A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 32

By Twig


You left me, sweet, two legacies, -
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

- "You Left Me," Emily Dickinson


"It's late, you know."

Cloud didn't even have to turn to know who it was, just rubbed his hands together and stayed still. He felt like he'd spent most of his life that way, frozen, hoping the world would overlook him and go by. At the moment, he was staring out past Kalm, into the dark night and starry sky beyond. Funny, he hadn't remembered doing the same in Nibelheim, with Tifa, not until just now. Of course, it wasn't as if he'd had a childhood worth remembering, but still-

//I remember the sound of it on fire, and how hot..// Cloud pushed those memories away, finally glancing back towards the person who had spoken.

"Cold, too... you must be freezing."

Aeris smiled, shaking her head as she sat down beside him. "I'm fine."

It was true, he didn't see so much as a goose bump on her thin arms. He breathed in, the cold air hanging crisp and clean in his lungs, trying to figure out why everything seemed so strange, why the world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for him. He wasn't sure why, wasn't sure why the flower girl reminded him -

No, Cloud knew why she reminded him of /that/, of /him/. Even without the Mako glow, her eyes were eerily similar to Sephiroth's, enough that - more than once - he had found it nearly impossible to meet her gaze.

"I wasn't all that surprised, that you snuck out here."

Who was sneaking? What did he care what she saw? It wasn't as if he owed anything to these people, not even to Tifa, even after they'd just seen -

//He's back. Sephiroth's back, oh god...//

"Cloud?" He nearly flinched when she said his name, willing himself not to edge away from her, as if she had ever been anything but kind. As if she had tried to do anything but help him.

... because no one had ever tried to help him before. No one.

"It must have been difficult for you, having to remember... all that. The past, everything that happened."

"Yeah." He realized, immediately, that his entire body had tensed up, that the telling, just talking to her, just a few extra words was opening up a door inside of him, and he didn't want to see what was on the other side.

Who was on the other side.


"Cloud?" A hand on his arm at his sudden cry, he shrugged it away, staring at Aeris in horror, as if she had stabbed him with some invisible blade.

"No. No, I can't..." One hand pressing hard against his temple, the other hovering, half-curled in the air. His thoughts were on a course of their own design, and Cloud's stomach lurched as he saw the way Aeris was watching him now, no longer so frightened, the sympathy there, but...

"My boyfriend, Cloud, before he disappeared..."

//-Come on kid, come on it will be all right-//

"Aeris, Aeris no, please."

"I remember, the last mission he had. Nibelheim. Five years ago. It was supposed to be a simple trip - I never believed him, really, whenever he told me that."

//-I'll take care of you, I promise, no matter what we're in this together-//

"Aeris, stop. Please." It was too late, really, telling his story once had opened him up for this. There was no way to stop remembering what he didn't want to once he'd started.

//-get down, Cloud stay here stay here it's those damned ShinRa I'll be right back, I promise -//

No, he wouldn't, and even then the blonde had known that once Zack was gone, it was all over.

/Zack. His name was Zack and he died saving you, he pulled you through - oh god, Hojo... you, when he /hurt/ you.../

//-in this together, we're like family, ok?-//

He'd lose the last thing he had when he lost Zack, the last tie to the past, to sanity. He knew, and he had been helpless, trapped inside the prison of his own body as Zack disappeared...

/Zack, he was your friend, /he/ was the SOLDIER, he was... and that makes you -/

... the dark-haired man had reappeared in a panic, roughly pulling him up and dragging them into a run... and then... and then...

/Nothing. It makes you nothing./

"He's dead, isn't he." Aeris's beautiful eyes were now filled with tears, he watched a drop spill over, caught against her cheek like a falling star. "I knew it... I knew that I felt something happen, I knew that I felt him die."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..." He reached out for her, realized as she reached back that his breath was hitching in his throat, and he was crying too.

The grief was all for Zack, the memories crashing down on him now with a vengeance, the days in Hojo's lab and what came before, all the bright and sunny days Zack had chosen to let him in on, his friendship an unexpected gift, one Cloud could never quite believe he had been given.

All for Zack - the horror of the lab, the shame and pain of the lies he had told himself and everyone else - Tifa, Tifa /must/ know about what really happened. Cloud knew he would have to deal with it, but later, not now, when feeling the loss again was almost too much to bear.

"They had no right." He shook his head, pressed against Aeris's shoulder, clinging to her as tightly as she was to him. It was just too hard to attempt to be the strong one, too hard to try and pretend this wasn't - for the moment - utterly past bearing. "They had no right, no right to do that to him."

Cloud swallowed back bile, his thoughts clouding over with grief and shame but still too clear, much too clear, noticing vaguely that Aeris's arms were around him now, that the warm, wet drops falling on his arms were her own tears.

"No, they didn't, they didn't."

Under a brilliant moon, they held each other like children, weeping for an irretrievable loss, for the Planet, and the best man either of them had ever known.


He had forgotten most of that night at Kalm by the morning after, only much later realizing how Aeris had saved him then, that she had thawed those memories just enough to keep them from breaking him when he had fallen into the Lifestream, when everything else had come crashing down.

Losing Zack had not been something he could survive, not then - and he had forgotten instead, clawing to claim the man's identity as his own, as if some sense of the friend who had protected him, saved him, been his first real friend could survive to shield him against the future, against the final fight that, looking back, seemed almost like destiny.

In his heart, he knew Zack had always been the Planet's true champion. He and Aeris had given the blonde his bravery, his determination to strike that final blow, and Cloud had always known that he would have given anything to see his friend again.

He had known it, since the first letter from Reeve, proposing he return to Midgar, just for a little while, proposing a meeting - a lab had been created, a new one - the letter was a blur, he remembered none of the words, only the intent, the meaning even the new ShinRa president was too afraid to admit outright.

Cloud knew, from the moment Zack's eyes had opened again, meeting his through a pane of glass, but this time in hope, not the horror of that lab... not again, never again.

//A strand of Mako-treated DNA, part of our archives that were moved before Hojo ransacked the lab... we can use that, and we believe it will work...//

"Get him out of there! Now!"

He knew, as his friend's body slumped into his arms - warm, oh God he was warm again, /alive/ - muscles jerking slightly as he hacked the rest of the liquid out of his lungs.

Cloud knew about sacrifice, and knew there were consequences for these sort of miracles. So many had died, so many had suffered, and he did not deserve to have his friend returned to him. It wasn't his due, it was a blessing, it was a miracle, and it would have to be paid for. He knew it would be a heavy price.

//... and if they could bring him, then they might bring Sephiroth...//

He wrenched his mind away from that desperate, useless, /selfish/ wish, leaning his head into Zack's long, dark hair, smiling at the excruciating joy that was swiftly tearing him apart. Zack still smelled like Zack, even with all those chemicals, even here - and Cloud hid his tears and hitched breaths against the long, damp strands, rejoicing in the single, perfect moment.

A terrible price, for this sort of gift, for his return, it had to be...

//I don't care. He's back... let it come, whatever it is.//

Cloud knew it was stupid to tempt fate so, when he knew so well what lived in that darkness, and just how bad things could get.

//I don't care, I don't care. He's alive, he's back. Whatever it is, let it come.//


Cloud stirred, feeling something cold against his face, uncomfortable along his side, the memories subsiding into the murky soup of his thoughts as he slowly blinked himself awake.

The blonde flinched, and sucked in a deep breath, but it was like trying to inhale solid ice, and coughing only made it worse, only made him cough more violently... and then he realized where he was, the empty smell, the way it burned all the way down, leaving his nose and throat on fire.

//NO NO NO!!!!//

He screamed, though no sound came out, fingers flexing, groping blindly at a smooth, glassy surface, the edge of the prison that held him. Sluggish muscles refused to respond as he tried to break through, the liquid too resistant to his struggles.

Too familiar.

His heart pounded, each beat shaking his entire chest - Sephiroth, the distant look in his eyes, as he turned away, and sharply brought the blade up - why, why would he, why?!

Cloud froze, the shock like lightning leaving him paralyzed, terror shivering violently, painfully through his body. He tried not to look, tried not to follow the soft scuffing, tapping sound against the edge of his transparent prison.

"Hello, my failure."

Hojo had never had to speak to make him scream, the scientist leering now as he watched a flurry of bubbles float to the surface. Cloud flailing wildly in the liquid Mako, well past anything near sanity as he struggled in vain. The scientist's features were fixed, frozen in a wide, appreciative smile, as he scratched almost lovingly against the cylinder with one possessive claw.


"I'm certain, Reeve, something is very wrong."

The President made sure to keep his pace brisk, watching cautiously, as both of the cat's blazing tails came much too close to the backs of his knees. The flames were harmless when the canyon guardians weren't upset, but now was certainly not one of those times.

"I believe you, Nanaki," he tapped the sheaf of papers against his open palm, "and even if I didn't, these numbers don't lie."

Shera herself had checked them, and double checked them on the trip back, adamantly defending Melissa's innocence even as she had to concur with the findings. As far as Reeve knew, she was the only one who wasn't ready to condemn the woman outright.

North Corel had been buzzing with nervous energy long before their arrival, Nanaki had tasted it coming off of the Highwind, though it didn't seem to have any direct focus. It would soon enough, though, if the problem really was as bad as these numbers hinted at.


Scarlet turned the corner swiftly, so outraged that Reeve was amazed she wasn't trailing smoke. The papers she clutched in one hand were no doubt identical to his own, though he knew he hadn't yet ordered them released to the public.

"I see your network of spies has been hard at work, Scarlet."

"Cut the crap, Reeve." The blonde snarled. "You knew about this, you /had/ to..."

"No, he didn't."

The icy voice made them turn as one, Melissa's heels clicking softly against the floor as she moved toward them. Reeve was incredulous, Nanaki was silent - but Scarlet more than filled in the empty space.

"What the fuck were you thinking, bitch?!" The papers in her hand rustled, she shook them like a live grenade, striding toward Melissa with murder in her eyes. "What is this? What the /fuck/... do you have any idea what you've done?!"

"Nothing." Melissa shook her head slightly, dark, puffy circles around bloodshot eyes, her skin leeched of all color. Her voice remained flat, disconnected. "I did nothing but give you all a dream. If it were possible, I would have asked that you do the same for me."

Reeve's voice was strangled, with anger or fear or something even darker and less identifiable. He gestured to them, towards Zack and Tifa who had finally joined them along a side hall.

"Meeting. Now."


Sephiroth picked up a small stone carving at the edge of the desk he was leaning against, studying it absently. It was smooth, very distinctly of Wutaian origin, though it was doubtful anyone who would have had access to this place could have come from Godo's clan.

An intimately personal artifact then, from some ShinRa scientist who had been unfortunate enough to be here when Hojo had moved back in. The white-haired man glanced from wall to wall, the pale pressboard over solid rock barely giving the room some sense of civility, of ShinRa order. It was a marvel they had come to study here even for the short time that they had, really. A place like this would certainly be alien enough to drive anyone mad.

Aqua eyes glanced up briefly, as the fluorescent lights overhead flickered. He was impassive, nonchalant as a long, strangled scream echoed down the passageway. Cloud's scream. The agonized cry continued for a few minutes, and stopped as abruptly as it had began. Sephiroth could hear Hojo's claws against the metal floors well before the man made his way through the gaping hole in the side of the wall, body much too massive for the now-shattered door frame that creaked under his pincer-like feet.

"I had forgotten how stubborn he is... every time I think he's broken, he /hasn't/."

Hojo hissed slightly, perhaps his version of a sigh, and Sephiroth saw something glimmer in one of his more human-looking appendages, realized it was Holy and Meteor. Hojo noticed his glance, and let out a bark of laughter as he threw the two dark Materia at the white-haired General's feet.

"Useless sentimentalism. I bet you would have been happy, boy, if I'd have gotten them back so quickly the last time, eh?"

Sephiroth didn't answer, but Hojo obviously didn't expect it, awkwardly pushing a rolling computer stand toward him from across the room. The white-haired man stopped it with the point of his toe, gazing down at familiar maps scattered in overlapping windows, other tables showing somewhat recognizable scientific equations.

"Before I made this new body, I did those." The man's voice wheezed repulsively, slimy and snakelike. "I assume that, since you're here, you've seen enough of this to realize the extent of my plans."

"I don't understand why you're waiting." Sephiroth murmured flatly. "You've got the Lifestream in your grasp, why not just suffocate them all from here? Draw it all in, and let them die in the drought."

A grating, mechanical chuckle, Hojo shaking his head, beady eyes gleaming with something that resembled pride.

"Always the practical one. As if I wouldn't let Reeve see his death approaching... as if I won't let him squirm a bit." The tips of dark claws tapped together like fingers, a gesture of pleasant anticipation. "No, this is my victory, and I will enjoy it... and there are still a few minor roadblocks. Despite my hold on the blasted thing, there are simply still too many people /alive/, too much of the Lifestream pocketed away in their lives and their lands for me to simply sit back and wait... though I have a fair enough plan to deal with that, and soon. I must say however, my son, your delivery of Cloud Strife was an unexpected but delightful surprise."

"I'm not your son, Hojo." He smirked, just slightly, as the unearthly scientist was thrown from his braggadocio, blinking in surprise behind his thick-framed lenses. "I know about Vincent Valentine, and my mother. I know about Lucrecia."

"Ah. I... see." Hojo skittered, just slightly to the side, before turning his eyes up again. "I thought perhaps, if you'd come to my side, you'd gotten over your ridiculous obsession with all that, and with Gast-"

The emerald green gaze let Hojo know he was being judged a halfwit - at best.

"Professor Gast was a genius, you are not. He was brilliant, and if you hadn't been given permission to have him killed - a stroke of sheer luck - you would still be in his shadow. You may have hated ShinRa politics, but they were what got you there, not your ability." Sephiroth raised a pale, imperious eyebrow. "I hope you weren't under the impression I was here because I /liked/ you, Hojo."

Hojo sniffed, an interesting sound given that he no longer actually had human lungs - and smiled.

"I assume then, that your interest here is purely selfish?"

"Whomever my parents were, is of little importance. I was created, not born, and however it happened, I was still created with a specific interest in mind. I do not fight for the losing side, and now that Strife is taken care of-"

One claw raised up, and he paused. Hojo tipped his head slightly, adjusting wire-rimmed glasses with two more of his limbs. "I did intend to ask, just how was it that you were able to lure him here so easily? I did not lose a single spawn in his capture, when he has taken entire legions down in battle."

"I told him I loved him more than I loved victory. He was a fool, and believed me."

Hojo's eyes widened for a moment, and then he began to laugh, a loud, phlegmy sound that echoed against the girders and exposed panels like a faded whimper, its own quiet scream.

"Whatever you may say, I did have a part in raising you, anyone can see that. It will always be the greatest honor of my life, more than you can imagine, to think of you as my son."


Reeve just wanted to throw a punch, just one, most likely at Scarlet though in all honesty she had every right to bitch, continuing the tirade against Melissa that she had started ever since the truth had come out. He clenched the documents in his right hand even more tightly, caught in that emotion somewhere between tears and adrenaline where neither one would come and he was left frustrated, full of energy with no release.

//You know what this means, if she's right and...//

He'd honestly never felt as if someone had torn his heart out, but now he thought he could actually feel the hole, ragged flaps of flesh wavering around the empty socket. It wasn't the first time he'd thought that all this was impossible, that /he/ was not the one who should be leading any sort of discussion, but even that thought had faded behind an all-consuming numbness. He was sweating, he was clenching the papers in his hand so tightly it hurt, and he had a small stone in his shoe, poking at the bottom of his foot. Apart from that, the world was a blur of loud, angry voices and his own inertia, keeping him moving forward.

//Ten years of struggle, to come to this... when we all could have just given Sephiroth the planet the first time and gotten it over all at once.//

Another problem, that, though it was his own little secret for now Cloud and Sephiroth were now officially two days over their deadline, there had been no sign of them, and no report in from either one of them. It wasn't troublesome yet, Cloud had disappeared for days at a time during other battles, only to turn up all right, a hundred miles or more from where he had been expected. Reeve knew there was no reason to add it to his growing list of concerns - he just couldn't help it.

//Why not, the more the merrier.//

He was now the head of a strange parade that swiftly made their way towards the conference room, and Reeve he had no idea what he was supposed to say, what sort of plan they were supposed to make now, and only hoped that someone else might take the lead. Scarlet, still launching tirades at Melissa near the back of the line, seemed the most likely candidate. He winced at a sudden spasm of pain along the muscles in his neck, rubbed at them even though he knew that would do no good, as if even his blood was tying itself in knots.

The anger he had felt at Melissa had died when he realized he sympathized with her. It was easy to see that living with this secret had been killing her, and now that it was out - it seemed she had been right, he certainly had no idea how to keep playing, if Hojo truly had all of the cards.

The realization was filling him with the same giddy disbelief he had felt when ShinRa had been set to launch the rocket against the meteor, knowing that death was coming, and that this futile, impossible plan was the best they had to stop it.

"Reeve?" Barrett, watching him, looked concerned, and as he looked over he slid a hand through his hair, not all that surprised to realize he had broken out in a cold sweat. "You all right, Reeve?"

"Yes, yes I'm fine, I just..." He trailed off, glad not to have to finish the sentence as they turned the corner, and he froze in the entryway.

No chairs, the tables all pushed up against the wall, and the lone janitor currently vacuuming the carpet glanced up at him in complete surprise. Reeve felt something jar painfully up his spine, back down through his lungs, knew if he let it out the laughter would be hysterical.

"What's the hold-up, Reeve?!" Scarlet, voice brought to that lovely sniping edge by tension, and Reeve sighed, his own anger like cement in his chest as he turned, plowing past a few people he barely bothered to look at, making for the next best room, a conference hall in a pinch.

"Zack," he muttered as he entered, pointing to the cameras at each corner of the room, "get rid of them for me, will you?"

"Certainly that isn't necess-" Scarlet trailed off with an impatient sigh as a few quick swipes from Zack's sword and one good thrust from the Venus Gospel destroyed the room's surveillance system.

"... not because I don't trust you, Scarlet, because I don't, but I'd like to make sure everything stays in this room, this time." Reeve swallowed hard, pressing his hand against his breastbone at another jagged surge of pain, gesturing towards Nanaki as he sat down. "Nanaki, if you'd like to give a brief synopsis, for the benefit of anyone who might have missed things the first time around."

The giant cat nodded briefly, raising a paw onto the documents Cid had set on the table before him. "The program my grandfather set up at Cosmo Canyon has been monitoring the Lifestream independently of Melissa's laboratory-"

"Cut to the chase, kitty. Melissa's a liar, and we're all screwed." Scarlet snarled, giving the scientist another glare, though the woman seemed all but immune to anything, including anger. Scarlet sighed in disgust, "I just can't believe this came right out of nowhere..."

"Cloud knows."

"Zack?" Tifa breathed, turning to him. The dark-haired man winced slightly, but nodded, continuing.

"It happened... just a little while ago. Sephiroth was there with me, and Cloud, well, he just sort of collapsed, he lost it. He was in a lot of pain, talking about the Planet, and Aeris. He said she was in trouble."

Cid breathed a curse into the silence, while Tifa was the voice of stunned disbelief.

"Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell any of us?"

"Cloud forgot, forgot all of it" Zack shook his head. "The next morning, he seemed fine, he didn't remember anything that had happened, anything he had said about Aeris, and I didn't know what-" The dark-haired man looked up, eyes locking with Melissa's. "Wait. What does Seph know?"

The woman smiled slightly, the first semblance of a reaction she'd had all day. "He called me on it, actually. The General figured it out, he knew something was wrong right away. He knew I was lying" The scientist's smile seemed impossibly brittle, one emotion too powerful would finally be the one to break her. "I would have spared him from it if I could have. It must have destroyed him, to realize he was powerless."

"Powerless?" Tifa murmured, hands already clutching desperately at each other.

Melissa shrugged, her gaze remarkably sympathetic. "Strife is tied into the Lifestream, into the living force of the Planet in ways I will never be able to comprehend. We're all going to die because of this, Hojo has won, remember that - but Cloud will die first. Sephiroth knew it first... and now you all do."

A few more soft curses, every face stone cold and silent, barely masking the inner shock, pain and dread. It was easy not to notice, then, how pale Reeve had become, the lines of pain pronounced around his eyes and mouth.

"The cannon." Scarlet finally muttered, slapping a hand against the table.

"Bullshit." Reeve shook his head. "What good will a Mako cannon do against something that's pure Lifestream?"

"We'll change the beam, or fluctuate it, try to make the energy something Hojo won't be able to absorb. Maybe it will destroy him, destroy enough of his creatures and enough of Jenova that the world can heal, maybe it will buy us a bit more time... or maybe it will just kill us all. Shit, Reeve, I don't know. Tell me what other options we have, then."

Melissa raised an eyebrow, intrigued. Scarlet had never let anyone outside of her own personal team near the reconstructed Sister Ray, but... it was a plan. Not a good plan, or even a sane plan... but it /was/ a plan.

"We're not using that weapon, Scarlet. It's suicide." Reeve was the sole voice of dissent, less out of agreement than shock, Zack, Tifa and the rest of the former AVALANCHE team present still trying to handle the news that Cloud was yet again at the brink, that they had come so far, fought for this. To their credit, though, most of them were silently searching for a solution, any thought that might contain a way out.

The small hope died completely when two soldiers burst in, the Ultima Weapon carried between them.

Zack was on his feet before they spoke, scrambling around the table so quickly he was almost a blur.

"Where are they? Are they here? What's happened? What's going on?"

"T-th... they..." The first soldier was stunned speechless, Zack was obviously holding onto the last thread of patience to keep from shaking the words out, when the soldier holding the hilt broke in.

"W-we found it a d-day ago, sir. On the plains, just south of the N-northern Crater, ten miles from the highest camp. No sign of a battle, or the G-generals, just the sword. General Cloud and General Sephiroth have yet to r-report back, sir. Our commanding officer thought, for security's sake, that we should bring it directly to you, sir.

All eyes turned to Reeve, shock after resounding shock leaving everyone else without response, or the energy left to speak. As the President, he would have to say something, would have to give them some idea of what to do, how to at least function long enough to get out of the room.

Instead, it was Tifa who cried out first, as Reeve slumped, gasping for air as he slid out of his chair, falling to the floor. Barret and Cid had been flanking him, the pilot was the first to reach him, carefully cupping his elbow, watching the man blink sharply, several times.

"Reeve? You all right?"

"... can't barely, god everything's f-fading. Arm's numb, right shoulder. Shit, think it's a... heart attack or something. Shit."

Scarlet sighed, arms crossed, watching from the other end of the room, quite aware of the irony of the moment. "... and to think, I used to dream about this day."


Rufus walked slowly down the dark, frozen corridor - not too slowly, he didn't want to have Hojo grow impatient - but he couldn't force himself to hurry either . The blonde couldn't imagine what Hojo might want from him.

//No, I /can/ imagine. That's what scares me.//

It had been a long time since the scientist had bothered to call for him, and even given what had happened, Aeris's capture...

A deep roar shook the entire cavern, rocks and dust pattering like rain at his feet. Rufus bit his lip hard, pressing himself back against the cold rock wall, trying to breathe silently out of his mouth, gazing all around him, through the tunnel, praying that the shadows remained motionless. It had been much less quiet here, and he'd been too afraid to think about whatever heavy presence it was that lay in the air, maybe a few Halfspawn, maybe - probably - worse.

//If he's going to kill me, I hope he does it quick. I just hope he's ready to get rid of some loose ends, and he kills me and that's it.//

He hadn't bothered fiddling with the explosives, or making any other plans, still reeling from the shock of seeing Aeris imprisoned - if Hojo had gotten that far, what could he possibly do to stop him? What could anyone do?

It was slightly comforting, that Hojo had asked for him in the antechamber, not the main lab, a room that Rufus didn't remember the scientist equipping with any specific sort of technology.

//Torture devices, not technology, don't be an optimist now, for god's sake.//

He did, however, have to cross the main laboratory to reach the secondary room. Rufus couldn't help but pause at the doorway, hating himself for his own cowardice as he gazed nervously inside.

The chamber was fully online and activated, the air nearly unbreathable with the whir of machinery and electricity, sparks snapping through the air intermittently, mixed with the smell of computers, melting plastics, and another scent, cold and barely fragrant, but unmistakable.

//The Lifestream.// At least, what was left of it. Rufus knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help hesitating, taking step after cautious step slowly up the layers of platforms, his hand tight against the rail. He was ready to jump away, ready to run at the slightest danger, though he knew even that would likely not be enough to save him. It didn't really matter. He had to see.

Cautiously, Rufus made his way to the final few steps, peering gingerly over the edge. He was prepared for the sight of Aeris's tank, the contents glowing formless and hazy like sea water tropical and sunlit from fifteen meters down.

//The beach. God, if I get out of here, I'm going to Costa Del Sol, and I'm never going to leave.//

Rufus had expected one tank, not two, and certainly not two that were full. Yes, he'd thought he'd heard more screaming, but much of it had been drowned out earlier by the monsters, and later he'd told himself it must have been Aeris.

//It sounded different, though. Oh god, what poor bastard did Hojo manage to scavenge now?//

The scientist did capture soldiers and civilians from time to time, though he rarely bothered to go to these extremes in testing them. It wasn't as if they lasted long anyway, ordinary human bodies as disposable and uninteresting to him as tissue paper.

The man Hojo had captured was suspended in profile, the Mako that surrounded him leaving his features hazy and indistinct. Rufus crept closer, curiosity overcoming common sense as he stepped away from the rail, now in full view, glancing left and right only occasionally as he moved closer.

By the time Rufus realized it was Cloud Strife behind the glass, he was close enough to touch it, his fingertips bleeding condensation on the cool cylinder.

//How... how did this happen?// He could feel himself mouth the words, though he didn't dare speak aloud, body thrumming with sudden tension, agony. How?! How did Hojo ever manage this, and what did it mean?

He knew what it meant, knew even before he glanced toward the other cylinder, to see Aeris slowly coalesce from the mists, gazing back at him with despair, nothing but haunted sorrow on her face. Rufus had never liked Cloud, of course, though it had always been an abstract sort of emotion, important only for the few times the blonde had managed to disrupt his important plans.

He knew what it meant, though, that Cloud had been captured, what it meant for all of them, and for the Planet.

Rufus found himself searching for a weapon - a length of pipe, a metal girder, /anything/ - fairly certain he couldn't shatter the man's prison, but just as sure that he had to try. Instead of finding a weapon, an iron bar or a length of pipe, though, his eyes met a pair of solid silver, the creature that had been stalking him from the other end of the platform just preparing to pounce.

Rufus started, and the beast leapt with a snarl, impossibly long front claws extending to impale him against the floor. The blonde moved toward the creature, and dropped, forward momentum carrying him safely under the beast. Rufus scrambled to his feet, a clicking, buzzing snarl loud in his ears, not daring to look back as he sprinted toward the stairs, leaping from the first staircase all the way to the second platform, halfway down the second before he realized it wasn't following him.

The monster was a lazy guard, perhaps, or just a random, brainless construction who had regarded him as easy prey. The moment he was out of its line of sight, it seemed to forget about him. He could hear the claws clicking against the metal grating, but it was nowhere to be seen, and he let out a long, relieved sigh.

He barely caught his breath when the realization struck again - Cloud, that had been Cloud behind the glass. Immediately, he tried to disprove it, refusing to believe. It was a trick, something of Hojo's to - but no, Rufus knew he wasn't important enough to deserve such an illusion. Until the sudden summons, he wasn't even sure the scientist knew he was alive.

//Maybe when I reach Hojo, he'll give me some answers.// Or the madman would kill him, and it wouldn't matter anyway.

//Oh, now you're just being optimistic.//

Rufus smiled to himself, adrenaline still burning in his brain as he made his way down the last few stairs, and back on the path that would lead him to Hojo.

It took much less time than he would have liked to move through the rest of the lab, down the short hallway to the room the scientist had asked him to come to. By the time he got there, the adrenaline rush had faded and his thoughts were a chaotic jumble, fragmented, panicked, fixated on Cloud Strife and on one question: how? How had Cloud come to be here? How had Hojo captured him? How could this be the end of everything?

He was moving very slowly by the time he reached the end of the journey, and could easily pick the tail end of the question from the air, coming from the room he was about to enter.

"... Jenova?"

Rufus froze once more, heart in his throat, though this time more in disbelief than terror. The voice was distorted badly in echo, but he knew enough to know that it wasn't Hojo's - the most important of facts. Either the man had cloned someone else, someone new or someone else was here, someone from the outside.

Rufus wasn't sure whether to be terrified or ecstatic, vaguely hoping he'd live long enough to gain some news on the outside world.

"Eh? Her? Feh, she's around somewhere, lurking. As a force of nature, she's become much less important than she once was. What remains of her is merely a by-product, what was left when the power was drained away. I doubt you'll see her anytime, but you might, I'm not sure. She's been skulking around lately, curious. Feel free to kill her if it pleases you."

He recognized Hojo's deep, rasping voice immediately, the hair rising on the back of his neck just from the sound. The blonde desperately didn't want to move closer, his own body fighting every step of the way, but rationally, he knew it would be worse if the scientist had to come looking for him.

Taking what might be his last, deep breath, Rufus rounded the corner, freezing immediately as two pair of eyes fixed on him, Hojo's body swiveling toward him.

"Ah, ShinRa. Attentive as always." The scientist adjusted his glasses, turning back to Sephiroth. "Still human, aren't you? It can't be helped, I suppose. Rufus can show you the facilities, then, a place for you to sleep and where to find food and water. It goes without saying, I lost interest in such things years ago." The scientist smiled again, hissing his soft chuckle. "I would like to spend a little more time... catching up with Project C, then, my boy, we can discuss your future, our future at the end of this fruitless war."

It was the first time ever that Rufus had wanted Hojo to talk more, to say anything and not leave him alone, walking three paces in front of a silent madman. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Hojo did, preoccupied with the pleasantries of torture, leaving Rufus to deal with Sephiroth, taking him directly to the only place he had ever felt any sense of refuge at all.


"How's Reeve?"

Tifa paused at the door, fingertips digging into the edge, choosing to feel awkward over feeing the pain, the dread of what was to come. She almost wished Yuffie was here, the ninja girl would have been a comfort, always choosing hyperactivity over fear, anger and defiance over sorrow. Tifa knew she could be strong, especially when there was someone to be strong for, but even in his worry Zack looked like an immovable pillar, at his weakest so much more than anyone else could be.

Of course, the longer she looked at him, the less true that seemed to be, as if Zack had crumpled in on himself, smaller somehow, crushed in both body and soul.

It had been two days since she had seen him last, just after that disastrous meeting. If he was asking about Reeve, it meant he hadn't seen anyone else either.

//Just like Cloud. All the same, every man I've ever met, they take their feelings and lock them away - so selfish - and won't let anyone else inside.//

"I think Reeve should be all right. I think they're calling it a mild stroke, though he seems to be functioning all right now, I've heard. I think all the stress just aggravated whatever was wrong. It hit him pretty hard, they're not letting him do much more than rest. Scarlet's in charge now, at least until he's stronger, but no one knows exactly when he'll be in good enough shape to come back. It's still too soon." Tifa grinned bitterly. "It's kind of funny, actually, now that bitch has everything she could have asked for but there's no much left that she can do with it. Serves her right."

Her words met with no response, and the dark-haired man sat so quietly, so still, that it was hard for Tifa to break the silence again.


He didn't answer her, didn't move, Cloud's sword sitting across from him, resting against the side of a chair, almost like another person. The dark-haired man wasn't staring at it though, gazing blankly at his own hands instead, dark dreads hanging down like a wall, making it impossible to see his eyes.


"I remember when they pulled me out, when they finally got around to telling me what had happened, that Cloud was the commanding officer? I didn't believe it... little Cloud? The Cloud I knew, he did all that?" The dark haired man sighed. "I didn't want to die then. I was so angry, right to the moment that those bastards killed me. I never should have left him, and now..."

"Zack." Tifa touched his shoulder, surprised when he immediately leaned against her, head to her hip, immediately bringing up an arm around her neck, threading her fingers through the thick ropes of his hair. "Zack, you don't have to take this all on yourself. You don't have to do this. Cloud and Sephiroth, they could be anywhere, they might be having to lay low, they might be in trouble but that doesn't mean-"

"There's nowhere to go. The Turks came back a day ago, there was nothing left for them to do. Everything from Gongaga to Wutai is clear. Completely clear. No sign of Hojo's forces, no sign of any new attacks. He just picked up his toys and went home. Melissa was right, this is the eye of the storm, and from here..." Zack shook his head slowly, in wonder at the horror of it all, and finally turned to her. It was terrifying, to see the lost, broken look in his eyes.

"It's been four days. Four days with no word. I lost him this time, Tifa. I lost them both forever."

"Zack, calm down." The dark-haired woman closed the gap between them, gasping slightly as she put a hand on his shoulder. "You're shaking."

"I know." He murmured softly, his arm wrapping around her back like warm, pliant steel. "I know."

"We'll be all right, Zack. We'll get through this, we always do. It seemed this bad before, once. It was just like this, everyone was expecting the worst. /I/ was sure we were all doomed, when Seph - when Jenova tried to destroy us, but it all turned out all right, and here I am today - with you."

He smiled and nodded, only because she deserved it, because she was trying to help, but Zack couldn't shake his own sense of dread, a terrible empty feeling he didn't dare call foreboding. If his friends had been attacked... there would have been the signs of a struggle, something. Cloud would have died before becoming Hojo's prisoner.

//... and Sephiroth would have died for him. I know that.//

The dark-haired SOLDIER hated himself, for thinking, even for a moment, that two bodies would have been much less unnerving than none.



It was useless dramatics, he hated himself for even the silent question, the way it whispered in his mind. Cloud knew where, and how, and why, he had known for an eternity, he would know forever.

The liquid Mako surrounding him provided no sense of distance as he tried to look around him, chill and clammy, sticking to his skin and burning with cold fire. He couldn't move, being pushed in on all sides, and even breathing was difficult, and painful, lungs aching with the strain as they drew in and expelled the glowing fluid.

Mako, thick and rank and vile, burning skin from the bone with that horrible chemical taste that permeated /everything/. Oh yes, he remembered this, remembered how the life he lived had narrowed down so quickly to so little. No life before this moment, and no life beyond.

Except when what had happened before had been worse. It almost sounded cliché, impossible that he hadn't seen it coming. He had loved the man who had delivered him back into the arms of his worst enemy. Everyone would die, the entire war had been in vain. It had snapped his will and soul in half so fast, in his ever-waning moments of lucidity Cloud wasn't sure he'd even realized it had happened yet.

He wondered if he had always struggled for nothing, just hadn't realized it until now. If his dreams and his world had always been dust and ash or if it had just been inevitable that they would someday burn.

Cloud didn't want to remember the look on Sephiroth's face, the moment before he struck the Judas blow. He didn't know why some memories stayed, how he had managed to block out Zack but not the sight of his town in flames, his mother's body. How he couldn't forget Elicia, or so much of those five years in the lab.

All the years that were exactly like this.

All he wanted to do now was replace Sephiroth's sane eyes in his memory, change them for the smirking, evil pair he had grown to loathe so completely. The only way he had been able to bear it, the only way he had been able to raise a sword on the man he loved was knowing that it wasn't. Jenova had destroyed Sephiroth, and he could strike down against that, he could destroy the shell that had remained - barely.

//... sane. He... his eyes...//

Cloud pleaded with his memories, only to sweep away the look in Sephiroth's eyes - cold, distant, but not crazy. No hint of the satisfied grin that had sickened him so much once upon a time. No sign that Jenova had found a hold within him again. His Sephiroth. His beautiful, perfect Sephiroth had done this.

//We told you... we told you it wasn't worth it. We told you that you weren't worthy. You were warned.//

The chorus of inner voices chided him weakly. Shame and fear and sorrow that he had carried around so long they were almost like real people, though their self-congratulation sounded only tired now, as drained and lifeless as he was. They hadn't wanted to be right, /he/ hadn't wanted to be right.

//Sephiroth. Seph...//

The word was a dull litany, a prayer over shattered wreckage, nothing left to long for but oblivion, that when Hojo had the Lifestream in his grasp he would no longer find Cloud worthwhile, and consign him to the void. He had been judged, and no matter what anyone, not even Zack had tried to make him believe, Cloud knew he had to face it - he was unworthy.

//Seph... why?//

It had been wrong, he had been wrong to dare to touch something so beautiful, to ever think, to ever hope or dream or feel... and now all that remained was the punishment. He could only think of the name, staring out at nothing with tears like molten steel barely tearing from his eyes, joining the pool of Mako that held him in a chemical womb. He thought of only Sephiroth, until Hojo flipped a switch, sending wave after wave of crippling agony, raw energy through the glowing liquid and his own body, and he couldn't think at all.


//Please... please please please make him stop.//

Rufus pushed the pillow down around his ears, finally replaced it with his bare hands, digging his knuckles into the sides of his head until his ears rang - it didn't help. The cavern was like the inside of a gramophone, reverberating with any loud sound that came through - and the sound that now buried all others was Cloud, screaming. Either Hojo had purposely had the screams amplified, or it was actually possible to cry out that loud through Mako. Whatever the case, it had gone on for hours, long past what Rufus thought anyone could withstand, or that anyone else even had the capacity to inflict... and hell, he'd led the /Turks/, he'd seen Reno -

//... don't go there. Just don't think about what Hojo's probably doing to him. You'll just give yourself nightmares. More nightmares.//

It was bad enough with Aeris, but these screams were impossible to listen to, those of an agonized thing even Rufus would have killed long ago, just to put it out of its misery. He didn't want to imagine what was happening, all the instruments the scientist had never had the time or the inclination to use on him now no doubt being put through an extensive trial. Hojo hated Cloud, and Hojo was a master of pain.

Rufus ground his teeth together again as the silence was broken by another scream - a name this time, the name of the man who was laying on the bunk below him. Cloud was screaming Sephiroth's name, in anger, most likely -

//How would someone who was his sworn enemy...? Cloud /killed/ him the last time, he couldn't have trusted him. How was he lured here? How was he defeated?//

Rufus froze, at a sound from beneath, Sephiroth on the lower bunk. The white-haired man had said nothing to him from the time they had left Hojo's company until now. Rufus had said very little, explaining how to get food and water, wondering if the man with the Mako green eyes would need even that. He doubted, even without the screams, that he could have slept, not when he was laying only a few feet away from a lunatic, the most dangerous man that had ever lived.

The man who slowly slid out from his bed, getting silently to his feet. Rufus went still as Sephiroth turned, barely watching through nearly closed eyes, and prayed that the man's night sight wasn't perfect. It was no easy trick to feign sleep, with his heart thrumming in his throat like an engine, but Rufus watched as the pale blue-green glow brightened and faded, the man apparently convinced he was asleep. He opened his eyes just enough to see Sephiroth moving away from him, not towards the door but away, into the side room.

//What the...?//

The thought struck him, perhaps Sephiroth had to use the bathroom. He choked slightly, the need for absolute silence making the thought far funnier than it ever should have been. Thankfully, he was able to calm down by the time he returned, carrying something bulky in his arms. The thought that Sephiroth had found the explosives, his one and only chance at retaliation, nearly made him choke.

Rufus cursed his own eyes, desperately straining to see. It was nearly impossible, though, to discern what the object was while not betraying the fact that he wasn't sleeping - at least until Sephiroth flipped a switch, the laptop's screen winking on, shadowing his features with an eerie pale haze.

Rufus swallowed a relieved sigh, relaxing against the bed. //Okay... so he grabbed one of the old machines from the other room. Why?//

The blonde couldn't come up with a plausible reason, anything Hojo had asked or might ask him to do that required he sit on the floor in the middle of the night, typing into a machine with at best one-hundredth the capacity of any of the machines in the main lab.

//Unless... he doesn't want to let Hojo know what he's doing.//

The incongruity had struck him immediately, though Rufus had, of course said nothing, keeping all questions to himself. Sephiroth had been insane before, that had been easy enough to see, less a man than a puppet controlled by forces Rufus hadn't understood then and barely did now - the Lifestream, Jenova. The Sephiroth he had known would have killed himself /and/ Hojo before ever allowing any of what had come to pass, allowing himself to be used as a tool even if the outcome had meant his ascension to some 'godhood' or some such nonsense.

... and when Sephiroth had been sane, he had not been an evil man. Unstoppable in battle, unyielding in an argument and one of the coldest, most unnaturally distant men that Rufus had ever come into contact with - but not evil.

//We all knew he hated Hojo. Hell, we /all/ hated Hojo. I can't see Sephiroth doing his bidding even if it /is/ what they both want. He'd find his own way, just to piss that bastard off.//

So was that what Sephiroth was doing now? Finding a way around whatever Hojo had planned, for his own attempts at greatness, a second chance to be god? Or was it something else? Did he actually dare to take it as a ray of hope?


The anguished howl tore through the room like a bullet, and this time Sephiroth reacted, head snapping up towards the desperate cry. Rufus's eyes were pinned to those glowing aqua ones, desperately trying to confirm or negate what he thought he saw, hoping and refusing to hope at the same time. Rufus had never known the man to show emotion, one way or the other, save for brief moments of anger, irritation. He had never seen sorrow, or shock, or torment - the things he swore he was seeing now, Sephiroth looking so pained it seemed he should have been the one screaming.

An impossible thing, to see the moment of weakness on such a man, even more so as Sephiroth moved the computer off his knee, bringing his hand up to his mouth, higher still to catch a few strands of white hair in a tight grip - agony, Rufus knew what it looked like, the silent agony of those damned to tough choices and moments of hell without recourse or salvation. So Sephiroth was not crazy, could not be crazy, and this reaction meant perhaps, he wasn't even on Hojo's side.

//Or he's trying to lure you out to...//

Rufus discredited the idea immediately - once again, he had to keep reminding himself he /wasn't/ that important - just as Sephiroth looked up, staring at him over the edge of the bunk.

Rufus knew he could have feigned sleep. The angle was odd and his eyes were almost completely closed anyway, he could pretend he was asleep or perhaps that he had just woken up, say something stupid and muddled and not risk -

Very slowly, his heart pounding hard enough to reverberate in every pulse point in his body, he sat up. Sephiroth watched him silently, as he slid out of bed, landing lightly on the freezing, bare floor, quickly sliding into what remained of his tattered shoes.

"If you're trying to hack into his system from here, it won't work."

It was an open gesture, revealing his intentions with no promise that Sephiroth shared them, and Rufus knew it. Jade eyes regarded him for a moment, utterly terrifying the way they glowed in the darkness, before lowering, the SOLDIER lifting the computer back onto his lap. Rufus clenched sweaty palms, releasing a long, nervous breath.

"If you're working for him, I can kill you before you reach the door."

Rufus raised an eyebrow, amazed how much safer he felt with the threat on the table, a return to his past.

"If I was working for Hojo, he'd already know, wouldn't he? If he doesn't suspect you already, that is. He's not the world's most trusting person... thing. Whatever. You should remember, I hate him just as much as you do."

//At least I hope you do.//

It was clear, the man was going to need a little more proof, though Rufus had painfully little to provide. Carefully, he stepped to the side table, picking up a small knife he'd managed to scavenge, the blade less than two inches, never glancing away from Sephiroth. He winced slightly, slowly bringing the blade across the fleshy part of the back of his hand, just below his thumb, tipping it toward Sephiroth as a few drops of blood slid down.

"Red, all red. Good enough for you?"

He held his breath again through another pause, and Sephiroth finally nodded, turning back to the computer.

"I was looking at the schematics, there ought to be a wire somewhere in this room."

"It wouldn't matter. The wire... it's in a panel behind you, and it's already loose." Rufus couldn't believe he felt so nervous, wished inanely that he was wearing a suit, that he had somewhere to put his hands. "I already tried it, tried connecting. He's got firewalls on his firewalls. The only way to get in - well, there is no way to get in. You have to be in the lab."

Sephiroth's gaze narrowed slightly, still not quite trusting, but finally he nodded, reaching back to pull the panel down, exposing the wires, glancing back to find the one Rufus had already spliced and modified, sliding it into the side of the machine.

"I'd still like to see what I can find... if you don't mind."

Rufus shrugged slightly, finally moving to sit at the edge of the bottom bunk, unsure of what he should do now.

//Sane... he's sane, and he's on our side.// It seemed impossible to ask for a better stroke of luck, to ask for anything else, but Rufus felt the silent prayer rise in his throat as he cleared it, saw Sephiroth glance up.

"How long? How long has it been since I-" He paused, it still felt a little weird referring to his own death.

"Since you died? Six years, more or less."

He nodded, it sounded right.

"Do you know if - I mean, is Scarlet still alive?"

Sephiroth looked up at him again, perhaps a glimmer of surprise, or interest in his eyes, and he nodded briefly before returning to his task. "As of a week ago, she was."

Rufus nodded, amazed at another flood of relief, so happy just to have someone to talk to, someone who had been to the outside world. It was immensely comforting, no matter what the current circumstances might be. He winced, those circumstances immediately making themselves known, as another tortured scream reverberated down the tunnel.

"I can't believe you managed to get him in here."

A flicker of something passed across Sephiroth's face, though it was too dark for Rufus to read it.

"It's hard to mistrust someone who's sleeping in your bed. It doesn't take much at all, before they will believe you above all else, and follow you anywhere... even into hell."

Rufus knew he was wide-eyed, dumbfounded at the implications of the statement, and spent several more seconds in silence than was polite.

"You... and Cloud?!"

"So surprised, Rufus?" Sephiroth murmured dryly. "You seemed to have a clear enough idea when you thought I was flirting with you."

Rufus scowled back, though it quickly faded, all those old power games of no importance anymore.

"You - you used Cloud as... /bait/, then, to get in here?"

"Yes, yes I did."

The silence was punctuated by more screaming, and then a terrible silence of its own. Rufus nodded, swallowing back whatever fractured things he might say, searching for something safe.

"Well," the first word was breathy, nervous, he tried to brush right past it, "at least that can be some comfort for him... I suppose, knowing this is the only chance."

"He doesn't know."

Sephiroth never looked up from his work, voice flat and emotionless. Rufus had always considered himself rather cold-blooded, but found it difficult to even manage a response, voice sticking somewhere behind his sternum as he tried to choke it out.

"You - what do you mean he doesn't know?"

"Cloud thinks I abandoned him, that I switched sides and sacrificed him to Hojo, to prove my worth... or he thinks I'm mad. I couldn't risk Hojo forcing him to talk, having him accidentally break down. He knows nothing of this."


If Sephiroth was waiting for something, congratulations or outrage, he was much too stunned to give it. Rufus felt his legs shaking slightly but refused to sit down, leaning to the side, rather ungracefully, instead.

"Why are you here, Rufus ShinRa? What purpose could Hojo possibly have for you?"

The white-haired man still didn't look up, fingers tapping swiftly against the keys. Rufus nearly jumped again, but a sudden recollection stopped him - this was the man who had enjoyed teasing him once, rather mercilessly, he might have even called it flirtatious or mocking, had ice cold Sephiroth not been the one doing it. Stubborn pride demanded he lose no further composure.

"Hojo was furious, I'm sure, when Cloud managed to disrupt his plans, when he destroyed you before you could - what was it - become 'one with the Planet'. It was all he would talk about, some nights, once he'd brought me back, ranting for hours about how 'the failure' had ruined everything, how it was some fluke of fate, some impossible chance that had allowed it."

Rufus realized every word was a reminder of what Sephiroth had done, who he had given Cloud to, even without the screams echoing off the stone walls outside, the whirring of those torturous devices loud enough to make the metal grating vibrate gently beneath his feet.

"He wanted a test sample, as close as he could get to Cloud, to see why things happened the way they did. All his attempts to clone Cloud failed, they didn't live long and they couldn't stand up to any... rigorous testing." Rufus was satisfied as he held back a shiver. "Thankfully, Hojo never did much with me before he learned about you. After that, he forgot about me."

"As close as he could get to Cloud? I don't understand. What do you have to do with him?"

Despite himself, Rufus couldn't help the small bite of... well, he'd never been able to classify it, actually. It wasn't jealousy, it wasn't as if Cloud had ever been on his level, in any way - it wasn't as if President ShinRa had even known he was alive. Offense, perhaps? As silly as it might seem, for him to be annoyed that the other man was alive, to remind him of his mother's death and his father's unflinching infidelity.

"Did Cloud ever talk about his past? His family?"

"... not really. The records I found were incomplete, Hojo had much of it destroyed after he transferred Cloud to his lab. He had a mother."

//I killed her.// Sephiroth didn't say the words, he didn't have to.

"He never mentioned a father, did he. I'm sure he didn't know, no doubt his mother constructed some story." Rufus tipped his head slightly, musing. We do look a /little/ alike, really."

Finally, Sephiroth looked up, green eyes studying him for a moment, confusion shifting to wary suspicion. Rufus didn't wait for him to ask.

"Half-brothers, on my father's side. After my mother died, the President developed a taste for all kinds of women... as long as they were disposable." It disgusted him, just another weakness in a man he had long ago learned to despise.

"Cloud's mother was a secretary, actually. An office worker - he must have thought she was beautiful, and either she felt the same - which I doubt - or she was too afraid to say no. He dropped her immediately, of course, when he found out she was pregnant. If she hadn't fled to Nibelheim, and raised a son so intent on coming back..." Rufus glanced around for a moment, sighing. "We would have died when the Meteor fell, or when you went after your-"

He paused, unsure, and Sephiroth finally stepped in to fill the gap.

"My mother was a scientist. Jenova was... supplemental. Nothing more."

Rufus nodded quietly, completely unwilling to argue the point, more than glad for the fact that Sephiroth was, from what he could tell, actually sane.

He continued to watch in silence as the white-haired man worked, praying the white-haired man truly could find an answer, something he had overlooked, though with every moment that passed it seemed less and less likely an outcome.

The blonde shivered. He didn't want to, but he couldn't help it.

"I can open almost all of the doors from here, most of the rooms Hojo didn't bother with. Is there anything inside we could use?"

"No." He didn't mean to lie about his explosives, but the words came out without a thought, the result of a year spent telling as little truth as possible. After a year in this cold hell, secrets were the only things he had, the only thing that kept Hojo from winning him mind and soul. Besides, Rufus had long ago ruled out using the bombs as anything but a final attempt, a suicide effort. He wasn't even sure they would detonate.

Sephiroth had gone quiet again, still typing, the fluorescent blue of the computer screen washing out his features, leaving him a pensive ghost, tick-tacking his way through eternity.

"Hojo has everything set up in a room just outside the main chamber, all the connections to the outside world. The mainframe is so close. I could connect the two, it wouldn't be that difficult..."

"You have people on the outside?"

A slight nod. "It isn't perfect, but they were working on a plan to take Jenova down from the inside out, create a 'virus' of sorts, to redirect her energy back into the Planet as Lifestream energy, to reverse what she - what Hojo did. If I can find Hojo's base code, and transmit it to the outside world..."

Rufus wondered if Sephiroth realized how improbable it sounded.

"You've based this entire war on long shots, haven't you?"

At first, even though the other man didn't answer, Rufus didn't notice the change. It wasn't until Sephiroth raised his head, frozen, staring out the door at nothing that the blonde felt a chill go up his spine. It set his nerves on edge to see the white-haired man so still, caught up in something he couldn't see or hear. The thought was always in the back of his mind - if Sephiroth went crazy, he was dead, and as much as this was hell, if he died there would be no escape, not when Hojo finally won.

"... what is it?"

"Cloud." The green eyes were like chips of glass, or mirrors, and only then did Rufus notice the oppressive still, the absolute lack of sound. "He isn't screaming anymore."


//I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I didn't know.//

Aeris would have given anything for one moment of the past, one bright and happy time they could have returned to, together, all of them. Long ago, long before all of this, when she could have loved Zack and befriended Cloud - and killed Sephiroth, found a way to destroy him completely, erase every trace of his existence before he had found a way to hurt them again and again.

//Cloud. Cloud, please. Please answer me.//

The flower girl knew the moment wouldn't last, not the nostalgic yearning for memory, journeys to the past that even now made her smile, all of those would die very soon, with whatever Hojo had planned, and the only thing that would remain would be her hate.

It wasn't for Hojo, not really. He had so far transgressed the borders between what was rightfully his and what was sacred, what he had no right to touch and his egotism that he was more an archetype than a man, the concept of evil given human form rather than the other way around.

The flower girl's hate lived for Sephiroth, too blind and too stupid and too vicious to know what to choose, a monster in the form of a man who never should have been. He didn't deserve Cloud, he never had, and Aeris prayed that she could bring about his death. Even if Hojo won, even if the world was crumbling down around them for eternity, she wanted to tear out his throat, she wanted to see his death first - by her hands - wanted him to meet his triumph on his knees, whimpering in agony.

//It's the least I can do, after what he's done.//

Aeris pressed a hand against the glass, resting her forehead to it a moment later. If she tried to fool herself, she could say that Cloud was all right now, resting in a moment of respite, after Hojo had disappeared to god knew where. It wasn't true, though, she could see him twitch every now and again, knew his muscles had all constricted against his bones, every cell in his body twisted in on itself, fighting to escape.

//Cloud? Cloud, I'm here. Please, please answer me.//

It was like trying to whisper in a snowstorm, and the flower girl's entire body ached as his glazed eyes looked straight through her, lips maybe mumbling something, though it could have just been a ripple in the glass. Maybe a name, but even if, it was not hers. The flower girl knew that much for sure.

Even now, he prayed for Sephiroth.

//Cloud... oh Cloud I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry. I should never, never have trusted him.//

Ghostly memories of long-ago tears welled up in her eyes, she had to turn away to weep. It was too much, too much sorrow, too much pain.

"I doubt he can hear you, my dear." Aeris shivered, as the hissing voice rippled along the conduits of Lifestream around her - weak, the living force she was a part of had diluted to nearly nothing. Lifting her chin proudly, she turned, staring down Hojo as he skittered swiftly into the room, lightly, almost dancing on his crablike legs. It made her ill to watch, she was thankful anger pushed back the fear.

The scientist moved past her, toward a bank of computers nearer to Cloud. Aeris braced herself, catching the sob in her chest, waiting for him to start again. He had been torturing Cloud for hours, with no intent other than his own inexplicable whims, barely speaking, only laughing occasionally at a particularly loud or pained scream. His beady eyes narrowed, one claw coming up to tap lightly against his chin in vulgar expectation. Hojo glanced up at her, knew she was watching him, and smiled. Aeris told herself he could not see her fear, willed herself to stare back into the eyes of such a monster.

"He's reacting differently from the last time, although I suppose I am pushing him harder than I did back then." He turned to face her, shifting his gaze back toward Cloud as he spoke. "It's amazing, but I do believe he's more a conduit than you are now. I don't see how that's possible, really. Maybe it has something to do with his unique position, that he bridges the gap between both worlds." A human limb pressed against the cylinder, almost lovingly. "I suppose it was a bit presumptuous of me, to call him a failure, although if it pushed him to this point, I can hardly complain."

It was even more torturous somehow, when Hojo wasn't speaking, when she could see the sparks of contemplation flashing in his dark, snakelike eyes. Aeris felt dread twist like a cold knife, saw the exact moment that passing contemplation froze into a plan, something infinitely more dangerous.

"It would be perfect, actually." The head turned slowly, he was smiling. "Inspired by you, my dear." You helped make him what he is, after all. ... and to think, I was just going to torture him until he died."

//You leave him alone!!!//

It was an empty threat, they both knew it, the remnants of her power unable to do more than glimmer against the glass, the vestiges of her anger and pain scraping like fingernails against the cage. Hojo didn't even look her way, studying the limp form within the cage, tipping his head this way and that - planning.





Author's Notes -

1. Long sabbatical, had to graduate. Thanks for all the reviews n' stuff, o' course. This long-ass thing wouldn't have gone nearly half this far if not for you all.

2. Checked it a couple of times. Had the immeasurably talented and magnificent Flidgie-muse beta it. If there are mistakes, sorry, I tried. ^^

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