Ch. 52

I apologize for the delay but I struggled mightily with this chapter. I am honestly very nervous on how you all will feel about it, so please let me know. As always thanks for coming back each chapter!

Disclaimer: Square Enix owns all things Final Fantasy

Tifa clenched both her teeth and fists as she watched Cloud begin to open a door. From the looks of everything around them, this should be Iotola's lab area, and if she was honest, they were running out of places to look. Up to this point she had kept it together pretty well but each moment that passed was fracturing her composure a piece at a time. The need for Reno to be okay was so overwhelming that it felt like someone had their hands around her throat and was slowly taking her breath away. Instinctively she drew in a deep breath. She then looked back over at Cloud who, without even looking over calmly said, "Tifa breathe." Tifa immediately complied letting go of the breath she had been holding. But the feeling of her body relaxing lasted only a moment because she could now see inside the room. As the images registered such as beakers, viles, and microscopes Tifa knew immediately they had found Iotola's lab.

She risked a glance at Cloud whose discomfort showed in his face and his body language. It may have been a time long ago but he was still a survivor of being someone's lab rat; experiment; specimen; or whatever word you wanted to use to describe it. Tifa knew he had to be having flashbacks of being on display; no way out, with no one showing compassion or finding a way to one even knowing there was anyone to be saved.

She could feel her stomach turning as she got lost in her own thoughts. What happened to Cloud, that is what Iotola wanted to do to Aerith. Iotola wanted to put her friend on display, to be poked and tested; a specimen to draw information from. The last of her kind, now brought back to life to help humans cheat death as Jenova's "children" did. Forced once again to be a savior but instead of a life renewed...she would just be alive in her own personal hell. Tifa briefly closed her eyes, she needed to clear away all these horrific thoughts from her mind; become focused at the task at hand.

Her wine eyes opened and she refocused on Cloud. Panic instinctively set in as she saw him standing like a statue in front of her, blocking whatever made him stop in his tracks. What was he looking at? Were they too late? Had Iotola succeeded with his plan and Aerith was there, already resurrected?

She forced herself past Cloud's statuesque body. When she could see what Cloud was looking at she immediately realized why he reacted the way he did. There sitting on one of the lab tables was Reno, casually pulling a cigarette from his lips and blowing out the smoke while a man with salt and pepper hair and a scraggly beard grunted as he struggled against the rope that had him bound to a chair. His face was bloody and bruised; one eye already closed due to the swelling around it.

"Well look who finally decided to grace us with another cameo! How ya been Strife?" Reno said cheerfully.

Tifa was overwhelmed with feelings of relief, excitement, joy, and... shock. Reno was alive and had found Iotola. But he hadn't killed him...and as she listened to Reno speak she found out why.

Tifa observed Iotola when Reno mentioned Cloud's name, his whole demeanor changed instantly. Where before he was showing signs of frustration with he grunts and defiance by trying to get out of the ropes that were holding him. He now fell silent and motionless. The look in his eye betrayed what he was feeling and it was...terror.

Reno jumped up from the table and moved towards Iotola.

"Yup you heard me right, Cloud Strife in the flesh. I'm sure the thought had to have occurred to you that this whole thing of trying to resurrect his dead love may have gotten hero boy's attention. And you may have even deluded yourself into thinking he'd be thrilled for you to bring her back. I mean it would be right out of one of his dreams right?"

Reno's tone was sinister, he was relishing ever moment of this. Watching Iotola's brow break into a sweat, his body involuntarily begin to shake.

"I mean I was really enjoying beating the crap out of you for taking my best friend and using him as your personal torture device. But then I remembered I wasn't the only one you've wronged. These two people here, they love Aerith. Miss her every day..."

Reno finally looked over at Tifa. He had been avoiding it, half afraid he would lose focus and just run to her, grabbing her into his arms and holding her. Thankful for the opportunity to be able to do so again.

Her makeup had faded but she seemed to have almost no scratches on her which he found odd. Her dress was ripped in several places and some of her hair had come out of her bun. Stunning, as always. He thought to himself.

"Hey Lockhart."

He gave her a small understanding smile, knowing this was difficult for her. Plus it helped to hide the emotions he was really feeling. He was so glad she was alright and he was glad that she was here. It gave him strength to keep going with this confrontation with Iotola.

"And then making a group called Jenova's Hope. I mean what a slap in the face to these two and their friends who saved the planet from that bitch Jenova you like so much and Sephiroth."

"How could you do it? How could you think any of this was justified!" Tifa yelled.

Iotola just looked down and didn't move. Tifa figured he was too afraid to.

Reno continued, "So what do you think is gonna happen now Professor? Maybe you think he'll save you from me. And you could be right, maybe even the slightest possibility that he could have her back would be enough for him to allow you to finish what you started.

Reno looked over at Cloud where he saw Cloud's face go from homicidal rage to deep sadness. Cloud looked down and Reno knew that the internal war was once again going on inside of him. How could it not? This man said he wanted to bring Aerith back to life, if it was truly possible, Cloud could finally be with her, he could let go of all the guilt of not saving her, not being able to live out a life with her.

Reno's voice then went ice cold. "Or maybe he knows as Lockhart and I do...that you'd inevitably screw it up...she wouldn't be the Aerith everyone remembers, she would be someone else...something else."

Without warning Cloud moved with a speed unforeseen and was on Iotola ripping him out of the chair and slamming him against a near counter. Iotola yelped when his back met the counter's edge.

"Wow I really need to up my skills on tying knots", Reno said in and off the cuff manor. But if Cloud heard him he didn't show signs on it...he had a hold of Iotola now and Reno wondered if he would be able to stay the hero many thought him to be.

"You bastard, do you have any idea what you've done? You're close aren't you, so close to your goal...bringing her here."

Iotola viciously shook his head yes. Cloud yanked out the cloth from his mouth.

"You can be with her again, just let me finish...I am so close."

Tifa began to move but Cloud turned and gave her a look that she had never seen before, his eyes were wild, flashing between pain and anger.

"Stay back Tifa!"

Cloud turned his attention back to Iotola.

"Do you know how many times I would wish she could be many times I thought to myself I would do anything to have her be here...alive."

Tifa was terrified, even when Aerith was killed she had never seen him so enraged, yet so vulnerable. She couldn't help it, she began to cry. It was awful. She knew that she had thought about it herself, the idea that Aerith could be given back to him. The small traitorous feeling, hoping that maybe he had already succeeded and her vision and fears had been wrong. Aerith would be here just as she was before and they could all be back together again. If that was how she felt, the feelings had to be tenfold for Cloud.

"You say you could bring her back...and what would she be? You really expect me to believe she would be exactly as she was after all this time?! And even if she was, and even if we kept her from you...Cloud's voice cracked, there would always be another...someone would want to test her, observe her, take samples. She would be running, always looking behind her,wondering where the next person was who wanted to "save the world". She's already given her life for this planet and continues to protect it in death. None of us have the right to ask any more of her."

In about the same speed it had taken Cloud to get to the professor, Iotola's demeanor went from frightened to enraged.

"The RIGHT? You stupid short sided boy, she could save all of us from feeling as you I do missing my family every moment of every day. She is connected to the planet in a way none of us could possibly be, between her and Jenova's abilities the possibilities are endless. Sephiroth was brought back for a few minutes, but it showed the possibilities of life...that we could defeat death but the Cetra is the missing link. She has so much power...let her help us evolve, be strong for any new invasion...let her help us stop saying goodbye to our loved ones!"

Cloud's shoulders began to sag, it was all becoming to much for him to handle. Tifa had to help.

"And what of our souls?" Tifa asked.

Iotola looked over at her, surprised by the question.

"Jenova was so powerful, but was willing to wipe out an entire race just to you said she had so many abilities. They could have been an asset, but she chose death for all except herself. To me that shows she was lacking a soul. And if you succeed in bringing Aerith back you are looking at the aspects of a body, organs, brain function. But has science been able to quantify the soul of a person?

Reno and Cloud eyebrows went up at hearing the word quantify come out of Tifa's mouth. She certainly was full of surprises.

"You say you want to evolve the human race, make us ready for another alien invasion, but you have no answer to how to guarantee her soul will be safe or intact. That is where she gets her power from...her love for us...for this planet. You bring her back without that and you could be bringing our destruction instead of our savior."

Iotola seemed flabbergasted. "There is nothing that says that her "soul" would not come with her or be damaged."

"But there is nothing to say it her soul will come with her either. And thanks to her interventions we know she still exists without an earthly body...she is proof that there is more to us than flesh and bone.

"I will not let you destroy her...none of us will. Your pleas have fallen on deaf ears."

Professor Iotola's body became limp, his attempts to persuade and manipulate were finished. He was finished.

Reno and Cloud stared in awe of Tifa. Not that Reno had been too afraid of Cloud making a poor decision but the possibility had always been there...until that speech from Tifa.

Reno grabbed the pieces of rope and headed over to Iotola. Tifa slowly sat down in the chair and put her hands to her face fighting back the urge to break down. The confrontation was over but at least now she knew his motivations, dangerous as they were. Reno began to make his way to Tifa, Cloud there or not he was going to hold her, comfort her the best he could.

Cloud still had a grip on Iotola but it was slightly lax now. And it was in that moment, with all three of them distracted by either their own thoughts or the task at hand, that the professor made his last stand. He punched Cloud square in the nose, making Cloud's eyes water and lose his grip temporarily. That was all Iotola needed to grab a vile and throw it at Reno who was rushing to Cloud's aid. As Reno jumped out of the way Iotola made it to another part of the counter and seemed to grab something out of a secret compartment. Meanwhile Tifa jumped up from her sitting position but she wasn't able to get to him before he turned, laughing manically.

"There was something you didn't ask me about...don't you want to know why I had Jenova's Hope take all that materia?"

Cloud, Tifa, and Reno watched in horror as they saw Iotola holding the all to familiar red colored materia. He was about to summon...what they didn't know.

"Let's just say Rude wasn't the only thing I was experimenting on."

And with that he pulled the materia closer to him, whispered something so softly none of the others could hear, and then fell with the others due to the impact of the materia coming to life.

"Hey guys I'm afraid we may have lost control of the situation here." Reno said trying desperately to lighten the mood by stating the obvious.

Iotola smirked as he yelled out.

"Behold, I give you a cloned...stronger version of the Knights of the Round!"