Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII, as much as I wish otherwise.
Out Of Suffering, Emerge The Strongest Souls
Chapter One: The Killing Ground
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."
- Kahlil Gibran
It was dark in Midgar.
Of course, it was always dark in Midgar, for those who lived under the Plate. But for the people who could see the sky, it was true night; despite the fact the haze of light pollution hid the glorious, glittering expanse of stars far above.
The massive Shinra tower dominated the skyline and regardless of the late hour, lights still shone steadily on many of the building's floors. Floor 68, home to the Science Department's main laboratory, was one such area.
It was quiet, though; only one person lingered so late. Otherwise the floor was deserted. Machinery whirred in the background. The occasional soft whimper of a test subject broke the near-silence. The sound of paper rustling, of sheets being sifted through, was interspersed with the tapping of a keyboard. A thin man in a lab coat was hunched over a computer, scowling. The light from the screen reflected off his glasses as he flicked through his sheaf of notes again.
Unable to find what he was looking for, Hojo got up and shuffled across the room to a filing cabinet, cursing his incompetent assistants under his breath as he went.
If he had been a bit more observant, the scientist would have noticed the sudden flicker of the lights, the way they dimmed and then brightened again, in a surge that travelled from one end of the room to the other in a wave-like motion.
If Hojo had been outside the Shinra Headquarters, he might have seen the ripple effect passing along the entire length of the 68th floor, each successive window lighting up brighter than the last, before culminating in a star-bright flare of white light in the final room. As it did so, a minute tremor ran through the entire building, barely detectable even to those whose senses had been enhanced by mako.
Though Hojo remained utterly oblivious to the phenomenon occurring at the far end of the floor, his experiments were more alert to such abnormalities. Bodies stirred behind glass, behind wire mesh, behind steel bars. Heads came up. Dull eyes flickered with interest. Their senses, heightened by twisted experiments, picked up the shift in the current of energy flowing through the building, detected the unusual surge in the Lifestream. One creature began a low, keening sound; a horrible, pained noise that finally gained Hojo's attention and made him look up from the filling cabinet.
"Quiet!" he snapped, banging a fist on the door of the cage. The metal rattled and the mutated creature shrank back, falling silent.
The scientist picked up the papers he needed and shuffled back to the computer, noting the sudden restlessness of his test subjects with annoyance. I must increase the dosage for specimens E and L, and perhaps for N too...
Hojo was so absorbed in his calculations that he barely registered the sound of quiet footsteps behind him. They were hesitant, almost unsteady, as if the person was disoriented or dizzy.
"Ah, good," Hojo said, without looking up from his work. There was a sharp intake of breath at the sound of the scientist's voice. The footsteps halted abruptly. "Fetch me some more samples from the store room, along with a few concentrated doses of mako. The specimens are agitated tonight for some reason."
Pure silence reigned for three full seconds. Then there was a sudden explosion of movement and noise. Hojo's desk went flying, the computer crashing into the wall with a deafening bang and a shower of sparks. The scientist found himself lifted off the ground and slammed against the wall hard enough for his vision to implode with white lights. A strong hand was wrapped around his throat, holding him in an iron-like grip. His feet dangled a few centimetres off the floor.
Hojo wheezed breathlessly, clawing feebly at the deceptively slender fingers crushing his windpipe. He thrashed, attempting to loosen the chokehold, and then his gaze snagged on his assailant's face.
Brilliant, mako-bright blue eyes met his own. They burned with absolute fury; the depth of emotion was staggering in its intensity. The eyes belonged to a young man, who was perhaps in his early to mid-twenties. Soft, blond spikes of hair fell in disarray across his face, which was twisted with the same overwhelming rage. He was dressed all in black, in an outfit that resembled that of a SOLDIER 1st class. A silver wolf head insignia decorated his left shoulder, a matching earring in his left earlobe. The hilt of an enormous Buster-style sword protruded above his shoulder, furthering the impression of a SOLDIER.
"You!" The young man hissed, shaking Hojo like a rat. The scientist felt his teeth rattle in his head and tried to shriek in outrage, but all that came out was a strangled wheeze. "You died! You died when Meteor fell! How can you be here?"
Then something seemed to occur to the blond swordsman and he glanced around. "Where are we for that matter? Where have you brought me?" Then another blindingly intense emotion flashed across the man's face and Hojo let out a wheeze as the grip on his throat suddenly constricted again. "Where are Tifa and the kids?"
The scientist met the unnerving blue eyes, burning with redoubled rage, and felt icy fear cascade through him. Who was this man? Hojo coughed and frantically pulled at the hands locked around his throat.
Seeming to realise that the scientist couldn't reply when he was being choked, the swordsman released his grip. Hojo crumpled to the floor in an undignified heap, gasping for breath.
The blond man watched the scientist with an intense gaze, waiting for him to recover. His eyes flickered briefly around the lab, taking in his surroundings, and his fury seemed intensify at the sight of the caged test subjects. Then he frowned as he looked around more carefully. "This...this looks an awful lot like...but it can't be..."
Muttering to himself under his breath, the swordsman strode to the window and looked out. His eyes went wide with shock as he beheld the glittering metropolis of Midgar, spread out beneath him in all its glory. He sucked in a breath and stepped back from the window, shaking his head. "Impossible! That's impossible..."
Hojo ignored the barely audible mutterings of the obviously mentally unhinged man pacing about his laboratory, concentrating on massaging his abused throat and trying to breathe normally. Keeping one eye on the blond man, Hojo began sidling along the wall, trying to reach the button that would bring security running. Privately, he doubted that anyone less than a SOLDIER would be able to deal with this intruder. If it wasn't for the fact he kept meticulous records of all his experiments, he would almost believe that this man was an escapee from the containment area for the subjects of mako testing.
However, the interesting questions clamouring for attention in his brain – such as who is this man? Why is he as strong as a SOLDIER?Exactly how strong is he? Has my method for creating SOLDIERs been leaked somehow? Is someone else making SOLDIERs? Why is he here, in the Shinra Headquarters? Did this supposed competitor send him to kill me? –all took second place to the more immediate demands of his survival instinct. After all, Hojo reasoned, there would be plenty of time for questions later, when the man was strapped to a lab table, undergoing a thorough inspection.
Hojo's fingers were mere inches from touching the alarm button when a sudden swishing sound filled the air and the enormous sword buried itself in the wall, a hair's breadth from cutting off the scientist's fingertips. He looked up into the hard blue eyes of the swordsman. "I don't think so."
The blond crouched so that he was on eye-level with Hojo, scrutinising the scientist with an intense, assessing stare. A tense minute went by before he nodded slowly to himself. Apparently something had been confirmed. "Unbelievable," he muttered under his breath, incredulity lacing his tone. "But I suppose you do look younger."
Hojo could only stare. The man was clearly insane.
The swordswoman yanked his huge blade out of the wall with ridiculous ease, scattering chunks of plaster everywhere. "Now," he said, in a voice almost as dangerous as the sword he wielded. "Tell me. Are Tifa and the children here? Did you lock them up somewhere?"
Hojo attempted to speak but his throat seized up, voice struggling to escape past the abused muscles. He tried again and managed to croak, "I don't you know what you are talking about. There's no-one else on this entire floor. You're insane, boy."
Something flashed in the blond man's eyes and Hojo suddenly found a bright swathe of steel held against his throat, a millimetre away from drawing blood.
"I am not insane," the swordsman ground out, his voice thick with suppressed rage. "No thanks to you."
"You're not making any sense," Hojo sneered, regaining a little of his confidence. "I've never seen you before in my life. I haven't done anything to you that would affect your sanity."
The young man bared his teeth in furious snarl. "Not yet, you haven't. But someday, in a future past, you will lock my friend and I away in the basement of the Shinra manor at Nibelheim and attempt to make us part of your Reunion experiment. And when that fails, you will spend the next four years torturing us in the name of science." The clipped, bitten-off sentences were saturated with loathing. "Just like you're torturing these poor creatures."
The swordsman gestured with his blade, a sweeping motion that took in the rows of cages, where the once-human test subjects shifted in the shadows and watched the drama unfold with a sort of detached interest.
Hojo stared at him coldly. "What does the pain of a few matter in the larger scheme of things? They suffer only for a fleeting moment in time but the wealth of knowledge they provide lasts forever." Internally, he was reassessing his opinion of the swordsman's origins. While he was obviously mentally unstable – talking about the future as if it were something that had already happened, as if he were a time traveller or some other absurd nonsense – it was equally clear that someone within Shinra was definitely leaking information. Very few were even aware of the existence of the Reunion experiment...
Murderous rage rose in the swordsman's eyes. "You are as amoral now as ever, Hojo. Have you ever cared for anyone? Ever cherished anything?"
Hojo sneered. "Such trivialities matter little in the pursuit of science. Weaknesses and distractions that have dragged down other men –"
" – and lesser mortals?" The young man's tone was filled with mocking and fury. "Bloodstained knowledge really is the only thing that matters to you, isn't it? Knowledge gained through the torture and slow destruction of living creatures, to feed your own bloated sense of self-importance. Your ego knows no bounds and you walk this earth with the arrogance of the god you believe yourself to be –"
"How dare you speak to me like that!" Hojo hissed, outraged. "You know nothing, boy!" He lunged for the blond, hands curled into claws intent on gouging out those vibrant blue eyes –
Something impacted into his torso with a loud thump and he jerked to a halt. Hojo looked down to see to the enormous sword buried in his body, just under his ribcage. Already, a wet redness was spreading with alarming speed over the white expanse of his lab coat. Streams of blood ran down the length of the blade towards the hilt.
At first there was only the sensation. The awful grinding of metal against bone and flesh, the visceral tearing. Then the pain hit. And Hojo screamed.
It was agony beyond belief, pain beyond pain. Dignity was forgotten, the haughty arrogance he wore like a cloak was stripped away by the base need for the pain to just stop. Hojo met the hard blue gaze of the swordsman and saw grim satisfaction in the mako eyes.
This is what you do, the eyes seemed to say. Over and over and over again. This just a small fraction of what you inflict on your 'specimens'. A tiny fragment of their suffering. Suffering that you stretch out for days, weeks, months. Years.
"Please..." the scientist rasped. Blood bubbled from his mouth, spilling down his face, down his neck. He couldn't manage any more words; the barest movement made the blade shift, sending waves of agony crashing through him.
The blond man's eyes tightened with anger. "I won't listen to your pleas. Why should I? Pleading never made you stop. I should drag this out, let you have the slightest taste of the agony you inflict on a daily basis."
Silence stretched. Hojo hung on the sword, suspended, barely able to think through the pain. His rasping breaths were the only sound in the room. The seconds ticked by as the young man's eyes bored into him. More and more of the precious red liquid seeped out of his body, soaking into his clothes, coating the shining blade.
Then, for the first time, since they had met, the anger left the blond's eyes, and despite his youthful features, he suddenly looked ancient. Those blue eyes looked old. Old and weary and tired. "But I won't. There has been enough suffering. I will give you a clean death. As undeserving of it as you are, I can't bring myself to stoop to your level."
The sword was withdrawn and Hojo crashed to floor. He had no breath left to scream at the agony that the jarring impact caused, no breath left to scream out in fear, in fury, at the sheer injustice of it all.
Instead he screamed inside his head as the blond man hovered over him, sword raised and ready to strike.
I REFUSE TO DIE HERE, AT THE HAND OF THIS FREAK! I HAVECREATED A GOD AND THE PERFECT WEAPON, I WLL ASCEND INTO IMMORTALITY AND THEY WILL ALL BOW TO ME –
The sword slashed down.
Seven minutes later, the peaceful silence of Midgar at night was shattered as alarms up and down the length of the tower began wailing and the entire building descended into chaos with the discovery of Hojo's corpse. Turks, security staff and SOLDIERs alike swarmed the tower but the lockdown came too late to trap the intruder.
A blond swordsman watched from the shadows of Sector Zero as the Shinra Headquarters blazed to light and life in the wake of the scientist's death; before he turned and melted into the night.
Far above Midgar, the stars shone in all their eternal brilliance, bearing silent witness to the events below. They listened as the currents of power humming through the Planet changed pitch, growing to a roar as the Lifestream surged powerfully and they were the only ones who saw the brilliant flares of white light occur, each signalling the arrival of a time-traveller; one, two, three times.
The first was in the Shinra tower. Then a bright spike of light briefly lit up the arid plains surrounding Midgar, and then once more, far away, high in the Nibel mountain range.
The blooms of light slowly died away. The Lifestream subsided, the roar fading back to a gentle hum. The darkness of night reasserted itself and the stars shone on, ancient and forever, as the world slowly turned towards the dawn and history rewrote itself.
A/N: This story was inspired by the fact I have read a lot of time-travel stories, but I don't think I have ever seen one where Cloud was actually the one to personally kill Hojo. I thought he deserved a chance to pay that sadist back for the four years of torture he and Zack had to endure. :P
Anyway, this is my first time writing for Final Fantasy VII and I haven't actually played the game so there may be mistakes; please excuse my ignorance if that is the case. Also, you might have noticed that I've left the ending open. This is because I do have some semblance of a plot sketched out in my head to make this into a proper story, instead of just a one-shot. Let me know if you want me to continue. :)
Thank you for reading and please leave a review. :P
EDIT: I've since been informed that there are actually a couple of time-travel stories where Cloud kills Hojo – oh well. xD Also, I have played the original game now! *cheers* It's a ton of fun!