In 1610 Raphael Faremis, a graduate student at the Shin-Ra Academy of Science, developed the first viable healing potion. Medicine, and the way the general populace perceived those who practiced it, changed virtually overnight. Thereafter, it became fashionable to patronize the Academy, rulers and nobles and merchant princes alike petitioning the organization to open store fronts and offices around the globe. One hundred years later, the Academy had pharmacies, clinics, and research facilities in every major city and town, and had quietly become the most powerful and influential body on the planet – so much so that children, depending on their aptitudes, either aspired to study at one of the two main campuses, or to be accepted as candidates for SOLDIER, the organization's private security force.
Cloud Strife fell into the latter group, and left home at the age of fourteen to prove himself. He returned six years later, an officer first class, to pay court to Governor Lockhart's daughter.
Their engagement marked both a beginning, and an end.
The heavy townhouse door opened with smooth efficiency, admitting a single tall, slender man with graceful Wutaian features. He brusquely handed his gloves and hat to the butler, before continuing down the hall to the library, footsteps near silent on the hardwood floor.
President Shinra was waiting, and the news Tseng bore would already be ill-received. He didn't need the added onus of being less than timely.
In the past few months, the commercial division of the Shin-Ra Academy of Science had been hard-pressed to meet retail demand for their various potions and elixirs. The problem was not due to a lack of supply, but rather an inability to ensure safe transfer of the goods from manufacturer to point-of-sale. A small group of pirates, known as the Nibel Wolves, had begun harrying the shipping lanes, targeting Academy cargo with extreme prejudice.
A sharp rap of knuckles on wood announced his presence, and he entered at the muted bellow of his employer. As always he was struck by the sophistication of the room, the wealth of knowledge in its accumulated leather-bound volumes... and how that image contrasted so drastically with the grasping, philistine nature of Royston Shinra, who used it as nothing more than an imposing backdrop for his business meetings. The president's portly form was seated behind the desk, a fine Costa del Sol cigar dangling from his fingers; while his son, Rufus, lounged indolently in one of the high-backed chairs in front of the fire, only his intelligent gray eyes betraying his attention.
"Tseng!" the elder Shinra greeted him boisterously, "Palmer's ship was due in Junon an hour ago. I trust you have good news?"
The president's habit of expecting a positive outcome – as if to do so ensured a favorable report – put Tseng's teeth on edge. "I'm afraid not, sir," he replied, both face and voice blandly stoic. "The Shera was attacked early this morning. As per usual, all cargo associated with the Academy was seized."
Royston's brows drew down in a frown, his good humor vanished. "Was it the same ship?" he demanded. "That Nibel bitch again?"
"Yes sir," Tseng replied, sighing internally at the petty vituperation, "Captain Lockhart of the Seventh Heaven."
"Casualties?" the question was barked through gritted teeth.
"None, sir, although Elena informs me that Palmer was apparently threatened into fainting, and the senior SOLDIER officer on board – Kunzel – has resigned."
"Deserted you mean," Shinra sneered, face growing increasingly florid in his agitation.
"As you say, sir," Tseng agreed. It was true that SOLDIER operatives who parleyed with Captain Lockhart couldn't seem to distance themselves from the Academy fast enough. "Professor Gast has also tendered his resignation, effective immediately."
Having paused to draw from his cigar, Shinra choked and snorted smoke in surprise. "What?" he shouted, abruptly leaning forward in his chair. By the fire, Rufus straightened as well, no longer bothering to hide his growing interest. Gast Faremis was a direct descendant of Raphael Faremis, and a noted scientist in his own right. The newspapers would have a field day when the public learned that he'd left the company.
"The professor, along with his wife and daughter, were passengers on board the Shera. Palmer states that all three left with Lockhart of their own free will." Elena had further explained that Gast's daughter had insisted upon it after meeting the Seventh Heaven's first mate.
"They just... left?" Rufus asked, when his father did nothing more than stare in blank confusion.
"So I gather."
One elegant blond brow arched skeptically. "Forgive me, Tseng, but that seems highly unlikely. You're certain they're not being held for ransom?"
"Yes, exactly!" the elder Shinra rejoined the conversation with his usual bluster, latching on to his son's suggestion with unwarranted enthusiasm. "Surely Palmer and Elena misunderstood, Tseng."
Tseng placidly straightened his cuffs. "I don't believe so, sir. Lockhart's demands remain unchanged: first, the release of her fiancé, and second, the termination of all in-progress experiments being conducted by Professor Hojo."
"Alternatively, she did suggest we could just terminate the good doctor himself," Rufus commented. "She even offered to help."
Glaring at his son, the president ashed his cigar and leaned back in his chair. "As I've said before, her demands are nonsense! Release her fiancé?" He grunted in annoyance. "Absurd! We're a business, not a prison!"
"But there is a Professor Hojo on staff," Tseng quietly asserted. "He has been experimenting with medical applications for distilled Lifestream."
"Yes," Shinra observed sarcastically, "that certainly sounds like something that should be stopped. I can see why these Nibel Wolves want him fired."
There was a pause, and then Tseng cleared his throat. "It's worth noting that there was an incident in Hojo's lab a few months before Lockhart began targeting our cargo."
"An incident?" Royston's eyes narrowed, displeased that Tseng had not dropped the subject when prompted.
"En route to the new research facility to Modeoheim, Hojo reported that the SOLDIER officer assigned to escort him had disappeared, taking an extremely valuable specimen with him. The SOLDIER – Cloud Strife – was apparently killed while resisting arrest. The specimen was never recovered."
"Let me guess," Rufus interrupted, "Cloud Strife had a fiancé?"
Tseng allowed himself a small smile. "Indeed. Cloud Strife was engaged to the governor of Nibelheim's daughter: Tifa Lockhart."
"Well, that certainly explains her motive." Moving to the bar, Rufus poured himself a measure of brandy, lazily swirling it around the bowl of his snifter as he mused aloud. "She no doubt believes Strife was falsely accused, and blames the company for his death."
"Her demands are still ridiculous," the elder Shinra countered almost petulantly. "If he was killed resisting arrest, why does she think we're holding him prisoner?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Then find out man!" Scowling, the president pounded his fist on the desk for emphasis.
"I think it would also be advisable to discover Gast's reasons for leaving the company," Rufus quietly suggested, his reasonable, thoughtful tone a stark contrast to his father's more bombastic approach. "I'm also very curious about both Strife and this missing 'specimen' of Hojo's. Why would Strife resort to corporate espionage after working long and hard to become an officer?"
Thankful that Rufus was far more perceptive than his father, Tseng inclined his head. "My thoughts exactly. An investigation is already underway."
A month after putting his ring on Tifa's finger, Cloud departed on what was supposed to be a routine mission: a fortnight spent escorting a high ranking scientist to a new research facility. He'd kissed her in the stable yard, a snow shower sprinkling them both with a light dusting of white. The flakes had glittered in his blond hair, weighing down the longer spikes as he'd wheedled her into granting him one more kiss... and then one more... and then another, until finally the waiting coachman threatened to leave without him.
She'd laughed and waved as the coach pulled away, the fingers of her other hand lightly pressed to her bee-stung lips as she savored the evidence of his ardor.
It was the last time she saw him.
When fourteen days came and went without his return, Tifa consoled herself with the knowledge that winter often made for difficult traveling conditions and unwanted delays. When two weeks stretched to three and then four, and still there was no word, no explanation for his continued absence, such reassurances fell flat. Concerned, she approached Grimoire Valentine, the director of the local Academy facilities. His manner apologetic, Valentine had responded to her questions by presenting her with a warrant for Cloud's arrest.
Professor Hojo, the scientist Cloud had been assigned to escort, claimed he had vanished a week into the mission, absconding with an extremely valuable specimen. He was wanted for both theft and suspected corporate espionage.
Stunned, Tifa had stared at Valentine as if he'd grown a second head. It would have made more sense than the accusations he was oh-so-calmly spouting as fact. Anyone who'd ever so much as met Cloud knew he was dedicated and serious to a fault: he would never betray the Academy's trust. She'd said as much, before sweeping out of the building in righteous anger.
A few days later, a stone-faced representative explained that Cloud had been killed while resisting arrest. Instead of offering condolences, he'd given her a broken broadsword and the wolf earring Cloud had worn in his left ear.
Pain tried to cripple her. Sweet, caring, protective Cloud... passionate Cloud... gently teasing, soft-spoken Cloud... was dead.
Anger forced it back.
It was strange, at nineteen years of age, to learn that her compassion and understanding were not limitless. To suddenly discover her capacity for hate. To wake after crying anguished tears, and realize that what she wanted more than anything else was for the Academy and Hojo to hurt.
She'd already started making plans when Zack staggered into town – eyes glowing like he was suffering from Lifestream exposure, mumbling Cloud's name- to offer her hope, rekindling the warmth in her heart.
He told her the truth.
Cid Highwind cursed when the distinct black and silver sails of the Seventh Heaven appeared in the distance. Just once he'd like to make a routine crossing, instead of having to deal with the Nibel Wolves every damn time he carried Academy freight in or out of Junon. Sighing, he glared into the distance as he fumbled in his coat pocket for a cigarette, estimating how long he had before the lighter, faster sloop caught up to his Shera.
Long enough to enjoy his smoke, and to convince the small contingent of security the Academy had forced on him to stand down. Lockhart was a decent sort – for a pirate – and easy on the eyes as well... but she wouldn't hesitate to fight if pressed, and he'd seen enough of the Academy's 'elite' fighting force trounced to know who'd win.
"Ahoy there, Captain Highwind!" Lockhart called out when the Seventh Heaven came alongside the Shera. "Permission to come aboard?"
"You're damn well gonna board my ship whether I give you permission or not, and we both fucking know it!" he hollered back.
Laughing, she flashed him a mock salute. "Fair enough. Prepare to be boarded, then. We'll make this as quick as possible."
"I'm going to be late making port already," he groused, leaning into the wheel as he watched the Wolves slide wooden planks between the two ships to create a bridge, "and I'm hardly carrying enough Academy cargo to be worth your while."
Lockhart took a running leap onto the Shera, landing lightly beside Highwind with her first mate following a heartbeat later. "It's the principle of the thing," she explained, patting Cid on the shoulder.
He smacked her hand away, his head whipping around when a voice protested from the small group of passengers who had refused to go below. Scanning the faces, he realized it was the smart-mouthed redhead who worked for the Academy. Damn fool was going to get himself killed mouthing off.
"That's it?" Reno demanded, tone both incredulous and belligerent. "You're just going to let them stroll aboard and take our cargo?"
Cid thrust his chin out, teeth clamping down hard on the end of his cigarette. "I damn well ain't gonna shed blood over two crates of healing potions," he stated flatly. "I told that ass you work for the same when we signed the contract." In truth, he'd been shocked that the Academy had agreed. Desperate times and all that shit he supposed.
"Well, technically," Lockhart interrupted, her voice falsely friendly, "it's two crates of potions, three casks of distilled Lifestream, and a few barrels of healing herbs."
"You're taking the raw materials too?" Reno squawked.
Her answering smile was beautiful but somehow far too toothy. Wolfish. "Well, yes," she replied, as if it should've been obvious, "it'll save me from having to make another trip later, you see."
Listening to their banter, Cissnei found – almost against her will – that she rather liked Lockhart. The pirate was witty and smart, with a fair amount of attitude. Then again, anyone who could flummox Reno scored well in her book. From her position in the crowd behind him, she let her eyes catalogue every detail of the other woman. Although petite, Lockhart's body was sleekly muscled, as evidenced by the short, midriff-baring brocade jacket she wore. A matching kilt covered black leggings, which in turn were tucked into knee-high black boots. Dark hair was worn long and free, hanging past the small of her back. From her right ear dangled an elegantly feminine pearl teardrop, while a large metal stud, shaped like a wolf head, pierced the lobe of her left.
At her waist she carried both a pistol and a falchion, although the design of the short sword was both unusual and distinctive. The hilt and guard could easily have belonged to a much larger blade, and Cissnei wondered if – at sometime in the past – it had.
All in all, while Lockhart was certainly beautiful and bold, she wasn't particularly threatening – nothing at all like the harridan Palmer had painted her to be.
"Maybe you haven't noticed, Captain," Reno said, apparently having made a similar assessment, "that this fearsome pirate you're letting waltz away with our cargo is a slip of a woman who barely comes up to your shoulder!"
"And maybe you haven't noticed, Red," the older man retorted, dryly, "that she's armed to the teeth and brought a shit load of friends!"
As if to emphasize this point, a knife appeared with a sudden thunk as it embedded itself, point first, in the decking between Reno's feet. "You may also want to notice that she can hear perfectly well," Lockhart observed, still with that calm air of pleasant friendliness. "I have no particular desire to fight today; but if you insist, I'll be glad to show you that I am quite familiar with the use of my blade."
Beside her, the Seventh Heaven's first mate straightened to his full height, folding muscular arms across a broad chest. Despite the amusement curling his mouth, the stance he'd assumed was blatantly intimidating, and readily proclaimed that he'd be joining the fray should Reno decide to act on his anger.
And, in accordance with every stereotype made regarding his hair color, he did. An oft-practiced flick of his wrist freed the blade hidden in his night stick, and Reno lunged forward to attack.
The result was comical.
Lockhart drew her falchion, and in the same smooth motion parried, spinning on her heel as Reno's thinner blade slid along the broad curve of hers. His momentum had him practically skidding past her, and with little effort she hooked the tip of the falchion in the sleeve of his coat, slitting the whole from cuff to shoulder.
"Cape sleeves aren't really the look this season," she commented brightly, "but they do have a certain flair. Shall I alter the other one for you?"
With considerably more aggravation and only slightly more care, Reno attacked again.
"I'll take that as a yes," she muttered as an aside to her first mate, and in short order Reno's second sleeve went the way of the first. On the next pass she cut slits in the knees of his trousers, and then smacked him on the ass with the flat of her blade. When he tried a two-handed blow, she kicked him in the groin and then sent him tumbling with a knee to his chin.
Watching from the sidelines, Cissnei found the whole thing beyond embarrassing. Especially since Reno was normally a decent swordsman, and might have held his own if he'd calmed down and stopped underestimating his opponent. He'd have needed to be careful – Lockhart's heavier blade could easily have broken the slender one he favored – but at least he'd have stood a chance. Instead, he served as both distraction and entertainment while the Wolves calmly and efficiently transferred the Academy cargo from one ship to the other.
Like Cloud, Zack had been a member of SOLDIER. Tifa remembered her fiancé telling her stories about outrageous things the older man had done. The two had been friends – best friends – until Zack had disappeared on a mission. He'd been assigned to guard Professor Hojo while the scientist collected Lifestream samples in Mideel, and – reportedly – had been swept away when a random surge had caused the glowing green river to overflow its bank, eroding his footing in the blink of an eye. No one had thought to question it: the Lifestream was prone to unpredictable peaks and ebbs, particularly when it ran close to the planet's surface as in Mideel.
Obviously, Hojo had lied.
For six months thereafter, Zack's entire world had consisted of a dank stone cell, needles filled with experimental serums, and the pain and hallucinations the injections caused.
"Hojo is insane," the dark-haired man told Tifa as he huddled under a blanket in the kitchen of the governor's mansion. "The whole time he was torturing me, he talked to an imaginary friend named Jenova." Whenever his voice had given out, cracked and strained from screaming, Zack had been able to hear the scientist detailing the effects of the latest injection, enthusing over changes in his heart-rate or muscle tone to someone unseen. It had taken time for his pain-fogged mind to connect the fact that he never heard this 'Jenova' respond – although Hojo would often react as if she had – with the reality that she didn't actually exist. "He thinks she's some sort of goddess, and that he's helping her reclaim the world. His job is to build her an army." Shuddering, he gulped the tea she'd pressed into his cupped hands. "That's what the injections are about – he's trying to develop a formula that will simultaneously increase the body's strength and endurance, while weakening the victim's mind so Jenova can take control."
Tifa was silent, watching Zack with wary brown eyes. He caught her staring and reached out to grab her hand. "I know what you're thinking! There were times I wondered – hoped – if I was just trapped in a nightmare. Maybe I'd fallen asleep listening to a program on the wireless, and if I could just wake up, I'd find it was all a dream. But I'm not the one who's lost it... at least, not completely." Strong fingers, their tan long faded, shook slightly as he pushed back his hair.
"Then what really happened in Mideel?" Tifa questioned, taking care not to sound confrontational. "How did he capture you? For that matter, how did you get away, and what's really happened to Cloud?" Despite her best efforts, her voice began to rise, turning strident with urgency by the end.
Grimacing, Zack shook his head, the gesture one of disgust. "He drugged me. Something in my food, I think."
Zack sighed. "Like I said, Hojo is insane. Before Cloud arrived, he caged me for transport with his other specimens." It had been degrading and demeaning, but bearable with the possibility of escape a reality for the first time since his capture. "He covered my crate with a tarp, and told Cloud I was a wolf." Zack flashed Tifa a brittle smile. "Of course, he didn't know Cloud had an affinity for the beasts."
Tifa smiled back. To the consternation of outsiders, Nibelheim villagers felt both a deep affection and an abiding fascination for the silver-gray wolves native to the area. Hojo wouldn't have understood or expected it.
"He knew the noises I made didn't belong to a wolf. It took him two nights to find a way to investigate, and it was another two before the ship we took from Banora stopped in Costa del Sol to take on additional supplies. Cloud and I slipped ashore and did our best to disappear." It had worked, too, at least at first. Until Hojo arrived at his new lab and reported Cloud's 'theft'. Zack's glowing eyes filled with pain and guilt as he detailed what had happened. "Cloud used himself as a decoy so I could escape. I was in horrible shape to travel, and Hojo knew it. I can only guess that he expected I wouldn't survive, because the guards were only looking for one man. Well, one man and a stolen sample of undisclosed nature." He drew a slow, shuddering breath, his throat tight. "Cloud took my place. He helped me escape, and in return, I just let them drag him away."
Much to his surprise, this confession was greeted with a sharp slap across his cheek, followed by a gentle embrace. "Cloud didn't help you escape so you could turn around and get captured again. But he is waiting on us to return the favor."
Blinking against the sting of her blow, Zack nodded, and slowly began to smile – a real smile, not a flash of sardonic humor.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Ifrit take the she-devil and her crew!" President Shinra cursed, shoving the latest reports away in disgust. "It's not enough for her to steal the finished products, now she's taking the raw materials as well?"
"At least we know she's not just dumping the stuff," Palmer offered, his manner obsequious. "Crates of potions and elixirs have started cropping up in markets in Junon, Kalm, Wutai and even Midgar." Shinra's face flushed a deep, angry red in response to that news, and the chubby little subordinate sank low in his chair as if to distance himself from his own report.
"How does she even know when and where to strike?" the president growled. "Any semblance of scheduling was blown out of the water months ago! The only company willing to even work for us anymore is Highwind's, and he'll only take our cargo if he's got nothing better to do."
"Perhaps Highwind is working with the Wolves," Heidegger suggested, as the door opened to grant entry to both Rufus and Tseng, the latter trailed by two well-dressed young women.
"Unlikely," Tseng countered smoothly, before Shinra had a chance to jump on the bone Heidegger offered, "the first attacks occurred some weeks before Highwind began carrying our freight. He's also held shipments for days at a time when he had other business. It would be far easier for Lockhart to take it from his warehouse than to steal it on the open sea. More to the point, Highwind has already expressed a lack of concern that we might take our business elsewhere."
Which was putting things mildly. The seaman had been incredibly blunt and foul-mouthed when dealing with their representatives. Even Reno had been impressed, and had quoted Highwind as stating: 'I can fucking well make more money refusing to carry your snake oil than I can delivering it! Pirates cause delays and delays cost me money both coming and going! Now quit your complaining or get the hell off my ship – and if you make one more accusation, I'll dump your goddamn shit in the ocean myself!'
"It is far more likely," Tseng continued, "that there is someone inside the company feeding her information." He gestured dismissively. "Either way, it's unimportant, as we have a much more pressing problem with which to contend." As the president began to sputter in agitated disbelief, Tseng turned to the two young women. "While Palmer was fainting and Reno was getting his clothes tailored, Elena and Cissnei were using their eyes and ears to discover why so many SOLDIERS – as well as Professor Gast – have been resigning."
Elena stepped forward, flipping open the portfolio she carried to display pencil-drawn sketches of a dark-haired man. "These are drawings of the Seventh Heaven's first mate," she explained, laying the sketches out across Shinra's oversized desk.
"And these," Cissnei chimed in, adding two sepia photographs to the spread, "are photos of SOLDIER first class Zack Fair, fiancé of Aerith Faremis."
The man in the photos had shorter hair, and his expression was lighter, more relaxed than that of the man in the drawings, but they were recognizably the same individual.
"So this Fair is behind the attacks?" the president demanded. "Lockhart is just a front?"
"No sir," Cissnei answered, lightly touching the corner of one of the photos. "Zack Fair supposedly died over six months ago, while on assignment." She paused, and Shinra's beady gaze shifted from the pictures to her face. "He was guarding Professor Hojo at the time."
Frowning, the president leaned back in his chair, his eyes demanding further explanation.
"As part of our investigation, I did some checking into Hojo's background, and it appears that he is something of a catalyst for missing persons." As she spoke, Elena reached into her portfolio to produce more sepia photos, these of three different young men. "Kadaj was reported missing here in Midgar a month after Hojo was promoted to head of Lifestream research - at which time he was granted sole use of one of the larger on-site laboratories. Yazoo vanished from Junon while Hojo was there studying a small underwater Lifestream fissure. Finally, Loz' disappearance from his home in Corel coincides with Hojo's time there taking readings on ambient Lifestream levels. All three incidents were isolated occurrences – no other young men were reported missing from these towns for a period of several months both before and after. In addition, no ransom demands were ever made."
"What does that have to do with Fair working for Lockhart?"
"After his stint in Corel, Hojo was next stationed in Banora, a quiet village near Mideel," Tseng answered. "Neither town is terribly populated, and young men such as these," he waved his hand at the scattered photos, "are few and far between. We think that's why Hojo opted to fake Fair's death: there were no other suitable specimens available."
"Are you saying that Hojo was... kidnapping young men and experimenting on them?" The president's tone was mix of shock, disgust, and disbelief.
"I'm suggesting that Hojo is still using human beings as unwilling research subjects," Tseng replied, "and that Captain Lockhart's missing fiancé is his latest victim."
Shocked silence greeted his announcement, and then Rufus stepped forward to better view the different faces detailed in the drawings and photos. "It makes sense," he murmured to his father, as he arranged the images according to the dates neatly penned across the back of each. "If Fair were the 'specimen' Strife was accused of stealing, then it wasn't theft, but rescue. We can surmise that the two must have split up at some point, and Fair made it to safety, while Strife was captured. Hojo then faked Strife's death, and resumed his experiments."
"Meanwhile, someone from the local Academy office would have informed Lockhart of Strife's death, only to have Fair appear and tell her what Hojo is really up to," Tseng added. "To her, it no doubt appears as if the company is covering up Hojo's actions."
"And all the proof anyone needs to believe her is to see Fair alive and well after we've declared him dead," Rufus concluded. "SOLDIER officers would recognize him on sight, as would Gast Faremis' daughter."
"This is a disaster," his father moaned, burying his face in shaking hands. "We'll be ruined when this gets out!"
"Not necessarily," Tseng countered, "we can make a compelling case that Hojo acted without Academy approval or knowledge. However, what is most important now is to stop him, before anyone else goes missing."
"And the Wolves? How are we to stop them from going public with what they suspect?" the president demanded.
"They haven't yet – which implies that either Fair or Lockhart or both are uncertain as to our involvement."
"I think both Lockhart and Fair would be happy to help put a stop to Hojo's experiments," Cissnei interjected, "provided we can convince them we're telling the truth."
"And exactly how would we do that?" the question was almost sneered, the president's tone blatantly skeptical.
"Simple," Rufus answered, "we find someone that Fair trusts and respects to negotiate our cooperation."
Since Cloud had never revealed exactly where Hojo had been reassigned, neither Zack nor Tifa knew where to look for him. They knew the lab was approximately another three days journey from Costa del Sol, but that still left a lot of Gaia to canvass. Similarly, neither knew whether or not Hojo was acting on his own, or with the approval of the Academy. Zack argued vehemently for the former – declaring that nobody who spent any time with the professor could miss that he was out of his head – while Tifa leaned toward the latter for precisely the same reason.
Despite their difference of opinion, they both agreed they needed – first and foremost – to get the Academy's attention. The direct approach – laying everything out on the table for someone like Grimoire Valentine – was distinctly unappealing due to the high probability of failure: the truth was simply too bizarre to garner a positive reaction. At best, they'd find themselves committed for their own safety.
Instead, they decided to opt for something more flamboyant. Something noticeable on a wide scale. Something that would make President Shinra nervous – if he knew what Hojo was doing – or cause him to ask questions if he didn't.
Something definitely reckless, and perhaps a shade desperate.
As the well-bred daughter of Nibelheim's governor, Tifa had access to a wealth of knowledge relating to trade, economics, and geography. Suddenly, such subjects were immensely more useful than she'd ever expected. Pouring over maps, she and Zack determined that there was no way a small force could effectively impede Academy business on land – there were simply too many alternate routes for goods to take.
But by sea, there were only two major ports, and a handful of minor ones. The shipping lanes would be far easier to control.
Thus were the Nibel Wolves born.
Of course, Zack had vehemently objected to Tifa being involved beyond the planning stage. Cloud would kill him – in the next life if he didn't get the chance in this – if she were hurt while in his care. Equally determined, she'd offered him a deal: if he couldn't teach her to effectively wield a sword for her own protection, she'd stay safely on land.
It wasn't until she showed up for their first lesson - sword strapped to her slim, breeches-clad hips, one of Cloud's shirts knotted under her breasts - that he realized he'd been played. A doting father had paid for lessons when she was a girl, and Cloud had later helped her perfect her technique. Someone, somewhere, had also taught her to fight dirty – kicking and punching to gain the advantage during close fighting.
Impressed, Zack moved on to teaching her how to use a pistol, and by the time they reached Costa del Sol in search of a ship and crew, her aim was at least passable. Under the tutelage of their boatswain Barret – a large man with only one hand, who could nevertheless load and shoot as fast as anyone Zack had met outside SOLDIER – passable quickly became deadly.
As if that weren't enough, their cabin boy – who actually turned out to be a cabin girl, but would-be pirates couldn't afford to be picky – voluntarily taught her to throw knives with speed and skill. After which, Zack was forced to concede that Tifa was probably better prepared to defend herself than he was.
"We're coming, Cloud."
"Well it's about time," Zack announced, surprising the Academy contingent waiting on board the Shera. Without hesitation, he strode forward and offered his hand to the man standing beside Highwind. "Seriously – three months to put the pieces together? I thought the higher-ups were supposed to be smart!" He grinned over his shoulder at Tifa. "Looks like I was right," he said, eyes glowing with hope and purpose rather than residual Lifestream taint, "Angeal wouldn't be here if the company was in on it."
"Zack..." began the other man – a high ranking SOLDIER officer – but was abruptly silenced with a dismissive wave.
"Tell me you know where Cloud is," Zack demanded.
"Tell me you're going to help us," Tifa added.
Angeal's eyes shifted from Zack to Tifa and back again, easily reading the worry in both. Relaxing, he nodded. This wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. This was far more straightforward and simple. "We're going to help you."
A week later, Tifa and Zack joined the Academy raid on Hojo's lab in Modeoheim. The facility patrols stood down immediately when so ordered by Angeal, allowing them to enter unimpeded. They found the front offices and living quarters – anywhere the guards could reasonably be expected to have access – to be immaculate. Normal. It was in the second half of the building, the gated labs, where Hojo's insanity reigned.
What they found there was horrific. Caged animals – many of them mutilated or dead, most of them feral, all of them rare or endangered – lined the walls. Jars and vats of Lifestream displayed unidentifiable, although recognizably organic, material. In one room, a large metal table held pride of place, its surface and the restraints on either end stained with blood. In another, reeking with the combined stink of Lifestream and formaldehyde, glass tanks held the preserved remains of four young men. Three were the missing youths Elena had identified; the fourth and oldest was Hojo's own son, Sephiroth.
Tifa staggered back into the comparatively fresh air in the corridor, struggling against rising bile. The bastard had experimented on his own son.
She had to find Cloud. Her urgency fueled by imaginings that now seemed all too probable, she slammed open door after door, calling his name.
She found him chained to a wall by his wrists, feet dangling several inches above the floor, his body dead weight. Blond hair was lank and filthy, lean muscles coated with sweat and blood. He was clammy to the touch, but his eyelids fluttered at the sound of her voice, his chest continuing to rise and fall at regular intervals. Screaming for Zack, she shot the chains an inch above the blood-caked shackles, then let the pistol fall to the floor as she caught his slumping form in her arms.
Despite his sickly appearance, Cloud was heavier than she remembered. Where previously he'd been well-built, now every inch of him was hard, corded muscle. Hojo had progressed further with Cloud in three months than he had with Zack in six. What else had he done?
At the scrape of metal on stone she turned her head, expecting to see Zack standing in the doorway. Instead, she found a tall, thin man pointing her own gun at her. "No, no, no," he scolded, voice reed thin and eldritch, "I'm not finished with him yet." He paced further into the cell, circling to get a better shot. "You can't have him, my dear," he continued in what no doubt passed for a comforting or conciliatory tone in his head, "he's been chosen by Jenova."
Cloud jerked violently in her arms at the sound of that name, eyelids slitting open to reveal slick, glowing blue. "Tifa's," he mumbled.
Hojo's features tightened in anger, brows lowering ominously. "You belong to Jenova!" he insisted, voice rising.
"Tifa's," Cloud repeated, his voice weak but stubborn, his response almost conditioned. She guessed his refusal was one of the few acts of rebellion he had left, and he clung to it with single-minded determination.
Hand shaking, Hojo shifted his aim from Tifa to Cloud, eyes alight with crazed fervor. "I thought you'd learned this lesson," he said, sounding like nothing so much as a disappointed teacher or parent. "Don't make me hurt you again. I don't want to hurt you again. You belong to Jenova. Now say it!"
His demand was punctuated by a brief rush of air, followed by a clatter as the pistol fell from his slack fingers. Hands scrabbling at his throat, Hojo struggled futilely to breathe around the boot knife embedded there.
"Cloud is mine," Tifa growled through clenched teeth, her tone absolutely final.
Against her shoulder, Cloud gasped something that might have been approval or laughter or pain, before slumping against her, unconscious.
It was over.
As Tseng and Angeal orchestrated the cleanup of the facility, Tifa and Zack took Cloud back to the Seventh Heaven. There, a team of the Academy's finest examined him, and eventually declared that he would recover, given enough time. Weeks, definitely; possibly even months.
Their prognosis was better than Tifa had feared, but worse than she'd hoped. For over a month, she kept faithful vigil by his bedside, anxiously waiting for Cloud to open his eyes and truly see her. For him to talk to her, to reach out and hold her hand, fold her close. To pass the time, she told him everything that had happened since the day he'd left her, taking care to describe every detail she could remember – from Zack's expression when he realized she already knew how to wield a sword, to the farce of Reno's challenge and the way she'd sliced his clothing to ribbons. At one point, she even listed all the impolite words she'd learned in her dealings with Cid.
She was describing Yuffie's habit of cheating at darts when he awoke. Voice raspy from disuse, the single word he uttered was almost lost in the midst of her own babble.
"Mercy," he said.
Tifa tumbled from her perch on the side of the bed in surprise. "What?"
Eyes closed, the corner of Cloud's mouth turned up in a faint smile. "Mercy. If you're not going to let me sleep, you could at least use your mouth for kissing rather than talking." Cracking one eye open, he peered at her expectantly, blue gaze soft and faintly glowing. "Or didn't you miss me?"
And that's how she knew everything was going to be fine.