Author's Note: Okay, so first of all, I am so sorry this chapter took so long to post! At first I had a huge writer's block. Then, it got all out of control and I had to split it! So, long story short, please forgive the lateness of this chapter and I'm hopeful that the next one won't take as long! Thank you for your patience everyone!
As always, thank you to my beta, Sephiroth Owa_13. I am lucky to have you around to motivate my sorry butt into action! And she is also the reason I haven't run out of chapter titles! ^_^
Disclaimer: Square Enix owns Final Fantasy VII and all its characters (damn). I just play with them every now and then! :D
Chapter 43: The Sickness Is Rising
Tifa watched Professor Strahm look at the scans of Sephiroth's brain that he had just taken. It had been a few hours since he'd started and she was anxious for his answers. In the past, Sephiroth had passed out like this only once before and that was on the boat to Wutai when Genesis destroyed Jenova's head. At the time, Professor Hollander had said it was probably something to do with Sephiroth's connection to Jenova suddenly being severed. Even though she was dead, technically, the cells seemed to be a parasite that lived on. If he was knocked out because that connection was severed, then he was probably unconscious now because the connection had been re-established by the clones.
Tifa ran a hand through her hair and sighed. What a mess, she thought to herself. She stared at Sephiroth and shook her head. "Why can't they just leave him alone?"
Strahm's smile was sympathetic, and the hand he placed on her shoulder was supportive. "ShinRa only sees what's good for them. People are nothing but an annoyance to the company. General Rhapsodos' defection caused more trouble for ShinRa than they like to admit. General Sephiroth's defection shook the public's faith in ShinRa. They think if they can take the General back that it will set everything right again."
Tifa shook her head and made a face. "They've done something far worse than anythingGenesis did to them. Sephiroth's a good man, but they didn't see him in Nibelheim. He is capable of destroying everything – all of ShinRa's bullshit won't mean anything." She sighed and looked at the professor. "So, what's the verdict?"
Strahm set the scans down. "There is more brain activity than I've seen in previous scans of the General, and of every other SOLDIER. I think it's safe to say that the clones were successful in doing something. Did they activate the Reunion Protocols? I can't say for sure. We won't really know anything more until he wakes up."
Strahm squeezed her shoulder. "I'll give you a few minutes with him. I have to check on the results of those blood samples I took earlier.
Tifa nodded before turning her gaze back to Sephiroth. When the door closed behind Strahm, she lifted Sephiroth's hand to her lips, and pressed a soft kiss against his knuckles. "Don't leave me, Seph. I need you."
Genesis looked up when Strahm entered the hallway. "Well?"
Strahm sighed. "The clones definitely did something. The General's brain activity is off the charts. Until he wakes up, I can't say what the new brain activity means. Any insight into his behavior before he lost consciousness may be helpful."
Genesis thought for a moment and frowned. "It may be nothing…"
Angeal touched Genesis' shoulder. "What is it?"
Genesis turned and looked at Angeal. "I think he was able to hear my thoughts."
Angeal frowned. "What?"
"I was trying to formulate the best plan of escape since ShinRa would know we were there," Genesis said. "I figured the best plan of action was to split up. In the end, we followed my plans, but initially, when I first thought of separating Tifa and Sephiroth, he said he wouldn't leave Tifa. I know I hadn't said anything out loud, but Sephiroth knew what I was thinking."
Strahm nodded. "That actually makes sense. Tifa said one of the clones had entered her mind. If the clones "entered" Sephiroth's mind to activate Reunion, it's possible that one of the side effects to Sephiroth was being left with the ability to hear the thoughts of others. Listen, I'm just going to check on his blood work, then I'll return."
Once the professor was gone, Genesis looked at Vincent. "This is a mess. I never should have let Sephiroth go to Junon."
A small smile curled Vincent's lips slightly. "I don't think you could have stopped him."
Angeal smiled and nodded. "He really loves that girl. Can't say I blame him. She is one of the most genuinely caring people I've ever met. Her heart has enough room for everyone."
Genesis nodded. "She cared about me even when I was a degrading mess. She was so good to me." He paused and looked up at Angeal. "She needs Sephiroth. We can't let ShinRa take him away from her…or us."
Angeal's face tightened. "They already tried to separate all of us with their lies and manipulations. They didn't succeed then; they won't now, either."
Vincent looked at both men and shook his head. "Sephiroth's in trouble."
Genesis lifted an eyebrow. "Well, no offense, but no shit."
"No offense taken," Vincent said. "But it's worse than we suspect."
"What do you mean?" Angeal asked.
"I relieved Tifa earlier so she could get some rest. While I sat with Sephiroth, Chaos said that Sephiroth doesn't smell right anymore."
Genesis scrunched his nose up. "Chaos was smelling Sephiroth? Uh, gross."
Vincent turned and looked at him, his eyes glowed yellow, and his voice was different. "You will be happy that I can smell a difference in your friend since your human senses failed to pick up any difference."
Genesis' eyes widened. He knew Chaos resided within Vincent, but thus far, the demon had made no appearance. He sounded offended, and the last thing Genesis wanted to do was offend a demon. "My apologies."
The yellow glow faded from Vincent's eyes and he looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, Genesis. Normally, I am able to control Chaos, but what he has discovered has touched a nerve with him and he is quite…mouthy."
"What did he mean when he said Sephiroth "doesn't smell right"?" Angeal asked.
"Chaos was trying to tell me that he smells evil," Vincent said. "And that he hasn't been more Jenova's son than he is now."
Angeal shook his head. "So, what he's trying to tell you is that Reunion has already been activated, and Sephiroth is already lost?"
"That's bullshit!" Genesis snapped. "I refuse to believe that Sephiroth is lost to us. He fought that bitch off in Nibelheim, he can do it again."
Vincent looked at Genesis. "I fear it may not be that simple this time."
The incessant buzzing made Sephiroth twitch. He was desperately trying to cling to sleep, but the voices wouldn't stop.
Will Tifa forgive me?
I wish Sephiroth would just wake up.
My son needs me and I can't help him.
Without him all could be lost.
How could science be allowed to create such distress?
If I hadn't run from ShinRa and told Sephiroth the truth, this wouldn't be happening.
If I had been a better friend, Sephiroth and Genesis wouldn't have drifted apart.
Sephiroth squeezed his eyes, wishing the noise in his head would stop. However one voice soothed him and cut across the chaos in his mind.
I love you, Seph. Please come back to me.
It was that voice that forced him to open his eyes. At first, Sephiroth thought the past two years had been a dream. Upon first glance of all the machines surrounding him, he thought he was back in a lab and a lab meant Hojo. But when he blinked again, he saw that the surroundings were very different. The room was bright, none of the machines were pumping mako into his body, and there was one very important difference: Tifa was curled up in the chair beside his bed.
A slight frown creased her brow, even in sleep, but he was glad to see she had escaped Junon. He remembered boarding the Highwind, but everything after that was a blank. In the quiet of the lab, he was finally able to visually inspect Tifa for injuries. Everything had happened so fast in Junon that he was relieved to see her alive, and didn't inquire about the interrogation methods used on her.
Sephiroth could see she hadn't bothered to use a potion or even cast Cure on herself, because he could see her lip was split, and she had a dark bruise forming on her cheek. He was actually surprised that Genesis hadn't insisted on healing his "little one" as soon as he saw her. Sephiroth had a hard time believing his own physical distress would keep Genesis from happily taking advantage of being able to touch Tifa.
His thoughts were interrupted when Tifa stretched in her sleep and rubbed her eyes. She blinked a couple of times and yawned before turning her gaze to him. She looked startled to see him staring back at her, no longer sleeping, and seemed ready to hug him, but something held her back; her fear was practically rolling off her in waves.
"Tifa, I'm okay," he said, wanting to reassure her she had nothing to fear.
She still looked unsure, but she didn't let her concerns hold her back. She smiled and hugged him tightly. "I'm so glad you're awake." She turned her head when the door opened behind her. "He's awake!"
He was irritated with whoever entered the room and caused Tifa to pull away from him. When she moved out of his line of sight, he tensed up. It was a man with short black hair, wearing a lab coat. He instantly recognized him as one of Hojo's army of assistants. Sephiroth narrowed his eyes while he watched the man approached him.
"General, are you feeling okay?" he asked.
Sephiroth grabbed the scientist's arm when the man reached out to touch him. His eyes went from the frightened scientist, to Tifa. The look of fear had returned to her eyes. "What is he doing here?"
Cautiously, Tifa stepped forward and gently unwrapped Sephiroth's fingers from the scientist's arm. "Please, he's only here to help. You can trust him."
Sephiroth again looked at the startled man beside Tifa. "You are a ShinRa scientist. I trust no one from ShinRa – especially anyone from the Science Division."
The man composed himself and nodded. "I don't blame you, General. Hojo didn't instill trust in the people he worked on. Please, let me assure you that while I worked under both Hojo and Hollander, they weren't the reason I came to work for ShinRa. Professor Gast was the reason. He was a pioneer, and I admire his work."
Sephiroth relaxed slightly at the mention of Professor Gast, but he was still suspicious. "Why are you here?"
"Seph, you passed out for no reason after coming into contact with Kadaj," Tifa said, her voice gentle.
Sephiroth frowned, not recognizing the name. "Who's Kadaj?"
"That's one of the clones," Tifa answered.
"I understand the distrust you hold for me, General," the professor said. "I really do, but I want to help you anyway I can."
"Seph, I trust him."
Tifa's soft affirmation of trust cut through his doubts. He scoured his memories for anything to do with the man beside him, trying to remember if there had been any interaction between them – good or bad – but the only thing that came to mind were the few times Hojo allowed him to draw blood. He remembered his face now. It had been the only kind face he had seen since Professor Gast.
"What's happened to me?"
The professor appeared startled by Sephiroth's question, but seemed able to shake it off. "Well, to be perfectly frank, General, I believe the clones you encountered activated a genetic fail safe within your brain."
Sephiroth frowned. "A fail safe? How was this achieved?"
Professor Strahm shook his head. "Professor Hollander found notes about it in Professor Hojo's records. He seems to believe Hojo purposely implanted this protocol in your brain either while you were still in the womb or shortly after your birth."
Sephiroth could hear Strahm's doubts in his head as if Strahm was actually saying them out loud. "You don't agree."
Strahm hesitated, but eventually shook his head. "No, I disagree with him wholeheartedly, General."
"And what do you believe?"
"I think the "Reunion Protocol" isn't something that Hojo engineered or perfected in any way," Strahm said. "I think it's something inherent to the nature of the Jenova cells themselves."
Tifa frowned. "What do you mean?"
Strahm pulled up another chair and sat beside them. "Jenova is almost like a virus. Once she gets inside you, her cells will expand, killing other cells and breaking down your very DNA. The SOLDIER J-cell protocols were designed to that in SOLDIERs, but in a limited way. Her cells imbued SOLDIER operatives with strengths and powers of only a fraction of Jenova's true potential. Hojo managed to find a way use mako to control the growth of the cells, so instead of SOLDIERs becoming overwhelmed by her cells, we were able to control what they effected and how much they actually changed the recipient's DNA."
Tifa shook her head. "What does all that mean?"
"Hollander thinks the "Reunion Protocol" Hojo mentioned is something Hojo created to control Sephiroth," Strahm explained. "He thinks that by activating that fail safe, he can bring Sephiroth back under control and bring him back to ShinRa as a good little servant."
Sephiroth knew the professor disagreed. "You think this isn't the case at all, is that right, Professor?"
Strahm nodded. "That's right, General."
"What do you think about the Reunion Protocols?" Tifa asked.
"I think they're a flaw Hojo found but did not report," Strahm answered. "I think there was a flaw in his work and he covered it up by claiming the Reunion Protocol was a fail safe. Instead of giving ShinRa control over the General again, I think it will set off the reactivation of the Jenova cells within him, rewriting his DNA to match Jenova's. Once that happens, he will have her abilities, and, unfortunately, we don't know the full depth of those abilities."
"So, we've already lost Sephiroth, is that what you're telling me?" Tifa demanded angrily. "We're just going to give up on him? No! I'm not going to do that!"
Sephiroth looked at Tifa and felt his lips curl into a small smirk. Her eyes were flashing, and her cheeks were flushed. The strength within her was overwhelming to his senses. He felt desire flare within him and knew she was the perfect woman to have by his side as he traveled the cosmos, conquering worlds.
Sephiroth shook his head slightly. Conquer worlds? He stared at Tifa and tried to remember what about her actions set off such a strange thought. However, when he looked at her now, he just saw Tifa…no delusions of grandeur. He had to make himself focus once more on the conversation before him.
Strahm reached out and placed a hand on Tifa's shoulder. "No, I'm not saying we should give up, but I think it's safe to assume the protocols have been activated." He turned his gaze to Sephiroth. "General, how are you feeling right now?"
Sephiroth shrugged slightly. "I feel fine. Maybe a little more tired than normal, and my head aches."
Strahm got to his feet and pulled out a small penlight, testing its brightness on the back of his hand, before stepping closer to Sephiroth. "May I check your eyes, General?"
Sephiroth wasn't used to scientists asking if they could do anything to him, and the idea of actually turning down one of their "requests" of him seemed tempting. In the end, he just nodded and allowed the professor to shine the light in his eyes. A few quick flashes in each eyes and then the professor stepped back.
"Normal pupillary response to light, so that's one good thing." Strahm picked up his chart and made a notation, checking his watch for the time. "Though your eyes are glowing like they would if you had just had a fresh mako treatment. Your eyes don't glow like that normally, do they General?
Sephiroth shook his head. "No."
Strahm against resumed his place in one of the chairs beside Sephiroth's bed. "May I check your pulse?"
Sephiroth sighed irritably. Not being asked if someone could touch him was bad enough, but all the excessive requests for permission to touch him was grating on his nerves. "Stop asking me for permission every time it is required for you to touch me!"
Tifa frowned. "Sephiroth, what's gotten into you?"
He scowled at her, but found he couldn't stay angry when he was looking at her. He sighed and looked at the professor. "I apologize."
Tifa rolled her eyes. Yeah, right.
Sephiroth turned his head quickly and looked at Tifa. She was looking around the room and the professor didn't seem to have noticed her comment. Sephiroth closed his eyes and focused on Tifa, conducting a little experiment of his own. The more he focused on Tifa, the closer to her he felt – physically and mentally.
As the sensation of getting closer to her increased, the more prominent her feelings became in Sephiroth's mind. He could feel her relief, her fear, her sadness, the pain from her untreated wounds, and her anger. She was angry with ShinRa for what they had taken, herself because the clones had beaten her, Cloud for kissing her in the first place, and she was angry with Sephiroth for being so difficult with the man trying to help him.
"General, I do have a question regarding the time right after your encounter with the clones."
Sephiroth had to shake his head slightly to clear his mind of Tifa's emotions. He turned his head and looked up at the professor. "What do you want to know?"
Strahm marked down his blood pressure before lifting his gaze to Sephiroth's face. "I'll be blunt: are you hearing voices?"
Sephiroth frowned. "Excuse me?"
"General Rhapsodos said that when your party was attempting to decide the best escape plan, he had the feeling you had heard his thoughts," Strahm answered.
Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. "Genesis was just being melodramatic. He said we should split up, but that Tifa should go with Zack and Cissnei. I was, understandably, reluctant to part with her so soon after her recovery."
Tifa leaned over and touched his hand. "Seph, Genesis didn't say anything. You just looked at him and freaked out."
Strahm shook his head. "General, if I'm going to help you, I need you to be honest with me. Are you hearing voices?"
Sephiroth turned and looked at Tifa. "Not the same way I did in Nibelheim, Tifa, and not the way Zack and Cloud did on the boat to Wutai." Sephiroth sighed when the fear didn't fade from her eyes. He couldn't look at her while she was so scared, so he instead focused on Strahm. "I can hear thoughts. Peoples' thoughts are constantly in my mind now. It's like a constant buzzing and sometimes, a voice will push its way to the forefront and I can hear that person clearly. That must be what happened with Genesis in Junon."
Strahm nodded. "This supports what I suspected. Reunion has been activated, General, and unfortunately, I can't say what this means for you…except that you'll most likely have to fight the pull of Jenova's cells again."
"So, there's nothing you can do for him?" Tifa asked.
Strahm shrugged and shook his head. "I don't have the necessary data to formulate any kind of blockers or defense for the General. I'm sure one of Vice President Shinra's Turks could hack into the databases to retrieve Hojo and Hollander's information, but I'm not sure I trust their research."
"I doubt the information will still be there, but there was a lot of Professor Gast's research in the basement of the ShinRa Mansion in Nibelheim," Sephiroth said. "It was quite informative."
Strahm nodded. "Thank you, General. I will speak to your companions about retrieving the data. I'll just be a moment."
Once they were alone again, Tifa turned and looked at Sephiroth. "I'm so sorry I didn't leave Midgar when you told me to."
Sephiroth shook his head. "It's not your fault, Tifa. If this was ShinRa's plan all along, they would have made it happen, one way or another."
"Still – "
"No, Tifa. You did what you thought was right at the time."
Tifa looked down at her hands. "Your clones scare me, Seph. They really do. All three of them want you to replace Jenova and destroy this planet." She looked up at him and held his gaze for a moment. "They call it Reunion, but…it's something evil. They don't want to just destroy ShinRa. They want this planet for you."
When she looked away, Sephiroth could feel his lips pull up at one corner of his mouth in what may have been seen as a curious kind of smile to the casual observer. But if that observer caught on to the feelings of revenge and the desire for ultimate suffering, they would see his grin as pure malice.
Tifa really had no idea how appealing what she had just described sounded to him. She had no idea just how attractive the thought of taking the planet from the inferior humans sounded to him. It was almost like a soothing balm to his frayed nerves and raw emotions.
First, ShinRa would be destroyed. They had to pay for what they had done to him. An enticing image of running Masamune through President ShinRa's body came to mind. Strangling that annoying bitch Scarlet with his bare hands only deepened the grin that was twisting his lips into a sneer. Decapitating Heidegger and Palmer would be most satisfying. And Hollander…Sephiroth smirked. Hollander he would strap to one of the examination tables before breaking his legs, arms, hands, and feet before pumping him full of experiment mako protocols to observe his bones heal without the benefit of proper resetting, just to see how they healed on their own. Then he would repeat the breaking process and let him suffer with the pain. Why not? After all, it was an experiment he himself had gone through. It was only fair for the sadist to feel the pain he subjected others to.
But this was all just fantasy. He couldn't fully achieve his goals without a weapon that ShinRa couldn't fight. One of the clones had told him to seek out the Cetra. She would have the answer he was looking for. He had to speak with her and find what he needed. Of course, she probably wouldn't give him the answer he was looking for willingly, but he would have his answer one way or another.
When the door opened again, Strahm entered the room followed by Genesis, Angeal, and Vincent. When Sephiroth looked at Vincent, he was immediately struck by the overwhelming presence of Chaos. Strange, he had never noticed Chaos before, and from just looking at Vincent, it didn't appear as though Chaos was fighting for control of their shared body. Why would he feel the demon so acutely?
"Welcome back to the Land of Consciousness," Genesis said with a dramatic lift of his left arm. "We were afraid a handsome prince would have to be found to kiss you awake."
Angeal nudged Genesis and rolled his eyes before looking at Sephiroth. "How are you feeling?"
Sephiroth shrugged. "Just a little tired."
"The professor said we need to return to the Shinra Mansion to retrieve some of Professor Gast's notes," Vincent said.
Sephiroth focused on listening for any hints that Chaos was attempting to push his way into the position of control, but Vincent sounded the same as he always did. Still, Sephiroth couldn't quite shake the feeling that the demon was watching him. He tried to push out with his mind as he had done with Tifa, but Vincent's mind had a very big wall around it, and Sephiroth didn't know enough about his new-found powers to tell if there was a way to break through.
Sephiroth eventually shrugged. "Gast's notes may be the only thing we can trust. Hojo was a liar and not above altering his notes to hide his mistakes."
"This is going to be dangerous," Angeal said. "Nibelheim has been rebuilt to cover up ShinRa's actions, and there may not be a large security force in place there anymore, but the information in that basement is under the Science Division's jurisdiction. That means they've either set loose random monsters to take care of intruders, or there is a security force in place that is practically invisible."
Vincent nodded slightly. "I agree with that assessment."
Genesis arched an eyebrow. "Another dangerous mission? How fun."
Tifa rolled her eyes and laughed softly. "And you're a former SOLDIER 1st class? You should be ashamed of yourself."
Genesis grasped his chest dramatically. "Oh, I have fallen in the estimation of my Little One?" He reached out and took her hand in his, pressing a chaste kiss to the back of it. "Then I must go on this mission to regain her favor."
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed while watching the lighthearted banter move back and forth between Tifa and Genesis. He could feel himself tensing up and an intense anger building up within him. It wasn't anything unusual for Genesis to talk to Tifa like that or even offer her such ridiculously over-the-top gestures of affection, but for some reason, today he found it irked him to watch it.
When he looked away, he found Vincent staring at him. His face was expressionless, but Sephiroth could see that Vincent seemed to be searching for something while staring at him.
"It's possible that anything useful has already been removed from the basement," Strahm said. "We may too late, if Hollander ordered the information found and returned to Midgar."
Genesis released Tifa's hand and looked at the professor. "It's hard to say if Hollander would think to take such action. One hand, he doesn't always have the foresight to see further into the future than the next day when formulating his underhanded deeds. However, on the other hand, he is just as devious and cold-hearted as Hojo was. The only way to know if going to the mansion in Nibelheim will wield any results will be to actually go to the mansion."
Vincent finally looked away from Sephiroth and focused on Genesis. "I can return to the mansion."
Angeal nodded. "I'll go with you. We may also want to take a Turk with us, Tseng maybe?"
"It may be a good idea to bring Rufus as well," Vincent suggested. "He may know if any concealed rooms exist in the mansion, and it will save us time to have him there instead of blindly trying to find them on our own."
Angeal nodded. "Agreed."
"I need to speak Miss Gainsborough."
Tifa frowned and looked at Sephiroth. "Why do you need to speak with Aerith?"
He shrugged. "She's a Cetra. What these clones and ShinRa are trying to do may impact the planet. I need to know if the planet is saying anything to her or perhaps there is some ancient weapon we can use to fight them."
Vincent's eyes narrowed slightly. "I don't think that's a good idea, Sephiroth."
Sephiroth looked at Vincent and could almost see Vincent's mind working through something as he looked at him. "And why not?"
"You're hearing our thoughts, are you not?" he asked.
"What has that – "
"As a Cetra, that conduit that allows her to hear the planet, may mean she can hear your thoughts and if your thoughts are in turmoil, you may overwhelm her," Vincent said.
Sephiroth knew he was lying. He could hear it in his voice. Something was going on and he was sure it had something to do with Chaos. That demon was purposely blocking his access to the Cetra.
Tifa squeezed Sephiroth's hand. "I can talk to her for you."
He couldn't refuse her when she smiled at him, but he knew she wouldn't be able to get what he needed. He still nodded, though. Perhaps if the demon saw him allowing a girl who couldn't possibly do any harm to Cetra go to her in his place, it would throw him off enough to let his guard down.
Sephiroth returned her smile and nodded. "Thank you, Tifa. I appreciate that."
"I still have to run a few tests," Strahm said.
Tifa nodded and got back to her feet. "We should leave them in peace while they do that."
"We'll make a few plans, get the team in place, and check in with you before we go to Nibelheim," Genesis said.
Sephiroth inclined his head slightly. "I'd appreciate that since I'm apparently going to be stuck in this bed for an extended period of time."
Tifa smiled slightly and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "Be good for the professor and you may get out of here sooner rather than later." She pulled back and looked at him for a moment. "I love you, Seph."
"I love you, too, Tifa."
Sephiroth watched everyone slowly leave the room, Vincent being the last to leave, after staring at him intently. When they were gone, Sephiroth leaned back on his pillow and closed his eyes, not even remotely interested in what Strahm was doing. He had other things to worry about. He needed to find the three clones so they could plot ShinRa's demise. To fully destroy ShinRa and anyone against him, he needed to know what the Cetra knew. With Vincent already trying to stop him, he knew he couldn't go to her directly.
Sephiroth was going to have to find another way to access her knowledge and Zack would be the key.