A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
"I remember falling
I remember marching
Like a one man army
Through the blaze"
~ Our Lady Peace "One Man Army"
"Tell me I'm not just being an asshole."
Rude, using his history of silence to a definite advantage now, simply refused to answer, didn't even turn around. After a moment, Reno sighed in irritation, leaning back against the wall, shoulders slumped.
"Okay okay, that was stupid, I know. So, then, tell me I'm not being a worse asshole than usual? I mean, what the hell is going on with her?"
Reno would readily admit - at least, to Rude - at least, after a few beers with Rude - that he was not the most perceptive person on the Planet, especially when it came to anything less obvious than a street brawl.
In combat, the redhead knew he could anticipate an enemy's moves several seconds in advance, if not even more, but in the many years he had known Rude, he still had no idea when the man's birthday was, or where he had come from, or what made it worth him getting up every morning to face the day - beyond Elena, of course.
Elena. In no way had Reno ever expected to care for her, not when he usually considered that mix of young, stubborn pride and sunny cheer to be no less than mental rat poison. Maybe the unexpected nature of it had really been the reason for what had happened between them. Neither he, nor Rude nor Elena had seen it coming, and so they hadn't been able to argue it away.
//If she's so damned important then, why don't I know what's going on?!//
"Is she talking to you, cause she certainly hasn't said a damned thing to me since she moved out."
It had happened without warning. One day, her things were no longer taking up their familiar place between his and Rude's, and before either one of them could think to question it, she had moved as far away as she could go, to the other side of the camp... and no matter how many times Reno tried to get to her, no matter when he went, she was always busy, never there.
Of course, everyone was busy, trying to fill in the gaps left in the war by Cloud and Sephiroth's absence, but Elena's constant disappearing act was beginning to grate heavily on Reno's nerves.
"Did you two have a fight or something? I'm not gonna wail on you, I just want to know..."
The redhead had never thought that a two-person relationship could seem imbalanced, that the silence between he and Rude could be uncomfortable - but Elena had added something, even beyond the physical, and Reno wasn't just going to let it go, let whatever it was die without a fight.
"Rude, damn it..."
Reno swept the glasses off the other Turk's face in one deft motion, a move that most certainly would have ended in a swift and brutal stomping had he been anyone else. The redhead was still expecting Rude to be quite irate - but the dark gaze that met his was quiet, solemn, and terribly worried. Reno stopped short.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Rude let out a long, deep sigh, taking his sunglasses back, wiping the lenses with the corner of his uniform.
"You do realize she left us, right after everything happened with Anjele? ... and we never heard what happened, we don't know what she told the higher-ups."
The man's voice was soft, almost calm save for the look in his eyes.
"What are you... what do you think hap- you don't think something happened up there?"
"He had the vial. We know he had Jenova cells inside of him in that aircraft..."
Reno could feel himself pale. "No... no, you don't think... he couldn't have..."
"What if he had another vial? What if he didn't use it all on himself? Jenova is a virus, isn't she, and if her main goal is to spread..."
"No... no. Elena would have said something, she would have told us if..." Reno trailed off, could not finish a sentence he didn't believe in.
Would she? Would she really?
"You did /what/?!"
Sephiroth didn't bother to stifle his laughter, chuckling harder as Cloud gave him a long, pained look. After another quiet, lazy day - the blonde could hardly remember one day of happiness, let alone several like this - they were back in bed, curled close beneath the rumpled covers, tucked in for the night...
//Well... rhymes with tucked...// Cloud grinned at his own horrible pun, then frowned as Sephiroth continued to smirk.
"It wasn't /my/ idea, god knows. Aeris... well, she kind of insisted on it, and we /were/ running out of time, and worried about Tifa. She was all alone with Corneo for god's sake. We had to get in there /somehow/..."
"So, what happened next...?" Amusement sparkled in the calm green eyes, Sephiroth lifting himself onto an elbow, white hair pooling in the eddies and nooks of the bed sheets. Cloud winced at the delighted predator's stare... how in the hell had this ever come up? How had he gotten himself into this mess?!
//You'd better tell him, there's no use lying... I'm surprised Zack hadn't let loose with this little gem a long time ago.//
"Well, we got /in/ that way, of course... and Tifa was there, and... well... Corneo had to pick one of us... and..."
The fighter's voice was deliberately trailing off, but Cloud couldn't come up with a way to mumble softly enough to escape his fate, closing his eyes in resignation.
"... and... he picked me."
Absolute silence met his words. Surprised, Cloud opened his eyes, turning to find Sephiroth trying to swallow his own fist to stifle his laughter, his entire body shaking, a few small, merry tears running down his face at the thought...
The blonde smiled in delighted wonder as his lover nearly screamed with laughter, amazed that anything he had done could have provoked such a reaction, that he could make Sephiroth /happy/ - though pride demanded he sounded hurt.
"It wasn't /that/ funny..."
"Oh yes, Cloud..." Sephiroth finally murmured, eyes darting to him and away as he stifled another burst of laughter. "Oh, yes it was."
"All right, maybe it wasn't my /finest/ moment...
"Oh, I'm not sure..." Sephiroth dropped his hand to Cloud's thigh, sliding it up against the blonde's waist. "Was it a slit skirt?"
Of course, he was still measuring every action, even as he hit the white-haired man with a pillow, and let himself be pulled into a rough embrace, but Cloud found he was no longer waiting for the second shoe to drop, the moment when he realized this was all some sort of joke, or dream, or lie. It was still hard to relax completely, impossible not to weigh every word he said, constantly watching Sephiroth for his reaction and adjusting his actions accordingly...
The arms around him tightened, breaking him from his thoughts. "You're tensing up again. Stop thinking so much."
Sephiroth was unerringly observant, and had closed the gap of understanding between them with an impressive speed, reading Cloud with ease now, after only a few days of contemplation, even as the blonde-haired man tried to hide his anxieties, any sign of his tension...
"I'm fine..." He turned, throwing one leg up over his lover's as he wound his arms around Sephiroth's neck. "I'm never going to believe I'm actually /living/ this... but I'm fine."
The white-haired man only chuckled, kissing him again as they both jostled around a bit, ending up in a somewhat uncomfortable tangle that dissolved into the usual sprawl.
//I'm lost...// The blonde rubbed one finger back and forth against Sephiroth's smooth, flat stomach, relishing the simple heat, the warmth of life beneath his touch. //I always knew I'd be lost in him... I knew it would feel this good, but I never thought...// He felt safe, irregardless of Hojo, of his monsters and the war, he felt secure, nothing could touch him...
"Zack's asked for a meeting, to discuss the future of the campaign."
"It hasn't been barely any time at all, Cloud. If you want me to tell him no..." Green eyes were watching him in concern, he knew, even before strong fingertips gently raised his chin to face the question. "Do you want me to tell him it's too soon?"
"I can fight." Cloud flexed one hand out, and into a fist, no pain in his muscles, no weariness anymore. It had all been in his mind, really. There hadn't been any reason to want to go on, but it was obvious now, that problem had been completely solved.
"I can fight, and I can't wait too long in any case. I've been reading the recent reports..." He smiled at the surprise that flickered in the glowing aqua gaze. "I'm /still/ the leader of the ShinRa army, you know, and I've been thinking... maybe..." Cloud shook his head. "I need to see a map before I'm sure..."
The blonde pulled away, throwing a hand over his eyes as the real implications of Sephiroth's statement sank in.
He had spent most of his life, and certainly all of the last few years, hiding the truth from everyone, never thinking it would matter, never believing he would be where he was now... he had spent most of his life trying to avoid this moment.
//Tifa. I have to face Tifa /now/, when she knows, and even if Zack said she understood, he doesn't know, he doesn't have any idea...//
It was so easy to lie to people, he knew it first hand, so easy for Tifa to smile while she was raging inside. God, he hadn't wanted to do this to her, hadn't ever thought...
"Thinking about how they've taken the news?" Sephiroth was watching him calmly, eyes caressing him so that there was no need to touch. "Cid understands. Vincent and Yuffie understand... you don't have to worry. If she's angry, it's not your fault."
"You wouldn't care either way, would you..." the blonde murmured softly, watching his lover through half-closed eyes.
"No, not really. You're what matters, Cloud. You're all that matters to me."
He couldn't help but be comforted by that, surprised by how quickly the relationship had jumped from disbelief to wariness to this strange, fearless contentment.
"... there's going to be time after this, after this war. We're going to win, going to go on... there was a time, I never would have believed it."
"Mm... I believe it. I believe in you."
Talking with Sephiroth... no rhyme, no reason or great revelation... just talk... god, it was heaven. Cloud closed his eyes, tucking the feeling, the warmth and happiness, tight against his heart - out of habit, no longer really afraid that he would be left with only the memory... not with someone like Sephiroth to love, someone so unafraid to stand against the entire world, strong enough to do so and win.
//... not like me.// The blonde thought, swallowing a heavy lump of nervous tension.
Despite all the unexpected understanding, he still did not want to face Tifa, and when he closed his eyes, all he could see was the hurt in hers.
//Show me... show me...//
/... wait, I'm not... but I thought.../
//... of course not.//
After a long period of oblivion, Anjele slowly blinked, shifted slightly, and came to realize that he was still laying on the cold, stone floor, Jenova's body wrapped around his in a way that should have been repulsively confining but somehow felt natural.
His sense of the real world was fading in and out rather violently, replaced with moments of blankness, darkness, or strange, disjointed recollection - the smell of apple pie from his favorite restaurant, perfume from a woman, a girlfriend, her name lost to him though he never forgot the way she smelled...
He could feel Jenova inside his mind, saturated throughout, moving and shifting, touching... but with a surprising gentleness and skill, nothing like Hojo's swift, brutal stripping. It was as if she was gently searching, but unsure herself what she was looking for.
//What are you doing...?//
Another memory took him, a beach house he had rented with a few friends right at the edge of the waves in Costa Del Sol - wow, /that/ had been a good time - but the blonde man did his best to fight through it, struggling to drive the false world away. The scent of the ocean and the feel of the sun and wind on his face finally dissolved, leaving him with only the feel of the cold floor, the realization that her arms were actually /inside/ him now, their bodies melded together, and he struggled for a moment not to panic...
//I'm still... me?//
Anjele blinked in surprise, remembering his last few conscious thoughts, the slight fear and despair blunted by her power, the feeling of dissolving into her, his identity fading to nothing... and though she most certainly had him in her power, he still /existed/, was not merely a shell filled with her influence...
//I thought she would kill me... why hasn't she killed me...?//
The blonde man's body arched, he fought back a sudden scream as she suddenly flooded his senses with hers, impulses and alien thoughts he couldn't begin to understand. Anjele could feel her plucking at his memories and emotions here and there, desperately, demandingly, but seeming to gain nothing for her efforts. He could sense what almost seemed like despair in her, and braced himself as he reached out, expecting her to react and destroy him - even if, perhaps, she didn't mean to do it.
//Now where did /that/ thought come from? Why wouldn't she want to destroy me?//
/... need to know... I need to understand!/
Jenova was prowling through the lower levels of his subconscious, primal instincts and thoughts he himself couldn't quite grasp, no matter how hard he reached... and he followed her down, watching, waiting, until she finally noticed him.
Anjele lunged back instinctively, drawing as much of his mind away as he could as she surged forward again, knowing he must have been gritting his teeth in the real world, there was nothing he could do to stop her...
Jenova froze, he could sense her confusion, and curiosity...
//... please, don't. It hurts, when you... think at me.//
The alien extended it's thoughts again, but more slowly this time, her touch as gentle, as careful a caress as anything Anjele had ever felt... but the man tensed as he felt it change, as if someone had taken a handful of his hair and pulled, standing at the threshold of pain... but as soon as he cringed, the feeling vanished.
//... pain? That is... I... I /know/ this. Pain.//
Again, it was as if she had slugged him full in the gut, Anjele helpless in a sudden crush of memories, emotions... but a sudden surprise snapped his attention from the chaos, a familiar face flicking past - Lucrecia?! - and as if his attention was the control, the maddening slide-show slowed to a crawl, a history only Hojo had truly seen before, from the only other one to bear witness to it.
//It's how she was captured... it's what Hojo did to her, and Lucrecia, and Sephiroth.//
It was a bedtime story of sorts, really... Anjele felt himself almost falling into the images, Jenova lulling his mind into a easy, fixed focus... all he had to do was watch, and she would show him all that she was, all that had happened. Silently, the knowledge passed between them, that his mind would be damaged if she moved too fast, didn't allow him this rest, and she could not afford to let that happen, not when she was /so close/...
//Close? Close to what?// Anjele forced himself out of his daze long enough to ask the question, felt himself slipping back before she responded...
/So close./ In the real world, she shifted her body slightly, he could feel her sorrow at it's confines, at how she had changed, from who she had been. /... so close, to finding out what I am./
//... what?// The thought was almost too weak to even be his own, and she did not answer.
Jenova would show him the secrets of the universe, the secrets of herself... although, Anjele realized, as it was becoming harder and harder to think, the price of such secrets could easily be his life.
The red-haired young man adamantly refused to open his eyes, even as he felt Jilly's unbound hair brushing against his cheek, teasing at the tip of his nose, her body spooning against his under the covers.
"Ro. Come on, wake up."
He preferred to curl one warm hand over her shoulder, grinned slightly as his hand draped down.
Jilly giggled, shoving his hand away sharply, but didn't protest as it found its way back around her waist, and he burrowed his face against the side of her neck. She turned slightly, he cracked an eye open, surprised to see what looked like a slightly evil gleam in her eye. It was so early, and they'd had quite a night of it, she couldn't possibly want -
"Sweetie, what time was your big meeting?"
"Nn... ten?" He blinked, yawning. "Why?"
"Oh, no big deal. You've got seven minutes to get there, that's all."
Everyone in the room looked up sharply at the screeching crash from the hallway, as a bit too much inertia and a freshly polished floor sent Roman skidding past the doorway and straight into the wall, hard enough that he nearly bounced off of it. The redhead stumbled inside after a few more moments, flushed and wincing under the gaze of all his superiors, quickly found the only empty seat next to a widely grinning Zack. He wanted to be annoyed, but instead found the bright smile actually put him a little at ease. Reeve waited for the redhead to collect himself before beginning.
"As I was saying, it's good to see you all once more. I'm sure I'm as relieved as you are, that this meeting has been called because, instead of any further tragedies, it seems that we have hope."
The President's voice was, of course, unsteady on the word, as if he was almost afraid to say it aloud. Ro didn't blame him, it had been the same way everywhere he had been, men talking in hushed voices about the slowing battles, less enemies - no more second, third, fourth waves of Hojo's forces... that even with The General gone, they'd been winning, amassing victories that only a few months ago, anyone would have thought impossible.
Ro barely believed he'd actually survived to this point, all things considered. Two-and-a-half weeks seemed at least three times that, from when he had been suddenly and unceremoniously pulled into what amounted to General status by Zack, summarily given the privileges, power and status that accompanied the position, as well as all of the responsibility. It wasn't something he had really wanted, which, Ro realized later, probably made him the best candidate for the job.
//... and even if I'm not The General, it's not like I haven't been watching him work all this time. It's not like...//
Oh yes, it was like he wasn't cut out for the job, and Ro knew he was nearly sweating with pure relief, that his commander was back, even as he felt guilty for it. He'd always realized the burdens his commander carried, but of course, it was never really the same as carrying them himself. He couldn't imagine what five years of it had been like... no wonder General Strife had broken down.
//Except, with what General Zack said... about the commander and General Sephiroth...//
Two meetings were happening simultaneously, the redhead knew - the surface meeting where Reeve was speaking, and the meeting beneath, the sea of silent secrets they all shared.
Roman had noticed the nervousness on several faces, wondered if it he was being hypersensitive, or if everyone was thinking the same thing he was, taking the same furtive glances. He thought he saw one or two, and though Tifa Lockheart wasn't looking, she was paler than he remembered, seemed determined to stare solely at the table in front of her.
//I thought she and General Zack...// Ro rolled his eyes, surprised he thought he knew /anything/ anymore... it wasn't as if he had ever seen this coming, was only grateful Zack had told him first, that he hadn't heard it through rumor and quiet, disbelieving question the way the rest of the world apparently had.
//... not that I care.//
He might have been looking, yes, to see if he could /tell/ anything had changed, but it was all juvenile curiosity, and as far as he could tell, the only difference was an absence of tension, irritated glares and sniping comments between the two men. Sephiroth was still pure ice, the General equally unemotional. The only one who seemed at all moved of the three Generals was Zack, who kept repressing a small grin as the meeting continued.
"So, I suppose the best way to start out this meeting is..."
"... to make another run on the Northern Crater."
//Yep, he's back.//
Cloud was engrossed in a current map of the Northern Crater, Icicle and the surrounding area, the gains made in the last month greater than any since the beginning of the war. Roman couldn't help but notice one of the lines was out of place, spoke without thinking.
"It isn't right, sir. The western edge..." Cloud held up the map so that he could have a better view, it was once again as if they had returned to the front, the rest of the room all but disappeared. "We've managed to take another few miles beyond that ridge there. The cavalry's been reporting in with very few problems."
"Cloud..." Reeve blinked warily, "I'm not sure we should even be discussing this right now. I mean, there isn't even a full table."
"Nanaki has his hands full with the Canyon, and Yuffie and Vincent need to stay close to Wutai. Everyone else could conceivably be informed by the time we need to deploy." Roman suppressed a small grin, watching his commander almost pin the President with his bright blue gaze.
"All the problems we had at the Crater before, Reeve, are nearly nonexistent now. Zack's said it in his reports, Hojo's retreated from much of the area we had to fight through to reach the main pass. We've got a stable base at Icicle... we can /at least/ push through the valley, and set up another one permanently at the entrance to the Crater plain."
Cid leaned forward slightly, nodding.
"We haven't run into nearly the number of those flyin' pieces of shit Hojo used to toss at the Highwind. A lot of us are starting to wonder if he isn't running out of supplies, or energy or whatever the hell he's using. The Highwind could supply air support this time, I mean, if we really wanted to make another go of it."
Zack jumped in before Reeve could protest.
"We don't have forever to win this war anymore, Reeve. You heard Melissa and those scientists, they can't hack the Jenova code anymore, and she's got a stronger grip on this Planet now than she ever did. We might not have been able to hit the Crater last time, but we did do quite a bit of damage, and... well, a lot has changed since then."
He didn't look at Cloud, not that he needed to, everyone knew exactly what he was thinking, exactly what had changed.
Reeve frowned, running a hand very slowly through his hair, as the realization that the decision had been made for him finally sank in.
"All right, so we send in all three of you Generals..."
Reeve blinked, staring at Cloud. "Four?"
The blonde leaned back, and Ro froze as the glowing gaze was locked on him, couldn't believe the General was about to say what he was so obviously going to.
"I think Gemini's proved himself more than up to the challenge, don't you think, Zack?"
//Say no say no say no /please/ say no.// ... but Roman didn't even have to look, to know that Zack was grinning, that his prayers for an easier job and a return to his former position were fruitless.
"Oh, I wholeheartedly agree."
//... I hate you, /sir/.// Roman groaned inwardly, knew he would spend the rest of the meeting trying not to fall face first onto the tabletop.
Cloud knew he was going to have to work up an apology later, for the looks Sephiroth was giving him now. Declaring himself fit to fight was one thing, but immediately demanding they leap back into the thick of the fray was something he knew the dark-clad man hadn't been expecting.
//I can't just sit back, though, and let someone else win this war for me. He knows that.//
Of course he did, hence the vehemence in the glares being leveled at him now. Sephiroth knew that, had their positions been switched, he would have done the same thing.
"If I attack here," Cloud dropped his finger along the western coast, "and Sephiroth takes the alternate position just shy of the mountain range, while Zack and Roman push up from below..."
"We'd just drive them into the bottleneck, which is already theirs." Zack shook his head. "We've managed to drive them back past where the mountains nearly reach the ocean... they're not going to go back through the gap."
"No, they're not." Cloud turned his eyes back to the map. "Say I pull the heavy cavalry, /all/ the heavy cavalry, up around the coast, to the edge of the bottleneck, just around the time you start attacking. The birds are fast, even up there, and by the time you'd pushed them back that far, we'd be camped, and waiting."
"... and if more of them come from above?" Reeve frowned, the lines of worry permanently engraved in his face.
"We slaughter them before they can become reinforcements."
"No way..." Zack leaned over the table, tapping the end of the canyon. "You'd be fighting a war on two fronts."
"We'd stick to the sides, use long-range ammunition and keep up a steady barrage. Godo did it in the Wutai-ShinRa war, in the battle at Takama Pass. He held you off for what, six months, with half the men you had?"
"He held it permanently." Sephiroth nodded. "We had to starve Wutai out until they voluntarily withdrew, and even then, it was still one of the last places we seized."
"Half of the cavalry are Wutai-trained, hell Zack, some of the older gunners even /fought/ in the old war. We can do this."
Zack leaned back with a slight shrug, looking first at Sephiroth, who nodded slightly, and all three men turned to look at Reeve.
"Oh what the hell, we might as well give it a go."
The meeting took much of the morning, stretching on into the afternoon, and by the time they finally broke they still hadn't finished outlining the overall plans, let alone parceled them out into separate orders. Rude, Reno and Elena barely said a word, besides agreeing to resume taking care of domestic affairs behind the front lines. Cloud thought something might be wrong, but knew his attention would neither be asked for nor appreciated.
//... and it isn't like they can't be trusted. Reno would die before he'd let anything get in the way of his job, just like the rest of us.//
Of course, Cloud grimaced, there was a good chance he wasn't going to live long enough to find out. He shifted his eyes slightly - he had done his best to be the last one left in the room, but Sephiroth still hadn't moved from his chair.
//Oh... god, what if he's really angry?//
The blonde winced. He'd been waiting for this mistake, after all it had taken him to act more relaxed around the man, to stop treating every moment as if it were the first and the last he had to prove himself worthy. Had he gotten lazy? Had it been too much, to demand action... had it been his first real mistake, and now Sephiroth would never forgive... had he -
"I can actually hear you twisting yourself into knots, you know." He jumped slightly, as Sephiroth turned toward him, his voice all dry amusement.
"I just... I... I thought if I told you what I was thinking, you would have tried to stop me."
Sephiroth snorted slightly, Cloud expected a quick dismissal.
"Of course I would have. Hell, I used to do it with Zack, until he realized I was changing his orders at the last minute, behind his back. After we both healed up from /that/ argument... well, I still used to do it, any time I thought he wouldn't. I took two months in the field at Wutai he /still/ thinks ShinRa forced me into."
"You chose it?"
"It wasn't like I had anything better to do. Staying out of direct combat meant I had to go back to Midgar. Facing ten-thousand Wutai guards was /nothing/ compared to listening to President ShinRa bitch about the state of the company. He never gave a damn about Wutai, from day one it was as if we had already won."
"So you're not mad?"
"Of course I am."
Jade eyes flashed sharply, and Cloud had to fumble to breathe, realizing as the man's expression softened that Sephiroth was still being calm, hadn't realized how badly the simple shift of expression had shocked the blonde. Or perhaps he had.
"... still jumping at shadows. Come here."
The warm hands that wrapped around his waist as Cloud stepped forward were strong but never rough, pulling him down, over the arm rest, until he was sitting on Sephiroth's lap, feet dangling over the edge.
"I don't want you to be afraid to make me angry, you know. You must have known, I mean, you /must/ have heard about what a prat I can be..."
Sephiroth grinned, tugging on a slightly drooping blonde spike.
"More than once, actually. I'm sure Scarlet would tell you, I could get just about anyone in that damn place to turn to wallpaper when I was in a bad mood." He smiled slightly at the memory, before sobering again. "I don't want you to be like that, though... just because I get mad, it doesn't mean I don't still love you."
"You could stop." Cloud refused to meet his lover's eyes, tried to keep his voice light, knew he wasn't succeeding very well. "People stop loving people, sometimes..."
A hand caught his, brought it up to a kiss, the action forcing him to meet the glowing aqua gaze.
"I don't. I won't. Cloud..." Sephiroth looked away for a moment, his voice uncharacteristically hesitant. "I wouldn't know how."
Cloud leaned in to the inevitable kiss, glad to have his protests silenced, unable and unwilling to question the other man any further, to think that -
The blonde looked up sharply, at a noise from the doorway, immediately sure it was Tifa, immediately regretting the sudden indiscretion - muscles freezing in even greater surprise, as Barret Wallace continued to stare back at him.
It took a few moments, for Cloud to catch on to the look on his face, to find the right words - Sephiroth was no help at all, he knew the man didn't care if Wallace saw them or what he thought - but the blonde quickly realized it wasn't just the small shock, of seeing them together on the dark man's face, but absolute and utter incomprehension. Cloud had been expecting no small anger from the man with the gun arm, but this had obviously blown out most of the circuits from Barret's brain.
Behind the frozen man, Cloud heard the sounds of someone moving toward the room, recognized who it was as a voice called the dark man's name. Of course, Barret didn't move, and Cloud raised his voice slightly, calling out.
"Cid?! Tell me /someone/ remembered to tell Barret!"
Cloud wasn't sure how he heard Zack, as he walked across the courtyard towards inner North Corel, just a little while after the meeting and the "Barret aftermath" - perhaps a slight chuckle or a rustle of that mane of dreadlocks - but he /did/ hear the dark-haired man coming, just before he was tackled to the ground.
A laugh in his ear, the larger man had all but plowed him into the ground with his enthusiasm.
"You little punk, you owe me big!"
Zack had him pinned, arms behind his back, and Cloud could hear him stifling his laughter as he tried to turn, unable to move more than his chin, and even that only a few inches, the dark-haired man sitting soundly on his back.
"For setting you and Seph up, man. You so owe me. Where do you think you'd be now, without my catalog of skilled and impressive talents?"
It was safe now, to laugh about it, to tease him, and pretend that it had always been meant to be. Cloud smiled, security was such a wonderful thing.
//Of course, it's a little less wonderful when it weighs so much!//
"I wouldn't be flat on the ground! Let me up, you idiot!" Cloud had nearly managed to wrest one arm free, growled in frustration as Zack merely shifted for a better grip.
"Not until you say thank you, kid."
"Do you know how stupid this looks? What if someone sees us? We're /generals/, remember?"
"Thank yooooouuuuuu... come on, Spike, it's just two little words. Thank..."
"I can think of a few words of my own, you moron."
Cloud was grinning too by now, this was such old play between them. Zack had grappled with him back when he had been a green recruit, and the blonde had always lost, what with the other man being a SOLDIER and all - but he wasn't a recruit anymore.
So subtly, he moved, Zack never noticing the slight movements, the way he dug his toes into the dirt, or shifted...
"Yeah?" The dark-haired man looked down, obviously thinking he'd won.
"You should try pinning with a knee down."
Cloud lifted himself up, throwing Zack off of him with one easy movement, and making it to his feet fast enough to tackle his friend before the dark-haired man could recover, sending them both tumbling across the courtyard.
"So, the kid finally - oof!"
"/Don't/ call me kid, you - agh!" Cloud lost the rest of the sentence to a sudden sweep kick, refusing to give his friend the easy victory, rolling to a low crouch instead. Eventually they were both laughing too hard to do more than make fumbling holds and topple one another, ended up in a draw, sprawled on their backs in the grass, gasping for air.
Cloud grinned, as he felt a hand tug slightly on one of his longer spikes, reminding him that Zack was down but not out -
"Thanks, Zack. I do owe you."
"No problem, Spike." Zack's hand resorted to patting his entire face in cheerful annoyance, Cloud spluttering as the dark-haired man laughed. "... least I could do!"
A shadow fell over them, the blonde could hear the teasing grin he knew was on his friend's face, didn't need to look to know who stood over them.
"Oi, Seph! Beautiful day. Care to join?"
The white-haired man sighed, moved past the still laughing SOLDIER, one dark-gloved hand easily helping Cloud to his feet. Zack scrambled up after, tried to get Sephiroth into a quick headlock, but the other man's Zack-reflexes had been long since honed, and he swiftly dodged - mainly by shoving Cloud in the way.
"Seph - ack!" Zack's headlock was more impressive than his pin, and Cloud grumbled, slapping at the other man's arms as he tried to twist away, unable to easily break free.
"Lovely weather, eh Seph?"
"... gonna kill you both, I /swear/!"
"You hear something?"
Sephiroth rolled his eyes. "I came here to find two Generals, I suppose they must have been talking about some /other/ courtyard."
"It's not /my/ fault!" Cloud finally broke free, slugging Zack on the shoulder as he stood. "He was your idiot friend way before I ever met... him."
The blonde trailed off, Zack and Sephiroth following his gaze toward the shadow of an overhang, and Tifa, watching them quietly from the darkness.
Cloud swallowed, mouth suddenly dry - and felt a warm hand brush against his back, Sephiroth's voice low and steady in his ear.
"You don't owe her anything, Cloud. You don't even have to..."
"Yes I do. I do owe it to her." He lifted a hand to his shoulder, squeezed the hand that rose to meet his, taking a deep breath... and moved away.
Tifa turned, walking along the stone alley that led out into a slightly larger courtyard than the one they had been in. Cloud followed, half a step behind, trying to see her face, the single syllable word not offering any glimpse of what she was feeling.
//She hates me. Of course she hates me, how couldn't she? I lied to her... I lied to her about /him/.//
He knew he was bracing himself for the worst, and that whatever she threw at him he would take without a word - in a way, he deserved it. How long had he led her on, too afraid to just give her a simple no? It must have been so painful, when he had walked away without any explanation, and -
Tifa still wouldn't look at him, but she had paused, standing very still with her gaze to the ground. It seemed she only wanted to put a little distance between herself and the other two men - obviously Sephiroth at the least - before being able to talk to him.
"Yes, Tifa?" It sounded so wrong, so forced, but he didn't know what to say. If only they could still be friends... why did it have to be so painful all of a sudden, when the last thing he had ever wanted -
"A-are... are you happy, with... him?"
He didn't want to tell her. Cloud had never thought it would come to this, and as he had always thought it would, saying it to her hurt.
Tifa nodded slightly, taking a few slow steps back, until she was leaning against the wall. Cloud wondered if he had the right to brush the hair away from her face, with her head down he could still see nothing of her expression. Would she hate him if he touched her? Did she loathe him now?
"I never meant... to hurt you, Tifa."
Slowly, he reached out, very gently touched the edge of her long, brown hair. She didn't respond, and Cloud carefully pushed the silky strands back behind her ear, freezing as she tilted her face into his hand, eyes closed. He knew the look on her face as she breathed in the scent of his skin, holding herself in the smallest shadow of a moment that would never be.
"I'm sorry, Tifa. I'm so sorry I... I just couldn't tell you then..."
Brown eyes looked up into his, as she pulled away, leaning back against the wall.
"I would have hated you for it. I would have thought he was controlling you again, I would have made myself believe that. I still don't understand... I don't know if I can ever understand."
"Tifa. Please, I..."
"I'm not blaming you, not now, that I can think about it. Zack told me, a while ago... and I /was/ angry, I was hurt. But I had no right to be, not about something you couldn't change, something you shouldn't have to even think of changing."
Tifa smiled, lovely and sad, and so strong in her sorrow.
"You didn't tell me, because you knew what I would think, that I would be hurt and I wouldn't understand. You were right, and I hope I learned from that. /I'm/ sorry, Cloud. I'm sorry I made you think you had to hide from me to be my friend. I'm sorry it was true, for so long. I should have been a better friend to you, a better person... and I'm sorry-"
He opened his mouth to speak, as she trailed off, to protest her apologies - they had /both/ been wrong - when he stopped in shock, at the pressure of her lips on his.
Tifa made no apologies for it, just held the unexpected kiss, and finally pulled away slowly, her eyes locked on his, smiling softly.
"... as sweet as I knew it would be."
"Tifa..." He frowned slightly. "I thought... you and Zack... you're not happy?"
Her smile grew as she nodded slightly.
"I'm happy... but you were my first love, Cloud. N-no matter what I might have said, when we were little, and a-after everything that happened at Nibelheim, when we were children." He didn't understand the confusion that filled her fawn-brown eyes, the whisper of her voice, that he could barely hear. "Did... I do this to you... because I was cruel? Did I make you...?"
He laughed, couldn't help it, reaching a hand around to the back of her neck, pulling her forward until their foreheads touched.
"If you did," another soft chuckle, making sure she saw him smile, "then I should really be thanking you, Tifa."
Dark eyes searched his, and she smiled slightly, hesitantly back, in wonder.
"You're really happy, aren't you? Cloud, I'm so glad, really... it's the only thing that matters. I just want you to be happy."
Cloud half-pulled away, looked up to see Zack approaching, eyebrows drawn together sternly, though - Zack being Zack - he was unable to keep the humor completely out of his expression.
"I leave you two together for one minute, and here you are making out like you have magnet lips! I mean, geez, Cloud, first you go off and steal Seph and now you have to steal Tifa too! I'm sorry, boy, but you've got to choose!"
He hadn't actually seen the kiss - that would be their secret, Cloud knew as much, as he and Tifa shared a quiet glance, something just for them, that no one else needed to understand.
Of course, that didn't stop Cloud from grabbing her by the waist and flipping her in one deft move over his shoulder.
"Ok, Zack, tell Seph I said bye, and that I'll mail him back the Materia I borrowed."
Tifa squealed, mock punching his arm and kicking her feet wildly, stopping only as Zack quickly grabbed hold of her ankles and pulled backward. She yelped in surprise, but Cloud immediately turned, grabbing her shoulders as she fell in a perfect, elegant move, easily flipping her back up and into the dark-haired man's waiting arms.
"Psycho show-offs, the both of you." Tifa gasped, though she made no move away from Zack as he set her back on her feet.
"So where... where'd Sephiroth go anyway?" Cloud looked over Zack's shoulder, but the corridor was empty.
"Important planning stuff... or something." Zack grinned. "He covered for me, and I managed to escape. His sacrifice will not be forgotten."
"Boy oh boy," Cloud rolled his eyes, "you'd almost think we were in a war or something."
Zack laughed, and the blonde felt a heavy weight on his heart - something he'd had so long he had come to take it for granted - lift, as Tifa smiled.
It was hours later, nearing dusk, and Cloud was still in too good of a mood not to goof off... and what the hell were his privileges worth if he'd never even turned on his own radio, or taken advantage of the large living space he and Sephiroth had been given?
//I wonder what everyone thought of that, me and him together...//
He realized immediately that, aside from Tifa, he had neither thought nor cared for what anyone else might say - not his troops, not Reeve or anyone else in ShinRa...
//Of course, would they ever argue with Sephiroth? Or me...?//
He grinned, sometimes it was very good to be a SOLDIER.
Cloud spun the dial to the nearest available station, troop entertainment direct from North Corel, a dance tune he didn't recognize, though that wasn't surprising. An impressive amount of new music was being produced at the Gold Saucer and the surrounding towns out of the range of most of the fighting, all of it directed at the army.
//To remind us what we're fighting for... that there's a future past all of this.//
A future. He had a future... with Sephiroth. Cloud shuffled a few steps in time with the beat as the song picked up tempo, ending with a fairly fancy spin simply because he could, still surprised that he was actually happy to be alive.
*"The morning comes... and the snow is falling..."*
//I keep waking up... two, three times a night, just to watch him sleep. It doesn't feel like a dream anymore, but still...//
Cloud knew he was a fairly good dancer, though all his moves were at least five years old, and he free-styled back and forth across the floor with a smooth, fluid grace, all the while wondering if his lover would show up anytime soon. Sephiroth seemed to like his displays of exuberance, almost always indulging the blonde when Cloud tried to make him smile...
//So...// Cloud grinned to himself, didn't have to look to know the moment the familiar figure moved into the doorway, that glowing green eyes were fixed on his every step. //Are you smiling now?//
"What are you doing?" Yes, he could easily hear the amusement in Sephiroth's voice. Cloud kept moving, didn't even look up, working a few kinks out of moves he'd learned late at the club, those he hadn't had much time to perfect, paying little attention to the man who carefully maneuvered around him to the table beyond.
"Dancing. You don't dance?" It was a tease, and the blonde chuckled as the other man made a face.
"No, I don't, but you obviously do..." Cloud took a risk, shifting just a bit toward the wall, and executing a fairly impressive one-handed cartwheel in the small space, regaining his balance just before he crashed into the opposite corner.
"Where did you learn all that?"
The blonde shrugged nonchalantly. "Around."
"I didn't know."
"You never asked."
A snort of mock offense.
The music continued to play in the background.
*" Tell me why, tell me why..."*
So strange, Cloud knew they were both smiling because it was so strange to just talk to each other- so normal, for people who had rarely had the chance to be normal. Sephiroth rolled his eyes slightly, turning his attention to the table as he unfolded one of several large maps. The blonde kept dancing, grin widening with each beat of the music.
"Zack was so right, you never mellow out."
Sephiroth made a small, derisive sound, didn't bother to look up. "Zack does that for the both of us. He's probably got your share too." Green eyes flicked up, back. "I can't believe you're not more worried about all this."
Cloud paused just for a moment, still marking the beat with slightly less ambitious moves. "What's the problem? We go there, we kick ass. Possibly we take names. Up to you."
*"Tell me why, tell me why... I wonder if I could open my heart again?"*
The breathy vocals danced over the base lines, Cloud tried to follow the steps he could see in his mind, lifting his heels - and yelped as a large hand closed around his wrist and he half-toppled into Sephiroth's arms. The white-haired man kissed him once, and again, chuckling softly as the blonde caught his balance, dropping slowly into his lover's lap without ever breaking the kiss.
"Did everything go all right, with Tifa?" Green eyes watched him carefully, in case he tried to avoid the truth. Cloud grinned, wondered how long it would take the white-haired man to lose interest in the question if he was being kissed, enjoying himself in the attempt, Sephiroth's Adam's apple bobbing slightly just beneath his lips as he spoke.
"Trying to distract me doesn't answer the question."
Cloud leaned back, trying for his best cute pout at Sephiroth's dry, disinterested tone, already expecting the humor he found hovering in the aqua eyes.
"I hate you."
"Mm, I can understand why." Cloud leaned into the touch, as one large hand reached up, running through his hair. "It was all right, then? She didn't say anything to hurt you... you're all right?"
"Fine. I'm fine."
He still couldn't compare himself to Sephiroth as an equal, but there were ways they were alike - and touch had to be one of the most vital of these. Cloud remembered more than one conversation back in the barracks, about how fast men were supposed to go through "the act," and how women were supposed to grin and bear it. Men, from what he had gleaned, just didn't do foreplay, weren't supposed to enjoy it - but hell, it wasn't as if any other part of his life had been normal, and when he had been starved for that simple contact, how could he do anything but gorge himself on it when given the chance?
It was a surprise to find Sephiroth was the same, though in retrospect, Cloud realized it made sense. They'd both been isolated from the rest of the world, and even if Sephiroth had been so because of admiration, fear and respect, did it matter? It still meant he had been alone...
//Never... never again...//
It meant as much to Cloud to simply kiss the man as anything else, just to be in the warm circle of Sephiroth's arms, to spend as much time as he wanted drinking in the beauty of his beloved, knowing he had all the time he wanted for more. The empty, lonely days, the impossibly bleaker nights - all were useless to him now, nothing but the past.
*" The morning comes, I can't understand the reason,
and the snow is falling, tell me why..."*
"I love you, so much..."
"So you've said." Sephiroth murmured, repaying Cloud for his "distraction" with his own kisses, the blonde giving no protest, happy to give Sephiroth whatever access he wished, finally tipping his head onto the man's shoulder, delighted to do nothing more than "mmm" softly now and then and let the man do what he would.
"I've got a secret."
"Mmh?" Cloud opened his eyes just enough to watch the white-haired man watch him. Sephiroth paused, tilting his head until gravity caught the silver strands, pulling them down in a gentle waterfall.
"You're so beautiful. God, I love you."
Cloud laughed, hard enough to startle the other man, deciding against retreating into giggles by flopping forward instead, throwing his arms around Sephiroth's shoulders.
"That was your secret?"
"No..." He heard the smile in Sephiroth's voice. "No... I... I don't think I'm Hojo's son."
"What?" Cloud pulled away, staring at him. "How do you know that?"
"I spoke with Vincent, when we were in Wutai. I think I know the reason Hojo hated him so much..."
Cloud blinked, as he realized what Sephiroth was saying.
"... but Hojo /said/ he was your father, just before we killed - before we thought we killed him."
"I'm sure he considered himself worthy of it, with all the experiments, and everything... afterward. After all, in a way, he was the only father I ever knew."
Cloud shivered, "... don't say it like that."
Sephiroth leaned in again, kissing his brow in silent apology. "... he told me a bit, about my mother. I wasn't sure, if I should tell anyone. We both decided it really didn't matter much now..."
The white-haired man paused, as Cloud started shaking, one hand over his mouth to hide his laughter.
"What? What are you laughing about?"
"... n-n... nothing it's... j-just..." Cloud choked on the words, too busy laughing. "Sephiroth Valentine... you sound like a porn star!"
He could tell the white-haired man was bordering on annoyed, but it was impossible to stop laughing. Cloud noticed the change in mood, just before Sephiroth picked him up by one arm and one leg, and stood up, leaving him dangling in the air.
"Porn star? I'll show you porn star."
"Seph! Hey! What are you -" Cloud was still laughing, even as he realized what the other man had planned. "No! Wait! There's no way - erk!"
Sephiroth easily leaned back, and with one wide swing carefully tossed Cloud in a high arc onto the bed.
It was all the blonde could do to splutter and fumble his way to a sitting position, stunned at what Sephiroth had done, the absurdity of it, and the satisfied smile on his face now...
//No one would /ever/ believe it, that he could smile like that.//
Cloud grinned, arching his back slightly as he let the sheet slide away, watching the other man's bemused reaction, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised. Too bad he was still wearing his clothes, though he doubted that would be a problem for much longer, not with the look in his lover's eyes.
"Get over here, Mr. Porn Star..."
Smiling slyly, Sephiroth did exactly that.
*I wonder if I could open my heart again?
Destiny, why I feel like I start again?
Tell me why.*
"I was thinking... if Vincent's your father..."
Sephiroth had been half-asleep, but turned abruptly as Cloud spoke, staring down at him.
"You were thinking about /that/ the entire time?!"
Cloud laughed into his pillow, throwing one arm around Sephiroth's waist, pulling himself closer against the man's side.
"... no, not the /entire/ time... but really..." He ignored the other man's half-hearted grumble. "You're Vincent's son... and if he marries Yuffie, then that makes Godo..."
Sephiroth tensed immediately.
"... don't finish that thought."
Cloud chuckled, abandoning all conversation, content to lay in warmth and sated security, tendrils of long, silver silk brushing against his arms, their legs tangled together beneath the blankets. He wanted nothing more than to lay with his ear to Sephiroth's chest and listen, fascinated by the sound of his lover's heart.
"You know," he murmured softly, "I used to get so pissed off by couples who whined if they had to be apart for more than five minutes."
A hand lazily stroked his hair, caressing his cheek.
"... and now you understand?"
"No, it still pisses me off." The chest beneath his ear jerked slightly, Sephiroth stifling a laugh. "... but I can tell you, it's going to be a rough week without you." He squeezed the man's waist tightly for a moment. "This is much too nice."
"I know. Unfortunately, I just couldn't convince Zack we should just let Hojo keep some of the land, so that we could cut this fight short."
Cloud chuckled, letting his hands find the curves in the lower part of Sephiroth's back, body humming with the recent memory of pleasant bliss.
"It's not a lifetime, though... and with so much to look forward to /afterward/... I doubt I'll shrivel away."
The seriousness of the tone caught Cloud off guard, he looked up quickly into Sephiroth's cool, green eyes, surprised by the concern he saw there, the quite real fear.
"You're really worried, aren't you? You really think something's going to happen to me."
Sephiroth looked away, his voice soft, almost wistful.
"It's never been like this for me. I've never cared... not like I do now. I've never been this afraid to lose someone before."
It was obviously hard for him to say, Cloud could feel his own heart beating quite quickly as he tipped his head up, kissing Sephiroth gently, realizing he had to be the strong one in this moment - god it was surreal, to console The General - capital T, capital G - no matter how many years had passed or how well Cloud knew he now wore the title.
"You don't have to worry." He couldn't believe the words, but he did - it was so much easier to be brave for someone else. "I've never been so sure... I've never been so certain, that everything is going to be all right."
Anjele was drowning in images once more, the assault bordering on torture - but, he thought, the words coming almost letter at a time through the thick sensations - it really wasn't torture, he could sense no malice in her.
//Her. You're really thinking about her as a "her," now?//
No. Not like /that/, never like that, but it was true that even past the connection they shared now, he was... what, sympathetic?
Anjele struggled the best he could, though trying to get past the memories - he recognized them now, each image a bit clearer than the last - but it was like digging through a world of wet clay, he could barely "move," his concentration slipping every few seconds as another memory washed over him...
//ShinRa classes... oh god, there I am in that /stupid/ uniform. I can't believe I remember this at all, this must be deep down...//
He realized he had been resting - or something close enough to it - for quite a while, that Jenova had been searching his subconscious thoroughly, but trying not to alert his waking mind. She hadn't even noticed he had woken, that he was watching her.
//What is she searching for in me?//
It should have alarmed him, but on some level Anjele had already recognized the change within himself. He was more a part of her now than anything solely his own, and she was being careful, as gentle as she knew to be. It was strange behavior, for a creature he had only known as evil incarnate, nothing but the enemy to be destroyed.
Pondering on her finally did alert the alien, he couldn't help but shrink back as Jenova's presence moved closer, looming up in front of him. Her touch was insistent, immediate, but strangely unintrusive, and she only seemed to be checking his psyche for cracks, strain... Apparently finding none, he gasped as a chilling wave washed through him, the aftereffects electric, like a carbonated water bath at sub-zero temperatures - and he recognized it for what it was -
//Excitement. She's... /glad/ to see me?//
He was being dragged along, the memories like a blurring tunnel around him as she pulled him back through years of accumulated experience, only to come to a sudden halt that again sent him reeling. The roar in his ears melted into the sound of applause - he looked up, to see Rufus ShinRa standing on a small platform, raised above the rest of the room...
// - raised, as if you can't even stand on the same ground as us, you vain, self-centered...//
The thought turned his head sharply, and Anjele blinked, taking in his own face - younger, just out of school - watching the President's son begin his birthday speech.
//Daddy probably bought you a boat, or an airship, or a summer home this year, and a girl to go with it, right?//
He had already learned the art of masking his expression, even his eyes no more than dull chips of flint. Only his thoughts gave him away, and Anjele hadn't been worried about that... they were only his own, after all...
//Or so I thought.//
Jenova was hovering close to him, he could almost feel her fingertips lightly against his shoulder, realized she was watching the scene much more intently than he was, taking in every gesture, every movement, staring from the young Anjele to the now smiling Rufus as if an answer had been stretched in the air between them for her to decipher.
//What are you looking for?//
He kept forgetting her answers were neither soft nor careful, staggering back as a flood of foreign babble, meaningless images assaulted him - but they seemed to slow to a crawl much more quickly than usual - as if she had realized what had happened, had cut off the torrent to the trickle he could comprehend.
//I /know/ this.// He gaped, as she reached out past her words, plucked the string of jealousy inside of him, the vibration shuddering deep inside his psyche. //What is it? I don't understand. Tell me.//
/Emotions... you can't... they don't explain themselves to you, do they?/
Jenova could take in anything and everything she was given in image or memory, but there was no way for her to understand the information, no key to the code of the human mind, and heart.
//... or the measure of a human soul. Now I understand.//
"Jealousy." Anjele didn't bother to take a deep breath, knowing he would lose his nerve if he dared to think even for a moment about what he was doing. "It's..."
He closed his eyes, and in that moment, let go of all his hubris, knowing it would do her no good to hear anything less than the truth. It was useless to try to make himself look good in her eyes, she /had/ no judgments to make, no reason to care... she simply wanted to know what was real to him.
"I wanted what Rufus had. The cars. The money. The women. The attention. The way it all came so easy to him. I didn't have it, and so I was jealous."
//No, there's more.// Jenova was sharp, sensing the undertones, focusing her attentions with a blindingly fast eye on the reservations behind the jealousy, the reasons the man knew it wasn't right to despise all that fate had afforded the young ShinRa.
"Yes. It's called... understanding." Anjele prayed for the right words, the memories nothing to search through, his own problems and absurdities seeming miniscule now in the face of the task.
"Jealousy and understanding war with each other... or at least they did for me. Rufus had a lot of shit piled on him too, a lot of expectations, and his father was a total bastard. At least my father wasn't around much to screw up my life, but the President had Rufus in a glass fucking box most of the time."
He could feel the alien soaking up the nuance behind the words, all the infliction, all he couldn't say but meant... and with every word, she only was eager for more.
Anjele had no idea how long they spent in the depths of his subconscious, exploring memories from every era, his distant childhood all the way up to the moments before he had plunged the vial into his arm. Jenova never asked about battle plans or any secret information he might have possessed, and when he finally got up the courage to brush carefully against the subject of the war, she seemed not to care at all about it, touching his mind with a flurry of images, most of them of Hojo.
//... she's not really our enemy, is she?// It seemed impossible to believe, but Anjele could /feel/ it, in the part of him that was hers... she hadn't ever been the one fighting this war.
//... but then, how...? The monsters, the Lifestream...?//
He was just about to ask her when she stopped in front of another memory. Anjele had grown accustomed to the sudden starts and stops, no longer feeling as if he would fall over each time she did so... until he realized where they were, the hallway of a too-bright room, all the walls in white, the doorway always open.
Anjele froze at the sound of the soft cough, imagining nothing worse than going against Jenova until that moment.
"No. No, stop. Not this, not here. Please."
Jenova moved in closer, despite his protests, the entire scene wavering into sharp, perfect focus around him, as crystal clear as all of the others had been - but he already remembered more about this moment than he'd ever wanted to.
"Please, Jenova... not here..."
As he spoke, the begging became pointless, it was already too late. An older woman lay in a hospital bed in front of him, the image so sharp, so clear, the sickly light and the scent of death - he had forgotten so much, when he had promised himself to remember it all, remember her.
Anjele could feel Jenova watching, as if she were bending far over his shoulder, her silent questions pressing on his mind - but he ignored her, too busy re-memorizing every line in the tired, pale face before him, the smile, that even behind the oxygen mask, was beautiful.
//No one was ever unkind to you, except for Father... he only came to visit you once? Twice?//
The blonde couldn't truly fault the elder Heidigger, then or now, for being unable to face what had happened to his wife. Anjele could see that Jenova had brought his memories very close to the end of her illness, the last few months of her life.
She could no longer talk, the sickness had finally taken even that strength away, but Anjele remembered what it had been, how they had sat together for hours, no words needing to be shared, not with all he could understand, just from the look in her eyes, the smile:
/I love you, my son... be a good boy, be strong.../
God, how he had failed her. Anjele felt his throat fill with tears, could barely breathe. If there was any mercy in the universe, it had been that he had known how to act then, as if he might someday have the chance Jenova was giving him now.
He watched, as one of his hands - small, a child's - reached up to stroke her long, straight hair, brushing it away from her face, and those tired, tired eyes.
"I love you, mother. I promise I'll be good. I'll make you proud of me."
Lies, all his words - but back then, he had meant it, and she had died believing he would be all right. They had been sweet lies, not meant to hurt, not when she had loved him so.
He was pulled from the memory so quickly the wind was knocked out of him, and Anjele found himself gasping for air on the cold floor of the cave, Jenova's arms, equally cold, wrapped tightly around him once more.
//Love... love...// Dark, glittering hands clenched against his shirt in a very human gesture, though she did not turn her eyes up to face him. //What are you feeling - what is this... love?//
The questions came nearly simultaneously, and sent Anjele reeling - he felt a funny sort of smile on his face, the absurdity of his situation, trying to explain love to a space alien? It sounded like something from a bad movie.
//I was feeling... sorrow.// As connected as they were, he could only hope she could read more than his words - there was so much that just couldn't be explained, how could you deconstruct emotions for something that had never been remotely human? //Sadness, for that memory of my mother... when she was sick.//
Anjele frowned, knowing for certain he didn't have these words, not enough to make her understand. Instead, he closed his eyes, and tried to form the picture in his mind, shivered as he felt Jenova move closer, watching his thoughts carefully.
//Sick... illness, disease...// Anjele wished he had been a doctor, as he could only invoke vague images of cells turning dark, eroding, small, formless blobs for bacteria, strange polygonal viruses, what he could remember from old, required health courses...
//Humans, we can get sick...//
Jenova nearly blew his brain through the back of his skull, as his image was wiped away in a heartbeat, replaced with her own -
//... and this is only her enthusiasm. She doesn't even realize, doesn't see how easily she could kill me.//
As soon as he recovered, Anjele looked at what she was showing him, a map of her own design. Jenova's cells were all very similar in nature, and relatively difficult to attack. The damaged parts merely separated from the whole and were cast away, single-series Christmas tree lights that could be destroyed at a whim. It was simple, remarkably effective...
//... wouldn't this be better?//
Anjele recoiled from the thought of that uniformity, the clean, unflinching utility of it, felt her confusion follow him...
//Why is that bad? Why is it bad not to feel? Is it "love"?//
/YES!/ He was amazed to feel her retreat from him, and suicidially pressed forward, sure that this could be his only chance - for what, he still wasn't quite sure...
//We're human, we /need/ to feel, we need to love and hurt and... it isn't right, what you're doing to us, what you're doing to the Planet!//
He felt a touch against his cheek, opened his eyes to find the dark, softly glowing orbs watching him closely, Jenova seeming to search for something as she touched the curve of his cheek, fingertips dropping to his chin, lifting back...
/... what I'm doing... to the Planet? What I'm... It's the same, and this love, it's the same.../
Anjele choked, as something in her mind suddenly bottomed out, dragging him down with it. He was falling, plummeting like a stone, feeling her mind scrambling through her own consciousness, picking up thoughts and tossing them aside like useless stones - something he had said had frightened her, badly.
//It's in me... it's /in me/... no... /NO/...// The cry was a sharp, bitter keen of death, absolute sorrow, but the blonde didn't understand why, didn't know why Jenova was now rocking against him, head pressed against his chest, she was /shivering/...
He did the only thing that seemed natural, and put his arms around her, tried to comfort her, bracing himself, still waiting for her to lash out. Anjele winced as a ripple of sorrow, hatred, shame washed through him from her, but it was coupled with an equal measure of gratitude, and he did not let go.
//... in me, in me, it's in me...//
He could hear that broken mantra, the soft words over and over like the tolling of some ominous bell, didn't know how he gathered the courage to intrude.
/... what is?/
The word came slowly, a sob torn from deep within.
The blonde couldn't respond, scrambled for the words, and shuddered, jolted back into the real world by a sudden wave of power, emotion, thick and all-consuming and far too complex for him to begin to understand, even with his connection to Jenova - a connection that was suddenly severed to nearly nothing, as he felt her pulling away, physically and mentally, so swiftly he barely had time to react.
//What is it, what's going on?//
The cave around them rumbled ominously, dislodging a bit of dust, a few pebbles, but he was only distantly concerned with the possibility of a cave in, more worried by the vague sensations of pain, sorrow and fear he could still feel, echoes from the star-skinned woman.
//I don't want... I don't understand, why? Why must he...//
/Jenova! Jenova, what's wrong?! What's happening?/
Anjele watched in stunned silence, as the light at the core of those dark eyes dimmed, died, and her body went limp in his arms, lifeless... discarded. The blonde could feel her presence, though, hovering in the air, only for a moment, and with a rush of freezing wind, even that was gone.
//Jenova?! What the... 'he'?! Who did you mean?// He knew the answer as soon as he asked, the only person it could possibly be.
The man quickly discovered he couldn't stand, let alone move. Jenova's long connection to him, body and soul, had left him weak, drained. Anjele refused to give in, knew he had to find out what was going on, every cell in his body screaming at him to follow her.
Slowly, crawling on his hands and knees and working for each movement, Anjele made his way out of the chamber, down the dark, cavernous hallway, to search for the creature that had wept to learn that it was no longer free from feeling, that she could no longer lie to herself, that some immutable segment of a soul she hadn't known she had was... human.
Cloud knew he was dreaming.
He also knew it was real, and - he realized with a sharp shock of fear - that he knew exactly where he was.
It was the most peaceful place he had ever been. The soft green glow at the end of the forest path was filtered by the morning fog, descending in a gentle mist and illuminating the cathedral trees, making them...
//... Holy. It's the Sleeping Forest. I'm here again, but why?//
The blonde stared wildly around him, but everything was quiet, save for a soft bird's song calling now and again from somewhere in the depths of the trees, branches of all different heights casting criss-crossing shadows upon the ground. The leaves were whispering secrets, almost giggling with joy.
Cloud was about to speak, but his voice froze in his throat, as a figure stepped out onto the path in front of him.
The flower girl had met him here before, but this time was nothing like what he remembered, when she had left him to face Sephiroth - the monster within Sephiroth - that final time. Aeris had been almost playful then, calm and confident, but she wasn't even smiling now... and Cloud's heart lurched in his chest.
//It's exactly like then... just like when... when she...//
The flower girl smiled then, eyes and lips as soft as dew-stained roses, and a thousand times as sweet. Her long, dark hair, usually braided, now fell in gentle waves past her shoulders, almost to her waist. He could see a sudden flash of light, a glimmer, from within the brunette waterfall, where several raw drops of materia had been woven into the strands.
The smile never faltered, green eyes glowing calmly as she smoothed a wrinkle from her long white dress. The materia beads caught the light like stones beneath a rushing river, a liquid sunrise... there was a pattern there, Cloud could almost see it, /almost/ understand...
"It's a tradition... for the sacrifice."
The words were spoken so calmly it took a moment for Cloud to realize what she'd said.
"... sacrifice?! Aeris, /what/!?"
He could see the sadness in that smile now, as she stepped forward, reaching up to place two fingertips against his lips. Cloud's eyes widened as a wave of cold swept through him, leaving him as motionless as a statue.
//Aeris?! What... why?!//
"In the old days, when the Planet suffered... sometimes, there would need to be a sacrifice. My mother..." Aeris turned away for a moment, looking at something in the soft mist he could not see. "I'm sorry, Cloud, she can't hold onto it forever. I..."
The flower girl was crying - god, she was /crying/ - and once again Cloud could not move, go to her and brush her tears away, and inside his frozen body the blonde was screaming.
//Aeris... Aeris, /don't/! Please... please don't!!! Don't!!!//
He wasn't sure what it was he was begging for, only that he couldn't let her leave him again, couldn't let her be the world's salvation again. Cloud struggled as hard as he could, forcing his arms to reach out to her, legs to move, and take him to her... but he could not so much as twitch a fingertip.
//Aeris... please. It's not safe, you'll...//
"I know, Cloud." The soft words, those beautiful, sorrowful eyes stopped his desperate protests - she had made up her mind.
"It's not like before, I know. I know, that I might not..."
//Aeris... please. Please!// He couldn't stop asking, held out hope that there was some way, some chance she might listen, that his pleas would reach her.
"I will defeat Jenova, Cloud. I won't let her hurt you."
//... and let me handle Sephiroth.//
The remembered words were a motherly protection he had never had, and echoes of that past were imprinted over the present, like a bad dream, a nightmare he would keep reliving and reliving, completely unable to change what would come.
//NO!!! Not for me, Aeris! Please... please don't do this for me!//
He was desperate, soul clawing at its motionless prison like a wild animal, knowing she would not, could not succeed, /knowing/ it...
"It will be all right, Cloud."
//Aeris!!! NO!!! You don't understand!!!//
He could smell her, the perfect fragrance of a thousand springtime blossoms as she leaned in, gently kissed his cheek... the Lifestream's touch, green and vibrant and glorious...
//... please, tell her! Please, she won't listen... tell her!!!//
The forest was darkening around him, his body of stone seemed to be slowly crumbling, fading away...
He could see her turn at the end of the path, the edge of her profile gilded golden in the light, her smile... so beautiful... and guilt and grief and shame lanced through him, a crippling thing, that he should have been able to protect her... there should have been a way.
//No, Cloud. It's my path, my way. I don't blame you, you did everything for me, for all of us...//
//Goodbye, Cloud. Be brave. I love you.//
The words drifted like music, twined in the wind like the glimmering materia he could still see in her hair... and he watched it fade, watched her fade...
Sephiroth was instantly awake, reaching over the edge of the bed and drawing a dagger to the ready, his mind immediately alerting him to where the Masamune had been set against the wall, not useful in a close-quarters fight but -
//... wait.// He froze, as the third component of a nighttime sneak attack did not move according to his expected mental cue. //No enemy?//
No enemy, but he could hear Cloud panting in the night air, hunched over in the bed beside him. The white-haired man lay the knife on the table, palm still on the handle as he turned to his lover. The blonde had his head against his knees, hands running lightly through his hair, as he took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself down.
Sephiroth had been grateful at how many times he had been able to catch them before Cloud ever woke, a gentle touch and a few murmured reassurances usually easing the man out of his bad dreams, the blonde recognizing his presence even in sleep.
Whatever had frightened the blonde this time, though, had been swift and sudden, far above and beyond the usual nightmare, as Sephiroth called Cloud's name once, and then twice, to little effect.
"Cloud... are you all right?" He reached out carefully. "What..."
"No!" The blonde slapped his hand away without even looking at him, leapt out of bed and started to dress. Sephiroth watched him in puzzlement, poised half out of bed, completely taken aback by the blonde's unlikely reaction.
"Cloud?" A quick glance out the window confirmed what Sephiroth had thought - it wasn't close to sunrise, so... what?
//We've got another hundred miles or more before we reach the battle... I've heard of people who sleepwalk in times of stress, but you think, of all the people, /he'd/ have done it long before this...//
"Wait... where are you going?"
The blonde had started loading two handguns, completely focused on the task, dropped them into their holsters and began loading two more. It was the deciding action, and Sephiroth got out of bed, quickly but carefully crossing the distance between them.
"What's /wrong/, Cloud?" He slid his hands around the shorter man's shoulders, surprised as the blonde turned to face him without resistance, shocked to see no trace of recognition in the hazy blue eyes that were staring somewhere past his left shoulder.
"Cloud..." Sephiroth shook him once, sharply, trying to ignore a sudden pang of fear. "Cloud?!"
The blonde blinked sharply, and the white-haired man bit back a sigh of relief as the glowing blue eyes finally focused on him, visibly confused.
"Seph...? What...?" He looked down in surprise, over at the rumpled bed, obviously unsure how he came to be where he was. "Where? What happened?"
"You tell me. I think you were sleepwalking... you didn't answer me - Cloud?"
The blonde had gone rigid in his arms, his frightened gaze turned inward, as if searching through memories that only would deny him.
"No... oh no. Seph, we have to go... she..." Cloud's hands curled against his chest, his movements no longer steady and measured as they had been before waking, but completely frantic. "Seph, /please/, we have to go... if we don't..." The white-haired man had wrapped his hands gently around Cloud's wrists, watching in growing concern as the blonde struggled against him, searching for the words. "We have to go /now/! If we don't... she... she'll... oh god, she'll..."
"Who, Cloud? Who will do /what/?"
The question brought the blonde up short, he looked up into the other man's pale aqua gaze as if Sephiroth somehow had the answers, lips now barely forming even the beginnings of words, none of them an answer. The white-haired man dropped one of the blonde's wrists, brushing the back of his free hand against Cloud's cheek, only then realizing the other man was trembling.
"Who, Cloud?" He gently repeated the question. "What's wrong?"
"I... I don't..." The words were a gasping sob, heartbroken. Cloud looked utterly lost, turning his eyes to the dark room, the only place he hadn't looked for answers, of course, finding none.
"I knew.... I... I /knew/..."
He was sobbing now, a terrible, devastated sound, each hitching breath seeming to shake him to the core, and all Sephiroth could do was be the support he clung to, utterly confused by the blonde's obvious sense of guilt - what had happened?
It was too much for the middle of the night - even for /him/ - and for expedience's sake he calmly lifted Cloud up, carrying him back to the bed, quickly and efficiently stripping him of clothes now bathed in tears and cold sweat, absently tossing the weapons off to a corner somewhere, smiling to himself as he noticed he had subconsciously kept them within arm's reach.
//No good to me though, not now...// He frowned. It seemed so much like life's usual sick sense of humor, a joke played only on him, that the only thing Cloud could not protect himself from was something Sephiroth couldn't fight either.
"Seph..." The blonde had curled himself as close as he could get, soaking up the taller man's body heat like life blood, not talking, only sniffling from time to time, his breathing uneven and shallow... whatever had happened, it had rattled him /very/ badly, leaving him desperate for consolation.
"It's all right. Relax. I'm here."
It seemed so meaningless - so /what/ if he was there, if he could do nothing to help? - but it had the intended effect, the blonde calming, slowly easing out of his fear. By the time he had raised an arm, gently caressing whatever parts of Cloud's arms and legs he could reach without effort, his lover was nearly asleep, yawning with eyes already shut fast.
"A nightmare... mm..."
Sephiroth felt guilty for saying the words, didn't believe it himself, not for a moment, and he shut his own eyes briefly, swallowing a large, cold lump of fear even as he felt the blonde relax further.
//A nightmare... from a man who talks to the Planet... just a simple nightmare, right.//
"She" was in trouble, enough so that Cloud had been unquestioningly set to go after her, even half-awake. Who did Cloud mean?
Sephiroth had not forgotten their meetings, that the girl - whatever her current form - was still a part of this world, and had contacted him - and Cloud - recently enough, that there was a good possibility...
//... or perhaps something has happened to Tifa and Zack while we slept, and we'll be burying them tomorrow, or the Planet's speaking again, and we've just lost the entire western half of the world.//
Or had it all really just been just a horrible dream, Cloud caught for another terrifying moment in the destruction of the past?
//It's not as if he hasn't seen enough, more than anyone should have to bear alone...//
It was still in Sephiroth's nature to expect the worst, even when he was unsure of what that worst might be. The white-haired man did not deny himself the comfort of pulling Cloud as close as he could, one protective arm tight around him as he tried to sleep, ignore the old, nagging pressure of imagining enemies on all sides, just waiting for him to drop his guard.
Doubly dangerous, this time, with Cloud there, his most precious and in some ways, undeniably fragile treasure... this man who shared his heart, to whom the threat of harm always seemed relentlessly close at hand.
He tried to sleep, tried to reason - the battle, perhaps Cloud was nervous? All this, only a matter of nerves, certainly.
... but had Cloud been this way before? Had he ever been worried about fighting?
//Bad omen, that's what it is.//
Sephiroth frowned, shutting that quiet murmur up fast. He didn't believe in omens, only in his own strength, and that when he demanded, his will was indomitable.
... but still, even with all silent around him, and Cloud safe in his arms, the white-haired man kept staring into the darkness, stubborn anger the only thing keeping the fear at bay.
The glowing stream curled around her fingertips as Aeris moved slowly forward. She could feel it dragging on her limbs, trying to pull her back to safety, could almost hear her mother's soft, whispered pleas.
//It will be all right. I love you, mother, and I know you want me to be safe, but I have to do this.//
Ifalna was a part of the Lifestream now, had been protecting her daughter as the swirling darkness grew and grew, but Aeris knew she had to act, could not live with herself as the safe green seed buried in the darkness, the last surviving fragment of the Planet hidden forever within Hojo's grasp. It didn't matter if she survived, not if the rest of the world was lost.
//I promised... I swore to Cloud, and I must... for Zack, for all of them. I'm afraid, but I won't back down.//
The green shield splintered around her, and with a screeching howl, the darkness descended.
"... yeah, but what about the dark-haired one?"
"General Zack? Shit, General Sephiroth could kick his ass, no problem."
"Yeah, right. Have you ever seen the man fight?"
"No, but I know what I have seen..."
"General Zack face first in the dirt?"
"No, General Zack standing right behind you."
The soldier froze with a strangled sound, repeated as Zack slapped him heartily on the back, grinning like mad. Sephiroth and Cloud stood a few paces away, watching quietly as the man struggled not to topple over.
"S-sir! I... uh... didn't see you there!"
"No problem, soldier." Zack shrugged, "Now, if you don't mind telling the lieutenant to call his troops into position, we've got a war to win."
Aeris had known isolation, the always present feeling of difference, but this was the first time it had been a physical force, a thick, cold sensation against her skin, knowing that she was completely alone in the darkness.
She glowed, green and brilliant in a sea of swirling black, the dark Lifestream eerily silent around her, though every now and then she thought she heard a moan of pain, a distant shriek of rage or fear or pain.
//The Cetra. They're inside this, this hatred. I'm the only one left.//
All that remained of the vibrant, vivid strands of the Lifestream were swirling close to her now, marking her trail in a path of light and life, swallowed back up by the shadows much more quickly than Aeris would have liked. Eventually, she couldn't bear to look behind her, knowing all hope of refuge was futile. Aeris would defeat Hojo, or she would vanish forever beneath the sea of seething evil.
//Be brave.// A calm mind was the only thing that would get her through this, a perfect focus, and Aeris tried to picture her friends, their welcoming smiles - Tifa and Nanaki and Yuffie, Zack... and Cloud.
//I owe him. I won't let him down.//
The waters of Lethe did not part at her passing, no gates warned her to abandon hope. Aeris didn't need them, carefully walking the cold, markerless path, further into hell.
"You're going to have to let me go eventually, you know." Despite the teasing words, Cloud made no attempt to pull away as Sephiroth drew him into another kiss, refusing to let any space in between them. Zack had quietly let them alone to say their goodbyes. While he and Tifa would be fighting together, Cloud and Sephiroth would each be leading a different army in this battle, at the best it would be a week before they saw each other again.
//A week of pounding Hojo's monsters into kibble.// Cloud wasn't worried, though he knew the fight was going to be a tough one. Instead, he was amazed, that Sephiroth seemed to be the fearful one, trying to hide his worry behind his usual cool nature, though of course, the blonde could see right through it.
"I'll be all right. You know that. If five years out there hasn't killed me yet, I'm not about to slip up now."
Cloud knew he would be safe, in the same way he knew he didn't have to worry for Sephiroth, an unquestioning belief in the other man's strength, and that he himself had too much to live for, to even think of losing it now.
"I want you to promise you'll be careful. I know it won't change anything, I /know/... just promise me."
"I promise." It was his turn to be the strong one - something that always felt strange, and unexpected - as he kissed his lover with a possessive strength, sliding his hands around, enjoying the feel of muscle and leather, Sephiroth's heat and scent and taste, letting it soak in for the long week ahead.
"I'd never leave you, Seph... I couldn't. If they took the world away, if everything was gone, there would still be me loving you." Amazing, how quickly he had gotten used to being in the other man's arms, laying his head against the white-haired man's chest as Sephiroth dipped his head down, chin slightly buried in the blonde spikes.
"No poetry, just come back to me."
"Hey, is everyone decent?"
Cloud was surprised to feel Sephiroth's arms tighten around him, the man's voice containing equal parts tension and humor as he barked back an answer. "No, we're naked! Butt naked!"
Zack strolled into the room a moment later, smile fading from amused to almost apologetic as Sephiroth finally let go of Cloud, and both men turned to face him.
"Are you ready, then?"
Cloud grinned, his half-smile had a familiar feral edge.
"Hell, I'll take the Crater if they'll let me."
Of course, Cloud knew it wasn't going to be that easy, though he was surprised at how far Roman and Zack had managed to push back Hojo's forces, that the scouts riding ahead didn't report back with signs of monsters until nearly nightfall.
He had taken the first watch, feeling nothing but pent-up energy, but so far everything had been silent, no sign of /anything/ amidst the snows.
//Zack said the monsters have been acting weird, that Hojo's dropped his defensive line, that he's only defending from the middle of the pass with any power now...//
Cloud hoped it meant they had weakened him, that the smaller string of victories all around the Planet meant that soon, the Northern Crater would be their only concern.
//One good push after this, if this battle can convince Reeve that we could hit the Crater head on...//
He didn't want to feel so eager, to really believe the war could be at an end, but it seemed possible now, and he wanted to live past it...
//Peace... to live in peace, with Sephiroth.//
Karat turned underneath him, as a scout on a green Chocobo silently stopped next to him.
"We've got movement. A platoon of creatures, all kinds, moving in from the west. They're coming slow, sir, but they're coming."
//So,// Cloud nudged Karat back toward the camp, knew the front line would already be preparing. //It begins.//
It just /felt/ different this time, a sentiment that wound its way through the ranks, that Sephiroth did his best to ignore. He didn't trust optimism, never thought it was very true to reality, but still managed to feel the emotion of the troops, like words spoken softer than a whisper - this time, things had changed.
He had to admit, even without Cloud in arm's reach, that it did feel different to step once more on the plains leading to the Northern Crater. Roman and Zack had done quite a good job holding on to what they had, and though the icy wasteland still wasn't comfortable or familiar, it was no longer difficult to imagine victory.
... and if Sephiroth believed that, who was left to argue with the living legend?
The white-haired man quietly rolled his eyes, unimpressed with the hubris of those types of thoughts, beyond their ability to get his orders followed without question. If confidence in him would keep things moving, how could he complain?
//... because I'm still worried, no matter how much I convince myself I'm not.//
He'd gotten over the initial, extremely immature fear of letting Cloud go, of not believing in the other man's ability to take care of himself. The blonde would be just fine, this wasn't a battle on any level as suicidal as all he'd already attempted - and /no/, the fact that Sephiroth cared about him wasn't some sort of death wish. No matter what thoughts he might like to entertain, Sephiroth knew it was completely illogical, there was no vengeful force out there just waiting to take all he loved away from him.
//He had that dream, though, and if that wasn't a warning of something, I don't know what was.//
Nothing. It could easily be nothing, some amalgamation of past horrors and current stress. The current battle may not have been on the scale of the maneuvers of Southern Wutai or their former attempt at the Crater, but it was certainly dangerous, and the pressure was still on...
//He might still be working over everything /you/ did to him, you know. How long would it take you to recover from nearly single-handedly fighting a /war/, while knowing the person you loved didn't give a damn for you?//
He still felt guilty, for that and a thousand other miseries in Cloud's life. Sephiroth thought he might always feel guilty, had consigned himself to the fact.
//The best thing you can do now, is win this war quickly, and spend the rest of eternity making it up to him.//
"Sir! General Gemini, sir!"
Roman fought the urge to flinch at the sound of that title, still couldn't believe what had happened... but realized, as he found himself looking over the reports that had been shoved into his hand, writing down orders without thinking, that perhaps the other Generals really had known something about his potential that he hadn't.
The plans were relatively simple, as he checked the final layout on the map in front of him. Cloud would attack initially from the left, Sephiroth from the right, and he and Zack would try to draw Jenova's forces to the center. If they were lucky, Cloud would be able to keep pushing on the enemy, while also closing off the bottlenecked valley leading to the Crater, and slaughtering any reserve forces that would come to the main army's aid.
The rest would be up to them, and while Ro held no illusions about actually taking the Crater, he knew this could be their best chance to do a great deal of damage, one of the rare opportunities to kill more of Hojo's creatures than they took down men - and the enemy wasn't regenerating as fast as they once had, not at all... perhaps Jenova was finally running out of power to give the bastard.
"Alert the troop leaders, get them ready to mobilize, I want Alpha and Omega teams in front... give the Wutai platoons their traditional positions."
Amazing, that he was giving orders, even small, normal orders. Ro felt more like a little boy in a General's costume than anyone with the power to make such statements, no matter how long he had spent at Cloud Strife's side. The redhead stepped out of his tent quickly, moving toward a Black Chocobo in full armor, pawing anxiously at the ground, ready to get underway. It was of the same clutch as General Sephiroth's bird... somehow, he had found a place amidst the legends.
"We're moving out."
/Sister... child... you walk by, you won't even look..."/
Aeris closed her eyes, refusing to turn from her path, to pause - she had known this was coming, had always known this as a possibility, the faces of the dead rising up in a chorus to greet her.
//You must stay calm. Focus. /Focus/.//
Skeletal bodies dripping with shining black slime writhed around her, wraiths of dark mist and gaping, eyeless voids reaching out to her with silent screams, pleading, some grinning madly while others moaned in pain. This was all that remained of the Cetra - fury gone, consumed by Jenova, all that remained were these living corpses, wallowing now in the darkness they had so eagerly embraced.
/Sister... help us... join us./
//Child, you cannot win... run away... run away.//
Voices upon voices upon voices, some beckoning, others begging, others urging her to run, but they all eventually faded, as Aeris kept moving forward, toward the heart of the madness.
The flower girl had to brace herself for the sight, when the final horror finally emerged from the darkness, repulsed by the viciousness and pain of it - dark, twisting coils of alien power, gargantuan, writhing as they drank down the lifeblood of the world.
The Lifestream pulled closer around her with each step she took, gleaming almost like armor, a second, translucent green skin... so little, there was so little of the Planet's strength left.
Aeris tried to recover her determination from that shock, but gasped instead, as she finally realized what feeling lay so thick and heavy in the air, what had been pressing down so hard, as if trying to crush her - amusement.
Jenova knew she was coming, and Aeris could hear the echoes of her laughter, shaking the world.
"Get them to pull back, then, damn it!!! We're losing the line, we can't let those bastards leak through!"
Zack was too busy giving orders to notice how close the battle had come to him, and the radio flew from his grasp as he was slammed hard to the ground by a creature in mortal combat with another cadet. The dark-haired man swore, as the creature turned back, thinking he the easier catch, but before he could find his feet Tifa had rushed past him, flashing fists quickly and permanently sending the monster to the ground. Zack grinned, leaping to his feet and pulling his wide-bladed sword from where he had slammed it into the earth as Tifa threw him the radio.
//I can't believe we ever thought this was going to be easy.// He grimaced, spitting a mouthful of grit onto the ground, surprised by the lightest sting of cold on his cheek - it was snowing /again/.
"Give me a report, now!"
Four days of near-constant fighting, they were winning, but damn, did the margin of error always have to be nonexistent?!
The static lasted just long enough for his heart to consider flipping over in his chest, but finally he heard a click, pickup.
"We've got them, sir. We're under siege but holding."
"Understood. Zack out."
"We should take the higher ground." Tifa's voice broke through his thoughts, sounded strange, accompanied by a silence Zack hadn't heard since the battle had started. It wasn't a good sign, that Hojo's forces had gotten close enough that it was no longer safe to use the artillery rounds. It was the worst thing about the damned monsters, they had no qualms about attacking alone, didn't need to stay in groups to keep their focus clear.
Zack and the small group of men left standing had been pushed back by just that kind of sudden surge, the floor of the small cove they stood in now covered in corpses - more of the enemy than their own, Zack was angry to have to admit how much of a victory that was. He looked up, meeting Tifa's eyes and more grateful than he could say to be able to do it, to have her at his back.
"Let's go, then."
It was a quick, tiring hike to the top, the path nearly vertical, Zack not even realizing he was using Tifa's butt as a place to keep his balance until she finally turned to stare at him, amusement far outweighing the annoyance in her eyes as she grinned. It took a damn strong woman, he reflected proudly, to smile in the middle of this hell.
Zack's mind was running through strategies, finely honed instincts still managing to hear every noise, no matter how small - the men reloading their guns, the footsteps of the silent, battle-hardened Chocobos... they didn't have too many, most of the birds had gone with the cavalry, with Cloud.
The last Zack had heard, both of his friends were doing fine, Cloud gaining ground on the rest of the army by the day, getting into position for the final leg of the assault. Of course, this also meant he was moving further and further from assistance, if something went wrong. Hojo no longer seemed to be targeting Cloud directly, or at least the blonde hadn't mentioned it, but if the scientist did try to hammer his army with a sudden sneak attack, when neither he nor Sephiroth could move to assist...
//I sure don't envy Sephiroth right now.//
"My God," Tifa breathed, cresting the hill a step ahead of him. "Look at that."
The plain stretched out in front of them, battles being fought from one edge of the hills to the other, Ro's army already well-engaged throughout the central basin. Zack could see flags on many of the surrounding hills, they were holding the high ground, those successes only underlined by the appearance of a large, dark shadow high overhead - the Highwind, moving in for an aerial barrage. Zack could hear his radio buzzing like mad, as the airship set up targets with the men on the ground.
"What do we do?"
Zack shrugged, kicking a plasma rifle up off the ground, enjoying the solid slap of the barrel against his hand.
"We take this valley by sundown."
Aeris gasped as she blocked another lash of dark power, and another, and another, could almost feel the sweat on her phantom brow as she struggled to stay standing. Jenova's power swirled around her like a Demi spell, pressing in, crushing her...
//Life /is/ the equal of chaos, of the darkness... two sides of the same coin, you will not defeat me!//
The words held infinitely more confidence than Aeris felt, but as the darkness ebbed slightly between attacks, she struck - once, and again, and again - letting the Lifestream run free, feeling it seek out cracks in Jenova's armor, links to life that even the vessel of such destruction held, coaxing out similar energies, weakening her entropic hold...
//Stop... it hurts.//
Aeris paused, though a part of her mind was screaming for her not to, that she was leaving herself vulnerable by doing so. The pressure... the pressure was gone, the darkness still surrounding her but somehow not as palpable, a greater, heavier concentration cowering - cowering?! - in front of her, trembling slightly.
/What are you!?/
Aeris kept a steady hold on the wild green energy around her, ready to lash out at the slightest sign of attack... but she could feel some part of the Lifestream still flowing forward, still connected to the darkness - connection, to life?
//Jenova... I am...// One arm lifted, tiny tendrils of green swirling around the shadows. //I don't want... the darkness, what I... I don't, but the green... /hurts/.//
/She means the Planet./ Aeris blinked, stunned into utter disbelief. Jenova, the great enemy, the divine destroyer... didn't want it?
All her instincts told her she was walking into an inescapable trap, that what she thought she understood was utterly /impossible/ - as she stepped forward, reached out one hand, and very gently touched the shadow-woman on the shoulder.
Nothing happened for a moment, a dark head finally melting away from the rest of the darkness, now completing the hazy body half-knelt in front of her. Jenova... this was the center, of all the pain and suffering they had gone through, a dark figure who looked up at her - shadowy face featureless, and down at her glowing green hand - tiny flickers of green still twining down into the darkness. The air swelled slightly, with bemused resignation.
//... even here, I look like this now. Human.//
/You don't need to hurt the Planet, you know./ Aeris looked around, at the darkness, the cold - nothing could /want/ this void, could truly desire such an existence?
//I can do nothing else. I /am/ this, I have no other way to be.//
/Join the Lifestream. You can become one with the Planet./
Aeris hadn't thought it possible, had never considered it an option, but felt the Lifestream respond eagerly to her words, green brilliance reviving, Jenova gasping as tiny strands of her own dark power rose up, flickering into green.
//Join me. You can. I will help you. It's nothing like this, the Lifestream, and it won't hurt... you will be a part of all living things, the cycle of -//
/You're talking to a shadow./
Aeris gasped, as the figure beneath her touch vanished without a sound, staring around wildly for the source of the voice - a human voice, one she /knew/ - left with nothing to do but listen in shock to the dry, rasping laugh.
/It wouldn't be better for her, and it certainly wouldn't for me. Why be an insignificant speck on this tiny planet, when I could be a God?/
Aeris screamed as a bolt shot through her, dark energy she could not block, the pain numbing her throughout as the Lifestream lashed out, unable to find an enemy in the darkness. Another blast of energy sent her to her knees, Hojo's laughter still hissing in her ears.
//Are you trying to destroy me, Cetra? I'm not a part of Jenova, you stupid girl. I /rule/ her, as I will soon rule you.//
The darkness, the evil she had thought was Jenova, crowded in on her, but she could sense nothing of the space alien's presence, nothing but the void. Aeris groaned - it felt as if she were being pulled apart, the Lifestream leeching away from her, no longer reaching out to oblivion, but being helplessly devoured by the darker whole.
Aeris fought for the strength that continued to ebb away from her, ignoring Hojo's delighted chuckles, straining for the last thin threads of green - how had he managed to take it from her? How had he done this to the Lifestream - screaming as they slid through her fingers, leaving her powerless.
At Hojo's mercy.
Cid had been listening intently to his radio for the past hour, every muscle in his body aching with the building tension. The conversations flashed back and forth much faster now between the troops than they had before. The pilot cursed, wishing he had a map, any way to see the victory he thought he could hear approaching over the airwaves.
//Nine days... it's about bloody time!//
The Highwind had been in the thick of it for quite a while now, loading and unloading gear, shuttling the wounded to Icicle while on it's refueling runs. Now they were where Cid hated the most to be, stuck hovering just behind a ridge, to protect them from even the remotest possibility of enemy fire, waiting...
//To supply the new camps, or sound the retreat. What the hell will it be?//
It was Cloud and Ro's fight now. Two days ago, in the morning before the sun even rose, Zack had to pull back, shift to the left as Hojo's army charged unexpectedly. He and Sephiroth were cleaning up in the east, but Ro had the main task of keeping the monsters moving back north, pushing them towards Cloud while eliminating all he could - if the kid lived through it, Cid thought, he'd probably be a legend.
Cloud had taken his position, was holding it, the heavy cavalry doing major damage to the unexpectedly large number of Hojo's forces that had swarmed down from the valley. It was tense, it was tight, but the blonde General had given no ground, no quarter.
The voice broke through so suddenly, so loud over the man's private connection that Cid nearly pitched backward over the bar he was leaning against, stumbling to his feet and lunging for the radio at the same time.
"Cid - where the fuck...?!"
"Cloud!? What's happening?!"
"We need some cover fire in the north quadrant! You can't fucking miss it, there are thousands of them! We've pushed them back, and if we can hit them now..."
"There's no way! Cid scrambled for his binoculars, looking across the plain, to where Cloud ought to have been, swearing under his breath as he saw the mass of monsters the blonde meant. "If we miss, we'll take out half your army!"
"If you miss... shit, Cid, just don't fucking miss!"
Weariness was cracking in Cloud's voice, not at all a good sign. Cid grabbed his PHS, flipping it to the correct frequency as he strode from his room, leaping down the stairs toward the control room.
"Can you hold on? Roman..."
"Ro's got his hands full, he can't spare shit, and most of the guns already down here won't do what we need... I /know/ you've got the bombs up there, I watched you load them!"
"We can't get close enough to you to deploy them! The peaks are too high, we can't maneuver, and there's no way we can..." He was standing in the control room now, more than one soldier turning to watch him yell into the radio, watching him stop, and wince in sudden realization.
"... well then, fucking tie it on! No, I don't really give a good goddamn -"
No answer, just the crackle of static. Every now and again, Cloud thought he made out a word or two, but nothing seemed to be directed at him. Cid had left him hanging, without explanation or apology - what the hell was going on up there?!
The blonde braced himself at a sudden scream, glowing globs of god-only-knew pounding into the other side of the hill he was hiding behind, battle cries and howls, as always, torturing the air.
//It wasn't a /suggestion/, Cid. We've got the chance to pound them, or they're going to pound us!//
Cloud jerked down hard on the reins in his hand, Karat warbling, fluffy head tossing slightly with anxiety.
"Stay here, stupid bird."
He waited for the next barrage to clear, and lunged from behind the protection of the rocks, watching the tip of the beast's tail begin to glow, even as he ran - if he couldn't reach it before it launched another blast.
//... like that will happen.//
It fell with one good downward blow, Cloud turning to swiftly cut down something that skittered toward him on spindly legs, only really seeing the monster as it fell, or at least what remained of it.
He grimaced as he looked down across the steppes. His men had been successfully holding back Hojo's advance, but they'd been doing it for /days/, and gaps were starting to appear in the defenses.
//Hit it Cid!!! All you'd have to do is hit it now!!!//
"Are your men clear, Strife?! My aim's good but I'd like a bit of a fucking margin of error!"
The radio crackled and hummed, Cloud could barely hear the man's voice above the sound of - an engine?!
"Cid?!" Cloud barely kept his eyes on his surroundings, screaming into the PHS as he dove for cover. "Where the hell are you!?"
Glowing blue eyes snapped to the sky, immediately picking the glint of steel out of the sky - the Tiny Bronco, with what looked like a second hull attached to the small plane - a bomb, they had somehow jury-rigged a /bomb/ to the bottom. Cloud couldn't believe the pilot would have ever allowed it - the plane was like his child.
"Cid, you crazy fuck..."
Cloud's murmur was cut off by a sharp shout.
"Shit, I have company!!!"
The few creatures left in the air didn't dare go after the Highwind, but the smaller plane must have seemed like easy pickings. Cloud watched Cid dip and roll, trying to lose his sudden pursuers, but the plane was much too slow and off-balance with its heavy load, and the fighter could see his friend wasn't going to make it.
"Hold on, Cid."
It was a hell of a gamble, especially given the unstable quality of the Materia he'd been using - Cloud hadn't bothered to fire a spell for days - but he didn't hesitate to raise one hand, saw the globe start to glow.
"Cloud, what are you..."
The radio fuzzed to heavy static as Cloud threw a series of perfect lightning bolts like javelins through the monsters clustered near the Tiny Bronco, and when he could hear Cid again, the pilot was cursing loudly, almost unintelligibly.
"Did I hit you?! Shit Cid, did I-"
"You didn't bloody hit me, you fucking idiot! Get your men out of the goddamned way, I'm coming in!"
Cloud could see that most of the men were far enough out of the way, a few dark shapes moving quickly here and there, chocobo riders darting for cover. The blonde threw a few spells as far as he could, to push back the monsters that had made it behind the swiftly erected blockade of Wall spells. It would only hold a few minutes more...
//Come on, Cid... come on!//
Cloud held his breath as the plane approached the drop site, standing close enough to his former hiding place to hear Karat coo - but he had to see it drop, had to make sure...
//God, he can't get it detached, Cid... what the hell?!//
He was sure he saw it right, the pilot actually hanging halfway out of the cockpit, hacking at the straps holding the explosive to the plane with the Venus Gospel.
The bomb finally broke free, falling to the earth as the plane lifted into the sky. Cloud dove behind the rock the moment before it hit, the ground shaking for longer than he had expected - had there been a Huge Materia on that thing?!
He could hear the cheers and battle cries before the smoke had begun to clear, watching an entire platoon that had been holding back, waiting for the hit charge forward to engage what remained of the enemy. Cloud quickly stepped around the corner, staring out at the sea of flaming rubble, one side of the valley half-collapsed, a fairly wide crater stretching just a few hundred feet from where he now stood. The soft roar of an engine, high overhead, immediately grabbed his attention.
"How you doing, Cid?" He could see the plane, trailing a bit of smoke, limping its way back to the Highwind. Any monsters left that could have taken to the air were much too busy now, trying to slow the advance of the ground troops.
Cloud winced, as the radio once more squarked with a long list of obscenities, the pilot muttering a litany of curses over the current state of his beloved Bronco. The General slid the PHS back into his pocket, whistling for Karat as he slid the Ultima weapon back into its sheath, enjoying the single moment of breathing room, lifting himself into the bird's saddle.
//It's all cleanup now... we might even be able to push /onto/ the primary plain, even if we pull back to the valley mouth later.//
He couldn't see the start of the mountains that made up the outer wall of the actual Crater, but Cloud knew they were out there, a few days ride away, waiting.
//I'm coming for you, Hojo. Do you remember, how much I owe you for? I do... I do.//
The liquid fury in the glowing blue depths could not be considered in any way sane. If this had been a handful of weeks before, Cloud knew he would have gone, that instant, past the armies, across the vast expanse, and right to Hojo's front door.
Of course, it would be insane to regret the loss of that nihilism, for all he had gained in its stead. Hojo would wait for him - and for Sephiroth and Zack and Vincent too. Cloud grinned wickedly at the thought, it would be interesting to see how the scientist's destruction could be divided among those he had hurt the most.
He tapped his heels against Karat's side, spurring the bird forward into what remained of Hojo's ranks, clearly at the last of their strength, splintered and unfocused. Cloud tried to keep his mind on the battle, though by now it was almost second nature, the feeling of imminent triumph swelling in the air like a silent song, and he couldn't help but think of home, and Sephiroth, and victory.
"So, you're here, are you?"
Hojo sniffed, adjusting his glasses with a slight, careful movement of one long pincer, glancing in the mirror with a satisfied smile. The sight was quite intriguing, for though his form was now as malleable as clay, and he often switched bodies, testing them for greater strength and maneuverability, the scientist had always kept his own face unchanged.
Hojo turned his head back and forth, admiring the way the light shone down on the flat planes of his pale face, his long, hooklike nose drawing out like a vulture's neck, bent, broken... He was handsome in a very special way, he thought, and his truly was the kind of face that - if he had planned on leaving any survivors - would have been quite memorable.
The scientist finally turned, or at least his head did, rotating fully backwards on it's stalklike neck, staring at the new intruder.
"I haven't seen you in quite a while. What do you want?"
The man moved forward very hesitantly, obviously trying not to cower, hating himself even for the shuffle in his step, for the callous pride he could no longer afford to have.
"I heard a noise."
It had been quite a bit more than that, really, the first tremor ripping its way down through the entire Crater, tossing him from his bed and nearly breaking his arm in the process.
Greater shudders had quickly followed, pulses of power that rumbled their way along the corridors of the entire structure, dislodging stone and small rocks from the ceiling, all the iron beams and supports shaking and screaming like mad, the lights flaring, flickering, dying for a brief but heart-stopping second, before guttering their way back to life.
"... what happened?" He wondered, even as he asked the question, if doing so would get him killed, but the scientist didn't notice he had spoken.
The man had seen the changes in Hojo's lab as of late, had watched the poor bastard - whomever he had been - already half-devoured by Jenova - move into and out of his tiny quarters, disappearing into the tunnels, most likely dead by now.
The slow, relentless cycle of life in the Crater had altered, though, and much more violently than usual, as if things were building to some true finale - and though the man tried to tell himself that any change was preferable to another day in this unending arctic hell, he was still afraid.
//Is Hojo winning? Did something happen in the war, or to Cloud Strife?//
The blonde's name was the only one Hojo ever spoke aloud, usually interspersed with the code "Project 'C'" and almost always accompanied by a violent gesture or expletive. It was one of the only sure ways to always be sure that the war wasn't over, that Hojo hadn't won.
Except that now, the scientist almost looked... pleased.
The man had a plan to destroy Hojo, always resting in the back of his mind - the comforting thought of a small storeroom he had discovered on one of his long treks through the scientist's subterranean hell, and box he had found, filled with prototype explosives, the most powerful plastic explosives ShinRa had ever created.
Hojo hadn't discovered them, he and his hideous creations only able to sense mako-based weapons, and so the man had carried them, one-by-one, back to his quarters, hidden them carefully even though, as far as he could tell, Hojo barely remembered he was alive.
At times, he thought of blowing himself up, wished one of the bombs would misfire during the night, and take him from this endless, frozen nightmare...
//... but if Hojo holds the Lifestream too?//
He kept the bombs close, waiting for a day he prayed would never come.
//I will set them to explode, and throw myself at him, and it will be the end of it all... all this madness.//
He should have done it now, should have done it weeks ago, but something in him still wanted desperately to live, kept holding out hope, that somehow Cloud Strife might succeed... and the irony there didn't escape the man for a second.
//Hojo is laughing... fuck, this is never a good thing...//
The long, dry cackles filled the air like briars, sharp and painful, cut off to silence with a frightening finality.
"... she truly thought she could overrule science, that they were not the rules by which she herself existed... pathetic."
Hojo turned, skittering quickly up the stairs without a second glance in his direction. The man followed behind, knowing that at any moment the scientist could decide to kill him - or worse - at any moment, but whatever had caused the sudden earthquakes was also the source of Hojo's delight. The possibilities were terrifying.
The staircase they were on led to the main lab, the center of Hojo's most private, personal experiments - a place the man himself had been once, before he had been shuffled off, not a failed experiment per say, but simply not interesting enough to deserve such an impressive position.
The lab was running hot now, every console flickering and active, lights of all kinds blinking on and off across the various monitors connected by cords snaking all over the metal floor, flashes of electricity that almost seemed connected, some kind of intricate pattern he wasn't perceptive enough to catch.
Hojo stood at the center of it all. Spindly secondary arms were performing multiple tasks simultaneously, while the two pincers nearest his head simply rubbed together in pleased anticipation, a gesture the other man found the most disturbing of all. He looked around the bulbous body of the scientist in curiosity and surprise - the room had changed.
The tank in the very center of the lab was no longer the one that had held him, but much larger, surrounded by what appeared to be an even more complex monitoring and restraint system, the glass so thick it made its contents almost half-opaque. Not that there was anything to see within... a swirling, brilliant green, trapped inside the cylinder... it looked exactly like...
//Lifestream? That's... a piece of it?//
"It's still not as impressive as SOLDIER. On so many levels that was my masterpiece. I know you must agree."
The man jumped back a few steps, certain Hojo hadn't noticed him there, and while those words very well may have been for him, as the scientist continued, the man saw he was actually talking to the glass prison, to the Lifestream inside... raising one long leg, caressing the smooth surface in a parody of tenderness.
"No, no." The scientist went on, voice rising and falling in a malicious cadence. "The SOLDIER program will be unmatched throughout history, in scope, power, applicability... success." Hojo smiled, and though the man adamantly refused to cower, he did take another step back.
"My boy won that war for them, everyone knows he did. The rest, they were all the same... even Cloud Strife, there's power there... an unmatched force in the universe, harnessed by /me/."
The man wisely said nothing, save in his own mind, but there he calmly stated that Lucrecia had been the one with the ingenuity, that Professor Gast had been brilliant. Hojo had simply been cold-blooded enough to survive, to do whatever it took, to whomever he had to, to see his own twisted vision rise.
//If they record you as anything, Hojo, if there's anything left of this world when you're done, you will only be remembered as a monster, the most horrible, worthless kind of man.//
"You've captured a slice of the Lifestream, for experimentation?"
The man took a cautious step forward, not quite as afraid, now that the scientist seemed to have busied himself at a set of panels at the other end of the room. He never forgot where he was, how far he had fallen - but did let a bit of authority slip into his voice, perhaps Hojo would give him some answers without thinking twice.
Unfortunately, the man-creature only let out a sharp bark of laughter, head swiveling at a repulsive angle to stare at him.
"Why not look closer? I assure you, that container can hold her... and this might be your only chance. Once I start in, I'm sure there won't be much left to see."
Cautiously, the man moved closer towards the softly glowing tube, noticing that the Lifestream was not swiftly churning, as he had thought from a distance, but absolutely /molten/, swirling and boiling with such intense violence that he paused, glancing sideways at Hojo, unsure whether the scientist was telling the truth about his barrier's strength.
He pushed forward after another long moment, taking the final few steps toward the glass, staring at the seething tempest inside. What had Hojo been -
A hand slammed out through the swirling void, slapping hard against the barrier, and he jumped back with a yelp of terror, shaking and panting at the sudden surprise, hearing Hojo chuckle from across the room.
"Someone's... /in/ there? No one could survive that! Hojo, who... what did you...?"
He was still peering into the green, and trailed off as a face pushed out of the pale nothingness, soft green mists melting away from deeper green, more solid features, the Lifestream recreating the girl in hues of emerald and jade - oh god, he /knew/ her.
He put his hand up against the glass, found it chillingly cold, saw that she was watching him with the same awe and disbelief, green lips silently calling his name.
Rufus ShinRa could hear the scientist saying something, but it was distant, meaningless in the face of what he had done. Hojo had made his opening bid at godhood once more... and this time it had captured him an angel.
"No, Nanaki... no, I know what your instruments are reading, but believe me, I've checked through them several times. They're simply wrong. Perhaps there's a glitch in your system..."
Melissa swallowed hard, forcing her voice to be light, professional, even as she felt her insides twist with guilt and sorrow. It was so difficult to lie like this, but she knew how, a thousand little untruths, words withheld, all she had ever kept to herself training her for this moment.
"We'll keep looking, I promise, but everything I've been seeing reads normal. Have the program check itself thoroughly..." Strange, that Nanaki could /ask/ the program to do that - she should have met this Bugenhagen while he had been alive. He had supposedly been a brilliant man, a sage, and perhaps he could have given her some words of solace, or advice, for the nightmare that had swept down without warning, and all but consumed her.
The computer screen in front of her burst into life again, another three screens popping up before she could blink, numbers streaming across in a mad torrent - she was just starting to understand this data, to recognize how madly different it was from the celebrations happening around her - the armies had returned, victorious.
//It has to be a mistake, some kind of horrible mistake.//
She blinked, realized Nanaki had still been talking, and she had heard nothing, lost in the horror of what had appeared before her.
"Y-yes. I'm sorry, Nanaki... I'm a bit tired, I have to get going, file some reports. I assure you, everything's fine."
Melissa dropped the phone back into it's cradle, hands fisting at the bottom of the monitor as she bit her lip, staring in horrified fascination at the overwhelming data stream... she would not cry, she could not -
"Melissa? Are you in here?"
The doctor quickly turned off the computer screen, spun around to see a familiar figure outlined by the light. It had gotten so dark, it had only been mid-afternoon when she had been surprised by the call from Mideel, that the Lifestream was acting up, sending along stronger signals than before, and they couldn't interpret any of it, of course, so if she could look and see if she could make any sense of it...
//Oh God. Oh God.//
"Shera?" Melissa forced herself into normalcy. "Why are you here?"
It was usually a blessing - especially in times of crisis - to have such an icy reputation, but Melissa had found it hard to be cold with Shera. The woman was an incredibly competent scientist, so silent that the other woman usually forgot she wasn't working alone.
Melissa barely noticed the usual spike of anger, thinking of Shera's pilot husband and his damned useless temper - and blinked sharply as the overhead lights went on.
"I didn't notice it had gotten so dark."
Shera smiled in her usual sweet, understanding way, she knew the preoccupations of science as well as anyone. It was the perfect cover, and Melissa breathed a silent sigh of relief even as she felt the sting of guilt, she would not have to lie to the woman any more than she had already, if she simply kept quiet.
"You're not going to join us at the celebration?"
She was frozen. Melissa tried to speak, though her jaw seemed fused, using all her strength to force /something/ past a leaden tongue, icy lips...
"I've got some... things. I want to take care of them first. I'll try to be down later."
The scientist prayed frantically that Shera would leave, that the usually perceptive scientist wouldn't notice that her hands were gripping the edge of the table rather tightly, the way her lips were compressed more than usual, into a pale, thin line.
Of course, Shera was not more perceptive, her spirits too high to be searching out danger, not after such a glorious victory, not with Cid back, safe and sound, and the party still in full swing in the town below.
"All right, Melissa. Try to come down later, all right? After all, you don't want to miss the whole celebration."
Melissa waited until Shera had left the room, until there was no way the woman would hear, and let out a deep, shuddering breath, curling forward slightly against the table, stretching until her arms hurt, a match to the terror that was now a constant pain in the center of her chest, and the headache slowly working its way behind her eyes.
She quickly flipped on the screen again, the information once more hitting her like a hammer blow, but she refused to look away from it.
No, she would not go, could not go. It would simply be impossible to lie to herself, to build up false hope, to pretend there could ever be a reason to celebrate... ever again.
"You look good..."
Sephiroth smirked, turning his head to let a few threads of hair ride the wind, turning deep silver in the late afternoon sun.
"Don't I always?"
He saw the dark-haired man grin slightly, before Zack made his own place against the balcony railing, leaning so he could arch his back provocatively, staring at Sephiroth with half-lidded eyes. The man trailed his free hand slowly across his stomach, every muscle in his body tight with suppressed hilarity.
"Dead sexy, just like me, eh?"
"You had your chance, Zack. I'm taken."
The dark-haired man snorted in surprised amusement, chuckling as he knelt down, handing his friend one of the beers at his feet, cold glasses beading sweat into the air, uncapping his own and taking a long swig.
"A rout like that, in less than two weeks, and we barely lose a handful of squadrons in the taking? We are lucky, lucky sons of bitches, you know that?"
It had only been that morning, they had been standing in the middle of one of the greatest series of victories in history, certainly in /this/ war... Hojo may still have owned the pass leading to the crater, but his creatures couldn't take one step beyond it, and each perimeter camp was fully stocked, quite prepared to deal with anything that might try.
//Of course, we've thought that before, and yet we're still fighting this war...//
Zack didn't want to be too optimistic, but still, he had to admit, they were potentially in a much better place than they had been only a month or so ago. Glowing hazel eyes cut over to the man leaning against the balcony, taking the first sip of his drink.
//Better, in every way, and come to think of it...//
"So, where's Spike?"
Sephiroth shrugged slightly, turning his eyes back over the balcony, to the bustle of people below. "He had to go talk to a few people, then he said he'd be downstairs for a while, until we have to go back to the meeting..."
Reeve had given them full run of this house for the day, a slight respite from the more military quarters at the other end of North Corel. The white-haired man lifted his bottle to eye level with a slight frown.
"I don't know why you still drink this stuff... it never did a thing for me."
"Oh wait, give it back a minute..." Zack took the bottle from his friend's hand, pouring half of the contents onto a nearby plant, taking another deep swig of his own before reaching down, pulling yet /another/ bottle out of his bag. Sephiroth smirked,
"... the ShinRa party king returns."
"Pure Wutai wood grain, they never had shit like this in ShinRa." Zack beamed, carefully pouring equal measures of the clear liquid into the two containers, giving them both a slight shake before handing his friend the bottle back. Sephiroth sipped, wincing, yes, he certainly felt /something/...
"It's a fair buzz, just about the best us SOLDIERS can get short of raiding the med tent for rubbing alcohol."
"I'll pass." Sephiroth snorted, taking another swig that left most of his body screaming for mercy. "So, how's your girl?"
"Tifa?" Zack blinked, surprised, saw Sephiroth's eyes narrow. "What?"
The dark-haired man chuckled, it was always funny to see Sephiroth confused, simply because of how irritated it made him to ever be in the dark - even for a moment.
"What are you grinning at?"
"I just wondered..." Zack "I knew you'd be good for him, but I always wondered how he'd be for you."
Sephiroth shifted, trying not to feel embarrassed, that yes, he /had/ changed, hadn't he? The white-haired man frowned again as he heard Zack chuckle.
"I'm not /that/ different..."
"Except that you never smiled."
"Like hell! Name once, Seph. Just once."
"Well, there was..." Of course, he couldn't think of even one, quickly lapsing into silence, scowling even further as Zack laughed out loud.
"Fuck you, soldier. We weren't even talking about me anyway, we were talking about you and the girl."
"Tifa, and she's fine, she'll be fine. You still unnerve the hell out of her, I think, but she trusts Cloud, and me."
Sephiroth nodded, dragged another few swallows out of the bottle. "Have you heard anything from Cosmo Canyon? Or Reno?"
"They're good. The Turks say everything's under control, they'll come back here when we push out again to advance the line." Zack looked down into the town, smiling at the bustling landscape stretched out around them.
"They say we could win this in two years, with the way things are going."
His voice was soft, wistful. It was a dream he, and the rest of the Planet, had almost thought of as too good to be true.
"The final battle, in two years, perhaps..."
Zack turned slowly, watching his friend's profile, the slightly dark expression only he could see.
"You thinking something I should know about?"
The white-haired man shook his head slightly, still looking out to the horizon.
"Maybe we've worn him down... but still, Hojo's not going to just give up, we're not just going to /walk/ into the Crater..."
Zack laughed slightly, rolling his eyes. "Five years of nonstop global combat, not to mention everything /before/... if that's his idea of 'just giving up'..."
The dark-haired man raised his hands at his friend's cautious tone.
"Hey, I know, I know. I'm as skittish as you are, and after everything Hojo's done in the past, I don't expect this to be easy, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop just as much as anyone... but really, with the way things are going, I don't see why we shouldn't be optimist-"
Zack froze, the two men immediately torn from their lazy reverie by the sound of a very familiar scream. Startled hazel eyes met flashing green.
Sephiroth tore through the house, Zack a breathless step behind, each of them taking note as they moved forward - no other sounds, not of forced entry, other voices or something less human - but Cloud was still screaming. The agonized cries echoed inside Zack's head until he was nearly sick with the sound - the lab, god it sounded exactly like the lab, when Cloud had been tortured and he had been helpless and...
No, /no/, it wouldn't do anyone any good to think like that right now.
The thought still put a new burst of speed in the man's step, but it was nowhere near enough to match Sephiroth, drawn to his lover as if shot from a bow. The man didn't even spare a second glance around as he passed room after room, though the cries echoed enough that Zack couldn't tell exactly where they came from.
They both took the third-floor staircase in one jump, and by the time Zack rounded the corner, Sephiroth was already across the room, kneeling at Cloud's side. The blonde was curled in the corner of the room, palms tight to his temples in a terribly familiar gesture of agony. A toppled chair was the only sign that he had even had a chance to try and catch himself, that whatever was happening had come out of nowhere.
"Cloud... what's wrong? What is it?" Sephiroth touched the blonde carefully, and Cloud slumped forward into his arms with a tortured sob, a few tears of pain leaking from his eyes.
"Melissa!" Zack was half-surprised he'd found the presence of mind to think to call the woman over his PHS, dropping to the other side of his fallen friend even as he spoke. "Get down here now, Cloud's in trouble!"
He shut it off before she could respond, wanting all his focus on Cloud, if he could help, though Sephiroth didn't seem to notice he was there at all, too busy trying to reach the man still curled tightly in his arms.
"... stop... /please god/ stop... stop hurting her... please, please!"
The last word was a tight, twisted thing, and Cloud screamed again, back arching, hands clenched into white fists as his legs kicked for purchase against the floor. It was all Sephiroth could do to hold him as he struggled, drawing him close as the wave of pain passed and he sagged back to the floor...
"... stop... stop it..." Cloud hissed, begging through tightly clenched teeth, "Seph, help me... it /hurts/..."
The white-haired man started at the sound of his name, the first sign Cloud had even known they were there, and carefully opened one of the blonde's clenched fists until his lover could grasp it, giving him some idea of how the pain was moving through him, just how bad things were...
"I'm here. I'm here." He glanced over at Zack as another spasm shook the man in his arms, grimaced at the tightening grip. It was /bad/.
"Cloud, I need you to focus, come back to me... I need you to tell me what's going on. What's happening?"
Green eyes darkened as Cloud shuddered, losing a shaking breath into another cry of agony, fighting to regain some semblance of composure, breathing fast and shallow.
"... he's... hurting her... Hojo..."
"Hojo!?" Zack could feel the rage building, one more strike in what was already more nails than coffin. Oh god, he would hurt that bastard when he reached the crater. The scientist would be /begging him/ to die, long before it was over.
"What? Who is he hurting? Cloud?" The white-haired man trailed off as the blonde's body tensed again, wide blue eyes staring desperately into his own, too agonized and breathless to speak...
"It's all right Cloud, I'm here. Hold on, it will be all right."
It was a weak, pathetic comfort. No matter how tightly he held on, Sephiroth felt only his own powerlessness, that truly, there was nothing he could do. "Hold on... just hold on. Zack, where the hell is Melissa?"
Zack was half-shoved aside by the smaller woman, who quickly moved in close. "What happened to him?"
"We don't know, we just heard him screaming. We came in, he was like this."
Zack was speaking for all of them. The strange affliction had somewhat abated, and Sephiroth was too busy placing careful kisses on Cloud's brow, murmuring soothing words as the blonde panted for air and Melissa checked his pulse, staring in concern at the wildly dilated blue eyes.
"He mentioned Hojo.... that Hojo was hurting someone..." Zack's eyes flicked down for a moment, a telling gesture the doctor saw through immediately.
"What do you know, SOLDIER? Start talking."
The dark-haired man dropped his eyes again. "Cloud told me once, that he could speak with... Aeris."
"Aeris!" Cloud lunged out of Sephiroth's arms, knocking the doctor to the side as he reached out, hands tightening on the collar of Zack's shirt, pushing words past the pain.
"Z-zack... he's got her... he's got /Aeris/... he's /hurting/ her... we have to... s-stop... him." The blonde couldn't keep his hold, slumping to the floor as another blast of pain ripped through him, "... stop... please, god, please... /leave her alone/!!!"
"Whatever's going on, we need to get him to the infirmary /now/!"
Sephiroth quickly scooped up the blonde, trailing after Melissa with Zack behind them, Cloud still shaking between the muscle-freezing moments of intense pain, burying his cries in the white-haired man's dark coat - Sephiroth was sure he'd find teeth marks in the leather later - could feel Cloud writhing helplessly in the grip of whatever horror had him.
"... make him stop... Seph... god, please... please make him stop hurting her."
"I've got you Cloud... it's all right... relax, you'll be fine."
The redundant words were worthless, when he was utterly helpless to do anything. Sephiroth felt a familiar fury rising up inside - he hated feeling powerless - but even the anger seemed without purpose. What comfort was it, knowing Hojo would scream for his mercy at some point in the future, when he couldn't be sure Cloud wasn't dying in his arms now?
"Hold on, Cloud. We're almost there. Hold on."
"Here." Melissa gestured to the gurney as she passed it, racing for her equipment "Put him down there."
"N-no... Seph, don't leave..." Hands clutched at the dark coat as Sephiroth tried to follow the doctor's instructions, Cloud disorientated enough to quickly work himself into a panic. "Don't leave me alone... don't... please..."
"I won't, Cloud. I'm right here. I won't leave, I promise."
The white-haired man shut his eyes for a moment, forcing his voice to be calm, his movements steady, when all he really wanted to do was scream, and crush something into dust with his bare hands.
Zack threw his hands up in anger, as Melissa stood at the edge of the bed, picking up and pausing, then setting down instruments on the portable table she had shoved next to the gurney. "What are you waiting for, do something!!!"
Melissa's glare could have eaten through a wall.
"What do you suggest I do? I don't even know what's wrong with him, anything I do could..."
Sephiroth's worried half-shout broke through their argument, Cloud had finally collapsed in his arms, unconscious, unable to bear the pain of whatever force it was that was trying to tear him apart.
Zack couldn't help but pace in the narrow hallway, keeping watch out of the corner of his eye. Sephiroth was a straight, unmoving shadow against the opposite wall, eyes fixed on the door as if he could command it to open by will alone. Melissa had asked them to leave, managed to convince Sephiroth only by swearing she would call them back in once Cloud was stable.
The dark-haired man didn't want to risk calling anyone, not even Tifa, until they found out what was going on. Victory or not, everyone's nerves were still mercilessly taut, and any undue stress he could keep from them, /especially/ from her, when she was still dealing with all she had learned. He loved her too much to be the hand to turn those screws today.
//... and I know it's been running hell on the morale, all that the kid's been going through. The men will follow Cloud to hell and back, no questions, but it still scares them, to think that their great General isn't invincible.//
Zack bit down on his lip, continued to stalk back and forth, wearing off a nervous energy that kept wanting to spike into anger. It would do no good to lose his temper, there was no one other than Hojo to aim it toward, and shaking his fist at the villain in his impenetrable castle would accomplish nothing, no matter how angry he was.
//... but for fuck's sake! Really, why the hell did this have to happen /now/?!// He didn't bother to hope that perhaps this was simply a scare, that it wouldn't have greater consequences. The odds were already stacked much too high against that possibility.
//... but you have to pull through, Cloud. We're so close, you're so damned close to the end of all you've been through.// Zack hazarded another glance at his friend, saw that nothing had changed, he couldn't even tell if Sephiroth was /blinking/...
//He needs you, Cloud, just as much as you need him. You worked so hard to get this far, you can't just leave him now.//
The door opened. Sephiroth was moving immediately, and didn't stop until he was seated at Cloud's bedside, staring for a moment at the various monitors that had been set up, then down at his sleeping lover, and finally up at Melissa, waiting for answers.
The doctor sighed softly, crossing her arms.
"I've got him sedated, just lightly. You can wake him up if you want, just... try not to upset him."
"What's going on?"
Zack murmured, watching Sephiroth carefully take one of Cloud's hands in his own, murmuring words meant only for him, his other hand ghosting along the blonde's cheek, brushing the blonde spikes back - so careful. It was an amazing thing to see, when Zack had once admitted to himself, albeit ashamedly, that he didn't think his friend could be gentle.
Sephiroth looked up, and the dark-haired man quickly looked away, embarrassed to have watched the private moment, feeling strangely like an intruder. Melissa spoke, her words quick and soft.
"He was conscious for a few moments, shaken, very confused - and he didn't understand why he was here. I don't believe he remembers what happened, or any of what he said before."
"Did he ask for Aeris?" Sephiroth murmured.
"He asked for you."
The white-haired man nodded, turning back to the bed as he heard a soft, puzzled sound, hazy blue eyes watching him curiously.
"Seph? What's going on? Where..." Cloud looked down, a slight panic replacing the confusion as he saw the IV in his arm. "Where am I? What happened?"
"Easy... relax." Sephiroth put a hand on Cloud's shoulder, to keep him still. "Do you remember anything?"
Cloud blinked, frowning slightly in recollection. "I was out with some of the lieutenants... we were talking about the maneuvers along the Mist River, and I came back home, you and Zack were up on the roof..." He trailed off, searching more and more frantically for something that wouldn't come.
"You collapsed, Cloud, and they brought you here." Melissa's crisp voice broke the silence, spoke the lie with perfect candor. "Exhaustion, perhaps, or any number of small maladies. You've been working too hard again, haven't you, Strife?"
Cloud scowled at the tone, raising himself up on his elbows.
"I'm /fine/, doctor, and I - ah..." He winced sharply, teeth clenching at the sudden pain in his head, his breath coming hard and fast. Sephiroth helped him lie back down, watching the discomfort ease, Cloud blinking a few times to reorient himself.
"One day of bed rest, and I do mean /rest/."
A glare at Sephiroth accompanied Melissa's words, it would have been amusing had three of the four of them not realized the farce the woman was playing out. "You'll stay here for observation for a few more hours, Cloud, and when you feel well enough, you can go back to wherever Reeve has you stationed this week."
Cloud muttered a few soft curses, but resigned himself to the fate, especially as he and Sephiroth exchanged a few quiet words and an equally careful kiss. Zack could hear the white-haired man exact a promise from the blonde, that he would stay where he had been put.
"Now come along, gentlemen, I have some things I need to discuss with you."
All of them kept up the act, Zack even managing a wink and a wave, keeping the cheery smile on as Cloud waved back, though it immediately fell as he turned around, and moved through the door, scowling at Melissa, the words ready to burst out well before she shut the door and turned to face them.
"You lied to him! What... why the hell did you do that?"
Melissa wasn't afraid to answer the man's anger with her own.
"Did you see how upset he was before, Zack? I'm almost positive he /chose/ to forget whatever the hell just happened to him. What he was talking about - with Aeris and Hojo - it was obviously more than he could take. Pushing him to remember it..."
"He has to know, though! It isn't right for him not to..."
"Not to know what, Zack?" Sephiroth finally cut in softly, eyes down, thinking. "What happened? What did he mean about Hojo and Aeris?"
Melissa was pale, as if she had been struck hard in the gut, though no one knew how hard she was working, to keep herself from shaking visibly.
"I..." Zack's hands clenched into frustrated fists, knowing something was wrong but not at all the how or why. "I... I don't know, Seph, but that doesn't mean we can just lie to him! What if it happens again?"
The doctor stepped in, meeting Zack's gaze with worried eyes.
"I need time, Zack. He needs time. Please. You know as well as I do, how... fragile his mind can be, after all that he's been through. Promise me... that you'll just stay quiet, just for a little while?"
Hazel eyes narrowed, moving from Melissa to Sephiroth as he saw that his friend supported the woman's decision.
"I don't like this. I don't like to lie to my friends, to Cloud." The unspoken statement hung in the air between them: //I'm only doing this because it's you, Seph.//
"Thank you, Zack." Melissa murmured, stepping back toward the room. "You can come in, if you like. I just have to gather a few files..."
The dark-haired man shook his head.
"No. I... I'm gonna go make sure everything's as quiet as it is here. I want to make sure nothing's going on." Hazel eyes rose, a soft, almost fearful emotion inside. "Tell him to get better, ok, Seph?"
"Of course I will."
Melissa thought, with Zack already moving down the hall, and Sephiroth stepping back towards Cloud, that she could take a moment to compose herself, find a new way not to let the fear show.
Of course she was wrong. Sephiroth saw it all.
The white-haired General watched the woman freeze, but she must have known he'd followed her back to the lab, a few doors down from where Cloud had finally been moved - she must have known he would ask.
//As if I'd ever take such a simple answer, when he was screaming in my arms.//
The blonde was sleeping soundly now, exhausted by all that had happened, and the white-haired General had gladly exchanged his fear for anger, and a solid determination to find answers, to insure this would not happen again.
Melissa was staring, not so much at him, he realized, as the closed door - she /did/ know something, and he was the only one to recognize it.
"Tell me what's going on, doctor."
"I c-can't." Her voice was shaking, and she drew her arms to herself for a moment, helplessness a painful thing. "I can't..." The low tone dropped to a whisper. "God, I can't take this anymore."
She was sobbing, head pressed against the wall, hands alternating from clutching desperately at her own arms, to clenched fists at her sides. If she hadn't been afraid someone else might have seen, Melissa knew would have screamed, and even that would leave her with nothing better, only back where she had started -
//with nothing... just like the rest of the world.//
Sephiroth watched her calmly, could feel the dividing line being drawn inside his mind, emotions quietly withdrawing to make way for necessary action. He felt no fear, no dread, only calm certainty. It was the worst days of the Wutai war once again, and he was prepared to meet this storm head on. He listened, until the sobs became sniffles, Melissa not so much regaining control as simply wearing out, with no more energy to supply a breakdown.
"What's going on, doctor? I want an answer, /now/."
He may as well have been trying to intimidate a wall of stone. Pure agony flashed in the eyes that met his, fury and sorrow and suffering, Melissa's voice shook with it, tears continuing to fall though she seemed now uninterested in simple grief.
"We're all going to die. The war is over. We've lost."
Sephiroth stood in silence, as Melissa stalked forward, past him, to press a button on the wall, a screen descending in front of the night sky, windows automatically closing as the projector blinked on.
He recognized the script, the pattern, red letters reflecting on the tabletops, the edge of Melissa's glasses. The Jenova pattern, streaming endlessly across the void.
"It's nonsense. A false code, I just put it up because... I suppose like looking into hell." Melissa's laugh sounded like rotting meat. "It's the final shift... and even if it's not, it will be for us."
"I don't understand." Sephiroth could feel the cold chill, deep in the back of his mind, a part he was ignoring, though he realized it was stupid to do so, to imagine that some simple, overlooked fact could have caused Melissa's sudden breakdown.
//The almighty General, always so sure he knows what's best, always sure he has the answers...//
"The code's showing red for a reason. The numbers might be meaningless, but they're still all /hers/. The Lifestream is Jenova's now, all of it. It happened near the end of the battle, just when we were winning. I don't know why." He didn't have to look, to know she was speaking through gritted teeth. "God damn it, we were /winning/."
"Pull yourself together." Sephiroth snapped, wishing he knew enough about the systems to search the records himself, needing to at least pretend he had things under control "So, this is the reason Cloud is sick?"
Melissa closed her eyes, arms sliding up once more to hug herself tightly, her voice somewhere between professionally crisp and shattered.
"Do you know how easy that last battle was? I mean, you haven't been here long enough to know... but we got off easy. I think that happened, because Hojo was busy working on this - losing the battle, but winning the war."
The scientist pressed her fingertips to her temples, the truth painfully unbearable, that she was responsible, she hadn't see this coming.
"If there's anything left of the Lifestream, I can't find it, and with Cloud as close as he is to the Planet... he's dying, Sephiroth."
"You've said as much before."
Melissa's glare was vicious.
"You have another miracle like the last one? Can I borrow one or two more, then - shit, we won't have to worry about the entire war anymore, will we?!"
Sephiroth could feel his heart, slamming hard, somewhere beneath the chill steel wall of his intellect, felt anger as he fumbled slightly for something to say, fury at the anger, determination at the fury, emotion on top of emotion as long as he didn't have to look directly at the truth.
//Cloud is dying?!//
"How does Reeve not know about this?"
It was a stupid hope - that if Reeve didn't know, somehow it couldn't be true, but it was all he had to keep himself even remotely calm. If he asked the right questions, he was sure they would poke holes in Melissa's seeming certainties, wouldn't they? If he refused to attack the realization head on...
//NO! I won't believe it!//
"No one knows, except for me and you. Mideel only collects the data most of the time, and they have their hands full now with just keeping the equipment running. They don't know /why/ things are so active, all the data comes to me and Shera first, and I've been hiding it from her, making up fake data, false numbers..."
"Why?! Why would you do such a thing? Why aren't you telling anyone?"
Melissa looked away, voice half-clogged with tears, and raspy.
"You don't remember what it was like, with Meteor in the sky, what it was like to live under a death sentence. Do you know how many people died, how many committed suicide, because they would rather choose the moment of their death, than have it chosen for them. The stress, the terror, knowing there was nowhere to go, no way to survive."
"... but you /did/ survive! We'll come up with a plan, we can-"
"How?!" The anger in Melissa's voice was a deep, empty pit. "If we doubled our attack on the Crater, /doubled/ it with men and resources ShinRa and Wutai /do not have/, it would still take a year to break through the rest of Hojo's forces at the Crater. A year at the very /least/!"
"... and the Planet, it won't last that long."
Melissa looked down at her clasped hands, swallowing back a lump of fear and misery. "The readings change by the day. I'm surprised Cloud didn't feel it sooner, really. The Planet's gone crazy. Whatever's going on, even if we killed Hojo today, it wouldn't stop. If we cracked the code, if I had all of his data at my fingertips right now, even /then/ I don't know if I could recode an antidote that would work, or if it would make any difference."
The woman pressed her hands to her eyes, wiping away the tears that would not fall.
"The Planet is dying, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. The least I can do, General Sephiroth, is give everyone as much peace as I can, and keep this a secret until the ground crumbles beneath all our feet."
"Seph..." Cloud shifted against him, his voice soft, puzzled. It had been hours since the white-haired SOLDIER had been allowed to take his lover home, the blonde slowly recovering, but still remembering little of what had happened."... are you still awake? What's wrong?"
"I'm... just thinking."
//He's going to die... the Planet is dying, and there's nothing... nothing anyone can do.//
Melissa's words slid into him like stiletto knives. Glowing blue eyes blinked sleepily, studying him, so concerned and affectionate that the white-haired man almost had to look away.
//I suppose it will be much like the last time, the life will just drain away from him.//
Except this time he wouldn't be able to stop it. He wouldn't be able to do anything, but sit by helplessly, and watch...
//I can't. I just /found him/, we haven't had any time to do /anything/, to live past the shadow of this goddamn war. I can't lose him so soon... I can't...//
The thought of life without Cloud was more than Sephiroth could bear to imagine. He, the man who had always prided himself on his strength, on his resolve and solitary pride - he couldn't even /think/ of being alone again.
He'd tried, ashamed of himself for the attempt, to confine his feelings, push them away, just a little, to protect himself... but it hadn't worked, it just wouldn't. He loved Cloud, no matter what that might mean... or how much it might hurt in the end.
"Seph?" His arm had tightened around the half-awake blonde without thinking, and Cloud was now awake, carefully stroking his arm with the back of his smaller hand - had he always seemed so fragile? "Do you need me? I'm right here."
The touch was wonderful, always so carefully gentle, but Sephiroth could barely feel it now, a part of his mind too busy trying to catch it in memory, clutching the feeling desperately close, trying to hang on, for the moment when it would no longer be... when he...
//No. Please.// He couldn't help but ask, though he didn't believe anyone was listening in. //Please God, please, please no.//
A thought had been hiding, in the very back of his mind, something he had refused to even acknowledge as anything more than the culmination of fear and sorrow - a desperate action. He still refused, refused to even /imagine/...
"Cloud." Green eyes lifted skyward, though if there was a God, Sephiroth assumed he was already well beyond salvation. "Do you trust me?"
A soft chuckle, the blonde's hand squeezed his with gentle affection.
"Is this one of those kinky sex things? Leather straps from the ceiling or paddles or live nude chocobos or something?"
"Live nude...?" Sephiroth snorted at the inane comment, but almost immediately felt the good humor crumble into painful splinters, as he imagined a future where it was all gone, an empty bed without the warm body beside his now, without the laughter, without Cloud...
"Of course I trust you." Cloud still had his eyes close, did not see the distress flickering in the jade eyes. "I love you."
In Cloud's mind, the words were all he needed to say, and he finally fell back asleep as Sephiroth said nothing, though his hand still rested against the other man's, a silent promise - if you need me, I'm here.
//... but for how long? A month, two...?//
/We'll all be soon to follow, and Jenova will be the master of it all. I wonder if we'll even remember who we were then, or what it meant to love./
Sephiroth did not sleep, staring into the darkness as if somehow it held the answers he needed, as if it was the enemy he could defeat merely by refusing to look away. He tried to avoid thinking too hard, allowing his mind to fixate on despair, the hourglass, slowly running down, Cloud quietly slipping away...
//I /can't/ lose him.//
He wasn't noble enough to believe it was love that he felt, knew the feeling that filled him was terror, selfish desperation. Sephiroth didn't want to be strong enough to go on without Cloud, couldn't imagine a return to what had been, the dull, lonely, utterly meaningless tread of days.
The darkness at the heart of the night whispered back to his distress, dark and heavy with impossible choices, decisions he couldn't possibly be forced to make - and when inspiration finally struck, the pain of it was blinding.
//You know what you have to do.//
/No./ He closed his eyes tightly against the possibilities, but his logical mind was merciless, forcing him to see what might be. /No./
Impossible, except that he had been /born/ to make them, /created/ to make the tough choices, and follow through with them.
Sephiroth did not sleep - finally realized he was praying again - without even the ghosts of words, to a god he didn't really believe would care - begging fate and circumstance and time, that a General's strength, a SOLDIER's power, that it would be enough...
//I can't lose him... I /can't/...//
... that it would be enough... that it would be enough.
Author's notes - who the hell glued these quarters to the floor?
1. I swiped a line from the Jay and Silent Bob movie. I doubt Kevin Smith will ever know or give a damn. See the movie, it is good.
2. Wow, I know all the radio play between Cid, Cloud and everyone else was total B.S... and hell, a lot of other stuff was total B.S. too. Forgive me.
3. Okay, if I refuse to write more LHR until Krista Perry writes another chapter of All But Blood or Madamhydra slams out another gorgeous Conflicts of Interest chapter, /then/ will I get more tasty goodness?! I want tasty goodness, please give me tasty goodness!!!
4. Thanks to all the fanartists and readers out there who take the time out to let me know what you think. It means the world. Oi, Asposdracos, viva la shonen-ai!
5. Read Sunshine in Winter by Guardian. It's fun and sweet and good. ... and if I could remember who wrote the ONE Vincent-Cloud story I've found on FFNet, I'd suggest reading that too. ... and if I could find it again, I'd be going less nuts, as I left off just as Vincent met Cloud again. >.< Suspense!
6. Cloud's listening to Paul Van Dyke's remix of Saint Etienne's "Tell Me Why," just in case anyone cared. : )
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