You had better run from me,
With everything you own.
Because I am gonna come for you,
With all that I have.

Tifa taught me how to play poker once. We were upstairs in my bedroom with the door closed. I was terrible at first, unable to bluff through a single hand.

But she was patient with me. Directing with light fingers and a steady gaze.

"The trick is to get inside their heads," she'd explained. "If you know what they want on the river, then you control the pace of the game – likewise, lead them down a trap. Force them to either call your bluff, or back down."

"But how do I make them not call my bluff every time?" I tried not to pout. I hadn't won all night.

"You punish them."

She revealed pocket aces and took the entire pot.

Hojo observes me with a look that makes the corner of my lip twitch. He stretches his lips for another smile.

"I'm listening, Ancient," he says.

"Aeris," I correct.

He smiles wider, and I can tell he's itching to make scribbles across his clipboard.

"Aeris," I almost regret that request, my name sounding so contrived on his lips. "What are your terms?"

I hop from the metal table, and try and cheat my height by straightening my posture. "You release my friends – safely – and I'll lead you to the promised lands. Simple as that."

"And how do I know that you're telling the truth? What can you guarantee me?"

"Do my kind lie?"

Hojo laughs. "Your mother did."

I actually flinch this time.

He continues, pacing around me and inspecting. "Your kind lie to serve those you love. Very curious." Where his eyes touch itches. "Perhaps you've been out of our protection for too long."

Protection? I bite back the anger, locking my jaw.

"There's a temple," I say. "I hear it…call to me. I can find it, I know I can." The words are stiff through my teeth.

Hojo snaps his fingers, the closest lab hand races over. He's a small man with light brown hair and a hooked nose. He addresses Hojo with a bow.


"Bring us specimens eight and thirteen."

"Right away."

I feel my stomach drop as the lab hand bustles away. I have to act fast.

"What things do you hear?" Hojo asks me, seating himself on the metal table to stare at me. He has his clipboard again.

I glance nervously towards Jenova's tank – cage – in the back corner. His eyes catch mine and he actually claps his hands.

"Oh yes, how very interesting. Tell me, Aeris, what does she whisper?"

The sudden mechanical roar of the elevator fills the lab. Hojo frowns before sitting back and turning an eye at the elevator. The large metal door splits open to reveal more Infantry grunts dragging their specimens.

The first is a bright, red, cat – or a loose variation of the word. It's a large animal whose nails are so long that it clicks as they direct it with a steal collar and pole combination. It gives a low, rumbling, growl as it sets a single, golden, eye on Hojo.

I feel the same way, kitty – oh my god, it's on fire.

I stumble back into the waiting hands of my armed escort, his hands gripping painfully on my arms. Hojo laughs. "Don't be alarmed," he says, the flame of the creature's tail reflecting off the lens of his glasses. "It's supposed to do that."

I'm so engrossed with the feline creature that I don't notice the other specimen until she's dropped, face first, in a cleared section of the lab.

Tifa. The grip around my arms tightens.

She's clean now, wearing a gown identical to mine, her wounds treated and dressed. The bruises along her jaw are darker against the fresh ivory of her pallor. My stomach turns again.

She turns on the tile, groaning.

"Let her go, Hojo – I can give you what you want," I begin frantically. "We can finish this in your lifetime, can you imagine? I can help you."

Hojo motions a hand to silence me and approaches Tifa's lying form slowly. One of her eyes slides open before snapping shut and contorting in pain.

"Do you know what a Limit Break is, Aeris?" He asks casually, leaning down to Tifa.

My face goes hot and my heart begins to pound. "No," I say. I feel my face contort into a scowl.

He rakes his fingers through Tifa's hair, clearing her face of the ebony strands. "Soldiers are exposed to a high level of Mako to bestow them with supernatural abilities no longer found in normal humans. It's part of what makes them so potent in their line of work."

He traces the line of her cheek.

"The Limit Break is a conditioned safety measure that our Weapons Department instilled. You see, we wouldn't want our secrets of these weapons getting out, so, in the event that one of our Soldiers was to be captured, they would trigger the Limit Break. It's a devastating adrenaline high, like a self-destruct, but such high exposure of that hormone is deadly."

I gasp. "You conditioned them to die? Your own men?" I think I'm going to be sick. The lab swings violently in my view as a wave of nausea strikes me.

"Precisely," Hojo tilts his head to look at Tifa. "So you can imagine our predicament, finding a Limit Break in a subject not treated in the project, and one that then failed the directive."

I drop to my knees suddenly, collapsing at the infantry man's worn boots. He doesn't attempt to right me, but gives me space as I clutch my head. The pain is bright, streaking my vision in white, as my head fills with noise.

Somewhere, something, is whispering behind my eyelids.

I make a small noise, collapsing to the cool tile as my body begins to heat up. It burns like fire and I gag on the sensation, trying to flatten myself to the cold floor. Vaguely, I think I feel a sandpaper tongue across my palm.

The voice whispers awful things above Hojo's voice. It hisses for my attention, tugging my conscious to the corner where I know it lays coiled and trapped and waiting – like a snake – to strike. It begs me not to change my mind, and again, I see the door, the outdated alloy wheel exposed.

"Very interesting," Hojo says above my cries. "It appears my theory was correct."

Please, it coos, easing my pain. There's a hard pressure behind my eyes. I can't see the wheel begin to turn, but I can hear the squeak of the metal as it loosens. The scrape of metal as it begins to spin faster, undoing the lock in a jeer of steam and compression.

Punish them, it tells me.

Above the echo in my skull I can hear yelling. Maybe an alarm.

"Aeris," a voice says, running a sandpaper tongue across my cheek. "Hang on."

I was promised cookies if I updated. Cheers to Aceina for the motivation. On a larger note, I'm going through my past works and cleaning them up, this includes Mona Lisa. It's shocking that this story is going on 5 years old and how utterly terrible it used to be. Feedback is appreciated and welcome. Thank you.