A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 36

By Twig


And so I leave this world, where the heart must either break or turn to lead.

~~ Suicide note, Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, French writer, d. 1794


A group of men were outside the door, and doing their best to bash it in with - who knew? Maybe the decorative statue from a few floors down. Scarlet had been a part of this project from the beginning, though. Familiar with the floor plan, the entrances and exits - and the fact that not even a Fire 3 could get through the main door once it was securely locked.

All she had to worry about now were the people on the inside with her. The six technicians who had seen her clock the guard sprawled unconscious against the far wall, and probably couldn't be convinced she still had official ShinRa authority to do it.

"Ah, ah... no no no."

Scarlet pulled her gun, as one of the techs reached discreetly under the table. Emergency shut-down procedures had been bandied about as a security measure, but Scarlet couldn't remember if they'd actually made it into the final design. It was more likely a gun, similar to the one in her hand.

"Rufus?" The woman seated nearest to her seemed much more interested in the man in the wheelchair than in Scarlet holding one of her colleagues at gunpoint. "Is that really Rufus ShinRa?"

"Yes." Scarlet wondered what about that made this woman seem to come over to her side, smiling as she leaned a little closer to him. It seemed Rufus still had a cult of personality, even after all this time.

She might have to use the cannon to deflate his ego, once this was over with.

"What's wrong with him?"

"Nothing permanent." //I hope.// "I'm going to need your help, everyone." Scarlet raised her eyes, addressing the room. "I need to get the cannon powered up and aimed at the North Corel shore."

"You're trying to kill the President!"

Scarlet nearly snarled, quickly shaking her head.

"I /am/ the President... of sorts. I will do this entirely at gunpoint if I have to, but I'm not trying to destroy North Corel. I want it aimed at the beachhead, where the WEAPON will emerge."

The scientist who had protested frowned slightly, reconsidering.

"We don't know... if there's that kind of power."

Scarlet glared at the man, snapping out the traditional ShinRa response without hesitation. "Make it work."

The phone rang, and Scarlet gestured with the gun for the technician nearest to pick it up, while she retrieved what did turn out to be a weapon from under the table, and quickly unloaded it.

"It's President Reeve, ma'am. He wants you to stand down and leave the control room immediately." The man paused, still listening, and Scarlet nearly smirked at the strain in his voice when he responded. "No, no sir, she doesn't /look/ crazy."

"Tell him..." Scarlet stopped short. Reeve wasn't going to believe her, whatever her defense. It would be bad to mention Melissa now, she couldn't risk losing an ally - and besides, what if the woman came up with another plan? "Cut it off. Now."

The man nodded, and carefully put down the phone. It immediately began to ring again, and Scarlet quickly walked over and tore the jack out. The technician flinched, he was afraid of her - fine, she could work with fear - and the woman still watching Rufus seemed to take his involvement, even catatonic, as a positive.

//... done more with less.//

"I'm asking for your help... please." The word seemed strange to her own ears, but it did get their attention. Groveling a little could only hurt her ego, not the cause, she realized. The strain it would cause her might even help her image in their eyes - it was a mark of sanity and good faith, to fumble with humility.

"I understand it must seem like suicide, throwing this monster's own power back at it. I believe there should be a way to fluctuate the frequencies..." She stopped herself, getting ahead of things because there was just no time to do less. "I'll explain that as we go, but it is the only weapon we have left, and we have to use it. We have to try."

Not the most inspiring of speeches, but Scarlet was hopeful. A nod, here and there, looks slowly hardening with a bit of determination. One of the techs in the corner stayed quiet, though, and wouldn't look at her. She could tell it wasn't because he was afraid.

For all the time she spent not trying to be around people, Scarlet had developed quite a knack for reading them, in the quick cost-benefit analysis, weeding out underachievers for the good of the company. He was going to try something 'heroic,' just waiting for the chance.

Scarlet wasn't opposed to shooting people without much provocation, but it probably wouldn't be good precedent to do so in front of all the rest. She needed their help, and their trust could not have been more tenuous.

"You." He looked up, she could see him try not to flinch, knowing he'd been singled out. "I want you to-"

Scarlet had a plan, and it was a good plan, but Rufus suddenly interrupted, screaming, back arched and hands gripping the chair so hard it threatened to break.

"Rufus!" She turned, and realized one moment too late that she'd made the wrong move.

The technician's arm came up as he rushed forward, knocking the gun up towards the ceiling before catching her hard across the chin. Scarlet could at least be proud that the grunted curse that left her as they fell to the ground was one of anger, not surprise. The gun skittered out of her reach, and she yelled again in sheer frustration, glad to bury the rest of her fury in the man's thigh, rolling over and biting hard as he lunged for the weapon. He managed to kick her sharply with his other leg, and she let go to breathe but kept hold with her hands, clawing at whatever she could reach.

It was nice, being able to blame the streets for this sort of behavior, and for one of the first times she could remember, it was helpful that most people were sheep. Instead of assisting the man or running to the door, the rest of the technicians were either stunned or cowering, watching the two of them wrestle for the gun.

Impressively toned for the usual ShinRa science type, he hit her across the face, twice, and seemed rather surprised when she didn't relent, one hand still tightly holding his shirt, so that he had to drag her along as he stretched for the gun, making little progress. Scarlet dragged herself up, and brought her knee up, hard, rather satisfied to hear him make a muted little cry of pain. Satisfied, she pushed forward on her hands, lunging for the weapon, sure the fight was over.

The hand that wrapped around her ankle said otherwise, and Scarlet was thrown badly off balance, stumbling past the gun and right into the wall. The two seconds it took to get her bearings was all it took to find herself looking down the barrel of her own gun - //damn it, DAMN DAMN DAMN!// - it wasn't fear but frustrated fury, outrage. There was too much for her to do to die now.

The fire extinguisher that caught the man in the side of the head agreed with her, as did the pale, haggard face that quickly replaced the gun, watching the man fall before turning to her.

Rufus smiled, weary but confident, self-assured and proud and more than a little evil. He reached up - the most familiar, beloved and stupid gesture she'd ever seen - and tossed the hair out of his eyes.

"Come on." Rufus said. "We've got a bitch to fry."


Tifa kicked the first monster out of her path, dropping down only long enough to leap up and catch the second in an uppercut, feeling a moment of fierce pride as the elongated jaw snapped back in on itself. Though it was the bullet from somewhere behind her that made the kill, bursting through both skull and brain, blood and meat spraying out in a wide blast. Tifa grimaced, feeling it turn to a grin on her face though she wasn't at all amused, wiping bits of the enemy from her face and hair. She turned to run well before she had finished, as four long-legged creatures leapt over the hill and gave chase.

She hoped it was all of them, hoped she hadn't been led into an ambush in front of her own - only to grin for real as she scrambled up a small embankment, into a small clearing mostly surrounded by trees, and soldiers, and a nicely laid trap.

The warning cry was lost beneath the sound of something else exploding, somewhere, but Tifa knew when to throw herself to the ground, not daring to look behind her, to see how close the creatures were. The attack came from both sides, a hail of bullets over her head, until Tifa was afraid to shift even slightly, to put her hands over her ears but she had to or risk going deaf. The enemies screams were sharp and high-pitched and she wondered if her ears would be ringing for hours like they had been after Sector Five.

Cloud wasn't the only one who got to think he'd changed completely since Nibelheim. He wasn't the only one who had to sit back and wonder how the hell he'd gotten from there to here, and what he'd left behind. The only difference was, Cloud could chart his past in scars and marks and hard proof, shared memories with Zack and Sephiroth. All Tifa had was a single scar, and it didn't seem to explain enough, to tell that little girl then how she'd turned into the woman laying here, ready to tear apart whatever dared to attack her.

She waited until the shooting had stopped, breathing into the dusty ground for a few extra moments, and turned to see the closest monster's gaping jaws only a foot from where she lay. Tifa quickly scrambled to her feet, nearly backing into the soldier standing just a few paces behind her.

"Good job, ma'am."

Tifa nearly got a thank-you out, before something large and heavy whistled overhead and she was knocked to the ground by a massive explosion. Tifa gasped, wondering just how much of this battle she'd spend on her stomach, watching the man next to her struggle to his feet, vaguely glad he was still alive. As long as she could keep everyone in a close proximity breathing, she thought she just might walk out of this battle without going crazy.

The smoke cleared quickly, the wind was blowing even colder now, from the north, and Tifa winced at a sudden rising cry. The monsters they were fighting had been nothing at all, she already knew that. Just a first wave, and it was somewhat difficult even to tell whether they'd crawled out of the sea to attack or just to flee.

//You heard what the Highwind's recording. What the readings show. You know how big it is.//

Another Ultima WEAPON, and they'd destroyed that, destroyed it and all the others like it, but they'd had Materia then, and Cloud.

A dark shape appeared, rising slightly out of the water. Distant still, but quickly closing the gap, and Tifa simply stopped thinking.


"So, how's it going?!"

Standing a few feet away from Reno, Zack still nearly had to scream to be heard above the constant barrage of fire. The answer was pre-empted by another swarm of 'ugly' - Zack had stopped trying to figure out if they were more lizard than bug or more furry than scaly long ago - and when he finished carving them up, he could see that Reno was bleeding a little, cut near the eye, though neither he nor Rude seemed all that worried.

"You all right?"

"Fan-fucking-tastic! I could do this all day!" Reno rather casually lifted the gun he was carrying, three quick shots clearing out the monsters straight ahead of them, providing a momentarily clear view of the sea.

"So what happens next?"

Zack didn't have a chance to answer Reno's question, before his PHS did the job for him.

"Ah, Zack? Are you there?"

Cait Sith's voice, chipper as always even under the circumstances, the benefits of poor programming. If the doctors had objected to Reeve entering the battle, Zack hadn't even heard about it. Any extra fighters could only be a benefit, even if they were a foot high and rode giant Mogs.

"... for the moment, yes."

He dropped down behind what was left of an improvised trench, listening to the Turks occasional bursts of gunfire, the rest of the battle spreading out around them. He might have been thankful at how well they were doing in repelling the enemy, except that the enemy's attacks were painfully haphazard, misdirected. Nothing compared to what it had been, earlier in the war. It was amazing, really, that any of the smaller beasts had actually managed to cross the gap, moving with some sort of lemming-like behavior, minimal instincts. All of Hojo's attention seemed firmly focused solely on the WEAPON, these lesser creatures relatively forgotten.

"We lost anyone yet?" Of course they'd lost soldiers, Zack already knew that, but he was bracing himself for any particular names. Ro. Nanaki. Tifa.

"No, from what I know. The attack appears to have concentrated near Nanaki and Barrett, Ro is doing mostly cleanup, Tifa too... everyone's holding to their positions, so far."

It was good to hear, especially with most of the army clustered near Ro's end, the natural sway of the land leaving them tucked back from where the WEAPON was projected to surface. It would be to their advantage, with some protection by the hills if Hojo's initial move was an attack. If the scientist ignored them, Roman would be able to sweep from behind... maybe, just maybe there would be a weakness.

//You just keep dreaming, soldier.//

"So... what the hell is up with Scarlet?"

No answer, not for a long time, which was an answer in itself. If Scarlet still held the Junon cannon, she would likely be-

"Preparing to fire. She's going to use the cannon on it."

"Maybe she knows something we don't."

He'd be betting long odds at this point, but still... Zack heard Reno swear, low and sharp. It took a moment to realize his ears were ringing with /silence/, the creatures around them that weren't dead mostly sweeping to the sides, charging erratically and easily picked off by the fortified lines behind them. The bursts of gunfire seemed muted, and far away, and Zack, for one, was getting very, very tired of battles that refused to play out like real battles. Tired of being able to feel the Planet trembling with held-up tension and how all of it, down to the wind against his skin and the reflection of the sun on the water, was just suddenly /wrong/.

He was on his feet, jumping off the slight incline, moving down toward the line of men huddled behind the trench - not necessary anymore, now that they'd repelled the smaller creatures, but no one stood up, no one wanted to be visible. Hell, if Zack had thought it would be any safer, he'd have been down there with them. The wind tugged on a few strands of his hair, and Zack couldn't help but snicker, imagining the heroic portrait he made. The closest soldier to hear him turned, staring at him like he was mad.

//Oh yeah. "The Final Stand of Mad Zack of Gongaga."//

If they got out of this, he was going to commission the portrait, and slap it up in the ShinRa building, somewhere nice and conspicuous.

//Ladies' room.//

"All right, here it comes. I want that Materia glowing the minute it surfaces." Zack gave the order without really thinking about it, most of his thoughts quietly humming with some old, dramatic opera. Ominous and dramatic, lots of the big kettle drums and French horns. One of Sephiroth's favorites, had to be, it certainly wasn't his sort of music.

//If they're still alive, they'll be in there. Inside of it// So in a demented way, he wanted to see Hojo, and the monster with him. Needed to see it, if only to bring his friends closer to where he was.

Mad, definitely.

The WEAPON broke the surface of the water with a suddenness that made a few soldiers jump, gaining altitude in leaps with each step it took. It was like a moving pile of cliffs and craters, with only the barest indications of anything like head, arms, legs in the places any normal creature's would have been. More like 'barely' than roughly hewn, Zack couldn't begin to think what on this creature might be a weak spot.

"Fire them up!" Reno hollered to the men in front of them, the first line of defense - hell, one of the /only/ lines. Zack could actually hear the Materia malfunctioning in the slots of his own sword, a high pitched, barely audible whine. The Wall spells were shuddering badly, flickering in and out and seeming to grow weaker with each step the WEAPON took toward them. It was the hope of protection from an initial deathblow, but Zack was beginning to wonder if that blow would come at all.

He'd seen the footage that existed of the Diamond WEAPON. Cloud had gone into greater detail later, attacks and size and general disbelief anything would actually make it fall. They had had been fully prepared for an energy weapon, any number of possible blasts that would incinerate them all where they stood.

//Hojo's got enough ego, though. He really does want to do this as slowly as he can.//

"Futile, this is going to be fucking futile. Time to move back, General." Reno's voice was bitter, the man shoving a pair of reins into his hand. Karat warbled, and stepped closer to him, awkward and fearful.

Tifa and Barrett had ordered their troops to attack with the longer-range weapons, all an exercise, just to see if anything could do damage, and Zack wasn't so surprised when nothing happened. The guns only pinged off small pieces, barely visible. The missiles exploded, leaving little mark they'd been fired in the first place - were they even /hitting/ the target?

//All we need now, some kind of force field.// Zack ground his teeth on that helpless rage - but it wasn't over, not just yet.

"Pull back! Retreat to the secondary positions!" Behind him, he could hear Reno yelling much the same into his PHS, saw the small pockmarks of bullets cease off the creature's left flank, Tifa and Barret moving their armies away.

The shields at the front line flickered, falling away, a swift rush of movement as chocobos were mounted and everyone else just ran. Zack easily leapt into Karat's seat, all of the bird's feathers fluffed wildly by the WEAPON's presence, trembling just slightly. Hojo had another chance now, to destroy them all at once. He was waiting, though. He knew he could take his time.


Zack was turning when it finally happened. He saw a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, and pulled on Karat's reins so hard the bird warked sharply with surprise and pain.

The distance they'd decided on keeping between themselves and the WEAPON had seemed quite liberal, giving them a lot of room to maneuver. At least, Zack had thought so... until now.

The long arm shot out of the WEAPON's body like a cannon blast, closing the gap of ocean between them easily, as wide across as a tower and made of solid stone darkness. Zack watched, horrified, as the arc of the limb dropped, the blunted end slamming hard into the ground, digging a channel of uprooted trees and rock... before swinging back in their direction, sweeping along the ground in a solid wall of stone, crushing everything in its path. Soldiers screamed, mowed under or slammed high into the air amidst the smashing sound of destroyed machinery.

The Turks were moving, fast enough that they'd be clear, but if he wanted any hope of getting clear Zack knew should have already been beside them. Even a gold chocobo could only go so fast.

//At least in one direction.//

Zack yanked sharply on the bird's reins to get it's attention, the chocobo frozen in panic at the wall of death speeding straight at them. "Jump! Karat! Go up now!"

The roar was deafening in his ears, and Zack already had half his weight balanced, ready to push against the bird and try to leap to safety on his own when Karat jumped. It was a near vertical leap, Zack gritted his teeth as the WEAPON's limb slammed into them, heard Karat's warbles as the bird struggled for a grip in the rocky surface. If he stumbled now, lost his footing - but they didn't, and with a wild cry Karat stumbled madly over the surface of the still-moving limb, leaping to the other side and running frantically for cover. Zack didn't bother trying to slow the bird's frantic flight, refusing to look at the ground of the aftermath, the remains of those who couldn't get out of the creature's path.

"Zack!? You still alive?!"

His PHS screeched to life, Reno's voice sharp and worried on the other end. He glanced up and around, for a moment unsure of where they were. Karat had gotten turned around, was now scraping along the bottom ridge of the sand, headed along a narrow path to where Ro's army had been camped.

"Fine! I'm fine!" He had to double the reins around his hand to pull Karat to a stop, forcing the bird to slow and breathe before sheer panic could kill it. "What's it look like up there?! Casualties?!"

"It looks like most of them got out of the way... but there's nothing left of what didn't. Hojo didn't go for another sweep back, so some of ours were able to hide behind the left bank. The bastard's playing with us, Zack!"

//Playing with us.//

"Get everyone into position. Have the artillery on the cliff ready to pound some missiles into it once it hits the edge of the water. Tell the Highwind to come in strong. We'll try to push it back. Tell Ro to get ready to move, when it hits the shore."

"Reno out." The words were clipped, anger covering fear, more anger at that worry. Zack tried to at least slow his heart, jaw clenched and aching, but most of his muscles refused to loosen even a little. The WEAPON's scent in the air made his whole body hurt - Cloud hadn't mentioned that, and Zack was almost glad he hadn't.

Karat scrambled quickly up the staggered cliffs, keeping close to the tree line, to what stood for potential shelter. It was a fight not to look behind him, he could feel the WEAPON's footsteps easily now, shaking the ground, knew it had to be close, and urged the bird forward... though if things happened the way he thought they would, he'd be back on the shore soon enough.

A cheer rose up, strained but audible, when he finally reached the 'summit.' Zack swallowed hard, the line, the entire damn army seeming so small in the face of the WEAPON's weight. Everything they had, and it seemed utterly inconsequential.

"Wutai, they won." Reno barked out, obviously letting his voice carry a bit for morale's sake, making sure everyone heard. "Something about a summon, and Vincent, Yuffie, Godo... they're all fine. They're sending troops this way."

He didn't go any further, so it was /obviously/ just for morale, because no matter how many Godo sent or how fast...

//Playing with us.//

Zack reached for the sword on his back, let his hand clench very tight against the handle. Cloud's sword, a tremendous weapon even if it wouldn't glow for him, even if the dark, fathomless indigo answered the question he'd refrained from asking, was afraid to ask, about the state of its bearer.

He still had the Omnislash. Zack knew it, knew he could do it, and once the WEAPON hit the shore...

It would be like attacking a mountain, but he had seen Cloud take on the Fullspawn, /knew/ the technique was sound. Besides, they'd been stalling all this time and he simply hadn't come up with anything better. The best they'd been working with was guerilla tactics, dodging, picking off whatever they could wherever they could. The soldiers could keep running, keep falling back and trying to keep out of the creature's path but once they reached North Corel it would all be futile, and there was no way to pick off a WEAPON.

Tifa already knew he'd try. He made sure it was the last thing he'd said to her - before 'I love you' and 'be careful' and 'goodbye' - that if he was going to fall, it would be here and now.

"The WEAPON - it's almost there."

Zack turned as Elena pointed, the creature rising high above the cliffs, the trees, even the Highwind as it swept down with a roar, just above their heads. Cid had balls of solid rock to just sit there, trusting his plane and his instincts... and Zack's last-minute idea.

//If nothing else, at least it will piss Hojo off.//

It was usually Sephiroth who came up with the seventh-inning changes in plan. In Wutai, he was always the one to turn back after some nighttime maneuver. Order the rest of them back to camp while returning to the jungles, adding one more impossible mission of his own to whatever insanity they'd already been doing. Zack followed him most of the time just to see if they could pull it off, and they always had.

Sephiroth had always had the sudden moments of inspiration - which was why Zack had been so surprised to remember, in the hours before dawn, that he knew a bit about the terrain they were working on... and more importantly, the terrain the WEAPON would be standing on in the morning.

The shelf of rock just beneath the water, that stretched out for a good length before falling away to open ocean. The series of caverns in what little there was to hold it up, pock-marking the rock like Swiss cheese.

The divers that could be found were gathered up quickly, from fierce Wutai warriors and Midgar athletes, even a member of the Icicle Inn Polar Bear Club. Equipment had been piecemealed together from whatever would work, with explosives the only thing in easy supply, mostly what was left of the ShinRa navy's stash, used for other purposes after their fall but always, inherently, made for demolition beneath the waves.

In any other situation, Zack knew they would have laughed his ass out of his rank for suggesting such a plan. The combination of desperation and nervousness had left him with plenty of volunteers for every part of the operation, though, and it wasn't as if anyone was going to sleep anyway. Somehow, with the Turks help, the divers, and all the explosives they could pack in a few hours time, they'd managed to stud most of the shelf with explosives.

"Zack." Reno lifted his chin slightly. "Highwind says the WEAPON's locking in on them, it looks like. He's a sitting duck up there." The Turk tossed him a pair of binoculars, and Zack quickly calculated. Yes, nearly there...

"Tell them..." He breathed, no words, just hope. "Tell them to do it now."

The Highwind was responsible for all of it, coordinating the air attack with the one beneath the waves. All Zack could do was watch as a sudden burst of spray leapt up, followed by another, and another, until it looked like the WEAPON was being swallowed up by the sea.

//We could only hope.//

The Highwind fired, round after round of missiles, even as the creature fell - and Hojo /did/ have energy weapons when he chose to use them, as Zack watched a bright ball of energy scream past the ship, coming close enough to lick the Highwind's hull without much damage.

"Good job, Cid... good job."

More missiles fired from above them, soldiers positioned in the cliffs, but Zack already knew it wasn't going to work, could see the lack of impact from where he stood, tossing the binoculars back to Reno as he walked onto the plain. He didn't bother whistling for Karat, breaking into a steady run instead that quickly ate up the distance between him and the WEAPON. The monster was half in and half out of the water now, still a pile of rock without feature or form, and although it seemed stuck he could see it shifting - no, melting here and there, around the rock, working to free itself. More of the long, twisting arms flailing in the air, bashing against the rock, probably doing more to dig itself in further than break free.

Put an idiot inside a creature of mass destruction... and he was still an idiot.

The WEAPON was changing as he watched it, though. Zack could see several pairs of shorter, skinny spikes jutting out from it's sides, even more of the long arms twisting about, plunging into the water to help drag it back up.

//A porcupine, an octopus and a shotgun wedding.// He'd never really apologized to Sephiroth for his bad sense of humor and worse timing. It was certainly clear to him now that he just couldn't help it.

Zack's eyes skidded over the surface of the WEAPON without catching hold of any new targets. He would just have to dive in, aim as high as he could and hope for the best. The water had come up high when the shelf fell, a surging tide, and he leapt carefully from one point of rock to the next, watching the water bubble and steam at his feet, the creature's body groaning and roaring under the pressure.

//It's so fucking /huge/.//

Hojo hadn't seen him coming yet, maybe wouldn't, and if he could just open up a wound in it, just hit it in the right spot... He glanced down at the sword, found his reflection staring back, but it was Cloud's sword, Cloud's battle, it always had been. He had to believe his friend was with him now... would always be with him, no matter what happened here today.

//I'm coming for you, Spike. I'm coming.//

Zack drew the sword to his side, one handed, shifting into stance even as he plotted out the final few jumps, the necessary arc of the first swing - and skidded to a sudden halt, just at the edge of the sea, feeling the hair on the back of his neck start to rise. Mako. The only thing that felt like that was Mako, and he could only imagine one thing that could make the atmosphere more charged than the WEAPON in front of him. Zack turned, to where he knew Junon lay, past the horizon.

"Oh Scarlet, you crazy bitch."


"Take... left here. Short passage... up."

Anjele's voice was thin and breathy, little more than a whisper. Sephiroth doubted he could have heard it, had the man not been laying so close to his ear. He could feel something bump near the small of his back, each time they were jostled, and had the distinct impression it was the end of Heidegger's spinal column. He was not about to look, to make sure.

"Are you going to make it?"

A soft laugh. "... have to, don't I? Useless... get all this way and die... now." Anjele coughed, but it had no more strength than anything else he had done, didn't seem to ease his troubled breathing. "Passage... breaks to the left. Follow it."

Sephiroth grimaced, as the left-hand path quickly turned vertical, and he had to scramble up a slick, curved slope, the rock beneath his hands rather repulsively soft and malleable, and moving.

"Five years. Five years to feed it. All... souls of the... dead."

Sephiroth's fingers had gone stiff and numb through his gloves, and Heidegger's hands were digging painfully sharp into his shoulders. He couldn't begin to pretend it was enough of a distraction.

"... Jenova... doesn't... doesn't know how long he can survive, or if he's... already..."

"Shut up."

Anjele did as he was told, though maybe more out of necessity than anything, each breath seeming louder and even more ragged in the dark and silent rooms. The top passage narrowed to a small, downward-sloping tunnel, leaving Sephiroth to slide along, awkwardly balanced on the backs of his legs, occasionally his hands, to keep from crushing Anjele. It was slow progress, ended very abruptly by a sudden explosion, a twisting that shook his hold and sent them both tumbling down to the bottom.

"The army, that came from outside. Hojo's reached land. The battle must be starting."

"... not so far... but there's a door. Locked."

Sephiroth made a dismissive sound, not bothering to slow down as he leaned forward and kicked the steel door backwards, the screech of metal giving way to a sudden roar. He brought the Masamune up just in time, the creature's momentum sending it splitting down the blade, landing with a wet, sloppy sound at his feet. A set of razor sharp claws clicked lightly against the end of his boot.

"You could have warned me."

"... didn't know. Not feeling so good." Anjele snickered, and Sephiroth very nearly smiled.

"We're here, so you can't die now."

He glanced around, the sight grim, but not as bad as it might have been. Over half of the terminals had been shattered, twisted wreckage where scaffolding had been wrenched free of the rock, the central column now listing badly to the right...

Sephiroth could see the remains of a large tank, now smashed and broken against the wall, and though he knew why he was here, hadn't forgotten for a moment it still made his breath stick in his chest.


As if it could feel his anguish, the WEAPON roared, much louder in this cavernous room, taunting him with an impossible task. Of course, he knew Cloud would never have been left here, but tried to ignore the feeling of dread as he stared at the now-broken cage.

"... set me down."

He knelt without thinking, Anjele sliding off his shoulders, hitting the ground with an ugly, hard sound. Sephiroth hadn't expected much from what was left of the ShinRa official, worried that the man might not be able to even move, but Anjele was dragging himself along by his hands rather quickly, lifting himself up onto a chair near what appeared to be an unbroken monitor. "I can do it from here. I can do it. Start the power."


"An emergency grid." He pointed to a tangled wall of debris, and Sephiroth didn't care how the man knew about all of this, whether it was gleaned from Jenova or some template of this facility he remembered... didn't matter, because he found the switch - god bless ShinRa for their utility, and uniformity, that once he studied one of these he knew them all - and activated it, wincing at the shower of sparks right above his head, watching as three or four monitors flickered to life, with the barely audible whirr of systems warming up.

"Leave me here... I can... familiar with it." The words were garbled even worse now, and when he coughed it sounded as if something was crumbling inside.

"Are you sure?" Sephiroth was startled by the intensity in the glassy gaze that snapped up, focusing sharply on him.

"You must slow him down. Keep him busy... he won't notice what... me. The code. Stop him... killing the army. All... in your hands now. Go."

Sephiroth nodded, exiting the chamber without looking back, certain it would have made him change his mind. In his opinion, he was probably leaving Anjele to die, but the man had been right, /he/ didn't know the codes, and, thankfully, no longer had the inborn knowledge of the darkness pressing in on all sides.

The lights were down, but he could see well enough to find the one path leading straight up, the ground squelching sticky wet beneath his feet, walls shifting more and more with pulse and blood and breath. More explosions, Sephiroth could judge the thickness of the creature's skin through the vibrations - and he couldn't imagine anything the army would have penetrating, doing more than negligible damage. As fast as he dared go, it still didn't take so very long to reach the top, and he wasn't so surprised to find Hojo there, waiting for him.

At this height, the entire room swayed back and forth slightly, pulsing with a luminescent, Mako glow that made his eyes hurt. The scientist was planted like some demented flower at the opposite wall of the high, domed chamber. The whole of him was dark, as dark as the walls save for the pale, still human head, but even that showed signs of darkness, pulsing through the veins and smaller capillaries, and when he smiled Sephiroth could see it in the lines around his gums.

No sign of Cloud, anywhere.

"Hello, boy. I thought you might not be dead." Limbs began detaching themselves from the earth with a soft, wet sound, Hojo's body bizarrely scorpion-like now, down to the very large tail that pulled itself from the wall, tipped with a barb the width of a Buster sword.

"You should know the quality of your own work Hojo. You made me to be the best. Better than you... much better." Sephiroth couldn't help the insult, and raised his own blade, waiting.

Claws clicked against the floor, two pair of pincers snapping and slashing in the air. Sephiroth kept the Masamune ready, could hear Zack somewhere in the back of his mind making quiet quips about just how badly Hojo had let himself go.

"You didn't protect her, when I attacked. You're not - Jenova didn't touch you this time, did she?" Hojo was moving, shifting to the side while never taking his eyes off Sephiroth. The dark-clad man sidestepped, to keep the creature wholly in front of him, the Masamune poised in the air between them.

"Everything is different this time, Hojo. Would you really have given this all to me, even if it wasn't? Shared your victory, when it could be yours alone?"

"You have a point. I suppose I was just curious. While not my blood son, you are still - there is so much history there, between us, Sephiroth." He smiled slightly, almost wistful amidst the madness. "I suppose I just wanted you here, whether you were on my team, Jenova's, or a team of your-" He blinked, dark eyes narrowing in sudden realization, and his voice no longer held a hint of acid mirth.

"The failure."

The tail lashed out, and Sephiroth parried, grimaced at the black drops that fell from the end of the curved barb, hissing and smoking when they hit the handle of his sword. He bit back a curse as the barb flexed, tightening unexpectedly around the middle of the blade, nearly wrenching it from his hands.

"All of this, you did for /him/... to trick me and get close enough to strike at me. You used him as bait - but it's all in his name, isn't it? All for him."

Hojo's expression was caught between anger and something more like a smile, and Sephiroth felt his gut twist tightly, that daring to sacrifice his lover was a plan the scientist might have approved of.

"Cloud. His name is Cloud Strife. What have you done with him?"

Hojo laughed, loud and long, and struck out, pincers snapping, ready to slice Sephiroth in half. Sephiroth blocked the edge of one long, curved shear, stepping back and to the side, pulling the Masamune down just before the other side of the claw could close around it. Hojo was fast enough that he had to anticipate the strikes, the slight change in the air before the poison-filled barb slashed down again and again and again. He parried the attacks more easily than he let on, Hojo was strong and fast but not trained, not meant for battle, and had forgotten he was fighting the enemy he'd helped turn into an invincible weapon.

The tail slashed down expectedly, and Sephiroth twisted the blade, cutting through it, bringing the sword back to carve another four feet off the writhing tail before Hojo could realize what had happened. He shifted to attack again, but the floor swerved roughly underneath him, tilting wildly. Sephiroth leapt back, trying to keep his balance with a wall at his back, grateful only that Hojo seemed as surprised by the sudden shift as he was.

"... what?!" The scientist turned, body going rigid as he stared at the wall, eyes focused at some point beyond. Sephiroth wondered just what Zack had done, to throw such a massive weapon so far off balance, what it might have cost him. Hojo was no longer concerned with him, only with controlling the WEAPON, or at least helping it regain its bearings enough to return to destruction.

The scientist wasn't paying any attention at all, not even when Sephiroth aimed, and lunged, and ran him through.

Hojo cried out, and the WEAPON roared with him, but as the spindly legs crumpled and he fell against the wall, the head swiveled grotesquely back to leer at him, and he seemed no more pained than annoyed.

"It won't work, you know."

"Makes me feel better, though."

"I will regret killing you, boy. I've enjoyed myself terribly, all these long years... ever since Lucrecia..."

Sephiroth pulled the sword out, only to drive it back home again just as swiftly, searching for anything like a spine - another joke in there, Zack muttering in the back of his mind. He knew he should have gone for the head, but the current angle of the body and the Masamune's length wouldn't allow for it, and he doubted it would really matter all that much. At least he had slowed this ugly body down for the moment, one of the claws crushed beneath the mammoth body, the other snapping weakly, ineffectually, pierced by his sword.

"So... would you say it's been worse than the Wutai war?"

"Fewer mosquitoes."

Sephiroth took a deep breath, and another, resting just for a moment, wondering if another blow would even cause the scientist any true pain. The entire situation was spiraling well past surreal, when it had been disturbingly so to begin with. Hojo wasn't lying, and though he could keep using him for a piñata, they both knew the truth - wasn't there /anything/ that could kill the bastard?

Hojo smirked, laughed a little around a mouthful of black blood. "The damned boy, I never believed... when he bested me the first time. Love? Is that what this is all for? What you chose? Why? It would have been... so much better. Don't you see... I wanted to give you so much more."

"Don't you get it yet, Hojo?" He shouldn't have been the one to give this speech, but it came anyway. "Can't you understand? There /isn't/ more."

It didn't matter what he said, he knew they were speaking different languages, had been ever since Zack had appeared and offered that hand in friendship, and Sephiroth had learned all that Hojo couldn't teach. It was easy enough to hate the scientist for his deficiencies, whether it was willful ignorance or that he really just didn't understand.

"Where is he? What have you done with him?"

Hojo laughed, and Sephiroth yanked back on the sword in frustration. It was an effort to pull the blade out of what seemed more muck than anything now, and he watched as great hunks of tissue fell, thick and dark like oil-soaked meat, and Hojo only kept laughing.

"You can't kill me, boy. I'm a part of this, and it is a part of me. Hack me to pieces all you like, I can build myself a thousand bodies, two for every one that falls. I'm invincible."

"He steals a few coals from the fire, and thinks he can call himself a god."

The voice was hollow, low and icy, scraping against the walls more than echoing. Sephiroth turned, keeping the blade between himself and the fallen scientist, but Hojo only followed his gaze back towards the opening, and the newest arrivals.

Jenova. Jenova, with Aeris standing next to her, with only the barest hint of green outlining her features, suggesting that she was not entirely alive. Sephiroth realized that she was staring back at him, not Hojo, and the look in her eyes was pure, solid murder.

She knew all about Cloud, then, and she wouldn't want to hear his excuses.

//Get away.//

Jenova's voice, and she lifted a hand, a wave of power tossing Sephiroth back, pushing him against the opposite wall. Aeris raised a hand herself, the green energy glowing faint, weak, barely a pulse gathering in the center of her palm. Hojo snorted disdainfully, and Sephiroth watched the crumpled legs stretch, and flex, and lift up, unbroken. The pincers snapped dangerously in the air, almost taunting, and with a flick the long tail regained its poisonous tip.

Sephiroth gritted his teeth, taking a step forward, hand tight around his sword. If all he could do was slow Hojo down, if all he could do was make it as difficult as possible for the scientist to complete his goal...

//No.// One hand toward him, and all of Jenova's power was only the barest of pressure against his chest, pushing on him, keeping him back. //Wait.//


Anjele was steadily losing track of everything, the feel of the tips of his fingers, and most of his field of vision beyond the soft glow of the screen. He was rather surprised he'd managed to hold together still, even if it was getting more difficult to breathe. The back of his spine ached, digging into the chair. He supposed it really ought to have mattered more to him, that his legs were gone, that he was crumbling - but his only thought, other than the code, was a desperate hope that Jenova was still all right.

//You'd feel it. You'd feel it if she died.//

It wasn't quite enough to keep his mind off her, but he could concentrate enough to do what was needed. Hojo had no passwords, no encryptions. He had been the only one to access this data, had no doubt assumed he would be the only one who ever would. It took a little work, but soon enough he found the right program, the screen filling with numbers, code, and he could even take samples from the WEAPON at this very moment, to insure a perfect accuracy.

Anjele flinched, bracing himself against the table as an enormous rumble shuddered the cavern overhead, bits of dust and debris crumbling down over him, and he leaned over the monitor, expecting any moment for a rock to come tumbling down, or the power to fail.

//Come on. Come on.//

Anjele blinked hard, rubbing his eyes as they suddenly watered up, trying not to think too hard about the stickiness that came away on his fingertips, more than just tears.

//Eyes... fuck. Melting?// He leaned closer to the screen until it stopped blurring, listening to his breathing fill the chamber, punctuated by the occasional rumble, too far away, it seemed, to be of much danger.

He was technically capable enough to figure it out, of his father's better qualities, one had been the paranoia familiar to most ShinRa executives. Not enough to save him, as it turned out, but still enough to demand that Anjele be able to work his way around what he'd be overseeing. He had a knack for computers, really, and had to admit, for /this/ being the final blow, Hojo's system was remarkably simplistic, nothing hidden, not even the link to a ShinRa satellite - tapped until they'd realized he was using it.

//You think this is all you..? You can do this on your own?//

Anjele tried not to think about that - but yes, he was hearing voices, whispers and murmurs just below the sound of his own breathing. Shouts and screams and urges that guided his fingers along - voices from the walls maybe, the imprisoned ghosts of all those dead soldiers, dead civilians, everyone who had ever joined the Lifestream, thinking it eternal refuge. A river of sound, nothing comprehensible, but if he just let go and let it happen, let himself follow it...

He blinked, and blinked again as it did nothing to brighten the room. Anjele felt something detach, somewhere inside his chest, sliding toward the floor, but refused to look down.

//Please... please hurry.// He felt little more than a voice now, watching somewhere behind his eyes as his hands flicked over the keys, finding a pathway and opening the code.

//Please. Please.//

It was sent out, and he held his breath.


He couldn't breathe, nearly fell, caught himself at the last moment and forced the air into his lungs and out again. The automatic function was no longer so.

//Did it work? Did it?//

He had thought he was safe, that the explosions would have already found the room if they were going to, but a sudden, ear-piercing blast proved him wrong. Anjele was thrown to the floor, rolling as far as he could beneath the table, the entire ceiling seeming to come down on top of him. He heard the crash directly above him - shattering glass and plastic - and if North Corel hadn't received the code they were never going to.

//I tried...// Funny, he hadn't ever intended to be the hero, if only because heroes usually ended up just like this. Anjele looked down, to where the rest of him should have been... well, not /exactly/ like this.

//You did well.//

He gasped, back arching with a sudden, deep breath, and the second came after, not as painful or as difficult as before.


Tender, and gentle, he could feel her reaching out, feel his cells respond to even the slight energy she was sending. The explosion, something had changed... she wasn't weak at all, not now, but gleaming and soft in the back of his mind. He wanted to go to her, but glancing out in the darkness, all he could see was rubble, and he was so weak now, useless... He struggled anyway, fingers digging into the floor.

//No.// Her attention was split, she could not stay with him, but he wasn't to follow. His part in this was over. //Rest. I will be with you soon.//


Sephiroth's vision went white, and for a moment he thought he must have died. He hadn't seen the final blow coming, though, and even if it had been Aeris who delivered it, that just seemed wrong. He blinked, and blinked again - the dead didn't blink, even if there wasn't anything to see...

He knew he wasn't dead when his shoulder impacted sharply with the wall, and the next breath ached in his lungs.

//... the hell?// The air tasted different, and it took him a few more moments to realize it was a breeze. The only place a breeze could be coming from was outside - which meant...

//The cannon. Had to be.// Sephiroth kept blinking, but the new light from outside was just as blinding as the initial blast, and he still could only see the vaguest of outlines against the sun. Frustrating, though he was sure he wouldn't still be breathing if Hojo had turned things to his advantage.

//... and Aeris?//

Aeris, he found as his vision finally cleared, had her hands too full to deal with him yet. Jenova was standing beside her, both of them locked in combat with Hojo. Jenova was bracing both sides of a pincer struggling to close on her, while Aeris darted and dodged the long, bladed tail. He wouldn't have believed it, except that Jenova was holding her own, and Aeris seemed more solid than ever, very nearly tangible. Her eyes were blazing, incandescent, even brighter than Mako.

The Masamune was still in his hand, and Sephiroth rushed to his feet, bringing it up and charging Hojo at his unprotected side. With the three of them, and this power from the cannon... maybe, somehow, it was possible to win?

Hojo roared, body melting and sizzling wherever Jenova and Aeris touched him. Sephiroth never landed the strike, stumbling to the side instead as the WEAPON twisted sharply, roaring with the shared pain of its master.

He found himself poised over the wide chasm dug in the creature's side, a vision of earth and sky from a breathtaking height. Sephiroth dug his feet into the ground, stopping his slide, and pushed off, rushing Hojo with his sword held high. A perfect strike, but Sephiroth let out a wordless, angry shout as the blade glanced against a barrier, skidding off. He slid to a stop just shy of touching it himself, watching the slight green glow fade back into invisibility. Aeris or Hojo, he wasn't sure which, but someone didn't want him in this battle.

"Disappointed, boy?" Hojo snarled, Jenova sliding out of the closing claw only to get caught by it, as it backhanded her into the wall. The scientist sneered. "I would think you'd be glad, now that you have the answer to your question."

He pointed with a long, spindly finger, and Sephiroth turned, something in the scientist's voice - the pride in that voice, and anytime he was proud, Sephiroth knew it couldn't be good. He had just a glimpse, as the WEAPON reached the apex of a movement, body shifting, and the scientist's meaning became all too clear.

The WEAPON was a twisted, misshapen thing, and so what he could see, so distant, could have been a jewel in the creature's throat just as easily as some glittering, misshapen eye. It shone brilliantly, a Mako glow, and Sephiroth's eyesight was good enough that he could see the outline of the body inside, sealed away in a shimmering sarcophagus.


He was running, didn't hesitate or turn, and Hojo still managed to close the gap in the WEAPON before he could reach it. A flash of darkness, with a sharp, tearing sound, the wound healing itself over just as his fist slammed against it, and Hojo was laughing again as the sky disappeared. It must have taken him a great deal of power to close such a fissure, even just in this room, a sacrifice just to watch Sephiroth hurt.

A brilliant flash filled the room, along with the smell of acrid, burning flesh, he turned just in time to see Hojo hit the wall, Aeris's hands burning with the remnants of a pale, green fire. Her eyes flicked from Hojo, to Sephiroth and back again... and he wondered whether he'd been right to assume she wouldn't strike him down here and now.

//Go!// Jenova pointed, and Sephiroth only hesitated a moment. He couldn't fight here, they wouldn't let him, his weapon meaningless anyway and Aeris ready to destroy him without provocation.

... and he knew where Cloud was now, even if he would have to cross a living battlefield to reach his side.


All thoughts of the Omnislash were pre-empted by the enormous arm that came lashing out, and Zack dove to the side, thrown even further by the aftershock of the landing strike. The salt in the air stung at his eyes, vaporized seawater from the cannon's blast. Zack squinted through the white fog, and could see a jagged hole, glistening at the edges, a deep fissure in the creature's side. It was impossible to tell if there was anything but surface damage done, or if the WEAPON's violent reaction was more rejuvenation than pain.


Tifa was crouched behind a tangle of fallen trees and what appeared to be the remains of a ShinRa jeep, nowhere near as far from danger as he wanted her to be.

"Zack, look out!" He leapt forward, could feel the wind brushing his hair as the limb came down, and skidded to a halt just as another crashed in front of him. Still immobilized, the WEAPON was trying to drag itself on shore.

"Hit the legs! Force it back! We've got to keep this thing in the water!"

Zack brought the Ultima weapon up, slicing through one of the massive limbs hooked into the shore. Tifa was yelling at him, one hand outstretched, either she'd relayed the message or someone further up the shore had thought of the same thing. The panic on her face was fairly easy to read - missiles coming, lots of them - and Zack had the sword on his back and was running, actually made it to the edge of the beach before he heard the roar and leapt forward. One arm wrapped around Tifa, and they were falling and tumbling and rolling backward, away from the heat of the blast and the WEAPON's roaring. He hit the ground with a scattering of leaves and slick mud, hands gently around her upper arms, and a bit of her hair in his mouth.

"Hi." He smiled.

She smiled back, "Glad you're all right," and rolled off of him quickly, immediately offering a hand up.

"Is it... did the cannon make things better or worse?"

"I'm not sure."

The WEAPON was still changing, growing more limbs, twisting and writhing as it attempted to free itself. The army was left with little to do but sit and fire and watch it rage, and hope...

"Zack?" His PHS, at some point he'd left it on but never expected it would still be in one piece. The tinny, high voice on the other end made him smile.

"Talk to me, Reeve."

"We're going to send the Highwind out again, see if we can't open up that crack a bit. It doesn't look like it's healing well. Scarlet may have just..." He trailed off, still unable to praise the woman.

"It sounds like a plan to - wait. Wait, hold on!"

His voice rose in a shout, Mako-enhanced eyesight just able to pick out a speck of movement, a small, white shape that moved from here to there, near the wound, darting back and forth across the WEAPON's continually changing form.

//Smoke, maybe?// Zack thought his eyes were playing tricks, but it didn't fade like smoke, or hover like a reflection would, didn't seem to follow the movement of the limbs, moving counter to them instead.

"Give me your binoculars."

Tifa handed them over without question, squinting to try and follow his line of sight, though he doubted she could see anything at all. It took a frustratingly long time, between focusing on the distance and actually managing to find what he was looking for. The pale object kept ducking away from him, or leaping up out of his sight. It all made perfect sense when his eyes finally caught a flicker of brilliance, the shape pausing for a fraction of a second, and Zack realized what - no, who he was looking at.

"It's Sephiroth. Holy - he's /alive/!!!"

He heard the roar of engines a moment too late, the Highwind coming in even closer this time. Reeve knew they couldn't afford to wait, and Zack couldn't yell loud enough to get through, to tell them they couldn't afford to fire.


He wasn't going to get to Cloud, not while it still mattered, maybe not ever. He couldn't even get /outside/.

Sephiroth kept running, kept trying not to think, as if the combination of inattention and speed would bring sense to the madness or make the impossible into a working plan. He would have given anything for a working Materia, a Quake or even a damned unmastered Lightning. Instead, he had an unending stretch of gaping, black tunnels and the hope that the WEAPON couldn't heal itself as quickly as Hojo had done, or that Rufus' escape hatch had been blown far enough away that it wasn't quite as alive.

The path down was mostly clear, though he had to dodge one or two jagged boulders that fell as the hallways shook and swayed. Sephiroth barely noticed it, didn't think to thank his good fortune until he turned a corner and stopped bare inches from slamming face-first into a wall of rock where the rest of his path should have been.

He was lost without a direct route, everything inside shifting and moving seemingly at random, and even his Mako gaze could only pierce so far in the darkness. The ground beneath his feet trembled again, and Sephiroth stumbled hard into the rock face, scraping his cheek, and the sudden shock shattered the rest of his control. He slammed his fist against the wall with a scream of rage, shaking with a fury that had no outlet and... goddamn it! If it shouldn't have been /him/ here, if he wasn't good enough now then who the hell was?!


Jenova's voice in his head still hurt, icy cold and nauseating, but everything else around him was worse and he could bear it. He would bear it because he finally believed she wasn't out for anything but an ending. Not if she was fighting with Aeris, all she could want was a way out of all of this.

He didn't want to admit relief, that she was still alive... but still, better her than Hojo.


A path back opened up in his mind, where he would have to go to get out. Guiding him. Weak as she was, she was still connected to the beast and could use that connection... she would guide him.

He moved as fast as he dared, sliding here and there when the path went unexpectedly vertical. He tried to ignore what he had seen, the image of Cloud in the jewel, motionless... but his mind filled in all the gaps anyway, as it had in every moment after he had left Cloud's side, handed him to Hojo.

It took him far too long even with Jenova's help, stumbling in the dark, avoiding crags and crevices and sudden showers of rock as the world shook around him. Jenova's thoughts could show him the inside but not what was happening outside, not where the soldiers were firing and it would be so easy for one of them to see, to target Cloud...

//Stop thinking.//

He did. He had to, until he breathed in and the air was sharp like a knife, cool and clean, the overpowering Mako haze diluted slightly. He heard a growing roar, the rushing wind outside what must have been a very... large...

He could see the sun, or at least a very blue sky. "Oh, thank you," he breathed to no one in particular.

//Go. Go as fast as you can.//

Jenova's urging wasn't necessary, Sephiroth quickly scrambled to the surface, fingers numbed past feeling already starting to protest the return to any sort of warmth. He ignored it, ignored everything - the land so far below him, the bursts of gunfire and missiles still exploding here and there - everything but where he was, where he had been, and that meant that Cloud...

He strained his eyes and finally saw the gleam, as the WEAPON shifted again, so far away from where he stood. Sephiroth stifled yelling Cloud's name, though he could feel where the unvoiced shout bruised the inside of his ribcage. He pulled his legs out of the crater, digging boots and fingertips into crevices that shifted and swayed. Lunging from point to point along the rocky surface, whatever part of the WEAPON was the flattest at that instant.

//Hold on, Cloud. I'm coming.//


"Give me a reading." Melissa swore she could feel her bones tightening in anxiety, waiting for the response. Sitting here in silence, behind security door after security door she felt no different than if she had been on the front lines, gun in hand.

"As far as I can tell, ma'am, there's been no response, negative or otherwise. The Mako blast was less successful than an explosive blast of a similar size. It looks as if there was some slight damage to the WEAPON, but it will likely recover quickly."

"Well, the psychotic bitch wasn't /completely/ wrong." At least it hadn't powered the WEAPON up any further, and the running tallies from the Highwind and various points at the perimeter made it seem like the army was standing their ground. Roman Gemini hadn't even brought his into motion, for the most part, waiting for the WEAPON to make its way onto shore.

//No. We're fucked.// Melissa leaned down, arching her lower back until the ache subsided, resting her head against the back of the chair, with a knuckle digging painfully into her eye. //It's just a matter of-//

"Ma'am!" The cry, high and tight, could not possibly be a good sign, and Melissa debated staying where she was, eyes closed. It couldn't possibly make any difference.

//Masochist.// She thought, moving against her better judgment. "What is-"

She trailed off, staring at the board they'd been using to decipher the Jenova code, pitch black for so long Melissa wasn't sure it was still kept on. Now the board was humming with information, line after line of text filtering across, and as she saw the technicians loading up the program on their own screens, the code mirrored itself across a bank of monitors, complete and perfect.

"It's got to be a glitch. Where is this coming from?"

"A satellite, ma'am... I'm tracking - it looks like it's coming directly from the WEAPON, ma'am!"

Melissa didn't bother with how or why, didn't ask anyone for confirmation, just grabbed the nearest technician and flung him from his chair, nearly pressing her nose to the screen. Unbelievably, every one of her questions was answered as she watched the code pass by, every quick test coming back with the same result - it was real. The WEAPON was telling them exactly how to destroy it, and Hojo, for good.

"Process it! I want a working retaliatory code and I want it done NOW!"

Melissa's fingers flew across the keyboard, matching number to number, building a return code that seemed so simple now, so easy with the key to work from. In the background, she could hear the call being made to Mideel, for last chance maneuvers no one thought they'd ever get to use.


They were losing. It had been matched combat, for long enough after Sephiroth had vanished, and Jenova felt a great swell of pride for each blow she landed. It was a vicious fight, both she and Aeris had landed heavy blows, had kept Hojo from claiming the last of the North Corel army as his prize. The WEAPON was incapable of attacking seriously without Hojo to guide it. No more power, no more souls to fuel it as long as it wasn't moving, and they had the blazing force of the cannon's Mako energy - but Hojo would not stay down.

"I don't have a quarrel with you, Ancient. Professor Gast was a soft-hearted moron, but I try not to judge based on the sins of the father." Jenova hated the pedantic tone, hated that he could talk like this during battle, dripping black blood and ichor but refusing to ever /shut up/.

"You're here because of the boy too... and the Ancients - it all ties together, back to him. But he's no different from anyone else, no different at all." He sneered, the words no longer musing, but a smirking taunt. "I wonder how many pieces I'll have to whittle Cloud Strife down to, to find out why he's so important."

Aeris was thrown by the threat, face contorting into a deep fury, but it was exactly what Hojo wanted. Solid enough to hurt him meant that she could be hurt as well, and was, as one claw snaked around and slammed her hard to the floor. Jenova had no time to react, before a much more human hand snaked out from the scientist's midsection, wrapping around her throat and lifting her high in the air.

"Now you..." Hojo snarled, head swiveling toward her. "You, I /do/ have a problem with."

Jenova clawed at his grip but it was too solid, and though she didn't truly need to breathe it seemed he was more than willing to squeeze until her head came clean off. She saw a flash of light, Aeris on her feet and pure energy arcing from her hands in a wave but Hojo barely seemed to notice. Out of time, out of energy - she wasn't sure she /could/ die, even if he took her head, but Aeris could not defeat him alone.

//I'm sorry.// She tried to look at Aeris, winced to see her already flickering, the last vestiges of Mako energy used in vain. //Ancient, I'm sorry.//

... and she was /glad/, did not regret for a moment that she was human enough to feel despair.

//... did it work?// Jenova would have gasped, the small weak voice scratching at the back of her thoughts, Anjele struggling to hold on to her, reaching for his answer. //Did it...?//

Her heart broke on the no - or would have, but Hojo's hand suddenly went slack around her neck, and she fell to the ground.

The scientist was staring at his hands, more of him normal now, a mostly-human torso rising up out of the still-scorpion body, claws discarded in the sudden confusion, the feeling that something had changed. Jenova staggered to her feet - she could feel it too, like a leak sprung, a tiny trickle of water slowly filtering toward the surface... a spring that would turn to a stream, and a river that would rage.

"Oh..." Claws clicked against the floor, Hojo staggering a half step to the side, one hand going to his head, lifting away to look again at his fingertips, though Jenova could see nothing there. "Oh, you... you useless..." All of humanity was covered, in the breathless gasp that replace the word. "What have you done to me?"

He turned, slamming both hands against the wall, and Jenova could hear the WEAPON roar, could feel him trying to stem the tide, trying to drive it back - but it was inside of him and he could not stop it. Flickers of green were filtering through every dark cell, and everything they touched returned to what it had been, the Lifestream urging its own return. Breathing existence back into that darkness, a soul into the void.

"No. NO! It can't... I won't let it!" Hojo screamed, sound and fury, but all too soon it cut off into a wet, choked gasp. "I... won't."

Jenova could hear murmurs, voices, laughter, bright and vivid because the fight was so serious, the path had been so dark but it was over now. The Lifestream slowly, sweetly unlocked itself, releasing those trapped souls... Jenova felt tears sliding down her face. It hurt, it wasn't hers, these people were not hers but joy was joy and it was over. It was truly over.

"I was so close."

A whisper, a dry and tattered croak of disbelief. The scientist's hands slowly fell from the wall. Hojo turned, crumbling in on himself, sliding down to a heap of slowly disintegrating limbs, leeching lines of black threading up further through his veins, eating away at the little flesh that remained. The WEAPON still stood, but as its power flowed through him, he was the first to go.

"I was... I almost..."

Jenova didn't want to look, but found she couldn't turn away when his eyes met her own. Aeris put a hand to her mouth, covering what may or may not have been a scream, but was silent. The look in his eyes was not one of hatred or one of pain but something hovering between resignation and amusement. It made her hurt, made her sick and she wasn't sure why. Of course he would seek to wound, even with his death.

"... what a world this is."

He was cackling, madly, his voice instantly lost in the high, shrill laughter - not screaming, never screaming - not even as more and more of him dissolved, sliding away into a puddle of darkness that melted into the floor.

The room echoed with the sound of his laughter, and Jenova saw Aeris clap her hands over her ears, bowing her head, but there was no escape - not until he finally broke off, one peal of laughter twisting off to a sharp, choking sound... and the flower girl looked up. Watched along with her as the last of him, the last bit of translucent skin and oily hair and that twisted, bitter soul disappear into the darkness... and then the darkness became the light, and there was nothing left. Nothing left at all.

The entire Planet seemed to hold its breath for one long, still moment, the feeling of release, of freedom... maybe even Hojo, free from himself after so very long.

//He's gone.//

Jenova repeated it, slowly and carefully, she had to just to make it seem true. Aeris said nothing, only staring at the place where the scientist had been. Jenova felt a shiver beneath her bare feet, heard the WEAPON let out a long, low moan.

Aeris gasped, clutching at her heart, and Jenova found herself doing the same, feeling Holy suddenly flare, burning its way out of her and hitting the floor with a sharp sound. The Lifestream wouldn't undo her as it had Hojo, she had changed too much between his pawn and her current form. It still burned, though, and her whole body ached with the strain. A double pain, for in the back of her mind she could feel Anjele writhing too.

Aeris was still doubled over, and it took her a long moment to rise back up, but the look on her face was much less pain than rapture. Transfixed, and Jenova could only compare it to what she saw in Anjele's memories, to those of saints and martyrs in the paintings of long ago. The flower girl glowed, the pure power of the Lifestream a heavy cloak around her shoulders, nearly blurring her image when she shifted, and she was only growing stronger by the minute.

//I must go. He needs me//

Anjele was only a faint presence in her mind now, and getting fainter all the time. The weak thoughts he still held were heartbreakingly earnest - happy she was alive, happy they all were alive, whatever might happen next. She could not let this be the end of him.

Aeris said nothing, simply watching, and for a moment Jenova was frightened, this brilliant creature standing in front of her, so bright and flush with life it was difficult to look at her head on. The trust between them wobbled, the balance shifting and struggling for a new center and would it - would it tip? Jenova could feel the tightness in her muscles, the fear, though it was no shield, and could do nothing to stop Aeris from ending her, as Hojo had been undone.

The flower girl only smiled, a calm, steady expression, though even her redemption seemed a thing of fire.

"Go to him. Don't be afraid. It's all over."


The WEAPON knew Sephiroth was there, must have known where he was trying to reach. it seemed folly that Hojo would direct it after him, instead of focusing on the army still shooting from the shore. Folly, but no less than he'd expect of the scientist, and it was true that he was in more danger from the friendly fire now than the WEAPON ever could be.

Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder, one hand wedged into a crack in the monster's side, the world swinging wide beneath him as the monster tried to shake him off, nearly succeeding as the ground, the flesh beneath his feet gave way and his legs swung out into empty air. Searching for a safer perch, he had a perfect view of the Highwind, nearly in line with him, aiming for the WEAPON's head... and there was no doubt he was well within the blast radius.

No time to think, so Sephiroth just let go of the wall, reaching for the Masamune as a wall of fire erupted directly overhead. A useless gesture on the Highwind's part, Hojo had already sealed himself away, the only thing the bombs would do was anger the WEAPON further... hopefully enough of a distraction to keep him safe.

Sephiroth plunged the sword into the monster's side, as far as it could go, his fall slowing but the edge of the Masamune refusing to catch on anything, rebounding against rocks of flesh that sent jolts of pain through his body. Finally, the blade caught, but before he could plan his next move the decision was made for him.

One long arm swooped down, coming across his chest like a bar of iron, driving the air out of his lungs as it tossed him high into the air. It was sheer luck that kept the Masamune in his hands, and Sephiroth aimed it carefully as he fell back to earth, hitting the end of the arm that was set to smash him, carving it nearly in two down a long arc to the base. The WEAPON roared, divesting itself of the damaged limb, and Sephiroth did not wait to see if it produced another.

//Where is he...?// It was difficult to see much of anything with the way the Weapon was shifting and twisting, with the dust and smoke from the explosions hanging a thick, gray curtain in the air. The wound had healed enough that Sephiroth couldn't figure out where he had been to see Cloud in the first place. It should have been easy, the only scrape of color on this otherwise monochrome - /there/.

He leapt up, more climbing than running but counting on his SOLDIER's skills to pick out the tiny footholds, to give him enough power and speed to keep moving up even when they crumbled beneath his weight. Sephiroth saw the blur of an arm sweeping down on him, made it to the next foothold and jumped as high as he could, landing lightly on the attacking arm and running, the width of it just enough for him to keep his balance, keep his eyes on Cloud.

Another blur, Sephiroth ducked and skidded to a halt, the whip-like appendage grazing the edge of his coat as it passed. A third blur, and he quickly rolled to the side, dropping off onto another fast-moving arm as it swept by - if Hojo was going to give him this direct highway to the top, he was damn well going to take it.

//Still too slow, though. Too slow.//

Sephiroth snarled, dodging and severing the next limb that tried to strike him more out of fury than actual need. The way the limbs rose and fell, it would take him forever to reach his destination, and every time he set foot on the body, they only honed in on him that much faster, making his progress even more difficult.

Sephiroth watched the lashing arms, the progression of movements and realized - it would be a split-second decision, but if he chose correctly, it would narrow the journey down to only a few more moments. If he chose incorrectly...

No time to think twice. He slid to a halt on the limb he was running on, watched the first limb sweep underneath him, twisting and curving into an upward flick, saw the second limb beneath that rising in a mirror of the motion.

It was a lunatic's move, but Sephiroth took it without hesitation, leaping down onto the curve of the arm, the very edge, and letting the lashing motion throw him high into the air, the sudden snap tossing him back towards the WEAPON, closing the distance between him and Cloud to a matter of meters.

He landed solidly in a cleft of rock, with just enough of a ledge to catch on, and it was an easy enough path from there, a fast descent to the glimmering, rough cut gem. Maybe a little faster than he would have liked, now that he was so close, and would have to look at what he had done.

//... like staring at the sun.//

Sephiroth crossed the last few meters without bothering to look anywhere else, eyes fixed on Cloud, his own thoughts and feelings as icy and motionless as his lover was. Cloud looked frozen, sealed away inside the pale green amber like a fairytale creature. Dead, but Sephiroth could see the tiny, brighter flickers here and there against his skin, determined to believe he could see Cloud twitch, that it wasn't just the distortion of the liquid prison holding him.

Sephiroth made a first tentative swipe, it was impossible to tell the brittleness or hardness of the Mako, and so he was shocked when his sword passed right through, trailing a bit of glowing, quivering slime along the edge. Mako in semi-solid form was worse than napalm in all the important ways. Sephiroth didn't care, barely noticed the sudden agony as he plunged his hand down nearly to the shoulder. He was focused only on the shifting mass beneath his feet, not losing his balance as the creature roared and twisted, and the slightly more solid feel of Cloud's arm, finally beneath his hand.

"I've got you. I've got you."

He had never been one for unnecessary words, but Sephiroth didn't waste the effort on stopping them this time. It was difficult to pull back, the Mako had a strong grip on Cloud's body, and he had little leverage, arm still afire as the gleaming substance worked its way around the cracks in his glove and armor.

"I've got you. Hold on."

One long pull, teeth gritted, boot tips wedged into miniscule cracks in the rock, and he slowly extracted Cloud from the Mako slime. Sephiroth couldn't spare a glance around, to see if the howls of rage from the WEAPON were from his action or something else, couldn't see any attacks, missiles or otherwise that might be on their way. All he could do was hope Zack had noticed him, his faith in his friend enough to keep his attention off anything but the body in his arms.

"Cloud? Cloud?"

So pale, and not moving - not breathing, as he carefully wiped off the larger clumps of glowing ooze. Sephiroth could feel something seize, hard and sharp in his chest but he ignored it in favor of action, straining to pull Cloud completely free, the Mako finally trembling, and giving up its prize with a sharp, wet sound.

The only stable ground seemed to be above them, and Sephiroth quickly hoisted Cloud over his shoulder. He picked his way along a near-invisible path, straining for a small plateau, the very summit of the beast, and a seeming calm spot among the tempest.

Agility came easy, he forced his steps to be light and perfect, moving fast and steady... no time, there was no time, relief sharp and painful when he finally reached the flat expanse. His own breath rattled harshly in his ears, hands shaking as he quickly tore his cape free, tearing his Mako-soaked gloves off as if Cloud wasn't still as cold as ice.

He knew this, he'd been here before except Hojo had always hit him with electricity at this point, given his body a vicious shock to get him to cough up the gelled Mako in his lungs. He had painfully less to work with, trying to breathe for Cloud instead, pounding on his chest just to the careful side of breaking a rib. Trying to ignore how cold Cloud was, how he didn't feel or taste like anything but chemicals- no, he hadn't lost, couldn't lose him, not when he was so close.

He had been praying, hadn't realized it until the train of thought broke off, and Cloud's body arched, fighting for air, and he turned on his side and coughed hard, retching up a pool of Mako in between sharp, trembling breaths.

"Good. Good, Cloud, that's it."

No idea if the man could even hear him, he still hadn't opened his eyes, but he was moving now and Sephiroth knew just how much good luck he dare ask for at once. The wind was howling up here, battering at him in a vicious gust that nearly blinded him in intensity. Sephiroth grimaced, half-gathering Cloud up and half-lying down beside him, one hand against his straining muscles, the other carefully cradling his head. Thick with Mako, the blonde strands were still soft, and already trying to spike up here and there. Sephiroth pressed his face against a bit of the cape wrapped against Cloud's shoulder, feeling him finally relax, the coughing tapering off into deep but steady breathing.

//He's going to be fine. It's fine.//

He didn't deserve it, but it seemed fate had given him yet another chance, another place in a world where his mistakes weren't permanent. He held his gratitude like a shield against whatever was coming. It was going to be all right, it had to be, after they'd come so far. If he had to spend the rest of his life groveling on hands and knees, so be it, but he would win Cloud's forgiveness.

Sephiroth bit back a curse, as the stone beneath his feet trembled, shuddering even more violently than before. He stood quickly, Cloud a limp weight in his arms as he kept perfectly still, trying to measure the tremors he could feel shuddering up his legs, trying to feel out whatever instinct was demanding he notice that this felt different than before.

Sephiroth assumed it would have to be either better or worse, hadn't thought that it might have been both. He watched as the WEAPON threw out a long, dark limb, only to have it freeze in midair, crumpling near the base, and slowly, limply, fall apart, a pillar of darkness falling swiftly to the ground. It was similar to what had happened to Anjele, he thought, except that Anjele had been alive, and was being pulled apart by the darkness, the corrupted Lifestream.

Green eyes widened sharply.

//Melissa did it. Anjele got the code out... the Lifestream, they've figured out how to change it back.//

Beyond miracles, except that he and Cloud were standing on top of the WEAPON as it began to stagger, and crumble, and fall.

"Come on, Cloud. It'll be all right. Let's get the hell out of here." The words were meaningless, Cloud hadn't shown any sign of waking, but Sephiroth took them as a consolation for himself. It was real, it was real and it looked as if they had just won the war.

He had about a half a second to feel anything like relief, before the WEAPON roared, long and loud, and he had to leap out of the way, an arm finally coming down on their sanctuary with no small force, like brushing a fly away by attacking it with a hammer.

It had been impossible enough making a path with his arms free, but carrying Cloud made things infinitely more difficult. At least the firing had ceased, it seemed, everyone on the ground starting to realize what he assumed had to be true - the WEAPON, Hojo, had been defeated. Now the important part was just getting out of its way.

The WEAPON screeched loud enough to make his whole head rattle, and Sephiroth had to transfer Cloud to his shoulder, holding on to the wall in a carefully controlled slide, picking a path away from the wildly thrashing arms, glancing up now and then, to make sure the gaze he was watching hadn't spotted him. Thankfully, it seemed he was forgotten, many of the arms bending back on themselves, great claws tearing at the WEAPON's own flesh, trying ineffectually to dig out what was eating it away. Aeris, somewhere on the inside, like a seed finally given the chance to grow.

Aeris, who would come for him when this was all over with.

His arm tightened around Cloud, cradling him again as they reached another plateau. Sephiroth leapt down the series of 'steps' as fast as he could, waiting for the WEAPON to stop moving before attempting the next one. Much of the wild thrashing had ceased, the monster shuddering all over. Sephiroth thought he could hear things crumbling, a great, creaking groan, but didn't look up further than it took to dodge the fragments coming down on them. He didn't want to see it, didn't want to take away any more memories of this than he already had.

Sephiroth flattened back against the wall as one long arm broke off of the WEAPON, smashing against the cliff side just above them before landing with a tremendous splash in the water below. The ocean was boiling, water sluicing off of land that was slowly rising up from below, and he wondered if the trembling came from the WEAPON at all, or from the ground, or from the body in his arms.

He heard the sound he'd been waiting for, the shuddering roar, as if the Planet itself had cracked in half - but they were over halfway down now, they were going to make it, even if the WEAPON had finally shattered.

"Almost there. You're safe now. Just hold on-"

Oh, the world was full of so many wonderful ironies.

Sephiroth should have been expecting it. Maybe a part of him had been, thinking all of this still too easy, or too good to be true. It would have explained why he didn't react, didn't cry out as the lip of rocky flesh he was standing on suddenly gave way, his arms tightening on Cloud until he saw a blur of motion from the corner of his eye, a fragment of debris catching him hard in the back. He swung forward, stopping himself, but Cloud's skin was still slick with Mako, too much to keep a firm hold of.

Sephiroth watched as the blonde slid out of his grasp, falling, the mist swallowing him up without a trace.


//Wake up.//

He could feel his cheek pressing into the earth, each piece of grit and dirt, and he was surprised by how warm it was, though he wasn't even sure why he was surprised.

//Wake up, Cloud.//

/Where...?/ He didn't realize it was a mistake to move until he was already pushing himself up on his hands. Cloud was glad he managed to turn as he collapsed, looking up at the sky instead of glass or metal. The open sky, deep and blue, and he was calm, even though he didn't know where he was, or how...

He'd always loved horizons, always knew the siren song of travel was only that love, not the journey and not the destination but something even more intangible. Even going to Midgar, he'd always been sure that he wouldn't find what he was looking for. He...

Cloud blinked, tipped his head slightly, breathing deeply just to do it, to feel that he really was alive. Why was it so surprising? Why couldn't he seem to care if the answers came or not?

Silence, the world was blessedly calm and still. As far as he could see, the ground was steaming, barren and lifeless. Funny that he could only manage nostalgia, there really ought to be something more productive to feel, in a place like this.

He'd been in pain until very recently, and he wasn't wearing anything now, but somehow neither of these facts seemed all that important. The ground was warm, and the breeze was comfortably cool, and it was nice enough to just curl up on his side, close his eyes and enjoy the sunshine. If anything else was important, he hoped it wouldn't disturb his nap.


Cloud smiled at the voice, vaguely surprised to hear her though he wasn't sure quite why.

//Sleeping through your victory. What will everyone think?//

Victory? He still didn't care enough to find out what she was talking about, muttering a bit and burying his nose in the crook of his arm. It usually was enough to get anyone bothering him to go away for at least ten more minutes, but he wasn't so surprised to feel a soft, cool kiss against his forehead.

Cloud remembered the last person to kiss him, and something inside him had withered and died because of it, or would have if he kept thinking now, and tried to summon up a face. It would come easier than even the ghost calling to him now and he didn't, couldn't... wouldn't. Never again.

//Let it go, it doesn't matter anymore. Open your eyes. I want to show you something.//

Her playful tone made it easy, though convincing his body to move did send rather painful aches through most of his muscles, shuddering them back into some normal sort of movement. It felt like he'd been sleeping for a long, long time. Cloud somehow managed to stagger to his feet, only to stop in awe, swaying where he stood.

The ocean was stroking the shore, somewhere close by. Maybe it was because he'd never grown up with it, that it sounded so beautiful now. The landscape surrounding him was cratered and barren, like the surface of the moon but it wasn't important. He knew that somehow, that it was only temporary and nothing compared to the brilliant glow of the Lifestream, twisting in cool currents that seemed to play tag with one another, dancing through the air with a mad, wild joy that sang with freedom


Cloud knew it only looked so peaceful, so calm because of how high it was moving, that in reality it must have been moving with a blinding speed, like the end of a fire hose with no one to hold it, perfect and pure and unstoppable.

//Wild. It will kill me, when it comes here.//

It was too beautiful for him to care. So beautiful, after so much death.


Or maybe the Lifestream wasn't so wild, after all. It wasn't her voice, wasn't /only/ her voice but the rush of the wind, the Planet calling his name, so beautiful he had to close his eyes against it, opened them - to see...


Everything he could hear was faint, airy and gentle. His ragged breathing, the wind, the soft chiming of the bracelets around her wrists as she stepped forward. No longer green and glowing, but as real as he was, and smiling. Always smiling, so real and so open and there was welcome in her eyes and it hurt. God, did it hurt.

She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

He couldn't move, his heart was frozen in a single, screaming beat, so much joy, so much that it made the air solid, and he couldn't breathe standing here, just watching her. The end of her braid swayed slightly, back and forth in its own dance, and ripples appeared as she walked through the pools of melted snow - not exactly on the surface, he could see her toes beneath the water. It made him smile. He might have laughed, but he was so tired...

//You did so well. You fought so hard for me, for the Planet.//

He could smell her - flowers, more than he could ever name - as she crossed the final distance between them, and kissed him very gently, first on his brow, and his lips, and she was soft, and real, and warm. He pulled back shaking, too afraid to let it be real, and tasted salt, too thin for blood - tears. He didn't really care if he was crying or not, but he couldn't quite figure out how to stop. A warm hand touched his cheek, he could hear Aeris's voice, a soothing murmur in his ear. Real. A real voice.

"It's all right, don't cry. I'm here. I won't leave you. It's going to be all right."

He nodded, face buried against her soft, sweet-smelling shoulder. He already knew that, and smiled with the sudden, sweet prophecy.

"Ask me, Aeris."

He could not keep his knees from buckling but somehow she held him. Easily, Aeris held him up, and her hands felt like his mother's hands, sliding so soothingly against his back, lulling him to sleep.

"Come with me, Cloud."

If there was any reason not to, any reason to hesitate, he didn't want to remember - and Aeris said, did... something - and he didn't have to.

//You don't have to think, or remember. All you have to do is be happy.// He had done so much, more than anyone could have asked of him, and the Lifestream was glad to give its reward.

"Take me home, Aeris. Take me home."



A spawn - had to be one of the last alive - screamed, and lunged at him. Sephiroth saw a blur of claws and fangs, heard the cry but it was distant, meaningless even as he slashed at it. He didn't even look to see what fell, passing it before it could hit the ground.

"Cloud?!" His voice echoed in an unnatural silence. The soldiers would be here soon, sweeping among the dead plain and the decaying body of the last WEAPON the Planet would ever need.

He already knew Cloud wouldn't answer - //how bad, how pale and frozen and...// - but if Sephiroth didn't keep screaming his name, he wouldn't stop screaming, and that was worse.

He wasn't reserved, wasn't distanced from this problem. It was against procedure, it was unproductive. The chiding voice was all he had left, an inflexible barrier to madness as long as he just kept running. Cloud would be here, he would be here somewhere in this endless plain of ruin where it seemed that nothing had survived.

//You let him go.// A lifetime of service, and he had never failed in battle, built and trained and dedicated to making himself the legend he was... he'd failed so spectacularly now that perhaps the screams he would make would be screams of laughter.

Was it really necessary, to take so many years for life to tell him what he'd thought true all along?

He was a fraud because ShinRa was a fraud and none of it mattered, not one moment in his entire life until the moment he had just failed. SOLDIER and General and all he had built his life on were just words on paper, easily switched with other words, none of them allowing him to keep...

It wasn't the same sort of madness. Jenova was just another word, too.

He had Cloud in his arms and he had let go.

Sephiroth didn't blame himself, he didn't need to. The thought that blind chance would allow this to happen hurt just as much as taking the blame himself.

The dust had cleared enough to pick a path across the ruin, the WEAPON like a dark glacier all around him, slowly breaking down, melting away, back into the Planet. Sephiroth felt a sudden chill, and froze where he was, leaping back as a plume of Lifestream broke through the WEAPON with a roar, rising into the air with a bright, shrill scream.

All those souls, from the war, and the Cetra - but his mind took the sight in like noticing the weather, a fair day, no hint of rain. Meaningless, it was all meaningless compared to the feeling screeching in the back of his mind, too overwhelming for simple despair, too much... if he thought about it more, it would kill him.

The sheer size of the fallen WEAPON, how little he could see, how dangerous... The fall had killed Cloud, and if not the fall, the WEAPON. The WEAPON had crushed him, and he lay somewhere, even now, broken and dying and thinking Sephiroth had abandoned him to that fate.

He could taste copper in the back of his throat, not blood but panic, and the minute he stopped moving, the moment it all caught up with him and he realized that Cloud was dead and gone and all of this, all of it had been so terribly futile -

Thank God for shame, and denial, and whatever bitter routine it was that allowed him to pull away, to cut off from that thought enough to stop shaking. Thank God for the rough, tight soldier's bark inside his mind, a mirror of his own when he gave the rare speech to a squad during the Wutai war.

Zack always watching him, a smirk glittering in his eyes, knowing how much he hated to give the pep talks, even if they were the same thing every time. Keeping head up and ass down, keeping calm and alert and that would make sure you stayed alive.

Basic rules, because anything more would drive you mad.

Sephiroth scrambled over a low ridge, the speech still running itself out in the back of his mind as he dropped down the other side, and froze.

Confusion and panic and fear were lethal, and a calm head was necessary if he wanted to get through this, if he wanted to find -


The woman looked up warily, arms wrapped carefully against herself, carrying something - carrying Anjele, or at least what was left of him. Sephiroth thought he could see where they had joined, a merging of gray flesh and dark sinew. Sometimes his attention to detail was not the gift it seemed, when this was one of those things he'd rather not think too hard about.

"You've won, my sweet son."

It took a moment to realize she'd actually spoken, voice as soft as powdered glass, the most unthreatening of sounds. He still had the Masamune in hand, and there was fear hiding in the backs of her eyes, but a startling acceptance too, for whatever the next few moments would bring.

"Where are you going?"

The fear flickered, rustled, and she glanced to the side, though all he could see were smoking piles of ash and rock, no different from the rest of the creature.

"... there is a... ship." It wasn't something she wanted to tell him, and it was rather obvious why, though there was a soft smile on her mouth now, amazement at her own luck. "The creature was so large. It was not... damaged in the fall. It is usable."

It wasn't entirely the truth. He knew, just /knew/ Jenova had been holding out, had /always/ been holding back some segment of power, to control whatever room it had been placed in, to keep her escape route clear.

"Hojo was going to use it, to go to another planet, when he'd finished with this one, wasn't he?"

//Just like before.// Sephiroth wasn't sure whether it was her thought, or her knowing what he would think before he did. It made him dizzy, either way.

"I am harmless." Jenova's hands tightened around what was left of Anjele. "We are harmless. I just want... let us leave."

He could kill them both, right now, and Sephiroth thought that fact made it rather obvious that he wasn't going to. Instincts were useless for times like this, when everything but the smallest voice of logic said kill. Kill for vengeance. Kill for security. Kill for the most remote possibility that she was lying.

Sephiroth let the Masamune drop, until the point was almost in the dust.

"I never want to see you again, not ever."

"It will be as if I never was, and even if I could..." She trailed off. "I don't know where he is. I can't feel... no. Wait." He could tell when the black eyes were fixed on him, even though they only shone solid.

"The Ancient girl, she is to the east. Maybe he is there with her. Goodbye, my sweet son. Good luck."

"Goodbye... Jenova."

Sephiroth turned, mostly because he didn't want to think about what she was saying, what it meant that he had let her go, and the only way to avoid it was to move. She was lost from view almost immediately, hidden from sight by two of the WEAPON's limbs, stacked nearly on top of each other.

Cloud could be with Aeris. It made sense. She could be anywhere now, couldn't she? Anywhere and everywhere, and with the Planet regaining strength by the second... with Hojo gone and Jenova leaving, he was all that remained of that dark legacy.

He remembered the look in the flower girl's eyes, no doubt she blamed him equally for all of this.

If it meant Cloud was alive, though, Aeris could do as she pleased.

It was difficult to move freely around the craggy surface of the WEAPON, the places Lifestream had been and still was bursting through the surface in geysers, and impossible to see anything in the deep valleys from any summit he could climb. The first body he did find, he nearly tripped over, wedged in near the bottom of one of the steep valleys.

The soldier was long-dead, but a fast inspection revealed that his PHS appeared to be working just fine. He left it on as he scrambled up the next slope, hoping the message would break through the interference of the Lifestream's energy.

"This is General Sephiroth. I've got a rocket carrying extremely hazardous material that will be taking off in a few minutes. Let it go. I repeat, do /not/ shoot it down."

He could only hope they'd listen - but the moment he stopped broadcasting, another call came through.

"Seph?! Seph, is that you?! Where the hell are you?"

Zack, and Sephiroth knew he didn't deserve the disbelief in that voice, he had never deserved that friendship and certainly not now. It hadn't really hit him until now - he would have to tell Zack what had happened, all that he had done. Sephiroth dropped the radio, taking a few steps back, Zack still pleading with him to answer from the dirt.

He wouldn't have answered anyway, eyes finally picking out the palest flicker of yellow from the gray, a sudden cloud of smoke obscuring his vision and he nearly yelled in frustration, but it cleared, and he knew.

It may have been shimmering in a Mako haze, the air wavering in the presence of so much Lifestream, so close to the surface, but he knew what he saw, and was running in the next step.

//As if being able to touch him will make any difference, if he's dead.//

Sephiroth snarled at that voice, excising it with an incandescent rage - already knowing the damage was done, barely able to breathe around the consequences of what might be.


He woke up, and everything was shaking and shuddering, and for a moment Anjele thought he was going to die, that no matter where he was or what had happened, the last little bit of him was now trembling itself out to nothing.

//No. I'm here.//

Jenova was cradling him, what was left of him, and he blinked and realized they were in... the rocket? He could see blue and white, blue and white, rushing past the window, pure white breaking down to gauzy clouds, and the pressure was a blurry buzzing in his ears. He tried to look down, but couldn't move, and realized it meant there probably wasn't anything to look down to.

//We'll get you a new body soon. Better. Stronger.//

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered, except that he was here with her now, safe and...


//Gone.// Dead, destroyed, more than that. Nothing was ever truly gone, but whatever remained of the scientist would never become him again. He had been forcibly redeemed.

Anjele laughed, long and hard and loud, and when Jenova understood why he could feel her amusement too, like church bells clanging in his mind. In the window, he watched the steady rush of color fading, changing and dropping away to a purer black than he had ever seen before. The facts all came together then, and it finally hit him - they really were leaving.

//They let you go.//

/He let me go. Let us go./ Sephiroth, and the thought was colored with an affectionate pride.

//So we... we can really...?//

//I wanted to see the stars again. I wanted you to see them, too.//

The universe stretched out around them, brilliant and shining, no longer fettered by the bounds of atmosphere or the song of the Planet, the Lifestream or the Ancients - and all the stars were singing, and if he would have had a heart, it would have stopped, but he was part of Jenova now and so he could look out into the darkness and feel nothing but ecstasy.

... and so on the Planet, and in that tiny cockpit, and in the heart of a man who had never known it, and a creature that had never had a heart, there was peace. Nothing but peace, as they sailed out to join the endless sea of stars.


East. Jenova said east and so Sephiroth went east, noticing how the hills seemed lower, already most of the creature melting away here, and though the ground was still pockmarked and barren, things seemed calmer, safer. The feel of Mako was still everywhere, chilling his breath and brushing against his skin in a breezy tempest - but playfully now, delighted to make his acquaintance. The silence was undoubtedly peaceful, until he rounded the final corner, staring across a wide space gutted here and there with pools of water, with a wider pool of Lifestream beyond, and in between it and him lay Cloud.


It would have been a shout but his breath left him in a rush and the word with it. He ran, well aware this could be a trap and that Aeris was likely waiting, had to be waiting, but all he wanted to do was have the blonde in his arms before she attacked. It would be all right if he could get that far, he could live with whatever followed.

Sephiroth dropped to the blonde's side, ignoring the stabs of pain from his knees at the sudden fall, hands trembling as they hovered, too afraid to move forward because he wanted, needed to hold, but if there were injuries...

Cloud was unmarked, though, his body pale and flawless, and Sephiroth could only hold himself back so long, sliding his hands along the soft planes of chest and neck and back - warm, warm and alive - before gathering the man up in his arms. He kept his fingers against Cloud's neck for much, much longer than was necessary, watching the rise and fall of his chest while feeling terrified to blink, or move.

Still breathing. Heart still beating. Two of the simplest details and the only thing that mattered. Life was hope, and God if he didn't come back because Sephiroth needed him then let him come back just to scream at him. Let him come back to hate and accuse and feel betrayed but let him come back just let him come back.


"Cloud. Cloud, wake up."

Sephiroth started checking again, more slowly this time, for any injuries he could have missed, and it was so difficult to touch his face, to try and forget the shame of what he had done and wait for the final moment that would make this all worth the doing.

"Wake up... please. Please."

He could remember seeing something just like this, between two soldiers in the Wutai war, where she had been in Sephiroth's squad and they had reached her husband's platoon ten minutes too late for her to do more than beg like this.

He wanted to think that this was why he'd sworn not to fall in love, why there had to be another option but he couldn't think. Couldn't think or rationalize or get past the sudden, useless desperation - please let him open his eyes, please please please.

//You're too late.//

A cold wind blew across his face, like the ghost of a slap, and at first Sephiroth couldn't tell if the voice had been in the wind or if he'd just imagined it all. He looked up, and realized the voice and the wind were one and the same and no, no he hadn't imagined it but he could pray that he had.

//It's finished.//

Sephiroth looked up, a startlingly warm wind blowing to him from beyond the snows now - the Lifestream, just a little bit ahead of him, a pool of it glowing so brilliantly he could immediately feel his eyes burn, watering around the only thing that wasn't pure, hazy green.

A very familiar girl, standing in the Lifestream, staring back at him.

Aeris didn't smile, no mockery or victory or satisfaction in her expression. Just a simple understanding of what had been and what was now, and how things would be. A reckoning of all past accounts.

It was over, and Sephiroth knew then where Cloud had gone.

He watched her fade, until his eyes ached from staring into the shifting Mako haze, trying to conjure anything from the mist-filled vacancy.

It was so silent, he could hear the moment when it all stopped, and future forward motion ceased to be of any importance.

Sephiroth clung to Cloud, head bowed over what he knew was just a pile of bone and sinew and flesh now, not a man, not his lover. Not. If he thought anything else, if there were tears, or breath hitching so bad it felt as if he was trying to swallow the Masamune, he didn't notice. No reason to pretend his life had ever been of any merit, that he might find solace in the hard logic that had once sustained him, that there was anywhere left to go.

Nothing mattered. Nothing ever would again.





Author's Notes -

1. RMT0240: Scene: inside Hojo's WEAPON. Sephiroth is making his way through the corridors with what's left of Anjele on his back. Anjele suddenly bursts into song: "SUDDENLY... I'm not half the man I used to be..."

Sephiroth: o.0 {If I didn't NEED this twit to show me the quickest way to the control room....!!!}

2. Okay, okay, I understand that I've employed like... seventy-bazillion deus ex machina in this ending, but goddamn it, it's a soap opera, what else do you expect? It's a soap opera with guns. It's a bad action movie. I did what I could. *whine* Please be gentle.

3. TwigBrnch: Jilly'd be the kind to get him to tattoo her name on him.

Chofitia: "Your arm'd be nice, or maybe your chest. I've always liked your ass, though."

TwigBrnch: X D "Property of Jilly Ramone."

Ro: that's... awful long.

Jilly: don't you love me?

5. The alternate Anjele scene involves a spawn nearly pouncing on him, only to get run through by a spare chunk of the ceiling, and Anjele laughing like a nutter. It would have worked if I hadn't made Hojo's lab ceiling smooth. Ah, well.

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