A/N - I am SO sorry. RL just got absolutely mad, and before I knew it, I had turned around and nearly a year had passed. Long story short, I was doing more or less four people's jobs (not an exagerration, they have hired three people for my team.) It also didn't help that my laptop had broken (a simple fix, just one I didn't have the time to do) and all my writing was stuck on it for months. Hopefully, with that help I'll now not be doing 12-14 hour days, and actually have time to write.
This is unbeta'd - I don't know if my beta is still even around it's been so long, and I didn't want to make anyone wait any longer. So any errors are mine. Feel free to PM me if you can deal with sporadic updates and want to beta. Also, I would like to extend a HUGE thank you to everyone who has alerted/fav'd reviewed even without any indication this story would continue.
Reeve was waiting outside of the WRO headquarters when Fenrir pulled up. Cloud launched himself off the bike before it had even come to a complete stop, eyes darting around trying to figure out where Sephiroth was, sword at the ready.
The executive chuckled, hands going up in a placating motion. He was glad he had decided to meet the blond outside – all he needed was a panicked world saviour rampaging through the hallways after 'sightings' of the 'long dead' Silver General. Every woman, and quite a few men, would just be sitting outside their offices waiting to see who would go by next. Or there would be mass hysteria. Either way, there certainly wouldn't be any work getting done.
"Calm down Cloud; he's not here. Sephiroth has gone back to Healin to return the helicopter he borrowed and bully Rufus into giving him his back pay. Though I imagine Rufus will wish you were there to protect him from that."
The First Tsuragi dropped to a slightly more neutral position. "Back...pay?" That certainly didn't sound like something someone bent on world destruction would be interested in. And now that he had calmed down slightly, seeing as the building wasn't in ruins and Reeve looked to be unharmed, he had to concede that he couldn't feel the other man around. Not that it meant anything – he could have simply told Reeve that and instead been going off to destroy some poor defenceless town. It didn't really make sense to lie to someone who had no power to stop him...but no one had ever commended the ex-General on his sanity. Before or after Nibelheim.
"Yes, Cloud, it tends to help having money to start your life over. He wants a job – helping around Edge. I've set him up doing some of the heavier construction work as well as being on-call for any serious monster issues the regular troops can't handle. He refused to rejoin Shinra, and, from what I could tell, regrets his actions, and what his actions caused."
Cloud continued to stare at Reeve, his mind still not quite slowed down from the panic he had been feeling all the way from Healin. He had been convinced he was going to get to the WRO just to find bodies strewn all over, and he had been tearing himself up over whether he should even go to the headquarters or directly to Edge. To find out he had come to ask about a job didn't quite register.
"So...you really think he's...safe?" He had lowered his sword completely by now, but kept it in hand; still half expecting the other swordsman to jump out and attack. Perhaps a bit paranoid, but given the clones' ability to get anywhere so quickly (some ability of Jenova's, no doubt) he wouldn't dismiss the idea completely.
Reeve shrugged. "He seemed to be the same as he was before the events at Nibelheim. I would never call him safe, but I doubt we have to worry about any more murderous rampages."
"What has he been told?"
"I believe only the basics. He wasn't at Healin long enough to have been told everything, and honestly, I don't believe he fully trusts Rufus. Not that I can blame him on that."
Cloud snorted; that at least was a good call on the former General's part. But still, the full story needed to be told, and the lies and half-truths he had learned in Nibelheim set straight. Unfortunately, there were few people still around that Cloud felt Sephiroth would be willing to trust. Reeve was, ironically, probably one of those few. "I suppose it will be up to me to tell him, then?"
"Well, out of everyone, you're probably the best suited, don't you think?" The executive gave a half-shrug. "Either way, I told him that I would meet him at Edge. I don't suppose I could get a ride with you? I'm sure you want to be there as well. Cait Sith is already on his way; just to keep an eye on things until we arrive."
With a weary sigh, the blond slung his leg back over his bike, gesturing for the executive to join him. Reeve was right; there was no way he'd let Sephiroth around Rune or his adopted family without him there. Just because he seemed to be reformed didn't mean he actually was. Sure, it wasn't Sephiroth's normal style, but perhaps being soundly defeated twice had taught him caution. Cloud would just have to see for himself. Once the older man was seated securely behind him, he headed back towards Edge, as quickly as he could go without giving Reeve a heart attack.
Staring out over the ruins of Midgar, Sephiroth felt a niggling, incredibly unwelcome sensation. From long ago discussions with Angeal, he knew it had to be guilt or possibly shame. While it was true that he wasn't actually the one to summon Meteor, it had been because of his actions, or lack thereof. The events at Nibelheim were slowly getting clearer, although he had a feeling that full clarity might not ever fully return. He wasn't sure whether he liked that idea or not. His memories were crystal clear – as they all were – up to the point when he entered the Shinra Mansion's library, and he could remember the harsh words he said to Genesis, and the taunting he had received in return. What would have happened, had he simply offered to help the other man? But because he had felt betrayed by Genesis' actions, and Angeal's, he had reacted childishly (he could admit that to himself, even if to no one else) and denied his assistance.
Or perhaps there hadn't been anything he could have done – perhaps they had all been doomed the second they had set foot in Nibelheim. Had he helped Genesis or not, the redhead's words would have spurred him to enter that godsforsaken building, and discover the truth about his origins. But either way, seeing the twisted, half melted spike of metal that used to be the Shinra tower, he couldn't help but wish it had ended differently. He was supposed to be the hero; not the villain.
Squaring his shoulders, and reminding himself that, hero or villain, he had never been a coward, he headed down towards what Reeve had told him was, rather unimaginatively, called Edge.
Wandering through the streets, Sephiroth couldn't help but notice the places where it looked like this new 'city' had been attacked. Some newly built 'buildings' – hovels and lean-to's as he had often seen under the Plate – were already demolished, and there was debris that looked like it had come from the ruins of Midgar littering the streets. He wondered if there had been another attack; perhaps a group outside of Edge scavenging for what the survivors had managed to scrap together. Or perhaps the people in those buildings hadn't made it, and the houses had fallen into disrepair – though that seemed less likely as it would make more sense to just have a new family or group move in. The uncomfortable through that there might not have been more families to move in crossed his mind, but he pushed it away irritably. He definitely did not like this whole 'guilt' thing.
Still, whatever had happened, he was glad he had chosen to join the WRO and help rebuild – there was so much here that they would need someone enhanced to assist with. From what both Rufus and Reeve had left unsaid, he didn't think there was much of SOLDIER left. While he would mourn his lost colleagues, he couldn't help but be glad the programme had been ended; too much harm had come from it. Zack had been right when he said it was a den of monsters.
There weren't many people on the streets, but the few there were giving him strange looks, and he knew it would only be a matter of time before the rumours started to spread. He headed back out to the road to wait for Reeve to arrive, letting the whispers of 'SOLDIER' and 'Shinra' fade until even his hearing couldn't pick them up. He knew, from what Reeve had said, that his, or at least his clone's, part in Meteor was not known by the general public, and he could only assume from Rufus' rather low key activities that Shinra had been the one blamed. While he certainly wasn't afraid of a mob attacking him, unarmed or not, it would not make a very good first impression if they did attack and he was forced to protect himself.
It made him wonder what would be said about his re-emergence after so many years. He had paid little attention to his reputation when he was at Shinra. There were plenty of people who felt Shinra's attack on Wutai was unjust, and perhaps it had been, but it had still been a war. If Wutai had held the greater strength, they wouldn't have hesitated to use it, and Sephiroth therefore didn't see anything wrong about his actions there. People who didn't have their lives on the line had a much easier time speaking of ideals. He fought, he was good at it, and if people were scared of him, well, that was their problem. Sephiroth had his few friends within the company, and that had been good enough. Now though, all he had was his casual companionship with Tseng, which would always be tempered by his allegiance to Shinra. Angeal was dead, from what he gathered Genesis was dead as well, as was Zack, tentative though their friendship may have been.
Ironically, the one person who may have understood the most, having been through much of what he had been through, and lost just as much, had the most reason to hate him. He wanted to speak to the infantryman; assuming the man didn't attack him on sight, he might at least be able to find out what happened to Zack. Then he'd see if there were any of his SOLDIERs left; General or not, he still felt a responsibility to his men. Who knows; maybe he could recruit them for the WRO. Sephiroth resisted the urge to shake his head in irritation; he knew it was pointless to dwell on these things, but he had never felt so out of his depth, and he hated it. Resigning himself to deal with whatever was coming, he scanned the horizon for Reeve's arrival.
Reeve clung to Cloud's back and the swordsman raced through the barrens before Edge. He was deeply regretting not finding another ride. Cloud tended to drive recklessly at the best of times, and regardless of Reeve's assurances, he was still convinced that Sephiroth would attack Edge. Not that Reeve could completely dismiss the idea either; he was quite sure, but not sure enough to risk people's lives on. Which was why he had sent Cait Sith on to Edge the second Sephiroth had left the WRO. The cat would let its creator know if Sephiroth started acting violent – or crazy. Not that he'd told Cloud; the swordsman was on edge enough without adding to it.
Still, it was with a sigh of relief that they got close enough to Edge to see the irregular skyline. Reeve felt Cloud relax minutely, and assumed that the other man couldn't hear or see anything with his enhanced senses. Reeve relaxed slightly when their speed dropped from suicidal to daredevil. Still, it wasn't much longer before they could see the glint off silver, and the businessman knew it had to be Sephiroth. It made Reeve wonder why the man was standing outside the city waiting for them; unless he had already been there and found either overwhelming hostility or hero worship. The General had been considered a war hero, but he had also been the main poster boy for Shinra, and the defunct company was anything but popular amongst the survivors. As Rufus had made himself scarce, Sephiroth may have found himself taking the blame for Shinra's actions, even if they didn't know how integral Sephiroth had actually been in the destruction of the city.
Or he could, possibly, have already killed everyone. But Reeve doubted that; even in Wutai, before his insanity, Sephiroth wasn't exactly known for his subtlety when it came to killing large amounts of people.
Cloud came to a stop well before they reached Sephiroth, but didn't get off the bike.
"It's strange. I can feel him, but it's...different."
Reeve started when Cloud spoke, slowly peeling himself away from where he had been clinging to the swordsman. "What do you mean?"
"Before, when we were following him, and when he had taken over Kadaj, it felt like a pull...like it was drawing me in." Reeve felt the younger man give a slight shudder, and remembered when Cloud had been drawn to give up the Black Materia. "Now though, it's just an awareness that he's there. I don't feel compelled to go to him; other than to make sure he's not a danger anyway."
"Well, I suppose that's good." Reeve swung his leg over the massive bike, and was glad that he didn't topple to the ground. Cloud dismounted much more fluidly, and glanced back at the executive.
Reeve nodded; feeling much less nervous than the last meeting.
"Sephiroth. I hope we didn't keep you waiting too long."
The warrior shook his head, eyes glancing back at the fledgling city. "No, not at all. I was taking a look around."
Reeve nodded. "Then you see why your help will be invaluable. While most of the construction can be done by regular citizens, there are some places that are too dangerous for unenhanced people to go near. Not to mention that having someone with enhanced strength will make everything go much faster."
"As well as prevent rogue monsters from attacking while we are rebuilding, no doubt."
The executive couldn't help a small smile. "Yes, that would definitely be considered an asset. I understand your reluctance to become part of a fighting force, but having you with the building crews means we could free up our soldiers to go out on patrols rather than standing guard on the off chance a monster does get through to the city."
Sephiroth nodded. "I can agree with that. I have no reluctance to taking out monsters, or even going out if there happens to be something your unenhanced troops can't handle. I simply do not wish to join another military force, in any capacity."
"That's fine. We have everyone set up on a rotating schedule; I'll work that out for you tonight, and get you started the day after tomorrow. Unless that's too soon; I'm sure you have a lot of things to get set up."
"That should be fine. Anything I had would have been in the tower, so it's just a matter of finding someplace to stay. How does that work in this...Edge?" Reeve could hear the reluctance to ask that question, and knew the younger man must have been embarrassed to have to ask what should be a simple question, but Reeve knew he had always lived in the Shinra Tower, and like everyone who chose that option, living expenses would have been taken directly out of his pay, so all he would have ever had to worry about were any personal purchases. There had even been delivery services set up for groceries, which he knew most SOLDIERs opted for unless they had a family, as their missions often took them away from Midgar for long stretches of time. This would be his first time actually purchasing his own place, and it was clear he was already out of his depth, though the other man would never let such a weakness show.
"There are two options; one is that you can pay for an already built apartment. They're rather small, but it should be enough for one person. The other option is to buy a space and either build or hire someone to build a house on that space. There are two different building crews; the WRO funded one, who builds houses for the people who lost everything, and they 'pay' for their new home by working for the WRO, and the private building crews, who are paid in the traditional manner. It was a hard call to make, but we need to stimulate the economy or else we won't be able to move forward from this. In fact..."
The brunet was cut off by a not so subtle cough from Cloud. He grinned sheepishly, realizing that neither man really cared about his long term economic plans. "Right. So what would you like to do?"
"I suppose I'll go with one of the apartments for now, until I can have something built. Is there a place I can stay tonight? Unfortunately Shinra has not given me any funds yet."
Reeve frowned, and glanced back at Cloud. There were places like that, but he did not think it would be a good idea for Sephiroth to go to one. He wasn't sure of how the people already there would react to the emergence of the Shinra General after so many years, and he also wasn't sure Sephiroth would deign to stay in one of the, admittedly poor, establishments they had set up. Thankfully, the blond seemed to catch on to his unspoken question, and with a roll of his eyes and a look that said they would be having words about it later, he nodded.
"Cloud stays at a place called Seventh Heaven; it is a bar, but they do have a few rooms upstairs. I'm sure he can put you up for a few nights."
Sephiroth looked at the blond, doubt clear in the gaze, but he clearly realized that it was the best offer he was going to get at such short notice. His only other viable choice was to go back to Shinra, and Reeve was sure that wouldn't happen. He wouldn't trust Rufus, and he had no doubt Sephiroth wouldn't either.
With a barely suppressed sigh, Cloud gestured back towards the city. "I suppose if that's it, we should head there now and get you settled." Reeve could tell by Cloud's voice that he was far from happy, but he pasted a polite smile on anyway.
"I think that's it. Any details we can iron out as we go. Lead the way Cloud."
Sephiroth kept glancing discretely at the blond warrior that had apparently beaten him once, and Jenova posing as his clones on several occasions, as they walked towards what Reeve had called 'Seventh Heaven'. He certainly didn't look like much; more confidence than he remembered Zack's infantryman friend having, but no more height and very little extra muscle. However, given that that bastard Hojo had had his claws in the boy for four years it wasn't surprising that he had the strength of a First Class, or more accurately, himself.
There was also the fact that the only time he had met Strife before had been on that trip to Nibelheim, and the circumstances hadn't been great. There had first been the truck ride, with the resulting motion sickness, and then the boy's obvious desire to not be noticed in his hometown. From what he could remember Zack saying, Strife hadn't wanted anyone to recognize him because he had not managed to make SOLDIER yet. There had apparently been some girl he had wanted to impress. A fairly lousy reason to want to have your body twisted and tainted by Mako, but most recruits who joined Shinra in hopes of becoming SOLDIER hadn't known of the truth of it, and he was frankly relieved to find someone who hadn't joined solely because they wanted to meet or be just like the 'great General Sephiroth' – though if that had entered into the blond's mind, it wasn't likely something he would admit to anymore.
He also couldn't help but notice that the other man's posture never relaxed. The ex-General was used to fear, even to active dislike, but it still bothered him that he had actually done things to merit the reaction. The dislike he had experienced in the past either had to do with anything Shinra, which he could ignore as it wasn't aimed at him, but rather what he stood for, or from Wutains, and that had been because of the war. This was personal, and he wasn't sure how to handle it. Genesis and he had been rivals, but at the root of it, it had been a friendly rivalry. Sure, Angeal had to step in more often than not to prevent bloodshed, but neither of them had ever come close to striking a serious blow. Now he was face to face, and expected to interact with, someone that he caused irreparable damage to.
Reeve had run off after a phone call that demanded his presence back at the office, leaving the two warriors to sort out Sephiroth's temporary living arrangements. Sephiroth couldn't help but think it was partly to help him until he received his money from Shinra, but partly (or even mostly) to keep an eye on him. Trying to appear non-threatening – a difficult feat given the fact that the only clothing he currently owned was his Shinra issued uniform – he decided to break the tense silence.
"I am only here to apologize, and provide my assistance in rebuilding. I will also only infringe on your hospitality until Rufus sees fit to release my assets."
The blond frowned, but nodded slightly. "I will stop you again if I need to."
An elegant silver eyebrow rose. "And you think you can? You've never truly faced me before, you realize."
"I'll do what I have to." Sephiroth was impressed by the strength of conviction in those few words, and had to grudgingly admit the man would have made a good SOLDIER. It was also obvious why Fair had befriended him. Zack would have loved his determination, and done anything he could to help the blond succeed. Angeal probably would have taken him under his wing as well, had he still been alive.
Both men paused, and turned towards the door as they heard several people approaching. Cloud cursed, and Sephiroth listened closer. The lack of trust only bothered him once he realized that from the lightness of the footsteps there were children approaching. He had never, knowingly and willingly at least, killed children, and he didn't plan to start.
When the door opened, he was even more shocked that he vaguely remembered the female that entered. If his memory was correct – and it usually was – the woman who stood in front of him had been their tour guide on that fateful trip. She had thankfully grown out of the tacky cowgirl outfit, although the new outfit wasn't much more modest. At least his rampage hadn't killed everyone. Dark eyes narrowed, and she tensed into a battle stance. She pushed the children behind her, but one small form ducked under her legs and ran right past Sephiroth. The tiny child clutched at Strife's pants, staring up at him with the same bright blue eyes as his protector. The boy was obviously Strife's but there were no similarities to the brunette standing in the doorway. The other two didn't look like either of them, but they were also obviously too old. Perhaps they were siblings, or the woman was only watching them. Or, as was far too likely, they were orphans the couple had adopted.
Green eyes narrowed in thought, but he pushed it aside and turned towards the woman. "I am not here to harm children, or anyone else. As I told Strife, I wished to offer my help."
"Help in rebuilding the damage you caused?"
The warrior twitched at the accusation, but he was smart enough to realize that the other wasn't concerned about the technicalities. "Yes."
"Tifa, enough. I believe that it wasn't truly him." Sephiroth hid his amazement that the blond was actually defending him, even if he still hadn't dropped his guard.
"It was him at Nibelheim. Excuse me if I don't want the children around a killer."
"You let them around Reno and Rude."
"How is it different? Because they were just following orders? Or because you like Rude?"
That seemed to have shut the woman up, although Sephiroth was still in a bit of shock that the blond was actually defending him. He would also have to re-evaluate their relationship, and their connection to the children. Clearing his throat, he brought both of their attention back to him. "While I do appreciate your words, Strife, I understand Ms Lockhart's...aversion to my presence around the children. I will still offer my help, but I will make sure that I'm not around them."
Tifa glanced between them, and then nodded, apparently satisfied. "Alright. Cloud?"
"I'll be up in a few minutes Tifa."
She sighed, clearly unhappy with the situation, but nodded again and herded the children upstairs. The littlest clung to Cloud for another minute, before a gentle push had him following along.
"She will get over her hate eventually. She has with Shinra at least."
Sephiroth gave a small smile. "Yes...Rude was it? A good man."
The blond shrugged. "As good as you can get with the Turks."
"The organization may do less than savoury things; however, the one thing that they can't be faulted on is their loyalty. If he cares for your friend, she will never be in safer hands."
Blue eyes narrowed for a minute, but the warrior nodded reluctantly. "I meant what I said to Tifa. I am aware that you were not the one to summon Meteor."
"And the events of Nibelheim?"
Strife sighed, and ran his hands through spiky hair that reminded him far too much of Zack's. "I don't think I can forgive you yet – Tifa might never forgive you. But...I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have reacted similarly in your position. Your anger could have been better directed, but I can't hate you. Zack wouldn't have wanted me to." The last bit was said reluctantly, but Sephiroth seized on the opportunity. He still hadn't gotten a straight answer out of anyone else, and he might not get another chance to speak to the blond privately.
"What happened to him?"
The blond looked confused. "They...didn't tell you?" He snorted and shook his head. "No, of course they wouldn't have. And Tseng promised full disclosure. I don't know what you remember, but after the reactor we were practically dead. Hojo decided to use us as new 'specimens', I suppose since he had lost you. Or he was bored; with Hojo it's hard to say. After four years in there, Zack got us out. I had Mako poisoning; couldn't even eat on my own. I was just a burden to him, but still he dragged me around, he wouldn't...he refused to give up on me. From what I could piece together, we were on the run for about a year, chased by Shinra. We were...right outside Midgar, in the barrens, when the army finally caught up to us. He hid me, and fought. From what I've been told, he took them all out, or almost all, before he finally fell. I...was only just coming out of the fog I had been in. Before the end, I managed to get to him, see him before he died. He gave me the Buster sword, and I continued to Midgar. If I had...I still wasn't completely right in the head. He died, and I just left."
Sephiroth shook his head; appalled at what had happened to his only remaining friend because of his own actions. Knowing he had died, at Shinra's hand no less, was different than knowing how much the man had struggled only to ultimately fail. "I am sorry to hear that. He was a good man. He deserved better."
"Would...you might be able to talk to him." The blond looked almost surprised at his own statement, but resolute.
Sephiroth gave him a strange look, but Strife looked like he was serious. With a mental shrug, he nodded. "Alright."
Strife blinked, clearly not expecting such easy acceptance. "Alright, let's go. It's a decent drive." He glanced up the stairs, then headed to the door. Sephiroth wondered if the blond's offer came from a genuine wish to have him see Zack (if it was really possible) or a desire to put off the confrontation Sephiroth could see would happen with the brunette as soon as they returned. But he certainly had enough on his plate without getting involved in a domestic squabble.
"Where Zack died, yea."
Sephiroth gazed out where he could just make out the ruins of Midgar. The blond hadn't been exaggerating when he said they had been close. He clenched his fists, anger at himself bubbling up inside to join with the despair. How was he supposed to convince people he deserved a second chance when he himself didn't believe that?
You're being too hard on yourself, man.
He drew in a sharp breathe, and spun, trying to find the source of the voice. Noticing green, he turned to face the sword stuck into the rock. Zack was leaning on it, looking more or less how he had before Nibelheim – if you could ignore the fact that the horizon was visible through him.
It wasn't your fault. I mean, yea, sure, you could have reacted better, but talk about a mindfuck, right? The point is, there's plenty of blame all over the place. And my death definitely wasn't your fault. That was all Hojo and Shinra. The point is, the people who need to be dead are, and if some people should still be alive...well. I'm sure Angeal would have some speech about honour and dreams and such. I died to save Cloud, and Aerith died to save, well, everyone, and that's good enough for me. Do me a favour though, alright? Try to be a little happier this time around.
With a wink, the shade disappeared, and Sephiroth was left staring at the rusting Buster sword. He hadn't even had a chance to say anything, but that was okay – he probably wouldn't have been able to find the right words anyway.
Strife had moved a ways away, to give him some privacy, and when the blond returned, Sephiroth was surprised to see his eyes were wet. But then, given what the two men had gone through together, it wasn't so surprising. His eyes fell to the sword again, and he shook his head. "That can't stay here."
"What?" The comment had apparently started the younger man, and Sephiroth shrugged. It just felt...wrong. It was a fitting memorial to Zack, of course; the man had been a strong fighter. But it was the Buster. Angeal – and Zack, for what the sword meant to his mentor – would have had a fit to see it in the state it was in.
Strife nodded. "I think I know where to put it."
A/N – they never mention how/why the Buster sword is moved in AC. This is my artistic license take on how it moved from the barrens to the church.
Also, we'll have more of Cloud's thoughts next chapter. (Which will hopefully not take another year...)I tried, but it just didn't fit in anywhere.