A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
"I wanted to destroy something beautiful."
~ "Fight Club"
The creature watched alertly, glassy, empty eyes always focused on the potential target, tail lashing back and forth, claws tensing now and again, digging up the ground and snow. It had no will of its own, not enough mind to think that the meeting might be dangerous, nothing but a way to lure it closer, into a trap it would never leave. It was only a mouthpiece, a sentry - a show of interest for an unexpected deal.
"... how can we trust you?"
"I fight to win. ShinRa has no chance of defeating Hojo now."
A soft, hissing growl.
"I will bring him what he wants, will that be enough proof for you?"
"I'll bring him to you, but don't dare to think you can question me again. We both know who Jenova still favors - and I don't beg."
A few, scattered footsteps, and the snowy plain was empty once more.
I'm a fountain of blood
In the shape of a girl
You're the bird on the brim
Hypnotized by the whirl
A girl in the slums had one place to go, two if you counted an ugly death in the gutter. Her older sister - aren't they pretty? almost like twins! - had ended that way, and Scarlet sure as hell wasn't going to follow meekly into death. No matter what it took, no matter what it cost, she had her sights set high. The very top.
Heaven. Heaven existed in the promise of the ShinRa tower, rising high and beautiful over the city. The chosen few who worked in the marvelous thrust of that building - not simply, petty workers but gods among men - ruled everything and everyone around them. They drank clean water, breathed in clean air that the winds had touched, not the soupy, smoky mixture stirred lethargically by the hiss and rattle of the ever-present trains in the slums below.
//A train can only run where its tracks take it.//
Bullshit... and if the gods in that steel paradise wouldn't look at her, then she would have to be her own god.
Scarlet was brilliant, as well as beautiful - her long blonde hair and icy eyes got the attention, and her intellect kept it, made people notice her, made them almost afraid to look away. She moved quickly from school to school, skipping grades, pushing forward with her eyes only on the goal. It took hours sometimes, walking in the silence and even more pronounced darkness, and danger, of the early morning, just to sit among those already chosen to be the best and the brightest, working a thousand times as hard as they did, just for the chance to compete.
It didn't take long to earn a reputation, not with her intelligence and her looks, and her temper. Scarlet made absolutely sure it was the right reputation - the ice queen, the cold-hearted bitch - to silence anyone who might say that she had more under her dress than in her head.
Men, for the most part, repulsed her, she despised people in general most of the time. Too many memories still lived fresh in her heart, of her mother's retinue of useless, worthless boyfriends, stacked like dominoes, an endless line of losers. It made the effort to start a relationship a valueless enterprise, a weak shadow to her ultimate goal. The stupid waste of time and effort called 'love' could /only/ ruin things, could only compromise her work, and all she had slaved away to gain. Scarlet was better than that, and knew it, the force of her will and her determination proving it whenever she was neck-and-neck with the competition, which really wasn't often, and growing rarer by the day.
It seemed, in retrospect, a swift rise, but every step she had taken had been a dangerous one, every moment carrying the potential for a fall. In her classes, she had been hated or ignored, and just /getting/ there held its own set of dangers: sneaking out of the house each morning to avoid the inevitable fight with her mother, still half-drunk from the night before - or worse, having to fend off the gropings of whatever smelly, hairy nightmare she'd brought home with her.
Her mother had died when the Meteor hit Midgar. Scarlet had felt a strange, quiet sense of loss - something she never really expected or quite understood, an echo from a deep, secret place - but she mostly ignored it, along with the mass memorial service for all the Midgar victims - bodies were scarce from such a nightmare - and she didn't cry.
Scarlet never cried, no matter how vicious the vertigo that threatened to pull her under, no matter how bleak things seemed to be. Not when her jealous roommate had burned her diploma the day of her ShinRa interview - thankfully, they had copies. Not when she was called inhuman by co-workers, the constant attacks complete with nasty notes passed behind her back, ugly drawings scrawled almost daily on the bathroom stalls.
The blonde woman didn't cry, not even when she was cornered by one of the supervisors, her first real face-to-face confrontation within ShinRa. He had been angry at her, for rejecting his advances, and for the pink slip shaking in his clenched fist - unable to believe they'd fire him, though she was more valuable to them now than his seniority could ever be. The two events, her rejection and the company's downsizing, Scarlet knew, weren't really connected - she'd never thought to complain about his harassment, though she knew he wouldn't believe that now.
Scarlet didn't cry, not when he had hit her, unexpectedly hard, her ears ringing and stabs of pain blasting through her temples as she barely caught herself on the edge of a desk, before he hit her again, and she crumpled to the floor.
Stupid cunt, worthless whore - he snarled the names at her, and she never made a sound, not even when she felt his hands on the buttons of her blouse, pushing her skirt up so roughly that the buckle of her belt scratched her skin, cutting deep into her waist. Why scream? She'd come to the lab that night because it was isolated, to work late. No one would hear, no one would care.
... and she said nothing, as she felt his crushing weight suddenly disappear from on top of her, and heard the sound of smashing glass and metal, pained grunts and swearing swiftly dying down to silence.
Scarlet said nothing, as she was pulled off the floor, head spinning so badly it took her a few moments to realize she was leaning against a white linen suit. It smelled of wealth, strength, power, and she knew who was holding her though the name just refused to come through the shock and the aches and pains. A soft murmur - she had an ear pressed against his chest, could hear the deeper reverberation - asking if she was all right, if she could stand on her own.
//Stand on my own? It's what I'm best at...//
The first time Scarlet had met Rufus ShinRa, it was during her first assignment, when he had come to visit the busy team, and they had barely glanced at each other through the entire inspection. The second time, she passed out in his arms.
Drink me, make me feel real
Wet your beak in the stream
Game we're playing is life
Love is a two way dream
Thinking of the past with anything but nostalgia was rather stupid, especially given the current state of things, Rufus caught in limbo, until Hojo remembered to consign him to oblivion.
The blonde swore softly, as he accidentally pricked his finger with the sewing needle, sucking on it until the bleeding stopped, ignoring the part of him that was howling in fury that he even had to do such a mundane task, that he had fallen this far. A useless task, really, darning even another stitch into clothes that were mostly rags. It kept him feeling human, though, when he knew Hojo wouldn't have cared if he were naked, living like an animal until he died of exposure.
//He'd probably find it amusing, watching me degrade, losing my humanity... he'd think it was funny... the bastard.//
Every day of his life now, he fantasized about the past, about unloading clip after clip right into Hojo's pointy head before any of this could ever come to be.
The menial chore just gave him something to do, to think about, better than most anything else he could put his idle mind to.
//... like her.//
Rufus grimaced. /Yes, like her./ He couldn't hear Aeris screaming from his room, but he knew that somewhere, she probably was, and every time the lights flickered, he winced.
//You're not Rufus ShinRa, you know. You can't be. Rufus ShinRa would never sit here, patching his clothes together like a beggar while she was screaming, while he was torturing her. He's torturing her, you do realize that, right? Right now, he's...//
Rufus threw the jacket down in sudden frustration, resting his head against the wall behind him. He'd been battling inner demons like these since his resurrection - usually laughing bitterly to himself, searching out the ironies as the thoughts assaulted him - the jaded humor was often the only way to tell he was still sane.
It was twice as hard now, Aeris's presence reminding him too clearly of the world that still existed outside of this place, the war that was still going on beyond the Crater. The Rufus ShinRa who used to be...
He scowled violently at the thought.
//The Rufus ShinRa who used to be could /never/ make it here. It's not about pride, only survival. It doesn't matter if... it doesn't matter that she's suffering. I can't save her anymore than I can save myself, if I rush into things without thinking. I still have to wait for a chance.//
It hadn't always been this way, he had to remember that. He could always keep his sanity, if he remembered his past. If he focused on the glory of it, that once he had been a prince, the heir to the throne of the most powerful kingdom that had ever been. The ShinRa Corporation that controlled the entire world... not that his overstuffed idiot of a father had any idea what to do with the power at his command.
//It would have worked, the coup, my rule. I wasn't overzealous, wasn't arrogant, and if I was, then so what? It was my time, damn it, my time to show the world what I could do. I was going to rule it all.//
The thought of that empire - that as long as he was alive, he could start anew - it was one of two memories that kept him going, kept him alive and fighting through the bleak, monotonous passage of day and night.
//The other is... her. Scarlet.// - Rufus smiled, a rare thing, except when he was thinking of her. She had scared him at first, so much, and now, thinking back, he realized he had loved every minute of it.
//It shouldn't be, it really shouldn't be like this, thinking of her this way... I remember, I was ready to have her transferred to Wutai, I was running scared, just so she'd leave me alone... so I could leave her alone.//
Leave me now, return tonight
Tide will show you the way
If you forget my name
You will go astray
Like a killer whale
Trapped in a bay
Thankfully, Scarlet had grown familiar with all the amenities of the rich in all the schools she had attended, otherwise the ShinRa building would have caught her completely off guard. It was still difficult not to stare, at the plush carpet beneath her pumps, the clean, streamlined unity of the entire building, everything in perfect order, all of it sparkling new. She resisted the urge to run to the window and look down on all that she had finally escaped, the places and people she no longer had to worry about, or remember being a part of.
At first, Scarlet hadn't really thought one way or another about those she had left behind, too busy trying to escape them to care. Once she reached ShinRa, though, her disdain had quickly grown, and slowly turned into an uncompromising hatred. Hatred, for those who didn't have the courage or the drive to work for the dream of wealth and power, and then expected Scarlet to care about their pain. She, who had spent years suffering, clawing her way to the top, just for the chance to live a decent life.
If she could, Scarlet would make sure she never had to care about anyone again, anyone weak, at least.
"Hello, Scarlet. You're looking well."
The red dress had been a dare, on her first day on the job, issued by someone who could have made her life hell if she hadn't complied. She had worn it, and after Rufus ShinRa had complimented her on it, she had never gone back.
"Good morning, sir."
If there was one person worth breaking her promise for, one person worth pursuing - oh yes, it was Rufus ShinRa. Sharp, so sharp - yes, he was gorgeous but she had been bored by a thousand pretty, useless men before. He was more than that, more than all of them because of that sharpness and skill, that drive for power.
Scarlet had watched quietly, taken note of his movements within the company, listened to rumors, learned just how deep that need for control went. Rufus was slowly starting to take over, to move the various departments into different directions, expanding ShinRa's power and influence... and doing so without the knowledge, and certainly without the permission of his father.
President ShinRa was a loathsome brute of a man, and Scarlet silently cheered the blonde prince on, waiting for the day he would finally ascend the throne. Once in a while, she'd see him on television, cruising Costa Del Sol in his yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad models and starlets, and smile, as if it were her own personal victory.
"I'll speak with you later, Scarlet."
It was a personal victory, those simple words from him. She knew he'd been courting her, judging her icy intelligence and brutal business sense even before he had saved her from her co-worker's attempted rape.
After that night, she'd been moving nearer to her goal, never in person but through memos, quiet orders placing her in the right departments, shifting her higher and higher up the corporate ladder. Closer to the top, closer to Rufus ShinRa.
Projects were delivered on his stationary, or on blank sheets of paper in his handwriting - weapons testing, information gathering, and Scarlet kept quiet, knew she was no longer working for the same corporation that had hired her.
The trust in those memos and orders was implicit - she could have easily turned him in, and though Rufus would have easily been able to deny it - her proof would most likely evaporate from sight the moment she spoke out - all it would take was one long look in his direction from President ShinRa, and his plans for a takeover would be finished.
Scarlet understood exactly what he was planning to do, even before he'd invited her up, to tell her in person. At least, she thought she had.
An empty conference room, a pitcher of water, and Rufus ShinRa sitting at the head of the long table, icy blue eyes watching her every move, though if anything she only felt more comfortable, his attentions smoothing even the tiniest wrinkles from her elegant step.
"I'm glad you could meet me."
"I'm glad you asked." He rose, pulling a chair back slightly, but Scarlet did not sit, and neither did he, watching her, measuring perhaps, even now. The blonde knew she would not be found wanting. "The room..."
"No one knows we're here... no cameras, no bugs, not unless..."
He reached out, sliding a hand against her shirt, between her breasts, pressing against her breastbone, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"You don't have to worry, sir. I'm not wearing a wire. I want what you want."
"... and what is that?" The touch should not have lasted, but his hand still lay, fingertips warm against the bare skin at the top of her blouse...
... and it was then that she realized that he hadn't been watching her just for his future's sake, simply for the interests of the company.
Scarlet smiled, setting the folder in her hand on the desk - at once certain it would be totally unnecessary.
His blue eyes were like steel.
"The ShinRa Corporation."
She did not resist, as he grabbed her wrist, pulled her into a fiercely passionate kiss. He was brutal in the way of a man who did not know brutality, his passion gentle even at what he must have considered its peak, not a force that knew what it was to hurt a woman.
Scarlet was, quite honestly, surprised.
The pitcher fell to the floor, she saw it roll under the desk as her file flew past, papers fluttering out. Rufus pushed her back against the lacquered top, belt nearly cracking in the air as he removed it in one swift snap. Scarlet reached forward sharply, yanking down on the end of his tie as he pulled his head away, wanting more of those furious kisses, the wet, forceful heat of his tongue in her mouth as they both fumbled with his pants, before she absently remembered to shove her underwear down around her ankles. He was inside her before the red lace thong hit the floor.
Scarlet happily gave him the scream she knew he wanted to hear, gasping back most of the sound but not all, hands white knuckled against the edge of the desk, legs half-wrapped around his back, pulling him closer, gladly matching his rhythm as he rocked deep inside her. In some insane, well-timed maneuver, she managed to draw him forward, breaking away for what seemed like only a single heartbeat, to end up straddling him on top of the desk instead.
Steel blue eyes looked up into hers, first surprise, perhaps even alarm at the shift in positions, and then he smiled, reaching a hand up to drag almost painfully through her hair, freeing it from the confines of the tight, complex style she wore it in each day, sending it down around her shoulders in sweaty curls.
Scarlet bore down against him, arching her hips, delighted to hear him moan, grinding deeper, faster, until she was trembling with pleasure, that lovely warm electricity - it was as nice to /know/ she was fucking Rufus ShinRa as it actually was to be fucking Rufus ShinRa - and when he finally came, hard and fast, and sighed, panting in the afterglow, and pulled her down beside him, her head against his chest, all Scarlet could think was how it would be the next time, that she wanted more.
"How long... how long have you wanted to do this?"
"Since the moment I first saw you, sir."
"No, no sir... just Rufus."
"Since the moment I first saw you, Rufus."
He was vulnerable, she had to be this close to see it, but the mask of disaffection and ego fell away with his smile - a real smile - and even he seemed a bit surprised by it.
"I will make this company mine, you know. Whatever it takes. I'd like you to stand by my side, when that day comes."
She didn't answer, still in the awkward, comfortable position, curled against him on the table, head against his chest. Warm, he was so warm, and his linen shirt was perfectly clean and pressed, his silk tie glistening in the low light of the room. He smelled so nice, not like anything she remembered, not like the slums - nice, the way she'd always dreamed a lover would be, not just a casual affair - not even if it was brief - but something so much better.
A hand touched her hair, low, the part he had pulled free, tangling itself in the ringlets with caution, pensively.
"... and you're going to help me then, Scarlet? Risk all you have, to support me in this?"
"Of course I am... we have..." she yawned, tracing lazy circles on his shirt, "the same heart."
He froze then, and pushed her off of him with that same roughness which was not roughness, scrambling to his feet, those soft steel eyes staring at her with too much emotion for it to ever be threatening.
Scarlet was not afraid, she'd seen true brutality, all around her each day in the slums. It was not beautiful like Rufus was, didn't pause as he did, as if questioning his own anger. When she bent down to pick her underwear off the floor she knew he would not kick her, would not grab her by the hair and throw her against the wall, as if it were the natural thing to do after a moment of passion - she'd seen that, and worse, her mother's terrified whimpers the backdrop of too many childhood memories.
"I don't have a heart."
It wasn't true, his words weren't true, but she waited until his back was turned, until he'd walked out of the room to smile. He was proud, and strong, and perhaps he could be cruel, would be cruel if it brought him closer to what he wanted, but it was not natural for him to be so. Rufus had not grown up with that violence as a fact of life.
//... you do have a heart, Rufus... and I think it likes me.//
He didn't know what she was certain of, that he wouldn't - maybe couldn't - just walk away from her now, that this was only the very start. Or perhaps he did, and that was the reason she was now alone.
I'm a path of cinders
Burning under your feet
You're the one who walks me
I'm your one way street
He couldn't stop himself from wanting her.
Rufus knew, knew that he needed Scarlet more than she needed him - knew that /she/ knew it - and yet he couldn't stop himself. He had tried to tell himself it was over, after that very first time, when he had revealed his weaknesses, when he had made it more than just sex, when he had realized immediately, that she was so much more than a warm body.
It didn't work, and less than a week later they were both skipping out on a ShinRa public function - the most boring parties with the most horrible music - and he was furiously fucking her inside a secluded gazebo, the entire garden wing closed off for the evening. Fucking, yes, if he could just call it that, and just think about it that way, it wouldn't have to mean anything. He wouldn't have to think about how he had let this happen, when -
Scarlet looked up at him, pulling one edge of her dress up a little - he'd ripped it slightly in another moment of the insane passion he still could not explain - smiling at him from where she lay. He tried to convince himself that he had used her, that he was standing over her now as the conqueror, sated, without so much as a wrinkle in his suit, that he was the powerful one, the strong one.
"Why are you so afraid of me, Rufus?"
He had been dumbstruck then, though since that day Rufus had been able to place the emotion, to answer her question in his own mind.
He had lived a life of secrecy, born into it. His father had always been more familiar as an icon, the President, than a man, or as someone who cared for him. Secrecy, and caution, he spent his whole life quietly watching, always tense, as if he himself were being watched, because he knew he was.
Scarlet's secret was that there was no secret. She loved him, or at least wanted him, and nothing else mattered. She had made no attempt to blackmail him, or to manipulate him into believing something she wanted him to - she barely talked at all, really, except to urge him on when they made love, to purr his name as she ran her fingernails down his back. He didn't understand how she could be so open, so ready to love him - and yes, it was frightening. Rufus had always considered himself strong, powerful, but there was a drive and a confidence to Scarlet that he couldn't imagine trying to match.
"It's over. I... I can't do this anymore. I won't."
"You can't let me be with you?" She smirked, resting on the floor as if it were a throne - somehow, he swore, it felt like she was staring down at him, even now. "What, you're not flexible enough for this?"
"No... yes... I mean... damn you." He hadn't been expecting the joke, and his temper flared as she laughed. "... this ends, now."
Scarlet was still laughing as he stormed away, as if she already knew his bad mood would pass, that he would be back.
Two weeks later, she was in his arms, in his bed, and stayed there until well into the morning.
I'm a whisper in water
Secret for you to hear
You are the one who grows distant
When I beckon you near
It had been funny, Scarlet thought now, that she had been the strong one, though really, it couldn't have turned out any other way. The blonde couldn't afford that weakness, because with Rufus as her lover nothing was easy, and everything that had been difficult got much worse.
Once the rumors started to spread, life became fierce, people who had ignored her were now her sworn enemies. Even more dangerous were the people she didn't know by name, hired thugs quietly watching her, on behalf of President ShinRa.
Scarlet was almost relieved, that she and Rufus had never really defined a relationship, as she soon ran out of time to even think about him, romance and passion both lost beneath paperwork. It was all the President's work, no doubt, her assignments got tougher, deadlines became tighter and budgets slimmed down. Scarlet fought to keep her team together, each time the talk of cutbacks loomed... and in the end she had to pay for it, for all of it - in the flames of North Corel.
It had bothered Rufus more than her, really, the destruction of the former mining town. Scarlet had long since stopped caring about the poor, pathetic workers - the dregs who had scorned her for working so hard to raise herself up, always whining that they weren't given the same chances to succeed - as if she had ever been /given/ anything.
The unquestioning hatred was just enough to keep her from caring, as she led ShinRa in completely demolishing the town... she'd even been the one to force that AVALANCHE member to take up a gunarm - she'd killed his friend, she'd watched him fall... she'd felt very little about the whole thing.
//Life is tough. Life is hard, and if you're in the wrong place, you suffer. It's just what happens.//
Scarlet lived by that cold, hard principle, knowing just as easily it could have been her falling that day, that at any time things could change and she could be out in the streets, in the slums, dead.
Rufus wasn't hard like that, he'd been toughened by the business, by the simple challenge of being Rufus ShinRa, but she was still sure that when he went to sleep, he didn't dream of begging for money, and rooms with no heat, or of a pimp threatening to slit his throat, or worse, if he didn't pay up.
"I've been needing to talk to you."
Rufus had met her in a small bar, just off the main street that all but led to ShinRa's doors. Everywhere on the plate, really, eventually led to ShinRa. Midgar, the center of the universe, the peak of power and knowledge and control.
The tower, holding dominion even over the sky... where they were going to stage the greatest coup of all time.
"How is it going? The board has reconsidered? Did you put pressure on them, to think of who their real friends are?"
"Yes..." Rufus muttered abstractly, moving past the table before she could sit down, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. "I don't want to talk about that now. I want to talk about us."
"Stop being so fucking coy, Scarlet." He seemed embarrassed by the outburst, turned his eyes from hers for a moment. "I want... I want you to move in with me. I'm worried, and I don't think it's safe, where you are. You've been making a lot of enemies lately."
"... that's why we can't /do/ anything. We can't make it look like anything's changed."
It had always been important to keep up the appearance, that the blonde businessman neither knew nor cared for anyone or anything. Scarlet was more than willing to foster that opinion - it would help him in the takeover, to frighten whomever would not listen to reason into following him, fearing the wrath of such a heartless man.
The rumors that followed their relationship, no matter how vicious, were always light on details and truth, and usually one-way, that she was either in love with the President's son, and he would have nothing to do with her, or that he was using her for his own pleasure, keeping her in a position of power only as convenience. She was either a fool, or it was true that even the ice queen was too afraid to tell Rufus ShinRa no.
None of them knew the truth, the depth of the honest, worried look in his eyes now, or the careful way he studied her face. "I worry about you, Scarlet. You can't expect nothing to happen, eventually, someone will..."
"I'm not afraid, Rufus. No one would dare try anything." She carried a gun, ever since that first attack, and made sure everyone knew it. "... besides, your father hates me."
"He-he doesn't mind."
The prince's composure failing, over her? Scarlet smiled, leaning into his touch. "He doesn't mind?"
"He thinks you're my whore."
She chuckled, nuzzling his neck slightly. "I wouldn't mind being your whore." His hands tightened on her shoulders.
"... don't ever say that."
Scarlet nearly laughed again, pleasantly surprised by the vehemence in his voice. "I think you misunderstand your importance to me, Rufus." It hurt him, she knew it, and so refused to let him go as he tried to pull away.
"I want to help you take over the corporation, and I /want/ to be with you, every step of the way, and for the rest of my life, I hope... but you're not my air, Rufus, you're not the ground that I walk on or the reason that I breathe."
"I know that... I do, it's just..."
"You care about me." She kissed him once, and again, smiling. "It's all right, you know. It's all right to care."
He wasn't sure about that, she could tell, and he might never be sure, might never be able to really trust her. If she was willing to accept that, though, she stood to gain everything else, everything she'd ever wanted.
... and Scarlet did want to gain, did want what he was offering, things no company and no position could give her, that she wanted from him alone. At the end of the day, she was a woman, not a creature of steel and ice - and she thought their children would be beautiful.
All further plans were postponed, along with any arguments, and though they went immediately back to his penthouse, they never made it further than the elevator - and with his hands on her hips, joined together in a delightful passion - so gentle, he never really understood how gentle he was - he asked again, the softest murmur, to be with him, to be safe... and this time she said yes.
//... you're not the air that I breathe.//
The words had been true, then, and in the next few months, and even as their plans came to a stunning, unforeseen climax - President ShinRa discovered, with Sephiroth's sword sticking out of his back.
It had been a rather disturbing opening to Rufus's reign, a bad omen delivered with a side of AVALANCHE, disturbing even if one didn't believe in such signs... and just the beginning of the fall, she could see that now.
//It was a mixed blessing... but we took it. Whatever they say about us, whatever our legacy, my legacy... I was /never/ overconfident. All I did, I did in a show of strength. I always knew what might happen to us... to him.//
The President's death had left them free and clear to take control of ShinRa. Rufus had been strong, confident, even with everything seeming ready to crumble around them, Heidigger and Palmer no doubt making plans of their own, should the blonde prince think even to stumble.
Scarlet smiled, remembering how easily the two cowards had been reined in with one of the new President's icy glares. As for Hojo... well, the limits to what that bastard had done, how far he had managed to go, in attempting to destroy them all, that no one would learn, until much later...
Sitting alone now, planning strategies in Costa Del Sol - soon to return to North Corel, the town she had both destroyed and rebuilt - only now was it clear who the real enemy had been. All along, someone should have kept an eye on Hojo, but they had all been too busy with the coup to think of him, and President ShinRa had never seen the danger in such a man, precisely the inattentive leader Rufus had hated all along.
... and Scarlet had been strong, yes, stronger than that man's hatred and stronger than an entire world. Stronger than the slums of Midgar, and stronger than all that had tried to hold her back.
She had been able to fight everything that challenged her - everything, except the WEAPON that had come so suddenly, that Rufus had been determined to defeat - both to show his power, and to save the city.
Responsible, in the end, he had felt responsible for his people, and had given his life in their name.
//Gentle... you were more gentle than me, to the very end, and I always thought I knew... what might happen to us, to you, what I would feel, how I would go on. I knew... I thought I knew...//
Scarlet realized, only in the moment Rufus ShinRa had died, that she had known nothing, nothing at all.
I'm a tree that grows hearts
One for each that you take
You're the intruder hand
I'm the branch that you break
The only thing worse than the screams, Rufus realized, was when they stopped abruptly, and all he could do was wait, all other thoughts held up by that waiting. Waiting for Aeris to scream again. Waiting for a sign, that something had happened, that Hojo had pushed things too far, and that maybe she was out of his reach.
He jumped, nearly screaming himself as the lights flickered again and the sound of Aeris's cries, the Lifestream's pain echoed down the long corridor, hovering around him, just outside the glow of the dim light he now carried in the otherwise dark tunnel. The attack had not stopped Hojo, but it had made moving through his fortress that much more difficult, debris everywhere, some of the narrower tunnels completely blocked.
Thankfully, his stores of food, and source of snow for fresh water was safe. Rufus shivered as he scraped off handfuls of the wet slush, holding the makeshift bucket between his knees and the wall to catch it. The motions were swift and sure, long practiced - though he paused every now and again at phantom noises, any one of them perhaps one of Hojo's creatures, ready to attack...
It had been a long, long time since the scientist had bothered to provide him with food or water, and Rufus was always afraid that Hojo's lax attention had extended further, to making sure one of Jenova's spawn didn't mistake him for a snack.
//... not much of one, not for a while now.//
He had been thin, muscular and handsome once, but little remained of that, of him, his entire body now undernourished, sallow, ugly... He had dreams, horrible nightmares of his skin turned to pale, fleshy wax, slowly dripping down over his bones, in through his rib cage, where his vital organs had been, his heart - that it wasn't only a physical loss, but mental - this place was a part of him now, a world he could never escape.
//It's no use thinking like that, you know. It doesn't do you any good, it doesn't change what is.//
No, it didn't change tonight, or tomorrow, it didn't change that he needed to creep to the remaining storage coolers for his daily rations in the morning, or pull down snow again for the afternoon - a little more if he wanted to take a bath or wash something. It didn't change that there was nothing he could do to save Aeris, that he was still trapped here, alone.
//It's looked bleaker, and you've heard that bastard laugh like that before... and then Cloud or Zack comes up with some crazy ass scheme and saves everyone.//
Rufus clung to that single grain of hope, as he clung to Scarlet's memory, to the possibility of returning to that time and that panic and that uncertainty - back to her, please God, back to her.
If there was a world left to meet her in.
It took Anjele a very long time to crawl his way through the tunnels, following the barest whisper of Jenova's energy, knowing instinctively the path she had taken. He was crawling, dragging his unresponsive body along the stone, knuckles scraping painfully against the rock, exhausted but unable to stop himself from moving forward. A biological need, to serve her now - but really, he thought, it was even more than that. No part of him argued against his actions, not after what he had seen - what she /really/ was - and he wanted to be at her side.
Slowly, the blonde regained at least a little of his strength, eventually able to climb, albeit painfully, to his feet. It was an effort, and he swayed slightly, nearly falling as he tried to keep his balance, fighting not to lean too hard on the slime-covered walls.
The lights overhead suddenly flickered, swaying wildly, a series of sharp, explosive tremors shaking the entire complex, dust and pebbles falling in a light rain, making him cough. Anjele turned, heart leaping into his chest at a sudden, terrible scream - but it was only the steel beams in the tunnels behind him, buckling and bending as they attempted to handle the strain of a potential cave-in.
He could sense next to nothing of the alien at the moment, whether the tremor had been of her doing or completely beyond her control. Perhaps, in her incorporeal state she could not affect him the same way, or too much of her attention had been turned elsewhere - he didn't understand enough, to know what might be wrong. It was a strange sensation that drove him forward again, almost like abandonment - and at that thought, the need to find her became even stronger.
Anjele realized where he was finally headed, as more lights began to appear, lining the walls high above, soon dwarfed by a much brighter light, from a central room at the tunnel's end. Hojo's lab.
He wasn't that surprised, that the scientist was at the center of whatever it was that was happening, but the blonde could still be horrified at the thought of having to face him. He paused for a moment, body remembering the ropelike tentacle that had slammed through his chest, leaving him like a bug, pinned and twisting.
//Jenova needs you, you can't stop here. You were talking to her, you...//
He could stop this, all of this, if he could just make the alien woman understand. Somehow no longer being around people, and having to defend the human race to Jenova had made winning the war valuable to him, in a way it had never been before. If he could only continue speaking to her, then maybe...
The charitable thought, along with all others, perished in shock as he reached the main chamber.
It was a spectacle to eclipse the best of science-fiction classics, the entire center platform of computers rising up like an enormous lightning rod, arcs of electricity leaping from the high poles and rails surrounding each level, smaller sparks falling nearly to his feet.
Hojo stood at a center platform, the multiple limbs below his torso all gesturing wildly, performing a variety of actions, all of which seemed to center around a massive, empty tube. Anjele couldn't see exactly what he was doing, the electrical storm kept him from moving any closer, but the tumult seemed to be coming to a head, more and more lightning, more and more sparks - he couldn't believe any of the computers were working, let alone all chasing the same set of circulating numbers.
Anjele gasped, a heavy, twisting feeling saturating the air, a sudden pressure drop that forced his eyes skyward, watching a shimmer of light, a shadow flicker near the ceiling, so swift he thought it must have been an errant spark, though it didn't look...
He watched in awe, as the shimmer returned, rippling itself into a wide, glowing pool that slowly began to cover the ceiling. Pure, green liquid, but it glowed as if burning, beautiful in a way he had never seen, could not imagine - and yet it felt wondrously familiar.
//Lifestream... it /is/ the Lifestream... but here? How?//
He realized something was wrong, as dark, shifting puddles, bubbling here and there wherever they touched the edges of the green, blocked the green pool from moving further, pushing in on it, crowding it down. The Lifestream rippled, dipping lower as it was herded away from the ceiling, shifting and shining and /screaming/.
Anjele went pale at the sound, snatching his hand away in horror, from the wall that was still only wall, though he could barely keep his feet after doing so, the tremors returning with a vengeance, his ears ringing from the horrible howls from above.
The wide drop of luminescence descended over the mouth of the tube, growing larger, distended - Anjele blinked, staring - something, someone /inside/!? Yes, and the dark shadow was struggling in the green, fighting, but it was no use, Anjele could already see that.
Red lights flickered on around the base of the platform, belatedly announcing that a tremendous event was occurring, even as the Lifestream finally lost its hold on the ceiling, half tumbling and half sliding, like a high wind, slamming into the tube. A howl rose up once more, not the scream of before, a wild keen of joy from all around him. A cry of victory from the darkness, as a wide seal slammed down upon the top of the jar, imprisoning whatever poor soul had been fighting for its freedom.
Anjele screamed - thankfully drowned out by the last few creaks of metal, an alarm still blaring somewhere - at a soft touch, brushing against his shoulder. He leapt, turning, to see Jenova's body standing behind him, swaying slightly at the mouth of the tunnel, before calmly stepping forward into the chaos.
He lunged forward, trying to stop her, but a last flicker of lightning darting along the floor sent him scurrying back to safety.
Jenova's empty body did not stay so for long, Anjele watched as the air around her shifted, the invisible change just as when she had left him for this place, for whatever had happened here. Thin limbs contracted and stiffened, and with no sound at all the woman crumpled to the ground. He could sense, now, sense... no, there was... /nothing/? Anjele's eyes widened, though he could feel her presence again, there was no power within her, a void - something had happened, before he could get to her.
"Jenova...?" He grimaced, broken from his shock as she slowly rose, and started up the staircase, toward the top, the Lifestream... and Hojo.
If she heard him, either in the echoing cave or in her mind, she made no note of it. Anjele bit his lip, frozen still on the cavern's edge, afraid to move beyond the remote safety of his hiding place, but with every cell in his body pulling him forward, demanding he move.
Bracing himself, Anjele cautiously stepped out, surprised as he moved forward, at the lack of damage to the lab, for all the tremors and electrical buildup. There was a burnt-out screen here and there, and the noises, creaking bars and crackling live wires, a few lights still winking in singular distress, but as a whole, the room was relatively unscathed.
The most prominent sound, he soon realized, was not a machine or a section of damaged platform moaning its distress, but a voice, Hojo's voice, muttering to itself, the sound echoing through the massive cavern in a mind-numbing rumble. Anjele cringed, unable to stop from following the woman already at the second platform, but just as incapable of moving faster, trailing behind, desperate to catch her attention before Hojo noticed him.
Jenova never paused, never looked back, moving swiftly all the way up to the top platform, and even there she didn't hesitate. Anjele froze again at the final step, turned his gaze to Hojo, the scientist busy at a machine - a bank of machines - along the far wall, his back turned... but for how long?
Again, no answer, and he could see that her final destination was the now-glowing cylinder, as without hesitation she reached out, her hand already wiping a thin layer of condensation off the glass... and she pressed her cheek to it, her body to it, a sculpture of absolute sorrow. Anjele saw the swirling green vapor behind her coalesce - eyes, so sad and so benevolent, staring out at him... if the Lifestream could be a person, it would be the woman he saw, watching him silently through the glass.
"... what the... you stupid /bitch/!"
No time, Anjele had been watching, anticipating, and still there was no time to act, as Hojo turned, and took only two steps, massive body elongating in disturbingly unnatural ways, pincers digging into the metal with a sharp screech - he'd changed shapes slightly, even since Anjele had seen him last - and a tentacle lashed out from nowhere, picking off Jenova with amazing precision, throwing her away from the glass cage. The blow cracked painfully hard as it landed, the woman flying back, off the top platform, onto the one below with a dull thud.
Anjele ran, scrambling down the stairs as Hojo leapt over the top rail much too quickly, impressively mobile even in his twisted, amalgamated form, but the blonde still managed to reach Jenova's crumpled body first, and swiftly moved in front of her as the scientist slammed onto the floor in front of them.
Anjele threw his arms up in a pathetic gesture of protection as Hojo reared back - the scientist had his choice of ways to kill him - and Anjele braced himself, waiting for the end with his eyes wide open, staring down Hojo, too frightened to be anything but a little light-headed, surprised at himself.
Hojo's eyes narrowed, and very slowly he relaxed, lowering himself back down onto his front claws. Anjele didn't move, couldn't move, expecting death at any moment despite the scientist's sudden change of mood.
"What are you..." He wasn't looking at Anjele, but at the form the blonde could hear stirring on the metal grating behind him. "You would have chosen to join her, wouldn't you? You... really /wanted/..."
Anjele blinked, staring - for a moment, it almost sounded... what, wistful, hurt, human? The heartbeat's worth of surprise fractured, and shattered as Hojo began to laugh, a sea of deep, maniacal chuckles that rolled through the lab, until it was as thick as the dark Lifestream that still dripped here and there from the ceiling, eating holes in the already pockmarked floor.
"Trash... debris, nothing. It isn't even worth the time, not worth my time..." Rubbing two tentacles together in a way that made Anjele slightly nauseous, the scientist turned away, still muttering to himself, moving swiftly back up the stairs to the top platform, to the Lifestream and his new prisoner.
Anjele watched only long enough to insure Hojo truly was gone, quickly moving to Jenova, putting an arm around her shoulders and helping her to stand.
"We have to go. We can't stay here."
He couldn't move for a moment, as she demanded he stay, forcing her power on him, demanding they return... but whatever had happened before, it had drained her, and the demand faded, one cool hand coming to rest on his neck as she drooped against him, spent.
/No. We do not leave./
//He'll kill you.// Anjele hadn't been entirely sure of the balance of power between them, but he was damn sure now - Jenova had none. //He'll kill you if we stay.//
/... but... her.../ She tried to show him, images flickering through his mind like watercolor on glass, too thin, almost transparent, the girl, the girl...
//I know she's important, but it won't do any good to die here. I promise I'll help you, Jenova. We'll save her. I /promise/.//
He sent her the steadiest image he could, that he would stand by her side no matter what happened - he feared they would die in the attempt, stopping Hojo, saving the girl behind the glass - but if it was what she wanted...
//I will be with you, and you alone, until the end of the world.//
Jenova said nothing else, endless eyes staring blankly, responding to nothing he said or did as he struggled to move her quietly down the stairs and back into the relative safety of the caverns. The woman did not react, even when he ducked into the shadows, as another figure appeared, moving toward the lab - not a monster this time but a man, although pale and worn enough to be a ghost.
Of course, Anjele knew who it was at first glance. He'd grown up alternately despising and wanting nothing more than to be Rufus ShinRa, but as the man passed them this time he felt nothing, not hatred or surprise or relief at seeing another human... because Rufus was the only human left here now. He was a servant of Jenova, dedicated to her, now hoping only to find a quiet, dark corner where they could rest, praying that Hojo had by now forgotten all about them.
//Banana... pickle... put the lime in the coconut and drink it all down.//
It was amazing, the worse the situation, the more Zack's brain tried to entertain him, to create any sort of distraction that could help keep him in the proper perspective - that everything changed, that nothing was too serious not to be laughed at.
//There's always a way to make things all right.//
Optimism in the face of all odds, it had brought him through Wutai, and Hojo's lab, and the new war against the mad bastard, to now. The worst times, the worst odds - he knew there was a way to get through this, there had to be.
Right now, though, Zack had no idea what it was, and had to content himself with the only thing he could think to do at 3 a.m. - slap down two slices of bread and empty the rest of the refrigerator on top of them.
//Ham... swiss cheese... capicola... peppers... salami...//
He ignored Tifa's call, the muscles between his shoulders tensing in a very specific way - if she found him, they would fight, and he didn't have the energy to keep it from happening. Hell, at this point he didn't really much care either way, most of his energy was still going into trying not to think about what he had learned, about Cloud...
//It isn't fair.// He squeezed his eyes shut tightly at the weight in his chest, a prelude to tears he was just too weary to cry, a depression that was breathtaking, and absolute. //Goddamn it, it just isn't fair.//
True to his word, he hadn't said anything, had kept his angry promise to Sephiroth. Watching the meeting, he felt like an outsider as Cloud and Cid and Reeve and Scarlet and the rest of them made battle plans - it was important to return as soon as possible, they'd all decided, but all he could think about was how it wasn't soon enough, it really didn't matter anymore.
He watched Cloud like a hawk, but his friend was fine now. Just as Melissa had said, he seemed to have forgotten all about what had happened, all that he had said about Aeris and Hojo, all that pain. The man showed no signs of ill health, and more than once Zack had tried to convince himself it had all been a nightmare, that if he forgot about it then it would be as if it had never happened at all.
Melissa, and Sephiroth, and himself, the only three people in the world who knew that something was wrong, and Melissa had been holed up in her lab ever since, surrounding herself with metal and phosphors and silence, and Sephiroth...
//... oil and vinegar, relish, lettuce, onion... a few mandarin orange slices... dash of seasoned salt...//
The distraction wasn't working, it didn't take his mind off the meeting, or the fact that he could distinctly hear Tifa's footsteps coming closer.
//Alone, I'm all alone in this... Sephiroth's gone glacial, totally unreachable, not that I can really blame him.//
He only hoped the white-haired man wasn't doing the same to Cloud - damn it, if they all hadn't been so busy, he would have made sure of that... but could he really talk to the blonde now, either? Could he possibly make it work, while having to keep such a secret from him?
//... there's got to be a way, there's got to be a way to save him. We'll push forward, we'll fight hard. We got the plan through, Sephiroth even got us planned for fifty miles closer to the Crater, with another three-thousand Wutai troops to back us up.//
The most liberal and far-reaching of their plans had been unanimously voted in. Zack had spent much of the time since then straining - and failing - to remember if he'd seemed unnaturally eager about making as much headway to the Crater as possible, if he'd let on any of what he knew.
//I can't tell him, I just can't. It wouldn't matter if Cloud knew or not, it wouldn't change a thing. All it would do is scare him, and hurt him, to think that Aeris was being hurt, and he doesn't need any more of that. God, it hurts /me/ to think about it.//
"So, here you are!"
Tifa was trying her best at happiness, her voice cheerfully scolding, hands at her hips, but he just couldn't try, he only found it irritating. It was too late, he was too tired, and he just knew things were going downhill, as if he had stepped into thick, cold mud and couldn't help but slide.
"I needed a midnight snack."
"... for which army?" Tifa murmured, staring at the already impressive height of the sandwich still under construction, and the impressive pile of ingredients and condiments left to add.
He didn't answer her, knew he should have come up with something funny to say, some way to keep this light, knew she was watching him, and that if he looked up he'd see the worries in her eyes, the questions...
"Reeve's private presidential pantry... too good to ignore, I suppose. I can't sleep... thinking about the front, and... things."
"Mm... what kinds of things?"
It was a loaded question, and as she moved to sit across the table from his engineering marvel of a midnight snack, Zack moved back, grabbing a pan from the rack above his head, and an egg and butter from the refrigerator.
"What are you doing?"
"Frying an egg, for the top..." he muttered, rubbing the stick in the dark pan until it shone, needing to keep his hands occupied, trying his best not to look at her. He was starting to relax a little, though, Tifa hadn't come in immediately asking questions he didn't want to answer, maybe this might be all right.
"You seemed really uptight in the meeting today."
He pushed at the edges of the egg with the spatula for a moment, before turning to face her - and the claim she threw at him like a perfect right hook.
"You're hiding something from me, Zack. I'm not going to bother to tell you, that I /know/ it... and I'm not happy about it."
//Oh, so the little princess isn't happy...//
He was grateful his face would never betray those petty, nasty thoughts... God, he must be tired, for his temper to be this short.
One hand in his hair, but the pause and the gesture of feigned surprise didn't help him think of anything new to say. It was just too much to take, to try and think of an excuse, to think of anything. He briefly missed the days of the Wutai war, when Seph and he had been in the same bad moods they had /never/ talked to each other, just brooded in a silent understanding until things resolved themselves. He doubted Tifa would think it was a good idea now.
"I really... I mean, this is just /really/ not a good time."
"It won't be a good time in a few days, when we ship off back to the front. It won't be a good time after that, when we're shoulder-to-shoulder with yet another well-rested army of Hojo's, doing everything it can to keep us from the Crater." The brunette's voice was cracking, there was something unnaturally sharp and angry in her eyes - she'd been thinking about this, brooding just as he had, but her frustration had turned into anger...
//... and since she thinks I'm lying to her, it's going to all come out at me, because I can't tell her the truth. Hell, maybe she already knows I can't say anything.//
"You can't be pissed off because we have to fight. You're angry that we have to go back out there?"
It was the cowardly way to read her words, and put Tifa on the defensive, but he also knew it might just get her mind off the fact that he hadn't answered her - that he /was/ keeping secrets.
"So what if I am?! So what if I don't want you to get killed out there, Zack?" Hazel eyes flashed, Tifa scrambling from her seat, still glaring at him from across the table. "I remember my father talking, about all the young men he knew who fought in the Wutai war, and didn't come back. What's to keep you from becoming one of them, any day now? You left someone else in charge up there, while we came back for this meeting, why not let them stay there? Why not take a break, like Cloud did?"
"It wasn't like a fucking vacation, Tifa! Cloud would have cracked if he hadn't left, you know that!"
"It's about all I do know, Zack! All I know is what you tell me, or what I find out, when you can't keep the truth from me anymore! So what is it this time, Zack? What's so horrible that you can't let me know? What's so secret, that you think I can't keep it to myself?!"
"It isn't like that, Tifa." Zack tried to lower his voice, putting both hands on the table, gripping the top until his fingers ached. "It's just... damn it, I just /can't/ tell you now. I promise, once it's over..."
"So what if it's never over? Will I have to wait until then?"
Zack snarled, heard the top of the table creak and splinter slightly as he pulled it up from the base, a SOLDIER's power turning even the slightest gesture, a shift of angry muscles, into something threatening. The dark-haired man let the plank of wood go, slapping his hands on the top instead, fury sliding the words around in his mouth but refusing to let any come out.
"Bullshit... damn it, Tifa I am not having this bullshit argument with you now!"
"Oh, so now my opinions are bullshit!?"
"Quit it! God, Tifa, would you just listen to yourself?!" Zack glared at her, refused to blink until he'd stared her down, the look in her eyes changing from obstinate to sullen as she finally lowered her gaze.
"Listen, I know you're upset, and that you don't understand, but goddamn it this war isn't about you and how you feel! Would you just trust me, that I care about you. I do, okay? I love you, but there are things I just don't want to fucking talk about! We've just got to keep going, even when we don't understand, even when it hurts and is ugly and unfair-" he paused, wondering when this speech had stopped being about her, his voice shifting to a low murmur.
"We've got to keep fighting, even when it doesn't make any sense... and I can't stop. I won't stop fighting, not ever. My death is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what will happen if we lose."
//... but I still can't lose you, can I, Cloud? I can die in combat and so be it, but I can't watch you waste away. I'll do anything to stop it. I can sit here and lie to Tifa about such fine principles, when all I want to do is not lose my friend.//
Zack wasn't sure Tifa was going to answer him, and with the way her fists were clenched he wondered if she wasn't going to try and hit him. After a moment, she closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
"Your egg is burning."
By the time he turned toward the stove she was already to the door. He shouted after her, but she never turned back, and Zack shouted again, as his hand hit the screamingly hot handle of the pan - good food, crappy cookware Reeve! - and the remains of a badly burned egg dropped first onto his pants, before splattering nicely across the kitchen floor.
It was really only fair - Zack thought, staring at the sudden mess - that when life was sucking in some amazingly profound and far-reaching way, that the regular days would also become less bearable, to make sure no important details were missed.
Absurdity... this he could deal with, the absurdity of now smelling like a burnt egg himself, as he shut off the stove, returned the pan to the burner and began crawling around on his hands and knees to clean up the mess. Absurdity, and Zack grinned, a very small smile, the egg crumbling around his good hand, his other still stinging from the hot pan.
//Well, I suppose, from right here, right now... things can only get better.//
It often took the entire world crumbling, to see even a speck of hope beyond.
Hojo had been right, all along, hadn't he? After all Sephiroth had done, fighting against it, being overcome by it, he had thought he'd escaped all the things that bastard could do to him.
He was wrong - but a person could only escape from something that wasn't true, right? What did it mean for him, then, if it hadn't been false? If the scientist hadn't been lying?
Sephiroth tried to deny it, defer it, but deep down he knew it wasn't a mistake, that things had happened the only way they could have... because Hojo had been right. Everything the man had done, everything he had tried to do - it had been right, and Sephiroth had been the fool.
He could barely even /look/ at Cloud anymore, not when he knew how fragile the man was, how close each moment stood to absolute disaster. The man's quiet silence angered him now more than ever, the way he so patiently took whatever scraps of attention were offered... it was irritating, when he should have demanded so much more.
The blonde's submissiveness only highlighted every flaw Sephiroth could see in his own personality. Cloud never said a word, no matter how thin his lover's temper stretched, how short or dismissive his words, nothing. The man was patient, understanding - it was by far the most annoying thing he could have done.
Especially now, that he was... that Cloud was going to...
//I can't stop it.// The meeting with Melissa skipped like a record, a nauseating melody in his mind, every second of every day. //I can't save him.//
Hojo had been right, to kill any desire for human emotion, to walk away from all his ties. Abandoning it for delusions of grandeur - even if it brought him nothing in the end - it was so much better than fighting to be normal could ever be, when all it brought in the end was the same pain anyway.
Sephiroth wondered what it might be like, not to care, what it had been like, when he had been insane and driven and soulless. At times, he found himself pondering the madness that seemed so very much like peace.
//You chose that way before, remember? It was why Jenova was able to do all that she did, massacring all those people, destroying Cloud's life in your name.//
Had it really turned out so much /better/ this time?
All he had fought for, all the army had suffered for, there was a good chance now that it would end in agony. In fact, it was all but guaranteed. All caring had given him, in the end, was vicious disappointment. He had found the only other person who could love him back, had found that impossible unity, and now he would lose it forever, as easily as breathing.
No matter what happened... he would probably lose it all.
Sephiroth had to harden his heart, to forget what he could and ignore what he could not, to cut down the softness, tear away the gentleness. It was the only way to save himself.
It was the only way to save anything.
Cloud watched the gleaming curve of the Masamune hover effortlessly in the air, Sephiroth a living statue, moving the blade as always, with an unreal speed and grace. Zack had said Cloud had grown that good, though the blonde could never believe it... there were some things that were just impossible to take as truth.
It seemed only moments ago, not weeks, that he'd been down there, practicing alongside the man, and only moments before that he'd been watching - fifteen and yearning, and frightened, and blindly desperate for anything that might get him closer, not even close enough to talk, to hope... just closer.
//... full circle, hm?// The blonde closed his eyes, feeling a much-too-sharp sorrow rising in his chest, the grief far too heavy, when nothing had happened.
//Everything is fine. He hasn't yelled at you, he hasn't given any sign...//
The blonde was up in the shadows, though, with Sephiroth far below, the white-haired man seeming as untouchable as ever. He'd thought there were no more barriers between them, he'd felt so comfortable...
//When did it go wrong?//
/Hypersensitive... nothing's wrong. Nothing's wrong. Has he said anything, done anything to make you this worried? You're still the one in bed with him at night... there's nothing wrong... nothing./
Nothing. The body beside his was still warm, flawless, but Sephiroth hadn't reached out to him, for even so much as a simple kiss, in far too long a time to be normal, wouldn't even lay close to him as he always had before, as if afraid to even touch him...
//Afraid, or unwilling.//
Cloud had finally offered, not with words so much as a tentative caress, something inside of him crumbling at the way the green eyes stared into his own - emotionless, walled off, as if he were any other stranger in the world.
The gesture had done something, meant more than he realized, and Sephiroth had suddenly kissed him, pulled him close, the mood changing from frigid to passionate in the span of a heartbeat. It had not been rough - Cloud didn't think the other man, odd as it sounded, had it in him to be rough that way - but the man's touch had been fierce, possessive. No matter how the blonde tried to lose himself in the passion and pleasure of it, he couldn't help noticing there was something desperate there, something dark and secret in his lover that had not been there before. Whatever it was, Cloud wasn't allowed to touch, to ask, or know.
//Secrets in his past, maybe. Who knows what life shows him, what he has to remember, that you'll never see? Be gentle with him, you'll learn in time. Be silent, be patient, be understanding.//
It wasn't all that difficult, he'd been playing the double role for so long now, but something in him had changed, not wanting to stand by, to wait for the other man to make a move. The tiny voice that had been fostered inside of him, born by Zack's kindness and support and fueled with each of Sephiroth's kisses, each embrace, told him not to be silent now. Being afraid of Sephiroth wasn't fair to either of them, not when the white-haired man had been so plain, that he wanted Cloud to be honest.
//... but people change. Silence is something everyone likes, a silent person is the one nobody minds. If they say otherwise, they never really mean it. No one likes a whiny person, no one likes an annoyance.//
/People can stop loving people, sometimes./
It was, in the end, a useless argument, when it was impossible to look up in those glowing eyes, staring back so impassively at him, and not freeze, not choke up. Life contained no greater punishment, than disappointing the one he loved in any way. Cloud knew he would rather die than face it.
//... rather... die.//
... and that was at the root of his fears, wasn't it? The fear that Sephiroth's silence wasn't caused by some disturbing memory or some personal grief - not when Cloud couldn't think of what might have brought about such a change, nothing unusual besides his unexpected collapse, and that had only been exhaustion, lasted less than a day.
//It started then, though... Am I too weak? Is that it? ... but he's seen me that way before?//
What if Sephiroth had decided that he just didn't love Cloud anymore, and didn't know how to say it? He was a good man, an honorable man... what if he was afraid Cloud would hurt himself again, if he told the truth?
//I'd go on, though, to make him happy... I would never let him take that burden of guilt upon himself.//
He would smile, he would go on, smiling while he was dying inside. He'd done it before.
The thought though, of losing Sephiroth for any reason... Cloud shuddered, wrapping his arms around his body tightly, still alone in the room above the small training hall. He'd wondered now and again, whenever he'd been pondering impossible things, if it would be easier to leave Sephiroth now that he'd known true love. Would he be able to go on, with the memory of what had been wonderful to keep him strong?
Cloud shook his head gently to himself, deep down he'd always known that, the thought selfish but true, he could not go on alone.
Blue eyes snapped up, as Sephiroth finished his routine, quietly leaving the room, turning the lights out behind him. The blonde barely blinked, eyes adjusting comfortably to the darkness - he could still see nearly everything. It wouldn't be too long before he'd have to leave, for another meeting, or a sortie - things were going so well on the front, really... was that the problem, somehow?
No, that made less sense than the rest of it, which made no sense at all. Cloud dropped his head against his arm for a moment, staring at nothing. He didn't know who to be or what to do in this situation - what was he supposed to say? Nothing? Or was he supposed to act, get Sephiroth to open up to him even if it made him angry? Would Cloud have to accept the anger first, knowing that the white-haired man would only realize later that he'd been trying to help... whatever the problem?
//I wish Zack were here... he'd know what to do.//
Cloud frowned, doing his best to erase that thought, as well as the need behind it. He had to stop thinking of his friend, looking to the other man for the answer to every problem. It would be embarrassing to the both of them, for him to run to Zack now. This was his relationship, and his problem, and whatever Cloud thought might be wrong, he knew it was up to him to deal with.
The blonde took a deep breath, finally standing up, walking toward the door. Who knew, perhaps the white-haired man was just in a sour mood, there was no reason not to assume this had nothing to do with him.
No reason at all, to think that things wouldn't just go back to normal at any moment.
Cloud exhaled, not shaking or visibly upset, but his mind was on that cusp, as if waiting for the blow, mind and body bracing themselves - and he realized he wouldn't be able to ask his lover anything, not today, and probably not anytime soon. Facing Sephiroth was so much harder than fighting a war... and he just wasn't that brave. He had never been that brave.
Lucrecia wasn't stupid. Melissa knew this, remembered the woman - teacher, supervisor and yes, friend - speaking simply about her life, but always cautiously, always with a hint of fear. It was sometimes about Hojo, rarer still about a certain dark-haired Turk, but even her most joyous, youthful smile, there had been a wisdom and caution in her eyes. The woman knew of danger, knew exactly what it meant to work for ShinRa, and what might happen because of it.
It had left Melissa wondering what had happened, when the older woman had suddenly disappeared, but for years she had known nothing, all records sealed, there wasn't even anyone she dared to ask. It wasn't until the WEAPON, and Sephiroth's return, and Hojo's defection to a side of his own creation, that it had all been summarily dropped in her lap.
//Here you are... here's the way they tortured that beautiful, cautious teacher of yours. The details are really quite gruesome. The final days of the woman you admired and respected, here's everything you ever wanted to know... I suppose one can never be too cautious, hm?//
Melissa had never understood how Lucrecia had died, not when she had always been so aware of the danger. How had the woman just allowed it all to close in around her? How had she been caught up in something so obviously wrong? The scientist felt bitter betrayal for a long time, the keen sense that Lucrecia just hadn't tried hard enough, hadn't been smart enough, and she was angry, determined never to let anything so stupid happen to herself.
Now, with an immeasurable span of hours spent staring at the coming Armageddon, Melissa realized she hadn't understood anything about Lucrecia's failure, because she didn't understand anything about her own. All her plans, all she had worked to achieve, in a matter of days it had all crumbled to nothing.
//It wasn't as if we started out all right, though... it wasn't as if we ever... had a chance. Damn it, it just isn't fair!//
Throwing glass was too messy to clean up, and there wasn't much else on her desk besides printouts and pencils. Rolling the chair hard into the wall and watching it topple... that was almost satisfying. Almost.
Melissa sighed, eventually walking over, pulling the chair off the floor and back to her desk. The random outbursts of temper were all that remained of any sense of purpose, that she was actually moving towards a future goal. Of course she kept making reports for Reeve, and feeding her team useless numbers, so they could feed her back an equal stream of useless data.
The scientist had also stayed up for three or four days straight, more than once, as what seemed to be a possible solution had appeared, only to vanish, usually around the thirty-fifth straight hour of study, leaving her again with nothing, but the knowledge that there was no hope.
Eventually, Melissa was left with very little to do, spending more and more time walking around, away from the lab, trying to stay in large groups of people, as if the noise and chaos somehow might fill the gaping hole inside, the ever-present sense of doom. It just wasn't /fair/, after all they had worked for, warding off one apocalypse, barely surviving, only to be pounded on immediately by another.
"... um, excuse me? Doctor...?"
Melissa turned, and smiled, an honest smile, at the figure who stood shyly in the door. It wasn't the woman's first visit, but Melissa knew she wasn't the easiest person to approach, and it wasn't as if this was the most comfortable of situations. Self-trained to handle SOLDIERs, she was also trained in medicine, though rarely practiced... except when someone who ranked high enough desperately needed to keep a secret.
//... she doesn't need a doctor, not as much as she needs a listening ear.//
"I could come back... if you're busy."
"Come in, please, Elena."
It was all she could do, at the end of things, to at least try to die a decent human being.
"What's going on in there? What's happening?"
Reno just wasn't good at waiting, at watching from afar when anything was happening. He was a Turk, not some underpaid stooge in a bad suit, and this entire situation had long since gotten on his very last nerve.
"... damn it Rude." He tried to peer over the man's shoulder, though even the other Turk couldn't have been looking at much, and finally gave up trying, to pace back and forth behind his friend's back.
"What the hell? Why is she with Melissa of all people?"
The redhead tried very hard not to answer the question for himself. The scientist was in practice if not in principle a latter-day Hojo, she was the one who handled anything too weird, anything to do with Mako or the Lifestream.
//Or Jenova. What if Rude was right? Heidigger... that fuck, what if he...?//
Reno bit his lip hard, forcing back a sudden rush of terror through pure will alone. Thankfully, except for a few lapses, the bizarre episodes of inexplicable panic had subsided after a few torturous weeks. He no longer felt like a coin wobbling on its edge, but there were still these spells, moments of gut-crushing dread...
//Lucky there's a war on, or you'd be one shitcanned Turk.//
It didn't help matters that Elena was still avoiding them, that now she had turned to the person Reno least wanted to try and get information from. Melissa's presence only meant that things could be worse, maybe even worse than he had imagined.
"Let me in, I wanna listen..."
Rude nodded, calmly backed out of the way, sensing the red-haired man had been pushed to the breaking point of inaction - either he learned something new, or at least tried to - or he was going to snap.
"... don't know what to do, I mean... it's inside of me, now, a living thing."
Reno felt his heart skip beat after beat, watching as Melissa reached out to hold the blonde's hand in a sympathetic gesture.
"Have you told them? Your..."
"Rude and Reno?" Behind him, Rude looked up at the sound of his name, and Reno would have pinned his expression as worry even behind those dark sunglasses. "No... how... how could I tell them. After Anjele... I've always worried they don't think I'm much of a Turk, I told you that before... and something like this? It would change... everything."
"... are you that afraid to change?"
Elena gave a little hiccupy cough-laugh, voice lined with unshed tears. "Yeah... yeah I guess I am. I just..."
"I think... Elena, I know it sounds crazy, but I think there might be some good in this. I think you could be even a little optimistic?"
The red-haired man very nearly snarled, unable to believe what the doctor was doing, what she was slowly nudging the female Turk toward. Hojo, all over again, only this time Elena was infected with whatever mutant demon spawn Anjele had injected into her. What the hell was Melissa thinking?
//I don't care /what/ good it might do the war or anything else... let Sephiroth and Cloud and every other SOLDIER get as fucked up as they want, I /don't/ trust ShinRa... and Elena has no right to think she can be their martyr!//
He didn't realize he had been moving forward until both women looked up at him in surprise. It was too late to stop, or to pretend he'd just wandered in. Reno didn't think anything could hold back the anger he felt anyway, the furious thought that Elena could take herself so lightly.
"How could you do this?! You're a Turk, Elena! I thought you'd act like one!"
"... Reno?" Elena's voice was a pained squeak as she rose to her feet, eyes wide with dismay. Reno shook his head, dismissing the sharp stab of pain at the thought that his words had hurt her - whatever it took, he wasn't going to let her do this.
"What are you thinking? You were really going to be that selfish?"
"Reno, wait a moment-" Reno dismissed Melissa's protest with a sharp glare.
"Stay out of this, bitch, this is Turk business. It has nothing to do with you."
"Reno..." Elena's hands unclenched, one rose halfway as if to reach out to him, only to pause, rubbing against her neck nervously instead. "I didn't think you'd be... this angry. I..."
"How could I not be angry?! You've got that... /thing/ inside of you, and you don't tell me about it?! How could I...?"
He was a Turk, invulnerable and impassive to everyone and everything... but he was also Reno, and the angry statement trailed off as he watched Elena's face crumple, the woman bursting into tears, darting past both him and Rude and disappearing down the hallway.
"Wow... and I thought Sephiroth was the one who was supposed to be soulless."
Reno rounded on her, couldn't help but be slightly impressed by the way she neither flinched nor backed off - it wasn't everyone who could be so calm in the face of an angry Turk.
"How could you do that to her?! How could you suggest - fucking hell, where do you inhuman fuckers come from?!"
Melissa blinked, brows drawing down as she frowned. "Me? I fail to see what I've done wrong."
"I can't... I can't fucking /believe/ you!" He was moments away from... he wasn't sure if he would even bother with a weapon or just go after her with his bare hands. "Telling Elena to keep those Jenova cells inside of her... telling her it might be the right thing to do!"
"Jenova cells? Reno, what the hell are you talking about?!"
The vehemence of her reaction jolted him completely out of his violent mood. It took more than a moment to recover - and he had the distinct feeling that he should let Rude talk now... that perhaps it might have been better if the other Turk had been leading all this in the first place.
"The... Jenova cells, the ones Anjele gave to her while she was up in that plane with him. She's been keeping it a secret, it's the reason she's been so distant lately, and why she's talking to you."
He could tell even before he finished the sentence, that he had managed to overlook something screamingly obvious. Melissa was staring at him with an expression caught between sorrow and anger, and perhaps more than a little disgust.
"Anjele never touched her, you ass. Elena came to me because she didn't know what to do, because she doesn't know which one of you is the father."
"Father?" Reno croaked out the word, barely aware he had done so, heard the almost silent, distinctive sound, that meant somewhere behind him, Rude's jaw had just hit the floor.
"Father. As a Turk - hell, I don't understand why she's so worked up about that part, of all things - but she was absolutely sure /you'd/ be angry about it, that you'd think she was failing her duties or something."
"Father?" Reno turned, staring at Rude, hating his friend for his eternal, impassive calm - other than the still-open mouth, he looked surprisingly normal.
//The glasses... I have to buy a pair.//
The thought brought other thoughts along with it, really bad thoughts... the argument he'd just had - no, not an argument, but all the things he had yelled at Elena in fear and anger and complete misunderstanding.
//You've got that thing inside you. Oh God, she must think I knew, and that I meant... oh fucking hell.//
"First, we find Elena..." Rude finally murmured. "... and then you never, ever speak again."
"Yeah." Reno nodded vacantly, still half in shock. "Yeah, that sounds good."
It was nerve-wracking, padding up the stairs inside the narrow hallway to the Cosmo Canyon observatory. Li had to brace herself to do it each time, claustrophobic despite the polar opposite of this place, different in every way to her former prison. The large cat smiled slightly at the thought, tail flicking slowly through the air in pleasure.
Escaping the lab had been like a rebirth, a miracle beyond belief. Afterward, meeting Nanaki, coming to the Canyon... she had never allowed herself to imagine such wonders were possible.
//A place... where I belong.//
The people not only welcomed her, she was all but revered, known by all in the town, welcomed wherever she went. Li had enjoyed teasing Nanaki quite a bit about it, that everyone was so excited because they all wanted to see cubs, and a new start for the race of canyon guardians. Li had smirked that it was really their duty, their /responsibility/, to do what they could to make that happen.
Nanaki had, of course, tripped over his own paws at her sultry remark, the tip of his tail burning twice as bright, lashing wildly from side to side as he tried to think of something to say... she loved it, when the so eloquent cat was suddenly lost for words.
//He is dear to me... and I do want cubs. I want them to be strong, and kind, and wise... just like he is.//
Wise, but burdened by his obligations to his people, and the cat had grown increasingly troubled and quiet over the past week, keeping to himself, up in the observatory, his only companion the ghostly hologram of his grandfather.
Li's eyes narrowed, she didn't like that thought, Nanaki always with the dead, pensive and sorrowful and alone. The canyon was so bright, so alive and wonderful. It wasn't right that he should bear all the responsibility for his people's safety on himself, not with such a war, that had already mowed so many innocents under. Reaching the final room, Li nudged the door open, smiled slightly, showing the tips of her canines, as she saw whom she was seeking.
Nanaki was asleep, computer screens lit all around him, the holograph Bugenhagen hovering nearby, his image flickering slightly in time with the information on one of the screens, eyes closed. He looked up as she approached, and smiled, hovering immediately to her side, voice a conspirital whisper.
"He's had quite a good nap, and I think I'm in need of one myself. I'll just switch myself off and leave you two alone."
He gave her a knowing wink, grinning much too broadly for a mere computer program, and vanished. Li snorted, a small laugh, and padded up to Nanaki's side.
The cat's golden fur smelled just like his canyon home, sand and life and freedom. Li didn't bother with words, burying her nose into his side, nuzzling him until he turned, large paws coming up playfully on either side of her face.
"Mmm... hello," she purred, flopping down beside him as he woke up fully.
"L-li? What are you doing here?" It was so funny, to see him so nervous, and she replied first by batting playfully at an ear.
"You haven't come down for days, the villagers are starting to worry about you."
Nanaki sighed, turning away from her, but not before she saw his eyes darken, and he gave a quiet, troubled sigh.
"I've been doing some research, with the computer files, the data I've been receiving from North Corel." The cat grinned sheepishly, tail flicking back and forth. "I've been comparing it with the data I've hacked out of the system with Grandfather's program... all the things I think that I'm not supposed to see."
"I don't understand."
Nanaki sighed, slowly getting to his feet, stretching - first front legs, then back, tail shivering slightly as he flexed every muscle to its fullest, and sat back down in front of a terminal, staring at information. The complex lines of characters meant nothing to Li. He'd been teaching her how to read, she'd been picking up the basics rather quickly, but this was well beyond anything he'd shown her yet.
"The readings we've been collecting on our own... that we've "borrowed" from the Mideel Crater, they're nothing like what North Corel's been giving us as accurate data. Melissa keeps assuring me that nothing's wrong, that there is a glitch in our measuring system, that the numbers she's giving are accurate... but they're just /not/."
"... she is lying to you?"
"Yes." Nanaki nodded, his expression strengthening, the word solid now, as she had stated plainly what he had been trying to tiptoe around, all this time, trying not to believe.
"Yes... she's lying to me, to us, to /everyone/. Things are not going well, something's /changed/ within the Lifestream, for the worse... but why? I still can't figure it out, why would she do such a thing?"
"You should talk to Cloud, maybe?" Li understood that Cloud was not really in charge, understood that he worked for the ShinRa, and for a man called Reeve, but in her mind he would always be her savior, and the only one to turn to in times of great peril, the one who knew how to make things right.
"Reeve, the rest of them... everyone needs to know what I've found, we've gone over the readings several times, the computer and I - and they're right, we're right. I don't want to do it over the radio, though. I don't want to risk Melissa finding out that I know, if there's the chance she's working for... someone. I need to give this information to Reeve myself."
"So... we go..."
"I've... contacted the Highwind. It's on its way here, it's much faster than I would be on foot." He looked up at her, as if to insure she had noticed his emphasis on the word - I, alone.
"I'm coming with you, of course, Nanaki. The canyon is safe, there has been no sign of the enemy, not for a long time."
"... but this isn't your war! You don't /have/ to..."
"Do you think so little of me, after all your people - and you - have done for me... that I think of this as something I /have/ to do?"
Li's soft words seemed to cut the other cat deeply, she watched him back up, forelegs retreating close to his haunches as he sat, tail beating at the ground. The dark-maned cat moved closer, until she could feel his breath against her face, as she lay her head carefully on his shoulder.
"Do you think I have to care about you, Nanaki?"
"N-no... it's just, I just..."
"Fine," Li lifted her head, tipping her head slightly as she looked at him. "Let's go hunt out dinner then, and afterward we'll discuss what you want me to do when the Highwind arrives."
Nanaki blinked, and she turned away smirking at his bewilderment.
"After all the time I spent worrying... I don't even get a say in this, do I?"
Li just laughed, and loped out of the room, Nanaki quickly moving to catch up.
Cloud didn't think to hold back, to give orders, preferring action instead, everyone around him more than veteran enough to know what to do in an ambush like this. He grinned, watching from the corner of his eye as the troops retreated in unison to a more stable position, not a single man panicking, and behind the slowly-forming human wall the few larger guns they had brought with them were already being wheeled up into service.
A scream, too close, and the blonde lunged to the side, massive jaws missing him by inches, the Ultima Weapon coming up and around instantly, to slice through the beast's thick neck. He didn't even bother to figure out what the monster was as it thrashed headless in the bleeding snow.
He looked up, nodded as Sephiroth caught his eye, just before the white-haired man swiftly ducked behind one of the rock formations that studded this area of the lower plains. Cloud grinned, so /this/ was the plan... Sephiroth would hit them from behind, leaving him with the job of digging as far into their ranks as possible, to cause as much confusion as he could. It would leave the monsters easy targets for the soldiers on the plain below, driving them in a panic out of the maze of stones.
Cloud looked up, the walls of rock offering some protection but many more dangers, funneling monsters on top of monsters through the narrow gaps, all of them charging at top speed, ready for a fight. He would be alone, with no chance of escape, once he was in the thick of it.
//Simple /and/ fun, then.//
The rocks reverberated with the echoes of screams, thankfully more of them inhuman than the sound of his troops. The dense fog of sound would mask his footsteps, but also everything else, it was impossible to tell where any of the creatures are. Cloud swiftly rounded several corners, certain when his first enemy appeared he'd have little time before -
//... oh shit!//
Boots dug for traction in the snow, reversing his course just before he plunged headfirst into the center of an enormous eyeball. The cycloptic creature blinked, but Cloud had already pulled his gun, firing several shots point blank - he tried not to let himself ponder on the warm liquid that exploded out, drenching almost all of his upper body.
//Eye juice... oh, this day just gets better and better.//
The creature writhed, falling on its back in a tangle of long-clawed legs, but Cloud didn't stay to finish it off, moving quickly to the next creature, catching it off-guard and neatly cutting it in half.
A Fire spell at the right moment scattered one of the only airborne flocks that had come to this fight, just before Cloud plunged his sword deep into the belly of another beast, bringing his forearm up with the knife laying against it, smoothly slitting the throat of a third.
He nearly lost his balance, as the ground shook sharply, and again, and then even harder, a few of the massive boulders starting to shift in the growing quake. Cloud quickly scrambled up onto the side of a snow-covered rock as it tilted in the now-uneven soil, the huge mass groaning softly as it fell over onto its side. The blonde had the briefest glimpse of a tail, writhing in a death spasm, crushed beneath the now-settled stone, before he scaled up the side of the rising rock face. He took the chance to look around, just for a moment, taking a breath of clean, freezing air, before diving back into the fray.
Sephiroth had managed to crush a considerable amount of the army in between the rocks with the unexpected Quake spell, driving the rest of the monsters back down into the open plain. Cloud could already hear the sound of gunfire, and even the flaring light of a spell here or there, the troops mowing down whatever dared to step out of the honeycomb of narrow passageways.
Cloud moved quickly toward the mass of creatures edging southward, leaping from rock to rock faster than most of his enemies below, the Ultima Weapon shearing off whatever attempted to lunge at him. Reaching a center-point in the enemy's lines, the blonde leapt up high and stretched out his hands, fired a rock-shattering Bolt 3 at the ground below, not catching as many of the enemy as he would have liked in the wide wave of electricity - but hell, that was what the sword was for, right?
The roughly circular, empty plain he leapt into proved a slightly more difficult battle than the passageways between the rocks. The monsters seemed to realize they were surrounded now, and being cornered left them panicked, ready and willing to lash out at all around them. Cloud deflected more than one obviously suicidal attack, though even with their desperation he managed to hold the creatures at bay.
//At least for the moment.//
The fighter paused, as out of the corner of his eye he watched the entire row of enemies on his left suddenly burst into flame. He knew who was responsible before he ever saw the sweep of the dark coat, a flash of white even purer than the snow - and the seven foot long blade that absolutely nothing could stand against.
The battle quickly turned into nothing but a cleanup job, as he and Sephiroth quickly decimated what remained of Hojo's forces, the steady stream of gunfire finally trickling down to a few bursts here and there, as the soldiers began to work their way through the rocky terrain. Cloud grinned as he heard a Wutai war cry from the other end of the field, gladly howled back a reply - the field was theirs, the day was theirs.
"I'd say that was almost too easy... except that it never is."
Cloud tried to ignore the way his heart leapt into his throat, as Sephiroth grinned slightly at the sentiment. Things had still been tense between them, all the way to this point - but even one moment of happiness, one smile could make all the worries and troubles vanish without a trace. The blonde knew it wasn't right, it shouldn't have been only Sephiroth who could make the world seem right again...
"... no, it's never easy." The smile faded, as Sephiroth turned away from the sounds of the approaching army, out toward the empty north. "I wonder if there isn't a larger force, massing out there somewhere."
"Zack seemed troubled at the meeting, you both did."
He tried to broach what he knew intuitively to be a bad topic, felt the lurch all the way to the back of his spine as Sephiroth's expression changed - funny, that the white-haired man could actually have differing degrees of "emotionless," some amused, some stony, and this one containing an emotion Cloud didn't want to try and name, flickering softly through the emerald eyes. "I... I think he must have been worried, that they'd attack us like you're thinking, once we got too confident, if we pushed too far?"
"Likely, very likely. I think we should do a recon mission, once we've got the troops settled."
"Further out than the scouts, yeah... just in case we /do/ find Hojo's got some more bastards holed up somewhere."
Cloud tried to ignore the moment of happiness - just the two of them, maybe /now/ he would get a chance -
//It's just the adrenaline talking, you're going to get up there and you're not going to say a damn thing...//
/Yes, I am. I'm not a child, damn it, and I'm not weak and I'm not fragile... and I can take whatever he says, I know I can./
//... just the adrenaline, you don't have those kind of guts on your own.//
Cloud sighed, moving back toward the front lines, to help the troops reconvene, and assist in move the larger guns across the uneven terrain. He tried not to think, knowing all his thoughts would be variations on a theme until he really did have Sephiroth alone, to see whether or not he really would back down.
//It's not like I'm backing dow - oh, hell, who am I kidding? Still fifteen... after all that happens, it comes to this -// He looked down at his hands, sighing in defeat. //I might as well be fifteen again.//
Cid was doing his best not to fall asleep on the bridge, though the chair was more comfortable than he'd ever remembered it being before, and he kept waking up with a muttered curse every few minutes, chin nearly touching his chest. Even the lit cigarette in his mouth couldn't keep him focused.
It was early, the sun hadn't even set, but he'd been up well before dawn, supervising the cargo shifts, preparing for the short trip to Cosmo Canyon. He'd gotten used to the swift drops and pickups long ago, it was hard to even remember a time the Highwind had docked in one place for more than a few days.
//... not since the war started, I'm damn sure.//
"If I'd have known what kind of trouble you were gonna be to me, baby..." he murmured, patting the armrest of his beloved ship, "I'd have thought twice about making you mine."
Thankfully, no one had yet uttered the words "taxi service" around him, though Cid felt that recently, he'd been doing little else. Zack, Cloud and Sephiroth had all returned to the front, Ro moving into position behind, coordinating troop movements closer to home - and here he was, moving as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Reeve had only told him to retrieve Nanaki from Cosmo Canyon at the canyon guardian's request, he hadn't mentioned why and Cid had been much too tired to ask. The pilot was sure he didn't even want to know, sudden changes in the plan were never a good sign, and he only hoped it had nothing to do with the Turks he had been told were also coming along for the ride.
//I don't think so, though... they were acting /way/ too human.//
Elena looked pale, somewhat devastated, as if she'd just recently stopped crying but still couldn't manage a front of calm. The silence around the other two Turks was as absolute as it had ever been, but Reno seemed lost in it, saying very little, when he'd usually always had at least one nasty remark to make at Cid's expense.
The pilot hoped the Turks weren't going into meltdown, surprising even himself with the truth of those words. It was strange, the way he'd gotten used to thinking of the group - even Sephiroth, of all people - as part of a larger team, as the only handful of people left to make these decisions, and save the Planet. As such, each of them - even Reno, the cocky bastard - were irreplaceable.
"Mmrgh? Damn it, what do you want?"
Cid blinked the grit out of aching eyes, he'd nearly fallen asleep again, and yawned widely, popping a joint in his neck as he leaned forward. The soldier who addressed him shifted nervously - //oh god, not a new kid, not /now/...//
"Uh, regarding the current course, sir... I think we could make better time, if we shifted a few degrees to the east?"
"... and what would you do, if I wasn't here?" Cid tried not to snarl, realized he probably only half-succeeded.
"Um... I'd change the course."
"... then do that, damn it."
He was slowly approaching what would eventually become an impressive headache, the pilot could just tell, and the only way to ward it off was going to be a nice, long nap. Maybe if he rested his head in one hand, real nonchalant, maybe he could sleep for at least a few minutes, and no one would -
Cid cracked a bleary eye, wondered what kind of insanity plea he would have to make, to justify flinging the boy out of the nearest window.
"I just wanted to tell you... one of the warning lights in the gas tanks went on... but it... uh... clicked off."
The pilot just stared, feeling the swear words building up behind his eyes, swore he could hear one or two soldiers nearby snickering, veterans who knew how close he was to losing his temper. It didn't help matters that the kid wasn't going to leave him alone, Cid knew his type. He grimaced slightly, felt the patience he had been saving, the hope of remaining at the bridge for at least a few more hours, all that willpower sucked dry in the past few moments alone.
//One more thing... all he has to do is say one more thing...//
Annoying people never did as they were told, though, and as he waited, hands clenching the armrests, back ramrod straight, the boy said nothing, didn't even turn around. Cid sighed, finally relaxing a little - the skies were clear, the bridge was quiet, why did he insist on staying?
//... cause it's my goddamned ship, and on my goddamned ship...// The thought trailed off into a useless, sleepy ramble.
Cid winced, the third time more than any reasonable chain-smoking, bitter old pilot could handle.
"Kid... there better be a /real/ good reason you woke me the fuck up this time, or I swear I'll have you outside /licking/ the bottom of this ship clean!!!!
"I... uh... I..."
"WELL?!" Cid wasn't too tired to notice the two soldiers that had been laughing before were still snickering, standing on the second deck just out of his direct line of sight, obviously trying not to attract attention.
"I just... um, er... an autograph?"
"AUTOGRAPH?!" Cid swiftly stood, instantly towering over the new recruit who was preoccupied with looking for a crack in the floor to squeeze through. "Who the hell put you up to this, soldier?"
The boy immediately pointed toward his two giggling companions, one of whom immediately let out an angry curse, the other trying hard to hide behind a nearby bank of computers.
"You two, over here, right goddamn now!!!!!!"
The headache finally showed up, Cid rubbing his hand against a temple as the two soldiers moved to join their 'friend', one of them landing a punch on his shoulder, a few low, nasty words being exchanged.
"Ok... so you bet the new kid he wouldn't keep talking to me until I wanted to fucking launch him into space, right?"
"Uh... yes sir."
"Okay... punishment, punishment..." He remembered these initiation games. Hell, he remembered being /punished/ for these games. "You need a goddamn punishment."
Cid shrugged, too tired to think of anything interesting at the moment, waving one arm absently toward the deck. "The windows... clean them."
Other soldiers were snickering now, as the three before him gaped, staring at the panes of glass surrounding them on all sides.
"... a-all of them?!"
"Yeah... clean 'em till they sparkle. I wanna see my face in them."
"... but sir, they're... windows?"
The protest came too late, Cid was already long gone.
The pilot staggered down the hallways, not back to his room, where Shera would undoubtedly be, but into a hallway of empty rooms along the starboard side of the airship. The pilot was too tired to even think of talking to another person, even for a moment, and knew when it was just better to be by himself. Fumbling with the keys until he started cursing at each one, Cid finally found the key he needed, and quietly opened the door.
"Honey..." he muttered with a grateful grin, flicking on the light, "I'm home."
Cid looked up, and trailed off, feeling the worst kind of déjà vu at a sound from inside - as his eyes met Elena's nonplussed gaze, the woman staring back at him from the bed. Rude, just as naked, rose up on an elbow beside her. Funny, this was the first time he thought he'd actually seen the man's eyes.
The blankets rustled beneath where Elena had drawn them demurely to her chest, and Reno dragged himself into view, red hair mussed and hanging in a limp cloud around his head.
"Hello dear. Rough day at work?"
All three Turks watched Cid pale, gape, and stagger, before toppling like a pine tree.
"Reno?" Elena murmured, staring at the pilot's motionless feet. "Reno, I think we killed him."
"Nah, he's fine, he'll wake up when that cig burns down to his teeth. Rude, go shut the door, would ya? It's letting in a draft."
Shera hummed the last few bars of the newest Loveless tune, grimacing at the melody that had somehow become trapped in her mind as she unpacked the rest of her shirts into the bottom dresser drawer. It was a lucky break, that Melissa's work was going well enough for her to move permanently back to North Corel, but allow Shera to follow her husband to Cosmo Canyon.
//... and perhaps, while we're there... a peaceful, romantic evening?//
Shera jumped, as the door to the cabin slammed open, Cid storming inside, grumbling unintelligibly behind his hand as he strode to the bathroom.
"Cid? Cid, honey, what's wrong?"
The pilot grunted, turning on the tap, holding his head awkwardly under the running water.
He lifted his head, glaring at her, his bottom lip red, sore and bleeding.
"Ah burnkt mah lick."
"You burnt your lip? How?"
"Cigareckt burngt dow..."
"How did /that/ happen?" Cid had returned to cooling his abused lip, glaring up around the faucet head.
"I dungchtwanna talg abouit."
"I DUNGHT WANNA TALGCKT ABOUIT!!!"
"Leave the birds here, it's too narrow up this path, we should check it out on foot."
Cloud said nothing, obediently dismounted, Karat cooing a soft goodbye as the blonde followed Sephiroth silently over the rocks - at least at first.
All the optimism from the end of the fight had faded as the sun passed overhead - it /had/ been the adrenaline, masking the uncertainty, hiding the voices that otherwise never stopped whispering worry in his mind. Sephiroth had been utterly silent - the cold kind of silence - ever since that last, too-brief smile.
Cloud couldn't let this go on, not if it was all just some simple problem, something he had overlooked that he shouldn't have, something he could apologize for. He prayed that was all it was, prayed for the other man to smile, or just look at him in that way that let him know everything was back to the way it had been.
//I just need to know I can be near you.// It was pathetic, he knew how pathetic that kind of weakness was, but in the end, it was the only truth he knew.
"Seph..." He forced his voice not to stutter, refusing to sound like an imbecile. "Can I talk to you for a moment?"
Sephiroth tried to keep his voice curt, to the point, refusing to even turn to face the other man.
"Now is not the best time, actually. If you haven't noticed, there's a war on."
"... there's always a war on." The muttered comment was followed by a long pause, as he refused to answer. Sephiroth hoped the silence spoke more than words, that the blonde would know enough to just let it go.
No such luck.
"I know you're going through something right now. I know you don't want to talk about it, and I know if it hurts me that's my own damn problem, not yours. I j-just..." The trembling word betrayed Cloud's true emotions, the strain of speaking to Sephiroth after the man had already made his position clear.
"I'll always love you, always... and if you ever think you can tell me, I'm always here. I just... wantedyoutoknowthat."
It was so brave. So brave, and so useless, and so, so stupid.
"We're almost to the top."
It had been an obvious rebuff, ignoring his concealed plea, but Cloud took it in stride, as much as he could. Sephiroth did not show emotion, and if he had given Cloud that gift once, of letting him see the man inside, and now the honeymoon was over... well then, so be it. The blonde knew his lover still was the same person, right? After this war was over, he could find a way to make things good again, the way they had been before. No matter what it took, there was nothing he wouldn't sacrifice, and the blonde knew he could take some comfort in that.
//He doesn't tolerate fools... and as long as I am by his side, it still means he loves me. If he's happy... then I can learn to be happy like that too.//
Funny, Cloud could remember what it had been like to be alone, could remember not really being all /that/ lonely most of the time, it was just the way things had been. Now, though, he found that imagining a silent relationship, a cool and distant Sephiroth left him cold, and empty...
//It will be all right. Focus. It will-//
A rustle, the soft crunch of snow instantly caught his attention, though a look around revealed nothing but hills and trees.
"Seph... did you hear something?"
Soon, if the white-haired man became any more silent, he would have to hoard each of the man's words like precious gems. Cloud froze, head snapping around as something /definitely/ scraped against the side of a tree, vanishing just before he saw it. The fighter turned back, to see that Sephiroth was still moving forward.
"... seph?" He murmured, as soon as he had caught up with his lover, the man's long strides difficult to match to his own. "I heard something... I think there's something following us."
"It doesn't matter... we're almost there."
"... there? Where?"
"Here." Sephiroth strode to the middle of a small, empty clearing, coming to a sudden stop. Cloud looked left and right, there was nothing impressive to see, no reason...
The noise again, though Sephiroth didn't seem to be paying attention, staring into the distance, at nothing.
"Seph, what are we doing... here in the open, there could be..."
A leathery hiss, skin against rock, and Cloud turned, pulling his sword as a large serpent appeared, fins on the side of its head flaring outward as it moved toward them. The blonde shifted, moving his battle stance as a terrifyingly familiar clicking noise proved to be a cluster of modified flower-prongs, and others, so /many/.
The awaiting army they'd been so worried about was very real, but now he had to find a way to get back, to warn the rest of the troops. The valley had a terrifying number of bottlenecks and very little cover from where they stood, with no chance to retreat or defend.
"Seph," he shifted his body closer to his lover. God knew there'd been worse moments than this, and he'd survived... he had to survive now, there was too much at stake to -
"Which way should we-" The murmur died, as he glanced over his shoulder, to see that Sephiroth had not even drawn his sword. The white-haired man saw Cloud's look of disbelief, and slid the Masamune from its sheath, but his expression was distant, reserved, as if he didn't even care about the monsters that were drawing ever closer.
"Shit... what do you want to do?" Cloud's eyes flicked back to the enemy, just in time to see another line fall in behind the approaching horde, a few monsters he didn't even recognize. He glanced up when Sephiroth said nothing, ice green eyes instantly pinning him in place. The blonde found himself frozen to the core, by a look he couldn't -//didn't want to//-comprehend.
"S-seph... what is it?"
"You havvvvve broughtttt him."
Cloud turned, as the serpent creature shifted another few feet closer, rising up to flare its massive fins yet again. Talking, it could talk?!
"Yes." Cloud's head jerked around, as Sephiroth took a step forward. "It was part of the deal, wasn't it?"
"Hojo will be pleassssssssed."
Cloud realized he could feel a strange, cool lightness in the muscles on the backs of his legs, tension threading through every part of his body like steel cord, head buzzing with a strange sort of oblivion. Odd so odd so odd so odd... he tried to speak, but a strange dead voice came from his lips, croaking out each word.
"Seph, what..." he felt a strange, twisted expression gripping his face, a panicked whine trying to claw its way out of his lungs. "... what are you talking about?"
The wind whistled, a few flakes of new, sparkling snow dancing in front of his eyes, hovering effortlessly on the silent air.
If he didn't turn back to his lover, it would never happen. He wasn't sure what it was, only that he couldn't let it come, couldn't let the world move forward anymore. All he had to do was stay still, just stay frozen like this forever, and this moment would never pass, he would never have to face the gaping maw that was waiting for him, the horrific void of what was true and real... he knew, and he didn't want to know, he knew and he didn't want to know....
Cloud half expected to hear the mocking voice, his all-knowing, nihilistic better half, but it didn't come. Only silence.
In all the nightmares he'd prepared for, he'd never once imagined this.
and he didn't want
"... seph ... why?"
The blonde thought for sure he saw the whispered word hover in the air, the silent scream freezing and crumbling, a perfect crystal a perfect -
a perfect thing the only perfect thing the last perfect thing
- and Cloud watched the hilt of the Masamune swing up sharply, slamming into his temple with shattering force, and then he saw nothing at all.
Author Notes -
1. The lyrics breaking up the Rufus/Scarlet scene are from Bachelorette by Bjork.
2. Whee. I think I just made up the word cycloptic. Whee.
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