Stephen Maliare graduated from Bertia University at the age of twenty-four. At the time, his life had been planned out ahead of him in crisp blank ink; a prim agenda that allowed no time for foolishness. It consisted primarily of work, work, work, work, eat, work, sleep, work, and - oh - and make sure you spare a few moments to give Loretta a kiss on the cheek. She's a great wife, you know, but she's just so damn needy.

Maliare was a logical man in many senses, all social stats put aside. And he (like any other man, logical or not) wanted, needed - craved a good supply of money. It was normal, of course - it didn't make him selfish by any means. He simply needed it to live, to support himself, to support Loretta, to make sure they two of them didn't end up on the streets as sordid beggars in rags. And, armed with this thought, Stephen Maliare set out in search of a job.

For most people, any well-paying job would do. But Maliare was particular. His field was science. He longed to explore the limits of the human body. He wanted a job of activity, of research, somewhere where his talents would be appreciated. For Maliare, the pay didn't matter. As long as he was surrounded by other intellectuals, a good supply of subjects to mess with, and a salary that ranged anywhere from fifty cents to fifty thousand bucks an hour, he'd be happy.

Really.

There were so many chances for a good job, too. Shin-Ra INC, in particular. And though Maliare had his heart set on assisting their studies, he was, I remind you, a logical man, and therefore told himself constantly that the chances of being hired as a Shin-Ra scientist were very slim. But in the end, he got his job. That and more, for finding professor Hojo was nothing short of heaven.

Hojo himself was a rather unusual man. Maliare's first impression of him had been sheer discomfort, followed by a strong urge to run as fast as his legs could carry him in the opposite direction, regardless of how silly he might appear to the profoessor. But any other man would agree that Hojo was, indeed, quite frightening. His eyes, his smile, his - face - every inch of him just was strange, unsettling, simply wrong, as if whatever God had created him had made some terrible miscalculation. But after gathering himself together, Maliare found that he was really an upright and sensible person. Logical. Yes, logical. And that was a feature that Stephen Maliare could really appreciate.

He had met Hojo by chance, to be honest. While passing him in the hallway, Maliare couldn't help but catch a glimpse of the title "SUBJECT:A/B, JNVA PROJ" printed across the papers in his hand, and finally, after craning his neck for a better view, he was able to see that the first folder - A/B, as the man had so brilliantly dubbed it - had two crisp photographs neatly attached.

The first was a man with a sharp face, a long nose, and hair that seemed spiked in every direction, darker than crow feathers. His photo was marked with a crisp, black "A" The second, titled "B", was also a young man, a blonde with a pale, young face and untamed spikes, most of which were hidden beneath the professor's elbow. From the little glimpse that he had caught, the two seemed to be brothers, or at least distant relatives.

To see subject A and B printed above two humans - two human subjects - it made his head dizzy with excitement. Such a thought was simply thrilling. Maliare had been limited for...for years with rats and toads and other such foolishness. But the chance to work with a real human subject...

Getting the job itself was a matter of both skill and whim. Loretta hadn't approved of it, he recalled, she had said that he was "fucking with the unknown." But what Loretta said didn't matter in the least. She was a stupid girl, really. Too caught up in her own world to notice anything other than her Sunday gospel readings. So he talked with Hojo, had luck on his side, and soon the job was his to flaunt.

Being Hojo's assistant paid well, and Maliare's first day hadn't been a bad one in the least. He hadn't had a chance to see those lovely subjects himself - but God, how he wanted to, how he wanted to see their faces blanch as he approached, bound and gagged, trembling under his stare, under his power - but Hojo hadn't said a word about it, regardless of the fact that his orders did seem loosely connected with the two nameless young men; fetch this, fetch that, and be careful with my scalpel, it's awfully expensive...

Mostly, though, Maliare took care of the locks, needles, and...well, those unknown substances...those somethings kept inside hourglass jars in Hojo's office. He couldn't guess what was in those jars for the life of him - some alien fluid, a liquid that just overwhelmed him with wrongness, something that he had seen once before, yes...

Yes! He had seen it inside a clear syringe hooked between two of Hojo's spider-like fingers.

A syringe.

It had taken quite some time to earn Hojo's trust. Upon many occasions, Maliare found himself noticing the way the pale man would watch him, would ask him to fetch some rather tempting items and give him a calculating glance when he returned. To Maliare, it felt as if his entire body and soul was being scanned, and at those times, he had felt so...vulnerable, so exposed, so naked that when Hojo finally tore his eyes away, Maliare found himself releasing a nervous breath he hadn't even been aware of holding.

Eventually, he earned the man's trust and was permitted to be an assistant with the two specimens. But for the most part, he spent his days with specimen A.

Subject A, or 'code Z', as Hojo had so brilliantly dubbed him, was a young, spirited man named Zack. And Zack, to put it simply, irritated him. The man's sense of importance never seemed to diminish, regardless of how inhuman he was treated. His first day with Zack had been a strange one. The dark-haired man had been restrained in a padded chair, asked numerous questions, and then was carefully injected with a strange, nameless substance. The substance, whatever it was, was obviously supposed to have a dramatic effect on the man, because when nothing happened, Hojo was furious.

"You're all I have to work with." Hojo had fumed, scoffing his feet across the tile floor. "You and that worthless recruit." The lab was an eerie place, but rather than being filled with dust and cobwebs, as he had half-expected such a sinister room to have, the walls were shining, the metal was polished and clean, and everything - everything was sterile. Yet still, it was unsettling.

"Fuck you." Zack said, not missing a bit.

"One more word and I'll take that blondie out here and make him scream for you." Hojo said, watching the look of disgust on Zack's face grow. "Isn't it grand to have a whipping boy?"

"Don't touch him..." His voice began to tremble.

"Not today." he said. "Today, we call it quits. Tomorrow, we'll play Russian Roulette."

Maliare watched, entranced, as the man's face twisted with anger, his eyes narrowed to paper thin slits. He knew, then, exactly what Hojo was planning. Suspense was truly the worst torture of all.

But when Zack was alone with the guards, he was, to put it simply, cheerful. Not many things could bother him. When they threatened the blondie (who was never called by his real name, to Maliare's bewilderment), Zack just grinned evilly and dared them to say more. Usually, that stunned them into silence, and if not, the knowledge that nothing they could do or say could ever actually harm Zack's companion drove them to simply drop the subject. After all, what sort of threat was it to bring up the fact that they had absolutely no power over their target's closest friend?

One one occasion, however, Maliare had truly seen Zack in all his fury. He and a guard had been playing cards between the bars of Zack's cell, as they often did when the hours stretched by and everyone grew to bored to throw insults back and forward, and he had calmly but tauntingly asked; "So, Zackary, is he a good fuck...?"

It was the first time Maliare had seen anybody had call Zack by his full name. Then again, it was also the first time he had seen a man's jaw broken in one swift punch and his nose fractured in three places after a severe head collision against the tile floor of Hojo's laboratory. The assistant had been hospitalized, as they had feared he had suffered a concussion after the impact, but even after his recovery and Zack's gruesome punishment, those surrounding him had learned to become more cautious when approaching the matter of teasing him on behalf of his blonde friend.

The guards and assistants taunted him, played with him, feared him, tortured him. Maliare, however, hated him. Because no matter what was done to him, no matter how much pain and suffering he was put through, he never admitted defeat, and Maliare was never given the power he craved.

Ever.

And then came the introduction of Specimen B.

Their meeting wasn't arranged. He had night duty one day, and, sitting outside of the small, iron door which led to one of the experimentation rooms, he heard a bizarre, thumping.

Like fists.

Suspicious, he peered around the corner and saw the edge of one of the glowing green tubes. Another loud thump sounded, and he scrambled to his feet, following the echoes that radiated from the stone walls. Dimly, he realized that he had ran through the narrow hall of stuffed shelves and textbooks and came into the main entrance, where Hojo had always taken Zack after their small, uneasy sessions.

But it couldn't be Zack making those noises, he was with Hojo right now...

Excitement and horror flooded his brain - this could easily be a dangerous situation, yes, but if he reacted right, then Hojo would hold him in higher esteem...

Maliare wiped the sweat from his brow and searched the room for the offending noise, clutching a stitch in his side.

What instantly caught his eye was a thin, naked blonde man, sitting on his heels inside of the closest tube with what appeared to be a large shard of metal. He was currently hacking into the thick glass, successful with creating a single, shallow crack at the base of the cylinder. He glanced up when Maliare entered, and immediately his eyes widened to the size of china plates.

Maliare took a step forward, and the boy cringed instinctively, his fist tightening around the shard of broken metal. Flesh broke and a thin stream of blood began to diffuse into the green substance surrounding him. Maliare was frozen by the image, at first, and though his body was rigid, his mind was crying out in victory that he had discovered something Hojo might praise him for, and subconsciously the pleasure of causing another man fear began to cloud his senses. It passed quickly, however, when he realized that he had to get help, and he quickly reached into his coat pocket and fished out a old-fashioned walkie talkie.

The next few minutes went by in a haze. Footsteps echoed into the room, whited lab coats, hands clapping him on the shoulder and back, then Hojo walking toward the tube with his catlike eyes glowing and his mouth a grim slash in his pale face.

He nodded lazily toward the tubes, and several surrounding assistants moved forward and punched in the code for the specimen's release. Mako began to drain from the cylinder prison as the subject watched with horrified eyes, his bleeding fist tightening over his tool of escape. As soon as the substance had resided far enough for his feet to rest firmly on the ground, he scooted back into the corner of the narrow tube and began to panic. The look on his face was both that of absolute fear, shameless pleading, and an pathetic attempt to intimidate the assistants before him. Once the mako was completely drained, one of the assistants unlocked and slid open the glass door along the side and reached inside.

It was a sight Stephen Maliare would never forget. With his eyes locked on the nameless boy's trembling figure, he hardly even recognized the assistant that was currently attempting to remove him from the tank. All he saw was his hand, and as soon as it entered into mako-drained tube, just inches from the subjects's body, the blonde shook his head wildly and pressed himself flat against the glass, trying to escape from the man's probing fingertips. The assistant cursed quietly, leaned further in, and clamped his hand around the boy's upper arm.

As soon as the physical contact was made, the subject jerked back against the stranger's firm grip, his mouth open in a silent scream beneath the air mask strapped to his face, and as he was roughly wrenched out of the narrow prison, his free arm flailed wildly for something to hold onto, something to pull himself away from the danger before him.

When he found nothing, the appendage fell limply to his side, and he glanced fearfully at his captor in defeat. Upon seeing the man's expression, his face darkened and his naked body began to tremble violently.

Gooseflesh had broken out on his arms.

The assistant reached around the boy's back with his free hand, grabbing a fistful of wires Maliare hadn't even noticed before. He tore them out with one quick snap of the wrist and the specimen stiffened in pain, his jaw clenched. As the man proceeded to remove his air mask, Maliare leaned forward to see where the wires had been attached and recoiled instantly.

"It's nothing." explained a nearby coworker as Maliare continued to gawk at the welts along the boy's back. "It's just to chart his stat. And feed him." he added as an afterthought.

Hojo stepped forward calmly, and the subject's head immediately snapped up at the sound of his leather soles tapping against the hardwood floor. His face paled, lips drawing slack with horror, and his head shook involuntarily. He was sixteen years old, Maliare had estimated upon first seeing him, but in that moment, he truly became a child.

Hojo took another step closer, and the boy burst into tears.

The assistant restraining him twisted his arm awkwardly as a warning. The blonde's voice faltered as he attempted to swallow his hysteria, going limp under the stranger's grip while trying his best to hide his face with his free hand. Time stretched on and on. The room was silent besides the specimen's cries, and the heavy, awkward promise of punishment was deliciously frightening - in fact, Maliare noticed, every one of the assistants surrounding him appeared to be just as shaken and excited over the situation as he was.

After what seemed like hours, the boy's sobs began to grow less violent. His fist clenched and unclenched, and the blood-soaked shard of metal fell to the floor with a loud clink!. Hojo quietly shifted his gaze from the boy to the shard and back to the boy, his lips thin. His brow drew together and he made to move closer, but the specimen writhed wildly in his captor's arms and began to wail once more, resulting only in his captor kicking him in the shins.

The blonde hissed in pain, cringing, and as he attempted to control himself, Maliare began to catch fragments of words -

"h-hur.t...p-please...don't..." the boy glanced up fearfully up at the professor's frame, and Maliare caught a glimpse of his eyes for the first time. They were bright - unusually bright, the color of the sky in early June, astonishingly beautiful even through the hard, pink residue of hysteria.

Behind him, one of his fellow coworkers giggled gleefully. "Cloud's gonna get it." he breathed, and Maliare turned to him with a raised eyebrow. The man smiled widely in return. "That boy's like a dog - he'll do whatever he's told to escape a bit of pain." he explained. "I've been thinkin' lately that Zack's attitude has been rubbing off on him - and - well..."

He shrugged. "There's a difference, though; Zack's tolerant. He grins and bears it, no matter how painful. Sometimes I can't help but think he's trying to set an example for Cloud here -" he gestured once more to the weeping blonde - "Or maybe he's just used to playing the hero."

"Specimen A did seem tough." Maliare agreed quietly, refusing to call him by his real name.

"Mm-hmm, which is why Hojo never does any resistance tests on him. Zack never tells him when it hurts or how badly, but Cloud will, the idiot..."

"Resistance?"

"You know, to see how much pain an altered human can withstand."

"You mean like...torture?" Maliare felt his heart flutter wildly.

"Nah." the coworker said flatly, "It's only science. Somehow Cloud's got this idea cooked up in his head that if he's good, the professor will go easy on him. The damn kid's actually taken the question 'what hurts more?' the way a geek would take the most important question on his algebra final."

Maliare felt his lips twitch. Regardless of what his man said, it sounded like torture to him.

Hojo's chilling voice broke sliced through his thoughts; "And just what were you doing, mm?"

"I'll never do it again I promise!"

"And how can I be sure of that, Specimen B?"

"My name is - " he stopped, then, his voice small and weak, regretful, and the room lapsed into shocked silence.

"Excuse me?" Hojo demanded, his voice thick with fury.

"Nothing." he said, and Maliare heard his breath beginning to hitch into sobs again. "I mean - s-sir..."

"Hm." The professor stroked his chin quietly, observing the boy before him, who struggled awkwardly with his captor before gazing helplessly up at Hojo and going limp in defeat.

"Follow me." Hojo commanded, and turned swiftly on his heel, marching out of the room and to - Lord - one of the padded chairs.

Cloud began to cry again.

"Restrain him." Hojo said, and the assistant holding him threw him down unto the chair and began to tighten the leather straps over his limbs. Maliare watched the boy's broken face in astonishment, entranced by the way he cringed every time one of the buckles caught his skin or every time a nearby scientist insulted his nakedness.

And then Hojo pulled a scalpel out of of coat pocket and all the blood drained from his face.

He screamed; "No! NO! NONONONONONONO-"

Somebody slapped him, and his screams were immediately silenced.

"Are you aware of what you've done, boy?" Hojo drawled. "You've done some very bad things. Very, very bad things. And you deserve to be punished for that, don't you?"

Cloud shook his head wildly, wide eyes locked on Hojo's left hand, where the shining scalpel glared hungrily back at him.

Hojo leaned forward and pressed the sharp, biting tip of the scalpel against Cloud's heaving chest. He tossed his head wildly, his teeth sinking into the soft flesh of his lower lip, and a small trail of blood began to rise at his breast.

"I am your God, you understand me?" Hojo hissed. When Cloud said nothing, the scalpel began to sink forward, and the professor repeated the question thickly, earning a pained nod from Cloud. Still unsatisfied with this response, he drew back and glanced coldly at his assistants, who drew back instinctively.

"Fetch Specimen A." he instructed cooly. "Make him watch."

"Oh, God." Cloud whispered miserably. "Zack..."

He shook his head, closing his eyes in a final matter, and to seal that motion, a small, elusive tear fell from beneath sooty eyelashes and unto the leather of the chair he was restrained to.

A series of furious curses soon echoed down the hallways, drawing closer, and the raven-haired man was soon dragged into view, his spiked hair now so thoroughly disheveled that his eyes were concealed beneath thick locks that hung wildly in front of his face. Sweat ran down his temples, his mouth ripped around a scream, and before and after every swear came Cloud's name, promise's of Cloud's escape, oh Cloud, Cloud, Cloud.

"Son of a bitch!" a roared at Hojo. "He didn't do anything to you, you hurt me instead, don't you touch him, don't you fucking touch him!"

Cloud sobbed openly, twisting in his restraints so as to hide his face from Zack. "I'm sorry!" he shrieked, but his words were quickly lost within the oblivion of his friend's unending rampage.

Hojo's face remained unchanged. The scientists exchanged glances, some appearing disturbed, most excited, others hungry, others, strangely enough, aroused.

Maliare, however, was simply grinning.