bloody hell. it's been quite a while since i've written anything for this. apologies to anyone out there who might possibly remember this tale. i have the rest of the story worked out; it's just, this semester has basically swallowed me with work and all. plus i've been working on 'sincerity cowboy', a little ff8 story that was supposed to be short and sweet and now has basically taken over my life.
anyway. this story has finally called me back and given me some inspiration. i'm back in the game - no frantic updates, but i'd really like to polish this one off with the ending it deserves. oh, and what a climax it's gonna be. i have a bunch of chapters left in me.
if you're reading this, feedback is always nice. i know everybody says it but i'm a shameless bitch ^^ give me reviews, sucka! i mean - i love you!
so. enough about me. on to the story!

Chapter Fourteen

Moving with the Night

Aurora's entire body jolted, and the jolt did not feel right.

She struggled to open her eyes; some magical force had been laid upon her body, some supernatural strength designed to keep her under sleep's dark force. Aurora slowly, ungracefully, summoned forth a small bit of strength, fighting the force until - finally - her eyes opened.

And then feeling rushed back into her body as the spell crumbled and she couldn't help but cry out in pain.

She was seated in the back of what appeared to be a band, her hands cuffed together; the chain of the cuffs passed through a bar on the ceiling of the van, such that she was basically chained to the ceiling , arms extended awkwardly above her. Nothing else had been chained. She was still wearing the dress from the party; its rosy shimmer dimmed by dust and dirt and snags.

Her cry made the man beside her turn and look. His hair, violently red, fell into his face as he swore at her.

"It's awake," he called to the front; a tawny-haired man turned to look.

"So put it back to sleep," snapped a familiar voice; the blond-haired woman from before was at the wheel, somehow gracefully driving like a bat out of hell. "Jak, your job."

The light-haired man in the front closed his eyes, concentrating, and Aurora felt the first strains of a Sleep spell issuing from him. But she was panicking, lost in fear and fury. Her automated defenses were kicking in, and the magic in her blood rose fiercely to ward off the Sleep spell. The magic ricocheted around the van and finally settled into one of the glass windows.

"Holy -" The man beside her jumped and immediately scooted to the other end of the seat. "What the hell was that?"

"Defenses," Jak replied simply.

"She blocked it?" the blond girl snapped. "Khan, do something, you idiot."

"I'm not touching that, Daema!" The flame-haired man was keeping a wary distance.

"Khan, you're an idiot," Daema declared. "It's one little girl in a party dress. She's chained to the van. What's she gonna do in return?"

Khan reached out tentatively, but Aurora's defenses flared to life, the shimmering shield embedded in her skin shining into existence suddenly. Khan jolted his hand back as if he had touched a flame. "Bloody hell!" he spat. "What the devil is that?"

"Watch your damn language," Daema said flatly. "We'll take her to that Master. He'll know what the hell she is."

"Then we can get what we want and get her the hell out of this car," Khan said darkly, glowering at the small girl seated beside him.

"See anything?"

Tifa leant over the side of the Highwind as far as she dared, straining her eyes against the darkness. Cid was hovering, skimming the ground gently; they were looking for any sort of sign of this secret base.

"Nothing yet," Tifa called back. "Not even Nibelheim."

"Let me."

The quiet voice beside her nevertheless made her jump; Vincent vaulted himself over the railing and perched precariously on the small edge outside the ship, balancing perfectly. His clawed hand gripped the railing as he swung out, red eyes glowing into the night.

"Over there somewhere," he offered, waving his other hand in the general direction.

"How did you...?"

Vincent vaulted back over the railing and gave Tifa a rare grin. "Night vision," he said simply, and then retreated.

Tifa stared at his retreating back; then she gathered her thoughts and ran to the bridge to tell Cid.

"That way," she said breathlessly. "And be quiet."

"Be quiet, she says," Cid grumbled. "As if I don't know."

"Hush, Cid," Tifa said good-naturedly. "I said to be quiet."

Cid glared smoky daggers at the girl and swerved the airship closer, closing down the engines until all that could be heard was a small purring whisper.

"Look," Tifa exclaimed. Out of the darkness, as Cid pulled around one hillside, tiny lights popped into existence, flickering playfully. And out of the middle rose a familiar glowing tower ...

"Oh, shit," Cid said. "Is that what I think it is?"

Tifa narrowed her eyes. "They're running Mako," she said darkly.

A shuffle at the door caught her attention. "What in the hells of...?" Cloud took two giant steps and grabbed the railing. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Yes," Tifa answered hastily. "I think so."

"Don't tell Barrett," Cid said with a hint of a smile. "He'll barge in there and tear the place down."

"Right," Cloud said. He turned, looked at Tifa. Smiled slightly. "Here's the plan: Tifa and I will try to find an entrance and sneak in. We'll figure out where they're keeping Aurora and what'll be the easiest way to get her out. If we need help, we'll come back and get you guys. But there's no barging into that place until Aurora is out of there."

Tifa gave Cloud a grin; they were all back in their familiar fighting clothes now, and Cloud looked grim enough to take on the entire plant by himself. "You're right - we can't all go in at once, it'll be too much of a mess."

"You're not planning on going yourselves, are you?"

Red had come to the door; he approached, pawing the ground slightly. "You know we work best in packs of three."

"You're quiet enough," Cloud said with a hint of a smile. "You can come."

"Hey, and I'm not good enough?" Cid spewed.

Tifa stuck out her tongue playfully. "You'll trip on something and curse up a storm," she said. "Stay here and handle Barrett."

Cid grumbled as he turned back to the controls, lightly touching the Highwind to the ground.

Aurora was freezing.

They had finally reached - somewhere, some sort of giant factory or depot horribly reminiscent of Hojo's laboratory. Aurora's magical senses were tingling, both from stress and from the strange atmosphere of the plant. Her three kidnappers had unchained her from the van and led her into this building - still cuffed - and into a small room, lined with mirrors.

She was still in her ballroom gown ...and she was freezing.

She shifted, looking to the left then the right. One part of her brain coldly analyzed the mirrors, calculating what sort of blow would be required to shatter them. The old Aurora would have done it already - broken the wall down. The old Aurora would be fighting for her escape.

But maybe the old Aurora wouldn't have been captured at all.

She shivered. Her world was so confusing; there were always voices in her head, the new voices conversing with the old, sometimes leaving her out of the loop. She was just getting used to being in this skin, and it looked as if someone else didn't like it much.

She pondered briefly what they wanted.

The door slid open and she shivered again, involuntarily. The red-headed man sauntered in. Following him was a tall man, dressed in a black trenchcoat; he was completely bald and wearing dark sunglasses.

The strange man strongly strode over to Aurora; her defensive shield kicked in before she could blink. Khan jumped, startled, but the other man knelt before her, unfazed.

"She's not wearing it."

There was a long silence, and then Khan, recovering, asked: "Wearing what?"

The strange man stood and stretched. "Someone has removed the crown."

Khan peered at her from his safe corner. "We, uh, didn't notice," he said finally. "I didn't know she was supposed to have a crown."

"Who took it off?" The strange man asked, ignoring the volatile red-haired man.

Aurora met his eyes clearly. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You are the Aurora Project?"

She paused - briefly - and answered slowly: "I don't think so."

"Nonsense." The dark man leant down before her, menacing. "Where is the Crown?"

Aurora blinked. Stared him in the face. And did not answer.

"Stand up," he said gruffly, and she obeyed immediately. "We're taking you to see the Master - he'll know what to do with you."

"Up here," Cloud whispered down to Tifa, gesturing for her to follow.

"Why do we always have to find ladders?" Red whispered angrily. "Those of us with paws don't like them as much."

"You didn't have to come," Tifa whispered in reply.

The three made their way up the metal ladder quietly and entered the ventilation system Cloud had found.

"Right," Cloud whispered. "Um ...which way?"

Red paused, his eyes gleaming slightly in the darkness of the metallic tunnel; he sniffed the air cautiously.

"What is it?" Tifa whispered; the gloom was giving her the shivers.

"Nothing yet," Red replied softly. "There's something strange in the air, but I don't know what it is." He sniffed again and then bowed his head. "I'll let you know if I recognize anything."

"Come on," Cloud whispered fervently. "Let's try this way."

They headed down one tunnel cautiously, hearing only the tinny echoes of their own respective hands, feet, and paws. The entire place was gloomy, lit only by the presence of a few scattered bulbs left behind by repairmen. Tifa crawled behind Cloud, lost in thought. I wonder what this place is? It's huge! What can they be doing out here - with a Mako Reactor - that's so secretive? She stopped as Cloud paused briefly, listening to the air. I wonder what they want with Aurora. They can't know what happened with Aeris.

Wait. Tifa paused too, listening to the sudden sound of the air. A faint rushing sound could be heard distantly; a small breeze touched her cheek. "What's that...?"

Red's head snapped up. "It's coming closer. Get out of the way?"

"What is?" Tifa shot back as they scrambled to a tiny opening a little ways back in the tubing.

"Shhh," Red said, his head lifted, narrow eyes staring into the darkness.

There was a pause, and then a mighty gush of air rushed past without warning; the gale whistled through the ventilation shaft, ruffling Red's headdress and making Tifa hold tightly to a protrusion in the metal.

"What's that?" she called above the force of wind.

"The ventilation!" Red called back. "Hang on!"

The burst of air slowly died down to a simple breeze and then, with a sigh, the shaft was empty.

Tifa sighed in relief. "That was insane!"

"Well," Cloud said wryly, "at least we don't have to worry about being quiet. If their insulation has to stand against that, it'll stand against us."

"We do, however, have to worry about the ventilation," Red said sarcastically. "Now come on, let's get a move on before the next one comes."

They hastily made their way through the metal shaft, mentally keeping track of each nook and cranny in which they could hide. When the next gust came, they were prepared, tucked soundly down a vertical shaft opening.

"Red," Tifa yelled as the wind howled overhead, "where is the wind coming from?"

Red shook his fine mane out of his eyes. "A cooling tower, from the scent," he called back.

"The Mako Reactor?" Cloud's voice could barely be heard.

"Probably," Red yelled back. The wind died; "Come on!" he said, leaping out of the small hollow.

They continued along the ventilation until they came to a split in the pipe.

"Damn," Cloud said. "Which way?"

Red paced partway up one and then the other, his head cocked. Tifa drummed her fingers idly on the metal, thinking and listening.

"Hey," she said finally, "the air's only coming from that one."

"What do you mean?"

"Come back here, Red." She took a few more steps back. "You can definitely hear it - only from the one on the right."

A smile spread across the canine's face. "Good," he said. "Then that's the one that leads to the Mako Reactor."

"And the other one?" Cloud asked, interest growing on his face.

"Probably the actual complex," Tifa offered.

"Let's go." Cloud's eyes narrowed.

They made their way into the building, more cautious than before. Eventually smaller shafts began to branch off, leading into countless rooms. They moved like shadows, whispers in the gloomily-lit tubing. They began to hear voices, snippets of conversations; but nothing important.

Then Cloud froze.

Red's head lifted simultaneously as he sniffed the air and said decisively: "That's her!"

The three of them gathered around the nearest air vent, from which was coming a very familiar voice.

Aurora was shoved into a hallway.

No, not a hallway, she decided as her eyes adjusted to the sudden glare. A very long room. She was on a narrow walkway high above what appeared to be the real ground - a garden? She made out faint shapes, odd twisted plants and unrecognizable growths in glowing green streams. Lifestream? Something inside her twisted in recognition.

Then she was coaxed forward by a low, low voice.

"There you are."

She looked up, realizing she was surrounded by cold glass walls. A single man sat in a single black chair - a large, menacing black chair - at the end of the walkway.

"The Aurora Project, I assume?"

Aurora shook her head.

"Ah, but you lie." The man was motionless in the chair, hands folded before him. "You are but a Project, like me. Like the rest of the lonely souls in this building. Do you think I don't know?"

Aurora, shivering, wrapped her arms around herself and remained silent.

"I would have expected you to be more ... compliant," the man offered, sneering. "When I knew you before, you were highly obedient to any command."

Aurora's eyes narrowed briefly. "Who are you?" she managed to ask.

"Forgotten me?" A tinge of sarcasm colored the man's voice. She saw him stand from the chair - he was tall, almost-blond hair falling slightly past his shoulders. "And I had hoped we could work together."

"I don't know what you want," Aurora said, but there was more strength in her voice.

The man slowly walked toward her, footfalls echoing in the empty room. "You don't remember," he said, almost softly. "I know that removal of the Slave Crown brings forth amnesia. That's alright." He was close enough that Aurora could see his pale lips twist in a sneer. "We have ways of making you remember."

"I know that ...I was Manipulated," Aurora said, taking a few shaky steps back. "But I won't be controlled again."

"You think not!" The man's voice suddenly lashed out, booming, echoing around the room. "You are our property now, Project," he growled. "And you will be treated as such!"

Aurora's defenses were kicking in - as was her anger. "I will not be treated like an object!" she cried furiously. "I am a person!"

"Hah!" The man's bitter laugh spun around the room as he lifted a hand and easily knocked Aurora to the ground. The girl winced in pain, struggling to get up. The rose-tinted dress offered her little mobility, but she got to her feet.

"You will not defy me now!"

Suddenly the man had a large broadsword gripped between both hands, towering over Aurora's shaking form. "The Crown will be replaced. Do you understand?"

Tifa bit her lip. Things weren't going so well - they had found Aurora, yes, but this man seemed to have her cornered. Poor timid Aurora, in her torn party gown, had no chance. And now he had made a sword materialize out of thin air!

Cloud reached out and gripped her hands; they had involuntarily flown to the screws holding the screen in place. "Wait," he said.

And then a sudden light flashed in the room beneath them; they both glanced down -

Aurora had taken two hasty steps back; the girl was glowing, green and golden, her hands clasped at her chest. She threw one arm out before her and called hoarsely: "Flame!"

The yellow-haired man was engulfed in a fierce blaze of fire.

Tifa's jaw dropped. "What did she do? She can't have Materia, she's still in her dress..."

"Tifa," Red whispered. "Remember? There's Materia in her blood. She knows how to fight - I guarantee it."

They watched, incredulous, as tiny Aurora stood her ground. Her silver shield was active, the strange light shimmering over her skin; her fists were raised as if she actually had a chance.

"I'm not going to be controlled by anyone!" she yelled, and three strikes of lightning came out of nowhere, drawn to the man's broadsword.

"You're no match for me, Project!" The man snapped and lunged at Aurora.

Deftly the girl sidestepped his strokes, ducking under the sword, landing a powerful blow to the man's stomach - which did nothing. He tried to bash her with the hilt, but the blow flew off the silver shield into oblivion. Aurora dashed down the narrow walkway, knowing that her only advantage lay in the magic within her blood - and the distance between her and this madman.

Behind the chair was a table. And on the table, in the midst of some neatly stacked papers, lay a decorative knife.

She grabbed it without thinking.

He was approaching again, sword raised (although slightly charred), and she flung her arms out, summoning forth fire once again. But he dodged most of it and came forward, slashing at her. She tried nimbly to avoid his strokes, slashing with her own captured dagger.

Cloud hissed air through his teeth. "Tifa," he said, danger momentarily forgotten, "look at her fight!"

Tifa had been watching herself.

It was a well-known tradition for any warrior in these times to channel the power of fury into battle. Any fighter worth their weight on the battlefield had been trained to save up the pain and rage and anger - to direct it into a small portion of the mind, saving it up. And then, once something called a limit was reached, the boundary broke - and all of the wrath poured out in a frenzy. This high intensity of strength resulted in a momentary enhancement of abilities - the adrenaline rush allowed a combatant to perform moves that would, otherwise, be impossible. This massive source of energy was known as a limit break. Techniques like this could be refined and studied - but only actual attacks from an enemy could possibly provide the furious rage required to execute one of these moves.

Aurora's fighting technique was completely different, and it took Cloud's breath away.

The small girl took every ounce of that energy she received and channeled it right away. Every blow that she took was immediately transformed into a mighty strength added to her small dagger. Every blow of hers consumed this energy - making her attack much more powerful and dangerous. It was the only way she could have put up a fight against the tall man; she was counting on the fact that her ferocious blows could put an end to the battle before the other man reached his limit.

Tifa was incredulous. "What's she doing?"

"She hasn't been trained in limit break style," Cloud whispered. "Or, she has, but she's ignoring it."

"She's got a chance," Red said. "Those hits are so strong, she's tiring him out..."

"Should we go down there?" Tifa wondered to the empty air.

Aurora leapt back, funneling her rage this time into a mighty Flare spell which knocked the blond man to the ground. He leapt back to his feet and stood, sword at the ready. Aurora was crouched low to the ground; she looked like some otherwordly creature, her skin shimmering silver, traces of her internal magic still wisping about her.

"I've had enough of this," the man said, his voice low and full of hatred. "I didn't want to injure you, but so be it."

Spreading his arms wide, he called forth in an unfamiliar tongue. An odd light - almost black - appeared about him in a darkened circle, shadowing his figure. He flung an arm outward and cried: "Black."

Aurora was engulfed in this anti-light; the girl screamed as the darkness tore at her body. The mist consumed the rest of her strength and she collapsed to the floor.

There was a sudden silence. Tifa couldn't even breathe.

The door opened; in came the red-headed man, followed by the blond woman. She took one look at the body on the ground and spat:

"What did you do to her now?"

"She's unconscious." The tall man's voice was smooth and low, confident once again. "Take her down the hall to the lab - last door on the right. Give her to the ninja. He will prepare her for our test."

Cloud looked up grimly and met Tifa's concerned eyes.

"We're going to need everyone," he mouthed.

She blinked, and then cautiously mouthed back: "Do we have time?"