For a third time, Cloud's head cracked painfully against the van's window, snapping him back to attention. He reeled forward in the seat, an aggravated sigh dragging from his lips. He hadn't slept in two days, not to mention the countless nights of fitful sleep before then. Only typical that now, when something crucial was taking place, he struggled to keep his eyes open.
Beside him, Reno cursed vehemently, his own fatigue distracted by his reckless speeding and swearing outbursts. Cloud ignored him, only half listening when it helped to keep him focused. As it was, the blond didn't need anything else on his mind.
Tifa was gone.
The words raced through his head painfully, constantly reminding him of his failure to protect his friend. His words in the hospital hadn't done anything to help her, if nothing else; they probably encouraged her to go. How could he have been so stupid? He knew she wasn't thinking like herself, he knew her mind was probably overwhelmed with her own fears. And yet he continued to act the jackass!
Cloud groaned through his teeth. With that guilt pressing down on his shoulders, the blond had scoured every floor of the Shinra building, invaded every room he passed.
Not even a trace as to where she could have gone. He had wanted to return to Seventh Heaven, hoping Tifa may have made it home. But Rufus had already sent an escort to the house and there was still no sign of the girl. After another hour of searching, the President had lost all patience and ordered immediate dispatch to Junon; Cloud was no exception. The blond had just about had it with the man; wanting nothing more than to throttle him at the very sound of such an order. There was no compassion in the young leader; not when his ambitions were on the line.
Junon's gates shimmered ominously in the rain ahead of them, the town appearing more haunting than ever in the darker hours of the morning. Cloud's stomach clenched, dreading what was to come. With the military prepped with eager anticipation and Rufus's ever-present impatience, Cloud seemed to be the only one truly aware of 'who' they were facing. Despite the President's constant reassurances, this was not going to be a simple execution. Sephiroth would not just sit there and wait for the explosives to go off. He may not be physically mortal, but he was still the monster he was all those short years before, he was still lethal. And god hoping he hadn't already, Sephiroth would realize their intent. Sooner or later, he would discover the extent of Rufus's retaliation. And he would be waiting.
Cloud pushed the thought from his mind. He couldn't focus on his dread, knowing it threatened to overwhelm him at any moment. He needed to concentrate. Tifa may be gone, but she was intelligent. She could take care of herself. Yet she was so sick...
No, she knew how to look after herself. She was hiding somewhere safe, maybe with someone who could look after her. Perhaps she got in contact with Yuffie, or maybe even Cid; they would hide her, protect her.
Cloud brushed a hand roughly across his face. There was no point worrying over things he couldn't change, a fact Tifa would constantly have to remind him of. He tried to focus on his task at hand.
The van crunched and grinded across the wet sand, braking awkwardly on the loose terrain. Reno stared bitterly out at the murky beach, the bulk of its length crushed with Shinra operatives.
Inside the van, the two men shuffled uncomfortably, before mustering their resolve and jumping out into the driving rain. Without a word, Reno hastily made his way towards his post, leaving the blond to his own devices. Cloud didn't care, slightly gratified that the miserable weather had helped to waken him up. However the feeling didn't last as the water soaked immediately through his clothes, leaving the man freezing and weighed down. He gritted his teeth and began his search for Rufus, trudging irritably through the ranks of soldiers. All were silent and wore similarly dismal expressions.
The President wasn't hard to find.
At the far end of the beach, a helicopter, surrounded by officials, housed the young leader. He stared through the open door towards the docks, watching meticulously as his orders were carried out. He barely glanced at the blonde's approach.
Cloud jumped silently into the aircraft and waited, his gaze malicious as he stared at the President. When he thought he was being purposefully ignored the blond made an instant move to leave, but Rufus halted him with a sudden look and the man fell reluctantly back into his seat.
Cloud restrained his anger, distracted by the rivulets of water that streamed down his face. He stared dismally out toward Junon's docks then back to meet Rufus's stare. "Why did you want me here?"
Rufus smirked. "I just asked myself the same question." Cloud ignored the remark, his eyes steeling seriously. The young leader returned the stare, challenging the blond. "I would have thought by now you could realize not all my decisions need a definitive purpose. You should simply accept that you were ordered, and so you should follow."
Cloud sneered, ready to snap with the man's arrogance, but his retort was silenced with an abrupt wave of Rufus's hand. "However..." The President turned his gaze back out towards his soldier's then further beyond to the roaring sea. "We have reached a minor complication concerning our contact with the detonation squads."
Cloud's gaze hardened, his eyes questioning Rufus's interpretation of the setback. Was Sephiroth already making his move? Rufus saw the conclusion in the man's face and shock his head quickly. "As it stands, I doubt our enemy has played any part in this setback. To put it simply, out of the three teams of men sent in to place the bombs, only two have returned successful. The final team lost contact with us before we could determine whether the explosives had been positioned. Until that is confirmed, no further action can be taken."
"Further action being the official detonation." Cloud eyed the President coldly. "And would that come after confirmation of the men's safe return, or confirmation of the positioned explosives?"
Rufus simply smiled.
Cloud stiffened reflexively, then forced himself to relax. "I suppose you want me to go in after them."
"In a manner of speaking." Rufus's smile lifted the corner of his mouth, his eyes glinting dangerously. The blond had to look away in order to control himself. He stared for what seemed like a long, drawn out moment towards the docks, his eyes looking beyond the water's surface to the Junon Reactor beneath the waves. His heart shuddered at the very idea of returning to the mako-immersed structure. While there he would be trapped in an underwater prison, caging him in with the monster of his nightmares. Not only that, he would be working in Sephiroth's domain, he would be playing by his rules.
But despite his reasoning, his dread, Cloud was swamped by a continuous guilt. He needed to protect Tifa, his friends. He couldn't allow Sephiroth's tyranny to repeat itself. And the men still inside... Rufus had no compassion for their lives. He would see it as a necessary sacrifice for the cause, Cloud saw it as murder. Now he had the opportunity to reach the men before the President lost patience. He could set the explosives and retrieve the soldiers without any lives being lost. Then again, that was provided there were no unnecessary 'interruptions'. The reminder sent a cold shiver down his spine, but his resolve was set. He had to do this.
Without another word, Cloud rose from his seat, hoping to make a quick exit before Rufus could say anything more. His hope was short lived.
"Don't forget your priorities Cloud."
The blond had just jumped from the doorway, but he half turned, a scowl lacing his face. "I won't." Rufus accepted the words with a bemused smirk, his gaze unwavering as he watched Cloud disappear onto the docks.
It was suffocating. It seeped from the walls in luminous streams, choking the air in a green mist. And it was cold, too cold. The silence was maddening. Every footstep seemed amplified, every breath a hissing gush of air. But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Only one thought, one truth prevailed.
She had made it.
The relief was immense. Tifa dragged the helmet from her head, allowing it to drop heavily to the ground. She stared in fear and wonder at the room around her, every inch bathed in leaked mako. It both confirmed and yet added to many of her suspicions. But they could be thought about later.
For the moment, all Tifa needed was a rest. Her limbs ached, her head throbbed and the need to reach Sephiroth had only intensified with every step closer to Junon. But she was here at last; she could afford a quick break. After all the stress of her journey, after all the doubt and fear, the girl's nerves were almost at breaking point.
The disguise had worked. Numerous moments had threatened failure, sent panic screaming through her head like a siren. But she had gotten out of Shinra.
And then, the real challenge had begun.
Tifa crept along the building's outer wall, slowly emerging from its shadow into a large concreted plateau. She cursed under her breath, her face blanching at the sight before her. Military vehicles filled the vast space, parked at regular intervals, while a brick compound enclosed the area from any obvious escape. The building's windows were lit and flickered with constant movement, causing Tifa's body to stiffen. Were these Rufus's men? Had she wandered into a base camp?
Voices sounded to her left and she dived back into the shadows, watching nervously as four soldiers appeared from a nearby doorway. She held her breath.
The men moved to one of the vans and opened the rear doors, bickering impatiently as one hopped into the back and began shouting listlessly. Tifa strained to hear him, ideas popping into her head as she thought. Was this part of the teams heading to Junon?
There was an abrupt scuffle and the girl looked up quickly. The soldier had hopped out of the van and was leading the others away, pointing and arguing continuously until he and his men disappeared into the compound. Tifa looked back to the van. He had left a door open.
An idea began to emerge.
Before she could fully decide, her feet had begun to move, a plan already taking form. Still in uniform, the young girl crept as silently as she could between the vehicles, slowly creeping closer to her target. Her thoughts clicked together rapidly, mechanically working conclusions into place.
This could be her ticket into Junon.
If these were Shinra's selected troops, then that meant she had an opportunity. Then again, infiltrating the military wouldn't be easy, and what if they weren't destined for Junon? Surely such a squadron would have left by now? But while in the basement, Tifa had heard the soldiers say the detonation was delayed, at her expense no less. So it was still possible that they hadn't been dispatched. Then again, Tifa couldn't know for certain.
She neared the van slowly, cautiously checking to make sure the soldiers hadn't suddenly returned. Seeing no one, the girl made a quick dash for the back door, her speed belying her aching limbs. In its shadow, Tifa felt secure and took her time to quickly assess the situation. She leaned into the darkness, glimpsing the brief silhouettes of stored military arms and weaponry. There would be no room for a large squad of men, which meant it would carry nothing more than stored utility...and perhaps one slender woman.
A door slammed and raised voices sounded abruptly from beyond her line of sight. They were coming back. Panic erupted in Tifa and without another thought; the young girl clambered into the van, just barely scrambling behind a rack of firearms before a soldier reached the door. He was carrying a large rifle.
"-told you to check. You're fucking useless! It's my ass on the line if we're marked with one short!"
Tifa froze, waiting for him to jump into the back. If he took even two steps in, he would see her. She eyed the guns to her right, wondering if she would need to act quickly. Her hand began to move unconsciously forward, her fingers just brushing the cold metal. But before she could act, the decision was needless. Angry and frustrated, the soldier barely reached in and dropped the rifle down on the van's base, before slamming the door heavily behind him.
Tifa felt the air rush back into her lungs, a grateful sigh seeping from her throat. But the relief quickly turned to fear as she cursed her new predicament. She had been hasty. She had no idea where this van was headed, if it was headed anywhere for that matter. Once again she had leapt at the first chance she could and now... Now what? Tifa was trapped. She couldn't get out. She couldn't turn to anyone for help. She could only sit, and wait.
For what seemed like an age, passed in only thirty minutes before any movement was made outside. Tifa squirmed and pushed herself deeper into her corner as the sounds of marching boots and roaring engines came to life around her. The van rocked and shuddered as someone jumped into its front seat, slamming the door heavily in their wake. The vehicles began to roar in the compound, headlights blazing and engines breaking the silence she had become accustomed to. A dim glow illuminated the area around her and for the first time, Tifa noticed a small, sliding window just above her head, fitted in the wall between herself and the driver. She wanted to crane her neck and look out, but fear held her at bay. She wasn't going to ruin it now, not when she'd already come this far. Not when she was so close.
Nerves curdled her stomach, but anticipation began to grow. Tifa leaned back and resided into her own mind, contemplating what her next move would be when she reached the port.
That was, if she was destined for Junon at all.
The wheels screeched, the air hummed and suddenly Tifa was staring fearfully around her, listening to the sounds of men and women disembarking from their vehicles. Rain thrummed heavily against the roof, drowning out conversations, making it hard for the girl to find her bearings. But louder than that, distant, faint but unmistakeable, Tifa could hear the sound of crashing waves.
She had made it.
For a moment the girl doubted, not daring to believe it had been so easy. As the voices around her began to shift, Tifa forced herself to her feet and slowly lifted her eyes to the corner of the small window. Headlights stung her vision, initially forcing her to crouch back down. But as she adjusted, the girl slowly began to ease her gaze back up, and managed to glimpse a small portion of her surroundings. From her limited view, Tifa could only focus on a tiny amount, but it was enough for her memory to recall the sight of Junon's small, seafront town. Or at least, what was left of it.
A shadow flickered suddenly through the beams of light and Tifa dropped to her knees. Voices approached and her heart became wedged in her throat. Her relief came to a crashing end as the door rattled, her body stiffening fiercely against the wall. What now? Could she hide amongst the artillery, or maybe make a blind dash the minute the doors swung open? Tifa cursed through her clenched teeth, furious at herself for not thinking this through.
And then there was mumbling. A shout! The door stopped rattling and suddenly footsteps were receding away from her, leaving her dazed and confused. She didn't know what had happened, or what had been said for that matter, but whatever it was, the instant alleviation was immense and the girl slumped, drained, back into the corner.
It took a number of minutes before Tifa finally managed to focus herself enough to make a plan. She needed an escape. And there was only one way out.
Tifa looked disdainfully up at the small window above her, doubting she'd ever get her head and arms through never mind her hips. But considering her situation, the girl had little choice in the matter. Craning her neck to see through the gap, Tifa waited patiently, listening to make sure no one was around. When she was certain all was clear, the young woman reached up and forced the glass to one side. The motion was stiff, and it alone brought cramping into the muscles of her arms. She had to ignore it, gritting her teeth as she slipped her hands through the gap, and jumped.
She managed to lock her elbows behind the wall and she struggled to keep a hold as her legs kicked and scrambled higher. The girl's shoulders pinched uncomfortably, just about fitting through the window and everything slipped through easily after that. She fell in a heap, the hope for a soft landing lost as her back thudded against something hard and misshapen against the seat's flat surface. A groan seeped from her lips and she rolled away to inspect the damage. A round, black helmet was propped on the passenger's seat beneath her and she knocked it away irritably.
Suddenly very aware of the surrounding windows, Tifa sprawled onto her belly, nervously lifting her head to glimpse the town outside. Through the rain and the dark, Tifa vaguely made out the moving shapes of men, but they were distant and growing smaller as they descended onto the beach.
She breathed a sigh of relief, yet the feeling was minimal as the girl realized she would inevitably have to follow them down if she was to get anywhere near the reactor.
Tifa's eyes flickered unconsciously to the helmet she had so graciously knocked to the floor. If she was to get even half way down to the beach, then wearing some extra headgear may come in helpful. Chances were, most of the military's soldiers wouldn't recognise her on sight anyway. But the majority of Shinra's official operatives could spot her face a mile off, and that's when the problems would start.
If she could at least sneak in amongst the younger troops, perhaps she could get a chance to break away once she neared the docks. But how would she get into the reactor itself?
The thought put an instant shroud of doubt in her mind. But she couldn't listen to it, she had to keep going. Look how far she'd come already! That alone had seemed impossible but now she was here, now she was just mere metres from her destination, she could physically see it. Luck alone hadn't got her into Junon. If she hadn't been intended to come here, then she would have been caught long before. This was right, Tifa needed to be here, she was meant to be.
With that fuelling her determination, Tifa snatched up the helmet and jumped out into the rain.
The girl swayed from the wall back onto her feet, rocking tentatively as she tried to balance. Her body seemed to be working mechanically now, pain thrumming along her limbs to the point she was hardly aware of it anymore. Tifa forced her legs on, needing to stay focused.
Her eyes began to adjust to the shimmering haze around her, its icy touch becoming almost comforting, enfolding the girl's slender form. She felt warmer, supported as the mako wrapped and veiled her body. Her stomach knotted at the idea of what she had done to get here. After getting out of Shinra, the stolen lift into Junon itself, she had thought the worst of it past. But when she had reached the shore, the sight of hundreds of military officials had sent her confidence sprawling.
After a long time of doubt and decision-making, Tifa finally managed to build up her courage and infiltrate the troops. It had been surprisingly easy.
With the men so fixated on the work around them, no one had noticed the rather under-equipped, overly-dressed young 'officer' subtly making her way along the edges of their ranks. Tifa couldn't believe her luck. But it was just as she managed to get in range of the docks when a voice halted her approach. She recognized it vaguely, alarm bells beginning to ring. She glanced up quickly to see a man in Turk uniform moving in her direction. Tifa froze, instinctively shuffling into the body of soldiers closest to her, only to curse angrily as she realized they had been the source of his attention. The man stopped before them, casting a calculating eye over the small troop while barking commands into a subtle earpiece.
Tifa couldn't hear what he was saying, too nervous to even think straight. She recalled the Turk's face, becoming suddenly aware of how threatened her position could be. Tseng was efficient, meticulous in his work, and he would recognise her instantly.
Tifa kept her head down, begging he would pass her by. She didn't move out of place, didn't note the unusually small number of men for a military troop, the particular kits the soldiers around her carried. She just kept her head down, and followed as ordered.
For a moment, Tseng's keen gaze settled over her and Tifa felt a chill go down her spine. But then he looked on, unconcerned and Tifa couldn't help but smile in gratitude. Then she noticed where she was...and the smile widened.
Standing there now, Tifa still couldn't believe her fortune. Without realising, she had managed to sneak in amongst one of the detonation squads boarding a submarine into the reactor. It still felt too surreal. How could she not have been noticed? Despite her own gratitude, the girl couldn't help but smile and criticise Rufus's security. Was he so enthralled in disposing of one threat that he didn't think to worry about someone infiltrating from the outside?
Although, the more she thought about it, the more sense the man's ignorance did seem. After all, who would knowingly want to sneak into a wired building, not to mention risk confronting the most renowned enemy the planet had ever known.
Tifa could only smile.
She moved on, her feet slowly taking her over flight after flight of stairs. A cool sweat began to shimmer across her skin, betraying the effort it was taking for the girl to continue. The uniform was beginning to weigh her down and her body seemed to blaze with sudden heat. Yet the air was cool, and her fitness shouldn't have been strained to climb these steps.
She was sick, and she was getting worse.
Despite her better judgement, Tifa shrugged the uniform off, leaving her standing in the thin medical gown she had adorned in Shinra. The cold relief eased some of the pain in her muscles, soothing her fever. But now she had to keep moving. If she didn't, Tifa knew she wouldn't have the strength to go on. A handheld intercom she had lifted from the detonation squad suddenly 'buzzed' in her hand. She jumped, forgetting she was still carrying the thing. Unsure as to the consequences she may face carrying the device, Tifa moved to the railing of the stairway and dropped it over the ledge, watching it clack and crash noisily in its descent.
The girl turned away and pressed on. The thrum of the black materia kept her feet going forward, kept her determination strong. And it guided her. The reactor was huge; a maze of stairways and tunnels, but with each step forward, Tifa could sense his nearness. She could feel Sephiroth getting closer, could tell she was on the right path. She put her trust in the materia's guidance, and followed where it led.
Cloud felt the nausea hit him like a brick wall. The submarine's door swung open, sucking in the mako like a vacuum. He forced himself to overcome it, stepping quickly out onto the docking platform before he lost his nerve. There was no escort to greet him this time, only the luminescent miasma and the foreboding corridors beyond.
His fingers unconsciously slid to the solid security of his buster sword, its weight a comforting burden along his shoulders. Steeling his resolve, Cloud moved forward, hoping his stay in the reactor would be brief and undaunted. The men he needed to find couldn't be far, in fact out of the three troops, this one should have been the closest to the docks. A fact that made their lack of contact all the more worrying. Cloud just hoped it was from a technical default rather than any unprecedented causes.
The blond cringed as he reached the second floor, fearful as he neared the next staircase. The men should be just above him now. But still, Cloud heard nothing. He began to jog, his feet light and quiet as he moved along the railings. Every step brought him closer to dread, every second of silence fuelling his unease. He leapt swiftly up the final few steps and began to slow, turning down the last corridor before his destination. His heart began to stammer, doubt pushing at his thoughts. What if they'd been ambushed? Or maybe they were lost in this maze of stairs and hallways. Cloud didn't know which conclusion he preferred. But then he heard it. A dim, low mumbling. A muffled cough. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief. He moved cautiously but easily toward the sound, hope restoring his nerve. The blond turned down a side passage... and abruptly ducked.
Cloud barely managed to dodge the blow, leaping back in shock as the crowbar flew over his head. He stumbled clear, an angry scowl lacing his face as the look of confusion and embarrassment registered on a young soldier's expression. Two more appeared behind him, their own faces registering surprise and relief. Another man sat quietly against the wall, his head in his hand.
Cloud didn't know how to react.
He straightened himself as one moved forward, apologising emphatically as he neared. "We thought you-...it's just we-..."
"Are you Team Three?"
The men all nodded eagerly, but a look of doubt was hinted in their expressions and Cloud felt his unease begin to return. "What's happened? Where's the explosives?"
A soldier at the back turned behind him and pointed nervously to a large metal container. The top was removed and wires of different colours protruded awkwardly from inside. Just from looking, Cloud could already tell the device was not ready for detonation. "What's going on?"
"We've had some...problems."
"I can see that." Cloud looked pointedly to the man who had yet to move from his seat on the floor. "What happened to him?"
"He was attacked!"
Cloud went pale, and stared nervously at the speaker. "When? By who?"
"Well..." The man looked shame faced. "By one of our own!"
The blond didn't know whether to be relieved or confused. He looked accusingly toward each man in turn before the soldier continued to explain. "He's not here anymore. He ran off after knocking him out and damaging the circuits."
"And you just stood there and let him get away with it?"
"No! Well...we didn't realise until it was too late and by then..."
"And you didn't think to ring in with your commander and let them know-"
"We've lost our intercom. We think he took it with him."
Cloud's face went from stunned to angry. "So you just sat here? You didn't think to go after him at all?" For a moment the man felt exasperated, then he realized what' going after him' implied to these men. The chances of survival in this hell hole were slim, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized how the option of sitting and waiting to be found, or going out and searching for help weighed up against each other. Not to mention one man was injured and probably needed medical attention. Cloud pitied them, wondering if they realized just how little Rufus thought of their efforts. But then something began to click in the blonde's mind. Why had the soldier attacked his own men in a place like this? He scanned the soldier's again, confusion beginning to well up. "Was there a motive?"
The men looked up at the question. "What-"
"Did you do something to provoke him?"
"Uh...no. No, it just happened when we least expected it. We thought he was preparing the explosives but by the time we realized what he'd done he'd broken away." The soldier looked pointedly down at the injured man. "We tried to stop him but..."
"Did he seem like someone who would break rank like that?"
Abruptly all of the men's faces became sullen. "Actually, none of us recognized him. We thought he'd been sent from another squad as extra backup and we were...well, we were that relieved we never questioned it."
Cloud looked at the man in disbelief, before suddenly remembering Rufus's information. The President had said there were four men in every team. Cloud had come in looking for four.
Four now stood before him.
So the fifth man should not be in the reactor at all. The realization sent questions and fears flooding through him. Who was this fifth person? The other two teams that had returned to the surface had been counted and checked with their correct numbers, so it couldn't be a straggler. But who was mad enough to willingly come into the reactor without an order? Maybe someone trying to make a name for themselves in the army? Then why did they attack their own men?
Cloud looked up abruptly. The soldier was crouched back over the explosives, his hands uselessly trying to piece the broken circuit together. The blond felt a wave of sympathy go out for the men. They weren't even professionals. They were nothing more than low ranking cadets, eager to make a name for themselves. No surprise Rufus cared so little for their lives.
The thought sparked flames of hate and defiance in the man, and without a word, he moved swiftly towards the soldier. He silently pushed him out of the way and inspected the damage, noting the hasty way the wires had been pulled out. Nothing that couldn't be fixed. If there was one thing he learnt from Barrett Wallace, it was how to handle explosives.
He couldn't help but feel the irony. Just a few years earlier, Cloud would have been setting the bomb for Shinra's destruction, now he set it on Shinra's orders. It was a twisted humour, and the man pushed it aside, needing to concentrate, yet all the while overwhelmed with unease concerning the elusive fifth soldier.
Cloud let the injured man slide from his back into a seat, then stepped quickly out through the door as the submarine readied to depart. The soldiers inside wore expressions of relief and gratitude as they exited the reactor, leaving the blond standing along once more in the docking bay, only this time, the nerves in his stomach had rolled to all new heights.
With the explosives set and the team safely on their way back to the surface, Cloud finally turned to the fear that had stalked him since he arrived. He needed to find the missing soldier.
Honestly, he would have rather left with the squad, to just return to Rufus and let him detonate the reactor with Sephiroth and the rogue still inside. It would take care of all his problems...except for the feeling...
Something held him at bay, a sense that not everything was as simple as it appeared. Cloud couldn't accept that an ordinary soldier would flee into the Junon reactor, knowing who lay inside. There had to be more to it.
Feeling sicker with every passing minute, Cloud turned on his heel and quickly walked back into the maze of tunnels.
Something throbbed in her chest, pulling like a lead weight against her body. Tifa had to stop, terrified she was about to collapse at any minute. She couldn't tell whether it was fatigue or the black materia anymore, all she knew was that it was draining her strength, and she was at the end of her tether. But if it was the materia, then it meant she was close, maybe just around a corner.
Tifa gritted her teeth and moved on.
By now she had managed to trail herself to the deepest level of the reactor. The mako grew thicker with every step, almost suffocating yet it seemed to relieve the girl as she passed through. Perhaps it fed the materia inside her, or maybe the cooling touch helped keep her fever at bay, truthfully she didn't care, too focused on keeping her legs moving than asking why. Her bare feet slipped across the floor's icy surface, sweat beading rapidly against her skin.
Tifa shuddered, a sudden, strange sense shivering through her body. She was nearly there now, she could feel it, could almost hear the materia screaming for its reunion. She pushed her body from the supporting wall and moved as quickly as she could to the end of the corridor. Amidst the swirling miasma and darkening shadows, the girl didn't see the reinforced doorway until she was practically on top of it. Her hand brushed its surface and electricity seemed to spark up her arm.
He had to be here.
Urgently, Tifa gripped the metal handle and heaved her weight against it. The iron creaked and grinded heavily, slowly allowing the girl to enter the room. As she moved in, the door swung shut behind her, closing her in darkness. But it wasn't dark, not naturally. The room seemed alive with luminescence, wisps of green curling in the air before her, unsettled at her approach. A deep pit set within the far wall seeped clouds of mako from its depths. The sight caused tremors of fear in Tifa's memories, the room all too similar to her long remembered past in Nibelheim.
But she ignored the thought, her wine-red eyes absorbing the space around her; searching, pleading.
She continued to stare, refusing to believe her eyes; too certain she had been right in her instincts. But the longer she hoped, the more shockingly painful the realization.
It was more than a mere blow; the resulting distress almost overwhelmed the girl. She had risked everything to get here, gambled on a hope and gut instinct. Only to find her logic torn in an instant; Sephiroth was not here.
What now? She was trapped, alone and exhausted in a wired reactor. For a moment she dared to hold on, dared to deny reality and her voice instinctively called out his name. There was no response, not even an echo.
She hadn't the strength to go further. Tifa's legs quaked, she couldn't do anymore and no one would find her in time. The sudden consequences of her actions, the result of the thoughtless risks and gambles she had taken to get here, all now crashed down around her.
Tifa was going to die here.
The girl felt numb. No one knew she was here and the Team's stolen intercom had been thrown down with her uniform. There was nothing she could do, nothing anyone could do to help her. And yet...Tifa felt monotonous to the truth. For a moment, she couldn't accept how wrong she had been. She was so sure, the materia had brought her here. Or maybe she'd followed what she'd wanted to believe. Maybe she had deluded herself the entire time.
Her body walked mechanically into the room, taking her to the furthest wall. She leaned heavily against its surface, needing the support, her mind spinning uncontrollably. She turned her gaze to the left, her feet continuing to move, shuffling close to the edge of the pit of mako. A petition of glass had once been set between the room and the drop beyond. Now its remains were shattered, ragged shards and an iron railing all that remained to prevent any possible 'accident's.
The light called to her.
Tifa leaned up against the rail, staring emotionlessly down into the depths, feeling a painful emptiness well up inside. Thick clouds of vapour poured up from its bottomless pit, brushing her face almost tenderly, soothing. The touch curled around her body, enveloping her in a green mist as she leaned further over the bar. The metal creaked threateningly and she rocked back onto her heels. But a question remained.
Would it be so bad to just...?
If this was her end, would it matter if she simply let go of the rail? Her eyes shimmered thoughtfully, reflecting the curling vapours that drifted up. Once again she leaned down, contemplating such a fall. It looked so calm, so inviting. It mesmerised her. A pleasant death.
Mako billowed around her face, as if realizing her temptation, welcoming her further. She felt her support tilt, straining heavily as she leaned further, mesmerised. The girl didn't feel the sudden jolt, the resounding crack as the rusted metal snapped beneath her weight, gravity pulling her down. She didn't react as she fell.
But then Tifa knew pain. The girl reeled as her entire body buckled around her waist, thrashed defiantly as the mist suddenly began to recede, her body lifted urgently backwards from the shimmering abyss. She couldn't bear anymore of her reality; she wanted to fall, to leave this world as she so chose. She struggled to return to the depths.
But the grip was relentless, firm and unphased as it brought her back from the pit's edge. Still lost in her own mind, Tifa continued to resist, her remaining strength forced into her need to get away. She pulled and twisted futilely, not conscious of what was truly happening. She didn't see the arm locked around her waist, couldn't feel the heat of a body pressing against her own.
Tifa screamed in frustration and her knees buckled to the floor. "Let...me...go." She choked the words out, still not aware of the world beyond what she craved in the mako's embrace. The girl was abruptly released. But despite the freedom, Tifa could no longer move. She stared helplessly to the drop a mere metre away, and yet could not find the strength to reach it anymore. But the exertion she had used had helped to untangle her mind, cleared away the desire to fall, the rash thoughts. Now she could think, now she could remember; now she knew.
Tifa began to tremble, her doubt flooding her with fear. She didn't want any more disappointment; she couldn't withstand another moment of dismay. She bit back the tears, and choked out her final hope. "...are you really here?"
The single second of silence pushed Tifa into convulsions, until Sephiroth's arms abruptly scooped her up from the floor and the withheld sobs broke from her throat. She was barely within his hold when the girl swung her body into him, her slight frame quaking violently as she clung to his chest, her pale face pressed fiercely into the crook of his neck.
Emotion overwhelmed her; fear, relief, dread, elation, each one more potent than the last. But more than all of them combined, Tifa had her hope. Weak as she was, the girl's arms hugged him in a vice like grip, holding him to her, needing the continuous touch, the reassurance that he was her reality. She would not let go.
The room moved around her, the cool breeze of air, the steady beat of Sephiroth's footsteps as he carried her in his arms. She felt him slow, her gaze momentarily flicking up as he brought her to the main computer, its monitor raised on a high platform. Nerves rolled in her stomach, trepidation beginning to rise as he lowered her to the ground. She clung tighter to him, not wanting to lose the contact. But he seated her on the top step of the platform's stairs, her reluctant arms gently but firmly removed from around his shoulders.
Tifa waited, watching in confusion as he moved away, slowly bringing her under his calculating gaze. She stared at the floor, feeling suddenly insecure, vulnerable in her state of weakness. The minutes began to pass, the silence only helping to tear throw the girl's thoughts. Why hadn't he said anything? Wasn't he pleased to see her? Relieved or worried that he had found her in time? Or maybe angry that she had tried to fall?
Again Tifa felt sick, nauseous to the unpredictable moment. She wanted to know what he was thinking, wanted to know how he saw the situation. She needed to know if she had done the right thing, to feel like everything was going to be okay. He needed to speak to her, to reassure and comfort.
Tifa's emotions finally began to settle, her breathing slowing, calming instantly the moment she felt his arms around her. She forced down the nerves, building up the courage she needed to meet his gaze. The girl looked up, the words she needed sitting ready on her lips. But when she met his eyes, the sentence seemed to dissipate instantly. Her mouth opened but no sound emerged, her focus stolen by the void that encompassed his gaze. It wasn't cold or angry, just empty, emotionless.
A cold shiver spiralled down her spine, her thoughts unsure how to take it. He locked her in the stare for a few moments longer, then his own mouth parted and the words caused the girl to physically flinch.
"Why are you here, Tifa?"
Nothing. No worry or anger, just an empty question. It left the girl feeling faint. What was happening? Was he being like this for a reason? Had she been wrong to come here? Was she reading into his expression too much? Her gaze fell from his, fearful he would see too much of her raw emotion. "...I...I wanted...to..."
Sephiroth watched her struggle for the words. His expression remained stoic, calculating, but his own thoughts raged with personal turmoil. His mind flared with anger, his awareness of what her unexpected arrival could jeopardise. But he needed to control his actions, to restrain his initial urge to scream at the girl. He had to hold her trust, control her need. Tifa had to be kept safe.
A setback could be fixed.
Unaware to the truth of his thoughts, Tifa still stuttered beneath him, her own mind concluding that he must be furious she had tried to end her own life. She struggled to calm herself, trying to give him the reasons she originally had come to Junon. "I came because...Shinra are going to...they want to..." Tifa couldn't finish. She struggled between what she wanted to say and what she needed to say. She wanted to tell him everything, from her sudden illness to the black materia up to Shinra's plans to destroy the reactor. Her voice cracked and trembled, her mind beginning to overload. But she refused to cry, she couldn't cry. Not anymore, she had to be strong. But her body quaked visibly and her skin was pale and soaked in sweat.
Sephiroth looked down upon her, reminding himself of the course he had taken. She looked so fragile, practically broken. Yet he couldn't deny he was impressed. Getting into Junon would have been no easy task. She had determination, and the girl had withheld much of her strength until now; a trait he had specifically chosen her for. But he had not foreseen such a feat. She couldn't be here now. She was sick, a thought that did not sit well with his design. Particularly not when the reactor's detonation was due to commence.
His thoughts worked fiercely, calculating each turn to precision. He was still in control. He knew how to work this through; her strings were still between his fingers.
Tifa flinched reflexively as a hand touched her face. She was hesitant, unsure how to react. Then her own fingers entwined around Sephiroth's and she subconsciously breathed a sigh of relief. The man crouched down to her level, his arms complying as she fitted herself into his chest. Sephiroth brought the strings to bear.
"You should not have come here Tifa."
In the security of his arms, the girl felt her courage renewed and once more found her voice. "I needed to find you...I had to warn you-"
"I know all about Shinra's plans. Did you really think that boy could hide his intentions from me?"
There was a touch of insult to Sephiroth's words leaving the girl feeling naive and relieved she was no longer under his gaze. But then her fear set in. If he knew about the detonation, then why was he still here, why hadn't he attempted to leave or fight back? Her fingers curled possessively through his thick hair, terrified of asking the question should she receive an answer she couldn't accept. Sephiroth predicted the girl's thoughts easily and silenced her worry before she could dwell on it further. "I am limited as a corporeal form, Tifa. You should know that better than most. I exist only as the mako permits it." Tifa suddenly pulled away to stare up at him, her head shaking in denial. Her eyes were wide as she assumed the worst of his words.
"You can't go. You should fight; you've held them back before. If they demolish the reactor then-"
"The reactor does not ensure my existence. It may be destroyed, but there are numerous sources of mako in this world, many of which that fool does not know of." The man stressed his words carefully, giving the girl the reassurance of his return.
For a long time, Tifa sat, digesting the information. If what he said was true, then that meant he would always come back to her, whether Shinra's plans proceeded or not. A weak smile lifted her pale lips and she leaned back into his embrace. Arms enveloped her form, pulling her over onto his lap as he seated himself on the stairs. Tifa curled into him, her thoughts dwindling as he dissolved her fears. In his embrace, the girl suddenly felt her body surrender to the exhaustion she had withheld for so long. She swooned, her muscles feeling heavier in the warmth of his hold. Finally she felt able to close her eyes. She was safe now, secure. Everything would be alright.
Sephiroth restrained his smile of satisfaction. His fingers stroked tenderly down her hair, lulling her into a deep sleep. She mumbled quietly to him as her head began to fall, her breathing slowing, deepening as the day's strain took its toll.
He searched her pale face, contemplating where he would go from here. This time a smile did lift the corner of his mouth; Sephiroth didn't need to go anywhere. The answer to that was already making its way through the reactor, slowly but surely coming through to play out 'his' given role. He smirked, amused at the sheer naivety of his chosen pawn.
Had Cloud really been so ignorant?
The mere instant the blond had set foot in the reactor, Sephiroth had tracked his presence. It was like leading a lost lamb to the slaughter.
But Tifa didn't know. Wasn't even aware that the man was in Junon, never mind within the very reactor. And Cloud...he would crumble when he realized the truth. Pitiful, worthless, yet to give him the satisfaction of death could become detrimental to possible downfalls yet to come. The blond could prove useful for future ideals, perhaps even become the perfect...excuse... He would have to make sure he survived. He would protect the girl, and in doing so, blindly aid the cause he so desperately fought to prevent.
Sephiroth glanced down, speculative as he brushed the hair from Tifa's cheek. She was so innocent to his ideals, so deliciously manipulable. Such a pleasure to control.
She was the key to his plans; she needed to survive.
The smile on his lips lifted as he considered the information he had given her. He hadn't lied to the girl. His existence was tied to the mako and with it he could remain. But what he hadn't told her was that a means was required to bring him back. He had given her a titbit of hope, the knowledge that he would return. But his means to do so had only just begun. He needed to wait.
Sephiroth's hand lowered down the sleeping girl's body, sliding lightly, almost tenderly along her skin. His palm spanned her belly, firm fingers stroking, searching her lower abdomen.
A knowing smile shifted his features, a glint sparking dangerously in his gaze. Soon, she too would know the 'means'.
Hope was not the only seed he had entrusted to her.
The hallways grew narrower with every turn, each step bringing Cloud further into thicker, shrouding miasma. It was becoming claustrophobic, dragging nausea and painful memories from the pit of his stomach. But with each step forward, Cloud felt an unsettling unease, the foreboding that he had dreaded since entering the reactor. He knew who he would find at the end of this tunnel, the man, the monster who would be waiting so patiently for his arrival. But what he didn't know was who had run to his aid. Whether it was willing or not was another matter, but the rogue had still run into Sephiroth's grasp. There was nothing else in the underwater reactor but him.
And Cloud knew there was more to it.
Reaching the final bend, Cloud steeled his resolve and began to approach the large, reinforced door that led to the main control room. This was all that was left; there could be nowhere else to run. As he came within reach, the man hesitated, his hand brushing tentatively across the entrance's surface while the other gripped the shaft of his buster sword. He held his breath, listening.
Cloud's sword swung from his back, bringing the weapon to bear as his boot simultaneously kicked through the door. It swung wide, opening the room visibly to the man as he moved in. By now his enemy would be fully expectant of his arrival, so trying to sneak a subtle entrance seemed pointless. But Cloud did not expect the same lack of subtlety to be given from the man now sitting before him.
Against the furthest wall, Sephiroth was reclined on the final step to the main computer, his cold gaze penetrating, expectant as the blond erupted into the room. The sight of the monster alone was enough to knock Cloud back. Knowing Sephiroth had returned and seeing the man in person suddenly proved to be two very different realities for the blond. But the setback was short-lived, evaporating quickly as Cloud remembered the strength he would need to face the nightmare of his past. He began to approach, slow, tentative. Questioning.
But then he saw it...
Within the green haze, Cloud vaguely made out the shape now draped across Sephiroth's lap. It set his thoughts back, his mind recognizing the form to be human. Was it the soldier? Eyes never leaving his enemy, Cloud began to edge further into the room, confusion and dread beginning to well up as his opponent continued to remain silent, unmoving. Taking another chance, Cloud let his eyes flicker back to the body. He still couldn't make it out and his attention was too strained upon Sephiroth to focus on anything else. He reached the halfway mark, his gut instinct screaming that something was wrong.
"Does it surprise you?"
The blond physically jerked at the sudden voice but he hid it well. He stared hatefully up at the man before him, not knowing how to react. Nothing about Sephiroth surprised him anymore. He refused to respond, not wanting to give his antagonist the satisfaction. He took another step forward, thinning the shrouding mako from his gaze. Sephiroth's face became all too clear now, his eyes colder and more spiteful than he remembered. Once again, Cloud cast a nervous glance down at the body. He still couldn't make them out, but the stillness of their shape, the way their form was inclined... Whether their aid had been willing or not, it seemed Sephiroth had quickly lost his need for the poor bastard. But if they were dead, why would Sephiroth still hold them in such a way? In fact, why would he hold them at all?
Suddenly, Cloud's sense of dread heightened sickeningly. There was more to this, something he hadn't realized. Something he didn't want to realize. Sephiroth's hold was already closing in around him.
Suddenly the blond couldn't tear his eyes away from the prone shape, desperately trying to figure out the means to the trap he was about to fall into.
Sephiroth watched with growing amusement, his eyes glinting like a predator closing in for the kill. The blonde's guard was shaken, his weapon lowering as he began to realize something had gone seriously amiss. Sephiroth smirked; it was time to cut the strings.
"You still haven't answered my question!"
Cloud's eyes flared, his words spitting venom. "I would be a fool to say I'm surprised. I've learnt you can never be fully rid of a parasite."
Sephiroth's eyes flickered dangerously, his tone breaking into a threat. "I could say the same." Then an unsettling smile lifted his features. "But you've misunderstood my intent. I wasn't referring to me."
Cloud felt an icy chill run down his spine. He steeled his resolve, forcing himself to back out of the trap. "Stop playing the mind games. The fight is between us, no more of your pawns can be part of this."
"A pawn?" The laughter that rippled from his throat heightened Cloud's unease and suddenly he couldn't take his eyes from the body held in Sephiroth's arms. Held...not draped, not broken. Supported. Cloud's throat tightened. His feet slowed, still steadily approaching, bringing the men closer. He stopped ten feet from his adversary, sword raised tensely in his grasp.
Sephiroth still hadn't moved. "You still don't see it, Cloud. Even now, your mind is running rampant with thoughts that push you away, despite the obviousness of the answer sitting before you."
Cloud sneered, his body tensing in aggravation. "Enough!" Before he could even consider the situation, the man rushed forward, sword slashing violently down. But Sephiroth anticipated the move and was on his feet before the weapon had even lifted. The sword hit the empty step hard, cracking the surface, but the blond hardly noticed, his body instinctively spinning to find his opponent. Sephiroth's expression remained mocking, his smile lifting higher as Cloud turned to face him and the person now carried in his arms. Still keeping his distance, the blond stared through the florescent haze, straining to glimpse the face of the body. He tightened his grip on the buster sword, ready to make a second attack. But froze as a frail whimper echoed in the silence, halting him where he stood. Had it been...they were still alive?
Sephiroth noticed the recognition on his opponent's face and used it to his favour. "You should be more considerate of your actions. We wouldn't want to wake her."
The words hit Cloud like a sledgehammer. For a split second, the blonde's mouth opened and closed wordlessly, struggling to understand the piece of information he had had just been given.
Then Sephiroth's mocking laughter resonated around the room, dropping a lead weight into Cloud's stomach. "How pitiful." He cast his eyes briefly down to the burden in his arms, smirking in sheer anticipation for the pure level of emotional turmoil he was about to create. "It seems she spoke the truth. You really couldn't recognize her even when she was sitting right before your own eyes." Sephiroth returned his gaze, his eyes hungry for torment as he rolled his shoulder, slowly lifting the young woman's head to turn in Cloud's direction.
For a brief second, the blond stood, uncomprehending. He took another step forward, then his eyes focused upon the young girl's face. The pale features, the dark, flowing hair clinging to her sweat-streaked skin. His haunted gaze drifted lower, slowly taking in the gaunt fabric of Shinra's medical gown, clinging to subtle feminine curves.
Cloud began to shake; in denial or anger he couldn't say. But his whole body went numb, his breathing quick and harsh. One hushed word escaped his lips.
Time seemed to freeze for the man, his mind beyond comprehending the sight before him. Questions threatened to drown his thoughts, panic and hate swelling dangerously in his emotions. His throat worked convulsively, barking harsh words fuelled by fear and drenched in spite.
"What have you done...YOU SON OF A BITCH, WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER?"
Sephiroth only smiled.
Pain throbbed in her head like a dagger, conducting down throughout her limbs without mercy. Tifa thought she was going to die. Her eyelids flickered feebly, struggling to open. Her body felt heavy, numb yet ice cold against the ground. She clawed for her own control and managed to blink, her eyes opening slowly. Only to wish she had kept them shut.
Confused and disorientated, Tifa stared, terrified at the world around her. She was still in the reactor. But how long had she been asleep? And where was...
A scream of anger, the clash of metal and suddenly Tifa was pressing herself into the wall, staring wide eyed at the scene unfolding before her.
Sparks flew wildly from the computers, their monitors shattered and flaming, spewing clouds of smoke to mix with the mako. The mist swirled furiously, spinning with the two bodies battling within its depths. Tifa withheld a scream as a broad sword swung towards Sephiroth's chest, desperately clambering to her feet only to fall as she watched his assailant roll out of range.
The girl's lungs burned as she inhaled the thickening smog, her eyes stinging as she tried to discern the face of the opponent. Who would dare take on Sephiroth in such a fight? And during the reactor's detonation? Who was desperate enough to...?
Sephiroth rushed forward, swinging his masamune viciously. His adversary twisted, back pedalling into a smashed railing and stumbling on the debris. He hit the ground and rolled, putting himself out of range of his attacker, and under Tifa's horror struck gaze.
Cloud's wild, blue eyes flickered to hers, then snapped back to attention as the fight raged on. The girl trembled uncontrollably, suddenly feeling sicker and more lost than ever before. Her eyes continued to stare fixatedly at the battle tearing its way around her, both men screaming and thrashing viciously at the other.
Her mind couldn't take it.
It had to be a dream, just another horrific fear coming to life in her head. Tifa struggled onto her hands and knees, pain lancing through her muscles at every move. Her head swam threateningly, tempting her to lie back down. She couldn't accept it, she had to get up, she had to stop this. It was like her worst nightmare coming to life. Why was he here, how? How much did he know? Did he know anything? Cloud's voice gasped out in pain and Tifa scrambled to her feet, falling into the wall as her body struggled to stand. She didn't want this. They would kill each other, she had tried so hard to prevent this encounter, knowing a fight would be inevitable. But watching it unfold now threw up more emotional barriers and conflicts than Tifa could have thought imaginable. How did he get here? How did Cloud know? Had he lied to her about the truth of his work with Shinra? Tifa shook her head in frustration, desperate to think of a plan.
She had to do something, she had to try. The girl forced herself to concentrate, to draw on her strength, but her body felt so heavy, so weak, she could barely voice a whisper. Another aggravated cry and this time Sephiroth was spinning clear of a blow, Cloud's sword just nicking the edge of his shoulder.
"...stop..." Tifa pushed away from the wall, her eyes wide with fear. "...stop it..." Her throat ached and her stomach churned, but she ignored the warnings, hoping she could just push through. "Stop it!" Neither men heard nor saw the woman's meagre attempts, and the fight continued, each blow coming harder and faster than the last. Tifa screamed. "STOP IT!"
The floor lifted beneath her, the air shaking with vibrations as an explosion shook the very core of the reactor.
Rufus had lost his patience.
Tifa hit the ground hard, the wind knocked from her lungs as a blast of dust and debris smashed through the room's broken door. Both men managed to hold their balance, but the shock of the blast knocked them to opposite sides of the room, disrupting the rhythm of their attacks.
When the trembling finally ceased, Tifa weakly raised her head, struggling to focus through the clouds of fog around her. She wanted to call out, but her words were choked with smoke and her voice emerged as a guttural cough.
Cloud leaned heavily against the wall, spinning his gaze wildly around the room, just about distinguishing his enemy through the haze. His head ached and anger welled up viciously at the realisation of Shinra's act. The bastard was moving ahead with his plans. The blond didn't think Rufus would care whether he was inside the reactor or not, but he thought he would have been given a longer chance than this.
Knowing his time was running out, Cloud forced himself to hurry, searching out his opponent so that he could finish the job. But Sephiroth was not where he expected.
Far to the left, Cloud blanched as he watched his adversary crouch low to Tifa's prone form. Thinking his intent less than honourable, the man rushed forward, desperate to protect the young girl.
Sephiroth reacted at the last moment, meeting the attack head on and returning the fight to its full fury.
Tifa curled into herself, her hand lying where Sephiroth had dropped it. Pains lanced through her lower stomach, rising up through her muscles into her very core. She groaned aloud, fighting back the cries of anguish and frustration now tearing through her. There was no more time. She would die here, they all would. She had no more strength, no power to give. Her body burned with agony, steeling her resolve. Tifa cringed. She had to do something, anything. She strained and cried, pulling at her every fibre for everything she had left. Then the pain intensified. She screamed as it crawled up her limbs, focusing through every nerve, centralising into her left hand. The girl lifted it before her eyes, expecting her skin to burst into flames. But what she realized sickened her more than any pain.
The black materia materialised from her palm, sliding into substance and casting ice cold shocks spiralling through her fingers. The orb surfaced and rocked heavily in her grip, momentarily stunning the young woman from her thoughts. She pulled her hand close, suddenly aware of what revealing the artefact could do to the outcome of the battle raging beside her.
She wanted to cry out, to disappear and hide from the confusion and frustration of the world going on around her. This was exactly what she had tried to run from, this was everything she had feared, everything she had resented, and despite all the trouble and chaos she thought she had escaped, it all seemed to return tenfold.
This was destined to be her life.
Tifa crawled onto her knees and stared, almost amused at the outcome of it all. Life...her life...strange how meaningless the words became when she said them over and over again. She couldn't understand it anymore, the meaning, the purpose. She didn't want to understand it. Perhaps that was the answer, to just stop thinking about it. Tifa swayed on her knees, considering the revelation. Could she simply ignore it, to work life through, accepting it as this? To take advantage of the opportunities given and to fight from those she couldn't pick by choice? She gazed around her, entranced by the thought.
But was that all going to matter now?
The girl's head swam, sleep calling to her, screaming for her to give in. Not yet...she had to do something first...she had to take control. Tifa was going to pick up her own strings. She knew what to do.
Slowly, Tifa raised herself to her feet and stared spitefully down at the black orb in her palm, then turned her attention to her right. The depths of the mako pit twisted and writhed with mist, shimmering mysteriously as she began to approach. She came to the edge and waited, her thoughts blank, her eyes dim. Then she raised her left hand over the smoking mist and the black materia rolled dangerously close to the tips of her fingers. The orb glinted in the luminescence, its surface prickling electrically at the touch of the mako. Tifa watched it for a long time, simply marvelling at the object, becoming suddenly aware of the silence that had taken place behind her. Finally the fight had stopped. And all eyes were trained on her. She had the control.
The next few seconds crashed by in a blur of motion. Her hand tipped to the side and a feral scream seemed to resound within her own head. The materia rolled free and fell, disappearing into the folds of green miasma while the room shuddered violently and another explosion erupted into being. That was it, that was her burden, her pain falling into the abyss.
Someone screamed Tifa's name and suddenly she was falling forward, her feet slipping from the pit's verge. An arm was flung about her waist and she was thrown back from the edge, wisps of silver hair whipping against her skin as she fell away from her saviour and crashed into a second body beyond her sight
Tifa hit the floor in a tangle of limbs, felt the weight of someone shield her head as debris and glass shattered through the room with the second blast. Someone cried out her name, lifting her weight easily into strong arms. She smiled. She had taken control of her actions. Control of her life.
Now she could sleep.
The room was silent. The rustle of blankets on her skin seemed overly loud in the stillness of her surroundings. She cast out her senses, feeling up through the bruises of her limbs to the stiffness in her bones. But the pain was a blessing, she knew she was alive. Tifa blinked open her eyes. And abruptly closed them.
The whitewashed walls of the Shinra Medical Ward were not the first thing she had wished to see on awakening, but still the sight could have been worse. She gazed quietly around her, turning to stare towards the door, observantly noting the late hour of the clock above it.
A sigh escaped her lips. Thoughts and memories were slowly easing their way back into her mind. She held them at bay, wanting nothing more than to take in the moment.
The silence dissipated as footsteps began to lead in the corridor outside. Tifa listened to the steady, marching beat, expectant and nervous as they grew louder and slowed near her room. She waited, watching as the door's handle turned. Gently but urgently, Tifa twisted onto her side, putting her back to the incomer. She feigned sleep and waited as the person entered, their approach silent and timid, their feet walking with a limp. The sounds of a chair being pulled to the bed, the familiar sigh of worry; Tifa knew who it was.
Considering the repercussions of her next move, Tifa pushed down her fears and momentarily allowed herself to forget the past. Both of them would have enough to deal with for now.
She turned back over in the bed and watched as Cloud froze, his expression a mix of shock and confusion as he realized the girl really was awake, watching him expectantly. His face brought back a flood of emotions for the girl, the most of which she'd rather do without. But it was good to see a familiar face. Particularly in this place. But that still didn't rid them of the awkwardness of the moment.
Cloud's mouth opened slightly, and then closed. Then opened again and this time he managed to stammer out a few, blatant words. "You're awake."
Tifa smirked but followed the motion with a brief smile, one to reassure the man and help ease the tension. He responded with an awkward smile of his own and the situation was all the better for it.
Feeling uncomfortable as she lay, Tifa turned onto her back and, with effort, attempted to push herself onto her elbows. The motion was stiff, making her all the more aware of how much damage her body had suffered. Cloud moved to assist and as he did, she noticed the blond had several injuries of his own. Many areas of his body were bruised or bandaged, but whether it pained him much, the man did not show. She could only imagine how long she herself had lain here.
Again questions began to shower her mind, but it took a lot of willpower to fight them back. She cringed, knowing sooner or later, the answers would have to be given. But for now, the girl contented herself with simply having Cloud for company, glad for his stern objection to the numerous attempts the doctors made in entering the room. She didn't want to face them alone, not while under Shinra's influence.
But after an hour of avoidance and making strained eye contact, Tifa finally couldn't take the pressure and asked the question she'd craved to say since Cloud had arrived.
"What happened after the fight?" She fixed the blond with a hard stare, challenging him to deny her an answer. For a while Cloud stared at the floor, looking tense and unsure. He had expected the question, but not so soon. Then he breathed a long held breath and brought his gaze to the wall opposite, trying to sum up his answer as quickly as possible. "Rufus set off the explosives. You blacked out after the second detonation. I thought you'd..." He stopped short and breathed heavily, running a hand across his face. Tifa easily guessed what he had thought and felt a twinge of compassion for the man. Cloud looked up again. "I managed to carry you out. We got to the second level before the water started coming in. After that it was just a blur. There were times I thought we would never get out alive." Again he stopped but Tifa pressed him for more, coaxing him with a few words.
"But we did."
The blond half smiled, nodding meekly. "When we finally got up to the docks, one of the detonation teams had sent back the submarine they'd escaped in. We reached the surface...before the final explosion destroyed the reactor's core." He ran his fingers through his hair, raking his hand nervously through the spikes as he waited for the question he feared would come up. Tifa knew he resented it, but she asked all the same.
"...and Sephiroth?" She tried to make her voice sound small, frightened, unsure as to how much Cloud truly knew about her history with the man.
Cloud shook his head. "He fell into the mako after the black materia." Tifa's eyes widened abruptly, her thoughts flooding with confusion. Had he fallen in? Or did he jump after the materia? But...she had fallen...the arm that saved her, Sephiroth had saved her. So whether he had gone after the materia or not, Tifa suddenly felt that familiar, overwhelming sense of loyalty to the man. Even if he had resented her for throwing the black materia into the reactor, Sephiroth still saved her life. His feelings for her must still be the same.
"He's gone Tifa."
The girl shot out of her trance, looking abruptly back to Cloud. He was watching her intently, misreading her thoughtful expression as one of pain rather than pride. She just nodded her head in response, hiding a knowing smile. Sephiroth would never be gone.
The chair screeched beside her and she watched as Cloud rose from his seat, his gaze flicking to the door then back to the young woman. Tifa flinched in surprise as his hand suddenly reached out to her, brushing a strand of hair from her face.
"You should...get some more rest. I'll talk to Shinra and sort everything out. We'll get you home as soon as you're ready." Tifa stared up at him, feigning a smile as he turned and headed from the room. She touched the spot on her cheek where his fingers had brushed, imagining it had been another's touch that stroked her face. She considered the act curiously, watching Cloud's back as he disappeared into the corridor. He had changed. Something in the way he spoke to her, the way he looked and regarded her every move, her simplest expression. As if...he cared just that little bit more.
Tifa withheld her laugh.
The water ran down her face and neck, soaking into her shirt as she stared into the sink basin. Tifa reached for the towel and dried her hands, lifting it to pat lightly across her skin. She reflected over her thoughts one last time, then quietly left the bathroom.
Two weeks of recovery, of rebuilding her health. Two weeks since she'd stared down the President of Shinra and walked away feeling stronger than ever. Two weeks since Sephiroth's disappearance. The thought always lingered with her. The final few moments she remembered of him; the concern in his eyes as she lay knocked by the explosion's aftermath. And the black materia...even now she couldn't believe that he would forsake her for the artefact. She refused to believe it, knew in her heart that he would return to her. His absence would be an essential challenge that Tifa would learn to overcome.
But in that short time since the incident, the young woman had grown more than anyone could realise. She had worked through the excuses, had played through the questions and worries. She had convinced them all. She had kept her secret. And now there was more to hide.
Tifa walked into her bedroom, staring towards the bed and reliving the feelings of the nights she'd spent with her 'spectre'. Her feelings were as strong for him as ever, her gratitude for what he'd given her beyond words. She had changed. She was a new woman, more determined, more powerful. Her world resided in the palm of her own hand, and she could pull the strings at will.
And that gift was needed now more than ever.
Tifa fell into herself, a hand gently sliding to lie across her lower abdomen. It was still too early for others to tell, but she knew. Her fingers played lovingly across her belly, her mind imagining what the future may bring. How she would love it, nurture it, how she would give it more than the world could ever know. Give it everything its father had given her.
And then those thoughts drifted to the present. The world would not accept such a consequence of her passion, would not withstand the very idea of such an affair. But Tifa only smiled. It was still early yet. And she had changed, she had learnt how to play the game. She could pull the strings. And she knew just how to cover her tracks.
Tifa raised her arms and slipped out from her thin nightshirt, dropping it carelessly to the floor. Her bare skin gleamed in the moon's light, shimmering gracefully as she made her way from the room.
Her hips swayed seductively, her body an image of confidence and control. Her thoughts strayed to Sephiroth, fuelling her determination. But she held them at bay, needing her concentration, knowing what she needed to do.
Tifa smiled, a cunning, predatory grin. Her fingers danced lightly across the wooden door before her, skin tingling as she turned the handle forward. A voice called to her from inside the darkness, trusting, accepting. So deliciously manipulable.
Tifa stroked a hand once more across her belly, reassuring her of the act's necessity, believing exactly in how bright her future would be. He would return to her. Soon. She just had to bide her time.
Then the girl strode into the room, smiling knowingly as Cloud's door closed silently behind her.