A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 34

By Twig


"I don't know when I got bitter
Love is surely better when it's gone."

- Tonic, "You Wanted More"


It was funny, the way the mind worked under stress. Rufus realized he should have been upset, should have been thinking about all the ways this could go terribly wrong, the potential agonizing deaths stacked up on top of one another just waiting for him. Instead, as if his logical side had finally given up the argument, he was actually planning what he would do once he got out of here. His fingers were shaking so hard from the cold that he could barely button up the top layer of clothing, let alone zip the parka up over it, and here he was being optimistic.

//First thing I'm going to do is get into a fight with Reno. That'll get the blood going. Throw a punch when he isn't looking. Yeah, that sounds about right.//

Sex with Scarlet was the background anthem to every other thought he had - stirring strings, magnificent French horns, satin sheets - the works. The first free moment available, he was going to have the greatest sex anyone had ever had, /ever/. It had been a year since he'd been with a woman and it damn near felt like ten, everything in this place dehumanizing, nothing soft or perfumed or alive - the way her eyes had been when she had lain against his chest, staring at him over crossed arms, and they were all he'd wanted to see. He missed her fiercely, missed people, missed... coffee.

//Coffee, god yes. They're going to get me coffee, and lots of it. Thick, strong and dark, something from Gongaga brewed strong enough to eat through the filter.//

He grinned because all he could manage was a grimace because he was freezing and filthy and likely to die at any moment down here, still amazed Sephiroth hadn't just cut him down hours ago. It was so perfectly clear the man was out of his mind, listening to Jenova - crazy, they were all goddamn nuts, the two of them and that albino freak - Heidigger's son, who could believe it?

//... and who's the one listening to the one listening to the demented space alien, hm?//

Rufus ignored that voice, reaching up to tap against the smooth, black surface of the wall with his covered knuckles, cut-off gloves giving his fingers the barest sense of protection. Did layers of dirt and grime protect from frostbite? He wasn't sure. The rock seemed perfectly solid beneath his hand, no suggestion it couldn't extend that way for miles.

He slammed his palm against the small machine he had dug out of some other room - hit it hard - watching the flickering screen closely. Double or triple-check it all he liked, the data still said this was the place the Crater wall was thinnest.

Not that it was any sort of great victory.

Of course, he had no choice, no leverage or another plan to offer. Rufus had to admit that Sephiroth actually seemed somewhat concerned about getting him out of there. As if the odds that he'd survive on the snow fields were greater than those if he stayed.

He didn't want to know what Sephiroth had planned, not at all. Better just to let the SOLDIERs and the aliens duke it out, and he'd be providing a valuable service in the meantime. Messenger boy, yes, but he also might make it out of this alive. It would be rather pathetic to get through all the messy business of being cloned, just to go and die now.

//Shoot the cannon at the Crater. Fire it up, and shoot the cannon at the Crater.//

The message was simple. He had to get to Reeve, had to tell him that as crazy as it sounded, their only hope in all of this was to fire the Junon cannon at full strength. Trust in /Jenova/, of all things, to absorb the power through Holy, use it to destroy Hojo before he could absorb it, and before it tore her apart.

The part of his brain not working solely on escape - or pondering the different brews of Wutai coffee - was already searching for a good lie. Anything that sounded less crazy than the order Sephiroth had told him to give. The truth sure as hell wasn't going to get him there. Reeve would probably stop laughing just long enough to have him committed to some Midgar asylum.

//Of course, that's only if you can blast through the ton of rock above you, and if you can escape whatever Hojo sends after you - and if you can actually make it across god knows how many miles of frozen wasteland to anywhere inhabited in the first place.//

Sephiroth had given him all the troop positions he had known - anything tagged 'Icicle' may or may or may not have been destroyed since his arrival, and whether anything existed from the Crater's edge to North Corel was an equal ambiguity.

As for how he was to even get that far... Rufus glanced at the snowmobile sitting just behind him. It had been hiding amidst piles of rags, other broken machinery, boxes of useless manuals and maps. It had been there for a long time, thrown carelessly into a storage room he had glanced through long ago, though it had all seemed useless then.

No plan could be sane enough to consider making a run for it - not even now, but it was past the time for sanity, he was working on sheer desperation. Rufus glanced up, as the lights above him swung, extending his shadow nearly to the wall, the ground rumbling slightly beneath him.

Plan or not, Hojo was still the one in control and Rufus swore he could hear the seconds ticking down, before nothing they did would make any difference. Sephiroth seemed to think the scientist was fine-tuning things now, an egotism Rufus could easily believe in. It might give them a little more time... but not much.

Rufus stifled a yawn, rubbing at his eyes. No point in sleeping, no time, and the adrenaline was still buzzing through his body.

//God what I wouldn't give for some hypers... or coffee. God, it's going to be great to get back to coffee.//

He blinked sharply, forcing his mind back onto the present, tipping a small container of fuel into the machine's gas tank, the snowmobile's keys biting into his fingers, he held them so tightly. No way to tell if it actually worked. No way to check the engine without giving away his position, when he would need every extra second he could get. It took a few precious moments just to fill the gas tank again, attaching it to the side of the machine - who knew if he'd get a chance to stop to refuel once he was out there?

How many miles did these things get to the gallon? Thirty, fifty, more? Maybe a hundred miles if he refueled... how far past that would he have to go to reach safety?

He was jarred from the depressing thought by a sharp jolt, the ground shifting and groaning around him. At this point, the occasional earthquakes were working to his favor, even if Sephiroth couldn't cover for him, providing the faint hope Hojo might overlook his escape as just another violent tremor.

Rufus smiled, the best thing to happen in the past few hours was the look on the General's face, when he'd been able to guarantee his escape through the wall.

//Are you really so good at finding out secrets, Sephiroth, or is it just that no one's ever tried to keep them from you?// He doubted it, but it was still fun to watch his expression, dropping pound after pound of explosives at his feet. Rufus had to fight to keep the grin off his face then, and knew he was grinning now.

//... and thank you thank you /thank you/ Tseng for that course in high explosives.//

His father hated his friendships with the Turks, which meant he had spent more time with the coarse but coolly confident men than he probably would have otherwise, at work, at play, anytime the President might ask where he had wandered off to. He was amazed by how much of what they'd taught him actually stuck.

//Maybe I'll have to hit Reno with a bottle. If I remember right, punches never really did much except to piss him off.//

Rufus quickly wound the wire around his hands to coil them, ignoring the cuts when the snipped ends sprung back against his fingers, so numb now he could barely feel it anyway. At any moment he half-expected he'd wire it wrong, slip the wrong wires together or cross connections, and wondered if he'd even realize he'd made a mistake before he was blown to pieces.

//Of course, it could always work just fine, and blow the entire cavern roof on top of you instead, since there's no way to tell how stable it is.//

Rufus glanced up, a small rumble shaking the ground a little, like a reminder, a little dust falling onto the bridge of his nose. He chuckled - god, he was completely and utterly screwed.

He had to stand on the top of the snowmobile to pack the top of the pipe with explosives. A light bulb burst somewhere near the end of the tunnel, Rufus could feel his heart explode in reaction, leaving him aching, tingling all over as his body fought to process the surge of adrenaline.

Rufus wasn't sure how long it took to place the explosives, packing them tight into what had once been, probably, a service entrance, though the only thing remaining was a rim of metal pipe, maybe five or six feet thick, a little less than that in depth. Hopefully enough to channel the force of the explosion up instead of out, blast enough of the rock away to get him to the surface. He doubted he'd get any extra digging time, let alone anything resembling a second chance. It was silent now, no screaming from Cloud or flickering lights, very little movement. Rufus would have said 'too quiet,' except that was an open invitation to have his head bit off by whatever would spring out of the darkness next, so he wouldn't even allow himself to think it.

He rapped again at the glistening rock, as disturbed as he had been when Sephiroth had informed him the entrance was gone, that it appeared there was no longer a pathway out of the Crater, no sign any such route had ever existed. The rock covering the pipe didn't appear to have caved in from outside, or to have been filled in from the inside. Rather, it appeared to be a smooth, continuous surface, as if the entire face of the rock had shifted a few feet, dragging most of the pipe with it, or somehow the mountain had just consumed most of the passageway, the way a jungle would grow back over what had been hacked away.

//Stop thinking crazy.// He shivered, forcing his mind back onto the present. //Simple thoughts, Rufus. Simple.//

Explosives. Snowmobile. Spare rifle. Sex with Scarlet. Coffee.

Rufus bit his lip, taking two wobbly steps back, staring up at his handiwork, trying to discern any mistakes in the low light. He realized he was spending much too time staring, eyes tearing slightly - tired, he'd never been this tired in his entire life, weary every day since he'd been given a second chance, the strain and constant tension eating him away to nothing.

If it all went according to plan, if everything worked, would he even have the strength to make it to civilization?

Rufus grimaced, flinging that thought onto the very large pile of things not to think about, giving a few wires one final twist, the pipe resembling a wreathlike, round switchboard, like one of the old ones ShinRa had employed for phones in Midgar turned into ugly art. He shook his head to clear it, rubbing again at his eyes before lifting the rope he'd tied to the front of the snowmobile, pulling it back away from the pipe, wincing at the noises it made as he dragged it down the tunnel.

Tried to drag it down the tunnel, though the success was limited. It took considerably longer than he would have liked - he couldn't imagine he would have this much time to haul it all the way back, and up the slope...

//I'm never going to make it.//

He was glad his whole body ached, exhausted and freezing, glad he could barely catch his breath - it was easier to ignore the way his heart was pounding, or the cold sweat trickling down the back of his neck. Rufus tried to keep his mind on what was waiting, but he was too tired, the thoughts slipped from his clumsy attempts, falling faster than he could catch them.

A few sharp, near frantic tugs pulled the snowmobile around the nearest corner, he didn't dare move it too far, just to drag it back once the dust cleared. He sighed, resting for a moment against the rock, eyes closed - 'microsleeps' were how he'd heard SOLDIERs refer to them, when a person was so tired that the brain switched into a sleeping mode every time they blinked. He knew he'd reached that point, it felt as if he were dreaming now, dizzy and weak and generally overdrawn on reserves he'd tapped out months ago.

//Come on, no giving up now. You want the walls to eat you?//

Rufus glanced at the black surface, and shivered, sidling away from it even though he knew it was a stupid impulse. He was willing to give instinct the benefit of the doubt over logic now, anything that might keep him alive just one minute more.

//All right, no stalling.// He had to flex the motion back into his fingers before he could start wiring the makeshift controller, feeling a little safer around the corner, with the wall between himself and the blast, but bracing himself every time he clipped in a connection anyway, waiting for what he thought had to be an inevitable fuck up.

The gods of fate and circumstance were feeling capricious, though, and though they had denied him everything else, he was able to make every connection, even walk back through the delicate work with trembling hands, and not activate the explosives before they were all set to detonate correctly.

//Unless none of them are going to go off.// Of course, even if only a few refused to go, he would still probably be stuck behind too much rubble to get free. Rufus grinned, slugging himself lightly in the temple at the steady march of frightened, miserable thoughts. The detonator seemed to weigh tons instead of ounces, he could barely lift the sum of all his work and worry.

He wanted a cigarette. Rufus didn't smoke, but it seemed apt for the occasion, a gesture to make things final. He tried for a prayer, but that didn't work either. Sliding the pair of scavenged goggles over his eyes, winding the cord at the front of the snowmobile tight around his arm, Rufus bit his lip, exhaled, and pushed down on the detonator.


It was quiet, still, a little wind blowing here and there but no other sound. Roman was glad, he didn't want anyone to see him here, didn't want to have to talk to anyone. He already knew the question they'd ask him, and he didn't have an answer. Not the answer he wanted, at least.

At the very first, he thought it would have to be some sort of ploy, that this was some new strategy cooked up to take Hojo down, running some sort of covert mission no one had the clearance to know about. Until he'd seen Zack's face, the way more and more strain and worry seemed to pile on the man by the day. He barely talked except to give an order, and by the way Tifa had become a pale, drawn mirror to him, he doubted she was getting any better information.

He'd already heard all the rumors, no matter what the variation they all amounted to the same thing - the undefeatable General had finally met an enemy he couldn't destroy, they /both/ had, and if there was something out there that could take out the two most powerful SOLDIERs so easily, Roman knew there was really no hope for the rest of them.

"Hey, baby." They'd added a second board, and a third, and each was a thick sea of metal by now, but he'd always know where to find Annie, lifted her tags and kissed her name briefly. Trying to get his thoughts collected enough to speak aloud was unnerving, whether he had to tell another person, or just the anonymous air.

"I know it's been a while since I've come to visit. Sorry about that... they sort of made me a General when I wasn't looking." He grinned slightly. "I'm trying to keep myself safe - there's a big fight coming up, I think, real soon now. I don't know if I can stay safe for that one. Jilly - she's, well, I guess we're dating... I think you would have liked her. You two have the same smile. She's coming with me, and... I don't know, this might be the last time I'm here. Things aren't going too well..."

Roman sighed, anything further he might have said trailing off into silence. What else was there? No point in being at all cautious anymore, the planet was dying swiftly - everyone from Cosmo Canyon to Midgar could feel it, plants were withering, water sources were drying up. The Lifestream at Mideel had all but bottomed out, just a deep hole now, with a skim of green at the floor. He'd barely seen a Wutai soldier without a black feather in his hair, and so many of the ShinRa too - hell, he'd probably take up one of his own before they headed out.

The earthquakes were little more than tremors here so far, even in the coal mines, luckily, but Wutai had been hit fairly hard, and no one could say when the next set would come. No one bothered to ask where they were coming from, or why. Everyone knew whatever was coming would probably be the last, most of the noncombatants in North Corel had been moved to the Gold Saucer, that the sands might offer at least some small protection, and everyone that remained in the town was simply on alert, waiting for news from the stations in Icicle, waiting for orders from Scarlet - waiting.

Roman had been too young to really remember how it had felt, watching the Meteor in the sky, too young to really know what it felt like to see death coming, but he did not envy anyone who had, and was doing all of this for the second time.

//It's hard enough... trying to reconcile it all.// He reached into his pocket, finding the pair of tags he had brought with him, as anonymous as the rest, save for the name - a spare pair, he had found them easily, just a few moments searching in one of the three or four rooms Cloud had used from time to time, here and there in North Corel. Roman ran his thumb along the raised initials, amazed that he had ever known such a man - and that, of the two of them, he was the one here, making this quiet tribute now.

//I wish I could have been there with you, sir.// He wasn't much for heroics, really, had never considered himself prone to grand and noble gestures - but Ro wished he could have been there. If it might have done any good at all, he would have died for the commander.

"I hope... I hope you're still alive. I hope this is something we'll laugh about later." He reached up, to loop the chain up over a nail already weighed down with the names of the dead.

"What the /hell/ do you think you're doing?!"

He jumped, and would have turned, but a hand had already closed around his arm, and pulled, doing the job for him. He hadn't heard Zack coming, which surprised him - anger like this deserved to come with some warning.

Ro bit back a yelp as he was slammed into the pillar supporting the boards once, and again, very fast - the thousand bits of metal making a shattering sound, shimmering like a fish's scales as they shook. He realized he was still staring at it, because he didn't want to look up, didn't want to see the expression attached to such a dangerous gesture.

"What the hell... what are you thinking?!"

Zack shook him, hard, and it was only as his feet swayed out that Ro realized that he wasn't even touching the ground anymore. The taller man had lifted him into the air, the SOLDIER's grip around his arm tight, and getting tighter - he was going to break it, crush it without ever realizing - and then Ro thought seriously that Zack might kill him. Maybe not on purpose but he was a SOLDIER and it really wouldn't take that much - and Zack was so angry, hazel eyes on fire with a sudden rage that was demanding somewhere, anywhere to go, and a stupid soldier making one wrong move made the perfect target.

He still hadn't answered, too shocked and more than a little terrified, and Zack shifted his grip slightly. Roman could feel tendons grinding against bones, muscles straining against the added pressure.

"You gonna answer me?" Zack's voice was very low, and for a moment he almost sounded bored - and that was more terrifying than anything else.

Roman's hand slipped, Zack's thumb digging into some soft spot with a sharp, searing burst of pain, and he whimpered softly - couldn't help it - and watched the general's eyes change, very slowly shifting back into something more sane, and Zack carefully let go of his arm. He took a few cautious steps back, but whatever had come over the other general seemed to have run its course. The dark-haired man closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, poised at the edge of several actions, very carefully choosing none.

"Shit. I'm sorry. I... fuck, kid, I'm sorry." Zack took a few steps back, dropping down into a crouch, balancing on the balls of his feet, head down, hands tangled in his dreads. "Fuck, I'm losing it... sorry." A few more stilted moments, where he seemed on the verge of doing just about anything, still tense with a menacing fury. "You okay?"

"It's all right, sir." Roman rubbed his wrist, glad to find no damage, just a few sharp aches that would vanish quick enough. His heart was still pounding hard enough to remind him it could have been much, much worse. "Really, it's fine. I know why - I mean, I understand..."

"He's not dead." Zack glanced up at him, before standing up again, even tired it was a single, fluid movement, full of more power than Roman thought he could pull together - ever, even before the war. The anger was there too, not as violent but there just the same - and Roman still found his eyes shifting away, not ready to meet his gaze.

"I know it sounds crazy, I know-" He exhaled, very nearly growling, leaning back until he was sitting against the post he'd very nearly put Roman through. "... but I've seen him take on too much, I've seen them both live through too much hell to think that-"

Roman nodded as Zack broke off. Of course he knew, or rather, if he had been in the other general's position, he wouldn't have wanted to imagine his friends were gone either. He swallowed nervously, thinking of any way to change the subject. It didn't help that none of the subjects he could think of were any more optimistic.

"How's Reeve doing, sir?"

"Reeve - heh." Zack grinned, a pale imitation of his usual expression, more snarl than smile. "Never underestimate the healing power of hatred. He's fighting with the doctors every hour to let him leave - I think he's convinced the entire ShinRa army will implode simply because Scarlet's in charge."

"She's really so bad?" Roman often had difficulty keeping the upper ranks of ShinRa management separate. It seemed all the decisions came on a fairly even keel, from some corporate conglomerate much bigger than any individual could ever be. It didn't matter that he'd met the President, and sat in meetings with all of the ShinRa heads, he couldn't help but think of them as a matched set, incapable of action alone.

Zack looked at him for a moment, and his gaze seemed terribly sad. "Yeah, that's right, you were never here for... Reeve and Scarlet have been into it for a long time, well before Rufus took control of the company, or even made moves in that direction. Scarlet... is not a nice person. At all." He chuckled softly, as if sadness just could not get the better of his true nature for long. "Funny, I'm surprised Seph didn't get along better with her, they had a lot in common that way."

He seemed to realize what he had said a moment later, the name he'd probably been going out of his way not to mention, and he sobered, face going cold and blank and still. Roman wondered if he should leave, feeling as if he had walked into a painfully private moment, even if it was Zack who had interrupted him. He startled when the dark-haired man finally spoke.

"Is Jilly going with you?"

"On the next..? Yeah. I tried to argue with her. I could get her any position she wanted in Midgar, or even at the Gold Saucer. She wasn't having any of it."

In all fairness, her argument had been a sound one, painful and sobering, that she would rather die with him than somewhere else, just to give herself a few days more. It was true enough, if the army failed to penetrate the Crater, and take Hojo down for good, it wouldn't take very long for everything to fall apart. He wouldn't say any of it aloud, though he knew Zack already had to be thinking about it all.

"What about Tifa, sir?"

"I didn't even bother to ask. She'd kick my ass if I suggested anything else. We're going to need every veteran fighter we have in combat up front, anyway." The look again, part resolve and part dread, as if he knew exactly what they would face, and had resigned himself to it, but despairingly.

"We have a battle plan then, sir?"

Zack shook his head, leaning his head against one closed fist, elbow on his knee.

"Not quite yet. I want to discuss a few things with Reeve first, once he's feeling up to it. Everyone's taking a small breather, Barrett went back to the Gold Saucer to be with his kid for a while... Melissa says we've got a little time, before Hojo blows the lid off." He sighed again. "Soon, kid. We'll be heading out soon."

Roman didn't respond, couldn't respond. Zack looked up, and gestured to him, holding a hand palm flat in his direction. Roman was confused for a moment, until he remembered what he was holding on to, and tossed Cloud's tags gently over. Dark hazel eyes studied the small slips of metal, his hands turning them over and over again, slowly.

"It would be bad for morale, if anyone saw." The tone was short, clipped, and he wasn't meeting Roman's eyes either.

"Yes sir." As if either one of them didn't believe everyone already didn't know, didn't believe Sephiroth and Cloud weren't likely gone for good.

"He's not dead. They're not dead."

"Yes, sir."

"They're not." The final negation was soft, and not meant for him, as Zack sighed, tipping his head back toward the sky. "... and the Materia's not working much anymore, and no one has a plan, and I sure as hell don't know... damn it." He closed his eyes.

"It's like the whole Planet's just given up on us."


The good news was, the snowmobile went as fast as Rufus could have asked for. The bad news was, the spawn that were following him were faster.

Rufus grimaced as he gunned the engine, hearing the machine whine underneath him, the machine lurching slightly underneath him as it struggled for another burst of speed. The roar of the engine was muffled by a sharp scream, the creature chasing him easily keeping pace. He dared another glance at it, a collection of fangs on top of a pile of feathers and sharp claws tearing up the snow quite well. It might have been a chocobo once, or at least some part of one, and he'd seen some pretty vicious chocobos.

The snow plain ahead of him seemed deceptively flat, he could never see the bumps until he was on top of them, the machine rattling and banging over the uneven terrain, jerking out from under his grip no matter how hard he tried to hold on. His eyes hurt every time the goggles let in any light. He'd been underground long enough that it was torture on the snow, even with protection, as if the sun were hovering no more than fifteen feet or so overhead. Rufus grimaced, as another jolt shook the machine, and he swerved hard to the right to avoid a large outcrop, biting back a curse as the treads hit a slick patch, sliding until it finally dug into the ice.

The spawn did not share his need for even terrain, and he looked up to see that it had bounded up easily across the arctic wash alongside him, sliding to a stop, large claws digging through layers of ice and snow as it turned, the razor sharp beak snapping out as he rounded the curve.

Rufus leaned hard to the side, felt the air rush past him on his left, heard the creature shriek in pain as something slammed into its side with a burst of feathers and black gore - something /else/ had joined the chase?! He let out an inarticulate growl, no time for cursing, and wrenched down hard on the throttle, the snowmobile jerking backward slightly before leaping forward, the chittering calls of the new swarm of birdlike spawn filling the air.

//No, not birds. Bats... sort of.// He wondered how the tattered wings could catch any air, how the creatures could survive and navigate with eyes and fangs all smashed together like a pudding. //God they're ugly.//

Rufus hazarded a glance back, ducking as he was yet again dive bombed, bracing himself for the feel of claws raking his shoulders, tearing at his neck He was saved as the ground dipped beneath him abruptly, leaving him with another bone-jarring jolt numbing his body, but with his head still attached to his shoulders.

Sephiroth hadn't given him any materia, he hadn't bothered to plead a case for them. Their powers had become increasingly unstable, generally too weak to do more than glow slightly when activated. Useless, and it had left him with nearly no other means of defense. It was stupid to dream of his shotgun but he did it anyway, glancing down between his knees, inside the small, hollowed-out compartment where Sephiroth's gun rested. He'd given it over without thinking, Reeve wondered if he'd ever fired the damn thing, ever even lost his sword and not just went after his opponent hand-to-hand. He knew the gun had a full clip, an extra taped inside the compartment. Unfortunately, he hadn't been on stable enough ground to spare a free hand, let alone aim, let alone fire, and there was no way even an entire round would be enough to stop the thing that had been chasing him before - maybe now?

It seemed the little bastards were the only things still chasing him - as if Hojo hadn't actually called out any pursuit at all, and it was just a few random monsters who had taken up the chase, interested in the possibilities of a relatively harmless snack. He grimaced, it was stupid to feel insulted but he couldn't help it - and there was no way in hell he was going to die if it couldn't even be a footnote in some grand plan.

Rufus hunched forward against the machine, the casing so hot against his legs he thought it might burn him. He ignored it, trying to wedge his knees beneath the controls, keep the machine stable - Rufus let out a sharp yelp as one of the creatures finally drew blood, leaving a long, deep scratch in his right arm as it lifted back into the air, cawing with delight.

//Oh, that is /it/!// Irritation had, for the moment, consumed fear. It was a wonderfully heady feeling, furious enough to feel invincible while still being sober enough to aim a gun. He turned - it was all or nothing, if the machine went out of his control now he'd be dead anyway - and pulled a bead on his first target.

On the rare occasion that they'd all been free, and in high spirits, he and Rude and Reno would go to the edge of the plate, a sliver of cordoned-off space in between sectors two and three where no one lived, no one went, a dump space for extra dirt and debris for the crews building in other areas. Relaxation involved drinking all the cheap Midgar beers Reno could scrounge - usually an impressive amount, Reno knew his stores the way a scholar knew ancient tomes - and then a round of impromptu skeet-shooting as the red-haired Turk would fling the bottles off the edge and he and Rude would take turns picking them out of the sky. Fear was an effective way to govern, less costly than bribery and even more noble, too, in a way. He knew it was fearsome for most, that he spent his time with Turks, that he was their equal as a fighter and a marksman.

It was actually easier to peg the spawn than it had been to shoot the bottles. The bat-like creatures were perfectly visible against the bright blue sky, they didn't glitter or shine, and when he'd hit one, he had the momentary but wonderful pleasure of hearing it shriek as it fell. Wrapped around the front of the snowmobile, body nearly on fire against the casing and /still/ almost losing control of the machine with each sudden jolt and bump, all his muscles aching from the strain of trying to face fully forward and fully backward at once - Rufus grinned, and realized he was having fun as he lined up a shot, hearing another spawn cry out as it flopped to the ground.


"Pull it all down. No, there's no room for it. Yeah, I want the whole bar gone."

The manager sighed, turning away from the returning whine of electric saws, the flash of sparks - he wondered who would pay for all of this, remembered with a sigh how long the requisition forms were the last time he'd filed a complaint - ShinRa soldiers destroying one of his walls - and that had been for only a few hundred dollars, a piddling sum.

//At least for the moment, you've got a place to be, and that makes you the lucky one.//

It was impossible to go anywhere in the Gold Saucer without stepping over refugees, they crowded the hallways, all the rooms - the Sarcophagus, the Stock Footage's second incarnation, had been transformed entirely into a makeshift shantytown. His martini bar three floors above was about to meet the same fate - so much for expansion and growing wealth - and Horatio Alger could certainly kiss his ass, if he hadn't already been flattened by one of Hojo's creatures on its way out of town.

By all rights, he should have been bitching, might have been if there was anyone complaining to - and if he could stop reminding himself that he was probably in the safest place there was to be. The soldiers that could be spared, those convalescing but still able to use a weapon, were standing ready, along with a decent pile of artillery stacked in what had once been the prison area. The prisoners had been kicked out, the Saucer exercising some sort of "Armageddon" clause to kill their outstanding debts or whatever other infraction had left them in such a place, to make room for the defenses. It was strange, how little violence there had been, how few disturbances, not much like when the Meteor was in danger of falling, and everyone in the Saucer had been on edge, waiting for any moment to tip over into a full-scale riot.

The rumors were that the Lifestream was drying up, everything getting sucked into the Crater, that they'd all be left to starve, and lose the war that way. It was the reason things wouldn't grow, even where the soil was fertile - the reason it got harder and harder to get out of bed each day.

The lethargic, despondent faces that surrounded him made it seem likely more than just a possibility - no panic, here, no signs of tension or danger simply because no one had the energy for it anymore. The Planet was going, and they were all along for the ride. He sighed, ducking through a back passageway into the main storehouse, now holding more medical supplies than liquor. A few people nodded as they passed him or he passed them, ShinRa soldiers and medics, a few from Wutai. He'd always wanted to go to Wutai. If it was still standing, if this whole thing ever ended, maybe -

"Daddy! Uncle Cid!"

The other end of the storeroom linked up with one of the larger halls, full of cots and tents and weary faces - all except for the girl who was now bounding down the narrow center aisle, straight into the arms - arm, actually - of a large smiling soldier. It was easy enough to recognize Barret Wallace - one of the heroes from the last time the Planet had done all this - easier still when he was standing next to Cid Highwind, the pilot wearing his uniform loosely, many buttons undone and the entire outfit rumpled from head to toe. Intrigued by such a surprise visit, the manager moved a little closer, feigning interest in the contents of a nearby cabinet as he watched the meeting unfold.

"How you doin, darling?" Barret smoothed the little girl's hair - she looked nothing like him, but there were many families around here like that, people thrown together because of the war, or because of earlier conflicts, with Midgar and the Meteor - or earlier, who knew? It wasn't as if they had invented hardship now, just because there seemed to be so much going around.

"I'm fine, daddy. I've been drawing a lot. I've made some new friends too, they live down below a few floors - they moved from across the ocean, just like us. We've been playing, they're lots of fun."

The conversation continued, the bubbly child chattering on about how much fun she was having, how much she'd missed him - Wallace smiling as he watched her, soaking up her chatter as if he were warming himself in front of a fire.

"... but I think maybe you should talk to Mrs. Gainsborough, daddy. Just a little. I think she's sad." He nodded, there was a gravity to it that made the little girl pause, and it seemed that maybe some of her cheerfulness had been for her father's sake, not her own. "Everything isn't all right, is it? It's the reason you came here... like you came before the Meteor."

Cid flinched, and Barret bit his lip, dropping down to one knee so he could look his little girl in the eye.

"I'm afraid so, Marlene. It's somethin' like that." He meant to say more, but trailed off as she darted into his arms. The image was surprisingly tender, the little girl nearly hidden in her father's massive arms. Even with the gun welded in place of his hand, he held her as gently as anything the manager had ever seen. The moment was broken as a woman moved up the path the little girl had taken, much more slowly, brushing a stray lock of hair out of her eyes.

"Hello, Barret. Cid."

"Hello, ma'am." He wondered who this woman was, to make the gruff-seeming pilot respond so tentatively, with respect. Barret stood up once more.

"I'm gonna talk to Elmyra for a moment, all right Marlene? Why don't you go show Uncle Cid around a bit?"

The girl nodded somberly, reached up for the pilot's hand - another strangely touching juxtaposition, the child and the grizzled pilot, but the manager turned his attention back to the real conversation, the one not fit for children.

"It isn't going well, is it?" Elmyra looked up into the taller man's eyes, searching - obviously didn't like what she saw. "I've stopped dreaming about my daughter, and all the flowers I've tried to keep - they've died."

Barret nodded somberly, a sadness, possibly even defeat in his eyes that made the manager want to wince. He'd stopped pretending he was searching in the cabinet. He needed to know what was going on - what was going to happen to all of them.

"I'm going to have to ask you... to take care of her, until I come back."

"Again, Barret?" Elmyra smiled sadly, and hugged him before he could respond, much as Marlene had. He held her back - and the manager was left wondering who he might hug, which of the showgirls might still be around, and take enough pity on him for a quick shoulder to lean on. It was exhausting just watching this - he hadn't realized how much hope he'd had that someone, somewhere knew what was going on and what to do about it until this moment. The truth, that neither this hero nor Highwind seemed to have a confident plan was frightening enough to sap the strength out of him completely.

"You're coming back. Like you did before." Elmyra pulled away, smiling as Barret nodded. His features were built for that sort of stoic determination.

"Just like I did before. Don't you worry-"

Barret froze, they all did, glancing up - which, really, was a silly thing to do, as it was the ground that was the source of the problem. The ceiling overhead creaked and groaned, the soft trembling increasing until the manager could feel the entire Saucer swaying, a few people crying out here and there, the rather generic sound of things smashing, scattering. He'd gotten used to it somewhat, though this was certainly one of the larger quakes they'd had so far. The Gold Saucer, thankfully, had been built on a stable island of bedrock in the middle of the sands, designed to withstand quite immense shocks, if the ground ever did become unsteady. It was a comfort to know it, certainly, and of all the ugly ways he thought this might end, the Saucer falling down around them was blessedly low on the list.


It was still terrifying enough, especially to a child who must have been uprooted so recently from wherever she had called home, with a father who had come to say goodbye - quite possibly forever. Marlene flung herself back into her father's arms, Cid appearing in the doorway behind her, face grim but relatively undisturbed - turbulence on the ground, not too much for a pilot to handle.

"Barret. We should head back soon. I didn't like the feel of that bastard, not a bit."

The dark man nodded, but didn't speak, holding his daughter tight, as if somehow it might make the next moment keep its distance, convince time to look the other way.


Rufus was walking. He had been walking for some amount of time, probably hours though he didn't dare guess how many. The hard, or at least complicated part of the plan was over. Now he was going to walk, until he reached safety or until he froze solid and - hopefully - someone would find him and read the note he'd left in his pocket, outlining as much of Hojo's plans as he and Sephiroth had been hurriedly able to shorthand and write down. Rufus half-wondered if he'd make it or not, but it was a vague, distant sort of question, and he wasn't at all worried, really. He doubted he'd survive if he had to spend a night out here, or if any sudden storm came along, but instead of the thought bringing any fear, he actually found himself trying to whistle, humming some nonsense under his breath.

He was either happy, or he had lost whatever was left of his mind. Rufus decided to opt for the former, at least until he started to hallucinate.

He knew it was incredibly stupid to feel so optimistic, now that the snowmobile was lost somewhere in the snows behind him, he had no more than the most basic, general knowledge of where he was and where he had to go, and there were still decent enough odds that he would starve and or freeze before he reached safety.

He actually didn't care that much, and the only thing that kept him from grinning was the fear that his face might freeze that way. It was blindingly cold, but remarkably peaceful. No wind, and the sun was out, everything silent and still as he trudged along in the great unknown. He still had two bullets left in his clip, the gun stowed securely in an interior pocket of his outer vest, and though things had been jumping at him occasionally, they were such small, unremarkable spawn that he could almost convince himself he was out on some unimportant mission, tidying up things here and there - not stranded, not alone.

It was a strange sort of spring fever, he knew that, but hell, he was /outside/. Outside in the sun and the air and the /sun/ nearly making him sweat, sweat freezing when it hit the air and it was the best feeling he'd ever had, ever. He was still alive, and every step was pulling him further and further from the Crater, a place he'd once thought inescapable. It was all starting to seem like a bad dream now, even if he still kept jumping at every sudden sound, turning as if expecting the Crater to be behind him, reaching out like a giant hand to drag him back down. He shivered despite himself.

//Stop thinking about it. Just keep walking. You'll reach somewhere eventually.// He would, too. The sun wasn't higher than midday, the furthest encampment - he couldn't remember but Rufus knew he'd figured it out before, that refilling the gas tank on the snowmobile and riding it until he'd run out of gas a second time would get him through most of the valley. The snowmobile had been a miracle all its own. The damned rusted-out heap had actually lasted through the last drop of gas, before finally shuddering to a halt with a few final clicks, an almost dejected clank that had made him pat it thankfully, feeling sorry for it for a strange, surreal moment.

Rufus hadn't had to do that much dodging and weaving, and the Halfspawn he'd been dreading - a stupid fear, but one that nagged at him - had never shown itself. Unless Hojo had unleashed some giant tunneling worms, or something else he couldn't see...

Rufus froze, staring down at the ground for a moment, a peal of hysterical laughter rising like bile in his throat. All right, so perhaps he hadn't gotten out of this as sane as he'd liked. He grimaced, pulling the top of his outer hood down in front of his eyes, pressing his hands against what little was exposed of his face until it thawed. It took a few deep breaths, but afterward he could keep walking, and since there wasn't anything in front of him or behind him, there was really nothing to be afraid of. Sooner or later, nothing might actually be quite terrifying, but he'd gotten used to living moment-by-moment, and in this moment he was all right.

It was much easier, as he kept trudging, to imagine what he'd be doing when all of this was over with. Way over with, when they'd fired the cannon and won the war and had an enormous ticker tape parade down the center of Main Street, Midgar.

Was there still a Main Street, Midgar? Was there still a Midgar? He supposed Sephiroth would have brought it up, if things had changed so drastically. Of course, for all his skill and ability in battle the SOLDIER had often showed a stunning lack of interest in everyday events, or anything else not life-threatening or world shattering.

Rufus was certain, for this reason, that he'd have no problem assuming control of ShinRa, or whatever remained of ShinRa once the Hojo war machine had ground to a halt. Sephiroth was fundamentally disinterested in politics, and his friends seemed to share his viewpoint, he doubted they would care much either way. The Turks would side with him, he probably wouldn't even get a chance to ask Scarlet before they'd start tearing each other's clothes off - he was becoming a lecher, he realized, smiling still at the thought of freshly manicured nails popping the buttons off his shirt. A mentally unstable lecher with delusions of grandeur. What the hell, it had worked just fine for his father.

It was amazing Reeve had managed to carry things this far on his own, he had never struck Rufus as an exceptionally strong or capable personality. Whatever the war had changed him into, though, Rufus felt more than capable of taking it on. He'd challenge the other man to a duel, if need be, though the thought of seeing any more blood /ever/ left Rufus feeling a little queasy.

He'd changed, and maybe that would give him the greatest advantage, above any tactic he might try to use to oust Reeve from office, or the support he'd get from Scarlet and the Turks. He remembered wanting power, remembered thinking that being the head of ShinRa was the most important thing in the world, and once he was there his control and judgment would be utterly absolute. Since then, the things he'd seen, powers Hojo only thought he could control, things Rufus did not understand and did not want to - he had no desire for power. Power led to things like this, and if it could be channeled into something more productive it would have to be done more carefully than he had the taste for. He was tired, tired enough for two lifetimes and then some, and whatever happened when he returned, it would not be at all the way things had been before.

Control and power had separated in his mind, one a fundamental need, one the last thing he would ever seek again. He wanted to be the one who knew what was going on, wanted that desperately above anything else, but all the plans he'd had so many years ago, for dissolving Wutai further, developing more Mako plants and pushing for even more journeys into space...

//God, if I ever hear the word Mako again I think I'll lose it.// The flower girl could have the Planet back. If he had to live in a cave for the rest of his days, Aeris could have it all back.

He hoped she was all right. Hell, he hoped everyone would be all right. It was an earnest thought, and its seriousness surprised him. He hadn't given a damn about anything but his own plans for so long, he was surprised he could still manage it.

//Sincerity and goodwill. Shit, I am going crazy.//

Rufus wiped roughly at his nose, cupping his hands over bits of frozen flesh, until all the slivers of skin could thaw again, wondering if it might be better just to let it all go numb. He was panting a bit, realized that the path behind him, footprints already filling with snow, had been on a fairly steep incline. Rufus was vaguely, stupidly proud of himself that he hadn't noticed. With a sigh, he kept moving, aware now of the way the land was sloping with him, snow blowing here and there but most of the terrain here either solid rock or frozen more than solid enough to step on.

He had stopped looking up a while ago, seeing buildings and a hint of darkness too often, an imagined civilization always teasing him from the horizon. All at once, though, Rufus did look up, confused when his eyes found only the same, pale nothing, not the trucks he'd been expecting, trucks that were making the ground tremble beneath him.


Rufus stumbled, nearly fell as the tremors violently increased, making it nearly impossible to move forward, though he tried, staggering forward and bent nearly double, one hand out in front of him to keep from landing on his face when the ground pitched out from beneath him. He struggled to keep looking around him, craning his neck from left to right, waiting for whatever was burrowing beneath him to finally show itself, and no doubt row after row of gnashing teeth.

A spear of rock shot up a few feet away, followed by another, and it wasn't until the ground began to give way, and nothing had appeared, that he realized there might not be any creatures involved in this.

//The same earthquakes from the Crater? Here? And stronger?// He'd assumed the Crater was the epicenter, and earthquakes were less powerful the further they appeared from the epicenter, weren't they? If these were the aftershocks, Rufus couldn't imagine anything remained standing at the Crater, wondered for a moment if Sephiroth might have had some secret plan of his own, if Hojo had forced him into such a move, to destroy himself to try and stop the madman. He stopped wondering as the ground began to shift beneath his feet, the booming roar of crumbling rock filling the air with so much sound it was hard to take a breath. The dirt beneath his hands was crumbling away, Rufus lunged for the lip of the fragment he was standing on as the ground beneath him suddenly dropped out, and he was hanging perpendicular in the air.

Rufus looked down, trying to gauge the distance he would fall if he let go, and screamed. Beneath him, all he could see was the Lifestream, a thick, dark river that seemed to cry out beneath him, an unearthly, howling moan. Damnation, as solid as anything he might hold in his hand, if the dark stream didn't consume and destroy all it touched.

His boots scrambled for purchase as the rock face tipped forward, flattening out, and he could feel the island of rock shift in the liquid beneath him, like a raft in a raging river. Nowhere to go, he could see the ground continue to splinter out, darkness bubbling up beneath the cracks, the chasms between the fragments of land widening, the earth disappearing beneath the unforgiving black sea. Every breath came as a half scream, and for a moment he couldn't move, nerves on fire, heart beating so fast he thought it would explode - so this was what it felt like to die of fright.

It knew he was there. The darkness was watching him, and it wanted to drag him down.

Rufus ran. Consciously, nothing would come, not a prayer or a thought or anything but a senseless babble of words he didn't even understand, high and jittery and replacing the scream he didn't have time to stop and let loose. Blessedly, some stronger, smarter instinct was controlling his body, moving him forward, leaping over widening valleys and climbing up the rock walls that kept crumbling beneath his hands. Lumps of dirt dislodged as he tugged on them desperately for purchase, disappearing without a sound into the black abyss that seemed to be rising higher, so much higher and faster than he could escape it.

The sense of disassociation faded as he sprinted across a wide, empty plain, nearly screaming in frustration now as the buckled snowdrifts blocked his path, slowing him down to what seemed like an interminable crawl. Behind him, he heard an incredibly loud crack, watched as half of the plain ahead suddenly shifted, falling away as if it was melting, as nothing appeared to disturb the snows until most of the cliff was gone. His heart was still pounding, and it felt like he was breathing in his own blood, throat aching as his pulse pounded with an impossible pressure on his temples. The fear was a lash, though, flaying him mercilessly, he knew he would keep running until it killed him, leaping over another river of darkness, skidding to a sudden halt as the ground gave way in front of him, diving around upshoots of earth that seemed to appear like spears, trying to gut him, pin him, leave him helpless for the Lifestream to devour.

Rufus tripped, on his final leap, and could not manage to return to his feet, no strength left in his legs, pressing his elbows into the snow and crawling forward, feeling his knees lift him up only to buckle - shit, it had to be on him by now, had to be right on his heels and reaching out to him to pull him down. No, no no no he could not die like this not here not now no...

Just like that, his hand hit empty air. He tipped his head back and breathed in, burning lungs desperately trying to take in the chilly air. It hurt, and he couldn't keep moving, this was the end of him - and Rufus realized he had reached the summit of the valley, or the top of some hill, whatever, and he was still alive. Ahead of him the snow was pure white and flat and perfect - and he watched, panting and shivering, as it stayed that way. Rufus didn't look behind him. If it was going to devour him, he doubted he could do much about it, and at the moment he just didn't want to see it coming.

//Okay, okay... wasn't that fun.// Rufus coughed, breathed, coughed again, wondered about the possible side effects of wind sprinting in cold, high altitudes, and very slowly staggered to his feet. The wide, blank emptiness looked startlingly inviting, it would probably take him at least a mile to get his heart back under control, not squabbling with his lungs over which one wanted to hurt the most.

Lightheadedness felt very good - if he couldn't think, he couldn't worry - and Rufus sighed, eyes closed, moving slowly forward - another jolt nearly tearing his heart out of his chest, as the ground rumbled once more beneath his feet.

//You really should have turned around.// Rufus wondered what good it possibly could have done, didn't really have the energy left to do more than stare dully at the ground, waiting for the first sign of an avenue out, how far he would have to leap to safety this time, how fast he might have to run - god help him - and for how long.

He never got the chance. The earth buckled right under his feet, and then pushed up violently, throwing him forward. Rufus tumbled, scrambled to his knees and pushed off into the weakened version of a dash, the snow ahead as stable-seeming as anything else -

Rufus tried to stop, when he saw the edge, but there was simply no room left to move, no way to go from a full run to a dead halt in less than a foot. His arms flailed in panic, knowing there was nothing to grab for, and gravity already had its hold on him, pulling him over the lip of the cliff. He gazed, spellbound into the glowing green below, remembering how carefully the scientists at ShinRa had studied the substance, how dangerous and violent its effects on the body could be, and how in light of all that, he actually felt a moment of relief, amazement at what, in one way, could almost be considered a miracle.

//At least it isn't dark.//

He wondered, in the moment between watching his fingertips vanish into the cool, liquid green and feeling the rest of his body follow, how this was in any way fair or right, even in an unfair world.


It was impossible not to notice the way Jenova watched him - Sephiroth could feel her gaze on his back, a slab of ice that chilled his skin, numbing down deep. He doubted she was doing it on purpose, or even realized what was happening. The creature he remembered, the power and the fury and the absolute inhuman nature - this was not Jenova, not this small, silent shadow who leaned on Anjele more often than not as they made their way through silent passageways, watching him with luminous eyes that seemed more curious than anything.

"Why are you here?"

Sephiroth turned immediately, realized he was being paranoid - there was no criticism in the question but he heard it anyway, the accusation - "how could you do that to him?!" - even if they didn't know, likely didn't care. Anjele looked almost apologetic, barely visible in the shadows of the dim corridor. "She wants to know."

"He was going to die if I did nothing. I couldn't allow that."

It wasn't much of an explanation, but he didn't care, didn't care what Jenova knew or thought or understood. He was tired of thinking about it - thinking about it always led to the consequences - and he was beginning to hate consequences.

"He's still alive."

Sephiroth felt something inside his chest release, realized as his breath hitched that it was relief - even if he didn't deserve it.

"Hojo will keep him alive until the very end." He turned, watched Anjele flinch again, as if unsure he wasn't about to snap, turn on them without warning each time he spoke. "He's very important."

"You can hear him?"

Jenova and Anjele shared a long look - amazing, how they shared the same thoughts. He wondered if it had been like that before, when he had been mad - and fought back a shudder.

"Could... she could, before. Now, though... there is only silence."

Sephiroth took half a breath, but his stomach tightened, and his lungs wouldn't allow the rest. "You said he's still alive, right?"


"Fine." He had known it was going to be bad. Very, very bad. He wasn't stupid enough to ask for more - but as long as Cloud was alive, there was hope, and that was all he needed. Somehow he would make things all right again.

A rumble shook the corridor, another long, slow rumble, as if the rock itself was convulsing. Overhead, the lights flickered and went out. Sephiroth stopped moving, just for a moment, and heard a slight shuffle, commotion behind him. A hand grabbed for his cape, a body jostling slightly against his - not Anjele, and though it only lasted for a few moments, Jenova's eyes lifting to his as the lights flickered back on and she pulled sharply back, he found he could barely move. The slight touch had been enough to bridge the gap between them, and left him staggering beneath the weight of memory - his and hers - and the reality of now.

Regret. Jenova didn't even understand the emotion, not really, but if he'd had any question of her intentions, all those doubts were gone. All she wanted was to get away, away from this Planet and everyone on it, away from ShinRa and the Lifestream and all of it - and if she had a secret she had not shared, something that had slipped through in the moment of contact - it was only that she might have a way out.

Sephiroth's eyes widened, just for a moment, before he shoved the thought out of the way - time for it later, after they'd won - and continued down the dark passage, one hand tracing against the wall when he wasn't forced to slide sideways through narrow crevasses, his eyesight more than good enough to compensate for the lack of light, Jenova and Anjele not slowing behind him.

"Do you th-think... Rufus escaped?" Anjele seemed to fight with every word, to remember how to use them.

"I'm not sure." His job had been to find some way to distract Hojo from noticing the explosion, or from taking action - but Hojo had been alarmingly absent, either in the lab with Cloud or somewhere else Sephiroth couldn't go. With the increasing frequency of earthquakes he hadn't been able to tell which tremor might have been Rufus trying to make his escape. He could only hope the man had found a way out, and was on his way to safety -

//He'll find Zack, and Zack will ask what happened...//

Suddenly, sending the man off didn't seem like such a good idea.

"Jenova says... she says she'll need to be very close to where Hojo is gathering the - the power, where he's controlling... for it to work."

Sephiroth nodded, quietly making his own calculations, now that he had two impossible problems to solve, getting Jenova to where she could do the most good, while finding a way to get the code out to North Corel. It was still his main objective, the world would die if the Lifestream couldn't be saved. Cloud would die. He wondered if Jenova had discovered his secret, as he had glimpsed hers - that reverting the Lifestream, even if she had absorbed Holy, might destroy her right along with Hojo and everything else. He wondered if that regret and weariness went as deep as he thought it did - that she was willing to take the risk, willing to die as long as it meant things would come to an end.

"All right, so we'll take these passages as far as we can go, and I'll try to see how close Hojo is to making a move. If I can find him. He'll be the most unguarded then, and hopefully we can strike." The corridor ended in a large steel door. Sephiroth carefully put his shoulder against it, wincing as he heard it creak, though Jenova had been right, there hadn't been even the hint of another creature down the abandoned tunnels.

It was risky, so risky though, waiting for Hojo to go so far, waiting until the final moment to attack - or so he had thought.

The door swung wide, and Sephiroth looked up, to discover the final moment had arrived. Hojo was standing on the other side of the long, narrow room, flanked by snarling beasts that seemed more tooth and claw than any other recognizable animal. He saw one of the scientist's arms move - a casual, unthreatening gesture, a slow underhand throw - something winking as it rolled across the floor, catching in a groove and only stopping when it tapped against the end of his toe. The Black Materia.

Hojo's smile was triumphant, gladly throwing away the gem, all that had been so important once, meaningless now in his moment of victory.

"Hello, my boy."


"Looks like nothing." Reno thumped on the windshield, pulling two layers of parka down just enough to yell to Rude. "One more pass, we'll go about a mile up, and then we'll head back. Anything on the radio?"

It was hard to be heard over the sound of the engine plowing through the snows, Rude's near nonverbal form of communication perfect for a place like this, as he simply shook his head. Reno couldn't be sure whether he shrugged or not, too many layers of fabric and the jolting of the car masking any subtler moves. Reno unlocked the chair from behind the main gun, swinging around towards the small vehicle's other occupant.

"How are you doing?"

Elena smiled brightly, flipping him the bird. Reno sighed, latching his chair back into place, turning back to the monitors. He had the distinct feeling this pregnancy was making her less cheery by the minute, and since it was still early on, things were only going to get better from here. Of course, she wasn't the one asking if he was all right every thirty seconds, either. It wasn't exactly professional behavior, from one Turk to another. Not that he gave a shit.

He'd already used every bit of his leverage and most of Scarlet's apathy to requisition himself the best - and safest - vehicle that was left, mostly just an open-top cruiser with an engine from hell, tires with grooves thick enough to swallow a small dog, and the biggest gun they could find strapped to the top. Reno doubted anything within ten miles couldn't hear them coming - but then, that was what the gun was for.

Once in a while, he thought, flexing his grip on one of the machine's many 'oh shit' handles, Scarlet had actually managed to come up with a really good design.

Rude agreed with him, he'd never even had to ask. It had been weird, he supposed, how little had been said between them, but how many things had still been worked out. He'd never been much of a man for words, not serious words, and wasn't so surprised that those who chose the Turks tended to be just like him. It was much easier to solve problems with a good fight, most of the time. He wondered if either of them were at all afraid, that they weren't going to win this war, that the future wasn't worth talking about because it wasn't going to be around long enough to matter either way. Elena would never live long enough to have a child to worry over.

//Fuck that.//

Any anxiety of his own - that breathless, tearing thing - was now squarely attached to the child - his baby, just as much his as Rude's, he couldn't imagine Elena actually deciding to choose between them on principle... hell, there were more fucked up things to tell a kid than that three people just couldn't decide who loved who more. He'd grown up in the slums - there were a /lot/ more fucked up things.

So, here he was in the middle of a war, half of his mind on Elena, fervently and silently begging her to decide to stay behind on every mission, scanning the horizon constantly even when every computer and sensor claimed no danger, just in case. The other half of his mind wondered whether his boy would like football or hockey, or what the hell he was supposed to do if Elena had a girl instead.

//Rude, I'm sure Rude can handle -// His eyes widened behind the scope, he pounded on the windshield without ever looking away.

"Hold up! Hold up, I got something!"

The idling engine was just slightly less loud than an avalanche. Elena leaned forward, staring up at him.

"What? Spawn? What do you see?!"

"I don't think so... shit, it almost looks like Lifestream. Pull up a little and stop. I want to check it out."

Rude did exactly that, giving them about twenty meters to the edge of a wide, shallow fissure he could see glowing a brilliant green even through the faded screen of the gun's monitors.

Reno quickly got out of the car, wincing as Elena followed close behind, Rude on her heels.

"Elena... do you want - I mean, it might not be safe for -"

"I'm fine, Reno." She frowned, staring ahead. "Besides, you've been around the Lifestream before, and Mako - this isn't like that, is it? We've both been to Mideel, doesn't this feel strange to you? Weaker somehow?"

She was right. The glow was strong compared to the snows around them, but the air just didn't have the same taste or smell, as if this small puddle of Lifestream wasn't connected to anything, some tiny well that had managed to form, pushed to the surface by the recent spate of earthquakes.

"Reeve's going to want to know about this and-" Reno kicked a clump of snow over the side as they finally reached the edge, leaned over casually to watch where it fell, and paused. "Shit, somebody's down there."

"What?!" Soon, Elena and Rude were leaning over the edge, Reno was glad they seemed as startled as he did, the sight so impossible he thought his eyes might just be playing tricks. The body was laying face down, it was impossible to make out more than a few details - like the strands of hair peeking out beneath a ratty hood.

"Blonde. You think it might be - it couldn't be Cloud, could it?"

"Only one way to find out."

Thankfully the truck was supplied with enough equipment that they'd never, ever need, and a length of rope was easy enough to find. Reno tied himself into a makeshift harness, handing the other end to Rude and Elena, swiftly climbing his way down the ledge. It didn't take long, he'd always been good enough at this sort of thing, and though there weren't many decent handholds Rude was more than strong enough to bear most of his weight, and Elena could take the slack.

"It's not flat!" Reno stomped his foot once or twice, still holding onto the wall, before gingerly putting both feet down. "There's a little ledge down here I can stand on, and reach him."

The pit was bowl-shaped near the bottom, even more shallow than he had thought, the body had caught on a small rock outcrop, lifted halfway out of the green pool. It wasn't Cloud, Reno knew that almost immediately, but the features were so washed out by the glow, and so unexpected that it took him a few moments to realize what he was seeing, and a few more to find the words.

"Holy - holy shit! Rude! Rude, pull me up!" He reached out, grabbing for sodden clothing, the man a dead weight - still breathing, though. Holy shit.

//The Lifestream probably kept him from freezing to death. It is warmer down here, a little. I wonder how long he's been...//

Still breathing. Holy shit.

//You always were a lucky bastard, ShinRa.//

"He's still breathing! He's still alive! Pull me up!"

"What's wrong, Reno?! What happened?!" Elena's tone sounded panicked, and he realized his voice had cracked with some combination of excitement and disbelief, but he still hadn't managed to tell her anything important.

"Pull me up! It's Rufus!" He laughed to himself, a soft, tentative sound, watching Elena's face become a mirror of his own, even Rude's jaw dropping slightly.

"Rufus-god-damn-fucking-ShinRa is right here in front of me - now pull us up!"





Author's notes:

1. I don't want to write it, because it has no purpose, but I know that after the skeet shooting with beer bottles, Rufus, Reno and Rude would see who could pee over the side the longest. I'm pretty sure Rude won those contests.

2. If my count is right, this fic will be 38 chapters long plus an epilogue when I'm done with it. Four more chapters to go.

3. I apologize for in-story continuity issues. I am really really really trying to make it all work but it is BREAKING. MY. BRAIN.


TwigBrnch: I should make the kid a girl
ThorneScratch: yeah
TS: Reno-daddy XD
TB: I can only imagine her first date
TS: "you touch her, we break your face"
TS: "then your knees"
TS: "then your fingers"
TS: "then we get interesting"
TB: Reno: "Do you know how many places there are in Midgar to stuff a body?"
Rude: 10, 345
Reno: and we still have a couple thousand free.
Rude: not counting places for individual parts.
TS: Elena: Out!

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