Obligatory disclaimer : I hereby state that I, mihoyonagi, do not own any part of Final Fantasy VII and acknowledge all characters and plot as part of the actual game belong to solely to its creators. I do not make any gain for the writing of this story, fiscal or otherwise, and do not intend to at any time, present or future. The plot for this piece, however, is entirely of my own devising, and as such is sole property of me. Enjoy.
Slumbering Mountains, Chapter One: Dormant Flower
I am a tool. I am used for nothing good, and so nothing good can be said of me.
I am a shell. I am a soulless husk, devoid of all meaning save mere existence.
I've lost control.
The blood that caked my clothing, that had spattered across my face in droplets like so much rain, had dried. It would flake off onto my sheets and cover the soft white linens, and I would have to wash them again, but I couldn't find it within myself to care. I needed to shower. I needed to report back.
No, what I needed was freedom.
Ah, but I was worse than a slave; no will, not even a soul to call my own. I belonged entirely to him.
It was hours before I bade myself to move. With every movement, my body strained against my mind, a fight that left the entirety of me broken and restless, wrought with anxiety. It would be so simple to just lie there, unmoving, until I was called again. And yet, after I'd been properly punished for not attending myself, I would be forced to shower under the emergency chemical baths in the lab. It was hard to motivate myself, but a shower based on my own wanting versus one later in the lab was as close to control as I was given. I could not chose the why, but sometimes I was graced with the ability to choose when and how.
I was held in captivity, with little else than my thoughts for company.
I shed my coat, my heavy pauldrons pulling the garment down. The leather hit the tile floor with a heavy, weighted sound, dried flakes of blood fluttering about after it. I ran the shower with the hottest water I could stand.
Killing had once been a way of life. Now it was nearly my entire existence. Those who I slain now were not armed soldiers, nor did they have any potential to physically harm me. No, I shed the blood of politicians and ex-spies, of political activists and the leaders of peaceful demonstrations.
Once I had been called a killer. Now, the title of murderer was better fitting, I think. There was no ulterior motive behind these deaths other than petty feuds and power changing hands. I was given a name, a place, and I either killed or was punished.
Perhaps punishment wouldn't be so terrible if I could die from it. But, no, he'd made sure that the pain brought me nearly to the threshold between life and death before I was left convulsing and paralyzed, aching for hours or even days afterward.
I don't know for how long I showered. I don't keep clocks in my dwelling, and there is no chance for light to penetrate so far underground. But by the time I had finished scrubbing the blood from under my fingernails, from out of my shock of white hair, the faucet was running piss-warm, indicating that it had easily been more than an hour or two. My fingers and toes had shriveled from the moisture.
I scrubbed my neck last, as I've come to so often do. I hesitated to touch the metal ring around my neck, the devious device that caged me. How could one simple ring turn me to a life of servitude?
It began to vibrate. I cursed aloud, a vile strand of words that would make even the saltiest of sailors blush. I had two minutes to get to the lab before I would be punished. I shut off the shower and yanked too hard on the curtain as I stepped out, ripping several of the rings clear off. I dressed in little more than slacks and a plain shirt, then phased out of my apartment and down the hall from the labs. There were many things I attempted to keep secret from those in white coats, and my phasing was one I guarded closely. Of course, all that would need to be said for me to spill all of my secrets was hardly a few words. If, however, I was not asked, not commanded, I would not reveal any information.
The heavy door slid open with a grinding swoop, screaming its want to be oiled properly.
"You nearly did not make it again, Number One."
"I was showering when-"
"I did not ask for an excuse. Arrive on time, or be punished. Those are your options."
I would have loved to spit something terse in reply, but I've learned the hard way, more times than could be considered intelligent, that a sharp tongue is rewarded in the same way failing to comply to an order is; through excruciating pain delivered by the collar, leaving me nauseous, and mewling on the floor like some helpless thing afterward.
Hojo drew blood from my arm, scribbling shorthand on a stack of notes when he had finished. "I trust you were successful?" Though he phrased it as a question, it was little more than a statement.
"I was commanded to stay until he was dead, with no witnesses remaining. I would not have been able to return otherwise." It was as close to backtalk as I could manage.
He studied me from over the top of his glasses, several strands of greasy hair falling over his face. "You are lacking proper amounts of iron. I will have my assistant bring you more food tomorrow."
"I want steak, red meat," I tried.
"You will get what I see fit to give you." And, because he held the ultimate power over me, I would get exactly what he deemed appropriate. But there was no venom in his voice- he was simply stating facts. I could ask, plead, until I turned blue in the face, and he would still only grant me what he felt I needed. However, I felt that since I could offer no sharp wit directed at him when we conversed, I would ask and see what came of it. After all, it never hurt to ask. There was one occasion where I'd requested a specific kind of citrus fruit and, luckily, had been awarded with one, though I remain sure it was purely coincidence.
After he was done with the blood sample, he turned his attention to one of his computer screens. The collar around my neck was not only meant for making sure I stayed obedient; it also provided Hojo with a glimpse at my heart rate and blood pressure. Though, and I thanked the stars, it held no tracking device. After explaining to me exactly what the collar did, I had asked him if there was one embedded in it. He gave me a slightly stricken look, then scoffed as if I had asked him a profoundly stupid question. "Of course not," he responded. "The moment you step out of the frequency the device here in the lab emits, you'll be punished just as if you had disobeyed me. The only reason you're able to leave when I give you orders is because I turn off the smaller proximity emitter and allow you to leave. And before you even get the idea to disobey an order outside of the lab, understand that the only thing this emitter does is make sure you can't wander too far away from the labs; it, in no way, controls the collar, only how far you're allowed to go with it."
So, in short, damned if I do, damned if I don't.
He jabbed a finger at my collar, bringing me back to the present. His bony finger glided over the mastered manipulate materia that was embedded within it, the key component to the device. He smiled at it, as if proud of the creation around my neck, all the while completely ignoring me.
There was no way out for me.
"Your next mission will be soon. Be ready."
As if I had anywhere to be.
He left, and I was alone in the lab with one of his little cronies, what he called his assistants, who I liked to, in the privacy of my own mind, call his ass-kissing, brown-nosing willing slaves. They followed him like lovesick dogs, starved for attention. What they would never come to understand is that Hojo was incapable of caring for another living being. Once upon a time, before I'd been brought forth into this ugly world, perhaps Hojo had been human. Thinking of him as kind doesn't fit, by any stretch of the imagination, so when I say that perhaps he had once been human I mean that maybe his level of sanity wasn't always questionable. But these poor fools, his lackeys that held on to his every word, hoping for even a drop of praise, would never come to know it. Hojo took pride in only what he made, only which that was perfect.
Needless to say that I was never praised. He was all I knew, before and, now, after death, and again in life once more. He played God far better than I was able to. How he pulled my soul back from the lifestream I will never come to know. I asked him, and he smiled and shook his head. He told me that none would ever know, for after he brought me back he had destroyed all of his notes regarding my resurrection. This, of course, was only to prevent others from bringing people back from the beyond; Hojo had a remarkable memory, and there was little doubt in me that he wasn't fully capable of bringing back armies from the grave just based on what he had stored away in that insane mind of his.
Yet no matter how much I ignored them, his so-called assistants glared daggers into me as soon as Hojo was gone or, in some of the more brave ones, when he wasn't looking. None of them could match my stare for long; the things I could do to them with just my mind would likely have them pissing their pants to simply ponder, but, as Hojo often does, I was commanded never to harm them. And so when they shot their hateful looks at me I remained passive, simply staring back at them. I was never the first to break eye-contact, but such little victories were meaningless in the long run. They would do it again tomorrow, or the day after, and I would simply stare back. It was an unending cycle with no winner, merely players.
They all fought for Hojo's attention, while I would kill to get away from it.
I exited the lab, carefully walking down unknown hallways and around as many corners as I could. When I was sure none had followed me, I phased back into my apartment, the only place I had anything that remotely resembled freedom.
Shinra knew nothing of my rebirth. I'm sure I would be killed if they did. After all, I'd tried to destroy the world; what use would they have for a murderous tyrant with God-like ambitions? Everything Hojo did with and to me was a secret, shared only by those actually permitted in his labs, his feeble-minded lap-dogs. The lab was stationed far under the Shinra HQ; it had once been living quarters for Shinra employees who didn't wish to live in the actual city of Midgar. Small families that couldn't afford their own living space, or bachelors who had joined with the ambition of high management. Some of them were even for the Soldier high-ranking, though I'd never given it much thought when I had been part of the company. Hojo told me that, once Meteor had been destroyed by the Lifestream, people demanded a change. It was slow, and took several years. As far as I can tell, it was roughly three years since my death that I had been brought back, but I was quickly losing track of the days as they wasted away into weeks and months. No one ventures into the underground, Hojo said. The main building above ground had been partially destroyed by Weapon, and, instead of building it back to it's former glory, Rufus fixed what he could and set his attention to making sure he didn't have a city-wide revolt on his hands. Other than that, there was little to nothing I knew of what was going on, or what had truly happened, since I had been killed.
I phased back into my apartment. It was mine by title only; nothing in it, aside from a few articles of clothing, truly belonged to me. So long as I was in the compound, Hojo didn't care much for where I actually went when he wasn't around. I'd searched hallway after hallway of the abandoned complex, glad that I could still see quite well in the dark, and came to a place I wouldn't mind calling my safe place. The few comforts, like nicer bedding, had been salvaged from other apartments. Everything was in decent condition; no pests could thrive in concrete. The air purifiers still worked, so there was little dust or contaminants in the air. I asked how Hojo could hide so well, considering we were using power and water from the complex above, and I was informed that only the top five floors of the compound were functional as living quarters any longer, but that the building was wired so that all floors were still supplied. I was assured that what little power and water was used by any of us so far underground went largely unnoticed.
It still seemed like too large of a risk for Hojo to take, and so I came to the conclusion that he was likely paying several people off, and, if the cash flow wasn't generous enough, the threat of becoming one of Hojo's lab rats would still lips. Corruption, no matter how refined Rufus wanted Shinra to appear, would still run deep within the company.
I'm not sure how Hojo managed to keep his position, or if he was hired back after the Meteor fiasco. When I asked, he told me to mind what came from my mouth, lest my words displeased him. From which, in sort, I could deduce that he was on a very short leash, with a very diminished paycheck. It was pleasing to anger him, though I learned how far to push before relenting. He was weak and feeble in body, but with just a few words he could have me sprawled out on the floor, writhing in agony. I did not remark about how possibly tiny his paycheck was after the first. Honestly, however, I sometimes feel it had been worth the punishment.
My blood-soaked clothes were right where I had left them, on the floor in my bathroom. I picked them up and dumped them into the bathtub. Washing leather was such a chore. Yet, I couldn't bring myself to wear anything less than my old Soldier uniform when I was commanded to kill. There was no rational reason behind why I wore it; it was merely a compulsion. That, however, only served to infuriate me, as I prefer reason to mere feeling.
I blotted the blood from my trench-coat with a damp, clean cloth, and laid it to dry hanging off the side of the tub. I bundled up the rest and threw it all, along with my sheets, into the washing machine. Part of the reason I had made this particular apartment mine was because of the washer and dryer, not to mention the large tub in the bathroom. It had a huge main area as well, with two large, leather couches. It lacked a TV, though I would not have watched it even if there was one. I, instead, spent my time reading books.
There is something magical about books. They provide you with a world in which to escape from your own, and are completely portable. It's a far cry from the bullshit that the televisions are known to spit, and I'm glad that I lack one. I'd seen a few left in the other apartments, but couldn't bring myself to procure one for my own usage. Something inside me didn't want to know what was happening in the outside world. Perhaps it was the fear that it would only make me pine for freedom that much more.
Most of the apartments had been abandoned in the same manner as my own; as if the people living in them had simply disappeared. I had little trouble finding books because of this, though it did feel awkward to rifle through belongings that were not mine. Anything of value had been taken, like jewelry and fine china of course, but rooms filled with the dreams of children - little plastic, glow in the dark stars stuck to the purple paint, wall to wall of forgotten stuffed bears and bunnies, crayon drawings of dragons and princesses - had been left behind, never again to be the safe places, well guarded against monsters.
I found that I sometimes truly wished to know why these apartments had been abandoned with what seemed a frantic haste. Thanks to the communal kitchens, most of the independent apartments themselves lacked food storage which saved my nose from the assault of putrid, rotting goods. I was able to pilfer some dried goods for my own storage - beans and rice, tea and honey - and although I was more than pleased to have something completely secret, something only I knew of, especially food, I still felt strange taking it. Even though none would use it, and no one would come back to get it, I felt odd taking something that was not mine.
I decided on a lentil soup for sustenance. I liked soup; it was easy to make, easy on my stomach, and re-heated well. I was lucky enough that my apartment had an in-suite kitchen. I would guess that my particular dwelling had been reserved for some of the higher-paid, well-off of the Shinra elite. I had to, when I'd first come upon it, wage war against the myriad of mold that had taken over the fridge, but there is little that lives thought a good washing with bleach, and fridge rot was no exception.
While I had a nice kitchen, and an equally nice bathroom, I wished for a view. I would sell my soul for a window. Though, to be fair, I'm not completely sure I still had one or, if I did, that I could claim any ownership to it.
My soup was nearly finished when my collar went off. Sighing, I dried my hands, turned off the stove, and phased an uncountable number of floors above to an empty hallway near the lab. When I entered, Hojo was pacing, his greasy brow wet with perspiration. He handed me a photo attached to a manila file folder.
"This man is Gregor Kinsly."
I met Hojo's stare, knowing what would come next.
"The following are commands: You will kill Gregor Kinsly. You will be seen by no other human being and, if you are, you will end them. You will attempt to complete your task by the weeks end, and will do everything in your power to ensure it is finished. If, for whatever reason you are unable to complete your task, you will promptly return here to face the consequences. You will not try to escape or evade your duties."
I suddenly felt sick, like a wave of the flu had washed over me, but I had nothing in my stomach that could come up, and so I held down my gags. Such was always the case when I was issued a new order. Hojo admitted that he was not completely sure as to what was happening to me when he issued orders. The sickness was a minor side effect to him, one that did not put me in any immediate or eventual danger, and so it was regarded simply as a side-effect of the collar's power. Perhaps it might have been the materia working its magics on me - remember that it was mastered, and quite strong - or perhaps it was my will being crushed. Whatever the case, the sickness left me after a moment, and once I regained my composure I looked up in time to watch Hojo as he left the lab. Behind him scuttled one of his assistants, who turned, glared at me, and left a cardboard box on the counter near the door.
I took the food left to me and, making sure I was alone, phased back into my home. I sorted out the goods, putting away anything that needed to be kept cool or frozen, and left the rest to do when I came back. I fetched my clothing from the bathroom, donned it, and phased to the roof of the building, careful to keep myself invisible. I cursed what powers I had kept. If I'd been brought back to life as a useless thing, I would have been put out of my misery long ago. Instead, I was useful as an assassin, and because of the collar I had little other choice.
Gregor took residence in Kalm. The trip was short, but the poor weather made it drag on forever. The cold of winter was upon the Eastern Continent, and the ground was covered in a thick layer of frost. Whatever animals that normally populated the plains during the warmer months had long ago fled to their dens, and, fat from nearly three seasons of gorging, were resting peacefully in the deep sleep of hibernation. The wolves might still be active at times, but food during winter was scarce for all across the plains.
I kept to the shadows after I landed and became visible again, knowing that if I was seen there would be hell to pay. Staying invisible strained me but if I could manage it, I tried my hardest to make sure that no others died when I was on assignment. If it could be helped, I made sure it was. Better the life of one than the live of many. A migraine because I stayed out of sight for too long was better than taking another innocent life.
A killer with a conscience. Who would have guessed?
Not many, though, to be fair, I had once razed an entire town in frustration, anger, and a profound feeling of abandonment.
But people change, and no matter how I think of myself, no matter how others may come to label me as a monster and a murderer, I was still human.
His house was empty. I unlocked the door with hardly a second thought - I'd been able to do such nearly all my life, and only thought it strange when I had done so in front of another soldier and they had been so surprised they had nearly given away our position - and carefully shut it behind me afterward. I clicked the lock back in place, not wanting to strain my mind if I could help it. I would need all of my strength to stay out of sight when my target returned home.
The file I'd been given mentioned that this particular night was a rather prolific sports game of sorts, and that Gregor would, like everyone else in the town, be at the local pub, as he was not only a sponsor to the team, but had a son on it as well. I hoped Gregor's team won so that the poor bastard had at least one decent thing happen to him on his last day on the planet.
He returned late into the night, nearly dawn, drunk and stumbling and singing some kind of anthem for his team. I watched him from the confines of the broom closet - a most undignified hiding place, I am aware - as he, in his sloshed state of mind, puked into his kitchen sink and then staggered toward his bathroom. After a few moments, moments filled with the sound of his puking, I heard the shower turn on. Another few moments passed before the curtains opened and closed, and a more still before I emerged from the closet.
He was singing a new song about his beloved team when I slowly pushed the door to the bathroom open. I crept across the bathroom floor, silent as the moon, and drew not Masamune but a simple hunting knife from the holster on my leg. I would try to not let him see me. I hated it when they looked into my eyes as they died. It was slowly tearing away at my sanity, which is quite a feat considering that I'm not right in the head to begin with.
I would not be granted any kind of leeway tonight, however. As soon as I was nearly close enough to finish the job, the damned fool turned off the shower and cranked back the curtains. He leaped back in surprise, shouting and nearly falling against the tile of his shower stall.
A feeling rose in my gut - the urge to vomit, most likely - as I reached toward him. There was little struggle, and even though I am far more powerful than a normal man I'm sure that his drunken state didn't help his predicament. I twisted him in my grip, placed the knife to his throat, and finished the job. He fell, his body making a wet, meaty sound as it hit the porcelain.
Blood was everywhere.
I stared at his lifeless body for a moment, trying to catch my breath. My hands were shaking. What had once been a normal thing for me to partake in during combat in my previous life was now something I had come to abhor and regret. I am a killer, but with no way to repent. The only thing I can do is kill.
Eons passed, or perhaps it was only hours, or even minutes, before my heart returned to a normal beat. I washed my hands off in the sink, knowing full well that no one would ever be able to pin me to the crime. When I left his house, my hands smelled of his soap and blood.
I took my time returning. I didn't fly, as I easily could have, but instead took to walking at least part of the distance back to Midgar. The icy wind didn't penetrate my leather armor, but lacking a hat and proper chest coverings didn't help me stay warm. Still, I was returning, as I had been commanded to, and I was well within the time-frame I had been given. It was a little freedom, and I would take it.
Once I made it within sight of the city, I took to the sky and became invisible again. Back in my apartment, I sat in the dark, unmoving, for hours. I'd have to wipe the couch free of dried blood when I finally removed myself from my hunched position, but, considering the weight on my shoulders, having a pristine living space was not really at the top of my immediate priority list. No one else but me would ever see it, so what did it matter?
I stood, realizing that letting myself fall victim to the raging, drowning whirlpool that is self pity would not help me. Depression already had me in its grip, but I refused to lose myself completely. I was a tool, but I would not become a doll. Taking a clean washcloth from the bathroom and wetting it from the tap, I wiped clean the couch. Only, of course, after removing my garments and cleaning those first. I tossed out the forgotten soup on the stove and started fresh, mincing an onion so small that the pieces would dissolve in the broth. I wanted bacon to flavor, but what meat I was allowed was mostly fish, which was high in protein and, given the variety of fish, very low in fat. But I lacked butter and lemon, and didn't have many spices to liven up the dish, so I ate it mostly when I had nothing else to eat.
After I was satisfied with what was in the pot, I placed the lid on top and began to clean the kitchen. I needed to busy my hands, and there was little else to do, so I made sure to take my time with every task. I took the garbage out the front door and, although the hallway was pitch-black, the garbage incineration chute was right across the way and I knew exactly where it was, even if I couldn't see in the dark. Apparently, the chute still functioned for the rest of the building, which suited me just fine. It meant that I didn't have to deal with a garbage problem, though Hojo made sure to command me not to throw too much away at once, lest an increase in garbage production raises a few eyebrows up above. Though, I'm sure he could easily take care of such a matter. I wondered how many bodies he'd pushed down the chutes, cut up and placed in black garbage bags all over the compound, or if he just kept them in a freezer somewhere for future testing. I couldn't decide what idea sounded worse, so I pushed it from my mind.
My apartment didn't have clocks. I used to rather like them, their constant tick-tick-tick that, on some levels, could even be called hypnotic. If I could not see the sun, however, I did not want to bother with clocks. Unless Hojo called me, I made my own schedule; I ate when I was hungry, and slept when I was tired, cooked and cleaned and read during the time between.
Ah, speak of the devil; he was calling me right down to hell, or up, as it were in my case. I was sure to place the pot of soup in the fridge so that it would not spoil if I again needed to leave. By the time I entered the lab, Hojo was looking most pleased with himself. He flashed me a newspaper, the headline catching my eye. "Prominent Political Activist Killed in his own Home." The vision of Gregor's corpse flashed before me, though I hid my disgust behind my always stoic mask.
"It's been a good week." He flashed a smile at me.
I remained impassive, not caring to know why else he seemed so excited.
Hojo, however, has a gigantic ego, and I knew he would tell me without my asking. "Come, come. None of my assistants can appreciate her the way I'm sure you can."
Fighting the urge to sigh and roll my eyes, I followed him through one of the many doors in his lab. The hallway that we walked down was one of the first hallways I remember seeing after he'd brought me back. I'd been weak, unable to walk and talk, for the better part of an entire week. I'd remember being both deaf and blind, as well. I could hear muffled sounds that I knew were voices, but I could not make out distinct words. If at all possible, it was a harder time than what I was currently going through. At least at this stage I could understand, could move, could feed myself.
"The following is a command," Hojo said over his shoulder as he entered a numeric code on the door pad. "You will not hurt her."
I should have known. Only one other thing on the planet could make Hojo so giddy, only one other being on the planet who had escaped his clutches.
Floating in a tank in front of me was Cloud's insufferable Cetra girl. Had Hojo not commanded me not to harm her, I was sure I would have unsheathed Masamune and gutted her right then and there.
Everything was her fault. Everything. She was the reason I was not reborn as a God. She was the reason I had an obedience collar around my neck. She was the reason this planet and all of its pathetic inhabitants were still functional. She was the reason I was a slave.
Hojo read such in me. He didn't bother hiding his smile. "She's weaker than you, by far, so it will take much longer for her to become functional again. I'll have to keep her on mako shots for a few weeks, too, after she's done in the tank. Perhaps months, depending on how well she can heal. Ah, but when she does wake up..."
I tuned him out. I completely turned everything off. All I could feel was the blind hatred that welled up in me, that spilled over and threatened to ruin me. Hojo led me from the holding tank area to what was as close to a gym as I would get. His assistants were still setting up some of the bigger machines - it was rather difficult to bring giant weight machines down a dozen floors without anyone noticing you - and set me to run. I don't know how long I ran for. I didn't care. When Hojo finally commanded me to stop - yes, he had to finally command me - my legs were burning and my throat was so raw I hard trouble breathing.
"Get some rest," Hojo suggested as he left me on the lab floor, breathing hard and sweating through every pore on my body. I leaned up against the treadmill, blotting myself with a towel. Eventually, without standing, I phased down to my own home. I showered as my soup re-heated, and ate when I was clean. I felt not only tired, but drained. I had put all of my emotions, all of the ones that I'd bottled up for long, into that run, and it was all because of her.
But, no matter how I hated her, I knew what would happen to her. Hojo would, once she was out of that damned tank, put a collar around her neck, too. And not even the Devil himself knew what Hojo would do to with her. If what he'd done to me was any indication...
But there was nothing I could do. It was out of my hands.
I slept. I slept like I had never slept a night in my life. I woke up, groggy and frustrated, and took a piss just so I could get out of bed. My dreams were far from restful; she floated in no-space in front of me, the scent of flowers filling my mind until, when I woke I was convinced I could still smell them. I was roused only when the collar summoned me.
Hojo had called me, but left as soon as I got through the door. "Food," he said as he motioned to the counter. He turned off the light as he left.
I don't know why I walked down the hall. I can't honestly fathom a decent, let alone coherent, reason as to why I felt compelled to phase through the damn door and stare at the tank she floated in. Perhaps it was because there were no cameras, or more than likely because I was seriously ill in the head, but whatever the reason, as I stood in front of her tank-cage, I knew that I couldn't leave her. No matter how I hated her, I would wish my fate on no one else. The torment Hojo issued me was worse than the fires of hell. I would know, I was dead once before.
It was not because I owed her. I didn't. She stole from me just as much as I stole from her, I'm sure one could argue. And I would never stoop so low as to ask her to forgive me. She had been in my way, and I had, by taking her life, removed an obstacle in my path, no more and no less.
I swallowed, hard. I knew Hojo would catch me. There was no way I could hide her properly, make sure that he never again got his hands on her.
But trying and being punished was better than doing nothing. Plus, I wanted to see Hojo mad. It pleased me to no end to see him frustrated. It would be worth it.
So, taking a deep breath, I partially phased my hand and reached through the tank. As soon as I wrapped my fingers around her thin wrist, I pulled her free.
She was so light she almost seemed weightless. She was completely limp in my grasp, and it took careful maneuvering to make sure I could carry her without the possibility of harming her. Hojo had, after all, commanded me not to hurt her.
I fought down a smug sense of satisfaction. How ironic it was that he'd commanded me not to hurt her, and here I was setting her free from harms way. Well, at least until he found her again.
I cradled her against me very carefully, and reached out with what free motion my left arm could manage and pulled from the counter a box of Mako injections. Something at the back of my mind had reminded me that Hojo had mentioned she would need shots. I remembered, though vaguely, the very last of my own shots after my rebirth. There were little memories I had of that time, but for some reason I'd always welcomed the injections. I remember warmth, but past that nothing much.
Just to be safe, just to calm my already shaken nerves, I became invisible. Balancing the box of injections in one hand, I took the box of food I'd been left and phased down to my apartment.
I hadn't realized how sticky she was, how naked she was, until I had to put her down. I hadn't the slightest idea as to what she'd been floating around in, but I wasn't keen on cleaning it off my couch. I placed the injections and the food in the kitchen, knowing whatever things that needed to stay cold would be fine for a time. I took her to the bathroom, placed her limp body in the tub, and set to work. I maneuvered her into a sitting position, picked up the removable shower head, and took every precaution I could to make sure I was as gentle as I could possibly manage.
She was pale, though I wasn't sure if it was because she was naturally light-skinned or because of her rebirth. Her cheeks had a pink hue to them, however, so I assumed that she was in good enough health.
Her hair was nearly as long as mine, and the color of walnuts and maple leaves in the autumn. It was wavy, though not quite curled, and I found it interested me as I washed it carefully; it was so very unlike my own.
When I was pleased with her level of cleanliness, I picked her back up and wrapped her in a towel, being gentle as I patted her skin dry. Her hair would take a long time to dry and so, with her face pressed against me, I wound up her hair as best I could. It would be easier to keep it out of the way for now.
I put her in my bed, mostly because I didn't think she would do well on the couch. The bed was soft and warm, with sheets I'd lain out hardly a few hours before. I stared at her for a long while, watching her breath, before I decided it might be good to dress her, else she wake up in more of a panic than I had a feeling she would. I pulled a random shirt from my closet - a pure white, boring thing - and pulled it over her. I felt like a grown man dressing a doll. Her nakedness didn't bother me, but there was still something about the entire situation that made me uneasy. My shirt was like a nightdress on her tiny frame.
Knowing how her eyes would hurt, I ripped strips from a shirt from the back of the closet and wound them around the upper portion of her head. It would help keep the hair from her face when she slept, as well, though I made sure that it wasn't too tight.
I wondered how long I would need to wait before she would require her first mako injection. I couldn't remember if there had been any indication when I'd needed mine - all I could recall was the rushing, warm feeling of refined Lifestream - and so I decided, at least for now, to wait.
When there was nothing else I could do for her, I went to the kitchen and set about putting away my food. Hojo gave me only what he saw fit, but he always made sure to give me more than enough of what I needed.
I took a book off my shelf and sat down, content to simply be for a while. I didn't know what would happen - what Hojo would do to me when he found out I freed her - but dwelling on it, worrying over it, would accomplish nothing. I had saved the little flower girl from torture, at least for a time.
It occurred to me that I didn't know her name. I had plagued Cloud with dreams of her death to mock him, but I didn't even know what she was called. Ah, but I'm more than sure she would know my name. I wondered how she would take that, being made to understand that she'd been saved by the very person who had stolen her life in the first place. I'd wax poetic about irony, but I was too caught up in thought.
I had finished an entire book before I felt hungry again. I ate more of the soup, but left enough in the pot so that, if she woke and was hungry, she would have something easy to put in her stomach.
I was twenty pages into a new book when I heard her. She mewled like a kitten, lost and afraid, and at first I didn't realize that it had been her in the first place. I stood, felt slightly panicked over the idea of actually confronting her, but pushed it aside as I made my way to the bedroom.
She was twisted in the sheets, breathing heavy and hard, dry heaving and crying.
How had something so weak bested me?
She turned her head to me when I entered the room, and, for a moment, it unnerved me. She hadn't heard me - my footfalls only make sound when I let them. She had sensed me. Suddenly, she turned away from me, her skinny little arms flailing as she tried to skirt away from the door.
"Please, no," she gasped. "Please, don't hurt me. No more. I'll be good. Please."
My shoulders sank. Hojo had already worked his deranged magic on her. So much for saving her. Still, I could offer her a little solace.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed that she was shivering. I highly doubted it was from the temperature in the room, but I snatched another blanket from the hallways closet and slowly made my way into the room.
"I've no wish to hurt you," I tried to make my voice low and reassuring, even though I doubted she could hear me.
Her legs moved oddly under the covers, and I had a feeling that she'd been suspended in the tank for far too long. They had most likely atrophied to some extent. I thought back to my Soldier training, knowing that, if needed, I could easily give her the same care as a physical therapist. I hoped, however, that it wouldn't come to that.
I don't think she could understand my words, but the low tone of my voice made her stop and turn back to me. "You're not... You're not Hojo..."
She spoke as if she wasn't completely sure, as if she were asking me. "That's right," I replied, knowing that she couldn't hear me anyway. I kept my voice calm. She could, at least, hear the calming inflection in my tone.
"Please don't... Please don't hurt me." There were big, wet stains behind her makeshift blind-fold. I carefully crept toward her, keeping my footsteps measured and, just for her sake, noticeable. I snaked an arm around her as I helped her sit up, then wrapped the blanket around her thin frame. "No one is here to hurt you." I've done enough hurting. I wasn't making amends, I was just sick of causing nothing but pain and death.
She sagged against me, the little flower girl, and cried until there was nothing left. She told me, even though I knew her voice was fuzzy in her head as she spoke, that she couldn't hear me, and that she was scared she'd gone blind. My words couldn't reach her, so I rocked her. It was the most comforting - the only comforting - motion I knew. He tears streaked my shirt,and her sobbing didn't stop until she'd cried herself to sleep.
Was this healing?
I laid her back down, covering her up as best I could, and took a long shower. What had I managed to get myself into? What would I do with her? What could I do with her? What would Hojo do to us once he found I was hiding her?
Stop. Breathe. Worrying and fretting will accomplish nothing. There is nothing but the present. Once she is well enough, I can take her on a mission with me and dump her in whatever hell-hole Hojo sends me to. That is, provided of course, for some strange reason, he doesn't attribute me to her disappearance in the first place.
I sighed. The more I thought of it, the worse I felt. I steadied myself, resolving to let the future come as it may.
When I was dry and calm, I walked back into the bedroom. She couldn't see me, so I simply dressed there in the room. I suspected her of being asleep, but when I returned to fetch a pair of socks after hanging up my towel, she turned to face me again. It was unnerving how easily it seemed she could sense me. I knew she was Cetra, but to be able to sense other people like that? Or was it, perhaps, easy for her to notice me when there were no other life forms around?
"You're... You're the one who saved me, aren't you?"
She couldn't hear me if I answered, so I merely stayed quiet, observing.
After a moment, she continued. "I want to... to thank you. Taking me from Hojo is dangerous, that much I can guess. I'm sorry if I've put you in any danger."
I felt strange, having her apologize to me over such a strange matter. It was as if she was apologizing for the faults of another person. I'd put myself in my current predicament, not her. She did not know who I was, otherwise I'm sure she'd treat me with kind of profound mixture of horror and disgust.
"I hate to be a bother but... I'm so hungry, and so weak. Please, will you help me?"
I stared at her. It had taken me nearly a week before I could walk, and here she was, turning when I entered the room and asking for my aid without even knowing my name.
Such a stupid thing.
No, not stupid. Simply too quick to trust..
I left her and returned with soup, as well as an injection of mako. I didn't know how to convey that I was trying to help, but she would be too weak, not to mention placated by the food, to fight me. I didn't care if I held her trust on not; I cared that she healed so I could make her leave.
I'd heated the soup very little, wanting to make sure that it wouldn't burn her, or torment her tender stomach. I tried to get her to sit on her own, but her muscles were so lax that she sank against the pillows I had propped her up against. "I'm sorry," she apologized, embarrassed. "I can't seem to get my body to respond."
I knew exactly how she felt, and found that I could muster no anger toward her. I was angry at her for other reasons, of course, but not for the fact that her body was failing her. Sitting upon the bed, I let her lean against one side of me, cradling her head in the crook of my elbow and feeding her with my other hand. She ate far more soup than I thought she would, a good sign, but I would not offer another bowl. Overeating when healing is not a good idea, and she was tiny enough as it was; I couldn't imagine she could manage to fit more in that small stomach of hers.
She smelled of my shampoo, and of moist earth. I found the last thought entertaining in a strange way. Here I was, enjoying the smell of her and yet I hadn't the slightest idea as to what her name was.
She babbled a little, between the spoonfuls of soup. She thanked me again and again for helping her, even though she had no idea what she'd been thrust into. All that mattered to her was that I was not Hojo, though how she could deduce that without seeing or hearing me was simply fascinating.
I've no idea how much time passed between us before I felt it time to give her the mako injection. I knew that she would need it soon, for not long after I'd finished feeding her did she begin to tremble, full body tremors that made her teeth chatter together.
I prepped the needle, unwrapping it from it's sterile package. I spoke to her then, reassuring words in a low tone so that she would not fear what I was about to do to her. I'm sure that she had gained a fear of needles under Hojo's hand, but this was something that could not be avoided. Be it a by product of the way we were resurrected, or simply that our new bodies processed it different, mako energy was needed. I hadn't paid it much mind when it had just been me in the lab, but once I put thought on the subject, Hojo had been giving me mako injections at more widespread intervals. I recall having them, at one point, at least one every other day.
She tensed when I touched her, like she knew what was coming. "Please, no," she began, and I had a feeling that her next set of tremors were from fear.
I had little other choice. I took her arm, found a vein, and carefully injected her. There was a moment of silence.
Then, all hell broke loose.
Her back arched like she was possessed, her mouth opening and closing as she gasped for breath. She flopped from my grasp and onto the bed. I stepped back, shocked. It had not been like this for me; what in Gaia's name was going on?
I feared, for a fraction of a second, that I'd managed to kill her again. The thought was both funny, in an ironic sense, and terrifying. I wished no more dead by my hand, least of all some woman I was trying to help.
Her neck was straining, her jaws suddenly clenched as she twisted over, whimpering, and, then, suddenly, a power filled the room, a rush of magic rising and falling like a wave through the entire area. The lights flickered, then shone bright again and, finally, popped as the wave eased out of the room.
She laid there, panting, gasping for breath, as I stood there, dumbstruck. She turned her head away from me, and began, once again, to weep.
I left in search of more light bulbs, for lack of want to stay in the apartment. I walked out my front door and began down the pitch-black hallway. Near the end of the hall was an old maintenance closet, and inside was a shelf filled with varying watts of light bulbs. I took several, filling my arms, and slowly walked back. I changed the ones in the living area first, then in the kitchen, the bathroom, and the hallway. I couldn't bring myself to return to the bedroom, not yet.
I finished another book, and slept on the couch for a few hours. When I woke, I knew she would be hungry again, and so I set to making another dish that wouldn't wreak havoc on her stomach. Rice, no matter how bland, would do well. I set a pot to boil, and placed a few pieces of bread in the toaster oven. If she didn't feel up to rice, plain toast would do well enough. I didn't have enough spice to make a nicer meal, and, to be fair, I wasn't much of a cook to begin with.
She was already facing the door when I entered the room. I saw her tense up, but the smell of food relaxed her. I sat her up again, knowing I would be forced to feed her like last time. She ate without chit-chat, keeping only to chewing and drinking the water I'd brought. I felt guilty, as if I'd done something terrible, though not understanding what I'd done in the first place made it difficult for me to place the guilt. After she'd eaten, I bundled her up in the covers and left her to sleep more. I fed myself thereafter, eating the left over rice and toast, and then grilling a piece of fish when I found myself still hungry.
I was in the middle of cleaning the dishes when I was summoned. I sighed, dried my hands, and phased through the floors toward the lab.
I had to hide my smile when I entered the room. Hojo's hair was pulled from its normal, greasy ponytail, wild and falling about his face. His cheeks were red, a likely indicator that he'd been into the bottle. His voice was hoarse as he screamed at his team of lap-dogs.
"All of you are suspect! All of you! I will find which one of you that took her, and I will hack you into such tiny pieces they won't ever be able to identify you!"
One of the assistants was crying, obviously scared shitless.
"I should put one of these on each and every one of you ingrates." He jabbed at the collar around my neck. His boot-kissers flinched, terrified of Hojo's wrath.
I kept my cool, trying to retain a steady heartbeat. Hojo's collar was hooked up to monitors, and he would notice an unusual spike in blood pressure and heart rate. The spike upon my entrance could be attributed to his yelling. So far, I was in the clear.
"Command: answer the following question. Did you steal the girl?"
You cannot steal what someone doesn't own. And, no matter how they must obey you, you cannot own another being. You may have claim to them, but you do not own them. Hojo was a fool for thinking that he could own a person. I may have been his slave, but he no more owned me than he owned my thoughts. I was his in name only.
I did not steal the girl.
I had set her free.
And just like that, I had found a loophole it he collar around my neck. If I truly believed it to be true, and I answered after being given a command, I was not lying. Previously, I had been convinced that the device prevented me from lying. All other questioned orders Hojo had shot at me had been questions without wiggle room, like when he asked if I could still see in the dark. There was no way to wiggle around a question as dry as that, but what he had just asked me? Ah, it opened my mind up with unimaginable ways to fuck with him.
Hojo turned away from me, back to his lab techs. "If I affixed a collar to each and every one of you, I wonder who would end up dead from the pain after I ask a similar question?" He flipped his wrist, flicking his hand toward the door, signaling that I was permitted to leave.
If it wasn't so damn undignified, I would have skipped. I was giddy, coasting on a wave of pure delight. Finally something was going right. He would not find her. I'd set a victim of Hojo's free, stealing him right out from under his nose. Forget that it had been that infernal puppet's tentative love interest; since being reborn, I'd finally done something decent with my pitiful existence.
I couldn't stand still. I paced in the kitchen, wishing she wasn't temporarily deaf. I wanted to tell her that she was free. As soon as she was healthy enough to be on her own I would...
I would be alone again, wouldn't I?
"Is... is there someone out there? I need help, please."
Here I was thinking of her, and yet I'd nearly forgotten that she was in my bedroom. As always, she was facing the door when I entered. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to bother you it's just... I... I have to use the bathroom, and my legs aren't working that well." When I looked at her legs, it was obvious she had tried to drag herself out of bed. One leg hung limp off the mattress, the other twisted in the sheets.
I vaguely wondered if this was how it felt to raise a youngling. She was so helpless; was she able to do anything without me? At least she could speak and tell me what was the matter, instead of crying like an infant.
It was an interesting ordeal getting her to the restroom and giving her enough personal space. I left the door open when I exited, just to make sure that, if she fell, I could hear her. When she was finished, she called for me again, and I carried her into back to the bedroom. I stood still there for a moment, awkwardly, wishing she could hear me. I wanted to ask if there was anything else she might need, but if she couldn't hear me there was no point in wasting my breath.
Still, I knew she could sense me, and my standing by her bed for a few moments seemed to convey the message her ears were unable of hearing. "I think I'm alright for now. Thank you. I'm sorry that... that I can't do more for myself. I swear I'm not normally so useless."
Her smile was...pleasant.
Thin limbs, small waist, thin neck; she was a pretty woman, I'd give her that, but her lack of physical strength made her, at least in the eyes of a Soldier, seem just that; useless.
One of the first things I taught new recruits, however, was that you never underestimated the enemy. She may have been small, but I knew, first hand, that her will and magical prowess was something to be reckoned with. Even after death she'd had the ability to save the world.
There was nothing left between either of us for the moment; she needed her rest, and I had no way to otherwise communicate with her, so I left the room, careful to leave the door open a crack in case she called for me again.
After a few hours, after the initial wave of giddiness had all but washed out of me, I checked on the girl. She was fast asleep, tangled in the sheets of my bed. I was glad that she could rest, that what Hojo had done to her had not broken her completely.
I napped on the couch, playing some classical piano pieces on the apartment's still working stereo until I was called again. The problem I suffered due to the lack of clocks my apartment was that time moved both quickly and slowly for me. I never had to worry over being late, or sleeping in, but I also had no idea how long I'd slept for, or even how many days had passed since I had brought the girl home. But, with my collar buzzing, there were more important things to tend to.
Hojo had regained his composure since the last time I'd seen him. He still looked angry, of course, but he was sober this time around. He ordered a blood test for me, swabbing my arm and muttering to himself.
I wanted to goad him. I liked to see him miserable, though getting pleasure from someone's frustration and misery didn't exactly make me a good person, either. "Why can't you just make another?"
He glared at me. "You might think it's that easy, but you're missing the big picture. I had pulled her soul from the Lifestream, Number One. I had done what no other on the planet could even comprehend; I'd truly brought someone back from the dead. Without her soul, without her memories, another copy of her would be useless, not worth the pile of flesh it would be made out of. I didn't need her for her body or her blood. I needed her for her memories, for her secrets."
I watched as he scribbled on his clipboard. "The gym is nearly finished. You should use it. Just because you can't go outside doesn't mean you can't use those legs of yours."
"Is that a command?" The look he shot me would make a lesser man cower. But, he could not reasonably be angry with me; I had asked him a simple question.
"Yes. I command you to get some damn exercise."
"Very well," I replied, turning my gaze away from him and looking about the room in a rather unamused fashion. "Have you found which one of your sheep took the girl?"
Hojo pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Don't concern yourself. She is no matter to you."
I rolled my eyes, trying hard to look both unimpressed and uncaring.
"You need more Vitamin C. I've left a bottle of supplements in my office on my desk. Take them when you leave. Before you do, however, I want you to cover five miles on the treadmill. You don't have to run; a decent jog would suffice."
He turned, examined the vial of blood he had drawn from me, and set back to his science as I ran. When I was finished, I took the bottle of pills from his desk and, while I would take a few myself, I knew that the girl would do better with them in her system.
It bothered me somewhat that I didn't know her name. But, being unable to ask her, my problem would remain for a time. When I returned, I pushed open the door to make sure she was well.
She was humming, light and airy.
A single hand was resting atop the speaker that sat on the bedside table. I'd completely forgotten that I'd left the music on when I'd had hurried off to Hojo's lab.
"You can hear?"
She turned toward me, half of her face covered by the wrap. She tiled her head, then sighed. "I can feel the music, though not perfectly. But, I still can't make out your words. I'm sorry."
It had taken me a week before I could stand. How could she, such a tiny and fragile thing, be so strong yet all the while lack actual physical strength?
There was power in her that I would never have imagined.
"I'm glad you appreciate music," I found myself saying, even if she couldn't hear me. It was nice to have a conversational partner without fear that if I say the wrong thing I might get electrocuted within an inch of my life.
She tilted her head at my words, obviously curious as to what I was saying. I was surprised that she wasn't more frustrated with her current position of 'helpless'. I knew that, when I had been as weak as her during my recovery, I was nothing but angry at everything. Though, to be fair, it was a rare day I wasn't angry with something.
I laid on the opposite side of the bed and listened to the music with her, my back resting against the headboard. Freeing her from Hojo had been a sort of revenge for me, something that, at first, I never believed that I would get away with. Yet here I lay, next to the woman who had stolen my chance at godhood from me like it was nothing, listening to the sweet melody of a piano.
Why had I taken her?
"Will supper be soon?" she asked me, sincerely.
My mind was reeling, but it wasn't uncomfortable. I walked to the kitchen, listening to her soft voice hum in tune with music while I made simple pasta. I brought her a plateful, and pulled her into a sitting position. Penne noodles didn't needed to be cut, thank the stars. I hated dealing with spaghetti noodles anyhow.
"You cook very well." She smiled after her first bite.
Perhaps she was being truthful in her compliment, or perhaps she had merely forgotten what actual food tasted like. I was sure Hojo kept her alive with various nutrition shakes or, if she couldn't eat, merely pumped her full of whatever was needed to keep her alive. I watched her, wondering what she would think if she knew her hero, her savior, her personal chef, was the man who had killed her.
No wonder the puppet had sought out her companionship. Just being next to her was relaxing. It was as though a calmness radiated off of her in waves. I found that, while I had earlier decided I hated her - regardless of my having saved her from Hojo - for stealing my dreams of being a God, I couldn't find anything to hate about her. Save her obvious innate goodness, of course, but I didn't expect any less from her. When I had watched her though Cloud's eyes, she was always smiling at him, always soothing the hearts of her comrades. Her sunny disposition was not forced; even in dark times, she carried her own weight and then some.
When she'd finished all that I had brought her, she thanked me again for my generosity. I grimaced, but let the expression fall quickly from my face. Let her think what she wanted. As I was moving her back to lay down, her hands twitched slightly, and I watched as a wave of gooseflesh erupted over her skin. After a moment, she sighed.
It was time for another mako injection. She was going through withdrawals.
Dammit, I needed a clock, a calendar; I needed to know how often I was administering her doses. I was sure that there would be something in another one of the apartments. Perhaps even Hojo would have some kind of time-telling device in his lab.
I wondered how long it had actually been since I'd freed her.
I took her plate into the kitchen and returned with another shot. I hadn't the slightest idea how she knew what was in my hand, or what my intentions were, but she pushed herself against the headboard as soon as I walked in.
"Please, no, I'm okay. I promise. I'm alright. I don't need - I'm not going to - I can't - please -"
Wet stains appeared behind her blindfold as she begged.
There was, however, no other option left to me.
I reached out and gently took her wrist. She was shaking by now, and tried to pull away from my grasp. Her teeth were chattering.
How could I communicate that she needed this without words?
Very carefully, I placed a hand to her face. She was so small compared to me, my palm covering more than her entire cheek. Shaking her head against my hand, I felt as another tremor took over her body.
I didn't want to force her if I could help it.
She sucked in a breath, then thrust her arm out to me. "I know you're trying to help me, but this... I... I can't even explain what it does to me."
I held her wrist still in my grasp for a moment. I wish I could understand her. Perhaps when she could hear me, I would ask what she meant.
Despite her shaking, despite her pleas, I gently stretched her arm out on my lap and searched her skin for a vein. When the deed was done and refined mako flowed through her veins again, I readied myself for her reaction. I expected it was going to be much the same as the last time and, as a precaution, had turned off nearly every light in the apartment.
The wave that rushed through the room was warm, but crashed into me with as much intensity as the ocean. I stumbled backwards, reeling away from her, as all of the breath was struck from my lungs. I gasped and held the wall for support, watching awestruck as she writhed about on the bed. The room smelled like ozone, like the air after a heavy rain, but the only sound was her soft breath, coming and going in great heaves. She clutched the bed covers with her tiny hands so tightly that her knuckles were white.
I'd have to change the light in the bedroom. Again. Pity I'd forgotten to turn it off right after I'd injected her. My previous expedition to the maintenance closet had left me with three extra light bulbs. I fetched one from the kitchen counter when I felt I could breathe with ease again, and carefully disposed of the burnt one.
I wondered just how much power hid in that tiny frame of hers. Once, I had been completely unable to comprehend just how she had bested me. Now, with only having been in her company a few days, I wondered how I had thought of her as insignificant before.
She was sleeping when I had finished washing up the kitchen. I turned on more music, knowing she would appreciate it when she woke and as dozed on the couch for a few hours. I dreamed of flowers, a flower garden in the rotting remnants of a decrepit church. I felt as though I knew the place, had seen it outside of my dreams, but could not place where, exactly. The smell of roses, lilies, tulips and angels grace flooded my sense, and set my nerves at ease.
For once, things were going well.
But, good things hardly last, especially, it seems, if I'm involved in any of it. My collar began to tremble around me neck, tearing me from my peaceful dream full of flowers. I phased upward and entered the lab, not surprised when I encountered Hojo bent over his lab table, eyes staring down the business end of a microscope.
I stood there for several minutes before he felt fit to begin conversing. "I've another mission for you."
It felt like a stone had set in the pit of my stomach. I hadn't thought of having to leave the girl behind. Hojo hardly gave me missions so close to one another, but perhaps it had been longer than I thought since the last one.
"Another political activitst?" I sneered
Hojo's brow knit. "You'll keep your mouth shut and your tone mild, if you've any sense of self-preservation."
I said nothing in return, merely started at him expectantly.
He handed me another folder. I flipped it open, browsing over the contents with dread welling within. When I came to the picture of my victim, I stilled completely. It was a woman. She was hardly old enough to drink. "She's just a child."
"It's not your concern."
Hojo's tone let me know that he didn't care much for my opinions. "The following are commands: You will kill Kenna Reamos. You will be seen by no other human being and, if you are, you will end them. You will attempt to complete your task by the week's end, and will do everything in your power to ensure it is finished. If, for whatever reason you are unable to complete your task, you will promptly return here to face the consequences. You will not try to escape or evade your duties."
The room spun, and I heaved, nearly throwing up this time. Damn the side effects, damn the collar, and damn Hojo. But, most importantly, damn me.
When I found the ground still beneath my feet, and the urge to vomit nearly gone, Hojo was absent and the lights of the lab had been turned off. With darkness all around me, I phased down to my apartment and began to pace about, dreading what would be done about the girl. I took several water bottles from my cupboard and filled them. I had no real use for them, and hadn't used them since I'd claimed the space as mine, but they had sat in the cupboard, undisturbed, anyway. I gathered up fruit and what little dry goods I had that didn't need to be prepared, like granola and nuts, and made my way to the bedroom.
She was sleeping when I entered, and I gently shook her awake after I'd set the food on the bed.
"I don't suppose you can hear me now?" I tried.
The Cetra tilted her head up at me, curious but unable to understand.
I took her hands and had her reach to the food I'd placed on the bed for her, making sure she knew where it was. Doing the same with the water bottles, I waited patiently for her to respond.
"This is a lot of stuff, but I'm not sure I understand. Are you going away or something?"
I placed my hands on either side of her head and nodded it up and down, very gently, making sure that she got the message. She smiled when I did it, obviously not having expected it.
"Is there any way you can tell me how long you'll be gone?"
I couldn't, because I didn't know. It could be a day, it could be most of the week. With my hands still in place, I shook her head. She smiled again at it.
"Alright. Thank you for letting me know; I'd be pretty scared if you'd just suddenly just stopped showing up."
I thought about giving her an extra dosage of Mako before I left. Too much, however, and it would kill her. Not enough and she would wind up in pain, yes, extremely ill, and perhaps if it went on too long then death, but the threat of immediate death was not a looming one. I decided against another injection, but still worried over the prospect of leaving her alone.
As I moved to take my hands from her face, she reached out with her own and gathered my hand in hers. "Thank you for all that you've done for me." The sincerity in her voice was sickening. It amused me to think of what her reaction might be once she found out who I was, and what, exactly, I'd taken from her in the first place. In all fairness, had I not taken her life, she wouldn't be here. Ah, but if she hadn't tried to stop me, I wouldn't be here, either. Interesting the way fate falls.
I gently took my hands from hers and gathered my clothing to change. From Midgar to Junon was a long flight, but I could remain visible once over the mountains; the hills were scarcely populated, and people rarely ventured outside during the cold nights of winter.
Properly outfitted and geared, I phased and shot skyward, though stories upon stories of the building until, having made it though the roof, shot southwest. The night was cloudless, the air crisp, but I could not find it in me to appreciate such beauty in nature. I was on my way to kill someone, and there was no way I could avoid the matter.
I reached the outskirts of Junon by mid-day,, becoming invisible as I neared the radio towers surrounding the city. The residence of my target was a large apartment building in the upper area of the city. I phased through the glass door on the balcony, staying unseen, and carefully looked about the room.
She was seated on the couch, facing the opposite wall I'd entered in.
I nearly jumped from my skin when she spoke. "I know you're there. I knew it was only a matter of time before they sent someone."
I held my breath, staying completely silent and unmoving, until she turned her head and looked me directly in the eyes. "Come on now, that's not very civil. I want to see the face of the man sent to kill me."
I hesitated, then phased back into the visible spectrum. "How can you see me?"
She shrugged. "Most likely the very reason you've been sent to kill me; I've got powers, and I won't bend over backwards so Shinra can fuck me in the ass."
Carefully, my hand poised upon the hilt of my sword, I circled the couch so that we were facing one another. Her eyes were big and brown, doe-like, but even so she was unafraid.
"I apologize," I offered. It was the best I could give her.
She actually smiled at my words. "I appreciate it. But, better to die free than live in chains."
Her words stuck me. "Indeed."
"Well, can I ask you something first?"
I paused, narrowing my eyes.
She went on, despite the fact that I hadn't opened my mouth. "Can you make it as clean as you can? My little brother is likely coming over in a few hours, and I don't want him to see a big mess. I want him to remember me without my being covered in blood."
Shame and anger overwhelmed me, only to be replaced by a drowning feeling of helplessness. "As you wish," I replied, then took my dagger from my boot. Slowly, I knelt in front of her, placing one hand behind her head as I tilted her neck back.
"You know, I would have never guessed that they would have sent the great General Sephiroth to end me. I always thought'd be, I don't know, snipped while in the market, or taken out in the middle of the night by a sweeper team. It's an honor, sir."
I slit her throat, choking back my breath as the life drained from her eyes.
My hands were shaking so terribly that I found I couldn't sheath my dagger. I left in on the carpet, dripping with blood, next to the slippers on her feet. I stood, unable to look about my work, and forgot to phase out of the window as I leaped from it. The glass shattered and fell to the streets below. I became invisible and flew as fast as I could toward Midgar. I craved the fresh air, the open expanse of sky, but knew that unless I had four very sturdy walls around me, I was going to completely lose myself.
A day and a half in total had passed when I made it back to Midgar. As soon as I phased through several layers of the building, my collar went off. Hojo knew I was back, and wanted to see me. I would have screamed, had people not been on every floor I passed. It would do me no good to scare them with a disembodied voice. I'm sure it would only end in my punishment, anyway.
I entered the lab as my two minutes was nearly through. I stomped past Hojo's diligent little toys, this time actually scaring them into submission; none dared look at me.
Hojo tapped his clipboard with his pen. "You were almost late, you know."
"I'm aware. I've only just returned, however, so you'll have to excuse me." I said it with as much bitterness as I could.
My tone was met with a stone-cold glare that matched my own. "Be mindful, Number One."
I said nothing in response, merely waited.
"I wanted you to report on your latest mission while it was still fresh in your mind."
I stood at attention, as I once had during my so-called employment in Soldier. "The target was waiting for me, and could sense when I arrived. She was surprised that I was the one sent to kill her, and asked that I make her death a clean one so that her sibling might not be too disturbed when he arrived at her dwelling later in the morning."
He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "And she could see you, couldn't she?"
I hesitated, and Hojo smiled at me. "Yes, I know that you can become invisible. You used to use that trick to escape getting your Mako shots when you were small. Of course, I beat it out of you after the second mishap, but that is neither here nor there. Now, answer my question."
I didn't remember the hiding from Mako shots incident, but it seemed like something that might have transpired; perhaps I had simply been too young to recall, or perhaps I'd simply forced it from my memories. So few of them when I'd been young were pleasant, after all. "Yes, she could see me. She could sense me, as well, as I said."
A dreamy look overtook Hojo's sharp features. "Such a pity I had to end her. If she had just submitted to my testing, she would still be alive."
"Better to die free than live in chains." Her words were out of my mouth before I had time to register that I had been the one the say them.
Hojo met my stare, his expression having twisted into something more sinister. "Too bad you don't have such a luxury," he mocked.
"Have you found who stole the girl?"
That got him. His face twisted in rage, and I could hear him grinding his teeth. "No, but rest assured that, when I do, they will wish they'd never been born." He stood and left me, turning out the light as he went.
I wanted to gut him. I wanted to rip him apart, piece by piece, and when he begged for mercy, I would laugh. No longer did I revel in killing, true, but his death screams would be some kind of fantastic melody to my ears, the last life I willing enjoyed destroying. If it was the last thing I did while alive on this forsaken rock, Hojo will be no more.
Wrought with rage, seething with anger over the idea of my own helplessness, I phased down to my safe place, my so-called home, ready to hit something, a wall, a door, anything-
I nearly toppled over her, the little Cetra girl.
She was lying, face down, in my hallway, halfway between the bathroom and the bedroom.
All of my anger and desperation flooded out of me, replaced with a rush of anxiety and, I admit, slight annoyance.
"What are you doing on the floor?"
She sighed. "I thought I felt up to the task of dragging myself to the bathroom, so that I wouldn't have to... make a mess of the bed."
I paused, my breath catching. "You can hear me?"
She turned her head to face me, a smile lighting up her features. "I guess I can, can't I? You're a little fuzzy, but I can understand you well enough. Now, I hate to be rude, but can you pick me up? I'm terribly cold down here on the floor."