A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try.
Nothing is closing my eyes.
"Tell them to hold their position..."
The man choked back most of his terror, but his voice was still no more than a protesting croak when he finally spoke again.
"... but... sir... if we went down there /now/..."
"If we went down there now, Hojo's army would have the chance to retreat. We wait until they charge."
Cloud could see the invisible line clearly in his mind's eye, stretching across the empty field in front of Rocket Town, and the place the tail end of the enemy's forces would have to pass before he could flank them, surround them, give them no chance of escape...
He could judge the distance almost to the inch, from months and months of practice, knew how close they would come to total disaster. If the scout's reports had been correct about the numbers of the enemy, his strategy would put the head of the forces right at the gates of Rocket Town before they could be repelled.
"All right, listen up..." Cloud lifted the radio close to his lips as he spoke. Absolute silence, especially radio communications, had been a necessity until now, even inside the ranks... ever since they had been sent a false call back to the front, since Cloud had realized there was a traitor somewhere in Rocket Town. He had no idea who could have been listening to their communications, who in the base could have been spying for Hojo, or what kind of equipment they had to track his signal. Cloud was obsessively paranoid about the possibility of being betrayed... because he knew he had to be.
//Now is the time, though, to rally the troops. Wutai silent signal code won't work, not for what I have to say... this is the only way...//
"... we're waiting, waiting until Hojo's army is past the point of no return. I want the main chocobo line ready to follow my lead, the first through third ready to follow with a full charge. The fourth and fifth, I want you down in Rocket Town by the time the first chocobo hits the field. We're going to push them in, and somebody's got to be pushing back."
He was summarizing what he knew the soldiers already had been told, but he could feel the current of weary anger flowing throughout the entire army, the slow burn that could be pushed into a cauterizing rage. He would use the fact that these thousand men had been driven to the edge of their patience, of their sanity, to lead them to a decisive victory.
"No one knows we are here. Hojo's monsters are expecting no resistance, that today's battle will be an easy kill... and they're right...." Cloud's voice was a deep, angry snarl, just barely holding back an anger that could scrape the steel right off the radio he was close to crushing in his hand, "This will be a cheap slaughter... we are going to /annihilate/ them.
I want you to take everything.... all that fear you felt laying in the trenches, in the darkness, hearing Hojo's demons picking off your friends in the night... all that hopeless, useless fury when you heard that your friends, your wife, your /child/ had been burned alive in some random attack, or torn to shreds by a rogue, wandering monster... We have had nine /months/ of fear and anger and pain... and I want you think about the fact that somewhere, right now, Hojo is /laughing/, /laughing/ at the destruction he believes he will cause at Rocket Town."
Cloud knew that the image of Hojo was synonymous with a darkness of near godlike proportions, that the men under his command hated the scientist on a level so blood-deep it was innate, natural and irreversibly permanent.
"We have been chased, and taunted, and pushed at our every turn as we tried to simply get /home/. Now, just as we reach safe territory, Hojo thinks he can hurt us just /one/ more time, and he thinks he can get away with it. This is the time for our response... we will show that bastard the price of his destruction, and that we will not let him push us one more step. We know fair well that some of us will die here today, but we also know we will kill, and we will keep killing, and killing, until they will wade knee-deep in their own blood.
We are the destroyers that his war has made us, we are vicious, we are brutal, and now is the time for our revenge. Follow me, and we will show him, now, what real suffering looks like..."
Cloud tossed the radio back to the man kneeling near the transmitter, ignoring his wide eyed stare, looking out instead toward the trees and hills around him, knowing his message had been heard by every soldier hidden within the thick forest camouflage. He could feel their anger, surging in a low current, swirling through the wilderness, a little bit reserved, kept by every man in his army, saved up and waiting for the chance to strike.
/Stupid... so stupid... to think we would not fight... that we would not match his power with /our/ own.../
Cloud winced, swaying very slightly where he stood, but did not even close his eyes against the flare of voices that rose up inside of him, the whisper of the Cetra, and the Planet it spoke for. It was easier, less painful to hear them at this point, just before the beginning of a battle, in the still, supercharged moments before the first assault. This battle was even more thrilling, because the blonde knew that he had caught Hojo completely off guard, and could almost feel the Cetra's elation at that knowledge.
Hojo had tried to set him off course, having some pawn send the false message from Rocket Town to his troops. Cloud also knew, through a few more intercepted signals, that Zack and Reno, the only two other commanders who could have set up a counterattack at Rocket Town, were also far, far away. The monsters charging the town had no idea any defense was waiting, let alone an army battle-hardened and almost begging for carnage.
//...oh, yes... this is going to be a bloodbath... /our/ bloodbath...//
Cloud didn't know whose rage it was, really, whether he or the Planet took the most glee out of his vivid imagination, of the bones of the enemy snapping underneath his hands, of sending his sword plunging through platoon after platoon of Hojo's creations... destroying every twisted thing the scientist had created, easily asserting his dominance as the best weapon ShinRa science had ever produced.
//You shouldn't have tried so hard, Hojo... you shouldn't have made me so good...//
It didn't really matter to Cloud whether it was his mind or the Planet's that felt such rage, all he knew was, that clean, pure fury brought a peace he could find nowhere else, not anymore, the intense focus of having one's life brought down to a single purpose.
//Kill... kill and keep killing, until they're all gone. All you have to do is be a weapon, the best weapon, absolutely nothing more.//
Most of his identity usually vanished in the moments before Hojo's army appeared. All his fear, all his shame, all thoughts of ShinRa, or old friendships, or everyone else who he had betrayed or who had betrayed him, it was all gone. His soul was burned clean in brilliant jade fires, purified, and all that remained was muscle and steel and the desire to destroy, his body the vessel of destruction, the perfect, true Ultimate Weapon for the Planet.
/... our weapon... forged in his fire... but we have taken it... it belongs to us now... for /our/ revenge.../
They had given him a name, those voices, a long time ago now, branded him with their designs at the very beginning of the true war. Their voices whispered to him, in the edges of his thoughts, the spaces between dream and reality. He was the Cetra's Vengeance, their revenge against Hojo and Jenova, the tool of their justice. More than once, it had been the only thing he had to hang on to, and when that curtain dropped in front of his mind, taking all feeling and thought away, he cherished it, considered it a blessing.
//I /am/ the Cetra's Vengeance... and I will gladly destroy all that stand in their way...//
"I know... they've arrived."
The soldier shivered at the violence, the cold rage that flowed in the General's smooth, calm voice, and said no more.
Blue eyes narrowed, burning with a dangerous fire well beyond their normal Mako glow, as Cloud looked down on the cloud of dust kicked up by the massive army of Jenova. He had known they were there, well before the ground started to shake, feeling the dark-black stink of them crawl into his thoughts, making everything in his head ache and itch in a terrible way, the feeling of something completely unnatural sweeping over him. Many times, it had almost made him gag.
//Not today, though... today... I've been waiting for this...//
Cloud's mouth twisted into an almost-grin, as the ache intensified to a slicing pain inside his mind, as Hojo's army moved in for the kill.
//... that's it... come to me... come on...//
The monster's war cry was like a whisper down a dark, silent tunnel, it meant nothing to him. The blonde could see the reactions of many in his army, crouched low against the hills, or perched on chocobos as still as the trees they used for camouflage. None of them blinked twice as the monster's screams echoed in the trees around them, focused too sharply on what were no more than targets to them now, eyes glowing in their own way with rage and eager anticipation. Cloud's muscles thrummed with that feeling, a sudden tension in the air, the desire of his army to respond with a challenge of its own as the howls drifted away to silence.
He felt only a moment of pity for the handful of soldiers left in Rocket Town, knowing they must have been terrified, although they were doing an exceptional job of shielding themselves with what was available, especially since they had no commander.
//Don't worry... we're on our way...//
It was also comforting, though he knew he would reach the town in time, to know that only anonymous figures rested behind the walls of Rocket Town now. Zack and the Turks were elsewhere, this battle held no risk of him seeing another friend, another familiar face, lying dead in a red abstract of blood-soaked dust.
"Get ready..." He whispered, flicking two fingers slightly toward the man at his feet, who instantly relayed his message to the other commanders. There was a slight shudder through the hills, of a thousand troops getting ready to move, and Karat shifted underneath him, turning slightly, until Cloud was looking down the slope of the hills leading to Rocket Town.
The blonde watched the chain reaction of the monstrous army's charge towards the tiny cluster of structures. The front line started to move, the rest following in a slow, rippling wave, until the entire army was hurtling like a cannonball across the field, more than able to plow down anything that stood in its way.
Cloud nudged Karat, and as the chocobo took off, the blonde knew his army was following. He could not hear anything, of course, for the movement of the battle-hardened black and gold chocobos was as silent as the wind. As the lancers charged down the slope towards first blood, as he rode the edge of that vengeful tide and the wheels of war were set into motion, there was nothing for Cloud to do except enjoy the silence, and a ride so smooth it almost felt like flying.
The sunshine, unfettered by petty human conflicts, flickered warm and soothing through the gaps of the leaves, landing as lightly on his face as the cool breeze he could feel through the tears in his well-mended uniform... and Cloud smiled.
At the very end of it, the absolute last moment before he plunged into battle, the feeling he truly waited for finally came, when /everything/ vanished. He was no longer the General, no longer Cloud, no longer /anything/, and in that moment, he could hold in his mind his most treasured memory, rest alone in silence. The remembrance was everything to him now, one warm spark of life in his darkest moments, his solace. No matter what was or wasn't real, whatever he questioned now, Cloud knew it had happened, had been true, and would always remember... always...
//He was hiding behind a small grove, in one of Midgar's very few gardens, creeping along behind a pair of men who were conversing quietly, walking slowly down the sunny path.
This was far beyond the blonde's usual reach, he knew... well beyond anything he had done before... to follow like this...
Cloud /knew/ what the boundaries were, the unwritten rules he had to follow. He knew intuitively where he could go and what he could watch, and when he was supposed to look away. He knew the unspoken rules, just as he knew his place, in the shadows, silent and unnoticed...
He also knew that the white-haired man had been gone for nearly a month... that he /needed/ to see Sephiroth... just for a little while... needed only to /see/...
Cloud bit his lip as Zack turned his way for a moment while rounding a corner. The blonde's heart had skipped a beat each time the dark-haired SOLDIER had paused while walking. Zack had his suspicions, Cloud could tell. The senior officer was just too good at deducing truth, at seeing things that should have been undetectable.
It was impossible for Zack to watch Cloud without the younger man's knowledge, of course. The blonde had too many internal alarms, spending so much of his life hiding from the strong and the cruel, not to know when others' eyes were on him.
Perhaps, Cloud thought, the dark-haired man even /knew/ that he knew... but whatever was happening, Zack hadn't acted yet, hadn't gotten Cloud removed from the academy, dishonorably discharged for, at the very least, being a strange and disturbing person, and a potential nuisance to the greatest General who had ever lived...
Cloud watched the two men talk, the pristine gardens behind them the best backdrop for two such perfect figures. The blonde couldn't help but smile, heart aching at Zack's energetic manner, the way his eyes gleamed brightly as he spoke, lips always curving into a cheerful grin, as if he couldn't help himself but be happy. The blonde gasped as Zack slapped a hand on Sephiroth's shoulder for a moment, a completely casual gesture the other man ignored. Cloud could barely imagine such a thing, only enough to make his heart hurt... that he could ever be the one... to have that camaraderie... to be brave enough to stand next to... to touch...
Cloud froze, as Sephiroth looked away, rolling his eyes at whatever joke had been told, and Zack glanced straight up, through the thick crawling ivy and metal fence, staring right at him.
The blonde leaned back on his heels, unable to move, think or breathe until the weight of those hazel eyes was off of him, and Zack had turned away again.
//Oh god... oh god...// Cloud's heart was pounding so hard he was positive it could easily be heard, and he thought for sure that at any moment, he'd pitch right out of the bushes, and faint at their feet.
//Oh god... he knows... he /knows/... he'll tell... he'll... I shouldn't have come... I shouldn't have...//
Cloud wished he could hear what the dark-haired man was saying, so that he'd know exactly when things would turn ugly, when his life would shatter completely.
After what seemed like ages, his heart finally started to slow down, and Cloud found the invisible tension squeezing his lungs gently begin to release. The murmur of words continued at a sedate pace, no one strode over to his hiding place, and Cloud did not find himself at the end of a punch or kick, or at the very least, a sudden, angry glare.
//Safe... I'm safe...//
Cloud turned his eyes up just in time, as Zack said something very loudly, grinning like a maniac. The blonde had never seen it before, and knew he never would again, as something strange to Sephiroth, something familiar but reborn because it was /his/ this time, flickered through those beautiful emerald eyes.
//Not emerald... only when he's angry...// The blonde had been watching long enough to know that... that usually, they were a softer green, a distant, shifting sea...
This green was as light and calm as morning fog, sparkling like cool, still water under the summer sun. Sephiroth smiled, tilted his head back... and /laughed/, long and loud, something Cloud had to keep himself from moving towards, /almost/ reached out for, trying to catch that shining sound in midair, and burn every second permanently into his memory...//
//I never forgot... it wasn't for me... but I saw, I still saw... and I'll /never/ forget...//
Cloud had held that memory closest of all, for every day after, tucked safe away no matter what pain, confusion or battle fury rose up inside of him.
The anger had brought him focus, and he respected that. It showed him exactly where to send his sword now, as he leaned slightly to the side, throwing the blade into a high arc over the town, activating the Comet Materia inside of it a split second before releasing the hilt, the spell screaming into life just at the top of the blade's arc.
The anger had become who he was, but he knew that, at any moment, it could all end... and that it was all right to keep something else for himself, to know deep inside, that he had loved too strongly to ever lose, completely, to anger.
Cloud held that memory, of a perfect moment in the sunshine, and of a smile that would last forever in his heart, and he was not afraid.
When she first heard the rumbling, Tifa's heart lurched sickeningly in her chest, and she turned, sure she was going to see a wave of monsters bearing down behind them from behind. Freezing cold terror was resting like a lump of stone in her stomach, not a frantic cry, but a tiny voice, the same whimper that had escaped as... long ago, she had touched her father's cold, bleeding body.
//Oh no. Not this. No...//
The brunette's eyes widened just as a massive blast from /another/ cannon rang out over the land, not simply striking the enemy but scattering, sending huge shockwaves of energy blasting through entire rows of monsters. What was behind her was not more of the enemy, but soldiers, rows and rows of soldiers with guns and swords and Materia raised, sending spells crashing through Hojo's ranks, charging the enemy at full speed.
Tifa gasped, turning as a flash of gold and blue leapt by her, and realized she had missed the initial charge, that the first assault was a corps of soldiers on Chocobos, all of whom had already passed her.
"It's the General's troops..." Ro said quietly, a smile breaking out on his face like the sun through storm clouds. "The General's.... returned..."
Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight
and nothing seems to break me
No matter how hard I fall
nothing can break me at all
Not one for giving up though not invincible I know
Cloud was amazed, as he pulled Karat yet again through the west edge of the enemy's lines, to look up and see Cid Highwind standing atop a small hill, throwing his spear up, to impale a flying bird-lizard mere moments before the creature would have thrown itself atop a pair of fleeing civilian children.
//Cid?! /CID?!/ Cid... what the hell are you doing here?!//
Cid wasn't a soldier... he belonged in the air...
//... out of danger, out of danger... I may not be able to save myself but I will goddamn sure save my friends...//
... he belonged in the skies, where he was at least an equal match for the aerial threat posed by Hojo's flying monsters, not here on the ground against the main force of the army, where he didn't know... that no matter how good he was... it was so dangerous...
Cloud could see the monsters closing in on the now weaponless pilot, slamming against the shield spells Cid raised, breaking through... raising claws and pincers shaped like black scythes... prepared to bring them down... and kill...
Cloud leaned back, dropping sideways off of Karat and into a run as soon as he reached the ground. When his feet hit, Cloud unleashed a wave of fire that turned an entire section of monsters just to the left of the pilot into ash, and brought the heads of the rest around, swiveling sharply in his direction.
//Too late, you fucks...//
The Ultima Sword was off his back, and without hesitation Cloud brought his arm around and whipped it into the creature nearest Cid like a javelin. Distantly, he realized that his sword had not only impaled one beast, but also the creature behind it, pinning both against the brick wall. Cloud charged, hands flexed into claws, following his sword into the thick of battle. He didn't need the blade... it was just a tool, just a helpful addition to his ultimate weapon...
The Planet's rage was loud and all consuming, screaming through his mind. It wanted him to kill, and he /wanted/ to kill, and against that there was no fear, no pain, no sense of self... and it was wonderful.
//I am the Cetra's Vengeance...//
Cloud felt hard carapaces crumble to nothingness underneath his hands, heard the screams of surprised beasts, they themselves created to be only weapons, as they died, necks snapped, arteries shredded, absolutely annihilated.
All he could sense, however, was the slight, copper taste of blood in his mouth, perhaps his, perhaps someone else's, and the rage, the hunger... to kill and kill until nothing of Hojo's was left standing, until it had been completely destroyed.
The battle shifted, as it often did, a fluid motion so fast and sudden that it ought to have left some sort of sound behind, like the swirl of a tornado picking up and moving on. Cloud heard the shouts of soldiers behind him, the ever present patter of gunfire, and steel against fang, his men cleaning up the area around them, trying to hold it, knowing that at any moment the tide could shift back, and they would be scattered like driftwood in a hurricane.
The rage faded for only a moment, long enough for him to realize that his hands were almost black with blood, a mottled deep crimson that had stained all the way up past his elbows. The blonde looked up, into a familiar face, and remembered... remembered that he was Cloud Strife, and that name had meaning... that he had a life... and friends...
"Cid...?" His voice was a small croak. "Why are you here on the ground? Where's the Highwind?"
It would have been a much different conversation, possibly much longer even in the heat of battle, if Cid had been able to get past his astonishment, his surprise, and even, on a very instinctive level, his fear, standing next to a creature of such obvious strength, power and violence.
//Creature?! This is your /friend/ pilot... this is /war/, this is what happens in war....//
The pilot couldn't quite convince himself, though. Cloud's brutality in combat, while being both necessary and, of course, /deserved/, was decidedly unnerving.
There was an explosion at the other side of the line, and the crashing roar of metal filled the air. Cid blinked, and Cloud was gone.
The blonde was on the lookout now, unable to believe that Cid had shown up alone, amazed that he was here at all.
Cloud had pulled his sword from the middle of the pile of corpses without a look back, left Cid behind in the midst of what seemed to be a span of calm, hoping he would be all right, knowing if he didn't help secure the line, they would /all/ be in danger.
The blonde ran along towards the source of the explosion without resheathing his blade, not noticing what attacked him or how he defended, most of his thoughts not focused on the war at all.
//You saw the way he looked at you... you're covered in blood now... now and forever... it's such a cliché, but it's true. You'll never be able to get clean... you'll never be the friend he knew, and even then, wasn't every smile just make-believe?//
Cloud grimaced, wishing the fury he had felt, only moments before seeing the pilot, would rise up again...
//Scatter this pointless worrying, these trivial thoughts. It can only keep you from your true cause... only distract you from your goal...//
//I know, I /know/...//
Cloud grumbled at the sudden upsweep of anger, resenting it even as it brought his edge back. The Planet was also concerned for his loss of focus, as he neared the edge of the shattered wall, where the next wave of attack was taking place.
The cannon was down, Cloud could see that immediately, but the soldiers were standing together in a tight formation, not on the defensive, but attacking brutally, forcing Hojo's armies to keep a continual guard, never allowing them the chance for a true assault.
//Good boys... good job...//
There was a high-pitched yell, a scream of victory in the Wutai language, and Cloud turned, to see Yuffie perched on the remains of a building, throwing Conformer with one hand and launching a lightning attack with the other. The echo of her defiant scream rose up among the fighters, and Cloud could see a small group of them following her deep into the heart of another attacking platoon. Several monsters were taken down around her as she charged, explosions of red bursting from their heads and chests before they could attack, and the blonde's keen eyes soon sought out and found a large swath of red, Vincent Valentine's clothes and cape rippling in the strong wind as he stood, arm outstretched, the Death Penalty making him the most lethal of any sniper.
Cloud was in the thick of battle this time, had no more than a second to wonder how Vincent had discovered the war, and made it to Rocket Town in time to fight, and to be thankful that at least /Yuffie/ had arrived, before claws and fangs came at him from all sides, and Cloud could only fight, mowing down mob after mob of enemies from a seemingly endless supply.
The blonde lost sight of both Vincent and Yuffie as he slashed his way toward the fallen cannon. He knew that if they could get it working now, when Hojo's army had been brought to a standstill, the damage would be much higher, and they could easily turn Hojo's shoddy strategy into complete chaos.
Cloud didn't worry about technique, or trying to dodge every attack that came at him, and felt more than one painful blow, a claw digging into his back, a long, piercing barb taking a chunk out of his arm. It didn't matter... he knew that none of these creatures was good enough to deliver a fatal blow...
//... and if it isn't fatal, then you just go through it... walk it off...//
He finally reached the edge of the cannon clearing, the wide field at the very edge of the almost obliterated barricade, only to run into a wall of monsters, gigantic bearlike creatures with outstretched claws nearly the length of his blade. Cloud growled, but didn't stop, didn't even slow down, simply slamming into them. He let the Ultima Weapon go as it slid down the throat of the first creature, holding onto it just long enough to twist, sending the creature to it's knees, choking to death on its own blood.
Cloud looked up, through the gap in his attackers left by the dying monster...
...and saw a banner of brunette hair, a white shirt... and the familiar figure made his muscles freeze solid against his bones.
//"Cloud... I know that... after Nibelheim... It wasn't really /your/ town, I know... but I realize it must be hard for you..."
The blonde looked up at Reeve, his eyes more steel gray than blue, completely emotionless, glaring at the ShinRa president without blinking.
"It was hard the first time, Reeve. Now it's just getting boring."
Reeve choked on the rest of his condolences, allowing Cloud to puncture the silence that hovered between them.
"You want me to fight for you."
He didn't have to pretend it was a question. He knew the answer, just as he knew what would happen, what had happened, at Nibelheim, his entire future lying outstretched before him, an empty path towards an equally barren horizon.
"Y-yes... we /would/ like if you would... We don't know, but Hojo can't have built up much of a force... Nibelheim was an obvious fluke. This shouldn't take more than a couple of months to..."
Cloud held up his hand, silencing the other man. The blonde smiled slightly, humor a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. The Planet had started speaking to him, of course, and was /always/ speaking now... Even if Reeve didn't intentionally mean to lie to him, the blonde knew he was.
"I'll fight for you, Reeve. On one condition. You keep Tifa Lockheart away from this war."
"C-cloud... I... I don't think..."
"I'm not asking you to think, Reeve, I'm asking you to act. Lie to her, hide her... I don't care what it takes, but I want her out of this fight... at all costs. Otherwise, I swear I'll walk away. I'll protect her myself if you won't."
Reeve looked back at him, but Cloud didn't blink or look away, and finally the ShinRa president averted his gaze, saying nothing.
"Besides, Reeve... how hard could it be to protect her for a few months?"
Cloud waited, for the horror he knew he would watch spread across Reeve's face, knowing that the President's knew... that the battle would be longer and more costly than any of them could realize.
//I don't care... I don't care what happens to me, or you, Reeve, or the rest of the goddamned world, but I won't let her get hurt. I've broken enough promises... I won't make another mistake...//
/... my hero will come and rescue me.../
Cloud would never fail Tifa again, he /could/ not fail her again.//
Nanaki had fought next to Sephiroth for much of the beginning of the battle. The dark-clad man was the only one completely nonplussed as Cloud's army swarmed out of the tree line, a sudden, amazing stroke of luck that even made the cat feel relieved, a gift straight from God. Nanaki could sense no change in the white-haired man, however, as if Sephiroth had been completely at ease with facing the enemy on his own, that the sorely needed backup was not scorned, but not appreciated either.
Although Nanaki could only watch the SOLDIER in the interim between fighting monsters of his own, it was still an amazing thing to see, Sephiroth casting spells almost simultaneously as he fought, the SOLDIER's technique tighter and faster than anything the cat had ever been witness to, except, perhaps Cloud, Sephiroth wielding his sword with precise, incredible skill, slicing through the enemy's ranks before they had even seen him, or had prepared the barest of defenses.
An enormous tail swatted the cat to the ground as he was finishing off a snarling bird he had torn from the sky. Nanaki could not get to his feet fast enough before the tail hit him again, sending bursts of white light through his vision. He went numb for a moment, head filling with the sound of rattling, a low, intense buzzing, as if a hundred thousand boulders were all smashing apart between his ears.
Nanaki looked up, only seeing darkness, curved slightly at the edges, in the shape of an enormous foot coming down to smash him. It did not stop, but was instead torn completely away, one clean slice from the Masamune throwing the rest of the creature sharply backward, before another short slice, through its neck, sent a waterfall of blood to the ground, a prequel to corpse that followed.
Nanaki staggered to his feet, trying to breathe some sort of gratitude to the man, but Sephiroth was already gone.
The giant cat turned at a wild cry of fear, to see a girl fending off a hippogriff with only a long piece of wood, jabbing blindly and desperately, trying to keep the creature at bay. The girl screamed as the creature's vicious beak closed around her makeshift staff, wrenching it from her hands, breaking it into splinters.
The girl put her hands up over her head, meager protection against the hippogriff's hooves and beak, but pulled them back in awe as Nanaki roared and pounced on the beast, sinking his teeth deep into the creature's neck. The hippogriff let out a single squawk, struggling slightly, and Nanaki bit down harder, felt its spine snap underneath his incisors. He leapt onto the ground, turning slowly to the pale girl pressed tightly against the wall.
"Are you all right?!"
Before she could answer, she let out a yelp of fear, lifting a hand to point behind him. Nanaki turned, staring into the suicidal grin of a floating Grenade.
The giant cat leapt at the girl, trying to push her out of the way while shielding her with his own body. He felt a massive burst of heat and flame behind them as they were thrown to the ground, and did his best to land on his paws, to keep from crushing the tiny human underneath him.
"Don't be afraid..." Nanaki murmured, hissing in pain. He could feel the places on his back and hindquarters where his fur had been singed, "... are you all right...?"
The girl nodded, quickly scrambling to her feet. She looked at him for a moment as he moved back a step, and took off down an alleyway before the cat could say anything else.
Just as she disappeared around the corner, the building bordering one side of the narrow path exploded into rubble, crashing down and blocking any further attempts to escape.
Nanaki had never been in a battle like this, not one this vicious or swift, where the entire outcome of the fight seemed to shift and change with each moment. In one heartbeat, Hojo's forces had rushed forward, seemingly gaining the upper hand, but in the next, the combined forces of ShinRa and Wutai had slammed against them, stopping their charge and forcing them back. This pattern of advance and retreat continued up and down the line, neither side seeming to gain the upper hand. Bodies of friends and enemies both already littered the field. Nanaki remembered when it had been his job to help, to bring the most severely wounded back to safety, to a protected shelter.
//... but there is nowhere safe here... nowhere...//
He fought, and fought, until his coat was stiff with drying blood and his jaws ached from biting down and tearing away what seemed like a hundred thousand throats, looking up to see wave after wave of attackers still coming, as if all his struggle had barely made a dent. He had seen Cid once, and Roman from a distance, but there had been no sign of anyone else... he could only hope his friends were still alive.
Nanaki didn't realize how far away he had drifted from what had started out as the front of the battle, until he heard a large cracking sound, a groan, and the rumbling explosion as the massive cannon on the left side of the town tipped onto its side and fell.
There was a gasp, and a light touch on his shoulder. The giant cat turned quickly, as Tifa leaned against him, looking as exhausted as he felt, the plates on her fighting gloves burnished to a dull crimson that nearly matched her dark hazel eyes.
"The cannon... 's down... I can't find Ro... the line... so many dead... what do we do?"
Nanaki looked around wildly, but everyone that carried a military weapon, anyone with a badge or insignia of any kind was engaging the enemy, and whatever strategy they were using, it had all seemed to be planned out beforehand.
"I don't know... I don't..."
The ground underneath their feet suddenly rumbled violently, and heaved upward, crumbling beneath their feet. Nanaki was thrown backward, and as Tifa flew through the air, a tentacle wrapped tightly around her waist. Before the cat had even gotten to his feet, the monster had begun to squeeze.
Nanaki roared, lunging to attack, only to be slapped away, whipped hard into the ground by another of the creature's arms.
"Help... help me..." Tifa gasped, but could do little more, the viselike grip around her waist and chest already so tight that she couldn't breathe, and swore she could hear her ribs creak and fracture under the incredible pressure. The creature had pinned her arms and legs tightly against her sides, there was nothing she could do to break free.
"Hold on! I'm...!"
Her vision was fading, Nanaki's voice echoed from very far away as darkness fell over her, and except for the incredible pain in her chest, everything else was alarmingly numb. Her fingers flexed limply inside her gloves, but she couldn't fight, there wasn't enough air...
Nanaki looked up, watching in horror as Tifa's eyes slowly closed, and her lips took on an alarming blue tinge. The monster was crushing her to death, and there was nothing he could do...
The cat sensed, saw and heard nothing, but suddenly /Cloud/ was there, had leapt past him, high into the air, slicing through the creature's thick tentacles with a single sweep of his sword, catching Tifa as she fell. Nanaki opened his mouth to speak, and was hit hard on his left side, feeling something sweep over him as he fell, and another weight falling on top of him, pinning him to the ground.
"Watch your back!!!"
Nanaki looked up into a pair of stunned hazel eyes that were staring right back into his, the scent that filled his nose like a sudden, hot wind... warm, alive, and /female/.
He could feel his shock mingling with hers, like an electric current that ran up his spine, through his body, and up the light-colored paws pressed against his chest, her paws, just like his own. Time passed, or maybe it didn't, but he couldn't do anything to tear his eyes off of her, couldn't help but look at her over, and over, and over...
The giant cat looked up, and Nanaki's gaze followed, his mind still completely blank, the sudden appearance of the impossible smashing all other thoughts out of his mind. Even Cloud's fury-filled gaze, a reminder of how grave their situation was, still barely penetrated his surprise.
//Li? Li... she's another... like me. Just like me...//
"Fortify this line, try to build up a defensive position with anything you can! Move forward only if you are sure you can keep what you take, and DON'T give them any ground, no matter what happens!!!!"
Tifa never lost consciousness, but the world that coalesced around her was so different from the one she remembered that she might as well have slept for a thousand years. Her face was pressed tightly against a familiar blue fabric, fingertips brushing over the shining silver pattern on a scuffed, tarnished belt. The arm that was around her was threaded with power, thick muscles that cradled her so delicately, barely straining, as if she weighed nothing at all. There was a slight jolt as they hit the ground, and the physical shock slammed her back into reality, and she looked up into Cloud's face.
"Stand," he snapped, letting go of her as soon as her legs steadied against the ground. Tifa looked up dazedly as he moved past her, towards another cluster of enemies that had honed in on their position. Cloud struck first, leaping up to drive his sword through the first monster, some sort of gigantic insect, pulling it out again and twisting, to slam the blade home with both hands. The first assailant hadn't fallen, when Cloud had decapitated number two, and two was still standing, reflexively stumbling a few steps, as if confused rather than beheaded, when the blonde fighter had impaled the third on the end of its own spiny claw. Like dominoes they fell, one after another, Cloud ignoring the sword in some spaces, letting it fall along with his latest kill as he attacked with daggers, or guns, or nothing at all. The blonde defeated beasts twice his size with only a small, thin blade in his hand, and plunged not just the weapon but his whole arm into the eye socket of an enormous, scaly red monster, blade piercing brain in less time than it took Tifa to breathe.
The brunette turned at a noise from behind her, and for a moment thought Nanaki was being attacked by something, before she realized that she was staring at a slightly smaller, dark-maned mirror of the giant cat, who had just saved her friend from being sliced in two. Another group of enemies was quickly gathering around them, coming in from all sides.
Tifa felt something change in the air around her, could feel energy, not electricity but something /much/ stronger charging through and over the ground, rippling through the wind, and pulsing inside her entire body. The brunette tried to tried to move, but could do no more than turn her head slightly, as something glowed green out of the corner of her eye.
Cloud had one hand outstretched, an orb on his Mystile crackling with building power. Every muscle in his arm was tense, tight, and Tifa could see that the spell was hurting him, because he would not let go of it, but before she could say anything, her attention was shifted brutally, as if an iron claw had taken hold of her mind and spun her around, she was shaken by a sharp, growling sound from directly behind her.
A massive wolf, at least twice as big as Nanaki, was suspended in midair only a few steps away from her face, snarling and snapping at her, thin threads of drool pooling on the ground. Tifa took a few steps back, watching as the wolf's growls changed suddenly, into painful whines, and there was a series of large, snapping sounds. The charged feeling in the air lay thick and heavy, stronger than ever in the air around her, and Tifa realized then that Cloud had cast a Demi3 spell, an intense collection of bone-smashing gravitational force.
//... but... he's holding onto it somehow... he had to, to stop that creature... and save me...//
Cloud was dripping with sweat, every muscle in his body rigid with trying to hold on to such a powerful spell, but his blue eyes burned with an intense, acetylene fire, and there was the barest of smiles on his face.
The wolf whimpered again, there was another sharp crack, and Tifa gasped as half of the creature's ribcage suddenly burst free, jutting through its skin, continuing to emerge, twisted and broken, with a series of short, loud, popping sounds.
//He's crushing it... he's /crushing/ it...//
A howl rose up, and at least a dozen more of the large wolves smashed through what remained of the barricade, barreling towards them, fangs bared and snarling. Cloud didn't move, but his eyes narrowed, and Tifa could feel the spell release, almost flattening her for a moment as it passed over her, sending the entire mass of attacking monsters flying, howling wildly as they tumbled through the air, exploding into a thousand pieces of bone, gristle and blood before they hit the ground.
"Are you all right?"
Tifa turned, still shocked, to find she was in his arms. Cloud had to shake her slightly before she could catch her breath enough to speak, to answer him. The brunette stared into deep, light blue eyes, eyes she had not seen in so long... trying to think of something to say. He was real again, after five years, his arms were truly around her once more, hands tight but gentle on her shoulders... and he was here, in front of her...
His hand was shaking, as he reached up, brushing a few strands of hair away from her face with a touch lighter than a butterfly's wing. She looked into his eyes, saw all the emotion that had poured into his voice, tightening it up, saw a thousand, million unshed tears, both his, and hers, reflected in his eyes.
"Tifa... what are you /doing/ here?"
"... Cloud... I..."
Far away, Tifa heard a roar, and Cloud's eyes snapped past her, the emotion gone from them as a wall of dead certainty blocked everything away.
He pointed at the dark-maned cat, who looked up, still frozen, perched on top of Nanaki. Cloud was shouting orders as he walked away, Tifa turned, but could think of nothing to make him stop, make him return to her.
"Cloud... wait... please..."
Tifa's voice was no more than a whisper, and it didn't matter anyway, the blonde had already disappeared.
He was so angry, furious now even without the Planet's undying hatred pushing him on, and he forgot that he was even using Materia, sure only his raw rage now fueled the power that destroyed his enemies, disintegrating them where they stood. He was the Cetra's Vengeance, and it was not enough, he was the General, and it was not enough... there wasn't a place to put all of his anger, no channel that didn't instantly overflow. No amount of bloodshed was enough to deal with this betrayal... with what had happened... with what Reeve had /done/...
//... to take... to take a beautiful flower like Tifa and plant her in the middle of this cesspool... as if /offering/ her up for sacrifice...//
If he had seen the man, Cloud would have killed him, then and there, without any hesitation. Instead his blade went through his enemies as if they did not even exist, and he destroyed the enemies that the blade didn't take down with his bare hands, trying to match the haze of red in his vision with the crimson remains of his enemies
//Everything Reeve... I trusted you with /everything/...//
It had been so long, so /long/ since he had believed in anyone else, had given even his closest friends the tiniest hook into his heart. Reeve had to have known... had to have understood how hard it was to trust him... he was the fucking ShinRa /president/ for God's sake! Didn't he know what they had done to him, what ShinRa had done ... didn't he understand that kind of fear... that kind of pain...
//... of course he doesn't understand... no one understands... do you think any of them really know, or /care/, about your loneliness?//
Cloud grimaced at that thought, not his own. He knew, on some level, that the Planet, the Cetra were merely feeding him another form of Jenova's poisoning, using whatever means necessary to isolate him from the world, so that he would do as they wished.
//... but I don't care anymore. They're right... the world is nothing but pain and disappointment. I want to be goddamned isolated, I don't want to think or feel anymore. No more, I can't, I'm done...//
Cloud quickly reached what had become the temporary edge of his army's territory. There were still monsters breaking through this fragile line, but beyond it, there was only a sea of decimation. The blonde strode up to the nearest scout he could find, a young boy frantically attempting to load a decrepit old rifle.
"Here," Cloud handed the boy his spare handgun, its power amplified by a Fire Materia, "... take this, find a radio, and go tell the third to pull up to half this position. Tell Jenny in the second to call together all the lancers she has left and send them down to finish off the group the fourth has corralled..."
Cloud hissed in sudden agony, touching his temple, feeling the surge of energy, of Hojo and Jenova's darkness, the currents of the Planet crying out in pain...
//... take it... take it you goddamned sissy... this is knowledge, and this is power and it's going to save your men's lives...//
He gritted his teeth, diving deeper into the pain, opening senses even he could not describe, /seeing/ the way Hojo's soldiers moved... where they were headed... he could use it, if he ignored the pain... if he just held on...
"Tell the first... to hang back on the left, and take up the high ground... After they've fallen back, don't follow... but flank them to the left, and drive in as hard as you can... don't be afraid when they seem to keep hard defense... it's a bluff...."
Cloud stepped past the officer, past the last line of defense without another word, still wincing slightly as the pain drifted away. It had become commonplace for him, the almost certainly suicidal solo charge that unfortunately never was quite fatal, just his way of forcing the enemy out of any sense of security... forcing them to move straight into the onslaught he had so carefully constructed...
//It could all go wrong, you know... it could always go wrong... at any moment... everyone could die...//
Cloud lunged out of the shadows, the smoke of trees and living things burned to ash acrid in his lungs, making his eyes sting and tear, but offering him excellent cover, a chance to come out of the darkness and tear into the ranks of the enemy before they ever saw him, before even one could cry out in alarm.
The ground was almost solid mud, worn down and sodden with the sweat and blood of so many soldiers, so many enemies. It had become his home terrain, though, and he could fight better with the taste of blood in his mouth than anytime else, slogging through filth and slime as if it were second nature... and no matter what happened, he could /not/ fail...
//Tifa... Tifa... Tifa... Tifa is here... Tifa is /here/...//
... no matter what had occurred, thankfully the rage ate it all, consumed everything, until all that remained was the ache of his memories, and the fiery drive inside of him, the need to destroy, to find a way to hurt Hojo, to grind the bastard into nothingness...
//... there has to be a way... I want to hurt him... there has to be a way to make him suffer...//
/Tifa... Tifa is here... Tifa is going to die...//
//NO!!! I promised! I would protect her... no matter what!//
/... protect? /You/ can't protect anything.../
//I'll hurt Hojo... destroy the bastard... make him scream... make him /beg/... he took everything... /everything/ away from me...//
//Hojo... took everything...//
Cloud descended onto an already fallen enemy, insuring that it would not rise, blade slicing through its foot-thick shell with determined finality.
He rose to his feet, feeling sudden pain through the rage, his fingers aching as they struggled to hold the sweat-slick grip of his sword.
Cloud looked up, as the smoke swirled away in front of him, and the sun caught a flash of light, the glint of metal against a dark surface...
...the wind slowly, gently lifted a few tendrils of white hair away from the back of a dark, flowing cloak, sending them trailing out against the sunlight like thin threads of liquid silver...
Cloud froze, he couldn't breathe or think, couldn't believe he still /existed/, the entire world vanishing, fading away around the tall, lean profile...
He heard a slight rustle of material, as a sword was lifted into a high defense, parallel with the ground...
The blonde knew it couldn't be true. He wanted it... wanted it too much...
...over ten years of waiting... over ten years of wanting...
//No. Oh God... please... yes... no... /yes/... please... let it be...//
Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Drink. Fight. Always fight. Fight until the world goes away /permanently/, until all you know, the whole of your life, is the stink of your own body on your skin, the way your uniform sticks to you, clings to you from head to toe with your sweat, digs into your flesh like a bitter lover, in the way that clothes can only when they've been worn and slept in for a week straight, marched in for three weeks solid, from hell to hell to swampy hell and back again.
Eat. Breathe. Drink. Fight. Fight with Anjele in every way possible, fight with Reeve in the spaces between words, fight with Scarlet for bullets that don't refuse to fire, for guns large enough to /kill/ the enemy instead of just making them angry, for one-hundred percent perfection, the ice-cold kind you demand from yourself at all times, and that your men give you out of respect, out of duty... and out of fear.
They fear you, because you are The General... and did you know that you are unstoppable, and did you know that you are superhuman? They whisper about you in the night, you know, when they think you'll never hear... how you tore through an entire army at Nibelheim, how you went up single-handedly against a dozen Halfspawn at Gongaga, and how your past is full of dark mystery, a hero's past. Everyone has a different story, but it doesn't really matter... your present is still fixed in death.
You stop sleeping, because in sleep the dreams come and the dreams are always bad and full of fear, and worse when they are happy, threaded with hope. Hope is wrong. Hope is nothing. Hope is what you had for your youngest, bravest soldiers, that they would die quickly, painlessly, and not with their intestines hanging out, wrapped around the carcass of their final kill, covered in piss and shit and crying out for their mothers, knowing they would die alone.
War is not glamorous, but you already knew that, you knew that so long ago, in another life that is now far dead and gone. No one lives for glory anymore... Out here, they live to simply to live. You've spent the last five years of your life slaughtering any hope that dared to try and take root inside of you, fighting to convince yourself just to exist.
If only it would work. If only.
Breathe. Drink. Fight. The food goes after the sleep, because there's not enough of it to go around, the sick ones need it the most, much more than you. It's just another distraction anyway, just another silent space in between the fights, another moment you don't need to try and fill with thinking. You don't need to think anymore, anyway. The orders come, and the plans come, and the voice of the Planet comes and all you have to do is take it in and give your commands and fight. Always fight. You're a SOLDIER, built and bred to withstand abuse like this a thousand times over. They have made you into a war machine, and you'd thank them for it if you could, because it has made life so much easier. You don't have to think anymore, to try to make conversation or pretend to care, to act like your life has meaning, or importance.
No one talks to you, you walk alone. No one had ever been there for you before either, in your old life, but now it's different, /you/ are different, because you are the only one who has survived. Through battle after battle, you were the only one left to tell the tale, the only one still standing when the smoke cleared and the bodies were carted away.
You are a legend, they say, a living legend, the invincible General who controls forces no one else can see... and that the very power of the Planet itself bows to your will. Of course, they are wrong.
You are not in control.
You have never been in control.
How could you be, when your entire world has been in chaos for so long it may as well have been forever, flooded by a despair so deep that you have to hide from it to survive, covering it up with a jaded uncaring, or deeper, in exhaustion, or deeper still, in a half-shock, nearly dead for all the things you refuse to think about. You cover, because you have to, you keep it under however you can, so that you can still go on, pick up your sword, and fight.
Fighting is all that matters now, and the days go on despite all that has happened, each one exactly like the last, until you forget the last time you've slept, the last time you ate, the last time you had a shower or a kind touch or a gentle word or even not having the bite of your mud-covered shoes on the backs of your ankles.
You bury everything.
Push it deeper, shove it down as far as you can, whatever it takes to go on with all that you know and all that you are. You didn't kill yourself when you should have. You realize that now, after the fact, but now it's too late, much too late... perhaps Hojo'd only find your dead body and reanimate you, or clone you, force your heart and soul back into existence before your old body was even cold. Scarlett had said once, that there could only be one soul in one body, so if you die, you could very well be his toy once again.
Clones without souls couldn't be real, she said, not like Hojo had planned, not with his pathetic attempts to recreate his son...
... because /he/ had never really died, you knew... and you thought with pride, of course he hadn't, you could have told them that long ago, maybe even Hojo, had he cared to listen...
What could ever be strong enough to kill perfection?
Elly. Elly. Elly. Elicia... the latest sacrifice for your pathetic life... because, for whatever reason, you /must/ continue to live, to suffer and pray for an ending, as time drags on and on and on without purpose, without meaning. The daggers of sorrow unfold in the map of your past, and are your guide to what lies beyond, to everything that will come, your hopeless, solitary future.
You dig up that sorrow, that unbearable pain, and hold it close, rub it like salt into wounds that have never, /ever/ healed, because it's easier... /anything/ is easier than taking on the thing that runs beneath it all, the soul-rending ache that rises up inside of you like a living thing, ready to tear you apart the moment you let yourself remember, to truly realize what you have done...
You destroyed the only thing you ever cherished, and that love was /yours/, no matter how sad and quiet and pathetic it was in comparison to... anything at all. It was yours, and now it is over, dead and buried, shattered, turned to dust and vanished in the wind.
All that you ever loved, all that you ever could love is gone forever.
After ten years, ten years of knowing there will be countless more moments like these, of you, alone, you think you have a good grasp on the word forever.
The pain falters, fades just a little bit... his smile... his laughter... his presence is a bright, unyielding flame in the darkness, daring the strongest and cruelest of enemies to stand against him, to challenge his joy. You have to protect yourself against that thought, you must refuse to let even the smallest hope live, defending yourself with the weak, pathetic excuse that it doesn't matter how strong he seems, that even he had died once and will again... too soon, always too soon...
You will be alone again, in the darkness and the cold, alone with the secret that you had to share, that you shared to survive... the secret that, after his death, fell back and crushed you completely...
The rain came down hard that day, but did not mask the shots that silenced the voice you had come to live to hear, the friendly smile that was all that kept you afloat when the darkness was trying so hard to drag you down. You touched him then, after five years of bloodcurdling agony... and you could finally give him a helping hand... only to find that all that the ShinRa soldiers had left you were two flat mirrors, dead hazel eyes, once full of joy and defiance, now blindly catching raindrops... and his blood ran into the cracks on your hands, mixing and fading with the rain.
You cried... cried because you were weak, and because you couldn't even keep his blood on your hands long enough to mourn.
Those same hands are strong now, just as strong as Zack's, possibly /stronger/... but still useless... utterly useless, because you can't imagine them ever... ever...
... reaching out to him.
You would have died, you would have killed, you would have done /anything/ for it, for just the barest brush of his skin against yours, the silk of that snow-colored hair sliding between your fingers, the curve of his spine as he stretched against you, the feel of his tight, hard muscles rippling underneath the warm, flawless skin... his stomach against the palm of your hand...
You rarely fantasized, really, about him. The thought of those jade eyes simply meeting yours was as distant a hope as touching the stars... anything more was absurd to the point of hysterics.
Just one touch and he could have killed you, and you would have died grateful. One split-second, your fingertips brushing his high, sculpted cheekbones, lighter than the kiss of an angel's wing, and Hojo could have you back with your blessings, he could have tortured you until the sun crashed into the sea and the universe shriveled and died.
No one could understand that, you didn't have to explain to know that you were alone in your desire. No one could know what your life was like, to want like you wanted, to ache like you ached. To see perfection, and /understand/ how rare, how precious it was that you had been allowed to see it... and to devote the rest of your life to it... to follow him, to worship him, no matter when or where or what it cost you, because /anything/ was worth giving up, any kind of life was worth eking out, as long as you were in his presence... and life without him wasn't life, just a prolonged death with a bit of pain added on in the quieter moments.
Subdue your consciousness, until you've become the hardest, coldest fighter there is, the toughest and most brutal of the walking dead. Fight until you are respected by all, and feared by them, until everyone looks away, and even you start to question your own humanity.
Live in a routine that numbs the mind to nothingness, forces your life away, forces it /all/ away, because it won't stop hurting, it won't /ever/ stop hurting and you can't hide from it anymore, you can't pretend it's not there, you can't do anything about it... the gaping hole inside... where at least the dream of him used to be.
... and then, five years down the pike, with all your dreams gone, smashed at your feet, rent and torn by your own bloody hands, you look up, and see him standing less than three feet from you, in all the glory that God had ever given man, as if you had simply blinked, and the space from Nibelheim to now was only a passing fancy, a dream of an echo of a dream.
I've givin' everything I need
I'd give you everything I own
I'd give in if it could at least be ours alone
His heart slammed against his chest, in perfect time with the only word his mind could manage... one name, over and over....
//oh please... oh /please/...//
Cloud stood trembling, eyes locked on the dark-clad SOLDIER's back, the unyielding curve of the fighter's spine as he held his weapon high, waiting to see if anyone still dared to challenge him.
//no... oh God, it isn't true... it can't be...//
Distantly, in the back of his mind, Cloud knew he looked completely vulnerable, that he shouldn't have been shaking, shouldn't have been so wide-eyed and obviously shocked.
The Planet tried to slap him back into reality, supplying him with the perfect memory, of feeling the Masamune slide, smooth as silk through his skin, the incredible, searing pain... the taste of metal, coppery and warm in his mouth, hot blood gushing over his hands...
//... he is your /enemy/... he is our enemy, and he /must/ be destroyed... you must... you must...//
The voice faded. He couldn't believe... he /knew/, knew that this was the /real/ Sephiroth and not... and even if he did... even if he was still...
//... it didn't matter... what he did to me... what he did at all... it never mattered... I /never/ stopped... never could stop what I felt...//
Cloud didn't realize he had started breathing again until he choked, all the memories, all his fears, and the Planet's defiant screams, /everything/ disappearing as the white-haired man slowly lowered his sword, and turned, and looked at him.
The blonde couldn't move or breathe or think, not as those jade green eyes looked so deeply into his own. He wanted to cower, to hide, as the man's gaze reached right down to the bottom of his soul, and Sephiroth seemed to instantly uncover all he had tried to hide, any of his defenses immediately disappearing, burned to ash. For a moment, he swore the dark-clad man must have known /everything/ about him, that he had to, because there was no way Cloud could hope to hide it, not this close, not when... even now...
//So beautiful... always and forever, the brightest star, the most brilliant... there are just no /words/, I've never had the words.... and he is so, so /perfect/...//
... even now he could not keep from looking, not after so long, and /nothing/ had changed. The monster he had fought, all that insanity had vanished, completely gone from that luminous gaze. Cloud's eyes traced the same flawless, fine features that he had watched from afar, the proud nobility, and power, and the irreplaceable perfection that filled his heart with joy even as it shattered him down to his soul, twisted his heart so hard it felt like he was dying. The grief, the painful shards of Cloud's own bitter reality could not have felt more like bliss, could not have been more precious to him...
//... he's back... God... he's really...//
Cloud heard the hard, sharp whistle a heartbeat before the explosion hit, and threw himself backward, right into the heart of the tangle of beasts that had been waiting to attack.
Battle suited him, it always had. In a way, he knew now, it was what he had been /built/ for, it had always been the only true purpose for his life.
//It doesn't matter what I want, not that I want anything else anyway... but even if I did, this was decided for me, long ago.//
Sephiroth easily dispatched a charging group of large, black-fanged beetles that stood over half his size, burning them alive with a well-aimed fire spell, making his way as quickly as possible towards the front of the battle, passing soldiers engaged in mortal combat with every step he took.
//They're doing a fantastic job, really... if everything I've heard about our army is true...//
Anjele had gone to great lengths to promote the power of the ShinRa army, which immediately led Sephiroth to believe he was lying. The SOLDIER had done a little digging of his own, spoken to a few people when the other man wasn't around, and had formed his own opinion about the situation.
There just weren't enough soldiers left to fight, not after the first few battles: Nibelheim, and the waters outside Junon, with horrific casualty rates so high they had seemed almost impossible, even on a second or third glance. ShinRa had adapted, mainly by handing /anyone/ a gun who could fight, any boy or girl who showed up and signed in.
//They've been trained well... very well...//
Sephiroth had seen the damage reports, the sharp dip in fatalities when Cloud Strife had assumed the position as the leader of the army, and another, smaller dip, when Zack had joined him in the fray.
He hadn't believed most of what Jenova had said, speaking through Adam Ray, trying to bring him to her side once more, but she had been right about one thing... they /needed/ him, and he probably was their last chance.
//They're losing... ShinRa and Wutai, even now, even if they've slowed down the casualty rate... they are still losing this war...//
It wasn't because of cowardice, that he knew for sure. He remembered the way Wutai had fought in the last war, the way his army had shed rivers of blood for every inch of land they captured. This time was no different, except they were on the same side as their former enemies, and the near-maniacal pride of the Wutai fighters seemed to have been passed on to the ShinRa soldiers as well. Sephiroth saw more than once, men and women being overwhelmed by the attacking hordes, fighting back even as they fell, sacrificing themselves for the good of the whole, for a line that pushed back only slightly, before the soldiers regrouped, and charged forward again.
He could instantly see how well Cloud had trained his army, the dedicated, hardened men who stretched out across the battlefield with incredible ease, a skill born of months and months of endless war. In the wrong hands, there would have been no way even their help could have won the battle, but Sephiroth had already heard many things about Cloud Strife's tactical abilities, and what he had heard appeared to be, if anything, an understatement.
The soldiers crept along behind whatever cover was available, sometimes following a line of riders, seemingly suicidal men on Chocobos who dodged death by mere inches, plowing into the enemy in order to push them back, giving the soldiers a stronger advantage.
The attack appeared to be without any true order or strategy, but as the battle progressed, Sephiroth could see the army taking land away from Hojo in a definite formation, attacking vulnerabilities even /he/ didn't immediately see. It was no accident, it was too well organized, but how in the world could Cloud Strife have planned such a thing in /advance/?
//It seems he is as good as they say... if not better...//
The army's main goal, he knew, was to drive Hojo's forces away from the beleaguered Rocket Town, and away from the people protected there. Sephiroth didn't know if any of the civilians were left alive, anyone with eyes could see that most of the town was /gone/, but the rocket still stood, a sign of hope, enormous even at half height, raising above the battle in a gesture of proud defiance.
A scream followed the next explosion, Sephiroth took a step back as an enormous crablike creature stepped forward, the body of a soldier in it's claw. The dark-clad man realized the soldier was still alive only as the boy screamed again, the claw slicing him in half with a sickening ease, his severed body hitting the ground in a waterfall of blood.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as he raised the Masamune high. The monster opened his mouth to roar, and shuddered, jaw dropping in a nearly silent gasp as the long blade pierced its heart and appeared out its back in one graceful, sudden movement, before it even had time to expect the attack. The dark-clad man stepped back, drawing the blade out with a sickening, slurping noise, watching impassively as the monster, now only dead weight, crashed to the ground. The creature twitched, or he thought it did, and Sephiroth raised the Masamune again, waiting for the monster to show any sign of life.
He heard something, as he was lowering the blade, a single, short gasp in an almost eerie moment of silence, coming from right behind him.
Sephiroth turned, sword still half raised, and looked into a pair of the most intense, rich sapphire eyes he had ever seen. Even without the Mako glow, they were like two crystal oceans, an endless rippling surface of pebbled glass, shimmering panes of blue, both bright and smooth, sparkling and deep... eyes that saw everything, and denied nothing.
He had half expected his first thought to be sarcastic, or at least as steady and analytical as usual, but for one of only a handful of times in his life, Sephiroth found himself, for a unusually long moment, unable to think of anything at all.
It was only slight comfort that Cloud Strife seemed to be having a similar problem,
//... that's to be expected, of course, to be suddenly face to face with your most hated foe...//
Sephiroth waited... for the shock and surprise on the young General's face to turn to anger, the fury the white-haired man knew had to be coming. He waited... and waited... and still, Cloud simply stood there, and Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, searching, as he thought he saw the barest gleam of something that wasn't hatred... wasn't even close...
The blonde's eyes widened, just slightly, and as Cloud jerked his head up Sephiroth finally heard the high, sharp sound of a shell right above them. He dove backward, the force of the explosion tossing him hard over a low wall, sending a few of the loose bricks crumbling around him.
Sephiroth opened his eyes after the wave of heat and falling rock had ceased, and carefully hauled himself up on one shoulder, staring over what remained of his cover, but he was alone.
I've given everything I could
To blow it to hell and gone
Burrow down in and
Blow up the outside world
The Cetra had taken hold of him while he was still in the air, catapulted right into the next row of attackers by the force of the explosion. The Planet's power held him, it felt as if he were hovering slightly out of his body. That was all that carried him through the almost impossible shock, back into the battle. The Planet, and the Cetra who spoke for it, were not kind, altruistic helpers, however. The soothing voice that came to him, spoke to him wanted to take action... a terrible action...
//... you have to kill him, Cloud... you have to, you have to...//
The blonde was numb, seeing the hilt of his sword in his hands through a green haze, barely realizing he was still fighting as his sword cut down monsters left and right, creatures he couldn't see. It didn't feel real... all his consciousness was focused too tightly inward, he was nearly catatonic by the two-part shock of seeing Tifa on the battlefield, and then... and then...
//... Sephiroth... back... he's... it can't be real... it /can't/ be...//
Strangely, the incredible waves of vicious green-tinged hatred that surged inside of him, tumbling his soul around like a pebble in a roiling sea, made him feel /better/. If the Cetra were that angry, it really did mean that Sephiroth had returned, that he wasn't some delusion, a passing dream that seemed too real for a moment.
//... He's real... he's alive...//
All those years. All those years of pain, just wiped away...
Cloud staggered back, nearly screaming, fighting the pain that surged through his head, the Planet, the Cetra striking out at him in the only way they could.
//NO NO NO!!! You are OURS! You belong to US! You are OUR vengeance, OUR destruction and WE WILL NOT BE DENIED!!!!//
Cloud dropped to his knees, vaguely hoping that he wasn't surrounded by monsters, wasn't only a few inches away from death...
/They wouldn't do that.../ A grim humor stained his optimism, /the Cetra wouldn't... they need me too much.../
//We have been kind, Strife, until now... but if you stand against us...//
The universe twisted, and suddenly he could feel /everything/, all the raw agony of the Planet as it roiled underneath Hojo's army. Cloud knew the Cetra had been acting as some sort of voice between him and the pure energy of the Planet, but only now did he realize just how much they had blocked, how much of the Planet's pain he hadn't been able to feel.
Cloud writhed at the end of that river of lightning, the anger and pain of the planet surging into him unchecked. Twined inside of it, in the infinite strands of energy that made up the Lifestream, he could feel the lives of his men, the soldiers that had followed him, had trusted him... He could feel them, one by one, /dying/, being crushed and beaten and torn apart by Hojo's forces, could feel each of their last gasps for air, the searing pain that stopped their hearts, the screams as limbs were torn away, as they were ripped in half...
He didn't know if he screamed, or if the pain was too intense to even allow that... but he could feel the Cetra waiting, watching him, to see if he understood... if he knew that they were serious... that they would only stop when he agreed...
Cloud felt a memory slice into him then, leaping from the distant past, the solar flare of light on the edge of a pair of glasses... that voice... that goddamned /voice/... muttering to itself, the scientist's body always twitching, continually moving with some sort of nervous tic...
//... except when he was torturing me...//
The hands were calm and careful when they had worked, exquisitely graceful in exacting pain, in forcing the blonde to do or say anything... anything in order to get the pain to stop...
The Planet's cry hurt just as much as anything Hojo had ever done, the Cetra were equally persuasive masters of agony...
Cloud gritted his teeth, clawing into the earth as the weight of an entire world, suffering, slammed down upon him...
//... we can make you hurt like this... and /worse/... forever...//
It wasn't the same, and yet exactly the same, the multi-layered voice of the Cetra melting into Hojo's silky, sickening purr.
//... come on, Project C, why do you do this to yourself? It would be so much easier, if you just gave me what I want...//
The blonde closed his eyes.
//Please... please stop... please... no more....//
He was nearly thrown to the ground as the Cetra released him, their collective consciousness pulling back into that space between himself and the Lifestream. Cloud shivered, concentrating on simply breathing, feeling the press of the ground against his body. The voices said nothing more, and Cloud did not reach out to them.
//... as if I ever had before... as if I /ever/ wanted to...//
The blonde gritted his teeth, pulling himself up, although all he truly wanted to do was lay down, let Hojo's monsters find him and finish him. He was so tired... exhausted well past the limits of what he had once thought he could give...
//The soldiers need me... Tifa...// Cloud grimaced, fighting a flash of purely emotional pain, the thought of her in the middle of the war, the danger she was in almost too much to bear, //Tifa needs me... and...//
The Cetra didn't know everything about him, not if he did not reveal it to them, and just because he had once broken to torture did not mean he hadn't healed, and healed /stronger/.
//I never told Hojo, I never let him know... I'm damn well not going to... to...//
Deep down, he trembled, remembering the surge of power the Cetra had allowed to strike him, /knowing/ that it was only the beginning, that there were things they could do that were a thousand times worse... and that, in the end, it would change nothing...
//It doesn't... it doesn't matter... because I won't... not again... I /can't/... can't hurt him... won't... I /won't/... no matter what the cost.//
"Oh shit... fall back! We've got too many men away from... we have to..."
It happened that fast. One moment, Tifa was sure she was in the middle of an unbreakable line, soldiers on both sides of her with weapons more than capable of taking on any threat, though the battle had seemed to be ebbing around them... and the next moment she was fighting for her life, barely driving one opponent to the ground before the next was attacking her.
The brunette heard a wild shriek, slammed herself to the ground without thinking as an enormous lizardlike creature dove, swinging at her with its long claws. It missed her, just barely, and Tifa rolled onto her back with an ice spell already cast, launching a thousand tiny, freezing daggers at her opponent.
It wouldn't have done much, except that her aim was perfect, honed by a year's worth of practice, so long ago now... but fighting against Jenova and Sephiroth was something her body would never forget.
The icy blast hit the creature directly in the face, and the lizard howled with pain, wheeling almost gracefully in the air a moment before crashing to the ground. Tifa only saw its body for a moment, rigid and twitching with pain, before it was covered with soldiers, their swords making sure it would not rise.
The soldiers were holding fast, refusing to abandon their position, but Hojo's army kept coming, flowing past the front line's defense almost unimpeded, tangled up behind it, in the mass of soldiers who fought, and died, left and right, killed nearly as often as they took down one of the enemy.
//How many will die here? How long has this been going on... how long has Cloud been doing this?//
Tifa looked up, as the air in front of her, near the front set of fighters suddenly rippled, and there was a howl of disappointment and fury from the monsters fighting there, their carnage impeded by a large barrier spell.
Someone had finally been able to fix the giant Mog and its robotic companion, and the tiny black cat gave Tifa a gleeful thumbs-up before turning its attention back to the battle.
The brunette realized, after another moment, that the entire fight had shifted, that she was now standing in the epicenter of the struggle... and with the soldiers falling all around her, they were quickly losing their position.
Another shrill cry pierced the air, Tifa turned, wondering who could possibly be left... was it a friendly cry, or an enemy's shout of victory? She soon had her answer, as another group of chocobos darted over the ridge, all of them moving directly towards her, the leader's sword already raised, his blade impossibly wide, with a blood-smeared edge, cutting down anything that stood in his way.
Tifa could feel something in the air change, some dark and determined mood about the soldiers suddenly lift, become lighter and maybe even /happier/, as the chocobos added themselves to the fighters already at the front lines.
//We're winning now... they know that... we're going to win....//
It was, in all actuality, a small consolation, because until they had /won/, Tifa knew that anything was possible, even though it seemed highly unlikely that Hojo's army could stand up against the combined power of Cloud's army, Zack's forces and Sephiroth.
Tifa had taken it on as almost a duty to watch the white-haired former villain, and she chastised herself coldly for losing sight of him. The reality that she was in the middle of a mile-wide war couldn't get past her own determination, to keep her eye on him, make /sure/ he wasn't turning against them.
There was a yell at the far end of the field, and the news swarmed over their side of the field like locusts, whispers and half yells, victorious shouts amidst the sounds of battle.
"... General... the new guy... what's his...?" The man nearest Tifa struggled with the name, "General Sephiroth got one of the goddamned Halfspawn! Finally!!"
Tifa looked up, to where she knew a larger creature still stood, like an island in the sea of monsters. It had been watching the battle more than fighting, although its long teeth and spines showed it was more than capable. The brunette could almost feel the decision, like an electric current running through the men around her, the knowledge that the huge beast /had/ to be destroyed, urged on by their commander's victory.
Tifa could see no others, knew the giant creature must have been the only Halfspawn left... From what she knew, the other monsters /would/ fight on their own without direction, but the Halfspawn kept them organized, gave them a united mind. Their army, the ShinRa and Wutai forces, could fight as much as they wanted to, but until the Halfspawn was destroyed, it would be only a partial victory.
//It can see the entire field, and attack us at our weakest points...//
Tifa knew she could take down the Halfspawn, that it would not stand against her, or Cid, or any of the rest of the team. They had gone up against things equally as tough and vicious in the Northern Crater and survived... but there was no way to reach the beast, no way to attack it without having to fight every monster in the gap between them first.
The brunette didn't know why she turned, what silent impulse caught her attention, but she did turn, to see Cloud once again behind her, fighting his way across the field.
It had been obvious at once, just from the way he fought, why the soldiers called him The General, as he simply mowed down whatever stood in his way, barely slowing his stride as the enemy came at him, the Ultima Weapon never pausing, never slowing, slicing and driving through monster after monster with a vengeful ease.
Tifa was so struck by it, just watching the skill and power in his attack, that she didn't realize he was headed for the fallen cannon until he had reached it, plunging the Ultima Weapon into the ground a few paces away.
//... what... how's he going to get the base back up...?//
Tifa realized, a moment later, that he wasn't. She could hear the framework of the weapon creak and groan from where she stood, but couldn't believe it, couldn't believe he was doing what he would have had to do in order to make that kind of a noise... that screaming protest of metal...
//... the cannon... he can't... it's got to be at least a /ton/... he /can't/ be...//
With one final, determined jerk, Cloud leaned back, and the base of the cannon fell away, toppling to the ground with a crash. The blonde turned slowly, carrying the entire weight of the main cannon with only his slight frame as support, making a picture that was almost ludicrous, cartoonish in its absurdity. There was simply no way, no /way/ he could be doing what he was doing.
//Strong... I had no idea... the Mako made him /that/ strong...// Despite all her best intentions, the brunette could not hold back a shiver.
Tifa blinked, squinting as she tried to make out a glow, near Cloud's hands, a brilliant, flickering green. The cannon hadn't been reloaded, but at a second glace the brunette could see that Cloud's hand was wrapped tightly around a wire inside the cannon, where a large iron panel had been torn away.
//He tore... tore it away.... God...//
Cloud was feeding Materia power directly into the cannon, charging it by refusing to let go of the spell, just as he had saved her from the wolf... Tifa could almost hear the buzz of power in the air, just as she could see him straining, fighting to hold the gathering charge, teeth gritted in pain from carrying both the power of the spell and the weight of the cannon.
Cloud's eyes were eerily focused, despite the strain, and he shifted his position just slightly, completely in control as he swung the gun around easily, unimpeded by its mammoth size. As impossible as it seemed, in a few seconds he had /aimed/ the cannon right at the Halfspawn, lining it up in invisible sights.
There was a flicker of power, a flash of light near the monster, and Tifa was just about to cry out, to tell Cloud that the creature had seen his plan, and had set up a barrier, when she looked into the blonde's face. Her jaw dropped as she saw him grin, just slightly. It hit her then that she didn't know what Materia he had been holding, what power he had called up.
Ultima Materia had been given its name for a very good reason. Though notoriously unsteady and difficult for all but master users to control, in the right hands, the power it generated could knock through just about anything.
The Halfspawn's weak cry of disbelief and surprise never reached open air, as the white-hot blast of raw energy from the cannon shattered its shield, instantly incinerating it and all of the monsters directly around it, carving a long path into the ground, a smoldering curve of destruction that the enemy did /not/ retake.
The cheers redoubled across the battlefield, as the soldiers saw what had happened, their cries of victory ringing through Tifa's ears until she felt dizzy. There were still monsters around them, and they still dangerous, but almost immediately the brunette could see Hojo's ranks descend into chaos, lost without the will of their leader. With one impossible move, Cloud had broken the back of the enemy.
Tifa turned quickly, unable to believe that he was all right. She could see the end of the cannon smoking from where she stood, the massive gun charred and warped from end to end at having to process such an incredible amount of power. Cloud let it fall to the ground, the earth shuddering as the gun hit, and he staggered slightly, stumbling a few steps away.
//He's hurt... oh no...//
The brunette turned, as Zack rode up to her. Behind him, she could see Cait Sith, looking only slightly the worse for wear, ambling toward them as well.
Sephiroth came, as always, out of nowhere, and Tifa could see Cid walking behind him. She breathed a silent sigh of relief, and only hoped that the rest of her friends were all right.
"Glad to see we made it in time..." Zack said, and his smile surprised her. It felt as if she hadn't seen anything even resembling happiness for years.
"Strife knew. He launched an ambush as soon as they ran the initial charge," Sephiroth said, looking up at his dark-haired friend, "We had this battle won within the first minute."
"Yeah right," Cid muttered under his breath, looking at her, "... don't know if I'd go that damned far... hey Tifa, you okay?"
Tifa nodded, "you?"
Cid smiled, his usual defiant grin. It disappeared almost instantly, as his eyes focused on something over Tifa's head. Tifa could hear Zack and Sephiroth's conversation fade away to silence as she turned, her stomach already aching in dread.
The first thing she saw was the blood, a thin, mottled swath of crimson along the entire flat of his oversized sword, gleaming cancerous and dull in the light. The slight sheen ran counter to the blood on his uniform, dark, deep, but no less permanent. The brunette was afraid to look up into his eyes, afraid for what she would see there, and what she knew was coming. It was time for the rematch. Sephiroth was here, Cloud was here, and she would once again be in danger of losing the person most important to her.
Tifa finally looked up, the silence had still not been broken, all of them seemed to be suspended in time, and she almost jumped, snapped out of her belief of how things would progress, by what was actually happening.
Cloud /was/ angry, there was something in his eyes more lethal than anything she had ever seen, a hatred and betrayal so deep she could not see the bottom of it, so strong that she did not want to try... but those intense, glowing eyes were not staring at Sephiroth, they were staring at Cait Sith.
//"He's going to kill me... he's... You understand, Tifa, you were /never/ supposed to be here."//
Reeve's words rung out inside her head, and she realized the man had been telling the truth. Looking angry enough to kill was a horrible understatement, Cloud looked as if he could kill a thousand times and still never touch the true center of his rage.
Tifa could hear the tiny cat choke, staring at Cloud in obvious terror, shaking atop its perch. Even the Mog looked scared. The brunette knew, just as Reeve knew, that Cloud couldn't do anything to his /real/ body, even if he did destroy his robotic disguise. Somehow, it didn't seem to matter, and when the blonde finally took a step forward, the Mog lunged backward, the black cat barely keeping its balance.
Cloud's voice was soft, but the word cut through the distance between them like lightning, and the world seemed strangely silent, as if waiting for a reply.
Cait Sith could not speak, Reeve couldn't speak, caught inside his own frantic, dark emotions, terror and shame destroying any words that tried to reach the air.
"What didn't I do, Reeve? What more did you want from me?"
"C-cloud... I didn't..." The tiny cat shook its head violently from side to side, "I didn't... I /swear/ I d-didn't...."
Someone tried to tell me something
Don't let the world bring you down
Nothing will do me in before I do myself
So save it for your own and the ones you can help.
Cloud took another step forward, the sight of the giant Mog and tiny cat bringing back everything that seeing Sephiroth had taken away... the realization that Tifa /was/ in this war now, on this field, despite everything he had done to try and prevent it... despite all he had fought so hard for...
... and that voice, tiny and shrill, or tired and bitter, or angry, or in pain, it didn't really matter anymore... saying that /now/ was the time for all truths to be revealed... that there was no way to escape... that they would all know just the kind of sick, pathetic bastard he was... and he could not meet Tifa's eyes, or Cid's... He was shaking inside, frozen to the core by the knowledge of his own sin... for being what he was, for all the hurt it had caused.... all that it would cause...
//I'm sorry... I'm so sorry...//
He was still moving forward, unsure of what he would do once he reached Cait Sith, whether his clenched fists would tear the cat in two or do nothing at all... still too shocked and startled by the betrayal. The battle was winding down... he could sense that outside of the chaos of his own thoughts, that the silence was growing... What was he supposed to do now? Where was he supposed to put all that rage?
It couldn't have taken more than a second, when the bottom suddenly dropped out of the world. The blonde could feel all the power, the energy of the Planet being ripped away, pulling back like the tide that heralded a tsunami. This was not a punishment from the Cetra... he knew that almost instantly. This was an event past even their control.
//I've felt this before...//
Years ago, before most of the world had even known there was a war, that there was an enemy like Hojo, he had frozen just like this, unsure why, as half a world away something enormous and utterly unnatural tore its way out of the sea, and into the ShinRa naval forces...
A split-second before it happened, Cloud knew what was coming... looked up into Tifa's eyes and saw his horror reflected in her own, and her added confusion, knew she was afraid without knowing why, not understanding his terror, because she wasn't connected to the Planet... she didn't know...
//oh no... please... I can't... not again... no...//
The scalpel, coming down, the final millisecond before it touched his skin... and seeing that smirk, that delighted grin... knowing the pain was coming, worse than anything he could imagine... knowing there was nothing he could do to stop it...
Tifa's whisper was the last thing he heard, before he was impaled on the edge of the jade wave, the Planet's cry, the deafening sound tearing through his mind and body, and shattering the world around him.
He fell, hands against his head, instinctively trying to shield himself from what he knew he could not, flattened by the crushing weight of a Planet in torment. The real world vanished, splintering into a million shards that cut through him, slicing him open, turning him inside out. The pain forced its way through his body, flowed over him in a searing river of acid and flame, there was no escaping it, and no protection, nowhere to hide. He screamed, his muscles snapping off the ends of his bones they were so tight, spasming in torment and breaking his bones in half, over and over again, snapping him into a thousand fragments that could still feel /everything/. When the Planet screamed again, he cried out with it, all reality, all identity gone, everything vanishing into that endless agony...
It was coming, it was /coming/, the Planet cried, and twisted in despair and searing shock as the dark, unnatural /thing/ clawed its way up through its insides, through the Lifestream, tainting all it touched in a foul plague of destruction and death, the absolute antithesis of the life the Planet fought so hard to nurture, the life that gave it consciousness.
The Lifestream warped and splintered, unable to deal with the stress of such an attack, green energy spiraling into tangled knots, white-hot centers of pain, the Planet struggling to hold on to any sort of cohesion, and Cloud was in the center of it all, writhing with each blow that was struck, smashed into a thousand pieces by each attack... feeling every strike, all that was happening, suspended helpless and defenseless. It was coming, it kept /coming/, and there was no way to stop it, the monster would consume him instantly... he could feel its teeth carving their way through his chest, his body splintering beneath its powerful jaws...
He could barely react, his thoughts blurring in and out, a staccato of chaos, only long, blank pauses in between... nothing made sense... but someone... the voice... he knew that voice...
/someone... someone in the green..../
//LET HIM GO!!!//
The Planet tossed him aside, or more accurately, he was jerked from its grasp by that new, powerful force, and fell, endlessly, down into pure, smooth darkness.
The blonde jerked awake, regretted it immediately, aching all over. Someone had taken a sledgehammer to each of his muscles, and had beaten him within an inch of his life... he could taste the blood, coppery, slick and bitter inside his mouth... with no idea where it had come from... inside, or out... was he even still alive?
The black oblivion swirled around him thickly, sweeping in and receding once every few moments, scattering his thoughts, his senses, deadening everything except for the ache, the pain of the sore, twisted mess his body had become... He cried out softly as the hands around his waist tightened, and he was pulled to his feet...
//... hands... so strong...// He was half jolted into a thick, confusing memory... //I know... sorry sir... didn't mean to bother you... didn't mean to get beaten up... won't happen again sir... sorry... I'm sorry...//
Darkness washed everything away again, and Cloud didn't think he could move out of it, couldn't, until he felt someone taking a chisel to his kneecaps, sending large jolts of pain through his legs as he struggled to stand under his own weight... realized it was just his own body... hurting...
//... can't... can't do this anymore... someone else... I can't... /please/... just let me go...//
A sizzling crack whipped through his thoughts, he could almost smell the ozone and charred flesh... a summer barbecue...
...the pain was green, a solid, emerald push against his sore, wounded mind...
//... move! Get up! There's no time! MOVE NOW!!!//
Cloud was shaking, unable to shield himself from the screaming, the echo of the Cetra's voice like a swarm of stinging insects inside his mind... and everything was bruised, the wounds open /inside/ his head now... his thoughts flayed and torn and horribly confusing... why wouldn't they leave him alone? He had nothing left to give... nothing...
"Come on, Cloud... wake up... wake /up/..."
Weakly, he opened his eyes, watching everything blur and spin in front of him... ground and sky reversing themselves at random. There was nothing he could do, until the world focused on its own, slowly stopped spinning. He saw a pair of shoes slowly come to a halt... two pair... and half of an enormous white... paw?
"I think he's comin' around..."
"Is he all right? What happened?"
"It was just like before... when we were..."
A pause, but not from his own internal darkness, and the voice that spoke next was not the same, a different voice, male, rougher than before...
"Yes, she meant to say when we were fighting /you/. This is what /you/ did to him, you asshole."
"Can you all please just shut the hell up?"
Voice...? He knew... dark hair... a smile...
"Zack... is he going to be okay?"
Voice... female this time... but not the same... not from down in the darkness. There had been another voice... someone had saved him... someone... but maybe only a dream...
He choked, and coughed, muscles caught in another spasm as his lungs pulled in air, and he remembered to let it out, having to think very hard, concentrate, to keep his heart beating, keep his lungs from collapsing...
"Just breathe, Cloud... just breathe...."
That voice... so kind... deep and rich... and safe...
He choked again as he tried to speak, spat blood onto the ground, realized a moment later that only his nose was bleeding, that his body had not been ground into dust, left broken past repair...
He was whole... and even the phantom pain was starting to fade... It was not his pain, but the Planet's... because it... because...
Cloud's eyes opened wide, and he tore his way out of Zack's supportive arms, staggering away wildly.
"Cloud! What is it?"
He knew he had to say something, that his friends were staring at him, confused and frightened, but he couldn't... there wasn't any time... any way to make them understand...
The blonde lunged for Zack's radio, immediately flipping the dial to all frequencies, turning to look up the field, his heart rending itself in half as he realized he already knew who was going to die.
"Four and sixth, fall back! Fall back! Get the hell OUT OF THERE!!!!"
He could almost see it in his mind's eye, the men in each division staring at each other and the radio in confusion. They had just set up a nearly impenetrable defense, had fought the entire battle for this moment of stability, could now see victory within their reach... Cloud could see them, looking down at the radio in shock and disbelief, wondering if it was a trick, wondering why in the hell their commander would have them abandon such a great position, an island of power in the center of the field...
The blonde didn't move, stood as if anchored as the entire world seemed to shake around him. He kept staring down into the battlefield, as he heard both humans and their Chocobos cry out in surprise and alarm. Even some of Hojo's minions seemed to be frightened, looking around in panic... but the blonde SOLDIER was calm, even though he knew more than all of them, knew what they had to fear...
The blonde knew what was coming, and it suddenly seemed an inevitable event, fated to happen. He was mildly annoyed with himself for ever imagining otherwise. An easy victory? Here? Even when easy meant nearly having to sacrifice it all... even now, it should have been obvious, that it would not be enough.
There was a massive, final jolt, the last aftershock, and the cries of soldiers and the enemy redoubled in the center of the field, where the blonde had been looking the entire time. He could hear more distinguishable sounds from his radio, actual words, surprise and confusion and terror, as everyone struggled to get away from a widening hole in the ground, sharp screams piercing the air every few seconds as another person failed to reach safety. Over all the noise, all the frantic, desperate movement that pounded the earth and rent the air, something deep within the earth /roared/.
"What the fuck is that?!" Cid yelled, taking a few steps back, "A Weapon?"
"No." Cloud said, voice and manner eerily calm. He quietly picked up his sword from where he had dropped it, from where he had fallen when the Planet had started to scream. He could still hear it, of course, but it had become only background noise, and he could deal with the pain, wiped fresh blood from his nose, ignoring the stabbing torture, the knives piercing him from /inside/ his head...
Tifa sounded scared, but the wall of apathy that had fallen around him was thick, and he just couldn't bring himself to care, couldn't feel anything at all, as if she didn't exist anymore... This was his duty...
//Cetra's Vengeance... I am the Cetra's Vengeance...//
This was what he had been made for, to cut down anything Hojo brought against him... and if he did feel anything, very deep down, it was simply /relief/...
There was a very good chance, he realized, that this would be the end of him... He was so tired... and wanted to believe it, that he'd finally get a chance to rest...
Want to make it understood
Wanting though I never would
Trying though I know its wrong
Blowing it to hell and gone
Cloud looked up for a moment, at Sephiroth, who didn't see him watching, too busy staring along with the rest of them at the widening crack in the earth. The blonde smiled to himself as he felt all the emotion that came with seeing the familiar face, well up again inside of him.
Despite the apathy, all the fear and self-hatred and desire and despair still came, /always/ came... except now, just for this moment, he could feel all those emotions as though they weren't really a part of him.
Somehow, it was funny... that he had such emotions, that he felt things so deeply, even when, most of the time, it /hurt/. Funny, that he had seen his life destroyed more than once... his heart smashed over and over and over... and somehow it had never been enough to just finish him off. Everything was taking on the aspect of a dream... the blonde had rarely felt more calm, although he knew it wouldn't last long... So calm... because /this/ was the worst... the worst it could possibly get, because he had tried his absolute hardest... everyone had... and it hadn't stopped anything... and it was all so very terribly /funny/...
"Cloud..." Zack murmured, as another roar, closer and even more violent, pierced the air, "what /is/ that thing?"
Wishing though I never could
Blow up the outside world
-Blow Up the Outside World by Soundgarden
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