To Blossom As the Rose

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine (except the Lieutenant) and the story is! This is a unique project. Normally I detest AU scenarios, but a Western setting is one of only a couple of exceptions I'd ever make. I'm not sure whether to place Final Fantasy VII above the story title or not. I will be using two of the characters as main characters, and some others to appear occasionally, but the other main characters will be from two little-known 1950s Western movies I love: Smoke Signal and Two-Gun Lady. The first scene of Smoke Signal is on YouTube (although it isn't clear from that just how amazing the movie is, one of this story's main characters, Captain Harper, is visible) and a detailed summary is available at TCM. For those with Netflix Streaming, Two-Gun Lady is available. Believe it or not, the basis for this story came from a dream I had several years ago. Recently I stumbled across the Livejournal entry where I talked about it and it's been on my mind since. I have decided to try writing this experimental story loosely based on some elements of the dream. I can't guarantee it will be finished, but I certainly make it my goal to try.

Chapter One

The young woman clasped her hands in her lap, watching the scenery of the desert bounce past the window. She had not wanted to take a stagecoach; she had been told that the train went into the town of Edge. But once out in the wilderness she had discovered that part of the rail to Edge had been damaged and was in serious need of repair. She did not feel like waiting the days it would take to have it running again, so there had been no choice but to take a stage the rest of the way.

She had not known what to expect from this part of the world at all. When Mrs. Gainsborough had written, she had assured her that the West had its own kind of rugged beauty. At the same time, she had also said that it would be different from anything the new traveler had previously known.

That was certainly proving true. She could not help being nervous and afraid of this venture, so far removed from her native Boston. With her mother having recently passed away, she had decided to take the offer of their family friend Elmyra Gainsborough and move here to live instead of staying home alone. Maybe she would stay, maybe she would not. The house in Boston, lonely and empty, was still there for her if she changed her mind. The neighbors had agreed to watch over it until they heard from her.

A patch of color caught her eye and she leaned forward, not wanting to miss any part of the sight. So far, most of what she had seen on this trek had been sometimes-browning grass and an assortment of shrubbery, with occasional trees. Recently she had started to see a number of red rocks and mountains, as well. It was lovely—even the grass in its own way—but she could not help missing the lush green carpets and rainbows of colors back East.

Now, a field of yellow wildflowers bobbed and waved, almost as though welcoming her to their corner of the Western frontier. A smile broke through her curious, tense features. If the desert was filled with beautiful places such as this, she could definitely come to love it.

So, flowers grow here too.

The sudden jolting and slowing down of the stage abruptly brought her attention back to her situation. Up ahead was the familiar gate of sharpened logs that signaled a U.S. Cavalry fort. Several cavalrymen had departed the gate and were riding towards the coach on strong brown horses. The one in the lead raised a white-gloved hand, gesturing for the vehicle to stop. The driver pulled on the lines, bringing the harnessed horses to a trot and then a full halt.

"What's the trouble, Captain?" he called.

"There's no trouble—yet," the Captain responded. "But it's easy to get lost in this country. We've been assigned to escort into town each and every stage that comes through here."

"I see," the driver mused. He did not sound convinced, but he was not about to question the military's orders, either. "Alright," he said then. "We might as well go." He snapped the reins, clicking to the horses. They started to move forward.

"Wait!"

The stage jerked to a stop. "What is it?" the driver demanded, glancing downward to see his passenger leaning out the window. Her straw hat fell back on her head, and out of instinct she reached up to hold it down with a delicate hand.

"Aren't you even going to wait long enough to introduce me to our escorts?" she smiled.

The Captain rode over, staying astride his mount. "I'm Captain Harper, Miss," he said. "I'm sorry if this is an inconvenience for you."

"Oh no," she answered. "I understand." She reached up, offering her hand. "I'm Aerith Gast."

A bit awkward, Captain Harper managed to lean down to shake her hand. Aerith took the chance to get a good look at him. He was likely in his mid-to-late thirties, serious but handsome. His blue eyes were sharp and alert. Underneath his white hat, his hair appeared medium brown and naturally curled.

"What brings you to Edge, Miss Gast?" he inquired as he straightened up. "Most girls your age stay away from these out-of-the-way towns, unless they're joining their families." He eyed her smartly dressed appearance and the tightly-weaved hat. It was obvious from those and her speech that she was from a large city and probably quite well-off.

"I'm joining a family friend, Captain," Aerith said.

"Visiting?" Harper returned.

"Well . . . I'm not sure yet," Aerith confessed. "I might be staying a while."

"I see." Harper moved to turn his horse around. "We should get started. It's going to be dark before long."

"Is it very dangerous to travel after dark, Captain?" Aerith called after him.

Harper paused. "That all depends, Miss Gast," he said. "And there's no sense taking the chance if we don't have to."

"I'm sure we'll be safe with you leading us," Aerith said.

"Thank you." Now Harper did turn his horse, starting for the front of the procession.

Aerith sighed, leaning back in the seat as she watched him. He was polite but all military; that was obvious. She was used to that, having grown up around the Army back home. Boston, an old seat of patriotism in the United States, had spawned many soldiers in every conflict.

The country was still recovering from the Civil War, which had been over for six years. She had seen so many boys come back from that war, some she had known for years, others she had never before met. They were never quite the same, although some changes were subtler than others. Many returned reserved and quiet or otherwise serious, where once they had been smiling and cheerful most of the time. Others let out their pain through anger and bitterness. Some turned to fighting or drinking.

What bothered Aerith the most was when she found one who tried to act normal, as though nothing had affected him at all. Every now and then she caught a glimpse of sorrow in his eyes behind the sparkle or a laugh that was slightly forced. Those boys worried her deeply. They, perhaps, were the most gravely damaged by the horrors of war, not even able to admit to their pain and going to all possible lengths to not allow it to be seen. And there were others who blocked it out altogether.

At least the great majority of them were able to live relatively normal lives in spite of what they had witnessed and done and how it might still haunt them. That was something that gave her a great deal of hope.

She smoothed out her dress. It looked as though she would probably see a lot of the cavalrymen; they likely came into Edge with some level of frequency, since it was the only town for miles. She did not mind that.

But she did have to wonder whether all of the men at the fort were as formal and distant as Captain Harper.

xxxx

The strong, silvery-haired figure kept a firm grip on his horse's reins as the animal moved over the desert ground. In the man's other gloved hand he clutched a piece of paper, unsure whether to crumple it or simply keep a good hold on it.

Rest and recuperation until further notice.

Those were his orders. Foolish orders, he felt, but he was not about to disobey. When commanded, do it. That had always been his policy. That was how he had come to be a General in the Cavalry despite his unheard-of age.

Well . . . it was one of the reasons, anyway.

And now he was being shuttled out of service as though he had committed some treacherous wrong. He was fine; his sanity had not been compromised by what had happened during his last battle. He had told that again and again to his superiors, to no avail. They, and the doctors who had examined him, believed him to be suffering from some sort of shock or denial. Along with his military orders was a letter signed by the physician, expressing that opinion and his agreement of the consequential decision.

At last the rider shoved the paper into his saddlebag, turning his complete attention to the journey ahead. But then he grimaced, a hand flying to his forehead as the stabbing pain shot through him again.

The desert was no longer silent and empty. Now it was filled with cannon fire, rifle shots, screams and cries—the sounds of battle. And above the macabre noise of it all came a voice, a quiet, smooth voice.

"Don't you know, my friend? We are monsters, you and I. That is what we were raised for from the beginning. The military's secret project."

Despite the calamitous volume of death across the battlefield, that one whispered voice stayed stubbornly in the forefront of his ears.

After that came the point in time that he did not remember. The battle had been won, but he only knew that because he had been told of the victory after coming back to himself in a military infirmary. They had told him that he had been quite out of his head for some time. Unable to recall the truth of that, he had to believe them. Or at least, he had to believe that they believed it.

He did remember that his friend had betrayed him, as well as their country. They had confronted each other on the battlefield. Perhaps he had wounded the other man. Perhaps they had wounded each other. He did not know. And for once, it was something the military did not know, either. He could tell that from their concerned manner as they sought information on the turncoat and his whereabouts.

He looked up, his silver bangs blowing into his face. The desert was still again. Of course, it never had been different; the memories were just that. The past had come to life only in his mind's-eye.

Am I . . . truly insane?

It was moments such as this when he doubted. But then he tried to convince himself that it was all nonsense, that of course he was sane. He managed to make himself believe it for a time. When he imagined up the past the cycle started all over.

The sane did not hallucinate what had already come to pass. They did not become so lost in what could not be altered that it sometimes took doctors and medication to bring them back to the present.

He was the pride of the army, the great General who had led them to victory in countless battles and many wars. He had added to the United States Cavalry's reputation as an integral branch of the young country's military.

Now they did not know what to do with him. In desperation they were sending him as far away as possible, out of the public eye until they could determine his fate. He would be staying in the frontier town of Edge, supposedly to recover in a location where nothing much happened. But if they wanted him to believe that he would be left alone, he knew better. He would be watched at all times. They had chosen Edge because of the Cavalry fort outside the town. The men went into town at some point every day. They would be in a perfect position to spy on him.

Not to mention the personal aide they were sending with him.

"Lieutenant."

The man on the other horse jerked to attention. "Sir?"

Green eyes narrowed, gazing out at the expanse of wilderness all around them. "Tell me, what do you believe concerning my mental health?"

The Lieutenant's eyes widened. "Begging your pardon, Sir, I'm not a doctor."

"I'm not asking for a doctor's opinion; I'm asking for yours."

The lower-ranked officer ran his tongue over his lips, still hesitant to answer. "You've always seemed sane to me, Sir."

The General gave a thoughtful nod. "Why is it, then, that we're being sent to this backwards town at the edge of civilization?"

"Just so you can rest, Sir."

"Is it?" The General frowned. "Or is it perhaps to see if I'm well enough to handle myself in a town full of people? If something goes wrong, the Cavalry is nearby to come and subdue me."

"I'm sure that's not it, Sir." The Lieutenant was firm, but immediately his voice faltered. "I . . . I mean, if they thought there was any danger of you hurting anyone, they wouldn't want you to be turned loose on a town of innocent people, Sir."

The General grunted. "Tell me about Edge, Lieutenant. Wasn't it a lawless town run by a wealthy and ruthless cattle farmer?"

"I think his name was Ivers, Sir. But Edge is different now. The Ivers men are all either dead or in prison, thanks in part to the efforts of a federal marshal. He's become the sheriff of Edge. And then they built the Cavalry fort right near the town."

"Perhaps they're expecting more trouble." The General slowly, thoughtfully nodded. "And perhaps they want me to be in the middle of it if it comes."

"Oh, I'm sure that's not it, Sir," the Lieutenant hurried to say.

"It won't be long and we'll know."

"But they'd tell you if there was a mission for you here, Sir."

The General turned to look at his companion. "You're that convinced? I'm supposed to be recuperating. Perhaps they hope there won't be trouble, yet are attempting to be ready for the worst-case scenario."

"But you might have a setback, Sir," the Lieutenant protested.

Instead of answering, the General rode on ahead. Perhaps, he thought to himself, that was what they wanted to test. He knew that his superiors did not actually care about him; they cared only for the strength he possessed and how it helped further their military objectives. That had been the case his entire life.

He did not have to turn to look to know when the Lieutenant was alongside his horse once more. "What about the commander of the fort?" he inquired, still looking ahead. "This Captain Harper. Do you know what he's like?"

"Not much, Sir," the Lieutenant admitted, apologetically. "He's very devoted to rules and regulations, just as you are. But he is also compassionate—if I may say so, Sir, again similar to you." The General made an unintelligible sound. "His testimony was key in unraveling the truth about that supposed traitor Captain Brett Halliday when he returned and went to court-martial."

Recognition flickered in the General's eyes. "Then he was the main one who helped prove that Halliday's motives were complicated and that he could not be considered a traitor under the circumstances." His voice had gone taut.

"Yes, Sir. And this was after Captain Harper had believed for years that Halliday was a traitor and responsible for killing the Captain's brother. When he learned the actual truth, that Halliday's commander was deliberately inciting war with the Indians and that Halliday left only to try to find a way to end the unnecessary conflict and restore peace, his feelings changed. And about the Captain's brother, Halliday's former commander provoked the battle that killed him. Halliday was only trying to protect women and children who ended up caught in the conflict."

"I wonder what Captain Harper would make of General Rhapsodos."

He could sense the Lieutenant tensing. "I don't know, Sir." That was a subject that their superiors tried to avoid. The physicians who had attended the General had strongly recommended and encouraged it.

If the Lieutenant feared a discussion on the renegade officer, there was no need for concern. The General turned his attention to his stallion, which had begun to toss its head in impatience. Relieved for the diversion, the Lieutenant followed his gaze.

"He's restless," the General commented. "He never has enjoyed traveling at this pace."

"But you've tamed him so well, Sir," the Lieutenant said. "And when no one else thought that a wild Mustang would make a reliable mount."

"Do you believe it is, Lieutenant?" The General tightened his grip on the reins. "This horse's true desire is the freedom to run, to be one with the wind. That's obvious in his behavior and the look in his eye when he sees open spaces. At the first chance for escape, he will be gone. He is one of the fastest mounts in battle, but one of the most unreliable."

"Begging your pardon again, Sir, but he's been with you for years and he hasn't tried to get away yet."

The General gazed out at the desert and the red rocks that were beginning to fill the landscape. "Perhaps, though it shouldn't be so, it's those who have been around for years who require the most distrust."

He snapped the reins, harsh and quick. The Mustang came to life at the signal to gallop. In an instant the great beast was all but flying over the dirt and the plant-life. The General's long hair streamed out behind him as a banner as they pressed forward to the horizon.

The Lieutenant lingered for a moment, watching the spectacle. Then he sighed, sadly shaking his head. The General was not referring solely to wild horses with his statement, if they figured into it at all.

With a flick of his own reins, the Lieutenant and his faithful mount were on their way to catch up once again.