I have to help destroy Jenova... and Hojo. He lied to me, they both did... I need revenge."
Sephiroth turned suddenly, at a cry from outside. Cloud choked on a muffled cry as he turned too quickly, looking towards the sound as well as he could with his arm still submerged.
"There's another attack coming..."
The white-haired man turned back as Cloud spoke, to see that the blonde had his eyes closed, seemed to be listening to something, his voice soft, searching.
//He can still hear /something/, then, in the Planet... and he didn't tell me.//
He was slightly surprised, that he thought the blonde had told him everything important... that Cloud had been holding back.
//Strife's just as secretive as I gave him credit for, then.// The thought, oddly, nearly made him smile again.
"There's... not many, I don't think... it doesn't feel..." Blue eyes met his, for another brief moment, "Go. They'll need your help."
Sephiroth nodded, set the jar gently on the table before moving away. As he did so, Cloud spoke again, the words almost lost beneath the rising uproar outside.
"... there's no reason, why you /shouldn't/ be at the Crater."
The white-haired man paused, nodded, then realized the blonde couldn't see it, that Cloud had turned away... head bowed against his uninjured shoulder, his neck curved down in a beautiful, smooth arc, just inviting a caress...
Sephiroth didn't need to look back as he walked away, the blonde's image still quite sharp in his mind... and he realized that, if logic did not make haste to intervene, things might become very, /very/ complicated between them...
//... and soon. Oh hell.//
Cloud heard him leave, the rustle of tent fabric, the voices louder for a moment outside, a slight chill from the night wind stinging as it hit his skin. He stood where he was for a long moment, making absolutely sure he was alone...
The strength went out of his entire body, his shoulder flaring with new pain as he sagged completely against the barrel, the rough wood scraping against his cheek, the contrast between the icy water and the oppressively hot room... half of him was on fire, the other half wracked with chills...
... and none of it mattered, it was /nothing/ compared to the way his mind had been thrown, how the bottom had just dropped out of the world. God, he was in hell... and it was so beautiful.
//He touched me... he /touched/... me...//
The tears came, though it hurt to feel them, breathing no longer sending spears of agony through him, but uncomfortable nonetheless, and that ache intensifying, as he lost control completely, and sobbed, physical pain robbing him of that barrier, between himself and his heart and the world, all his defenses torn away...
... and he could still feel the whisper of shadows, those fingertips gliding so lightly against his skin. How long... how many years had he wondered, had he dreamed... knowing, always knowing it could never come true?
//I don't...// the blonde gulped back a sob, wincing as it seemed to explode somewhere inside his chest, his lungs burning, heart pounding as if he had been running for days. //I don't... I can't... I can't...//
Nothing else mattered, but that Sephiroth was alive again. Nothing he had suffered, /nothing/ he had sacrificed had deserved such a glory... the world shone, only because /he/ was in it once more... that was all that mattered, all that was important...
//... and I can live like that... I can... I /can/...//
He had. For five /years/ he had given himself to that dream... but now everything had changed, and he had become trapped in the prison of someone he was not, a man he could not be, the cage of blood, bone and sinew that made him a general, made him a leader of marble, the supposed invincible with the heart of stone...
//He spoke to me... we... we /talked/... and he touched me... I can't do this... I can't...//
Cloud shuddered, tears stinging against still fresh wounds... The world was cruel, so cruel, even in its kindness...
//I'm not... I can't... and he'll /know/...//
Panic seized him, and for a moment he ached not because breathing hurt, but because he could not draw in air, memories of all Sephiroth's words coming back to him... and those final... that final request...
//As if he truly... as if he needs to ask of /me/...//
Exhaustion threatened to bring the world down, and as everything went gray, Cloud almost let it take him, wanting to escape, to hide as long as he could, from a world where he had to disguise himself behind another set of eyes, where Sephiroth had touched him, spoken to him, and he was so afraid... and it had been...
//... all I ever wanted... all I ever, just once, just once...//
... and he was so /afraid/... and he couldn't... the mask was slipping, breaking, shattered... and all it would take was one moment, one accidental move or gesture, one moment, mind and body working against him, and it /would/ come, for he could not keep his control...
//I love you. I love you so much. Please... please... you don't have to do /anything/... you don't even have to /look at me/... please just let me love you...//
One slip, one wrong move... and to face those emerald eyes, that gaze that could strip all his pretense away, to see himself reflected in that, /knowing/ already what he would find...
//... not good enough, /never/ good enough... I know, I /know/ but my heart won't understand, won't listen but I know what you are and how the world is... I know my place...//
... all his dreams shattered by a simple sneer, a laugh, or nothing...
//... he would do nothing, he would say nothing you are /nothing/ to him...//
Cloud knew he could live, knowing who and what he was, and what he could never be... but if he had to watch Sephiroth see that in him, if he had to endure that, to watch the man realize, and bear the crushing blow of that rejection...
//... not even allowed, to watch, silently, in the shadows... even that is too much... to be divided, forever... to be hated in his eyes, to be what I always knew I was, but to be known by /him/...//
It would shatter him in a way Hojo could only dream of. There would be nothing left, Cloud knew he couldn't bear there to be.
The tears subsided, sloshing around inside his chest without release, the pressure dizzying, aching, but he was too worn to even cry anymore. Cloud didn't think he would be able to regain his balance, but was able to turn enough to grab the edge of the barrel with his other hand, and his uninjured arm took the extra strain somehow, and pulled him back up to his feet.
Each moment that passed threatened to break him, each memory... how he had jumped, each time Sephiroth had spoken, and the way fifteen years of dreams and distance seemed like only ashes on the wind, how watching him had been nothing, /nothing/, and only the last few minutes had been real, the first real moments of his life, shaded in with colors his barely-sketched dreams couldn't begin to imagine... those hands on his skin, that voice, so close to his ear that Cloud could almost hear it inside of him...
Sorrow slammed hard against longing, that knife, always twisting inside his chest, and Cloud knew it would kill him this time, that he couldn't, /couldn't/ live like this, couldn't find an exterior of ice or stone or steel, /anything/ sturdy and strong to hide himself behind... not from such a man... there had never been such a man...
//Go to sleep...// The voice was old, its advice the same, following him from childhood beatings, to Nibelheim, to watching Elly bleed to death in the snow... //Go to sleep, and you'll be strong enough in the morning, to hold on for one more day...//
He didn't believe the voice, and had some dim, fading memory... of a battle... something important, that perhaps he should care about... but all he could hear was a roaring in his ears, and the heat in the room... inside of him now... tossing and turning as if he had fallen into the sea...
Cloud lifted his arm from the water... the burning heat at its core had mostly gone away... and he could move his blackened fingers slightly, though it still cost him in pain...
//Sleep now... it'll be fine...//
Stumbling to the bed, the blonde managed to brush his wounded arm against the rough fabric of his cot only two or three times, his back sending jagged spikes of pain rippling straight down to his heart as he lay down on his stomach, his face pressed against the small pillow someone had given him, charred arm dangling over the edge... Cloud watched it absently, as if it belonged to someone else, feeling the place underneath, near his shoulder, where he had been hanging over the barrel, scream in protest, very sore...
//Pins and needles... I bet tomorrow, I have pins and needles...//
Cloud soon found he couldn't move at all, was thankful he had gotten into at least a semi-comfortable position before he had frozen up...
//He touched me... he...//
Too weak to sob, the blonde could only turn his head slightly, stare into the hazy half-darkness, waiting for the night to sweep him away...
//The Crater... he's going to... oh god, how will I?//
/...can't... but I have to, somehow...//
/He touched me.../
Author's notes - good on crackers or bagels, great as a dip!
1. I couldn't decide whether to use the lyrics that ended up starting the chapter or some from "Every You, Every Me" by Placebo. <shrug> Both are fantastic songs.
2. Editing this under extreme influence of this week's Buffy and Angel... god, that was dead harsh.
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