Author's notes: A huge thank you to everyone who has reviewed, faved or just read this fic over the last year! Without you all, I think this would have just ended up in another abandoned folder on my hard drive.
If you haven't read this fic before however, I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter 1: Death of a Scienceman
Betas: ShadowCael, LadyoftheDrow
Warnings: this fic may contain violence, gore and adult situations
For all the monstrosities buried behind locked and barred doors, for all the greed hiding behind neatly pressed suits and all the madness clothed in human form, Shinra's excesses were hidden behind a shield of corporate banality. A man made bland by the ubiquitous lab coat, thick glasses and slicked back blond hair, the research assistant was just the latest in a long line of cogs in the machine of the science department.
Waving an ID badge at the guards - they barely offered a nod in return - he solemnly pushed through the thick double doors leading to Hojo's lab. Professor Hojo was one of the five great legends of Shinra, the head of the science department and twisted mind behind the SOLDIER project. It was his plans that culminated in Sephiroth, Shinra's greatest living weapon and the man currently leading their offensive against the upstart nation of Wutai. But to the employees of the science department, he was known as the assignment of no return. An intern could count themselves lucky if they returned with health and sanity intact from a rotation into Hojo's lab.
The assistant lingered at the entrance of the room while the doors slowly flapped shut behind him. This laboratory looked much like any other in Shinra, but there was always a faint presence that no amount of disinfectant or chemical bath could ever remove. It smelled of death and worse, of unnatural things that should never have been thought of let alone pursued.
The stench was hanging fresh in the air today. On a blood soaked operating table in the center of the room a poor creature had met its end, skin peeled back and pinned down with tall needles, a scalpel still lodged in its exposed ribcage. Next to the table was a small desk and workstation, the villain of Shinra's research department hunched over the keyboard as he worked. For all the fear he evoked, Professor Hojo was a small weedy man, thin and bespectacled with greasy hair pulled back into a tight ponytail.
The assistant took a few steady, shaky breaths to calm himself and approached the desk. It was not the look of Hojo that was intimidating, but his reputation of cruelty and malice. The vivisected animal lying ignored behind him was proof enough that it was a reputation well deserved.
"Hmph. Finally you get here," the professor said in his nasal voice. "Make yourself useful and clean up the specimen."
With his orders given, Hojo turned his back on the assistant and buried himself back in his work.
The research assistant took off his glasses, dropping them on the edge of the operating table. The creature looked nearly humanoid, with an almost spherical body and small head, with four short limbs still strapped down to the table. The leather restraints had been twisted and stretched under its struggles, splashing blood all over the table and floor. It seemed the creature had still been alive while its skin had been peeled off, the operation only being abandoned when the struggling animal had finally succumbed. The scalpel looked like it had only been dug in as a lazy way of putting it down.
With a hesitant grip, the assistant plucked the scalpel from its bloody sheath and turned back to the professor.
With a quick step forward he grabbed the professor by the front of the shirt, fist closing around his tie and hauled the man to his feet. With a perfect line he brought the scalpel across the man's vulnerable throat, slitting open the thin flesh with a gasp and brief spray of blood. Taken by surprise with the sudden assault, Hojo lurched back, tripping over his own chair and only staying upright by the strong grip on the front of his clothes. Panicking, his hand dived into his lab coat, searching desperately for the handgun strapped to his side. The scalpel came in again, jabbing through his rib cage and lodging the blade deep into his chest.
"Wh-" Hojo barely managed to say, mouth spitting gore.
His assailant gave him no answer, kneeling down next to him in silence as he went through the last death throes. With calm precision, he opened up the side of the professor's coat and pulled out the keycard clipped on to his belt. He stood, flipping the keycard on to the bench before he turned to one of the industrial sinks lining the wall and washed his hands of the task, ensuring that his own spotless coat was clean of any of the expected blood spatters. Satisfied that he no longer needed it, he rinsed his hair of the oppressive gel, running his fingers through his blond locks until all the gunk had been washed down the sink and his hair was back to his natural though unusual spikes.
With a quick drying of his hands and hair he turned back to the desk, stepping over the body of the late Professor Hojo and nonchalantly picking up his glasses as he sat down in front of the scientist's prized workstation. Noting with satisfaction that he was still logged into the more sensitive areas, he began his work with all the confidence of a man who knew in advance what he was looking for. Files were opened, diaries searched, each one contributing to the growing stack of paper that was accumulating on the printer.
Too soon, the doors to the lab swung open.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Professor, but-"
He turned to see the intruder, instantly recognising the navy blue suit of a Turk, part of Shinra's espionage and thuggery division. Already the side of the jacket was being opened, the gun drawn with eerie speed.
"Security!" The Turk yelled through the door, banging with his fist on the frame. He turned back to the blond researcher, his gun pointing directly as his head. "Who are you?"
"Cloud," he said while raised his hands in surrender. He recognised Tseng as soon as he saw the black ponytail sway into view, just before the man himself walked up the dais, though the Wutaian man's features were far younger than he remembered. "Tseng, I need to talk to the president." He nodded to the stacks of paper that were still sliding out of the printer. "I have something he needs to see."
It was then that the security guards burst into the room, both of them moving up to flank either side of Tseng with their rifles steadily aimed at Cloud's head. That seemed to relax Tseng and he slid his weapon back into the jacket holster, stopping his advance just short of Cloud. "You'll come with me."
Cloud nodded, not letting his hands drop as the Turk turned him around, pulling a thick pair of handcuffs from his jacket pocket and securing Cloud's hands behind his back. Tseng remained silent through the process, though he could feel the tension rolling off the Turk, easily imagining that the demands for more information were only being held back by his sense of duty. For his own part, Cloud remained plaint throughout his arrest, keeping his eyes cast down while the two infantrymen put a hand on both of his arms and led him out of the room.
Jumpy security forces greeted them as they exited the lab, more of the standard Shinra infantry in their blue uniforms and tri-eyed helmets taking up positions outside in the corridor. They lowered their rifles as Cloud was dragged out, several of them standing to attention and saluting the Turk as he passed behind them on vigilant guard.
"All good, Tseng?"
Leaning against the wall at the end of the formation was a familiar lanky figure, an unkempt ponytailed redhead loosely dressed in the blue suit of a Turk. Cloud made a point not to look the man in the eyes; Reno, behind his simple facade of the messy slacker, was one of the sharper of the Turks. His glasses would not be able to hide the telltale glow of his mako eyes for long and it was a question he did not want to have to answer before his meeting with the president. If the Turks knew he was mako enhanced they may assume he would be able to kill the president and any of his guards before they had a chance to stop him. They would be correct, but if they refused to let him see the president, his plan would be over before it begun. Luckily, Tseng gave only a silent nod, the procession passing by without any more undue scrutiny.
From his not so fond memories of the Shinra building, it did not take long for Cloud to figure out where he was being taken. For reasons best left unsaid, the 67th floor not only contained the headquarters and labs of the science department, but also a substantial number of jail cells - ones that he had become intimately familiar with during the rescue of Aerith. Hallucinations, his connection with the Lifestream and the future he left behind, it was impossible to tell what it was anymore yet he couldn't help but catch faint glimpses of blood, trailing from the exact spots the guards were standing and smeared in hideous lines down the corridor. Noting with some sense of irony that they had chosen the same cell he had been imprisoned in previously, he was shoved inside without a word.
The mechanical door of the cell sliding closed with a final clunk, Cloud was finally left alone since the first time he had infiltrated the Shinra headquarters. He let his mask slip and his shoulders sink, finally allowed a moment to relax and the weight of the world to lift, just for a moment.
"Pssst... Cloud. Can we get out?"
Cloud sat down on the hard seat, trying not to look at the faintly shimmering outline of Tifa from the corner of his eye. He knew that if he turned to look she would just disappear and it was comforting to have her there, whether it was caused by his broken mind or not.
"I knew that you'd come for me."
"I didn't come for you, Aerith," he whispered to the apparition.
No, there was only one reason he had came, one person he had come for.
"He found one of Shinra's abandoned experiments," Vincent had explained to him as they sat at the bar of Seventh Heaven. His friend had been hesitant to explain what had happened, a nervous encounter that was so out of character for the confidant gunman. All Cloud knew was that it was about Denzel and the paranoia of a father knew no bounds.
"Vincent." He was almost grinding his teeth at the delay. "Get to the point."
"He jumped into a pool of mako."
"What? Why?" A hundred questions were ready to go in his mind, sorted in order of importance and itching to pass the bottleneck of his mouth. By sheer fluke, he had summed up most of them in those two words.
"There was a hatch in the floor, a tube leading down into a vortex of mako. That was where the glow was coming from. As to why-" Vincent had pulled out a whole folder of documents, with one carefully placed on the top. "I turned the place inside out, but I found what I needed."
Neither of them were strangers to trying to sift through the documents of scientists and madmen, where each piece of information could be so painfully detailed that it made no sense to anyone outside the experiments. Teams would spend weeks combing through minutiae of statistics, feeding times, dosage levels and never understand what had happened there - and that was for experiments without the secrecy and paranoia that had become so typical of Shinra's Science Department. But there was one document where it was all laid bare and explained for even the simplest of minds: a funding request.
I have found further evidence that the Cetra successfully used this same method. Records found near the site corroborate my theory of extinction: a virus that all records name "the Calamity" was decimating the population despite their powers of healing. [Modeoheim excavation, p. 8] It is my theory that the Cetra used this as a means to travel back in time to stop the virus before it had started. Records indicate that although the travel was successful, each attempt to halt the virus only made it more virulent. [Modeoheim excavation, p.46]
The "travel back in time" part was where Cloud had pulled the bottle of scotch from behind the bar. He wasn't really a drinker, but if there was ever a time when someone needed something with more kick than beer, this was it. Even Vincent hadn't turned down a tumbler full.
Several rare materia are needed for the process, as such I request additional funds to acquire the following materia to begin trial runs.
- Prof. Gast
"He died before he could even send the request. Knowledge of the project died with him."
"Rare materia..." Cloud sighed and downed a mouthful of the amber liquid.
"If you check your lockbox, I think you will find those missing."
"But why did Denzel want to... travel back in time?" Even back then, just that phrase sounded idiotic.
"You know him better than I do. But," Vincent had paused dramatically, as he so often did. "Before it happened, he said he wanted to make things better. To make you happy."
It was at that point that the logic of a hero worshipping boy had caught up with him. To go back in time would mean being able to stop the horrors of Meteorfall, of all the atrocities Shinra had committed before and after. To save the people Cloud had lost: his mother, Zack, Aerith. To stop Sephiroth and save the world. Of course it wasn't that simple. Nevermind Denzel being unable to pull off those feats, being just a boy trying to take on supernaturally enhanced opponents, but the Crisis had brought around a great change in the planet and to prevent Sephiroth from threatening the planet with a quick death would leave it in the grip of a slow death at the hands of Shinra.
It had not taken long before he came to the decision to go after Denzel. He was always a man of action, preferring to do something foolish rather than do nothing at all. He would leave behind his friends, and although Vincent had offered to go with him, he declined and asked his friend not to let anyone else follow. The world no longer needed him, but Denzel did.
Leaving Tifa behind was the hardest part. For all the temptation to just leave Vincent to break the news to her, that was the coward's way out. That was the old Cloud, the one who would run rather than face reality. In the end, he could not do that to her, and called her as he made his way down the reactor that had housed the experiment.
"You know that I have to go."
"What about the people you leave behind, Cloud? What about Marlene?"
"You will always be there for her, and so will Barret. Denzel has no idea what he's getting into, he needs me."
"You're running away again, Cloud." He could hear the phone being put down as Tifa tried to wipe away tears, just as he used his finger to wipe away the small drops forming in his own eyes. "But at least you're doing it for the right reasons this time. Promise me you'll come back to us."
"I can't promise that. But I promise I will take care of Denzel."
"I'll miss you, Cloud."
He turned to look at Tifa, but as soon as he caught her eye she faded, leaving him back in his cell, alone.
It did not take many more hours of relaxed brooding for his captors to once again appear, this time both Rude and Tseng, accompanied by two more Shinra troopers, appearing in the opening doorway.
"President Shinra will see you. Come with us," Tseng said, both Turks standing rigid in the doorway as Cloud leisurely stood and joined his guards.
The layout of the building was not exactly the same as he remembered it. Without counting the lack of blood stains on the walls, there were less specimen cages, and the tank specially built for holding Jenova was mercifully absent. She was likely still in Nibelheim, primed there as the catalyst to a plan that would destroy his world.
The antechamber to the president's office was in no such state of flux. Red carpet and polished wood, the path to his office gilded like stairs to the temple of an ancient, self-proclaimed god-king. The secretaries paid them no notice, letting the procession pass while hurriedly hunched over keyboards.
Upon first sight of the president's office, Cloud had to hurriedly shake away a vision of the future: President Shinra's rotund corpse skewered to the desk, Sephiroth's iconic sword buried in his back. Instead the president was sitting down by his desk, a tall women in a lab coat leaning over his shoulder and whispering in his ear. From her tidy brown hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail and round bespectacled face, Cloud could vaguely remember her as Professor Rayleigh, the scientist he had been assigned to protect as a Shinra trooper over a decade ago. Both Rayleigh and President Shinra stopped the briefing and looked up as their little entourage entered the room.
"Cloud, was it?" The president took a long drag of his cigar, eyeing the blond up and down. "I've had your execution scheduled for later this week. I hope that suits."
Cloud bristled, rolling his shoulders as he stared down the president. Snap the cuffs, one fist in each Turk's face. Jump the desk, you can break his neck before he blinks. He forced the thought down. No, he still had a chance to work his way inside Shinra. "You don't care that Hojo was a traitor?" he asked, swallowing the hatred he felt for the disgusting lump of a man.
"Yes, yes, these documents were all very interesting. But Hojo has been vital to this company, despite his… extracurricular experiments."
Cloud tried to hold back his smile. He had the president's attention now, despite the uninterested face he was putting on. The president had never understood the work that Hojo was doing, only the results. If he could blind the president with science, he could portray Hojo as incompetent, thus most importantly in the president's eyes: expendable.
"His experiments were a game of genetic pin the tail on the donkey," he said. "Any success he had was the result of Gast and properties of the Jenova virus."
"Yet he got results. He was an asset, Mr. Cloud." Shinra leaned forward, stubbing his cigar out in the bottom of a crystal ashtray. "I decide when Shinra's assets become liabilities, no one else."
"He was using Jenova cells to keep the SOLDIERs in check - but also to control them. To control Sephiroth. What do you think he would do when he could control Sephiroth?"
With his heightened senses he could feel the nervous shifting, minute as it was, of the Turks behind him. But his proclamation did not have the desired effect on the president, though whether is was through bravery or stupidity it was hard to tell. The idea of having Sephiroth turn against them was unsettling even to the most stoic, but this was not Cloud's exaggeration. Sephiroth would turn.
"Even if Hojo were as bad as you say," the president said, clipping the end of his cigar. "I see no reason to keep you alive."
"I know how to develop your SOLDIERs. I can keep the project running without wasting your money on useless experiments that turn powerful people against you."
"And just what are you suggesting?"
"I wanted revenge, for what Hojo did to me. I want to make sure that everyone knows he was an imbecile playing at being a scientist. But more than that," Cloud leaned down on the desk, handcuff links clattering against the wood, fixing the president with his most intense stare. "I want his job."
The room fell silent in extreme tension, the Turks ready to haul their prisoner off the president's desk but unsure if they should proceed.
"His life, his reputation and his job," the president said, throwing his head back with laughter. "You are a bold man, Mr. Cloud. I like your ambition. Very well. I will postpone your execution. Who knows, if you're up to the job, I may call it off completely."