Chapter One: The Journey Home
((Author's Notes: Originally written between 1998-2000, this fic is the backbone of my Alternate Universe. It was originally posted on my personal website, The Sephiroth & Vincent Tribute Page. I vanished from the fanfiction world in 2003, and lost my website a few years later. Then in February 2012, I was suddenly hit with a random bolt of inspiration and fell in love with Final Fantasy VII and its characters all over again. Before I knew it I was back to writing stories for my AU as if I'd never left. When I uploaded this story here in its entirety for the first time, I did an extensive revision and polishing first, so if you've read it before you will find it new and improved. And if you haven't, welcome aboard! There are now a number of additional multi-chapter stories that continue the plotline, as well as new one-shots and other stories, so please visit my profile and see what I've been up to. I greatly appreciate your favorites and reviews. Thank you so much! ~ JenesisX 01/2013))
(( * As mentioned above, this story begins my rather large Alternate Universe. It is based on the original game only, as I started it in 1998, and does not take into consideration the stories or information added or altered by the additional games, Advent Children, etc. Because things in the game were often left vague, open-ended, or downright confusing, all events and characters are subject to my own interpretation. We join the plot at the point in the game when Avalanche is first arriving at Nibelheim. Everything before that is more of less in line with canon events unless I state otherwise later on. ~ JX))
A lone figure walked across the open plains, head down and eyes trained on the ground. He walked swiftly and with purpose, knowing he had to reach his destination before dark. He had to get there first, before the others who were following him across the continent. It was all part of his glorious plan, and he could not fail.
His twisted and tired mind briefly acknowledged that there was another reason for traveling there, however. He wanted to see if things had changed since his last visit. He needed to know if it remained as he'd left it, consumed by flames and filled with death. He'd heard a rumor back in Midgar that the town had been rebuilt, but needed to see it for himself. He wanted to visit the old mansion again, the place where he'd learned the truth about himself five years before… the place where his nightmare had begun.
But it wasn't really a nightmare at all. It was the moment when he'd finally broken free from Shin-ra Incorporated's control, the single moment of truth in a life full of lies. It was also the day he had been given the most important mission of his life.
He could sense his mother nearby, waiting impatiently. He could feel her presence in his mind, the constant whisper of her thoughts strangely comforting. For the first time in his life, Sephiroth was not alone. He was aware on some level that he had changed, that he was no longer the man who had last come this way almost five years ago to the day. He remembered what he'd done to the town of Nibelheim, and more recently to the people at Shin-ra Headquarters, including the President himself... not to mention the crew of the ship on which he'd crossed continents. Part of him realized that these murders were 'wrong,' and that he may have lost his tenuous grip on sanity somewhere along the way, but at the same time he knew they were necessary. The countless acts of violence were simply part of the goal he and his mother now worked toward, the plan that would win back what was rightfully theirs. The humans had brutally taken the Planet from his kind, the Cetra, and now he would set things right.
The sun beat down on Sephiroth as he walked, but he was only vaguely aware his discomfort. His black cloak quickly absorbed the heat, causing him to sweat profusely. His boots were scuffed and worn from travel, yet his long, silver hair still hung neatly and perfectly down his back, elegantly framing his face with flowing bangs. His green eyes remained focused intently on the ground, shining with an inner light as a slow smirk crossed his handsome face. Chaotic thoughts swirled about inside his mind, disordered and rambling. His memory of life before the incident at Nibelheim was sketchy at best, large gaps filling the places that had once held almost flawless, detailed information about everything he had ever learned and experienced. He did not know why, but he was not overly concerned. The things he had learned since that day were all that mattered now. Everything before was only lies.
As he continued toward his goal, never tiring despite the fact that he hadn't slept in many days, flashes of memories passed through his mind. They blended into the ever-present chaos and battling voices crying out for his attention, creating a constant racket that denied him rest and clouded his ability to think. All of the voices belonged to him, the fragments of his shattered mind shouting to be heard, desperate to regain control. Somewhere deep inside, Sephiroth's original personality, his sanity, screamed in outrage, desperately trying to defeat the powerful influence of Jenova and the burning rage. But the shock of Sephiroth's findings in Nibelheim had weakened him and allowed them to take a firm root inside his consciousness. His sanity remained buried like a sunken treasure deep beneath the churning sea.
Growing closer to Nibelheim suddenly triggered his memory of the day his life had changed forever, and nearly ended within the same hour. He had finally learned the truth about himself after a lifetime of wondering who he really was, and he'd destroyed Nibelheim in fear and anger. He remembered clearly his first look at his mother and how he had failed to free her. He remembered killing the father of the young girl who'd served as his guide, the girl herself, and another young man who had tried to interfere... And then he remembered facing Cloud Strife. He'd somehow lost that battle and fallen off the scaffolding inside the reactor, plunging into the Life Stream below. Sephiroth's icy glare grew more severe and he growled with fury at the memory.
He knew he should have died that day, but somehow he'd survived. He remembered falling into the Life Stream, crashing into the liquid green energy with an incredible force that sent a wave high into the air. He recalled sinking, realizing with panic that he could not breathe. His vision went dark as he plunged deeper and deeper into nothingness, reaching desperately toward the surface as the Masamune slipped from his left hand. Soon he'd lost consciousness, his final thought one of regret that he could not finish his mission.
The next thing he knew, he'd awakened on the shore of the Northern Continent, soaked to the skin and shivering. He was exhausted and weakened, but otherwise unharmed and very much alive. His sword had even remained by his side, the long blade of the Masamune lodged in the dark sand as if drawn to him. Sephiroth fought to recover from his ordeal, though his mind was still focused on the task at hand. The filthy humans would be after him soon, and he needed time to plan his next course of action. No one would be able to stop him next time. Sephiroth had quickly traveled North to a huge crater, guided there as if by a sixth sense. He hid within the quiet darkness for the next five years, strengthening himself and planning how he would make his vengeance a reality.
His first order of business, once he knew the time was right, had been to reach his mother. He could still sense her presence in his mind even when she was so far away. He knew she had been removed from the reactor in Nibelheim and taken to Shin-ra Headquarters in Midgar shortly after he'd failed to free her. He'd left the safety of the crater just a few weeks before and made his way there in record time, easily sneaking inside since he had spent most of his life inside the building. He freed his mother from her laboratory prison, and together they'd cleansed the building of many of the weak, evil human inhabitants who got in their way. It was unfortunate that the Turks and members of SOLDIER were able to evacuate so many… Finally, in return for his part in all that had been done to him, Sephiroth had killed President Shin-ra, then vanished into the night. He had wanted to kill Professor Hojo even more, but could not locate him in the building. He would be sure to take care of him later…
He knew Cloud Strife had been there that night. He'd actually freed him from the cell he and his friends had been placed in after being caught trespassing by the Turks, though he wasn't certain why they'd been in the building to begun with. Sephiroth hated Cloud for what he'd done to him in Nibelheim, but did not want him dead. He had a greater purpose for the boy... a purpose which his current journey would help to fulfill.
From Midgar, Sephiroth began to summon Cloud Strife into his service and that of his mother. Cloud did not know it yet, but he was only a puppet to be controlled and aid them in taking over the Planet. Sephiroth lured he and his friends across the continent, South and through the mines, all the while letting them think they were chasing him. He had kept himself hidden until they crossed the ocean on a ship from Junon Harbor, where he made a brief appearance to keep their interest in the hunt. He'd jumped from the ship soon after and swam to shore near Costa Del Sol. He had never been a particularly strong swimmer, but he was able to cross several miles without complication even in rough waters. Everything seemed so much easier after that day...
From Costa Del Sol, Sephiroth had begun his current journey toward Nibelheim. He knew Cloud had a strong emotional connection to the town, the place of his birth that Sephiroth had destroyed, killing Cloud's mother in the process. Emotions were the very thing that made humans so vulnerable and weak. He could use that weakness to break Cloud and force him to join the Reunion, the event that would bring all those who carried the cells of his mother together to carry out his will. It was a flawless plan, one that would soon give Sephiroth complete control of the Planet.
As the flash of memory ended, Sephiroth looked up with haunted eyes and saw the outline of Nibelheim in the distance. He had arrived well ahead of the others, since they had been distracted by Shin-ra's doings along the way. They didn't realize it, but Shin-ra and their elite Turks were actually aiding him in his mission. As they tried to destroy Avalanche, they bought Sephiroth time to enact his plan and bend Cloud to his will. Without him there to lead them, Sephiroth could easily crush the remaining members of Avalanche, then return to destroy Shin-ra afterwards. It was all too perfect.
"Do not take too long to arrive, Cloud Strife," Sephiroth thought as he entered Nibelheim, noting with disappointment the way in which Shin-ra had covered up the damage and rebuilt it exactly as it had been before. He liked it much better in flames…
He pulled a hood up over his head as he entered and stuck to the shadows so he would not be recognized. With his purpose clearly in mind, Sephiroth headed toward the Shin-ra Mansion at the edge of town, an icy chill running down his spine as he stood in the doorway. It was the one building that had been untouched by the flames, the only place that remained exactly as it was back then. A feeling of deja vu washed over him as he recalled the moment he had entered this very place five years ago, emerging as a new man… one who knew the truth.
"Yes, it is finally time," he thought as he entered the dark, dusty mansion and stood in the entranceway. "Soon, my plan will be complete. Do not worry, Mother. We will not have to wait very long. I sense Cloud drawing closer... He will not get away from me this time. Soon, the Planet will be back in the hands of its rightful owners!"
Sephiroth's face was expressionless as he looked around, his eyes glowing in the dim light. He a moment later he moved toward staircase, his heavy footsteps creaking on the rotting floorboards. He knew exactly where he was going.
Another man walked across the same grassy field about two hours later, followed closely by a small group of companions. He was Cloud Strife, the one who'd been placed in charge of a band of rebels opposing Shin-ra Incorporated. Presently, though, their mission was much different. Something larger stood against them, something far more powerful. Cloud walked briskly, ignoring the weight of the huge sword against his back and the heat of the sun beating down upon him.
I'm coming for you, Sephiroth.
Behind him, the shuffling of several pairs of feet brought him back to reality and reminded him that he was not alone on his journey. No one spoke aside from a few whispers now and then, as if they could sense their leader's tension. Cloud briefly turned his head to look at his companions, never slowing his step.
Closest behind him was Tifa Lockheart, Cloud's best friend since childhood. Her attractive face was serious, her soft brown eyes determined. She looked up and met Cloud's gaze, offering him a slight smile as she flipped her long ponytail over one shoulder.
"You're worried about going home, aren't you?" she asked quietly. She quickened her pace to reach his side, leaning closer as if she did not want anyone else to hear.
Cloud was silent for a moment and looked away, up into the clear blue sky. He sighed and nodded his head, his spiky blond hair not so much as moving in the breeze. "Yeah... maybe a little."
"I, for one, am terrified," Tifa admitted, her mouth turning down into a thoughtful frown. "We both have so many memories from that day. Returning to Nibelheim is going to bring it all back..."
She shivered despite the warmth of the day, her memories of their hometown as painful as his own. Cloud wished he could reach out and comfort her, but instead he simply continued to walk. His expression was set in stone, and he quickly buried his feelings as he always did.
"It's just something we'll have to face," he said flatly. "Sephiroth is already there... I can feel it. You know we have to stop him... He's evil, Tifa."
"I know," she responded, still frowning. "I was there, too. He took just as much from me, and I want to stop him just as badly."
"Which is why we have to do this, as difficult as it will be," Cloud replied matter-of-factly. "We're all together this time... It'll be okay."
Tifa nervously bit her lip but nodded anyway, slowing her step until she fell behind Cloud once again. He wasn't going to open up anymore, she'd realized. She should never have expected him to. It frustrated and saddened her that her old friend could not even speak to her about that day, or about anything else involving his feelings. She wondered when it was that he had changed and wished she'd paid him more attention when they were young. Now it was too late, and she feared she'd never be able to reach him and help him begin to heal.
Behind them, four others walked in relative silence, sensing the dark mood of their leader and the danger awaiting them in the near future. Besides, most of them had only just met and didn't know each other all that well. Just behind Tifa was Aeris, the young flower-seller Cloud had saved from Shin-ra's Turks back in Midgar. She was a cheerful, friendly young woman, though she often fell silent as if consumed by her own thoughts. No one could claim to understand her very well, since as a Cetra she seemed to sense and feel things they could not begin to imagine. Tifa had to admit to herself that she was envious of the other woman's sparkling green eyes, petite figure, and softly curling brown hair, even though she herself was said to be quite beautiful. She was also jealous of the way Cloud seemed to have opened up and easily taken to Aeris, hating herself for the way it made her feel. What right did she have to be jealous, anyway? She and Cloud were only friends...
Just behind Aeris walked the most interesting member of the group from a visual standpoint, a red lion-like beast with a flowing mane and a tail that tapered into a plume of fire. The only name he'd given them at the time of their meeting was RedXIII, which was his designation in Hojo's Shin-ra-owned laboratory. Red had been an unwilling specimen for an unknown amount of time, and he didn't seem willing to discuss it. After Avalanche had freed him, the articulate feline had joined them in their fight against Shin-ra, revealing himself to be Nanaki of Cosmo Canyon. Red had remained fairly quiet, though he held an incredible intelligence that outshone them all and offered insightful advice in times of need. He was a mere teenager for one of his kind, but his maturity and fighting skills were impressive despite a missing right eye that might have hampered anyone else. He panted slightly in the heat as he trotted along on all four legs, his mane jutting out in several directions and his powerful jaws clenched in determination.
At the rear of the pack were Barret Wallace and Yuffie Kisaragi, the two most outspoken members of the group. Barret was the founder of Avalanche, though he had reluctantly allowed Cloud to assume leadership of the group upon leaving Midgar. He'd left his young daughter, Marlene, behind with even greater reluctance. She was now staying with Aeris' adopted mother, Elmyra, where he felt she would be safe until he could return for her. Barret tended to be hot-tempered, loud, and vigorous, often using foul language to make his points, but with his daughter he was a tender and loving parent. He was doing this for her, the others knew. By opposing Shin-ra, and now Sephiroth, he hoped the make the world a safer place for Marlene to grow up. And following destruction of Sector 7 in the Midgar slums, he was also avenging his lost friends, Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge. He did his best to hide it, but inside he still grieved for them and blamed himself for their deaths.
Yuffie's motives were less clear, as were her feelings. She had a big mouth for such a physically small person, and an equally large ego. She was quick to boast about her skills as a ninja and even quicker to steal materia from anyone within range, including her new traveling mates. Because of this, they all regarded the Wutaiian teenager with suspicion and tended to keep their distance. Trust was something she'd have to go a long way to earn. They knew almost nothing about her, only that she seemed to have her own reasons for everything she did. They'd met her in the woods, where she'd tried to rob them despite the fact that the odds were stacked against her. She had quickly decided to make herself part of the team after being defeated, and because additional power was something they badly needed, no one had protested too much. It had also seemed wrong to leave her on her own in such a dangerous area, even if she had attacked them first and seemed to believe she was invincible.
Back in the lead, Cloud thought about the odd group that had assembled under his leadership and wondered if he was asking too much of them. He would not hesitate to lay down his life in order to stop Sephiroth, because his battle with the former General was personal. Cloud could not recall exactly what had happened between he and Sephiroth that day inside the Nibelheim reactor. He only remembered challenging Sephiroth after what he had done to his hometown... and to Tifa. After that, his memory was a blank. How had he challenged Sephiroth as a rookie member of SOLDIER and lived? Even now, Cloud doubted he was a match for the older man's skill and unnatural abilities.
Why did he let me live? And what can he possibly get out of returning here now, after all this time?
With that thought racing around inside his pounding head, Cloud finally spotted Nibelheim in the distance and came to a sudden halt. Tifa nearly slammed into his back, her mind having been elsewhere.
"What is it?" she asked, peering ahead with alert eyes.
"We're almost there," Cloud answered, gesturing into the distance. "I want everyone to be ready."
With some effort, the others were able to make out the outline of the town and gathered around their leader, waiting for his instructions.
"He's already there," Aeris stated quietly, sounding perfectly sure of herself though she could not prove what she said. She knew the others found her quite strange and a little intimidating due to such abilities, suppressing a pang of loneliness. She was the last of her kind, and there could be no greater feeling of isolation. Aeris briefly closed her eyes, then forced herself to focus again. She was being silly. Among such good people, she could never truly be alone.
"Who is?" Barret asked in his loud, deep voice, his forehead wrinkled in confusion. It was his usual reaction most any time Aeris spoke.
"Who do you think, ya big dummy?" Yuffie chided, rolling her eyes mischievously.
"Hey! You little-"
"Knock it off, " Cloud interjected absently, turning to face Aeris with a nod. "I can tell he's there, too. I just... feel it."
Aeris nodded her understanding as the others continued to gaze at them both in confusion.
"Do you know what he's doing here?" Tifa asked. Aeris slowly shook her head, her braided hair swinging from side to side behind her.
"I can't tell. I only know that he's already inside the town... and he knows we're coming."
"He cannot be planning anything pleasant for us, or the Planet," Red finally spoke up, his sharp white teeth flashing in the sun. A small collection of feathers braided into his mane blew in the breeze, and he sat down on his haunches as he gazed ahead at the town with his one eye.
"Which is why we have to hurry," Cloud agreed, removing his sword from its sheath on his back and taking it in hand. "This will be dangerous. Sephiroth is not stable and has incredible power. I'm sure that Jenova creature will be nearby, too. But this is it... We have to take him out right here. It has to end before he can hurt anyone else."
"I'm wit' you, Cloud," Barret said, checking the gun that had replaced his amputated right hand several years before, following a confrontation with Shin-ra's troops in his hometown of North Corel. "No way is he gonna destroy dis world! I'm gonna take it to 'im for Marlene!"
"Grandfather told me that the Planet is in grave danger," Red said, rubbing his chin with one large paw, "and that I must help to protect it. As the Son of the great warrior Seto, I will do so even at the cost of my life."
"This is as personal for me as it is for Cloud," Tifa agreed solemnly. "I'll do whatever we have to to stop Sephiroth."
"Yeah, whatever," Yuffie said quickly with a dismissive gesture of one hand, holding the silver shuriken she used in battle in the other. "Can we cut the crap and just go already?"
Cloud sighed, but nodded his head and turned back toward the town. He began to move forward without further hesitation, his head held high and sword clutched tightly in his right hand. This would be the day his nightmare ended. Sephiroth would pay for what he had done, and for what he was trying to do to the Planet. Cloud Strife would finish what he'd not been able to do when he was younger. He would make Sephiroth pay in blood.
((Author's Notes: Just a few quick things: Yes, Red said his father was a great warrior. In my AU, he always knew the truth about that. Oh, and Cait Sith does not exist, period. I couldn't make myself write a robot cat riding a stuffed moogle seriously, and I thought it would really take away from the story, you know? There are some video game elements that are goofy and unrealistic, and of course those that are there for game play reasons only, that I am definitely not including in the interest of better story telling. The obligatory ridiculous party member is one of them! ~ JenesisX ))