|天の龍 ~ 「俺の運が変われると思う…」 (kiraya) wrote in drops_n_ripples,|
@ 2011-11-12 18:30:00
|Entry tags:||butterfly effect|
Butterfly Effect: Chapter 48
Authors: Bard Linn and Kiraya
Pairings: Zack x Sephiroth, Reeve x Aeris, assorted past pairings
Rating (Overall): PG-13
Summary: “I just hope they don’t kill Hojo before we get there. I want to at least be there to see it happen!”
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all associated characters and symbols are the exclusive property of Square Enix and its associates. We’re just borrowing them for a while.
Zack, Sephiroth, and Vincent discussed the matter, and decided that Vincent would be the one to tell Cloud about their mission. The idea of not telling him never crossed their minds; he well deserved to know that Hojo would be taken care of once and for all. However, despite his rapid recovery, the Dennets hadn’t yet cleared Cloud to fight.
They were sure Cloud would argue about being left behind, but Arthur and Morgan had been adamant: Cloud should not be fighting for some time. The hope was that Vincent, Cloud’s mentor from a young age, would have the best odds of being able to convince him to remain in Midgar.
::Because you’ve never gone into a fight against a medic’s orders.:: Chaos sounded amused as they entered the quarters assigned to Sinclair. ::You’re a fool if you think this will work.::
“Vincent! Zack said you’d be coming. Can I get you something to drink?” Cloud stood at the counter in the kitchenette, apparently in the middle of making dinner.
“No, thank you.” Vincent moved toward his former protégé. “I need to speak with you about something.”
“What happened at the board meeting?” Cloud asked, flipping the meat he was frying. Vincent raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come on. After everything you taught me, you really think I wouldn’t notice something had happened? I haven’t gone after the secure channels yet, but still.”
Sometimes he let the glow in the boy’s eyes, brighter than ever, fool him into forgetting Cloud was almost as much a Turk as a SOLDIER. “They’ve tracked Hojo down.”
Cloud broke out in a (rather nasty, to be quite honest) grin. “Excellent. I’ll get Zack to give me back my weapons. Aeris and Tifa are giving me back my materia tonight — except for the ones that split, of course, I’ll let them keep the ‘shoots. When do we leave?”
::Tactful, aren’t we?:: Chaos sounded particularly gleeful.
Vincent wished the spirit would cease the running commentary; he already had a headache.
“…you are not leaving me behind.” Cloud’s voice was very level, very calm. Only the glint in his eyes betrayed his anger.
::Boy gets more like Sephiroth every day.::
“You haven’t been cleared by your doctors—” Cloud snorted “—and we’re worried about your… stability.”
“You’re afraid I’ll go bonkers, kill a dozen people, burn down a few villages for the love of JENOVA, you mean.” Cloud turned the burner down, brought out some vegetables, and began chopping them with quick, short strokes.
Vincent saw no need to confirm the obvious. “The President says we’ll reveal your survival when we return. If you wish, you may rejoin SOLDIER.” Not that Vincent could imagine Cloud not rejoining the organization, considering his strong ties to Zack and Sephiroth, but he might wish to have some time off before he did. The young Shinra likely thought the same — and by giving him the appearance of a choice, he projected a magnanimous image. “You’ll be able to call your mother. Captain Highwind said he would fly her out personally, if necessary.”
Cloud gave him a piercing look. After a moment that seemed to stretch for an eternity, he nodded to himself and asked, “How?”
“How are you going to explain my survival? Obviously you could chalk it up to some diabolical plan of Hojo’s, but officially you never rescued me. If you just show up without me in tow on the way back from killing him, it’ll look weird.” Cloud slid the vegetables into the pan and took a few potatoes out of the oven to cool. Altogether it looked like enough food for three, but recovering SOLDIERs were known to have increased appetites.
“Do you have a suggestion?” Vincent had a hunch he knew where this was going.
“I leave Midgar a little later than you do — I can take Tifa and Aeris with me. We can go… I don’t know. Mideel’s hot springs, maybe. They’re supposed to be healthy for you, and Aeris said she was interested in getting some local plant clippings anyway. You can swing by and pick us up, if it’s not too far.”
Vincent frowned. ‘Not too far,’ indeed. Hojo was only supposed to be about thirty miles from Mideel’s largest resort… although Cloud had said he hadn’t hacked the security code, which meant he shouldn’t know that. Ms. Gainsborough had said that the Mideelish forest plants she’d gotten samples of were thriving in the dimmer light under the Plate and that she’d wanted to get some more, and Tifa’s skill was such that she’d do well by her as a guard. There was even a nearby resort with ShinRa connections that they could arrive at discreetly, allowing Cloud not to be seen. It seemed perfectly reasonable, on the surface — a little too reasonable. This was, after all, the man who as a boy had successfully schemed to arrange a meeting between Vincent and Sephiroth… and his wits hadn’t dulled as he’d grown up.
“Look,” said Cloud finally, well aware of Vincent’s suspicion, “I promise I won’t go off and try to kill Hojo on my own, all right? Word of honor.” He grimaced. “If I don’t get out and do something soon, I’m gonna end up murderous.”
After a long moment of hesitation, Vincent nodded. Cloud, like most SOLDIERs, had a pretty high sense of personal honor, and so he could expect him to remain true to his word. “I’ll tell the others.”
“And I’ll talk to Tifa and Aeris about it. They’re going to be stopping by after dinner anyway.” Cloud smiled, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Tell me we’ll get to use the springs for free since this is mission related?”
“Now you’re just starting to sound like Reno.” Cloud laughed, and Vincent let himself out so he could eat in peace. He should have felt more at ease after that, and yet he just couldn’t shake this feeling…
Aeris smiled as she walked through the garden closest to the ShinRa Tower. It was a beautiful day, and the place looked absolutely wonderful. So close to the company’s offices, it received the most attention from the staff. These days they even had a few personnel outside the MMG Project occasionally stopping by to learn a thing or two about gardening. Some of them were setting up small gardens in their homes, or using window boxes… It lightened Aeris’s heart to hear it.
She figured Reeve wanted to see her about her request for leave. She had just recently returned from a long trip while retrieving Cloud, but Aeris though it was important she oblige Cloud and accompany him. Once she had recovered from the terrorist attack, Aeris had noticed something different about him. The feeling of that negative energy that surrounded Sephiroth and Zack was even stronger in him now, but it was also accompanied by something different, something that felt almost familiar — and Cloud had promised to talk about it on the trip.
“I’m sorry. Did I keep you waiting?” Aeris settled her tools down on a table as she spotted her employer, noticing Reeve had brought a bag with him.
“No. I got here early.” Reeve gestured for her to join him on the bench. “I brought lunch.”
“You shouldn’t have!” Aeris beamed as she took the sandwich Reeve offered and opened a bottle of lemonade. “I’m sure you’re worried about my leave request—”
“If you feel you need to go to Mideel, you need to go to Mideel.” Reeve smiled. “I trust you.”
“Thank you.” That meant a lot to her, especially coming from a long-time ShinRa employee like Reeve. Despite the company’s many recent changes for the better, and its more benevolent public face, it still surprised and saddened her how cutthroat people who worked for it still were. Not even the MMG Project was immune; she had sometimes encountered coworkers jealous of her talent, her position as Reeve’s assistant, or both. “Was there something you wanted to discuss?”
“Yes, but it can wait until after lunch.”
Taking the hint, Aeris laughed and applied herself to her sandwich. They discussed mundane topics for a while: which plants were prospering, which needed to be replaced, what Reeve was up to with Cait Sith, how her mother was doing… Aeris found her food vanishing at a rate that surprised her. With a flourish, Reeve produced dessert — chocolate-covered strawberries.
“You’ll make me go up three dress sizes if you keep doing this,” Aeris teased as she selected one. She loved fruit, but chocolate-covered strawberries had quickly become a favorite once Reeve introduced them to her. Zack had treated her to chocolates sometimes, which had been nice, but she found the combination with fruit irresistible.
“You skip too many lunches. You can afford a bit of chocolate.” Reeve gently tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear, and Aeris blushed a little in spite of herself. She was well aware of Reeve’s feelings towards her, though he’d never said anything and she didn’t push — she had never expected anything to come of it because of how ShinRa officially discouraged relationships with coworkers — ineffectually, but that was an entirely different can of worms, and in any case Reeve was always careful with his relationships with coworkers. The two of them had shared an occasional lunch or dinner that had bordered on romantic, but Reeve had always pulled back at the last moment (and she could admit, at least privately, that she regretted that). “Aeris… I really called you here for another reason.”
She tilted her head. “Yes? What is it?”
“Well,” Reeve began, “we’ve known each other for almost five years now, working on the MMG Project, and…” He paused, then straightforwardly said, “I’ve grown fond of you, Aeris. Very fond.”
Finally. She hid a smile. “Are you asking whether the feeling is mutual?”
He smiled himself, a hint of mischief to it. “If I were — and assuming it is, if you’ll pardon me for that — would you permit a simple man to ask a potentially complicated question?”
Aeris’s smile broadened. “Hmm. That would depend entirely on what the question was about, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, if I were to tell you it might pertain to a matter of long-term cohabitation based on mutual affection, with the possibility of children at some point in the future…”
“I just might say that my response to that question would be ‘Of course I’ll marry you, silly.’” Still smiling, she snuggled close, kissing Reeve lightly. He tenderly responded, and oh wasn’t it ridiculous — wonderful — how such a little thing could make a person feel so giddy?
He smiled sweetly back at her, putting his arms around her. “You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear you say that.”
“I think I can guess, if it’s anything like how I feel right now.” Teasingly, Aeris continued, “I was starting to wonder if you’d ever say anything.”
“I was worried about your reputation,” Reeve confessed. “People sometimes say really nasty things about, ah… the relationships between bosses and their subordinates.”
It was adorable when he was trying to be delicate about things — sometimes it almost seemed like he’d forgotten where Aeris grew up. “Of course,” she responded with a wink. “So what brought about the change of heart?”
Reeve’s arms tightened around her. “Let’s just chalk it up to certain recent events and leave it at that, all right?” He smoothed her hair. “I know you’re leaving tomorrow, so how about we tell everyone the news once you get back?”
“All right.” Aeris had figured the terrorist attack might’ve given him some incentive, but she wasn’t going to complain. “Just one thing, though…”
She smiled at that. “Becoming Mrs. Tuesti doesn’t mean I have to give up my job to satisfy some silly regulations about relationships, right?”
“Absolutely not,” Reeve reassured her. “I’d never take from the MMG Project the one person it could never have happened without… and besides, I must confess I like a woman who’s willing to get her hands dirty.”
Aeris laughed at that. “Good, because I’m quite happy where I am.”
“I thought you might be.” Reeve kissed her again. “So am I.”
“I can’t believe you managed to get ShinRa to give you a paid vacation — using their properties, no less!” Tifa shook her head in amazement. “Cloud, you have amazing luck.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” he said. “Try careful negotiation. Besides, Aeris does need those plants.”
“I do,” Aeris agreed. “But it’ll be nice to be able to take our time getting them.”
The two girls dropped their bags on one bed, while Cloud claimed the other. They would be traveling via boat to Mideel’s main port. Only Tifa and Aeris were officially booked for the liner; Cloud had been lucky enough to be able to sneak into their quarters, but Zack, Sephiroth, and Vincent were lurking in the cargo hold. The blond privately thought he should feel bad about that, but they had wanted to approach Hojo unnoticed. And there’s no way we can fit seven people in this tiny room. Three’s tight enough as it is.
“Anyway, though… You said you wanted to talk to us, Cloud?” Aeris asked.
“Yes. About a lot of things, honestly.” He frowned. “Some of it’s good, but some of it isn’t…”
“First, though, Aeris has some news of her own!” Tifa interrupted, grinning.
Cloud blinked. “News?”
Aeris actually blushed a little. “I’m engaged.”
“En— wait, to who?” Cloud frowned. He hadn’t even realized that Aeris was seeing anyone.
“…isn’t he your boss?” Cloud’s voice was just a touch chill, his expression serious.
“Yes, but he’s not like that at all!” Aeris’s immediate, honest reaction made Cloud relax a bit. “He’s sweet, and considerate, and brilliant too. He builds the most amazing machines, even though he downplays it and says it’s just a silly tinkering hobby. And he likes to garden with me, and we’ve already talked some about children—”
“You’d better not let her keep going,” Tifa interrupted with a grin. “That’s all we’ll hear about.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re happy,” Cloud said, smiling. “I just wish I had known you were seeing someone, you know?”
“Well, we were never exactly ‘official’ — he was worried about my reputation — but we’ve been interested in each other for a while, and during the time you… weren’t here, we grew a lot closer. I always look forward to spending time with him. I almost like it better than gardening.” This last she spoke in a conspiratorial whisper.
“‘Almost’?” Cloud echoed.
“Your poor flowers would be heartbroken if they knew,” Tifa teased.
“I’m sure they’d understand.” Aeris laughed. “In any case, we’d like to hold the ceremony in a few months, probably not quite a year. We haven’t decided on an exact date yet, but we’d prefer a summer wedding.”
“We’ll be sure to look for invitations, then.” As he spoke, Cloud finished fiddling with his materia and withdrew a short sword from the long case he’d brought with him.
Tifa frowned. “Why did you bring weapons for a resort holiday?” She sounded suspicious. “I thought you were supposed to be resting.”
“A couple reasons.” Cloud tested the edge of the blade. “One, I don’t go anywhere unarmed. Two, I need to start practicing if I’m going to get back into the hang of it. Three, you’re crazy if you think I’m going to just sit in a hot spring while you two are out in the jungle. The monsters in Mideel are stronger than anything around Midgar, and I’m sure you guys wouldn’t mind the backup.”
Tifa bristled. “We can take care of ourselves.”
“But you know what they say: ‘greater safety in greater numbers,’” Aeris pointed out, mollifyingly. “We appreciate the thought, Cloud, thank you.” She shifted to a more comfortable position. “But anyway… You’d mentioned you wanted to talk?”
“Yeah. Um… I met your mother.” As Aeris went pale, Cloud quickly added, “Not like that! I mean, she isn’t alive. But I… I guess you could say I met her in the Lifestream.”
“The Lifestream? What, you’re an Ancient?” Tifa looked at Cloud like she’d never seen him before. “Since when?”
“Look, I’m no expert, but Hojo… did stuff to me.” He shook his head. “Ifalna said he put some of her cells in me, or something. Whatever it was, I guess I have some Cetra qualities now.”
“Which kind of makes you the brother I never had, huh?” Aeris said, smiling softly.
“That’s what I said.” Cloud grinned. “So, if Reeve ever upsets you, let me know. I know plenty of SOLDIERs with married siblings who have all sorts of fun ways to intimidate the in-laws.”
“I doubt Reeve would scare that easily,” Tifa put in. “Remind me to tell you about what he did during that terrorist attack sometime.”
“Sure — it’s not like we won’t have time on this trip.” To Aeris, he said, “In any case, I think I might be able to teach you a few things your mom taught me. Or at least I can try.”
“And I can show you what I know, too!” Aeris seemed ecstatic about the idea.
Cloud couldn’t blame her. If she really was the last Cetra, it had to be a very lonely existence… “Anyway. Maybe we can practice some on the trip out.” He let his smile fade, straightening, and his companions responded to his more serious body language instantly. “There was something else I wanted to talk to you about, though. Something important…”
Somehow, Sephiroth wasn’t surprised in the least to see what awaited them when his party finally arrived a mile or so away from Hojo’s base, having avoided the port authorities. “Cloud. I thought you were supposed to be convalescing at a hot spring?”
Cloud looked completely unapologetic. “Change in plans.”
Valentine sighed in resignation. “I should have known better. Promising not to go off on your own and then bringing others along…”
“Hojo killed my dad. I might not have gotten along with him all the time, but I still have a right to see that bastard dead,” Tifa said with feeling.
“I too want to see the end of this.” Ms. Gainsborough seemed less angry than Lockhart, but there was a quiet confidence around her, a hardened determination that Sephiroth approved of.
“And you know my feelings on the matter perfectly well,” Cloud concluded. “So. Either we’re coming with you, or you can leave us here and we’ll go in on our own. I’d recommend the first; less chance of getting in each other’s way.”
“I wasn’t aware your skills were such that you could hack information that wasn’t in the system,” Valentine said drily.
“I didn’t. I asked Chaos.”
Valentine went still. “You did what?”
“Asked Chaos. He likes to talk to me, and besides, it was you who taught me to use every source available, right?” Cloud seemed outwardly calm, but there was a tenseness to his posture and a touch of betrayal in his tone that made Sephiroth feel a flush of guilt. They had all wanted to protect Cloud, but it seemed they’d only succeeded in hurting him. “Do what’s necessary for the mission to be completed — personal feelings don’t enter into it—”
“Hey, take it easy — what’s done is done.” Zack moved between the pair. “You’re here now, so you may as well come along.”
Valentine sighed. “Just… be careful. Jenova will likely attempt to influence all of you.” He glanced at the three SOLDIERs. Sephiroth, remembering the difficulty they’d had at Gongaga and Zack and Cloud’s accounts of that time in Nibelheim, suppressed a shudder.
“So it’s a good thing we have two more fighters who haven’t been exposed to her.” Cloud looked at Aeris. “Do you think you might be able to moderate Her influence?”
Aeris bit her lip. “I don’t think I know enough yet to be able to do that, but I can at least keep you healed. I have a mastered Cure and plenty of ethers.”
“I’ve got a Shiva and some support materia,” Tifa added. “Also some remedies.”
“You two are pretty well prepared. Did you know you were coming to kill Hojo when you left?” Zack asked, looking between them.
“Nope,” Tifa replied. “Cloud told us about it once we left Midgar.”
“You’ve never tried to work with plants in monster-infested areas, have you?” Aeris asked, clearly amused. “Being a gardener isn’t always easy.”
“Enough chatter,” Sephiroth said briskly. “We need to get moving. The longer we wait, the greater the chance our quarry will notice our presence in time to escape again.” He straightened. “Zack and I will take point. Cloud, behind us with Ms. Lockhart. Valentine, cover the rear. Ms. Gainsborough, behind Cloud and Lockhart.”
They fell into marching order and set off. Sephiroth was glad to see Cloud armed, though was odd to watch him with a blade other than Shiranui — which Zack had ‘accidently’ forgotten to return to him before they’d left, not that that had helped keep him out of things. They’d have to be sure to rectify that situation when they returned to Midgar; Shiranui just suited Cloud’s style better.
They walked slowly and carefully, scanning for signs of traps. The place seemed clear so far, but Sephiroth’s keen eyesight noted scoring in the floor. “Claw marks.” The hallway they traveled seemed to lack hiding places for monstrous beasts, though.
“He wants us further in,” Cloud murmured, his voice barely loud enough to carry. “He wants to trap us — most of us — for one reason or another.”
Sephiroth frowned. That was true. Of their group, Lockhart was the only one Hojo didn’t want to get his hands on again… and just because she hadn’t been one of his subjects yet didn’t mean that she’d be spared the experience if captured. “Stay in pairs,” he told the others. “Don’t go anywhere by yourself.”
The group continued to move forward until they reached an intersection — the path straight ahead ended, but branched off to the left and right in identical featurelessness. “Aeris — can you see if you can… feel anything?” Tifa whispered. “Maybe you’ll be able to help us decide which way to go.”
“Hojo injected himself with Jenova cells. Even if She isn’t here, you might be able to sense that,” Cloud added.
Aeris nodded, moving to the center of the hallway and settling her staff against the floor. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “…there’s something in both directions,” she said after a moment of tense waiting, “but it’s worse to the left.”
“Then we go that way, I guess.” Zack started in that direction.
The sudden crash and accompanying roar were almost anticlimactic, they’d been expecting them so long. “Looks like the welcoming party finally woke up,” Cloud muttered, drawing his sword.
“Head down the hall,” Sephiroth ordered, gesturing with the Masamune. He stood his ground, facing the way they had come in the widest part of the intersection. Zack took up a position on his left, just a little ways down the other hallway.
“That is one big fuckin’ head hunter.” Zack whistled as the beast approached, and cast a quick Blizzara. “What did he feed that thing?”
“Don’t know, but either way it can’t be good for us.” On Sephiroth’s other side, Cloud gestured, repeating the spell Zack had cast. “It’s hitting the ceiling.” Cloud eyed the walls, sidestepping the sickle attack — Sephiroth parried it, forcing the creature back. “Vincent, take the others and head down this hall some — we could use some cover. Sooner we finish this, the less likely we’ll find the walls on our heads.” Vincent nodded, and the three slipped past him.
“Watch out — crysales too.” The bugs swarmed around the head hunter, the droning of their wings forcing Zack to shout. “Protected from sleep?”
“Nope.” Cloud lashed out at a bug with his boot, reflexively dodging as Vincent shot another. “Sure I’ll wake up just fine, though— Zack, above you!”
The ceiling, groaning with stress fractures from the head hunter's furious attempts to avoid their attacks, buckled. Cloud cursed as the beast got between their two groups. “We can’t split up!”
“Go!” Sephiroth ordered. “Find Hojo if you can. We’ll take the other route.” He finally managed to skewer the head hunter — it seemed someone had improved its armoring — before jumping back as the ceiling collapsed with a roar.
“So much for not splitting up.” Zack eyed the monsters coming down the hall. “Is that a sea worm? Joy. I don’t even want to think about what Earth attacks will do to this place."
“Let’s kill it before we find out. Valentine will keep Cloud safe.” Sephiroth loosed a Thundaga spell at the creature. “We’ll finish this one off, then head back up to meet them.”
Zack cursed, slicing through a number of crysales as he darted forward. “I just hope they don’t kill Hojo before we get there. I want to at least be there to see it happen!”
Aeris started as the heap of rubble from the collapsed ceiling gave another rumble, settling further. “I’m all right,” she reassured Tifa, who looked at her with concern. “Cloud? Vincent?”
“We’re fine.” Cloud replaced the sword on his back. “Let’s go. The disturbance is closer that way, right?”
Aeris nodded, and they set out. Considering what Cloud had told them on the trip out, she didn’t doubt that he could also sense it, though perhaps not as clearly… or perhaps he could sense it as clearly, but for all the wrong reasons. She hoped that wasn’t the case.
The hallway ended at a thick, impressive-looking security door. Vincent moved to the front to tinker with the computer panel for entry. Aeris tried not to shift uneasily. She’d seen doors like this before, in a time and place she was much happier not thinking about…
“She’s close,” Cloud murmured. Tifa said nothing, adjusting her gloves. In unison, the pair leapt through the door Vincent opened, Cloud only a step or so ahead of Tifa.
“What the hell is that thing?” Tifa blurted, staring in horror at the monstrous reddish creature lurking in the room they’d just entered. Its shape really couldn’t be called humanoid; there were appendages that looked sort of armlike sprouting from something resembling a torso. The ‘head’ had no readily discernable features to mark it as such, and below the waist (if one could call it that) was just a fleshy mass that hearkened to a floor-length, trailing skirt, with something like a tail rising out of it.
“Jenova,” Cloud barked, running forward to engage it, slicing at one of the appendages before somersaulting back. “Vincent, keep going — there’s a door on the other side. We’ll handle this!”
Aeris saw the older man hesitate, even as Tifa began to summon Shiva. “Go! We’ll be fine!” Honestly, she’d prefer it if he left; seeing one of the Old Ones incarnate once was unnerving enough.
“Hojo has to know we’re here!” Cloud yelled as Vincent continued to hesitate. He dodged an attack from the tail, a laser scorching the floor. “Get him before he leaves again!”
“This isn’t the core,” Vincent noted in a voice that wasn’t his own. Aeris shuddered.
“Then it shouldn’t be that hard. Go! Kill the bastard!” And then Cloud grinned, a smug look that surprised Aeris — that was Zack’s grin. “Teef, let it go!”
She nodded shortly, and Shiva descended, encasing the alien creature in ice with a single gesture — Vincent took advantage of the distraction to dart around its massive form to the door on the other side of the room. Tifa froze as the monster retaliated with Stop, and Aeris frowned and held a hand over her Heal materia, which glowed in response. Cloud struck the creature with his sword again, receiving a faceful of noxious gas in return. He coughed, but dismissed the Aeris’s concern: “It’s not bad — just a minor poison. The Mako will take care of it for now.”
Tifa shook her head as Aeris’s Esuna took effect. “Damn. That’s annoying.”
“Better kill it before it can do it aga—” Cloud went stiff suddenly, almost as if paralyzed.
“Get his sword!” Aeris yelled, sprinting towards him, Tifa following and dodging the monster to knock the weapon from Cloud’s hand. Please tell me it hasn’t come to this…
On the trip down, Cloud had spoken to them frankly: Part of his subconscious, he’d told them, had been corrupted by Jenova. The three of them had discussed what they might have to do if the situation took a turn for the worse, but Aeris had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. Cloud had admitted that he was being selfish — he might even have been acting under Jenova’s influence — but he had to see Hojo die, no matter the risk. He’d instructed them to do whatever they had to to stop him if he started acting unlike himself — up to and including killing him.
You aren’t going to die that quickly, Cloud. Not when we just found you again. Aeris took Cloud’s knife and grabbed his hand. He didn’t resist, which was a good sign; he was probably fighting himself…
“Aeris, I don’t know how long— watch out!” Tifa skipped away as Jenova let loose another laser attack.
“Try to distract it!” Aeris grasped Cloud’s hand firmly in her own and reached for the Lifestream. It was very close to the surface here in Mideel, and agitated by Jenova’s presence. Aeris wound its power with her own, and swiftly cut both of their palms with the knife. This ritual had been mentioned in Professor Gast’s — her father’s — research. She only hoped it would work. “Blood to blood, I call thee; one with the tribe I make thee. Brother I name thee. My strength is thy strength, my powers thy powers. Take thy place with those who travel the Planet.”
“Aeris, whatever you’re doing, hurry!” Tifa barely managed to avoid the creature’s next attack, her face slightly green as its poison took effect. “I can’t keep this up much longer!”
Aeris barely noticed her, so focused was she on Cloud. Her eyes widened as his snapped open to look straight at her. Mother, Gaea, please— Aeris felt absolute terror grip her as she looked into those green, cat-slit eyes, so foreign in Cloud’s face. Help us!
Zack sliced through a tentacle, more than a bit frustrated. After battling through hordes of enhanced monsters, he and Sephiroth had finally managed to find Hojo, but once again the scientist had beefed himself up with all of the abilities of his clone — amplified.
“That’s for Cloud, you bastard!” He cut again. “And for Seph!” And again. “And for Aeris!”
“Shut up and fight, Zachary!” Sephiroth cast a Firaga, managing to incinerate part of Hojo’s shredded lab coat before the thing he’d become discarded the remains, hissing in pain.
“Don’t call me Zachary!” The response was automatic, but Zack felt himself slowing as he countered the next attack. The mental interference wasn’t too bad this time — Zack had a sinking feeling that something was distracting Jenova, and that that something might very well be Cloud — but he was getting tired. Hojo seemed to have unlimited minion-critters to call upon, and both of them had been poisoned by one of his attacks. They’d probably be fine, once they had a moment to rest, but…
“This ends now.” The Hojo-thing drew a red materia from the ruins of his pants, and bared his teeth in a grin as it began to glow.
“Shit!” Zack threw himself to the side of the room, Sephiroth leaping in the other direction. Ifrit!
Ifrit’s Hellfire attack left the floor nearly too hot to stand on, and the support beams for the walls and ceiling groaned in protest of the heat. Zack cursed as he scrambled to his feet. He wasn’t going to let the bastard get away again—
The door behind their quarry opened, and in swept Valentine. “Hojo!” he snarled.
The scientist whirled at the sound of his name, but before he could say anything Valentine raised his gun and fired, hitting Hojo square in the chest — a perfect shot. He didn’t seem to be taking any chances, however; Valentine shot his former captor five more times, twice more in the chest and three times in the head. “Use your Fire materia.”
Sephiroth nodded and called forth another Firaga, and the trio watched the body as it was consumed by flames, ignoring the odor of burning flesh. Only when Valentine had kicked the ashes to make sure nothing remained did he nod. “Move around the edge of the room. We can take the back route to return to Cloud.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Zack asked, hurrying around as quickly as he could. The edges of the floor were cooler than the center, but still uncomfortably hot. Sometimes having enhanced senses sucked.
“Battling a puppet of Jenova.”
“You left him alone?” Sephiroth did not look pleased. “He’s vulnerable—”
“Tifa and Ms. Gainsborough are with him.” Valentine looked at the remains of Hojo again. “He was concerned Hojo would attempt an escape.”
“Well, yeah, but…” Zack shook his head. “Let’s go find them, make sure he’s okay.” He shouldered the Buster Sword as they set off, giving Sephiroth a long, hard look. He had sounded far more worried than Zack would have expected him to be about a competent fighter like Cloud. What do you know that I don’t, Seph?
He was falling again. Any moment Hojo would catch him, and then it would start all over—
Mother, we’ve been waiting, we’ve finally come, Brother is here—!
Cloud fought, struggling with himself, but couldn’t get into a proper trance to be able to visualize his rebellious self. He could only hope that Tifa and Aeris would do as he had requested; death would be a small price to pay if it meant he wouldn’t become Jenova’s puppet. Cloud hated that he’d had to ask them, but at the same time he didn’t want Vincent, Zack or Seph to have to do it—
Pain distracted him for a moment. A cut across his hand, surprisingly deep, it felt — and then suddenly strength flowed into him, a beautiful pure green. Aeris…
Cloud let it fill him, soothing his mind and blocking Jenova’s call and the frustrated cries of his alter ego. Wrapped in the power of the Planet, he relaxed and opened his eyes. “I’m okay.”
“We’ll try to hold him.” Aeris’s voice rang with an echo as if it were multiplied a thousandfold.
“Got it.” Cloud rolled to his feet, scooping up his blade from where it had fallen. He twirled it, reaching for the power he could feel flowing through him. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing, but it felt right. “Tifa, move.”
He threw the blade, now glowing white-hot, at the Jenova host. It crashed into the creature with a satisfying hiss, and the thing shrieked terribly aloud and inside his mind as it was set alight. Cloud held out his hands, stubbornly ignoring it as he focused on pouring more magic into the spell, the white flames growing to consume it. The scream in his mind was cut off abruptly as Jenova’s conduit expired, its own dying cry trailing off into a dry hiss as it was consumed utterly.
“…What did you do?” Tifa sounded shocked. All that remained of the monster was a black scar on the floor.
“No idea,” he managed weakly. He was having surprising difficulty standing…
“Cloud, your hands…”
“Hmm?” They were hurting an awful lot. With some effort he raised them to look at them. His palms were badly burned, so much that he couldn’t even feel the sting of the cut Aeris had made in his palm anymore. “…Oh,” he noted, and his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.