I, like, just realized I never uploaded this story here? Even though it was one of my first in the FFVII fandom, maybe even THE first? IDK. Here it is, anyway. There is Hojo and non-con and bad touch within. Also, was a noob when this was written. This was, like, pre-Choir. I KNOW!

IMPORTANT NOTE - For the purposes of this story, Cloud and Zack were held by Hojo in the ShinRa Building in Midgar for most of their captivity, not the ShinRa Manor in Nibelheim.

Again, this was written pre-Madness, pre-Silence, pre-Crisis Core, pre-everything, and it's not up to my usual standards. Also, you may give Reeve and his animatronic animus some odd looks next time Remake shows him angsting.

THE USE OF SUFFERING

In the days they spent waiting for Vincent to return, Cloud Strife kept mostly away from the others. The atmosphere in and around Seventh Heaven was quite a party one, with familiar and less familiar faces stopping in constantly to offer congratulations or thanks, or, more somberly, to ask for news. Being a natural hostess, Tifa welcomed them all, tireless though she had two young children underfoot. Many of the visitors hoped for a glimpse of the famous Cloud Strife, the reluctant hero already ingrained in local legend, but all or most were disappointed.

Yuffie, who had of late fancied herself a bartender and was practicing mixing drinks, was always close by to lend Tifa a hand, and to complain loudly about Cloud ignoring them again.

"I know, I know," she exclaimed as Tifa began to defend Cloud again, "it's just Cloudy's way. Typical. We win another huge victory, and instead of celebrating he goes off to sulk or brood or whatever. I don't get it. When there's a crisis, he's right there with us. When things are good, he bolts. What's that about?"

"I don't know," Tifa admitted, hating that Cloud was still such a puzzle to her. "I think...there's a lot of things he's dealing with that he hasn't let go of yet. Things we don't even know about, maybe."

"More guilt?" Yuffie rolled her eyes. "We need to break him of that habit. He's too hard on himself."

"No argument there, darlin'," Cid said from the nearest table, where he had been pensively nursing the same drink for nearly half an hour. "Kid needs to lighten up. Needs to stop punishing himself for the past. For things no one else blames him for, damn it."

"Cid!" Yuffie threw up her arms, knocking away a bottle that Tifa caught just in time. "You're a smart old guy!"

"Old?" he repeated indignantly.

"Well, older than me."

"Not the same thing, darlin'."

"I said smart too! Anyway, you could figure out Cloudy for us."

The gruff pilot scoffed. "Ha! Smarter heads than mine would be just as clueless as we are. Kid's a walking riddle."

"Well, unriddle him," Yuffie ordered.

Cid sighed. "I dunno...he seemed to get even quieter after that phone call from Tuesti. Any idea what they talked about?"

"Apparently, Reeve found something he needs to show Cloud," Tifa said. "I don't know if he got into detail. Cloud wouldn't say much when I asked."

"Ha, big shocker there."

"Anyway, he's stopping by today." Tifa smiled. "I hope he brings Cait Sith. Marlene would love that, she misses him."

"He always tells me to be quiet," Yuffie complained.

"Darlin', you do realize it's actually Tuesti doin' that, don'tcha? He's a weird one."

"I love Reeve!"

"Yeah, he's a good guy. But no one's ever explained to me why a grown man should feel the need to operate an animatronic cat."

Tifa laughed softly. "An outlet for his imagination, maybe?"

"You could ask him, I guess," Yuffie observed, leaning back on her heels to peer out the window. "Here he comes!"

Reeve entered and approached the bar, moving in his quiet, unobtrusive way. As head of the WRO he had attained a measure of command presence, but there was still something apologetic in his posture, his gestures, the way he bowed his head in greeting to the three heroes.

"Good afternoon."

"Reeve, welcome," Tifa said warmly. "Can I offer you a drink? Or something to eat?"

"Thank you, but no." The man looked unusually anxious, unwilling to remain still. "I'm here to see Strife, is he around?"

"Yeah, his room is on the third floor. First door on your left."

"Thank you. Yuffie, Cid, nice to see you both."

Hands hovering over his large coat pockets, Reeve headed for the stairs, not waiting for an answer to his greetings. The moment he disappeared from view, Yuffie regarded her friends with excitement.

"See? Cid's right, something's going on with Reeve and Cloudy!"

"Yuffie!" Tifa said in a shocked voice.

"What? Oh." The young ninja giggled. "I didn't mean like that! But hey, maybe that would be good for Cloud. He needs someone to keep him from being lonely."

"Yuffie, that's ridiculous."

"Tifa, wake up! I've so caught Reeve checking Cloud out."

Cid laughed. "Hate to burst your bubble, darlin', but everyone who meets Strife checks him out. Might not mean anythin'."

"Wait a second." Yuffie grinned wickedly. "So, does that mean you - "

"Doesn't mean nothin', like I said," Cid insisted, pausing to finish his drink in one swallow. "It's like lookin' at a painting or a sunset, that's all. They're pretty, doesn't mean I wanna fuck 'em."

"Okay, but a lot of people look at Cloudy like they really really want to - "

"Guys, c'mon," Tifa interrupted, wiping a cloth repeatedly over the same clean spot on the bar. "This is Cloud, we shouldn't be talking about him like this."

True, they regarded Cloud as their leader and were therefore protective of him. Part of being Cloud's friend, each had come to know, was knowing what not to speak of in his presence. Being called pretty; being reminded that he still looked like a teenager; a mention of Zack's name, or Aerith's, or Dr. Hojo's...all these things made Cloud go quiet and withdraw. Such predictable reactions were clues to what was going on in Cloud's mind, Tifa knew, but she could not bring herself to probe into a past Cloud clearly didn't want to discuss.

And yet, she scolded herself for her cowardice, for not pushing Cloud to face and make peace with the pain he concealed. Tifa knew her childhood friend was not nearly as delicate as he looked. But she remembered Cloud's devastation after Aerith's death, and she couldn't bear the thought of watching him break again. It would have to be someone else, she realized sadly. Someone else who loved him.

facepalmfacepalmfacepalm

Cloud let Reeve into his room without a word, showing no emotion about the man's arrival. He gestured to the desk chair, and Reeve took the offered seat, watching Cloud for a long time before he spoke, breathing slowly to make his heart stop jumping.

Jenova cells are remarkable, Reeve thought, horrible, but remarkable. Strife was living, breathing proof. Twenty-four now, wasn't he? And a stranger would guess no more than eighteen. Cloud's body was that of a slender, fragile-looking boy, yet Reeve knew it housed an unearthly strength and a level of skill most fighters only dream of. Only Cloud had been able to defeat Sephiroth, the Nightmare. The still-recovering planet owed him everything.

Cloud was standing with his back to the window, leaning on his hands against the sill. The blue, mako-bright eyes were fixed on the floor several feet away, but he was looking at nothing. He seemed to be lost in thought, and showed no sign of interest in what Reeve had to say. He would not speak first...Strife rarely spoke at all, unless he had to.

Reeve knew it was up to him to break the silence, and he would. He just wanted a few seconds more to look at Cloud, to memorize the beautiful face before he filled it with hatred and horror. When at last he was ready he tried to look away, he was not worthy of the sight of gold and blue in afternoon sunlight...but Reeve could not turn away, only be glad of the shadows he was sitting in. The fitting darkness.

"Cloud."

"Reeve. You wanted to talk?"

"Yes...yes. Vincent sends his regards."

That got Cloud's attention - he looked at Reeve finally, and nearly sprang up in anticipation. "You've seen Vincent? Is he all right?"

"He's fine. He was sorry to have made you all so worried. He just needs a little time to himself," Reeve explained. "The battle against DeepGround stirred up a lot of memories for Vincent, many of them unpleasant."

Cloud nodded slowly. At once he was his subdued self again, looking past Reeve with a neutral frown.

"You know...you know he was in the ShinRa building? In Midgar?"

Another nod, this one quick and slightly annoyed. Of course Cloud knew that, he had talked to Vincent over the phone during that stage of the recent conflict. Tifa had sent Vincent a map of the building, scolding Barret the whole time for yelling in her ear.

"You know it was Hojo all the time, don't you? Behind Weiss?"

Cloud glared in answer this time. Why was Tuesti asking these stupid questions? Cloud had read the WRO report issued after the victory over DeepGround, and the people of Edge and everywhere else had hardly been speaking of anything else. Rumors and misinformation were rampant as wildfire, of course, but those who'd fought knew the truth. What truth was currently available, at least, until Vincent was ready to fill in the blanks.

Of course it had been Hojo. Hojo, every bit the stereotypical mad scientist, still plaguing the earth with his terrible experiments, even from beyond the grave. Hojo who'd made Vincent a half-beast crippled by guilt, Hojo who'd made DeepGround and the Tsviets, Hojo whose hands were bloody with the deaths of every one of their victims. And Sephiroth's victims.

Zack's face flashed, unbidden, in Cloud's mind. The lively eyes, the reassuring smile. Selfless Zack, dead and gone, only a memory now, and a fuzzy one at that.

"I know all these things, Reeve," Cloud said coldly. "What's your point?"

"Before he...left, Vincent directed us to a hidden storeroom in the ShinRa building basement. The WRO was able to recover a great deal of old data. Most of it's Hojo's. Records of his experiments."

"So?" Cloud said, but a frantic struggle was going on behind his face. "The WRO has no use for that, does it?"

"No. Everyone's saying it ought to be destroyed."

"And what? You want my permission?"

"No...I want..."

Cloud frowned at Reeve, puzzled. The dark man was hunched over, elbows resting on his knees, head bowed. This was unexpected. Reeve, Cloud knew, had been one of the few men in ShinRa to have a conscience. He had since dedicated his life to helping the planet recover from Meteorfall. Why did he look so guilty?

"Reeve?"

Reeve heaved a deep sigh. "When we met for the first time, face to face, not through Cait Sith, I saw right away that you didn't remember me. I thought that was my chance to start over, to pretend that I'm a good man. I've tried to be...but it's a lie."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Do you remember much of the years you spent in Hojo's lab?"

Cloud was silent for a moment, more out of surprise than a need to think. By now his friends knew not to ask about that time, which had made it easier for Cloud to avoid remembering. He was unsettled by the question, but played it off with a characteristic shrug and answered honestly.

"No. Bits and pieces, nothing clear."

"Not surprising," Reeve said quietly. "He kept you heavily drugged."

The blond stared at him, unblinking. "You read that in his notes?"

"Hojo's records are very detailed. But..." Reeve was steeling himself, in some sort of agony that had Cloud perplexed. "I know...I saw. I...Gaia."

Reeve rubbed a hand roughly over his eyes. "I don't know, maybe it's better you don't remember. I just - I can't - "

"Reeve." Cloud actually looked concerned. "Just tell me."

"It will hurt you."

"I've been hurt," Cloud said softly. "I can handle it."

Reeve gazed at the young hero, his own face twisted with anguish. There was trepidation in Cloud's expression, but strength as well, a determination that presented as coldness. Reeve began to speak, wishing his own heart could be icy, could be still forever.

facepalmfacepalmfacepalm

Eight years earlier

Reeve had made up his mind some time ago that he didn't need to like ShinRa to be one of its employees. Most of his co-workers either enjoyed the power their jobs brought them or made excuses about needing the work, saying that ShinRa was too powerful and anyone with a brain would choose to be part of it rather than risk being crushed by it. Reeve did not excuse ShinRa's sins or exult in its importance; he knew only that if he did not maintain his status as head of the Housing and Urban Development department, ShinRa would only appoint someone even more heartless to the post. Not that his hands were entirely clean, or that he was allowed to do much to help the oppressed and overcrowded slums of Midgar...but he waited, confident that his chance to do real good would come.

One autumn morning, Reeve reported to the ShinRa building for a meeting with the president, and gave an impassioned speech about the need to divert more funds toward improving the lower levels of Midgar. President Shinra refused for a number of ridiculous and contrived reasons, and the real reason was obvious - he saw no profit in helping the poor of the slums. ShinRa's allies and benefactors all lived on the Upper Plate, and it was more important to keep them happy, to make the wealthy wealthier.

Reeve had expected no different, and with a heavy heart he headed for the office door. A brief hope leapt up in him when President Shinra called him back, but he only wanted Reeve to deliver a memo to Dr. Hojo in his basement lab.

"All my messengers are out at the moment," the president explained, "and Hojo hasn't left the lab for weeks, so we have to go to him."

Reeve understood. Since the mysterious supposed death of Sephiroth, there had been pressure on Hojo to replicate the elite warrior. Personally, Reeve had always thought of Sephiroth as a time bomb waiting to go off, but he had been ShinRa's most feared weapon, certainly. Small wonder they wanted another like him, ASAP.

Reeve could hardly say no to his boss, but he felt nauseated as he carried the message and key card to the nearest elevator. Shinra he disliked; Hojo made him feel completely repulsed. He didn't know the man well, but one needed only a passing acquaintance with Hojo to know he was mad. Reeve had heard stories of the doctor's experiments, and thought that in Hojo's case, the rumors may be kinder than the man himself. Sephiroth, it was said, had been raised by Hojo since his birth; Sephiroth's cold heart attested to the scientist's lack of warmth.

The key card given to Reeve by the president was a special one, as access into the basement laboratory was highly restricted. Reeve used it to get to the lowest floor and open the heavy metal door that waited just outside the elevator. He stepped into a room lined wall-to-wall with intimidating machinery and monitors, looking around apprehensively.

"Doctor Hojo?"

No answer but faint noise from several rooms away. Reeve followed it to what appeared to be the lab's main chamber, a large room with more machinery and gadgets, as well as examining tables, beakers of fluid in every color, lights, medical instruments...too much to take in, really. Worst of all, several tube-like containers big enough to hold human beings. Reeve thought he could see an unmoving figure in one of them, and just barely fought off the urge to run.

"D-Doctor Hojo?"

The doctor came into view at last, entering from a side room and carrying something in his arms. "Yes, what is it?" he called impatiently, in a shrill and spine-chilling voice.

"It's Reeve Tuesti, sir, head of Housing and Urban Development. President Shinra asked me to deliver a message."

"Did he, did he...come on in then. But I wouldn't touch anything if I were you, heh heh."

Reeve jogged across the room, in a hurry to hand over the paper and get out, only to stop cold in his tracks as he realized what Hojo was carefully laying on an examining table. It was a human being, bad enough, but it was young, a male teenager wearing a long white hospital gown. It took Reeve more than a few double-takes to process what he was seeing. The boy was unconscious, pale as death, and easily the most beautiful thing Reeve had ever seen.

"Heh heh," Hojo chuckled at Reeve's frozen staring, "remarkable specimen, I know. Don't have many visitors here, but everyone reacts the same way."

Hojo laid a hand on the boy's hair and began to pet the blond spikes, as one would a dog. "Tuesti, is it? You said you have a message?"

Reeve didn't move, didn't blink his bulging eyes. With a sound of mild annoyance, Hojo stepped forward and yanked the folded note from his hand.

"Another request for an update, eh? I'd have more progress to report if they didn't want so many damn meetings."

Hojo threw the message aside and stalked off to a nearby row of beakers, where he began to fill a syringe with an iridescent green goop.

"Is that all? Tuesti?"

Reeve's left hand clenched into a fist. At last he tore his eyes from the immobile teenager, and met Hojo's fish-like eyes with a glare of outrage.

"What the hell is this, Doctor? What are you doing?"

"Doesn't everyone know?" Hojo snapped back. "Sephiroth was perfect, my greatest triumph! Now they expect me to replicate him, as if he were a simple bacteria! I'd need twenty years to do it properly, and they can't accept that!"

Irritably, but with a careful hand, Hojo inserted the syringe's needle into the boy's limp arm and slowly injected him with the glowing substance.

"Doctor...this...this is a child! How old is this boy?!"

"Seventeen. The younger, the better."

The boy made a whimpering noise. His head fell to one side, and in sleep he pouted as though at an unpleasant dream. Instinctively, without asking permission, Reeve rushed to the boy's side and cupped the alabaster face in his hands.

"What did you do to him? What was that stuff?"

"A solution of distilled mako and Jenova cells. I've improved the process, made it less painful than it was for Sephiroth. And they call me heartless." Hojo seemed amused by Reeve's concern. "Comfort him if you like, Tuesti. He's completely unaware."

Reeve sat on the edge of the table and gently lifted the boy into his arms. He's so small, Reeve thought painfully as he held the youth to his chest, rocking slightly back and forth, trying to soothe the boy with his hands.

"What's his name?" Reeve wondered, hardly realizing he spoke aloud.

"Subject B."

"His real name!"

Hojo scoffed, as if it were a silly question. "The file says it's Cloud Strife."

Cloud. A perfect name for one so finely made and fair. This delicate creature was supposed to be the next Sephiroth?

"Does the president know you're experimenting on a teenager?" Reeve growled lowly.

"Does he know? Who do you think allowed the Turks to give him to me?" Hojo laughed.

"But why? Why him?"

"Subject B is much stronger than he looks, Tuesti. He's the one who destroyed Sephiroth."

"What? This kid?"

"Heh. Why do you think I keep him so drugged?" Hojo went to the rows of drawers beneath the beakers and began rummaging through them.

Reeve watched him, mouth open. "Is that why you're doing this? Revenge for the killing of your prized subject? This is about getting even?"

"This is about science, fool. The subject was able to defeat Sephiroth, therefore he must have power and skills that science can expand and strengthen. Why are you so bothered by this? I don't hurt him. He's never fully conscious anyway."

Hojo returned to the table, holding a small black box and taking from it a long glass cylinder. "Now, are we finished, heh, or would you like to stay and assist me?"

Reeve hugged Cloud closer and eyed the cylinder with apprehension. "What are you doing?"

"I've observed that the new solution, though in all respects superior, causes a slight drop in body temperature. I must document this carefully."

The scientist switched on a small machine nearby; it seemed to be an audio recorder. "October seventh, ten-fifty-two a.m. Document of temperature reading, Subject B. Reeve Tuesti assisting."

Hojo put the box down, opened a small jar inside it and swirled the thermometer in its contents. Holding the now-slick instrument in one hand, with the other he grasped the hem of Cloud's hospital gown and folded it up past his waist.

"What are you doing?!" Reeve demanded, afraid to interfere any more lest he be ordered to leave.

"Rectal temperature readings are the most accurate," Hojo said with a sneer. One at a time he picked up Cloud's legs by the ankle and lay them apart.

Reeve threaded one hand into the boy's soft hair and tucked the drooping head under his chin. He could do nothing but watch, both horrified and captivated, as the thermometer began to slowly disappear between Cloud's spread legs. The boy made a quiet, wordless noise of protest. His limp body seemed to stiffen slightly, his lean muscles quake.

"Doctor, stop! He's - "

"Half awake, yes, I know," Hojo said impatiently. He seemed to be concentrating hard on his work; sweat was beginning to form a thin sheen over his forehead, and his lips were slightly parted. "Heh, don't worry, it's not all bad."

He pushed the thermometer a bit deeper and held it still, watching. Reeve continued to hold Cloud as close as possible, rubbing one open hand up and down his back.

"It's okay," he lied quietly in the boy's ear. "It's okay."

"Baseline temperature, ninety-five point seven," Hojo recorded. He reached with his free hand into the black box and dipped a few digits into the jar of lubricant. "Proceeding. You'll like this part, Tuesti."

"I don't like any of this."

Hojo either didn't hear him or pretended not to. "Beginning manual stimulation."

"What does that mean?" Reeve asked, the sense of dread in the pit of his stomach intensifying.

A moment later, he understood. Still holding the thermometer in place, Hojo poised two slick, latex-gloved fingers to join it. Acting on instinct again, Reeve grabbed the doctor's wrist and flung his arm away.

"No! This is sick, I won't let - "

"You nearly disturbed the temperature reading, Tuesti," Hojo said icily. "I don't require your presence here, and I do not allow disruptions. You can either stay and do as I tell you, or leave now."

Reeve searched frantically for a way to get out of there and take Cloud with him. There was none. Defeated, he hung his head and remained seated.

"I apologize, Doctor," he said through clenched teeth. "It won't happen again."

"Heh, that's the spirit," Hojo said jovially. "Observe, and you'll see there's nothing to object to. Beginning manual stimulation."

Reeve didn't watch the fingers penetrate the boy but he could feel the change come over Cloud's body. The firm, rhythmic pressing gently jostled the slender form, rocking him slightly in Reeve's arms. Hojo seemed to know what he was doing...whatever part of Cloud's insides he was manipulating made the body's muscles tighten and relax in turn. The boy moaned quietly, a sound both distressed and urgent, and Reeve was ashamed of the way his own pants felt suddenly tight.

His plan had been to pretend this wasn't happening, to hold Cloud and just ride it out, to think of unarousing things. But the barely-conscious teenager began to shift, weakly but restlessly, in Reeve's protective embrace, and the movement of his thinly-clothed skin against Reeve was electrical, burning almost. Though his thoughts were racing wildly, Reeve was aware of the uncomfortable hardness his lap pushed against Cloud's hip.

Hojo was breathing hard and grinning, as if the whole thing weren't already obscene enough. "Temperature has risen to ninety-seven point three."

It was warmer, though Reeve couldn't tell if the heat was coming from Cloud or himself. Abruptly the boy's shifting caused his head to fall back against Reeve's shoulder, and now Reeve had to look at Cloud's face while this happened, because he couldn't tear his gaze away. The flawless skin was hardly flushed at all, and it seemed to glow beneath the bright lab lights. The pink mouth was frowning and quivering, and the eyelids fluttered as they would during REM sleep.

Reeve gulped in several shallow breaths, and wondered absurdly if he was really drowning or it only felt that way.

"Ninety-eight point four."

Cloud was trembling harder than ever. Reeve was about to attempt asking Hojo if he was having a seizure, when the boy let out a loud cry. His body stiffened, then went completely limp. Dazed, it wasn't until Hojo had removed the thermometer and cleaned the boy off that Reeve realized Cloud had had an orgasm.

"Heh. Bet you're glad you didn't miss that, eh, Tuesti?"

His heart and throat both too clenched to allow speech, Reeve placed Cloud's head back against his chest and held him tightly. He buried his face for a moment in the fine blond spikes, wondering how the boy's hair could still smell like sunlight and wind in this cold, chemical environment. Reeve looked up finally, intending to stare his accusation at Hojo, but panic took precedence when he saw the doctor beginning to remove his belt.

"What - you're not - "

"I always do. The constants are as important as the variables." Hojo smirked. "However, a substitution shouldn't make a difference. You may take him instead if you like, Tuesti, just this once."

"You're a monster," Reeve hissed. "The president will hear of this. And all the other department heads, and every executive - "

"Do you honestly believe any of them will care?" Hojo asked, smiling coldly. "Do you honestly think they'll do anything to get on my bad side? I am going to give them the next Sephiroth. What is one nameless teenager compared to that?"

With horror tightening the knot in his stomach, Reeve knew the doctor was right. ShinRa would not lose Hojo's services over the rape of one boy. What could he do? He knew there was nothing, but could not accept the powerlessness of this. Reeve looked at Cloud's face again. The kid was frowning in his drugged sleep, as if he knew what was coming.

"I know you want to do it, Tuesti. That's not a test tube in your pocket, heh heh. Go on, then. He's damned tight, even after a year."

"I hate you," Reeve whispered in a voice thick with venom. "I hate you, and the president, and all of ShinRa. Someday it will all crash down on your heads, and I will be there to help it fall."

"Heh heh, are you declining? All the better for me. Too bad for Subject B, though. I'm sure you would've been gentler than I'm going to be."

Hojo approached, his eyes shining, halting when Reeve suddenly put his hand up. "How predictable you are, Tuesti," the doctor murmured, though whether or not he meant that to be an insult was not clear.

Heart pounding, blood roaring in his ears, Reeve slowly lowered his hand and lifted Cloud's loose garment back above his waist. It was to spare the boy a more violent assault, true, but Reeve couldn't lie to himself and say he wasn't burning for this. Still, there was some kindness in it, at least. He resolved to make this as nice as possible for Cloud, to make him feel that he was loved and not merely desired.

Continuing to hold Cloud half-upright, Reeve slipped his other hand between the boy's legs and wrapped it around the now-flaccid organ. Cloud made a sleepy, almost inaudible sound of surprise, and his head drooped forward against Reeve's chest. He breathed gasps of warm air into the white shirt and dark blue jacket, and whimpers that were both aroused and distressed.

"It's okay," Reeve crooned, pausing to place a few kisses into the fine hair. "Ssh, I won't hurt you, it's okay."

He was ashamed when Cloud became a little quieter, as if he'd heard the promise and believed it. Several minutes of gentle stroking were required to bring Cloud to full hardness - Reeve hadn't needed nearly so long. Hojo watched them critically all this time, and spoke up now.

"That's enough! Fuck him now, he can come from only that."

It was odd to hear the doctor using such unscientific terms, but his cold, commanding voice made it clear he would allow no refusal. Anyway, Reeve could not summon up the willpower to argue. He wanted this, wrong as it was. He knew he would never afterward have a day of peace with his conscience, and he wanted this still.

Moving almost robotically, Reeve gently lay Cloud back down on the examining table, and slid him further toward the end, until his waist was nearly level with the table's edge. The lubricant was pressed into Reeve's hand, and he unbuttoned his pants and spread it, wincing, onto his aching flesh. He had never had sex with a man before, but he knew what to do, because he knew what he wanted.

Cloud's legs were limp but not heavy; Reeve lifted them easily, bending them at the knee and pushing back. Dizziness nearly overcame him for a moment as he exposed the hidden part of Cloud where he urgently needed to be. Reeve pressed the swollen head against him cautiously, and it went inside more easily than he'd expected, and the pleasure of being squeezed by the hot, tight walls was indescribable.

Cloud moaned in protest, his back arching as the dark man slid all the way into him. Reeve let out a long moan as well, though his was one of satisfaction, and he slipped his hands under Cloud's arms to lift him up and hold him in a comforting embrace as he began to slowly thrust. The boy's heart fluttered like a bird's against the pounding of Reeve's. Reeve's mouth urgently explored the pale softness of Cloud's jaw and neck, hovering his lips over the rapid pulse.

He was hitting the right spot, he had to be, because Cloud came with a confused cry and continued to gasp in time with the thrusts. Reeve's happiness to see him climax was short-lived, because the boy let out a piteous wail that sounded clearly like "Zack".

"No," Reeve panted apologetically, unwilling to lie though it was obviously a lesser sin. "I'm sorry...but it's okay. I love you, it's okay."

"No," Cloud whispered. "No..."

The sleepy plea broke his heart, but there was no turning back now. Ignoring Hojo's amused chuckles, Reeve concentrated on targeting the spot that made Cloud whine with pleasure. He couldn't last much longer, the joy was too much to contain. With a hoarse scream Reeve slammed into Cloud one last time, filling him to overflowing. Cloud's body went slack, dead weight though Reeve held him easily, weak from the exertion of sex but nuzzling the boy and kissing him, desperately not wanting to let him go.

Hojo was laughing again, and it got Reeve's attention. He saw, puzzled, that the doctor wasn't looking at him or Cloud. He followed Hojo's gaze and saw with horror that it led to one of the human-sized tubes...where a dark-haired, handsome young man was leaning weakly against the glass, beating on it with the little strength he had. His flashing eyes were glaring with menace at Reeve, and his mouth was moving, with what were most certainly threats.

I'm sorry, Reeve wanted to say, for doing this to both of you, but the words meant nothing. He kissed Cloud once more, pulled out, gently laid him on the table and modestly smoothed the hospital gown down. Hastily he buttoned his pants back up, and turned to Hojo accusingly.

"Who is that?!"

"Subject A," the doctor giggled. "The little one calls him Zack."

Hojo nudged Reeve aside and went to Cloud, beginning to clean up the unconscious boy in a business-like manner, and ignoring his frozen guest. With feet as heavy as clay bricks, Reeve shuffled to the glass prison and forced himself to look in the burning greenish eyes, at the weary face that mouthed "I will kill you."

And I would let you. Please, Gaia, give me a new heart.

"Can you hear me?" Reeve said quietly. "I know I can't ask forgiveness. Just please, listen."

The one named Zack continued to death-glare him, but silently. His fists were determinedly clenched against the glass of the cage; Reeve had noticed there were solid flaps at the front of it, which opened into the prison but not out. He took out the basement key card and thrust it through one of these openings, where it fell noiselessly at Zack's feet. Subject A stared at him, with what disbelief his drugged state would allow.

"Hide it, quickly!" Reeve snapped quietly.

Stumbling just a little, Zack retrieved it and stuffed it in a pocket inside his shirt. He was very strong, Reeve observed, with the lean, toned physique of a practiced fighter...and that uniform he wore...was that a SOLDIER uniform? The prisoner's eyes glowed unnaturally, the sign of mako, and though drugged he was obviously more tolerant to Hojo's injections than the younger boy.

The reason for the specific, menacing stare was obvious to Reeve - this Zack was in love with Cloud. He would protect him to the death. From people like me.

"Get him out of here," Reeve whispered brokenly. "Take care of him."

Zack nodded seriously, though the glare didn't leave his eyes. He mouthed "If we meet again, I will kill you."

"Tuesti!" Hojo called. "You want to play with that one? He's feisty, and difficult to drug adequately."

"He's a SOLDIER, isn't he?"

"Heh, yes, and very resilient. Shows promise...that's to be expected," the doctor mumbled, mostly to himself. "Sephiroth spoke highly of him, and he rarely did that."

Feeling like a zombie, too numb to attack Hojo or even merely hate him, Reeve went back to the examining table. Cloud had been quickly sponged clean and dressed in a fresh gown. Is the choice of attire for easier access, Reeve wondered, and felt his stomach quietly lurch.

"You miss him, don't you?"

"What?"

"Sephiroth." Reeve looked at him, more with wonder than anything else. "You miss him. What was he to you? Where did you get him?"

"Tuesti," Hojo said in a warning tone of voice, "you are finished intruding in matters that do not concern you." He sneered. "You may see Subject B for a moment longer, if you feel some need to spout apologies he won't hear. But then you will leave, and not return."

Reeve could not kiss Cloud as he wanted to, definitely not knowing Zack was watching. He gently brushed Cloud's hair back and touched his face.

"I'm sorry," Reeve whispered, needing to say the words though he knew they'd help nothing, change nothing.

He left the lab without a word, choking back wet sobs that he didn't dare let anyone see. Years later he heard whispers that Dr. Hojo's prized guinea pigs escaped, that of them, the former SOLDIER was killed and the other missing. Reeve tried to tell himself that he really knew nothing about Cloud, that he'd only seen him weak and that there was surely great strength beneath the delicate surface. He continued to work for ShinRa and wear the mask of loyal employee, hoping every day that Cloud would live to pay them all back - Hojo, Shinra, and most of all, himself.

facepalmfacepalmfacepalm

At some point during the story, Cloud had slid downward to sit on the floor beneath the window. His hands lay limp beside his legs, fingers curling upward, and he stared ahead with an expression of frozen numbness on his face. The brilliant, mako-blue eyes were hollow, devoid even of their usual sadness.

"Cloud, I'm so sorry," Reeve choked out. "I didn't come here for forgiveness. I came because I've had no right to be your friend, and you deserve to know why."

He waited for the young hero to wake up and pick up the huge blade that leaned against the wall beside him. Reeve had put all his affairs in order before coming, including leaving written instructions to the next head of the WRO. In his largest coat pocket, in a small player, was the audio disc recorded by Hojo that day eight years ago, which would prove his murder by Cloud to be justifiable, if necessary. He was leaving Cait Sith to Barret's sweet little daughter, along with instructions for operating him.

Is that why I really used Cait Sith? A pure, blameless part of me that allowed me to help Cloud, without the pollution my own presence would have been?

"Cloud?" Reeve called softly. The boy hadn't moved, was barely blinking. "Are you...okay?"

Nothing. Even the sunlight moving slowly across the floor could not give Cloud the illusion of movement. Panic rising, Reeve feared that the memory of this trauma might have broken him beyond repair. He didn't want to get close, that must be the last thing Cloud would want, but he had to get his attention.

"Cloud..."

His footsteps made almost no sound as he stepped closer. Reeve's hand descended slowly, hovering over the golden spikes, guiltily thrilled when he touched them and Cloud made no move, no objection. Torn between the necessity to snap Cloud out of this and the knowing that his proximity might make things worse, Reeve knelt down in front of Cloud and fearfully, longingly pet the soft hair. His fingers traveled lower, sliding down the boy's cheek. It wasn't until his thumb brushed over the pouting lips that life leapt up in Cloud's eyes, and a hand suddenly and painfully grasped his wrist.

"I'm sorry!" Reeve gulped. "I...I just - "

"Zack...loved me?" The voice held none of the rage Reeve had expected, only confusion.

"You didn't know?"

"He protected me. As long as I knew him. But..." Cloud looked at Reeve, his eyes narrow and probing. "I always wondered how he got us out of the lab. It was you."

"I also raped you."

The words clearly stung Cloud; he flung Reeve's arm away and stood up. "I don't remember."

"I think you do."

"It's like a bad dream. All of it. Why are you telling me this now?"

Reeve removed the audio-disc player from his coat and dropped it into Cloud's hand. The blond switched it on, and the nightmarish voice of Hojo disturbed the room.

"October seventh, ten fifty-two a.m. Document of temperature reading, Subject B. Reeve Tuesti assisting."

With an agonized cry, Cloud threw the player to the floor and smashed it with a stomp of his boot. Reeve flinched, but the forced calm returned to Cloud's face almost immediately.

"I'll forget you ever brought this up. Never speak of it again."

"What?"

"What did you think I was going to say?" the blond asked flatly.

"Something like 'Deathblow' or 'OmniSlash'."

"You thought I was going to kill you?"

"You have every right," Reeve said quietly.

"It was a long time ago, I don't remember it."

"I remember. Every second of it," Reeve murmured. "Every sound you made. The way you felt."

Cloud's breathing had sped up, and a flicker of fear flashed in his bright eyes. Whatever he claimed, he remembered some of it. Reeve pulled in a deep breath and continued to push for a reaction.

"Do you remember that I held you while I did it? That I kissed you? I told you that it was okay, that I loved you, and you said no. As out of it as you were, you cried for Zack, and you said no."

The soft pink lips trembled, and two shimmering tears trickled down his face. There was always some amount of pain visible in Cloud, but rarely so much and so close to the surface as now.

"I did it to keep Hojo's hands off you, but it wasn't only that. I wanted you, and I enjoyed taking you, and when it was over, I didn't want to let you go."

Cloud snatched the sword from the wall and brandished it, pointing it in the direction of Reeve's head. "Stop talking," he warned.

"Don't you remember what happened when you forgot your past last time? Tifa told me...it was like talking to an empty shell wearing a mask of you. The damage in you from repressing so much trauma opened the door to Sephiroth's manipulation."

"And Aerith is dead because of me," Cloud snapped, still holding the blade up but not as menacingly. "He killed her, and he made me watch her die, so I'd always remember, always know it was my fault - "

"Cloud, how can you still believe that?" Reeve interrupted, startled by what he was hearing. "Cloud, no one blames you for Aerith's death."

"Do you know what it's like to have his voice in your head, threatening everyone and everything you care about? Even in my dreams, he wouldn't leave me alone, he made me watch the burning of Nibelheim over and over, and my mother..."

"Cloud - "

"Finally his voice was gone, and I could remember Zack, and now you - " His face was twisted with frustrated pain, but there was no expression not beautiful on Cloud. "You make me remember how horrible it was in that lab! I was fine not knowing about this!"

"Part of you did know. I think that's why you forgot Zack. In order to forget Hojo."

"Hojo is dead. Do you want me to do to you what I would do to him?" Cloud's voice was pleading now, his sword hand trembling. "Damn it, Reeve, you're our friend. You're the only real heart ShinRa ever had. Let this go. I'll make myself forget it."

"Please don't. You should know by now that won't solve anything."

"You helped Zack and I escape. We'll call it even."

"Even? Cloud, I raped you!" Reeve shouted, no longer caring who heard.

Cloud slammed his sword to the floor with a crash that shook the building; apparently he wasn't concerned about being overheard either.

"That doesn't make you like Hojo! Fuck, Tuesti, I see what you're trying to do. But you were there for one day, out of hundreds. He made Zack watch while he did it," Cloud choked out. "If he looked away, Hojo would hurt me. After that first warning, Zack never looked away again. However much your conscience is beating you up, at least you have one! Hell," the blond scoffed, "compared to Hojo, what you did was probably a relief for me."

"That doesn't excuse what I - "

"Then I excuse it," Cloud said lowly. "Stop provoking me, Reeve. Please. How can I forgive you if you won't accept it?"

"That's not what I wanted."

"You want me to kill you? You want to be punished?"

"YES!"

Cloud retrieved his sword and slipped it into its sheath. "Then I forgive you. Live with that."

Reeve squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them Cloud was gone, and Tifa was standing in the doorway, surveying the disarray of the room with a complete lack of surprise.

"Everything okay, Reeve? We were wondering, what with all the noise..."

"Yes...yes. I think I upset him."

She smiled sympathetically. "Don't feel bad. When he's withdrawn like this, he's easy to set off. I won't ask for details, but this had to do with the past, right?"

"...yes."

Tifa sighed. "I wish he'd talk about it. Cloud says he doesn't remember most of it, but he has nightmares. Bad ones, I think. And strange fears. I wonder if they're his mind's way of trying to make him remember."

"Strange fears?"

"Don't tell him I told you, but he goes into a panic at the sight of a thermometer." Tifa frowned pensively. "He didn't have that phobia when we were kids. Whenever Marlene or Denzel get sick, I have to be really careful not to let - "

She was still talking when Reeve bowed his head and slipped past her through the door. "I've got to go, Tifa, excuse me."

He felt no more free stepping out into the town of Edge than he had earlier in the day. The town was noisy as always, but with a happier sort of sound than there had been in Midgar. Passersby looked at him now and then - because they knew who Reeve was, not what he had done. A few of them even smiled and waved. A little girl with pigtails ran by, nearly hitting him with her stuffed animal as she went. Building new cities, improving lives more innocent than his own...good works could not cancel out offenses like Reeve's, he knew. That was not the point of them, really. Good has no greater purpose than itself.

Wondering if Vincent - a master at living with guilt - would accept some company, Reeve passed by his car on foot, heading in no particular direction. Forgiveness lay upon his heart heavier, if anything, than the guilt had done so.

THE END