Author's Note: Yes...an actual update! I know, I've been saying this for the last few chapters, but I'm sorry for the delay! I hope you enjoy this update!
As always, thanks go to Sephiroth Owa13 for all her beta work and her support. You are awesome, and I truly appreciate everything you do to make me smile on those days when I want to do nothing but faceplant on my laptop while looking at a blank Word Doc! :)
Disclaimer: Square Enix owns Final Fantasy VII and all its characters (damn). I just play with them every now and then! :D
Chapter 45: Time is Running Out
Genesis surveyed the main treatment area of the infirmary with a frown.
Angeal was already sitting up, well on his way to recovering from the attack he had suffered from the hands of the larger clone.
Tseng had already been treated for the burns he had suffered from the fire spell, and the bullets had been removed from his right arm, and shoulder. He was in the process receiving his final round of Curaga to close his wounds
The healers were still working on Rude's full-penetration stab wound delivered by the smaller one of the Clones, but they seemed very optimistic that Rude would recover full mobility in his arm and shoulder with enough physical therapy.
Those were the physical damages the team had suffered, but there the emotional damages yet to be dealt with.
Genesis' gaze drifted to Tifa, who had her arm wrapped around Aerith, comforting her. Both women had suffered incredible blows because of the Reunion, and both were quiet. Genesis had been content to leave them to their solitude, but now he needed to know exactly what they were facing and only Aerith could tell him what he needed to know.
As if she could feel his gaze on them, Tifa turned her head in his direction and stared at him. Genesis wanted to flinch at the pain he saw in her eyes, but he knew he couldn't run…not this time.
Running was a recurring theme in his life. He had run from his father and Banora. He had run from Sephiroth's attempt to help him after his injury in the simulator. He had run from SOLDIER and both of his friends when he discovered he was degrading. But it had to stop. He couldn't run from this. Sephiroth needed him, and he'd be damned if he was going to leave his friend behind again.
Genesis steeled himself against the pain and confusion in Tifa's eyes and drew upon his years as a Commander, then General, of SOLDIER to detach from his emotions. Tifa and Aerith were witnesses and held crucial information he needed. If he had any hope of finding Sephiroth, he had to debrief them.
Genesis walked over the to the girls and smiled reassuringly at them. "I know this is difficult, but I need to know what happened, Aerith. What did Sephiroth want from you?"
Tifa squeezed Aerith lightly. "It's okay. Genesis can help us, but he needs to know what Seph is looking for."
Aerith nodded slowly before raising her eyes to Genesis' face. "It's a weapon…a very powerful materia."
This was good. Genesis was comfortable with materia. He seemed to have a natural intuition when it came to materia and was considered an expert by most. Materia he could deal with.
"And why did Sephiroth want this particular materia?"
"The Black Materia is the ultimate destructive magic on this planet." Aerith's voice was flat. "With this materia, Sephiroth can destroy the entire planet by summoning Meteor. So you see, all our efforts to destroy Jenova were useless. Her desire to take the life of this planet is going to be realized and it's all my fault. I…" She choked on a sob and buried her face in Tifa's shoulder.
Tifa looked up at Genesis. "We've lost him, haven't we?"
Genesis clenched his jaw and firmly shook his head. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
Genesis considered the Banora White in his hand, contemplating all the questions running through his mind. One of the more intriguing questions was why he and Angeal hadn't been affected by the Reunion. They both had Jenova cells, yet Sephiroth had only exerted control over Zack and Cloud. Why take them? What was the significance of choosing them?
When the door opened and closed, Genesis didn't have to turn around to know who had entered. "My friend, the fates are cruel. The three friends were finally reunited and now, again, they have been torn asunder." After receiving no answer, Genesis turned his head to the side. "I trust there was no permanent damage caused, Angeal?"
Angeal moved around the large conference desk and sat across from Genesis. "I'll be fine." He paused for a moment. "Genesis, it's bad, isn't?"
"It's worse than you may realize."
Genesis turned in his chair and looked at Vincent. "You know something, don't you?"
Vincent stepped further into the room. "He's looking for the Black Materia, isn't he?"
Genesis nodded. "He is."
"With it, he'll try to destroy Gaia. The planet has its own defenses, both of those defenses are to protect the planet only. They will destroy human life if it's in their way." Vincent sat beside Genesis. "They're called WEAPONS and their only function is to protect the planet. However, with the Black Materia, Sephiroth could cause enough damage to the planet that will cause it summon forth its last resort, a WEAPON called Omega."
Genesis arched a brow. "Last resort?"
"When all life on the planet is threatened, Omega will be born and Chaos will come forth with the sole purpose of returning all life to the Lifestream." Vincent looked away. "I won't be able to stop him from his mission."
Angeal frowned. "Chaos will destroy us all and send us to the Lifestream? For what reason?"
Vincent turned toward Angeal. "Omega will gather the Lifestream into itself and leave this planet. The cycle of life will begin once more elsewhere, and Gaia will be left barren."
Genesis looked at the Banora White in his hand once more before setting it on the table in front of him, and turned to face Vincent again. "So, what you're saying is that we have to prevent Sephiroth from summoning Meteor – even if that means destroying him."
Vincent narrowed his eyes slightly. "His possible death is not something I'm taking lightly, Genesis. Do you think the idea of killing my son is appealing to me?"
Genesis coolly lifted an eyebrow and shrugged. "You seem to be talking about it quite casually, actually."
Angeal frowned. "I don't think any of us is taking this situation lightly, Gen. We have to find Sephiroth and stop him from finding the Black Materia."
"With his new powers, and I'm especially referring to that teleporting, he's probably already found the Black Materia." Genesis rubbed his forehead, willing the building headache to go away.
"There is a counter materia that should be able to stop Meteor." Vincent sighed. "But Chaos has no information about it. Death is his specialty, not life."
Angeal thought for a moment. "Maybe we can find the answer in Cosmo Canyon? They study the planet there. Maybe they can give us information about the Ancients that Aerith doesn't know. If they can give us anything to fight Sephiroth, it would be better than fighting this Black Materia with no knowledge at all."
Genesis nodded, though, he wasn't thrilled with the idea of splitting up, nor possibly wasting time on a dead end. "The party going to Cosmo Canyon should be small. Obviously Aerith will need to be there, but she'll need an escort."
"Maybe one of your Clones? Bob, perhaps?" Vincent suggested. "The girls trust him and he has the same skills you possess, Genesis."
"That's best." Genesis paused for a moment. "We can assume that Sephiroth will return to Midgar – bring Meteor down upon Shinra and destroy the hand that abused us all."
Angeal nodded. "It's time we talked to Rufus and Lazard."
Gail smiled when she saw Avalon Riley setting up the meeting room. "Ava, I didn't think I'd see you here."
Avalon smiled, tucking a stray platinum blonde lock of hair behind her ear. "The President apparently wants his own record of the meeting, and I, lucky me, got picked from the pool."
"Well, I'm glad to have another woman in here." Gail moved closer to the desk and started turning on the tablets to help Avalon finish setting up the meeting room.
Avalon took the activated tablets and started placing them on the desk, ready for use when the meeting began. She grinned teasingly at Gail. "What, you don't count Scarlet as a woman?"
Gail arched an eyebrow. "No, I count her as one of the men…just with breasts."
"Oh, so like Heidegger?"
Gail looked up at Avalon and laughed. "Oh my God, that was not an image I needed in my head!"
Avalon chuckled softly. "Serves you right for giving me the image of a gender-bent Hollander and Hojo dressed as hippies burning their bras!"
Gail smiled innocently. "Well, you're the one who said Hollander looked like a hippie."
Avalon made a face while placing the last tablet on the table. "Well, he does. Who wears sandals and a Banora Apple fan t-shirt to work? And in a lab, no less?"
Gail grinned. "Just Hollander, as far as I know."
"Hojo was a complete ass and unbelievably creepy, but I could take him seriously, no matter how crazy his theories and beliefs were." Avalon shook her head. "Hollander…I have a very hard time taking anything he says seriously. He looks like an idiot."
Gail looked at her watch and sighed. "The windbags should be arriving any minute."
Avalon barely had enough time to cover a grin when the door opened and the room began to fill with ShinRa's executives.
Both women adopted their professional demeanor once more and took their seats, neither one able to look at Hollander without feeling the urge to laugh.
President Shinra waited until everyone was seated before looking at Hollander. "Do you have an update on The Reunion?"
Hollander nodded. "The Clones have reported to me that they have successfully brought Sephiroth back under the proper controls. He even has knowledge of a weapon that will bring us the ultimate power over the planet. Once they obtain it, they'll return to Midgar."
"And what about Genesis and Angeal?" Heidegger asked. "Were they able to bring them back under control?"
Hollander shook his head. "No. Whatever they did to activate Reunion in Sephiroth was unable to be performed on Genesis and Angeal. It could be another flaw in their genetic bonding with the Jenova cells during their introduction during each pregnancy. Whatever it was, the Clones reported they had no access to the pathways used to initiate Reunion. But that hardly matters. They're both failed experiments, and if they try to interfere, Sephiroth is more than capable of handling them."
President Shinra smiled and nodded. "Very good. With Sephiroth on his way back to where he belongs, it's time to set our next plan into action. It's time to "show" the public who the real enemy is. To discredit AVALANCHE once and for all, it's time to drop one of the plates."
Gail's gaze met Avalon's and she could see her friend had paled. With a quick glance around the room, Gail could see even Heidegger was uncomfortable. Reeve's jaw was tight and he looked extremely angry. She didn't blame him.
Gail wasn't blind to the questionable methods of the company she worked for, but she never thought it was capable of such evil, destroying innocent lives to save face.
She shook her head slightly and forced herself to focus on the cold planning the deaths of thousands of innocent lives. Her heart ached for them, and she wished she could do something – anything – to warn the people in the Sector chosen as the sacrificial lamb. She thought of her brother and prayed that Raeven was safe from ShinRa.
Reeve stared out of his office window. He looked at plates and sighed. It had all seemed so brilliant. Out of the old cities rose Midgar – literally. People could opt to embrace their past and remain below the plates or embrace progress, living on the plate.
A bitter laugh rumbled in his throat. If only that was what had happened. The plate became a place for the rich while everything below the plate succumbed to ruin, becoming nothing more than slums, where the rest of population lived.
It was easy to know the state of life for those below the plate and ignore it. They were out of sight, and it was easy to pretend were non-existent. Reeve wasn't proud of it. He, too, was guilty of the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality most of Midgar's citizens had adopted over the years. But he couldn't afford to think like that anymore. The question now: was he too late?
There was a knock on the open door, and a soft voice said: "You wanted to see me, Director?"
Reeve turned, a thin smile on his lips. "Yes, please come in, Gail. Shut the door behind you and have a seat."
Gail closed the door behind her before walking over to the chair Reeve had indicated for her to sit in. "What can I do for you, Director?"
Reeve sat in the chair behind his desk and studied her face. She seemed pale and withdrawn, not at all like the woman he had come to know during her time with his department.
"I'm going to be perfectly frank, Gail. I need you to get a message to your brother and AVALANCHE."
Gail's eyes widened slightly. "Director – "
Reeve lifted a hand and she stopped speaking. "Gail, we don't have time for our ruses. I'm not trying to expose you as a disloyal employee or anything underhanded like that. Dropping the plate is wrong. It's something ShinRa would never be able to explain away or apologize for if it was discovered they were the ones responsible for the deaths in Sector Seven. ShinRa has become something terrible and if they drop this plate, we'll all be tainted by that evil act."
Gail fidgeted for a few moments and then nodded. "I know, Director. But I don't have a way of contacting him. He's the one who contacts me."
Reeve nodded. "There's a bar in the Sector Seven slums called 7th Heaven. Hollander had your brother follow a young woman there, a member of AVALANCHE. She was found by Hollander's Clones and taken to Junon. But there is another young woman there, suspected of being a member of AVALANCHE. I can't go down to the slums without raising suspicion. I need you to go to 7th Heaven and tell her ShinRa's dropping the plate. The Turks are the only ones who can beat Midgar's ID system and get in here without being caught."
Gail nodded as Reeve spoke. "How do I know this isn't a trick? I'm sorry, but this kind of deception happens all the time around here and people suddenly "disappear"."
Reeve smiled slightly. "You don't know this isn't a trick. You just have to trust me after working under me for so long." He paused for a moment. "We both have to trust each other, but I know you don't want the people in Sector Seven to die. I saw the look on your face."
Gail shook her head. "No, I don't want to see that."
"Neither do I."
"But the General is returning to ShinRa," Gail said. "You heard them. General Rhapsodos and General Hewley have never beaten General Sephiroth in a sparring match. Will they be able to stop him, now that he's coming back?"
Reeve's slightly smile faded into a frown. "I don't trust Hollander. There's something he's not telling the President. I don't think the Clones are on ShinRa's side at all. I think they're working toward a completely different goal, something that involves Sephiroth. Besides, Genesis and Angeal are strong leaders, exceptional Generals in their own rights. Wutai wouldn't have made the progress against ShinRa that it has without Sephiroth, Genesis, and Angeal. If Sephiroth really is returning to ShinRa as Hollander claims, I think Genesis and Angeal will be pursuing him anyway. They're walking into a trap and we need to stop that trap from springing."
Gail nodded. "I'll do what I can. I live in the slums, so it's not going to raise suspicions if I travel to Sector Seven and visit a bar for an after work drink. But…will this girl believe me? That's the question."
"All we can do is try, Gail." Reeve smiled reassuringly. "Just give her as much information as you can. Tell her that ShinRa has had contact with the Clones and that Sephiroth is on his way back to Midgar with some kind of weapon. Hopefully that will convince her of your good intentions."
Gail nodded and got to her feet. "I'll go right now. It's the end of the day and in all honesty, I could use a stiff drink." She turned and walked toward the door, but paused, turning to face Reeve. "What's her name?"
"Jessie." Reeve walked over to Gail, and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Be careful, Gail. SOLDIER has increased its patrols of the slums, and with the technicians working on disabling the fail safe mechanisms on the plate controls, they'll have 1st Class SOLDIER operatives patrolling as well."
Gail smiled slightly. "I was born in Junon, but I grew up in the slums, Director. I'll be careful."
Once he was alone again, a feeling of foreboding overwhelmed him, and, for some reason, he was sure it wasn't just the fact that ShinRa was planning the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. There was something on the horizon – something bigger than any of them – and he was almost certain whatever it was would coincide with the return of Sephiroth.
Gail knew she was being followed. You didn't work for ShinRa and not learn the feeling of "Big Brother's" watchful eyes on you. But she couldn't allow herself to focus on that. She had to keep her composure and only hope this Jessie person would believe her and put on a convincing show for whoever was watching her.
She opened the door to 7th Heaven and looked around. It was probably one of the least sketchy dives in the slums. Actually, it was the cleanest place she'd seen in the slums. The place was obviously cared for.
Gail scanned the bar and was relieved to see a girl behind the bar. Hopefully she was the one she was looking for.
The girl behind the counter looked up and smiled. "Hey! What can I get you?"
Gail could feel the tail, fairly sure it was SOLDIER, enter the bar. She smiled and brightly. "Jessie? Is that you?"
The girl's smile faltered for a moment. "Um, do I know you?"
Gail carefully grasped the other girl's hand, concealing a note in her hand, and pressing it into Jessie's palm. "Gail. Gail Storm! We went to high school together, remember?"
She quickly glanced at the note that said Gail was being followed. A look of understanding flashed briefly in Jessie's eyes and she smiled brightly. "That's right! Gail! It's been too long. Come on! We need to catch up." She turned and looked at the man beside her behind the counter. "Jack, cover for a sec. I'm going to grab my smokes and take my break." When he nodded, she looked at Gail. "Come on out back for minute while I get my smokes, then we can come out here for a catch-up gossip session."
Gail smiled, relieved that Jessie understood her ruse, and followed her into the back. Once she closed the door, she looked at Jessie. "Listen, I don't have a lot of time. My name is Gail Storm and I work for ShinRa – "
"ShinRa? Get the fu – "
Gail shook her head. "You have to listen to me. I know you're part of AVALANCHE. I work in the secretarial pool for the Department of Urban Planning and Development. My brother is Raeven Storm. He defected from SOLDIER to Wutai during the raid on Junon."
Jessie paused. "Why are you here? If Raeven is your brother and you're on good terms with him, why are you coming to me? He'd be in contact with you."
"He contacts me every Thursday at six in the evening and we only talk for twenty minutes or less because that's how long Reno can scramble the transmission."
Jessie eyed her for a moment. "What's your message."
Gail took a deep breath, unsure how to phrase what she had to say. "Sephiroth is coming back to Midgar with a weapon of unspeakable power, apparently under ShinRa's control again. ShinRa is planning on discrediting AVALANCHE, once and for all, by dropping the plate above us on Sector Seven with no warning or chance of evacuation. They're going to blame AVALANCHE for it."
Jessie didn't seem surprised at Sephiroth's return, but her eyes widened at the mention of the plate being dropped. "Fucking ShinRa!" She shook her head and looked at Gail. "You're being followed?"
Gail nodded. "It's SOLDIER."
"Yeah, the slums have been crawling with those lowlifes recently." Her smile was bitter. "Probably to make sure no one finds out about their plan."
Gail nodded. "Probably. Listen, my boss doesn't think the General's return is what it appears to be. Your friends…if they're planning on attacking Midgar, they might want to do it soon."
"I'll tell them." Jessie paused. "If you're lying to me, you're going to regret it."
"I know, but I promise, I'm not lying."
Jessie considered her for moment before picking up a pack of cigarettes. "Well, we may as well make this look good. Lots of happy smiles, like we're not all a bunch of sitting ducks."
After about an hour of inane chatting, pretending they had been the best of friends for four years in their teens, Gail found herself genuinely concerned for Jessie. She was a good person, and while their chatting had been fake, honest glimpses of who Jessie was – or who she would be in another set of circumstances – kept shining through. She didn't want Jessie to die. She didn't want anyone to die.
"Consorting with the enemy? Shame on you."
She should have known he was the one following her. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Luxiere. I went to school with her."
Although she was determined to keep walking, she found an arm braced against the wall beside her, preventing her from being able to move forward. She turned her head and found Luxiere's face inches from her own, leering at her.
"That's very convenient." His voice soft, and that made him all the more creepy. "You, the favored secretary of the one Director without the stomach for being a Director, being the long-lost friend of a girl with suspected ties to AVALANCHE, and crossing paths with her the same day the fate of Sector Seven was decided to be a doomed sector. There are a lot of coincidences there, Gail. Too many to be plausible."
Gail narrowed her eyes, her voice icy. "I don't think I like the tone of your voice. It sounds like you're making some kind of accusation."
He chuckled softly. "I'm just pointing out coincidences, Gail, and how they can appear to others. I'd hate to see you vanish one day."
"I'm so very sure you would hate that. Now, if you'll excuse me?"
Luxiere dropped his hand. "Careful, Gail. Raeven's not here to protect you anymore."
Gail didn't even bother glaring at him. She wasn't going to give that slimy, nasty piece of work another second of her time. She had more on her plate than him. Although, the fact that he was able to guess exactly what she had been doing at 7th Heaven worried her. If he did report her presence there, she could very well disappear.
Tifa found it a little surprising that she was able to focus on everything around her, all things considering. However, she really shouldn't be surprised at all. Focusing on all the planning going on around her kept her mind from seeing that dead light in Sephiroth's eyes before and after he had kissed her.
She watched Genesis leading the meeting and was grateful to have his air of confidence close to her. Failure was not an option, and when Genesis insisted as much, she let herself believe that there was still hope for Sephiroth, Zack, and Cloud. The minute she lost hope – no. She couldn't think like that. She had to be positive.
"So, the groups are to be divided as such: Bob and Rude shall accompany Aerith to Cosmo Canyon to find out as much as possible about the Black Materia and anything we can use to counteract its effects. Angeal, Vincent, Tseng, Cissnei, Tifa, and I will track Sephiroth and the others." Genesis turned and faced everyone. "With that settled, we need to move as quickly as possible. If we can intercept Sephiroth before he reaches Midgar, that would be best."
Angeal nodded. "Agreed. If we can spare the public from a confrontation that could cost lives, that would be best."
Everyone started to shift in their seats, gathering their notes and plans, when there was a knock on the door.
Raeven opened the door and stepped into the room. "General, we have a problem."
A wry smiled curled Genesis' lips up at the corners. "This is nothing new, Lieutenant."
"This is really bad."
Genesis became serious instantly. "Report."
"Sir, Jessie made contact a few moments ago with a message from my sister, Gail. ShinRa held a meeting today and it was reported that General Sephiroth and the others will be in Midgar soon and that they are returning with a powerful weapon." Raeven paused and shook his head slightly, a look of disbelief on his face. "And there's more, sir."
Genesis frowned. "What else is there?"
"ShinRa is planning to discredit AVALANCHE by dropping the Sector Seven plate."
Tifa's eyes widened. She knew ShinRa was corrupt, but that…it was just evil. Destroying thousands of innocent lives just to make the public turn on AVALANCHE? Who would do such a thing?
"My father," Rufus said.
Tifa hadn't even realized she had asked the question out loud. She turned, and looked at Rufus. "What would possess a sane person to think that's the answer to any problem?"
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Rufus turned to Genesis. "I believe our plans need to be altered."
Genesis looked at the board with the groups listed and their destinations. "The group going to Cosmo Canyon should continue their mission as planned. But it's time to move on Midgar."
General Tamotsu nodded. "The forces are ready to move on Midgar."
"A major priority will be getting a team to the plate controls to stop it from falling." Angeal looked at Tseng. "Sounds like your team's area of expertise."
Tseng inclined his head and looked at Genesis. "Reno and Cissnei can handle the complex controls for the plate, but it would be wise to send Wutai's Crescent Unit and Elena as well for protection against an unwanted ShinRa presence while they're working."
Genesis turned and made some notes on the board behind him. "My team and I will proceed directly to Midgar and be ready for Sephiroth's return. Raeven and Kunsel will join us."
"I believe I should go as well." Rufus shrugged when everyone turned and looked at him. "With the removal of my father from power, I will need to be there to take over and ensure as little chaos as possible within the ranks of ShinRa. I'm more than capable of defending myself. Even if something happened to me, Lazard could take my place easily." He smiled slightly at the silence in the room. "I'm not my father. I'm more hands-on."
A small smile touched Tifa's lips. Rufus certainly wasn't the man she had first met in the church in the Sector Five slums.
"Alright, Rufus is coming with my team." Genesis looked at Tseng. "But I want you with him."
Tseng nodded. "Very well, General."
Genesis returned his gaze to the board. "Cid can use the Highwind to transport my former clones and a good portion of the Wutai troops. The rest of the troops can travel by helicopter." He turned and looked at Cid and Barret. "Barret, I want you, Biggs, and Wedge to take a small team of my former clones to begin evacuating the Sector Seven slums in the event that the Turks are too late to prevent the fall of the plate."
Barret nodded. "We got that covered."
Angeal got to his feet and looked at Genesis. "We should move immediately."
"Notify the troops and prepare for departure." Genesis waited until the room was almost empty before speaking again. "Tifa, a word, if I may?"
Tifa turned and faced Genesis, determined to not look as utterly defeated as she felt. "Yes, Genesis?"
"I'll understand if you can't be there, Little One. If it's too hard for you to see Seph – "
Tifa smiled softly and shook her head. "It is hard to see him like that, Genesis, but I can't abandon him. After Nibelheim, you both risked your lives and freedom to save me. If it weren't for you two, I would be dead, or some experiment in ShinRa's Science Division." She walked over to him and gently rested the palm of her hand on Genesis' cheek. "I'm not leaving him, and I'm not leaving you to face this on your own, I promise."
Genesis smiled warmly and gently wrapped his arms around her, hugging her firmly. "We will find him. The end is not yet here and I have no intention of losing my friend to the darkness."
Sephiroth held the Black Materia in his hand and considered it for a moment. It seemed so small…so insignificant, like the humans that infected his planet. But unlike the humans, the materia he held in his hand had power, and with that power he could fulfill his destiny as The Chosen One.
He closed his eyes and absorbed the Black Materia. Once it was equipped, turned and faced his Clones, Zack, and Cloud.
A cold smile tilted his lips up at the corners. "The time has come to return Midgar."