A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 26

By Twig


Now you've cut out the flute
from the throat of the loon
at least when you cry now
he can't even hear you

~ Tori Amos, Blood Roses, Boys For Pele


Scent, rich and ripe and powerful, almost animal... an absent thought, completely disconnected, just /how long/ had it been since he showered? ... and he hoped it wasn't wrong... hoped /he/ wasn't, though the scent wasn't bad, just strong, and Sephiroth, oh god... Cloud inhaled deeply, that scent, so new to him, already imbedded deeply in his mind...

A hand carefully undid the buckle on his Mystile, and it fell softly to the floor, landing on his shirt. His pants came after, and Sephiroth didn't even bother removing his underwear, just slid his hand beneath the elastic and slid his hand quickly but masterfully along Cloud's shaft.

The blonde groaned, jerked forward slightly at the sudden, unexpected thrill of pleasure, but the cold wave that washed through him in the next moment took that away... and even the pleasure...

//... mechanical, the same as a sneeze or a heartbeat...//

... even that couldn't reach down inside, and wasn't that the point, to touch, to thaw, to fill up that space deep inside?

//I don't want this.//

Sephiroth's tongue in his mouth, the white-haired man pushing him back onto the bed, and Cloud followed, hands awkwardly fumbling with the coat that seemed to work against his efforts to remove it, until the other man nearly tore it off on his own, with a sigh that went straight to the blonde's quickly beating heart... Cloud swore he could feel the bare air against that beating muscle, as if it were stripped of flesh and bone and open wide, utterly vulnerable.

//... vulgar maybe, sodomy... but then again, we wouldn't want a repeat of that whole Elicia incident, now would we?//

Those quiet, unobtrusive statements were sickeningly jaunty, though Cloud couldn't focus on the voice as much as he'd like to, and though he knew it was impossible, it kept sounding like /his/ voice, so clinical and cool...

//Too soon, too soon...//

Sephiroth's hands were low on his waist, sliding the useless undergarments away, and Cloud felt a spike of fear, though whether it was at the still half-clothed man, or the Hojo in his head, who might have really been /himself/...

//"You'll get lots of dates, kid... just don't expect too many to call you back. You're too pretty."//

A soldier had said that to him, though Hojo's laboratory had taken the name away, right along with much of the past... and all Cloud remembered was that the man liked to tease him, kindly, not knowing what the blonde already did, about who he was, and what he wanted...

The other soldier had died, in an accident, but not before he had imparted that special piece of wisdom, just for Cloud.

//You're too pretty.//

The blonde's own mind could provide the subtitles.

/No one will ever love you... but you'll do for a screw./

Sephiroth kissing him again, and it was hot, and fast, and made his mind spin in a blur... but it wasn't enough, wasn't enough to stop that sickening pull of reality, or the fear...

//... too soon... I don't want...//

/... you'll do, kid. You'll do./

//I don't... not yet...//

/You don't? Well, you'd better tell /him/ that.../

The belt was gone now, tossed away just as his had been before, and Sephiroth was gloriously nude, the pale skin and muscle Cloud had never seen just as beautiful as the rest of him, of course it was, of /course/... and the blonde followed the strong lines of those thighs up like arrows... and blushed, or thought he had, though the white-haired man never made a sound, never laughed at him, though he been so stupidly shy, to turn away from such a natural thing...

//Coy as a little milkmaid, are we... I'm sure he'll like that...//

It was the cruelest those voices had ever been to him, and he was shamed... shamed, and didn't know /why/...

/One night... but you said you'd give anything for him to touch you... and dear, this is a bit /more/ than touch.../

//I know... I know, but I don't want... I don't...//

"Are you all right?"

He looked up, into surprisingly concerned emerald green eyes, found himself in Sephiroth's arms, broad hands with fingers widely splayed against his bare back, and he nearly broke down, very nearly flung himself into those eyes, and that concern...

//Concern? Get real... it's simple, are you fuckable or not? Decide.//

Cloud mutely nodded, quickly replacing the dumb gesture with a slight noise of affirmation, and made sure when Sephiroth kissed him again he did not pull away, did not shudder or make any move that could embarrass... humiliate...

The white-haired man's kisses were powerful, possessive and consuming, but the kernel of ice was burning coldly in the back of his mind, beckoning, and he could lose himself in nothing but it, only hoped his arms and legs were moving correctly, that he wasn't... wasn't...

//I don't want... I'm scared... I'm scared...//

He noticed absently that he was brushing the other man's hands away, every time Sephiroth moved further than his waist, attempted to touch him too low, too intimate...

/Either let him fuck you or don't, but stop being a tease about it. It's not like you've got /that/ much to offer.../

He didn't know... didn't know... wanted something else, not this, not yet... maybe, maybe someday...

//Yes, and in that imaginary utopia, we'd all be dipped in gold and dance through fields of flowers and fuzzy bunnies...//

The sneer burned like acid, and he pulled back, pulled back from everything, though he could still feel the blanket beneath him, and answer, again, as Sephiroth pulled away once more, murmuring a question...

//You're /so/ going to fuck this up... the easiest thing in the world - //

/... fornication, not for procreation of the species, but merely as a casual act.../

//dying... dying and I couldn't stop it, couldn't save you...//

//... make a good scientist...//

/If I give you everything... all that I am and all that you want, will it be enough to make you stay? It has to be, doesn't it... there /has/ to be a way, to give you enough, that you'll stay.../

//anything... if only you'd come back... I only live because of you...//

//You'd be a good lay, kid...//

/ - or not even that, and you /still/ can't manage... god you're pathetic./

Thankfully, Sephiroth seemed to know what to do, and Cloud was glad to feel that at least some of his body knew how to respond, nipples hardening as they were caressed, a groan in the back of his throat, as Sephiroth's shifting leg slid against his length once more...

He curled up the rest of himself, the parts that wouldn't fit, the pieces he knew Sephiroth wouldn't want, and pushed them back towards that cold space, pushed /himself/ back, and just let his body follow the other man's lead, matching those movements as well as he could, but feeling the ice move in, freezing him despite the heat, even though the other man's body was tense against his own... and he tried to be the same, feigning excitement with all he had, doing his best to be what he was supposed to be...

//I don't want... I don't...//

/I'd do anything to make you happy... /anything/.../

//I love you Seph... I'd do anything...//

/... scared... I don't.../

He heard the man murmur something, or perhaps it was only a change in tone of the roaring in his ears, and he must have responded... noticed he was on his side, and stayed there, stayed there and swallowed against the lump in his throat, and just waited for it to be over...

A finger slid into him, startlingly gentle, and once more the hot pleasure swam through him, and fought to dispel the cold. Cloud closed his eyes, clenched his teeth as that pressure increased, the touch did not vanish, and begged for that purely physical rush to succeed, begged that warmth and joy to take him... it /had/ to succeed, and he nearly screamed as he felt it begin to falter, sliding away no matter how hard he tried to hang on...

//If this doesn't work... this is /the last chance/...//

If he didn't do this right, if he didn't do it right from /this point on/, it was all over, /he/ was all over...

//... and do you really think he won't leave you anyway? You can hear it... "Adequate lay, but so /fucked up/ in the head..."//

He could hear those words, as clear as if they had been spoken aloud. Hell, perhaps they had. Cloud clenched his fist at his side, curling it at his waist, where it wouldn't be seen, wouldn't be taken as a sign of distress, and closed his eyes, just tried to keep his breathing calm and even...

//I don't... I want... I don't know... I'm scared... I'm /scared/...//

He flinched when Sephiroth entered him, but the pain truly wasn't much, wasn't anything compared to what he had endured, in the war, at the lab... and the thought struck him that this wasn't something to be /endured/, that perhaps he was wrong... but he dismissed it...

//Cold... nothing can reach... it /hurts/...//

Life was pain. Why the hell did he honestly think this would be different?

He tried to move, to give the white-haired man whatever he needed, felt the hand against his stomach clench as he rose against the thrust, but he could feel so little, nothing but the cold, filling up inside of him, carving away at his insides despite everything that he should have felt, and /that/ was the worst of all, the knowledge that this was what he had always wanted, what he always should have wanted...

The blonde could do nothing, could feel /nothing/, not as Sephiroth murmured something in his ear, a soft burr that almost buzzed against his skin, and Cloud felt him climax...

//It's over, then... all over.//

He would not cry... would not would not would /not/...

Frozen inside, somehow the drops that fell burned anyway, and he just tried to hide - God, he could do /nothing/ right...

The voice was a wild cackle from deep within, ready, willing and able to watch him fall, it had been coming for such a long, long time...

//You thought you could live through anything... you thought you could...//

/So live through this./


It was perfect. He was more than ready, and Cloud was so gorgeous, and they were alone, in one of the warmest, most comfortable tents in Icicle, secluded, with no one to bother them until all their passions had been spent, the absolutely best of nights, and circumstances...

... and it was all very, very wrong.

It had been nearly impossible, once he had touched Cloud, to keep his hands off the other man, the blonde's smooth skin so enticing beneath his fingertips, powerful muscles clenching against him as he drew the man near, and Cloud was willing, seemed very willing, not pulling away when Sephiroth drew him closer, much closer, or when he started to undress the blonde, taking nothing but pleasure in the sight of every inch of pale flesh he uncovered, all of it shaded by the pale blue light of those piercing, haunted eyes...

//Beautiful... Strife, you're so /beautiful/...//

A living statue's beauty, but with that wary gaze he transcended even the most perfect art, becoming something that touched Sephiroth's heart and struck to the quick, deeper than anyone had managed to reach, in a way that made him nearly shudder, made him almost hesitant to touch...

... but he did, and all thoughts of moving slowly, of taking in the blonde inch by inch left him, and he /needed/ Cloud, needed him /now/...

Sephiroth didn't bother to finish undressing the blonde before he began, unwilling to wait another moment, to discover if Cloud could, and would mewl in pleasure - somehow the white-haired man had always imagined him that expressive, his entire body showing his ecstasy - but as he moved down, carefully grasping for what he sought, Cloud murmured, bowed his head forward, and just as certainly pushed his hand away, pushed him off... but nothing more. The blonde did not step back, did not seem angered, but still...

//... what? What did I do?//

"I... I'm sorry..." Sephiroth murmured, taken aback, even more so when he received no reply. After another few moments, he very carefully bent his head back down, letting his breath stir the hairs at Cloud's temple, waiting for a reaction... and when there was none, when the blonde made no further movement away, he very gently kissed the tender skin on his neck, the side of his jaw, mimicking what he could remember, of the places the blonde had kissed him, because it had been breathtaking... and wondering now, as Cloud barely responded, why the blonde wouldn't do that to him...

Cloud did not resist, but made no special move toward him either, and would /not/ look at him, kept his eyes firmly to the side, on some invisible, distant point... what in the /world/?

"Is something wrong?"

"I'm fine..."

Sephiroth dropped a finger down to the blonde's chin, turned that glowing blue gaze to his own, surprised that Cloud /didn't/ look away, held his eyes, proving he was all right... Sephiroth could see nothing there to substantiate his worry, nothing that spoke of some silent trouble...

//Maybe he's just the submissive type... it's not like you haven't been there before...//

Sephiroth had always been the one to act, it had been expected of him, never said but always implied, and honestly, a large part of him /was/ relieved with how simply, how normally this was going... that Cloud hadn't done anything, hadn't moved on him as he had in the cabin...

Only a part, though... and no matter how much he tried to deny it, a sliver remained that regretted the blonde's inaction, regretted how rote and routine this already seemed...

He tried, ineffectually, a few more times, to rouse the blonde into some greater passion, into... Sephiroth paused, realizing he was trying to reach the same emotions Cloud had stirred in him the night before, the startled shock he had sworn he didn't want...

"Oh, Strife... the things you do to me..."

It was meant to be romantic, to perhaps spark some fire where his movements had failed... The strongest reaction he had gotten so far was still to be brushed away, time and again, each time his hands moved too low...

//God, /really/ submissive... I wonder how he even gets off on it... on /not/ reacting?//

Nothing... no response to either words or actions, and that was when Sephiroth really noticed the silence, found himself trying to slow his breathing, surprised by how loud, how harsh it seemed...

//Of /course/ it's loud, it's supposed to be... what the hell is /wrong/ with him? What did I do?!//

He tried not to get angry, wondered if there was something else, something he should be doing, as he could feel Cloud's hands on his back, those fingertips sliding down his back, and the blonde working to return his kiss, the thrill of excitement, as those hands brushed against his stomach, and a bit lower, almost tempting, almost...

... but something was /wrong/, and if Sephiroth focused too hard, he realized how rote, and routine it seemed, devoid of even the barest of passions...

//... but if there's no passion, then what is he /doing/ here?//

He had thought to spend all night with Cloud, unlocking all of the man's pretty secrets, all the power and life behind that fury and fire... and there /was/ something so seductive, about going to bed with a man who refused to admit, to the very last, that he found you the least bit intimidating, or even attractive... It was fun, it was passionate and exciting, but this... /this/...

//Well, it's what he /wants/, apparently... and you certainly can provide...//

Despite it all, he /hadn't/ been with anyone for a very long time, and Cloud /was/ so... God, even if this /was/ the way he liked it, barely moving, barely reacting, /silent/...

He wasn't too surprised, then, when a slight touch turned the blonde to his side, and Cloud made no other move... no doubt, if it pleased him not to react, he wouldn't want to face his lover at the peak...

It was strange, so very strange...

Sephiroth rolled onto his back, reached out and grabbed the tube of lubricant he had swiped from the medical tent, sure he was not the first or the last who had done so, wondering absently who else he might be able to find... anyone a bit more willing...

//... you could close the deal first, maybe, on this one, before moving on? Jerk.//

The slap from his conscience was sharp, and he grimaced, willing to agree with it, in this case...

//... and I'm not saying we won't see each other again...//

If he asked, he was confident Cloud would probably be more than willing to meet, for a few minutes here and there, when they just needed to feel the warmth of another person, a few moments of something more intimate than a battle...

Sephiroth smiled, tracing a glistening fingertip down Cloud's back before slowly, carefully entering him, slightly surprised, as he carefully explored, to find the blonde so tight, almost as if he had never...

Sephiroth dropped that thought immediately, as a slight moan caught his attention... /finally/, he had been able to gain the man's attention...

He was too rattled to try and make the best of it, still aroused but too shaken by the silence, too thrown to do more than ensure a gentle entry. Submissive and masochistic had never, in his mind, been drawn along the thin line that many others assumed it to be.

... and a surprisingly strong impulse, just wanted to get this over with... something was /not right/...

Cloud gasped again, as the man entered him, but there was nothing more, even as Sephiroth tried more than once to shift his position, tried to take the blonde with him as that desire grew... but the blonde did not respond with anything but that eerie, strange silence, and he ascended alone...

He remembered... remembered the blonde's kisses, that almost holy touch, so careful...

//I love you... so much.//

Whatever that had been, it lived now only in his memory, the person alongside him now was nothing, nothing like what he remembered.

"I don't care, Cloud... you're still lovely... lovely..."

He came, face pressed against the man's back, against those rippling muscles, his hand around that tense, tender waist, and pulled out soon after, but moved no further, happy to rest in the afterglow, nuzzle the blonde's neck as he moved a hand along a powerful, but much smaller thigh... such fragile proportions, compared to his own, but similar to him, too... nearly hairless, and more perfect than nature could have ever intended, the result of a shared past...

//There's so much he'd understand, that's happened to both of us... that he's been through... and /knows/...//

Cloud was such a beautiful, beautiful man... and the SOLDIER wondered, as he let the back of his hand trail down that pale, perfect skin, if it wasn't too late yet, if there was /any/ way to make this, perhaps, a bit more enjoyable for...

Sephiroth froze, as the body beneath his touch trembled, in a /very/ distinct way... and he didn't move, waited, and felt Cloud shudder again...


Sephiroth felt a flash of panic, he hadn't hurt...?

... but he had asked, hadn't he? More than once, until it had almost seemed stupid to question further? He had made sure, though, that the man wanted...?

"Cloud... look at me..."

The blonde shook his head, ever so slightly, his right hand fisting tighter where it was curled in the blankets.

"Cloud... are you /crying/?"

He could see the glint of tears, the trails glowing with a slightly blue hue even though the man had his eyes tightly closed.

"Did I hurt you? I didn't... mean to..."

//Why didn't you /say/ something, damn it? If I had done anything... I /wouldn't/ have...//

"No... no..." The blonde's voice was a choked, sodden whisper, twisting Sephiroth's heart even tighter inside his chest. "You d-didn't do anything w-wrong... I'm... I'm s-sorry..."

Sephiroth opened his mouth to answer, and closed it... and after a moment, turned away. If his touch had brought this upon the blonde, his comfort would do nothing to make it better. This entire night was entirely too surreal, even more so than the first, and it /completely/ destroyed that image, of Cloud kissing him, whispering that profession of love as a powerful, unbreakable oath...

//... even though he said my name, for him to act like /this/ now, when it's /real/...//

/All a mistake, that night, and tonight... It's all a mistake. You saw something that wasn't there, /wanted/ something that wasn't there.../

The white-haired man had erred... this was nothing but a horrible misunderstanding, and Sephiroth felt those bright feelings, all the excited, fledgling whispers, that Cloud might be /more/... he felt them die, crumple and fall lifeless, vanishing into a dark, silent void...

//He couldn't even /touch/ me... or let me touch him...//

The resentment burned inside of him, but at least it was better than confusion, or sorrow... this time, he had thought... when Cloud had touched him before, he had been so /sure/...

//Well, you were wrong.//

Sephiroth shifted where he lay, pillowing the edge of the blanket underneath his head, and waited for the blonde to cry himself to sleep, when he could leave before he was seen by anyone else, and this poorly judged mistake would never be known by the light of day.



Zack smiled, bringing his hand down, letting his fingers slip through the fighter's silky brown hair. He was sitting in a chair, in what had become the radio room of their outpost, in the ruins of Bone Village. He and Tifa had made it back safely enough, and settled down to wait for a call from Icicle, one of the very first they had been able to get through, to find out what was going on. Zack had made it through the message, but the fighter had not, falling asleep with her head against his knee.

"Tifa... come on, it's morning..."

He grinned, as the woman shifted her head, muttering a few words that sounded somewhat less than nice. Zack leaned back with a contented sigh, happy to be able to let the fighter wake up in her own time.

The SOLDIER hadn't been able to think much about the call when it had came, just listening for a few key words, "safe" and "Cloud" and "Sephiroth," and falling asleep before the radio tech had finished the transcript. Maybe it was selfish, not to care about the rest of the army, but Zack just couldn't bring himself to give a damn...

//I'm just one guy... I gotta care for what I can protect, and worry about the problems I might be able to change... besides, I can't exactly tease Cloud about wanting to save the world, if I thought I could do a better job of it...//

He flipped to the second page of the transcription, eyes catching immediately on the names of his two best friends. Zack frowned, quickly taking in the entire situation.

//They couldn't hold the plain... and the armies broke... and Cloud... disappeared? Caught in an ambush...// Hazel eyes widened slightly. //Seph... went after him?//

Perhaps he needed to read a bit more into the suspicions he had been getting... those quiet murmurs that refused to ever do more than hide in the back of his mind, nudging now and then...

It was almost too much to hope for, that Sephiroth might seek out Cloud /himself/.

//God, Cloud...// The dark-haired fighter didn't know whether to feel worried or excited for the blonde... god only knew what it might lead to. Despite his friend's iron resolve, Zack had always been waiting for the blonde to crack, to break down... keeping a secret like that, it was almost inhuman... impossible.

The SOLDIER read on, learned that the armies were forced to draw back, all the way to Icicle... how the Generals had come out after, returned alone...

Zack smiled to himself, though he was sure nothing would have come of any of the time the two men had spent together. Cloud certainly wouldn't have made the first move, and Sephiroth had probably been on "perfect soldier mode".

//I just hope he didn't snap at him or anything...//

No doubt, Zack would have to repair some small slight, when they reconvened at North Corel, would have to excuse something his white-haired friend had done without even thinking, that Cloud had, of course, taken to heart.

//Whatever it is...// he thought, running his hand through Tifa's hair again, her presence warm and wonderful, making him nearly glow with optimism and goodwill, //whatever it is, it's nothing that hasn't happened before... nothing I can't handle...//


Cloud slept like the dead, not a single stray thought stirring his deeply slumbering consciousness. It was the only kindness, perhaps, that the world could give him, that he dreamed of nothing, thought of nothing, not until the hazy morning glow shone gently on his face, and his eyes slowly opened, even as one hand brushed up against the blankets beside him.

Empty. An empty space, where someone... someone should have...


Cloud sat up sharply, staring blankly at the slightly rumpled fabric, horror slowly replacing the vague confusion, as the memories of the night before quickly returned.

He whimpered once, quickly slamming a hand over his mouth, though whether to stop from crying out or to keep the bile down that rose in his throat, he wasn't sure... It was reflex, the reaction, for all his conscious thoughts were too busy following his eyes, staring at the empty space on the blankets, where not even an /outline/ of the other man's form had been left behind...

How many years... how many years and he had never dreamed...

/One night. All you wanted, you said... and all you'll get. I hope it was worth it... I hope you can remember.../

Fear... all he could remember, was fear and shame, and the knowledge that he was clumsy and awkward and /not doing it right/... he hadn't wanted, but he had been willing, had /tried/...

//... anything to make you happy...//

No difference. Fifteen years of living that oath had made /no difference/ when it had finally been his chance to prove himself worthy...

The fabric beneath his hand was cold, had long been abandoned... and Cloud knew what that meant - /knew/ - even though his mind wouldn't form the words, and adamantly refused to move beyond the moment, to face anything that could happen after this point...

Cold... the whole world was nothing but that /cold/...

The blonde scrambled up, as quickly as he could, but still barely made it to the showers before he vomited. Cloud cowered on the floor of that cold, concrete, private place, reached up with a trembling hand to turn the water up as high as he could. The droplets stung, barely warmed above freezing in these harsh conditions. Cloud stayed beneath that freezing stream for a long time, praying for it to numb him to the core, scrubbing his body until it bled, until his hands ached from where he had to hold on to his arms, so tightly, to keep himself from falling apart.


Nanaki felt a moment of regret at the happiness that filled him, as he walked into the high tower observatory overlooking Cosmo Canyon. The feel of the clean, baked desert air ruffled against his fur, so much different than the taint of darkness he had felt in the breeze, even at North Corel. It was probably selfish to leave, but impossible /not/ to want to, when he could /feel/ Jenova's presence so easily, the itching tension taut beneath his skin.

The cat nosed open the door to the top room, sighing as he switched on the observatory's main chamber, raising the floor and darkening the room around him. Soon, he would have to return to his duties, as the leader of Cosmo Canyon... soon, he would have to decide, about Li...

"Hello, Grandfather."

The greeting was a mumble, meant for no one's ears.

"Hello, Nanaki!"

The cat /jumped/, leaping several feet into the air with a startled yap, landing on all fours with his tail high in the air and his ears flat back. The spectral Bugen, hovering on his green ball, only smiled, hands almost jauntily tucked inside his normal blue robes.

"You haven't been up here to see me in quite a while..."

The cat spluttered, looking around wildly, as Bugen simply floated past, looking at all of his planets in turn.

"What the... what... /grandpa/!?"

Nanaki knew it wasn't real, his nose told him so, picking up no scent other than the dust and ozone, the equipment whirring away...

"I'm a program... just like these planets, stored away by the real Bugenhagen, in case you should ever need any help I could offer. I'm assuming you've been doing well, if this is the first time I've been activated..."

The entire observatory was walled with electronics of all kinds, and certainly the computer had some kind of internal chronometer, telling this illusory Bugenhagen that it had been more than five years since anyone had set foot in this part of the observatory, or at least, had used it to its full extent.

"I'm sorry, Grandfather..." The image of Bugenhagen was so detailed, so lifelike, that Nanaki had a difficult time thinking of it as /not/ the man he had missed for these past five years. "It was... it was too hard..."

He had tried to go into the lab, just after the Meteor had dropped, when the Planet seemed to have returned to some kind of peace. The cat had /tried/ to go into Bugenhagen's lab, but it was just too painful. The other rooms, of course, had been used by many people since the man's death. Nanaki knew his grandfather wouldn't have wanted them to be a tomb... but the lab, the observatory itself was special, and all those in Cosmo Canyon treated it as such...

"Oh Nanaki..." Bugenhagen shook his head, speaking in gentle tones. "You knew I wasn't going to live forever. You'll outlive /generations/ of humans at the Canyon, you've always known that."

"I know... it's just..." How was it, that something like that could be a part of the problem? The cat sighed, hanging his head, finally giving voice to his real troubles.

"I found another cat, Grandpa. Li... she's... just like me."

Nanaki jumped again, as the sound of his grandfather's unmistakable laughter filled his ears... Bugenhagen had programmed his replacement /very/ well...

"That's wonderful, wonderful! I'd often wondered, if there weren't another tribe, somewhere..."

The cat stayed silent. It wasn't the complete truth, but he didn't know enough of the real explanation himself to attempt to convey it to anyone else, even if the 'anyone' was only a simulation.

"Yes... it /is/ wonderful... but..."

"Eh?" The image of Bugenhagen flickered, as the green ball swiveled to face him, and Nanaki found himself looking into his grandfather's worried eyes, peering out over dark glasses, every possible detail absolutely true to life.

//It looks so /real/... he acts just like Grandpa...//

Nanaki realized that he had unconsciously been responding to the three-dimensional projection just as if it had been a real person. He struggled with the idea for another moment, before finally just abandoning his resistance, prepared to pour out his troubles to the machine's listening ear...

//If Grandfather wrote it, he would have put a lot of care into it...//

"Nanaki... if there's anything you need to talk about..." Bugenhagen hovered close, as if sensing his apprehension.

"I've been with Li now... for quite a while. It's wonderful, /she's/ wonderful..." Nanaki was grateful he could not blush like his human companions, feeling the heat rise into his face anyway. "... but..."

The problem had come, within an hour of meeting her as Nanaki found himself close to asking her to become his mate. The cat hadn't said anything at the time, but the thought, the impulse hadn't left him. He had literally been knocked paws-over-tail by the surge of emotions Li brought up in him, a warmth and joy that hadn't left him once since her arrival... and they had gotten very close in their short time together, often sleeping side by side... and she seemed to connect with him somehow, fit with him, in a way he didn't think anything ever could.

"... but what if it's just because we're the only ones? What if she doesn't... and if there were /others/..."

He was wary, of such a strong connection so early, of how quickly he was willing to be with her forever. It didn't strike him until much later, that Li had never mentioned anything at all, and had cut through the worry by simply remaining quiet, all the while getting closer, reading things in him that startled even his introspective nature...

"I just want to make sure... I'm fair to her, and that I'm not just... I don't feel this way, just because I'm the only one..."


Bugenhagen had hovered down, directly in front of him, staring him in the eye. The cat knew the gesture well, and they spoke in unison.

"I think too much."

Nanaki sighed, shaking his mane out. "I know, I know... but still..."

"You don't believe in love at first sight, then?"

"Well, yes... but..."

"... and there's not some great flaw in Li, that you're simply refusing to see?"

"No! Not at all!"

Bugenhagen only smiled, and Nanaki realized his vehemence on those few words spoke volumes, that just getting the problem off his chest let him see how silly his worries really were.

It was the way things always had been... the way his Grandfather had been there for him, to help him untangle his thoughts, when too much contemplation had turned them into a muddle. The cat looked up at the image of his gently beaming grandfather, the end of his tail swaying back and forth with quiet joy.

"Thank you, Grandfather..."

"You're welcome, Nanak-"


The cat froze, as the image of the old man flickered wildly, static lines darting in and out of the suddenly hazy image. There were a few moments of interference, his grandfather's voice murmuring in a steady stream of numbers and computer instructions, electronic babble. Nanaki looked around, but there was nothing to jump on, to get closer to the figure...

//Not that it would do any good... he's nothing but light and air...//

Whatever had interrupted the program was having the same effect on the entire planetarium, and Nanaki watched as the planets all wavered and warped out of shape, the program struggling to keep up with some new input. His stomach dropped as the image of their Planet slowly began to dissipate, much as Bugenhagen had shown them during their first visit, fighting against Sephiroth and the Meteor... an animation, of what would happen, if all the Lifestream were to be drained away from the Planet...

It was nothing but a computer glitch, and the cat knew it, but still, there was something unnerving about the sight, especially /now,/ with the rest of the controls going haywire... and the eerie, uncomfortable feeling didn't leave him, even as the systems leveled back out, and the image of his grandfather returned to normal.

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure..." His grandfather's brow furrowed, as if concentrating, but Nanaki knew he was most likely reviewing the data the computer had collected, from whatever had happened...


The expression his grandfather wore now was completely unlike the old man's usual beatific calm, an exact mirror of the look on his face when they had been in the midst of the fight to stop Meteor.

"... this is bad, Nanaki. /Very/ bad."


"Oh God..."

Reeve slid his head into his hands, knew Melissa was watching him impatiently from the other side of the table. Cid stood next to the scientist, obviously trying to keep from lighting a cigarette as the tension in the room continued to grow.

"Just... give me a few minutes to take all of this in..."

The assault on the Crater had been a failure, and it had been nothing shy of a miracle that much of the army /and/ Cloud /and/ Sephiroth had been able to make it back. In a few weeks, once they had found a stable position - if there was one to find - Reeve had hoped he could call them back, to work on a new strategy...

//If we /have/ a few weeks now... We might not even have /days/...//

The call from Mideel had been bad enough, along with sudden alarms from other places on the Planet, mainly Mako reactors, responding to tremors and sudden fluctuations from deep within the Planet... /something/ was happening to the Lifestream... and it couldn't possibly be good.

"We received word from Cosmo Canyon a little while after the readings at Mideel... apparently they could tell that something was wrong there as well."

"/What/ exactly is wrong, doctor?"

Melissa looked no more forgiving than usual, though with one hand rubbing her temple, probably alleviating a headache, she at least looked like a /human/ scientific powerhouse... The thought was not as comforting as it usually had been... knowing that /she/ didn't really understand what had happened either.

"We knew this was a potential danger in the project from the beginning... It was always a possibility, and really, Jenova only had to change her genetic structure very slightly, for all our data to become useless. We were just hoping... that she wouldn't notice..."

Reeve couldn't help the selfish, stray wish that escaped, that Cloud still had the power, to know what was going on...

"The condition is seeming to stabilize... we think. Mideel lost about a third of their equipment... but from what they can tell..." Melissa paused, and Reeve braced himself.

"In layman's terms... and /this/ we really don't understand... Jenova's swallowed the Lifestream, Mr. President."

Cid immediately barked out a few curses, immediately, furiously lighting a cigarette. Reeve could feel the blood leeching from his entire body, couldn't come up with anything remotely rational to say.

"Is... is it over, then? Is it all... over?"

//Was the war for naught? Are we all going to die?//

Melissa paused for an agonizing second, before sharply shaking her head, tapping one foot in a slow rhythm on the floor.

"The readings Mideel's been getting are /not/ optimistic, not at all... but we've... /I've/ always hypothesized that the remainder of the Lifestream acted more as a barrier, than some way for Jenova to increase her control over the planet... As long as any portion of the Lifestream remains intact, Jenova hasn't won..."

The woman scowled.

"... but that barrier between us and her has been sliced in half, if not /less/ by now. We're walking a very thin line, Mr. President, and even if Jenova's control of the Lifestream isn't complete, there's no telling the damage she may still be able to do, given time."

"... and you've lost all the data, that we might have used to stop her."

Melissa bit her lip, shook her head.

"Yes, sir, it seems that way. We've worked some kinks out of the program since it's inception, though... We'll begin retransmitting immediately, as soon as Mideel is ready, and it /should/ take a little less time on the second run through, but replacing /five years/ of data..."

Reeve nodded.

"You have my permission... whatever funding you need, resources, manpower..."

"I'm borrowing the Highwind, then, for an emergency trip to Junon."

Cid's ears perked at the name, the thought of trouble anywhere near what was his, what he /had/ to protect.


"Junon? Why the hell do you need to go to Junon?"

Melissa cut her eyes toward him, speaking in raw, obvious tones.

"... to pick up our best specialist in the field, the person who's been central in our Mideel research thus far... the person who /designed/ the program that we're using..."

"Who's that then?"

Melissa's jaw dropped as she rounded on the pilot.

"That would be your /wife/, /Shera Highwind/!"


"... I would sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of havin' you near
"In spite of the warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats - how it yells in my ear..."

Elena's tenuous warble filled up the small room well, as the woman polished her shoes, her suit coat and tie hanging flat and well-pressed on the door.

"Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?"

Reno and Rude both hated it when she sang, and the blonde was the first to admit she was no Loveless... but sometimes, she just /had/ to.

It might have helped her case, and been slightly less annoying had she not been completely obsessed with a cabaret style, and so forced to put her voice through paces it could not possibly come through unscathed, mimicking old stars of the stage her mother had never let her imitate when she had been younger, superstars and divas with lifestyles the uptight woman hadn't ever approved of...

//Oh mother, if you could see your daughter now...//

Elena grinned, thoughts drifting back to last night, one of the very few nights these days that she, Rude and Reno had all been even /close/ to the right mood, and one of the even fewer nights that nothing had happened to disturb that, no new towns being annihilated, or armies going missing, or the Planet not pulled out from underneath their feet...

It had been a very /nice/ evening...

The blonde rolled her eyes, amazed at what she had more or less fallen into, completely unable to explain the relationship that she had with the two other Turks... not that she really felt the need to justify it to anyone, or even to herself. These were strange, dangerous times, and with the threat of destruction always hovering, always waiting with the dawn, it just wasn't worth it, a person couldn't afford to push any warmth, any connection, no matter how unconventional, away...

Elena tried not to think about it, how afraid she was, that she wouldn't make it through this war... if /any/ of them would...

//Don't be so pessimistic. That's Reno's job...//

"... But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin..."

Elena's smile grew, she paused in her work, dropped the song for a moment and let herself stare off into space. The blonde Turk liked Reno... /and/ Rude, and couldn't help but feel honored, even a bit awed at the way they had accepted her into their company. The woman knew she had worked hard to get into the Turks, but had still expected to be treated like a third wheel, a useless appendage... but she wasn't.

Fearing to ask too many questions, with Reno as lackadaisical as he was, and Rude always /so/ quiet, Elena simply did her best to keep her questions and thoughts on the future to a minimum, tried not to bother either of them any more than she had to, and simply let herself enjoy the ride...

"'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under... my...."

Elena's voice trailed off, as another sound caught her attention. Breathing, soft and ragged, but definitely /there/...

The woman's eyes narrowed, carefully darting around the room, searching out the source of the sound. She found him quickly, standing in the barest of shadows, though try as she might, she couldn't seem to focus on his outline, let alone the details of his face.

A sudden chill crept up her spine, a vague but unmistakable terror, but the combination of the rest of the room being fairly well lit, and the fact that the open door lay between her and the shadowy figure calmed her fears, demanded she be brave.

//Do you really think /Reno/ would run away from a /heavy breather/!?//

"I'm just shining my shoes, here, so if you're waiting for a strip tease," she shrugged the strap on her tank top, where it had been falling off, "this is as good as it's going to get."

No answer, no movement. Elena fought to shrug off another sudden, cold chill.

"Whatever, asshole..."

Her stomach lurched, as the figure suddenly stumbled into the light, one hand against the wall, as if to help hold himself upright. It still took her a few moments, there was something so /wrong/ with the man, as if the shadows still hadn't cleared from his face...


Anjele was panting, half-collapsed, but his smile was sickeningly strong, frightening in it's surety. Elena had thought she could easily be the equal of the man in a fight, if not much better... but now... somehow, she wasn't quite sure.

"You don't look... well."

He stumbled toward her, a single step, and Elena shrank back violently, more than she had expected to, instincts suddenly screaming through her rushing blood- //get away get away get away!!!//

"Oh, I'm /wonderful/... better than I've ever been."

Anjele moved then, faster than Elena could follow. The Turk gasped, tried to run, or at least to scream, but it was already too late.


Cloud felt fragile, paper thin, and wondered as he walked how no one noticed that he had turned to glass, was somewhat grateful that no one brushed against him, that nothing happened, absolutely sure he would shatter...

What was he supposed to do, now? What did it mean, that Sephiroth had gone, without even saying goodbye...?

//Oh, you know /exactly/ what it means...//

The blonde realized that, sometime in the last hour or so, his features had turned to stone, too heavy to lift, too much for even that stab of sudden pain to affect... and he felt lucky for that, that all the people around him were oblivious, everyone saluting, walking past with no idea that his insides had crumbled to ash.

He couldn't even /remember/, couldn't bring back his most precious images of the past, the wonder of what it had been like, to watch Sephiroth from afar... not even that sunny day, that perfect day, the dream in the cabin, none of it... it was all gone...

//... because you failed. Fifteen years, and when it was your turn, a chance you /never/ deserved, you... you...//

Cloud swallowed hard, for a moment sure he was going to retch again... but forced the feeling back, waiting for the ringing in his ears to subside, trying to pick out voices in the busy camp around him...

The war had been his refuge, when Elly had died, because he was /needed/. There had been no question, he was the /only/ one who could lead. His mind he had easily blocked away for strategy, for calculation, while his body had been discarded, into nothing more than a weapon, and between the two he had lost himself, just let all his questions, all his worries fade to nothing... not peace, but as close as he had ever managed to come...

Maybe there had been a time, before, for peace... He wasn't sure, thought there must have been, otherwise what was he remembering? What safe haven did he know, to long for it again...?

What an easy question to answer, or at least, Cloud thought, it /had/ been... The blonde thought he would have given anything, sacrificed it all, body and soul, to be encircled by Sephiroth's arms, to have those eyes upon him, in /any/ way...

//... too soon... I didn't... I couldn't...//

He couldn't hide anywhere anymore, inside or out. Remembering the night before, the feeling of Sephiroth inside of him, it broke down any chance he had at balance, smashed down all the walls he tried to create, forcing him to face it, forcing him to remember...

Cloud shivered, remembering the momentary thrill of heat and pleasure in that touch, and knew that there was /nothing/ that had happened that was anyone's fault but his own, nothing Sephiroth had done wrong, if the white-haired man were even capable of error...

//Nothing, but wasting his time on the unworthy...//

Another broken moment that no one saw passed unnoticed across his face, an agony that didn't exist save in the blonde's own mind... or at least, what still remained of it, in this cold, silent place, as he walked through a frozen, pale copy of the dawn...

//... I didn't... I couldn't...//

If Sephiroth would take him back, though, Cloud /would/... oh yes, would do anything, /anything/ to take this chill away, to be near him again, /anything/ to rest once more in his light... Somehow, that need had been misplaced by terror, but he /remembered/ now, remembered that he could not live without his love, his hope, his /life/...

/... it wasn't enough, I know, I don't know what's wrong with me... I'll do better, I'll be who you want me to... I swear... I swear... I swear.../

Desperation blasted through him, once more took his breath away, but Cloud fought it back, fought it down with the remnants of strength his memories had left him, knowing he couldn't face Sephiroth like this, that the man hated weakness above all other sins.

//... don't overreact... maybe this is the way it is, this is just what /happens/, and he never meant to stay until morning, no matter what you would have done. Maybe he /does/ still want you... maybe... maybe...//

Maybe Cloud hadn't made a fool out of himself with his tears. Maybe Sephiroth hadn't planned to leave anyway... maybe it wasn't over, it wasn't all over, and his heart wasn't a dead weight in his chest, a useless, rotting husk...

Cloud swallowed hard, trying desperately to keep his calm, keep his breathing steady... it would do nothing to lose his cool now, nothing but ensure defeat...

//I'm sorry... I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry... take me back, tell me what I have to do I'll do /anything/ please please I'll learn I /swear/ I'll do anything and I'll never complain, I'll never ever say a word just please please don't go don't go away don't leave me...//

Cloud felt each step he took on the staircase shudder, as he made his way up the newly constructed radio tower, no more than a few feet off the ground, but still facing a fairly short lifespan... the blonde could feel everything, smell the new paint someone had sloppily applied to the railing, breathed in too deep and nearly gagged again, hypersensitive to the point that it was almost unbearable...

//I can't... I can't do this I can't I can't...//

He did, because there was nothing else to be done, and heard the door creak beneath his hand, felt the slight poke of a few splinters from the un-sanded piece of wood, as he quietly stepped into the room. Cloud didn't realize that he was holding his breath, as he stared at Sephiroth's leather-clad back, broad shoulders visible over the top of the low chair. The white-haired man was looking out the window... and Cloud waited, and waited... but no move was made to acknowledge his presence.

"Sephiroth..." It took actual physical effort to leave off the "sir," as Cloud realized he had no reason left to feign anger or indifference, to try and hide what he felt...

... and he had never been the man's superior, /never/. The idea was stupid enough to be laughable.

//Please, God... please don't make him want to leave me, please let him be merciful... Just one more chance, please just give me one more -//

"How do the casualties look, Strife?"

Sephiroth turned, but did not look up, only shifted the papers on the desk in front of him. Cloud was stunned, but recovered quickly, the tone in the man's voice too professional to be ignored...

"We lost about a third of our ranks, but the remaining two-thirds managed to make it back without losing too many more, as well as keeping a steady hand on the supply lines."

"Icicle's doing surprisingly well, too... Apparently, if we don't move too close to the Crater, we'll be fine..."


It was a stupid thing to say, but Cloud could think of nothing else, no way to bridge... and the white-haired man still hadn't looked at him... hadn't...

"We should continue attacking the perimeter... I've gotten word that Zack's forces are doing about the same in the Bone Village area... I'll put in a preliminary report to Reeve later today, maybe they can come up with a new plan..."

Cloud didn't know what to say... this all seemed so strange, so wrong, and he would have walked away, if he had been sure that was what he was supposed to do, but Sephiroth had changed the rules, they had... they had... and what would happen now?

"Uh..." He cut off that hesitant sound, knowing the other man didn't appreciate indirectness, hesitation. "Sephiroth, about last night..."

"What about it?"

Cloud closed his eyes for a moment as the words hit him, and shattered him. The blonde stifled a soft cry of pain, rocking back on his heels, as the world fell from beneath him...

//So that's how it is, I knew it would be... I knew I knew I knew...//

It was simply the way of things, and he accepted that, but in the moment of silence that followed, the blonde could still hear the cracks tearing through his center, smashed in a brilliant spider web, right across his heart.

The white-haired man's voice was steady, if anything, completely unconcerned... but Cloud knew him too well, could easily sense the steel edge in the mild, professional tone, the implied threat of cooperation...

//... as if... as if I would /ever/ go against you...//

The rifts were deepening beneath his skin, splitting him open from the inside out... but he remained silent, knew nothing he did now would do any good, would change anything...


"I think it would be better, Strife, if we just both agree... nothing happened, all right?"

Cloud looked down, at the man who was too busy writing out reports to meet his gaze, too busy working to spare more than a moment, to tell him what he realized should have been so obvious... he was nothing, it had been nothing, and now it was over... over /forever/...

The blonde was sure his voice wouldn't work, opened his mouth expecting to croak out nonsense, his mouth unbearably dry, throat closed off tightly... this wasn't happening, he hadn't... this couldn't be...

"All right. I understand."

"Right then..." Sephiroth stood up, glancing at him, those emerald eyes like mirrors, and Cloud saw himself reflected in them, neither friend nor foe... just /nothing/...

"Perhaps... you'd better..."

A call from outside, and Sephiroth didn't even bother to finish his sentence, merely strode away, taking every bit of beauty, power and glory in the world with him as he went, leaving the blonde alone, in the darkness and the cold, with only the scraps of his dreams crumpled at his feet.

Very slowly, Cloud closed his eyes, and could feel the exact moment that his heart snapped in half, the intense pain swimming its way along every nerve in his body...

//... breathe... just breathe...//

He couldn't... fought for it, but /couldn't/... his stomach ached, and his feet didn't seem to be touching the ground... the room spun, he was going to faint, and Cloud shut his eyes tightly, swaying where he stood. Not even that wild vertigo could take away the screaming horror inside of him, /nothing/ dulled the edges of the pain... the future, the future... what future...? What could possibly...?

//Nothing happened... nothing happened...//

/Couldn't even fake it, could you? Couldn't even make the attempt.../

//You've always wondered... and now you're here... this is the end, the end of everything...//

Cloud sobbed, unable to hold back the muffled cry, but no tears came, and he could only shake, as his mind scrambled for assistance... -god please, anything merciful in the universe, /kill me now/- this was beyond what he could endure, so far beyond anything that he could live through and stay sane...

The blonde rocked forward slightly, tasted blood as he shoved a hand into his mouth, and bit his knuckles to keep from screaming, but the agony kept growing, tearing him apart, and nothing would stop it... nothing...

His heart splintered like brittle flint, the void it left behind hurting more than ever... and though the rest of him had been paralyzed, at least one voice could still speak, was still mocking him, screaming in a terrible, frantic delight that sounded only like madness now, and unbearable grief...

//Nothing happened, nothing happened, why are you so miserable, when /nothing happened/?//


Sephiroth walked away, dropped the mask of indifference just long enough to rub the bridge of his nose, try to dispel some of the stabbing pains he could feel building up behind his eyes, a tension headache he just /didn't/ need...

//Nothing happened... yeah, /right/...//

The SOLDIER tried his best, to console himself with the conviction that he had done the right thing, that Strife didn't need to deal with it any more than he did, that it was better if they just went their separate ways, and didn't...

... but God, perhaps he hadn't realized it then, but now, in memory... Cloud had been /breathtaking/ to admire, and heaven to touch, and perhaps it hadn't gone very well, it usually /didn't/ the first time... but it hadn't been /that/ bad... perhaps they only needed to work on it...

//Work on /what/? Get it through your head, /he doesn't want you/!!!//

If he hadn't made Cloud /cry/, if it hadn't been blindingly obvious that the blonde was just like all the others, and /not/ someone, no matter what he felt, or thought he had felt, not someone who could feel any more for him...

//Come on, Seph... you're not /that/ lonely, that you need to be this despondent... and you have to admit, the sex was really, really /bad/...//

Phenomenally so, he thought with a small, mirthless grin... and this way /was/ better, safer for both of them, as well as fairer for Strife. The blonde could never live up to the fantasies Sephiroth /still/ found himself mulling over, or the way he could barely hold back from touching the other man, even though he knew Cloud didn't want it... and that inexplicably warm, safe feeling /still/ rested inside of him with the memory of Cloud's first kiss, some surety in his soul, that the other man really /was/ more than he appeared...

//... but not for me, it seems. Not for me.//

The blonde had agreed, with an almost painful ease, that their night together had never happened... and somehow, Sephiroth knew, he would just have to find a way to convince himself as well.


Reeve sat with his head in his hands, long after Melissa and Cid had left. The pilot had still been trapped in a blank anger as he walked out the door, too bewildered to do much more than swear quietly every few minutes, utterly astonished by what had been revealed to him.

//I thought you /knew/, Cid...//

He realized he had probably assumed too much, remembering the way the pilot had talked about and treated his now-wife before they had been married, that angry neglect, based in the past, that sometimes seemed to border on abuse... but the ShinRa official had been sure that things had improved with them, now that they were married.

//Some things never change, I suppose... if /anything/ ever really changes at all...//

Reeve had once again gone from total, absolute terror, the surety of being able to measure out the entire Planet's future in days, to his usual attitude of restrained, quiet anxiety, always on the verge of a breakdown. They weren't dead /yet/... but it was /always/ a possibility.

//I need a beer...//

Reeve let his brain slip into what he had come to call "presidential mode," and began filing through the papers still piled in front of him, dealing both with the war, and more mundane matters back at Midgar...

//Reno might be able to take care of some of this. The Turks haven't been that busy lately, not with Sephiroth back and all...//

He pressed the 'call' button on Reno's short-range PHS. There was no answer. Reeve frowned and pressed it again, but received the same silent reply.

//He'd better not be drunk or I'll...//

Reeve pressed the button a third time, ready to track down the Turk and give him a piece of his mind - but not at all expecting the answer he finally received.

"We're a /little bit busy here Reeve!/"

The President's eyes widened in shock. Reno's voice was so tight and tense that it barely sounded like his, twisted into a near-scream, and Reeve could hear other voices yelling frantically in the background. Reeve immediately switched on the security camera's main screen, quickly flipping through each view, to find out where they were and what the hell was going on...

Reeve gasped, as Rude and Reno, and the source of their panic flickered into view, and his hand slammed down on the city's emergency alarm.


Reno heard the alarm whooping outside, felt a moment of relief - Reeve was good for /something/ - but never took his eyes off Anjele, or more importantly, away from the hostage in his arms. Behind him, he could hear Rude shift, remaining silent but radiating rage like a blazing fire.

"What are you going to do now, Anjele? The President's on to you..."

He couldn't help but smirk, felt the weapon in his hands give a satisfying crackle. The redhead refused to let the smirk drop, even as the man's hand curled tighter around Elena's throat, and she whimpered in pain, eyes still fixed on the gun at her temple.

"The plans haven't changed, Turk. Unless you'd like me to splatter blondie's brains all over the wall..."

Reno was honestly more concerned about the man's grip around Elena's throat than the gun, that he might snap her neck without even knowing it... God only knew what was going on, but something had /changed/ in Anjele, and he had suddenly become /powerful/... The weaker man shouldn't have been able to even move Elena had she tried to resist him, but the Turk could see the control in Anjele's grip, the strength, at times almost holding the blonde woman aloft as he moved.

//Damn it...// Reno could hear backup coming in behind them, but the North Corel hanger hadn't been built to house planes, and there was only /one/ real entrance...

//... and they'll never have the chance to surround him...//

Even now, Anjele was almost to his destination, one of the smaller planes that had been temporarily docked until the Highwind could accompany it back to Gongaga. Reno felt a stab of irrational panic, tempered by his usual instincts, his utter calm in the face of danger... but he did /not/ want to let Elena on that plane...

"Shoot... Rude... /shoot him/..."

Elena choked out a few words, before Anjele's grip tightened around her throat. The man's smile crackled, wild with scorn and violence.

"I don't think you're /that/ fast, Rude... unless my life really is worth taking hers too..."

He looked at them both, but addressed the man over Reno's shoulder, Rude still with his gun aimed perfectly at the sneering blonde, but they all knew he would not fire... /could/ not fire...

//Not at Elena...// Reno was face to face with reality, and had to admit that it mattered, that he /cared/ for the blonde. //I don't want to lose Elena, not any more than he does...//

Tears were streaming, involuntarily, down Elena's cheeks as she struggled to breathe, begging them with her eyes, for one of them to act, to let her sacrifice her life, and eliminate Anjele as a danger... God, they had come upon him by sheer accident, what was he doing, thinking, to use the Turk as a hostage...

//What the hell is going on?!//

Reno couldn't attack, and knew Rude wouldn't either, and so they watched helplessly as Anjele boarded the small plane, dragging Elena behind him. The redhead realized he had his teeth gritted, was waiting for a shot to ring out from inside, for the man to end her life now that he was safe in the plane...

"He still needs her for a hostage... otherwise they'll shoot him out of the sky." Rude murmured.

"They'll probably do it anyway." Reno murmured back, knowing in that instant exactly what he'd do... that he'd do just about /anything/, to save the blonde Turk from that fate.

The shouts of soldiers were drowned out by the engine starting, the plane pulling away... and Rude, silent, unshakable Rude was now screaming orders not to shoot, as Reno began interrogating the men, searching for a pilot...


Anjele threw Elena roughly into the co-pilots seat, quickly working his way through the start-up controls, jerking the plane roughly forward, and sending them down the runway. The blonde Turk coughed, gasping for air, unable to do much more than massage her aching throat and try to blink the flashes in her vision away. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see movement, soldiers trying to reach them, get close enough to fire... they wouldn't make it, she was sure of that...

The plane pulled easily into the air, rose quickly... the blonde man chuckled, and Elena winced, trying to get her voice back.

"They'll... knock you out of the sky, you ass." Elena didn't really care what happened, what she might goad Heidigger into, only angry at her own weakness, that she had kept Reno and Rude from taking him down when they had the clear shot... "This is a /military/ base... they'll blow up this plane the second they get the chance..."

Anjele only chuckled, did not look at her, though he was now flying one-handed, the other hand still with the gun leveled at her head.

"I doubt that... I don't think your Turk friends will let them..."

Elena gasped, as Anjele laughed louder and turned up the radio. She could hear Reno arguing with Reeve, the President yelling at both Turks to get out of the way. Her eyes widened, as all their angry words came together into a complete picture - Reno and Rude were in another plane, somewhere behind them, and directly in the line of fire?!

"Loyalty's a wonderful thing, Turk... I hope you realize just how lucky you've got it..."

He carefully wheeled the plane almost due north, climbing higher into the air as they sailed over the lowest patch of the mountains, Elena watching as the plains appeared beneath them, through the slight mist of clouds, listening to a few more angry words... and then minutes passed in relative silence, Elena trying to think of something to do, a way to overpower him, or crash the plane. If she went for the gun, he would certainly shoot her, and somehow he was no longer the man she remembered, some greater, unknown strength had possessed him...

The blonde realized, after a few more moments had passed, that the angry argument over the radio had long since ceased...

"Sounds like I'm out of range, hm, Reeve?"

Anjele murmured the words with another sickening smile, flipping on the autopilot. Elena scrambled backward, screaming as a hand wrapped around her wrist, nearly crushing the bone in its iron grip. The gun came up sharply, clipped her on the side of the head, and the blonde Turk stumbled back stunned, the hand still tight around her arm not allowing her to fall.

Elena fought to keep her balance, still reeling, as Anjele bowed forward, searching through a pile on the floor... He turned sharply, and smiled.

"You're a /very lucky/ girl..."


"Pilot... decrease altitude to..."

"Don't touch anything!"

Rude and Reno snarled in unison, ignoring the orders from the ground, tempers flaring as the minutes dragged by and they were stuck behind the other plane's tail, unable to tell if Elena was all right or even still alive...

"Should I try a spell, maybe? A Bolt or Fire might..."

"Aiming up here would be damn tricky. We could crash both planes... and even if we could ground him, he'll hold on to Elena until someone forces his hand... and she'll die."

Reno's voice was mild, knowing Rude knew it all as well as he did, but that they were both desperately searching for any kind of solution...

"If he hurts her..."

"I'm going to kill him /anyway/, if that's all right with you..." Reno muttered, eliciting a small, vicious smile from his friend.

"Pilot! Who is this?!"

Reno took the radio away from the soldier flying the plane, recognizing the sharp voice on the other end.

"Reeve... Anjele's got Elena."

"What the hell is going on?"

"We don't know... we found him using Elena as a hostage, trying to steal a plane... and how in the hell can he...?"

"Aviation was required in some ShinRa schools... don't ask me why..." He could hear the President sigh, but felt no compassion... he saw where the compass was pointing, and he knew that, if Anjele wasn't talking to them...

//... to be a Turk... always expect the worst...//

"Reno, he's not responding, and you said he had a gun to Elena's head. He's going /directly/ toward the Crater. Did anything else seem wrong with him?"

Rude winced visibly, and Reno looked away from both him and the plane in front of them.

"Yeah... something about him was fucked up... Rude saw it too..."

"We have to shoot him down, Reno. He might have taken plans, or secret files..."

"No!" Reno knew North Corel wasn't armed with anything that could simply damage the plane, that Reeve had every intention of vaporizing both Anjele and Elena.

"That's an order, Turk! Move your plane /now/!"

"Fuck your orders!" Reno snarled back, angry but absolutely sure of himself. Reeve was not his friend, or even his leader, really, and Elena meant more to him than nearly anyone else ever had... and he might be uncivilized, boorish, violent... but the redhead's honor would /always/ lay with his fellow Turks, /they/ were who mattered.

"Damn it, Reno!"

The transmission ended after that, for the President knew that nothing he could threaten or demand would change either Turks mind, that short of blowing them both up, there was nothing else to do...

//Maybe he will... maybe I just sentenced us all to die...//

Reno turned back, could not see Rude's eyes behind the dark glasses, but grinned as the man gave him a slow thumbs-up.

//In it together... all the way.//


Reno turned back at the pilot's cry, watching from just off the plane's right wing, as the cabin door suddenly opened.

"What the..."

Reno's eyes widened... as Anjele pushed, and Elena toppled out of the plane.

The blonde was gone in only a moment, even before Rude had the chance to release a strangled cry, no words, just a scream, and all of Reno's breath left him in a rush, his hands white-knuckled on the chair until a thought came, and he nearly screamed himself...

"Turn it around!!!"

He and Rude both rushed to the far window as the plane banked, pressing their faces against the tiny pane of glass, staring down into a patchwork of colors, with clouds stretched above the tapestry like a blanket of barely combed wool... beautiful, glorious... but they saw none of it, nothing except that Elena had fallen, would die there, somewhere in that beautiful, terrible landscape, that she-


Rude's eyes flickered across the empty landscape, sticking in bits and pieces of colors that caught the eye, and he was unable to uncover what had made the other man cry out, what Rude had-

//... there!!!//

Reno blinked, staring at a small patch of white, almost lost amidst the clouds... but unlike the fuzzy shapes, that one small patch didn't change its shape, and was edged in unnatural sharp angles...

Reno and Rude stared at one another, the exclamation quickly turning to a howl of sweat-soaked relief.

"A /parachute/!?!?"


//... mother?//

It was so difficult to move, the darkness pushing down on her with smothering force... where was she... what had happened?

/... your fault... you're on /their/ side!//

No, she hadn't, hadn't meant... but they hadn't seen, were too angry to realize...


The panicked scream came and went, bringing her one moment of some clarity, but nothing more, only the fear, and pain, and everything was still so dark... where were they, what had they done to her?!?

//Shh... you're safe, I'm here with you now...//

The presence was familiar, protective... Mother.

//She took him from me... I'll be /damned/ if she takes you too...//

Father... only one of many Hojo sacrificed to Jenova's glory, another soul that had vanished forever in her dark embrace...

//Mother... mother, I have to... the Cetra... Jenova... the Planet...//

//Rest, darling...//

The flower girl's strength was waning, but she fought to keep speaking, to stay awake, for it was too dangerous, and she couldn't allow... for the Planet's sake... and /Cloud/, oh god no...

//Jenova doesn't have the Lifestream yet, no matter how many of the Cetra fall for her seduction... It will be all right, for now... there's time... there's still time...//

In the center of the Lifestream, a place that still glowed with warmth and vigor, Ifalna spun deep green hues into a wall of protection, and held her sleeping, wounded daughter close. The woman kept her vigil with an iron will, watching the seething darkness roil and turn around her still safe haven, protected against the stormy black sea that kept rising... and rising...


Cloud woke, drenched in sweat, his heart beating abnormally fast, with the scattered fragments of nightmares dancing behind his eyes... darkness, the Planet screaming, pain and fear and confusion...

Disorientated, it took him a few moments to remember, even the very recent past...

//Sephiroth... and he... I... and we, and then...//

The sharp ache in his stomach intensified, sapping the strength from his limbs, and Cloud barely caught himself, planting one hand as his knees gave out as he rolled over and threw up. Thankfully, he hadn't been able to keep anything down, hadn't bothered after the first full day of vomiting, and had been reduced to simply gagging, wracked with dry heaves, and swallowing hard against the nausea as it subsided.

//... doesn't matter... nothing matters... not anymore.//

He got back to his feet, mechanically brushing off his dusty pants, rubbing his eyes a bit...

//It's really not that bad... like a living death, and if I just don't think about it...//

/the sweat... and sex... and shame.../

Cloud grimaced, nearly tearing out a handful of hair as he clenched his fist to his forehead, and found he was shaking, and there was wetness on his palm when he pulled his hand away, tears in his eyes...

//Oh, /this/ is good...//

He stumbled away, needing to be around people, /anyone/, seeking the outside distraction of others that could force up his walls, could help him pretend some of the pain had gone away, protect himself... though he knew, too well, that there wasn't anything really worth protecting anymore.


"... so going to open up a pizzeria." The soldier took another swig of his early-morning breakfast, though if one had been awake nearly all night, god only knew what truly constituted "breakfast".

"After all this, I'm gonna find me a sweet girl and get a construction job in Midgar... there's gonna be some excellent money in /that/, you just see..."

Roman nodded, paying only half an ear to the hopes and dreams of the other soldiers, trying to rest a bit, with his back against the earthen barrier that had been hastily constructed, for what was sure to be a more permanent camp soon.

Restore materia had been few and far between in the camp, and nearly useless even when it was available, the normally fragile Cure spells abnormally fickle now, able to do no more than heal light surface wounds most of the time. His broken limb still ached, resting uselessly in the sling, but Roman could still use his other arm to shoot, and had been mainly positioned as a sniper in the last few battles...

//No choice, I have to fight. We need all the men we can get... in whatever shape they come in.//

It had been a fairly quick decision, to take the leap to the Crater in smaller steps, and they were the first wave of that strategy, to slowly make their way to the base of the valley, set up a camp from which to plan a more thorough attack... Hell, maybe they'd even be able to recruit the Highwind to help, as Hojo's control of the skies seemed much less complete than it had been in the past...

Yes, the redhead thought, it wasn't a bad plan...

//Except... for /him/...//

All noise, all motion stopped as The General came around the corner. Roman looked up, preparing to leap to his feet with a salute, but froze, absolutely stunned...

His commander looked like death. The closest the redhead had ever seen to someone in the blonde's place were the soldiers he had witnessed in the military hospitals in Cosmo Canyon, gone completely mad with grief after losing their squadrons, their towns and families...

The blonde man looked, if anything, /worse/ than he had after he had returned without General Elicia, and Ro had been certain things could not possibly get /that bad/ again.

Yes, The General hadn't been eating, and yes, a few moments ago was the first time he had found the man sleeping, though it seemed more that he had passed out than anything, sitting against the far edge of a slight hill...

It seemed silly to admit it now, but Ro had even paused for a moment, a few steps away, watching to make sure the man was still /breathing/...

"Uh... sir..." Roman finally scrambled to his feet, saluting with his good hand. He nearly flinched, as that glowing gaze locked with his for a moment, and he found himself looking into mirrors, The General's gaze flat, lifeless, and even this close, seeming to look /through/ him...

One of the soldiers still sitting behind the redhead tried to save him, as the silence stretched out, and the discomfort rose.

"We were just talking over plans... for once the war ends. What are you going to do, sir?"

Cloud didn't blink, and his voice, low, soft and gravelly, was still as sharp as a blade.

"What makes you think the war is ever going to end?"

Dead silence reigned supreme. Roman shifted where he stood, tried to swallow the sudden lump in his throat without attracting The General's attention... oh yes, if there had ever been any doubt, there was /most certainly/ something /very/ wrong now...

"Gemini... I need you to call the ninth and tenth, tell them to get ready..." Cloud's eyes scanned the horizon, his voice calm, level, utterly emotionless... "We're setting up another attack run..."

"... b-but sir... we already ran one..."

It wasn't exactly the truth, as the ninth and tenth /hadn't/ gone out yet, but Roman couldn't say what he was thinking.

//Sir, /you/ already ran one... you've run them /all/ so far...//

"Do you have a problem with my orders, soldier?"

The General's voice was still blank, completely neutral, as if he really didn't even care what the answer was. Roman soon discovered this was the case, as Cloud walked away from him in the middle of his reply.

"N-no... sir."


It was amazing, really. Cloud had been sure living through the loss of his town, the loss of Sephiroth was impossible, and with every breath he took in Hojo's lab, he was sure it would be his last... The final confrontation, cutting down Sephiroth to stop Meteor and save a Planet that held nothing left for him but pain, it was almost comic, as if life had seen the worst that it could throw at him, and had given it to him with both barrels, holding nothing back.

So much, so much in his life, that he was sure he couldn't live past, one idea or another certain to be the one that broke him... but it never was, it /never/ was... The mind was, ultimately, the slave of the body, and no matter how much he wished and willed, his heart kept beating...

It was the worst torture imaginable, that even Sephiroth's rejection hadn't been enough to finish him for good.

//Stop... just /stop/. It's over... just let me die... let it stop hurting... /please/...//

So easy, it should have been so /easy/, what was it, four ounces of water in the lungs, one hiccup in the rhythm of his heart, a little too much blood loss, the wrong slice at the wrong vessel opening up a vein... or nothing, nothing at all that could be named or understood, but simply happened, an end come sweetly in the night, like a gift...

Not for him. Never for him. The same things that made him repulsive, untouchable in the eyes of humanity did the same to death, and it would have nothing to do with him anymore. The universe had rejected him, he belonged nowhere, with no one... not to the Planet, or time, or life...

Cloud lifted his head from his hands, wiping his eyes absently as he scanned the still-naked horizon. The enemy was out there, he was sure... Hojo would never stop coming...

//... and I don't care anymore.//

The blonde was not empty, not by any means, but full up with a pain that overflowed... and it would for the rest of his life.

//A long, long life...//

He had cried more tears than he thought possible, in the spaces between battles, still keeping his distance, holding his grief as tightly as he could, his only companion for so long that even it's frozen, painful touch was almost a kindness... Better to have that familiar agony than nothing... nothing at all...


Cutting off the name did nothing, just its phantom presence sent him back over the edge, into shaking sobs he could not control, only dimly aware of the world, the fight, /anything/...

Eventually Cloud got himself under control, surprised to see the morning edges of dawn, tinting the snow with a pale, dusty light...

//It was dusk... moments ago... I wonder... what day it is?//

He immediately dropped the question, knowing it was unimportant. Days were nights, nights were days, and none of it mattered. He did not sleep, not anymore, and ached so bad inside that even Hypers would not stay down, not that he really needed them, not with his memories to keep him company. Of course, there was still the war, /always/ the war, and he was the General, unbreakable, unbending...

//Shattered... broken... gone...//

It didn't matter if he went to the Crater anymore... the voices of the Planet crying out in his head had long been drowned out by his own screams, his own pain. He knew something had happened, could hear it, but kept that fact at a distance, didn't bother... didn't care.

He prayed for death, came out of the blurry world he had fallen into, each time the edge of his sword blocked an enemy's blow, praying for some lucky strike, some impossibility to send the claws through his body, waiting for the gentle, horrible pain, the feel of shrapnel tearing him to pieces... anything so that he could feel his last breath shudder, catch in his throat, anything to take the knowledge of his failure away...

... the pressure of that body against his, so warm, so powerful, and only his hands had broken the dream, /he/ had failed...

//Unworthy... I /knew/... if only you would have asked...//

It was dark again... it had always been dark, and the war went on... and on...

//... forever and always, amen.//



Roman leapt over the barricade, his broken arm banging painfully against his chest, taking in huge gasps of air as the soldiers in the trench behind him lay down cover fire. It was hard to tell, in the smoky half-darkness of twilight, just what the hell it was they were fighting, and the redhead had absolutely no intention of letting any of the /things/ attacking them get close enough to find out.

//Fast... and they can shoot burning plasma balls, at least, I /think/ that's what those are... Damn you Hojo, can't you do something /normal/, just /once/?!//

An explosion just over his head nearly deafened him, though he still felt a body drop next to his in the aftermath, and realized he had his gun out and pointed as a gut reaction, without even realizing he had done so... and that the man in his sights was The General. If the other man even noticed, he made no sign, immediately turning his eyes back toward the line.

"We can't let them push us back... we have to hold the line..."

The General's voice was eerily flat, unconcerned, especially with the battle raging all around them.

"There's too many of them, sir..." Ro flinched as another plasma ball soared over their heads, much too close for comfort. "We can pull back to-"

"Then pull back, Roman. I'll take care of it."


Ro didn't have a chance to blink, before the other man was gone. The redhead didn't bother to think, and simply scrambled out of the trench after him.

//Something's wrong... something's /really/ wrong...//

Whatever was wrong, it certainly hadn't affected The General's fighting style. Roman had his pick of enemies to drop from a distance, as Cloud Strife cut down anything that dared to step in his path, carving a wide swath of destruction as he ran directly down the center of the battlefield. The redhead wasn't exactly sure why he was following, why he had leapt into this insane position, with almost no cover... and he could tell, by the plasma balls that flew closer, more quickly overhead, that the monsters had noticed Cloud's sudden attack pattern, and were training their sights on him...

//This is crazy... this is /madness/...//

It had been nearly a week since they had left Icicle, and though Cloud pushed the army no harder than usual, was not sharp or angry with any of them...

//I can't believe I'm saying it, but he's actually /more/ cold then he ever was...//

Things were the worst they had ever been, and the redhead would easily admit that he had seen them pretty bad before. The General flowed from one squadron to the next, leading attack after attack, often ready to bring up the next charge before the men from the prior had even fully returned. Roman had not seen his commander rest after that first quick patch of calm, and had never seen him eat.

//I don't see him all the time... but I'm sure... I'm /sure/ he's not... and this just isn't /right/.//

The General's eyes had frightened him the most. That glowing gaze had always been sharp, unyielding and /never/ easy to meet... but looking at him now was next to impossible, his eyes flat like glass, and so /empty/...

//It's like he's reacting, not even thinking, and just /reacting/... even /now/...//

The ground shuddered, as one of the creatures pounded forward out of a cloud of smoke. Roman could see, in the slight glow of /something/ burning, that these creatures had long necks like snakes and sharp, glittering eyes, once again truly an original creation. Roman assumed they were most likely fast, and maneuverable, but also knew that /nothing/ could slow the General's blade, and watched as Cloud leapt high into the air, splitting the creature in two as the massive blade fell... but not before the monster lashed back.

The General did not make a sound, and for a moment Roman thought the beast had missed... until he saw blood staining the back of the other man's uniform, Cloud swaying slightly, dropping his hand towards his chest and lifting up blood-stained fingertips. Ro was shocked, but a dim blue light quickly seized his attention, his head whipped to the side, where another creature had The General in his sights, was charging a ball of plasma, crackles of electricity arcing around the blue ball building at the end of its tail.

"Sir!!! Look out!!!"

Cloud turned, following his warning... and Ro gasped, as his commander did /nothing/... didn't attack, or prepare to dodge, but stood there...


Roman thought it was impossible to be stunned twice, but found he was wrong, as he watched in bewildered amazement, as a smile stretched beneath those dead, glowing eyes, The General's gaze fixed on his approaching death.

Ro lunged, still not completely sure why, the litany pounding through his mind with every step he took, that he wasn't going to make it in time, that he /wasn't/ a SOLDIER, and was probably doing nothing more than making sure they /both/ got killed...

//If I can just... shove him out of the way... he's more important, The General /has/ to survive!//

Out of the corner of his eye, Roman saw the moment the creature lashed its tail back, and snapped it forward, releasing its missile, the ball of blue-white filling more and more of his field of vision as it hurtled toward them. After that, the redhead ignored it all together, planting one foot and ramming his good shoulder right into The General's side, sending them both tumbling...

He felt a blast of intense heat, smelled the ozone and underlying chemical sting...

//... didn't make it didn't make it didn't make it...//

... electricity, crackling sharply, and even with his eyes closed Ro could tell it was close, /too/ close...

//gonna die gonna die gonna die...//

A spell went up, Ro felt it fill the air, but couldn't quite figure out what it was as his breath went out of him in a rush. He realized Cloud had hit the ground before him, and was holding his broken arm, cradling him as they fell, to keep the injury from getting any worse... and only /then/ did he realize the blonde man had cast a Wall spell, saving both their lives as the plasma ball exploded harmlessly above them...

The two men slid along the ground for a few feet, pushed further by the impact of Cloud's spell against the barrier... Roman heard the pounding footsteps, the monster that had launched the projectile now charging them, to finish the job. The soldier started to get to his feet, but Cloud's arm restrained him...

"Don't move..."

Roman shut his eyes again, as Cloud's arm lifted up, over his head, and he felt the slight pull of power, heard another electric crackle... a sudden, brilliant flash...

The soldier wasn't sure /what/ exactly The General fired at the monster, but as he scrambled to his feet, a few moments after the blast, there was no sign that the monster had ever even /been/, no blood or body, nothing except for a patch of slightly charred earth.

"You shouldn't have done that, Gemini."

Roman flinched, turned slowly to face his commander as he realized what he had done. The low voice scared him, but not keeping him from remembering, /why/ he had done what he had... He could still see the place Cloud had been hit, the stain of blood on his uniform, but couldn't tell if The General even felt it, or cared.

"Sir...s-sir, I'm sorry, but it looked like you weren't..."

"I wasn't."

Roman's eyes widened, and this time he could not help but meet his commander's gaze... and the eyes that looked back at his weren't flat, weren't emotionless, but weary, filled with a hunger and sorrow and pain that stabbed deep at the redhead's insides... /this/ show of emotions, from an emotionless man, someone who hadn't broken down through the entire Wutai campaign...

//I can't... I shouldn't ask... he'd /never/... never confide in me...//

... but he had to try, he /had/ to... Roman /knew/ something was terribly wrong...


"Get back to the camp. Tell the second and the fourth cavalry to meet me a mile-and-a-half west of here... We can intercept them there, keep them scattered and moving /away/..."

"... and then what will you do, sir?" Roman's voice was soft, he knew he was treading dangerous ground, especially as Cloud did not answer. He bowed his head, too afraid to look up. "What will you do after that... or tomorrow?"


All the pain in those eyes lay in that voice, resting quietly, devoid of hope or longing, not even attempting to search for a better place, a kind, warm world that simply did not exist.

"Maybe, with you gone, Ro, I won't have to worry about any more tomorrows..."


Roman swore it took him no time at all, to look up again, but The General was nowhere to be seen.


"Sir? Can I help you sir?"

"Yeah, you can..."

The radio technician blinked in surprise, as Roman walked into the tent. It had taken the man three hours to make it back to the main camp, stumbling through the mud and snow until he was liberally covered, head to toe in muck... but Ro barely noticed, all his concentration on only one task, on gathering the courage...

//... don't you dare don't you dare this is /not/ your problem...//

/If I don't.../ Even without the words, the look on The General's face had been all to clear. /If I don't do something now, he'll die./

Roman had seen sorrow, despair and loss tear apart some of the strongest soldiers he had ever known, and even if Mako had made his commander greater than a normal man, the redhead knew it could not cauterize all wounds, not if The General had looked at him like /that/.

"I need to make a call... alone."

The tech quickly nodded, and left him. Ro sat down in front of the transmitter, but couldn't bring himself to leap into action, spent a few moments simply staring into space. The redhead knew he had to face the situation head on... if he hesitated, if he refused...

//This isn't something you can handle... but /someone/ has to know...//

Roman sighed, reached up, and fiddled with the dials, praying even through his fear and apprehension that the signal would be strong enough, that it would get through...

"Hello... hello..."

Static. The redhead twisted the knob back, listening for any sign...

"Hello... hello?"

A slight burst. He barely touched the knob, and the reply sprung to life.

"... receiving you, Icicle Two... over?"

Roman closed his eyes, knowing that from this point there was no turning back, fully aware that, for all he knew, he could be making the problem worse...

//... do what you think is right... that's all you /can/ do.//

"I need to speak to General Zack immediately. Tell him it's an emergency... that it's about The General."





Author's notes - oh dear, I've run out of clever comments

1. "Blood Roses" is a fantastic song. If you don't listen to Tori Amos, you really should, she's a force of nature.

2. Thanks to all my real early betas, you know who you are. You're the only thing that kept this entire fic from being chucked in the trash on this chapter. : )

3. Elena's singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Cole Porter... actually kind of an ironic choice <grin>

4. Thanks to all the reviewers out there. I don't know what else to say but thanks. I look forward to opening my mailbox every day because of you all. Your support's brought me all this way, and I'm truly grateful for it. : )

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