Notes: Many thanks to Lisa for plot help!


Chapter Four

31 Days: Will you ever know?

Key Blade: Fear

She leaned over the body, cutting free the last restraints within the incision. Blood spurted onto her gloved hands. It was really not likely that any would hit her face, but she had seen to it that she was prepared, anyway. Protective goggles were pulled over her eyes, while a mask covered her nose and mouth. Her hair was gathered and pinned under a surgical cap.

This was the first time she had trusted herself to go through with such a gruesome procedure. Over the past months, Dr. Hojo had introduced her to all of his research on hearts and how it would ultimately benefit the human race. They had tried and failed many times with their experiments, though the last one had come close to revealing some of what they had desired to learn. And now she had volunteered herself to enact the next operation.

Dr. Hojo had been very pleased. Yes, he had said, he had hoped she would feel ready to try soon, and he had hoped she would say so herself. He was very confident that she could take their knowledge much further than ever.

Of course she had still held doubts. This was a very risky procedure. But she had gone forward in determination. The test subject had volunteered for this, anxious to be of any service to the scientific world. And now they were about to go to the next step. They were going to examine his heart.

The man's eyes snapped open. She leaped back, startled and alarmed by the abrupt action. He should not be awake! The anesthesia should have been strong enough to keep him under for the duration of the experiment. To her side, the anesthesiologist was shocked as well.

An ear-piercing scream issued from the patient's lips--a scream of agony and rage. Then he was ripping away his restraints. With a meaty arm he reached out, swiping the instrument table to the side. Scalpels, mirrors, and other important devices clattered to the floor. The nurse stumbled back, struggling to avoid the onslaught.

He was already bringing his hand to the IV needle in his other arm. With a mad cry he tore it out, forcing himself to sit up at the same time. Hands came down on his shoulders as nurses and doctors tried to drag him back to the slab, but to no avail. Despite the blood pouring from the open incision in his chest, he was lunging forward, his hands curled to attack Lucrecia.

She grabbed for the wrists, her hands trembling as she fought for control. If they could not get him to lay down, and anesthetize him again, he would die. And he was already trying to kill her. He was delirious and out of his mind, not knowing what he was doing!

He shoved her back, at the same moment catching hold of her throat in a shaking hand. He began to squeeze, closing off her oxygen. She gasped, clawing desperately for release. Spots were starting to appear in front of her eyes.

Then his eyes widened. With a choked gasp he let go and fell forward, tumbling off the slab to hit the floor on his stomach. The blood rushed from the gaping hole in his chest, beginning to coat the floor red. The nurses were promptly rushing to attend to him.

Lucrecia stumbled back, her hands at her throat as she coughed and gasped for air. She tore the mask from her face, gulping in the welcome substance. Through bleary vision she watched as the nurse checking the pulse stiffened.

"He's dead," she reported.

Lucrecia's eyes narrowed, but all she could do was nod. Her throat was burning.


Dr. Hojo had insisted that she take a few hours off work to recover from the experience. She had not been badly injured, but her throat had grown sore and rough after the incident, and when she had looked in a mirror, red marks were visible where she had been grabbed. Still, she had quickly asserted that she was alright and ready to get back to work. Dr. Hojo had called her into his office instead.

"I do hope you're feeling better than you look, Dr. Crescent," he remarked as she entered a few moments later. "Perhaps the entire day off is in order."

"No," Lucrecia said, her voice choked and rasping. "I'm really alright, Doctor."

"Hmm. I admire your determination." Dr. Hojo leaned back, picking up a folder and opening it. "According to the nurse's report, you were about to remove the patient's heart when he suddenly regained consciousness."

"That's right. I can't imagine what could have caused it."

"A new mystery," Dr. Hojo mused. "Of course, it could be as simple as the dosage of anesthesia not being strong enough. Then again, it could be something much more . . . fascinating." A cruel smirk came over his features.

Lucrecia shifted in nervousness. "Doctor?"

"The human will," Dr. Hojo continued, as if he had not heard her. "It's very resilient. It even still amazes me at times--what a sentient entity is capable of under the most grim circumstances." He set the folder down on his desk. "I wouldn't call the operation today a complete loss. It has only served to intrigue me all the more. I offer my congratulations, Dr. Crescent."

She was not certain what to say. Here was another instance where he was revealing that disturbing side of his personality. In good conscience she did not know how to accept his congratulations when all that had happened was that another man had died. The experiment was risky, but the goal had been to keep it from being fatal. And she had tried to do everything in her power to ensure the life of that man.

"Is this what you called me here to tell me, Doctor?" she asked.

The smirk remained. "No, Dr. Crescent," he said, "not altogether. I have a . . . new proposal for you. An arrangement of convenience that may prove a profitable venture for us both."

She blinked in surprise. "What is that?" she queried.

"Dr. Crescent, I am asking for your agreement to a simple union." He looked directly at her. "A union that would bring us together under one roof."

Her entire body had gone stiff. She could only stare back at him, disbelieving. "A . . . a marriage?" she exclaimed.

"It would be quite convenient, wouldn't it?" Dr. Hojo said. "We could discuss our scientific ventures much more if we were to return to the same location after a day at the laboratory. And you have mentioned at times how you wish your parents would not be so inquisitive. If you were not living with them, they would no longer be able to question you as they have been doing."

"But my father is ill," Lucrecia protested, her mind whirling at this bizarre turn of events. "I stay to help my mother care for him. . . ."

How could she possibly marry Dr. Hojo? In one way she still admired him, but more and more she was coming to fear him. To live under the same roof with him, never being away from him, sounded alarming. But she could not tell him that. She was far too afraid of what he would do. And what she said was true; she could not think of leaving her mother to tend to her father all alone.

"Naturally I would provide the best nurse possible for him," Dr. Hojo was saying. "Do remember, also, Dr. Crescent--our experiments are supposed to remain a secret. The longer you reside with your parents, the more likely it is that they may learn something. Not that you would tell them, of course. But these things have an unpleasant way of coming to light when we least expect it."

She gave a slow nod. "Y-yes, I realize that, Doctor," she said, the cotton in her throat increasing.

"Then you will consider it, I hope."

What was there to say? At least he was not asking for a definite yes or no right now.

"Yes," she said, "I will consider it." She hesitated. "I'm . . . very surprised, Doctor. I never thought you would propose to me. . . ."

"I've been considering it for some time, my dear Dr. Crescent," Dr. Hojo smiled.

And she had to wonder exactly why. Dr. Hojo did not love her. She did not hold any illusions about that. And the reasoning he had given sounded more like a mask for what his true motives were. The real question was, What were they?

She was really not sure she wanted to find out.


"You're all alone, aren't you."

Sephiroth managed a weak grunt in his throat at the unwelcome voice penetrating his consciousness. His lower left wing gave a rapid flick as he forced his eyes open. He was still in the cell. And he was staring at a pair of feminine legs. He raised his gaze, bristling at the sight of Portman standing over him with crossed arms. Clone 45 was no longer here.

"Where is he?" he demanded. He felt so weak, much more than he had the last time he had been awake. What was wrong? Had they experimented on him again? If so, had they taken 45 for experimentation as well? He had spoken to 45 more than once. The thought of him now being a Heartless, with the energy from his heart used to revive Sephiroth, seemed even more abhorrent than if it was the heart energy from more clones he had not met.

"'He'?" Portman repeated. "If you're referring to your cellmate, he was escorted out so that he would not interfere in our discussion."

Sephiroth regarded her in disgust. "We don't have anything to discuss," he said.

"On the contrary," Portman replied. "I only want to get your reactions to several facts about your situation. You have been here for days, Sephiroth. Have you tried to keep track of how many?"

He glowered. He did not have to play this game. He would not answer her.

And the truth was, he did not know how long he had been there. It could have been as few as two or three days, or as long as several weeks. Time all ran together, especially when there were only short periods of being awake to eat the meager amounts they gave him and to take care of other necessities, followed by intense periods of experimentation and then unconsciousness. It was being senseless that resulted in the most confusion. He never knew how long he had been removed from the world of awareness.

"Why do you think no one has come for you?"

Sephiroth gripped a handful of quilt. So that was what she wanted to focus on, most likely hoping that she could send him into despair over his friends' welfare. He was already despairing enough about their safety.

"Maybe they just haven't found this location yet," Portman continued, her tone slow and methodical, almost hypnotic. "Or maybe they have already been captured and are being experimented on."

Behind his lips, Sephiroth's teeth gritted. The horrible nightmare was flashing through his mind again. That was not true. Zack and Cloud were not here yet. Hojo was not doing to them what he planned to do to Sephiroth. And God-willing, he would never have the chance.

"There is another possibility."

The green eyes narrowed. He would not look at her. He would not give her that satisfaction.

"Maybe they won't come. What if they have forgotten you, Sephiroth? Or what if they don't care? Maybe they are relieved to be rid of you."

Sephiroth's stomach turned. Only someone as cruel as Portman would come up with such a scenario. To call it fiction would be too generous. Zack and Cloud loved him. They would never abandon him. They would both die before giving up the quest, and even death would not stop them. They would still come then, as ghosts if they had to, but they would come.

And he would never let them sacrifice themselves for him. The determination to find his own way out burned in his heart. He would escape and he would return to them.

"Have you ever really done anything for them? Or are they always saving you?"

That was not true, either. They had each unwillingly gotten into more than their share of trouble. They always came to each other's rescue in whatever ways possible.

"Cloud Strife, at least, has hated you. And what guarantee do you have that Zack Fair truly cares about you? Maybe he only feels an obligation and a duty to you because of how you trained him in the military. I doubt he was pleased about the trouble his soldiers got into when the clones of you arose."

Sephiroth's eyes flashed. Of course Zack had not been pleased. He had been devastated. But he had laid the blame at Hojo's feet, for creating the clones. It was not Sephiroth's fault. He had not been able to help that the clones were created.

And Cloud no longer hated him. He had harbored doubts of that once, but not any more. He knew who his friends were, and who they were not.

"You are speaking of things you know nothing about," Sephiroth spoke at last, his voice clipped and infuriated. "You are only sounding like a fool because of your lack of comprehension. And you are not worthy to speak their names, let alone to attempt deciphering what is in their minds."

Instead of being angry at these factual insults, Portman gave a curt nod. "Very well," she said. "Naturally you would not listen to me. Your loyalty and devotion are much too strong."

"Only an imbecile would think your words had merit," Sephiroth retorted. But he was suspicious. She would not give up so easily. What was she plotting now?

She regarded him with a piercing gaze, quietly smirking. "You are still so defiant," she said. "But of course you would be, right to your last breath." She turned, walking to the door of the cell and out into the laboratory. Without another word she continued heading for the door.

Sephiroth watched until she was through the door. He was still on edge. He did not trust that this madness had ended. Any minute, Hojo's lackeys could return and drag him out for another torture session. Or the next part of Portman's plan could take place. She had already known he would not listen to her. She had just wanted to rile him.

And why did he feel so weary? If he had not been tortured during a time he did not remember, maybe he had been given another drug. Or maybe the returning weariness was another part of how Hojo's "medicine" worked.

He sank further into the bed. He wanted to stay awake, but it was near impossible. Maybe he could just rest his eyes, but stay alert for anything that might go wrong. That was a weak argument, however. If he rested his eyes, he would fall asleep. He knew that would happen when he was as exhausted as he currently felt. But they slipped closed, anyway.

A sharp kick in the ribs jolted them open again. How had he missed hearing someone come in? He looked up, annoyance and outrage boiling in his veins. But then he could only stare in disbelief.

It was Cloud who was glaring down at him. His arms were crossed, and there was not any sign of relief in his eyes that Sephiroth was alive. He only looked disgusted.

"What's the matter with you?" he snapped. "You can't even get out of this mess yourself? You need us to come bail you out? You're pathetic."

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. Maybe the Cloud of the past would have said something similar to him, but he never would have kicked Sephiroth. This was not Cloud. It was either a dream or a hallucination. Portman could have injected him with something before waking him up.

And the fake Cloud was only saying what Sephiroth had told himself again and again. There had to be some way to get out of this mess. He had tried many times, but when they were keeping him so weakened it was much more difficult. And that made Sephiroth disgusted with himself. The pseudo Cloud was probably a figment of his subconscious.

"I wonder why we even bother with you."

Sephiroth looked over at Zack's voice. The brunet was standing outside the cell, looking in with cold eyes. He did not make any motion to go inside.

"I mean, you never were our friend, you know? You were just a third wheel hanging around."

Cloud nodded. "We're a lot better off without you. Maybe we just won't help you at all."

Sephiroth sat up, his bangs falling forward over his eyes. There was no visible indication of what he thought about these comments. But then he forced himself to stand, looking down at the Cloud impostor.

"Cloud?"

"What."

"Shut up."

Sephiroth shoved the fake out of his way, causing him to fall onto the cot. Then he moved past, heading for the half-open door. Maybe he was strong enough that he could get out. If he could just find more clones, they could band together and attack.

He reached to push the door open the rest of the way. Electricity channeled into his body. His limbs and torso were on fire. He let go of the door, gasping as he stumbled back. Blue sparks leaped from his skin.

Portman smirked as she watched him from the room high above. He was alone in the cell, but the electricity had been real. And instead of being open, the door was actually shut. He was trapped, both physically and mentally. The drug she had given him was working.

"Let's see how you behave when the illusions don't stop," she mused. "How long will you be able to keep your sanity?"

Sephiroth shuddered in the cell, closing his eyes against the dizziness and pain. He seemed to be unaware of her presence. But from the way his upper wing was twitching, she had to wonder if subconsciously he knew.


Cloud could not help the yawn that tore free as he parked the Jeep in front of Sephiroth's childhood home. After the long drive back from the village, they had only gotten a couple hours of sleep before Zack insisted that they needed to go to Seph's house. Then they needed to get the gummi ship from the military base and start on their journey to Castle Oblivion. They could put it on auto-pilot and sleep for part of the way.

I wish I could put the car on auto-pilot, Cloud muttered to himself as he stumbled out the door.

"You look like you're asleep on your feet, pal!" Zack commented as he leaped out the other side.

"I am," Cloud mumbled.

But he tried to force himself to wake up more as he followed Zack up the cracked and broken walkway to the splitting porch. It had been a nice house, once upon a time, but the devastation from the Heartless attack had rendered it unlivable.

"How long did Sephiroth live here?" Cloud wondered as he pushed open the weakened door.

"Till shortly before the Heartless attack, I think," Zack said. "I'm not sure, actually. He didn't talk about it, and I've never been here before. He only told me about it a couple weeks ago, when I asked."

He looked around the once-homey living room, sadly shaking his head. The furniture was toppled and broken, laying in every direction. The inside walls were caving in, revealing the thin space between the walls. And the ceiling was sinking downward as if it was overly burdened and could no longer take the weight. "Wow . . . what a mess," he said.

Cloud eyed the ceiling with unease. "Is it even safe to be in here?" he wondered.

"Guess we'll find out," Zack said, his tone sobered. It was awful, to have one's home in this state. There was going to be the danger of the ceiling falling on them, or them falling through the floor. He sidestepped a spot that was definitely not safe, moving towards the hallway. "They'd probably keep stuff in an office or a bedroom," he mused.

Cloud followed, his wing twitching from his displeasure at the safety hazards. "Which do we check first?" he asked.

Zack pushed open the nearest door. Beyond it appeared to be the remnants of the master bedroom. And other than cracks in the walls and ceiling, it seemed to be in better condition than most of the rooms. He advanced inside, crossing to the closet.

Cloud decided to look under the bed. Getting down on his knees, he pulled out his flashlight and peered into the darkness. A dust bunny was all too happy to make his acquaintance. A sneeze exploded.

"Gesundheit!" Zack called, grabbing the box nearest to the front of the shelf. As soon as he lifted it away, his arms buckled from the sheer weight. "Yikes! What's in this thing?!" he gasped. Struggling to hold onto it while keeping his balance, he stumbled to the bed.

Cloud glanced up. "Bowling balls?" he suggested.

Zack undid the flaps and peered inside. "Photo albums!" he exclaimed. Carefully he lifted each one out, until there was a row all along the bed. Each one was marked with the number of years it covered. Zack flipped open the first one.

"Looks like it starts out showing Seph's parents," he commented. "Here they are at their wedding."

Cloud stood, coming over to look. "Well, I can see where Sephiroth got his stern personality from," he said, tapping the image of a serious man standing at attention in the line.

"Guy didn't know how to relax," Zack said, turning the page. "Oh, hey, he looks happy here," he amended. The picture depicted the man with his new wife, standing by their wedding cake.

"Yeah, I bet," Cloud snarked. "Now he doesn't have to hang around and greet people anymore."

Zack flipped through the rest of the album and then snapped it shut. "She should be getting pregnant with Seph pretty soon," he said, starting the second album. "Looks like each album covers a year or two."

But there were no such pictures. And then Zack started in surprise. The albums had been going chronologically, but the third one obviously had made a huge jump. It opened with pictures marked "Sephiroth, Age Two."

"No baby pictures?!" Zack exclaimed in disbelief. The lady had been very fond of taking pictures. It seemed bizarre that she would not have any from Seph's infancy, or during the time she was pregnant with him. But a quick scan of the book showed that Seph only got older in the pictures. The others were simply not there.

"Weird," Cloud frowned. "Maybe they got lost. It happens."

Zack turned back to the front of the album. "Aww, wasn't he a cute kid?" he smirked. "Look at those big wide eyes."

"Heh." Cloud studied the picture without further comment. "Maybe there's an explanation on the back of it?" he suggested.

Zack blinked. "Guess it's worth a try," he said, slipping it out of its pocket and turning it over. Faded blue ink greeted his eyes.

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "What the heck? All it says is, 'Our darling son sitting by the living room drapes. Those drapes are very special to me. I hope that they can remain up for as long as we live here. I've told them my secrets.'"

"She sounds even more sentimental than me!" Zack remarked. But then he frowned. "'. . . Secrets'?" Could it be a riddle? What if at least some of the answers they wanted really were here, perhaps concealed inside the hem of a drape?

Cloud seemed to have the same idea. He crossed to the hall, looking towards the living room. "They're not out there," he said.

Zack gave a thoughtful nod. "I just remembered!" he declared. "Seph said that he took some stuff and boxed them up, like the drapes. But that was during the year when nobody could see him and he didn't have anywhere to go, so he had to leave the box somewhere in the house."

"Here?" Cloud wondered, looking back to the closet. There were definitely other boxes around.

"Let's look!" Zack chirped. Hurrying back to the closet, he took out another box. "This one's pretty light," he commented. Balancing it with one arm, he pulled off the sealing tape before reaching inside and pulling out a toddler-size shirt.

"Well, we won't be needing that any time soon," Cloud snorted. "Is the whole box his old clothes?"

Zack peered inside. "Yep," he said. Setting it aside, he reached for another.

"This is more like it," he said as he pulled it open. What looked like folded drapes were on the top.

"Are those the same ones from the picture?" Cloud wondered.

Zack nodded, pulling it out. "Hey, they're not in too bad a condition," he said. "A little faded, but not irreparable!"

"Does it feel like anything's in the hems?" Cloud asked.

Zack felt along the thick bottom edge. "Nope," he said. "Guess we'll have to undo the whole thing. It can get sewed back up later." With that he began to pull at the hem. The thread snapped, beginning to unravel as Zack eased the cloth apart. But there was nothing hidden inside, not even a small scrap of paper.

Cloud let out an exasperated sigh. "I'll take the next one," he said.

As he followed suit in undoing the hem, a piece of paper floated to the floor. His eyes widened. He reached down, snapping it up. "It's addressed to Sephiroth," he said.

Zack's expression grew serious. "If he was just here to read it," he said, the sadness and worry creeping into his voice.

Cloud unfolded it, scanning over the neat handwriting. The color drained from his face. Was he really reading this? Was he understanding it right, or was it some kind of elaborate gag planted by someone who had gotten here first? It was definitely the same handwriting as on the picture. It had to be for real, and yet how could it be? This was a nightmare.

"What does it say?!" Zack gasped.

Cloud shook his head, passing the letter to Zack. The brunet took it in surprise, then stiffened.

My dear son,

It has meant so much to me to be able to call you "son" through the years. I have always felt that you are truly my own--mine and your father's. I know he would be so proud of you if he could see you now, becoming a powerful leader in the military just as he was. You have always done so much for both him and me. Our lives have been brighter because you were here.

I am so sorry we never told you what I am about to write. You know we would never want to keep anything from you. But we were both afraid--yes, even your father. There has been one man who came into our lives who has always been very capable of tearing down anything or anyone in his way. We were afraid he would take you from us. He threatened to many times, and he has proven through the years that he has been watching us all.

That man is Doctor Hojo. He is supposed to be a respectable scientist, but it is not true. He is beyond feeling the pains of whatever conscience he may have had. He cares only for his experiments.

Dear Sephiroth, I can barely stand to write this, but this man is your biological father. Your biological mother brought you to us when you were two years old. She gave her life to place you with people who would love and care for you as every child should be treated. We found you on our porch that night, crying in confusion for your mother. Whatever you saw and felt that night, it was so horrible that you later blocked the entire experience from your young mind. We thought it best not to remind you.

We were going to tell you that you were adopted when you were old enough to understand, but Doctor Hojo contacted us shortly after we were allowed to keep you. He told us that we could never tell you the truth. And he backed up his threats by having your uncle murdered. That fatal car crash was not an accident, even though we told you it was. And there have been other things he has done, whenever he believed that we were going to go against his wishes. Your father tried several times to bring an end to these horrors. The last time he tried, he himself was the victim. Doctor Hojo murdered him during that battle!

I was afraid that I would be next. I would not have cared about giving my own life, had I been able to stop him, but I could not bear the thought of leaving you all alone. If I had died without seeing him brought to justice, he would surely have taken you. And so I kept quiet.

Your father and I both agreed that you should know the truth when you came of age. I am afraid that Doctor Hojo will come for you sooner or later, and I long for you to be aware of the danger before that happens. You are seventeen now, and my health is failing. By the time you come back from your assignment, I may have already joined your father. So I am writing you this letter, which I will leave in a safe place. I will leave clues for you to be able to find it if you look.

I know this will all come as a horrible shock for you. You may be angry at us at first, for keeping the truth hidden. But please know that we only ever did for you what we felt best.

I love you with all my heart.

Mother

Zack gripped the paper in his hands, shaking from his outrage and anger. "Seph's father?!" he cried. "Hojo's his father?!"

"So that's it." Cloud's voice was cold. "That's why Hojo always focuses on Sephiroth."

Zack swallowed the lump in his throat. "I hate how it all makes sense," he said weakly. "The dreams Seph was having, Hojo being so interested in him . . ."

"Dreams?" Cloud frowned.

"He was remembering the night his biological mother ran off with him," Zack said. "I only know 'cause I heard him fall out of bed one night after having the dream. He didn't want to tell anyone because he thought it didn't mean anything."

"Too bad it did." Cloud looked to the doorway. "Let's get out of here. We should get started for Castle Oblivion before any more time goes by."

Zack nodded, folding the letter and placing it in the third photo album. Then he began packing the albums back into the box. "We're taking this with us," he said. "And that one with the bedding and drapes in it and stuff."

Cloud raised an eyebrow.

"No sense letting it waste!" Zack said. "Seph only left it because he didn't have anywhere to go. But now he does. These things'll be at home when Seph comes back with us." He hoisted the heavy box into his arms, heading for the door.

Grabbing up the other box, Cloud followed.