A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 28

By Twig


Lonely rivers flow
To the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh
Wait for me, wait for me
I'll be coming home
Wait for me
Oh, oh my love
Oh my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long and lonely time
~Righteous Brothers, "Unchained Melody"
(as performed by Sarah McLachlan)


Cloud dreamed.

In this most beautiful dream, he had his face pressed close to bare, smooth skin, nestled between a pair of powerful shoulder blades, arms wrapped tightly around a warm body that had relaxed against his own.

The world was still, silent, but the blonde couldn't help tightening his grip slightly, unsure of why it almost seemed wrong, this peace, this happiness... as if there had been a time when it would have been impossible... and he murmured softly in sudden unease, touched by a wisp of memory he shrank away from, of shining steel, fire, and terrible, unimaginable loss...

The blonde man dismissed it after a moment, nuzzling against those strong muscles with a sleepy smile, so /happy/... and the body against his was sold, very real and utterly /flawless/... this was /right/, and it was where he belonged...

A rumble of laughter, and his grip loosened as the figure turned to face him, drawing him into an embrace of its own, murmuring a few words he didn't quite have the strength to reach for, but that washed over him like waves, and Cloud knew he was safe, held in the swell of that warm, peaceful sea... this was /everything/... everything that had ever mattered...

Cloud gave up to the touch, gentle hands running through his hair, carefully tracing the dips and curves of the muscles in his arms... light kisses against his brow, along the curve of his neck... and he pulled closer, reveling in the gentle affection, so happy to feel those lips against his own... and the dream gently wrapped itself around him, murmuring words that his heart drank in, nothing but kindness... white silk brushing lightly against his cheek, sliding between his fingers, skin pressed against skin, or the softest of fabrics... heaven, and he never knew the moment when he was even too tired to dream, and drifted back into welcoming oblivion...



Nothing. The dark-haired man didn't even budge. Tifa bent down closer to the low cot, her voice a cautious hiss.


The general had returned to the camp hours ago, though no one had thought to inform her, and now that Tifa had finally tracked him down, she was angry. The dark-haired man had told her to stay, and so she stayed. He had said he would take care of it, and she trusted him, but now the fighter needed answers, needed to know what had happened... just as Zack had called it an early night.

"Zack!? What happened? Is Cloud all right?! /Wake up/!!!"

The SOLDIER slept on, utterly oblivious to her increasing anxiety. Tifa reached out, cautiously, and nudged his shoulder. The nudge quickly turned into a shove, and a harder shake, the brunette scowling as Zack started to snore... much too loudly to be real.

"I know you're faking! You can hear me, so stop kidding around!"

The brunette watched blankly for a moment as one muscular arm came up slowly, waving clumsily behind his back... and she realized the man was looking for his sword, to try and get rid of whatever was disturbing his sleep.

"Oh ha ha, /very/ funny... damn it Zack, I /hate you/!"

Tifa finally gave up trying, and sat down hard beside the bed, listening to Zack choke on his laughter. Weary, dark eyes finally turned up toward her, though the dark-haired man didn't lift his head from the pillow, and Tifa felt a moment of regret... he may have been teasing her, but his exhaustion was very real.

"It's good to see you again." He murmured, smiling warmly. Tifa kissed him gently, felt his hand settle, resting in her hair as he pulled her closer... and for a while, there was no need for words between them.

"Zack..." Tifa murmured, finally pulling away, her head resting on the edge of the bed, still looking up at him. "What happened? Is Cloud... is everything all right?"

Zack blinked... and she suddenly saw the past in his deep brown eyes... A dark, dangerous time, cold enough to chill her blood even in this warm room... but he couldn't be sleeping now, she knew enough to know that much, Zack wouldn't be resting if something had truly gone wrong.

History unfolded in a matter of moments, as she continued to watch the wells of glowing hazel, growing less fearful, more thoughtful...

"Zack, what happened... is he?"

"He's... with Sephiroth." The SOLDIER let out a deep breath, corners of his mouth twitching, as if unsure whether it was safe to smile. "I think... I really think everything's going to be all right now."

Tifa said nothing, the emotion that rose up inside bittersweet, and painful... but hadn't she said, hadn't she told the heavens that she had only wanted what was best? No matter what that meant for her, for Cloud, no matter the consequences, she only wanted what would make everyone happy?

//I never thought, never... not in a /million years/...//

All at once, Tifa desperately wanted to see the blonde, and almost as quickly found herself afraid, unsure... what would this change, how would Cloud react, when he realized that she knew? How could she face him... face /them/... together? A sharp twist of new pain told her the idea still hadn't completely sunk in...

"Takes a while to get used to, doesn't it?" Zack murmured softly, though his voice also contained a note of warm humor. Tifa nodded, a gravely chuckle of her own bursting in the air, smiling as his warm hand twined its way around her wrist.

"You have to trust him, Tifa... you have to trust Cloud, and trust me. There's no other way for him to be happy, maybe no way for either one of them to be... whole."

Tifa nodded, more for his comfort than her own assurance, still trying to let the reality of it sink in. When Zack finally fell back asleep, she did not move to wake him, knew she could only handle so many of his truths at once, no matter their good intentions, or how gently they were delivered.

//... the only way... for Cloud to be whole?//

Once, the fighter would have sacrificed anything to make that happen. She would have given her life, her future, anything to bring back even a glimmer of the smiling, kind-hearted boy in the icy, emotionless man Cloud had become. Now, all the world demanded was that she do nothing at all, that she accept what had happened, and not stand in the way.

Tifa already knew it was the hardest thing she would ever have to do.


Cloud blinked, looking up absently at nothing, wondering why he was awake. He realized after a long while that he was staring at shadows moving gently across the top of a tent.

The blonde sighed, closed still-aching eyes, too sleepy to care, smiling as he burrowed his way back under the covers, burying his face in the soft pillow... it had been a long, long time since he had been so comfortable, the world around him warm and yielding, not cold steel or colder snows.

He stretched out fully, fingertips brushing the fabric of the tent above where he lay, toes pointed as far as they would go in the opposite direction... sighing in relief at the pleasant feeling of aching muscles untwisting, enjoying the brush of blankets on bare skin... such a long time, since he had even bothered to take his uniform off, an impossibility as of late, when there was always some surprise attack, some ambush getting in the way.

//I feel... so /good/...// The blonde grinned to himself, smug and content... but almost at once the smile flickered... vanished with the true return of memory...

//Sephiroth. He's... here, isn't he?//

A dream? Of course, it had to be... though the recent past was terribly blurry, and the harder he struggled to capture it, the more it eluded him. Cloud fought with a few images, unsure, really, of how much time had passed... what was happening...

//Blood... Zack was there, and I...//

/I tried to kill myself... because Sephiroth... and I.../

Yes, that was all true, but what had happened next? How had he returned here? The blonde /knew/ he had been out on that snowy plain, all alone, but then, then...

Hesitantly, still keeping his eyes closed, unsure if he even wanted to know the truth, Cloud reached out onto the bed beside him, and swept his hand in a wide swath underneath the blanket... but he was alone... and the bed was cold...

The blonde could feel whatever tiny, fragile hopes he had been building in the warm comfort around him smash to powder, crumble against the awesome power of brutal, cold reality... it wasn't real, it wasn't real...

//Oh no, not this... kill me, destroy me, but not like /this/...//

"Oh god please no... please no... /no/!"

Cloud moaned against the terror shooting through him, dragging his legs up to his chest, hands over his head, feeling tears already burning their way down his face, surprising, those hot tears, for how much of the rest of him had flash frozen with the pain. The night hadn't been real, /none/ of it, and the pain of that endless loneliness, the hopeless isolation could still make his entire body tremble in agony...

//Not another dream not again not /again/ I can't deal can't bear it-//


The blonde's breath caught, wet and solid in his chest, and Cloud coughed, mind racing, spinning in a solid blur as he opened his eyes and sat up, blinking away a sudden rush of nauseating dizziness...

The white-haired man was watching him from the other side of the tent - he was in Sephiroth's tent... but... /how/... and why? - standing frozen, with one hand still poised at the edge of his other glove, green eyes watching him curiously, obviously puzzled by his tears...

Sephiroth, confused, and staring at him... Sephiroth... staring... at him...

"I... uh... I..." Cloud quickly rubbed the few remaining drops away, doing his best not to cough, to steady his still wavering voice. "I..."

"Did you have a nightmare?" Sephiroth moved closer, and the blonde forgot to breathe in.

"I'm sorry, I wanted to wake you... but you didn't want to wake up, so I thought it might be best to let you sleep."

The voice was soft, conversational, no hint of that authoritarian sharpness the blonde had come to expect, but warm and /alive/ in a way Cloud had only dared to imagine, that had only existed in his most private dreams... but his dreams were /nothing/ like this...

"It looks like Hojo's going to attempt to assault our next caravan, the supply line between here and Icicle Two... and if I'm there when he attacks... we can give him a surprise."

A sly, proud smile slid across those perfect lips, and before Cloud could attempt to regain control of himself, the white-haired man was kneeling in front of him, soft leather drinking up the last of his tears as a gloved hand brushed lightly against his face. The blonde couldn't think, kept losing his tenuous hold on calm again and again as he struggled to meet those deep aquamarine eyes.

"I..." The blonde's mind centered on Sephiroth's words, all his thoughts threatening to flee, poised to fly if he dared to think about how close... how close... "I should come with you..."

He barely had the chance to move, pushing himself up, before an arm dropped gently onto his shoulder, that emerald gaze, no matter how gentle, still pinning him to the spot...

//... gentle? He... I... it's real. This is all... real?//

"No you don't..."

The white-haired man moved even closer, Cloud leaned back slightly, sudden surprise verging on the hysterical, undercut by some sense of rightness... this was all /exactly/ as it ought to have been... and the rest of his thoughts were wiped clean, as Sephiroth's lips met his, each kiss as impossible, as shocking and breathtaking as the very first... and it was only moments later that he realized the white haired man had succeeded in pushing him back against the bed mainly by laying down right on top of him...

The blonde squeaked without meaning to, but the sound brought another taste of that laughter, soft but as warm and brilliant as summer sunshine... The white-haired man followed up his show of amusement by burying a few kisses along Cloud's neck, and he felt almost weightless, hollow with shock, elation...

"You know, Cloud... Sephiroth sighed against his shoulder before lifting his head, mischief sparkling in the green... "If we're going to carry on any kind of relationship, you eventually will have to /talk/ to me..."

The blonde opened his mouth to speak, knowing it was expected of him -//relationship!?//- and of course, nothing came out...

"Blink once for yes, twice for no?"

Cloud couldn't help but chuckle at the added comment, felt an ancient wall topple down inside of him as, for one beautiful moment, they laughed together... and the blonde realized this sudden closeness wasn't really all that sudden. The other man's body against his own, Sephiroth looking in his eyes... it wasn't only of the moment, there had been nearly a full day... and there was no sorrow, no sudden, swift break back into anger or fear... the white-haired man had not pushed him away...

//Push me... where the hell would he push me, when /he's/...//

It had really taken that long to sink in, where he was, how Sephiroth had him actually /pinned/...

The blonde knew he went bright red, rewarded with an even louder burst of laughter... and startled, as the white-haired man moved away, snuggling up against his side, the edges of his coat just draping over Cloud's limbs. He felt the other man's shaking body slowly still, laughter dying away, but still echoing inside of him, probably forever... and the blonde closed his eyes, almost weeping at that warmth... it still just didn't seem /real/...

"... I wish you would have told me."

Cloud turned, surprised by the sudden sorrow in that voice, /sorrow/ from Sephiroth... the man who did no wrong, the man who never felt fear, or sadness...

"What do you mean?"

A fingertip carefully traced a path that tears had fallen a hundred times before, emerald eyes so serious... the blonde was slightly nervous, he hadn't done something, had he, to anger...?

"I need you to know that, Cloud... that I never would have... I /never/ would... if I thought for a moment you weren't ready." The hand slid gently through his hair, as if to underline the point, that he would be kind, that his action had been nothing but a mistake, not something he would ever do, /could/ ever do...

The blonde smiled in sudden, overwhelming confidence at the hesitation, the worry in the white-haired man's tone... now /this/ was a problem he could fix... Cloud turned, sliding his arms under Sephiroth's coat, wrapping them tightly around the other man's waist.

"You never have to apologize... not to me... /never/ to me..."

He felt a broad hand on his back, didn't realize the touch was as cautious, halting as it was, the white-haired man looking down at him with shock... for Sephiroth had assumed up until that moment, that Zack /must/ have been exaggerating, at least a /little/...

//Strife... he'd really do /anything/ for me, Zack was telling the truth. I don't have to apologize now, if I didn't want to, and he'd never think to complain... it's been like this for him, all this time... fifteen /years/ of this...//

A frightening thought, that he could mean so much to /anyone/, especially considering that, compared to what Cloud seemed to know about him, he barely knew the blonde at all.

Unconditional, open love was all he had ever wanted in his life, all he had hoped and prayed for, but Sephiroth wasn't nearly proud enough, or /stupid/ enough to consider it his due... and the devotion in those blue eyes, the wariness to match it... what it meant to realize that Cloud had never said anything, never opened up, because he was sure his love could /never/ be enough, not for someone like Sephiroth...

//A love like /that/, not /enough/?// Once more, the baffled thought came to him, a familiar visitor since the truth had been revealed. //Who does he think I am?//

A shout from outside broke him from his quiet reverie, and though Cloud didn't think to try and keep him, Sephiroth smiled at a slight mutter of dismay from the blonde, frustration as he pulled away...

//Not enough... these few moments just /aren't/ enough...//

He would have to fix that.

Sephiroth rolled over, and quickly sat up, frowning as he heard the blankets rustling behind him, knew Cloud was preparing to follow...

"While tying you to the bed would be an awful lot of fun, Strife, I'd appreciate if more if I was around to enjoy it... you're staying here."

He didn't need to look to gauge Cloud's reaction, as he heard the rustle of blankets abruptly stop. The white-haired man stood, took up the Masamune... and smiled to himself... it had been a /long/ time, even before all that had happened in Nibelheim, that he had been with someone, and never... never like this...

//One more... just one more kiss...//


Cloud had propped himself up on his elbows, even though his arms ached in protest, waiting for Sephiroth to leave so that he could quickly dress and follow... he /had/ to be there, now more than ever.

Cloud watched silently as the white-haired man lifted his weapon, moving quietly around the room, every action full of such grace, and stunning, the simple movements masterful in execution, in a way that made the blonde wonder how he had ever watched Sephiroth fight, watched him do /anything/ and not spoken, not made some attempt to tell the man how he felt... and fighting him, /defeating/ him? It seemed so long ago now, that contest, nothing but an impossible dream dancing at the edges of his mind...

//... and all this /isn't/ a dream?//

He didn't know. He didn't dare to question it.

The blonde watched Sephiroth pause, turn back, move to his side once more, and this time when the white-haired man kissed him he felt it... not just shock and wonder, but the kiss itself, and couldn't help but try to kiss back, relief sweeping through him, as the white-haired man seemed happy with what he was sure were awkward attempts...

... and Cloud realized, as the dip in the bed where Sephiroth's knee was poised dropped even lower, the white-haired man putting more of his weight down, hands pressed on either side of the blonde's hips... he realized he was very close to convincing the other man to abandon the battle, and come back, stay with him instead...

//Me? I could... he wants /me/?!// The shock in that thought washed over the blonde, cold, shivery... exciting...

They finally broke apart, both breathing heavily, and Cloud looked into that gaze, mesmerizing as ever... but he saw something this time, that hadn't been there before... or perhaps it was he that had been too frightened to see it...

//He wants me, he really...? I... I can be /someone/ to him... someone /for/ him? I can be there, in his life... he wants?//

It wasn't possible, for him to mean so much to a man like Sephiroth. Not him... it simply wasn't possible.

"Why didn't I see it..." The white-haired man had caught one of his longer spikes, was curling it playfully around his finger. "How did I never see you before, Strife?"

It was a rhetorical question, thankfully, for Cloud had no idea how to answer. The white-haired man gracefully rose to his feet, with another of those slight, glorious smiles...

"Get some rest... I think..." For a moment, the smirk was electric. "I think you'll need it."

The white-haired man walked out, and Cloud slowly slid back under the covers, heart pounding in his chest, though that physical shock soon passed, and he was left with little more than disbelief and fear chasing circles through his mind, the emotion simply stronger than he could force his weary mind to grasp...

All those years at ShinRa... day after day of watching and waiting and hoping, somehow, some way... knowing it was impossible, /knowing/ he could never... and Nibelheim, and AVALANCHE, and all that had happened after, and he had /never/...

It wasn't possible. Life just didn't swerve this way, didn't move suddenly into paradise...

Cloud lay for a while with one hand over his eyes, stretching his body every now and again to ease aching muscles, simply trying to make sense of what had just happened... The thoughts wouldn't come together, of course, even as he turned them over and over in his mind...

The blonde curled one arm around a pillow, easing his body into a very comfortable sprawl as he turned on his side.

//You'll never catch up to them, if you don't leave now...//

The blonde had told himself, over and over again, that he /was/ going to follow, despite the white-haired man's orders, and damn his own weariness...

//I /will/... I will... in a minute...//

Cloud yawned, smiling as he pulled the blankets up over his shoulders, just to get a little warmer. The memory of that long dark coat, those lips and those eyes, all of it was wonderfully fresh in his memory, and he needed that memory like he needed to breathe. This had to be a dream, but it was easily the best he'd ever had, and even if it ended...

Cloud murmured a few words to the air, soft negation, eyes closing as he burrowed even deeper beneath the warm blankets - //don't let it end, please don't ever let it end...//

If it ended, he still could keep those memories... still keep that fantasy of what might have been, and hold it close, when no one else was around to see. Who would it hurt, if it wasn't real? Who was he, not to take what was offered, that dream... as if even the universe knew, it could never truly be...

//Felt so real... feels so /real/...// His tired body curled up on itself a bit, contentedly, remembering the slide of soft, white hair against his skin, of what it had been, how peaceful, how wonderful, to be caught in Sephiroth's attentions...

... how different, from what he had been expecting, although now Cloud couldn't exactly say what he had thought would happen, if the other man had ever learned... but not this, not the way Sephiroth acted now, smiling, laughing, /happy/. Not... because of him?

//... better get up... get out there...//

The thought came and went, his muscles didn't even twitch in response. This feeling, safety and happiness, was his greatest weakness. In the middle of hell, at the apex of the battle, suffering through months of war with nothing but the past to mark out the future, Cloud was absolutely unstoppable. ... but now... left with a long and lingering kiss by the man he loved, the man on whom his entire world turned, asked to do nothing but rest and heal... it had unraveled him completely.

//... his... he... all I ever... lived for... and it's really mine..?//

It had been a lifetime since Cloud slept so well.



Reeve looked up as Reno's fist hit the table, and though the President was well aware how easy it would be for the redhead to leap over the table and tear him apart, he couldn't quite bring himself to care. Life over the past few years had become a wonder of ups and downs, fluctuating moment by moment between terror and apathy... and right now, the dark-haired man was definitely enjoying a vacation in the latter.

"What are we going to do about Anjele!?"

"Well... they found the plane."

It wasn't at all what Reno was asking, Reeve knew, and also knew that his placid, unconcerned tone was most likely driving all three Turks up the wall. Reno was the only one showing his frustration at the moment, though.

Elena said nothing, still looking a little shaken from her sudden, violent abduction. Rude was likewise silent, seemed to enjoy the fact that he had always given Reno control of the conversation, as it now gave him more time to focus on Elena. It was obvious, that the sudden shock, thinking she had died had changed Rude. He didn't hover over her, didn't say a word, but in all the time the President had seen them together, he could tell that behind the sunglasses, his eyes never left her, always watching, almost afraid to look away.

"Well, we should fucking go after him, shouldn't we?! Shit, Reeve... how can you just sit there when that little fucker Heidigger is out there right now, spewing all his secrets, god only knows what, right to that slimy son of a bitch!"

The redheaded Turk was nearly breaking his sentences, the structures too weak to support the force of all the swear words he was trying to use. Reeve had no doubt the man would have liked to abandon speech altogether and simply scream out his frustration...

//... /and/ wring my neck, most likely, but that will be a problem for another day.//

The President folded his hands calmly, wondering absently, with all the extra information he knew that the Turks did not, just exactly how these next few minutes would play themselves out.

"Melissa's done an inventory of the lab, as well as the computer files, and there has also been a complete check of his office. I myself lowered Anjele's security clearance months ago. There is no reason to believe that he took anything with him... other than the vial of active Jenova cells he injected himself with before leaving."

All three Turks eyes widened, Reeve could see Rude's eyebrows lift from behind his shades. Elena rubbed her arm, Reeve knew she was probably somewhat grateful to hear it, that she had been taken down by a monster, not a normal man.

"Shit..." Reno finally murmured, "Fucking pansy had some kind of guts after all..."

The President resisted the urge to slap himself in the forehead.

//Only you, Reno...//

"As I was saying, there is no suggestion that Anjele Heidigger is any kind of continued threat. No trace of him was found in the airplane, although, yes, it /did/ crash on the Northern Continent... but there was also no sign that Heidigger brought along any survival gear, even so much as a heavy parka or a pack of matches. From what Elena told us, and the security tapes, those injected cells seemed to have broken his mind, and sent him right over the edge... not to mention what they might be doing to him physically. I very much doubt he ever made it anywhere near the Northern Crater in the shape he was in."

"Just like those clones "didn't make it," the last time Jenova came calling?"

Reeve sighed at Reno's sharp, bitter tone.

"There's nothing we can do about Heidigger now, Reno, I'm sorry."

"Send Cloud... send Sephiroth and Zack... drive straight up the middle of the canyon to the Crater. I'll go up there too... me and the Turks and everyone else, send everyone! Wallace, Lockheart, the Highwind... everyone. If that wuss Heidigger has any information at all, /anything/ that could tip Jenova off... /anything/... and I have heard all about what happened with Melissa and that "code" she was working on... I've heard rumors, about what that means for the rest of us. We've got to hit the Crater now, Reeve... we can't wait..."

"Cloud attempted a frontal assault, along with Sephiroth, backed by two of the strongest armies we have left, you /know/ that, just as well as you know that it was a complete failure. Successive efforts to gain ground more slowly have been slightly more effective... and yes, I realize we're running out of time, but we /can't/ risk losing everyone at once in an all-out attack... it's not time to be that desperate yet, when even Melissa's worst-case scenarios seem to at least give us a few more years..."

The woman had been working nonstop since the "change," trying to discover what exactly had happened, and why...

//The Planet deteriorating, Heidigger defecting...//

... and if all of /that/ hadn't been enough, if all of this wasn't enough to make his head spin...

Reeve closed his eyes, resting his face in his hands, a gesture he had repeated ever since receiving the early call...

The message had been short and to the point, just like everything Sephiroth had ever done... but this time, his abruptness had left it sounding like a joke. The President was convinced, had he known of anyone who could imitate the white-haired General's voice, he /never/ would have believed it, would have written it off as a prank...

//No one knew? Someone... someone had to have known... something like /that/...//

"I need to borrow the Highwind. Cloud needs to get out of here, and I need to go with him. We need to have some time alone."

A simple enough admission... but...

//We?! WE?!//

Who could have guessed?

Reeve had known, of course, about Sephiroth, from as far back as his early ShinRa days, though he had discreetly kept his mouth shut, as everyone had, most moralists unwilling to criticize someone else's lifestyle when that someone just happened to carry around a seven-foot sword...

Sephiroth, Reeve understood... but Cloud? The dark-haired man /had/ thought it strange, how the blonde and Tifa hadn't immediately gotten together, weren't a couple even before the war broke out, but he hadn't expected... it was such a shock, especially considering the year they had all spent together, /fighting/ Sephiroth. Had Cloud kept this a secret from everyone, for all this time?

//He wasn't happy... even when we won, and I never understood... god, could /this/ be the reason?//

Reeve was sure Tifa hadn't known. Surely, she wouldn't have been able to act as she had, the hopes for her and Cloud always as plain on her face as any words could ever be. Certainly... if she had known what he had been told, what Sephiroth had stated so matter-of-factly, when Reeve had finally gathered the courage to ask...

"... we?"

"Yes, Reeve. Cloud and I, and yes, I mean it /exactly/ the way you're thinking."

/He/ had certianly never thought, not in all the time he had known the blonde... there hadn't been even the /slightest/ inkling that Reeve could remember... and he was sure none of the others knew either.

//Cid would /never/ have been able to keep his yap shut on something like that.//

No files, no reports, no audio or video, either in Cloud's early reports or after their first battle with Jenova, Hojo and Sephiroth, not even as a part of his pre-SOLDIER profile, which had been designed specifically to unearth those kinds of secrets... ShinRa knew /everyone's/ inner lives, it was what they were best at... but they hadn't known. No one had known.

//... and I thought /I/ knew how to hide myself.//

So silent... All these years, if he had loved Sephiroth all this time, the blonde had suffered alone, in silence. It only underlined all the sacrifices Cloud had made on their behalf, that he knew it had been easier on them not to know, and so he hadn't told them, even if it had been killing him on the inside.

"Cloud had... he..." Reeve attempted to find a safe way to explain, quickly realizing there wasn't one. "Things have been happening at the front, that even I don't really understand."

He could almost see Reno's ears perk up in interest, and fought back a slight smile. If the redhead had been a woman, he would have easily been the town gossip.

"They're holding on fairly well at the front. As far as we can tell, Jenova's pulling the main branch of her forces back, most likely due to this new development in the Lifestream... she may need all the power she can directed at the Planet now, we're not sure. We realize this /isn't/ a good thing, that we can't take a breather... but everyone is also aware that /all/ of our attempts to breach the Crater have failed... and that, whatever five years of war and chaos have brought upon the world... they have hit General Strife hardest of all."

"What happened?"

Elena had picked up on the tone in the President's voice first, alarmed by the sudden sorrow and gravity. "Is he all right? What's happened to him?"

Reeve struggled for an answer... and finally just shrugged, not really knowing the answer to that himself.

"He can't stay there anymore... he needs a respite from the fighting, a real break. I'm going to send the Highwind up to meet them, and... he and Sephiroth will be going to Wutai together until... until Cloud has recovered."

Reeve knew if he could sell the merciless, unstoppable Turks, /anyone/ would believe what he knew to be true, that Cloud was in trouble, that he couldn't go on.

"The war's destroying him, Reno. Tell me, you tell me that it hasn't, that you haven't seen..."

The redhead nodded, agreeing much faster than the President had expected.

"I won't argue that with you, Reeve. Yeah... he looks like death, he's looked that way for a long time... but is it really wise, to have both him and Sephiroth off the field...?"

//As if I had a choice...// Reeve wouldn't even know where to begin, /hadn't/ thought to argue with the white-haired man. Sephiroth's tone had left no room for argument.

"... besides, he should be fairly fresh, shouldn't he? I mean, Sephiroth hasn't been fighting that long, has he?"

The President really hadn't wanted to go into the details, knew there was no reason for the Turks to know, but Elena's question had left his tired mind with surprisingly few options for explanation.

//On a few more hours of sleep, I'd know what to say... I know I would, but now... now...//

Reno, in the meantime, had caught on to Elena's logic, was nodding.

"Sure, Reeve... you don't need to send the both of them for a break... send Zack, if you're going to send anyone... I'm sure a ball-buster like Sephiroth could handle the front alone for a while..." The redhead chuckled. "Back in the day, hell, we know he handled worse."

"I know he did... but..." Reeve grimaced, "... the point, I think, Rude, is that Cloud and Sephiroth are going /together/."

Reeve pressed down hard on the final word, adding all the emphasis he could muster, the memory of his own shock, at thinking he had misunderstood the white-haired General, and the greater surprise when he realized he hadn't

... but Reeve could see, by Reno's completely confused look, that the Turk didn't understand, couldn't make the connection -

//Hell, that makes two of us.//

... and Rude was still silent, but had made no outward motion, no sign of realization, and of all the things that might have shocked the Turk, even though he had only known Cloud Strife briefly, Reeve was sure this would have made some sort of an impact...

Elena gasped and Reeve found her staring at him with wide, incredulous eyes...

She'd figured it out.

"No way... /no/ /WAY/..."

"What?" Reno glared at the blonde, angrier with each second that passed, that he wasn't in on the secret. "What are you freaking out about, Elena?"

"It's just /not/... I mean... dude, I barely... but still..."

Reno scowled.

"Cut the babbling crap, and tell me what you're talking about!"

"Cloud and Sephiroth... Cloud /and/ Sephiroth... they're a /couple/, Reno... they're... no /way/!"

Reno hid his surprise better, but seemed no less dumbstruck, and stared at Reeve, looking for confirmation, maintaining his absolute silence as the President nodded in agreement.

"Well..." Rude muttered softly, "... I'll be damned."

Reeve leaned back in his chair, watching as Elena continued to splutter, and Reno was obviously taxing much of his mental faculties in an attempt to put the idea together... obviously coming up blank...

//... and if it went this well with the Turks, just imagine how AVALANCHE is going to take the news.//


"... can you hold the line then, Gemini?"

"No problem sir... no problem at all... and tell The General... I hope he's doing all right."

"I will, solider. I will."

Sephiroth dropped the radio, coughing to clear his slightly sore throat, rough from hours of inhaling smoke and shouting commands...

//Really, was it necessary for you to scream out /every/ order?//

His body often reminded him that just because he was a SOLIDER didn't mean he couldn't hurt.

The white-haired man silently and gladly gave over control of the radio to the awaiting technician, quickly descending the tower and moving back to the relative safety of the Icicle camp interior. It had been a full day's worth of fighting, a long ride both to and from Icicle Two... he was tired, road worn, and very grateful that the passages in the encampment were mainly clear. It was a surprising comfort in his life, not to have to acknowledge all the salutes he would receive whenever he went anywhere, not to have to focus on keeping his shoulders back and his gaze steady, his face perfectly schooled for calm at every moment, especially when he was tired... it had been a really long day.

//A long day...// Sephiroth thought, rubbing at sore eyes with one gloved hand. //... but worth the fight. Well worth it.//

The battle at Icicle Two had been a rout, a stunningly decisive victory fully in their favor, and exactly what he had needed it to be. It was only slightly tarnished by the reports from North Corel upon their return, of the sudden, complete destruction of the "Jenova Code" project, the loss of years of Dr. Melissa's work... and the defection of one of their own to the other side.

//Good riddance...//

The white-haired man spared a single, slight noise of disappointment, disgust for Anjele Heidigger, angry at what the man had done, of course, but not really worried...

//You picked the wrong one, Hojo, to try and turn /him/ to your side... what on Earth is he going to tell you? Years of playing second fiddle... no, make that thousandth fiddle, to Reeve and Scarlet and everyone else... he's got nothing to offer.//

Sephiroth was fairly sure that, even if the man had managed to make it to the Crater, Hojo had most likely killed him by now. The scientist, despite all his own personal failings, did not take weakness, deficiency of any kind at all well in those around him.

So... tallied up on the winning side, they had managed to defeat the monsters around Icicle 2, and the usual signs of upcoming retaliation, of another wave of the enemy waiting in the wings, all of those were missing, there was nothing that hinted that they would not be able to hold the outpost indefinitely...

//... which is also a point for the losing side, of which there are already more than enough.//

Jenova wasn't attacking now, because /something/ had happened within the Lifestream. Sephiroth had only heard an abridged report, but even with his slight sense of the Lifestream, of Jenova... he could tell there had been a change... not for the better.

//Years... we still have years before the Planet dies, even if those years have been halved from what they were. Melissa said there were still barriers, that Jenova did not have a clean victory... not yet...//

... and no matter how dangerous things still might have been, no matter how large or small the conflict, how great the war or delicate the balance on which the Planet rested... Sephiroth knew he had more important things to tend to now.

//"What do you mean, you need to "borrow" the Highwind?!"//

Reeve finally understood, though Sephiroth knew his explanation had not been at all what the man had been expecting... and he had quickly sent the airship on its way.

It was simple, really... Cloud /had/ to leave the Northern continent for a while. The blonde General couldn't fight another battle, simply did not have the strength left to do so. Nearly six straight years of war had taken out an incredible toll on him. The last few weeks, between him and Sephiroth, had simply been the final straw. He carried wounds that could not be mended in a day, burdens he shouldn't have had to carry alone.

//From Jenova's spawn, and the Cetra... and from /me/...//

They didn't have the time, really, to allow for such a luxury... but Sephiroth knew they couldn't afford /not/ to, either. To send Cloud off to fight now would be nothing less than sending him to his grave...

//... and I /won't/... I won't let him hurt anymore, not now that I know... I gave ShinRa my entire life, and never asked for anything, never wanted something for myself... but I want this, I want him with me. I won't let anything happen until I've figured this-//

Sephiroth had finally reached his tent, in the middle of his mental rant, all of it brought sharply to a halt as he looked up, and stopped short.

It was one thing to think of Cloud in the abstract, to make plans concerning him, to imagine some sort of vague, happier future to be created for the both of them. It was entirely different to walk in on the man himself, to come face to face with exactly what fate had handed him...

The blonde was still sleeping, with no sign that he had woken at all during the day. Not surprising, Sephiroth expected there would be several more days of this, before the blonde was ready to do much of anything. Given the chance to finally rest, his body had all but shut itself down.

//Oh my...//

The sheets had twined around the blonde's muscular body in a way that almost looked posed, exposing almost everything, concealing just enough to entice, and heighten desire... Sephiroth's fingertips flexed slightly in the air, longing to touch...

//My God...// The white-haired man swallowed, mouth dry. //He's ... I've never... he's /so beautiful/.//

Cloud was draped across the bed in a languid, boneless sprawl, completely relaxed, his expression unmarked by sorrow or fear, so peaceful, though Sephiroth could easily see how close he had come to failure, how pale and strained the blonde's body had become...

//It was almost too much for him to bear, this time... Zack said, I believe it now... that if I wanted, I could shatter him with a single word.//

He had the power to destroy the blonde, and, the SOLDIER could only hope, the power to heal him as well.

Sephiroth finally stepped closer, as the aches and pains of his own body quietly but persistently made themselves known, though the white-haired man found himself hesitating as he approached the bed... /he/, who had never, ever been afraid, never been unsure around another person...

Cloud reminded the man of pictures he had seen, advertisements for some of the higher-end brothels in the slums, women entwined in beds of silk and jewels, kept safe, fragile baubles protected, sheltered from the rest of the world... At the time, Sephiroth had thought it was an utterly stupid fantasy, knew absolutely that he didn't want a lover who couldn't take care of themselves, didn't want to feel he ever had to protect /anyone/...

... at least, until now. If it were up to the white-haired man, he wouldn't be offering a temporary respite, but would have simply taken the blonde away permanently, far from Jenova, Hojo, or anything else in the world that might steal his happiness, anyone that would dare to hurt him... A possessive impulse shot through him, something not at all in his usual nature, but Sephiroth embraced it now. Cloud was his, and anyone who dared to make him suffer would never live to repeat the error.

//You've never wanted anyone like you want him, and you've never wanted anything, like you want him to love you... it never felt like this... it never felt so /right/.//

"... Seph? ... that you?"

The white-haired man smiled at the murmur, the blonde now only the second person who had ever called him by less than his formal, full name. The SOLDIER's breath caught, just slightly as bright blue eyes still fuzzy with sleep opened, and focused on him. Cloud smiled brightly even as Sephiroth fumbled for an expression of his own, stretching where he lay... and frowned, as his limbs tugged against the coiled blankets, refused to move...

"... 'm stuck..." The blonde muttered, and Sephiroth bit back a sudden laugh at Cloud's pout as the man continued to try to free himself, his weak, kittenish movements unable to do much of anything at all...

"Here... let me help..."

Sephiroth stripped down in a matter of moments, keeping his boxers on without really knowing why... realizing he didn't want to make Cloud uncomfortable, though logically... it wasn't as if they hadn't already slept together, that he hadn't been in the nude as early as that morning...

//Oh, hell with logic... I think I'll just follow emotion for a little while.//

The white-haired man was surprised to find how awkward, how unsure he felt sliding back into bed, Cloud watching him with wide, silent eyes, motionless, afraid that moving might shatter this moment of happiness. Sephiroth gently slid his hand along the blonde's right arm, pulling the blankets from where they had been looped around his wrist... and lifted up onto his shoulder, to stretch across the blonde's body, repeat the action on his other arm...

Of course, after that, they were kissing... Sephiroth couldn't help himself, not when he was that close, not when it felt /so good/... and he was careful, to keep his affections gentle, felt the blonde's fragile, weary return... fingertips sliding slowly against his side, one of the first times Cloud had done so, had actually reached out for him...

//Slow but sure... it didn't take very long at all, really... all he needs is a little encouragement...//

The white-haired man broke away, as he drew up one hand in a caress, and felt a too-strong heat burning against his skin, where the backs of his fingertips rested against Cloud's cheek...

"You're sick..." He murmured, brushing blonde spikes away, placing his hand against Cloud's forehead, checking... Yes, a definite fever, low grade now... but he could not take any chances...

"... and here I was thinking you couldn't see inside my head anymore." It was only when the blonde winked slyly at him, that Sephiroth realized it had been a joke.

//Teasing me already... and it wasn't that long ago, that he was afraid to speak a single word I hadn't asked him for... This will take less time than I thought... unless this is just the fever talking...//

He hoped with all he had that it wasn't, that some of his kindness was seeping through the walls the blonde had built to protect his heart, that something was getting through, past all the damage he had done...

"I should get you some help, you need-"

A hand clasped the white-haired man's shoulder tightly, before he'd ever had the chance to move.

"I need /you/... please... please don't go."

The desperation in the blonde's voice was sandpaper rough, he was /so/ afraid... and Sephiroth nodded slightly, bringing Cloud closer, smiling as a blonde head dropped against his chest, too hot, but not dangerous... yet.

"If your temperature gets any higher, I will take you to the infirmary, Strife. You have to heal."

//I need you to stay with me... I couldn't bear to lose you, not now...//

"I'll be fine. It's nothing. Anyway, I've been sleeping all..." A yawn punctuated the blonde's protest. "... day."

"Sleeping all day, and you're /still/ exhausted. You need some real peace and quiet, not the camps. I almost regret that we won't make it out of here until tomorrow.

"Tomorrow? Out of here?"

Blue eyes were watching him, dull with tired confusion.

"Where...? You're going somewhere tomorrow?"

"/We/ are going somewhere..." he smiled, "... but... it's a surprise."

"Tell me."



The white-haired man chuckled, "No."

The blonde thumped his forehead slightly against Sephiroth's chest, let it lay there, his tone growing more petulant by the moment.

"Tell me?"

"Did anyone ever let you know, Cloud, that you're the most stubborn man alive?"

"It's my best feature."

Sephiroth smiled, loved the feeling of it, the sudden happiness certianly more than he usually felt, much more than he ever had in his ShinRa days. It felt... open... relaxing, as if he had taken a deep breath, stretched out and let go for the first time in decades... and each smile came a little easier than the last, felt more natural... Up until a few days ago, Sephiroth knew he wouldn't have let himself smile, would have feared losing control, and done anything to stop these sudden emotions...

//... but there are worse things to lose. I just didn't think...// He shifted, needing to feel Cloud in his arms, that life, safe in his protection. //... I didn't think, that there was so much more I could lose.//

"I could get you to tell me..." The blonde twined a few strands of white silk around his fingers, though even those small movements were marked by weariness. "I'm not all sweetness and light, you know..."

"Yes you are... and it's wonderful. It's the reason I love..."

Sephiroth stopped himself, the words nearly coming out anyway. It was no easier to say now than it had ever been... and even though he had /said/ it already, did he really mean it? How could he know, so soon, that he really, honestly meant what he said?

//I want to... but that's not enough. My word, it /has/ to be the truth. I'll accept nothing less...// Surrounded by liars, it had always been vital, that he not become one of them.

Sephiroth noticed, after a moment of silence, that blue eyes were watching him, and the almost eerie, observant gaze had most likely understood every moment of his struggle.

"Cloud... I..." He swallowed, not knowing how to begin. "I don't mean... it's just..."

The blonde smiled.

"You don't have to say anything. I understand... and even if I didn't..." Cloud threw an arm back around the white-haired man's waist, unwilling to stop touching what he had wanted for so long, "... even if I didn't, I love you anyway, so it doesn't matter." The words held a simple truth, of his love and his faith, and in that faith lay the power that had kept Cloud going, kept him fighting for all this time.

"I love you, Sephiroth... I always, /always/ will... I'll always be there, I need you to know that... that I'll never leave you, not ever-"

Sephiroth kissed the blonde again, before Cloud could finish, knowing that the gesture was nothing, pale and lifeless compared to the words he just couldn't manage to say, that could only reach the air when they took him completely by surprise.

"I know that, Cloud..." he murmured as they parted, his fingertips beneath the blonde's chin, less to move his gaze, and more to simply touch the soft skin... "I know now, what you've done for me... what you've been, all this time... I /know/."

It was still amazing to him, that a few simple words were such a gift, that his presence and his voice and his touch could make Cloud radiate such joy, facet those sapphire eyes until they sparkled like crushed diamonds... and he felt so unsure, so unworthy in the face of such adoration... the beauty of a heart no longer hidden, that brave, brilliant love.

After a while, Sephiroth could feel the blonde's breathing slow, Cloud settling back down to sleep... The white-haired man certainly didn't protest, more than willing to take a nap himself... in a few hours, he'd wake the blonde up long enough to get some food and water into both of them, make the final preparations for the trip, and wait for the Highwind to arrive.

//... and get ready to face the firing squad, when his friends find out about the two of us...//

Sephiroth was fairly certain Zack had already told Tifa, though the white-haired man didn't know why the brunette wasn't screaming for his blood- //unless she is and Zack just hasn't mentioned it yet...//- but there was no doubt in his mind that Cid Highwind would not take this development quietly... and he would only be one of many... the giant cat, Nanaki, Barret Wallace...

//Not to mention /where/ we're going for this little vacation... I'm only trusting the ninja girl because there's nowhere else, really, for us to go, not because I believe she can convince her father of /anything/...//

It was too far, if the situation on the Northern Peninsula became a true emergency, for them to seek respite in Kalm or Junon... Costa Del Sol was still full of ShinRa personnel, the last people Strife would /ever/ feel safe around... and so there had really only been one alternative, though Sephiroth was still certain, despite Yuffie's assurances, that it would never work.

The SOLDIER's thoughts were interrupted as Cloud stirred, murmuring a few quiet words, but calming as Sephiroth gently stroked his back. The white-haired man couldn't help but frown at the thin, nearly broken body in his arms, how strained the blonde seemed, more now than ever before.

The SOLDIER hadn't discounted the possible effects of the link between Cloud and the Planet, that the blonde could still "hear" its cry, and was sensitive to forces no one else could feel... although recently, the blonde hadn't made any special mention of it, even with all that Melissa said had happened, and Jenova's increasing domination of the Lifestream.

//... is it because of me? Did his inner hurt block out everything else, and the Planet's pain is simply masked by his own? Or am I... somehow, am I still...//

Of course, Sephiroth remembered the strange connection between them, the way he had been able to block the Cetra from reaching Cloud's mind... was that still working, even now, to keep that touch of darkness, that poisoned Lifestream from being able to attack?

The white-haired man's arms tightened protectively around the blonde at the thought, well prepared to defend Cloud against anything, man or monster, or the life of the Planet itself...

//One more shock, just one more will kill him... he /needs/ to recover from all that has happened, before we can even /think/ about moving on...//

"... Seph..." The blonde murmured, cuddling closer in his sleep... "... tell... me... surprise?"

The white-haired man blinked in surprise, and smiled broadly, biting back a chuckle...

//So damned stubborn... so strong... and perfect...//

Sephiroth pressed a gentle kiss against the blonde's forehead, and settled down to catch a few hours of sleep himself. Cloud /would/ fight, down to the bitter end, Sephiroth was sure of that...

//... and he'll never have to fight alone again... I'll make sure of it.//


Anjele's breath left him in a rush as he slammed hard against the metal staircase, leaving the blonde with little ability to cry out as his arm bent painfully underneath him. He continued to tumble, striking his knee, his other arm and his head all mercilessly hard, before landing with a solid smack upon the cold, smooth laboratory floor. The man knew even before he lifted his head that the eyes gazing down upon him felt no pity, nor even real malice. The effort it had taken to throw him was no more for the scientist than brushing off an insect... not with the body he had now.


Anjele tried to crawl back to his feet, but the sharp pain in his wrist, along with the bright specks and dark splotches still swimming in his vision, the aftermath of whatever Hojo had done to him, left him completely disorientated, feeling as if he were submerged in murky water, and he quickly collapsed, breathing raggedly, struggling to focus on the scientist's words...

"Useless fool... why did you come to me? I did not want you."

Anjele frowned, though it was painful to do so... Hojo wasn't being honest, was he? He sounded sincere, but the blonde knew that /something/ had led him here, through the snow, down to the lab, to the scientist's door... how could it not be Hojo?

On the top of the stairs, a few tentacles rustled in sudden anger, contracting, slithering, in what would have been impatient toe-tapping, had Hojo still possessed such weak human limbs as legs.

"... aside from a few embarrassing fantasies, you are not even /entertaining/..."

Anjele cringed at that... it had been swift and breathtakingly vicious, the way Hojo had reached inside of him, nearly torn his mind to shreds in his search for answers... the blonde was half sure he had been saved from insanity only because he didn't resist, let the man search... even when Hojo dug in deep... found jealousies, the roots of those jealousies, that even the blonde had not been truly aware of.

"... I... I c-can't go back..." he finally choked out, teeth chattering with shock, not chills, and Anjele was surprised that he didn't feel the cold here, though he could easily see his breath condense in the air.

//Those cells... the Jenova cells, they're doing this to me...//

A flare of light, the edge of the lens of Hojo's glasses as the scientist sneered down at him... a human head, a pair of arms, all perched atop a mammoth, vulgar pile of tentacles, half insect, half nightmare, glistening black shapes that squirmed and writhed and spoke of hell...

"... do you think I care? Go die somewhere... it is no business of mine."

Anjele had only known the man for a few short moments, but already knew to cower, at the sudden sharp interest, a gleeful sadism in those shiny black eyes.

"You're as big a failure as your father, you know. Some might say more so, if they looked over the full of your life... but I'd say you were just about equal, as those things go."

"... and what have you done, that is so grand?"

It was a stupid thing to say, born of a lifetime of stupidly refusing to take an insult... and Anjele cringed as the beady eyes looked him over - there was such an anger in them - and he knew, /knew/ Hojo would strike him down without a second thought now, gritted his teeth, waiting for the pain...

The scientist laughed, the greasy chuckle almost falling to the floor in a pool of its own slime.

"So long... yes... even /he/ won't argue with me anymore... thinks I don't know, thinks it will keep him safe... yes... very amusing..."

Anjele took a step back, as Hojo's eyes dropped, and the scientist began speaking to himself in a low whisper, as if unaware Heidigger was even there... and the blonde had no idea where he might go, only /away/... as far away from this /thing/ as he could get, as fast as he could run.


The blonde sucked back a sudden scream, as one of the dark tentacles suddenly lunged out like a spear, impossibly fast and far, piercing all the way through his shoulder and pinning him where he stood. Anjele staggered, forced himself not to fall and risk losing his entire arm, choking as he tried to breathe, blood pounding agony in his ears even as it trickled in a warm waterfall down his side...

"What have I done? Nothing that will be remembered... because there will be no one here left to remember it. I have harnessed the powers of the gods, I have become a god, and this planet's energy will make me strongest of all. The universe, it will be mine to command, and eternity itself will bow before me. That is what I have done."

Empty words, too proud to be real... but a sickening conviction lay beneath them, and even with the pain washing through him, Anjele shuddered hard. Down to his core, he realized that, just as he had been willing to give up everything, to be a part of something, he was not strong enough to be a part of this madness... he should /not/ have come here, he should /never/ have tried to make a place for himself here...

//... it's a little late for regrets, moron.//

The tentacle retracted, pulling back through the wound with a horrible slurping sound. Anjele fell to his knees, and dropped onto his stomach, all his limbs titled at horrible angles, but he was too weak to move them, in too much pain to do more than lay and listen to the sound of his own ragged breathing, feeling the warm blood still gushing out, pooling beneath him - how much could he lose and still survive?

//Do I /want/ to survive?//

Hojo was gone, Anjele could tell that even before he inclined his head briefly, staring up to the empty platform high above. It was true... he hadn't even been much of a diversion to the scientist, hadn't given the man any vital information, hadn't done anything except turn himself into something inhuman, and run...

//I can never go back.//

It didn't fill him with any great sense of dread, or sorrow... there wasn't anything for him to go back to... Anjele knew he must have been in shock, as even the idea that he /still/ wasn't a part of things produced only a slight depression... he really wanted nothing more than to sleep... sleep would be a good thing... Dully, his eyes closed... Anjele waited for the darkness, perhaps eternal... the pain in his shoulder was fading, so he assumed he had to be dying...


Fading... god, what a silly waste of a life...

//... come to me...//

A whisper, at the edge of his mind, and Anjele's eyes snapped open, the sound almost repulsive in its unnaturalness... and yet... and yet...

It was slightly easier to move, when he tried again, and Anjele was slowly able to prop himself up, sitting with his back against the wall, and he watched as the wound in his shoulder slowly closed, the skin mending without a scar.

//Jenova cells...//

The blonde man had wondered, even when he had been injecting himself, whether it would work or not... He knew, he remembered that Sephiroth had been engineered from birth to hold his power, that Strife had been bent and broken until he too had fit into his share. A single vial, certianly, could not do what it had done to them...

... but it had, or at least, it had done quite a bit of change. He could hear... hear something calling him, the same thing that whispered to him now that had supplied his strength to kidnap Elena then, that had helped him to escape, strengthened his skin against the bitter cold, fed his starving body on something stronger than mere food... and now, it had healed him, at an accelerated rate that was the match of any SOLDIER's power Heidigger had ever seen.

The blonde slowly raised up his arm, as the last of the damage vanished, twisting it, bending... and feeling no pain.

"Where are you?"

He called out softly, finally rising on slightly trembling legs. No answer... the dark, curved walls did not even echo, gleaming steadily in the low light.

//Where are you?//

Still nothing, not even the faintest whisper of that voice... and Anjele swallowed hard, took a step forward, and another, and another, slowly moving into the inner passages of the lab, the very heart of the Crater, unsure of exactly what he was looking for, or how he could possibly live long enough to see it.





Author's notes: We took the blue pill

1. BadMagick2763... my computer won't let me write mail to you for some reason, but I do say thank you very much for the letter and the review!

2. Yes, Sephiroth's a boxers man. So are Cloud and Zack. So are Reno and Rude and Ro... and Elena, for some reason. Hojo and Anjele, of course, wear briefs. (This should give you some idea of whether I'm a boxers or briefs person.)

3. Hojo's lab: H.R. Giger, all the way.

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